Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading group: Autumn by Ali Smith

Reading Ali Smith's early short stories made me a great admirer, and I was bowled over by her novel Hotel World (published as a debut, though in fact her second, as I discovered when browsing in a second-hand bookshop and coming across an earlier novel Like - an example, I presume, of the publishing industry's obsession with debuts and lack of faith in literary authors whose first novels - usually inevitably - have failed to be bestsellers in the commercial terms to which the industry now seems to be in thrall). I bought Like - a lovely silvery hardback from Virago, but I have never actually read it, since before I could do so our group discussed the novel that followed Hotel World, The Accidental, and, along with other members, I was rather disappointed. I had read none of her novels since, until Doug mentioned that he had found stunning her recent Women's Prize-winning and Booker shortlisted Autumn, and I therefore suggested it for the group.

I read it twice beforehand. Ali Smith's prose is wonderfully lyrical yet tough and informed by an extremely sharp intelligence. It has however a breathless headlong quality that tends to force me, at any rate, to read her novels so fast and greedily that I feel I'm often missing their undeniable depths and connections. (That's less likely to happen with a short story, I feel, as you come to a short story with a certain expectation of concentration, which slows down the reading process - plus the fact that a short story is more easily read a second time). Autumn is particularly headlong, I found, which everyone else in the group assumed was a function of its reported particular mode of production: apparently Smith was so late delivering her previous novel, How to Be Both, that in order to make the previously announced publishing date the publisher had to rush it out in double-quick time; when Smith realised how quickly it could be done, she suggested a quartet of books to be published seasonally, named after the seasons and responding to our current political and social times. Autumn, published in the autumn following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, is the first of the four. Certainly when I got to the end of my first reading, I thought I must have missed a great deal and so read the book again, and my two reactions to the book were markedly different.

As the book was my suggestion, it was up to me to introduce it at the meeting, but I didn't really want to talk immediately about my change of perception, since everyone else present had read it only once. Even as I was explaining this, I could see on the faces of everyone else present negative reaction to the book (Doug, the book's admirer, hadn't been able to make the meeting), and since their shared attitude was clear, I did then talk about my two reactions.

The book opens with a slew of literary references concerned with anarchy:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washed up on a shore.

Those steeped in literature will recognise in this very short passage an echo of the opening of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times), a reference to W B Yeats' poem 'Second Coming' written in the aftermath of the First World War and the Easter Rising (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold), and another recalling the shipwreck and anarchy of Shakespeare's Tempest. After this we segue into a dream sequence in which the 'old old man', Daniel Gluck, notices alongside him the (clearly contemporary) dead bodies of refugees while tourists suntan themselves nearby, ponders the fact that he is dead, drowned, remembers odd disconnected moments from his past - a postcard he bought once, conkers he once took as child to his baby sister - and, while the Greek nymphs of  Ovid's Metamorphoses dance in the near distance, turns, like the nymph Daphne, into a tree.

The next chapter switches tack and style abruptly: we are in a post office in summer 2016 and, in a far more naturalistic and wryly comic episode, thirty-year-old Elisabeth Demand, a junior lecturer in art history, is encountering the ludicrously obstructive bureaucracy of present-day England in applying for a new passport, and, while she is kept interminably waiting, reading Aldous Huxley's futuristic warning Brave New World. It is only in the next chapters that the two strands come together: Elisabeth leaves the post office for the Maltings Care Home, where hundred-year-old Daniel Gluck, once a writer of song lyrics, is in the 'increased sleep' period that precedes death, and it becomes clear that the events of the first chapter are the substance of his dream as he lies in his semi-coma.

Slowly we will learn that Daniel was the neighbour of Elisabeth and her single mother when she was a child, that he and Elisabeth developed a special relationship in which he nurtured her intellect and clearly set her on her art history career, and that now she is visiting him and reading to him while he sleeps. Meanwhile, however, we are treated to Elisabeth's own surreal dreams about Daniel as she nods off over her book beside his bed, conversations she imagines having with him should he wake, flashbacks to their actual conversations, full of word play, when she was a child, more of Daniel's own memories, seeming divergences concerning well-known real-life figures who are not however immediately identified - a tramp who only on my second reading did I recognise as Charlie Chaplin, the woman at the centre of the Profumo sex and spy scandal, Christine Keeler, and the forgotten female sixties pop artist, Pauline Boty (who is only now, in the 21st century, receiving recognition) - and what seemed on first reading an odd scene set in Nice in 1943 in which a Jewish woman is rounded up with others by the Nazis and resists. Running along through it all is a portrayal of the effects of the Brexit referendum result on British society, at one point directly echoing the oppositions of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities - All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they'd really lost. All across the country, people felt they'd really won - as well as a plot concerning Elisabeth's mother's lesbian awakening and rebellion against the mysterious and sinister fencing off of common land, presumably for the penning of immigrants. Interjected now and then are descriptions of the season as summer slides into autumn.

All of this, and more besides, is packed into a short book (the publisher has pumped it up with large print) and the effect for me for much of my first reading was of many very clever ideas and connections - a wide range of instances of oppression and resistance - being thrown into the air by an astute intelligence, but that I simply wasn't grasping it all and that maybe it didn't actually make a novel. It was only in the latter half of the book that I came to see that the elements, rather than being just the ponderings and imaginings of an author, all played their part in a novelistic structure. The Tempest, it will turn out, is the play that Daniel Gluck took Elisabeth to see as a child; very belatedly it will become clear that Charlie Chaplin is relevant not only for his political resistance but because Daniel showed the child Elisabeth Charlie Chaplin films; the tree dream is an echo of one of those childhood conversations; Pauline Boty is central because Daniel Gluck once knew her and was in love with her 'way of seeing' (and Elisabeth now teaches her work), and Christine Keeler because Pauline Boty painted her image and Daniel attended her trial. Pauline Boty, we will learn, is the woman for whom he bought the postcard mentioned early on, and on my second reading that early mention carried a significance that was so lacking on my first reading that I simply forgot it altogether. The resisting Jewish woman is Daniel Gluck's sister, lost after all in the Holocaust. I didn't actually realise this until my second reading. In fact, she is named - Hannah Gluck - but there was so much else going in the novel and I was reading in such a headlong fashion the first time around that I only vaguely registered this connection and read on before I could digest it, and then forgot it. It was only on my second reading that I realised that the song lyric that Daniel once wrote and which is now used in a supermarket TV advert is a song commemorating his sister. Then, in retrospect, his early memory of taking conkers to her as a baby took on an emotive resonance, while on my first reading, like the postcard, it seemed to have no significance at all. The Tale of Two Cities references are not simply pulled out of the air: it is one of the books that Elisabeth, having found it in a second-hand bookshop, reads to Daniel as he sleeps.

In other words, I said to the group, when I came to read the novel a second time, I was able to read everything through the frame of the history of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and their shared conversations and preoccupations, at which point what had seemed the first time a bit of mess, perhaps, became a jigsaw puzzle with everything slotted into place. Everyone present acknowledged that the book was beautifully written on the level of the sentences - that there is no doubt that Smith can write - but nearly everyone said, in chorus, that, having read the book only once, their impression was, frankly, that it was indeed a mess. Ann, who was perhaps the most negative, said she felt that the book needed editing (to make the frame more obvious from the beginning) and this prompted speculation that the book had been written and produced in too much of a rush. Mark felt that although he could see from what I'd said that things did indeed slot together in retrospect, he wasn't sure that they really, thematically, fitted. What had sixties pop art and the Swinging Sixties got to do with Brexit? I felt convinced for a moment but then suggested that it was intended as a contrast, a time of hope and experimentation and the relaxing of rules contrasted with the closing down - the suspicion and resentment and austerity - of Brexit Britain, but people weren't very convinced, and there was some demurring about what the sixties in reality represented: the book seems a little starry-eyed about it all, but as Jenny pointed out, for most people the Swinging Sixties happened elsewhere.

The novel is clearly about the redeeming power of the arts in the face of political and social oppression, but the group were dubious about the wealth of literary references in the book: we did wonder what readers who didn't know them would make of them: would it give them a feeling of exclusion? Jenny said they made her think that Ali Smith was 'too clever by half'. Everyone was extremely interested in Pauline Boty, about whom none of us had previously known or known much, but I think it was Clare who said that she felt that the section describing her life and work came over as an injected lecture rather than an organic element of a novel, and there was general agreement on this. People also agreed that the Brexit sections, well written as they were, seemed levered in for the sake of contemporaneity, Mark being particularly strong on this, and Mark said he was really irritated by the sections describing the season, which he felt were also there simply to fit the original brief. Clare said she was really interested in and touched by the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth - and everyone agreed - but she felt that it was overshadowed by all the other elements and thus underdeveloped (and again people agreed). I was persuaded by this in the meeting and agreed, but think on reflection that reading with a clearer sense of the frame of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and preoccupations - the fact that so many of these things are elements of their relationship - would go a long way to dispel this impression. There were odd things that really sparked Clare's interest, she said, but which were only mentioned briefly, and that she wished had been developed, such as the fact that Elisabeth once had a boyfriend who expressed jealousy of her platonic love for Daniel. (I wondered whether this was an instance of a glancing technique that can work well in a short story, but perhaps not so well in a novel.) I did agree, and still think, that the mechanical architecture of the novel feels a little forced in order to bring the thematic elements together, the fictional Daniel Gluck having a relationship with the real-life Pauline Boty, for instance, and in particular his attendance at Christine Keeler's trial.

John kept quiet for most of the time as he felt much more ambivalent than the others. He too had read the novel only once, and he too had found it problematic, but like me he considered Ali Smith a brilliant writer and knew that she didn't make mistakes, and felt, as I had, that a second read would make him see it very differently. Jenny however questioned whether you should have to read a novel a second time in order to get it at all.

Trevor didn't make the meeting, but Ann had bumped into him beforehand. He hadn't liked it at all, he said: it certainly didn't come into his 'dead good' category. It was left to Doug to praise the novel. He wrote afterwards to reiterate how much he had loved it: 'I found it really uplifting. We are all time travellers!'

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Reading group: the Vegetarian by Han Kang

We approached Han Kang's The Vegetarian, suggested by Doug, with interest and even excitement. In translation it won the South Korean author the 2016 International Man Booker Prize, and the classy Portobello paperback edition carries rave comments from, among others, linguistically innovative novelist Eimar McBride, Deborah Levy, the Independent and the Irish Times.

A very short novel, it concerns a female protagonist, Yeong-hye, who one day, seemingly out of the blue, defies social convention and her own previous conforming nature by stopping eating meat, disconcerting her conventional and disapproving husband and family. Her father tries to force meat into her mouth, her instant response to which is to make a suicide attempt, and in reaction her husband leaves her. Eventually she stops eating altogether. 

The first somewhat puzzled comments came from Ann, who, unable to attend, sent us her thoughts beforehand. She said she was glad to have read it, and thought it an interesting insight into a culture very different from our own, but found it a discomforting read, and not simply, it seemed, for its events. The book is divided into three sections. The first is narrated by the husband and takes us to the point of Yeong-hye's suicide attempt. The second moves on to a time after Yeong-hye's husband has left, and the narrative voice switches to third person and adopts the viewpoint of Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a video artist who becomes obsessed with using Yeong-hye in an erotic artwork, her naked body painted with flowers. The third section leaps on again further in time, and is the third-person viewpoint of Inge-hye, Yeong-hye's sister, now living alone with her child after having discovered her husband's erotic exploitation of Yeong-hye, and visiting Yeong-hye in the hospital to which she has had her admitted for her self-starvation. Why, Ann wondered, should only one character be awarded the first person - the character indeed who is least actively involved in the story, and who after the first section drops out of it altogether - and not the Vegetarian herself?

Others of us had had the same puzzled reaction to this structure, and some, in particular John, wondered, as last time, if, in view of the book's phenomenal success, we were perhaps judging by inappropriate Western literary standards, and seeing structural uneasiness where others saw brilliant innovation. I said however that in reading about the book and its author I had discovered that the three sections had originally been published separately as short stories, which, rather than novelistic inventiveness, could explain what we had experienced as an unevenness of narrative voice and focus. As it was, we had been led to think at the start that the book would be a psychological study of an unreliable narrator, a cold, convention-bound husband, only to find it was nothing of the sort, all interest in him dropped.

The only insights we have into Yeong-hye's viewpoint and psyche, however, are via the very minimal dialogue reported by the others, and the dreams featuring blood and murder that prompt her meat aversion, which are indeed presented as she related them, in the first person, but couched, in the uncomprehending husband's section, in distancing italics (and indeed lack specificity and are melodramatically cliched):
Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can't pin down...but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
For the whole novel her psychic reality is thus distanced from the reader, and while it is clear that she is reacting to the oppressions of her society - the strict rules regarding diet and women's role -  for much of the novel the precise trigger for her specific reaction is kept a mystery: all Yeong-hye will say is that she 'had a dream'. In fact, she is in danger of being as much a mysterious object of curiosity to us as she is an object of eroticism to the brother-in-law.

The precise cause of her self-starvation is indeed revealed near the end in her sister's musing, but Doug said that he found this structure unsatisfying and even clumsy, a point with which I and others agreed. When we finally understand the underlying cause there is no sense of 'Oh of course!' prompting one to recognise in retrospect clues that had been there all along. Jenny said, But there were the dreams! I objected that the dreams were too vaguely symbolic to be related to the particularity of the cause. Jenny argued that that was what dreams are like - they are symbolic, and it is often not clear what the symbols refer to. This of course is true, but my point was that in a novel there would need to be some element - perhaps some more specific language in the depiction of the dreams, or a different structural presentation of the dreams - that would (in retrospect) create a more organic connection for the reader. Clare now came in and said that actually, she didn't agree that one needed to have that sense of 'Oh, of course!' at a novel's revelation. Doug and I felt strongly that it was essential, but since we were judging from the Western novel tradition, we agreed to differ. 

It is interesting, and perhaps ironic, that we didn't feel that the structure of the novel was organic, since the supreme motif of the book is vegetation: Yeong-hye begins by deciding to eat only vegetables, but eventually wishes to become vegetable herself, submitting first to her brother-in-law's erotic flowery transformation of her body, and finally believing that she has actually turned into a tree, at one point standing on her head with her legs in the air as branches. This symbolism is one of the striking aspects of the book, and which no doubt, along with the eroticism of the central section, has brought the book so much attention. However, because we don't share Yeong-hye's interiority, we just have to take for granted Yeong-hye's wish to be a tree, and its precise connection to the cause of her anorexia is unexplored on the deep, emotive and psychological level. What exactly is it about whatever has happened to her that links (thematically) to this specific wish? This question remains unexplored (for an answer in a similar scenario one can go to Ali Smith's novel Autumn, which we'll discuss next time). For me that was a real disappointment, and perhaps relates to a kind of cognitive dissonance that vaguely disturbed me when I first saw the book's Portobello paperback cover. Why would the cover of a book called The Vegetarian (and featuring a woman who wants to become vegetable) feature so prominently, as it does, a bird's wing? (It is only on closer inspection that you notice that the dark background consists of the veins of a leaf in extreme closeup.) In fact the image of a bird flying does occur at least twice in the book (once in the middle of the book, I think, and then again at the end), and on reflection it's a symbol of the escape Yoeng-hye is seeking through her self-starvation. In a way, it's the real (and more apposite) thematic symbol but, appearing only briefly and belatedly, it is heavily overpowered by the vegetation symbol, and the issues attached to it - the fact that Yeong-hye needs to escape, and the issue of the precise experience she needs to escape from, are thus subordinated.

We commented on the language, which Clare and Jenny had found stilted, presuming that this was a matter of culture. Others of us noted that it was uneven, generally formal but sometimes dropping, even mid-sentence, into the vernacular. This is especially so in the section narrated by the stiff, conventional and unfeeling husband: Before my wife turned vegetarian, he begins in his pompous way, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way ... However, if there wasn't any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, but then he will wonder if she might genuinely be going soft in the head, and congratulates himself on not 'kicking up a fuss', before eventually reaching out and touching her 'philtrum' (the groove between her nose and mouth). In spite of the fact that the prose has been widely praised as concise, we found it sometimes imprecise: after leaving the room and pushing the door to behind her with her foot, Yeong-hye is described as 'swallowed up through the door [my italics].' We were unable to know whether these seeming infelicities were created by the translation or were present in the original.

All in all, we were interested to have read the book, but once again we were left wondering quite why a book should have received such massive adulation, and suspecting once again that Western exoticism may have come into play. 

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