“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs:

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“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” (Muhammad Ali)

As usual, I’m a bit behind the times: here is my post to commemorate the death of Olympian/activist/philanthropist/iconic legend Muhammad Ali on 3 June, whose memorial was last Friday.

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Image from here

I thought I would therefore theme this post around ‘greatest’.  Just over a week ago Lisa McInerney won this year’s Bailey’s Prize for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, so I’ve decided to look at Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which won the Baileys (then the Orange) in 1997 and was chosen as the prize’s Best of the Best in 2015. I’ve paired it with Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie which won the 1981 Booker, and then in 1993 (25 years of the Booker) and 2008 (40 years of the Booker),  it won the Best of the Bookers (the latter by public vote). They are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit– away we go!

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the civil war of the 1960s, when there was an attempt to establish Biafra as an independent nation. Focusing on two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their partners Odenigbo and Richard, and Olanna and Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu, the war is explored through its varied but monumental impact on all their lives.

Before the war, Olanna and Odenigbo live a privileged middle class life in the university town of Nsukka, entertaining in the evenings with friends who debate issues of post-colonial identity:

“‘I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different from as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’”

Ugwu joins them and is mesmerised by their sophistication, and the worlds they open for him through the books they provide. However, Adichie shows that the legacy of colonialism is deep-rooted:

“Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Hers was a superior language, a luminous language, the kind her heard on Master’s radio, rolling out with clipped precision. It reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice.”

As the Igbo people try to establish Biafra and civil war escalates, Olanna, Odenigbo and Ugwu’s lives are ripped apart and Adichie does not pull her punches. There is forced conscription, rape as a weapon, starvation and mutilation. However, there is also reconciliation between the estranged sisters, and Adichie’s focus is not on horrors but on how the human spirit survives against overwhelming odds:

“The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.”

Adichie is a hugely popular and successful author, and I feel the hype is fully deserved: she’s a brilliant writer. I whizzed through this book – she manages to write a compelling, political, angry, compassionate and highly moving page-turner. What a feat.

Half of a Yellow Sun was adapted into a film in 2013, apparently not that successfully despite a seemingly perfect cast including smoking hot eye candy hugely talented actor Chiwetel Ejiofor:

On to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) which like Half of a Yellow Sun was the author’s second novel: so much for the ‘difficult second novel’ theory. It’s taken me about twenty years to read Midnight’s Children, which works out as 6% of a page per day. It’s been quite a ride.

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I jest of course, but it did take me 3 goes spread over 20 years to get into this novel.  Normally I would have resigned it to the DNF pile (which is tiny, my TBR aspires to be that size one day – never going to happen) but I kept persevering because people who loved it really loved it and it always cropped up on various book lists (including Le Monde’s , which forms one of my reading challenges).

Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I loved it – something about Rushdie’s style meant this was always a tough read for me – but I did find it impressive. Midnight’s Children is hugely ambitious, tackling themes around nation-making, history writing, colonialism and culture. Seemingly impossible within one novel, but Rushdie and his massive brain are clearly equal to the task. The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who is born on the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment that India gained independence from Britain.

“Thanks to the occult tyrannies if those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape.”

Saleem’s story, and that of his family, becomes the story of the nation of India. The novel makes heavy use of magical realism, and I think this is Rushdie’s masterstroke. It would be impossible to explore such enormous themes and multiple events if the novel were entirely grounded in a recognisable reality. By allowing for magic realism, Rushdie can take the story in any direction he needs to.

Saleem discovers that all the children born into India between midnight and 1am on the day of Independence have special powers – his own being telepathy, powered by his enormous nose and blocked sinuses (told you there was magic realism).

“the children of midnight were also the children of the time: fathered, you understand, by history. It can happen. Especially in a country which is itself a sort of dream.”

“Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human, Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpots…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied than I – even I – had dreamed.”

Saleem is a self-acknowledged unreliable narrator. His memory fails him at times, regarding both events in his own life and those in the wider political history of India. What Rushdie is questioning is the narratives we are all within – family, nation, history, culture – and how there is no one reality for any of us.

“Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws. One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood. Unfortunately this makes the story less juicy, so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal. Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on.”

I realise I may have made Midnight’s Children sound like a heavy read, and in some ways it is, but it also has a gentle humour running through it to lighten the tone.  I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell is overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth”

To end, I can’t help wishing the dress code for book award ceremonies was monochrome cat suits and that winners collected their awards by emerging from a fog of dry ice:

“Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.” (William Cullen Bryant)

I’m clearly not alone in a love of autumn: the interwebs are awash with the beauty of it all, stunning scenes of colour change and mists of mellow fruitfulness (or something).  I was overwhelmed with images and so of course I abandoned pictures and opted for this montage of autumn scenes (because a family of beavers having a bath is quite the most brilliant thing to ever grace my viewing):

Back to books.  Firstly, the obvious choice of Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym.  Nominated by Philip Larkin in 1977 as the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century, it turned out to be a good year for Pym as this novel was also nominated for the Booker. Her popularity has grown steadily since this time, eradicating the problem faced by Letty, one of the titular quartet:

“She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.”

Despite the title, this novel isn’t about a seasonal change but about a time in life. The quartet of Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin work together in an office and are heading towards retirement, all of them facing the prospect of an abundance of spare time spent alone. They are all single and slightly baffled by the world around them.

“How had it come about that she, an English woman born in Malvern in 1914  of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians? It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.”

The world has changed a lot since 1914, and in the late seventies these four are looking for meaning at a time when the world is ready to place them in a home and suggest they while away their days stultifying inactivity.  Pym is interested in those thought to be terminally uninteresting; she observes lives lived on a small scale and pinpoints the quirks, the pain, the tragedy and the humour.  Quartet in Autumn could be a bleak read, and it does deal with a great deal of sadness.  The four are lonely and misunderstood and not sure what to do about any of it.

“Norman went back to work. He had a few days leave still in hand. ‘You never know when they might come in useful,’ he said, but he felt that those extra days would never be needed, but would accumulate like a pile of dead leaves drifting on to the pavement in autumn.”

But Pym is one of the best writers at evoking a gentle but incisive humour into things, and she holds her story right on the precipice between tragedy and comedy. She encourages us to laugh at life, but with kindness.  This is perfectly realised through the character of Marcia:

“Ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement, it was an uneasy combination and it was no wonder that people shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks”

Yet Marcia is not a victim.  She is not well, but she is determined and she goes her own away, like her unique use of libraries:

 “The library was also a good place to dispose of unwanted objects which could not in her opinion be classified as rubbish suitable for the dustbin…one of the library assistants (a woman) had her eye on Marcia, but she was unconscious of this as she deposited a small, battered tartan-patterned cardboard box, which contained ‘Killikrankie oatcakes’ at the back of a convenient space on one of the fiction shelves.”

Quartet in Autumn is a little gem, beautifully observed and in its own quiet way, utterly scathing of the disregard shown to members of society who are inconvenient to the majority.

When she wasn’t writing novels, Pym enjoyed strangling cats (Image: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

When she wasn’t writing novels, Pym enjoyed strangling cats (Image: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

Secondly, autumn often evokes the return to school after the summer holidays, so I thought I’d look at A Good School by Richard Yates, which was published the year after Quartet in Autumn. I braced myself for this one, as Yates can be soooo depressing, but this wasn’t too bad… despite being brutal in places. Dorset Academy is a prep school funded by the eccentric, elderly and rich Abigail Church Hooper; a small, isolated “funny school” where the sons of well-meaning parents who can’t afford somewhere more prestigious are bullied/ignored educated.

“And I can see my father starting to turn away then, concluding the pleasantries, looking tired. He wasn’t old that summer – he was fifty-five – but within eighteen months he would be dead. ‘Well,’ he would say, ‘as a matter of fact I’d never heard of it either but it’s – you know – it’s supposed to be a good school.’”

We follow William Grove, a shy nervous boy desperately trying to fit in and survive at Dorset.

“He still hadn’t cried, except in the privacy of his room late at night (and even there you couldn’t be sure of remaining alone; the doors were locked only by sliding wooden bolts, easily picked open with a knife or a screwdriver; nobody was safe)but he’d come to adopt a chronic posture of humiliation. If a wretch was what they wanted, he would be a wretch.”

But rather than a relentless tale of bullying, what emerges is a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone is damaged to a greater or lesser extent.  Grove does survive, and even finds some pleasure editing the school paper. The bullies are insecure victims themselves.  The teachers are lonely and without vocation:

“Mr Gold despised all Dorset boys on principal – rich, spoiled little snot-noses – but he had to admit this Haskell, was kind of an interesting kid…But when Mr Gold tried to tell his wife about it that night, in the kitchen of their home in Unionville, she didn’t want to listen. “’Interesting’?” she repeated. “You’re telling me ‘interesting’ and ‘sophisticated’ about some fifteen-year-old prep school kid? Come on. I think you’re going soft in the head Sidney.” And he guessed she was right”

What Yates shows is that sometimes there are circumstances that just have to be borne, survived and then left as soon as possible. It’s not always a great tragedy, just something you made it through. The novel is set around the time of Pearl Harbour, a bleak reminder that there can be many worse things to try and survive beyond your school days.

To end, something more cheerful: a clip from a documentary filmed at my school.  This is how we began every school year:

“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

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Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” (W. C. Fields)

For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them.  I’ve received my results and I feel like this:

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Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.

Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year.  If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel.  Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter.  She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher.  Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical…  Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).

McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness.  However, while most people find Ulysses unreadable, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable.  It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content.  It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.

“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school.  Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age.  Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent.  Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance.  Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.  Listening listening.

Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own.  The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be.  She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.

We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped.  I didn’t help it from that time on.  You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no.  That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted.  To be left alone.  To look at it.  To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you?  You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.

Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye.  High praise indeed. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.

His overbearing mother and her friends are all fat and obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust.  A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master.  Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity.  All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language.  As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression.  One of my favourite lines was this:

“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”

Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.

I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:

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Happy weekend everyone!

“I’m not married, I don’t have any kids, and I’d blow your head off if someone paid me enough.” Or “I killed the president of Paraguay with a fork. How’ve you been?” (both Martin Blank (John Cusack) Grosse Pointe Blank)

This week I went to a reunion, which wasn’t nearly as traumatic an experience for me as it is for Martin in Grosse Pointe Blank, partly because I gave up contract killing years ago, but mainly given that we meet regularly every six months, but we call it a reunion to make it a slightly bigger deal to try and ensure all six of us make an effort to be there. In trying to decide which books to discuss, I found those treating the subject of reunions a bit sparse. As a result, I’ve picked two that share a lot of similarities; both are written by British male authors, both consider the subtleties of male friendship, and both won the Booker prize. So there may not be as much contrast this week as I normally aim for in my book choices, but I hope you enjoy them. I will also claim that together they represent the characters’ relationships in both books as they are united yet disparate, sharing a common ground but a very different language. While this is true, I’m not clever enough to have made this my reasoning at the time. The reason was they were all I could come up with. I hope you enjoy!

Firstly The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. This was the first book by Jacobson that I’d ever read, and I think on the basis of this I will hunt down more of his work. I found The Finkler Question funny, intelligent and thought-provoking, not an easy balance to achieve. After a reunion with his schoolfriend Sam Finkler and their teacher Libor, Julian Treslove walks home and is mugged by a woman who he believes says “You Jew” to him, despite the fact that he’s not Jewish (both Sam and Libor are). Following this incident Treslove begins to explore Jewish culture and identity further, struggling to work out his place amongst it. Meanwhile, both Finkler and Libor are grieving widows, searching for ways to stop themselves drifting rudderless with grief.

All three characters are fully drawn, but it is Treslove who provides the main point of view, and he is an incredible creation, because frankly, he is a monumental prick, and yet Jacobson manages to make you not despise him. He would claim he loves women, but really only sees them as a vehicle for his over-developed sense of sentimentality, continuously picturing them on their deathbed, himself wracked with grief, living out the operas he adores. When Libor, who actually is wracked with grief for a woman he genuinely loved, mentions trying to cope with the pathos of life: “Treslove couldn’t bear the thought. Why did anyone want a defence against pathos?” Alongside this sentimentality he is fixated with Judaism, but doesn’t think of himself as an anti-semite, despite the fact of referring to all Jewish people by the name of his Jewish friend, to construct thoughts such as: “if you were a Finkler you just found it in your genes, along with other Finkler attributes it was not polite to talk about.” He is so self-deluding that: “For a moment he wondered if that was the reason he had fared so badly at the BBC himself –anti-semitism.”

Oh boy. What an arsehole. An yet the humour of the novel lends it such a lightness of touch that you end up seeing the pathos of Treslove, not the one he wants whereby he can rend his garments, but a more ordinary pathetic quality, of someone trying desperately hard to understand the life they are living, and failing. Even at the small level, things are baffling: “At a certain age men began to shrink, and yet it was at precisely that age that their trousers became too short for them. Explain that.” So Treslove’s attempt to understand Middle East politics is bound to fail. It’s here that the book becomes more complex, as Jacobson uses the lives of these characters to explore wider notions of identity, history and politics, particularly regarding Jewish culture. At this point I felt I wasn’t clever enough for this story, as Jacobson is so adept at painting the various shades of grey that I felt my understanding wasn’t subtle enough. One of the characters realises “What she might be wrong about today she will be right about tomorrow.” That’s what I took away from this novel, that there are no easy answers, no one story to be told, either on a personal level or a worldwide stage. But it is better to laugh than cry: “He did something with his shoulders which he hoped she would interpret as emotional pain, but not too much.”

Secondly, Last Orders by Graham Swift. The reunion in this novel is defined by who doesn’t attend: the friends of Jack Dodds meet in south London (Bermondsey) to travel to Margate (a seaside town in Kent) to scatter his ashes at sea. The characters take it turns to tell the story of that day and the history that binds them. His son Vince, Ray the lucky gambler, Lenny, whose daughter had a baby with Vince, and Vic, the undertaker. Jack’s wife Amy stays behind but also narrates (as does Jack and Vince’s wife Mandy at points). It is determinedly ordinary: although an unusual day nothing extraordinary occurs, there is no great drama. As they tell their stories you begin to understand what binds these men together, and what the great moments and great disappointments of their daily lives have been. Some of the chapter headings take their names not from the narrator, but geographical locations along the way. I’ve decided to quote from “Canterbury” because it reminded me (deliberately, I’m sure) of Chaucer’s pilgrims, who also travel from south London (Southwark) to Kent. The men in this group aren’t Knights and Squires, they aren’t captured in epic poetry, but Swift shows us the grandeur of daily life:

“I sit there, keeping an eye out, but I don’t see them anywhere, so I get up and find the way out, and then I spot them, standing on the paved area, looking out for me. I think, Friends. The sky’s dark and threatening, and the wind’s cold but they don’t look like they’re getting peeved. They look like they’re glad to be here together, like all’s forgiven. I think, maybe….I can feel the cathedral behind me, looking at me.”

This quote also highlights the main drawback of the book. Swift has attempted to capture vernacular south London speech (of which I am a native speaker), but he doesn’t quite manage it. I think with this sort of thing you’ve either got to go all out (like Trainspotting) or ignore it completely. What Swift ends up with is a mixture of the two and as such the voices don’t sound authentic. What is authentic however, is the characters’ experience, feelings and reactions, and this is the story’s great strength. Not a flawless novel, but still a moving one.

Here are the books, reunited (I know, totally uninventive photo, but how to portray a reunion?):

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