Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Some of the people, all of the time

Writer Colm Toibin has an article in praise of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, here.

Did Toibin not notice the words of the text as he read it? That novel is appallingly badly written. James’ long, rambling, discursive sentences reflect not subtlety and nuance, but long, rambling, muddled thought. The prose is often hard to comprehend, due to this muddle. An irritating widespread quirk of his style are sentences containing multiple pronouns, each pointing to different people – or perhaps to the same people. Sometimes a pronoun in one sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence, and sometimes to the object. Sometimes, indeed, one pronoun in a sentence may refer to the subject in an earlier sentence, while another pronoun refers to the object in another sentence. I lost count of the number of times I encountered this deictic ambiguity: eventually I concluded that either James was deliberately aiming to make it impossible for the reader to parse his text, or else it was he himself who was muddled, with no consistency in his pronoun assignments; in either case, I should feel no shame at abandoning such poor prose. James is justly neglected, and long may he remain so.




Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.

In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.




Recent Reading 11

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

Francis King [1970]:  A Domestic Animal. Faber Finds, 2014.  A well-written account of unrequited love that becomes an obsession.  Both the plot and the dialogue are, at times, unbelievable, although the obsession and the emotions it provokes in holder and object are very credible.

Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 11’




Human anxiety

Man, in contrast to other animals, is conscious of his own existence.  Therefore, conscious of the possibility of non-existence. Ergo, he has anxiety.”

Woman speaking at party, in Shadows, a film by John Cassavetes, 1959. 

I am not convinced that man alone is conscious of his own existence, not when elephants go to specific places to die and other elephants avoid those places, and not when dogs play jokes on their owners, and nor when some birds seem to enter into relationships with humans to whom they present their offspring proudly as if to a grandparent.




Preaching, advising, rebuking, reviling

Henry James on literary criticism (in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton, March 1873):

I do  . . . believe in criticism, more than that hyperbolical speech of mine would seem to suggest.   What I meant to express was my sense of its being, latterly, vastly over-done.  There is such a flood of precepts, and so few examples – so much preaching, advising, rebuking & reviling, & so little doing: so many gentlemen sitting down to dispose in half an hour of what a few have spent months & years in producing. A single positive attempt, even with great faults, is worth generally most of the comments and amendments on it.”




Recent Reading 10

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books.

David Eagleman [2010]: Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.  (London, UK:  Canongate).  A superb collection of very short stories, each premised on the assumption that something (our bodies, our souls, our names, our molecules, etc) lives beyond death. Superbly fascinating.  One will blow your mind!  (HT: WPN).

A. C. Grayling [2013]:  Friendship.  (New Haven, CT and London, UK:  Yale University Press).

Andrew Sullivan [1998]:  Love Undetectable:  Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival.  (London, UK: Vintage, 1999).

Michael Blakemore [2013]: Stage Blood. (London, UK: Faber & Faber).  A riveting account of Blakemore’s time at the National Theatre in London.

William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac [1945/2008]:  And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks. (London, UK:  Penguin Classics).   Mostly writing alternate chapters, this is a fictional account of events based on the death of David Kammerer at the hands of Lucien Carr.

Jack Kerouac [1968]:  Vanity of Duluoz.   (London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2001).

Charles McCarry [1974]:  The Tears of Autumn. (London, UK:  Duckworth Overlook, 2009).   The assassination of JFK as a conspiracy organized by the family of the Diem brothers, involving Cuban military officials, the KGB, and the Mafia.

John Williams [1965]:  Stoner. (London, UK: Vintage, 2012).  Alerted by the enthusiasm of the late Norman Geras, and reinforced by the praise of Julian Barnes,  I starting reading this book with keen anticipation.  I should have known better:  someone who liked the books of Philip Roth clearly had a literary taste to be wary of.     Stoner was a great disappointment, and certainly does not belong in any collection of Great American Novels.

Is the book great literature?  Well, frankly, no.  It is well-written, no question, but not well enough.  We are told the main character William Stoner has no friends while an undergraduate, but nothing in the thin preceeding pages would explain why.   We are told he switches from studying agriculture to literature after an epiphany in a compulsory literature class, but this paragraph (and it is just a paragraph) is very thin indeed.   Why did he have this epiphany?  Where did it come from?  Nothing beforehand (in the book) would justify this event, and the event itself is only barely described.   Do people make such a switch so often, that no explanation is needed?  Not in my experience.

I can see that members of the literati – for instance, Julian Barnes – would like to read about people who come to love literature and who then devote their life to its teaching.  But Williams merely states these attributes of William Stoner as facts, without providing any compelling justification – not psychological, nor social, nor familial, nor cultural, nor literary, not spiritual, nor nothing – for these facts.     Indeed, there is hardly any justification at all, let alone a compelling one.

The narration is by a third-person narrator, and he or she seems to know what is inside Dr Stoner’s head.  Moreover, every other character is a cypher to the narrator, as (presumably) they are to Stoner himself.  One is therefore tempted to read the narration as being in the first-person.  But then, some of it is too vague for either a knowledgeable first-person or an omniscient third:  on pager 109, for instance, we read that Stoner disposed of his $2000 inheritance by giving “a few hundred dollars” to his parents’ black farm worker.    A few hundred?  Surely, Stoner knew at the time exactly how much he gave.  Likewise, surely, an omniscient narrator would also know the amount.   This is sloppy writing, and it undermines the case for the narrator being either first- or an omniscient third-person.

Similarly, we are told several times that Stoner had a deep friendship with Dave Masters, who is killed in the Great War.   But although this friendship is mentioned, it is not described in any depth.  It is certainly not invoked, nor is an invocation even attempted.  So, again, we come away thinking the narrator barely knows about which he speaks.   Just how credible, then, is anything the narrator says?    The book undermines its own case.

Why has the book proven popular?   Well it is more popular in Europe than in America.  I believe the answer to this disparity goes to something the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, once said when comparing political life in Europe with that in Australia, New Zealand, or North America:  In the New World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to fix it.  In the Old World, anyone upset by a social problem tries to live with it.   Stoner is a book about a man who lives with every major problem of his life, accommodating himself to an unhappy marriage, to a wife who appears on the edge of madness, to the end of his only happy relationship, to an alcoholic daughter, to not seeing his only grandchild, to an unsatisfying and tedious job, to an unfair assignment of work duties, to no promotions, to a lack of close friendships, to public gossip and innuendo about his marriage and relationships, to the death of his parents and his one apparently-close friend, while only ever once, it seems, standing up for himself.  And the counter-attack he launches is in such a small and picayune way, hurting the very students he is supposed to care for, that it can hardly be worthy of any emulation.

Certainly such people exist (indeed, the Old World is full of them),  but this novel never presents a compelling case that this particular man, William Stoner, should behave in this way.   Indeed, it hardly presents any case at all – the writing is all tell, and no show.    The power of showing is demonstrated by the one scene where the author does invoke the events, rather than merely mentioning them: the PhD upgrade viva of Charles Walker, where we can read the dialog for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions.    If only the author had done this more often, the book would have been much better.

 




HoJa do

Howard Jacobson apparently writes comic novels.   I have never found his writing funny, and it often strikes me as being in poor taste.  (A Jewish anti-Zionist group called “ASH”, for example?)  In a review today of his latest novel, Theo Tait puts his finger on what I don’t like about HoJa’s books:

Zoo Time conforms closely to the classic recipe for a Howard Jacobson novel. Take a childless, Jewish middle-aged man, born in Manchester or thereabouts, now living in London pursuing a profession not unlike the author’s:  in the past, we’ve had columnists, cartoonists and academics; this time, he’s a novelist, Guy Ableman. Give him ungovernable romantic urges and a powerful but embattled sense of self-worth: Guy, whose first novel stars a zoo keeper and her lustful monkeys, describes himself as “a man ruled by pointless ambition and a blazing red penis”. Throw in some marital difficulties and outré sexual enthusiasms: this one briefly covers the classic Jacobson kinks – shoe fetishism, oedipal fantasy, and the powerful desire to be cuckolded – but focuses chiefly on Guy’s wish to bed his mother-in-law. Add some agitated discussion of Jewish identity. Then stir it all up with a lot of discourse, and of discourse about discourse. Ensure that the plot is minimal, and largely circular. And there it is, the distinctive feel of Jacobson’s work – like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.

. . . .

The killer for Zoo Time is that Jacobson has a limited talent for invention, and certainly very little inclination for it. As with many authors possessed of a powerful voice, it tends to crowd out everything else in the novel: “A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs …” Guy’s every passing thought is generously and sometimes brilliantly transcribed, but otherwise Jacobson seems to have no idea what to do with his stick people, who couple and uncouple, turn gay or Hasidic, to no discernible pattern.”

The problem with a powerful voice, as the novels of Bellow and Roth also demonstrate, is that you only reach those readers who appreciate the persona behind the voice, and who don’t mind being trapped in a confined space with him.   Me? I’ll skip sharing an elevator with Jacobson or Roth or Bellow, and take the stairs, thanks.

POSTSCRIPT (2014-05-18):  Ivan Klima in his memoir, My Crazy Century (Grove Press, London, 2014), writes of meeting Philip Roth in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, and inadvertently captures what is bad about Roth’s (and HoJa’s) fiction:

Philip Roth, the third American prose writer who visited us several times during the first few years after occupation, seemed to me unlike other Americans in one noticeable way:  He was not fond of polite, social conversation; he wanted to discuss only what interested him.”  (Page 308)

POSTSCRIPT (2015-03-28): Howard Jacobson on his novels: “I was not, in my own eyes, a comic novelist, . . .”. Well here is something we can agree on! To be called a comic novelist, one first has to write novels which are funny.

POSTSCRIPT (2015-06-04): Last weekend, I found myself not ten paces away in the same near-empty room as HoJa, the entrance Hall of King’s College London, where he had come to participate in the Australian and NZ Festival of Literature. I could easily have approached him, but I could think of nothing positive to say.




Two lists of books

In succession to this post which seems to have originated a meme, herewith two lists of novels – one list influential when younger, and the other later, with influence measured by strength of memory.  In each case, I include a couple of works  of non-fiction, because of their superb writing.

The rules only allow listing of one book per author.   In fact, all the books of some writers would merit inclusion.  In this group, I would include Brautigan, Camus, Conrad, Faulkner, Gordimer,  Ishiguro, H. James, Joyce, Maugham, Perec and Turgenev.

Influential when younger:

  • Albert Camus:  The Plague
  • JM Coetzee:  Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Joseph Conrad:  The Secret Agent
  • William Faulkner:  As I Lay Dying
  • Nadine Gordimer:  Burger’s Daughter
  • Joseph Heller:  Catch-22
  • Ruth Prawer Jhabvala:  Heat and Dust
  • James Joyce:  Ulysses
  • Franz Kafka:  The Trial
  • Arthur Koestler:  Darkness at Noon
  • William Least Heat-Moon:  Blue Highways:  A Journey into America
  • Doris Lessing:  The Diary of a Good Neighbour
  • Thomas Mann:  Dr Faustus
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez:  100 Years of Solitude
  • W. Somerset Maugham:  The Razor’s Edge
  • Herman Melville:  Moby Dick
  • Gerald Murnane:  Landscape with Landscape
  • Michael Ondaatje:  Coming Through Slaughter
  • Bertrand Russell:  The Autobiography
  • Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea
  • Mikhail Sholokhov:  And Quiet Flows the Don
  • Alice Walker:  The Color Purple
  • Patrick White:  Voss
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin:  We

Influential more recently:

  • Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams
  • Richard Brautigan:  An Unfortunate Women:  A Journey
  • William Burroughs:  Naked Lunch
  • Italo Calvino:  If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
  • Robert Dessaix:  Corfu
  • Shusaku Endo: Silence
  • Mark Henshaw:  Out of the Line of Fire
  • Kazuo Ishiguro:  An Artist of the Floating World
  • Henry James:  The Princess Casamassima
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Emperor:  Downfall of an Autocrat
  • Naguib Mahfouz:  The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
  • Norman Mailer:  Harlot’s Ghost
  • Alberto Moravia:  Boredom
  • Georges Perec:  Things:  A Story of the Sixties
  • Antonio Tabucchi:  Pereira Maintains
  • Henry David Thoreau:  Cape Cod
  • Ivan Turgenev:  Fathers and Sons
  • Glenway Wescott:  The Pilgrim Hawk

As these lists may indicate, there are some writers (eg, James,  Turgenev) whom one may only appreciate after a certain age and passage of years.

On the other hand, for various different reasons, books by the following authors do not speak at all to me.

  • The family Amis
  • Saul Bellow
  • The family Bronte
  • Peter Carey
  • David Caute
  • George Eliot
  • Richard Ford
  • Graham Greene
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Howard Jacobson
  • Thomas Keneally
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Anthony Powell
  • Marcel Proust
  • Philip Roth
  • Tom Sharpe
  • Anthony Trollope
  • PG Wodehouse
  • and many more.

For some of these authors, the issue may be a generational one:  for example, I know of no members of late Generation Jones or later-born readers who appreciate that early-Baby Boomer obsession, A Dance to the Music of Time, Powell’s long-winded novel sequence.   Added 2013-02-12:    The age threshold of my personal sample is confirmed by that of Max Hastings, writing in 2004:

Anthony Powell’s fan club, always far smaller than that of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh, will continue to shrink as admirers die off and are not replaced.  Nobody whom I know under 40 reads his books, while Waugh’s position as the greatest English novelist of the 20th century seems secure.”

Of course,  not everyone shares my low opinion of Roth’s work.




Concat 3: On writing

For procrastinators among you writing the Great American Novel, here are some links with advice on writing:

  • Hilary Mantel [2010]:  The joys of stationeryThe Guardian, 2010-03-06. On why writers need to keep loose-leaf notebooks.  An excerpt:

That said, le vrai moleskine and its mythology irritate me. Chatwin, Hemingway: has the earth ever held two greater posers? The magic has surely gone out of the little black tablet now that you can buy it everywhere, and in pastel pink, and even get it from Amazon – if they believe your address exists. The trouble with the Moleskine is that you can’t easily pick it apart. This may have its advantages for glamorous itinerants, who tend to be of careless habit and do not have my access to self-assembly beech and maple-effect storage solutions – though, as some cabinets run on castors, I don’t see what stopped them filing as they travelled. But surely the whole point of a notebook is to pull it apart, and distribute pieces among your various projects? There is a serious issue here. Perforation is vital – more vital than vodka, more essential to a novel’s success than a spellchecker and an agent.

I often sense the disappointment when trusting beginners ask me how to go about it, and I tell them it’s all about ring binders.”

  • Rachel Cusk [2010]: Can creative writing ever be taught? The Guardian, 2010-01-30.  A moving discussion on teaching creative writing, and the relationship between writing  and therapy.

Honest criticism, I suppose, has its place. But honest writing is infinitely more valuable.

At the start of last term, I asked my students a question: “How did you become the person you are?” They answered in turn, long answers of such startling candour that the ­photographer who had come in to take a couple of quick pictures for the ­university magazine ended up staying for the whole session, mesmerised. I had asked them to write down three or four words before they spoke, each word indicating a formative aspect of experience, and to tell me what the words were. They were mostly simple words, such as “father” and “school” and “Catherine”. To me they represented a regression to the first encounter with language; they represented a chance to reconfigure the link between the mellifluity of self and the concreteness of utterance. It felt as though this was a good thing for even the most accomplished writer to do. Were the students learning anything? I suppose not exactly. I’d prefer to think of it as relearning. Relearning how to write; remembering how.




Caute on Marechera

One did not have to visit many bars or nightclubs in downtown Harare in the early 1980s before encountering the late Dambudzo Marechera  (1952-1987), Zimbabwean novelist and poet.    I knew him slightly, as did anyone who was willing to share a drink with him and enjoy (or endure) a stimulating late-night argument on politics or literature.   Some of his writing, for all its coarse language, is powerful and sublime (in the tradition of Burroughs and Genet), and David Caute, in a book I have just read, argues correctly that he was a great writer.    The book also captures his personality well,  even if it gives the impression that Caute thinks the work forgives the man.   It does not.  As a person, Marechera was a victim of  his addictions and perhaps also of a psychosis – mercurial, abusive,  racist, foul-mouthed, illogical, self-destructive, and paranoid:   not someone who was nice to be around for very long.     Nothing forgives such poor behaviour, not even great writing.

As always when I read David Caute, I am reminded of Graham Greene:  both are writers who grapple with the major moral questions and issues of our time, yet both write in the sloppiest of language, insincere and vague, and have the tinnest of ears.  Woolly writing might be evidence of woolly thinking or evidence of malice aforethought (perhaps attempting to hide or obfuscate something, as Orwell argued); it could also be evidence of insufficient thinking.  In any case, Greene’s and Caute’s arguments are often undone and undermined by their style.  We only get as far as page 6 of Caute’s book on Marechera, for example, before we stumble over:

Piled high at the central counter of the Book Fair are copies of his [Marechera’s] new book, Mindblast, published by College Press of Harare, an orange coloured paperback with a surrealist design involving a humanized cat and a black in a space helmet.”

A black what, Dr Caute?  A black what?  I guess you mean a black person.  Just two sentences later, though,  you speak of,  “An effusive white executive of College Press . . .” So, let me get this right  – white people are important enough to have nouns to denote them, but black people not, eh?  Hmmm.

Although the effect is racist, I am sure Caute is not deliberately being racist in his use of language here, but rather just sloppy.    But the sloppy expression, here as elsewhere, leads one to doubt his sincerity and/or his ear.   Of course, someone who spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians could easily forget how offensive the first usage sounds (and is); and we know from Caute’s earlier books that he spent a lot of time in the company of white Rhodesians.

Pressing on, on page 43 we read:

Such rhetoric counts for little against the current surplus of maize, tobacco and beef which only the commercial farmers can guarantee.”

Well, actually, no, Dr Caute.  Tobacco and beef were in surplus at the time referred to (1984) due to commercial (ie, mainly white-owned) farms.  But maize was in surplus because the avowedly Marxist government of Robert Mugabe used the price mechanism when it came to power to encourage communal farmers  (ie, subsistence black farmers) to produce and sell surplus maize crops.   This was something so very remarkable – the country in food surplus for its staple food almost immediately after 13 years of civil war and 90 years of insurrection, and because of the fast responsiveness of peasant farmers   – that all the papers were full of it.  Surely Caute must have heard.  (See Herbst 1990 for an account.)  And even beef production was boosted by contributions from communal farmers, particularly after the Government decided not to prosecute the many illegal butcheries competing against the state-owned meat-processing monopoly, the Cold Storage Commission.  (One may wonder why a socialist government would not support its own state enterprise against privately-owned competitors until one learns that many members of the Cabinet had financial stakes in the competing butcheries.)

Is the sloppiness in Caute’s sentence then due to Orwellian sleight-of-hand – seeking to promote a case that was factually incorrect – or just  due to insufficiently-careful thought?   I suspect the latter, although it is throwaway lines like this – as it happens, lines so common in the conversation of white Rhodesians in the 1980s – that make me ponder  the sincerity of Caute’s writing.

And, finally, Caute seems eager to berate the left and liberals for their failure to call attention to Robert Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing in Matebeleland in 1982-84, the Gukurahundi campaign.  Certainly more could have been said and done, especially publicly, to oppose this.  But why is only one side of politics to blame?  Both the US and the UK had conservative administrations at the time, both of which (particularly Thatcher’s) made strong representations to Mugabe over the fate of several white Zimbabwe  Air Force officers detained and tortured in 1982.   These governments did not make nearly such strong representations over the fate of the victims of the Gukurahundi. Perhaps Mugabe was right to accuse the west of racism on this.  And Mugabe’s military campaign in Matabeleland was not launched for no reason:  As Caute must know, South Africa and its white Rhodesian friends were engaged in a campaign of terrorist violence against Zimbabwe from its inception, with terrorist bombings throughout the 1980s.   The Independence Arch he describes traveling under on the way to Harare Airport was in fact the second arch built to commemorate Independence:  the first had been blown up shortly after it was built.   And even Joshua Nkomo admitted (at a press conference following his dismissal from Cabinet in February 1982) that he had asked South Africa for assistance to stage a coup after Independence.  While Mugabe’s 5th Brigade was certainly engaged in brutal and genocidal murder and rape, the campaign was not against an imaginary enemy.

Although evil may triumph when good people do nothing, from the fact of the triumph of evil it is invalid to infer that nothing was done to oppose it by good people.  Where are the mentions in Caute’s account of the strong, high-level and repeated Catholic opposition (both clerical and lay) to Mugabe’s campaign?  Where is the mention, in the statement that Mugabe detained people using renewals of Smith’s emergency powers regulations, of the independent review panel established by ZANU(PF) stalwart Herbert Ushewokunze when Minister for Home Affairs, the Detention Review Tribunal, to consider the cases of people detained without trial?  The members of this panel included independent lawyers, some of whom were white and liberal.    Some people, even some of the people Caute seems to excoriate, were doing their best to stop or ameliorate the evil at the time.

References:

David Caute [1986/2009]:  Marechera and the Colonel:  A Zimbabwean Writer and the Claims of the State. London, UK:  Totterdown Books. Revised edition, 2009.

Jeffrey Herbst [1990]: State Politics in Zimbabwe. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. Perspectives on Southern Africa Series, Volume 45.

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