J. M. Coetzee — Summertime

Ostensibly, J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a third instalment of autobiography, succeeding Boyhood (1998) and Youth (2002) (both of which, incidentally, are excellent). But this description belies the book’s true nature in two ways. First, Summertime is so far from being a conventional autobiography it’s essentially a work of fiction. Second, it’s a terrific book in its own right, and can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of its forerunners.

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The book begins in a style resembling Boyhood and Youth. Brief scenes from the life of Coetzee, now a thirtysomething in 1970s apartheid South Africa, are narrated in crisp third-person prose. Coetzee, we learn, is a down-and-out, unemployed and living with his elderly father, disgusted by apartheid but stuck in a rut of inaction verging on paralysis. But each scene stops abruptly, clearly unfinished, and after 15 pages the narrative stops altogether. What’s going on? Here emerges the book’s central conceit: Coetzee has died, leaving behind notebooks of assorted scraps. A would-be biographer, seeking to reconstruct “the story” of Coetzee’s life, interviews a number of people who knew Coetzee at that time, and transcripts of these (fictional) interviews occupy most of the book’s remainder.

The interviewees give us little vignettes in which Coetzee is a ghostly figure, a barely-there anonynimity, content to be manipulated and exploited by stronger characters: a man defined by his fleeting and unsatisfying connections to others. He is a supporting character. “I am perfectly aware it is John you want to hear about, not me,” says Julia, Coetzee’s one-time lover:

But the only story involving John that I can tell, or the only one I am prepared to tell, is this one, namely the story of my life and his part in it, which is quite different, quite another matter, from the story of his life and my part in it.

What a wonderful antidote to most autobiographies, in which the author is the protagonist in “My Story”, steering a course through life like a Greek hero at the helm of a ship. Lives aren’t like that.

And what a remarkable fictional achievement, since, after all, the “interviews” are pure fiction. Coetzee imagines himself as he appeared in the eyes of others (scruffy, shy, maladroit, not a bestselling-author-in-waiting), and does so with great perceptiveness and self-effacement, through a skilfully crafted range of utterly convincing other-voices. John Berger famously wrote that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In this rich and intelligent work, Coetzee makes it plain that this goes for life stories too.

August 24, 2009 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Philip Roth — Indignation

By nine in the evening two feet of snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, magically snowing, now without a wind howling through the streets of Winesburg, without the town’s old trees swaying and creaking and their weakest limbs, whipped by the wind and under the burden of snow, crashing down into the yards and blocking the roads and driveways — now without a murmur from the wind or the trees, just the raggedly clots swirling steadily downward as though with the intention of laying to rest everything discomposed in the upper reaches of Ohio.

So it begins — one of the silliest episodes in Philip Roth’s devilishly silly recent offering, Indignation (2008). Spurred on by the winter wonderland newly formed around them, the boys of Winesburg decide to raid the girls’ dormitories. Their long-term goal: to augment the snowfall, by rooting around in the girls’ drawers for pairs of white panties and tossing them out the window.

This odd occurence is not out of place in this surreal novel, which showcases the best and worst of Roth, and which is far, far dafter than mainstream reviewers have let on. It’s predominantly a tale of campus naughtiness in the 1950s, with a sick and ingenious twist: the narrator, 19-year old Marcus Messner, is “under morphine”, on the brink of death in a Korean war hospital. In the blackly humorous Hellerian insanity of the 1950s Christian Mid-West, the rules are simple: respect authority and don’t indulge in “thoughtless fun” — or we’ll send you off to be eviscerated by Commies. We know that poor Messner will eventually end up on the wrong side of the “or”.

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Messner — a hardworking butcher’s son from Newark, determined to come top of the class in everything — makes an inept libertine, but even the iota of independent thought he allows himself — his objection to attending Christian chapel services — is enough to mark him out as a troublemaker in the deceptively serene surroundings of Winesburg, where the deceptively caring Dean of Men is all too ready to chuck students into the waiting jaws of conscription. College students are exempt, but expelled students are not. In a blazing row with the Dean, as Marcus teeters on the brink of expulsion, his pride is overpowering:

I inwardly sang out the most beautiful word in the English language: “In-dig-na-tion!”

As Messner recounts his typical studenty experiences — his awkward sexual encounters, his clashes with roommates, his in-dig-na-tion whenever he’s told off — there is a dark subtext, since we know that such comic escapades can be indirectly fatal, and we know that, for Marcus, one of them will be. Messner learns the hard way how “one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result”.

But, though it hammers home this lesson, it would be quite wrong to interpret Indignation as a deep philosophical work — or even as a particularly serious work. After all, the framing device is simply wacky — a morphine-sedated soldier recounting his memories in choronological order via eloquent, witty, Philip Roth sentences? Why not?  But more than that, the novel’s events are just too irrepressibly Rothian to be taken for real. Panties, fellatio, nymphomania… the Roth stalwarts are all present and correct. When Marcus is bedridden in hospital with appendicitis, he is visited by his sex-crazed classmate Olivia:

There was a gently erotic sway to her gait as she slowly approached the bed pointing a finger at my erection. “You are odd, you know. Very odd,” she told me, once she’d at last arrived at my side. “Odder than I think you realize.”

“I’m always odd after I have my appendix out.”

“Do you always get as huge as this after you’ve had your appendix out?”

“Never fails.” Huge. She’d said huge. Was it?

I won’t describe what happens next. Roth’s penchant for literary porn has always limited his appeal, and always will. Sometimes I wonder why such an incorrigibly silly author continues to draw such critical fawning — and continues to bring me back, again and again. But the answer’s simple: it’s the prose, stupid. Flowing and furious, vivid and lucid, Roth’s sentences, as the passage at the top of the page makes plain, are as irresistible as ever.

August 11, 2009 at 4:26 pm 6 comments

Colm Tóibín — Brooklyn

As I read the last 50 pages or so of Brooklyn, the new novel by twice Booker-shortlisted author Colm Tóibín, my face slowly contorted into what I can only describe as a grimace. I don’t know if this was the reaction Tóibín was hoping for. But at times this book resembles cringe-comedy, as the squirming reader is forced to watch a painfully naive heroine, Eilis Lacey, glide passively towards a horribly awkward dilemma.

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We meet Eilis as a young woman living with her mum in 1950s Enniscorthy, Ireland: a close-knit village community where Eilis expects to see out her days. She’d like a boyfriend, but the only plausible candidate — Jim Farrell — won’t speak to her. But then Eilis’s mother conspires with an Irish emigrant priest, Father Flood, to make arrangements for Eilis to leave it all behind and take up a job in Brooklyn, New York. We follow her across the stormy Atlantic, and watch as she settles into a new life in a strange new city. Before long, she finds new love with a new man: Tony, or, to use his full, dangerously exotic name, Antonio.

This accounts for the bulk of what, at 250 pages, is ultimately a modest addition to Tóibín’s oeuvre. It could hardly be more different from The Master (2004), Tóibín’s grim portrait of Henry James, an ambitious work of unrelenting intensity propelled by a storm of authentic, close-up turmoil. Tóibín never gets under the skin of Eilis, who remains a distant, hazy figure, pushed this way and that by events beyond her control. Brooklyn is not the story of what she does — it’s the story of what happens to her.

Just as Eilis’s relationship with Tony reaches a dramatic new level of intimacy, Eilis learns that she must briefly return to Enniscorthy following a family tragedy. Predictably, Jim Farrell swoops into action, and it all gets terribly soap-operaish as Eilis must pick a vertex from her transatlantic love polygon. It’s a final section that feels a little rushed — verging on contrived, in fact — but never mind.

Brooklyn is not a necessary book: there’s no sense that Tóibín had to write it, or that I had to read it. It feels more like a charming little story to pass the time on a train or a plane. But Tóibín’s laconic, measured prose is delightful, and the novel is touching in its portrayal of the strange contingencies that shape our lives, and in its evocation of the jolting, painful experience of cultural dislocation.

August 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm 1 comment

M. J. Hyland — This Is How

M. J. Hyland has an unusual fondness for violent misfits. In her excellent novel Carry Me Down (2006), her pubescent protagonist John Egan learns the hard way that covering mummy’s face with a pillow won’t necessarily make her any happier. Now, in This Is How (2009), Hyland presents the story of Patrick Oxtoby, a down-and-out mechanic in a seaside town who turns out to be a budding Raskolnikov tribute act. In a drunken rage, poor anger-prone Patrick learns the hard way that clobbering someone with a wrench can have serious consequences.

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The publisher seems oddly reluctant to tell you that this is a book about the aftermath of a violent crime, referring only to Patrick’s “tragic undoing” and supplying a pretty little cover with a man and a dog. In reality, this misleadingly advertised novel is a compelling and macabre journey to the dark side of human existence.

Like Carry Me Down, This Is How is told through sparse, present-tense, first-person narration that rattles along at a crackling pace, capturing Patrick’s shock and vulnerability as events spiral rapidly beyond his control. The result is a gripping, readable and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a memorable antihero.

Patrick protests his innocence on the grounds that he never “intended” to do anything wrong:

My mind played hardly any part but my body acted and, as far as the law is concerned, my body may as well be all that I am.

Is there some truth in this “don’t blame me!” determinism? Is it Patrick really responsible for his own actions? This is the central question the novel explores. Hyland’s aim is to fill in the shades of grey where society would sooner see black and white, and in this she succeeds.

Personally, I don’t buy Patrick’s argument. Anger, loneliness, loss of control, ignorance, drunkenness… these are causes of violence, but not excuses. We don’t have to let our irrational bloodlust get the better of us, and when we do, we’re responsible for what results. It’s left to the reader to decide whether Patrick deserves to be held accountable for his horrific deed. If you read it let me know what you think.

June 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

It’s 1939. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are young Jews in New York. Joe is a Czech newly evacuated from Nazi-occupied Prague. Sammy is his American cousin. Strapped for cash, the pair take to writing comic books.

Their work, like many comics of that “golden age” for the artform, poignantly conjures up a vision of the world as it ought to be, but isn’t. Their superhero, the Escapist, is a godlike figure, metering out salvation and justice in lieu of the official God, who is apparently out for lunch.

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Michael Chabon’s lengthy Pulitzer-prizewinner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), evokes this lost world in intricate period detail, evincing a wealth of careful research. It’s one of those books that’s terribly eager to win historical brownie points, to the extent of chucking in cameo appearances from Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí.

Yet it’s far from a bland historical document. Chabon tells a story that’s just a little bit larger than life in every dimension, full of dramatic incidents and strange coincidences. I don’t have time to recount the 650 pages of twists and turns. Suffice to say, it’s compelling, but at a cost. It’s just slightly implausible, all the way through, not so unlike a comic book. It’s then jarring when Chabon includes genuinely tragic moments, which end up feeling like just another plot twist.

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Chabon teases out the similarity between comic book superheroes and the Golems of Jewish folklore: mythical clay monsters who, when teased into life, kill the oppressors and save the oppressed:

The shaping of a golem, to him [Joe], was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of the vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straightjacket of physical laws.

Of course, all this talk of heroes can only end in pathos. Golems and superheroes are not real. No one could save the Jews from Hitler. We know that already. When Kavalier goes to war — in a short, surreal interlude  — he tries to play the Golem for real; but, posted to Antarctica, his utter impotence against the juggernaut of history is brought home to him in devastating fashion. Joe comes to realize all the more keenly the need for escape.

The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble and necessary service in life.

The novel is an unsubtle, extended argument that, despite its unreality, comic book escapism really is worth something. Myths keep hope alive.

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Did I like it? Well, I got to the end, which is a testament to Chabon’s silky, flowing style. The book is a pleasure to jump into. But, for me at least, the novel shows the limitations of historical fiction. Reading their highly novelistic “adventures”, I became acutely aware that Kavalier & Clay are no more real than Batman & Robin.

I think there’s something to be said for fiction that’s a little less showy than this, and tethered a little more closely to reality — fiction rooted in the author’s real, lived experience, rather than in a mountain of meticulous research.

May 27, 2009 at 11:48 am 8 comments

Kazuo Ishiguro — Nocturnes

Kazuo Ishiguro is a proper writer: a book every four or five years, and, when they come along, they matter. His seven books, spanning thirty years, are the milestones of a lifelong meditation on longing, nostalgia, regret, emptiness, and how on earth to cope with it all.

His new book, Nocturnes (2009), has the usual Ishiguro trademarks. First-person confessional narration, a conversational tone, nostalgic themes, oddly formal dialogue: a style reassuringly simple and instantly familiar, refined and polished over a stellar career.

Perhaps “reassuringly simple” is not a hallmark of a great author. If I wanted to be uncharitable, I’d say that Ishiguro has been peddling the same wares for three decades. But whatever you make of his prose, his stories touch the heart and stay in the mind, and that’s a boast flashier writers can rarely make.

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Reading Nocturnes, described on the jacket as a short-story “cycle”, is like reading five Ishiguro novels in miniature. He’s still the quintessence of himself, but here that essence is condensed and compressed into small, 30-page doses.

Like the nocturnes of Chopin, Fauré et al. from which the title derives, these are mood pieces, Romantic and pensive, evoking thoughts of finality and transience, of the passing of the day. Troubled relationships, usually marriages, lie in the background throughout.

The “nocturnes” are surprisingly uneventful, with a tendency to end on quiet, anticlimactic notes. In all five pieces, the characters come first. Fiction is all too often about authors moving their characters around like chess pieces; but Ishiguro’s world is populated by free agents who flitter briefly across the page, fail to behave in a particularly novelistic way, then disappear back into the gloom of their real, monotonous lives. This wonderful, non-chessy writing is the secret to Ishiguro’s success, and it’s much in evidence here.

But there’s a niggling feeling that Ishiguro is capable of more than this. There’s enough overlap between the stories to make me wonder why he didn’t stitch them together: there’s little to distinguish the various narrators, and characters from earlier stories reappear later on.  I don’t know whether to be impressed that Ishiguro didn’t feel the need to merge the stories into a novel, or disappointed that he didn’t bother.

Expect a work as distinctive and unforgettable as The Remains of the Day (1990) or Never Let Me Go (2005) and Nocturnes will fall short. But it’s not some miscellaneous collection of unpublished scraps. Nocturnes is a finely crafted whole; cultured, elegant and captivating.

May 22, 2009 at 11:19 am 2 comments

P. D. James — The Private Patient

I’ve never reviewed a crime novel on this blog, for the simple reason that I haven’t read one in a long time. But I was happy to make an exception for the latest from P. D. James, unchallengeable doyenne of the classic English murder mystery.

James is 88, and if the thought of churning out 400-page novels at that age impresses you, spare a thought for her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, who’s been wrestling culprits to the floor since 1962. I can only assume he’s been drinking the same elixir as James Bond, and gets younger and more muscular with each new case.

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The setting for The Private Patient (2008) is, naturally, a decaying outpost of provincial privilege with a spooky and claustrophobic atmosphere. Rhoda Gradwyn, a fearless investigative journalist with a fair tally of accumulated enemies, books in to the private Dorset clinic of her plastic surgeon, George Chandler-Powell. The purpose of the visit: the removal of a deep scar across Gradwyn’s cheek, inflicted during childhood. The operation is completed successfully. But the following night, bandages still wrapped round her face, Rhoda is strangled in her bed.

Helpfully enough, the clinic, a beautiful yet intimidating Tudor manor house, is an enclosed space chock full of suspects. Two of the staff have longstanding grudges against Gradwyn, another has a dark past that has caused her to assume a new identity, one of Rhoda’s friends stands to gain from her will, and Chandler-Powell’s two medical assistants both have reasons for wanting to ruin the surgeon’s reputation. So whodunnit? And what is the significance of the ancient stone circle outside the manor, where a witch was once burned, and where strange lights were seen on the night of the murder?

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The Private Patient is a novel resolute in its conformity to the conventions and clichés of its genre, but it’s a class act nonetheless — the work of a novelist rightly confident of the continuing power and relevance of the old Agatha Christie format. The story thrills and entices, like it should, but it’s also familiar and pleasurable, a book to be dipped into at leisure rather than one to be read from a grim compulsion to get to the end. James is simply a terrific writer, elegant, erudite and concise. She pries into her characters’ private thoughts and private places with a forensic precision and an eye for detail.

What James sees, perhaps more clearly than anyone writing today, is that the detective novel owes its persistence to its power as memento mori. Death touches everything yet remains hidden from view: “how briefly death is allowed to interfere with life,” muses Lettie, the clinic’s accountant, after Gradwyn’s death. Detective novels take us to the edge of that unspeakable abyss; but then, with their tidy resolutions, bring a necessary measure of solace and reassurance.

At one stage Dalgliesh contemplates that “few of us will die with the dignity for which we hope … Whether we choose to think of life as an impending happiness broken only by inevitable grief and disappointments, or as the proverbial veil of tears with brief interludes of joy, the pain will come.” But if this is an expression of the author’s inner fears, the book’s final lines (from the perspective of Annie, a rape victim only tangentially involved in the plot) counter them, arguing that, despite everything, we can draw consolation:

Deeds of horror are committed every minute and in the end those we love die. If the screams of all earth’s living creatures were one scream of pain, surely it would shake the stars. But we have love. It may seem a frail defence against the horrors of the world but we must hold fast and believe in it, for it is all we have.

If this should prove to be James’s final word, it will be an epitaph as crisp and measured and apt as the Dalgliesh series deserves.

April 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm 3 comments

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