Victoria exits, walking with the pursed self-conscious walk of an actor who has too small a part and so has practised a single move to excess.

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal is a quicksilver novel, dazzling and impossible to grasp. It’s one of the finest debut novels I’ve read, catapulting Catton immediately onto my shortlist of authors whose new releases I’ll be eagerly tracking. As I write this I’m reading her The Luminaries (it’s massive, it’ll take me a while).

The story, such as it is, is pretty simple and follows two narrative strands. In the first, a girl in Abbey Grange High School has had an affair with her music teacher, Mr Saladin. It’s an all-girls’ school and the incident shocks teachers and parents both, leading to anguished conversations at home and communal counselling sessions at school. The second follows a boy’s application and acceptance into a local but nationally prestigious drama school and the students’ end of year project – a play about the affair at Abbey Grange.

The affair itself is never shown, instead the reader sees it only in its effects on the school community and in its interpretation by the drama students. Except it’s not that simple, because almost immediately what’s real and what’s recreation is fatally undermined. The book opens with a private saxophone tutor talking to the mother of a prospective pupil, one she doesn’t wish to accept:

‘The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that?  The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.’ She leans forward across the desk. ‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.’

The tutor’s monologue continues, becoming if anything even stranger, more insulting. It can’t be real dialogue. Catton can’t expect the reader to take this as a scene that’s actually happening as written. If not though, what is happening? Is this the tutor’s fantasy of what she’d like to say? No clue is given, not yet anyway.

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Adolescence of course is a time of struggling to get some kind of clue, to how the adult world works, how to behave. The Rehearsal is painfully good on the challenge of those years, the desire to be yourself and to fit in at the same time. There are razor sharp portraits of three very different girls, each affected by the affair (none of them though the one who actually had it), and of the boy at the drama school struggling with the same challenges in a different way.

Catton captures the fever-intensity of adolescence well then, but much more interestingly she captures the sense of trying out roles, possible selves. As the saxophone teacher says to another mother, “‘remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after.” Life for most of us is performative. We assume roles, at home, with friends, at work; masks we put on and take off as required. In a sense who we are varies by who we’re with.

That’s fine for most adults, because you know what your roles are. Adolescence though is a period when the roles you’ll play are up for grabs. Everything is uncertain, most fundamentally who you are. Are you one of the popular kids? If so, is that all you are, and how secure is that position? Are you one of the arty kids? The science geeks? Good at sport? Or are you one of the kids who’re none of those things, without some clear distinguishing characteristic? And would you want anyway your personality to be capable of being summarised in some one-line cliché? Actually, you probably would, at least you’d know where you stood.

Stanley wasn’t sure what marked him out as a person. He hung back at the beginning of the year and let the other boys claim the roles of the leader and the player and the clown, watching with a kind of uncertain awe as they worked to recruit admirers and an audience. He guessed he wanted to be thought of as sensitive and thoughtful, but he didn’t pursue the branding actively enough and soon those positions were taken. He found himself thoroughly eclipsed by several of the more ambitiously moody boys, boys who were studied in the way they tossed their hair off their forehead, thin boys with paperback copies of Nietzsche nosing out of their satchels, boys wearing self-conscious forlorn looks, permanently anxious and always slightly underfed. Whenever these boys began to speak, the class would peel back respectfully to listen.

As the two narrative strands continue so does the question of what’s real and what isn’t. The chapters set in the school are possibly scenes in a play still being written, rehearsals, the references to parts played may be literal because actors will later (are now) playing them. The chapters in the drama school are more traditionally straightforward but then everyone in the school, and the entire syllabus, is focused on creating roles and giving them life. The drama school creates layers of truth and artificiality, with the students learning how to be other people at precisely the time they’re learning to be themselves.

Everything here is refracted, key scenes are recounted and sometimes remembered quite differently from character to character, nothing can be counted on. That of course is part of adolescence too, that sense that the world is phony and the exaggerated sense of drama one carries through those years. It’s true though far beyond that.

It’s common for perfectly competent people with responsible jobs to feel like they’re faking it, as if one day someone will notice they’re making it up as they go along and that really they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a common feeling because most of us are making it up as we go along, we rarely know so much that what we do requires no thought, and if we do we get bored so that’s no solution anyway. We play the part of the adults we know we are. A key difference here between the teenagers and the adults who teach them is that the adults already have their roles assigned, they don’t have the same freedom to pick any more.

All this cleverness could easily come badly unstuck, become irritating even. That it doesn’t is simply because Catton is a very good writer.The book fizzes with astute little observations and comic asides. It’s often very funny (I loved a description of a key scene from the play’s opening night – “The group stand stationary for a moment, Stanley and Isolde looking at each other with an intense smouldering glare that is lost to everyone in the upper circle and in the restricted-viewing sections of the stalls.”). It’s also often painfully accurate, acutely well observed.

She watches as the other girls trip in from the cold, linking arms with their favourite friends so they advance across the room in a rectangular squadron of favourites. They negotiate seating with whispers and nudges and a desperate narrow-eyed panic, always fearful of one day occupying the terrible seats on the periphery which force you to lean across and be forever asking ‘What? What’s so funny? What did she say?’

The book is full of small insights like that one, another I could just as easily have picked comes when Stanley is auditioning for his place in the drama school and suddenly realises that all the girls auditioning are beautiful, while the boys look ordinary “as if the boys were here to audition for ten different character parts in a play, and the girls were all auditioning for a single role.”

I’m going to end on one final quote, chosen because it seemed to me to capture the book’s marvellous intersection of the awkwardly intense self-awareness of adolescence and the underlying artificiality of everyday life. Julia, one of the schoolgirls, is here talking to the saxophone instructor (though of course nobody would ever speak to their tutor, or to anyone really, in quite this way):

‘I’ve been looking at all the ordinary staples of flirting,’ Julia says, ‘like biting your lip and looking away just a second too late, and laughing a lot and finding every excuse to touch, light fingertips on a forearm or a thigh that emphasise and punctuate the laughter. I’ve been thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else’s lines. It’s a comfort.’

I’ve not read a lot so far in 2014, but much of what I have read has been extraordinary (Cervantes, Proust). It’s a testament then to Catton’s skill that this still stands out for me as one of my highlight reads of the year. The Rehearsal is a novel aware of its own artifice and unafraid of it, in fact it revels in it. It discards a lot of basic narrative assumptions, but not as an empty exercise in form, the style and structure are integral to reflecting the themes. Besides, it’s never frustrating because it’s such an enjoyable read.

The cover makes The Rehearsal look like a story driven novel, and the story is one that’s all too familiar and none too interesting. What’s behind it is stranger and better than that, and if it’s not on my end of year list a few months from now I’ll be doing very well indeed for my reading for the rest of the year.

The Rehearsal first caught my attention with  Kevinfromcanada’s review here, and again with David Hebblethwaite’s review here. Both those are very much worth reading (I think it’s one of David’s best reviews actually, which is high praise given the quality of his general output). I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews, but there’s also a very good one at the Guardian, here.

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Filed under Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand Literature

If I could capture just one scrap of her song.

Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Years ago I went with a client to the Buddha Bar in Paris. It was filled with overweight ugly men in their forties and older, each paired with one or more beautiful young women none beyond their twenties. I commented how romantic it was that love had somehow managed to bypass such barriers of age and attractiveness, and left quickly.

Cross-generational relationships aren’t always so cynical. It’s easy to see though how even if the couple got together for less mercenary reasons there can be serious imbalances of power and experience.

In Amy Sackville’s Orkney, Richard, a sixty-year old literature professor, is on honeymoon with his twenty-one year old bride, formerly his star student. Richard is the narrator, everything we see therefore we see through his eyes.

Richard is using the honeymoon to work on a book about depictions of magical women in 19th Century literature. His wife has seemingly stepped from his pages, silver-haired with webbing between her fingers, a selkie, mermaid, finwife or other improbable mythic creature. She is enchanting, and he is willingly enchanted. She spends the days on the beach watching the sea, he spends them writing by the window, watching her through its frame. She exists within his gaze.

All those subtle serpents and slippery fishtailed maidens I have been trying to get hold of; for now it seems foolish to labour over fairy-tales when out there on the shore I have one of my own. I sit quietly here, adding to my endless index of her, observing as she becomes a silhouette.

Orkney

The cover is a fair representation of the book. Amy Sackville isn’t so far as I know a poet, but this is still very much a poet’s novel. The language is beautiful and dense, at its best when describing the constantly shifting Orkney sky and seascape (“the sun was setting, pale yellow like chilled, smooth-churned butter behind new pleats of cloud.”). It’s so beautiful it’s almost claustrophobic. The style lends a dreamlike quality, making it oddly enough a very good book to read when very tired.

Initially I took the narration at face value, and as a result found it slightly irritating. Richard’s new wife was a bit too perfect, beautiful, free-spirited, a creature of the sea unburdened by a past, passionate in bed at night and demanding little during the day.

She is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea, a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued; I hold her fast and she changes, changes in my grasp … But I am no prince and cannot overwhelm her; she will consent to marry but goes on shifting no matter how tight I grip. Her hair falling like a torrent of water in which her fingers flick and twist. I dabble in her shallows and long to dive the depth of her. She is a tiny, perfect, whittled trinket found bedded in the sand, carved patiently, for comfort; she is a spined and spiky urchin with an inside smooth as polished stone, as marble; she is a frond of pallid wrack, a coral swaying in the current, anchored to the sea-bed; she is an oyster, choking on grit, clutching her pearl to her. She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

Slowly however I started to realise that I was taking Richard’s descriptions a little too much on faith. She has no past, or at least Richard doesn’t know her past, but how much has he asked? Does he actually want to know what led a 21 year old to marry someone who could conceivably be her grandfather, or would he rather not look too closely at this dream made flesh? In a way it’s very convenient for him that she’s some faery-creature, because the alternative is that she’s a human being with her own thoughts, desires, goals. If she’s not part of his narrative, she can exist without him.

As the novel progresses, Richard’s habit of watching her through the window as he writes becomes less romantic and perhaps more controlling. When one day he can’t see her he becomes distraught, hunts for her. When he finds her she says “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” underlining (perhaps a little too obviously) how keen he is to deny her independent existence.

Later in the novel he reminisces with her about their first meeting, but they disagree about what she wore. It irritates him, he prefers his stories unchallenged – “it is such a pleasure to dwell on the tale alone, while she is in her bath, and not here to interject with her nonsense about not wearing purple.”

If Richard’s wife seems at times unreal it’s because she is, she’s blocked from view by Richard’s fantasy of her. He’s mythologised her, defined her by reference to his own comfort zone of belles dames sans merci and in doing so has denied her her own reality, an act of control even if it is born of adoration.

Richard wants to possess her, not merely physically but completely. He can’t help being aware though that, with forty years between them, when he’s dead she’ll still be in her prime. He can’t bear the thought – “Oh, it is unfair, it is unjust – that there she will stand, by the graveside, grieving, still existing when I am gone and cannot watch her, and some boy on the edge of the graveyard can.” He becomes increasingly jealous, the more she spends time beyond his frame the more unbearable he finds it:

Now that I am alone, I can only think of [various men on the island, none of them challengers] and of all the other men who have known her or met her or even seen her once and of those who will have her when I’m gone. Of her father and all the secrets she hasn’t told me; I haven’t her future or her past either.

Orkney then becomes a narrative of control. Richard’s descriptions of his wife contain nothing of her inner life, and when that shows through it discomfits him. The novel isn’t unsympathetic to him, he’s not a monster, but at the same time there is something ultimately slightly claustrophobic about his need “to own just some small part of her, for a moment, entirely.” He’s made of her a sea-foam woman, but the problem with that is the more tightly he clutches at her the more she starts to slip from his grasp.

William Skidelsky, in an excellent review in The Telegraph, here, criticised the ending as perhaps a bit predictable and I think that’s fair. As the book reached its final quarter I started to have a pretty good sense of where it was heading. That’s a small (and perhaps unavoidable) flaw though in an otherwise excellent novel.

Starting out, I hadn’t expected to like Orkney as much as I did, I only really read it because I’ve long wanted to visit the Orkney islands and the idea of a well written novel describing the territory was appealing. What I got though, a description of a relationship seen entirely through an idolising male gaze, was much more interesting than I’d expected and the language written in prose “sometimes luminous, sometimes obscure” is a delight.

I’ll end with one final quote, just to give one final sense of Sackville’s use of language and in particular here her use of the rather wonderful word “mizzling” (plus it has a rather well chosen Eliot reference, slightly foreboding to those familiar with The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock).

The seals are out today, looking unhappy in the mizzling rain. Sad sacks of taut skin, occasionally craning their heads and flopping back down again, disconsolate. Although they seem to look unhappy in any weather; tearful, fearful creatures. We have often seen them out, barking, each to each;

Orkney has been very widely reviewed. Two I’d particularly pick out are by the rather wonderful Bookslut, here, and by the no less wonderful Words of Mercury, here. That second review is the one that pushed me over the edge to trying the book, so thanks Alan. On a separate note, there’s a wonderful website on the fascinating folklore of the Orkney islands here which definitely merits a visit.

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Filed under Booker, Sackville, Amy

They had not conquered any stars. A star had conquered them.

The Big Jump, by Leigh Brackett

I suspect most readers of this blog won’t know Leigh Brackett’s name. You’ll know her work though, because she was a scriptwriter on The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back. Quite a CV.

Until recently I knew her as a writer of mid-20th Century sword and planet/planetary romance novels, a genre that doesn’t exist any more. She wrote stories of a Mars that never was, full of princesses, ancient ruins, swords, spaceships and of course mighty heroes. Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only person still remembered for those kind of books, but for a while they were pretty popular and he was never the only one writing them.

What changed for me was a review by Trevor of Themookseandthegripes. He read her rather sombre sounding post-apocalypse novel The Long Tomorrow, and really liked it. Given Trevor isn’t an SF reader as a rule, that caught my attention (besides, it’s always worth paying attention to Trevor’s recommendations). I wasn’t in the mood for sombre though, so when I saw she’d written a novel that was a mix of hardboiled detective fiction and pulpy space opera I knew that was the one for me.

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Arch Comyn is a construction boss. The solar system’s been settled, but nobody yet has managed to make the big jump beyond it, nobody has reached the stars. Humanity may have settled Mars, the Moon, as far out as Pluto’s orbit, but no further and in this future world there’s still buildings that need to be built and hard men needed to build them.

Comyn’s a tough guy, handy with his fists. He’s a character you’ll recognise from a hundred hardboiled novels. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, but he has a code and part of that code is he won’t forget a favour or a friend.

Now one of those friends needs him, because the word is that somebody’s finally made the big jump. Somebody’s punched through space to another solar system, and returned, alive. Ballantyne’s his name, the sole person to come back from this first successful interstellar voyage. The reason that matters to Comyn is that one of his friends, Paul Rogers, was also on that crew and Paul didn’t make it back. He’s out there somewhere, maybe dead, maybe not, somewhere further out than any human has gone before.

The expedition was funded by the fabulously wealthy Cochrane family, and whatever happened they’re keeping tight lipped about it. Ballantyne is locked away on a private clinic on Mars, nobody has access and nobody’s talking. Comyn though, he wants to know what happened to Paul Rogers, so he goes to Mars, breaks into that hospital, gets past the Cochrane guards and sees Ballantyne. We’re on page 10. These old pulp writers really knew how to push a story along.

Ballantyne isn’t as Comyn remembers him:

It was a face that was only a ghostly echo, pitiful, terrible, marked by something frightening, worse than death or the fear of dying. It was something, Comyn thought, that had never before oppressed the children of Sol. A queer terror came over him as he looked at it. Suddenly he wanted to run, to get away out of the room, far away from whatever evil shadow it was that this man had brought back with him from another star.

Comyn knows he doesn’t have long. He’s barred the door but the Cochrane people are drilling through it. He has only moments to find out what happened to Paul Rogers:

Comyn bent over, so that his ear was almost touching the blue transparent lips. A voice came out of them, no louder than the beating of a moth’s wing…

“…listened too long. Too long, too far…”

“Where is Paul?”

“…too far, too lonely. We weren’t meant for this. Desolation…darkness…stars…”

Again, almost fiercely, “Where is Paul?”

“Paul…”

The drill hit metal. The whining changed to a thin-edged screech.

The breathing skeleton that was Ballantyne went rigid. Its lips moved under Comyn’s ear, laboring with a dreadful urgency.

“Don’t listen, Paul! I can’t go back alone, I can’t! Don’t listen to them calling…Oh, God, why did it have to be transuranic, why did it?”

The drill screeched thinner, higher. And the painful whisper rose.

“The Transuranae! Paul, no! Paul, Paul, Paul…”

Suddenly Ballantyne screamed.

That’s all Ballantyne says. Moments later he’s dead. The Cochranes of course burst in, but here’s the thing – Ballantyne never spoke to them, only to Comyn. He didn’t say much of use, but the Cochranes don’t know that and that gives Comyn leverage. It’s page 12, I said those pulp writers knew how to move a story along.

… here he was in the middle of something so big he couldn’t even guess the end of it. It was a game for stars, and he, Arch Comyn, held just one little hole card… But, whatever the Cochranes did to him, he was going to find out about Paul Rogers.

I’m not going to say too much more plotwise. Obviously there’s a second expedition out to the stars, and of course Comyn bluffs his way onto it by playing his one card – that nobody knows what Ballantyne said to him – for all its worth. The Cochranes are right out of the Big Sleep, with an aging patriarch and murder at the heart of the family (and soon on the ship with Comyn). There’s a romantic interest too, naturally, in the form of the untameable Sydna Cochrane. Sydna’s rich and beautiful and she knows it, but she’s surrounded by socialites and dilettantes, she’s never met a man like Comyn before…

I’ll be honest with you, I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff and I gulped The Big Jump down. Of course it doesn’t really make sense. We’re in space, but everything is pretty much like 1955, which oddly enough is when it was written. Take out the spaceships, electric pistols and moon habitats and it’s 1950s technology, 1950s social attitudes. The Cochranes have the most important man in the solar system locked up in a desert hospital where nobody can get to him (it doesn’t really change anything that the desert’s on Mars rather than say Nevada), but of course they don’t have a simple thing like a microphone or camera in his hospital room.

This is not a serious read. It’s certainly not a recognised classic in the way The Long Tomorrow is. The plot is straightforward and the characters are from central casting, but nobody reads a book like this looking for subtlety or psychological insight.

The characters are who they need to be to serve the story – a rough but honourable hero, a princess (sorry, heiress, not the same thing at all), a milquetoast hanger-on/courtier who resents how easily Comyn has found himself at the heart of things, there’s others but they’re equally archetypal. Even so Brackett’s skill as a writer does show. Hokey as the novel is it’s at times strangely powerful. The sense that the first expedition encountered something beyond human understanding, something other, is well captured and Brackett is as good as building atmosphere as she is at keeping things moving.

In the end, The Big Jump clocks in at a punchy 135 pages and it’s as fast a read as any you’ll find. It’s pure entertainment, but well written within the scope of what it’s trying to do. It’s solid, expertly crafted pulp. It’s a great choice as a palate-cleanser, particularly if new worlds and old-fashioned murder are the sorts of things you find refreshing. It turns out SF and crime are like bacon and maple syrup, it doesn’t sound like you should be able to combine them successfully, but actually the result is pretty good.

Joachin Boaz reviewed The Big Jump, here. Trevor’s review of The Long Tomorrow, which I mentioned above, is here. If the idea of SF crime remotely appeals to you by the way and you haven’t already read it you should check out Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel. I can’t promise how it stands up today given I read it as a teenager, but it’s pretty much the recognised classic in the field. There’s also of course Neuromancer, which might as well be The Big Sleep in orbit.

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Filed under Brackett, Leigh, Science Fiction

“Oriane is a snob”

The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust and translated by Moncrieff, Kilmartin and Enwright

Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.

This is not the easiest volume of Proust. In fact, if you’ve never read Proust this volume is exactly what you were probably afraid he would be like – 100+ page descriptions of dinner parties in which very little happens, very slowly.

The writing here is rarely less than beautiful, and of course it’s only part of a much larger body of work, but it’s a challenge. Fortunately it redeems itself at the end, sufficiently so that it doubles my list of books I struggled with only to find the last few pages made the effort worthwhile (Antic Hay’s the other one, if you’re wondering).

As I write this my cat is occasionally jumping up and wandering across the keyboard, as cats do. Any insights of note are therefore likely hers.

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Images of the covers I have, which are rather nice period sketches in red and grey, sadly appear to be unavailable online. The flower covers aren’t bad at all, but I prefer the sketch-covers.

Perhaps even more than most volumes to date, the Guermantes Way is almost two books in one. In the first the narrator begins to enter Paris society, but he is still in many ways a boy. He forms a massive crush on the noted and beautiful society hostess Madame de Guermantes, to whom he has a rather distant connection, and essentially starts to stalk her. He arranges his walks at times of day when he is sure to run into her, and exploits his friendship with the aristocratic young soldier Saint-Loup to arrange an introduction the woman plainly doesn’t want. Wherever she goes, there he is.

Just as previously the narrator hero-worshipped the painter Elstir then held Albertine up as the essence of his desires made flesh, now he again creates a fantasy in place of a person. The difference here is that he had opportunity to meet Elstir and Albertine, while Madame de Guermantes quite naturally wants nothing to do with this odd youth who seems so peculiarly fixated on her. She combines beauty with immense social cachet, and her wit (the Guermantes’ family are famed for their wit) is legendary. As long as she’s seen from afar she’s the perfect woman.

There’s more of course, vastly more. There are whole sections on the life of the family and servants at their new apartment in Paris. There’s a wonderful and painful moment when Saint-Loup introduces his mistress to the narrator, only for the narrator to recognise her as a prostitute who used to work in a brothel he once frequented. Much more painful however is the decline of the narrator’s grandmother.

That decline leads an extraordinary passage, too long to quote, where Proust meditates on how when we see people we mostly see them as we expect to. It’s only when we see them after a long absence, or in some unexpected circumstance or perspective that we suddenly see them as they are. We see where weight has been put on, where frailty has crept up, we see the signs of age or illness that normally are invisible to us because they manifest so slowly that we miss their onset. The narrator’s grandmother is old, and increasingly unwell, and wrapped in her love for him and his for her he hasn’t noticed, until suddenly he does:

I saw, sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her slightly crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.

The account of the narrator’s grandmother’s decline into illness and death is staggeringly well written, and because of that rather horrible. There’s no dignity in it, just frailty and pointless suffering, the body turned from ally to incomprehensible enemy. The grandmother passes from being a person to an object, but this transfiguration comes long before she actually dies as she becomes the subject of indifferent doctors and the servant Francoise who is so eager to show how much she cares that she completely ignores any evidence of the grandmother’s actual wishes. It’s difficult stuff to read.

That’s the thing with Proust. Few people nowadays have lingering illnesses at home with doctors and family in attendance. We die in anonymous hospitals. Few of us too  discover that our best friend’s girlfriend used to be a prostitute. Those are particulars though. Seeing a loved one fall into illness, losing their dignity along the way, that’s sadly damn near universal. Knowing something about someone a friend loves but not knowing whether to tell that friend or not, lots of us have had that particular experience. Part of the richness of Proust is that he reaches through his particulars to the universal human experience underneath.

Quoting Proust is particularly tricky because of his fondness for slabs of text with sentences running on, comma after comma, filled with diversions and allusions, descriptions and dialogue flowing like rivers down a rocky slope occasionally heading off in an unexpected direction and catching in eddies along the way, not always reaching the destination you expected at the outset. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a marvellous set-piece at the theatre where the narrator continues to explore his fascination with the great actor Berma, but finds her star beginning to be eclipsed for him by the yet more glittering world of the salons:

Next to me were some vulgar people who, not knowing the regular seat-holders, were anxious to show that they were capable of identifying them and named them aloud. They went on to remark that these “regulars” behaved there as though they were in their own drawing-rooms, meaning that they paid no attention to what was being played. In fact it was the opposite that took place. A budding genius who has taken a stall in order to see Berma thinks only of not soiling his gloves, of not disturbing, of conciliating, the neighbour whom chance has put beside him, of pursuing with an intermittent smile the fleeting glance, and avoiding with apparent want of politeness the intercepted glance, of a person of his acquaintance whom he has discovered in the audience and to whom, after endless indecisions, he makes up his mind to go and talk just as the three knocks from the stage, resounding before he has had time to reach his friend, force him to take flight, like the Hebrews in the Red Sea, through a heaving tide of spectators and spectatresses whom he has forced to rise to their feet and whose dresses he tears and boots he crushes as he passes. On the other hand, it was because the society people sat in their boxes (behind the tiered circle) as in so many little suspended drawing-rooms, the fourth walls of which had been removed, or in so many little cafés to which one might go for refreshment without letting oneself be intimidated by the mirrors in gilt frames or the red plush seats, in the Neapolitan style, of the establishment – it was because they rested an indifferent hand on the gilded shafts of the columns which upheld this temple of the lyric art – it was because they remained unmoved by the extravagant honours which seemed to be being paid them by a pair of carved figures which held out towards the boxes branches of palm and laurel, that they alone would have the equanimity of mind to listen to the play, if only they had minds.

Phew! There are of course pages more. I’m not sure it’s the most illustrative quote I could have chosen, but I did rather like it. It also gives me the excuse to share a painting I love, which is housed at the Courtauld Gallery not far from where I work. It’s Renoir’s La Loggia:

pierre-auguste-renoir-die-loge-(die-orchesterloge)-08202

What that quote does illustrate is Proust’s wit. Much of that lengthy passage is a setup for that final line. The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity. You have to go with the flow though. You have to sit down, immerse yourself in it, let it wash over and through you. Anything else and it becomes trench warfare, advancing a paragraph or so a day with an increasing sense that you’re not going to make it out of this one alive.

Speaking of trench warfare, we have the second part of The Guermantes Way. In the first section the narrator makes his first real steps in society, joining the salon of Madame de Villeparisis, which is decidedly unfashionable. In the second he finally finds himself a guest of Madame de Guermantes, Oriane given he’s now on first-name terms.

Oriane’s salon is utterly unlike that of Madame de Villeparisis. Where once the narrator attended dinners in which those present gossiped about those not present, repeated the latest stories from society and showed off their wit, now he attends dinners where those present gossip about those not present, repeat the latest stories from society and show off their wit. It’s a whole new world.

To be fair, the guests at Oriane’s salon are the most sought after in Paris. She plays host to princesses and persons of note. Oriane’s wit is sharper than most, though not perhaps quite as sharp as reputation has it, and there isn’t the nagging sense of the slightly provincial which comes through in the scenes at Madame de Villeparisis’ salon. Still, much of what’s best in this section is the narrator’s wilful refusal to even admit to himself that one salon is much like the other, that the Guermantes’ home is not the Elysium he dreamed it would be. That Oriane may, at the end of the day, be merely human after all.

Proust’s character study of Oriane is a masterpiece, not least in his examination of her comprehensive and unremitting snobbery. Oriane does not consider herself a snob, she is an egalitarian in fact, proudly oblivious to class distinctions. It is mere happenstance that she married a man of her own station, that her guests are the cream of society socially if not always intellectually, and that she treats her servants with what seems to be kindness but is in fact indifference to their actual preferences. Were she alive today she would doubtless have a regular column in the Guardian.

In the second of her four pieces on this book Emma of bookaroundthecorner said “We all know a Mme de Guermantes.” It’s true of course, it’s hard to get through life without meeting those whose values are held loudly but lightly. Oriane values artists, but not art; comment, but not analysis. She is unthinking, unreflective, cruel and petty because she swims only in the shallows. It’s not a kind comment on Paris society of Proust’s age that she represents its pinnacle, nor on the narrator that for all he can see exactly what she is he remains just as attracted by it and by the social success access to her promises.

I talked above about this volume being a challenge, but one that ultimately pays off. I’ve spent longer at the dinner parties of Madames de Villeparisis and de Guermantes than I have some dinner parties in real life. Given that part of what’s being shown is the vacuity of Paris society life, that means hours and pages spent at the table with people who can be amusing but rarely interesting.

Part of what makes all that worthwhile is the way Proust uses it to explore broader currents in then-contemporary society, in particular how the Dreyfus affair is becoming a fault-line in France in the way that say abortion is in the US today, with your position on that one issue being taken as a litmus test for where you stand on a whole range of essentially unrelated issues.

So, you’re pro-Dreyfus? That implies you’re politically liberal, anti-militarist, progressive, none of which may of course be true, you might be highly socially conservative and just think that Dreyfus happens to be innocent (or at least that his guilt isn’t proven). If you are though a pro-establishment Dreyfusard you can expect to be viewed with a certain suspicion by others on your side of the political debate, you’re off-message at minimum.

The Dreyfus case brought into conflict issues of trust in the military, the status of Jews in French society (which was horrifically anti-semitic), whether tradition has inherent value or whether it should be challenged and examined. The details of the Dreyfus case itself are now fairly obscure, particularly if like me you’re not French, but the broader sweep of the debate remains very current. It’s a specific manifestation of that age-old conflict between the forces of progressivism and conservatism. Dreyfus is an Edward Snowden, a human barometer of wider political sentiment.

On the subject incidentally of ongoing political relevance, here’s a quote which seemed to me to be as true today as it was when written:

He was, indeed, in the habit of always comparing what he heard or read with an already familiar canon, and felt his admiration quicken if he could detect no difference. This state of mind is by no means to be ignored, for, applied to political conversations, to the reading of newspapers, it forms public opinion and thereby makes possible the greatest events in history. A large number of German Café owners, simply by being impressed by a customer or a newspaper when they said that France, England and Russia were “provoking” Germany, made war possible at the time of Agadir, even if no war occurred. Historians, if they have not been wrong to abandon the practice of attributing the actions of peoples to the will of kings, out to substitute for the latter the psychology of the individual, the inferior individual at that.

The other element of payoff is watching the narrator’s slowly failing struggle to maintain his own illusions. He wants to believe in Madame de Guermantes, and through her in the world she represents and is the paragon of, but evidence is the enemy of faith. Well, generally it is. My own faith in the brilliance of Proust is being slowly rewarded and proven true, but like all faiths it’s sometimes tested and this volume is easily the most testing to date.

Emma of book aroundthecorner wrote four excellent and highly perceptive posts on this volume, all of which can be found on her Reading Proust page here. Emma also links to two articles written on the Vapour Trails blog, the first of which is here. Séamus Duggan is the blogger there, and in the second of his posts he says “Sometime I may be able to distill and analyze these books but at the moment it feels like trying to describe water in motion. Always the same but forever changing.”  I genuinely couldn’t have put that better myself (so I quoted it, blogs are a conversation after all).  There are worlds in Proust, any blog post (even four like Emma did) can only scratch the surface. You just have to dive in.

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Filed under French Literature, Proust, Marcel

… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, Science Fiction, Short Stories

‘You are stubborn,’ said Roger Nowell. ‘I am not tame,’ said Alice Nutter.

The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

 THE NORTH IS the dark place.

Hammer Films used to be a British institution. From the late 1950s through to the 1970s it produced a wide range of independent British horror cinema, much of it very good. These films were made quickly and generally on a very low budget. Many were utterly forgettable, but some were absolute classics fondly remembered to this day.

Recently Hammer has had something of a revival. The brand was bought out back in 2007 and the new owners are putting out fresh horror cinema under that label (including the excellent low key British horror movie Wake Wood, which is in the best traditions of Hammer). They’ve also launched a publishing arm, which has put out horror titles by existing horror writers and in some cases by more literary writers spreading their (presumably dark) wings.

I’m a Hammer horror fan and a Jeanette Winterson fan, so when Hammer published her The Daylight Gate they pretty much had me in mind. Applying literary fiction techniques to genre though can easily come unstuck. Some writers (and readers) assume that genre is a lesser form of writing than literary fiction, the beetle-browed Neanderthal to literary fiction’s elegant Cro-Magnon. The truth of course is that genre is simply writing within a particular tradition with particular goals. Even so, if you don’t understand the tradition, or worse yet talk down to it, you can easily write a book which literary fans will dislike because it has genre elements and which genre fans will dislike because those genre elements aren’t very good.

Jeanette Winterson though isn’t a writer who has much truck with the concept of genre, or literary categories generally. As she said in the context of her Stone Gods: “I can’t see the point of labelling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.” So, is The Daylight Gate worth reading?

Yes, it is (I can’t be bothered with cliffhangers within a blog, they seem so self-important).

Daylight Gate

 THE PEDLAR JOHN Law was taking a short cut through that nick of Pendle Forest they call Boggart’s Hole. The afternoon was too warm for the time of year and he was hot in his winter clothes. He had to hurry. Already the light was thinning. Soon it would be dusk; the liminal hour – the Daylight Gate. He did not want to step through the light into whatever lay beyond the light.

John Law runs into some women of the Demdike clan on his journey. One asks him for some pins, and when he refuses shouts curses at him. he flees, collapses in a nearby inn where he promptly has a stroke uttering but one word, “Demdike”.

That incident, some mocking women and the collapse of an unhealthy man unwisely running through the dusk, leads to one of the most famous witch-trials in English history. The year is 1612 and the King, James 1st of England, is famously obsessed with witches. The book is fiction, but what it’s based on is real. There was a peddler by name John Law. Two women of the Demdike family did ask him for pins, he did collapse and they were later blamed. It ended in ten executions, nine women and one man. It was a pointless act of judicial barbarity, now part of England’s tourist trail.

The characters then in this novel are fictional, but not entirely so. There was a magistrate by name Roger Nowell who acted as prosecutor. There was a court clerk named Thomas Potts who wrote a detailed account of the trial that did wonders for his later career. There was an accused known commonly as mould-heels, and there was an Alice Nutter.

Alice Nutter was unusual among the accused. Where most of the supposed witches were uneducated and desperately poor, Alice Nutter was a wealthy widow. Her links to the other accused were slight, although there’s some evidence that she may have been a crypto-Catholic. Looking back all these centuries later she stands out as an oddity. It’s Alice Nutter therefore that Winterson chooses as the protagonist of her version of these terrible events.

Here Alice Nutter is that most dangerous of things, much more perilous than a witch, she’s a woman independent of the need for men. She has her own fortune made from a royal warrant granted to her by Queen Elizabeth for a magenta dye so deep and rich that none can understand how she makes it. She studied under John Dee, and her appearance belies her years for she perpetuates her youth with a lotion of Dee’s devising.

Is then Alice Nutter a witch? It’s hard to say. Her dye is a question of clever chemistry. Dee is part of the historical record so his presence proves nothing. The lotion could just be an early form of moisturiser, an unusually effective one now lost.

Alice herself is ambiguous in her beliefs about witchcraft. For her the other accused are immiserated, and so desperate for any form of power or control in their lives that they’ll take it even from a Dark Man who may or may not exist. The real crime here isn’t witchcraft, it’s oppression.

“‘Popery witchery, witchery popery'” cries Thomas Potts, “a proud little cockerel of a man; all feathers and no fight.” As the machinery of justice cranks into life it pulls in a wider circle of people. The desperate settle debts through accusations, hoping to help themselves by hurting others or at least to settle a few scores on their way down:

‘I will testify against them all.’ Constable Hargreaves refilled the tankards. ‘And what of Mistress Nutter?’ Jem took his beer and drained it off. ‘I will say to Magistrate Nowell that she promised to lead us and to blow up the gaol at Lancaster and free Old Demdike.’ He started to laugh – high, hysterical. They were laughing with him. He wasn’t alone and outside any more. Not cold or hungry or afraid. He would be safe now.

Alice Nutter believes herself above all this, protected by her wealth and position, and of course by her relative innocence. That’s unwise. She’s bisexual, tending towards a preference for women (this is a Winterson novel after all). She engages with men as equals, enjoys conversation with Roger Nowell who likes her but is all too aware that if he doesn’t comply with her prosecution his own reluctance could land him in the dock right next to her.

So, an intelligent woman able to see the contradictions of the society around her and unable to hide her own separation from it. Put that way it could be a description of Winterson’s first novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. It’s easy to see why Winterson found this story interesting, why she thought there was a book inside it. This isn’t though a historical novel (Winterson doesn’t write those), it’s a horror novel.

The horror here isn’t simply supernatural. This book includes graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, torture and relentless human degradation. This is a novel where two of the accused are slightly better off than the others because they’re young enough for their jailor to want to rape them, and so to let them out of the communal cell for a little while and to wash before he sets to. That’s horror, perhaps too much so. The horror genre is generally a comforting one because it’s terrors aren’t real, but there’s nothing reassuring in unjust imprisonment, brutality and sexual exploitation.

There are scenes too of witchcraft – because most of the accused here believe themselves to be witches, whether they really are or not. One particularly grisly sequence involves an attempt to animate a skull by sewing a dismembered tongue into it so as to summon imagined supernatural aid. In the main there’s no evidence it works, but Alice Nutter is again an exception. It’s not clear cut, but there’s some suggestion that during her time with Dee she may have been involved with matters beyond this world, and that this may be part of her present undoing.

‘Elizabeth has betrayed you. She sold her Soul to enjoy her wealth and power for a fixed time. Now, unless there is a substitute for her Soul, she will lose everything. You are the substitute.’ ‘I do not believe in those things.’ ‘It does not matter what you believe. Believe what is.’

If ever there were a writer comfortable with ambiguity it’s Winterson. Here the real and the unreal meet, but the unreal is a manifestation of the real. Some of the witchcraft is plainly superstition, but it’s uncertain if it all is. If magic exists though its expression is merely a reflection of wider social forces. Witchcraft is attractive because women born without power have few other options. Alice is dangerous not because she doesn’t grow old as other women do but because she thinks for herself. For once the old cliche is true, it doesn’t matter whether what the characters believe is real, all that matters is that they believe it’s real.

The book’s not without problems. There are inherent tensions in depicting real life horror and the supernatural in the same work, and as noted above it’s hard to care about the machinations of the Black Man when you’ve been reading about a serial child abuser a few pages previously. Possible horror, well written, makes it hard to care about impossible horror.

Winterson also overdoes some motifs, particularly the phrase “the daylight gate” which is frankly overused and so becomes rather tedious and the meanings of which are exhaustively spelled out for the reader. There’s a sense too that Winterson just plain crowds too much in, with John Dee entering the tale, and an encounter with Shakespeare, plus a wandering emasculated Jesuit priest (it’s telling that Alice Nutter’s only male romantic interest doesn’t have a penis). For a fairly short novel it’s dense to the point of overflowing, and it’s not as if the trial itself hasn’t already got a rich cast of characters and incident. The book doesn’t need to feel as if everyone of any note in Jacobean Britain is wandering through its pages.

It’s not then an unqualified success. Winterson is combining two forms that don’t easily sit together, and the results don’t always gel. She avoids though the main traps of this sort of exercise, she doesn’t patronise the genre, she doesn’t give the impression she thinks she’s slumming it, the concerns she explores here are concerns she’s explored before in other works and that genuinely interest her.

Ultimately it’s what it says on the cover – a Jeanette Winterson novel. It’s not her best and it’s probably not for those of her fans who don’t also like the odd slice of the macabre, but if like me you’re the target audience for a Jeanette Winterson Hammer horror novel then that’s precisely what this is. Like the Hammer classics of the 1970s it sometimes doesn’t quite convince, and sometimes you can see how the effects work, but for all that it’s still well made and a lot of fun.

Recent evidence by the way points to the Neanderthals being as intelligent and sophisticated as we are, which makes the analogy I used early on in this piece very unfair to Neanderthals. Sorry Neanderthals, and sorry about that whole driving you extinct thing too. Mistakes were made. As a final aside also I can’t write this review and not mention the (utterly unconnected save for subject matter) album 1612 Underture by the Eccentronic Research Council with Maxine Peake – easily the best electronic music feminist satire on the treatment of the Pendle witches out there.

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Filed under Horror Fiction, Winterson, Jeanette

Some thoughts on #readwomen2014

For those of you not familiar with it, #readwomen2014 is a campaign started on twitter by writer Joanna Walsh intended to get people reading more books by women.

#readwomen2014

The concept of the campaign is a simple one, female writers don’t get the same critical attention as male. That’s odd, women read more than men (proportionally and in aggregate) and they get published in much the same numbers. So if women are published equally and women read more, why are they reviewed less?

Part of the answer seems to be that a disproportionate number of professional critics are men, and men famously are much less likely to read books by women than women are books by men (which is both bizarre and frankly depressing). Another part is marketing and perception.Women’s fiction is often given “girly” covers with pastels and sometimes cute taglines. If you’re male those covers are profoundly offputting.

Equally, it’s sadly true that all too often when a man writes a novel of middle-aged depression and marital failure it’s considered a meditation on aging and loss. When a woman does the same it’s seen as a domestic novel. As Joanna Walsh said in an article at Berfrois:

It’s not whether women are published (because they are) but how they are published. Are men more likely to write what’s considered ‘important’ literary fiction, or could it be that more are regarded that way? I’ve heard female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing’s not, when reviews, even press-releases, describe their work as “delicate” when it is forthright, “playful” when it is experimental, “delightful” when it is satirical, “carving a niche” when it is staking a claim (none of these examples is made up).

So, one response to all this is women only literary prizes, which is deeply problematic for a number of fairly obvious reasons – it’s intrinsically sexist, smacks of women needing protecting from market realities, is arguably as logical as a prize for authors with red hair, there’s the question of how bad can things really be with authors such as Eleanor Catton and Hilary Mantel winning the Booker and so on. My response to all those commonly made points would be that prizes exist to focus attention on authors who might otherwise be overlooked, and with a few high-profile exceptions there’s a lot of evidence that women are disproportionately overlooked.

Anyway, back to #readwomen2014. Joanna Walsh wrote an article in the Guardian about her campaign, here, and it caught my attention.It got me thinking about the proportionality of my own reading. I haven’t gone back and checked through my past reviews here to do a gender breakdown, but it didn’t take long to look at my kindle and work out roughly what proportion of the authors on it were women.

14%.

When I first mentioned that I might write this piece, in the comments under my 2013 wrap-up, leroyhunter responded:

LibraryThing tells me I own about 1300 books by roughly 650 writers, of whom only 12% are women. That shocks me, as I percieve myself as reading in a more balanced fashion (certainly nowadays compared to when I was younger).

Leroy’s on 12%. I’m on 14%. Pretty much the same proportion for each of us, and like him I was surprised how weighted towards male writers my own numbers were.

So, what’s going on? I don’t discount the possibility of unconscious bias, but I don’t think it’s just that. I own a fair few classics and there are reasons one would expect a significant majority of those to be by men. Few women historically had rooms of their own, or in other words men had the financial independence needed to write far more than women did (if we looked at percentages of working class authors to middle or upper class I suspect the percentage would be even worse than 14%).

On top of that though there’s the systemic issues of the publishing and reviewing industries. If books are marketed in part by gender, and they are, and if professional critics skew heavily towards reviewing fiction by men, and they do, then serious male readers are likely to find themselves mostly reading books by men for the very simple reason that those will be the books that they’ll be aware of.

Critics are still essential for bringing new books to the public’s attention. Bloggers have a place, of course they do, but even the best and best known bloggers have a tiny fraction of the platform of the most mediocre newspaper reviewer.

So, what to do? Well, you could do worse than decide to read more books by women. In other words, #readwomen2014. I admit, I have mixed views on that because the idea of consciously letting author gender influence what I read suggests that the books I then choose need special treatment, that they wouldn’t otherwise be worth reading on their own merits. 14% though.

The other obvious concern of course is that if I spend 2014 assiduously reading books by women, 2015 will inevitably be the year of reading men, as I’ll have far fewer unread books by women and still a vast pile of unread books by men.

There isn’t a good answer to all of this, and certainly not a single answer. I don’t plan to exclusively read women in 2014, but I am being more aware of what I am reading and I have been looking to see if there are writers I may have overlooked perhaps because of their gender and perhaps because of how they were marketed. So, Eleanor Catton whose The Rehearsals has a cover that makes it look like a teen romance; Anne Enright whose The Forgotten Waltz has a cover that couldn’t make it look any more aimed at women if it had a sticker on it saying “men, not for you!”.

Anyway, there it is, #readwomen2014. I don’t ultimately think it’ll change much, but if it gets a few of us discovering some writers we might otherwise have overlooked then for me that’s a success. More importantly, if it helps raise a debate about the issue of women writers being pigeonholed and sidelined, that’s definitely a success.

We live in an age where increasingly we are an audience of one. Google filter our search results by our past search histories. We have news channels dedicated to our political perspectives. Amazon tailors recommendations by past purchases, leading us always to deeper exploration of what we already know.Children’s toys have never been more aggressively marketed on strictly segregated gender lines (leading in 2011 to the cancellation of the US kids show Tower Prep on the basis that too many girls were watching it and it was designed to sell toys to boys, see here).

This is part of that. I want to be surprised. I want to read what I haven’t thought of yet. That can’t happen in a world where we’re sliced and diced by race, class, gender, age, political affiliation, sexual preference, religion or lack thereof, people who viewed “x” also viewed “y”. That’s why ultimately I agree with #readwomen2014, because being aware of your own choices matters.

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Filed under Personal posts, Publishing

“How is it you keep ending up in the middle of everything?”

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott

I last read Megan Abbott back in 2008. Die a Little was a solid slice of 50’s-style noir and an exploration of the darkness lurking under the suburban dream.

It wasn’t original, when isn’t there darkness lurking under the suburban dream? Originality though is overrated. Die a Little was good, and that’s much more important.

The End of Everything is set during an indeterminate 1980s summer. We’re back in the suburbs, and 13 year old Lizzie is about to find her world turned inside out when her best friend Evie goes missing. What follows is a claustrophobic heat-haze of adolescent anxiety and desire as Lizzie inserts herself ever-more into Evie’s home and into the police investigation into her disappearance.

Abbott

Like most adolescents Lizzie doesn’t get on that well with her (single-parent) mother. She’d rather live next door, she’d rather be Evie’s sister and live with Evie’s glamorous older sister Dusty, and with Evie’s father, Mr Verver, who is fun and cool and who Lizzie has a bit of a crush on.

Mr Verver isn’t like the other adults, he’s not boring. He’s mischievous, full of laughter, he plays boardgames with the kids and cheats openly and outrageously, he teases Dusty about her boyfriends and their shy hopes to get further with her than she’ll let them. He’s the nicest man Lizzie knows. She’d give anything to be in Evie’s place, to live with Dusty and Mr Verver.

All I could think was how wondrous it was—oh, the two of them. Everyone wanted to fall under their enchantment, her gaze hard and appraising, his so soft, so welcoming.

That was how it was in that house, and there was so much fun to be had. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I remember thinking—was it just five days ago?—to talk about boys with Mr. Verver? To play Uno with Evie for hours and watch Dusty try on her pastel dresses and listen to music with Mr. Verver until dawn?

With Evie gone though the laughter’s gone too. Mrs Verver is upstairs sedated, rarely seen. Mr Verver spends his days desperately hoping for some word from the police, some clue to what happened. There’s an Evie shaped hole in his house, a hole Lizzie could perhaps fit into. Evie and Lizzie were so close after all that they were almost the same person, or at least looked they were.

We shared everything, our tennis socks and stub erasers, our hair elastics and winter tights. We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time.

Back in second, third grade, all the parents always saying, Do the dance, do the dance. The first time was at the tap recital. “Me and My Shadow,” in our matching silver leotards and shiny top hats, our hair the same muddy color, the baby curls sprayed to shellac by Madame Connie, our teacher. Then everyone made us do it again and again, at birthday parties, on Easter. A hundred times in the Verver basement, my living room, at school, step-shuffle-back-step, step-shuffle-back-step. Over and over, cheeks painted red. Until I grew two inches and Evie’s hair went dark and finally we never did that dance again.

But I bet I still could do it. I bet I could do it right now. These things, though, they end.

At 13 you’re still a child, but perhaps no longer entirely so. Lizzie and Evie used to have no secrets, but adolescence changes you, it gives you things to be secret about. It lets you see things you used not to, and gives you new things to want.

“He was rubbing on you like it was Boy Scout camp,” Evie said later. “Like if he rubbed hard enough he could start that fire, get that merit badge.”

Arguably that’s not actually an apposite quote for this bit of the blog, but I found it too funny not to include.

Lizzie remembers a car following her and Evie the last time they were together, and when she tells the police it’s the first real clue they’ve had. Lizzie’s briefly at the investigation’s heart, and soon after she’s searching her memory for any other clues she might have forgotten that she can throw out and in doing so make herself all the more important, all the more the thin chain of hope linking Mr Verver to the possibility of Evie being found. She’s at Mr Verver’s all the time now, comforting him, chasing memories, so often present that Dusty starts to resent her.

As so often, what’s interesting here isn’t the crime, what happened to Evie and whether she’s alive or not. What’s interesting is Lizzie – her desire to take Evie’s place, her own investigation of Evie’s absence which owes more to her need to come up with new clues that she can take to Mr Verver and the police than it does to a desire to find Evie.

Lizzie then is a young Nancy Drew, but though her point of view narration is full of talk of love, purity and the desire to help her motives aren’t justice or truth. Sex is never described directly in this novel, but it runs through it, seeps through the pages. It’s a book suffused with sex, but inchoate and indirect. Of course it is. Lizzie is only 13 and this is still just the 1980s. She doesn’t know enough to describe it any better.

Child narrative voices are notoriously difficult to get right. Lizzie’s worked for me, her frustration with the adult world and her simultaneous pull back to the certainties of childhood and forward to boys and freedom and biology, but I have seen other reviewers query if at times she’s perhaps too adult and knowing.

“Why was Mrs. Verver throwing up?” I’d asked my mother, who’d sighed and said, gravely, “I don’t think you understand what’s happening.”

And that’s when I stopped listening, shut my ears from the gloom and murk of her. It’s almost like she savors the terribleness—everyone does. Like it does things for them, makes everything seem more exciting, more momentous, more real.

Then again, I found Adrian Mole utterly unpersuasive when I read him around age 14. Perhaps it’s a question of our own experience, I was more a Lizzie than an Adrian which may be why one rings true for me and the other not (or perhaps Adrian Mole is an adolescent boy as depicted by someone who never was one, whereas Megan Abbott was once an adolescent girl).

The prose here is often beautiful in a slightly breathless endless-summer way (quite different in style to Die a Little, Abbott is good at reflecting character through description). I remember the book through a golden haze, not precisely, but impressionistically (in fact, I had to remind myself of some of the details in order to write this).

In the end though prose alone can’t carry a crime novel. Character is key. End stands or falls with the depiction of Lizzie, whether you believe in her. Abbott is the author of the unusual viewpoint character, crime seen not by a hardboiled detective but by a housewife or a teenage girl. That’s what makes Abbott an interesting read.

Looking back, I’m surprised it took me so long to return to Abbott. She’s not a literary writer, but she’s not trying to be. She’s an extremely good crime writer and a refreshing one. If I had to make a comparison it would be to Joe R. Lansdale, not because they write anything like each other (they don’t), but because they write within genre but in new ways. I could live a long time without meeting another maverick detective who has a troubled home life and doesn’t go by the book, but I’ve always got space for a Lizzie.

For those who may be interested and based in the UK The End of Everything is 99p on UK Kindle as at the time of writing.

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Filed under Abbott, Megan, Crime Fiction

‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

The Devil Rides out, by Denis Wheatley

After Don Quixote I wanted a bit of readable nonsense. Something light and easy to dip into that wouldn’t require meta-anaylsis and constant attention, much as I enjoyed all that with Quixote.

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who were once household names and are now barely remembered. He wrote a mixture of spy/action thrillers and books about strange Satanic cults threatening the UK. Often he used the same characters in both. He’s perhaps best remembered now for the classic Hammer House of Horror movie that was made based on this novel.

As a teenager one of my relatives was a Wheatley fan, and I read quite a few of them. He seemed sinister and worldly, not least because of the famous Author’s Note in this particular book. There he talks about the pains he’s taken to ensure the accuracy of the magical practices he describes, and then goes on to say:

All the characters and the situations in this book are entirely imaginary, but, in the inquiry necessary to writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.

Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.

Now that’s an author’s foreword! Did he believe any of it? Who knows? But if we assume as I think we should that anything written by an author between the pages of their book is part of the book, what’s happening here is Wheatley hooking his readers before they even get to the first page proper of his story. He was a bestselling writer for a reason.

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What follows is a highly entertaining mix of the sinister and the prosaic, all written in that rather portentous style used in the foreword with its capitalisations and emphasis on how evil lurks under the surface of the everyday.

Simon Aron, a “frail, narrow-shouldered Englishman” misses a reunion with his old friends American adventurer Rex Van Ryn and “elderly French exile” Duke de Richleau. Rex and the Duke have had adventures together before (in previous books) fighting the Russians, but now they’re worried that something may be wrong much closer to home.

They drive to Simon’s house, where they discover him hosting a curious party with a strangely international guest list. When they arrive they’re taken by most of the other guests as having been invited, but that puzzles some for with Rex and Duke there are now fifteen people present, two surplus to requirements…

All this is beyond Rex, but not the Duke and he soon realises that what menaces Simon is far worse than communism, it’s Satanism (though in other books Wheatley, deeply right wing, directly linked the two). Wasting no time they knock out Simon and flee with him, but not before they encounter a beautiful young woman named Lilith who catches Rex’s eye and a “fleshy, moon-faced man” with “unsmiling eyes” named Mocata who appears to be leader of this curious band.

What’s wonderful in all this is the incredible snobbery which pervades the book. This next quote comes just after all I’ve just described and more – Rex has found himself near in love-at-first-sight with Lilith, has discovered that one of his oldest friends is trafficking in some bizarre black magic cult and has just fought a mute manservant and eluded vicious satanists. He’s now back at the Duke’s with Simon:

As Rex laid Simon upon the wide sofa he glanced round him with an interest unappeased by a hundred visits, at the walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and at the lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps, which hung above them.

I’m as much a sucker for a well-bound book as the next man, but in those circumstances I have to admit it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be thinking about. The whole book’s like that. Later when Rex and the Duke slip back into Simon’s now empty home to look for clues they take the time to note his preferred brands of champagne and foie gras before finding themselves attacked by a malevolent spirit lying in wait for them.

Writing that I realised I’d seen that odd combination of danger and high-end living once before, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps it’s a genre thing. The adventure genre is fairly vicarious by nature, and Wheatley wrote more Bond-esque fiction (much of it starring the Duke) than he did black magic tales.

I’m probably making it sound terrible. The thing is though, it isn’t. It’s oddly effective. Wheatley litters the text with asides from the Duke on his knowledge of black magic and it all sounds so matter of fact that it becomes strangely credible. The Duke knows there won’t be a dog at the house, because ‘Dogs are simple, friendly creatures but highly psychic. The vibrations in a place where Black Magic was practised would cause any dog to bolt for a certainty.’

What follows is a duel between good and evil. On one side is the Duke and Rex, fighting with white magic, prayer, fast cars, a good right hook. On the other is Mocata with his curious powers of mind control, telepathy and summoning baleful spirits. Simon is the prize. If he can be made to sign his name in the Devil’s book on May Day Eve his soul will be lost forever, and he lacks the strength to resist Mocata’s influence on his own.

I won’t spoil the plot, though if you’ve seen the movie you already know it. I will say though that it contains at least two great set piece passages, one where the Duke and Rex interrupt a grand sabbat at which Satanists from across the UK and beyond are gathered, and another where they find themselves besieged by spirits in a lengthy night during which Mocata exercises the full force of his power against them. It’s a fun read that does precisely what it promises to – Wheatley was never a great writer but he was a very reliable one.

Part of Wheatley’s appeal back in the 1970s when this stuff was huge was that he had supposedly researched all this in minuscule detail. Wheatley created an image of himself as a man who knew much about dark things most were unaware of, and perhaps he did. There are after all plenty who do believe in black magic and all that, and it’s entirely possible Wheatley did research them.

It’s that sense of veracity which makes this work. The characters aren’t exactly subtle, the plot hardly complex. Wheatley’s prose is often stilted in tone and there’s an awful lot of exposition. For all that, Mocata and his cult seem convincing. There seems to be some form of underlying logic to their powers, a sense of a greater cosmology underpinning it all. Wheatley’s vision of evil forces lurking just under the surface of (then) contemporary British life seems all too persuasive.

In the end it’s the detail, the exposition I just cited as a potential fault, that pulls it all together. Take the following rather dry passage where the Duke erects some magical defences:

Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In their rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward, and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.

There’s no real drama to any of that. It’s a mix of dry explanation and Wheatley making sure that his research is visible on the page. I’m back to that sense of veracity again though. He renders the extraordinary, ordinary and in doing so makes it very easy to imagine. In that sense he’s very cinematic.

All this ordinariness makes it all the more chilling when something truly macabre does occur,  such as when someone observes of Mocata that “‘He is walking in the sunshine–but he has no shadow!’”. Most of the book is conversation, preparation, more conversation. Then there’s an action sequence, or a shadowless man on a sunny day.

Is The Devil Rides Out a good book, whatever that means? Ultimately, yes, because you have to take books on their own terms. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s not intended to be beautiful or to challenge. It’s an entertainment, a piece of thrilling nonsense designed to while away a dull afternoon or train ride. It does that very well.

It’s dated, both in terms of style and certainly in terms of attitudes, but so’s Ian Fleming and that doesn’t stop people reading him. In his heyday Wheatley’s main output was his pure spy stories, but his black magic tales are the interesting ones because nobody else wrote this stuff quite like he did. As if it were all real. He’s now being rereleased on Kindle, which is how I came across this title, and I think he deserves a place in the British horror canon.

The ultimate test of any author is whether, having read them, you plan to read more by them. I’ve already bought Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. I don’t expect it to be well written, I don’t expect it to be remotely credible, but I do expect it to seem credible just for the time I’m reading it – that’s Wheatley’s secret.

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Looking back on 2013

The fact I’m writing my best of 2013 post in late March 2014 shows how much I’ve struggled to find free time lately. That’s had an impact on my reading of course, with the result that 2013 was very much a mixed bag of a reading year for me.

On the one hand I read something in the order of about 32 or so books over the entire year, which seems distinctly on the not very many side (though looking back on my 2012 roundup I seem to have said much the same thing then, so perhaps that’s my new normal). On the other hand, I discovered Winterson, read some Joyce and Hamsun, and got to grips with Don Quixote so what the year lacked in quantity it at least made up for in quality.

Before I begin, it’s pretty much a given that blog posts should have at least one image to break up the text and to look pretty on iPads and similar devices. I didn’t have anything relevant, so here’s a Tamara de Lempicka picture of someone looking wistful.

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Right, without further ado, here’s my quite-a-long-time-after-the-end of year roundup of the best books I read in 2013, set out according to category of book. Please note that each category has been determined using the latest scientific and artistic principles, and not as might seem according to my own arbitrary whims.

Best German modernist novel: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. 2013 was a year where modernist classics featured heavily in my reading. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book more discussed than read, which is true for most modernist works, but the difference here is that it isn’t even discussed that much. It should be. It’s a blisteringly good book with definite Dos Passos-esque resonance (another writer who doesn’t get the press he should) and an absolutely incredible portrait of an age.

I won’t lie, Alexanderplatz is a challenging read. That’s partly for the sheer unpleasantness of some of the scenes (particularly the slaughterhouse section) and partly because Döblin uses cinematic montage techniques (very modern back then) to bring it all to life. Well worth the effort though.

I tend to dislike state of a nation novels. If you’re going to do one though this is how you go about it. Döblin captures the sheer messy vitality of Berlin, the potential and the waste and the progress in all spheres save the human. It’s an extraordinary book, and in most years would have been a top contender for book of the year.

I was going to have a best novel set in Berlin category, but that would also be Berlin Alexanderplatz. If I had a best novel set in Berlin that isn’t Berlin Alexanderplatz then it would of course be Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, but good as that was it’s been too good a year in the end for it to get its own category so it makes it into the runner-up list rather than the finalists. On to the next category!

Best novel by an author with deeply disturbing political sympathies: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. This is again an extremely challenging read, but here more for the relentless refusal by Hamsun to make his nameless protagonist remotely sympathetic. Hamsun gives no easy analysis to the reader, his protagonist slowly starves on the streets of 19th Century Oslo (then called Kristiana) but as becomes evident he doesn’t really need to, it’s his own pride and inability to compromise that takes him to such extremes.

This is an intensely psychological novel examining in unsparing forensic detail a single man’s consciousness at the level of every fleeting thought and emotion. In my review I described it as ” the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction”. It’s also a superlative translation of a book that’s seen a fair few different translations.

That takes me onto the next hotly competed category:

Best novel that inspired a seriously odd computer game: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. it’s getting fashionable at the moment not to like this one, perhaps because of its perma-presence on the US canon, perhaps because of the movie, perhaps because when everyone says something is a masterpiece there’s a natural contrarian desire to say “oh no it isn’t”. Well, I’d love to be contrarian, but unfortunately it is a masterpiece. Happily it’s not a daunting masterpiece, it’s not some experimentalist behemoth with shifting narratives and playful structures and whatnot. It’s just superbly well written.

Gatsby is also, like quite a few of the older books on my list this year, a novel that remains utterly current. When Alexanderplatz was written, or Hunger, or Gatsby, we didn’t of course have mobile phones, the internet, social media or any of the other tools by which our lives have been transformed.  I’m not one of those who say that none of these things have really changed anything because they plainly have, but people remain the same and part of the power of great literature is to speak to who we are across cultures and centuries even if the details of our lives have altered beyond recognition.

While I’m on the early greats, here’s an even earlier one:

Best unsurprisingly good novel: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Perhaps the most commonly paraphrased opening sentence in the English language, and easily one of the best known stories of classic literature. Like Gatsby though it really is very good. The surprise of it is that it’s a much harder-headed novel than you might expect. Austen isn’t afraid to look directly at the centrality of money and power and on their impact on people’s, particularly women’s, lives. I wouldn’t call it gritty, as that would give the wrong impression, but it’s certainly not soft-focused.

Going back to the modernists we have:

Best short story collection about paralysis: Dubliners,  by James Joyce. Again it’s all about the writing, which is the common thread of this year’s best-of’s and probably of most years’. Dubliners is by and large a much easier read than you might think, although speaking English as a native language, having some sense of Catholic tradition and possibly some links to Ireland will all certainly help. Joyce marries the social to the psychological, and does a bloody good job of it.

Best poetry collection largely on the strength of one poem in the collection even though some of the others are pretty good: Prufrock and other Observations, by T.S. Eliot. What can I say? Prufrock is my favourite poem. I couldn’t read this during the year and not have it in my end of year list. It has an air of melancholy and regret  and some of the saddest lines ever written in English. Utterly beautiful.

Right, next category, drumroll please:

Best novel I never expected to like: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve long had something of a prejudice against Jeanette Winterson’s novels, not sure why. It’s a fortunate prejudice though because it means that now I’ve finally discovered her work I have a new author I can be genuinely excited about. I love Winterson’s work, what I’ve read of it so far, and she’s already become one of my go-to authors for when I need a reading lift.

Oranges is perhaps her best known, not least because of the very good TV adaptation. The book though is stranger and warmer than the adaptation, and perhaps more importantly is shot through with love not least for the Winterson character’s mother who it would be easy to paint as the villain of the piece. It’s beautifully written and has a fine observational wit and I absolutely loved it. Which takes me next to:

Best novel inspired by one of my favourite cities on Earth: The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. Yup, this is the first time I’ve had the same author twice in my end of year list. I said I liked her. Winterson captures a truth of Venice (there’s more than one), explores the nature of history and story and mixes fable and romance in a way that overall I thought was a huge success. Does it all make sense? Actually, yes it always does, just not literally so. Winterson’s telling you stories, trust her.

Best novel I considered just handing to people and urging them to read it: Ask the Dust, by John Fante. If I believed in World Book Night, which I don’t, and if I could choose a book to be given out as part of it, which I can’t, this would be a strong candidate for the book I’d choose. Clean, graceful prose. Emma caught the links between this and Hunger which I’d missed, and wrote a damn good review of it which is linked to from mine. Incredible evocation too of Los Angeles.

Right, we’re into the home straight (I googled that, I always thought it was the home strait, no idea what it means). Here’s my final three categories before my book of the year.

Best novel about a terrible relationship that should never have happened: My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes. This is just a little stunner of a novel. Well written, carefully observed and shockingly overlooked until the always excellent NYRB Classics brought it back to us. It’s a wonderfully disillusioned novel and is a particularly good choice if you need something short and punchy after a longer, flabbier read. Hayes doesn’t waste a word.

Best novel to shock your early twentieth Century bourgois Swedish friends with: Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg. This one is here for the character of Doctor Glas himself, whose head we inhabit for the duration of the novel as he grapples with moral dilemmas while ignoring the sexual undercurrent of his own thoughts. It’s most Freudian. You wouldn’t think an early twentieth century novel about medical ethics would be such a gripping read, and yet it is. Definite thanks to Caroline for bringing this one to my attention, since I’m pretty sure that otherwise I’d never have read it.

Best much, much darker than you expect novel: The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is an odd one. It starts out like a light naturalistic comedy, and then progressively turns into blackly surreal farce. It’s a cruel book, which should sound like a strike against it but Bainbridge’s acid wit makes the whole thing a delight not despite that but because of it. One to give those people who think books are somehow improving, they really aren’t.

That takes me to my final category, the best book I read in 2013. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in any year, up there with Madame Bovary and I have no higher praise than that.

Best novel: Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel de Cervantes. In 2013 I read Joyce, Fitzgerald, Winterson, Austen, and all the others listed above each of them an exciting and important writer. Despite that roll-call of excellence I knew from the moment I sat down to write this post what the best book of the year would be. If I’d just read volume one it would have featured somewhere above (under the category, Best novel about brutalising a deluded old man) but it wouldn’t have been my book of the year.

The second volume of Don Quixote though is the masterpiece by which other masterpieces can be judged. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and one of the most modern novels I’ve ever read (a theme of this year’s reading as I discussed above). It’s funny, intelligent, tragic, and structurally incredibly clever without getting lost in its own cleverness. I know it’s daunting. I was daunted too. Counting both volumes together it’s a big part of why I didn’t read more books this year. It was worth it.

Ok, so that’s it. My best of 2013. I’m a little disappointed to have had to cut Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, but in a list which features Austen, Cervantes, Döblin, Eliot, Fitzgerald and Joyce I’d hope she’d forgive me.

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