Monday, 25 February 2013

March schedule

Friday 1st March: Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

Friday 8th March: Intermission by Owen Martell / Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Friday 15th March: Laura Rereading: An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Friday 22nd March: Canada by Richard Ford

Friday 29th March: [No post - Easter Bank Holiday]

Friday, 22 February 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South #2: 'It is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone'

I'd intended the next post in my Farthest North and Farthest South series to be about Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal all Its Dead, which focuses on the real-life figure of German geologist Alfred Wegener, his Arctic explorations and his formulation of the continental drift hypothesis. Wegener was clearly a fascinating man, but this novel failed to fascinate me, and to be honest, I couldn't think of a thing to write about it. So I turned instead to Amy Sackville's new novel, Orkney; her debut, The Still Point, was probably my favourite new read in 2011 (despite the fact it was up against strong competition from Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Belinda McKeon's Solace) and I was thrilled when I heard she had written a second novel. And it would be unfair to say that Orkney disappoints. True, I don't think it's as good as her debut, but then few books are; what's odd, I suppose, is that this feels slighter, more experimental, a little more overwritten, and so more like a debut, I suppose. But having said that, Orkney deals beautifully and economically with themes that inspire many novelists but which often fail to translate into very good novels, and Sackville deserves kudos for that.

Richard, an eminent professor of English in his sixties, has married one of his students, a captivating, silver-haired girl of twenty-one who has recently graduated and who is never referred to by name. At her request, they are honeymooning on an (also unnamed) island in Orkney, where, far from getting to know his new wife better, Richard finds that she is becoming increasingly strange to him, and increasingly drawn towards water. With this as a linking thread, Orkney tackles retellings and reflections of traditional northern stories about women and men from the sea; the two most prominent models are stories of selkie wives, where a fisherman steals the woman's sealskin so that she will be forced to stay with him on the land, and of the male finfolk, who 'come ashore sometimes, to seek new wives upon the land. And when they've had their fill, away they sail... But... they always come back, to reclaim the little webbed daughters they've fathered on the land'. However, these two stories, told by Richard's unnamed wife, are far from the only models of mermaids and sea-folk referenced in the novel, as Richard's academic interests enable him to name-drop numerous myths; Melusine, Undine, water nymphs and Lamia. He also alludes to Matthew Arnold's 'The Forsaken Merman', which tells the story of a merman who married a human wife; she bore his children and lived with him beneath the sea, but eventually deserted him for the land. Therefore, the disappearance of women into both the earth or the sea is a continuous theme, less about their final destination than the fact of their loss.

Like Susan Fletcher's recent novel, The Silver Dark Sea, Orkney utilises rich, apt, but sometimes over-abundant descriptions of the shore and sea as it plays with the possibility that these old stories are true. We are led to believe that this new wife may actually be a selkie, or a daughter of the finfolk - her unknown father was said to have drowned, and Richard knows little of the rest of her family. Richard himself plays the part of the possessive fisherman perfectly, demonising every man that his wife comes into contact with, wondering how he will cope with a married life where she will have interests outside him, and controlling their collective memory of the relationship. When his wife insists that she was not wearing a purple sweater at their first meeting at one of his seminars, he mentally rewrites this: 'it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.' He objectifies her and makes her animalistic in turn: she is 'a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, a 'sly little pup'; when he comes into the bathroom when she's taking a bath, he enters 'the sweet salt-steam of her lair.' Her shapeless woollen clothing, and his consideration of the 'marmoreal' form underneath them, recalls the selkie stories, and Richard's possessiveness is historical: he remembers childhood trips to the seaside and how he would accumulate 'a shoe-box full of half-eaten sticks of rock, carefully kept for later. Each one with my name struck right through the centre... this sticky log pile growing stickier by the week and finally, alarmingly furred over'.

However, the novel does not try to be a simple retelling of just one of these sea stories, and this is one of its strengths; even at the end, when the wife inevitably disappears, we are left to believe that she may have drowned, rather than reclaiming her selkie heritage and making for the waves. By not trying to line up any given folktale with her story, Sackville lays claim to a richer resonance, and I think this is one of the reasons that Orkney worked better for me than The Silver Dark Sea. Also, Sackville is clearly a stronger writer than Fletcher. To an extent, both the books suffer from similar flaws - they can both feel a little repetitive even as they build atmosphere, as the authors dwell on a remote island landscape, and descriptions can be over-egged - but Sackville's strength of imagery, characterisation, and greater clarity pull her book up to a different level. The main problem with her descriptive writing, I would say, is not that it is flawed in itself but that there is simply too much of it; again and again she pulls out wonderful images, like Richard's imagining of his much-loved, much-abused desk sinking into the sea as he abandons academia: 'drawers lolling open, streaming seaweed as it fell... until it settled on the bottom, redundant, a wrecked ship, coral-crusted, beaded with tiny bubbles.' The occasional raw physicality of her writing steers it away from sentimentality, which Fletcher is too often guilty of when writing about love: when his wife puts on an apron, Richard thinks 'It has a pretty red heart stitched on the chest to protect or conceal the mass of valves and chambers inside.' As the book draws to a close, as well, she makes good use of gaps in the text to show the gradual disintegration of Richard's world, something which can be over-done but I think she handles well.

If there is a single flaw in this novel, it is that it needs an anchor; it can seem to get a little lost in its own heaving seas. Sometimes, it is the wife that plays this role. Richard often simply reports his own speech 'Perhaps in a while, I said' - but hers usually gets speech marks, and provides a refreshing interruption to Richard's increasingly turbulent narrative with gentle humour or basic everyday comments. While Richard obsessively romanticises her, her actions resist this; she can't cook, tries to eat horrible childhood sweets, and tells him 'I'm sorry I didn't stay in the picture' when she moves outside the sight of the window he's been watching her from. She also relates the two long stories about the selkies and finfolk that form the core of a narrative. Ironically, despite her associations with the sea, her presence is grounding, and perhaps this is at the heart of the story after all. Perhaps it is Richard who is the forsaken merman rather than she the hapless selkie; perhaps he has left her for the sea and his ideas of the sea-creature that she is, rather than recognising her as an earthly human woman, and not his to own.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Laura Rereading: Theories about fear

Occasionally, I just want to read a story that scares me – not something that truly horrifies me, which is an unpleasant experience, but something that makes me jump. Of course, there are options in ‘grown-up’ literature – John Wyndham, as I hope my review of The Kraken Wakes made clear, can be pretty creepy, then there’s HP Lovecraft (I found the Penguin collection The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories a good place to start) or you could pick up one of my favourite collections, American Supernatural Tales, edited by weird tale expert SJ Joshi, and turn straight to T.E.D Klein’s ‘The Events at Porloth Farm’ for true terror and an annotated further reading list all in one. But when I was six or seven years old and living in Washington DC near a library that allowed you to take out up to twenty books at a time (I think one of the hardest things about the move to the UK was adjusting to a measly eight-book limit), it had to be John Bellairs.

It’s hard for me to judge how well Bellairs is known nowadays – no-one I know has ever heard of him, but then he is primarily a US author – but in brief,  he wrote several series of children’s horror books, a few stand-alones, and, I think, an adult novel as well, back in the 1970s and 1980s (this site is more well informed than I will ever be.) My favourites were the 1950s-set Johnny Dixon novels, partly because The Curse of the Blue Figurine was the first Bellairs book I read, partly because I think they are some of Bellairs’ most chilling works, and partly because of the classic character of Professor Roderick Childermass, Johnny’s eccentric friend (I can still remember the way Bellairs introduces us to Professor Childermass in The Curse of the Blue Figurine by noting that Johnny and the professor knew they would get on because they both realised that a good chocolate cake ought to be more chocolate filling than cake; so true!) Perhaps that’s why The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, the third in the Johnny Dixon series, was always one of my favourite Bellairs; the professor is in jeopardy and Johnny has to save him, with the help of skeptical friend Fergie (I remember first learning the word skeptical from this book...) and Catholic priest Father Higgins. (As in all the best horror, Catholicism and its trappings feature heavily in the Dixon series.)

A quick summary of the opening of the novel will probably be helpful here. Before Professor Childermass goes missing, he and Johnny visit the Fitzwilliam Inn in New England, where they have the Childermass clock, one of the professor’s family heirlooms. Inside the clock is a dollhouse room replica of his uncle’s living room, and the professor tells Johnny about how his uncle was mysteriously found dead here on his birthday. One of the furnishings of the room is a minature skull, which Johnny is compelled to take with him after seeing a re-enactment of Uncle Lucius’s death in the dollhouse in the middle of the night. Shortly afterwards, the professor disappears – and Johnny sees a glowing jack o’ lantern face in his window, so believes supernatural powers are involved. Dun da dun...

It’s impossible to review books fairly that I read and loved as early as I read this series, and I’m not 100% that The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull would stand up to adult scrutiny. But what I think Bellairs did teach me – and what he still does exceptionally well – is how to scare. It amazes me still how many horror stories I read that don’t get this basic but delicate craft right, but all the points that Bellairs ticks off are still the things that the books that frighten me today do well. So how does he do it?

1.     The nameless menace. A technique that Wyndham also uses frequently, Bellairs knows that the first rule of horror is not to personify the evil that menaces your heroes. The imagination is so much more frightening than any descriptions.  So in The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, when Father Higgins and Johnny are discussing the professor’s possible kidnapper, Father Higgins says “It may not even be a somebody that’s done it – from all that you’ve told me, it is more likely to be a something that did it. One of the powers of darkness, in other words.” I’m shivering...

2.     The sacred defence. Although not essential, I do think that the frequent use of crosses, holy water and other blessed objects as weapons in Bellairs somehow adds to the fright factor; there’s something about Latin incantations and Biblical references that makes horror more resonant. This is appallingly done in many horror novels I have read, but Bellairs is subtle enough to pull it off: Father Higgins manages to see off one evil spirit with a silver crucifix he claims contains two splinters from the True Cross. (This may have something to do with the inherent eerieness of Christianity itself, with the emphasis on resurrection and Jesus’s thousand-year rule over a kingdom of the saved.)

3.     Evil as the enemy. Bellairs is fond of warlocks as villains, but throughout most of this novel the enemy seems to be evil itself, as personified in their antagonist Warren Windrow. This becomes more frightening when evil is associated with some sort of operating genius, as in this passage, also from Father Higgins: “John... it is becoming more and more clear to me that we are dealing with some kind of incredibly evil intelligence, a disembodied spirit that has decided to attack you and the professor for some reason. The skull and the jack-o’-lantern face and the scarecrow you saw on the ferryboat – they are all manifestations of that evil mind.”

4.     Too awful even to describe. A favourite Lovecraftian move, Bellairs borrows this trope as well. Emphasising that the horror you are dealing with is so dreadful that even to see it or hear about it may addle your mind forever links to ancient ideas about knowledge as corrupting, and makes the unseen menace even more frightening. Bellairs isn’t quite as good as this as Lovecraft, but he still uses it to effect, as when he has Higgins declare “What awful, ghastly unnameable thing is going to happen to the poor man?”

5.     The One Ring. Again, not an essential trope, but used to great effect in a few horror stories I have read (as well as in Lord of the Rings which obviously isn’t part of the genre!) Johnny becomes obsessed with the minature skull from the dollshouse, and can’t let go of it, believing it is a good luck charm; of course, it’s leading him into even greater peril. A similar thing happens when they first try to rescue the professor and he won’t go with them, claiming that there is a treat prepared for him on his birthday and he doesn’t want to miss it; they know that if he stays in his prison too long, he’ll suffer the same fate as his Uncle Lucius. There’s something about the willing participation in one’s own destruction which is disturbing.

6.     The final explanation. Bellairs is very fond of having an authority figure, such as the professor or Father Higgins – or in a book from another series, The Dark Secret of Weatherend, a librarian – explain the supernatural happenings at the end of each novel. There’s no attempt to make them credible – the explanation is couched in the same kind of language that the rest of the book has been written in – but somehow the scientific detachment of this explanation often makes this the scariest moment in each novel. Try this from Professor Childermass at the end of The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull, as he explains the role the skull from the Childermass clock played in their adventures. Uncle Lucius, the first to fall victim to the curse of the clock, had kept Windrow’s skull in a hatbox, but, when Lucius died: “what they found [in the hatbox] was a teeny-tiny skull, the same one that wound up on the shelf by the fireplace in the dollhouse room that some of us here have seen... Warren Windrow was a young warlock. And after he had gotten his revenge on Lucius, his evil, disembodied mind had thought up a way to pass on the curse. Aaaand, since no one in the Childermass family knew that a full-size skull had been in the hatbox, nobody guessed that the lovely delicate minature was a real skull!” And, on why “my father didn’t get blitzed by the power of Windrow’s skull... he never touched it. I mean, his fingers never actually came into contact with the filthy thing... I think Dad must have handled the skull with tweezers, and that was what saved him. I, on the other hand, was not so lucky. My finger grazed the skull that night in the Fitzwilliam Inn, and it nearly got me killed.” No space to quote it all, but the final explanation usually hits all five previous points, and then more.

When beginning this post, I wasn’t sure that my claims for Bellairs were going to stand up to critical scrutiny. But having finished it, I find myself tense, jumpy, and a little bit scared, even though it’s broad daylight and there are hairdressers screeching and dogs barking in the salon under my flat. So I feel I can say with confidence that as far as fear goes, Bellairs is the master. Now to get hold of a copy of The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt...

Friday, 8 February 2013

'An unfashionable approach': Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks isn’t afraid to nail his colours to the mast. In the first few pages of Faulks on Fiction, he spells out his methodology; fed up of the type of biographical criticism that assumes that famous characters must be based on persons or events known to the author, he has decided to focus instead on how they function as fictional creations within their own fictional worlds, and divides his targets into four categories (the better to televise them). So, is Faulks a hero, villain, snob or lover... oh, wait, he’s not fictional. But while we can safely exclude the latter two categories from our analysis, I found myself vacillating wildly between ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ as I read different chapters, which is the joy of reading this book; you may not agree with all of Faulks’ judgements, but you’re rarely indifferent.

Faulks’ approach

Faulks’ ostensible aim, as I’ve already noted, is to purge literary criticism of its lazy real-life parallels, and it’s an aim that I find extremely sympathetic. (There’s a brilliant ancedote in the introduction where Faulks, at a literary gathering to promote his novel about nineteenth-century psychiatry, Human Traces, jokes ‘now I’ve given up and just admit that yes, I’m really a 105-year-old woman, that I was parachuted into France for SOE in 1942 to write Charlotte Gray and wrote Human Traces only because my great-aunt was in a lunatic asylum in 1895.’ The audience laughs, but as Faulks is on his way out, a concerned woman asks him ‘What asylum was your aunt in?’) However, he has a number of other frameworks to impose, and I didn’t find these quite so useful; conveyed more subtly throughout the course of the book than his rants on literary critics, they are easy to miss. One such framework is his belief that ‘the trick of the novelist’s art’ is to reveal the universal through the particular; or, to put the point more strongly, as he does in his analysis of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for Tess to work as a novel, we have to believe that if Hardy had selected another milkmaid to write about at random, he would have been able to explore the same themes and make the same points. Otherwise, Faulks insists, he will have ‘sacrificed [his] claim to universal resonance.’ Thus follows ten tortured pages or so of Faulks desperately trying to claim that Tess is typical, when Hardy spends hundreds of pages emphasising that she is anything but.

I’m not sure why Faulks doesn’t jettison this principle as regards Tess – he seems willing to allow exceptions to this rule – because it doesn’t seem to me that a story must be typical for it to possess resonance. But then, in some ways he seems as bound to theory throughout this book as are the literary critics that he lampoons. Another example pops up in his analysis of Oliver Twist; one reason that Dickens is so great, he argues, is that his best work shares ‘the odd sense of portraying something that was always there... It is as though these people and scenes were part of a collective memory, needing only the brilliant beam of Dickens’s imagination to illuminate them.’ While Faulks deserves kudos for having achieved the difficult feat of identifying something positive in Dickens, these further musings on the theme of resonance don’t go any further to convince me that it’s the most important aspect of a novel. While I do love novels that I feel I’ve ‘read before’, it’s not always the greatest novels that have this effect; actually, far more often, it’s well-written popular fiction. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has this in spades (wasn’t there always a Wall? Didn’t I always know about the six direwolf pups?) as does Rebecca (haven’t we all dreamed that we were at Manderly again?) It’s a dangerous thing to fix upon as a proof of the novelist’s art, because often it speaks to the way the novels have seeped into our wider cultural landscape rather than accurately measuring the effect they would have had when first published – how do we know if Dickens’ Miss Havisham, Nancy and Fagin feel familiar to us or simply are familiar to us? Therefore, his yardstick of a novel’s success isn’t doing the work that Faulks expects it to.

Faulks as hero

Faulks is at his best when he forgets to care whether a novel is ‘resonant’ or not. His essay on Mr Darcy is splendid. While his depiction of this beloved romantic lead as an egocentric depressive is bound to be controversial, I was cheering all the way through, having always felt deeply suspicious of Darcy as anybody’s happy ending. Faulks brilliantly analyses how a marriage to Darcy is still advantageous for Elizabeth but is not the love match that we might hope for. Comparisons with his equally fine essay on Emma are fascinating; Mr Knightley hardly gets off lightly, as Faulks continually suggests that Emma will probably outgrow him: ‘In order... to win Emma... he will need to catch her when she has just grown into him but before she grows out of him’  but ultimately, he shows himself to be a better man than Darcy because he wholeheartedly accepts his own failings. His analyses of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty, and Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook (a novel I have never been able to like) are also excellent, and although I’ve never read a James Bond novel, I enjoyed Faulks’ account of how he carefully inserted another book into the Bond canon (his Devil May Care of 2008).

Faulks as villain

Faulks’ two essays on Dickens frustrated me, not least because there seems to be a massive George Eliot shaped hole in this volume, and, given this, devoting two chapters to a single writer seems unbalanced. Faulks is pretty comprehensive on his Victorian novelists – he covers Jane Austen, Emily Bronte (so the Brontes get a tick, though I wish it was Charlotte), Wilkie Collins, William Thackeray and Thomas Hardy, as well as Dickens – so the omission feels particularly striking, especially as he moans a lot about how undergraduates no longer read Middlemarch at the beginning of this book. (He’s done nothing to encourage them). I’ve already explained why I think his claims about the resonance of Dickens are ill-founded, and when he tries to assert that Dickens achieves an ‘almost Proustian’ effect in David Copperfield – ‘he makes time disappear... we see through the events of the present and deep into the past’ I’m afraid I had to disagree again. The scene he is speaking of – a scene he adores so much he quotes it twice – is indeed one of the finest moments in David Copperfield (not that that’s saying much); it is when David finds Steerforth’s drowned body lying on the sand, and reflects ‘I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.’ This is a beautiful sentence, but the implicit juxtaposition it contains between past and present is hardly something unusual; I’ve seen it done scores of times in novels of wildly differing quality.

Faulks is also guilty of the strange kind of hyperbole some Dickens fans seem to favour (I read once that if you do not appreciate Dickens, you do not appreciate life!) when he asserts that ‘Few people, I imagine, would disagree that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are the two greatest British novelists of the nineteenth century’. I find this statement utterly bizarre, to say the least. Nothing wrong with Faulks expressing his personal opinion on this matter; but given that a large number of people think that Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written in English, it seems unlikely that only a few people would disagree with his choices – and that’s without even mentioning the other contenders. I’m not sure why Dickens inspires this particularly fundamentalist brand of fan-worship; but then I was already suspicious when Faulks claimed he couldn’t analyse why Dickens’s novels work so well.

Faulks as neither

And then there are the articles in this volume that are genuinely interesting, but seem to me to be stymied by an assumption that Faulks makes at the start that hobbles the rest of his analysis. His essay on Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies is a case in point. On one level, he analyses brilliantly what makes Jack tick, arguing that Jack, of all the boys, is the most concerned about the absence of adults, and sees it as his task to ‘become the man’ that the group needs. Fear and panic hence drive his subsequent actions, and Faulks is also good on the essential difference between Jack and the real villain of the piece, Roger: ‘Jack displaces fear into practical grown-up action – swearing and hunting; Roger looks coolly and direct at the taboos of an absent civilisation.’ However, his suggestion that the boys are intended to balance between archetypes and individuals, rather than being truly distinct characters, doesn’t ring true to me, and harks back to his earlier missteps over resonance. Jack, Ralph, Roger and Piggy feel very real, and I certainly don’t agree that for Lord of the Flies to work they need to be any-boys – or, as Faulks would put it, we need to be able to believe that a similar set of events would play out with any group of boys on any island, although I think we do believe that, as far as it is possible.

If there is a spanner in the works of Lord of the Flies’ bleak message about man’s propensity towards evil, it’s not Ralph’s memory of feeding sugar to ponies (eerily, Faulks picks this out as one of the novel’s greatest weakness, when I have always felt it was one of its strongest moments) but the existence of Roger. Faulks feels that ‘at the end of the book he [Jack] finds himself so revered by the other boys that he need no longer dirty his hands: it is Roger who levers the large boulder off the top of the hill to kill Piggy... It is his leadership and his example... that has allowed more naturally violent children, such as Roger, to overcome the taboos of civilised society.’ Actually, I believe it’s the other way round; Roger’s murder of Piggy, the first cold-blooded killing in the book, breaks Jack’s pretence of legitimate authority and civilisation down, and opens the way for the hunting of Ralph. If there is a problem for Golding, it’s Roger; every time I read the novel, I find myself asking what would have happened if Roger had not been on the island. As Faulks correctly notes, Roger is completely atypical, and there’s no way we can assume that there would be somebody like him in any random grouping.

Ironically, it is Faulks’ discussion of his own novel, Engleby, that finally crystallised my doubts about his approach to fiction. I’ve written elsewhere that Engleby is by far his best novel; but I’ve long suspected that he didn’t really know how to handle what was given to him. He writes that Mike Engleby is a ‘villain’, that when readers confess that they sympathise with him he can only see this as an acceptable response ‘until you find out what he’s done’ and that this means that readers apply ‘different standards to people in books.’ I’m not sure why we can’t sympathise with Mike, who is a vicious murderer but also, evidently, mentally ill; I certainly wouldn’t apply different standards if Mike was real (i.e. I would sympathise with him but agree that the best place for him is in a mental institution where he cannot hurt anybody else) and I cannot conceive of trying to write a complex character and then labelling him a ‘villain’. There is a lack of generosity, of fictional empathy, that surfaces in some of these essays; for example, when Faulks seems to think that snobs are fair game for tormenting or agrees rather too enthusiastically with some of Barbara Covett’s nasty comments; and I think this is what is missing in his analysis of Engleby, although it clearly wasn’t missing when he wrote the character. I see this as a failing, both as a writer and a reader; and I do wonder if this is why he doesn’t seem to appreciate George Eliot.