Monday, 20 February 2017

THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene

As an African national, I've always found it rather depressing that despite all the impact the British had on our continent we were not even an important part of their Empire. India was the jewel. We were just: there. And even within Africa, there was a heirarchy - South Africa and Nigeria at the top, and somewhere towards the bottom countries like Sierra Leone. This book tells the story of some sad British officials in Sierra Leone, and shows that at least some of the colonizers apparently felt they were having almost as bad a time as the colonized.

Freetown is all men on their way up or on their way down. Inspector Scobie is among the latter, and a rarity among the British in that city, in that he actually like Sierra Leone, and would like to stay there. He is not promoted however, and his wife is miserable at the idea of spending her life there with a minor official. A man so upright he is almost abnormal, Scobie agonises over taking a loan from a local businessman to be able to send his wife to South Africa. He does it in the end, and once she has left, he falls into an affair with a much younger woman. His wife changes her mind and comes home again, and he now is trapped: he feels bad for his wife, and bad for his mistress. Then major plot twist: his wife insists he attends Communion with her. Yes, I also didn't find this to be a major plot twist. But it clearly is to Graham Greene, and to his creation Scobie. He can't face the dishonesty, and so - he tells his wife the truth. Just joking! He tells his mistress the truth. Just joking! He doesn't do either of these rational things. He kills himself.

For all that I mock its ending, I really rather liked this book. It is, as ever with Greene, elegantly written, and evokes a wonderful sense of Sierra Leone in the second world war. Try this lovely description of a new arrival: "Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. . . . (He) stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters." Wilson will later fall in love with Scobie's wife, and here he sees Scobie for the first time:
He couldn't tell that this was one of those occasions a men never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined - the taste of gin at mid-day, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER captures a kind of overwrought moral universe that in some ways rather dates it; but for me at least it also rather made me reflect how many of my own problems might be self-created. As a side point, I do want to close by saying that it does includes a scene so common in literature as to be almost archetypal: a young man having a terrible time at a brothel. I wish I had begun at the start of this blog counting how many of these scenes I read. It's incredible how many of them there are, relative to how few there are about the people who are really having a bad time in brothels. But I guess prostitutes don't have that much time for writing.





Saturday, 18 February 2017

LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding

It's great to re-read a classic and find out it's still a classic. One feels like this one in particular ought to have aged, with its nuclear anxiety and its public school boys, but I found it still as fresh as this morning's coffee.

LORD OF THE FLIES tells the story of a group of school boys whose plane crash lands on an island with no adults. It all then goes fairly wrong, fairly fast. It's high school with the brakes off.

LORD OF THE FLIES was Golding's first novel, and was written when he was working as a school teacher. It certainly shows - he understands the world of children very well, and I like the idea of him sitting at his desk in class, imaginging which of his children would be the first to be picked off, and by who, once the adults were out of the way. It's a compelling, child-eye view of the world which is rare in fiction. Here they are, off to find the monster they think hides in the mountains: "the darkness and desperate enterprise gave the night a kind of dentist's chair unreality." By the end you are truly afraid of the twelve-year-olds, and it is a real shock when an adult finally arrives on the island, and you see one of the most frightening characters suddenly reduced to "a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles on his waist."

It's a fantastic idea for a novel, fantastically well executed. Reading the author's biography, I see Golding continued to write for the rest of his life, but never again achieved such success. One always feels for those for whom success comes at the beginning, making all else an anti-climax; but I guess that's still way better than no success at all. Rather one classic to your name than - as with the rest of us - none.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy

I'm always suspicious of books famous for breaking down taboos, and particularly of books that were banned. Very often, on reading them, one finds a rather so-so story, and realises they're only famous because they were salacious. I thus was hesitant about THE GROUP at first. Then I found out that stupid Norman Mailer hated it, and called it "a trivial lady writer's novel". Naturally, I bought it immediately.

Mailer is famous for the THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, a truly dire 'manly man' novel about the Vietnam War which is all about the glory of gore, and is very obviously written by someone with virtually no experience of actual combat. So in short if he doesn't like something I probably will. And boy, do I. This is a fantastic novel, as fresh today as when it rolled off the presses in 1963, and, as the author Mary McCarthy put it, "ruined my life".

It tells the story of a group of women graduating from Vassar in the 1930s, and follows them for a few years. The writing is boisterous and delicious. Try this description:
She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behaviour she taken with old Miss Washburn who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year. This and her work with Hallie Flanagan in Dramatic Production had changed her from a shy, pretty, somewhat heavy Western girl with black lustrous curly hair and a wild-rose complexion, active in hockey, in the choir, given to large tight brassieres and copious menstruations, into a thin, hard-driving, authoritative young woman, dressed in dungarees, sweat shirt, and sneakers, with smears of paint in her unwashed hair, tobacco stains on her fingers, talking airily of "Hallie" and "Lester," Hallie's assistant, of flats and stippling, of oestrum and nymphomania, calling her friends by their last names loudly — "Eastlake," "Renfrew," "MacAusland" — counseling premarital experiment and the scientific choice of a mate. Love, she said, was an illusion.
Or this, on a girl with a gift for a pointed description:
Kay used to take their love affairs, as Lakey once said, away from them and returned them shrunk and labeled, like the laundry.

They're in that first generation of women to get a chance at university, and reading about them really reminded me how joyful a thing is education, and how glad I am that I got a chance to have one. Here's one girl losing her virginity in probably a way no one before her had:
All sorts of weird, irrelevant ideas floated through Dottie’s head as the key turned in the lock and she found herself, for the first time, alone with a man in his flat. Tonight was midsummer’s night, the summer solstice, when maids had given up their treasure to fructify the crops; she had that in background reading for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her Shakespeare teacher had been awfully keen on anthropology and had had them study in Frazer about the ancient fertility rites and how the peasants in Europe, till quite recent times, had lit big bonfires in honor of the Corn Maiden and then lain together in the fields. College, reflected Dottie as the lamp clicked on, had been almost too rich an experience. She felt stuffed with interesting thoughts that she could only confide in Mother, not in a man, certainly, who would probably suppose you were barmy if you started telling him about the Corn Maiden when you were just about to lose your virginity. Even the group would laugh if Dottie confessed that she was exactly in the mood for a long, comfy discussion with Dick, who was so frightfully attractive and unhappy and had so much to give.

It's fascinating to be reminded about other parts of the past too - how's this question, asked at a party?
Does you mother know about iceberg lettuce? It's a new variety, very crisp, with wonderful keeping powers
.And fascinatingly there's a lot on contraception. I didn't realise that for a long time there was a fight through the courts to keep the diaphragm illegal. I mean, let's face it, there's a lot you can say about the patriarchy, but for sure it's not SHY. There's lots of interesting stuff on how awkward the diaphragm made dating, as the men usually kept 'the equipment,' and then had to return it to you when you broke up. You can see where poor McCarthy faced some serious blowback: the reading public were horrified/thrilled.

It's impossible to read a book of this period, if you're female, without being profoundly grateful you yourself did not have to live through it. One character is committed to a psychiatric hospital by her husband, to get her out of the way, and everyone acts like this is quite normal. Another almost gets raped, and no one she tells freaks out about it. I read some of this book with my jaw on the floor. Here's one character, Priss, who has a baby with her husband Sloan:
. . her doctor ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labour; he and Sloan both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up to the mark.
Let me take this moment to say stupid Norman Mailer didn't like the book because he felt that none of her characters has "the power or dedication to wish to force events". DUH YOU IDIOT THAT'S WHAT THE BOOK'S ABOUT. Priss' fondness for Sloan quickly deteriorates as he tries to make her roadtest his theories on breast feeding:
There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans - it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby.

Most of this post has focused on how the way the book captured a certain historical moment, but I think as with all really fine novels what will stay with me is the characters - their struggles with losing their virginity, with getting jobs, with men who say they'll leave their wives, with over-involved mothers - and all this while they struggle with being given the gift of an education that means they can't really live the lives their parents have laid out for them. It very much reminded me that the opportunities in my life - the education, the cosmetics-free birth experience, the expectation that if someone tries to rape me other people will freak out about it - all come to me from long lines of women, going back into the past, who did their best for themselves, and so for me.

In summary, it makes me feel really awful for Hillary Clinton.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

WHAT I READ IN 2016

I love the yearly recap. It’s fun to look back and remember what I read. It’s like taking a quick bite out of all the meals you ate this year, one after another. I find I’m often reminded of where I was when I read a particular book – that sun lounger, or that flight – or sometimes of what I was trying to avoid while reading it. Reading the posts themselves is also very weird, in that I’ve often forgotten what I thought of the book at the time, and it’s strange to encounter what must be my own narrative voice, and to meet myself again from the outside.

What’s the best of the year? There were not any huge standouts, as has sometimes happened, but lots of books I really enjoyed. I have a huge fondness for THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead, which this person who wrote my blog described as ‘like drinking family life from a firehose’. I also enjoyed SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth book in his wonderfully dull saga of his life; THE GO-BETWEEN by LP Hartley, an unusual coming-of-age story, and PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma, a fun story of heroin addiction and sex work.

There were books I’m less grateful for. I gave up a lot of books this year – about ten – which is unusual for me. I think as I get older I realise how short a single life span really is, and am more careful what I spend it on. I really loathed WHAT I LOVED, by Siri Hustvedt, and THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson, both equally uptight stories of the British bourgeoisie, and THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen, an unnecessarily fraught tale of adolescent love.

For the second year in a row, I managed to read about as many women as men, which I’m happy about, though it was not a particular goal.

My books have been a real joy to me, this year, as every year. I’m so grateful for all of them, both the good and the bad, and for all the people who wrote them for me. They’ve taken me to Libya, and the Discworld, to the First World War and 1970s New York, to Tsarist Russia and future London. I can’t imagine where I’d be without them


1) MISLAID by Nell Zink
2) WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt
3) LIFE CLASS by Pat Barker
4) THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham
5) MORT by Terry Pratchett
6) HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
7) THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson
8) YES PLEASE by Amy Poehler
9) SOME RAIN MUST FALL by Karl Ove Knausgaard
10) A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara
11) GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
12) NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing
13) NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine Johnson
14) FATHERS AND SON by Ivan Turgenev
15) THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by Goethe
16) MY SON, MY SON by Howard Spring
17) BRIGHTON ROCK by Graham Greene
18) JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT by Antal Szerb
19) THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons
20) THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN by Christina Stead
21) CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY by Alan Paton
22) THE GO-BETWEEN BY LP HARTLEY
23) BOSSYPANTS by Tina Fey
24) THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins
25) THE DROWNED WORLD by JG Ballard
26) THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton
27) THE POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage
28) BEING BROOKE by Emma Hart
29) FATHER AND SONS: A STUDY OF TWO TEMPERAMENTS by Edmund Gosse
30) NEW YEAR’S: A PREQUEL TO THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P by Adelle Waldman
31) THE BEACH by Alex Garland
32) GOLDEN HILL by Francis Spufford
33) PROBLEMS by Jade Sharma
34) THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
35) THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
36) THE RETURN by Hisham Matar
37) MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub
38) THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras
39) THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Gacigalup

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.

THE RETURN by Hisham Matar

I love the end of the year, because it gives me a chance to read all the “Best of the year” lists and thereby find new books. THE RETURN was on many of 2016’s lists, and it is indeed a fine book. It’s the true account of a family’s twenty five year search for their father, who was disappeared by the Gaddafi regime. He was abducted in Cairo, with the active connivance of the Mubarak regime, and for some time his family thought he would soon be back – his wife recorded football matches for him for months – but in fact he never returned; or, at least, he has not so far.

The story is in many ways deeply familiar, the terrible story of the disappeared all over the world, but’s it beautifully and honestly told here:
When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years, your desire to find him is equalled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle

I learnt a great deal about Libya while reading this book. While I knew Gaddafi was a monstrous dictator, of course, I did not realise that he was also crazy – like Idi Amin levels of crazy. Apparently there was a rumour of a prison actually underneath his compound in Tripoli, which most people did not believe. After the revolution, they found there was indeed a prison, buried deep underground, for his most notable opponents – “both the living and the dead. Freezers were discovered there with the bodies of long deceased dissidents.”

He also enjoyed darkly comic dictator behaviour. For example, once he set a trap: He "invited young literary talent to take part in a book festival, then arrested them.” He held most of them for ten years. I still find it hilarious that among Gaddafi’s last words to the soldiers who found him in the culvert (after some no doubt enjoyable begging for mercy) was “What did I do to you?”

Matar describes himself as “infantilised by exile” as “if part of me had stopped developing the moment we left Libya,” and covers the back and forth of immigrant life very well:
Back in October 2011, I had considered never returning to Lydia. I was in New York, walking up Broadway, the air cold and swift, when the proposition presented itself. It seemed immaculate, a thought my mind had manufactured independently. As in youthful moments of drunkenness, I felt bold and invincible.. . . In the thirty years since we left Libya, my family and I had built associations with several surrogate cities: Nairobi, where we went on our escape from Libya, in 1979, and have continued to visit ever since; Cairo, where we settled into indefinite exile the following year; Rome, a vacation spot for us; London, where I went at the age of 15 for my studies and where for 29 years I have been doggedly trying to make a life for myself; Paris, where, fatigued and annoyed by London, I moved in my early thirties, vowing never to return to England, only to find myself back two years later. In all these cities, I had pictured myself one day calm and living in that faraway island, Manhattan, where I was born. I would imagine a new acquaintance asking me . . . that old tiresome question “where are you from?” And I, unfazed and free of the usual agitation, would casually reply, “New York”
. However he never quite manages this, because as he explains:
I am often unnerved by exiles I meet who, like me, have found themselves living in London but who, unlike me have surrendered to the place and therefore exude the sort of resigned stability I lack. Naked adoption of native mannerisms or the local dialect – this has always seemed to me a kind of humiliation.

The book focuses on Hisham’s return to Libya immediately after Gaddafi’s fall. There he is able to meet many old men, who have been released from various prisons as the regime has collapsed, and is able to see that his father is not among them. It is almost a relief:
For a quarter of a century now, hope has been seeping out of me. Now I can say, I am almost free of it. All that remains are a few scattered grains
.

Already sad, this book is made sadder by what has happened to Libya since his return - the brief hopeful period after Gaddafi's fall has been followed by full civil war. Clearly this is a great book; it's made me mourn a country I barely know.

THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

Let me tell you that Marguerite Duras had a tough childhood. This semi-autobiographical novel gives the outlines. Poor, white, French Indochina. Unstable mother makes a terrible investment in farmland which then sinks into the sea. Older brother has a gambling problem and is unhealthily attached to unstable mother. Teenage girl wears old dresses of her mother’s (“It’s the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear,” she tells us, as if we all know what that’s like), and strange gold evening shoes, and a man’s fedora. One day on the ferry across the Mekong to boarding school, where she is the only white student, she meets a Chinese millionaire, and becomes his mistress. Everyone believes it must be for the money, and so she tells them, but in fact it is some kind of wild romance, with lots of showering each other and weeping. His father won’t let him marry her, and eventually her mother sends her off to France. She doesn’t see her family again for decades, not so much because of the shame as the cost of travel by ship.

This is the sharp end of the colonial experience, and is a beautiful, dream like sort of book, capturing Vietnamese gardens by night, mixed race high schools of the 1930s, and family dysfunction in a strange and gorgeous way. Here’s a taste, in speaking about her mother, who while unstable was also indomitable in her own way:
She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon – the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valour, human, absurd, that I see true grace.