Thursday, February 27, 2014


You may have noticed I've been quiet on here for the past three weeks or so. I've been preparing for my viva for my PhD defence.

Delighted to say that I passed it today. Looking forward to a quiet night doing nothing tonight...

I'd like to thank all the regulars on here whose comments and observations and ideas have fed in, however tangentially, to my final thesis. I love the discussions on here and hope to be able to enter into more of them, now that I'm free to read normally again.....

Friday, February 07, 2014


Waterstone's or, as they like to style themselves these days, Waterstones, have a display up in their Hull branch at the moment for Westerns, called "Ride 'em cowboy".

Here we have it. East of Eden? Maybe you could argue it is a western. Part of it is certainly located in the west. The Sound and the Fury? Hmm, pity the poor Zane Grey reader picking that one up and trying to make sense of it. And behind it, upside down, is Suttree, that great western from Knoxville, Tennessee, c. 1951... Ride 'em Cornelius...

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite books is Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And one of the extraordinary things about that novel is that McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. It scarcely seems possible that someone so young should have such an understanding of human nature. Françoise Sagan was eighteen when Bonjour Tristesse was published. The precocity is mind-boggling. How could she have written this? How could she have known?

Cécile, the narrator of the story, is seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood. It is a difficult stage of growing up. Are you a child or an adult? For a period, around that age, you can be either, depending on circumstance. In moments of stress you revert to childishness; in moments of calm you stretch your emotional responses, experiment with differing perspectives. It can be a confusing time, disorientating, sometimes even upsetting. For Cécile, her difficulties are compounded by the fact that her mother is dead and her father is a philandering wastrel. During their long summer holiday on the French Riviera, her father has invited his 29 year old lover, Elsa Mackenbourg, to join them and the three live a bohemian existence which Cécile, knowing no better, takes for normality. This idyll is thrown into disarray when Raymond later invites another friend, the older and more mature Anne Larsen, to join them. Anne is a friend of Cécile’s late mother and she brings an element of sophistication to their ramshackle lifestyle. Raymond proposes to her, she accepts, and from here Cécile’s difficulties begin to grow.

After being treated as an adult and an equal by her father, Cécile is shocked by and resentful of the controlling way that Anne begins to deal with her. She is forced to study for her exams. She is treated as a child. She is forbidden to meet Cyril, the young man whom she has been seeing during the summer. She concocts a plan. Disaster ensues.

The novel focuses on Cecile’s intellectual growing pains. It is an irony that when she is at her most immature she is treated as an adult and as she matures she is increasingly treated as a child. This, of course, adds to her confusion and resentment. One feels for her: she is, unknowingly, at a massive disadvantage, with a feckless father who is intent solely on indulging his own selfish tendencies. She has no-one on whom to model herself until Anne appears and, not surprisingly, rather than learn from this intelligent and wise woman, instead she rebels against her imposed authority. Even now, all might not be lost if only her father could derive some sense of paternal competence but that is beyond Raymond. Cécile is let down. Everybody is let down.

The novel is beautifully written. The prose is uncluttered and simple, yet lyrical and evocative. It is very short, and it does not strain for great depth, but it explores the pain of youth, its confusions, its delusions, its sense of timelessness. It is an exploration of love, and we know what a difficult emotion that can be. In this novel there is only one true and honest love, that of Anne for Raymond. All the other permutations – Cécile for Cyril, Cyril for Cécile, Raymond for Elsa, Elsa for Raymond, Raymond for Anne – they are only varying forms of delusion, self or otherwise. Only one true love exists here, then, and in the end it is not sufficient to carry the day. Cécile describes the tristesse that informs the title as “her realisation of the responsibility involved in exercising her freedom to make choices”. Human beings are, indeed, free to make choices, but we are seldom very good at it. And in Sagan’s beautiful little novel, Cécile leads us to the enduring truth that, with the advent of adulthood, we are most of us generally forced to say hello to sadness.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Ragtime by EL Doctorow

What do Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, J Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman have in common? Fans of EL Doctorow’s 1975 masterpiece Ragtime will be jumping up and down with their hands in the air. All of these real historical characters – and a slew of lesser known ones, too – are central characters in this remarkable novel. We are fairly accustomed to novelisations of real characters nowadays – Charles Lindbergh in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, for example, or John Brown in Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter or Fyodor Dostoevsky in JM Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. And Doctorow, of course, returns to the device in later fiction too, such as his telling of the story of the Collyer Brothers in Homer and Langley, or General Sherman in The March. He had done it before, too, with The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg case, more famously immortalised in fiction in the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And let us not forget the masterful George MacDonald Fraser, whose fiendishly funny Flashman novels taught me most of what I know (for right and wrong) of Victorian history. But at the time, Ragtime was innovative. And controversial. In a later interview, Doctorow noted:
I heard secondhand that the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, was very critical of the book, that someone prepared a major review and he said no. I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people had never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.
Ragtime truly is extraordinary in the way it melds real and fictional characters. Moreover, the technique is vital to the thematic thrust of the novel, given that it focuses on the establishment of the American nation and the development of the American psyche: the process of assimilation of millions of immigrants from dozens of countries, particularly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries was an extraordinary piece of national re-invention. It saw people almost literally become someone else as they threw off the trappings of their old lives and adopted new ones; it saw ordinary people grow to prominence and fame; and it saw famous citizens slide into lives of unutterable fantasy and delusion. America at this time was massively polarised between people playing out different types of ragtime – the ragged poverty of the underclass on one hand and, on the other, the syncopated, life-affirming joyousness lived out by those innocent rich who had no idea what was to unfold in the rest of the century.

Drawing the disparate real-life characters together are three fictional families around whom the novel revolves. Firstly, there is Father, Mother, the Little Boy, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother, a middle-class, well-to-do family making a good living from Father’s fireworks and flag-making business (gunpowder and the sanctity of the flag – what could be more quintessentially American?). Secondly the immigrant family of Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl, who initially live in abject poverty but (the surviving members, at least) end the novel with unimagined riches. And thirdly the black ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, a maid whom he makes pregnant, and their illegitimate baby. And so, of course, we have a cross-section of the melting pot that became America. The way these three families come together is clearly connotative of the establishment of this brave new country and we, the readers, are forced to recognise that beneath the veneer of progress terrible hardships and deprivations and cruelties abounded. For Coalhouse, in particular, a victim of terrible racism, the idealism of this young nation is a blighted notion indeed.

Part and parcel of the development of this new America is, of course, industrialisation. The Industrial Revolution may have started in Great Britain but it flourished in twentieth century America. Enter Henry Ford, and the principle of the assembly line. As Ragtime explains:

From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture - not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts.
One can read Ragtime, then, as a critique of modernity and the dehumanising effect of progress and technological advance. The novel ends during the First World War, a calamitous event of which the immediate (though not the underlying) cause was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, another character who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Indeed, the assassination itself, by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in August 1914, is dramatised in the narrative. Given that Modernist sensibilities regularly decried the First World War as proof of the calamitous turn that humanity had taken since the Enlightenment, such a critique of the novel’s thematic intentions might seem apposite.

And yet it is not sufficient, I think to explain the complexity of Ragtime. For all Doctorow’s unblinking gaze on the less salubrious aspects of American nationhood, it does not feel, to me, like a reactionary social critique of hubristic modernity in the way of Eric Voegelin and novelists who advanced his theories, such as Flannery O’Connor. Rather, I would say it is closer in tone to Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which likewise did not flinch from portraying the seedier side of life but managed to do so without being either too critical or too sentimental. Doctorow, a beautifully nuanced writer, asserts a similar degree of balance. How does he do it?

Principally, he does it by nature of the narrative itself and, in particular, the three fictional characters who dominate it. The scene is set from the word go. This is the opening:

In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
That one word – “seemed” – tells us all we need to know about this edenic scene which is being suggested to us. Although their stories are, initially, separate, the three families begin to coalesce and it is clear that each impacts on the other in manifold ways. The connections of humanity are mysterious things, the community of being is a web we cannot see and do not control. A simplistic reactionary binary of technology/modernity – spirituality/tradition will not suffice here.

The very first chapter of the novel ends with The Little Boy speaking to Harry Houdini and telling him, apropos nothing at all, “Warn the Duke.” This means nothing at this stage, but it becomes clear that this little boy has some form of divinatory powers. Later in the novel, Houdini does indeed meet the Duke – Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but he doesn’t “warn” him and we know the outcome. Those little connections of humanity, those random chances, those coincidences and happy or unhappy occurrences that populate our existence: these are the stuff that matters in our lives. And those writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who suggest that, for all our hubris, our paths are ordained from the very first and we can have no say in our own progress, are simply wrong. Doctorow knows there is much wrong with our modern ways of life, but he is equally certain that the remedy is in our own hands. That is what Ragtime can teach us.

Child of God

The Counselor was a flop, but I'm intrigued by James Franco's adaptation of Child of God.

It's been hanging around for a while now with no release date. That would tend to suggest another flop, but this trailer looks pretty faithful to the novel. It's not exactly how I pictured Lester, but the overall mood seems right.