Saturday, 27 August 2016

NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson

This won the Pulitzer in 1934, when the author was 24. It was her first novel. Can you imagine? I haven’t read any of her other eleven novels, but I think we can rest assured that the rest of her writing life was basically one long case of that-difficult-second-album.

The book tells the story of a family who are impoverished during the Great Depression and have to move out of the city. They end up as small scale farmers, and the novel covers a long and terrible period of drought. It is a stark reminder of how brutal agriculture is, and what a miracle food can be.

It’s an extraordinarily lyrical novel of the natural world and I veered wildly between loving and hating it. Here’s an example: “In the thought and strangeness of self we could spend hours as traveling through a labyrinth, and it was a riddle sufficient in those day to keep the mind quick and seeking, hungry and never fed; and in the mystery of the turnip, you forgot the turnip leaf”

What? Anyway, an interesting reminder of what hard work actually is, and of the value of rain. Probably useful for me to think about as I head into the London winter.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev

I went to an exhibit recently about 19th century Russian portraiture, and suddenly found a great gap looming in my knowledge of the western cannon. In the same breath as Tolstoy and Dostoevesky, the captions spoke of someone called Turgenev. Who is this Turgenev? I've never read any Turgenev! What am I missing?

Not a whole hell of a lot, based on FATHERS AND SONS. A young man, Akardy returns home from medical school with a friend, Bazarov, who he admires. Bazarov is a nihilist, and his disavowal of traditional Russian values is as thrilling to Arkady as it is horrifying to Arkady's parents. Bazarov meets a lovely young lady and a powerful struggle ensues between his hormones and his nihlism. Nihilism briefly triumphs, and then - just when he is beginning to regret this - he conducts an autopsy without careful enough hygiene. This is the nineteenth century, so he dies. Arkady meanwhile has been busy falling in love with the lovely young lady's sister, and due to his lower commitment to nihilism, and higher commitment to hygiene, he lives to marry her.

It actually sounds like a pretty good book in this summary, and I guess it was. It was the novel that really established the word 'nihilism,' and the character of Bazarov was hugely influential in the development of that idea. Perhaps it now seems rather tired and elderly simply because it created so very many imitators. Now, to a new reader, it seems like an imitation of something else; and that something else is itself. Now that people have truly given up on the idea of life having a meaning, Bazarov's early gestures in that direction seem a bit half-hearted. He's so full of ideas and hopes and passions that by our standards it's hardly nihilism at all. I can't decide whether or not to feel sad about this. I think perhaps I do.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Goethe

I have been avoiding this brief novel for years. I am not really sure why. It just sounds sort of stupid. Famously, the novel was a huge success in 18th century Europe, igniting a fashion for yellow waistcoats, and setting off the first recorded wave of copycat suicides in history, which led to its ban in many countries. Death is I guess the ultimate compliment you can pay a work of art but somehow I just figured the story would annoy me.

And it did annoy me. I mean, who kills themselves because the woman they love marries someone else? JUST HAVE AN AFFAIR. Or: RUN AWAY TO TAHITI. Or: JUST MEET SOMEONE ELSE. Having said that, it is a remarkable novel for the period - anything before 1750 or so can be hard-going (CLARISSA, for example. I thought this lengthy early novel would be an interesting challenge. Challenging, it is. Interesting, not so much.). Yet having said this, I recommend this book. It carries an air of extraorindarily contemporary freshness. Take this:
All learned schoolmasters and educators agree that children do not know why they want what they want, but that adults too, as well as children, stagger around on this earth,like them not knowing whence they come or whither they go, pursue true goals just as little as they, and are just as completely governed by biscuits and cakes and birch rods: nobody will believe that, and yet it seems to me palpable.
I am ready to grant - for I know what you would say to this - that the happiest are those who like children live for the day, drag their dolls around, dressing and undressing them, slink with bated breath about the drawer where Mama keeps the sweets locked up and, when they finally get hold of what they want, gobble it down by the mouthful and cry, "More!" - those are happy creatures. Happy are those too who give sumptuous titles to their shabby occupations, perhaps even to their passions, recommending them to the human race as gigantic operations contributing to man's salvatin and welfare!"
There's much of this kind. Much of the sweetness of death that is weirdly compelling, even today. I'm not sure I'm ready to kill myself, but I can see how someone might be.

MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring

This is a novel about a man who is seriously hung up on his son. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, it's an interesting window into the pre-Wars world, and reminds me how extraordinarily lucky I am to be born now rather than then. Obviously first prize is not to be born female at all, but if you have to be, at least it should be today, when you have some hope of your dad actually caring about you.

The everyday sexism is not so surprising - that after meals the women always do the dishes while the men smoke their pipes - but I was taken aback at how frank the main character, William Essex, is about wanting a baby boy rather than a girl. Also suprising to me is his bizarre mini-romance when he is 35 with a 14 year old girl called Maeve, the daughter of his friend. Later, when Maeve is 22, he falls in lust with her friend Livia, and then is surprised when this young woman prefers his teenage son to his elderly self. The son is very upset with his father, and runs away with Livia. He later dumps her for Maeve, and Maeve becomes pregnant. In one of the WTF moments so common in books of this period, Maeve then kills herself. By this point I had begun to get the swing of the general misogyny, so I was not surprised to find that the central character regards this as quite understandable and indeed even commendable.

There is also some stuff about the Irish Revolution, which I didn't quite follow, never having really understood that conflict.

In writing this I've come to realise that apparently I didn't really like this book at all. However I did finish all 578 pages, so it can't have been that bad. Also, I only bought three books on vacation so didn't have much choice. There was some funny writing, so let's end on this little snippet from Chapter 1, back when I thought I might still like this book:
What a place it was, that dark little house that was two rooms up and two down, with just the scullery thrown in! I don't remember to this day where we all slept, though there was a funeral now and then to thin us out.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing

This is a book about struggling young artists, and in my opinion it is totally authentic, because it's main focus is on money.

Not, obviously, on having money, but on not having it. It's probably the most money-focused book I've ever read; far more than many about bankers, or artistocrats. That's because one of the best things about having money is that you don't have to think about money. The writers in this book discuss Greek poetry, and plotlines, and publication, but they spend far more time on where you can get a loaf of bread for a half a pence less, and what makes a shirt collar last, and how long you will live if you pawn your overcoat in November vs December. My key take-away: damn the Edwardian era was tough. Struggling artists in those days really know how to STRUGGLE. Also, side bar: thank god for the NHS.

Overall, it's a grim story, in which an idealistic young writer, who wants to do good work, ends up impoverished, and dead, while a hack, who acknowledges what he writes is rubbish, and who reluctantly (and yet enthusiastically) marries for money ends up happy and fulfilled. There a clear strong sense of the inevitability of the triumph of pragmatism, and the foolishness of aspiration. A sobering read.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

This novel drips shortlists and rave reviews from quality papers, and probably deserves them all. It starts off as a story of four friends from college all trying to make it, mostly in the arts. This was my favourite part of the novel, capturing early adulthood wonderfully well. Here's a description of a restaurant where one of them, an aspiring actor, works:
Not everyone who waited at Ortolan was an actor. Or to be more precise, not everyone at Ortolan was still an actor. . . . It was easy to tell who at Ortolan was once an actor and was now a career actor . . . Acting was like a war, and they were veterans: they didn't want to think about the war, and they certainly didn't want to talk about it with naifs who were still eagerly dashing toward the trenches, who were still excited to be in-country. . . How did you know when it was time to give up? . . . Was it when you got fat, or bald, or got bad plastic surgery that couldn't disguise the fact that you were fat and bald? When did pursuing your ambitions cross the line from brave into foolhardy? How did you know when to stop? In earlier, more rigid, less encouraging (and ultimately, more helpful) decades, things would be much clearer: you would stop when you turned forty, or when you got married, or when you had kids, or after five years, or after ten years, or fifteen. And then you would go get a real job, and acting and your dreams for a career in it would recede into the evening, a melting into history as quiet as a briquette or ice sliding into a warm bath.

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.
This gives a feel of the energy and fun of the novel, and will doubtless make painful reading for those who spent any part of their twenties in variously the fine arts, fashion, or media.

Slowly the book turns more to focus on one of the friends, a character called Jude. He has had a very tough childhood, and we start to veer dangerously close to misery memoir. There are pages and pages on self harm, on suicide attempts, and so forth. At some point you wonder at what point it is okay to go from being sorry to being annoyed. That said, I read all 800 some pages in two or three days, so clearly the author's doing something right. Especially appealing I think is the creation of a particular world, which I'm very familiar with - a big city kind of life, that is lived without a lot of the ordinary accoutrements of adulthood (children, mortgages, etc) - that I don't think is very represented yet, in the literature. I looked up the author (who interestingly, given that the book is almost entirely about gay men, is a woman) and I see this was in her mind as she wrote it. Here she is, on her characters:
None of them are legally married or have kids, and this book is also meant to be a homage to a different kind of adulthood, one that isn’t often celebrated in fiction, but which is adulthood nonetheless. An adulthood in which there is a primacy of friendship. It exists perhaps particularly in New York, where people have come to erase their past to a degree in a family of like-minded people. The 20th century was all about romance, but that is quite a recent idea. Friendship is perhaps a purer relationship, I think.
I've thought for a while that the lives of many people I know are based very much on friends and housemates rather than parents and children, and it's interesting how little represented this is in arts and media. Well done A LITTLE LIFE, for giving us what's presumably the first of many such stories.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin

Of this novel, his first, Baldwin said "MOUNTAIN is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father."

And he certainly odes deal with his father. Big time. The novel takes place during a single all-night church service during which the 14 year old John (i.e., James Baldwin) gives his heart to Jesus. The novel dips in and out of the memories of all of his family, covering everything from his grandmother, who was a freed slave, to his mother and aunt and of course, his father, who though a lay preacher is essentially the novel's monster. It's unclear if John's conversion is a submission to, or victory over, the man.

Baldwin has a dark view of family life, and every relationship is complicated and unhappy. The freed slave woman, for example, is mostly pictured as a burden her daughter can't wait to escape: it's frighteningly unsentimental.

It's also remarkably written. It's full of the Bible. Here he is on Broadway: "And certainly perdition sucked at the feet of the people who walked there: and cried in the lights, in the gigantic towers; the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people who waited at the doors of the movie houses; his words were printed on the great movie posters that invited people to sin. It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor-cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it."

It's a great novel, showing what can happen at that wonderful point where poetry and self-help converge.