Thursday, December 29, 2011

Search engine queries

It’s always interesting to see what search engine queries have brought people to this blog. For a long time I was getting hits for “busty ephemeral woman” which made no sense to me. This, though, seems to have fallen out of fashion of late – that’s ephemerality for you, I suppose.

A strikingly consistent theme appears to be students who are looking for a way not to have to bother reading books for themselves.

in cosmopolis does eric packer have a breakdown while cutting his hair
Google: how does the novel cosmopolis end
Google: what two times do father and son wrestle in A silver Dish
Google: was "intruder in the dust" written in first person
Google: how does gap creek end

Others just type their class questions in verbatim in the hope that the web will spew out their essay for them:

What are two themes in Ron Rash's Saints at the River?
comment on narrative technique in james fenimore cooper's the last of the mohicans
Google: does the use of collage work in the indian uprising
Google: what does thelma j. shinn mean by characters are the physical grotesques and physical afflictions

This one even leaves in the question number:

4. Describe the personalities of Deanna and Eddie In the Prodigal Summer

And this one, I suspect, is the title and course number of one reader’s new class:

Google: articulate art 7030

Sometimes, you simply can’t understand why a particular search would have returned this particular site as a possible answer. geological pseudomorphosis SW1P 3DW mobile phone store in London
Google: "Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia" analysis
Google: barn owl eros poem

Occasionally you get some queries that are quaintly stream-of-consciousness in their use of language:

what all terrible things were done to african americans because of recism
what do you think cormac mccarthy believes is to be made of suttree when all is said and done

Some are pleasingly honest:

Google: the sense of an ending don't understand it please explain

I love the postmodernist possibilities arising from the mash-up of structuralism and transcendentalism suggested by these similar enquiries:

Google: barthe of the scrivener story
Google: barthes by the scrivener

Likewise, a humourous novel death-match appears to have been lined up in this query:

confederacy of dunces vs catch 22

And finally, the simply baffling:

Google: adrian has sex with veronica's mother?

I know that this relates to Julian Barnes’s The Sense of and Ending, but is this the best constructed query the searcher could think of?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Slim Slow Slider

I've been listening to Astral Weeks a lot recently. I lost my copy ages ago and finally found it (inside another CD box), and every since I've been making up for lost time by playing it again and again.

It's a magnificent album. Every track is superb. The last track, though, is a marvel. Slim Slow Slider is a slice of horrible beauty. As a conclusion to a complex album it couldn't be better. It's also, I suspect, a brilliant example of ex tempore storytelling. Certainly, the recording of the album was done in a freeform way, with Morrison allowing his musicians to follow his lead.

Slim Slow Slider is a song about a lost love. But it morphs into something very dark, and we realise the girl in the song is using drugs. Near the end, Morrison sings "I know you're dyin' babe, and I know you know it too." It's a remarkable shift, but entirely fitting. It flows perfectly from the music. Immediately, there is a great depth to the song. And, having given us that shattering conclusion, the song ends, amost literally with a shudder. The music rumbles to a halt. It is a perfect ending.

Apparently, when recording this ending, it went on for ten minutes or so, but it was all cut in the editing process. A good thing, too. It is the best ending of any song I know. It is horrifying.

Friday, December 16, 2011

More Hitch

Here's Hitch, in Letters to a Young Contrarian:

we are mammals, and the prefrontal lobe (at least while we wait for genetic engineering) is too small while the adrenaline gland is too big [to be able to change human nature for the better]. Nonetheless, civilisation can increase, and at times actually has increased, the temptation to behave in a civilised way. It is only those who hope to transform humans who end up burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.

Nothing else to add to that.

Christopher Hitchens

I'm not much of a one for idols (Donald Duck and Oscar Matzerath excepted) and nor am I one to follow role models, but Christopher Hitchens would come close. Professional contrarian, he simply argued what he argued, with eloquence and reasoning and knowledge, and refused to bow to convention or the accepted wisdom or the shrill voices of authority. Even when he was wrong, as he often was, at least he was engagingly wrong. In a bland world of Camerons and Milibands (and increasingly, alas, Obamas), we need more Hitchenses, not fewer.

He'll be up there now on a cloud, telling God he's a figment of his own imagination...

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Vermeer's Women

I often write critically on here of a strand of modern English literature, exemplified by On Chesil Beach or The Sense of an Ending, which is small in scale and pores over the detail and ramifications of what may appear to be minor incidents or episodes. It’s a mostly unfair criticism, I concede: to criticise for being small in scale a novel which deliberately sets out to be small in scale is a fallacious argument. The approach of such novels is clear: the authors aim to examine, in almost forensic detail, small events or individual characters, and from that exploration to extrapolate some wider meaning. It’s a valid approach. It’s not my preference, but that’s beside the point.

I was put in mind of this at the weekend when I visited the superb exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Vermeer’s women: secrets and silence. The storytelling power of the paintings in this exhibition is immense: one looks at these paintings and is filled with wonder, with questions, with a longing to know more, to enter that world and experience what the people in the paintings are experiencing. All of it is done on a small canvas – often literally so, Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, in particular, is little more than a foot square. The paintings depict small moments, with very few characters, offering tantalising glimpses into another world.

There is much that storytellers and, in particular, short story writers, can learn from these paintings. Their intimacy helps to etablish such a bond with the viewer that the characters of the individuals come across clearly. One looks, for example, at the young girl in The Lacemaker, bent over her craft with a look of intense concentration, and sees immediately what is important: her hands, beautifully in focus, working on the intricate detail of her work, and the luminous, almost abstract tangle of threads with which she is working. Nothing else matters in this scene, and Vermeer therefore blurs it, relegates it to the background. His – and therefore our – concentration on the story’s core is total.

And these paintings tell stories. But they don’t do it in a flat, obvious, two-dimensional way. There is nothing predictable in the scenes depicted by these master storytellers of the past. Rather, a ravishing sense of mystery pervades them. Nothing is ever straightforward. What is in the letter the young girl is reading in Gerard ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Glass of Wine, Holding a Letter in her Hand that makes her so despondent?

Exactly who or what is the child outside the window in Jacobus Vrel’s Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl? Is it a ghost? Or simply a child playing? The alacrity with which the woman has arisen, as suggested by the curious angle of her chair, suggests something more sinister, but we simply don’t know.

It is mysterious, thought provoking. Often, what look like straightforward domestic scenes are not. Further examination suggests a subtext we don’t know and can only guess at.

This is the stuff of short stories, the gradual revelation of some hidden truth, the realisation that what is happening off the page is as important as what is on it. Think of Hills Like White Elephants, for example, with its never explicitly mentioned subtext of the girl’s abortion. Or Flannery O’Connor’s repeated search for redemption in her stories. Or the relationships between fathers and sons in A Silver Dish.

The paintings in this exhibition are the forebears of our modern short stories. They are beautifully enigmatic. The exhibition finishes in mid-January: go along if you can.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Jackie Leven

We've lost a few Scottish music greats this last little while - John Martyn, Gerry Rafferty, Bert Jansch, Stanley Robertson, Jim Reid, Alasdair Gillies.

Now Jackie Leven has died. A cruelly underrated singer-songwriter, he at least managed to live a very, very, very full life before succumbing to cancer. A great talent.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Coward's Tale by Vanessa Gebbie

Vanessa Gebbie and I narrowly overlapped in Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp for writers, Vanessa just leaving as I arrived. We’ve corresponded off and on since then, on this blog or on hers, and I’ve read a lot of her short fiction over the years. The Coward’s Tale is her first novel.

Claire King, in her interview with Vanessa, recommends the novel’s “careful untangling of cause and effect.” Just so. And the cause and effect which is untangled spreads over years, and across generations, and into the lives of an entire town. The Coward’s Tale is an evocation of time and place, a study of guilt and responsibility and an exploration of families and community. And holding all of this together is a meta-narrative about stories and storytelling. This latter point, which gradually gains in importance as the novel proceeds, becomes central to its conclusion.

The core of The Coward’s Tale is an accident in the Kindly Light Pit in Wales one September morning, in which a large number of the local men are killed. Anywhere, this would be a disaster; in such a small, tightly-knit community, the repercussions are grave and long-lasting. The event itself, though, takes place largely off-stage. The facts of the terrible day are gradually revealed to us through the main narrative, which concerns men and women descended from the victims of that disaster, people who are still, two generations on, profoundly affected by it.

The device which connects the two timeframes is the beggar Ianto Passchaendale Jenkins, a survivor of the disaster who is tortured by guilt and convinced that he is, as his father had forewarned, a coward. This coward, a gentle and genial soul, is a storyteller, and in return for a toffee he tells his stories of the men and women whose lives were ruined by the disaster, tells of the pain and despair, how that pain and despair was transmitted across generations, and how it shapes the life of the town yet. His principal audience is Laddy, a young boy sent to the town to live with his grandmother while his parents negotiate a protracted separation. Lies and truth inform Laddy’s values, define the poles of his moral compass. Gradually, through Ianto’s stories and the light they shine on the people around him, he begins to learn about human nature.

The stories that Ianto tells are fantastic ones, richly inventive, pleasingly strange. We have a woodwork teacher who obsessively carves wooden leaves, trying to make one which will float on an up-draught; there is Half Harris, “born twice”, presumed dead at birth and buried in a shallow grave, only to be dug up again by his mother and found to be alive; and the undertaker and deputy librarian following a straight line from the back of the pub all the way through the town; a window in a derelict chapel which is cleaned with fallen leaves each autumn by succeeding generations of one of the victims of Kindly Light; poor Batty Annie with her net, trying to catch the essence of her long-dead child; and Ianto himself, troubled, pained, a much better human being than he seems prepared to accept.

All of this could easily descend into whimsy, the sort of high imagination and grand plotting that eventually came to give magic realism a bad name. But Vanessa Gebbie has laboured long over The Coward’s Tale – more than five years, apparently – and has polished it into something rich and worthwhile. The stories, the tales of these families, come together in a powerful way. Again and again we see the legacy of pain visited on future generations: Icarus making his wooden leaves because his father, and his grandfather before him, declared that only when he makes one which floats can a man truly call himself a carpenter; Factual Philips, the deputy librarian, echoing the strident seriousness of his father and grandfather by ensuring that young boys do not play in his library; Baker Barnes, a chiropodist still living in the old bakery abandoned by his grandfather, the original Baker Barnes who was so affected by Kindly Light that he could never bake again; and so on. The traumas experienced by the town in the disaster ravel around it through succeeding years, binding three generations into a web of silent pain.

But breaking through the silence is Ianto Passchaendale Jenkins, the storyteller. He tells his stories and finds a ready audience in young Laddy. With great humour, he reveals the pains of the locals and, gradually, those inherited memories begin to ease. Baker Barnes learns to bake; the descendent of the thief Billy Little finds atonement; Factual Philips closes his library and enjoys himself. This is the act of telling as catharsis; the town is beginning to rediscover itself, its peace, a sense of equilibrium. But more than this: Laddy, Ianto’s audience, is writing down the tales, memorialising them and, in the process, releasing them from the active, living memories of the descendants, allowing those people to finally break free from the tyranny of family history. An oral memory kept by Ianto is written down by Laddy and, in this, one wonders whether this boy, the scribe of their history, stands closer to the author than even the author realises. The novel cycles to a fine climax with the tale of Ianto Jenkins himself, told by the most unlikely of storytellers. In the process, another barrier is breached by the power of communication, and it is this insistence on shared experience, on mutual understanding, which becomes the lasting memory of a very fine novel indeed.

Because of my own circumstances, studying American literature, I don’t read a lot of British fiction. My perception, almost as an outsider, is that the view of some critics that the English novel is small and insular and lacking in ambition is probably correct. Certainly, the strain exemplified by On Chesil Beach or The Sense of An Ending suggests a particular, miniaturist approach to the business. Such novels are Vermeer-like, aiming to cast a light on the general by obsessive examination of the specific, burrowing ever deeper into a single story, an isolated moment, in search of meaning. It is an approach that can be beautiful, for sure, achingly so, but it can never hope to reflect the ragtag boisterousness of human community. For that, we need a Breughel, a visionary who sees the totality of a scene and catalogues it for us, warts and piss and all. Vanessa Gebbie’s vision is undoubtedly Brueghelian: she captures an entire community and makes it live. There is a robustness about this novel that is very impressive. Its humour is bold and finely tuned. This author cares about her characters and they become real in her hands. There is certainly no lack of ambition here. If the English novel is indeed small and insular, long live the English-Welsh novel, because The Coward’s Tale is most definitely not that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

All I want for Christmas is...

1. To learn how to fry an egg without turning it into scrambled egg.
2. To have those three days back from September when I was laid up in bed with something unspecified, so that I can do something more useful with them.
3. Not to receive any socks, pants, vests, scarves, gloves or Parker Pens.
4. A ticket to the 2012 Scottish Cup Final, featuring the mighty Perth St Johnstone and the losing finalists.
5. The Passenger to finally appear in print.
6. Planxty to reform for one final concert, ideally at Beverley Folk Festival.
7. Home for Christmas by my old online writing pal Cally Taylor, published today.
Congratulations on book number two Cally...

Beth Prince has always loved fairytales and now, aged twenty-four, she feels like she's finally on the verge of her own happily ever after. She lives by the seaside, works in the Picturebox - a charming but rundown independent cinema - and has a boyfriend who's so debonair and charming she can't believe her luck! There's just one problem - none of her boyfriends have ever told her they love her and it doesn't look like Aiden's going to say it any time soon. Desperate to hear 'I love you' for the first time Beth takes matters into her own hands - and instantly wishes she hadn't. Just when it seems like her luck can't get any worse, bad news arrives in the devilishly handsome shape of Matt Jones. Matt is the regional director of a multiplex cinema and he's determined to get his hands on the Picturebox by Christmas. Can Beth keep her job, her man and her home or is her romantic-comedy life about to turn into a disaster movie?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

World Book Night 2012

I've just seen the titles selected for World Book Night 2012. They are:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Vintage)
The Player of Games by Iain M Banks (Little, Brown)
Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (Transworld)
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Harper Collins)
The Take by Martina Cole (Headline)
Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell (Harper Collins)
Someone Like You by Roald Dahl (Penguin)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Penguin)
Room by Emma Donoghue (Pan Macmillan)
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (Little, Brown)
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
Misery by Stephen King (Hodder)
The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella (Transworld)
Small Island by Andrea Levy (Headline)
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Quercus)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (Pan Macmillan)
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (Vintage)
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O?Farrell (Headline)
The Damned Utd by David Peace (Faber)
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (Transworld)
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Penguin)
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (Vintage)
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (Vintage)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Transworld)

That strikes me as a very odd list. Pride and Prejudice? That book has probably done more to ruin good reading habits than any other book. How many schoolchildren, especially boys, have been forced to read that bloody book at just the wrong moment in their lives and have thereby formed a negative view of reading? It's the last book you'd want to be promoting in this sort of event. Likewise Dickens. Those aren't entry level books. It's simply muddle-headed to put them in this sort of promotion.

And as for the others, I fear there are far too many "book club" titles like The Time Traveller's Wife and Room and Small Island and The Book Thief, which you see multiple copies of in every charity shop on the High Street. I'm somewhat ambivalent about WBD anyway - I don't think there's much to be gained by giving the impression that books can be considered a free commodity to be given away in their thousands - but this list doesn't help to enthuse me.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Making tracks

Amazingly, three and a half weeks in the US have gone, and it's time to make tracks back to Blighty. It's been a lot of fun, but back now to an English winter...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I remember once writing a story in Boot Camp that I was very pleased with. It resembled a swinging sixties movie – multiple viewpoints, dizzying jumps in perspective and point of view, narratives all over the place, timeframes all but unfathomable. Anyone familiar with the Boot camp environment will readily anticipate the beasting that story got. And rightly, too.

I was put in mind of this by Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is a rollicking yarn and highly entertaining, finely written and beautifully characterised but, my God, it chooses a convoluted way to present itself. Firstly it’s narrated by two people, the eponymous Parrot and Olivier, the former a nineteenth century jack-the-lad with a distinct skill for engraving and the latter a hilariously haughty remnant of the ancien regime, Olivier de Garmont. Now there’s nothing unusual about this: contrasting narrators have a long and noble history. But, in addition to this, Carey chooses also to switch about his time frames so that, for example, we have been with Parrot for some considerable time in America before we realise that between then and the time we had previously seen him, in England, he had been not only in France but had spent seven years of penal servitude in Australia. Overall, it works, but nonetheless the playing about with timeframes feels a trifle tricksy to me – postmodern experimentation for the hell of it. I don’t think the novel needs it.

However, let’s not quibble. This is great entertainment. Of the two mains, the first to attract is undoubtedly Parrot, the put-upon, lowly English boy who has a talent for engraving and forgery that is greater than even he realises. He is a free spirit and witty and, despite his youth, a bit roguish. In comparison, Olivier de Garmont is a horrendous snob, scion of a family devoted to the French royalty throughout the periods of tyranny, but not a boy or man given much to bravery or thoughts of anyone other than himself. It is to Carey’s credit that, by the end, we have come to like this difficult, arrogant man. So much so, in fact, that it comes as a relief when the increasingly fractious and self-pitying Parrot’s sections of the novel conclude and we can return to the French master and his increasingly complex travails.

The two men, reluctant master and even more reluctant servant, are despatched, for mostly political reasons, from France to America, ostensibly to make a study of the American management of penal institutions. Garmont, born into a life of indolent luxury, is incomprehending of the brash new Americans, with their grand ideas and obsession with making money. He is a man lost, far removed from anything which he can understand or respect or aspire to. And then he meets Amelia Godefroy, an American gal with stunning good looks, a forthright nature and the temperament of a minx. He falls in love. His life changes. That is one of those cliches of romantic fiction, of course, but in this case it is true: Amelia does change Olivier, but not in the way either he or we might expect. It makes him a grander person. Still impossible, of course, still congenitally unable to see anything from another’s perspective, but nonetheless slightly, movingly, humbled.

This is a very funny book. The interplay of the two characters, so different, initially so antipathetic, is wonderfully done. Of course, over time, they come to an accommodation that is almost affectionate. It works very well. Garmont softens, his experience in America instilling in him an unexpected regard for the possibilities of democracy. But only to an extent, of course: a complete transformation in a man so steeped in privilege and class would be impossible. Accordingly, near the novel’s end, this is brilliantly and hilariously drawn out when what otherwise could have been a mawkish reconciliation scene is rendered both funny and poignant by onrushes of Garmont’s overweening sense of entitlement, much to the indignation of the newly landed Parrot.

At times Carey uses the novel to make cheap pot-shots at American culture, using the benefit of anachronism to plant prophetic statements into the mouths of his protagonists. But he’s an Australian living in New York, so I guess he’s allowed. And some of those comments are telling. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but it contains inherent dangers. And, since the novel is intended to be an improvised account of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, that seems a worthy avenue to explore.

I just wonder whether it needed such a tortuous narrative form?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Attention to detail

The one place you really want attention to detial is at a tattoo parlour.

Texas wildlife

The birds are kind of intimidating here in Texas...

It kindly stepped out of the way for me, but if it hadn't I was quite prepared to climb off the road myself to get past...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

And the Booker winner is...

Congratulations to Julian Barnes on winning this year's Booker prize.

Readers of this blog will know I wasn't (and am still not) of the opinion that this is prize winning literature.

I have two big reservations. Firstly, a plot development which is absolutely crucial is, in my opinion, an absolute clunker. The main character is left something highly personal in a will. This is such a strange thing it makes one ask questions. But if one does ask the crucial question there is really only one answer, and it ruins the ending. I saw the ending a mile off.

Secondly, the character of the female lead is beyond strange. She acts in such an irrational way it completely pulls me out of the fictive dream. Her behaviour is so far from reasonable it simply doesn't work. Remember, the events which brought about the situation that informs the novel's conclusion happened many years before. So she's not suffering from shock. No, she does not strike me as in any way a credible character.

It's a pity, because there's some beautiful writing in The Sense of an Ending, as you would expect from Julian Barnes. He really ought to have won it for Arthur and George, the year the prize disappeared up the pompous arse of John Banville.

Monday, October 17, 2011


This is Woody Guthrie's The Ballad of Tom Joad, based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:

Although Steinbeck appreciated Guthrie's abilities, on the subject of this song he is reported as saying: “Took me years to do Grapes of Wrath and that little squirt tells the whole story in just a few stanzas.”

It's hard not to be sympathetic with Steinbeck. This song is simply remarkable in the way it distils a huge novel into a mere six or so minutes. In this, Guthrie's effort is similar to those nameless singers who gave us the legacy of the muckle sangs, the big songs in the folk repertoire. Listen to The Ballad of Tom Joad, and then to some of the muckle sangs like Glenlogie,or Tam Lin and you can see the same literary skill at work. These are the product of genius. The concision is extraordinary.

There are only two flaws in Woody's song. Firstly, the lack of Ma Joad. She is the absolute centre of the novel, but she only appears in passing in the song. That's probably not surprising, however, because I suspect the character of Ma Joad was far before her time. Indeed, Steinbeck intended Tom Joad to be the central character of Grapes of Wrath, not Ma, but it was she who stole the novel: women weren't meant to be the dominant ones in the 1930s (and have things changed that much? Probably not) but this woman simply burst through the novel and took it over.

And secondly, that ending. How could you not include the ending, when Rose of Sharon, previously a petulant, selfish, self-absorbed child, becomes a figure of salvation, a woman of honour, a beacon of hope. It is an extraordinary scene, and it should have been included.

Of course, Woody based the song on John Ford's film rather than Steinbeck's novel, and he probably never read the novel. I haven't seen the film so I don't know if that ending is reproduced in it. Anyone know?

Space and signs

Two things about America - wide roads and lots of advertising hoardings.

Texas morning

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

Huck Finn - alive and fishing

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The new Murakami

After reading the absolutely dreadful After Dark, and before that the pretty awful Kafka on the Shore, I promised I wouldn't read any more Haruki Murakami. But I'm a recidivist, I admit it. His new novel, in three volumes, comes out this week and I'm itching to get at it. I'll have to wait, though, since I'm in the States at the moment and, even if it's published here at the same time, I don't think I want to carry it all the way back home with me. So why am I so interested?

Well, I absolutely adored A Wild Sheep Chase when I first read it. Admittedly, when I re-read it I wasn't so enamoured, but I'm happy to stick with my first emotional response to it. And Norwegian Wood was beautiful, heartbreaking. And when I first read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle I was gobsmacked. The second time I read it I still thought it was amazing. That's the benchmark. And that's why I was so hugely disappointed by Kafka on the Shore, which read like a nobody trying to write like Murakami. And After Dark, similarly, was like someone trying to re-write Norwegian Wood.

So can he do it again, or will he still be stuck in Murakami-pastiche-land, complete with cats and wells and an enigmatic girl/woman and temporal disturbances and Japanese recipes? The sheer scale of 1Q84 makes me hopeful that this will be something meaty.

There's an interview with him in the Guardian today. There are a couple of interesting points:

To Murakami, built like a little bull, [writing is] a question of strength. "It's physical. If you keep on writing for three years, every day, you should be strong. Of course you have to be strong mentally, also. But in the first place you have to be strong physically. That is a very important thing. Physically and mentally you have to be strong."

I think there's something in that. My writing tutor, Alex Keegan, has always forced on his students the mantra of write, write, write. Murakami wrote this 1000 page novel in 3 years. That's a slog. Most aspiring writers simply couldn't come close to it. It's hard work, writing. And Murakami goes on:

"Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It's a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it's literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel."

This is more than simply the hard graft of writing. This is about opening yourself up to what it is you want to write about, or what you need to write about. Going back to AK, he talks about the sentinels, those parts of your subconscious defence mechanisms which try to stop you from probing the stuff you really need/want to explore. This is the same concept as Murakami's big, heavy door. How much do you want to let go? That's the really big question for a writer. How much of a risk do I want to take? The big risk-takers could become great writers. Those who don't take the risks probably won't.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Drought, what drought?

The easy answer to the drought which has beset Texas for the past five months: send a Scotsman there on holiday. The night before I arrived the rains began...

Big place, Arkansas

Taken from a Greyhound bus (in which I had the pleasure of spending 25 long hours...):

Our friend Sut?

Outside the bank in Knoxville, home of Buddy Suttree, fisherman:

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch has died. A giant of British folk music, it's hard to estimate how influential he was. A superb guitarist, a singular singer.

This was the best song on his last album, recorded back in 2006.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Modernism, eh, what’s it all about? For Marinetti art is violence, cruelty and injustice. Fellow Futurists Zdanevich and Larionov described painting as the newsman, recording the ephemeral change of us all. For Eliot, the poet must remove his own personality from the work. Kandinsky the expressionist accused people of being blind and resistant to the new. Ortega y Gasset wanted the dehumanisation of art. Max Nordau said we were in the middle of a severe mental epidemic, with “clubs of suicides” in every city. For Rimbaud, the poet was the thief of fire and language contained everything. All of them fighting against something, all of them seemingly standing outside everything. After all that, that forced and enforced and forceful alienation, what is left of art, literature, the mimetic interpretation of human life? Is the human still there, beneath the stylisation, the despair, the isolation? Or is modernism a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community?

Modernism seems to be characterised by a surfeit of straining. Everything must be presented in terms of the battle between life and art, or life and death, or nature and humanity, or nature and religion or something-this and something-that. Modernism is life made binary, and within the limiting poles of that binary reduction, emotion is rendered into struggle. Fear in a handful of dust, a crowd flowing over London Bridge, so many undone by death, so many.

Some of that can be seen in the works of Nathanael West, and yet, for me, he transcends the limitations of other modernist writers. How? I’m not sure, but I think it is by his insistent satirical bent. There is nothing arch about his satire. It hasn’t mutated into the tedious knowingness which blights post-modernism, for example. Nor, for all the violence in his novels, is there outright cruelty in the satire. And there is, above all, something human about it: his characters, grotesques and caricatures though they may be, devoid of rational thought, unable to see beyond their own limitations, still somehow manage to feel human. You care about the almost catatonically passive Homer Simpson in The Day of the Locust. You probably shouldn’t, but you do. Likewise Faye Greener, who appears to have few redeeming features other than her great beauty, but who still instils in the reader something more than mere priapic desire. Where, in other modernist works, characters become subsumed within the debased culture which is being examined, so that they become as flat and debased as that culture itself, in Nathanael West’s fiction his characters seem to be on lonely crusades for something – decency perhaps, hope, aspiration. And the reason that happens, I think, is the insistent humour which pervades the work, humour derived from the author as narrator but also from the characters as protagonists. West, like James Purdy, is simultaneously funny on different levels.

Oddly, though, a bald summary of the plot would not give the impression of a humorous novel. Rather, it would suggest a novel of great loneliness, of fractured ideals and ambitions. Individually, the characters are a ragbag of losers: Tod Hackett is an artist who struggles between the naturalism of his training and a sense of “moral indignation” which he wishes to portray, in the manner of Goya or Daumier, through works like the apocalyptic Burning of Los Angeles. He is hopelessly in love with Faye Greener, an aspiring but failed actress, luminously beautiful but impossibly vacuous, reduced, finally to prostitution. Her father is Harry Greener, another failed actor, hamming his way through life as a door-to-door salesman, whose best performance may or may not be the heart attack he may or may not be experiencing. Homer Simpson is an accountant whose connection with reality appears to have been severed, whose idealism and naivety makes him the perfect foil for charlatans and neer-do-wells. We also have Texan Earle Shoop, a man short of intelligence or charisma or charm; Abe Kusich, a dwarf with a vile temper and tendency to repel those who wish to help; and Miguel, the Mexican with criminal leanings, taking advanatage wherever possible, drawing Homer and Faye among others, under his spell. As you see, then, not an impressive array of characters. The community of broken dreams and broken people in The Day of the Locust is as extreme as may be found anywhere in fiction. I began by asking if modernism is a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community. Well perhaps. The end of The Day of the Locust gives us:

all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super "Dr. Know- All Pierce - All" had made the necessary promise and they were marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

It is not a great stretch to see, from this, a descent into Nuremberg and its rallies, or to extend into the future and see, once the dance is over, the nothingness of McCarthy’s The Road. So am I arguing that this is a pessimistic novel, that its message is one of unmitigated despair? No. I don’t believe that, and I don’t feel it when I read Nathanael West. Why is that?

There is a sense of pathos running throughout the novel. You don’t pity the characters, as such – that would be distancing, creating a barrier between them and the reader. But a generalised sense of pity, or regret, or basic sadness seems to infest them, and their humour and the humour that surrounds them becomes bittersweet, poignant. While laughing at the situations, you wish they weren’t so; while enjoying the characters, you wonder how they could get more pleasure from life if they could step outside their illusions. You cannot help these people but, given the chance, you might wish to try. It is the Pinnochio principle, perhaps. These puppets want to be real and that, the only real thing about them, is what makes them so endearing.

And here, West turns some alchemical magic on the reader as well, because we become complicit in the characters’ dreams. They won’t change: West knows that, we know that; like Jacques the Fatalist, whatever plot diversions life may throw at them, they will finally veer back on to the same, lonely by-road down which they were always destined to travel. That is the way of all of us, perhaps, but, through his sad and lonely characters, Nathanael West allows us the luxury of dreaming otherwise, if only for a little while.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Adam, One Afternoon by Italo Calvino

Adam, One Afternoon is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino. The early stories are whimsical, mostly light, but as the collection goes on they grow gradually darker. An almost bucolic peace gives way to war and war ushers in a sense of harshness, of difficulty. Later, the wartime scenarios disappear, but that sense of harshness remains.

Most of the stories are based on Calvino’s experiences in the Second World War, in which he fought for the partisans of the Garibaldi Bridgade against the Germans. The stories, written early in his career, are largely neo-realist: Calvino described neo-realism as a “literature of war” and the collective voice of a generation, those brought up under the influence of Fascism and, later, the Second World War.

Nonetheless, he states that his work is derived from images rather than ideas. And, certainly, the stories in Adam, One Afternoon are strikingly visual. Most are essentially fairy tales. Themes and ideas are recycled, giving the individual stories a sense of cohesion. For example, in the title story animals are collected and given as presents, in The Crow Comes Last animals are shot one by one, while in Animal Wood they appear unexpectedly but people intercede to prevent them being shot. The same subject matter, woven differently.

Thre is something vaguely unsettling in the way that in stories which are essentially fantastic or whimsical a sense of realism breaks through while, in the neo-realist work, a sense of the fantastic may still pervade. It gives a sense of ethereality to the work, neither realist nor fantastic, but occupying its own, unique ground. Accordingly, we often see action through the eyes of a child, or someone otherwise an outsider, not cognisant of the political nature of the bloody events that unfold. Always, an otherworldy sense seems to pertain.

The final story, The Argentine Ant, the only one of substantial length, is almost magic-realist in its depiction of ants overwhelming a family and their house. It is beautifully written in a plain style which neatly counterpoints the oddity of the story. And, like so many of the stories here, it ends with a glimpse of the infinite.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Rose Mae Lolley was a character in Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel, gods in Alabama. As sometimes happens to writers, a seemingly minor character suddenly takes on a life of his or her own and the author can’t escape them. It usually happens within the same novel – witness Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, who ended up its principal character although that role was meant to be played by her son Tom. In this case, Rose Mae’s true story only revealed itself to the author much later, hence the new novel, Backseat Saints, which attempts to explain why the feisty young girl who played an incidental role in the first novel was quite so odd.

Jackson is on record as being a fan of Flannery O’Connor – to the extent, she says, that she made Rose Mae Roman Catholic in tribute – and one can certainly see the influence. This is southern grotesque-lite, though. That’s not to say there isn’t extreme violence in Backseat Saints, because there’s plenty of it, and it’s particularly nasty, too, but what is missing is the spiritual intensity, the haunted and haunting search for redemption and grace which echoes through O’Connor’s humorous prose. I don’t intend that as a criticism of Jackson (or as praise for O’Connor), because I think Jackson is a highly talented writer, but if people approach this expecting O’Connorish insight, they will not get it.

Rose Mae is a confused and unhappy person. As an eight-year-old child, her mother fled her abusive husband, leaving Rose Mae behind. Rose Mae becomes the surrogate punchbag, before escaping herself as soon as she is old enough. As well as the physical damage, however, there are emotional scars, the result of which is that Rose May meanders down Route 66, seeking out one abusive partner after another. Something inside compels her.

She hits the jackpot with Thom Grandee, a Texan football jock whose initial charm conceals a furious and violent temper. They marry and Rose Mae becomes Ro Grandee: almost literally so – in her near psychotic state she becomes a new person, and the real Rose Mae is submerged beneath Ro, who is a chilling mixture of would-be perfect wife and out-of-control trouble-seeker. It is a dichotomy that is all too familiar in women who find themselves in such positions. They seem to need the edge, the danger, the erotic charge set off by these abusive relationships, but finally, always, an end is reached which goes far beyond any complicit agreement and they are overwhelmed by the violence. It is a vicious spiral from which it is desperately difficult to escape. Any outsider will be nonplussed by why women (and sometimes men) stay in such relationships, but evidence show that they do, time and time again. Accordingly, Ro lives a life of marital bliss punctuated by hideous violence, regularly ending up in hospital, where she is warned by the nurse that the next time could be the last. The reader comes to believe this could be true.

Although that sounds like a grim premise for a plot, Backseat Saints is a fast-paced, highly entertaining and often very funny read. It is painful, certainly, but gripping too. After a tarot reading by what appears to be a gypsy fortune teller, Ro is warned that she will have to either kill her husband or be killed herself. She tries to do so and fails. Her life begins to unravel. The trail of chaos leads her back to her home in Alabama, to her father, her real self, the truth of the violence that smoulders within her. She takes to the road, both in flight and in search. What she discovers changes everything.

Backseat Saints is a good book. I could do without every female character ending up a victim of abuse in some way – that is overegging it, I fear, making the plot appear contrived at points and, in a way, lessening the impact of the genuinely awful violence that does occur. What particularly appeals to me about the novel, however, is the way that, although it begins as a study of domestic violence, it gradually broadens impressively into a wider analysis of family relationships in general. The central relationship here is not between Ro and her husband. I won’t say more than that to save spoiling the plot, but it is a brave leap, and one which could easily have gone disastrously wrong. Jackson gets it right.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath divided opinion when it was first published. Some declared it a masterpiece, others dismissed it as crude propoganda. Charles Angoff, in his contemporaneous review, noted:

There should be rejoicing in that part of Hell where the souls of great American imaginative writers while away their time, for at long last a worthy successor to them has appeared in their former terrestrial abode. With his latest novel Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane, and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. [The Grapes of Wrath] has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable: universal compassion, a sensuousness so honestly and recklessly tender that even the Fathers of the Church would probably have called it spiritual; and a moral anger against the entire scheme of things that only the highest art possesses.

High praise indeed, it wasn’t all uncritical acclaim: the novel was banned in Kansas and in Kern County, California (location of the Weedpatch camp in which the Joads stayed in the novel). In St Louis not only was it banned but the librarian was ordered to burn copies that had already been purchased. H. Kelly Crockett, a student in Oklahoma at the time of the novel’s publication, recalled in an article twenty years later that a common criticism of the novel at the time was that it was propogandist and, once the situation that had called into being the events it portrayed had been overcome, it would be read merely as a historical curiosity. Crockett’s conclusion, after twenty years, was that this had proved not to be the case and the novel retained its literary power. Seventy-plus years on, is that still the case? The fortunes of any novel wax and wane, and such is the case for The Grapes of Wrath. A largely positive review by Edward Galligan of the 1989 fiftieth anniversary reprint still balked at “purple prose, melodramatic plotting, and sentimental thinking,”, and enough “hamminess” to make us “gag at the prospect of rereading it.” Today, then, while Steinbeck is still read, it is mostly Of Mice and Men, while The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps out of favour. I would suggest that, for all the novel’s faults, this is a pity.

Frank Eugene Cruz suggests that most criticism of the novel categorises it in one of four ways – as a story of migration, a recasting of Christian themes and motifs, a work of social protest or a powerful, sentimental epic. And the latter three representations are, in part, responsible for some of the ambivalence with which we tend to confront the book today. The Christian moralising and socialist rhetoric which some discern in it are too didactic: and it is true that, at times, Steinbeck batters us with his message where some subtlety would have been more effective. The unfairness, for example, of the way the farm owners used the surplus of men to drive down pay does not become any more unfair because we read of it three or four or five or six times: it was unfair the first time and the reader could have been trusted to intuit that. And the sentimentality that gives rise to Edward Galligan’s gagging at the prospect of re-reading it is certainly an issue. But, nonetheless, I would argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel.

What makes it so, for me, is the interconnectedness of those different categories that people ascribe to it. It is all of the things that people have described it as, but it is all of them in combination. If it can be read as a Christian narrative, then it is a highly political Christian narrative, as Stephen Bullivant demonstrates when he points to the novel’s connection of being a “red” with Jesus Christ, in the form of Jim Casy. Similarly, Stephen Railton suggests that Steinbeck’s use of Christianity, in the form of Casy, is a way of insinuating a revolutionary vision of militant socialism. Railton appears to posit this as a criticism, but for me the way the novel gives religious ideas political resonances is one of its great strengths. In any case, politics and religion are backdrops in the novel – essential, unavoidable, but backdrops nonetheless – and the central message is neither purely political nor religious, but rather about the nature of humanity and the need for community. And that transcends everything.

While there is a strongly religious element to The Grapes of Wrath, it is not straightforward. Stephen Bullivant notes a letter from Steinbeck to his editor in which he states that he wants “all all all” the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be printed at the start of the novel. The repeated alls demonstrate that he is adamant on the point and Bullivant therefore makes a study of the complete song in order to understand why. He notes particularly the final verse:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,
While God is marching on.

Bullivant is drawn to the third line, noting that, in religious terms, the concept of dying “to make men free” is novel. Martyrdom, in the Gospels, is a transcendent event rewarded by personal salvation; “making men free” suggests more of an immanent event. Such notions, of course, would have appalled social conservatives such as Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss, suggesting, for them, the hubris of mankind, but there is nothing hubristic about The Grapes of Wrath. Far from it, there is a deep note of pessimism sounding throughout it. It may be replete with Christ figures – Casy, Tom, even Rose of Sharon – but the freedom granted by Jesus’s death is still, in Steinbeck’s vision, a highly qualified one.

Tamara Rombold gives a persuasive account of inversions of the Bible story throughout The Grapes of Wrath, from the superb depiction of drought in the first chapter (an inversion, she argues, of the Creation story) to Exodus (unlike the Israelites who were spared the plagues, the Oklahoma drought blights everyone), to Moses in the bullrushes (Rose of Sharon’s baby cast dead into the water) to the final scene, after the apocalypse of the flood, with Rose of Sharon in the barn with the starving man, reminiscent of Isiaiah, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Rombold then draws on Jim Casy’s soujourn in the wilderness “like Jesus”, in which he realises the call of a new spirit, which he calls love. She makes persuasive allusions to Casy’s Christ-like behaviour in his arrest and death scenes. Curiously, though, she makes no mention of probably Casy’s most important speech, just prior to his death. In this, Casy himself makes an inversion of Jesus’s walk into the wilderness. The truth isn’t in the wilderness, says Casy, it is here, in the community, among the people. This is where he finds his soul. An this resonates clearly with Tom, of course, because it forms the basis of much of his later conversation with Ma Joad (and this exchange is related by Rombold), in which he reveals his intention to leave and follow Casy’s example, leading the community against the travails forced on them by the system. Thus, we have in Casy and Tom, two representation of Jesus. Casy, the pure-of-heart lover of humanity, a man who dies for his beliefs, is an earthly Jesus figure, preaching virtue and honesty and decency. Tom is at once his disciple and a symbol of the risen Christ, the one who is “with you always, even unto the end of the world” as it is written in Matthew. Or, as Tom says to Ma:

"Then it don't matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where- wherever you look. Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. If Casey knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why I'll be there."

Casy, then, can be seen as Jesus, while Tom is Christ. And the gospel they preach is a radical one. As Casy says to Tom:

"There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say . . . What is this thing called sperit? ... It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust sometimes - an' I want to make them happy - maybe it's all men an' all women we love; Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of."

For all that, though, I don’t believe The Grapes of Wrath should be read as a Christian novel. It is, if anything, a humanist novel. There are clear Christian resonances, and central characters may be comparable with Christ-figures, but that is because the fundamental tenets of Christian religion such as fairness, sense of community and so on, borrowed as they are from pre-Christian Platonic thought, are equally relevant to modern humanist belief. And so you might consider the novel christian, in the sense of evoking an ideal of human decency, but not Christian, as in following the doctrinal beliefs of any Church of Christ. As Casy says, “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus?” Thus, the titular grapes of wrath are not those of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the spirit inside man which will rise against oppression and exploitation. Casy is no longer a Preacher of God but remains, throughout, a preacher of men for men.

Similarly, despite its sometimes overwhelming didacticism, in the end The Grapes of Wrath is not a political novel either. Politics is simply a by-product of Steinbeck’s true interest, which is human nature and human beings, the human community. In the 1930s, the prevailing difficulties which beset humanity were political, and that is therefore what he wrote about. It is Ma Joad who makes one of the novel’s most telling points: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” And earlier, she says: "I'm learnin' one thing good. Learnin' it all a time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help – the only ones."

Warren Motley, writing in 1982, complains that much of the novel’s critisism until then had focused on Casy and Tom as the core of the film and that the central role of Ma Joad in explaining the family’s gradual realisation of the need for community and cooperation is underplayed. I would agree, and I suggest that Ma Joad is one of the great characters of American fiction. She develops throughout the novel and her gradual assumption of both actual and moral control over her family is beautifully drawn. She is superb. Motley draws on the writing of Robert Briffault to explain the sense of matriarchy as exemplified by Ma Joad’s growing sense of authority over her clan as defining a relationship of cooperation, as opposed to the typical patriarchal relationships based on power. And it is through this that one can sense a note of optimism in a largely pessimistic book. "Why, Tom,” she says, “us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on."

And what a wonderful rallying cry that is.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner

Intruder in the Dust begins with a curious incident in which sixteen-year-old Charles “Chick” Mallison, a local boy and nephew of lawyer Gavin Stevens, is rescued after falling into an icy creek. His rescuer is Lucas Beauchamp, the black grandson of Carothers McCaslin, a white land planter and patriarch of the McCaslin family. He puts the boy into dry clothes and gives him his own supper, and thereafter the two find themselves embroiled in a peculiar game of one-upmanship. Realising the food was Lucas’s, and therefore nigger food, and recognising the “nigger smell” in the house, Chick does not wish to be beholden to a black man and tries to pay for the food with a handful of coins. Lucas refuses to accept and there is a stand-off before Chick lets the money fall from his hand to scatter on the floor. Angrily, Lucas orders him to pick it up and Chick and his black friend, Aleck Sander, do so in cowed submission. Chick now feels, however, that he has ended up the loser in the exchange and defeat consumes him to the extent that he saves his money for months to buy Lucas’s wife, Molly, a silk dress. He is now satisfied he is no longer in debt to a black man but is soon trumped when Lucas responds by sending him a gallon bucket of fresh homemade sorghum molasses.

It is only at the novel’s conclusion that the full import of this humorous interlude becomes clear. It is a metaphorical replay of the racial tensions attendant in the South, the refusal of the white man to afford the black man the dignity of equality. Chick, still a child, parrots the words he hears around him: “If [Lucas] would just be a nigger first, just for one second, one little infinitesimal second,” he concludes, it would be easier to deal with him. In this way, Chick is complicit in extending the mores and customs of the old South into a new generation. By the novel’s conclusion, however, when he has learned to think for himself and reach independent judgements, such notions have been banished from his mind. At that point, Lucas and Chick enjoy a light-hearted discussion in which their mutual trust and admiration is clear. The boy Chick, symbolic of a new age, has matured and thrown off the ways of the past.

If all that sounds horribly naive, then be assured that there is tremendous depth and subtlety to Intruder in the Dust, certainly more than Faulkner has sometimes been given credit for. Taken individually, some of the characters might come close to being stock, but the interplay between them most certainly isn’t.

Lucas Beauchamp is what would have been called at the time an uppity nigger, and like many an uppity nigger his fancy ideas (for which, read a refusal to consider himself in any way inferior to the white folks around him) has plunged him into trouble. Specifically, he is arrested for the murder of a white man – and not just any white man, but Vinson Gowrie, one of the notorious Gowrie clan, “brawlers and foxhunters and whiskeymakers” who are feared throughout the county. A lynching is the most likely – indeed, possibly the only – outcome. Lucas is spared that fate, however, by an improbably (in the sense of heroic, not poorly characterised) resolute defence by the “little driedup wizened stonedeaf” old constable, Skipworth, who handcuffs Lucas to the bedpost and watches over him till Sheriff Hampton can arrive.

Lucas calls for Gavin Stevens to act as his lawyer and insists he will pay. Stevens, although a liberal, immediately assumes Lucas is guilty and doesn’t even allow him to speak, telling him instead that he should plead guilty and, because of his age and good character, he may get sent to the penitentiary instead of being hanged. Given this lack of support from his lawyer, it is not surprising, then, that Lucas turns not to Stevens, but to his nephew Chick for help. He reveals to the boy that Vinson Gowrie was not shot with the 41 Colt which was in Lucas’s possession when he was apprehended. The only way of proving this, however, is to dig up the body. Prisoner and boy make a compact, and at this moment the novel’s moral journey is set in train. Chick is accompanied on his dangerous mission by his friend, Aleck Sander and Miss Habersham, an eccentric old woman who was a childhood friend of Molly Beauchamp, and who hears Chick’s story and instinctively believes it to be true. “Lucas knew it would take a child – or an old woman like me [to reveal the truth],” she says, “someone not concerned with probability, with evidence.” Together, they dig up the grave and find it is occupied, not by Vinson Gowrie, but by Jake Montgomery, his erstwhile business colleague who, unknown to Gowrie, was cheating on him. They re-bury the body and contact Sheriff Hampton to explain what they have discovered. The sheriff orders an exhumation and this time finds the grave empty.

The plot unfolds as a literary murder mystery, in which the murderer is finally revealed to be Vinson’s own brother, Crawford. Instantly, the moral fervour of the lynch mob dissipates into something like embarrassment. What we are left with is an analysis of the racial tensions of the South in the 1940s and a debate on how and how fast to ensure integration. Those are complex questions, and Faulkner’s novel is suitably complex in its analysis.

As Doreen Fowler has noted, Stevens’ softly softly approach to racial integration corresponds to some extent with Faulkner’s own public utterances and this has led some commentators to speculate that Stevens can be read as Faulkner’s spokesperson. Fowler takes issue with this and so do I. By the novel’s conclusion, Stevens’ position is clearly portrayed in a less positive light than Chick’s. He was convinced, without any evidence, remember, of Lucas’s guilt. He is a good man though not necessarily a good lawyer, and he has a tendency to declaim higher truths without ever quite acting in a way to suggest these truths are part of the blood and bone and sinew of his moral being. This is not a man, perhaps, who would ever die for a cause. It might also be noted that in an earlier appearance, in Faulkner’s 1942 story collection, Go Down, Moses, he is seen running from the grieving circle of Beauchamps mourning the death of Mollie Beauchamp’s grandson. He is a man of words, then, but not necessarily a man of action. It is true that in public Faulkner urged a similarly cautious approach to integration, but these calls operate at a political or oratorical level, as represented here by Stevens: it is at the community level, however, in the life and soul and blood and toil of the people of the southern communities, that the real work of integration must take place. And that will be achieved, as we learn through the maturation of Chick as the story unfolds, by the people themselves, at a momentum they can maintain.

Thus, it is Chick who presents the moral centre of the novel. In helping Lucas, he goes from being a peevish child acting out the received wisdom of his parents’ generation towards a state where he views events with complete objectivity and decries what he sees. Stevens may be eloquent, but Chick is passionate. The distinction is instinctive. Stevens has taken a intellectual approach to the question of race and reached a logical conclusion that existing ways are wrong. They must be changed, he concludes, and things will change, “but it won't be next Tuesday.” This element of equivocation is absent from Chick, whose understanding of the need for equality appears to grow from a moral sense within him. Chick perhaps senses that Stevens’ approach, a gradual process of legalised equality, will never overcome the ingrained prejudice of the people he has witnessed in the ugly lynch mob: the typical liberal approach of attempting to drive societal change through legislation is doomed to failure because it presupposes that everyone can be made to think in the same, liberal manner. Chick recognises from the twisted anger in the faces of the lynch mob that this is an impossible dream.

And this is what the novel is concerned with: exposing the ghosts of the South’s racist past, revealing how they still held a malign sway over the lives of the population and the moral judgements of the community. Lucas Beauchamp would have been lynched purely because he was a black man who found himself in a particular situation.

However, although it is wrong to assume that Stevens is the author’s proxy in the novel, then it is equally wrong to think that Chick is. It would be a serious misreading of the novel to depict Chick as some sort of hero of mankind leading us to a new dawn of community and brotherly love. His may be the vision of natural justice, but remember it is only carried out through the bloody-mindedness (not to mention downright illegality) of the actions of Sheriff Hope and lawyer Gavin Stevens. As Ticien Marie Sassoubre notes, together they are complicit in “exhuming a body, hiding Lucas at the sheriff’s house, [and] entrapping the real killer” in order to protect Lucas.

Therefore, it may be that the noble triumvirate of old woman and black and white boys may be the ones who could cut through the “facts” and see the truth, but they would have been powerless to stop the lynch mob.

What we see, then, is an alliance of Stevens, Sheriff Hampton, Chick, Aleck Sander and Miss Haversham combining to rescue Lucas Beauchamp. And this is the central point of the novel: it is only a combination of law and community, force and will, experience and willingness, that can overcome the racial tensions which are so entrenched in southern communities. There is no individual hero of Intruder in the Dust, there can be none: without any one of the central characters, Lucas would have died. Instead, they work together and Lucas Beauchamp goes free. And it is worth, at this point, comparing Intruder in the Dust with another classic of pre-war southern society, To Kill A Mockingbird. At first sight, Gavin Stevens may be no Atticus Finch. He may share the same high-blown rhetoric, but does he have Atticus’s moral integrity? Perhaps not, but remember this: Lucas Beauchamp is freed in Intruder in the Dust but, for all Atticus Finch’s integrity and brilliance as a lawyer, Tom Robinson dies.

So it is a combination of people and circumstances and beliefs which can effect change. Moreover, it is clear that the beliefs of a new generation do not mysteriously appear, fully-formed and immediately comprehensible, out of nowhere. As philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy notes, “While this life stretches from the cradle to the grace the life span of an inspiration reaches from the middle of one man’s life to the middle of the life in the next generation.” This is the true message of Intruder in the Dust. Stevens may not have had the moral strength to act out his beliefs, but near the end he makes an important observation to Chick: “Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your pic¬ture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.” There is a preachiness of tone here which is typical of Stevens, but it is a noble sentiment all the same and one which, one feels, the boy Chick is ready to assume and develop in a way that is beyond his uncle. Stevens may say it: Chick may do it. Humans develop across generations and no generation, in itself, can effect profound change.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Best simile ever?

The war twisted closely round and round in those valleys like a dog trying to bite its tail.

Italo Calvino. Fear on the Footpath.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Memory and its fallibility is at the core of Julian Barnes’s novella The Sense of and Ending. Nothing can ever be fixed – not public history, not private biography, not truth, not emotion. Nothing is known for certain. Known knowns, in Rumsfeldian derivation, are nothing of the kind.

Tony Webster, the first-person narrator of the story, is one of a triumvirate of self-satisfied, clearly bright boys in the 1960s whose cozy world is forced to expand to include a fourth, altogether stranger, definitely brighter, boy called Adrian Finn. Where they have read Russell or Wittgenstein, Adrian has read Camus and Nietzsche, where Tony thinks a poem is about a barn owl, Adrian concludes it is about Eros and Thanatos, sex and death. By virtue of his intelligence Adrian becomes the de facto leader of the group and the newly constituted quartet go through school engaging in pretentious intellectual debates in which things are “philosophically self-evident”. The absolute certainty that teenagedom bestows is, for the boys, all-encompassing. Even their History teacher is cowed, telling Adrian that when he retires in five years time, he will provide Adrian with a reference for the job, if he wants it.

The boys grow up, go to university (different ones, Adrian to Cambridge, Tony merely to Bristol) and inevitably the bonds of friendship weaken. Tony takes up with a humourless girl called Veronica who takes him home to her charmless family (father a drunk, brother arrogant, mother strange) and their relationship appears to be as devoid of love as it certainly is (to Tony’s chagrin) of sex. They split up. They have sex. They split up again. Adrian writes to Tony to say that he and Veronica have begun seeing one another and hoping that Tony doesn’t object. Furiously, but somewhat inconsistently for such an equivocal character, Tony does object. He writes to say so, finishes his studies (a 2:1, steady from this steadiest of Eddys) and goes to America for six months. When he returns, he discovers that Adrian has committed suicide, leaving behind an eloquent suicide note explaining that he had not asked for life and had made the philosophical decision to renounce the gift. Tony regards this as heroic.

At this point the novella moves into the present, with Tony a retired, divorced, balding plodder through life. What follows is a slow unfurling of the past. A plot McGuffin is thrown in – Veronica’s mother dies and leaves Tony £500 and Adrian’s diary. This immediately begs one howlingly obvious question that would appear to have only one possible answer, but the reader is advised not to spend time thinking about it because to do so ruins the twist in the ending, which I’m afraid I found utterly predictable.

Before we reach this point, however, we are given a tour of the more outlandish behaviour characteristics of the seriously dysfunctional. All one can say about Tony and Veronica is that they deserve one another: two human beings less able to master the art of communication it is difficult to imagine. Veronica sets up a meeting, listens to Tony expatiate and walks away without a word. She takes him to an obscure location and confronts him with what appears to be a care-in-the-community day outing and when he, not unreasonably, appears uncertain as to the point of this, she accuses him of understanding nothing. She is so taken with this accusation she hurls it at him at every subsequent opportunity.

Perhaps I’m unfair on Barnes. Perhaps it is unfortunate that I’ve read this meditation on age and understanding and forgiveness in such close proximity to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, an altogether weightier work which also ponders those same questions. But The Sense of an Ending has been nominated for The Man Booker Prize. Indeed, it is the bookies’ favourite. Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Barnes should not win the Booker for The Sense of an Ending. It is a decent book, but it is in no way special. I don’t believe it represents the best in current fiction. It doesn't even represent the best of Julian Barnes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The setting of Marilynne Robinson's second novel is Iowa in 1956, specifically the small town of Gilead, a place that, even in the old-fashioned environs of the 1950s midwest, has slipped behind the times. "It's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now." John Ames is its Congregationalist preacher, 77 years old, the third generation of his family to fulfil the role. Ames has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and is convinced of, if not resigned to, his imminent death. The novel takes the form of an extended letter to his six-year-old son, a child who, if Ames’s medical prognosis is correct, is destined to grow up largely without his father. The letter, then, is Ames’s attempt to form a connection with his boy, a connection that will only be consummated in a future he cannot share, a connection through which he will describe the man he is to the man his boy will become. Fathers and sons, then, connectedness, the human family through generations, this is what Gilead is about.

The letter begins as a record of “begats”, the family history, the chronicle of generations of fathers and sons (women do not feature prominently in Gilead; for the distaff narrative one must turn to Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping). Thus, we are introduced to his larger-than-life grandfather, a one-eyed Civil War firebrand who ran with John Brown and was active (violently so) in the abolitionist cause on the dangerous Iowa-Kansas border. Ames’s own father grows up in the shadow of this man, his father, and reacts against him in the way children do, by taking an opposite, equally strident point of view and becomes an avowed pacifist. He abhors the idea of men of God entreating people to fight and kill and be killed, however valid the cause. When he discovers the old man’s pistol he buries it, digs it up and buries it again, then digs it up again and destroys it before throwing it in the river. Nothing is strong enough to wash away the taint that pistol represents on his moral vision, no gesture will suffice. And yet he takes his own son, John Ames, on a pilgrimage to discover the grave of the old man, a complex inter-relationship of generations and beliefs and loyalties. Or, as Ames says in his epistle to his own son, the fourth generation, “A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” Elsewhere, he despairs, “We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations.” When, finally, they find the old man’s grave, overgrown and abandoned, Ames is not surprised to see that it looks “like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire."

So this is a novel about fathers and sons, but it is more than that and, accordingly, Ames’s letter to his son becomes more than just a litany of begats: in its pages, history and present, disappointment and hope, nature and faith, death and life begin to meld as Ames reaches out to the man he will never know. Facing mortality, he is much given to thoughts of what is to come, but he cannot take leave of the beautiful world he inhabits, is reluctant to leave behind his wife and son, is protective, jealous, proud of them. He does not want to leave. He does not want to be left. It is the most basic equation and the most basic human emotion there is, and it boils down to the simple but unfathomably complex concept of love. Ames, though he would probably be embarrassed to admit it, is a man in love.

And so he ponders questions of life and death, metaphysics, theology. This is a deeply spiritual book but its religion is a human thing or – if that may be a theological non-sequiteur – perhaps that is to say that while its religion is focused on the Creator it does not overlook the Created. Where, for example, Flannery O’Connor’s obsessive quest for grace tends to flatten human aspiration into something plain and painful, John Ames comes to see human life as beautiful, a thing to be treasured. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he writes near the novel’s conclusion, “every one of them sufficient.” And of death, that unknowable passage which exercised such a hold over O’Connor, Ames writes:

Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.

It strikes me that O’Connor would recognise and empathise with those words, and yet they are materially different from the sentiments displayed in her own works. It is the notion of “humanly speaking” that does it. If sorrow is, indeed, the greater part of the substance of human life, for O’Connor that sorrow would define it; for Ames, and for Robinson, perhaps, it encloses it. There is a difference.

That difference is reflected in the central relationship of the novel, which at once is and is not a father and son relationship: it is between Ames and Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong friend, Robert Boughton. Jack was christened (by Ames himself) John Ames Boughton, in honour of the two men’s friendship, and recognising the fact (as it seemed then, Ames’s first wife and his daughter having already died) that Ames would not have offspring of his own. Although he could not articulate why, his great friend’s gesture of friendship in naming his child thus was as troubling as it was complimentary. And that unease did indeed portend their future relationship because Jack, a difficult boy, a troublemaker, a free spirit seemingly troubled in life, began to exert a baleful influence on Ames’s existence. He would steal items from the preacher’s house, only to return them later. He would break in to the house frequently. He would never apologise. A crisis was reached when the boy Jack fathered a child by a local girl and neglected his parental responsibilities: for Ames, who had lost his only child, such dereliction of paternal duty was sinful. Early in the novel we understand that Jack left home many years before and had subsequently been out of contact. He did not even attend his mother’s funeral. Suddenly he returns, and Ames is suspicious, protective of old man Boughton, whom he does not wish to see hurt, and wary of the young man’s potentially malign influence on his own wife and son. They endure a tortuous new relationship. They edge around one another, frequently upsetting each other without knowing why or how, failing to understand each other’s motivations and aspirations.

Thus, while Ames’s journal began ostensibly as a series of begats, a record for his son of his own history and that of his family, it is Jack who comes to dominate it. In this way, Robinson reflects on the nature of human community, human communication, human frailty, the capacity and absolute requirement for love. If there is to be sorrow, it is enfolded in love.

John Ames is a remarkable creation. Despite his protestations that he “appreciate[s] a joke as much as anybody” he is not possessed of a sense of humour. When he relates a childhood prank in which girls put boiled eggs under a neighbour’s setting hen he notes, “What the point was I never knew.” (For all that, though, his characteristically deadpan narration of an incident in which a horse falls into a tunnel dug by locals from the dry good store to the livery stables is one of the funniest things I’ve read all year: it is funny precisely because its narrator is not.)

Ames is, moreover, a man of great piety and a stoic defender of faith, a dry, equanimous fellow who tries to see the best in everything. None of this – humourlessness, devotedness, placidness – would ordinarily make for good fiction: where is the conflict, where is the tension? This even-handedness does, of course, reveal a flaw. In a perfect counterpoint to the violent approach of his one-eyed grandfather towards emancipation of slaves, Ames’s seems largely oblivious of the racism attendant in the burning down of Gilead’s only Negro church and the subsequent eradication of black people from the town. This man with a full complement of eyes, this man of sensitive disposition, a man of placid even-handedness, seems not to see what is happening or realise the sociological import of the church burning or recognise the nascent Civil Rights movement it prefigures. Every good man, Robinson suggests, is imperfect in his own way.

And this is the strength of John Ames as a fictional character: he is real, he is mortal, he is flawed. He wants and hopes. He is not wholly an innocent: “We humans do real harm,” he writes at one point. “History could make a stone weep.” But this will not make him bitter: through it all, he wants to appreciate life in its glory. Reflecting on his seventy-six years, he writes, “I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace." While relating his family’s past, he insists on looking forward. “Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief,” he tells his son. “You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

This positive approach is severely tested by the re-emergence of Jack. Ames’s life has been carefully moulded: he has spent his entire existence in Gilead; the fruits of that existence are in the attic, in the 2500 sermons he has written and presented over his career, each one (except one, a pacifist sermon during the war which, to his regret, he did not deliver) preserved as a record, or a monument, or an explanation. He has his new family, and the hope for the future, even if it is a future from which he will be excluded. But Jack, with his insistent probing on the existence of God and predestination and perdition, threatens to shatter the calm he has created. Gradually, however, a reconciliation is reached, and a beautiful one it is. In an emotional climax, Jack and Ames come together, achieve a degree of understanding. For the religious minded, one might say they each reach a state of grace. For the non-religious, it might be characterised as love. The two ideals may not be so far apart. As Ames says, "Love is holy because it is like grace – the worthiness of its object is never really what matters." In this sense, perhaps, the novel isn’t about grace, it is about forgivenness; the former is situated in the beyond, the latter in the present. In Robinson’s view, of course, the one will lead to the other, but its simple beauty strikes, too, a strongly secular note of human beauty. An absolutely stunning passage brings this out:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely.

The first sentence is a secular paean, at once beautiful and sad. It broadens into a Christian evocation of God as being beyond everything, but immediately reasserts the beauty of the earthly present. And then that final, glorious sentence is as powerful an evocation of humanity as I’ve ever read. Love and grace, so inextricably linked, form the absolute bedrock of this novel. There is a purity in Robinson’s vision. For me, a non-believer, it seems to reside in her notion that while, for a Christian, the transcendent beyond is the perfect state to which we all aspire, the notion of grace is nonetheless very much an earthly gift, and a gift of great beauty. For Flannery O’Connor, grace seems only attainable as a matter of transcendence and the present is therefore fit only to be discarded. This seems to miss much that is human, and that muchness, as Ames demonstrates, is love.