Contempt – Alberto Moravia (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #48)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.

Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.

He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.

“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”

Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.

He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.

He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:

“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”

The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.

And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:

“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”

It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.

I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.

To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:

“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Image from here

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Image from here

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:

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Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.

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“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

“There shall be no more novels about incest. No, not even ones in very bad taste.” (Julian Barnes)

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter.  Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.

I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest.  I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

maxine peake hamletnt_live_site_-_view_from_the_bridge_large

(Images from: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/sep/21/hamlet-maxine-peake-royal-exchange-review-delicate-ferocityhttp://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout9-a-view-from-the-bridge )

Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it.  Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.

But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.

Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992).  This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006).  In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father.  As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:

“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree.  Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed.  Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself.  In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”

The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.

What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.

“’What did you do today?’

‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.

‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely.  She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.

Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole.  The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs.  Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books.  An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”

SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel.  Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer.  He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical.  In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.

Phew!  Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:

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Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997.  Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress.  In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.

“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother.  She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting.  No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators.  We cannot hoard in the tropics.  Use it or some other creature will eat it.  Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”

The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.

“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all.  He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life.  It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:

“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill.  The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal.  He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”

Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening.  There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.

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“Let the little fairy in you fly!” (Rufus Wainwright)

December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season.  No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and morbidly obese geriatrics shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register.  In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.

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(Image from: https://flowerfairies.com/the-poppy-fairy/)

When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty.  I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….

Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014).  I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.

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(Image from: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773754)

Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity.  So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.

Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.

From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney.  He lifts the words.  He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus.  He swallows.”

From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath.  Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”

In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:

“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me.  When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story.  I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen.  I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”

I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.

Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter.  She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979).  Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore.  Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:

“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”

In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”

The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood.  Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.

To end, a modern fairytale, and the greatest Christmas song ever (but not the greatest Christmas video ever, which is Wham’s Last Christmas, obvs):

“I’m bi-winning.” (Charlie Sheen)

As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….

success

Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:

“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds.  The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:

“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”

The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights.  The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:

“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”

Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights.  Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:

“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”

“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”

As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.

Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011.  This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.

“And that’s life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.  It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”

Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work  and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past.  The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing.  Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either.  He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them.  But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful  – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.

Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:

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“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!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #49)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The great thing about this reading challenge, and the very reason I set myself to do it, is that it means I read books I wouldn’t have normally. Usually this is because I hadn’t heard of them, but in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it was because I thought I didn’t like Agatha Christie. I spent a summer when I was about 14 reading a Poirot omnibus, and I thought it was poorly written, with thin plots, shallow characterisation and an annoying central protagonist (I believe Christie shared this opinion of Poirot!) Despite a general love of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I haven’t picked up a Christie since. So I owe Le Monde (and the attractive bookseller who assured me it was the best of the Poirot novels – how I miss you, Blackwells) a great deal of thanks, because I really enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

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(Image from: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/249316529344895760/)

The story is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, the village GP who lives with his nosy sister, the character of whom was a prototype of Miss Marple.

“Our village. King’s Abbot, is, I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival ‘General Stores.’ Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.’”

Within this inter-war bucolic tranquility, Sheppard is called to the suicide of Mrs Ferrars, a wealthy widow who was engaged to the eponymous victim. She sent Ackroyd a letter explaining she was being blackmailed over the poisoning of her first husband, but Ackroyd is murdered before he finds out who the blackmailer was. Enter a certain Belgian detective to solve the crime. He is Sheppard’s new neighbour, and they meet when Poirot hurls a vegetable marrow over the garden fence:

“’I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning suddenly I enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas! not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself.’

Before such profuse apologies, my anger was forced to melt. After all, the wretched vegetable hadn’t hit me. But I sincerely hoped that throwing large vegetables over walls was not our new friend’s hobby.”

From this unpromising beginning, the two team up to catch the murderer. It’s difficult to say any more without spoilers, but I thought the novel was good fun (as the marrow scene shows), well-paced (only 235 pages in my edition) and confidently knowing:

“’The essence of a detective story,’ I said, ‘is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of- something that one obscure tribe … use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous, and Western science is powerless to detect it.Is that the kind of thing you mean?’

‘Yes. Is there really such a thing?’

I shook my head regretfully.”

Amongst this levity however, there is a dark undertone – someone has been murdered, after all. And although Christie’s novels are not brutal and bloody (this was published in 1926) she does not let reader forget the inhumanity people are capable of displaying toward each other. The ending of the novel was really quite dark, and I thought it all rather wonderful.

One of Christie’s great achievements in the novel is how she distinctive she makes the voice of Poirot; it captures his unique personality perfectly. Here, David Suchet, who has filmed all the Poirot novels for television, explains how he achieves Poirot’s voice:

“True friends stab you in the front.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week’s post is about friendship, as  I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while.  When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long.  However, it’s lovely, so here it is:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
 (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

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(Image from http://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-blogs/the-artists-magazine-blog/pooh-and-piglet-illustration-auctioned-for-194000)

If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.

Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway).  Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition.   An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:

“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”

He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years.  Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought.  Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:

“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”

“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”

With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental.  But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.

 “The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”

I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives.  Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about.  He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:

“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step.  His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky.  He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”

Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles.  Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.

It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along.  However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:

“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet.  Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement.  One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”

Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory.  In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.

To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people.  Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance:

10 Most Influential Books – Part 2

This is the second half of a challenge looking at the 10 Most Influential Books in your life. It was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm  and I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger. Do check out their blogs and the other people taking part, it’s a fascinating challenge!

An Evil Cradling – Brian Keenan

Where to begin explaining this book?  I’m going to sound like a tosser, but I can’t think how else to say it:  this is one of the most moving, deeply profound books I’ve ever read, and it’s about what it is to be human.  I’m sorry to sound so hyperbolic, but it really is that extraordinary.  I wept throughout the whole thing.  Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Beirut and held hostage for just under 5 years, some of it with John McCarthy.  This book is an exploration of what he went through, and it’s just incredible.  It’s not a journalistic, factual account, although Keenan grounds the story in this type of detail.  It is much more a study of a human being in extremis.  If I had to quote from this book I’d never stop, so instead I googled and chose what seemed to be the most popular:

“Hostage is a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening. Hostage is the humiliating stripping away of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that make us what we are. Hostage is a mutant creation filled with fear, self-loathing, guilt and death-wishing. But he is a man, a rare, unique and beautiful creation of which these things are no part.”

The Keenan/McCarthy story was filmed as Blind Flight.  The film isn’t a patch on An Evil Cradling, but it features superb performances from Ian Hart as Brian Keenan and Linus Roache as John McCarthy:

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler – Gene Kemp

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(Image from: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/k/gene-kemp/turbulent-term-of-tyke-tiler.htm)

When I was seven, I’d read all the books in our classroom, and so my teacher sent me to another class to borrow books from there.  I was intimidated, the kids in that class were bigger than me, and the teacher was strict.  She was also kind and fair, and did she know her children’s literature.  She gave me loads of great books to read, and used to ask me what I thought about them.  This was one of the first she gave me, and I think it stands out because it was when I started to read children’s books that were written primarily not to teach you to read, but for the joy of reading. It’s aimed at late junior school age, and tells the story of Tyke and Danny, in their final year of Cricklepit School.  Tyke and Danny aren’t exactly naughty, but neither do they fit the teachers’ ideals of how pupils should behave.  It’s a touching story of friendship, following your own beliefs, and not always obeying all the rules. Worthwhile lessons, it seems to me.

 “That child has always appeared to me to be on the brink of wrecking this school, and as far as I can see, has, at last, succeeded.”

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Garden)

This book followed me throughout childhood.  I had the Ladybird version, and then when I was old enough my mother bought me the full-length original.  As a child I found the story of spoilt Mary Lennox discovering a locked garden and turning it into a paradise again with the help of her friends really magical, but throughout my adult life I’ve noticed this book has a far reaching influence. On a very basic level, I love gardening, and when I picture my perfect garden it’s always walled; my horticultural ideal carried from this novel.  But more than that, I think an interest in Victorian literature (although this book is strictly speaking Edwardian) and the Gothic can be traced back to this book.  Big house, mysterious noises, servants denying all knowledge, death a constant threat, time spent roaming around on moors – sound familiar?  If you want your child to embrace the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley… start them off on The Secret Garden.  But mostly I think this novel influenced my choice of career. I became an occupational therapist.  The Secret Garden features a young boy, Colin, who is depressed, and constantly ill and weak.  He meets his cousin Mary, they work together in the garden (what we in the trade call meaningful occupation) and Colin’s mental health improves alongside his physical health.  So there you go: The Secret Garden is really all about the holistic health benefits of an individually tailored rehab programme.

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” 

The Temple – George Herbert

This collection of poems is a lesson to me to keep an open mind.  It’s resolutely religious, and I am not.  You’d think I’d get nothing out of it, but George Herbert has become one of my favourite poets.  I discovered him in a Renaissance literature class.  We’d just had 2 weeks of John Donne: sexy, naughty, clever, complicated Donne.  Now it was time for George Herbert.  Not sexy, not naughty.  Hugely clever, but written in a very simple style.  I loved his gentle tone, his worry of not being good enough and his search for peace and solace. Herbert showed me that while beliefs are different, a common ground of experience and feeling can always be found.  And maybe he’s sexier than he first appears: my tutor is convinced the penultimate line of this poem is a blow-job joke.  It’s always the quiet ones….

Love III

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexing_the_Cherry)

If I had to recommend a Jeanette Winterson novel, I’d most likely choose Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is probably why I’ve blogged on it in the pastOranges is her most accessible novel, her most famous, and it is brilliantly written.  The Passion I believe to be her best novel.  However, I’ve chosen Sexing the Cherry as more influential on me, as it was my first foray into magic realism (although Jeanette Winterson rejects that term) and opened my eyes to what fiction can do.  If it wasn’t for Sexing the Cherry, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered Angela Carter, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Set mainly in the seventeenth century, it tells the story of Jordan, orphaned and found floating in the Thames, and his companion, Dog Woman, a gross figure in both adjectival senses, as they journey together around London and across time.  Sexing the Cherry challenges notions of outsider status, showing that there are few fixities by which to claim any sort of norm.

“Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.” 

So there it is, the 10 books that have most influenced me….so far.  Here’s to discovering new influences and making time to revisit the old ones!

I’m not tagging anyone, or I’m tagging everyone, depending on how you look at it.  If you’d like to take part please consider yourself tagged, and don’t forget to refer back to Leah’s blog when you write your post.