Archive for May, 2009

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro

May 30, 2009

ishiguroI have included the subtitle of this book in the headline above because I think it is particularly important. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book consists of five stories in a short story cycle — the music part of the subtitle is obvious in each story, the nightfall portion perhaps less so. Without in any way overlooking the broader themes of the book, this review will concentrate on that “nightfall” portion.

Ishiguro described this phenomenon himself in a Guardian interview (thanks to John Self at the asylum for pointing me to it):

There comes a point when you can more or less count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, hmm, God, there’s only four left, and so you start,” he laughs, “well – it’s a bit alarming. So I thought I’d better adopt a less leisurely attitude.”

The nocturnes and music part of the title and subtitle serve as a consistent framing device in the story cycle — each of the five stories features music or a musician and explores that relationship with the subject. The “nightfall” part is more carefully developed, reflecting on Ishiguro’s quote. As we come to the end of middle age, we start to experience the challenge of making large decisions that, at a younger age, represented a chance to broaden our experience. Now, as nightfall approaches, they represent one of the decreasing number of chances that we will have (only four books left!) to define what it is we will finally be — and increasingly that represents making our world smaller, not bigger.

It is perhaps best expressed directly in the first story of the book, Crooner. An itinerant guitarist in Venice has been retained by a once famous American singer, Tony Gardner, to help serenade his wife from a gondola that will lurk below their suite in a canal. It is only as this Romeo and Juliet moment unfolds that the narrator discovers it is a farewell, not a love concert. Tony Gardner explains:

Fact is, I’m no longer the major name I once was. Protest all you like, but where we come from there’s no getting around that. I’m no longer a major name. Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say, no, I’m not finished yet. In other words, my friend, I could make a comeback. Plenty have from my position and worse. But a comeback’s no easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones.

One of the hard changes that Tony is willing to make, in this chance for a last, life-changing decision, is dumping his wife of many years, Lindy, and looking for a younger model. Turns out that that was the reason for the concert.

I will admit to a personal fondness for Ishiguro’s writing style and the way that he frames his plots. His language is cool and straightforward — the world that he describes is normal for about 90 per cent of the time, and totally abnormal for the other 10. That is a formula that works very well in the short story cycle that this book represents.

While the “nightfall” moment is present in each story, it never involves the narrator. In each story, that is a younger individual who is witness to what is going on. In Crooner, he is a guitarist, in Come Rain or Come Shine he is an old university friend of a couple who are having trouble remembering what they have in common.

This story in some ways marches to a different drum than the others in the book as it is more about the hapless narrator (who ends up pretending he is a dog, messing up a tony London apartment — but you’ll have to read the actual story to get to that). Even here, however, his behavior is influenced by the nightfall moment that his hosts are going through.

The serenaded woman in Crooner reappears later on in Nocturne (I won’t call it the title story — there is a difference between “nocturne” and “nocturnes”), now divorced from Tony and in the process of recovering from her third plastic surgery before going out to find her next husband. The narrator in this story is a middle-aged saxaphonist whose own surgery has been financed by his wife’s new lover, based on her premise that his lack of success relates to his looks, not his musical ability. It is quite a touching story as the two head-bandaged figures wander around the Beverly Hills hotel where they are recovering.

If you are of the right age (and I am) or willing to contemplate arriving there, this collection has some intriguing messages — how do we cope with arriving at the point of making a major decision, when we know that there are not that many left? And how, after a lifetime of making decisions that were supposed to make our world bigger, do we start making decisions about making it smaller? Ishiguro’s style — that perception of distance perhaps best realized in The Remains of the Day — is very well-suited to posing these questions. He doesn’t really answer them, but he does explore the consequences.

I do view this book as an exploration of the author’s depth, rather than width. It doesn’t have the scope of The Unconsoled; the plot of Never Let Me Go or the retrospective angst of The Remains of the Day. What it does have, to quote the author, is a “less leisurely attitude” — a contemplation of what it is like, or will be like, to make some of those difficult decisions that are bound to arise later in life. As is true of Ishiguro’s other work, his central characters sometimes make a mess of those decisions — that is part of what makes this intriguing book so valuable.

I certainly look forward to his next major novel. I am equally glad he explored this side road along the way.


Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

May 27, 2009

toibin Imagine a fictional heroine who is the embodiment of A Good Person, with only one minor flaw — honest, hard-working, kindly, intelligent and so on. Her flaw? Whenever she is faced with conflict, she always opts for the path of least resistance, often letting others make her choice for her. What happens to her?

Hang on, you say. Fiction is littered with such heroines. Molly Theale in Henry James The Wings of the Dove. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. A whole gallery of young women in the fiction of Jane Austen. The answer is obvious: an evil person comes along, gains her trust, exploits her and the result is ruin.

Okay, let’s add another assumption — take evil out of the equation. Every person our character comes in close contact with does his or her best to be as decent as possible and act in the interests of our heroine. Now what’s the result?

Eilis Lacey is just such a heroine in Colm Toibin’s new novel, Brooklyn. And he has set himself the daunting challenge of creating a supporting cast in which evil — or even simply bad will — plays no part. The result is an intriguing, if somewhat frustrating, book.

We meet Eilis in Toibin’s familiar territory of Enniscorthy, southern Ireland, around 1950. The post-war years have not been economically kind to the town and her three brothers have already headed to England to seek work. Left behind in the family cottage are her aging mother, her older sister Rose (who is prettier, more sociable and more employable than Eilis) and our heroine. Eilis works Sundays in the only shop in town that is open that day (and does good work) but fulltime employment is not on the horizon.

Toibin wastes little time in setting his challenge in motion. Rose returns from the golf course to announce that Father Flood, an Irish priest now residing in America, will be coming for a visit. Eilis soon figures out that it has already been decided without consulting her that she will emigrate to America, Brooklyn to be exact.

A manipulative sister and an equally manipulative priest exploiting our heroine? Quite the opposite:

One evening, when Rose invited her into her room so that she could choose some pieces of jewellery to bring with her, something new occurred to Eilis that surprised her by its force and clarity. Rose was thirty now, and since it was obvious that their mother could never be left to live alone, not merely because her pension was small but because she would be too lonely without any of them, Eilis’s going, which Rose had organized so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry. She would have to stay with her mother, living as she was now, working in Davis’s office, playing golf at the weekends and on summer evenings. Rose, she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family.

Father Flood proves equally reliable, finding Eilis employment as a sales assistant in a department store (but with the hope of perhaps getting promoted to the office), a nearby room in a boarding house for single Irish women and the kind of immigration documentation that would be required to pass through Ellis Island and into America.

Toibin cannot resist having some fun with Eilis’s voyage in third class, introducing an American berth-mate whom the reader is certain will turn into an ugly American cliche — but she too looks after Eilis throughout the voyage, even selecting her clothes and makeup so as to attract minimum attention from the immigration officers.

Things are not totally pleasant in Brooklyn (homesickness is definitely an issue) but neither are they miserable. Eilis’s employer is more than decent; her landlady bumps her up the priority list at the boarding house into the best room in the house. Father Flood has organized Friday dances at the local parish church and Eilis reluctantly attends (she does a lot of things reluctantly, it has to be said) and eventually is taken up by Tony, an Italian who has snuck over to the Irish church and become entranced with her.

Various minor conflicts have arisen along the way and Eilis has consistently taken the path of least resistance. Surely, now, the author will abandon this conceit and Tony will prove to be an utter rogue. He does not and becomes yet another character who wants to contribute to what is best for Eilis.

We are about two-thirds of the way through the book at this point, due for a major conflict and one does in fact arise. Toibin has written himself into a bit of a box at this stage. Is everyone in the book still going to be so damn decent? Will Eilis ever actually take a risk and make a considered decision? Good fiction depends on escalating, not avoiding, conflict. How is the author going to end this thing?

Alas, this reviewer has written himself into a similar box because to supply answers to those questions would be a terrible spoiler. From here on, you are on your own.

I like Toibin as an author and I very much liked this book, but that endorsement does come with some caveats. Toibin has always preferred the contemplative to the active and does carry it to an extreme in this novel. Good as she is, Eilis is a frustrating character and it is hard not to wonder: “Won’t she ever actually do something?”

Toibin is best known for his last novel, the award-winning The Master, his imagination of the life of Henry James, and Brooklyn is certainly not as ambitious a work as that one. In many ways, it is an expansion of some of the stories in his short story collection, Mothers and Sons (reviewed here), where he also explores what happens to passive characters, albeit in less depth.

I also want to emphasize that there is much more to this book than the theme on which I have chosen to concentrate. The book does consider the mid-century Irish diaspora, the situation of immigrants in New York at that time and there is some exploration of racial issues that are arising in the America of the day. Other reviews have addressed these themes (I am rather late into the game on this book) and I have not bothered to repeat them.

If you have not yet read any of Toibin’s books, I would not start with this one — depending on your tastes, The Master, Mothers and Sons or The Blackwater Lightship would all be better candidates. If you have read and liked some of his previous work, I would certainly recommend Brooklyn — while it is not as ambitious has some of his previous books, it is very good writing from an author who knows what good writing is about. A somewhat unconventional novel, it is also a rewarding one.

KFC’s Third Contest: Pick the IMPAC winner

May 25, 2009

The 2009 winner of the IMPAC Award will be announced June 11 — so a contest seems in order. First prize will be a $75 credit at the online bookseller of your choice who will let me give you a gift award. The shortlist, with links to recent reviews here and elsewhere, is:

DiazThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Review at themookseandgripes and the asylum.

EchenozRavel, by Jean Echenoz. Review here.

HamidThe Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. Review at Pechorin's Journal.

HollandThe Archivist’s Story, by Travis Holland. Review here.

JacobsenThe Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, by Roy Jacobsen. Review here

Leavitt2The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt. Review here.

Sinha2Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha. Review at the asylum.

ThomasMan Gone Down, by Michael Thomas. Review from New York Times.

So with references to all those reviews, there is no reason to not take a guess at least — previous contests here have been won by people doing exactly that and this prize has proven more unpredictable than most.

With only eight finalists, I am anticipating the need for a tie-breaker. For the first time, I will not be entering the contest myself since I will be a subjective judge in the tiebreaker. If you are tied for the win, I will be looking for a three-sentence description (all sentences 40 words or less) of a novel published in English, originally or in translation, that you feel I should read. By all means, include this in your original entry but you don’t have to — any winning ties will be given 72 hours to submit their tie-breaking three sentences.

Deadline for entries is 12 a.m. GMT on June 11. Good luck and please enter.

Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas

May 24, 2009

impaclgotemplate1ThomasWhile I very rarely abandon a book, I’ll admit I closed Man Gone Down at page 275 for the last time — with about 150 still to go. When I was in the newspaper business and we did content surveys, there was usually a box that said “not written for people like me”. That is the box I would have checked for this book. Don’t take that as a total rejection of the book — I would have checked the same box for Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger last fall and it won the Booker prize. And since this book is the last of eight IMPAC finalists for me, I thought it should at least be acknowledged before we start the contest — come back tomorrow for details on that.

Perhaps a better comparison would be another Booker winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, a book that certainly has its fans. Like Kelman, Thomas’ character has just about everything going against him and the book explores why. Unlike Kelman (a book that I did finish), there isn’t a whole lot of swear words — then again, Kelman’s writing is more precise.

So rather than punishing myself with another 150 pages and then producing a review that is not going to be of much value to anyone, here instead is a link to the New York Times review of Man Gone Down which I think is not only positive, but a very reasoned description of the book. Perhaps it is “written for people like you” after all.

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, by Roy Jacobsen

May 21, 2009

impaclgotemplatejacobsenTranslated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

The Battle of Suomussalmi is regarded as a major conflict in the Winter War of 1939-40. A force of 50,000 Russians, in an attempt to cut Finland in half, was decisively defeated by only 11,000 Finns. They had burnt the village before the conflict started, retreated into the surrounding winter countryside and then effectively fought a guerrilla war to defeat the Russian forces and save Finland.

What happened in Suomussalmi is at the centre of Roy Jacobsen’s IMPAC Award finalist, The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. The central character, Timo Vatanen, is the village logger, with a farm near the town, making his way by delivering firewood to the villagers and working parttime in the grocery store where he also has a room.

A key reason that the Finns won the battle was that they burned virtually all of Suomussalmi in anticipation of the Russian invasion. That’s where Jacobsen begins his story — and also introduces Timo as “the village idiot”. He refuses to leave — the Finnish commander decides not to force him and sympathetic soldiers leave his residence, and a few others, untouched.

The Russians arrive and, thankfully for Timo, need firewood in the brutally cold winter. His opaque personality and general silence become a survival tool. Eventually he heads up a group of a press-ganged loggers — a couple of brothers from the Ukraine, a short-sighted teacher, “a wretch called Rodion” (who is obsessively guarding a pair of his wife’s red shoes that he was picking up when he was press-ganged), an enigmatic youth and, fortunately, Antonov, who speaks both languages and serves as a translator.

The strength of Jacobsen’s book is the way he develops this hapless group of six into a community, led by Timo. Early on, the Finns are randomly sending shells into the area — a working party out in the forests is an obvious target. Timo, who does have some smarts along with his idiocy, develops a plan to dynamite the trees out of the ground, then pull them back, roots first to the village. As the attacks on Suomussalmi increase, he develops a plan for the six to escape to his farm — which is of no interest to either side and where there are provisions.

In one sense, the plan is disastrous. Too many members of the group just don’t have the strength to make their way through the harsh conditions — but by then they are enough of a community that they stick together, taking refuge in an abandoned boathouse. That ends up proving the plan, unintentionally, was brilliant — they are huddled safely in the boathouse when the Finns retake the village.

As the villagers return, there is still much work for the loggers — everyone needs firewood. Jacobsen’s point, however, is that while individuals may come together as a group in times of stress, they break apart and pursue their own conflicting interests when life is less threatening. The brothers want to go back to the Ukraine, two others want to return to Russia and another pair decide to seek safety by heading east into Norway.

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles starts to fall apart at that point. While the book is strong when Jacobsen explores the relationships between these six characters, the need to tidy up relatively complex action in a book that is only 200 pages long produces a not very satisfactory rush to the finish.

This is not a bad book, but neither is it a good one. Its strengths (the portrayal of the six characters and how they develop as a group) tend to get overwhelmed by the need for action. And, unlike the other short book on the IMPAC shortlist, Ravel, the author does not provide the reader with much to think about once the book is finished. Some of the language is awkward — I can’t tell whether that is Jacobsen’s style or a translation issue.

The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles is the bookies’ IMPAC longshot at 30-1. While I am glad that I read the book, I would have to say the bookies seem to have got it right. It is an interesting story, but just does not have enough substance to take the Prize.

The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt

May 18, 2009

leavitt2impaclgotemplate1One of the problems with pledging to make an attempt to read every book on a Prize shortlist is that you end up reading books you don’t like. And when you are a blogger, that also means that in addition to the unpleasant read there is the even worse task of writing a negative review. I did not like The Indian Clerk, but in its defence it did get nominated for the IMPAC Awards and the jury put it on the shortlist — so some readers have obviously found value in it. Please read this review carefully and critically; perhaps you can figure out if I went wrong.

I very much wanted to like this book because it plays to two of my rather odd biases.

The first is that it is about mathematics, of all things — focused on the real-life relationship between G.H. Hardy, the greatest British mathematician of his time (the Great War era), and Ramanujan, the untutored Indian clerk of the title whom Hardy brings from Madras to Cambridge and who to this day has a claim to genius. I’m not threatened by reading about mathematics (it is my B.A. minor, but I have forgotten everything I was taught about it post-high school) — indeed, I was intrigued at the challenge that Leavitt had set himself. Stephen Hawking says that an editor advised him when he was writing A Brief History of Time that every equation he included in the book would decrease sales by half (so Hawking held himself to one) — a quick internet check shows that The Indian Clerk would need potential sales in at least the billions, perhaps more, to produce a net sale of two copies if the advice Hawking got is correct.

In fact, the math is one of the least unsuccessful parts of the book. Hardy and Ramanujan are pure mathematicians who are mainly preoccupied with looking at centuries old paradoxes involving series of numbers (such as the Riemann hypothesis — look it up on Wikipedia if you are interested, I don’t want to halve the readership of this review already). Hardy’s evaluation of his work shows an acute self-understanding: a pure mathematician is someone who is obsessed with solving a centuries-old problem, the successful solution of which can be understood and will interest a grand total of 20 other people in the world.

Positive bias number two heading into The Indian Clerk is that I am a sucker for novels set in the grand British universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I presume because my own post secondary education was at the brand new, boring University of Calgary. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and Javier Marias’ All Souls are just two examples of the genre that I love. So a historical novel, based on the real G.H. Hardy and featuring Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Rupert Brooke and a host of other well-known names, in the environment of Cambridge, certainly had promise.

For the first quarter of the book, Leavitt delivered on that promise. The mathematics was interesting, the petty politics of brilliant men at Cambridge even more so. There were some grey clouds on the horizon — there was no real “plot” as such, the ending of the action had already been foretold and while the author had introduced the famous names (and the petty politics) I didn’t know much more about them than I did when I started the book.

Alas, the grey clouds turned into a most depressing storm, which in turn made the rest of the book boring sludge. I suspect if I had picked up the book at a bookstore rather than buying it online I would have spotted the problem there — any author of a historical novel who includes seven pages of “Sources and Acknowledgements” at the end of his book to summarize all the research that he did for it is providing warning enough. Would that Leavitt had not only done the research but also shown some discipline in deciding how much to include in the “novel” — at half the length, with the unnecessary repititive parts removed, this might have been quite a good book.

Although to do that, the author would also have to get rid of a lot of the sex (I hate to say it, but Leavitt makes Updike read like a lively sex writer). There is quite a bit of it, both the homosexual and heterosexual varities (given Cambridge at the time, the ratio is about four to one in favor of the former). The first few times it showed up, I would just grit my teeth and remind myself that it was probably necessary for context, as bad as the writing was. The problem was it keeps coming and coming and coming (sorry about the pun) and never does get interesting.

Leavitt also falls prey to a lazy literary device that becomes increasingly annoying every time he brings it back to the book. In the novel, it is the lecture G.H. Hardy “never gave” at a ceremony at Harvard in 1936 (20 years after the “action” of the book takes place) honoring the deceased Ramanujan. The sections tend to be long and serve only one purpose — introducing the stuff that the author thinks he needs which he can’t figure out how to put into the natural narrative of the book. Alas, the tactic also serves as one of the most damaging internal spoilers I can ever remember — just about every thread that might interest the reader gets destroyed before it is developed.

It is a tribute to the mathematics and Cambridge that I did finish the book, despite those annoyances. And I caution again — other readers did find value in this book, so maybe I am just being grumpy. I don’t think so, though.

Ravel, by Jean Echenoz

May 14, 2009

ravelimpaclgotemplateTranslated from the French by Linda Coverdale

With the IMPAC winner due to be announced June 11, it is time to get back to looking at some of the shortlist — I still intend to take a look at as many as possible. (Click here for the finalists and links to reviews of four of the eight).

Jean Echenoz’s Ravel is an exquisite gem of a short novel that certainly deserves its place on the shortlist. Composed of nine cameos, it captures different images from the last 10 years of the French composer’s life. At only 117 pages (including introduction and blank pages before each cameo), the book makes no pretense of being a fictional biography. Rather, to quote from Adam Gopnik’s excellent introduction, it is a series of “diamond-pen-on-glass etchings of a lost time and a now-distant high period of French cultural achievement.”

The nine cameos are all wonderful pieces of work, but for a serious reader they are only an introduction to the story. The beauty of Echenoz’s style is that he uses his words to supply you with information and tools — some essential, some not — that allow you to contemplate what lies behind each cameo and what fills in the spaces between each vignette. For readers who like to continue thinking after they have reached the last page of a book, this is a compelling example.

So here’s one set of observations and tools from one reader. I would emphasize that it is a highly personal selection (I’ve now read the book three times and I do have two other sets); use it as an illustration of how to approach the book, not a set of conclusions, if you do decide to try it.

Echenoz has an incredible eye for supplying a wealth of detail, all to be parked away for later contemplation. The first few vignettes introducing Ravel on a trip for a concert tour of the United States on the ocean liner France also tell us a little bit about the physical man:

He was not always so clean-shaven, however. In his youth, he tried everything: sideburns at twenty-five, with a monocle and chatelaine, then a pointed beard at thirty followed by a squared beard and, later, a trial run with a mustache. At thirty-five, he shaved all that off, at the same time taming his mane, which went from bouffant to permanently severe and sleek and quickly white. But his chief characteristic is his shortness, which pains him and makes his head seem a little too large for his body. Five feet three inches; ninety-nine pounds; thirty inches around the chest. Ravel has the build of a jockey and thus of William Faulkner who, at the time, is dividing his life between two cities (Oxford, Mississippi, and New Orleans), two books (Mosquitoes and Sartoris) and two whiskeys (Jack Daniel’s and Jack Daniel’s).

In one tight paragraph, not only do we get a description of Ravel, but also how that has changed (and some hints about his vanity). And just as an extra, for some broader contextual help, an update on the physical location, current work and ongoing sins of Faulkner.

The second of the three threads to which I am limiting myself here consists of sketches about how Ravel composes his music. His practice is to do a lot of thinking before starting and then charge ahead. Echenoz sketches the outline of the creation of a number of Ravel’s pieces. Here’s a description of the well-known Bolero, inspired (according to the author) by Ravel’s love of automatons, machines and factories:

Assembly and repetition: the composition is completed in October after a month of work hampered only by a splended cold picked up on a trip through Spain, beneath the coconut palms of Malaga. He knows perfectly well what he has made: there’s no form, strictly speaking, no development of modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short it’s a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound. Phrase run into the ground, thing without hope or promise: there, he says, is at least one piece Sunday orchestras won’t have the cheek to put on their programs.

Turns out he was wrong about that. Echenoz also uses the music to show us part of the ego of the composer — in two different sections, Ravel starts feuds with Arturo Toscanini and the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein (who had commissioned the one-handed Piano Concerto in D major) for not playing his work in the way that Ravel intended.

Finally, Echenoz is careful to supply the reader with descriptions of Ravel’s character without trying to impose an idea of what the author thinks the overall character is. We know he has trouble sleeping and has numerous tactics (that don’t work) to deal with his insomnia. Relationships with close friends are developed through careful accounts of incident, not judgmental description. He is both fearful and needy when it comes to recognition — dreading the prospect of an approaching party and so delighted one hour into it that he hopes it won’t end.

Most touching, however, is Echenoz’s portrayal of Ravel’s decline, his eroding physical and mental state as the end (at the relatively young age of 62) comes into sight. He is invited to sit in on and supervise a recording of his String Quartet:

He specifies a few details, amending a slight liberty taken with a measure, correcting a tempo. After each movement, when they have played back the wax masters, they offer to do it over if he wishes, but since he doesn’t wish to that much, the whole affair is wrapped up that afternoon. When they have finished, while the musicians are putting their instruments into their cases before putting themselves into their coats, Ravel turns to Canetti: That was nice, he says, really nice, remind me again who the composer is. One is not obliged to believe this story.

Ravel is a book that demands to be read more than once. If you can clear your mind of first (and second or third) impressions, you may find a whole new set of details to pay attention to on the next time through.

While I like classical music (and did have a few Ravel CDs before reading this book), I don’t think that’s essential for appreciating it. On the other hand, if you are a classical music fan and, like me, like to listen to it when you read, do create a Ravel iPod playlist before you start the book — Bolero and the two Piano Concertos (you can get all three works for a total of less than $5 from the iTunes store if you don’t have them at hand) are all relevant to the book. I only needed to press the repeat button once for each time through this delightful book.

The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt

May 12, 2009

byattI’m afraid this review of The Children’s Book marks this reader’s goodbye to the new works of A.S. Byatt. That’s a hard decision to make — I have been reading her for more than 30 years and Possession was my desert island book for more than a decade. Byatt has always had a penchant for adult fairy tales and lengthy poems that made reading her a challenge — it has become more pronounced in her recent work and has now taken her into territory that I no longer want to explore.

The Children’s Book is a sprawling, 615-page tome that opens in 1895 and extends through the Great War, closing off the reign of Queen Victoria and exploring the Edwardian Age in the process. It comes with both a political and cultural context as background framing material. The characters are all leftish artsy types. The political ones get involved in the Fabian Society and suffragette movements — Byatt explores a number of the splinters and factions that seem to be part of all left-wing movements. While the war is a part of the book, it gets pretty short shrift. The author devotes even more attention to the cultural side, the Arts and Crafts movement — most particularly potting, silverwork and productions featuring marionnettes — is explored in some detail.

And then there are the characters, dozens of them by my not so rigorous count:

— Olive and Humphrey Wellwood have seven children (and all nine of these stories are visited in the book). She is a famous writer of children’s and adult fairy-tales; he’s a banker who abandons that trade in favour of left-wing journalism.
— Major Prosper Cain is Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum, soon to become the Victoria and Albert. We meet him in the opening pages of the book; Olive is seeking advice on some details for one of her stories. We also meet his son and are soon introduced to his daughter (no wife in this family — he is a widower).
— Humphrey Wellwood’s brother, Basil, is a more conventional banker. Another wife and two more children are added to the character list from this family.
–Benedict Fludd, is a brilliant, tempermental potter with a wife and two daughters. His Dungeness studio also becomes a home to the potentially brilliant young Philip Warren, whose homeless sister also shows up to tend house.

When you add in a spinster sister or two, a family of German theatre artists, the compulsory Victorian vicar and a few other supporting characters who are necessary for the complicated plot, the total approaches three dozen. The adults are all potentially interesting — the problem is that in juggling such a large cast, the author has to desert them for lengthy stretches and none of them gets fully developed. And while a few coming of age story lines would be interesting, a dozen are not. It becomes difficult to figure out just which child is which as the book unfolds.

I know pretty much as much as I want to about the Fabians and the suffragettes and the book didn’t provide any revelations on that front. I confess to no inherent interest in the Arts and Crafts movement and again gained no insights that changed that.

There are fairy tales. Olive Wellwood writes an ongoing tale for each of her seven children (hence the title of the book) and excerpts from a number of them are included in the book — lengthy stretches of italic type that make the reading even more difficult. And Byatt has certainly not lost her talent for incredibly detailed description:

The parlour had dark green Morris and Co. wallpaper, spangled with scarlet berries, and a Morris set of spindly Sussex settle and chairs, with rush seats. There were woven rugs on a dark floor, a high shelves of orderly books. The possible tutor was already present, a young German, from Munich. Dr Joachim Susskind, in a threadbare suit, and wearing a red tie. Dr Susskind had flowing, hay-coloured, dry hair, and a fine waving moustache to go with it. His eyes were blue and mournful, not clear, glassy sky-blue like Dr Skinner’s but a clouded, faded blue, the diluted blue of an almost-white Small Blue butterfly, Tom thought. He looked mild and harmless.

Uncle. I give up.

I considered not reviewing this book because I don’t like writing reviews unless I can point to some readers who would like the book — and I suspect there are some out there for The Children’s Book. Byatt’s description of the Arts and Craft movement may have passed me by but others may be interested. I also suspect a parent who has gone through the coming of age process with a couple of children would also find more there than I did.

So, a fond goodbye to Ms. Byatt. I will continue to reread her earlier work with interest, but for me her oeuvre is now finished.

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

May 11, 2009

The spectacular residence pictured above is the Villa Tugendhat in Brno in the Czech Republic. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, built in 1930 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, it now adds to its distinction by being the central character in Simon Mawer’s new novel, The Glass Room. I’m not spoiling the book by including the picture — Mawer says in an Author’s Note preceding the novel that while it is “a work of fiction, the house and its setting are not fictional.” He doesn’t actually name the Villa, but drawings of various elevations precede each chapter and it took no time to figure out what the “real” house is. For more pictures and description (and they are useful to a reader), here’s a link to the Villa Tugendhat website.

glass-room-3The Glass Room is the latest, for me, of 2009’s “widescreen” novels, a very useful concept coined by John Self at the Asylum: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” There is one crucial difference with this work however. As the title indicates, the geographical setting is constant — the charcters and their part in history are what is far flung.

Victor Landauer is owner and director of an assortment of Czech manufacturing enterprises, the biggest of which makes automobiles. It is 1929, he has just married Liesel and they are honeymooning in Venice. Liesel’s parents have given the couple a spectacular piece of land overlooking the town of Mĕsto on which to build a home. The First Republic of Czechoslovakia, carved from defeated empires after the Great War, is still young, but a nation of hope — the young, rich couple and their modern tastes are a reflection of that.

While in Venice, they meet Modernist architect Rainer Von Abt and are quickly introduced to his mantra: “Ornamentation is crime” (a slight adaptation of Adolf Loos’ famous essay Ornament and Crime). He begins sketching concepts and Victor and Leisel are soon on their way to building one of Europe’s most interesting modern houses. Von Abt, like most Modernists, believes that structure should be used to “create” space, not “enclose” it. That’s why two walls of the glass room are floor-to-ceiling glass and two of the very large planes can be lowered into the basement to extend the room into the outdoor slope over the village. An interior onyx wall, which is what gives the real building away as the Villa Tugendaht, captures and creates an interior “sun” at certain times of the year and day. That process of creating space — and the story of the house that results — is one of the strongest themes of the book.

Ornamentation may be crime, but as anyone who has visited a Modernist building or home can testify, the alternative has some downsides of its own — I’d characterize it as a formal, almost chilly, austerity that makes these buildings wonderful to visit, but not terribly attractive to live or work in. Where Mawer is at his best in The Glass Room is when he takes that chilly architectural austerity and transfers it to the human relationship of Victor and Liesel. Having been introduced to two characters who are interesting and likable, once their son and daughter are born, we watch their relationship develop the same kind of non-ornamented formality that their home possesses.

That kind of austerity cannot be sustained for 400 pages and the author moves onto much trickier ground when he begins to develop the warmer human relationships that are required to produce the tension that is essential to the novel. In Victor’s case, it is a relationship that starts out with a part-time tart, Kata, in Vienna, and turns into an obsessive kind of love. For Liesel, it is her continuing friendship with Hana, a very modern, bisexual, gossipy character, who would like to have a lesbian relationship with her, but friendship is also just fine.

For me, those two relationships at first seemed forced, sentimental and verging on the melodramatic. Having loved the opening portions of the book centred on the Modernist house, it was threatening to turn into a soap opera.

Mawer saves that by taking a bold risk. While the relationships continue, he returns the house to centre stage — and makes it the focus of unfolding history. Czechoslovakia is one of the first nations to be forced to kneel to the Nazis, Victor (and Hana’s husband, Oscar) are both Jews. While Victor and Liesel do escape, first to Switzerland and eventually the United States, “their” house remains.

During the war, the Germans take it over and make it into a “scientific” laboratory, a biometric centre that “measures” people in a search to validate the Nazi premise that Jews and Slavs are inferior races. A whole new cast of characters (with the exception of Hana) enters the book. When the Germans are defeated, the conquering Soviets first use it as a billet, complete with horses; after the war it becomes a physiotherapy centre for polio victims. Another cast of characters is introduced.

While The Glass Room is a historical novel, it is not a conventional one. Most (such as Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadowsreviewed here) take a cast of characters through a range of geography affected by history. Mawer, on the other hand, chooses a very restricted geographical point, builds an interesting structure there and then explores how history passes by that point. I was reminded frequently while reading this book of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning The Bridge on the Drina, althought that spectacularly good book extends over centuries rather than the seven decades of this book.

That technique allows Mawer to escape one of the traps of “widescreen” novels — having so many storylines open that the final pages are the literary equivalent of watching someone carefully pack up several suitcases in preparation for a very long holiday. There is another trap that he doesn’t escape — keeping a large cast of characters together often involves inserting some very unlikely coincidences. I was willing to grant the author that licence; others might not be so forgiving.

I will be very interested in how The Glass Room fares in this year’s Man Booker judging. It is Mawer’s eighth novel (and the first I have read) and he was long-listed for Mendel’s Dwarf. On the positive side, his reader-friendly prose style make this book both literary and accessible. On the other hand, I could understand where some of the risks that he takes that I find successful others would find to be serious flaws. We shall see come July.

A final hypothesis. While I know it verges on heresy to say it, some books can be judged by their cover and I suspect this is one of them. I was looking forward to this book from the moment I saw the cover on the internet (it is detail from Roger de La Fresnaye’s The Seated Man, or The Architect) and it met my high expectations. If you don’t like the cover (“I like pictures that look like pictures”), I suspect you would find the book equally unappealing.

An Essay: Similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction

May 6, 2009

aus-flag1 can-flagMy interest in the similarities between Australian and Canadian English-language fiction now extends for more than two decades. For me, last year was a particularly good year for reading Australian books, which caused that interest to bubble to the top of the brew recently — so I thought exploring the “why” and providing some examples might be useful to visitors here.

Canberra and Ottawa may be 10,000 miles apart (the actual number is 9,997.86) but the two nations have had something in common ever since Captain James Cook mapped their Pacific Coasts on his voyages in the late 18th century. Both were colonized by the British — while it is true that Australia started as a penal colony, there is a good argument that the dispossessed, misfits and remittance men who settled Canada were just a step ahead of being candidates for exportation to Australia.

Both nations came of age on comparable tracks. As Dominions, both sent troops to fight in the Great War (mainly as fodder, frankly) — significantly in both cases, the decision to join that war was made in London because neither nation yet had control of its own foreign policy. That final achievement of independence came for both with the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

In their early history, Australia and Canada were equally cruel in their treatment of the indigenous peoples on their land — the importation of diseases like smallpox was followed by the introduction of the devastating effects of alcohol and arms. Both had “mission” schools designed to undermine, even destroy, native cultures — the experience described in Porcupines and China Dolls (see the earlier post) in Canada has its counterpart in Australia’s Stolen Generations, an evocative phrase if ever there was one. The exploitative environment and mine in Carpentaria have a host of parallels in native communities across Canada.

Both are now prosperous First World nations, albeit with small populations (Canada’s 31 million versus Australia’s 21 million). Both are proud members of the Group of 8, although the debate would be long and hard about which ranks seventh and which eighth in that group.

Both also have a very large land mass where that population is settled. Perhaps the factor that most influences the similarities in fiction (beyond the shared history) is that the small population of both countries is centred on the coast or border, leaving an immense frontier that to this day is wilderness. It may be desert in Australia and forest and tundra in Canada — it is an ideal setting for a novelist. Margaret Atwood’s initial critical work on Canadian fiction was titled Survival; many of its observations are equally applicable to Australian works.

The two previous posts on this blog — Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie and
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright — explore in some depth two somewhat comparable stories of indigenous people in Canada and Australia in the current world. Here are thumbnail descriptions of a few other pairs that I have found comparable — if you have read and liked one, I think you would find the other equally interesting:

grenville guyThe Secret River, by Kate Grenville
The Englishman’s Boy, by Guy Vanderhaege

Both these novels concern the early English exploration and settlement of the two nations. In Grenville’s book, the Thornhill’s are a convict family, sent to Sydney. They follow up on rumors of the availability of land on the Hawkesbury River — disaster ensues. The Englishman’s Boy is somewhat different in that it has both an “exploration” story of an English big game hunter in Western North America (one of those remittance men) told in parallel with a Hollywood setting 50 years later where a producer wants to make a movie of the story. For an excellent recent review of this book (from a neutral British source), check out Max at Pechorins Journal. I am not a big fan of traditional historical novels; both these books impressed me. Vanderhaege’s The Last Crossing and Grenville’s new book, The Lieutenant (which I have not yet read) promise a similar comparison.

ac-lastac-twoThe Last Magician, by Janette Turner Hospital
Two Strand River, by Keith Maillard

This comparison is a bit of a cheat since both these books are out of print, but used copies do show up online — I am including them because it is the first direct comparison between Canadian and Australian novels that I remember. Maillard’s book is one of my all time favorites; he describes it as an adult fairy tale about “a boy who should have been a girl and a girl who should have been a boy.” The stunning conclusion takes this story into the Shaman world of the Pacific Coast nations of British Columbia. I was struck by the similarity with Turner Hospital’s book (which she actually wrote while living in Canada, but I’m not going to argue that she is Canadian) when it was first published in 1992. The Last Magician also begins with some offbeat sexuality — this time a “posh” girl who has turned to prostitution and then expands into a paranormal world, just as Two Strand River does. If you can find them, both are excellent reads.

breath1 hayBreath, by Tim Winton
Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay

The idea of escape from the urban areas into communities in the modern frontier is the common thread to these two novels. While Breath is a coming-of-age novel, it is set on the rugged coast of Western Australia where two would-be young surfers come under the influence of the guru, Sando, and his woman, a couple who are escaping from the “civilized” world in search of a less alienating, but equally risky, community. Hay’s book centres on a cast of characters who also have rejected urban Canada — in their case, the new community centres on the Yellowknife CBC station. Their embrace of the frontier climaxes in an attempt to retrace the route of the English explorer, John Hornby, whose party starved to death in the Arctic barrens in 1927. Both Winton and Hay have impressive backlists and stand in the front rank of authors writing in English — these two books are excellent examples of their work.

ac-spare ac-goodThe Spare Room, by Helen Garner
Good to a Fault, by Marina Endicott

I didn’t particularly like either of these books for the same reason (too sentimental), but a lot of readers whom I respect raved about both — so I suspect others might come to a very different conclusion than I did. In Endicott’s book, Clara Purdy, a childless, middle-age woman, has a car crash that changes her life. The female passenger in the car that she hit is hospitalized for an extended period and Purdy looks after her children, discovering her own over-powering maternal instincts in the process. In The Spare Room, Helen offers to house and help her friend Nicola who has come to Melbourne for some questionable treatment of an apparently terminal cancer. Relations between the two degenerate under the tension — like Good to a Fault it is an exploration of how deeper feelings get aroused, create tension and are eventually resolved. For an e-interview with the author and a link to a more positive review of The Spare Room, check out dovegreyreader here.

ac-fractionac-fallA Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Just as escape from the city to the frontier is a common theme, the notion of escaping the country to a nearby one shows up in both Canadian and Australian fiction. In MacDonald’s novel, the author explores the abusive childhood of Frances Piper in a coal-mining community on Cape Breton. She eventually escapes to New York — but is drawn back home in a harrowing conclusion to this far-reaching novel. In Toltz’s novel, Jasper Dean faces an equally challenging and disruptive childhood, leading to a story that expands beyond Australia to Paris and the jungles of Thailand. While these novels were first published more than a decade apart (1996 and 2008), they both represent examples of what I call “the widescreen novel” as it is being produced out here in the former colonies.

Those comparisons represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to similarities in Australian and Canadian fiction (you’ll note the absence of some of the most famous names like Carey, Atwood and Munro). And I acknowledge that I have left New Zealand and Canada’s French language literature off my map. Other comparisons would certainly be welcome in the comments — it is an area that I am certainly interested in pursuing further.

There is one significant barrier to a serious, timely exploration of this project, however. While the sun may have set on the British Empire decades ago, remnants remain — especially in the book publishing world. An Australian who wants to read Canadian fiction (and vice versa) has to choose between the option of punishing shipping charges or patiently waiting until a UK publisher makes a version available there and then taking advantage of the Book Depository’s free world-wide shipping (thank god for that). Just a small reminder of the Mother Country, I guess — and how boring would life be if booklovers didn’t face some challenge in acquiring volumes that they really want.

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