“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” (George Burns)

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! From my twitter feed, I know for some that means being as far away from relatives as possible 😉 If Christmas advertising were to be believed, we should all have families like this:

Whereas in fact the reality may be closer to this:

In which case I would say well done you, because I’m the only person alive who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life *ducks for cover* whereas the Addams Family are awesome.  Whether you spent Christmas with George Bailey or Uncle Fester,  I thought this week might be a good time to look at families that are found in unexpected places.

Firstly, Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) which I picked up after loving Our Souls at Night so much and many bloggers recommended I start the Plainsong trilogy. All the things I enjoyed about Our Souls at Night were here: a gentle, unshowy voice, believable idiosyncratic characters, ordinary lives shown to have a delicate beauty.

Set in the fictional prairie community of Holt, Colorado, Plainsong focusses on a pregnant schoolgirl, Victoria Roubideaux, and one of her teachers, Tom Guthrie, who is splitting up with his wife. After Victoria is thrown out by her mother, another teacher, Maggie Jones, suggests to a pair of elderly brothers, Harold and Raymond McPheron, that they take her in.

“ You’re getting goddamn stubborn and hard to live with. That’s all I’ll say. Raymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddamn Sunday school picnic.

No it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.”

They offer Victoria a home, and the portrayal of their developing relationship with the young woman is just lovely. The brothers are set in their ways and unused to female company. Victoria is shy and unsure. The tentative gestures they make towards one another pay off and a tender, mutually nurturing affection develops.

“The brothers were watching her closely, a little desperately, sitting at the table, their faces sober and weathered but still kindly, still well meaning, with their smooth white foreheads shining like polished marble under the dining room light. I wouldn’t know, she said. I couldn’t say about that. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe you could explain it to me.

Well sure, Harold said. I reckon we could try.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s sons Ike and Bobby are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s depression and subsequent leave-taking. A similarly unexpected yet gentle cross-generational relationship develops between the boys and elderly, isolated Mrs Stearns who they know from their paper round.

“The timer dinged on the stove. They took the first oatmeal cookies out of the oven and now there was the smell of cinnamon and fresh baking in the dark little room. The boys sat at the table and ate the cookies together with the milk Mrs Stearns had poured out into blue glasses. She stood at the counter watching them  and sipped a cup of hot tea and ate a small piece of cookie, but she wasn’t hungry. After a while she smoked a cigarette and tapped ashes in the sink.

You boys don’t say very much, she said. I wonder what you’re thinking all the time.

About what?

About anything. About the cookies you made.

They’re good, Ike said.”

Plainsong is a gentle tale about all that human beings can give and be to one another, but it is not remotely sentimental or rose-tinted. Haruf shows, he doesn’t tell, with a restraint and subtlety that is easy to underestimate but is absolutely masterful. I find his writing incredibly moving. It’s going to be a real strain on my 2018 book buying ban not to rush out and buy the novels of his I don’t yet own.

 

Secondly, Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (2013, trans. Alison Watts, 2017). Again, this is a simply told tale of ordinary people, and it is truly heartwarming. The main protagonist is the decidedly unheroic Sentaro. He has a criminal record and is employed by people he owes money to. He sells dorayaki – pancakes filled with the titular paste – with no pride in or commitment to his work. One day Tokue, an elderly lady with distorted hands and a disfigured face arrives in the shop:

“ ‘I had one of your dorayaki the other day. The pancake wasn’t too bad, I thought, but the bean paste, well…’

‘The bean paste?’

‘Yes. I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.’

‘You couldn’t? That’s strange.’ Sentaro made a face as if to show how regrettable that was, though he knew full well his bean paste could to reveal no such thing.”

Sentaro employs Tokue on the understanding that she will not interact with the customers who he thinks will be put-off by her disability. Tokue’s delicious bean paste brings more customers to the shop and business begins to boom. As Sentaro and Tokue’s relationship develops, he begins to understand that she has survived Hansen’s disease (leprosy) but is still subject to significant stigma around the disease. One of the schoolgirl customers, Wakana, becomes very attached to Tokue, and they visit her at the asylum she continues to live in although the government has passed an act which means those with Hansen’s disease are no longer kept in isolation.

“Nevertheless human lives had been swallowed up by this place and for a hundred years, continually spurned. It felt to Sentaro as if the singular silence rose from the very earth beneath their feet, steeped as it was in sighs and regrets.”

Sweet Bean Paste is about living life to the full even when society is circumscribing it in cruel ways. It is about friendship’s power to heal and to empower. It is also about opening ourselves to experience the world in new and surprising ways, no matter our age. Tokue has an almost mystical relationship with her cooking, which enriches both her and those who consume her food.

“When I make sweet bean paste I observe closely the colour of the adzuki beans faces. I take in their voices. That might mean imagining a rainy day or the beautiful fine weather they have witnessed. I listen to their stories of the winds that blew on their journey to me.”

And so in the end, I think Sweet Bean Paste is about nourishment in all its forms; it is there for the taking if we have the wisdom to see it and the open hearts to embrace it.

To end, never let it be said that I shy away from the obvious:

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“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:

“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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