Archive for the ‘Crace, Jim (2)’ Category

Harvest, by Jim Crace

August 29, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the notion of “harvest” as it is presented in Jim Crace’s novel bearing that title, since the few days surrounding that event are the sole source of joy presented in the book. It has been a long, hard-working summer with hostile weather a constant threat to the crop that will keep the community of 58 souls fed for the next year and now it is time to complete the work: “If we hoped for sufficient grain to last the year, we’d have to deserve it with some sweat.”

Reap and gossip. That’s the rule. On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labor. Our numbers have been too reduced of late to allow a single useful soul to stay away. […] The broadest shoulders swing their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalks; hares, partridges and sparrows flee before the blades; our wives and daughters bundle up and bind the sheaves, though not too carefully — they work on the principle of ten for the commons and one for the gleaning; our creaking fathers made the lines of stooks, the sun begins to dry what we have harvested. Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love (as well as those I know but do not like entirely) are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.

booker logo The work of the harvest is concluded with a night of feasting: meats and treats from the Master’s stock, much dancing and even more ale. That evening concludes with the selection of “our Lady of the Harvest. She’ll be our Gleaning Queen.” On the following day, she will lead the community on an even happier day: the gleaning of the one sheaf in 11 that has been left in the field, for it is this grain that will be the source of the porridge and home-made ale that are the only “luxuries” residents have to take the edge off winter’s harshness.

Even before describing those few days of joy, however, author Crace has introduced a number of disquieting elements. Two began with plumes of smoke that rose over the tiny community the night of the harvest. One came from just outside the bounds of the community:

It says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.

The other came from Master Kent’s place and the community originally feared it was the manor house itself. When they rush to the scene, they discover it was his hay lofts and stable roofs — someone has set fire to “his pretty, painted dovecote”. The narrator of the novel is fairly certain it was a trio of troublesome community youth, brash under the influence of fairy cap mushrooms. He is out of step with his neighbors — they are convinced it was the intruders on the border.

Less obvious, but perhaps more troubling in the long run, was the presence of a stranger at the final day of harvesting, whom the working people dub Mr. Quill:

A gentleman we did not recognize was watching us reduce our barley field to stub; a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving. We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land, at Master Kent’s request. He tipped his drawing board for anyone that asked and let them see the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting.

Nothing is quite what it seems to be in Harvest so let me just indicate a few details to those ominous harvest events that Crace reveals as he develops his picture of the tiny community. The two men and one woman who built that rudimentary hut and lit the fire to establish legal residence just outside the bounds are an external threat that residents understand, because they are of the same stock — indeed, in short order the two men are placed in the literal stocks that represent the community’s version of gaol. Those fairy-cap-eating youth are just the tip of an iceberg — the tightly-knit community is beginning to disintegrate from internal tensions.

And Mr. Quill is indeed the most serious threat of all. Master Kent is master only through marriage. His wife has died and an urban cousin related by blood has been found (it’s hardly Downton Abbey, but the primogeniture principle is the same). Using the land to support a marginal grain-farming settlement doesn’t interest him — he intends to convert the land to more lucrative sheep herding which means support for far fewer people.

Crace spends the first third of Harvest developing that picture. In the second third, all those threats come to violent ends — by the time this section concludes, the community residents have fled, both masters are headed off to get the sheep that will take over the property and the narrator is left to oversee it in virtual isolation.

That’s just a sketch of plot but I hope it provides enough evidence to support the assertion that Harvest is a novel that allow for many allegorical interpretations, e.g. didn’t the UK’s coal mining communities or North America’s rust belt cities face exactly the same issues in the late 20th century? Or how is globalization any more disruptive than converting grain farming land to sheep pastures?

While I was interested enough to contemplate those possible allegories, my positive personal response to the novel came from an entirely different thread: the increasing isolation and loneliness of the narrator. We learn early on that he arrived as the manservant of Master Kent — while the two are on good terms, there is certainly a level of isolation in the class relationship as one is clearly master, the other a servant. He left the master’s manor when he married a local girl, who died some years ago. Despite his continued presence in the community, since her death he has been regarded with suspicion as an outsider who may be a spy for more powerful interests, i.e. the master.

A couple of personal accidents as the plot unfolds mean the narrator is on the sidelines for the “action” of the novel, but still very much present as an observer, which increases his personal isolation. All he can do is help Mister Quill, for whom he acquires substantial respect — indeed he harbors a dream that he will be able to escape to another world as Mister Quill’s assistant when this assignment is finished.

For the first part of the final section I was frustrated by the bleakness of the story but began to fix more and more on the utter loneliness of the narrator and his response. The collapse of the community is mirrored by the collapse of his own limited certainties — the few things that he could hang on to have all literally disappeared.

That is only one interpretation of the novel, but for me it is a powerful one. The portrayal of the collapse of the community was almost as impressive — on a second read, it might be even more moving. A number of visitors here read more translated fiction than I do but throughout the book I was reminded of a number of “non-English” comparisons. The portrayal of the community — and more important, its collapse — reminded me of the settlement at the centre of Laszlo Krasznahorki’s Satantango, a novel that has become more impressive in memory than it was when I just finished it. And the narrator’s loneliness and frustration took me back to Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, another very impressive book. Crace’s Harvest compares very favorably with both.

I have another possible allegorical interpretation that I intend to explore when I reread Harvest. It is an even more speculative notion than what I have outlined here and could be seen as a misleading spoiler — if you don’t care about spoilers, or have read Harvest, I have sketched it out in the first comment following this post. I’d emphasize that until I reread the book it is more an intriguing idea than a firm thought on how the book might be read. If you have read the novel, I’d be interested whether you think it has any value at all.

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All That Follows, by Jim Crace

May 26, 2010

Review copy courtesy Random House -- click cover for info and excerpt

The year is 2024, the setting England. Leonard Lessing, a jazz saxophonist with the stagename Lennie Less, to evoke “penniless”, is on sabbatical from music, plagued by rotator cuff issues that make playing difficult — he can afford it thanks to past successes. He’s at his telescreen (this is the future, so all communication functions have been centralized in one device — just like Google and Sony promised us last week) when a report comes on with live coverage of a hostage-taking:

The hair is unmistakable: old-fashioned Russian hair, swept back from the forehead, thickly and unusually abundant. Leonard stands on the rug a meter from the television screen to see more closely. The video footage is grainy and unsteady, purposefully amateur. The man reading the prepared statement in the curtained room does not mean to be recognized. Instead, he has masked his face to the bridge of the nose with what appears to be a child’s scarf. His voice, crudely distorted on the sound track, is childlike too. He wears sunglasses, defiantly unfashionable E-clips, ten years old at least. The light beam from the camera is lasered at his chest and the lowest half of his scarf, so that what little of the face can be seen — the ears, the eyebrows and the forehead — is underlit and ghostly. But the hair is unmistakable.

Lennie recognizes the image — it’s Maxie, Maxie Lermon, Maxie Lermontov, “the big-smiled American son of Russian immigrants”. Eighteen years earlier in Texas, Maxie was “a comrade, colleague, accomplice” of Lennie’s. The television image evokes memories of some dubious activity then — Lennie, a classic avoider of involvement, has opened the door to his own version of personal hell.

That is the opening of All That Follows, the tenth novel from Jim Crace, a Birmingham-based writer of some renown. I had heard about him but have not read any of his previous work. I have been meaning to rectify that and when he said in a recent interview that he would only be writing one more novel, now seemed a good time to start. A blogger whose opinion I trust highly — John Self at the Asylum — is a Crace advocate, which added weight to that resolve. I won’t try to summarize Crace’s career — you can find a link to John’s review of this novel (which does include that history) and an online interview with the author here. I recommend both highly as supplying far more Crace context than this review will.

That hostage-taking and its eventual conclusion form the thriller part of the novel. But for this reader at least, the much more interesting, parallel, story line is introduced in the final paragraph of the first chapter when Lennie contemplates what he should do now that he knows who the unidentified hostage-taker is:

Leonard could pick up the telephone at any time to offer information to the police. He knows he should. Identify the unidentified. Supply a name. Provide intelligence. But it is already late and Leonard is still trembling. It has been a tense and shocking day, and he is too troubled for anything except retreat. It has gone midnight. Everybody will be sleeping now, or trying to. The police, the comrades, the hostages. Leonard will be sleeping soon, still dressed, on his futon, so frequently his bed these days, the television flickering, Francine unreachable upstairs. Tomorrow he should phone. He will phone. He will never phone. He does his best to sleep.

Back in Austin in 2006, Lennie was one of three members of a political group of “Texas troublemakers” who called themselves Snipers Without Bullets. The other two were Maxie and his girl friend, the newly-pregnant Nadia who is Lennie’s reason for having flown in from England (he didn’t know about either Maxie or the pregnancy). Maxie has developed an “action” for Snipers — code-named AmBush — and mentally bullies Lennie into taking part. That radical action wasn’t life-threatening (it becomes hilarious in fact) but this one seems more serious. Crace does have a sense of both humor and the absurd.

We don’t find that Texas history out until well into the book so I will go no further. In an action-driven book, reviews that indicate too many of the driving incidents effectively destroy the book — part of what is attractive about this novel is the way Crace takes his next absurd step and he needs the element of surprise. Take my word for it, all three plot streams — the semi-dystopia, the hostage-taking and Lennie’s devout conflict avoidance — all have numerous surprises. Indeed, perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that there are simply too many of them.

So how do those three streams flow?

The semi-dystopia (sorry about the term, but the novel isn’t really dystopian; neither is it normal) is perhaps the weakest. The author needs the conflict between 2006 and 2024 both to set up the tension arising from the 18-year-gap in his narrative threads and to underline the powerlessness of his characters. While there is a Reconciliation Summit about to take place in the district and the hostage-taking is believed to be linked to it, the thread doesn’t really go anywhere — when Crace inserts one of his surprises on this theme it is almost as if he has thought “whoops, have to get back to that one now”. The problem with dystopias in fiction is that they always need to be there at the centre of the story and this one is merely a third of it.

The hostage-taking line works far more effectively and is what kept this reader turning the pages. The twists and turns in the present stretch credibility but provide rewards if you go along with them; the excursions back into history are equally worthwhile. Again, however, if you are going to use a device like this it needs to be the dominant theme throughout the book and, like the dystopia, it is only an equal strand in this one.

By default, that leaves the conflict avoidance thread as the strongest in the book. The Lennie of 2006 wants no more a role in being part of the action than the Lennie of 2024 does — even to the point of being unwilling to call the police to reveal an identity. And yet…he has a curiosity that means not only is he equally incapable of taking evasive action, he has a driving need to get close to what he sincerely wants to avoid to see what is going on. Which of course locates him as an unwitting victim right at the centre of what he is trying to avoid.

Action, absurdity, humor and a sympathetic, if hapless, central character — coupled with a reader-friendly prose style — make All That Follows a fast-paced, entertaining read. Unfortunately, a product of those three equally-weighted story lines is that it is not much more. I closed the book thinking “that was a good read” and four days later needed to pick it up again to remind myself what it was about. I’d call it “a great airplane book for serious readers”. There is nothing the matter with that but I must admit that, given Crace’s literary reputation, I was expecting more.


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