Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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To the LighthouseSeveral years ago, my dad bought me a Penguin boxed set of twentieth century novels that included the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Animal Farm, something by D H Lawrence; this is the first that I’ve read. I’d never read any Virginia Woolf; I won’t be hurrying to read anything else by her, I think.

First impressions of the book were quite good. It’s a portrait of a fairly disparate group of more or less socially awkward people all brought together by the Ramsays to stay on their summer home on a Scottish island, along with their various children. Mr and Mrs Ramsay are the focus of the novel (and are based on Woolf’s parents, the blurb assures me), but they are by no means the dominant viewpoint characters.

There is a strong sense, now that I think about it, of the fleetingness of life. The narrative does a lot of head-skipping – jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint. I found it rather annoying, actually. There are various places where, for instance, there are two female viewpoint characters, maybe in successive paragraphs, each of whom may be thinking about the other or other women in the house, and too liberal use of pronouns, making it hard to identify exactly who is being referred to.

But where this technique does work, it shows a group of people who are all thinking about each other and who don’t really understand each other. However, you don’t necessarily get an in-depth portrayal of any one character – at least, until the end of the book.

The structure of the novel increases the sense of transitoriness. The main, first part of the book is as I’ve described; the second, very brief section shows time passing (it’s entitled ‘Time Passes’) and various events happening to the Ramsays and their friends; in the third part, some of the characters return to the house and revisit their earlier activities or intentions. This latter segment is quite melancholy, as various characters have died or moved on, and, while the viewpoint is more stable, alternating between just two characters for the most part, it’s quite dull; I missed some of the more interesting people.

Some of the writing is quite beautiful and evocative, like this from the second part of the book:

Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors…. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

There were a couple of moments when the characters’ reactions and motivations struck me as being perfectly realised – such as James Ramsay’s hatred for the father whose pronouncements about the weather deny him the chance of a trip to the lighthouse (and who, much later, takes him and a sister). Charles Tansley’s pride at holding Mrs Ramsay’s bag made me stop reading and think, Wow – that’s exactly right:

… all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:—she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets—what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair—He had hold of her bag.

“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

In addition to the aforementioned head-skipping, the long sentences were often difficult to process and made reading the book an often frustrating experience. In this passage, the first paragraph consists of one short (or non-long) sentence and one incredibly long one (this excerpt comes just after the previous quote where Tansley realises his love for Mrs Ramsay, so the second paragraph not only clarifies the first, but also sets the young man’s thoughts in context):

But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

They had ceased to talk; that was the explanation. Falling in one second from the tension which had gripped her to the other extreme which, as if to recoup her for her unnecessary expense of emotion, was cool, amused, and even faintly malicious, she concluded that poor Charles Tansley had been shed. That was of little account to her. If her husband required sacrifices (and indeed he did) she cheerfully offered up to him Charles Tansley, who had snubbed her little boy.

What I’ve cut and pasted from the text into my review show some very noteworthy writing. Ultimately, however, the lack of narrative focus and drive and the deliberately anti-climactic latter parts of the book made finishing it a real chore, even though it’s a mere 230-odd pages long. The last section, only a third of the book, with Lily Briscoe agonising over her painting and Mr Ramsay, oblivious to their spite, taking two of his children to the lighthouse, seemed interminable.

To the Lighthouse is not a terrible book, by any means, but it’s not an easy one to enjoy or appreciate.

Viginia Woolf

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This is Salman Rushdie’s debut novel – from 1975 (making it slightly older than me) – and the second of his books that I’ve read – the other being The Satanic Verses, from which, despite the fact that I read it quite a few years ago, a few scenes have remained quite strongly in my memory.

Grimus is not an easy novel to categorise, as people so like to do with novels. I suppose you would say it’s magical realism – it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, contains themes from Middle Eastern and Western traditions, but is definitely literary fiction in general tone (although you can’t really pin it down as being especially British, as the main character is American).

This main character, Flapping Eagle, is, in fact, Native American, younger brother of the troubled Bird-Dog. (Avian imagery features greatly throughout the novel.) Bird-dog absconds with a mysterious man, leaving Flapping Eagle with two vials containing a liquid that will make the drinker immortal and one that will kill. Flapping Eagle drinks the immortality potion and spends hundreds of years looking for his elder sister. Eventually, he is washed up on an island – in another dimension – that is home to an ambivalent bunch of immortals who arrived there in much the same way, although much earlier. The island is governed by a kind of absentee king, Grimus; Flapping Eagle makes it his quest to challenge Grimus and find Bird-Dog.

One of The Satanic Verses‘s flaws was that there were too many disparate viewpoints, making it difficult to follow and maintain interest in the novel. Grimus‘s narritive is focused on Flapping Eagle throughout, with only the occasional diversion. Nevertheless, it’s bursting full of diverse ideas: there are anagram-loving, dimension travelling, super-intelligent frog-beings called Gorfs (they live on a planet called Thera that orbits a star called Nus), there is Sufi mysticism, philosophy, comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age, dualities and opposites, social criticism … and no doubt other stuff.

One of the main ideas is the specious attraction of creating an ideal society. The immortals who live on Calf Island (Grimus named it Kaf, after the Arabic letter, but it didn’t quite stick) come there after exhausting many lifetimes’ worth of experience on Earth, but they are an insular group. Not only is their community self-sustaining, static and sterile, but each is caught up in their own obsessions. Ultimately, Flapping Eagle’s arrival shakes things up in good ways and bad ways, but he also succumbs to the lure of the settled, comfortable lifestyle – at least until his actions catch up with him.

Although I had a big hiatus in the middle of reading this book (arriving at my sister’s and getting caught up with video games and stuff), I enjoyed it a lot. It’s not without its flaws – some of the characters are under-used or are near-superfluous (Nicholas Deggle – an ambiguous character whose presence in Flapping Eagle’s earlier life is never really explained – gets left in a hut with a madwoman for much of the latter part of the novel), and the Gorfs are definitely a weird, though minor, ingredient in the mélange. The use of quotation dashes instead of inverted commas is something I find a bit pretentious. And the protagonist is a little lacklustre – more of a foil to the interesting characters around him.

Nevertheless, Grimus is a readable read, full of ideas and intelligence and references that reward further research. My copy was also free, having been given it by my friend Lawrence.

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This was another book I got from Lawrence on my recent visit to Bristol – and the second Self novel I’ve read – the other being How the Dead Live. This book – and this review – is probably not for the faint-hearted.

Simon Dykes is an artist – a human artist – living and working in London – a human London. One morning, after a night of debauchery and a strange dream, he wakes up to find himself in a world of chimpanzees. His girlfriend’s place has been taken by a chimpanzee; chimpanzee paramedics come to take him to a chimpanzee hospital; he becomes the swansong project of a controversial chimpanzee psychologist, Zach Busner. Simon is now a chimp living in a chimp world – but he still remembers and believes in his own humanity. The novel is a dual quest: Zach’s is to understand Simon’s apparent psychosis, while Simon’s is to reconcile his human mind with his chimp reality.

The most striking thing about Great Apes is the level of thought that has put into creating a chimpanzee-dominated world. In some ways, it’s exactly the same as the human one: the course of history, political geography, names, people, companies – these are all exactly as in the world Simon remembers. However, chimps behave in some significantly different ways. They live in extended family groups or communities. Physical violence is the normal way of asserting dominance. They eat two or three breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day. They use their feet almost as much as their hands. They communicate with sign language; their vocalisations are used mostly as a kind of punctuation. Most notably, sex is ubiquitous.

Chimpanzees wear clothing only on their top halves – trousers or leggings are their equivalent of bondage gear (which leads to embarrassment when Simon demands pants in the hospital). The only exception to this is females’ ‘swelling protectors’, which they wear over their genitals (a gay male character also sports one). Any female, when in oestrus, is receptive to sex with pretty much anyone. An attractive female (or, rather, a female with a beautiful, engorged vagina) causes a queue of males to form on the steps of a Tube station.

Sex and physical chastisement are essential to a chimp’s well-being. Simon’s girlfriend – the chimp version – suffers from a lack of self-worth because her mother didn’t hit her enough and her father didn’t fuck her enough.

In addition to sex and violence, various forms of grooming are part of the social lubrication of the chimp world. A junior chimp meeting a senior one will turn around and raise its bottom, presenting its ‘ischial pleat’ for the other to pat, kiss or pick out bits of poo from. Friends will gently hold each others’ scrotums. And so on and so forth.

Self has constructed a whole vocabulary to express chimp-specific ideas and activities: chimps have ‘chimpunity’, not humanity; they indulge in ‘human business’ rather than monkey business; instead of handling things, they ‘footle’ them. The way chimpanzees praise each other is full of playful language: ‘Simonkins’, ‘your arseholiness’. In addition, lots of technical language is used: there are no men and women, but males and females ranked alpha, beta etc; as a show of aggression, they horripilate – ie, they make their fur stand on end by giving themselves goose pimples. This nomenclature sits a little uneasily with some of the other, less formal, more naturalistic lexical choices.

So, it’s a fascinating premise, but I don’t think it quite lives up to this promise. The course of Simon’s acceptance of his new reality is generally well measured, though a little abrupt in one or two places. A sub-plot involving a planned take-over of Zach Busner’s community is ultimately anti-climactic. The novel goes on and on a lot, taking its time to amount to much. The female characters are not terribly interesting, and, from a human point of view, the female chimps get a pretty raw deal – vaginal bleeding from too much sex being an uncomfortably graphic example.

The ultimate conclusion of the novel could also be seen as anti-climactic, but I think it’s a natural, understated way to end things. It’s a very readable book, full of earthy, inventive language and ridiculous situations. It also makes you think about the way we look at chimps and the other great apes – chimpanzees see humans as pretty brute, comical creatures; chimp infants have human stuffed toys, infant humans (clothed only on their top halves) are the stars of PG Tips adverts. There, but for a quirk of evolutionary history, go we.

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I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time a few years ago and liked it, so reading another of McEwan’s books was long overdue. Amsterdam is a very short novel – novella really; I’ve done the caculations and it’s probably between 35,000 and 40,000 words.

In the wake of the descent into dementia and death of their former lover, Molly, two friends, Clive Linley, a composer working on a piece for the millennium celebrations, and Vernon Halliday, an editor of a failing newspaper, make a pact to have the other euthanised should they begin to lose their marbles. Then they have a big falling out over a scoop that Vernon wants to publish – and this disagreement has terrible consequences.

The story was a quick, pleasant read – too quick, really, and too pleasant, in a way. The arc of the story seems to cut off very rapidly and the dark comedy of the ending was predictable and over very quickly – it almost seemed like an afterthough – even though that’s what the story is tending to all the way through. The darkness and the comedy of the ending didn’t do much for me, either.

What I did like was everything that went before – from Clive and Vernon’s conversation at Molly’s funeral, confrontations with a goverment minister (also a former lover of Molly), Clive’s search for the melody that will put the final touch to his masterpiece, Vernon’s struggles to make the most out of some scandalous photos he’s received, the two men’s subsequent argument and each character’s monomaniacal quest to justify himself.

It’s this latter that is the key theme of the story. Clive and Vernon’s disagreement is perpetuated by their self-absorption. Vernon wants to run his story even though it’s very morally dubious. Clive lives a batchelor’s life and spends his time perfecting his millennium symphony – or worrying about how to do so. They’re both concerned with the integrity of their work, but both lose their personal integrity.

For the most part, this was a good read, but the conclusion left me rather nonplussed. It could have been a longer book, and the transition from indignation to something altogether darker could have been explored in more detail.

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I just read an interesting couple of articles. Firstly was a piece on the Guardian website by Edward Docx (possibly named after a Microsoft Word document) decrying the state of literature today and basically saying that genre fiction (fantasy, thriller etc) is bad and literary fiction is good – actually, he doesn’t quite say that, but he does say that good genre fiction cannot be as good as the best literary fiction.

R Scott Bakker, author of The Darkness that Comes Before and other excellent fantasy books as well as a pair of techno-thrillers, posted a response on his Three Pound Brain blog, in which he expounds his view that critics and writers subscribe to the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, which basically amounts to a specious justification literary snobbery towards genre fiction.

To be honest, the Docx article struck a chord for me. It’s great that people are reading, but is it not a problem that people are reading the easy stuff like Harry Potter and Dan Brown in such huge numbers and not reading the challenging stuff, whatever the genre, by authors such as (picking a name completely at random) R Scott Bakker?

Most stuff is crap. I love fantasy, but I wouldn’t touch a Feist or a Goodkind novel with a barge pole. I’m sure most literary fiction is crap, too (I don’t read enough to pick some bad authors). But I think it’s true that it’s easier for publishers to put out badly written genre fiction because it ticks all the boxes or it cashes in on a current fad (Harry Potter rip-off, The Name of the Wind comes to mind). Literary fiction sells so little, that I would guess publishers have to really make sure it’s worth it before risking publishing a new literary author.

I found myself agreeing with both critiques – any worthwhile area of human endeavour or thought is complex enough that it allows multiple contradictory viewpoints, all of which have some validity. All genres have their conventions and limitations, including literary fiction. The job of a conscientious reader is to be aware of them and to read the best, whatever shelf of the bookshop it’s stocked on. The job of a good writer is to work within genre conventions and to transcend them at the same time.

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I’d read one Kundera novel before I tackled this one – The Unbearable Lightness of Being and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was different from my usual fantasy fare – intimate, understated, delicate, intelligent (not that fantasy novels can’t be any of those things, especially the latter) – and that was probably a large part of why I liked it.

I also liked Immortality – for the same qualities. Where The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in Prague, the author’s native home, this novel is set in Paris, the author’s adoptive home. It deals primarily with relationships – the relationships of the somewhat unhappy Agnes, and also of her husband and sister; and also those of Goethe and his supposed love, Bettina. It also deals with the author himself, who is a character in his own novel – although it might be more accurate to say that the characters are people in his own life. And it deals with a gesture.

The book begins with the author noticing a gesture – a carefree, backward-looking wave of a young woman performed by an old woman. This leads him to muse on the relative uniqueness and longevity of gestures and people. People, he thinks, are the vessels of gestures. This carefree wave comes to be on a par with the characters in the novel – transmitted from one to another, and living on because of this.

The characters find their genesis in the early morning drowsy thoughts of the author. In one chapter, the author imagines a woman, lying in bed like himself, savouring the absence of her husband; he tries to think what motivates her. In the next chapter, she has become, without further elucidation, the novel’s protagonist. Although the author never comes face to face with Agnes, he meets her husband and sister; he spends time with his friend, Professor Avenarius, who is also a friend of theirs. He asks the professor about them, hoping to understand what they have done and why.

At one point, Avenarius asks what he is planning to call the novel he is working on (the novel you’re reading); the author says he wants to call it The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to which the professor replies, I think someone already wrote that! and the author responds that it was him.

The novel describes and discusses Goethe and his relationship with a young devotee, Bettina. Goethe – according to what is written here – didn’t care for her much and saw her as a danger to his reputation and legacy. She seems to have been obsessed with Goethe and wrote him letters about love, planning to publish them after his death – along with various self-serving emendations. Goethe is also shown having conversations with Hemingway in the afterlife.

The whole novel is a gentle but mesmerising musing on the nature of the desire for immortality, the desire to control one’s reputation, and how the dead are remembered. I feel that the book doesn’t offer any particular thesis, but just tries to offer a subtly fantastical, psychologically realistic, multi-faceted picture of various intimately or tenuously interconnected lives. Despite the fact that it jumps between the present day narrative and its pseudo-biography of Goethe and even jumps back and forth within the foreground story, despite the fact that it doesn’t so much blur as consider irrelevant the boundaries between fact and fiction, it is beautifully readable from start to finish.

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