Saturday, September 10, 2016

Katy Lumsden on Red Room

Here's a very lively YouTube review by Katy Lumsden of the Unthank anthology Red Room: New Stories Inspired by the Brontes which was edited by A J Ashworth, and published in 2014. It's a comparison of our anthology with the new one edited by Tracy Chevalier, Reader I Married Him, and, much to our gratification, she loves ours! I'm thrilled to say too that she picks out my story, 'That Turbulent Stillness,' and says I do interesting things with form and structure in my writing!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Reading group: Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

I suggested this book as a classic I had never read even though I found brilliant the film Cabaret, which is based on a section from it. Influenced by Isherwood's reputation as right wing and reactionary (prior to his rehabilitation as a gay writer in the 70s), and understanding that the film took great licence with the book, I had never been attracted to read it, or any of his other work.

As I said to the group, I was delighted to find my prejudice overturned.

Based on Isherwood's own experiences in Berlin, but flagged in an author's foreword as fictional - 'readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical' - the book consists of six loosely linked sections, not all of them following in chronological order, and spans the period from Autumn 1930 to Winter 1932-3 during which Berlin became transformed by the rise of the Nazis, and its licentious underworld culture attracting young men like Isherwood was swept away. During the course of the book, writer and English teacher 'Christopher Isherwood' settles into his new accommodation with his landlady Frl Schroeder, once genteel but now down on her luck (other occupants include a prostitute and a female Nazi); meets and becomes friendly with the garrulous and incorrigible nightclub singer (and unofficial prostitute) Sally Bowles (on whom the film Cabaret is centred); spends a period on a Baltic island sharing a house with Englishman Peter and his young working-class German lover Otto; back in Berlin, stays for a time with Otto and his family the Nowaks, and experiences the cramped conditions of the Berlin working classes; becomes involved with the Landauers, the wealthy Jewish family whose eighteen-year-old daughter, Natalia, he teaches; and finally, as SA men beat people up in the street, knows sadly that it is time for him to leave.

I said that I was hugely impressed by the quality of the prose and the insights into people and the way they are depicted - the affectionate depiction, for instance, of the bossy but naive and ultimately vulnerable teenager Natalia. On their first meeting, she makes Christopher tell her about the book he is writing (although he can see that she isn't really following his English):
When I had finished, she asked at once: 'And when will it be ready - how soon?' For she had taken possession of the story, together with all my other affairs. I answered that I didn't know. I was lazy.
'You are lazy?' Natalia opened her eyes mockingly. 'So? Then I am sorry. I can't help you.'

The first and last sections of the book take the form of a diary and are indeed titled thus (Berlin Diary Autumn 1930 and Berlin Diary Winter 1932-3), and the second paragraph of the book is the narrator's famous statement:
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, and fixed.
 This is often taken as declaring a refusal to judge, but the point about a camera of course is that you can choose where to point it, and not only is there implicit judgement in the cool way Isherwood depicts characters, letting them reveal themselves, the book is a masterpiece of careful and telling selection. I said I loved the counterpointing that Isherwood thus creates: the two diary sections framing the book with vividly and sadly contrasting pictures of Berlin; the counterpointing of the louche and money-grubbing Sally Bowles and the pampered and naive Natalia, representatives of  contrasting social milieux; and most importantly of all, that of the good-hearted but politically naive Gentile Nowaks, vulnerable to Nazi propaganda, and the Jewish Landauers whose wealth and safety is doomed. Such counterpointing creates of itself a judgement on the overall social and political situation. The fact that the sections do not run entirely chronologically, and that as a consequence we discover that other events and friendships have been running alongside the ones we have been focused on, creates a kind of yearning sense of missed connection which I found very moving, and it seems to me that this, formally, is another comment on the social breakdown of the era. The endings of books are of course of prime importance, and the fact that Isherwood ends with descriptions of the growing Nazi violence he witnesses, however coolly he describes it, left me in no doubt about a fiercely left-wing authorial stance. The book was, after all, first published by notably left-wing publisher John Lehmann, and it is known that Isherwood held in great importance Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war and anti-establishment novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which we discussed here.

Everyone present agreed enthusiastically that the book was beautifully written and thoroughly engrossing, Mark in particular saying that he read it at a gallop in a couple of sittings. People elaborated on the things I had said, and amazement was expressed that Isherwood could have presented such a clear-eyed and politically acute picture of the rise of the Nazis, with even the mention of concentration camps, so early on before the war, and that such a book should have been published as early as 1939. Everyone was especially taken by the episode (near the end) picked out by Ann, where, as the Nazis take over the streets and the life of Berlin, Christopher attends a boxing match that the audience takes 'dead seriously', placing bets even though it is abundantly clear that the match is fixed, so that Christopher comments: 'The political moral is certainly depressing: these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything'. Impressive too is the depiction of the normalisation of Nazism in the minds of the populace, the muggings of suspected Jews presented by the narration with cool yet savage irony as 'not, in itself, very remarkable; there were no deaths, very little shooting, not more than a couple of dozen arrests', and the harmless and even likeable landlady Frl Shroeder coming to talk 'reverently about "Der Fuhrer" to the porter's wife.'

Doug said that he did find something missing: a sense of the precise nature of Christopher's relationships with each of the other young men in the book, as it was clear that, writing in the early 30s, Isherwood would have had to suppress any explicit homosexuality. I quickly agreed, remembering that I'd had the same problem: for instance, when on the island of Reugen Otto abandons his lover Peter each evening to go dancing with women and Christopher and Peter end up spending the time together at a cafe, does this mean that Christopher is stepping in merely on the level of friendship, or in a more involved way? And, after the relationship between Peter and Otto breaks down, what is the precise relationship between Christopher and Otto when Christopher moves into Otto's cramped family home, and indeed shares his sleeping quarters? What indeed was his relationship with the nephew of the Landauers, Bernhard, with whom he is fascinated but who seems ambivalently to hold him at arm's length? Mark thought it was obvious that all of the relationships would have been physically sexual. I said, but even so, because of the suppression, we can't know the emotional level. For instance, later Christopher is apparently wistfully arrested when someone mentions a Peter (who will turn out not be the same Peter): does this mean he was unrequitedly in love with him, or not? As was agreed generally, it's a reading problem created by our contemporary hindsight: at the time of publication readers would generally have accepted the surface representation of the relationships.

John said that he thought this suppression was closely linked to the camera conceit at the beginning. A photographer records, and in the way he records interprets, but leaves himself out of the picture. The only way for the narrator to suppress his own homosexual involvement with characters would be to excise himself from the story as active participant, and place himself in the role of observer. This is indeed movingly codified on the first page where Christopher, newly arrived in his lodgings, listens to the young men in the street below whistling up to their girls:
Their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad ... soon a call is sure to sound, so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human, that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the venetian blind to make sure that it is not - as I know very well it could not possibly be - for me.
a statement of longing and exclusion that blew me over before I had hardly begun the book.

And then, to my surprise, Mark, who had stated the most robustly that he'd found the book a compulsive read, said that nevertheless he did disagree with me about its left wing stance: he thought that it was after all fundamentally right wing and racist. Christopher makes a conscious political point of getting to know the Landauers after hearing anti-Jewish sentiments expressed, but Mark said that there is exoticism in the portrayal of Bernhard: with his Oriental furnishings and dressing gown Bernhard is portrayed as mysteriously exotic. I objected that the exoticism was surely that of Bernhard himself and of the time, Orientalism being a fashionable obsession of the 30s. I have to concede that Bernhard does come across as fundamentally unknowable, ambiguously fascinating and repellent, but feel on reflection that that's a matter of suppressed homosexuality rather than racism, since the attitude to the other Landauers is straightforward and affectionate. Mark pointed to the statement that a gang of Nazi roughs 'manhandled some dark-haired, large-nosed pedestrians' as evidence of racial stereotyping on the part of Isherwood. I read that, on the contrary, as Isherwood's ironical comment on racial stereotyping by the Nazis - note that these pedestrians are not identified by the narration as Jews; they are people, not necessarily Jews, who because of certain physical characteristics are assumed by the Nazis to be Jews. It's also significant that the passage comes at the very start of the section on the Landauers, prefiguring the fate in store for them that will be a matter of great sadness.

For Mark, I think, Isherwood's position as a privileged upper-class young man slumming it with a family like the Nowaks as a matter of curious writerly choice and observing the coming political storm from a position of safety (he can return to England while Bernhard Landauer remains to suffer a horrific fate), weakens his observations. It is also a matter of fact that Isherwood left England for America with W H Auden just before the war, declaring to his publisher John Lehmann that Europe was no longer of concern to him, a matter about which Lehmann was still writing bitterly in the late 80s, and which clearly fuelled the reputation that had put me off Isherwood's work.

However, it seems to me that irrespective of Isherwood's ultimate political stance, close attention to the text of Goodbye to Berlin shows it to be a work of political acuity, humanity and integrity. The social status of author Isherwood and narrator Christopher cannot to my mind detract from the searing nature of the depiction of the poverty-stricken boys who come from the countryside to the city to seek unattainable work, and the cruel character of the city, the heart of political oppression:
the city, which glowed so brightly and invitingly in the night sky above the plains, is cold and cruel and dead. Its warmth is an illusion, a mirage of the winter desert. It will not receive these boys. It has nothing to give. The cold drives them out of its streets, into the wood which is its cruel heart. And there they cower on benches, to starve and freeze, and dream of their faraway cottage stoves

and the air of restrained longing and sadness infusing the whole creates a lament not just for oppressed homosexuality but for oppressed humanity.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Friday, August 19, 2016

'Falling' interpreted

Googling your own name is a well known as an act of vanity, but writers do it also to try and gauge responses to their work (it's always good to know what people think of what you've done). So there I was idly Googling a couple of times recently and I came across two responses to my story 'Falling' which really tickled me. First of all, it turns out that, all without my knowing, a recording of the story has been uploaded to YouTube - a really nice recording, I think, the story well read.

Then yesterday I came upon this, the description by design graduate Gus van Manen of his graphic design interpretation of the story, a beautiful little book that lets you, as he says, 'fall' through the story - exactly the kind of sensation I was hoping to create for the reader. (Go to the page for the images, which I can't copy.)  It never palls, that sense of gratification when you feel that someone has really understood what you're doing. And when they pour their own creativity into attending to it in these ways - well!

Oh, and I discovered from Google yesterday that two years ago a paper was presented at a conference of the Association for Welsh Writing in English at Bangor University in 2014 by Michelle Deininger on 'The Politics of Disease in the Short Fiction of Elizabeth Baines'  - all without my having any inkling! *

'Falling' can be read on East of the Web and is included in my latest collection of short stories, Used to Be (Salt).

* I am grateful to Michelle Deininger for posting in the comments below a link to her thesis, from which her paper was taken, and which I have brought up  hereShort Fiction by Women from Wales: a neglected tradition. Pages 177-188 deal with two of my early stories.

Friday, July 29, 2016

New Nightjars: Campbell and Burns

Through my door not so long ago: the latest beautifully produced chapbooks of individual stories from Nicholas Royle's Nightjar imprint - stories by Neil Campbell and Christopher Burns that fulfil perfectly Nightjar's concern with the uncanny and the macabre, each unsettling in both subtle and shocking ways.

Neil Campbell's Jackdaws is drenched with unease as the first-person narrator describes walking in the Derbyshire hills around his home - first in snow, then in summer - and the effects of the weather, snow and floods, on the row of houses in which he lives. The descriptions are stunning, but there is something deeply unsettling about these sequences - about the fact that we know so little about the narrator himself, about the obsessive nature of his descriptions (we could draw a map from them). And why is this all we are getting - descriptions of walks and weather and no story? When the denouement comes, it comes as a real jolt, and we understand the very shocking story that has been running underneath all along. Masterful.

Christopher Burns' story opens in a similar manner, with a protagonist walking in an atmospheric dawn. This time our sense of foreboding comes too from the protagonist's own unease as he approaches the farmhouse from which he feels he has been more or less disinherited. However, when the moment of shock arrives here, it is again entirely unexpected and at this moment Burns executes a clever narrative switch which lends a dynamism and true horror to the events that then rapidly unfold.

The covers of both volumes are aptly illustrated by details from two of the stunningly atmospheric landscapes of Manchester artist Jen Orpin.

Don't forget: these are limited signed editions, and they soon sell out! You can order them here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reading group: Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley

 Warning: plot spoil. Our discussion of this book, suggested by Clare, centred on whether or not it works as a thriller, and therefore it was inevitable that right from the start we should talk about its workings, including the handling of revelation and the ending.

Since Jane Smiley is renowned as a literary and Pullitzer prizewinning chronicler of family relations, most of us expected this book, her only thriller, to be a superior literary and psychological example of the genre, but for all but two of our group it was a disappointment.

Set at the beginning of the eighties, it opens as early-thirties librarian Alice Ellis is interviewed by a detective about the horrific scene she has just discovered when visiting the flat of her friend Susan, absent in the Adirondacks, to water the plants: the bodies of Susan's partner Denny and Craig, Denny's adopted brother who lives with them, slumped in easy chairs and shot through the head. Denny and Craig are members of a once almost successful pop group with whom Alice and Susan moved from the Midwest to New York ten years earlier, old school and university friends seeking fame and fortune (and inevitably disappointed). Other members of the group eventually come under suspicion for the murder: Noah Mast, whose wife Rya, it will turn out, has been having an affair with Craig, and Ray Reschley who has sold the two men a large amount of cocaine but failed to get his money from them and is inevitably under pressure from his dealers. But then there are the unknown number of people to whom Susan and Denny lent the keys to their apartment and the unknown number of times they may have been copied...

A promising enough scenario, but for me it instantly failed to deliver, and by the time of the meeting I had managed to read only 50 pages, so tedious did I find the book (although I did force myself to finish it afterwards in order to write this up). The whole thing is seen through the eyes of the musing Alice, a clear authorial intention to make this thriller psychological, but she - along with all of the group - is so lacking in affect that right from the start I was unconvinced by the psychology and there was a consequent lack of tension to engage me in the plot. After her interview with the detective, Alice goes to Ray's apartment for dinner where Noah and Rya have also arrived, and is greeted at the door by Rya with, ' "Isn't it amazing?"
' "We're just shocked," said Rya, whose blond hair was wound on top of her head. If she unpinned it, it would fall down in a single shining mass, Alice knew. The only sense of expertise she ever got about Rya was when the other woman was arranging her hair or choosing clothes. "Just shocked, shocked. I can't express it."
"Astonished. Dumbfounded," suggested Noah.
"Noah is shocked, too. Believe me. He teases to cover up."
"Floored. Taken aback."
"Don't make us laugh, Noah." '
Ray arrives with takeout food which both the group and the author relish in a way I found unintentionally laughable in the situation, Rya 'moaning over the mo-shu pork, the oysters with straw mushrooms, the gong-bao chicken with charred red peppers and cashews, the sizzling rice soup, the shrimp toast.'

If this is intended, as the New York Times Reviewer would have it, as the affectless 'cool' cultivated by thirties-something New Yorkers, I simply don't buy it. The murder of members of a longtime friendship group is surely the very thing to break through that 'cool', however disaffected the members may have become with each other. And although Rya's behaviour is commented on by her husband Noah as 'odd',  it doesn't, in the hindsight allowed by the later knowledge that one of the murdered men was her (generally) secret lover, seem to me likely, however affected, or indeed much different from the almost indifferent behaviour of the others. (Alice has to wonder as they eat 'if the others were thinking constantly of Denny and Craig and Susan, as she was'). And if the general indifference (which makes for unlikeable characters I simply can't get interested in) is intended as an authorial manipulation to bring all of the characters under the reader's suspicion, it doesn't work for me, because only a few pages in I guessed correctly that Susan, Denny's partner, had committed the murder. Clare and Jenny, the two members of our group present who had liked the book, asked me how I had known. To begin with, Susan is glaringly significant as the only one not around, officially away when the murder takes place and therefore the only one who, if she did commit the murder, covered her tracks. Secondly, one of Susan's main characteristics is her neatness and organisation, and the murders are strikingly neat: both men sitting in their places and nothing in the room disturbed. Most importantly, when she returns and is told of the murder, although the one most likely in conventional terms to break down, she acts with the greatest cool and least affect of all.

Jenny objected that often in thrillers the most likely person turns out not to have done it, and I did briefly consider that this was a double-bluff on the part of the author, but there were other things that signalled to me that the author was simply not in command of the thriller mode. When Alice gets back after the meal to her flat she opens her bedroom door and is startled to find Susan, returned, in her bed (which indeed signals a kind of sneakiness and unpredictability on the part of Susan, and strongly links her, associatively and thematically, with the danger of duplicate keys - not to mention the giveaway fact of her having gone on her return to Alice's flat and not to her own where the murders have taken place). This means it must fall to (the unsuspecting) Alice, there and then, to tell her about the murder of her partner (though rather unconvincingly she puts it off for as long as possible). Alice gets into bed with Susan and snuggles up to her: 'And then, when Alice had her securely in her arms, she told her. After a minute or two, Susan disengaged herself and got up, went into the bathroom and closed the door.' During the subsequent silence from the bathroom, Alice falls asleep (which again doesn't seem all that likely: wouldn't she be on edge, wondering and worrying about her friend?), waking later to find Susan 'moving about like a mother in Alice's room', tidying up: 'Always well groomed, she was even more so now.' The narration presents this as unremarkable: 'If [Alice] expected wailing, she should not have, for Susan was not that way' and 'How typical of Susan, she thought, to face devastation with a cleanup.' However, this seemed to me a complete authorial fudge. The most significant moment - for both thriller and psychological mode - would be the moment of telling and those moments afterwards before Susan gets out of bed. How did she react in those moments? What expression was on her face? (The light isn't off.) What happened to her eyes? Did they widen? Her mouth? Did her face twitch? What about her breathing? Did she gasp? Did she make any sounds? In fact, she could have been made to have reactions that Alice and the reader could interpret as shock and horror but which in hindsight would turn out to be the guilt of a murderer, thus putting the reader off the scent. Instead, the author implies she had no facial reaction by telling us beforehand that Susan has a naturally calm and inexpressive face, an inadequate and psychologically unconvincing explanation for a blank reaction to such news, and then glosses the moment in which she is thus revealed as a cold bitch most likely to have committed the murder.

I stumbled too over a moment on the second page. The detective interviewing Alice asks her to confirm that while Susan was away she was watering the plants (which is how she came upon the murders). She replies, ' "I was supposed to. I told Susan I would come every three days." ' This supposed to immediately alerted me to the fact that she may not have done precisely as promised. This will eventually turn out to be the case, and there is a reason for her not having done so that will be the crucial clue incriminating Susan, and which, revealed in its true light at this stage, would give the game away from the start. However, it seemed to me unlikely that the detective wouldn't pick up on this very obvious hint that all was not as it was supposed to be, as indeed he fails to do, and since we are locked into the musing Alice's viewpoint, it seemed a glaring omission that we don't share knowledge of this reason. The clever thing for the author to have done would be to reveal the reason but find an alternative explanation for it that seems to let Susan off the hook, or indeed diverts attention away from her. Instead, the moment is glossed and left hanging, and it stuck out for me as a clumsily planted and inadequately smoothed-over clue.

Susan's motive for the murder is over-signalled throughout and yet psychologically obscure, pummelled at the reader in long speechy conversations between her and Alice over more relished exotic food, and amounting to nothing more than the fact that she couldn't bear any longer to go on living with the overriding obsession of two men obsessed with the stardom they never managed to grasp and can't believe they never will. ' "You've got to understand what it's like hearing the same conversations over and over for years... It hurt me. It literally made my skin prickle and my heart pound." ' If we are to accept that this emotional state was intense enough to drive her to murder we need a better, more dynamic insight into it, but as it is we need to take Susan's word for it. It seems to me that part of the reason the author fails to tackle this dimension is that she has set Susan up as so self-contained that such extremity in her is unlikely - not to mention the fact that crimes of passion don't tend to involve the kind of cold-blooded forward planning in which Susan turns out to have engaged: obtaining the gun, learning how to use it and planning her alibi. If, as in a conventional thriller, we are not to need to be convinced on such a psychological level, then Susan needs to have some more obvious and easily graspable motive.

So the chief problem for me is that though this purports to be a psychological thriller, the psychology of the characters is unconvincing or impossible to grasp, conveyed as it is through 'talky' speeches and narratorial 'telling' rather than properly dramatised interaction - though I should say that neither Clare nor Jenny had a problem with this. Since Susan is portrayed as so affectless, I found it impossible to understand why Alice has always been needy for her friendship (and is now guiltily glad of the opportunity the murder gives her to spend more time with her). It's not enough for the narrator to tell me, on behalf of Alice, that 'No one was like Susan, after all, no one thought about things as Susan did. Some quality of her mind was unique, attractive but indefinable, inaccessible' since Susan never came across to me as attractively mysterious but tediously blank. Immediately after finding the bodies, Alice meets a man with whom she becomes involved, a relationship involving a certain (if ambivalent) passion, and I found it psychologically unconvincing that she can't tell him about the murders, as did John. (Alice's musing rationale - 'Henry entering her present circle [would be] a complication of cruel proportions' - seemed to me merely authorial rationalisation for avoiding narrative complications.) 

As for the thriller/plot element, Alice seems to come to the realisation that Susan is the murderer instinctually (rather than through the obvious clue planted at the start that should have told her the truth all along), and, on the psychological level, her continuing attachment to Susan after this realisation - and indeed even greater sense of satisfaction in the new closeness she imagines - seems unrealistic. When Susan eventually stalks Alice with a gun, there has been nothing planted beforehand to make us feel that this was inevitable or psychologically realistic: it seems merely a manipulated plot twist, and Alice's escape through a window and along a high ledge clinging to the building seems highly unlikely and smacks of nothing more than the insertion of a cliched cinema trope for the sake of a possible film version.

Once again, on the thriller/plot level: John thought it highly unlikely that only one detective should be involved in a double murder, as is the case, or that he should not make more effort to protect Alice from Susan if, as turns out, he suspected Susan all along (the lame excuse he gives is lack of manpower). Even Jenny and Clare, the book's defenders, found it laughable that, after being told by him to get her locks changed, Alice ends up abandoned by the locksmith and alone at night without a lock on her door or even the obvious emergency expedient of a bolt.

Ann summed up the book succinctly: that normally in a thriller you can in retrospect trace a pattern of clues as they were systematically planted, but that that wasn't possible with this novel, and that it didn't really work as either a thriller or a psychological novel.

Jenny however found the theme of faded dreams in this book socially realistic and compelling: she thought that there had been a real social phenomenon in the seventies of people moving to the city expecting to find fame and fortune and by the eighties becoming disillusioned.

The meeting had been sparsely attended, all of the men except John absent. Afterwards, I bumped into Trevor and Mark separately, and both said they felt as I did about the book, Mark having managed only 100 pages, and both had guessed from very near the beginning that Susan had committed the murders.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Catching up on recent literary events:

On Sunday I went to Carol Ann Duffy's 'Shore to Shore' tour of poets at Caernarfon's Galeri, a really wonderful event attended by hordes, which I've written about on my other blog. It was a horrible rainy night, as horrible as rainy nights can be in this part of North Wales (I'm looking out at the trees whipping around and the rain batting on my window just now), but nothing could damp this event, and it was a bright and heartening two hours in the midst of our depressing political situation.
Information about the tour can be found here.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the launch in Southport for Carys Bray's new novel, The Museum of You. After a walk on the immense beach, which I had never been to before - the sea so far away you could hardly see it - I turned up at Broadhurst's bookshop with beach mud on my shoes and splashed on my trousers. The event was lovely. The Museum of You is the story of a young girl who knows nothing about her dead mother since her grieving father won't talk about her, and who tries to piece together her mother's life in a 'museum' of objects stored in the spare room. The book sounds wonderful and Carys made the evening even more special with little gift bags containing objects featured in the novel, and cakes decorated with their shapes. Broadhurst's Bookshop also did an impressive and apt window display.

At the beginning of June I was in London at another launch, that of my long-time colleague Jane Rogers for her new novel, Conrad and Eleanor. Another lovely evening, this time in Hatchard's in Piccadilly: it was a hot evening and there was prosecco (my favourite!) and a super reading from what looks like a really very impressive novel about the effects of time on a marriage.

Really looking forward to reading both books.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Reading group: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Our main reaction to this, Hemingway's now classic second novel (suggested by Ann), was that it was difficult to know how to read it from our present-day perspective. Famously based on Hemingway's own experience as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in WW1, it is the first-person narration of Frederic Henry, an American in the Italian army overseeing ambulances on the Italian-Austrian front. Henry recounts his journey from his posting in a sleepy Italian town where the action, though advancing, is heard only distantly in the hills, and where he meets and falls in love with an English nurse Catherine Barkley, to his embroilment in direct action; his serious wounding and hospitalisation in Milan, nursed by Catherine (who happens to be posted to the same hospital); his return to the front and experience of the retreat of the Italian army; his escape from execution as a retreating officer and consequent gruelling undercover journey back to the pregnant Catherine; and their flight to Switzerland, a triumph cut short by personal tragedy.

There was immediate agreement in the group that this book fell into two different stories - the war story and the love story - which didn't really fit together. Everyone agreed that the war sequences were brilliantly executed in Hemingway's famously spare and telling prose, but everyone hated the episodes concerning the relationship with Catherine, which were chiefly conducted in dialogue and  shockingly flabby and coy in comparison - or, as John pointed out, in comparison to Hemingway's short stories - and which certainly don't withstand a feminist reading (which Hemingway's short story Cat in the Rain, for instance, does). This is the exchange (much cut by me) when Catherine has asked Henry about his experience with prostitutes:
... "When a man stays with a girl ... she just says what he wants her to? ... I will. I'll say just what you wish and I'll do what you wish and then you'll never want any other girls, will you?" She looked at me very happily. "I'll do what you want and say what you want and then I'll be a great success, won't I?"
"Yes ... You're so lovely."
"I'm afraid I'm not very good at it yet."
"You're lovely."
"I want what you want. There isn't any me any more. Just what you want."
John said it was perhaps therefore necessary to read the novel historically, that is, as a period piece. Ann found the book of great historical interest, dealing as it does with an aspect of the First World War usually overlooked, attention tending to be concentrated on the Somme. She said she felt that she almost wished that the love story had been left out as the war story was so searing and vivid.

We talked about the prose in those war sections. People were immensely impressed by Hemingway's ability to show rather than tell, to pick out telling details that obviate the need for distancing narratorial statements or explanations. Ann pointed to the horrific moment when Henry is carried wounded in an ambulance, dripped on by blood from the wound of the man above him. The blood suddenly stops dripping, and so Henry and the reader know that the man's heart has stopped pumping: he has died. Hemingway refrains from actually stating this last, but through that one detail allows Henry and the reader to think and experience it for themselves. Ann wondered if people still write like that, however. John and I commented that 'show not tell' is in fact the great creative writing mantra of the present day - people call on the legacy of Hemingway all the time - but that we felt it's often misinterpreted or badly done, with authors focusing solely on the most boring and mundane details that actually don't tell you anything about the inner lives of characters or the dynamics of situations and indeed mask them.

John said he felt there was a bit of that going on in this book, actually. Several of the chapters end with something strangely inconsequential and quotidian, such as 'We all got up and left the table' or 'I was terrifically hungry'(after the escaped Henry jumps a freight train to find it full of guns). I said I thought that perhaps this was a deliberate illustration of the lack of significance, or alienation from significance, occasioned by war, although I did agree that it often resulted in a disconcerting lack of resonance. Someone suggested that this, and indeed the whole prose style with its distanced spareness (but which paradoxically can create a lack of distance, as seen above), was a deliberate illustration of the narrating Henry's shell shock. Ann said that there is a school of thought that it is rather a result of Hemingway's own shell shock, with which I tended to agree. There was some demurring at this which was taken as a suggestion of lack of narrative control on Hemingway's part, but I pointed out that you can have both: writers can write instinctually out of their own psyches and then become aware of how it's serving their artistic purpose and consequently work consciously on honing the style (in fact, I'd say that that's fundamentally how the greatest writing is done).

I said that the passage that really struck me in the book occurs in the chapter where Henry is hiding in the train wagon surrounded by guns:
My knee was stiff but it had been very satisfactory. Valentini [the doctor who had operated on him] had done a fine job. I had done half the retreat on foot and swum part of the Tagliamento with his knee. It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more. The head was mine, the inside of the belly. It was very hungry in there. I could feel it turn over on itself. The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much to remember.
It was at this point that the meaning of the novel fell into place for me: it's about the loss and fragmentation of self created by war. In this context, the schism between the two stories of the book can be seen as artistically apt: those two sides of Henry's experience are in fact irreconcilable. Indeed, the passage above goes on, in a prose that mimics with elisions his distressed state of mind:
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas and my lying with Catherine on the floor of the car. Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.
However, it's true that on the whole, throughout the terrible things that happen to him, Henry does retain a single-minded and obsessive romantic passion for Catherine, and someone in the group suggested that this wasn't actually very psychologically realistic - would he have the emotional space? Ann added that it's absent from most depictions of men's experience of active service in war, illustrating the alienation from such emotions created by active service. John wondered if it could be the result of the injection of autobiographical material into Henry's story: Hemingway was famously a passionate romantic when it came to women, and, although wounded, was less involved in active service than Henry. It was very clear, however, that the scene in which Henry is hit by a shell came from direct experience - no one in the group was in any doubt about that.

Still, people in the group went on musing about the necessity of the love story, which, in fact, takes over completely once Henry and Catherine are safely escaped to Switzerland. I think it was Mark who suggested it was there because Henry has to be a Knight in Shining Armour - there's a lot of macho humblebrag concerning Henry's decoration, like Hemingway's own, for bravery when wounded (oh, he doesn't think he did anything brave, but all the others insist he has to get a medal) - and of course a woman is essential to this heroic package. Some of the men in the group then also said they had wondered about the likelihood of the heroic journey that Henry makes with Catherine in a small rowing boat in the dark up Lake Maggiore to freedom in Switzerland - another instance, they thought, of dubious heroic posturing.

Everyone thought however that there was a very different tone to the ending, all heroics gone, when Catherine undergoes a horrific Caesarean section which Henry is allowed to watch from the operating theatre viewing gallery - once again, there was no doubt that this was drawn from real-life experience. The tragic outcome had moved group members to tears, and John commented that it's interesting that none of the book before this creates this effect, as if in formal enactment of the emotional numbing of war before this final, intensely personal moment.

He then added, however, that he thought it was significant that Catherine dies in childbirth. Although one of Hemingway's wives did undergo a Caesarean section, she did not die, but the marriage eventually failed due to his unfaithfulness (as did two of his other marriages) (and the real-life nurse on whom Catherine is based left him before they could be married). Looking at the relationship between Henry and Catherine, John said, it was clear that it would never have lasted, based as it was on romantic and narcissistic obsession - the heavily pregnant Catherine says to Henry of the coming baby as they walk in the Swiss woods: "She won't come between us, will she? The little brat" - and by killing off Catherine and the baby, Hemingway can preserve Henry's status as a (faithful) tragic hero while setting him free.

We all laughed at this, and agreed it was true, in spite of our having found the ending so sad. Once again Ann wondered how people might have read this at the time of publication. It seemed to me that such an irony would be unlikely to have occurred to them - we were looking at the book very much through a post-feminist perspective - and once again we came back to our major problem of clashing perspectives through which to view the book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here