Category Archives: Booker

The Bourgeois Gentilhomme was one of many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald

I’ve long had a vague desire to live on a boat. As a child I went on canal boat holidays with my father’s side of the family. I remember chugging gently down English waterways, visiting tiny villages, sunshine and calm water. I don’t know if that’s what it was actually like of course. Memories of childhood holidays aren’t particularly reliable, mine are hazy snapshots at best. That’s what it was like now though, whether it’s what it was like that then or not.

There’s something profoundly romantic about the idea of living on a boat, either that or something desperate. It’s a choice of those two because you either want to do it because despite the inconvenience and impracticality the idea just plain appeals, or you have to do it because you can’t afford an alternative.

Fitzgerald did live on a boat for a while. She writes from knowledge, and it shows. This is a short novel, around 180 pages, and not a lot happens. It’s a portrait in miniature of people living not quite ashore, people who’ve drifted out of the mainstream, fragile people.

Offshore

The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

It’s 1961, the sixties before they became the sixties. Nenna lives on a houseboat off Chelsea with her two young children, barely getting by. Her marriage has broken down, though perhaps not irretrievably, but for now at least she’s isolated and vulnerable, torn with self-recriminations and an internal narrative that mercilessly interrogates her own failings.

That sounds bleak, but it isn’t because for all she’s on the margins she’s not alone. Her neighbours on the river include Richard, retired ex-Navy and leader of their little community who lives with his exasperated traditionally middle class wife who just wants a nice house in the country; Maurice, a rent boy who’s also Nenna’s closest friend; Willis, an artist in his 60s specialising in maritime portraits that have gone distinctly out of fashion; there are others. The exact members of the community ebb and flow, but what they have in common is that none of them quite fit the larger and brasher world onshore. As Maurice says to Nenna:

You know very well that we’re two of the same kind, Nenna. It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear, you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard who can’t give up being half in the Navy, Willis who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead …’ He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.

There’s barely a plot. Willis wants to sell his boat, but it’s in terrible condition and if he’s to succeed he’ll need some help from the others covering up how bad it is, which is a fairly big ask. Nenna wants to get her husband back, to bring him to live on the boat with her, but he’s a deeply conventional man who blames her for the failure of their marriage (as does she in her low moments). Maurice is being forced by a local gangster to store stolen goods on his boat, putting him at risk of arrest if he complies and violence if he doesn’t. Any of those situations could be spun out into a rich and rewarding story if an author wanted to, but that’s not what Fitzgerald’s about here. Instead her interest is in the people themselves, their situations are products of their characters.

In his brilliant foreword Alan Hollinghurst describes Offshore as “tragi-farce”, and I can’t better that. It’s a sad novel in many ways, with gentle people being bruised by a world that isn’t really made with them in mind, but it’s written with a warmth and humour that makes it often very funny.  It opens with a meeting of the various boatowners, each addressed by the name of their boat (Richard, or Lord Jim I should say since that’s his boat, is a stickler for doing things the right way). There’s the Dreadnought, the Rochester, the Grace, and there’s the Maurice which used to be called the Dondeschipolschuygen IV until Maurice, realising that’s what everyone would have to call him, promptly changed its name.

It’s funny too because it’s so well observed, and because by and large people are funny, life is funny, despite (perhaps because) it’s often so terribly serious. Here Willis, the artist, takes Nenna’s children on a trip to the Tate:

Once at the Tate, they usually had time only to look at the sea and river pieces, the Turners and the Whistlers. Willis praised these with the mingled pride and humility of an inheritor, however distant. To Tilda, however, the fine pictures were only extensions of her life on board. It struck her as odd, for example, that Turner, if he spent so much time on Chelsea Reach, shouldn’t have known that a seagull always alights on the highest point. Well aware that she was in a public place, she tried to modify her voice; only then Willis didn’t always hear, and she had to try again a good deal louder. ‘Did Whistler do that one?’ The attendant watched her, hoping that she would get a little closer to the picture, so that he could relieve the boredom of his long day by telling her to stand back.

The children are perhaps the least realistic part of the novel (though in fairness I don’t think the novel is aiming for strict realism, it knows it’s fiction). Martha is eleven, “small and thin, with dark eyes which already showed an acceptance of the world’s shortcomings”. She’s all too aware that her own maturity has already eclipsed her parents, and unlike her mother she sees “no need for fictions”. Tilda is six, a child of the river who sits far up on her mother’s boat’s mast daydreaming. “Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness.”

Neither Martha nor Tilda attend school. It doesn’t seem to matter, both are spectacularly precocious, the only real adults in the book. In Martha’s case you could make a fair argument that children of parents who’re struggling to cope often are forced to mature ahead of time, but that’s I think missing the point. The children are a contrast to the adults, Martha engaging with the world and Tilda creating her own. They’re coping, succeeding even, which is more than anyone else is managing to do. It’s when they grow up that all that might change.

What shone for me here is Fitzgerald’s empathy and quiet precision. She can capture a character in a sentence, like when Nenna’s husband accuses her of having lost his squash rackets:

 ‘You mislaid them deliberately?’

‘I don’t do anything deliberately.’

Or when Richard is described as “the kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning.” She doesn’t judge her characters, doesn’t turn them into playthings for our amusement as say Nabokov does. This is a book filled with compassion, with characters who care for each other where almost nobody else cares for them, and written by an author who at times seems almost as if she’d like to reach into her own book to help them. Take this example, where Nenna finally meets up with her husband but they fall back into a terrible row:

And now the quarrel was under its own impetus, and once again a trial seemed to be in progress, with both of them as accusers, but both figuring also as investigators of the lowest description, wretched hirelings, turning over the stones to find where the filth lay buried. The squash racquets, the Pope’s pronouncements, whose fault it had been their first night together, an afternoon really, but not much good in either case, the squash racquets again, the money spent on Grace. And the marriage that was being described was different from the one they had known, indeed bore almost no resemblance to it, and there was no-one to tell them this.

Offshore is a quiet book, unshowy. Its charms are small ones, delicate moments of observation or humour. It was published in 1979, long after the period it describes, so the characters live not just in a physical hinterland but a temporal one too, offshore in time as well as space. It’s a time when Britain is starting to change, when austerity is making way for a new prosperity. The certainties that men like Richard lived by are on their way out, but by 1979 it must have been plain that the world that came next was no kinder to those who didn’t quite fit.

I’ve already bought another Fitzgerald, her The Bookshop. I’m looking forward to it. Offshore isn’t the kind of novel I typically like, it’s a bit polite, arguably a bit Hampstead, but it’s well written and as ever in the end that’s what counts. It reminds me a bit of Anita Brookner, another novelist who could be described as perhaps too polite, too Hampstead, but again an author who could definitely write.

Given it won the Booker it’s not surprising that Offshore has been fairly widely reviewed. Here‘s themookseandthegripes on it, with a good discussion in the comments (I note Guy Savage didn’t take to it so much); here‘s Kimbofo on it, good as ever; and here‘s a typically good piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian on his Booker blog which I highly recommend reading for some background on the novel’s apparently rather conroversial Booker win. Finally, here‘s an excerpt of Alan Hollinghurst’s blisteringly good foreword as published in The Telegraph.

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Filed under Booker, Fitzgerald, Penelope

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

She walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or a lady agitator.

The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge is one of those writers who seem to slip out of fashion, never quite given the recognition they deserve. She was nominated five times for the Booker, never winning (except for a rather bizarre consolation prize for which nobody else was nominated). Since her death she’s remained in print, but I see relatively little discussion of her online.

Today her books are firmly marketed as women’s fiction, a category largely made up by marketers which helps shift units but at the same time pigeonholes a wide range of female authors by implying their books are essentially entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, and there’s no dichotomy between being serious and being entertaining (several of the books I’ll soon be writing up are both). Still, if a book comes with pretty pastel covers, or faux-vintage photos of vaguely 1940s/50s-ish people against a black and white background, it’s sending a message about the contents. Much the same as if a book comes with big bold letters and a picture of a gun, helicopter or other piece of high-tech hardware.

Why do I care about all this? Well, partly because I’m a Guardian reader of course and it’s the sort of thing we care about, but mostly because while it does undoubtedly help sell books it also blocks certain books off from certain readers. So, if anyone reading this has been put off Beryl Bainbridge by the covers (the one below features two women nothing like those in the novel, and is utterly misleading), the blurbs, the impression given by all that of her work, here’s the important bit: she can write.

bottle

The Bottle Factory Outing opens with Brenda and Freda, two flatmates who decided too hastily to live together and have long since found out they have little in common. Brenda is a mouse of a woman, constantly cowed and put upon (“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it.”) . Freda is near her opposite, voluptuous and full of rather theatrical life.

They had gone once to a bureau on the High Street and said they were looking for temporary work in an office. They lied about their speed and things, but the woman behind the desk wasn’t encouraging. Secretly Freda thought it was because Brenda looked such a fright – she had toothache that morning and her jaw was swollen. Brenda thought it was because Freda wore her purple cloak and kept flipping ash on the carpet.

They share a North London bedsit and work together in a bottle factory, bottling Italian wine. Rossi, a manager, gropes Freda every day (“He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly.”), she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t like to say no either and she can’t get Brenda to pay enough attention to help her out. Brenda anyway is too preoccupied with the handsome Vittorio, who she is determined to have a grand romance with.

Does it sound prosaic? Initially it is. It’s also though beautifully observed and painfully funny. Here’s an example of Brenda and Freda’s domestic arrangements:

Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable – but then she had never been married.

Bainbridge crafts each sentence perfectly. She has an extraordinary talent for small and cutting observations. Both Brenda and Freda are brilliantly captured. I believed in them and to an extent sympathised, which given they’re comic characters and arguably stereotypes is no small achievement. Bainbridge also has a knack for language that illuminates the everyday, but from unexpected angles (such as at one point where she describes a “block of flats, moored in concrete like an ocean liner.”, an image I adored).

Freda has organised an outing for the bottle factory employees. A van is booked, picnic lunches packed and the absent factory owner has contributed two barrels of wine for the day. Everyone is looking forward to it, everyone except Brenda who’d rather not go but doesn’t want to put anyone out.

At this point in the novel I was expecting a light observational comedy. I’d already noticed a black vein to the humour, but it was nothing compared to what followed. Obviously I won’t spoil what happens for those who may read it, but it’s fair to say that by about the half-way/two-thirds mark I was wondering what Bainbridge was trying to achieve. The essentially realist opening turned increasingly surreal as the day of the outing unfolded; the plot became less likely, the tone more vicious.

Stick with it though and Bainbridge does have a plan. Looking back the cruelty, uncertainty and bleak irony were always there, right from the beginning. Here’s the novel’s opening:

The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

It’s a collision of romance and brutal reality, as is the whole novel. Freda is self-indulgently moved by the death of an old woman she didn’t know “‘I like funerals – all those flowers – a full life coming to a close …'”. Brenda notes that the dead woman’s life didn’t look that full, seeing as she only left behind a cat and had no mourners. Brenda’s life is rather miserable, and while perhaps Freda’s is too Freda certainly doesn’t see it that way. Brenda is escaping a past, Freda is looking forward to a future even if it is one that’s largely founded on self-delusion. Of the two, if I had to choose, I’d rather be Freda.

In case there’s any lingering doubt I thought this was superb. It’s funny, disturbing and exceptionally well written. It won’t be my last Bainbridge. Thanks are therefore due to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations, who turned me on to Bainbridge in the first place. Were I to compare her to any other author it would be JG Farrell, who can also make the reader laugh while showing them terrible things (I reviewed his Troubles here,  if you like one its worth trying the other).

For some other reviews of The Bottle Factory, I’d recommend this rather excellent review by Savidge Reads, this from the bibliolathas blog (particularly good for quotes) and this review by Gaskella which seems to have inspired a lot of different people to read the book.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Booker, English Literature

Her cosmetically butchered face harboured nothing but fear and received ideas.

Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

In selecting quotes for this review I noticed an interesting thing. I noticed that I’d only picked descriptive passages. It’s not that James Scudamore can’t write good dialogue, he does, but he writes great descriptions.

Isn’t that just the most tremendous cover? It also perfectly fits the book. Vintage often have good covers, but they outdid themselves here. Anyway, back to the book.

Heliopolis tells the story of Ludo, plucked from the slums of Sao Paolo as a baby and adopted into one of the city’s richest families. His adoptive father is Zé Carnicelli, known to all as Zé Generoso. Zé’s English wife (“Whenever she was in the room it was as if an angel had descended, to look willowy and concerned, and empathise, professionally.”) discovered Ludo and his mother in the Heliopolis favela (slum) while engaged in one of her many, many, charitable activities. Ludo’s mother shared some beans and rice, all the food that was available. A connection was formed, which led to Ludo’s mother being taken on as cook in Zé’s weekend country retreat, to Ludo escaping the world he was born into and years later to Ludo becoming part of the family his mother cooked for.

That’s a big debt of gratitude, and that’s Ludo’s problem in a nutshell. He grew up a servant’s child but closer to the family than any other servant, because of the miracle of their intervention and his rescue from absolute poverty. Now aged 27 he works for an advertising company owned by one of Zé’s friends, he has an apartment in Sao Paolo and a life that couldn’t be much further from Heliopolis if he lived it on Mars. His whole life is defined by an act of charity. He belongs nowhere: too rich to fit in with the poor he’s left behind, but without the unquestioned certainties of those born to the helicopter-driven classes.

Fitting in isn’t Ludo’s only problem. There’s also the fact that he’s sleeping with his married adoptive sister, does nothing at work except turn up late and hung over, and has recently started receiving mysterious phone messages from a stalker who wants to destroy his life. Ludo’s contradictory worlds are all about to crash into each other.

Heliopolis then is a novel with a story, and (allowing for one fairly massive coincidence around the middle of the book) it’s a solidly constructed story which zips along and has enough twists and turns that the book became a positive pageturner. The chapters alternate, between what’s happening to Ludo now and hs memories of his childhood on the Carnicelli’s weekend retreat, and for me at least both narrative strands were equally interesting which also helped pull me through the book – curious to see where it was going next.

Where Heliopolis shines best though is not its story, entertaining as that is. It’s in the descriptions, from shantytowns to exclusive gated communities with private guards. Here’s an example:

Town planning never happened: there wasn’t time. The city ambushed its inhabitants, exploding in consecutive booms of coffee, sugar and rubber, so quickly that nobody could draw breath to say what should go where. It has been expanding ever since, sustained by all that ferocious energy. And here, just as in the universe, anything could happen.

And here’s another, from later on the same page:

… turn a corner and you might find lush foliage, pristine pavements, smoked-glass security gatehouses, and deep, glinting swimming pools. For every wrecked no-go area there is an optimistic new condominium, for every rotting ruin a daring new spire. The city is being reclaimed all the time, either by the forces of development or those of deterioration: the only constant is its power to change. Mobility is celebrated to the point that whole highways are named in honour of Workers and Immigrants. That is why for every desparate hopeful arriving today from the northeast, and every Japanese, Italian, or Lebanese who pitched up in previous years, the city is a stronghold to be stormed; a glaring citadel of opportunity, with swarms coming from all sides to hurl themselves at its ramparts, prepared to end up dead on the wals if they fail. But they must not fail.

Brazil, Sao Paolo, pulses with life in this novel. Scudamore has a journalist’s eye and a neat turn of phrase and the two combine to make his vision of the city both evocative and persuasive. Whether it’s also accurate I have no idea (I’ve been to Rio, but not Sao Paolo), but it feels accurate and given it’s a novel and not reportage that’s good enough for me.

Scudamore is also excellent at swift portraits of the Paulistanas themselves. Here he is on the guests at Zé’s weekend retreat:

Guests would arrive in armoured 4x4s or mud-spattered jeeps: tanned men with bellies and moustaches, who chatted by the pool all weekend gripping beers and caipirinhas; stunning wives on sunloungers with tinted hair and manicured nails and cosmetically enhanced bodies, rotating in the heat like rotisserie chickens.

That last image there, of the wives rotating like roasting chickens, brings me to the book’s other great love beyond the city itself. Food. Each chapter of Heliopolis is named after a dish which features in that chapter (Feijoada, Jacaranda Honey, Sea Urchin) reflecting the centrality of food to Ludo’s own salvation. His mother’s cooking brought him from the gutter. As a child she showed her love in the treats she gave him while she cooked for the Carnicelli’s. As an adult he is a talented home cook himself with a love of fine restaurants. I said already that Scudamore has a talent for description. This is not a book to read when hungry.

Then there were the accompaniments: heaps of finely shredded green kale fried in garlic and oil, roasted cassava flour, pork rinds, plantains, rice, glistening slices of orange. And endless ice-cold jugs of passionfruit, cajú, or lime batida to help it all on its way.

So, any reservations? On one level not particularly. The plot rattles along and comes to a neat and satisfying conclusion. Everything hangs together. I found it a fun read and will likely buy more of Scudamore’s books in future. That’s not a bad result. On another level though this is a novel which was longlisted for the 2009 Booker and which comes festooned with critical praise from the Guardian, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman, Literary Review, the Financial Times, the Glasgow Herald (and the Daily Mail, but that’s not Scudamore’s fault). There are quotes on the rear and inside front covers from all these highly regarded newspapers and magazines using phrases like “brilliantly inventive”, “beautifully clear prose”, talking of “writing [which] is exemplary” and throwing around words like “superb”, “extraordinary” and “triumph” (full marks to the FT though for the phrase “A kinetic novel” which is absolutely spot on).

That’s a lot of praise, and it leaves me in the odd position of knocking down a novel which I really enjoyed. It is good, it is fun, it’s a very easy read, but the story doesn’t do anything hugely surprising, it doesn’t contain any great insights (unless you were unaware of Brazil’s huge wealth disparities) and it doesn’t do anything with form or structure. It’s well written, but it’s not a prose driven novel. It’s not seeking to push literature forward. It’s seeking to be a well written and tightly plotted book which says something about contemporary Brazil, and it succeeds at precisely that. It just doesn’t succeed at more than that.

I now feel rather like I’ve punched a baby, because this isn’t remotely a bad book and it doesn’t deserve to be criticised for not being what it doesn’t ever set out to be (what book does?). The problem with hyperbole though is it leaves nowhere for an author to go. Scudamore has talent, but his characters aren’t as interesting as his locations and there’s a sense near the end of the plot taking over when for me it was the least exciting part of the book (it’s the engine that keeps the book moving, sure, but engine’s aren’t always at their best when they’re showing). Put simply, I think Scudamore has the potential in him for better books than this one.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada first put Heliopolis on my radar with his review here (and draws an excellent parallel with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which I wish I’d thought of). Guy Savage also reviewed it here. It hardly needs saying that both of course are well worth reading and they picked different quotes to me (though the one they have in common was on my list for consideration). Their quotes were descriptive passages too.

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Filed under Booker, Brazil, Scudamore, James

some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain. An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt. Of course that’s not true. Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one. As a factoid I think that’s fairly widely known now, but knowing that and feeling the truth of it are of course two very different things. We may know that our memories are not necessarily reliable, but they often seem so very definite.  Besides, without our memories who exactly are we?

That’s a question beyond the scope of this blog (though if I had to answer I’d say we’re a constellation of cognitive processes with an illusion of continuity, and that the very concept of self is deeply problematic). It’s at the heart though of Julian Barnes’ coolly distant Booker winning novel The Sense of an Ending.

The book opens with a short list of memories. not all of which the as yet unnamed narrator actually saw. Immediately we’re on warning, if one of these memories is imagined rather than real, can any of them be trusted? As the narrator says, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

From there the novel develops in two reasonably distinct halves. The first is the narrator’s (who we eventually learn is named Tony) memories of his final years at school and his early years at university. The key here is that as a reader we’re not experiencing Tony’s early life directly, we’re experiencing what he remembers it as being like which may not be the same thing at all. This is underlined, time and again, with barely a page passing without Tony/Barnes reminding the reader that none of this can necessarily be trusted (“Later that day – or perhaps another day –”, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.”).

A new boy, Adrian, joins the school and becomes a key member of Tony’s small clique of friends. They consider themselves philosophers, intellectual rebels, they look to great art and literature for inspiration and they are convinced as was I and as no doubt were many reading this that they have insights that the old and adult world never knew or has long since forgotten. They look down on those around them with all the haughty certainty of adolescence, and they look forward to lives which whatever they may be will not be like their parents, or so at least they hope.

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.

After school they separate, as school friends tend to do, and Tony goes to university where he meets his first girlfriend, Veronica. It’s the 1960s, but one of the charms of the novel is how it brings out that for most people the 1960s is not the 1960s as we now picture it (just as having grown up in the 1980s I can testify it wasn’t for me much like the 1980s I now see on tv). If the sexual revolution is happening, it’s not happening anywhere near Tony. If people are turning on, tuning in and dropping out they’re not inviting him to do it with them. 1960s England for most is not that different to 1950s England. Our collective memories turn out to be not that reliable either.

The second half of the novel is years later, in the present. Tony is in his 60s now. He’s retired, divorced though still on good terms with his ex-wife, he has a daughter and while they’re not as close as he’d like they get along. He has a grandson he dotes on. His life is calm, comfortable, untroubled and deeply ordinary. That’s how he likes it. His teenage yearnings for more were a product of being a teenager, nothing deeper (“I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”).

Tony’s existence is placid, and then he gets an unexpected bequest from Veronica’s mother who’s recently died and who he’s not heard from since an unsuccessful visit to meet Veronica’s parents decades previously. That leads him to contact Veronica, and to proof that how he remembers those years (and in particular how he remembers what lead up to a particular terrible incident) may not be quite how they actually happened.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

I won’t talk more about the plot. What happened is interesting, but it’s not the point. The point is memory, age and the myth of self (Anthony Powell would have liked this book). Back in their schooldays Adrian challenged a history master with the idea that all one can say of history is that “something happened”. Later Adrian quotes what appears to be a French historian named Patrick Lagrange who said that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (what appears because as best I can tell Patrick Lagrange is himself fictional, whether Adrian made him up or Tony misremembers is unknowable).

As a teenager Tony looked forward to an uncertain future. Now he looks back to an uncertain past. He has his account of what happened, but of what use is that? After all, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.” Tony sets off on a dogged quest to understand what really happened all those years ago. As a narrator though he’s hopelessly compromised. If he can’t trust his own memories, and so we as readers can’t trust his descriptions of the past, how can we trust his perceptions of events now or the conclusions he draws? The whole book becomes slippery, with all that can be relied upon being Tony’s own emotional response. Everything else is, at best, approximate.

To the extent The Sense of an Ending has a weakness it lies in its tone. At the start I called this a coolly distant novel, and that’s in large part because Tony is a rather detached figure (detached from his own life in fact). As Tony is the narrator the book’s nature must follow his, and the result is a book that can at times be hard to love. When Josipovici criticised Barnes, and other contemporary English writers, it was exactly this sort of bloodless text he was arguing against.

Against that is one simple fact. Barnes can write. The book is filled with sentences that are absolute delights, frequently very funny and sometimes cruelly telling. I loved this as a summary of a certain kind of life: “We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted up to London every day.” And similarly this as a description of a certain kind of English town: “one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.” As a final brief example, I thought this line unbearably sad: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

At the end The Sense of an Ending becomes a sort of detective story, but one in which the solution doesn’t really matter and anyway can never be certain. Tony tries to understand what really happened in his past, how his personal account differs from the truth, and the extent to which he was responsible for what happened.  Those are all the wrong questions though. All of them amount to an attempt to fix that which is by its nature fluid, and to ascribe responsibility.

Tony’s investigation therefore becomes a more personal search. His choices are largely behind him. His life is now set in the path it will likely stay in until he dies. He thought he knew what the future held, but it wasn’t as he dreamed. He thought he knew what the past held, but it wasn’t as he remembered. The only certainty left is death, and that before it something happened.

The Sense of an Ending has naturally been the subject of a great many reviews. Some I’d point you to are (in no particular order) by Will of Just William’s Luck, here, Kevin of KevinfromCanada here, John Self of theasylum here, Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf here, Tom of Tomcat in the Red Room here (and if you don’t know Tom’s blog you should, it’s definitely worth checking out), and just today as I wrote this at whisperinggums here. If I’ve missed your review (and I’m sure I’ve missed some blogs I follow, I’m very late to this book), please let me know in the comments.

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Filed under Barnes, Julian, Booker, English Literature, Novellas

a random collection of desperate acts

Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Troubles is perhaps the bleakest comic novel I’ve read. It opens with the narrator, unidentified, talking about the Majestic hotel which once stood on a peninsula in rural Ireland. Today, whenever that is, it’s a burnt out ruin littered with unusual numbers of small animal bones and great quantities of cast-iron bathtubs, bed-frames and lavatory bowls all showing how grand the hotel must once have been.

The unknown narrator comments that the Majestic had been in decline for some time before its end. A man named Edward Spencer had taken ownership of the hotel and managed it with the aid of a threadbare staff who catered to the limited needs of his guests and family. Those guests were a dwindling number of elderly ladies who had visited for years. Many of them had no other home. The Majestic then was a decaying hulk with only a few rooms of weak life left within it.

Troubles is the story of how a man known as the Major came to the Majestic, and what happened to him there. It’s also the story of how the British Empire lost Ireland and how ultimately it lost its empire.

This is a longer quote than I’d usually wish to include, but it gives an excellent feel for the style of language used and the sly humour that permeates the novel:

In the summer of 1919, not long before the great Victory Parade marched up Whitehall, the Major left hospital and went to Ireland to claim his bride, Angela Spencer. At least he fancied that the claiming of her as a bride might come into it. But nothing definite had been settled.

Home on leave in 1916 the Major had met Angela in Brighton where she had been staying with relations. He now only retained a dim recollection of that time, dazed as he was by the incessant, titanic thunder of artillery that cushioned it thickly, before and after. They had been somewhat hysterical – Angela perhaps feeling amid all the patriotism that she too should have something personal to lose, the Major that he should have at least one reason for surviving. He remembered declaring that he would come back to her, but not very much else. Indeed, the only other thing he recalled quite distinctly was saying goodbye to her at an afternoon thé dansant in a Brighton Hotel. They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down firmly on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere. The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings.

Although he was sure he had never actually proposed to Angela during the few days of their acquaintance, it was beyond doubt that they were engaged: a certainty fostered by the fact that from the very beginning she had signed her letters ‘Your loving fiancée, Angela’. This had surprised him at first. But, with the odour of death drifting from the dug-out in which he scratched out his replies by the light of a candle, it would have been trivial and discourteous beyond words to split hairs about such purely social distinctions.

That quote comes from very early on and it created certain expectations for me. I had a sense of where the book was going. Yes, I wondered who the mysterious narrator was and what part they’d have to play, but I expected a certain kind of story. A story about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. Anyone reading this probably already knows the broad outline of that story as its usually told. I just thought that here it would be well written.

Troubles is well written. It’s not though simply a novel about an Englishman encountering a ramshackle and eccentric Irish family. That does happen, but this is no tale of Irish whimsy.

The Major is taken to the Majestic by Angela’s brother, and then left in the hotel’s echoing lobby. Nobody greets him. Nobody takes his bag. Eventually he finds his way to the Palm Court where Angela, her father and some friends of the family are taking tea.

The Palm Court proved to be a vast, shadowy cavern in which dusty white chairs stood in silent, empty groups, just visible here and there amid the gloomy foliage. For the palms had completely run riot, shooting out of their wooden tubs (some of which had cracked open to trickle little cones of black soil on to the tiled floor) towards the distant murky skylight, hammering and interweaving themselves against the greenish glass that sullenly glowed overhead. Here and there between the tables beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines. In places there was a hollow ring to the tiles – there must be some underground irrigation system, the Major reasoned, to provide water for all this vegetation. But now, here he was.

When I talked about my expectations for the novel what I was really talking about was my expectations for its plot, and by plot I mean a sequence of events with narrative coherence and logic. A story with a beginning, middle and end.

Troubles has a beginning (the arrival of the major) and it has an end (the opening page tells the reader that the Majestic burnt down). A lot happens between those two points in time so it has a middle. Does it have a plot though? Is there narrative coherence and logic? Or is it rather a sequence of meaningless events conveniently bracketed by moments that have no ultimately greater significance than any others?

That’s one sense in which this is not a straightforward novel (though it’s not a difficult one either), and one I’ll return to. The other is that of course all this acts as metaphor. For the Majestic read British rule in Ireland, or even the British Empire itself. For Edward, his family, friends and guests read the English in Ireland, ruling over a local populace they neither understand nor respect.

As the book progresses the lines between masters and servants become blurred. The local villagers grow hostile. The Majestic sales on – a bubble of decaying order ruled by assumptions of status that the world increasingly no longer recognises.

I’ll put my cards on the table. Troubles is brilliant. In 2010 it won the “Lost Booker” prize (a retrospective prize for the year 1970 designed to cover books which lost eligibility due to a change in the prize’s rules around that time). I haven’t read every book that was eligible for the Lost Booker, but given the extraordinary quality of Troubles I’m not at all surprised that it won.

The Major gets drawn deeper and deeper into the life of the Majestic but seeing its decline does not mean he can stop it. The hotel’s structure crumbles while it becomes overrun with feral creatures: tribes of cats; soldiers serving in the black-and-tans; a pair of pretty and wilful twins who couldn’t care less for propriety as long as there are dances and new dresses to be had (Resolute Reader in his review sees them as a harbinger of the 1920s and I think he’s absolutely right).

The old order, both in the Majestic and in Ireland, is being swept away. It’s disappearing not gently, but in violence and brutality. The young are indifferent to its passing and the old barely notice it. In between are those like the Major who are old enough to be part of how things were but young enough that they still have to live in the world as it now is.

As well as all this Farrell has a marvellous turn of phrase. The Major attends family dinners where “… silence collected between the tables in layers like drifts of a snow.” Later the Major sadly observes a “… bath of peeling gilt and black marble in which, no doubt, many a bride of the last century had washed away her illusions of love.”

I wrote recently about how the comic novel fails to get the literary respect it deserves (I was inspired by a post to that effect at Tomcat in the Red Room’s blog). Troubles is the best example I could imagine of how a comic novel can also be a piece of genuinely exciting literature. It’s superbly written and operates on a number of levels but at the same time it’s extremely funny.

Farrell never loses sight of the human among the unravelling of Empire. He describes how the old ladies gain new energy putting up Christmas decorations and mounting little expeditions into the nearby village, fleeting moments of purpose. He brings out the Major’s bitterness brought back from the Great War and tamped down just out of sight. There is warmth here in the writing so that even in the face of the despair and tragedy that pervades the novel it’s possible to laugh while seeing quite plainly that really there’s nothing to laugh about.

I said I’d return to the question of whether Troubles has a plot, or just things that happen. It’s not actually the easiest question to answer. Ultimately though Troubles is subversive in part because it uses traditional narrative techniques but undermines them from within. The novel is a form of history. Like history it has a narrative, it has major characters and minor ones, it has a direction.

In truth though all that is a lie. History has only the narrative we give it. Historical periods start and end where we choose them to do so. Which individuals stand out is dependent not just on who did what but on what records remain and on the agendas of the historians researching them. The only direction history truly has is forward and that is mere fact – it isn’t a direction with purpose. History is written with narrative coherence and logic, but that’s just because that’s the only way we can understand it.

Troubles then as a historical novel reflects how history is created. Things happen, and from them a beginning is chosen and an ending. Certain characters are emphasised, certain parts of what occurs are given prominence while others remain in the backdrop. In the end though it’s all what Edward in an appeal to faith desperately wants it not to be. A random collection of desperate acts.

The Resolute Reader review I referred to is here. John Self reviewed Troubles here and wasn’t nearly as taken by it. Obviously I disagree with his view but a John Self review is never to be sniffed at. Sam Jordison of the Guardian also wrote about it here.

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Filed under Booker, English Literature, Farrell, J.G.

The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

I’m not a fan of state of the nation novels as a rule. The themes often swamp the characters. The message is usually more important than the prose. They tend not to be subtle (since making a point is the point).

State of the nation novels about contemporary India though? That’s a different matter. All those problems are probably still going to be there, but at least the subject is interesting.

Characters in The White Tiger exist for the sake of the story. It’s not that they’re unconvincing as such, but you wouldn’t read the book for psychological insight. The prose is effective, but it doesn’t strive for beauty. The White Tiger is not a subtle book.

Whatever flaws it may have though (and arguably nothing above is actually a flaw in the context of this book) The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker prize. I don’t follow the Booker closely but I do recall not everyone thought it should have won. Some thought it shouldn’t even have been longlisted.

I don’t actually have a particularly strong view on whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. I didn’t read many of its competitor novels and in all honesty I think the idea of there being a “very best book of the year” is silly. I do think though that The White Tiger succeeds on its own terms.

The White Tiger is a novel about the life of a man named Balram. Balram grew up in what he calls “the Darkness” – rural India. For him this is the India of poverty and of ignorance. Balram is of the sweet-makers’ caste, and in the Darkness caste determines destiny.

One day a school inspector visits Balram’s district:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’ I thought about it and said: ‘The white tiger.’ ‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’

Balram is the White Tiger. He is that rarest of beasts, a country Indian who leaves behind his village, his caste and even his family. Balram gets rich through his own efforts. Everyone else he encounters gets rich through being born that way, through connections or through corruption. The trouble is as Balram reveals very early on his own efforts included murder.

The obvious comparators for The White Tiger are Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Indra Sinha’s dazzling Animal’s People (which I read before I started this blog – it’s excellent, here‘s John Self’s review which I absolutely agree with).

All three novels share a common feature. They all have unconvincing framing devices. In Animal’s People the entire novel is supposedly narrated by the protagonist into a tape machine. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist the entire novel is supposedly a conversation between the protagonist and an unnamed American, and we only hear the protagonist’s side of the conversation. In The White Tiger the entire novel is supposedly a series of letters dictated by Balram and addressed to Wen Jiabao who is shortly to visit Bangalore where Balram now lives.

Here’s the thing. The framing device doesn’t really make sense. Balram can’t post these letters. He can’t even have them typed up. He confesses far too much criminality for them ever to be heard by anyone but him. So it goes. Like in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like in Animal’s People, you either have to accept the device or close the book. I chose to accept it.

Each night Balram dictates a letter, and each letter tells something of his past. He grows up in the village hearing tales of the Great Socialist who is going to transform the lives of the poor, but the transformation is always after the next election and the elections are all bought. The poor’s votes are cast for them and anyone who tries to cast his own is seen as a madman, and beaten mercilessly.

There were three black goats sitting on the steps to the large, faded white building; the stench of goat faeces wafted out from the open door. The glass in most of the windows was broken; a cat was staring out at us from one cracked window. A sign on the gate said: LOHIA UNIVERSAL FREE HOSPITAL PROUNDLY INAUGURATED BY THE GREAT SOCIALIST A HOLY PROOF THAT HE KEEPS HIS PROMISES Kishan and I carried our father in, stamping on the goat turds which had spread like a constellation of black stars on the ground. There was no doctor in the hospital. The ward boy, after we bribed him ten rupees, said that a doctor might come in the evening. The doors to the hospital’s rooms were wide open; the beds had metal springs sticking out of them, and the cat began snarling at us the moment we stepped into the room.

Real power lies with the rural landlords, but to make money you have to leave the village entirely. Balram does, and after working in a tea shop where he spends his time learning from listening to the customers rather than serving them, he tries to get a job better than anyone else in his family has dreamt of. He tries to become a driver:

We went into the house where the taxi drivers lived. An old man in a brown uniform, which was like an ancient army outfit, was smoking a hookah that was warmed up by a bowl of live coals. Kishan explained the situation to him. The old driver asked, ‘What caste are you?’ ‘Halwai.’ ‘Sweet-makers,’ the old driver said, shaking his head. ‘That’s what you people do. You make sweets. How can you learn to drive?’ He pointed his hookah at the live coals. ‘That’s like getting coals to make ice for you. Mastering a car’ – he moved the stick of an invisible gearbox – ‘it’s like taming a wild stallion – only a boy from the warrior castes can manage that. You need to have aggression in your blood. Muslims, Rajputs, Sikhs – they’re fighters, they can become drivers. You think sweet-makers can last long in fourth gear?’

From there it’s all upwards. Balram becomes second chauffeur to a rich family. His master is an indulgent example of a new breed of Indian. He’s foreign-educated and likes to think his staff are as much friends, family almost, as they are servants. His reward is to have his throat cut by Balram. There’s an ambivalence here. The book is filled with anger at the injustice it describes, but the only man in it who tries to act at all justly (he fails, but he tries) is killed for for doing so.

I began by talking about this as a state of the nation novel, and that’s where making Balram a driver pays dividends for Adiga. Making Balram a rurally born driver who later becomes a Bangalore entrepeneur allows Adiga to simultaneously present a view of the servant class, of village life (the darkness) and of the old and new moneyed classes.

Balram then is a vehicle as well as driver. He’s a means by which Adiga can explore a wide range of different strata of Indian society. It’s a mistake then to look to him for deep characterisation. Balram here serves the same role as the protagonist in a classic science fiction novel. He is a means to enter a world. He isn’t a world in himself.

The book has a dark undercurrent of humour in it which is often welcome, but in the main it’s relentlessly ugly. Intentionally so, but also unremittingly so. Balram’s metaphor for India is a rooster coop. For him it’s a country where everyone is kept in their place and where the poor opress themselves by crushing anyone different to them – anyone who seeks to escape what he was born into.

The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.

It’s not all that blunt. Some points are made more obliquely (“When he opened the door of the apartment, he pointed to the floor. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’”), but there’s no upside here. It’s a relentless portrait of a vicious and ugly country ruled by avarice and corruption.

Adiga is excellent on the small hypocrisies of the rich. I loved a scene where Balram cracks open the window of the limo he is driving to give a beggar a coin, and is then berated by those he is driving who go on to talk loudly about how much they give to charity. Balram is a sociopath and a killer, and even so he’s better than those around him.

If I had to make a comparison to another writer it wouldn’t ultimately be to Hamid or Sinha. Instead it would be to Dickens. I have mixed views on Dickens. He’s often maudlin. His characterisation is frequently weak and his novels mix the journalistic with the sensationalist (and occasionally with the improving message). For all that though Dickens was a tremendously effective social critic. He sought in his writing to show what was wrong with his society, and for me that’s what Adiga is seeking to do here.

Does Adiga succeed? Not entirely. This is sometimes a crude book. It’s targets are obvious ones and there’s little here to surprise a reader who already knows much about India. I could make all those criticisms and more though of Hard Times (swapping England for India). Does Hard Times succeed? Not entirely, but in the end yes, it does. In the end The White Tiger succeeds too.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. Having now read it though I will say that I can entirely understand why it was nominated, and why at least some of the judges championed it.

I’ll end with one final quote:

My humble prediction: in twenty years’ time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the whole world. And God save everyone else.

One of the many messages of The White Tiger is that the desperate fight harder than the comfortable. This is a state of the nation novel, but it’s also a state of things to come novel. Balram is a future. Adiga here portrays that future in the hope of holding a mirror to it, in the hope that it might recognise itself and learn to be better than it looks right now.

John Self’ wrote a highly critical review of The White Tiger over at The Asylum, here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes wrote a much more positive one here. Both, as ever, are worth reading. There’s also an interesting interview with Adiga at the Guardian here where he talks a little more about the ideas underlying the novel.

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Filed under Adiga, Aravind, Booker, India, Indian Literature

… a precious moment gone and we not there

A month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

J.L. Carr isn’t I think a well-known author today. To the extent he’s remembered at all it’s for his 1980 Booker shortlisted novella A Month in the Country. William Golding’s Rites of Passage won that year. I haven’t read Rites, but to have beaten Country all I can say is that it must be bloody good.

The narrator of Country is Tom Birkin. In 1978 he’s an old man, but in 1920 he was still young and he spent a summer in the English village of Oxgodby where he uncovered a medieval wall painting located in the local church. The narrative then is an act of memory and nostalgia. Birkin is not unreliable, but this is no longer his direct experience.

Here, walking in driving rain, Birkin first sees the church:

It was an off-the-peg job: evidently there had been no medieval wool boom in these parts. This had been starveling country, every stone an extortion. The short chancel had an unusually shallow pitched roof; it must have been added a good hundred years after the main building (which had a steep pitch flattening into aisles). The tower was squat. Don’t get the wrong impression; all in all, it was pleasant-enoough looking and, when I came closer, I saw that the masonry had been fettled up very nicely – limestone ashlar not rubble. Even between the buttresses it had been beautifully cut with only a hint of mortar and, near-enough drowning as I was, I silently applauded the masons. The stone itself – just a tinge of pale yellow in it, magnesium – it must have been quarried near Tadcaster and ferried up the rivers. Don’t let the detail irritate you: even in those far-off days I thought rather highly of myself as a stone-fancier.

Firstly, that’s a lovely piece of description. Secondly though it’s a description which tells us something of the describer. This is a man comfortable with detail, with the inanimate and with the distant past. Is he as comfortable with the animate and the present? We soon find out as Birkin meets the local vicar, the Reverend Keach:

He was four or five years older than me, maybe thirty, a tall but not a strong-looking man, neatly turned out, pale-eyed, a cold, cooped-up look about him and, long after he must have become used to my face-twitch, he still talked to someone behind my left shoulder.

What I like in that passage is how not only do we get a pretty good description of Keach, again we learn a lot about Birkin too. Most importantly, we learn of his twitch, and so given the period know that he must be a veteran recovering from the horrors of the war.

Birkin knows what he is doing and the work goes well. He lives in the church tower to save money and makes friends with a fellow veteran named Moon who is now an archaeologist. Moon and Birkin understand each other. They were both in the war and they both brought it home with them. As the work continues though Birkin finds himself more and more drawn into Oxgodby life, and not least into the lives of the Reverend Keach and his stunningly beautiful wife – a woman Birkin increasingly feels a connection with.

There’s a lot going on here. The painting itself reveals a mystery. It’s a masterwork. Why then was it covered over so quickly after it was made? Why does it show a man falling into hell whose face is drawn so precisely as to seem a portrait? What happened to the painter? The distant past begins to reveal itself as Birkin’s own past recedes. He is adopted by the village stationmaster and his family who involve him in their church services and Sunday dinners. Twitching and reclusive Birkin is brought back into the world.

At times Country is an extremely funny novel. I loved Birkin being seconded to act as speaker to a small Wesleyan congregation, despite his being painfully ill-suited to the task. There’s a family expedition to buy a new church organ which is another piece of small comic brilliance. Alongside that is that sense of memory and the effects of time – what is lost and what is preserved. The act of uncovering the painting in 1920 is an act of discovery of the past in the same way that the act of remembering that long-past summer is for Birkin in 1978. In both cases the result is not what actually was, but rather as good a reconstruction of it as can now be achieved. As Birkin reflects:

… it simply isn’t possible to return a five-hundred-year-old-wall-painting to its original state. At best, I aimed at approximation, uniformity, something that looked right.

The same could of course be said for the entire narrative.

Part of the power of Country is its tremendous sense of place. Carr makes Oxgodby feel solid and alive, but at the same time it seems faintly idealised (reflecting that within the narrative it is both real and remembered). Carr has a tremendous grasp of telling detail and a knack with description which manages the unusual trick of being sentimental (even nostalgic) without being cloying.

There was a throaty smell blowing off the bilbery shrubs and withering heather when we disembarked on a sheep-cropped plain high up in the hills. There was no shelter from the sun, but it was dinner-time and the women and girls unpacked hard-boiled eggs and soggy tomato sandwiches wrapped in greased paper and swaddled in napkins. It was Mr Dowthwaite (for you laboured for your prestige amongst the Wesleyans) who built a downbreeze fire of twigs and soon had tin kettles boiling. Then he struck up the Doxology and, when we’d sung it, we settled to some steady eating.

Afterwards, most of the men took off their jackets, exposing their braces and the tapes of their long woolen underpants and astonished their children by larking around like great lads. The courting couples sidled off, the women sat around and talked. So eating, drinking, dozing, making love, the day passed until evening came and the horses were led from their pasture. Then, as the first star rose and swallows turned and twisted above the bracken, our wagons tumbled down from above the White Horse and across the Vale towards home: the Sunday-school Treat was over.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the pastoral in painting, and I’ve not read many literary examples of it. That though is a beautiful piece of pastoral writing. It sounds like Heaven made Earthly. It’s a gloriously sun-dappled piece of prose.

Carr captures that sense one has sometimes of a moment as both timeless and yet fleeting. Birkin’s summer, and the book itself, seems to last for an age and yet be over all too soon. As Birkin reflects, “… we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” Birkin’s story is one of hope, but also of loss.

There have been periods in my life, as in most, which seem much longer in memory than in fact they were. That’s natural, because what we remember is influenced so much by the personal – how something mattered to us, how it made us feel. A weekend-break can later stand out more than the otherwise uneventful year it was part of. That’s unavoidable and part of being human, but it does make such times all the more important.

If I’ve not made it clear by now this is an exceptional book. I discovered it through Kevinfromcanada who reviewed it here and Trevor of themookseandthegripes who reviewed it here. I’ve sought not to repeat their comments too much and both are well worth reading. Country is extremely well written, it’s subtle and it’s often slyly funny. It’s a genuine pleasure to read and a book that I’m sure I’ll reread. In truth it’s a joy of a work and in a small way something of a masterpiece.

A final quote. Here Birkin reflects on the character of the man who created the brilliantly executed painting that he is slowly uncovering:

Here I was, face to face with a nameless painter reaching from the dark to show me what he could do, saying to me as clear as any words, ‘if any part of me survives from time’s corruption, let it be this. For this is the sort of man I was.’

I said at the beginning that Carr is little known today. Still, if any part of him survives from time’s corruption, it should be this. For this is the sort of man he was.

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Filed under Booker, Carr, J.L., Novellas

… the kindness of strangers

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Years ago when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing I was blown away by it. It was well plotted and had interesting characters but that wasn’t what really impressed me. It was the writing. The sheer quality of it.

It’s odd then that it was years before I read another Tóibín – his first novel titled The South. I didn’t love as much but I still enjoyed it. Years passed again though and I still didn’t read more by him. I can’t say why.

A little while back now I bought a Kindle. When I loaded it up with books for some recent holidays I noticed that Brooklyn was available. I’d read a lot about it and on a whim bought and downloaded a copy. I then largely forgot about it as I always seem to forget about Tóibín. When I finished my recent Gerald Kersh though I decided I wanted something quiet and beautifully written.

Quiet and beautifully written are words I associate with Tóibín’s work. Brooklyn isn’t an exception. It’s a simple and arguably dull tale with a rather passive central character who largely goes with the flow of (not particularly eventful) events. If not for the writing it would be unreadable.

Eilis Lacey is a sensible young woman living in rural Ireland in the 1950s (and not the 1930s as I thought for the first half or so of the novel) with her mother and her older and more sophisticated sister. There are few job opportunities. Her brothers have both moved to England where they seem to be doing well but they rarely get to visit home. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but the only job she gets is working on the floor of a local shop.

Father Flood, over from the US, notices Eilis and is unhappy that there’s nothing better available for her. After discussions with Eilis’s mother and sister they all decide that the best thing for her is emigration. Father Flood can help set her up in Brooklyn, and while she won’t be a bookkeeper immediately there either with time anything could happen.

Father Flood wrote a formal letter sponsoring Eilis and guaranteeing to take care of her accommodation as well as her general and financial welfare, and on headed notepaper came a letter from Bartocci & Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, offering her a permanent position in their main store at the same address and mentioning her bookkeeping skills and general experience. It was signed Laura Fortini; the handwriting, Eilis noted, was clear and beautiful, and even the notepaper itself, its light blue colour, the embossed drawing of a large building over the letterhead, seemed heavier, more expensive, more promising than anything of its kind she had seen before.

Eilis moves to Brooklyn. She stays in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house with other Irish girls and gets a job in local department store Bartocci & Company (again on the shop floor). She gets homesick, but gets over it and in time meets a local boy with whom she falls in love. As their romance develops problems back home in Ireland require her attention and that’s largely as much plot as I’ll summarise.

In terms of an individual life these are big events. Leaving Enniscorthy. Crossing the Atlantic third class in the bowels of a ship. Adapting to life in a new country. Meeting new and foreign people. Falling in love. This is what life is made of. Few of us bust crime cartels wide open, discover cures to rare diseases, race against time to save a city from disaster. Personal dramas tend to be small and private in nature and not the stuff of gripping fiction.

Tóibín then has written a novel in which things that would only really be exciting to those living them happen to a woman who though pleasant isn’t very interesting. Eilis admires her sister and respects and loves her mother. She gets along well enough with her housemates at Mrs. Kehoe’s and with the people at work. She doesn’t make waves and is happy to fit in with other’s plans.

Occasionally Eilis’s passivity backfires (there’s a tense changing room scene where it becomes apparent that the person helping her change has an interest that is more than professional in ensuring Eilis fits into a bathing costume she’s trying on). In the main though it’s not a problem because almost everyone she meets is decent and helpful.

Father Flood has no ulterior motive here. He’s just doing his best to help out someone he thought needed help. Mrs. Kehoe has her foibles, but she’s basically a good woman. Some of Eilis’s housemates are silly and some prudish but there’s little harm in them (little, but not none – I’ll come back to that). Even Eilis’s boyfriend is kind, patient and funny and wants mostly to make her happy.

Tóibín uses all this to examine the contrasts between life in rural Ireland and life in the US. Enniscorthy is small and gossipy where Brooklyn is large and anonymous. Propriety is important to people back home and there are rigid social codes and a clear heirarchy all of which seems missing in the US. When Bartocci & Company decides to allow “colored” shoppers through its doors though it becomes apparent that Brooklyn has its own heirarchies and codes which just weren’t as immediately apparent.

Brooklyn is a novel of emigration. On her way to Brooklyn Eilis stays briefly in England with one of her brothers. Her mother and sister haven’t laughed much at home since he left and it’s a joy to Eilis to see him. He has no plans to return home to a jobless Ireland but life in England isn’t easy either.

‘What are they like?’ she asked. ‘Who?’ ‘The English.’ ‘They’re fair, they’re decent,’ Jack said. ‘If you do your job, then they appreciate that. It’s all they care about, most of them. You get shouted at a bit on the street, but that’s just Saturday night. You pay no attention to it.’ ‘What do they shout?’ ‘Nothing for the ears of a nice girl going to America.’ ‘Tell me!’ ‘I certainly will not.’ ‘Bad words?’ ‘Yes, but you learn to pay no attention and we have our own pubs so anything that would happen would be just on the way home. The rule is never to shout back, pretend nothing is happening.’

In Brooklyn Mrs. Kehoe’s seems to be Enniscorthy in miniature. Father Flood’s church with its Christmas dinner for destitute Irish men is another export of home. The Irish in Brooklyn live with other Irish, look to the church for charity and succour, date and marry within their own community.

There’s a broader point being made here. The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. They try in a sense not to be emigrants, which given how few of them seem to have wanted to leave isn’t really surprising. Despite their efforts though they’re not home any more. Mrs. Kehoe’s house and Father Flood’s church are surrounded by another world. The Irish keep to the Irish, but around them are the Blacks, the Jews, the Italians. All of them keep to a degree to themselves, but as they move past each other in the pot the edges of all of them are melting.

When Eilis has to return to Ireland on family business she’s become a different person. To the people she left behind she’s now glamorous and tanned. Her clothes are more fashionable and more expensive. She seems more confident, but how could she not? Emigration has changed her as it’s changed waves of emigrant Irish over generations.

This is a novel about the emigrant experience then, but it’s not just that and it’s not at all heavy handed in making its points. Tóibín has a marvellous knack for crafting dialogue and also a good eye for comedy. The scenes in the transatlantic crossing as Eilis and her bunkmate battle their neighbours for a shared bathroom are tremendous and the exchanges at Mrs. Kehoe’s dining table are vivid and neatly observed:

‘Where I’m from,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘we didn’t go out at all and none of us were any the worse for it.’ ‘And how did you meet fellows?’ Diana asked. ‘Will you look at her?’ Patty interjected. ‘She’s never met a fellow in her life.’ ‘Well, when I do,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘it will not be in a saloon bar.’

There are occasional dark undertones. I mentioned earlier that the women at Mrs. Kehoe’s weren’t entirely harmless. Nor is Eilis. The Irish community is supportive and helpful, but it’s also judgemental and snobbish and the treatment Eilis and the rest dish out to a new housemate who by their standards is of a lower class to them is ugly and petty. Eilis herself receives similar treatment from the woman who owns the shop she works in back in Enniscorthy. None of this is ultimately much more than harsh words and a bit of meanness. Like so much else here it’s significant to the person it happens to but not much more than that.

Brooklyn is a novel almost without conflict. The small rivalries in Enniscorthy and Mrs. Kehoe’s aren’t ones that are going to have any real impact on Eilis’s life. The challenges she faces are eminently surmountable. Eilis’s acceptance of what others do and plan for her means she meets little resistance along her way. All this should make it dull and I think for some readers it probably would be dull. Not for me though.

Tóibín takes an ordinary life facing ordinary issues and makes it real and compelling. It’s the prose which sells it. Brooklyn is just so well written that the lack of event was not only not a problem for me – it became a strength. What’s important at the individual level isn’t the sweep of history. That’s our backdrop. It’s those things which would interest nobody else that really matter.

Brooklyn. This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last link knowingly contains spoilers on essentially the entire plot which allows Kerry to craft a very fine analysis of Eilis’s character – if you’ve already read the book or know you won’t it’s well worth reading. If you haven’t read it but might it’s probably best left for later. Trevor’s particularly good on a major theme of the book which I’ve not even touched on here – separation and distance.

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Filed under Booker, Irish Literature, Tóibín, Colm

There is no chronology inside my head

Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

Synopses are dangerous things. Any synopsis of Moon Tiger would make it sound like an utterly conventional piece of middlebrow fiction. An elderly woman looks back upon her life and remembers the men she loved and the tragedies and triumphs of her life.

That’s accurate as far as it goes. It’s also utterly misleading. Moon Tiger is a novel of fractured narratives, perspectives and tenses. It’s an unsparing look at memory, the construction of narrative, and death. It’s bloody good.

It also won the 1987 Booker Prize. Apparently it was a controversial winner and was derided by critics as “the housewife’s choice” and as “suitable for the Harrods and Hatchard’s market” (the condescension in both those quotes is staggering). My only remark on that is that clearly the housewives of 1987 were a discerning lot. A shame the critics weren’t so perspicacious.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

The old woman in question is Claudia. She has cancer and she is dying. She knows this. Her history of the world is a personal one and will not be written down. It will not follow chronology. As she later reflects: “Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.” The nurses find her odd, but ultimately just another body to be cared for:

‘Was she someone?’ enquires the nurse. Her shoes squeak on the shiny floor; the doctor’s shoes crunch. ‘I mean, the things she comes out with…’ And the doctor glances at his notes and says that yes, she does seem to have been someone, evidently she’s written books and newspaper articles and… um… been in the Middle East at one time… typhoid, malaria… unmarried (one miscarriage, one child he sees but does not say)… yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.

Claudia was someone. She was a war correspondent and a published popular historian. She was beautiful and opinionated and argumentative. She was too close to her brother and not close enough to her daughter. She was glamorous and impossible and arguably not actually a terribly pleasant person.

The narrative moves to her childhood and a memory of competing with her brother to find fossils. It goes forward to her marriage to an urbane half-Russian named Jasper and then back again to her years in Egypt during the second world war. Her history is a kaleidoscope of impressions. Her mind follows connections but not neatly.

All that sounds confusing. It isn’t because it’s well written and because it feels true. True for me anyway. I have no real timeline in my head; just a collage of scenes from my life many of which may not even be accurate. Claudia is not an unreliable narrator, but her memories too may not be wholly accurate.

Claudia knows this and early on vows to show all perspectives. Hers will not be just a history told in her voice, others’ will also be heard. What this means quickly becomes apparent as she remembers that childhood search for fossils I mentioned. The scene is recounted as she recalls it, but then shifts into her brother’s slightly different perception of the same incident:

She must pass Gordon to reach that alluring upper shelf. ‘Mind…’ she says. Move your leg…’
‘Don’t shove,’ he grumbles. ‘Anyway you can’t come here. I said this is my bit, you find your own.’
‘Don’t shove yourself. I don’t want your stupid bit…’
His leg is in her way – it thrashes, she thrusts, and a piece of cliff, of the solid world which evidently is not so solid after all, shifts under her clutching hands… crumbles… and she is falling thwack backwards on her shoulders, her head, her outflung arm, she is skidding rolling thumping downwards. And comes to rest gasping in a thorn bush, hammered by pain, too affronted even to yell.

He can feel her getting closer, encroaching, she is coming here on to his bit, she will take all the best fossils. He protests. He sticks out a foot to impede. Her hot infuriating limbs are mixed up with his.
‘You’re pushing me,’ she shrieks.
‘I’m not,’ he snarls. ‘It’s you that’s shoving. Anyway this is my place so go somewhere else.’
‘It’s not your stupid place,’ she says. ‘It’s anyone’s place. Anyway I don’t…’
And suddenly there are awful tearing noises and thumps and she is gone, sliding and hurtling down, and in horror and satisfaction he stares.

At the time this fracturing of perspective first arose I took that as Claudia’s recollection and her imagining of how her brother might recollect the same incident. Later though this becomes less certain and it appears that Lively may simply be showing how different people remember (or experience) the same event. Memory and history are both untrustworthy. Time and again key moments are shattered in this way. Lively shows two, sometimes three, accounts of the same conversation but each slightly different. The essence is the same, but precisely what was said isn’t.

What makes all this more than a dry exercise in style is partly Claudia herself who is never less than entertaining to be with and partly the scope of the book. Claudia is brilliant and is quite well aware of the fact. She knows that she fascinates and she has nothing but disdain for those who are less glittering. She looks down on her brother’s conventional wife and equally on her own conventional daughter, Lisa. She is easy to picture; sweeping into a room and commanding the attention of all present, but dismissing those she considers uninteresting.

What I could offer Lisa was not the conventional haven of maternal love and concern but my mind and my energy. If she had not acquired these genetically then I was quite prepared to show her how to think and act. I was no good at kissing away tears or telling bedtime stories – any mother can do that: my uses were potentially far more significant.
She was a disappointment to me. And I, presumably, to her. I looked for my own alter ego, the querying rebellious maverick child I had been myself; Lisa looked for a reassuring clothes-shopping sherry-drinking figure like the mothers of her school friends. As she grew older I felt more and more her silent stare, each time I visited her at Sotleigh, took her over to Beaminster to stay with my mother, or had her in the flat in London for a couple of days. There, she would wander around, a skimpy pallid little figure standing in doorways or perching on a sofa. I bought her books. I took her to museums and art galleries; I tried to encourage opinion and curiosity. Lisa, growing longer of limb and less flexible of mind, became ordinary. She began to bore me. And I sensed her disapproval.

Lively shows the pre-war years in which Claudia grows up and the post-war world in which people jockey for position and prominence. There’s a nice sequence where Claudia’s husband goes to a post-war country house in which various members of the great and good are gathered – a sort of micro Davos. He hopes for a job with Nato or perhaps on television. For those who are the right sort the possibilities are endless.

Where the book truly shines though is in its depiction of the war years in Egypt. It is there that Claudia meets the love of her life; a love that her family and later husband know nothing of. Cairo is filled with parties and amusements. Officers on leave live hard while they can. The few women are in constant demand. The locals are barely involved. It is not their war and the British do not hold them in high regard. Meanwhile in the desert it is chaos and burnt-out shells of tanks. The British are winning, but not without cost.

In places this is a difficult book to read. Egypt is so vivid because that’s where Claudia fell truly in love, but it is no spoiler to reveal that the love did not outlast the war (the opening of the book makes this perfectly clear since we know she marries Jasper whom she only meets later). Claudia is reconstructing what most mattered to her. She is taking fragments of her life and holding them up for examination. Her gaze is unsparing and because of that even though the precise conversations held may be unclear the emotional importance of them is not.

Claudia is like a Pharaonic queen. Her memories are her pyramid; her way of preserving the life of the people she has outlived and of making sense of her own. It has to be a history because her life cannot be understood otherwise. Without the war she would not have been a correspondent. She would not have met the man she loved. Everything is connected and so a history of Claudia must be a history of the universe and of everyone. Nothing else is possible.

This is a book about memory and death. It is not comforting. Noone here speaks of any belief in any afterlife. Claudia’s only expectation as her periods of lucidity grow less frequent is that she will live on briefly in the memories of others, but if the book has shown anything it is that memories are partial and only ever one side of a story too complex to be told. All we ever know is aspects of each other, and even those we love may hold secrets we couldn’t guess at. In the end we all die alone.

Moon Tiger (it’s also available on Kindle, which is how I read it). I discovered Moon Tiger through Sam Jordison’s Guardian Booker Blog. His excellent Moon Tiger review is here. Sam’s Booker blog is generally well worth following so if you do follow that link I’d suggest having a dig around to see the others he’s written up. While writing this I also found that the Guardian Book Club had covered this novel. Here‘s a link to the first of four articles and the other three are linked to from a sidebar to that piece.

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Filed under Booker, English Literature, Lively, Penelope