Saturday, 30 November 2013

December schedule

Having made a New Year's resolution to post on this blog every week this year, I'm amazed that I've pretty much done it as we reach the end of 2013 (with some extra posts to make up for missed Fridays!) Bring on December…

Friday 6th December: The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, #2

Friday 13th December: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Friday 20th December: Mr B's Reading Year, Two

[Friday 27th December: No post - holidays!]

Monday 30th December: My Top Ten Books of 2013

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Goldfinch, #1: a tale that goes on and on

NB. I have only managed to read half of this massive tome, so this post will cover the first half of the novel. I will discuss the second half next week when I also discuss the rest of The Luminaries by Eleanor Carron, another epic read.

I was fortunate enough to hear Donna Tartt speak about The Goldfinch at the Cambridge Union recently; but this was before I'd started the novel, and I was puzzled by her comments about what makes a novel 'dated.' As an historian, I've long been suspicious of this term; of course any novel is dated, because to remove all references to any historical period is virtually impossible, and often a thankless task. For example, one of the reasons I disliked Jim Crace's Harvest so much was because he seemed to be trying to capture a timeless rural England but managed only to convey a poorly researched picture of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century village, with some details that would never have been applicable to England at any point in its history. And as a reader, I actively prefer my novels 'dated', if by dated you mean 'uses historically accurate references.' I refuse to believe that readers are really so lazy or stupid that they will stop reading a book because they do not recognise a product name or pop group, and the reception of novels such as Kevin Maher's The Fields seems to bear this assertion out, as it has clearly been appreciated by many readers who did not experience a 1980s childhood in Dublin. For these reasons, I was surprised to hear Tartt say that she had carefully gone through The Goldfinch to strip it of contemporary references, and one of the reasons she felt that The Secret History is still enduringly popular is because it is not dated. Immediately, I thought that The Secret History is a dated novel - and none the worse for it - and indeed, that much of the power of Tartt's writing lies in an evocation of a particular time and place, as in her misunderstood and in my opinion, greatest novel, The Little Friend. Fortunately, The Goldfinch is no exception. From references to iPods to DVDs to mobiles, it is firmly placed in the twenty-first century, and indeed I think we are meant to view Theo's adulthood as taking place in the future, his theft of the painting 'The Goldfinch' still to come.

The novel opens with an utterly gripping set-piece of the kind Tartt writes so well. The adult Theo, holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam that he cannot leave, recalls his mother's death in an explosion at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was thirteen. Because we don't know the exact details of her death at first, we retrace Theo's steps through that day with a growing sense of dread; is it the missed taxi or the forgotten umbrella that sealed her fate? Would things have been different if Theo had been less interested in the attractive red-haired girl in the gallery and more interested in the exhibition? The explosion itself parallels the destruction of much of Carel Fabritius's work after his studio was destroyed in Delft in 1654; 'The Goldfinch' was one of only about a dozen paintings to survive. In this alternative reality, it survives a second explosion, only to be appropriated by Theo and to remain his constant companion as he is rocketed to some friends of his mother's, to live with his father in Las Vegas, and then back to New York again, where he ends up with the guardian of the red-haired girl, a furniture restorer called Hobie.

Even a brief summary of the first half of the plot indicates how busy a novel The Goldfinch is. Ironically, it is only in the moments before the explosion that we get a chance to stop and breathe. After that, Tartt relentlessly narrates Theo's story, and although individual scenes are carefully delineated, the overall effect is of a sweeping narrative that presses us forward to no apparent purpose. Tartt's skill is fully on display here; characterisation is wonderful, setting vivid, and sentence by sentence, the novel is beautifully-written. However, at the moment, I feel as if there is no wider significance to the story I am being told. Readers complained that The Little Friend was plotless, but for me, it was more than redeemed by its series of skilful set-pieces, and The Secret History obviously possessed a thriller-esque narrative. Although a form of plot seems to be emerging, as Theo worries if the painting will be discovered, I'm wondering whether the novel can redeem itself enough in its second half to make up for the meandering nature of its first. A deceptively easy read, it is in many ways the polar opposite of the equally lengthy The Luminaries; a novel that requires close attention but repays the reader handsomely, and which is perhaps structured almost too rigidly. Next week, I will discuss how both these novels pan out in their final three hundred or so pages.

Update: see this post for the second half of my review of The Goldfinch.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Laura Rereading: 'accept the truth from whomever gives it'

Before re-reading: This book was first published in 2008; I read it on holiday in Scotland in 2009, after loving Notes on a Scandal. I did not have particularly high hopes for it - family sagas, even of the literary variety, are not my favourite type of plot - and I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't already known Zoe Heller was a fantastic writer. However, I ended up being entranced by its observational wit, and particularly interested in Rosa's story.

After re-reading: Although I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, I realised when re-reading how little impression it had made on me, as I remembered almost nothing of the plot and characters. However, this time around, I think I will remember it for much longer; I could feel myself engaging with it much more deeply than I had before, although I'd admired its cleverness.

The Believers was universally acclaimed on its publication as Zoe Heller's most mature and ambitious work, and a chillingly accurate family story. I'm not sure that I like it for those reasons. I'm always a little suspicious of the words 'mature' and 'ambitious' in a book review because, although of course they can be used meaningfully, they too easily translate into 'spans a lot of countries', 'contains a lot of characters' and 'isn't a coming of age tale.' Seeing nothing wrong with a book like Heller's Notes on a Scandal that isn't afraid to be narrow and intense, I don't think ticking off personalities and continents necessarily means that a writer has developed (see my review of Burnt Shadows for further moaning about this.) The Believers is certainly as good as Notes on a Scandal, but it is an entirely different type of novel. Nor is it a novel that I believe is fully described as a 'family story', especially as I am so prejudiced against novels that focus on families - the relationships between the Livitnoffs are caustically and accurately drawn, yes, but so are the relationships between all the characters in this novel, most of whom aren't related. So, having got out of the way why I don't like this novel, I suppose I should move on to why I do.

Rosa Livitnoff, failed socialist revolutionary turned charity worker attempting to turn Orthodox Jew, still remains my favourite character, and although I can see that she might be incredibly irritating in real life, she is the only likeable protagonist in this novel (Karla, her sister, is obviously good and sweet at heart, but I found it difficult to deal with her constant self-flagellation and indecision - although this may be a deliberate irony on Heller's part, given that she seems to be the only character who makes a firm decision by the end). It's Karla who sums up Rosa best: 'Nothing Rosa had ever wanted to do had been significantly at odds with what she knew was right. Even as a little girl, she had been incorruptible… It wasn't that she had lacked the courage for mischief. She simply hadn't seen what fun there was to be had from being bad.' Karla's earlier excruciating memory of a breakfast-time conversation as a child with her father Joel clinches this view of Rosa, as Karla recalls desperately seeking her father's attention while Rosa instinctively knows the right answers to give to his political questions. However, what I like about Rosa isn't her commitment to her left-wing activism, which is failing by the time we meet her, but her continual honesty and self-questioning. Even though her encounter with Orthodox Judaism can occasionally seem patronising, her willingness to learn is genuine. 

The most difficult moments to like Rosa in are those when she is interacting with the members of GirlPower, the club for disadvantaged girls where she works. Insistent that the girls will not dance what she sees as a sexually suggestive routine, she forgets that she's there to help them, not to impose her own set of values, insisting that she won't try and boost their self-esteem until they do something 'estimable'. When she takes them to an anti-war rally, she answers their inevitable questions in didactic vein, and - this is the genius of Heller's writing - you can hear Joel's breakfast quizzes echoing in her words. However, I appreciated these incidents because they so clearly marked Rosa's flaws; her insistence on imposing unrealistically high standards on herself and everyone around her. The brilliant thing is that these flaws are also her strengths; I was glad that she didn't give in and compromise, even though I didn't agree with her line of thought. In comparison to her parents, unable to change, and Karla, too willing to bend, she is a refreshing mixture of self-doubt and self-certainty.

For me, Rosa also best illustrated the themes of the novel, although the joy of such a richly-observed piece is that every reader will find a different character in it who most closely strikes a chord with them. She wants to believe in something, but is too rational to let herself do so. Again, however, it is Karla who sums up the essence of believing, acting as a counterpoint to her more assertive sister. As she finally leaves her miserable marriage (her husband Mike was the most monstrous figure in the novel for me, a passive-aggressive eejit) she hears a busker on the Metro playing 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight': 'a silly novelty number that Karla had always associated with oldies radio stations and kitsch. But now, hearing it sung in this dingy subway car, she was struck by its beauty. How simple and true it seemed! How filled wit the mystery and sadness of life!' Echoing Rosa's spiritual experience upon entering a synagogue for the first time, Karla is the true believer: she allows herself to recognise a truth that is her truth, even if it isn't The Truth. As Lionel Shriver observed in her Telegraph review of this novel, attempts to sum up this novel neatly make it sound terribly banal. That is its joy; it's as messy, inconclusive, and frustrating as real life.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Mr B's Reading Year, One: 'the unknown merchandise at the end of their wait'

When Anna decides to walk home from work a different way one day, she stumbles upon a boarded-up kiosk with a brief line forming. This is an unsurprising sight in Leningrad after 'the Change', with the novel's twentieth-century Soviet setting based, in the author's own words, on 'the repression of Stalin's 1930s, the hopefulness of Kruschchev's Thaw (late 1950s - early 1960s) and the stagnation of Brezhnev's 1970s.' However, Anna is drawn to this particular kiosk, and alongside her husband Sergei and son Alexander, becomes a regular visitor to the line. It is only after visiting for some time that the family discover that the kiosk will be selling concert tickets for the composer Selinsky's triumphal return to his home country to conduct his last symphony a single time, a plotline based on Stravinsky's historic concert of 1962. Anna determines to purchase one for her fading mother, who still recalls her brighter days as a ballerina, but as the family form a rough shift system to hold their place in the line, personal desires begin to take over. As Anna thinks at the very beginning of the novel, when she is set free from her teaching job into 'the glittering white stretch of the afternoon', she will go to the kiosk, where she is filled 'with a sure presentiment of a change… something, she thought, to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life.' The possibilities offered by the kiosk sit in contrast to the Soviet winter, where 'time had all run together for quite a while… like a vat of frozen concrete.'

The use of the American word 'line' rather than the British 'queue' both makes sense, given that Olga Grushin lives in Washington DC, and is more resonant within the novel as a whole, as characters speak of coming 'to the end of the line.' Predictably, waiting becomes an emotional event in itself for Anna, Sergei and Alexander, as Anna battles with her desire to have just one thing that is her own, Sergei embarks on an illicit affair with a fellow queue-goer, and Alexander paints the town red with new acquaintances. The line reflects the realities of their lives in this version of Soviet Russia, where little changes, but hope remains constant that something will. Putting it this way makes the novel sound banal, but the skill of Grushin's writing makes the conceit work. She is particularly good on weather and its emotional resonance, whether that's the sky waving 'back and forward in a skeletal dance of black branches' or the 'skinny parings of sunlight' that squeeze through the gaps in Anna's curtains. She is even better on dreams and dream-like imaginings, a ferociously difficult thing for an author to write well. Whether it's Alexander fantasising about the train he will take to 'a remote, desolate, beautiful shore, and strange birds dipping and rising overhead, and whispers of tall silver trees, and horses running, and the sea' or Anna's mother's memories of 'mermaids sipping frothy drinks from dainty little cups in terraced cafes', Grushin continually finds the balance between the cliched figures (the horses, the sea, the cafes) and the personal detail that characterises all our fantasies.

So there is much to admire in The Concert Ticket, but for all this, the novel remains curiously static. Of course, given its subject-matter, this is deliberate, but I found myself wondering if it might have worked better as a novella rather than something that's over three hundred pages long. It reminded me strongly of Russian absurdist fiction, particularly Gogol's short stories, although it is obviously rooted in a realist tradition as well, and also of folk storytelling, given its quasi-mythical setting and the orderly repetition of certain events. Given this, I felt a shorter form might have worked here as well, especially as the only character I felt I could truly care about was Anna. It's a beautiful read that captures the experience of longing for something undefined that one can't have better than almost anything else I've read, but in the end, the wait is too long and the pay-off too small.

This was the first book from my Mr B's Reading Year, and although I had mixed feelings about it, I'd still like to thank Mr B's for their selection - I would never have chosen this novel for myself, and I'm very glad to have read it.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South, #5: 'the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time'

It would be easy to consider the highlight of this book, as of the Cambridge Scott Polar Museum itself, where I bought it from, to be the intensely memorable excerpts from Captain Scott's last letters which Apsley Cherry-Garrard quotes near the end of his long text. From Scott's 'Message to the Public', a quotation from which appears on the wall next to the entrance of the Polar Museum, Cherry-Garrard quotes: 'Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.' In more scattered language, but conveying almost precisely the same message, Scott pens his last diary entry: 'Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God's sake, look after our people.' However, powerful as these excerpts are, it seems to me that they only acquire their true power when the reader is able to look at them outside pre-conceptions of Edwardian bombast and heroism, outside 'the myth of Scott', most recently dissected by Max Jones in The Last Great Quest (2004), and to recognise the truth of what Scott is saying about the qualities these men possessed. It is easy to read a quotation on a wall and believe that it is false, but after the long attrition of the details Cherry-Garrard provides about the true horror of the polar journey and his own 'worst journey in the world', 'the winter journey' to collect the eggs of Emperor penguins, it is harder not to be moved by Scott's words, and to feel much more able to relate to his experience that to that of a faceless imperial hero.

The key quality, of course, that Cherry-Garrard possesses, apart from his first-hand knowledge of the polar expedition, is the ability to write, but the success of this account is not his alone. It relies heavily on excerpts from diaries kept by the other men, most notably, Henry Bowers, who accompanied Scott to the Pole. I find it astonishing that in such conditions Bowers, Scott and Cherry-Garrard himself, who utilises his own field notes, were able to write such lucid and engaging prose, especially as none of them were 'literary' men, and wonder how far this was typical of the nineteenth-century elite. The pressures of travel mean that few of the diaries indulge in the more formal style adopted by Scott in his 'Message to the Public', and instead, get straight to the point, as when Cherry-Garrard writes after their tent is blown from them and recovered, 'When we had lost our tent, and there was a very great balance of probability that we should never find it again, and we were lying out the blizzard in our bags, I saw that we were face to face with a long fight against cold which we could not have survived. I cannot write how helpless I believed we were to help ourselves…' It is the same clarity that Cherry-Garrard preserves throughout his more composed account, beginning with the famous line, 'Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.' 

Unlikely heroes also emerge; after the first half of this book, I felt possibly closer to the ponies, the devilish Christopher, the strong Nobby and the long-suffering and brilliantly-named Jimmy Pigg, than most of the men, especially after Cherry-Garrard describes how walls were built in the snow each night for the ponies to shelter behind, although often they would promptly kick them down. Worse is to come for several of the poor ponies, though, when three are swept away on an ice floe: 'They were moving west fast,' writes Bowers, 'but they saw me, and remained huddled together not the least disturbed, or trusting that we would bring them their breakfast nosebags as usual in the eying. Poor trustful creatures! If I could have done it then, I would gladly have killed them rather than picture them starving on that floe out on the Ross Sea…' Only Nobby survives. Detailed descriptions of food also suffuse the book, giving a vivid sense of how significant it became to men who had little else to look forward to; particularly memorable is Cherry-Garrard's slavering over his own invention, 'chocolate hooch', which comprised pemmican, cocoa, arrowroot, sugar and raisins. Scott's remark to his friend upon eating this delicacy was: 'You are going far to earn my undying gratitude', although, Cherry-Garrard notes, 'I am afraid he had indigestion the next morning.'

The patchwork approach to this account, with Cherry-Garrard cobbling together bits and pieces from other members of the expedition linked by his own narrative, means that far from becoming the stoic hero, he virtually disappears from the narrative for much of the time. Obviously, he was not present on the final polar journey, and so has to rely on the second-hand accounts of the dead men, but even in journeys where he was conspicuously present, such as the 'winter journey' with Bowers and Bill Wilson, he rarely speaks about himself. Compounding this, Cherry-Garrard rarely clearly marks when he is using a long quotation from his own diary or from somebody else's, so the voices of the explorers seem to meld into one chorus, with only Scott standing alone. All this is to say that it is not what you might expect from a 1922 text on the polar expedition - even the hagiography of Scott is rather muted - and that this very subtlety adds to its intensity.

N.B. My first Mr B's Reading Year book has arrived! It's The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin, a genuine surprise as although I was tipped off about the author, I thought it would be her earlier and better-known novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. I'm really excited about reading something I genuinely hadn't heard of before, and will hopefully be reviewing it next week as the first of a series covering my Mr B's books.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Simply unbearable

I couldn't think of very much to write about this (and could not finish it, and feel qualified to write anything), so I initially turned to the internet, to find John Banville's 2004 comments on his re-read of the novel in the Guardian, where he notes that he could not remember very much from his first reading:

Why had so little remained for me? Is it the result of failing memory, or is there indeed an essential weightlessness to the book? The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a remarkable success when it was published in English in 1984 (this autumn will see an anniversary edition from Faber). Here was an avowedly "postmodern" novel in which the author withheld so many of the things we expect from a work of fiction, such as rounded characters - "It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived" - a tangible milieu, a well-paced plot, and in which there are extended passages of straightforward philosophical and political speculation, yet it became a worldwide bestseller, loved by the critics and the public alike… What is remarkable, however, is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated. The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate. And lightness, in art, more often seems like slightness. 

This was an interesting reflection, because my initial response to the novel had been to assume that I found it nearly unreadable because it had dated so badly; that its suggestion that its characters are mere literary sketches had been avant-garde and postmodern at the time, for example, but now appears trite and cliched. Reviewing the novel in 1984, the date of its publication, in The London Review of Books, John Bayley praised it to the skies but suggested, still, that, 'Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.' Andrew Williams named it a 'Book of a Lifetime' in the Independent in 2009, and so I turned to his article to try and understand what others had seen in the book. In accordance with my first theory, he ties the experience of reading the novel in 1984 to his love for it, remembering his passion for Kundera's novels as a university student. However, unlike Banville, he seems to suggest that it does hold up on a re-reading, although it's unclear whether or not he actually re-read it to write the article. He praises the novel for 'the skill with which Kundera opens up that gap between perception and reality' in his depiction of the mutual incomprehension between Tereza and Tomas, and concludes by saying, 'This is a shamelessly clever book – at times a little cold – but exhilaratingly subversive and funny.'

My response would be: at times? It seemed to me that Kundera was uninterested in writing a novel as we traditionally understand it at all, and that Banville has hit the nail on the head when he suggests that Kundera fails to convey the 'felt life' that is the stock-in-trade of the novelist. But, of course, 'fails' is the wrong word to use, because Kundera never attempted to create a living world in the pages of this novel. It seems to me that there's often too little said, by both professional reviewers and bloggers, about judging a novel by what you wanted it to be, rather than what it is, or what the author was trying to achieve. On that basis, it would be ridiculous to criticise Kundera for the fact that his characters seem flat and contrived, because that was exactly the point he was trying to make. However, it must be obvious from the fact that I've created this post from a patchwork of other people's reviews that I have very little else to say about this book. When one doesn't agree with a writer about what a 'novel' is and what it should aim to do, then it's clear one isn't going to get very far. It's less clear, however, how we can reach such an agreement: but I wish reviewers spoke more often about the fact that often we're using sets of standards that just don't match up.