Wednesday, 31 December 2014

THE BLUE FLOWER by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald gives us all hope that we haven't left it too late. She only published her first book at the age of 58, but went on to win the Booker and be acclaimed one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. THE BLUE FLOWER was her last novel and is considered one of her most successful. It is a re-telling of the brief life of the philosopher Novalis, who lived in Germany in the late eighteenth century.

It's a brief book, just 223 pages (or 100%, as the Kindle helpfully tells me), but in that span Fitzgerald creates a really rich and full world of the past. Here, for example, is her description of those who come for charity of Christmas:
In Weissenfels there were only the town poor and the town mad, and later the girls with unwanted pregnancies, who could not afford the services of the Angel-maker, the back-street abortionist.
Or here's the Christmas feast:
The servants had already brought inteh soups, one made of beer, sugar and eggs, one of rose-hips and onions, one of bread and cabbage-water, one of cows' udders flavoured with nutmeg. There was dough mixed with beech-nut oil, pickled herrings and goose with treacle sauce, hard-boiled eggs, numerous dumplings.
I'm torn between the cabbage water and the udders. Or here's Novalis' mother, who is put through having a child a year, as did many unfortunate ladies of the period:
An extraordinary notion came to the Freifrau Auguste, that she might take advantage of this moment, which in its half darkness and fragrance seemed to her almost sacred, to talk to her eldest son about herself. All that she had to say could be put quite shortly: she was forty-five, and she did not see how she was going to get through the rest of her life

As Novalis only made it to 29, dying of TB along with eleven of his mother's twelve children (she survived them all), the book focuses mostly on his one grand romance. At nineteen, he creepily fell in love with a twelve year old. He needed to wait till she was sixteen before he could marry her, but unfortunately TB took her at fifteen. Thank you so much Albert Schatz!

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

This book grew on me after I had finished it. It tells the story of a missionary who is sent to preach to the inhabitants of a newly discovered planet. It's a brilliant premise - aliens/god/hyperjumps, etc - but at first the book seemed to be involved in some kind of competition for most interest setup possible leading to most boring plot possible. The planet is featureless, the aliens are humanoid, his mission is successful: WHERE IS ALL THIS GOING? The real drama of the book is it emerges in the letters the missionary writes home to his wife.

The wife writes to tell him of the troubles on earth. It's a scary dystopia, revealed in little snippets. What's particularly clever is that nothing is spelled out - you put together the fact that climate change is really kicking in, that the poor have finally got catastrophically poorer, and that governments are at last entirely abdicating responsibility. The missionary finds it harder and harder to connect with his wife, or to feel like he's part of the earth.

In the end, THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS is more about our own planet, than any other; and it's a clever and sad meditation on what it means to let go of what you used to care about.

EUPHORIA by Lily King

At the end of every year I scrape the 'Best Books of the Year' lists in every newspaper in my never-ending quest for something to read. EUPHORIA appeared on a number of these lists, and I can entirely understand why. Take the premise: love triangle among early anthropologists in Papua New Guinea. Already love it. After a number of books set in British suburbia, I was so ready. The quote that opened the book made me even more so:
Experience, contrary to common belief, is mostly imagination. (Ruth Benedict)
; and so did the book's opening:
As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing. 'Another dead baby,' Fen said. He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn't know if he was joking.

It only got better from the dead baby. The central character, Nell Stone, who is based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead, is in Papua with her new husband. Their relationship is in trouble, and she slowly falls in love with another anthropologist nearby, a sad and sheltered British man, whose mother "had become a great psychological burden . . , both needy and despotic, a tyrant who seemed not to know what she wanted for or from her last remaining subject." I won't give away what happens, but I do very much encourage you to read it t find out It's entirely worth it - I whipped through the whole thing in a single day.

SMALL WORLD by David Lodge

SMALL WORLD contains some of the same characters as the first book of the trilogy, but is to my mind a much less successful novel. It follows a bunch of academics around a series of conferences across the world. It was clearly written when international travel was still new and exotic, which makes it hard to relate to; but so does the sheer number of characters, and the many odd narrative arcs they are engaged on.

It's still enjoyably comic, which kept me going to the end. Here's his opening:
The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed - the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
Knowing quite a large number of academics, I have to say this is an entirely accurate analysis of conference attendance.

I often taken worthwhile life lessons from books, and here's a phrase from this one that I will remember, though it comes originally from William Hazlitt: "The art of pleasing consists in being pleased". This I find to be very true. There's nothing that makes you more attractive to other people than appearing to be happy yourself. It's perhaps not a recipe for total authenticity in human relationships, but there you go; nothing's perfect, and at least you'll be popular.

CHANGING PLACES by David Lodge

This is the first book in the Campus trilogy. In it, a university professor from Rummidge (a loosely disguised Birmingham) gets to swap places with one from California. The British professor is rather unsuccessful, the American one quite successful; and yet the swap works so well for both that they consider swapping not just lives but wives as well. The novel is enjoyably comic. Here we are on a Sunday walk: " . . .to try and find some new, pointless destination for a drive, or to trudge out to one of the local parks, where other little knots of people wander listlessly, like lost souls in hell, blown by the gritty wind amid whirlpools of litter and dead leaves, past creaking swings and deserted football pitches, stagnant ponds and artificial lakes where rowing boats are chained up, by Sabbatarian decree, as if to emphasize the impossibility of escape. La nausee, Rummidge-style."

I can't tell you if the couples do complete the swap, because the novel ends quite randomly mid-plot point. And Refer here's how I feel about that sort of thing . . .

JANE AND PRUDENCE by Barbara Pym

So much did I enjoy EXCELLENT WOMEN that I dove right in to another Pym. While the last one was recommended by Philip Larkin, this one was recommended by Jilly Cooper. A more varied pair of admirers is hard to imagine. Though JANE AND PRUDENCE is a different story with different characters, it feels like a continuation of EXCELLENT WOMEN. In this case, the excellent woman is Jane, who is married to a vicar, and doing rather a poor job of being a vicar's wife. Her best friend is Prudence, who is - horrors, horrors - unmarried. The story follows the attempts of Jane to set up Prudence with a local bachelor.

The novel is charming and comic. Here is Jane to Prudence:
'You've got a new dressing-gown,' she said, trying to keep out of her tone the accusing note that women are apt to use to each other, as if one had no business to spend one's own money on nice clothes.
As with her previous novel, love does not conquer all. The bachelor is gobbled up by another, more aggressive, spinster, and Prudence ends up in a sort of lukewarm alternative relationship.

I didn't quite enjoy this novel as much as the previous one, perhaps because I am now a bit more familiar with Pym's tricks, but it was still enormously enjoyable. It felt a bit more like absorption than reading.

THE ROTTERS' CLUB by Jonathan Coe

So desperate am I for interesting things to read that I am reduced to reading second novels by authors whose first I did not enjoy. I didn't much like HOUSE OF SLEEP, but thought I might as well try THE ROTTERS' CLUB anyway, as it Coe's most famous novel, and, I figured, might represent one of those very common cases where an author only has one good book in them. This is after all one more good book than most people ever manage.

THE ROTTERS' CLUB is indeed a step up on HOUSE OF SLEEP. Again it follows a group of friends, but this time it is focused on high school - Birmingham in the 1970s, to be exact, but as always with novels of adolescence, it could be almost anywhere, at any time. Coe does a great job of creating a huge set of characters, each with an interesting arc, which is not an easy feat. The central character is Benjamin Trotter, who is wildly in love with a girl who is obviously terribly bad news. He gets her at last, prompting a chapter which is a single sentence of joy, apparently the longest in English literature, of 13,995 words.

The ending is a bit abrupt and dubious, with the narrator commenting: "But stories never end, do they? Not really. All you can do is choose a moment to end on." Many novels close with this kind of caveat, as if it is okay that the novel does not have a neat ending because, after all, life has no neat endings. This I fundamentally disagree with. Novels should be an improvement on life; and one of the key areas in which life needs improvement is in its chaotic, meaningless conclusion.



THE HOUSE OF SLEEP by Jonathan Coe

This book follows a group of friends from university through to adult life. The author tries to make sleep a theme, with one character a narcoleptic, one an insomniac, etc etc. The thrilling conclusion takes place at a sleep clinic. I admired the attempt at thematic coherence, but overall found it a bit dull.

TEN YEARS OF THE CAINE PRIZE FOR AFRICAN WRITING

This anthology captures the huge breadth of human experience across our continent. For me, there were three standout stories:

POISON by Henrietta Rose-Innes (South Africa, 2008), a fantastic little story about a women stranded at a gas station while some large scale industrial disaster is happening
DISCOVERING HOME by Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya, 2002), a description of a young man coming home from university to Kenya
THE MUSEUM by Leila Aboulela (Sudan, 2000), a sweet and sad story about a Sudanese girl at a UK university who can't quite get up the courage to begin a romance with a local boy

I had often thought of the Caine Prize as rewarding a certain dark view of the African experience, but reading this anthology corrected that view: it's a broad swathe of all kinds of Africaness. There's not much out there rewarding quality African artists, so thank you Caine sponsors!

EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym

I love the 'Staff Recommendations' section of a bookstore. There's something very charming and local about it, and one often finds quality there. If you've chosen to work at a bookstore rather than say a frozen yoghurt store it's probably because you actually like books, and I find the recommendations are often unexpected and educational. It occurs to me as I type this that this may be because rather than just 'liking' books, given this economy, people working retail jobs in bookstores all have Masters degree in Lit. We're all going to hell in a handbasket. Anyway, back to Barbara Pym. Philip Larkin once said "I'd sooner read a new Barbara Pym than a new Jane Austen." I can't quite agree with him there, but Pym is a fine writer, and I enjoyed EXCELLENT WOMEN.

Mildred Lathbury is single and over thirty, which apparently means she is a confirmed spinster, and is expected to devote her life to helping others. She is also a clergyman's daughter, which apparently makes it all much worse.
Platitudes flowed easily from me, perhaps because, with my parochial experience, I know myself to be capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fete spoiled by bad weather . . . 'Mildred is such a help to her father' people used to say after my mother died
A glamorous couple moves into her apartment building, and she is slowly drawn into their lives. The marriage is falling apart, and the husband, good-looking and fun, starts to spend a good amount of time with Mildred.

You might feel like you can probably guess where the novel is going, but in fact you can't. Mildred is always cautious about what all this means, and indeed she is quite right to be. He returns to his wife, Mildred turning out to have been no more to him than a comfortable sofa and a cup of tea; and curiously, Mildred is not very bothered: she enjoys her freedom, and was getting tired of having to make a man dinner on demand. It's a strange little book, mostly comic, but with a little touch of sadness; though one can't quite tell if there's any reason to be sad. It's odd Larkin compared her to Austen, because it's rather anti-Austen, in it's own way, with Mildred ending up alone and happy. Or sort of happy.

As she herself says, early on, having described her appearance as mousey and unremarkable:
Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

HERZOG by Saul Bellow

Apparently I am in the mood for novels about mid-century men losing their wives. Herzog has recently been dumped by his wife, and is slowly losing his mind. He endlessly writes letters to different people, with the novel moving around across his entire lifetime. Usually I find this kind of thing deeply annoying in novels, but Saul Bellow is a remarkable writer and manages to hold it together. Here for example is Herzog's lawyer:
Simkin, sitting in his office, occupied a grand Sykes chair, beneath enormous rows of law books. A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him, but a chair like that chair, if he can afford it, is a great comfort.
Hilarious.

Less hilarious is the reminder of world population in the 50s:
I know its no cinch to manage the affairs of this planet with its population exceeding 2 billion. The number itself is something of a miracle and throws our practical ideas into obsolescence.
Apparently in forty years since we've managed to triple world population. That is something of a miracle.

It was also interesting to see in this novel, as in THE SPORTSWRITER which I read recently, that in the past, the wife got to keep the children, no matter what. It's pretty disgusting and sexist. So is Herzog's view on a twelve year girl he sees riding a horse:
In jodphurs, boots and bowler she had the hauteur of a female child who knows it won't be long before she is nubile and has the power to hurt.
I have some experience in the twelve year old girl area, having been one myself, and I can assure you that your nubility (?) never crosses your mind.

Herzog eventually attempts to murder his wife. I can't tell you if he succeeded, as fifty pages from the end, my shampoo burst on the book. Sorry Saul Bellow.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER by Thomas De Quincey

This is among the first ever accounts of drug addiction, and is as boring and as glamorous as every other account of drug addiction.

Every druggie's story includes an awful lot of banging on about taking drugs, I guess because the authors are drug addicts. I was amazed by the similarity between this book, written 1821, and BAD NEWS by Edward St Aubyn, written 1997, which I read earlier this year. Apparently the druggie experience has changed little in the last century and a half. It's truly incredible how interesting De Quincey thinks the number of drops he took on each day is. Unusually, he isn't shy to elaborate on why he took so many drugs - that being, he really liked taking drugs.
I speak from the ground of a large and profound personal experience: whereas most of the unscientific authors who have at all treated of opium, and even of those who have written expressly on the materia medica, make it evident, from the horror they express of it, that their experimental knowledge of its action is none at all.
Indeed, his entire first half of the novel is called THE PLEASURES OF OPIUM, while the second half is THE PAINS OF OPIUM

I found this book a trifle boring, but also rather charmingly well written. Try this, on walking around London:
Some of these rambles led me great distances, for an opium eater is too happy to observe the motion of time; and sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical priniples, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I cam suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and sphynx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I concieve, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen.

It makes you wish he hadn't wasted his time being an opium fiend, and instead actually worked on being a writer.

Monday, 22 December 2014

PASSING by Nella Larsen

This novel is an interesting window into New York in the 1920s. It tells the story of two mixed race girls, Clare and Irene, who were friends in childhood. As adults, Clare now 'passes' as white. She is married to a white man, and is lonely, so takes the dangerous step of mixing once again with the non-white community. Irene is married to a black man who is a doctor. Their marriage is in trouble, and she begins to suspect that Clare is having an affair with him. She 'outs' her old friend to her white husband, and there is a strange interaction at a party, where Clare dies by falling from a window, and it is unclear if her husband kills her, Irene kills her, or she kills herself. It's an interesting little book, but I'm sorry to report that I read it so long ago I can't remember much else about it . . .

TRAVELS IN WEST AFRICA by Mary Kingsley

The sub-title of this book is "The Classic Account of One Woman's Epic and Eccentric Journey in the 1890s." This is understatement. This one woman is BONKERS.

Mary Kingsley was one of these unfortunate English women who are forced to say home to look after their elderly parents till late in life. When they died within 6 weeks of each other, in 1892, this lady, who had never left her small provincial town suddenly decided that obviously her next steps were to travel to West Africa.

She had no experience, no supplies, and very little money, but off she went, allegedly collecting fish for the British Museum but mostly just having a fabulous time, slogging her way through jungles full of malaria, wild animals, and actual cannibals. One night, when sleeping in a hut, she decided to open a bag hanging from the rafters.
I then shook its contents out in my hat, for fear of losing anything of value. They were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so so, and shrivelled
These Victorians are incredible. I can't even handle dirty public toilets! How will I ever be epic?

The book is basically a diary, and is essentially written in the comic mode, and is full of the joys of travel. Here she is after crossing a swamp:
One and all, we got horribly infested with leeches, having a frill of them round our necks like astrakhan collars, and our hands covered with them, when we came out. It was for the best that we had some trade salt with us. It was most comic to see us salting each other; but in spite of salt's efficacious action I was quite faint from lost of blood, and we all presented a ghastly sight as we made our way on into N'dorko.

You could almost forgot how awful it must have been, because she writes so joyfully, but then she will casually mention how her face is bleeding from sun tan when she smiles. As she says:
There is nothing like entering into the spirit of a thing like this if you mean to enjoy it, and after all that's the wisest thing to do out here, for there's nothing between enjoying it and dying of it. The sun is broiling hot; everything one has got to sit on or catch hold of is as hot as a burning brick, and there is no cabin, nor even locker, on our craft; so I prop myself up against my collecting box and lazily take stock of the things around me, and write.

As the book goes on the determined cheeriness almost starts to seem insane, and indeed at one point, when considering whether or not to climb a mountain, she sends her men down, but carries on her self, saying "if she dies it will not matter a ha'penny worth to anyone". You begin to wonder how much of the trip is for fun, and how much for suicide. And yet there is so much charm in her small personal account of her crazy adventure, I can only hope she was as happy as she tells us:
I went to my comfortable rooms, but could not turn in, so fascinating was the warmth and beauty down here; and as I sat on the verandah overlooking Victoria and the sea, in the dim soft light of the stars, with the fire flies around me, and the lights of Victoria away below, and heard the soft rush of the Lukola River, and the sound of the sea-surf on the rocks, and the tom-tomming and singing of the natives, all matching and mingling together, 'Why did I come to Africa?" thought I. Why! who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and the charm of it!

Typhoid got her in 1900.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...