Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reading group: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Clare suggested this book which has received much acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is the tale of four young brothers in the west-Nigerian village of Akura in the 1990s, whose middle-class family falls apart after their disciplinarian father is moved away for his work and the boys then run wild. While fishing in the polluted, forbidden and 'cursed' river, they encounter the village homeless 'madman' Abulu who is credited by the locals with the power of prophecy, and who tells them that fifteen-year-old Ikenna, the eldest of the four, will die a horrible death at the hands of his brothers. The effect of this on Ikenna is to make him so distrustfully withdrawn from his brothers that the stage is set for the fulfilment of the prophecy. The tale is related by the youngest of the four, Benjamin, partly via his adult retrospective viewpoint and partly through his nine-year-old perceptions at the time.

Clare said that although she had found the book a fairly easy read and interesting, and the narrator likeable, she had been surprised, in view of the book's reception, to find it in fact not very well written, and she wondered if some kind of cultural special pleading were going on.

All of the rest of us had felt the same, and we now wondered: was this the case, that the book was less than well written, or, since we were so out of line with general opinion, were we suffering cultural blindness?

Reviewers have particularly praised the prose which is vividly and concretely metaphoric, each chapter beginning with a metaphoric announcement - 'Father was an eagle', 'Mother was a falconer', 'Ikenna was a snake', etc - which is elaborated for the rest of the chapter and picked up again throughout the book, and reviewers have found this inventive and vivid.

Narrator Benjamin explains early on that a metaphoric or symbolic mode is characteristic of the Igbo language (which the parents speak to the boys as well as English): was ... the way our language - Igbo - was structured, for although the vocabulary for literal construction for cautionary expressions such as 'be careful' was available, they said 'Jiri eze gi ghuo onu gi onu' - Count your teeth with your tongue.

That phrase, 'Count your teeth with your tongue', presented as a typical Igbo aphorism, is certainly very apt - counting your teeth with your tongue would certainly render it unable to engage in rash speech - and it has the witty virtue of economy. Obioma's metaphors are however extremely elaborate, and while the pictures they conjure are indeed vivid, they are often irrelevant to or even cut across the meaning intended. On the first page we are told that the brothers' parents are the 'ventricles of our home' - an obscure enough metaphor (what kind of ventricles?) to require elaboration:
'when ... [they] held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them.'
Yes, parents are the heart of a home, but ventricles? The elaboration of the metaphor is so concretely particular that you are forced to think in a very concrete way about the parallels being drawn: ventricles are only two of four chambers of a heart, and they don't exactly retain blood, they pump it on. And the image of a heart speared conjures the notion of death, making the metaphor overwrought for what we are in fact being told is a habitual parent-child relationship.

In the next paragraph we learn of the mother's distress at the father's sudden and imminent departure:
'...crumbs of information began to fall from Mother's soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird', a mixed metaphor (crumbs = feathers) that had me putting down the book laughing (and not wanting to bother going on), inured to the mother's distress, and trying to get my head around the idea of a soliloquy being like a richly plumed bird. (In retrospect I thought that maybe it was the mother who was meant to be like a richly plumed bird, but that's not what the sentence, grammatically, says.) One chapter begins: 'Boja was a fungus', and the very next sentence proclaims with a lack of metaphoric logic: 'His body was filled with fungi.'

There were other things that seemed to us like either infelicities of language or authorial failures of imagination. A procession 'zipped' while 'plodding ponderously', a branch is 'foliated with leaves' (ie 'leafed with leaves'), grave diggers dig 'quicker' but with 'a bewildering air of apathy', and at one point Mother is 'visibly ripped inside-out'.

The book has been praised for its accomplished storytelling, which, it is generally agreed, borrows from the African oral tradition. However, it seemed to us that there were narrative structural techniques available to both oral and written storytelling that this book failed to use, with a loss of required dramatic tension. Very often a crucial feature of a scene - crucial to the story - will not be revealed during the portrayal of the scene but will be reported afterwards, thus losing the dramatic impact it could have had. A significant example is the narrative handling of the making of the prophecy and Ikenna's early reaction to it. Ikenna begins withdrawing from his brothers very early on in the book, but we, the readers, do not learn why until Page 84 when the horrific scene in which Abulu makes the prophecy is related in flashback. Yet this omission is not justified, as some reviewers have implied, by Ben's nine-year-old naivety. Early on in the novel we witness a scene at the river in which Ikenna has begun to act strangely. He is actually asked by one of the boys present if he is upset because of 'that day you met Abulu', which prompts Ben to think about that encounter, at which he was present - though he doesn't reveal anything about it to the reader - and to ponder briefly the fact that their brother Obembe suggested the connection with the change in Ikenna. It appears to be a deliberate choice by the author to keep the details of that encounter from the reader, as, rather obviously, and oddly for the reader, Benjamin is quickly distracted from pondering it. It seems a strange narrative choice, as knowledge of the prophecy would have provided for the reader a dramatic tension and sense of doom that is absent up to page 84. Once the prophecy is revealed to the reader, it is pressed home with such insistence and is so much the motivating force behind the action playing out between the brothers, that Benjamin's apparently epiphanic realisation late on in the novel that Abulu may be the cause of Ikenna's fate seems both overstated and inconsistent or disingenuous.

Overstatement and repetition occur throughout the book, and while they may indeed be acceptable characteristics of oral storytelling, as features of a 300-page printed novel aimed at a Western literary audience, they struck us as naive. The inclusion at the front of the book of a map of Akura, Obioma's own home village, with named streets and buildings that are not even mentioned in the book, seems another mark of naivety.

One particular scene seemed to point to an overall lack of narrative skill. After Benjamin and Obembe have taken horrific revenge against Abulu, and before going back into the house, they take off their blood-stained shirts and throw them away over the fence. When they get in the pastor is with their mother and they are forced to take part in a prayer session before they can escape to their room. Once they are in their room we are told that they had put their shorts on inside out in order to 'conceal the bloodstains', which immediately raised the following questions: Why was this fact not included in the scene outside the house (it would be a bigger operation to take off shorts, turn them inside out and put them on again, than to whip off shirts, and it would thus in fact be a more salient aspect of the scene)? And wouldn't the mother, who had been curious about their shirtlessness and would therefore have been peering at their appearance, have noticed that their shorts were on inside out? And wouldn't blood have soaked through presumably cotton shorts, and therefore have been visible to the mother anyway? It is as if the author, having failed to fully imagine the scene outside the house (or indeed, by extension, the revenge scene) had realised only later that there would have been blood on the shorts, and had had to make up (inadequately) for the omission. (Doug also said that in spite of the extended description of the weapons the boys construct for attacking Abulu, he simply couldn't envisage them or precisely how they were used, and others agreed - so in spite of the lengthy description we found a lack of vividness.)

Ann commented that this indicated a lack of editing, and we wondered if this was yet another aspect of over-positive discrimination. Jenny now wondered again however if it was inappropriate to be applying our Western literary expectations, and if the way this novel is written is simply 'the African way'. Others of us thought there were dangers of patronisation and indeed racism in this attitude - ie that of assuming African literature to be necessarily naive, insular and unreconstructed. Obioma is in fact on record as seeing the 'narrative arc' as crucial to storytelling, and, indeed, two generations earlier another Igbo Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, was using the narrative arc of Western culture to an extent and a rationality of prose with a sophistication that this novel fails to do. It is after all oral storytelling that is the traditional 'African way', and, as Obioma himself has stated in interviews, novels written in English by Africans like himself are necessarily Western and move away from that old culture. In fact, The Fishermen is full of self-conscious accommodations for its Western audience, such as its description of the characteristics of Igbo language quoted above, and its (somewhat clumsily inserted) explanation of the Harmattan:
Then, in late October, the Harmattan - a season when the dry dusty wind from the Sahara desert of Northern Nigeria travelled south and covered most of sub-Saharan Africa - seemed to have appeared overnight...
The book does have sophisticated aims, which reviewers have jumped on. Obioma explicitly invites comparison with distinguished antecedents, echoing the title of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in the text, and having Obembe directly compare his own and Benjamin's situation to that of Achebe's protagonist Onkonwo. Another parallel made explicitly within the text is with Cain and Abel. In interview, Obioma has called the book 'an African version of tragedy'. More than one reviewer has tried to draw a parallel with Greek tragedy by citing as the hubristic fatal flaw the ambition of the boys' father Ebe for them - he wants a lot of children (the four boys have two younger siblings) and for them to be Western-educated and become 'fishermen of good dreams ... who will ... become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers'. It's actually more complex than that: in fact, Ikenna's superstition operates more dynamically as a fatal flaw. (Meanwhile some have praised the novel for its psychological depth in tracing Ikenna's disintegration, but we found no psychological depth, since Ikenna's superstitious reaction is simply stated as fact and his behaviour observed from outside - as, indeed, in Greek tragedy.) While courting a Western audience, Obioma is on record as having called the book a 'wake-up call to Nigeria' and Nigerian politics do indeed form a backdrop to the action. Ebe is passionate about his boys receiving a Western education, yet the family is overtaken and destroyed by an old mode of superstition - the fatal flaw is perhaps rather the imposition of a Western colonising political situation and ethos on what Obioma himself has called an 'inherently superstitious' people.

So, are the style and construction of the book intended as a formal illustration of this, the way that old superstitions break through Westernisation? Or, as someone in the group said, are they an unfortunate pandering to a patronising and potentially racist Western view of African literature as charmingly exotic and primitive? Or is it simply that, as Clare had originally felt, on the level of style and structure the book does not match its author's ambitious and commendable and political aims?

We tended, I'm afraid, to conclude that last, and although Jenny said that she was glad to have read it, she had to admit that she wouldn't have carried on with it had she not had to for the group, and everyone else apart from Clare had said they had really struggled with it.

On a final note, however, Doug said he had really loved the depiction of the mother - a really great character.

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reading Group: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was a bit of a whole-group choice, made in the absence of Trevor, who had been meant to  make the next suggestion, and prompted I suppose by the recent MGM/Hulu TV adaptation. Since Ann was next in line to choose, she stepped in and took on the task of kicking off our discussion.

In the past there seems to have been a bit of a reluctance in the group to read books by Margaret Atwood (one of my absolutely favourite writers), I'm not sure why. John has considered her a bit 'long-winded' - he reveres economy above all, and her books do indeed tend to be lengthy, and packed with lush detail (none of which I consider extraneous, however). There is a bit of a resistance in our group to authors who it is felt have been over-hyped, yet we have read several books by male authors you might say would come in that category, and I have suspected there to be a bit of an unconscious prejudice against Atwood as an overtly feminist writer - she was once published by Virago, and her early books deal most pointedly with feminist issues. The one book of hers we did read as a group was the early and shorter Surfacing, but it didn't go down particularly well, being found to be rather feminist-mystical. However, people had clearly been very impressed by the recent TV series of the Handmaid's Tale, and they all wanted to read the book.

Written in 1984, it is set in a dystopian future when pollution and radiation in America have affected fertility and given rise to a fundamentalist-Christian police state, The Republic of Gilead, in which women have been entirely stripped of all rights and autonomy and those few fertile educated women co-opted, after the Biblical Leah, to bear children for barren ruling couples. Such women, of whom our first-person protagonist, Offred, is one, are virtual prisoners in these households, their only tasks to shop for the household once a day with an assigned handmaid partner, in their regulation voluminous red gowns and the white wings that eclipse their view of the world and prevent eye contact and discussion, watched over at various checkpoints by armed guards, and once a month to take part in the 'ceremony', in which, while the wife holds her, the husband performs the task of fertilisation. Reading is forbidden, and communication with others is dangerous - police informers, the 'Eyes', are everywhere. Handmaids are stripped of all identity and given the household patronymic - in this case, 'Of Fred'.

Ann said that she had never read the book before, but was very glad she now had. She said that she had read it in one sitting on a five-and-a-half hour journey, and was immensely impressed, and wanted now to read it again as she felt that there were layers and layers to be mined in the book.
The air of menace is acute and there are sheer horrors - such as the hangings of subversives and renegade women - yet as Ann said there is such a light verbal touch  - Atwood is a mistress of irony - that it is immensely readable. Indeed, it is Offred's intelligence and perception, and her irony and spirit of resistance that promote in the reader an ultimate sense of optimism.

Everyone in the room agreed, and felt the book was a masterpiece. Ann said that most remarkable was the prescience of the book, written in 1984 but resonating so strongly with the rise of right-wing factions today. Mark thought that the book must have been even more striking when it came out in 1985, but I have to say that in fact I found the book much more shocking and urgent this time round. In 1985 I read it much more as a projection and warning, but in the light of recent political events it seems much closer to home. Offred constantly looks back on her life before the Republic of Gilead, so we learn how people's rights were peeled away, and everyone agreed that one of the things they found most frightening in the book was the moment when 'Offred' discovers that her electronic cash card no longer works: everyone with 'F' against their name on the database has been stripped of their financial existence at the press of a button. It is worth noting that in 1985 credit cards were not electronic, nor as essential a part of our daily financial transactions as they are either now or in the book; touch-screen cards, such as Offred had, were undreamt of (except of course by Margaret Atwood). In 1985 I didn't think too much about this detail, but reading the book now and thinking of how all our financial transactions are instantly location-recorded, we all felt a distinct chill. Prescience, indeed.

Any accusations of crude anti-male feminism were roundly dispelled by this book. As Mark pointed out, men as well as women suffer in this patriarchal regime, male subversives rounded up and left to hang as public warnings, and the male members of the ruling class, including the head of Offred's household, the high-up 'Commander', are not immune to slipping up and dire punishment. Offred's view of the Commander is complex, encompassing his humanity, and her sexuality too complicated and subtle for the over-simplistic feminism of her long-lost mother and her feisty friend turned subversive fellow handmaid Moira.

Ann said that the fictional 'Historical Notes' that end the book also contribute to a sense of optimism, as they are the transcript of a conference taking place some hundred and fifty years after the events of Offred's story, and in which the Republic of Gilead is discussed as a long-gone historical phenomenon. The speaker discusses the provenance of 'The Handmaid's Tale' we have just read, which exists in the form of once-subterfuge tape recordings, and speculates on the veracity and significance of the things it describes. Jenny felt that one purpose was to illustrate the contingency and incompleteness of history, and I felt that an important point was to show how difficult it is, from another era or culture, to empathise with the experience of cruel regimes, or see their relevance to ourselves - whereas the searing nature of the tale we have just read shows the urgent necessity of doing so.

So, a book we were all deeply affected by. And as Mark said, Margaret Atwood is very, very clever.
(Also let it be recorded here that I had a signed hardback first edition, which I lent to one of my son's schoolfriends and never got back - not that I begrudge it; I'm pretty pleased for it to have entered his life and mental landscape.)

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reading group: Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

John thought it pretty ironic that after criticising his choice of The Men's Club as an old-fashioned and irrelevant portrayal of men and masculinity, Mark should immediately suggest a Western.

In fact, John Williams didn't want his publisher to label Butcher's Crossing as such, and thus fix it in a genre pigeonhole, and having read and generally admired his later and best-known book, Stoner, the rest of us in the group expected a subversion of the genre along the lines we had found in Cormac McCarthy's later and magnificent Blood Meridian.

To some extent our expectations were fulfilled. The chief way in which Butcher's Crossing subverts the genre, and which must have seemed fairly radical at the time of first publication (1960), is to portray the Wild West as utterly devoid of heroism and glamour, to present it rather as a numbing world of grime, hard graft and constant near-death. Protagonist Will Andrews is a university drop-out, a devotee of Emerson, filled with the vague and romantic notion of finding in the Wild West a truer life and his own truer self. In 1873 he comes to Butcher's Crossing, a shanty settlement erected for the trade in buffalo hides. Due to the overhunting of buffalo, the source of hides is beginning to dry up, but it turns out that the hardbitten hunter Miller knows of a hidden untouched valley in the Rocky Mountains where the buffalo still roam en masse. In pursuit of his personal mission, Andrews sinks a good deal of his inheritance in equipping a hunting expedition by Miller, himself and two others to this valley.

We now embark with the four men on a gruelling trek with horses and oxen-pulled wagon as the stubborn Miller insists on leaving the watercourse for a straight course towards the mountains across a baking plain, seems to lose his way, endangering their lives, and eventually finds it. Following the perspective of the neophyte Andrews, we are taken through the minutiae of every gruelling process, the setting up of camps, the handling of the animals, the preparation and cooking of the meagre food, and the physical discomfort as they ride, Andrews' thighs chafing, in the baking sun. Finally they reach the mountains and - again, after worrying uncertainty - find the valley, and new gruelling experiences are in store: firstly, for Andrews, the killing and skinning of the buffalo, and then, for all of the others, the obsession of Miller who is unable to stop shooting the buffalo which, unused to men, simply stand to be picked off. The skins pile up, far more than they will ever be able to carry back on the wagon, and the autumn creeps on, bringing snow that will trap them in the valley all winter...

Andrews' reaction to all of this - his initial shock and his slow numbing - create a psychological dimension that is another subversion of the Western genre, but the whole thing is in many ways extremely traditional, a heavily event-based linear narrative with everything described objectively in the minutest detail. Doug, Jenny and I had found much of the detail very interesting - everyone was as fascinated as Andrews by the way Miller made bullets, for instance - but we all felt that there was far more of it than was necessary in a narrative, and that its accumulation amounted to tedium. For this reason Ann and John had both given up on the book fairly early on. I have to say it took me ages to read it - I found myself reading really slowly - and Jenny said that she hadn't actually liked it as she found the graphic descriptions - of the skinning of the buffalo, for instance - unpleasant to read. Doug and I were both amazed by the description of the way the buffalo behaved and fell once they had been shot, but I said that at that point I wondered: is it actually true, or is it simply a feat of imagination on the part of the author? I then realised that the book was prompting me to read it in the wrong way, ie as a manual rather than a fiction, and I felt I'd rather read the source material myself in order to know the veracity of what was being described. There was one moment when I stopped reading at the inappropriateness of such description. As a life-threatening blizzard comes down on the men, Miller frantically struggles to create shelters out of buffalo hide, and the way that he does so is described minutely in a way that is simply not compatible with the panicking psychology of the occasion - Andrews would probably have had difficulty even seeing what Miller was doing, leave alone carefully noting the process.

It was also thought that, in spite of Andrews' psychological journey, the other men were stock Western characters - Miller the tacit gritty John Wayne type, Schneider the bad-tempered loose cannon, and Charlie Hogue, the Bible-reading drunk driving the wagon.

I said that for all that actually happens in the book event-wise, and the simplicity of the psychology, it could have been done as a short story rather than the 330+ page book that it is. On the other hand, it would have been difficult via a short story to recreate the gruelling tedium which the length of this book certainly does, and there was a brief discussion of the difficulty of writing about tedium without actually being tedious.

People also started to feel that there wasn't as much veracity as at first seemed: why, if Miller was such a brilliant hunter, did he make the mistakes he did? Wouldn't he have known, for instance, not to pile the wagon so high with skins for the homeward journey - as I read it, I was thinking, no, no, I wouldn't pile it that high! - and wouldn't he have known that the river would have been too swollen with melting spring snow to cross with the wagon, and wouldn't he have avoided doing so? Clearly the authorial purpose was to subvert the way that in the traditional Western heroic cowboys always defeat the odds, but we felt it wasn't actually psychologically or factually realistic that Miller would get in such a situation. Why, if every detail of how the men subsisted had to be told, were the facts of defecation and urination left out, and why was Andrews, who had lived in the wild with these men for six months or more, prissily shocked when asked to urinate with the others in a kettle to soften leather for thongs? It seemed a bit like the squeamishness of an academic author... And when Andrews, who has for months been in close contact with dying buffalo, hunkers down in his buffalo-hide sleeping bag to withstand the blizzard, why is this the first time that he feels a parasitic insect crawl on his skin and bite him? People were very affected by the fact that when Andrews finally gets back to Buffalo Crossing and bathes, the dirt peels off him in scrolls and he is revealed to be covered in insect bites, but wouldn't he in fact be covered in living ticks and lice? And how did the horses and oxen survive when they had to be let loose in the valley for the winter, any grass left from the hot summer long buried in deep banks of snow? And, as Jenny said, where were the wild animals? Charlie Hogue lays strychnine for wolves, but they never see any, and why is there no mention of mountain lions or bears?

And where, asked Mark in provocative disappointment, were the Indians? (Although it was he who had suggested the book, circumstances had prevented him from reading it after all.) Jenny, laughing, told him off for his diction, and John - previously accused by Mark as a purveyor of old-fashioned masculinity - snorted. We did then however consider the lack of Native Americans encountered on the men's journey. At one point a small group near a watercourse watch passively as the expedition passes, and Miller comments that they are 'not worth killing any more'. The implication is that the Native Americans had been defeated and cleared from the area before 1873 when the action of the novel takes place, but in view of the doubts we had above, and the fact that Native Americans defeated the army at the Battle of Little Bighorn only three years later, people wondered about the veracity of this too.

As John said, the theme of this novel mirrors that of Stoner in which the protagonist survives a life of disappointments through sheer stoicism. Butcher's Crossing ends in disappointment, and Andrews' mistaken idealism has been replaced by a stoical understanding of the futility of much human endeavour. However, although no one could deny that the prose of this book is superb, spare and understated but vivid and ringing with clarity, and that the descriptions of landscape and weather were breathtaking, as John also said, it lacks the passion of the (presumably more autobiographical) Stoner which by comparison is Williams' masterpiece.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reading group: The Men's Club by Leonard Michaels

I was waiting for a train on Dalkey station when I opened this 1981 novel now reissued by Daunt Books, and was so bowled over by the prose that then and there I was fired to start a new publishing company in order to publish such prose myself. (Next day I saw the folly of such a thought: last time I was a publisher I ended up having no time or headspace to write, so I won't quickly be making that mistake again.)

However, the book struck fewer sparks for our reading group back in England.

In a spare, ironic prose, the unnamed narrator, a Berkeley academic, recounts an evening meeting in the late 1970s to which he was invited and reluctantly attended, a male answer to the proliferating women's consciousness-raising groups of the time.
But I was thinking about good company. Some of my married colleagues had love affairs, usually with students. You could call it a regular social possibility. It included emotional chaos. Gonorrhoea. Even guilt. They would have been better off in a men's club.
Present at the meeting are his academic colleague and ex-basketball player Cavanaugh, a psychotherapist, a doctor, a real-estate executive, a lawyer and a businessman. Nervous at first of each other and the situation, and of the apparent requirement to discuss their lives, the men eventually loosen up over marijuana and a whole case of Zinfandel and more, and in a Canterbury-Tales type scenario (one of the men is significantly called Canterbury) they unwittingly reveal their own lack of emotional intelligence by telling tales of their encounters with women, several of them adulterous. Finally, in a desecration of the women's ritual they are aping, they raid the fridge of the huge spread prepared by the host's wife for her meeting the following evening, wreck the room, engage in occasional and vaguely homoerotic bouts of aggression towards each other, throw knives at a door and end up as one band beating their chests and howling like wolves.

Although everyone in our group agreed, I think, that the prose was stunning, there were some criticisms from, interestingly, the men among us, and also some differences in the ways they had read the book. John was perturbed by the fact that the book, dealing with such a serious subject - the lack of maturity and responsibility of apparently professional men - failed to engage him emotionally, a point with which everyone agreed: the ironic prose and objective stance of the narrator leaves one feeling distanced. For Doug this was not a problem, as he had read the whole thing as a broad comedy which had made him laugh out loud: it was the only way he could read it, he said, because otherwise it would have been just too horrific. Mark hadn't read it like that at all. He too found it horrific but, from the perspective of the present day, unbelievable: any group of professional men beginning to behave like that in this day and age would have immediately been shown the door, and would never do so in the first place, and he took John to task for choosing what he considered an old-fashioned and irrelevant book. He did think that the stories the men told had worked very well, but he had no time for the overall narrative context in which they were placed. I felt a little baffled by this last, as the meanings of the stories are opaque to their narrators and they are often unfinished: the whole point therefore is the context of the stories, and what they reveal about their narrators. Ann went so far as to wonder if Michaels had had a series of stories up his sleeve that were all too similar - there are similarities: all of the men are similarly dense about and baffled by women - and simply found this way of stringing them together.

There is indeed perhaps a difficulty in knowing how this book should be read. Because of the distanced and ironic stance of the narrator, it is hard to see much separation between narrator and author, yet at the end the narrator joins in wholeheartedly with the behaviour of the other men. (John said that the other book of Michaels' that he had read, Sylvia, had the same effect: he wasn't sure that the author of Sylvia didn't identify with the self-centred and sexist protagonist). Consequently it's possible to interpret The Men's Club not as a criticism of the primitive and immature character of men, but, for instance, as Kirkus Reviews decided, as a sly sendup of 'women's lib' novels.

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

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Reading group: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

There's never a long discussion to report when we unanimously love a book - there's no disagreement and no criticism of the book itself - and this choice of Doug's was a prime example. Spufford is known to have wanted to write an 'eighteenth-century novel' set in New York, and we felt that in Golden Hill he has succeeded magnificently.

It opens in 1746 as Smith, a likeable and hapless young Englishman cast in the mould of the male protagonists of eighteenth-century picaresque novels, disembarks in New York, then a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, and makes without delay for the house of a merchant, with an order for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. Needless to say, this causes a huge stir. Can he be trusted? And what does he intend to do with such a great sum (which in fact isn't that readily available as cash, causing the banker problems)? - a question that for most of the book both the inhabitants of the town and the reader are kept asking. In true eighteenth-century picaresque fashion, we follow his adventures as he is variously wooed by the inhabitants and punished for his lack of verification - at one point ending up, in a highly vivid episode, in jail - and becoming romantically entangled with the headstrong spinster daughter of the merchant, Lovell.

The whole novel is entirely vivid, packed with the physical and social details of the town, colonised at the time by the Dutch and English. Spufford is a historian, and it is therefore no surprise that he should be armed with such knowledge, but what we found remarkable was the way that there is absolutely no sense of research - the novel simply lives and breathes the time and place in which it is set. We are never explicitly told, for instance, that smallpox took a while to be brought from Europe to the New World; instead we are shown the fact briefly but vividly through Smith's amazement, on first seeing the Lovell daughters, that their faces are completely unpocked. We felt delighted by such things. The novel is full of energy and extremely humane, touching and funny in its depiction of Smith and his antagonists, and we all agreed that we had found it great fun.

Someone, I think Clare, did say that she tired a little of the eighteenth-century locutions, but Doug and I thought that Spufford had created a remarkably successful hybrid register for his narrator, which is both drenched in eighteenth-century flavour yet reads with complete ease to modern eyes and ears.

But why, one might ask - and I did ask before I started reading - write a pastiche of an eighteenth-century novel? Spufford's agenda is in fact modern, and indeed political. It would give the game away to say in precisely what way, but suffice it to say that the injection of the issues of homosexuality and race into the template of the eighteenth-century novel makes for searing historical and literary comment. Following indeed in the mode of eighteenth-century novels, there is in fact explicit - and funny - comment on the novel form, other novelists of the eighteenth century and novelistic modes. At the commencement of a card game of piquet, the narrator says - tongue firmly in cheek and clearly mocking those contemporary writers who wear their research on their sleeves: 'Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet,' but in trying to provide it bursts out: 'Wait - wait - alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.' Similarly, while relating the progress of a sword fight: 'But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader's mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.'

There is a final twist at the end of this book worthy of any contemporary postmodern novel (I won't give it away) which tickled us all. We could see holes in it, but we didn't mind; like the impossible way that Smith, writing to his father in prison, manages somehow - presumably with an inkwell and quill! - to take down a verbatim record of the raving speech of a fellow inmate even as it's happening - it felt like part of the joke that this whole book is - a joke, however, with a serious and deeply humane message.

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reading group: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Warning: plot spoil.

Jenny, who had suggested this Booker-winning novel, said that she had really liked it, and that it had impressed her enough to make her think about her own life. It's a first-person recollection by Tony Webster, now in his sixties, of a life in which a long-ago friendship with a fellow schoolboy and a long-forgotten first girlfriend turn out, in his later years, to affect him subtly but deeply.

The book is composed of two parts, and the first, shorter part encompasses the entire trajectory of Tony's early relationship with the two.

I don't normally relate the plots of novels in great detail in these reports, but I find it necessary for this book since it is in essence a minute examination of the narrator's memory of events and his interpretation of them at the time and years later. In addition it's necessary in order to report our discussion, since as a group we were uncertain about the final interpretation intended.

The story told in Part 1 is this:

Arriving in the sixth form at Tony's grammar school, oddball and more seriously intelligent than Tony and his facetiously clever and witty friends, Adrian nevertheless quickly becomes part of their clique, and indeed its centre, the one to whom the others defer. After school, the group inevitably disperses to jobs and university, though they try for a while to keep in touch. In his first year at university Tony meets Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, a somewhat cool and superior and indeed controlling girlfriend. During the first summer vacation, she invites him to her family home. This is a strangely disturbing experience which Tony will later put down to class differences (they are posher than his own middle-class family): Veronica's father is joshingly contemptuous towards him, her elder brother knowingly cynical, and her mother contrastingly attentive yet strangely unmotherly. Oddly, he finds himself left alone with her mother to have breakfast - Veronica, stating, without having ever been given any evidence, that he likes to lie in, has gone walking with her brother and father - and her mother gives him an obscure warning about Veronica, her own daughter. Veronica in turn comes up to London for the day and is introduced to Tony's 'gang' who are still at this point meeting up occasionally in the holidays. For the whole of the following year Tony and Veronica go out together. Veronica has always refused to have sex with Tony (as, narrator Tony explains, was fairly typical at the time), and continues to do so until, at the end of that second year, they break up. It is after this that she consents on one occasion to have sex with him, and it becomes clear that she is not the virgin he has always assumed. Not long after, Adrian, to whom Veronica paid flattering attention on her visit the previous summer, writes to Tony informing him, with what purports to be a show of chivalrous honesty but which Tony senses is other, that he and Veronica are now going out together. Thus, it seems, the cold Veronica has been cheating Tony in one way or another all along.

Tony finally sends a letter to them both telling them 'pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples', wishing them good luck, warning Adrian to be prudent as he senses that Veronica has suffered some kind of damage in early life, and suggesting (since Veronica's mother had warned him about her) that Adrian talk to her mother about her. At the time he doesn't even formulate for himself what that 'damage' may be. Now, he muses to the reader about it - some kind of sexual abuse by her father, perhaps - but admits that he cannot know even now. After this episode, he tells us, he put the two of them out of his mind and got on with his own life, travelling and having a brief, friendly affair on his travels with another girl. On his return he discovers that Adrian, although recently found by their mutual friend Alex to be happily in love with Veronica, has taken his own life. (Tony thinks at the time: 'If there was one woman in the entire world a man could fall in love with and still think life worth refusing, it was Veronica.') Adrian has left a letter for the coroner explaining his motives which accord with the fierce logic he applied to such issues when they were schoolboys - 'the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you' - a stance which Tony eventually comes to admire, although why Adrian should take his own life while he was apparently so happy remains a mystery.

This completes the story of Tony's youthful involvement with the two, and Part 1 concludes with a brief resume of the intervening years up to the present - a career as an arts administrator and marriage to Margaret, a grownup daughter, a later amicable divorce, and a quiet, orderly retirement as a single man volunteering at the local library and hospital.

However, what the reader has experienced is not just a story, but a meditation on the nature of memory and time, in particular the memory of one's former self and motives:
Again, I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.
As a result the story being told often slides into uncertainty. The novel indeed begins with an exercise in subjectivity - fleeting and evocative remembered images from moments in the story, presented out of context and resonant with mystery or ambiguity. The conclusion the reader is being led towards is that the story we have just been told is Tony's construction - however sincere - and not necessarily the correct one.

Part 2 begins: 'Later on in life you expect a bit of a rest, don't you?' heralding the fact that, out of the blue, the past of Part 1 will come back to disrupt Tony's apparently settled life.

Veronica's mother, it seems, died five years ago and has puzzlingly left him £500 and 'two documents', one of which is a letter apologising to him for the way the family treated him on his visit all those years ago, and confirming that Adrian was happy in his final months. The other, it will turn out, is Adrian's diary, now however, the lawyer tells him, in Veronica's possession. Thus, on top of the old mystery of Adrian's suicide, a group of new mysteries opens up: Why would Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother, leave Tony £500? (She says in the letter that she's not even sure of her own motives in doing so.) How did she come to be in possession of the dead Adrian's diary? And why, all these years later, has Veronica purloined it, knowing as she must that it was left by her mother to Tony?

His interest in the mystery surrounding Adrian's death reignited, Tony sets off in pursuit of the diary and tries to contact Veronica. She proves elusive but he finally manages to contact her and engage her in an email exchange in which she is cryptic and irritable-seeming - behaviour he doesn't find out of character in view of her former cold and manipulative self. In fact, she answers his first email with a single short phrase which can only refer to his question about why her mother had left him the £500, and which he can make no sense of at all: 'Blood money'. Eventually however he receives via the lawyers a single photocopied 'fragment' from the diary.

This throws up further mysteries. It's an arcane discussion of human relationships in terms of algebra, including some indecipherable equations, and which once again impresses Tony with Adrian's intelligence and rationality. It ends tantalisingly on an incomplete sentence: 'So, for instance, if Tony -'

Tony, unseated by this rupturing of the past into his peaceful life, muses on a possible and likely ending for the sentence: 'If Tony had settled less easily for a passive peacefulness...'

He continues to hassle Veronica and eventually she agrees to meet him. He is shocked by her now worn and shabby appearance. Once again, however, she seems obstructive and uncommunicative. She can't let him have Adrian's diary, she says, because she has burnt it, and dodges his question about the incomplete sentence concerning himself. After only ten minutes, handing him an envelope, she gets up and leaves.

The envelope turns out to contain the letter Tony wrote after learning that Adrian and Veronica were together. It is not at all the measured missive he remembers - although it is clearly the one he wrote - but an outpouring of nastiness and vitriol.
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? ... My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.
The events of the past now shift for Tony into an entirely different focus: his former self is revealed to him as callous and self-centred, and Veronica and Adrian appear in a much more sympathetic light. From a less self-centred perspective, even that strange visit to her house seems different: perhaps her brother was not contemptuous towards him after all, but simply not interested in him. No wonder Veronica is contemptuous of him, he thinks, and no wonder she has been reluctant to give him Adrian's diary. His remorse spreads to encompass his whole life: unlike Adrian, he feels, he has settled for the mundanities and failed to live the examined life.

He emails Veronica, apologising for his past behaviour. Her response is again puzzling: 'You just don't get it, do you? But then you never did.'

Now different, fonder memories of their past relationship surface.
I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this - to do with new affective states reopening blocked-off neural pathways. All I can say is that it happened, and it astonished me.
He asks her to meet him again, more socially, and she agrees, and this time they are more amicable. Once again however she has managed before departing to have told him nothing whatever about her own life, but by the time is he travelling back on the train, Tony's old excitement about her has been rekindled. His hope is shattered on the next meeting, requested again by him: bafflingly, she picks him up in her car from a Tube station in a part of London unfamiliar to him and refuses to speak as she drives furiously and in a way that makes him realises she is nervous. She stops the car and commands that he look at a group of people with learning disabilities walking towards them with their care worker. She gets out and the group mob her with childlike affection, calling her Mary, which is her second name. When Tony asks about it all, she simply repeats that he just doesn't get it, 'and you never will,' and promptly tells him to get out of the car and drives away.

Saddened, Tony realises that this is the end, that he has been foolish to imagine any rekindling of their relationship, but he is curious about this final incident, and begins driving back to the place and hanging out in the pub he heard the group and their care worker talking about visiting on Friday nights. Eventually they come in while he is there, and an odd encounter with one of them, a gangly younger man with glasses, makes him realise who he looks like: Adrian. He is, it comes to Tony in a moment of revelation, Adrian's son.

Was this why Adrian committed suicide? Simply because, after all, like the boy at their school who had done likewise, he wasn't able to face the consequences of getting his girlfriend pregnant? A scenario that must now 'recalibrate' Tony's sense of the honour and dignity and philosophical logic of Adrian's death. With further remorse, Tony imagines the consequent life Veronica must have had as the single mother of a disabled son. He writes to her, once again apologising for his past behaviour, and wishing her and her son a peaceful life. A reply comes back: 'You just don't get it, do you? ... You never will, so stop trying.'

It is on a further visit to the pub that he learns from the care worker what it is he didn't get. That Veronica is not the mother of Adrian's son. She is his sister. Their mother died five years ago.

Everything shifts once more, like the contents of a kaleidoscope. This presumably is behind Adrian's suicide: his impregnation of his girlfriend's mother. Suddenly Tony, and we, can see that on Tony's visit to Veronica's house in the university holiday, her mother's behaviour towards him was sexual, and that Adrian in his turn must have come in for the same treatment. That Veronica, in leaving her mother alone with Tony so unaccountably, was consciously or unconsciously involved in some kind of collusion, and that it is this that is the real damage to her that Tony sensed all those years ago. It explains the algebraic equations in the fragment from Adrian's diary - Tony realises now that the letters are the first letters of all their names, Adrian's, Veronica's, his own, and Sarah's, along with 'b' which stands for 'baby'. And now Tony can complete the unfinished sentence: if he hadn't suggested that Adrian speak to Veronica's mother...

Except that there was some uncertainty in our group about whether this is in fact the intended conclusion. In spite of the explicitness of the passages that ruminate on memory and time, this denouement occurs fairly briefly and glancingly. Doug was thinking of something that had also occurred to others of us, although we had discounted it: the possibility that it is not Adrian but Tony who is the younger man's father. Tony has interpreted things mistakenly on so many occasions, is it not possible that he is failing once more to grasp the truth? Once before, concerning the letter, his memory has edited his behaviour: could it be that he has excised his own sexual behaviour on that long ago vacation visit? If that is intended, I didn't actually find it psychologically realistic - unless, that is, Tony is consciously and calculatedly deceiving the reader whom he addresses directly and confidentially throughout, though there seems little clear evidence this is the case. Tony says he understands now why Sarah left him the money and the diary, and also why Veronica referred to the £500 as 'blood money'. It's presumably a reward for pushing Adrian into her arms by suggesting he speak to her about Veronica. But this seems to me very tenuous (and unlikely) (and it has taken me until now to work out that this is what Tony must mean when he says he understands). These behests would in fact make more sense if there is a blood connection between Tony (rather than Adrian) and Sarah and her son. But then the question arises once more: why did Adrian commit suicide? And the disabled son's name is Adrian, after all, it turns out: presumably he has been named after his father. Examination of the equations in the diary fragment doesn't really help. Adrian and Tony are both represented in the equations by 'a' (Adrian often called Tony by his full name 'Anthony'), and while Tony assumes that a1 represents Adrian and a2 himself, it is after all only an assumption. Wouldn't a1 indeed more logically represent the first boy to have a relationship with Veronica? In any case, though, no one in our group could really be bothered with the equations, which seemed a strangely schoolboy-autistic route to interpreting a novel.

There was comment that the book overall is signally lacking in emotion. This is chiefly, I think, because everything is mediated through Tony's reasoning retrospective speculation, but Mark and (I think) Doug expressed shock at Tony's apparent lack of emotion and flippancy on receiving the news of Adrian's death: when Tony's mother asks him if he thinks Adrian did it because he was too clever, he has the emotional space for the slick sarcastic reply: 'I haven't got the statistics linking intelligence to suicide.' In addition, although this is a short book, it is extremely plot-driven and plot-intensive, which gives the whole thing the somewhat mechanical air of a crossword puzzle - underscored, of course, by the business of the equations.

As indicated above, however, it was a crossword puzzle that left us feeling unable to complete it. No one at the time of the meeting could understand the significance of the memory of the Severn Bore which appears in the list of evocative moments at the start of the book. It was only on my second read through that I realised it is more or less spelled out: when Tony's feelings for Veronica are reignited he compares his emotional reversal to a river running backwards. But this is in fact only a temporary state, and the comparison is buried in Tony's cerebral rationalising rather than conveyed in dramatic action, and the image thus lacks the weight it seems to signal.

No one could fault the prose, which was polished and stylish, as always with Barnes, and witty: I said in the meeting that when I first began reading the book I was very much disarmed by the wittily ironic depiction of the cocky sixth-formers. However, as I read on I couldn't help feeling that the prose of the book shares their clever-clever air of patriarchal privilege, and others agreed. I also felt that although Tony comes to doubt himself, there is nevertheless an overriding self-obsession - it is still, ultimately, Tony's sense of himself and his own dignity with which the book is concerned - which we didn't feel was undercut by authorial irony - unless Doug's interpretation of the ending was correct.

John was particularly critical of the portrayal of Veronica. Jenny accepted Veronica as a horribly cold and manipulative person, but John said this was a male stereotype of women: he couldn't actually see that much wrong with Veronica's behaviour. As Ann and I said, all that was wrong with her in retrospect was that she didn't want to have sex with Tony and, as John said, it is typically and traditionally sexist to condemn a woman as cold and controlling for that. It is true that when Tony realises the truth about his own letter, and then again at the end, Veronica comes to be viewed in a more sympathetic light, but the trouble is that this reassessment takes place entirely on the level of (Tony's) introspective reasoning, whereas the earlier view of her is dramatised and thus made more vivid, consequently leaving a stronger impression. What is dramatised later is her cat-and-mouse treatment of Tony during their later meetings, which, while Tony and the reader are in ignorance about the truth behind it, reinforces a view of her as manipulative and even nasty. In fact, it is hard to fathom the motives behind this behaviour, and I don't find it psychologically convincing: why, having forced Tony so belligerently into an encounter with her disabled brother would she keep avoiding telling him the truth about him - even when Tony makes the mistake of thinking he is her son? I suspect it of being a mere authorial manipulation to stretch out the mystery. The uncovering of the mystery, when it comes, seems both perfunctory and highly artificially manipulated: the younger Adrian has some kind of strange reaction to Tony, for which there is no evident explanation, and it seems merely a device to cause the care worker to seek out Tony and ask him to be careful with him, which then allows for a conversation about him in which the truth is revealed. There was a general feeling in the group that the plot as a whole was indeed over-manipulated and artificial.

John also objected to what he saw as a sexist and ageist view of older women, the disabled son described by Tony as 'born to a mother ... at a dangerously late age. A child damaged as result,' when Sarah had been probably not much more than forty when she conceived him. I said that on the other hand I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was a bit of a schoolboy-type sexual fantasy about older women, and there was general agreement. I also thought Tony's ex-wife, who obligingly and maternally talks through it all with him, was yet another male stereotype: that of the woman as all-accommodating mother figure. When she does finally get fed up with it - when Tony starts wanting to discuss whether he's in love with Veronica -  she tells him: 'You're on your own now, Tony', the classic pronouncement of a mother forcing her teenage son to stand on his own two feet.

Most of us, particularly the men, found Tony's casual and carefree holiday affair unconvincing: not only did it seem unlikely because of his prior character, we felt that it couldn't have happened without changing him, which there is no evidence it does.

All in all, no one beside Jenny was particularly impressed by the book in spite of its Booker win, though Clare, who had seen the film, said that the book was better, as the book of course is supremely an exercise in interiority which film cannot easily convey.

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Reading group: In the Cut by Susanna Moore

Warning: plot spoil.

I've been getting way behind with my reports of our reading group discussions. Furthest back in the past is our discussion of In the Cut, the 1995 novel by Susanna Moore, later made into a film with a very changed ending. It is the story of Frannie, a young, single female New York teacher of English with a free-wheeling and adventurous attitude to sex and an academic interest in New York gangster slang with its conflation of sexuality and violence. One night, looking for the toilets in the basement of a bar, she comes across a man being pleasured by a redheaded woman, his face hidden in shadow but clearly aware that Frannie is watching. The next day the redhaired woman is found dead in Frannie's neighbourhood and Frannie is interviewed by the detective, Malloy, investigating the case. Immediately attracted to Malloy, she becomes sexually involved with him, while the threat of a serial killer gathers and Frannie herself seems to be in danger.

I suggested the book as, although I'm not keen on crime thrillers, I had heard that this book was very well written. What it turns out to be is an attempt, via a first-person narration, to inject female subjectivity into a genre that has historically omitted it - the viewpoint has traditionally been that of the detective rather than that of the victim. (In this way the book bears similarities to Jane Smiley's Duplicate Keys which we discussed previously - and there are other similarities between the two books - but we thought this far superior.) There was general agreement that it is indeed exceptionally well written, in stark, acute prose. Several of us were very taken with the gangster slang theme and the interspersed glossaries that slyly promote the plot with its own conflation of sex and violence. (Although some wondered about some of the language - did New York detectives such as Malloy really still refer to women as 'broads' in the 1990s?).

There was deep division in the group concerning the sexual character of Frannie as evidenced by her involvement with the sexist hardbitten Malloy - mainly between me and Jenny. Jenny strongly thought that Frannie was simply sexually curious, but I felt there was something of masochism in her attitude and behaviour - especially as there is reference to her cold distant father and an emotionally arid colonial childhood - and that the author may be making the point that sexual violence towards women is to some extent facilitated by a female masochism induced by a patriarchal society. An important point, I think, is that the intelligent Frannie is quite clear-sighted about Malloy's machismo yet almost matter-of-factly accepts it. The novel indeed begins with Frannie's criticism of her students' disapproval of the machismo in Hemingway and Naipaul, and the fact that it blinds them to 'the intelligence of the books'.

There was also division about  the character of Malloy: some, mainly the men, felt that Moore showed the vulnerability behind his machismo but others strongly disagreed, and it turned out that Clare had failed even to go on reading the book because she had been so put off by the character of Malloy and by Frannie's capitulation to him. Others felt that there was however authorial irony in the treatment of this (indeed there is a self-conscious discussion of literary irony on the first page of the novel).

There were a few quibbles about structure and plot. We are teased as readers to begin to think that Malloy could be the murderer, and Frannie eventually entertains the suspicion, which ratchets up the tension in her relationship with him. However, we thought that the red-herring clues planted to cause us to make the link weren't well handled: why does she not notice that they are  also associated with the real murderer, whom she has known all along? Everyone thought that a long speech by Malloy after sex, explaining himself and his history to Frannie, was almost embarrassingly out of character - which is why, perhaps, it was felt by some that the novel failed in portraying his buried humanity.

Although the book is billed as an 'erotic thriller' everyone agreed that that there was nothing erotic whatever about the extremely explicit sex portrayed in the book, and that on that level it was immensely successful in its mission. The final scene, in which Frannie is trapped by the murderer, tortured and about to die, told as it is from Frannie's viewpoint, is truly horrifying, with nothing whatever of the danger of salaciousness in  more objective narrations.

Trevor, however, couldn't accept the validity of this ending. As the novel comes to a close Frannie remembers lines from a poem about dying she has seen on the subway. The novels ends with these lines:
I know the poem.
She knows the poem.
a sudden, final change of grammatical person. In my view this cleverly manages to present the subjectivity of the victim while deflecting the question, But how did she live to tell the tale? as well as to create an ironic objective authorial comment on the situation and indeed the genre. However, for Trevor this felt like a cheat, and still left him, after the subjective immersion of the final scene, with the question hovering.

Admiring as most of us were, there was nevertheless a lingering sense that in the brilliant replication of the tropes of crime fiction and its language and atmosphere, there was after all something of collusion with the violence of the genre, and for this reason Ann said that, like Clare, she hadn't liked the book at all.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading group: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.

It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare, who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.

It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them - (before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr, metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish (and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish translations of European classics.

While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all, and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after, author Sebastian would experience over his book.

There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru, who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes - although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface. Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will. 'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.

Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again, today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary and timely.
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.

However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were grateful to have done so.

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

Reading group: Utz by Bruce Chatwin

Warning: some plot spoils.

Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion - this one was held in early March - and my finally getting around to writing about it, and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.

Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims), a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s - in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague, he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.

Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert addicted to bohemian travel.

According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to 'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection held him prisoner.'

The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him, and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'

This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy - since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.

Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual lover he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha, who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience, in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man, he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's encounter with him.

The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way, and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.

Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance, and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick, will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.

I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.

The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.

We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator. It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter. She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal. In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language, and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena. Clare said she had wondered that too.

And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that I can remember of our actual discussion.

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

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Reading group: The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob with a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.

Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty, wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.

Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and intensely interested in finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.

However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book: he didn't find the relationship believable at all.

There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.

Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious. People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious, it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone) agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded her lodgings without paying the rent).

I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:
Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.
Engaging as this is as a piece of verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:
...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:
'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.
And so on (and it does go on...)

That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.

Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:
'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'
I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book (he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.

Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.

It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to, and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and, importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel, which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.

Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they' or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the book was best read as a historical document.

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