Friday, 14 November 2014

On re-reading

My favourite avatar 'at' St Anne's College
I've had little time to read new novels while I've been settling in at my new job at St Anne's College, which I'm really enjoying so far (the college have made a fantastic video for potential undergraduates, which sums up its friendly atmosphere. You can see it here). However, having picked up a new selection of books from my Wiltshire library (i.e. my father's house) when moving to Oxford, I've been able to do a bit of re-reading for once. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed it. I'm usually separated from the vast majority of my book collection, so haven't been able to indulge in selecting the novels that appeal to me at the time. Re-reading straddles the gap between 'serious' and 'trashy' reading by allowing me to look again at books that I enjoyed the first time, and thought were worthwhile, but demand less effort now I'm reading them again. It's odd that re-reading has become so rare for me, because it was a very important feature of my reading life as a child and adolescent. Even in my early twenties, it was unusual for me to own a book that I had only read once. Now I own... a fair few...

I started my recent set of re-reads with Jung Chang's Wild Swans. This memoir was a great favourite among some girls at my school when I was about fifteen, and I'm ashamed to say that I've learnt little more about Chinese history since. However, regardless of how accurate or representative the text is, I was impressed with Chang's sheer ability as a storyteller, especially as the story is not told in her first language. She has a gift for isolating the telling detail from a confusing, complex mass of misery, and in bringing the reader into a very different world rather than distancing them from it. As a teenager, I remember relating strongly to teenaged Jung and her thirst for knowledge (despite our situations not being remotely alike!) and it was one of the first times I really appreciated the idea of learning for its own sake, rather than for an examination. Following this successful re-visiting with Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing was a bit of a disappointment. It seemed a good idea to read a book about re-reading as I was trying to do more of it, but I didn't enjoy Hill's account of a year of reading as much as I had the first time. The main reason for this is purely personal - Hill and I seem to have entirely opposite instincts about key texts and authors, so frequently her statements left me spluttering. (How can she instantly exclude Twelfth Night from a list of favourite Shakespeare plays? How can she never have read Villette?) This is hardly Hill's fault, but I found her narrative difficult to warm to for other reasons as well. She tends to judge, rather than celebrate, and the idea of a year of re-reading swiftly vanishes, so her chapters become quite disconnected.

Re-reading Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter, a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, is always a treat. Like Wild Swans, it's one of those novels that I read at such a formative age that it's perhaps almost too important to me. And yet, it's so beautiful, and so true. I can't think of a better example of a novel you can truly step into and live inside. There will certainly be readers who loathe it - the pace is very slow, and the reinvention of the Beast's character, in particular, is controversial in many respects. Nevertheless, I love it. I'm also re-reading Sarah Waters's Affinity at the moment, and enjoying going back to a novel that is very different from her more recent works. I'm impressed by her facility with pastiche; she uses historical detail and language consistently and heavily, but it's never heavy-handed. My final re-read so far has been an entirely different kind; Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender's Game. Reading this in light of recent events has been an odd experience; Card is so bigoted, but the morality of the novel itself is so interesting, and generally sound. I was continuously wondering how he can hold such narrow-minded opinions while espousing, via Ender, a very broad-minded world view. There are tiny hints of Card's own views on marriage, for example, in Speaker, but they're incredibly minor compared to the way he allows his own perspective to distort his later works (I'm not saying this simply because I disagree with Card; I think any author, however noble-minded, who allows their own hobby-horses to distort the stories they are telling to the degree that Card does later in the Ender series has a problem).

Reading this over, it strikes me that these books, with the exception of the Susan Hill, were all books that I first read between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. This seems to me to be fitting. I've just moved to a new place for the first time since I was eighteen years old, and it feels right to try to reconnect with a bit of that teenage desire to branch out.

Friday, 7 November 2014

‘This village in Worcestershire called Black Swan Green…’

In a shocking turn of events, David Mitchell has totally ignored my request that he should write more historical novels. To rub it in even further, this novel, while beginning in 1985, primarily takes place in the future. Once I’d got over my disappointment, however, I was pleased to realise that The Bone Clocks is probably his best novel yet. Which is not to say that it doesn’t still share in his usual strengths and weaknesses.

Holly Sikes is fifteen years old and running away from home after she discovers the love of her life sleeping with her best friend. However, this prosaic start to the story becomes somewhat stranger when she encounters an old woman called Esther, who asks her for ‘asylum’. Shortly afterwards, Holly is entangled in an otherworldly scene where she’s lucky to escape with her life, and has her memories wiped. Odd vocabulary – horologists, Black Wine, Cathars, the Shaded Way – is dropped, but the reader is clearly unable to understand it yet. Because this is a David Mitchell novel, we jump forward ten years to meet obnoxious Cambridge undergraduate and fraudster Hugo Lamb, who sleeps with Holly on a ski trip before becoming involved in a supernatural encounter of his own. A series of narrators, all linked to Holly – a foreign correspondent, a once-superstar novelist, and one of the mysterious Horologists – take us all the way to 2046, where Holly, now an old woman, is struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

The Bone Clocks is an incredibly fun and gripping novel. I think it’s the first of Mitchell’s novels to hold my attention consistently – which is a major feat given how frequently he swaps viewpoints, styles and stories in all of his fiction. However, it’s also exceedingly odd, even for Mitchell. There’s a continuing conflict between the intense social observation that he does so well via a number of his narrators, and the fantastic elements that seem to be grafted on to their lives. The clash is most obvious in the sections narrated by Ed – the foreign correspondent – and Crispin – the novelist. These characters work so well because they feel so real; Ed gives a harrowing account of his experiences as a reporter, but explains why he is addicted to the job, even though he knows he is neglecting his wife and child. On the other end of the spectrum, Crispin is a hilariously self-obsessed novelist who goes to inordinate lengths to punish a reviewer who slated his ‘comeback’ book; he verges on caricature, but becomes less stereotyped through his friendship with Holly. Mitchell’s talents are on full display in these sections, but they don’t work well with the rest of the novel. On the other hand, Hugo’s narrative and the two Holly sections feel sufficiently removed from reality that they gel better with the Horologist sub-plot. As for the remaining section of the novel, where we finally learn what Black Wine and Cathars are… I’m not sure I know what to make of it. It’s a great read, but again, it jars badly with the rest of the text, and is essentially a pure fantasy romp, although Mitchell is brilliant at using obscure jargon to create a threatening atmosphere. I was left feeling that The Bone Clocks could be edited into at least two novels – and lose very little from it – especially when the Horologists are used to engineer a deus ex machina ending.

The other big thing about The Bone Clocks is that it’s an incredibly self-referential novel, which adds to the sense that Mitchell is playing a game rather than writing serious fiction. I’m not a committed enough Mitchell fan to spot all the references, but he makes some pretty obvious; Hugo was a character in Black Swan Green and Dr Marinus, one of the Horologists, hails from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There’s also been a lot of debate about real-world references in the novel; is Crispin a portrait of Martin Amis? Although there’s nothing wrong with such references, I do always find them a bit cheap – it’s an easy trick to appear clever – and it doesn’t help with the overall feel of the novel. In a way, none of this matters. The Bone Clocks is fantastically entertaining, and I would definitely recommend it. But sometimes I wish David Mitchell would set a few more limitations on his impressive imagination.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A middlebrow melodrama?

Rachel Cusk recently reviewed this novel in the Guardian, and, to put it mildly, I did not think she did it justice. She wrote: ‘this novel’s descent into melodrama as a murder is committed… turns this engaging literary endeavour into a tiresome soap opera. Waters’ unusual gift for drama and for social satire is squandered on the production of middlebrow entertainment’. Given Cusk’s track record of character-driven, deeply observational novels such as Arlington Park, these comments obviously relate to the type of fiction she enjoys writing and reading. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t surprising – and in the words of a Guardian reader, commenting on the original review, ‘made my blood boil’. What is ‘middlebrow’ fiction, and why does the introduction of the dreaded ‘plot’ lower these imaginary brows? (Which summons up a brilliant mental image of the Bloomsbury group frowning increasingly fiercely over trashy 1920s novels…)

Frances and her mother have fallen upon hard times after the First World War. After the death of Frances’s father, who left considerable debts behind him, they have been forced to take in ‘paying guests’ – i.e., lodgers – to pay their bills, to the pity of their genteel middle-class acquaintances. The Barbers are certainly very different from Frances’s normal social circle. Epitomising the twentieth-century expansion of the middle classes, they hail from firmly working-class backgrounds but are on their way up in the world, with Len Barber holding a well-paid position as a clerk. Waters is brilliant on the tiny details that frame Frances’s initial introduction to the Barbers; to Lilian Barber’s carefulness as she walks across a newly-polished floor in her stockinged feet, to Frances and her mother’s horror as the Barbers briefly play loud gramophone music. She efficiently conveys the tiny awkwardnesses and discomforts of having strangers in the intensely private space of the inter-war, middle-class household for the first time. In other ways, too, Frances is struggling to meet the expectations of her class, doing all the household chores herself because they cannot afford a servant – although she does the heaviest work out of her mother’s sight, so as not to upset her. Frances, who was briefly radical and liberated during the war, has returned firmly to domesticity – although without a man to perform this role for. As we swiftly discover, she was in love with another woman during the war, but that relationship has ended.

For anyone who knows Sarah Waters’s work, the next twist in the story will be unsurprising. And indeed – I was re-reading Affinity recently – there are surface similarities between Frances and some of Waters’ earlier heroines, especially Margaret Prior, in that novel. They share an outward – and to an extent, inward – commitment to convention with a brittleness and bitterness that stems from the totally unconventional experiences that shaped their earlier lives. However, I’d go as far as to say that Frances is Waters’ most convincing creation to date. We feel that we thoroughly get to know her throughout the novel, and that all her apparently contradictory and confusing behaviour stems logically from her character and her experiences. It’s also the first time I’ve been completely convinced by a love affair in a Waters novel, with perhaps the exception of the very different obsession that develops in Affinity. In The Night Watch, for example, Kay is so fantastically written that Helen seems shallow beside her. In The Paying Guests, Waters makes both participants utterly real – although Frances will always seem the more complex, because we’re inside her head.

Cusk’s review emphasises that this is a novel of two parts, and I don’t think anyone would disagree. The first half of the novel is a careful build-up; the second half is a helter-skelter unravelling. I would also tentatively agree that the first half of the novel is better-written than the second; although this is something that is incredibly difficult to judge on a first reading, because I read the second half twice as quickly, and wouldn’t be surprised if I’d missed the fine nuances that Waters is so good at. However, I cannot agree that this means that the first half is a success, and the second half, a failure. What does Cusk mean when she suggests that the novel becomes both ‘middlebrow’ and ‘melodramatic’? Firstly, I find these comments ironic when it seems to me that Waters is deliberately playing with inter-war ideas of melodramatic, middlebrow fiction. The novel is overtly based on a famous court case of the time, and recalls much of the crime fiction of the era – although this would surely be ‘lowbrow’ rather than ‘middlebrow’ reading. Secondly, if she means ‘middlebrow’ in the inter-war, Bloomsbury group sense – the idea that middlebrow fiction convinces not-so-bright readers that they are reading something truly literary, when in fact it’s not – it seems to me that Waters is doing entirely the opposite in The Paying Guests. By daring to make such a gripping plot central to her novel, she is flouting the conventions of some literary fiction and risking falling out of the ‘literary’ category altogether. (The novel does seem to have suffered from this type of judgment. It wasn’t even longlisted for the Booker – which given the quality of most of this year’s shortlist is appalling).

Most of all, however, I object to Cusk’s statements because they suggest that if your readers want to read on, you must be doing something wrong. Waters’ novel is not melodramatic. In fact, it’s the opposite – she gives us the time and space to become deeply engaged with her characters before we are called upon to sympathise with them in more extreme situations. Nor is it middlebrow – a word that I’m not sure is very useful at all. I can understand why the two very different halves of the novel wouldn’t appeal to all readers, especially if you want a strong plot throughout, or prefer something totally character-driven. Personally, I loved it.