Archive for January, 2009

Vaudeville!, by Gaetan Soucy

January 29, 2009

Translated by Sheila Fischman

soucyA number of very good critics say that Gaetan Soucy is the best writer in Quebec today and that Vaudeville! is his best book.  I read  Immaculate Conception when  it made the Giller shortlist in 2005 so I was eager to take on this earlier work, first published in English in 2003.

Xavier X. Mortanse thinks he is from Hungary and that he arrived by boat in New York City in 1929.  He wandered the streets for some days and eventually, while begging, ran into the Philosopher of the Sands of Silence at a demolition site.  The Philosopher takes to Xavier and gets him a job as an apprentice demolisher, although X’s chances of ever becoming a journeyman in the Order of Demolishers are very slim.

Obviously, we are not dealing with a realistic novel in Vaudeville!.  Fantasy is probably too quiet, Armaggedon just a bit much.  Let’s say an excursion into alternate fiction.  Let the characters wander a world we do not know and see what happens.

In the first part of the novel, Xavier shows up at demolition sites and does his work — tormented by the foreman Lazare (who was born to demolish), but supported by the Philosopher.  Eventually, the neighbor in the closet next door, Peggy Sue O’Hara takes a shine to Xavier and wants to integrate him in the city — and introduce him to vaudeville.  Alas, Lazare has developed his own crush on Peggy Sue and complications ensue.

Quoting from this book would be a hopeless exercise — one of Soucy’s great strengths is that his prose proceeds at a very measured and steady pace, regardless of how absurd the meaning is.  Sheila Fischman is widely known as the best translator of Quebecois fiction and, while my French is not up to reading the original, it certainly seems she has done fine work here.  One of the great strengths of this book is that the narrative just keeps moving on, forcing the reader to figure out what has happened, rather than having language get in the way.

In the first half of the book, surreal or fantastic as it may be, Vaudeville! is neither traditional  morality play nor allegory, but a study in character.  Xavier, Peggy Sue and Lazare all come to life as real characters — their names certainly imply a religious allegory, but that is just a tease from Soucy.  As unreal as their surroundings are, they become real people.

And then Peggy Sue and Lazare disappear from the story and the reader is taken into a far more desolate world, as Xavier finds himself experiencing a New York even more remote than that he first discovered.  We enter the world of vaudeville, not on stage, but in real life.  As the final parts of the novel unwind (and they do unwind, rather than being told) it is akin to following a downward spiral into a non-spiritual version of Dante’s Inferno.

Soucy asks a lot from his readers — not with his language (because the story flows easily) but rather that they set aside any notion of reality that they might bring to the book.  It is a device that often annoys me — I find myself wondering if the author has fallen into laziness and opted for a trickery that makes the reader, instead of the writer, do the work.  That is definitely not the case with Vaudeville! — if you are willing to grant Soucy the indulgence, he repays your trust in spades.  And when he finally draws the novel to a close, he does it in a most exemplary fashion.

I can think of only one book to which I would compare this one — Mark Helprin’s homage to New York, Winter’s Tale, a novel with a cult following of its own.  Even then, the comparison is not fair — Helprin extends his fantasy outward, Soucy looks inside.  (Okay, there probably is an allegory in this book that may be beyond me — others can outline it in the comments.  I find the introspection to be reward in itself.)

This is certainly not a book for everybody but if you are up to the challenge it is a most fascinating example of alternate fiction from an exceptional author.  Well worth the read and a very good introduction to an excellent author — if you have a religious bent, try Immaculate Conception as well.


The NBCC winner is…

January 25, 2009

William Rycroft, also known as Will, who did enter twice within one minute, but have the same books on both entries — try as I can to find a way to turn this into a tie without a winner, I can’t.  Everyone, including William, wasted two books with A Mercy and Netherland, neither of which made the shortlist.  William had the smarts to go for two “edgy” books, 2666 and The Lazarus Project, which gave him the victory.   Congratultions and I’ll be in touch about the prize.

Two-thirds of a trilogy by Sam Selvon

January 23, 2009

selvon11The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

Moses Ascending, by Sam Selvon

We first meet Moses Aloetta on the platform of Waterloo Station, waiting for “a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat train”.  While there, a “Jamaican” friend named Tolroy comes up, also waiting for the boat train.  Tolroy is waiting for his mother — who, when the boat train arrives, turns out to be accompanied by an aunt, two other relatives and their two children.  Tolroy has a job that pays five pounds a week — so it would be wrong not to share the fortune.

selvon3And so we are introduced to The Lonely Londoners, a novel first published in 1956 that is every bit as relevant today.  In a few pages, in “creole” dialect, we will be introduced to Harry “Sir Galahad” Oliver (that’s whom Moses is meeting), Big City, Five Past Twelve, Harris and a host of others.  Welcome to the London of the mid-1950s.  All written by the man who would become known as the “father of black writing” in Britain.

I was unaware of Sam Selvon and his novels until an on-line exchange some weeks ago with Max at Pechorin’s Journal.  We had been talking about Damon Runyon and his current relevance and Max mentioned Selvon as a comparison.

Literally only minutes later, after some internet searching, I had discovered that the “father of black writing” in Britain had migrated to Calgary, Canada (where I live) in 1978 and lived there until his death while visiting his native Trinidad in 1994.  I felt ashamed — for 16 years, I had lived in the same city as an internationally recognized author and known nothing at all about him.  As you will find out, that is part of the sad story.

The Lonely Londoners is a truly wonderful book and I am not even going to try to summarize it.  I will point visitors here to two excellent reviews that I cannot hope to improve on — Max here and Stewart at booklit.  Please visit either or both, but I would like to add my own impressions (as opposed to a good review) of this book.

The first thing that impressed me about Selvon’s book is the way that he conveys a notion of the “underclass” and the life that it lives.  Every metropolitan city has an underclass — in Athens and Rome, they were slaves, but the same is true today of Hispanics in Los Angeles, Haitians in Montreal, Tamils in Toronto and Vietnamese in Calgary.  The Lonely Londoners takes us back more than half a century but it captures the fallout of what this underclass experiences — they wash the dishes, pick up the trash and direct the traffic in jobs that no one else wants.  They also have dislocated their lives, based on optimism and hope, and things aren’t turning out quite as they hoped.

My second impression has to do with the “lonely” part of this novel’s title.  In the conventional sense of “lonely”, it doesn’t apply at all — the book is full of the way they relate to each other.  True, that comes down to cadging a place to sleep (because no one will rent them a room), borrowing money from anyone who has it (a job is a definite sign of status) or just bumming a meal.  Whatever, there is a sense of community with these Jamaicans (at the time, everyone with an off-hue skin in London was a “Jamaican”) — the loneliness of the title is a collective identity, not an individual one.

And finally, and most importantly, this is a book that despite its pathos and sadness (go back to those reviews that I referenced earlier) conveys a sense of humor, hope and, ultimately, optimism.  In the Penguin edition that I read, the first 92 pages set and build the story — and have a lot of that humor — but the best part starts only then.  For 10 full pages, without so much as a comma, Selvon departs from the dialect and indulges in an impressionistic soliloquy about London that is truly amazing.

I will confess to being an advocate of the declarative sentence and impressionistic writing is not my forte but these 10 pages held me for every word — it captures a picture of the city that is most impressive.  And Selvon moves into another gear after that.  While the final pages of the book have much conventional action, the sub-text is a contemplation of  community and the notion of “home” unlike anything I can remember reading for a long time.   The Lonely Londoners was a very good read up to these pages — with them, it became a great book.

Moses Ascending did not appear until 19 years later and, for persons of color, much had changed.  True, there had been legislation supposedly protecting rights, but it had been followed by the politics of Enoch Powell predicting that blacks “will have the whip hand over the white man.”  Race riots had taken place and skinheads were a phenomenon.  For people of color, such as Moses and Selvon (I should note here that Selvon is not “black” in the sense of contemporary terminology — like V.S Naipul, he is an Indian from Trinidad), the world had changed.

That history comes from an excellent introductory essay to the Penguin edition of Moses Ascending by novelist Hari Kunzru.  He also offers the following relevant thoughts for this book:

In his introduction to a 1982 edition of The Lonely Londoners, Kenneth Ramchand warns against ‘loose talk about a Moses trilogy’, on the grounds that while the Moses of the earlier book is ‘seeking answers to profound questions with an intensity that suggests a closeness to the author…the latter books…suggest a disengagement by the author from his protagonist which at times…feels like cynicism or evasion.”  Unfortunately for Ramchand, his attempt to preserve the purity of The Lonely Londoners was made difficult by Selvon himself, who peppers Moses Ascending with references to its predecessor.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that what discomforted Ramchand wasn’t so much ‘disengagement’ as the biliousness of an ageing writer who felt he’d been denied his critical and commercial due.

I quote that at length because it is a fair assessment in one sense, but wrong in another — this book is very much a fair follow-up to the previous volume.  Britain has changed and Selvon has changed; as readers, we should try to understand that change.

In one sense, Moses has definitely moved up the social scale.  He has bought a terrace house from Tolroy — it has already been condemned and is scheduled for demolition, but he has three years to make money off it.  He will rent suites in this “mansion” to people of color who were lucky to find a basement room in the previous book.  He himself has moved into the “penthouse” — if it had an attic, he would have moved higher still — and has started working on his memoirs.

He has also acquired a white footman/batboy/Man Friday, one Bob from the Black Midlands, who pretty much looks after the enterprise while Moses tends to his memoirs.  There is no doubt that employing a Caucasian is a significant step.  For potential readers who are feminists, this is also an appropriate time to warn that Selvon is not post-modern in his attitude towards women, whatever their color — he did get slapped at a 1980s meeting at the Commonwealth Insitute.  In the interests of historical understanding, we may have to forgive him that for a moment or two.

Alas, reflecting the new Britain, he has some “difficult” tenants — the Black Power party has taken up the basement suite as an office and an Asian who is smuggling Pakistanis into the Mother Country is using another suite as a safe house (the underclass of the first volume is being replaced by a new one — that too is part of the overarching story).  Moses, despite what we know from the previous book, is out of touch with this all — just as, we as readers must assume, Selvon, the “father of black writing” in Britain, is also finding himself passed by.

Like The Lonely Londoners, there is humor and hope in this book — unlike the previous volume, they definitely take the back seat.  Moses has lost touch and so for that matter has Selvon.  Hope has been replaced by resignation, humor is used as a source of coping — the world has not got better, it has go worse.

That sounds like a bad recommendation for a book and I utterly reject that — like The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending is a book that very much deserves to be read.  Undoubtedly, in conventional terms, the former is a better novel — but if you are willing to accept that fiction writers can comment on social history, and I do, the second book is every bit as important as the first.  The result is one of the saddest books that I can remember reading in a long, long time — and that is a positive comment, not a negative one.

Which then leaves the obvious question:  Why is Kevin reviewing a trilogy when he has only read the first two books?

Good question.  The first answer is prosaic:  Selvon is an easy author to read (don’t let the idea of dialect put you off; the rhythm is easily established) but not so easy an author to buy.  When I started this quest, I could find one volume in Canada, one in the UK and no sight of volume three, Moses Migrating, anywhere.  That last volume showed up a few weeks ago with a new edition published in the U.S. which hasn’t arrived in the mailbox yet — given that Penguin didn’t publish Moses Ascending in the Modern Classics series until last year, optimistic readers can hope that it will appear in a Penguin version in the next year or two.  If you want to read this trilogy (and you should), be prepared for a quest.

My other explanation is more personal.  I’ve avoided reading anything about what Moses Migrating is about because I want to preserve a sense of anticipation.  I know it wasn’t published until 1983, five years after Selvon left Britain for Calgary — that, plus the title, does convey some implications.  I’ll admit, since I respect the first two-thirds of this trilogy, I can’t wait until it drops through the mail slot.

EDIT:  I have now read Moses Migrating.  The review is here.

dictation, a quartet, by Cynthia Ozick

January 17, 2009

ozickCynthia Ozick deserves her place in the front rank of contemporary American writers.  As a novelist Shawl and Heir to the Glimmering World are probably best known), she was one of the judges’ 17 finalists from around the world in the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005.  As a short story writer, she has won 4 O. Henry awards.  As an essayist, Quarrel and Quandary won a National Book Critics Circle award.

If you haven’t read Ozick, dictation, a collection of four long stories (they come in at about 45 pages each), is a very good place to start.  If you have, this new book published in 2008 deserves to be read.

When I say “front rank”, I should qualify that she is usually in what I call the third breath division of that elite group.  As in, “greatest contemporary American writer? let’s see”.  Short pause, breath one.  “Philip Roth?  Saul Bellow? John Updike? Don Delillo?”  Somewhat longer pause, breath two.  “Wait, there’s no woman author there.”  Even longer pause, breath three.  “Uh…Toni Morrison?  Marilynne Robinson? Cynthia Ozick?  Joyce Carol Oates?”

You can put me on the side of those who complain that women authors tend to get overlooked, if not completely ignored, in those kinds of discussions.  That Man Booker list had only four women on it (Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark were the others — Ozick keeps good company).  A New York Times feature a few years ago asked a couple hundred authors, editors, critics and academics to name their choice of  the best American novel in the last 25 years.  While Toni Morrison’s Beloved “won”, only one of the 21 other books on the list was by a woman (Robinson’s Housekeeping).  (For a link to that article and a following discussion — involving only males incidentally — on themookseandthegripes click here.  It starts about comment 20).  And in a recent review of James Wood’s  How Fiction Works, dovegreyreader sparked a similar discussion (this time almost all female) with the disappointed complaint that of the 93 books he mentions, only nine women authors were represented (by 11 books).

With luck, dictation and time will help to change that.  Ozick is a wonderful author and this is a very good book.

In her own sly way (and is Ozick ever effective at sly), the title story of this collection is a commentary on that issue.  The framework for the story, which opens at Lamb House in Rye, is the touchy friendship between Henry James and Joseph Conrad.  It had started with the insecure James as Conrad’s mentor — he is already beginning to feel somewhat threatened.  What sets the real action in motion, however, is that James has discovered the Machine (that would be the typewriter, pictured on the cover) and has found that MacAlpine, his longtime stenographer, who recorded his dictation in shorthand and then transcribed it, is not up to working directly onto the Machine.  MacAlpine is replaced by a “highly competent (and cheaper) little woman”.

James eventually takes to spending his winters at the Reform Club in London:  “It was here, on a rainy afternoon in January of 1910, that Miss Lilian Hallowes and Miss Theodora Bosanquet almost did not meet”.  And so we met the amanuenses who are what this story is about.  Miss Bosanquet, a sapphist, is the opposite of her master James — outgoing, curious, with a definite tilt to pranksterism.  Miss Hallowes is introspective, very respectful of her master Conrad and quite a prude — so Miss Bosanquet’s sexual quest has to be put aside, but her little plot of deception will live on.

I can say no more without spoiling the story (like O. Henry, Ozick likes her stories to have an impressive ending).  Let’s just say you end up not only knowing more about James and Conrad (some of which might even be true) and about female friendship, you are definitely chuckling.

The second story, Actors, centres on Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, an actor in New York City who doesn’t get much work.  He has a reputation for arguing with directors; one addresses him as Mr. Surly.  Partly through laziness, partly through ego, he doesn’t go to auditions (although he is afraid to let his wife know that), opting to spend the time in the New York Public Library reading magazines.  She is very well read — as the breadwinner, her job is to create three crossword puzzles a week, so she knows a lot of words.

His wife takes a call from an agressive, young director who wants Matt for the lead in a new play that is “something about King Lear”.  Since it involves no audition, Matt goes to meet the director only to discover the playwright has died the night before:

Matt said, “The writer’s dead?”

“We’ve got ourselves a tragedy.  Heart attack.  Two A.M., passed away in intensive care.  Not that she’s any sort of spring chicken.  Marlene Miller-Weinstock, you know her?”

“So there’s no play,” Matt said; he was out of a job.

“Let me put it this way.  There’s no playwright, which is an entirely different thing.”

“Never heard of her,” Matt said.

“Right.  Neither did I, until I got hold of this script.  As far as I know she’s written half a dozen novels.  The kind that get published and then disapper.  Never wrote a play before.  Face it, novelists can’t do plays anyhow.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Matt said.  “Gorky, Sartre, Steinbeck, Galsworthy, Wilde.”  It came to him that Silkowitz had probably never read any of these old fellows from around the world.  Not that Matt had either, but he was married to some who had read them all.

Director Silkowitz has one request of Matt:   He wants him to go talk to the deceased playwright’s father, a nonagenarian now living in the House for the Elderly Children of Israel and a former actor (“the old Yiddish theater, the old feverish plays.  Weeping on the stage, weeping in all the rows.”)

Matt’s meeting with Eli Miller both motivates him and scares the hell out of him.  All of this takes place in the first third of the story, but again I’ll say no more:  the Lear metaphor is appropriate, there is a ghost and a play (sort of) finally gets produced.

Description of the final two stories will be much shorter, but they are equally as good.

In At Fumicaro, Frank Castle, an American art critic, book critic, writer on politics and morals and host of a weekly radio show where he answers people’s questions about Catholicism, arrives at the Villa Garibaldi in Fumicaro (the timing is pre-war so it is under Fascist control).  He’s scheduled to give a presentation, based on his show, to a seminar, mainly attended by priests, on “The Church and How It is Known”.

When shown to his room, the chambermaid is vomiting in the bedroom.  The story ends, four days later, when Frank is showing his new wife, the chambermaid, around the religious sites of Milan (that isn’t a spoiler — Ozick tells us that on page 3).  Trust me, when I say a lot happens in those four days.

The narrator of the final story, What Happened To The Baby, is a 10-year-old when the story opens whose mother takes her each week to meetings of her Uncle Simon’s society, the League for a Unified Humanity.  Simon is actually promoting his new universal language (GNU) — each meeting ends when the esperantoists at the back begin chanting anti-GNU slogans and rush the stage.  As the story unfolds, we discover that Simon, while hopeless, is a survivor.  Yes, there is a baby and something happened to it.  You’ll have to read the story to find out what.

This is a wonderful book.  Ozick does not waste a single word (unlike this review, alas — sorry) and packs more plot, character and sense of place into a 45-page story than most novels do in a book eight times that length.  The four stories all have different settings and take place in different times — it is an amazing collection. 

Cost-conscious readers may pick dictation  up, note its slim size and say “$24 is too much to pay for a 179-page book”.  (That’s the hardcover price in Canada and the U.S. — the paperback is due in March at $18.95.)

I say “you’re buying a 537-page book and it is great value.”  Ozick is one of those writers who demands and rewards at least three readings.  At the end of the first, you’ve been entertained and know you have missed half the story.  The second reading fills in most of those gaps while being even more entertaining.  Only the third time through do you really appreciate what the author has achieved.  So that’s a dozen 45-page reading segments that can be arranged in any order you want and fit to your timetable, rather than having to read right through.  As I said, great value.

As a final note on this too long post, if this interests you in Ozick but you just don’t like short stories, John Self at Asylum reviews of two of her novels, The Puttermesser Papers and The Shawl,  collected here.

KevinfromCanada’s first contest

January 14, 2009

Welcome to the first contest on the KevinfromCanada book blog — I hope to hold them periodically.  Since Canadians love to comment (usually critically) on things American, it is entirely appropriate that the first contest is centred on a U.S.-based award.

The National Book Critics Circle shortlist  for fiction (and a number of other categories) will be announced in New York at 7 p.m. EDT, January 24.  The challenge is to submit your entry on what books will be the five finalists in the fiction category.  The winner is announced March 12.  Since Trevor Berrett at The Mookse and The Gripes already has the system set up for prize discussion groups (the National Books Award discussion is still posted), I am assuming he will be hosting one for the NBCC awards — he is U.S.-based, after all, so it is his right and it is also true of Canadians that, while we like to comment on things American, we prefer it if they do the heavy lifting.

The NBCC fiction award is certainly the widest reaching in the U.S. — and arguably for all English language fiction.  The criteria for entry:  “Books published in English (including translations) in the United States with pub dates within 2008 will be considered.”  Since in the U.S. is pretty good at listing publication dates, it isn’t that hard to determine entry eligibility.

The NBCC also has the most wide-open shortlist procedure that I know.  Publishers make submissions and the jury can call in titles (which is normal).  The NBCC membership is also polled — and as far as I can tell, if 20 per cent name a book, it automatically goes on the shortlist.

The result is a prize which produces a wideranging shortlist of titles, perhaps with somewhat of a literary slant.  Last year’s shortlist (just by title) was Sacred Games, The Brief Wonderous Life Of Oscar Wao, In The Country of Men, The Gravedigger’s Daughter and The Shadow Catcher — I’d say that is proof enough that national chauvinism is not at play here.  The NBCC website is here .

First prize will be a) bragging rights and b) a $50 Cdn. gift certificate at whatever online site you use that will let me but it from Canada (Amazon does that at all their national sites).  In the event of a two-way tie, the prize will be split.  In the true schoolyard tradition, the three-tie, all-tie rule will be imposed and no financial prize will be issued if more than two entries tie.

I have every intention of entering my own contest and have let Trevor know my entry (he doesn’t even know about the work I am creating for him) so you know I have not cheated.  Everyone else’s entry can be submitted through the comments section at the bottom of this post.  My entry will be posted at the close of the contest deadline which is midnight, Jan. 23 GMT.  Both entries and comments are welcomed immediately — if you only have three or four books that you know, there is no requirement that your entry have five books.  Good luck to one and all.


Land of Marvels, by Barry Unsworth

January 12, 2009

unsworthReading Barry Unsworth has been a hit-and-miss proposition for me.  I started with Stone Virgin (1985), a delightful novel set in Venice spread over three time periods that features, among other things, a very canny servant who keeps his decaying master and himself alive by selling pages from the erotic memoir his master is writing to the subjects of the tale.  Sacred Hunger (1992) was a co-winner of the Booker Prize (with Canadian Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient).  Its length (600 plus pages) and subject matter (the Atlantic slave trade) scared me off reading it for a number of years — when I did get to it, I found it a memorable book.

Unsworth’s two other Booker short-listed titles, Pascali’s Island (1980) and Morality Play (1995) landed just on the positive side of the hit-miss spectrum.  While most of his work is historical fiction, two non-hisorical novels (The Hide (1970) and After Hannibal (1995)) were both delightful reads.  Unsworth has been living in Italy since he won the Booker — if you are thinking about buying and restoring a property there for your retirement, read After Hannibal before making the investment.

Unfortunately, his most recent books — Losing Nelson (1999), The Songs of the Kings (2oo2) and The Ruby in Her Navel (2006) —  were misses.  Even worse, his new book Land of Marvels, also belongs in that category, at least for this reader.

The novel is set in 1914 in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq, for those who weren’t there that day in Ancient History class).  Its central character is a British gentleman archaeologist, Somerville, who sold the family firm shortly after he inherited it to finance his expeditions to Tell Erdek, a mound that he is convinced contains the secrets of the decline of the Assyrian empire in 600 B.C.  Dreams of presentations to the Royal Society in London and perhaps a gallery featuring his finds at the British Museum fuel his vision of the future.

Alas, his vision in the present, from his dig, includes the shacks and warehouses of the Baghdad Railway, a Constantinople to Basra link that a German firm has been constructing, off and on, since 1903.  If completed it will change both the economy and politics of this region forever.  More important for Somerville, it appears that its construction may involve blowing up the site of his dig.

Given the times, British and French interests are not particularly interested in letting the Germans have this railway to themselves.  From his base in Constantinople, Lord Rampling, more a businessman than a lord, is doing his best to make sure Britain and France get a piece of the action.  The area around Tell Erdek also features bitumen swamps and pits, long valued for their pitch.  Now that Churchill has switched the British navy from steam to oil and Henry Ford is selling his Model Ts, the Age of Petroleum has arrived.  Enter Alexander Elliott, an American geologist with ties to Standard Oil and the Chester Group, whom Lord Rampling embeds in Somerville’s crew posing as an archaeologist while he does his surveys on the oil deposits that are obviously there.  Elliott is actually a triple agent (that isn’t a spoiler) with separate contracts with American, British and German interests.

All of this takes place with the looming prospect of the Great War and the even more likely fall of the Ottoman Empire which is watching its control of the region slip.  When it falls, Britain, France and the U.S. (I was there that day, so I know it happens) will carve up the remnants of the Empire in a disastrous fashion, the price of which is being paid to this day.  Obviously, all of these elements were present not just in 1914 — they are what fuels the current crisis that has already cost tens of thousands of lives and produced the dislocation of millions of people.

The story also needs, and has, an indigenous element.  Jehar is an Arab who serves as Somerville’s eyes and ears in the local community.  His goal is to get 100 pounds out of the Englishman — the price a nearby cafe owner has set on his niece whom Jehar wants to marry.

Certainly, the elements of a great story are there.  The conflict between preserving history and development.  The birth of new commercial orders.  Tensions between empires — fading, currently strong and developing.  All told by flawed individuals who have their own interests and problems.

Too many elements, perhaps?  For this reader, definitely yes.  Given all that is going on, a publisher’s blurb describing this book would normally feature some phrase like “a tale of epic proportions” — Doubleday’s North American dust jacket opts for the somewhat less enthusiastic (but equally inaccurate) “historical fiction at its finest”.  Land of Marvels is only 287 pages long and that simply isn’t enough to tell all those stories — and in no way does that represent a wish that Unsworth had added another few hundred pages.

Given all that the author has set out to do, he simply has to spend too much time supplying background facts for his story (if there were days in high school devoted to the Assyrian Empire, I was away — I don’t seem to have missed much).  When he is not doing that, he needs to move various storylines forward.

The result is a book that does a lot of telling  and not very much showing.  None of the stories ever coalesce to have a life of their own.  None of the characters (with the possible exception of Somerville) ever get developed.  The over-arching political and economic storylines get talked about, but always remotely — they never come to life.

So when the book finishes, you know more about the Assyrian empire, early 20th century archaeology and salt domes that trap oil, but not much more.  I’m pretty sure the author meant the book to have modern relevance — if you have been reading the newspapers or watching CNN at all in the last five years, it doesn’t add much.

Unsworth’s Land of Marvels joins Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City (reviewed earlier on this site) as the first books by Booker “names” to appear in 2009.  With Amis, Atwood and Toibin — among others — all scheduled to have books published later this year, it promises to a be a bountiful year for Booker “names”.  Land of Marvels needs to get attention now — I would be very surprised if it is on the Booker longlist when it is released in July.

Paris Trance, by Geoff Dyer

January 10, 2009

dyer1Paris Trance is the first book by Geoff Dyer that I have read; it certainly will not by the last.  I feel somewhat guilty that two months ago, I had not even heard of Dyer — an enthusiastic review by John Self on Asylum of The Missing of the Somme convinced me that this was an author I needed to read.  That book, incidentally, shows as sold out on Chapters in Canada and Amazon in the U.S. and Canada — so somebody has obviously been reading Dyer.

He’s also won an amazing range of prizes for what his publisher describes as “genre defying titles”:  But Beautiful (about jazz) won the 1992 Somerset Maugham Prize, Out of Sheer Rage (about D. H. Lawrence) was short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle Award and The Ongoing Moment won the International Center of Photography award for writing on photography.  I’d certainly be willing to bet none of those three juries had a member in common (I’d even give odds no jury member  had read any of the other books) so the man obviously has a way with words, whatever the subject.  If you are wondering, the fourth genre-defying title is Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It.

Paris Trance, one of three Dyer novels to date, confirms that impression.  It opens with the arrival of 26-year-old Luke Barnes in Paris, there mainly not to be in England.  He sees himself  “in exile” and given that it is August and most of Paris is not in Paris he quickly becomes very lonely.  The fact that he speaks no French and can’t be bothered to try to learn is a contributing factor.  He has also taken a very smelly apartment near the Tuileries, mainly because it is the only area has heard of, and then discovers that he is surrounded by tourist sites (which he makes no attempt to visit) and very little else.

Luke’s loneliness eventually ends when he finds a warehouse job and meets up with Alex, another Brit from Brixton who is also in Paris mainly not to be in England.  Dyer moves the book at a quick pace — Luke soon finds a girlfriend in Nicole (she’s from Belgrade), Alex hooks up with Sahra (who is American).

So we have four twenty-something foreigners in the City of Lights.  Excitement?  No.  As Nicole describes it:

 “Luke is so lazy.  He claims he came to Paris intending to write a book.  I think he wrote about half a page.  If that.  And he has this idea of doing some stupid film about the 29 bus but he never will, I’m sure.  He has learned some French but basically as long as he can play footbal, sleep with me, get stoned, go for drinks at the Petit Centre with Alex and go dancing at the weekend with the three of us he’s perfectly happy.”

That’s a pretty fair summary of the action of the book —  it could happen in just about any metropolitan center anywhere.  The four never go to a museum, gallery or concert; have virtually no conversations, except with each other; and confine their reading to the cinema listings in Pariscope (okay, Dyer does have this thing about obvious puns).

That is not a put down of the book because action is not what it is about.  First and foremost, it is about the nature of friendship, how that strengthens us and then how it evolves into something less important.  At the start of their friendship, Luke and Alex each fill in the other’s weakness, to the point where they very much need each other.  When they hook up with Nicole and Sahra, the foursome all support each other without really trying.  But as the couples become more like couples, and the individuals start to mature, the friendship starts to wither like a slowly dying flower.  Dyer does a wonderful job of capturing this process.

On a second level, this is emphatically not a coming of age novel — rather it is a novel that captures that indefinite period after someone has come of age but not yet made the choices which will define the mature life.  Dyer describes Somme as “an essay in mediation; research notes for a Great War novel”.  Paris Trance could also be described as an “essay in mediation”, this time about how, after coming of age, we need to make some choices about what mature life will be — and that if we don’t make those choices consciously, they get made for us.

And finally there is a gentle satire to this book.  All novel readers have their own idea about the creative nature of Paris, the city where Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, you name it, went as a foreign exile and produced amazing literature.  Must be something in the water, eh, that turns a youth into an author?  Obviously, that is not Dyer’s Paris — and it isn’t hard to conclude that there are more foreign Lukes in the city than there are Ernests, Scotts and James’.  I also have to wonder about Barnes as his choice for Luke’s last name, given Julian Barnes’ well-known Francophilia and books set in France.  There definitely might be a shot there — I don’t know enough about Barnes’ work to be able to see it clearly.

Dyer has another novel coming out this spring, Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanisi, which shows an April publication date in both Canada and the United Kingdom.  (I did warn about the puns.)  I’ll be reading it — I would heartily recommend Paris Trance as a first course.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.

January 8, 2009

2wharton1The plight of women in unhappy marriages has been experiencing a bit of an upswing lately.  Madmen, the TV series, probably marked the popular start.  Its creator was inspired by Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which Sam Mendes has now turned into a film re-uniting the Titanic stars.

So it is worthwhile to consider that between Jane Austen (or maybe Samuel Richardson) and her unhappy heroines and these women of the 1950s, badly wedded or not, there is another generation of sorely treated women — and Edith Wharton has done a very good job of portraying them.  The daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander — it is said that “Keeping up with the Jones'”  originated as a reference to her father’s family — she was born into the American version of the aristocracy.  She married “up” as it were to Teddy Wharton, thus beginning a domestic disaster which ended with his nervous breakdown and divorce in 1913.  She then headed to Europe, setting herself up in an apartment in Paris owned by George Washington Vanderbilt II (which, if you are trying to be contemporary, gives her a connection with Anderson Cooper of CNN, himself a Vanderbilt — but I digress).

The House of Mirth, published in 1905, was the first of her New York novels, a genre in which she excelled.  It’s central character, Lily Bart, is in some ways the opposite of the women in Revolutionary Road or Madmen — the seeds of her tragedy are sown in her resolute desire not to be married.  It is not that she doesn’t have the chance — or at least think she has the chance — it is that when finally marriage becomes the only option she thinks is open it turns out that it too has closed.  Marriage in the 1950s may be a tragedy, in Wharton’s 1905 New York, not being married was an equal tragedy.

Wharton, a very modern woman when you think about it now, also published books about gardening (The Mount in Lenox, MA remains a testimony to her ability) and interior decorating, but she is probably now remembered principally as a poor person’s Henry James.  Contemporary ex-pats in Europe, they both wrote novels, often looking back over their shoulder to America.  For my money, James is the better novelist, but Wharton does a better job of capturing turn-of-the-century New York City and this first novel of that genre does a wonderful job of setting the table for what is to follow.

Every serious reader of novels has their own picture of the City as framed by novelists, be it Fitzgerald, Salinger, Wolfe or whomever.  Too often, Wharton tends to be overlooked and that is a mistake.  In some ways, the New York she both lived and wrote about is a bridge between Jane Austen’s landed aristocracy in England and Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (fill in Gatsby and the Glass family along the way).  The House of Mirth should be read in conjunction with The Age of Innocence (1920), where Wharton does explore the consequences of marriage and updates her impressions of New York and its restrictive society.   In between, there is the wonderful novel, The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton’s own exploration of the James’ story of the rich American woman in Europe.

The House of Mirth is not a gripping tragedy, but it is a timely one.  As early 21st century culture contemplates the historical role of women, we should look back not just to the 1950s, but to a full century earlier.  In some ways, as Wharton shows, for those women, not much has changed.

In fact, Wharton was very much one of them herself.

The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe.

January 7, 2009

2mccabeThe Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

A most interesting novel from a most interesting author.  Irishman Patrick McCabe has given us Chris J. McCool, age 67, a Catholic bastard who has somehow survived a lot of Irish history.


In his early life, CJ has a problem dealing with his Catholicism — specifically the fact that his mother’s husband, the Protestant  landed gentry, wants no part of him at all.  CJ invents a half-brother and locates him in the manor, beginning a lifelong tendency of creating unreal worlds to explain the real parts that he cannot cope with.  Raised on the outskirts of the estate by a Catholic zealot, CJ has begun his road to ruin.


In the short term, it starts with a very well portrayed affair with Dolly Mixtures (or Dolores McCausland), another Catholic who can’t stand or live by the all too temperate Protestant mores of the district.  Alas, Dolly is staying in a household that includes Marcus Otoyo, a saintly black whom the local Catholic church has semi-adopted as a saint himself.  CJ’s jealousy, or homophobic lust, coupled with his longing for parents (or parent-like figures) creates disaster.


All of this is told from the perspective (both adding in and leaving out details — only the reader can try to figure out which) of a 67-year-old CJ who now lives in The Happy Club, shacked up (sort of married) with a beautiful Croatian whom he loves/distrusts at this age every bit as much as he loved/distrusted Marcus a half century earlier.


McCabe’s story is interesting, but it is not the real strength of the book.  That lies in CJ’s inability to cope with what is around him — originally the non-recognition from his parents, then the treatment of Asian doctors at the Asylum where he is treated, now just about everything that represents the arrival of the Celtic Tiger.  A true “Boomer” throughout it all, his touchstone is the music of the 1960s — Lulu and Peggy Lee figure prominently and it helps a lot as a reader if you remember their lyrics.  In the present tense, CJ and “wife” are regular visitors at Mood Indigo, a boomer-themed club by the retirement residence that keeps playing all that music.


McCabe does an excellent job of capturing the dislocation that CJ feels throughout his life — as a youth, during middle age and now in his senior citizenship.  It is not a perfect book by any means — it is definitely a worthwhile read.

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