Monday, April 17, 2017

Reading group: For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

This book, first published in Romania in 1934, and only last year published in English for the first time, has a history poignantly echoing its subject matter and theme.

It is the first-person story - narrated in the form of a diary and in many ways paralleling the author's own journal - of a young man who, as a student in 1920s Romania, struggles with anti-Semitism and the sense of his own Jewishness newly thrust upon him by the equal status recently granted to Jews in the country and the inevitable backlash. While the unnamed narrator will conclude at the end of the book: 'I will never cease to be a Jew, of course. This is not a position I can resign from. You are or you're not. It's not a matter of either pride or shame', he doesn't feel that Jewishness is his prime identity. Rather, he identifies as Romanian, or, as Clare, who had suggested the book, said, he feels that his identity is primarily rooted in the Danube and the fishing village beside it from which he comes. And he sees himself primarily as an individual, rather than a member of any grouping.

It is an identity he is denied not only by anti-Semites who see Jews as alien and the cause of the country's troubles, but by other Jews who see him as espousing the assimilationism they deplore. The early (undated) entries consist of reports not only of the beatings he and his fellow Jewish students suffer at the university - and the escapes and detours they have to make to avoid them - (before they are eventually virtually barred from lectures), but also of the lengthy arguments he has with the Jewish friends who espouse different positions from his own, and indeed from each other. Marcel Winder embraces the role of Jewish victim or martyr, metaphorically notching up his beatings on the bedpost; S T Haim is a fervent Marxist, preparing for revolution; and Sami Winkler is Zionist, planning to emigrate to Palestine. The narrator also meets Abraham Sulitzer, who as a travelling bookseller personifies the archetypal Wandering Jew, an anti-Zionist anti-assimilationist who insists on the supremacy and future longevity of Yiddish (and utterly derides the notion of the re-adoption of Hebrew, a 'dead language'), and the books he sells are, amazingly, Yiddish translations of European classics.

While the narrator cannot agree with any of his Jewish antagonists, he remains on friendly, indeed affectionate terms with them all, and all of their arguments, indeed their whole speeches and even their lectures, are laid out verbatim with scrupulous fairness in a book the overall tone of which is indeed wistfully affectionate. It is not a fairness that, on publication and for many years after, author Sebastian would experience over his book.

There are two non-Jewish characters by whom the narrator is immensely impressed: the brilliant lecturer Ghita Blidaru, who persuades him to move from law to architecture, and the architect Mircea Vieru, to whom Blidaru introduces him, and for whom he then works. Both impress him with their respective intellectual and creative abilities, and their liberal attitudes - although both, as the war approaches and antiSemitic attitudes harden and 'normalise', will eventually express anti-Semitic thoughts of their own, once again replicated by the narrator with thoughtful scrupulousness. Blidaru was based on Sebastian's real-life lecturer and mentor Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write a preface to the novel. Unexpectedly, Ionescu wrote a denouncement of both the novel and the author, deriding him for believing that he could think of himself as belonging to any nation, and anything other than a Jew. Unfortunately, Sebastian allowed publication to go ahead with Ionescu's preface. Opprobium fell on him from all sides. The narrator hopes that Sami Winkler will 'prevail' in Palestine, but can't believe that he will. 'Two thousand years can't be overcome by leaving for somewhere,' he muses after Sami's departure, and he has wondered about the effect of settlers on the existing population in Palestine. The book, and the author, were consequently roundly condemned by anti-Semites and Zionists alike.

Everyone at our meeting was amazed by this book, by the way that it addresses so calmly and reasonably issues that seem again, today, too volatile to be considered with dispassion and dealt with via the kind of calm discussion that, as Clare said, is the only way to solve problems. We all thought it a very important book and that its publication in English in our present climate was salutary and timely.
Ann, a historian, said too that she was prompted to read up about the history of Romania which of course we don't learn about in the UK.

However, when Clare commented that she thought the book flowed beautifully, most people disagreed, finding that the long replicated speeches and extracts from lectures given by the characters required a different kind of reading from that of the novelistic mode of the rest, and thus made for a difficult, disjointed, overall read. Afterwards I met Trevor, who had been unable to make the meeting, and he said that his reaction had been the same. Nevertheless, all felt it was a book that one should read, and were grateful to have done so.

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

Reading group: Utz by Bruce Chatwin

Warning: some plot spoils.

Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion - this one was held in early March - and my finally getting around to writing about it, and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.

Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims), a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s - in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague, he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.

Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert addicted to bohemian travel.

According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to 'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection held him prisoner.'

The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him, and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'

This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy - since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.

Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual lover he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha, who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience, in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man, he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's encounter with him.

The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way, and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.

Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance, and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick, will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.

I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.

The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.

We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator. It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter. She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal. In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language, and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena. Clare said she had wondered that too.

And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that I can remember of our actual discussion.

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

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Reading group: The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob with a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.

Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty, wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.

Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and intensely interested in finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.

However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book: he didn't find the relationship believable at all.

There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.

Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious. People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious, it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone) agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded her lodgings without paying the rent).

I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:
Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.
Engaging as this is as a piece of verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:
...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.
Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:
'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.
And so on (and it does go on...)

That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.

Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:
'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'
I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book (he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.

Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.

It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to, and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and, importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel, which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.

Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they' or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the book was best read as a historical document.

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

Friday, February 03, 2017

Guest post: Reading group: The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:


Mark chose The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was “absolutely terrific”, particularly mentioning the author’s grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on occasion “laugh out loud”. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider (or The Stranger) by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, and which now seems a far more traditional approach; see our discussion of it.)

There was some disagreement about how funny this book is; though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages. Clare said she “didn’t get it”, presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the group’s response to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and finally succeeded with that one. He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of the group had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour is a very personal thing.

There was general agreement that this is an important book, and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of that race) is in fact a group of races, “whites”, “Negroes”… Our discussion took place before the current developments in America underlining the book's message, and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as “mixed race”, and the member who had made an academic study of post-colonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed race member of the group stated that he had been racially abused as a boy, in particular on one occasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the attack was racist due to the vocabulary the youths used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) “passes as white”. He was in a non-heavy sort of way (I think) raised as a Christian. I said that I felt it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his presence within the security of the group but that some groups of people would either be too embarrassed to do this, or there would be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress issues such as this, relationships between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any foundation in reality.)

There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, with a style perhaps more usual to short stories. There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was “hard work” but went on to say that this was about the point when the book benefitted from the use of a more traditional story line. I also compared it to Ulysses, saying it was similar in the use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society he lived in.*

Doug was unable to attend the group and briefly summarized his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:

“I’ve not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book and the cultural references had me resorting to Google on a regular basis. So I just found it quite hard going - far more so than, say, A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the language.
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.”

I and (at least?) one other member of the group expressed surprised as we had felt Doug would like the book, with what (to me at least) is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty’s digressions served little more purpose than to introduce a joke that did not strike me as being particularly funny.

The discussion of the book concluded, but as often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether one actually likes the book or not, the issues are important. One member agreed that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously, she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of chocolates, with initial enjoyment, leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses. Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.

Report written by John.

*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reading group: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Prompted by the immense success of the novels of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, in particular her linked Neopolitan novels, and of course by the recent fuss around her apparent 'umasking', John suggested this stand-alone novel, and the rest of us, none of whom had yet read Ferrante, jumped at the chance to read it.

However, not everyone in our group shared the popular opinion, and views of the book were sharply divided.

Suspecting that this would be the case, John avoided expressing his emotional reaction to the book, and concentrated on discussing it in more neutral literary terms. A breathless first-person narration, it charts the emotional journey of Olga from the moment her husband Mario announces that, through an 'absence of sense', he feels the need to leave, and walks out on her and their two young children. As John said, the book is significantly titled: not only is Olga abandoned, thereafter she abandons herself, falling into the kind of madness of the abandoned woman she witnessed in childhood and subsequently despised and dreaded, and consequently at moments abandoning her children both physically and emotionally. As Jenny would point out later in the discussion, and as Olga herself will realise later, it is not Mario but Olga who, as a result of his actions, suffers an 'absence of sense'. (Mario has in fact of course gone off with another, younger woman.) Initially, before she comes to realise that Mario is never coming back, Olga makes a point of being reasonable and understanding, a stance she has always previously taken. It is the way in fact that women are traditionally supposed to behave, and is thus another kind of absence of sense.

Mark interjected that surely this was a hackneyed subject, but John stated that he thought that this novel was not simply telling a hackneyed story, but was very much a political statement of the continuing trap of the institution of marriage for women. Having once despised tragic heroines like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Olga is now haunted by the spirit of them (and, as she becomes more unhinged, haunted more literally by the ghost of the abandoned woman of her childhood, the poverella). Having at eighteen considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes, and having indeed begun a career as a published writer, she has ended up a mere wife, modulating herself for the lives of others, subsumed to the Family. John thought it no coincidence that the book that most strongly haunts this novel, Anna Karenina, begins All happy families... He pointed out that, like that novel (and in his opinion most great novels), The Days of Abandonment begins with a sentence that gets right to the thematic point: One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. (Note that reference to lunch, not only locating Olga in the domestic that traps her and in which she will be left, but implying the familiar order and composure from which she is now shaken.)

It now became clear that the three women present, Jenny, Clare and I, had found the book utterly emotionally engrossing - although I had to confess that because I had read it at a huge compulsive rush I read it again, and the second time, without the tension of not knowing what was going to happen, felt less emotionally engaged and more distanced from the character. On first reading, however, all three of us had identified closely with Olga and her experience, and had found the portrayal searingly truthful. John and Mark, however, the two men present, both said that they had wavered as they read it, sometimes liking the book and sometimes disliking it, John saying that he found it sagged a little in the second half - a sensation I did have on my second reading. Mark seemed to come down on the side of dislike, as he went on to be pretty critical. He repeated his view that the situation - a woman emotionally trapped by marriage and motherhood - is outdated; he thought young women nowadays would be baffled by it. To begin with we found it hard to answer that, except to say that nevertheless women of our generation who do identify with it are a significant enough demographic not to be discounted and to account for Ferrante's huge popularity, and that in any case Italy is still a conservative enough society for its theme to be still current there for younger women. But a main point made by this novel, as had been said, is that that so-called outdated stereotype, which might baffle younger women, and which had indeed baffled the young Olga herself, is not so easily sidestepped even now, a notion that we three strongly agreed with as a result of our own experience.

Clare said she was really interested in the meta-issue of Ferrante's anonymity and 'unmasking' (as far as I know, no one knows for sure if the woman who has been fingered as the author behind the pen-name is really the author). In discussing Olga's state of mind John had mentioned that there is a lot of excrement and urine in the book, and the fact that Olga is obsessed with sex, in particular transgressive sex. None of this is gratuitous; all of it is an inevitable outcome of the situation and Olga's deteriorating state of mind. Rejected so suddenly and roundly by her husband she is inevitably swamped by a sense of her hitherto unsuspected inadequacy: has he found her sexually inadequate? Does his lover provide sexual satisfactions she hadn't? - questions that lead her unsuccessfully and depressingly to abandon herself 'without love' and 'with pure ferocity' to transgressive sex with a neighbour, Caranno, a practical stranger. Everything inevitably seems to her spoiled and poisoned - there is dog-shit on the pavement, a lizard and ants invade the house - and Olga herself becomes the focus of loss of control, letting the house fall into chaos, running out precipitously with the dog in her nightgown and needing herself to urinate and defecate in the woods. As one of her children falls ill with a fever, and the dog simultaneously lies dying and leaking shit, she becomes convinced that she is secreting some sort of poison that is affecting all around her. Such graphic material caused shock on the book's publication in 2002, which I consider a telling comment on continuing perceptions of women (women are not supposed to be so earthy or to lose control), and on what a female author is allowed to write. It is probably therefore significant that one suggestion has been that the author of the Ferrante books is a man.

I said that one of the reasons I found the book so deeply and personally compelling was that it made me wonder why I hadn't written about certain of my own experiences, and I realised it was because I don't write anonymously (although Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name, people have long known who I am). I would love to go back to the days when I first started writing under a pen-name and no one knew me: there was freedom then from my writing being judged through the lens of my real-life persona or vice versa. Reading Ferrante's book made me realise that the better known I have become, the more difficult it has become to write about certain experiences of my own in a way that could be interpreted as autobiographical.

Now there was a huge altercation. Mark seemed to think this fairly ridiculous. Surely when you write, he said, you don't write for others but for yourself? Hadn't we read the Paris Review interviews in which so many writers say they write for themselves? It is however a matter of degree and of negotiating between, on the one hand, the desire to express oneself and portray the truth as you see it, and, on the other, the need to communicate and the context into which your writing must be published. But surely, Mark said, it's fiction? He was right of course that it is a mistake to read fiction as autobiography, but the fact is that there is a huge tendency to do so, and to identify the author with the protagonist.

Mark then criticised the translation of the book, citing the substitution of the American use of Fahrenheit for the European Celsius (when Olga is taking her ill child's temperature) and the use of 'magnifying lens' which he thought should be 'magnifying glass'. The rest of us found these trivial points in a book dealing so truthfully with searing issues, and hadn't even noticed them. I found 'magnifying lens' acceptable anyway, and in fact more resonant in a book about shifts in perception, and John said he thought Fahrenheit was acceptable in a translation probably aimed at the American market. Mark criticised the prose, finding it lacking in punctuation, especially in commas. I said, isn't this a function of the fact that the breathless style mimics Olga's slipping state of mind, and isn't it actually explicitly addressed in the book: Olga reflects that as a young woman she despised the lack of commas in those novels of tragic heroines, but abandoning herself to loss of control in her new situation, she embraces a lack of commas. Mark said he knew this, but he still objected to the lack. (However, leafing through the book now I can't actually find this lack; the book is in fact liberally sprinkled with commas - sometimes in place of full stops, indicating Olga's sliding, uncontrolled state.) In direct contrast, the rest of us found the book extremely well-written, with style beautifully suited to the situation. In fact, I said to the group, I don't believe that I would ever go to pieces in the way that Olga does in that situation - I don't believe I'm like Olga  - but I found that the way the book was written made me identify with her totally on that first reading, and Clare and Jenny agreed.

From the meeting it looked as if our opinions of this book were divided along gender lines, but Doug, who hadn't been able to make the meeting, had written that, 50 pages in, he was finding it 'captivating and harrowing in equal measure' and couldn't wait to find out where it went next. And, conversely, Ann, who was also unable to be present, had written that she had found the translation clunky and clumsy, and had 'just wanted to shake the protagonist', finding her 'too overwrought, incompetent, incapable'. LIke Mark, Ann found her 'just old fashioned in attitude and assumptions' and simply thought 'At last!' when Olga comes to realise that she has invested too much of herself in her relationship and her role as a wife and mother. There is an agonising section where Olga is trapped in the house with her ailing child and dying dog because she can't undo the lock she has had installed by workmen who made lewd lock-based insinuations as they installed it. She is able to undo it only when the neighbour Caranno arrives outside the door. Ann thought this an outrageously overdone metaphor, and John pretty much agreed with her, but none of the rest of us women did. While it does of course operate on a symbolic level, I read it chiefly not as an authorial metaphor, but as a purely practical effect of Olga's state, which I found realistic (ie she was simply in too much of a state to get the thing open before she relaxed, her situation creating an emotional and physical block about it). Ann had also foreseen the ending of the book early on, but none of the rest of us had done so, since we felt that the book was interrogating traditional paradigms rather than simply employing them. And there was quite some amazement on the faces of us women at Ann's statement that if this is typical of the rest of Ferrante's work she wouldn't be bothering with it. 

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

A literary weekend: a meeting with prize shortlistees, reading with literary icons and a new review of Unthology 7.

On Saturday I zoomed off to London, first to attend a gathering for bloggers to meet the shortlistees of the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award, and then on in the evening to Waterstone's Piccadilly to read at Word Factory.

The Young Writer shortlist is fantastic, and we had a great afternoon chatting to the shortlistees and hearing them read and being interviewed by Andrew Holgate, prize judge and Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (below). You can read more about it on my critical blog, Fictionbitch, and the thoughts it prompted for me concerning innovative fiction and marketing.

After that it was off to Word Factory. I was reading with Lionel Shriver and novelist and Mslexia editor Debbie Taylor, at the end of a day-long festival for short-story writers, Small Like a Bullet. I read the title story from my collection, Used to Be (and the really great audience was gratifyingly receptive, laughing in all the right places - I guess a roomful of storytellers was just the right audience for a story about story-telling!). Debbie then read from her latest novel Herring Girl, which I have recently read: a fascinating and really quite daring tale of reincarnation set exactly where she lives, in a converted lighthouse at the mouth of the River Tyne, with a depiction of the past so vividly real and particular that I suspect Debbie of having indeed been there then! Finally Lionel entertained us with the tale of her commission from a luxury hotel chain, which she fulfilled by writing a story subverting the whole idea of luxury hotels. She then read us the story, in which, with her customary verbal irony, she put paid to the notion of luxury itself.

Afterwards poet and Word Factory organiser Cathy Galvin chaired a discussion that ranged from the the popularity or otherwise of short stories and publishers' attitudes to them, to the question of whether they are leading to brand-new forms that defy categorisation - Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers, one of the shortlisted books in the Young Writer Award, being cited as an example. Here's a photo taken by my online friend and Word Factory regular Oscar Windsor Smith:

And as I was coming back on the train next day, I discovered that there's a new review of Unthology 7 from brilliant writer Aiden O'Reilly. He loves the anthology:

I think this is probably the best anthology I’ve read, including all those ‘best new’ anthologies that come out every couple of years. There are just so many standout stories here

and I am of course thrilled by what he, such a talented writer himself, says of my story:

I loved the prose of Elizabeth Baines’ Looking for the Castle ... it’s just perfectly written.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Reading group: Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

After unanimous praise for our last book, there was unanimous dislike of this book, apart perhaps from the view of Jenny who had suggested it, and who said she couldn't decide whether she liked it or not, and wavered as she read it.

Set in millennial New York, it's the third-person account of one day in the life of twenty-eight-year-old multi-millionaire asset manager Eric Packer as, accompanied by his 'chief of security', he is driven in his limousine across the city to get a haircut, moving slowly through jammed traffic while his advisors, his 'chief of technology', his 'currency analyst', his 'chief of finance', his doctor, his 'chief of theory' wait at corners at appointed times and step in turn into the car for meetings. They are held up by a global protest, a state presidential visit and a massive funeral, and Packer nips out of the car now and then for sexual liaisons and to speak to the wife he has recently married as a financial deal, all the while trading in the yen in a way that will bring about a global and personal downfall. Partway through the day it is reported that there is a threat to Packer's life, but there is such an overall air of dissociation that it's not clear if the threat is real. In any case, the way he behaves from this point on seems guaranteed to push him in the face of that danger.

Well, it was hard for me to call up the events of the novel to write that synopsis, as quite frankly I really didn't care in the least what happened during that day to Eric Packer, and was happy to forget it, and neither did anyone else (apart from Jenny). Clearly the novel is about the alienation of capitalism (which we hardly found an original concept), and its death-wish, and Jenny pointed out that Packer's pursuit of a haircut in the run-down area of the city where he grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances is an inchoate attempt to reach back to life and the 'real'. He didn't know what he wanted. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut. Jenny said that this made her at times sympathise with him as a man damaged by his own ambitions and the financial world that has sucked him in.

However, while this is clearly a premise of the novel, none of the rest of us saw the book as operating on the psychological level that would elicit such sympathy. Packer seemed to us very much a cipher, and the whole thing is told from the outside in staccato, distanced prose mimicking the lack of affect of a financial world. The result is that it is often, or mostly, impossible to work out Packer's emotional state or motivations, so none of us could engage with him or the situation. Another effect was a (seemingly deliberate) loss of significance at moments that should have resonated with significance. An interesting occurrence in the novel (interesting in retrospect) is the fact that things begin to happen on the camera screen in Packer's car before they actually happen in real life - Packer sees himself rubbing his chin on screen in the brief second before he does it - indicating the takeover of virtuality from reality. However, presumably in an authorial attempt to illustrate the normalisation of such a horror, it is narrated so blandly and glossed over so quickly that it has no emotional effect on the reader (us readers, at any rate). Fairly near the beginning, well before it is heard that there is a plot to kill Packer, there is a first-person section, narrated by a Benno Levin and reporting that he has murdered someone unnamed. It was hard to work out whether or not this was a deliberate authorial bid to give the game away and subvert conventional dramatic tension, and it's an instance of the way we all felt we failed to get a grip on the novel. At this point in fact there is yet no hint of a plot against Packer and the link with him personally is not obvious: is it therefore an authorial attempt not to give the game away? But without that connection the piece seems to float disconnected (and confusing) from the rest of the narrative, and why else would the piece be there? However, I for one had already failed to engage with Packer's fate, and the whole section dropped away from my consciousness with little lasting significance. In addition, the piece itself is an essay in lack of significance: although the narrator writes of his motives for the murder and of his anger, he does so analytically (and again in that staccato affectless prose), and there is an air of futility: All through the day I became more convinced I could not do it [ie, commit the murder]. Then I did it. Now I have to remember why.  And: So what is left that's worth the telling?

In conclusion we all agreed that it's all very well writing about alienation, futility and lack of significance, but you have to find a way of doing so that doesn't alienate the reader and make the book itself seem futile and lacking in significance. On the whole, people got the feeling that this was one of those books commissioned and rushed out as a millennial novel by a Great American Author, which did not do justice to the talent we found in DeLillo's White Noise.

Through a last-minute change of venue, Doug failed to make the meeting, and when we called him later he said that he hadn't particularly wanted to discuss the book anyway, as he hated it, it had bored him rigid, though he did think it remarkably prescient in view of the 2008 crash.

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

Reading group: All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Everyone present loved this suggestion of Doug's, Walter Kempowski's 2006 novel set in 1945 East Prussia as the German army retreats from the Russian advance and refugees begin to trickle and then pour from the occupied lands.

Sealed off from the growing chaos in their rundown rural mansion, the Georgenhof, the remains of an estate now largely sold off, is the semi-aristocratic von Globig household: a dreamy young wife, Katharina, known as a beauty, whose army officer husband is away in Italy requisitioning goods for the German army, her introspective twelve-year-old son, a spinster relative who acts as housekeeper, and their few Polish and Ukrainian servants. Unaware of the military threat, and of the slyer threat from their envious Nazi neighbour, Drygalski, the 'kind of deputy mayor' of the new housing estate across the road, the von Globigs merely watch curiously as the processions of refugees pass the house, and make no preparations to leave. Their peace begins to be broken, however, by a series of travellers who call at the house from out of the surrounding snow, and when Katharina is asked to harbour a particularly mysterious stranger for one night, their fate is set.

Doug said - to murmurs of enthusiastic agreement - that he thought the book brilliant. It begins in a mode that at first seems old-fashioned, with leisurely, objective and omniscient descriptions first of the house and then of each member of the household in turn - a mode which does indeed recall the nineteenth-century world from which the von Globigs have failed to be woken. Yet there are strange repetitions that do not belong to the polished, patrician prose of an earlier century: in the section concerning one character we will be told a fact that we have already been told in an earlier section dealing with a different character, and in exactly the same words, as though the fact is being introduced for the first time. There is too much of an overall air of authority to the prose for this to be authorial clumsiness. As Doug said, the precise verbal repetition creates a sense of the fateful connections between the characters - such as between the von Globigs and Drygalski - and, at the same time, of their psychic isolation from each other in the situation. As the book proceeds, there is a growing musicality in the repetition, and the novel builds like a piece of music, moving in simple prose through a dreamy tone towards nightmare as the chaos of war overtakes the von Globigs, and opening out to orchestrate a huge cast of characters, the repetitions becoming sinister: Where would they all end up? ; Had it all been for nothing?

Previously to writing this novel, after coming across abandoned papers and photos revealing the unrecorded experience of German people during the war, Kempowski had produced a monumental non-fiction work of witness, and this clearly informs All for Nothing. What had seemed at the outset a conventional omniscient narration about one family becomes a magnificent piece of free indirect discourse giving witness to whole populations devastated by war, moving from head to character's head and out again, breaking down the stereotypes through which they see each other and showing us all of them - Nazi, Jew, German, Ukrainian, Pole - from every perspective in all their flawed humanity.

The book is translated from the German by Anthea Bell, who also translated W G Sebald's Austerlitz (which we also loved). Once again we were extremely impressed by the translation. In particular, as Ann pointed out, the handling of idioms is especially impressive, easy on the English ear whilst never detracting from the German feel of the prose.

In a nutshell, we all loved it. There was one small doubt, which I think all of us shared: although the novel has something of the quality of fable (rather than of the realist novel), we did find the ending, which I won't give away here, psychologically unconvincing and potentially sentimental, though we forgave the book that for its overall magnificence.

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

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!