Sunday, 20 November 2011

Netochka Nezvanova: Fragmented Witness

My latest FD instalment is an intriguing piece which he was working on prior to his arrest as part of a Utopian Socialist underground group in 1840s Russia. He didn't have another piece of published fiction for ten years. So this I guess is the last piece of this specific period of Dostoyevsky's work.

It is a little difficult to judge it as it is a fragment of what was clearly planned to be a substantial "major" work - like a Dickens or French 19th Century Novel. The eponymous character outlines the early years of her life from brutal childhood to her alienated teenage years: unlike the Double - no laughs to be had here.

As this is all that survives I assume that FD must have written chronologically as there are no records of any other parts of this novel. So it can be followed unlike other unfinished novels.

He develops his psychological approach for the characters although being part of the rigid Russian social stratification are never characatures but more rounded - a constant theme or tension of his early writings. However I also think he is attempting to use the young female narrator as a witness of certain aspects of human interaction and obliquely Russian society. Thus her unhappy childhood unravelled by her step-father a drunken musician elevated from the peasantry and moved to Petersburg, convinced of his genius. Her adoption by an aristocrat provides an insight to that world. She is then passed on to a slightly lower echelon of aristocrat where she is a witness to a disintegrating marriage undermined by secrets and lies. A wee bit like Oliver Twist - an orphan can look at different aspects of society - in Dickens case the underworld in London.

Thus the character is a bit of a cipher, indeed the translation of the name is Nameless Nobody, but she has her own relationships. In particular with another 10 year old - the Princess daughter of the aristocrats which is very abusive and unusually written I thought for kids of that age. This is one of the problems of the work as it stands you dont get the sense of a child or an adolescent's view point. It reads the same as the perspective of an older writer. Apparently this was not FD's wish he wanted a different style for each part of her life - this definitely doesnt come across in translation. It may account for the strange way the relationship with the little princess is written.

Like the other short works I have read of his at this time it is also about the power of art and writing itself. The character's partial liberation comes from getting a secret key to the library and discovering the joys of fiction in particular the novels of Walter Scott - a pioneer of that form - Although this source also provides the root of the downfall from her last familial setting. Art is also shown through music and the mercurial nature of her stepfather. According to the Dost biography I am reading he wanted the character to become an artist - so the interaction of art and life was going to be a constant in the work.

Unusual that he never returned to this, unlike the Double which he re-worked after his decade's absence, perhaps the moment had passed or he felt he could deal with the ideas and themes in a different way. A fragment, then, but gives a glimpse of his power as a writer and of how he would later construct his big novels.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

John Cheever Collected Stories part 2 - drilling down to the core.

There's a point when I was reading the second half of Cheever's complete collection of stories (I completed first half earlier this year) when you think he can't better the one you've just read but he does.

For me he really raised his game consistently between the end of the 50s and early 60s. You could argue that this is the period when his alienated bourgeois suburban lifestyle was beginning perhaps to get a little dated in the States. Yet his laser like eye for detail means he really just hones his craft, outlining the destructive nature of these claustrophobic cocoons which the quite wealthy have put themselves into.

Unlike his Wapshot novels the sexual alienation which are felt by the characters (male mainly) is not represented by any gay encounters - with the slight exception of a couple of stories but through the constancy of adultery. The Country Husband (brilliant), the Chimera, the Brigadier and the Golf Widow all show the essential sadness of betrayal but also the essential sadness of the life which nominally they seem to want to escape from.

There are less classical references than his novels although one story Metamorphoses attempts to transfer Ovid's work to suburbia.

His later works also combine more Italian travels with the American world - some dealing with the ex pat world of the American living there - others with the Italian attempting to fit into modern consumer capitalism: Clemintina for example. I recently saw the Antonioni movie L'Avventura based in Sicily and the time frame (1960) and the group it focussed on - the Italian wealthy reminded me strongly of Cheever's work.

As the stories progress (this work is chronological) the early references to the servants and the poor of consumer post war America are less. The focus is more on the internal distintegration of these high salaried individuals with their world of hard liquor and regular trains. There are also very little specific historical points of reference although there is an excellent working in of a domestic nuclear bunker within suburbia in the Brigadier story- around the Cuban Missile crisis. He even creates his own suburban neighbourhood, Bullet Park - the title of one of his later novels.
The zenith I think comes with the Swimmer (written in 1967) - unsurprisinglythe basis of a movie with Burt Lancaster. It is breathtaking in what it does in such a short space - it's only around 10 pages yet Cheever considered making a novel on the theme , having 150 pages of notes. This condensing intrigues me and is really more like the mechanics of writing poetry. The work is quite experimental and every word is relevant and powerful. It concerns the travel of a man across his suburban landscape swimming through each of his neighbours' swimming pools - but embarking on the journey he (and Cheever) drill down to exactly what this society represents - the deceit, the social climbing- and exposes the whole edifice with a chilling final paragraph. It's like a summary of all of Cheever's work, quite brilliant.

An unfortunate theme in some of these later stories much more prominent than in his earlier work is the deceitful and selfish nature of women : Clementina, An Educated American Woman and The Geometry of Love leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouth over their portrayal of women. Not that men get it much easier it just seems a bit nastier - I think there was quite a lot of turmoil in his private life at this time which is definitely worked through here.

I would also add that the last few stories written in the 70s when he also wrote two novels are a little weaker perhaps because they don't have the discipline and tightness of the other prose which were published in the New Yorker magazine. Ironically they seem to come from the collection called the World of Apples - the titular story concerns an old highly respected poet (An American in Italy)who becomes focused on sexuality and obscenity as he nears the end of his life - writing endless dirty limericks until he resolves the issues. Yet all Cheever's subsequent stories are equally explicit with reference to orgies, pornography and masturbation - he apparently had to publish them in Playboy as the New Yorker refused. They don't really work for the most part although even them have the occasional phrase or sentence which reflect his brilliance as a writer.

So flaws exposed as his work and indeed his life drew to a close but an amazing collection of work. 2011 has been an eventful year but one of my highlights has been my discovery of John Cheever's writing.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Dostoyevsky: The Double - Fear and Loathing in St Petersburg.

Did you ever have a moment in your life when you act in such a way that you dont recognise yourself - as if you were looking in from outside? Well old FD seems to have or rather young written alongside Poor Folk when he was 26. That very 20th century form the existential novel seems to have a forebear here in Dostoevsky's second work and first traditional novel.

It was a critical failure at the time apparently particularly amongst the left intelligentsia who had seen (and overstated I think) in D's first work a new voice exploring the poverty and inequities of Tsarist Russia. But it was so important to the writer that he spent many years re-writing it when he got out of his Siberian exile.

Narratively the work is "fantastic" in that it deals with a middle ranking civil servant in mid nineteenth century St Petersburg confronting some one who is his literal doppelganger. Yet although they start on friendly terms the double soon undermines him at work, humiliates him in front of women and makes him pay for ten pastries he buys and consumes at a German bakers!

Through this unusal prism FD explores the static nature of Russian feudalism, as in Poor Folk, the frustration of accepting without question such an unfair society. Yet to the chagrin of the critics he doesnt do it through a downtrodden serf or a decadent aristocratic but a pompous bureaucrat with a servant who he treats pretty badly.

But Golyadkin, the name of the dual character, is collapsing. His other doesn't appear in the work until after he's spent a morning skiving off work, wandering around shops promising to pay for stuff and then not, tried to get medication from his doctor and he has humiliated himself in front of a beautiful woman whilst at a party. Sounds like a modern tale !

I think all of these events are a catalyst for the self-examination which is externalised with the appearance of his look - a - likey. The passages where Golyadkin examines his faults and then pulls back to put a superficial brave face on it to admit everything is fine are painful to read yet anyone who has ever had self-doubt (which I would hope is everyone) will clearly identify with them. The problem is every time he resolves to make the best of things his double appears and stamps all over them

Golyadkin goes even further though ending up being carted away by his sinister doctor to an asylum we guess lost in the throes of mental illness crying "I think Im all right". I think the work is a brilliant examination of mental disintegration and the feeling of not having a place in a society which is completely reliant on structure. Golyadkin is an outsider who doesnt want to be - indeed in one of the passages he accuses his double of being disdainful of the rightful order of things.

Way ahead of its time in many ways but strangely it is quite contemporary - the sense of 1840s St.Petersburg is palpable - indeed the sub-title of the work is A Petersburg Poem. Reference is made to music and prose of the time (again like Poor Folk).
The tale works if you believe it is possible you can have an absolute double or if you view it as a sort of fantasy but I really think it is more about the single, the struggle that we all have as individuals to keep things together particularly when someone (who looks very much like ourselves) is trying to rip them apart.

I saw after finishing this that the guy out the IT crowd is going to direct a movie of the book - which again is pretty short 130 pages. I'm not surprised the attraction given its universal themes. But for me it was a real surprise as a piece. but a pleasant one.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dostoyevsky: Poor Folk - Communication Breakdown

Every journey begins with a single step someone once said. This unusual piece of prose was Fyodor D's first "novel" and for the record this is the first one of Dostoyevsky I have read in full. I tried the Brothers Karamazov when I was 17 but I was too too young and couldnt get past the first few chapters.

The form of this (pretty short) work is a set of letters between two people - an older man employed as a copyist a fairly low role within the burgeoning Russian civil service and an impoverished young woman once from a relatively privileged background. What is their relationship - well it is familial at a distance they seem to be second cousins but is it more: lovers, future partners?

This chamber piece has limitations - indeed I think about 120 pages is about as far as you can take the forms of two letters between two narrators, unreliable or otherwise. Other novels which use letters usually break down more into a narration of events as a third party or protagonist - Wuthering Heights from memory does this and much more recently White Tiger.

It doesn't help that both characters are very pathetic, in the literal sense of the word, the male Makar is a balding, occasionally heavy drinking, in debted individual. Varenka is an ailing abandoned soul open to abuse and manipulation from richer people. Both lived in cramped penury in the urban setting of St. Petersburg - opposite each other: this is what leads to their communication. So their missives are not full of laughs!

Varenka, almost inevitably, by the end is married off to a brutal landowner who wants to hide her away in the Russian countryside. This leaves Makar devastated in a final sad letter to her he states: "I write only in order to write, only in order to write as much as possible to you". But even this is unusual. One doesnt get the sense that this is a great romantic tryst broken by the needs of feudal society and property - a common theme in 18th/19th Century literature - Jane Austen, the Brontes et al.
Makar is a pretty sad character who never gives a sense of being a romantic partner of Varenka. He continually calls her little mother, for example. He is self indulgent in a very male way in his tone particularly after drinking escapades or trying to borrow money - FD does this brilliantly - subservient to his masters but torn by his very real poverty: not a great catch for Varenka!

So not a doomed love story, definitely not. What it is though , which surprised me, is very contemporary (for its time). It explores the static nature of Russian feudalism - which in a sense both characters are victims of - where everyone has their station from which there is no escape. Everything that happens is because of God's will - nothing can be challenged. What is innovative is that this is done from two "urban" characters rather from the serf's perspective which FD was very pre-occupied with in the 1840s.

Urban landscapes are also central - the crowded nature: people living on top of each other; sharing (unwillingly) their most intimate moments - love and death. Compared to Austen where her romances take place in vast spaces - country estates and houses. The claustrophobia here is palpable.

But also, and perhaps most importantly for the author the work explores contemporary literature. Apparently it is very influenced by Gogol which I have not read, in particular a story called the overcoat. In one very funny communication Makar takes personal offence when Varenka sends him this work to read as he identifies so closely with it - stating "I am going to register a complaint". Pushkin is also central - in a moving piece Varenka writes how in her past she searches for a complete works of Pushkin to buy for her first love (also doomed) but allows the boy's impoverished father to say he bought them. French and English lit also get mentions in passing.

So you could say that this novel is about novels albeit this is not clearly stated - the quote at the beginning of the work talks of the power of fiction. And I suppose in the 19th Century the novel was finding its form - which FD was going to spend his life working on.

Others saw it in other ways - it was thought of as Utopian Socialist - with its vision of poverty and its implied critique of the ruling elite. FD was going to do 5 years hard labour for such thoughts in a short amount of time. I think that is there but its lasting significance comes from its other elements. He was also only 26 when he wrote this an incredible fact in itself.

So a lot in 120 pages! And a good signpost for a future journey through FD's work.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review of the Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim: Broken Britain

Sometimes I think Jonathan Coe is one of the most subversive English novelists working today. Ostensibly his novels look very straightforward contemporary comic works - sometimes set in a specific recent historical time: the Rotters Club, 70s; What a Carve Up, 80s; the Closed Circle 00s. Yet his biography of the idiosyncratic experimental novelist BS Johnson (brilliant, incidentally) and his involvement in discussions on the future of the novel give a sign that Coe's work is trying to aim beyond the "cracking great read" idea of the book.

I thought his last novel the Rain Before It falls pointed in this direction most clearly: an examination of a woman faced with all sorts of abuse in Society it also integrated an innovative structure and an examination of modern classical music as well. It engaged very little with contemporary comment but sought to make more universal points.

This combination is struck again in this work although at the start of the work it doesn't feel like this. Indeed my initial thoughts were that Coe had retreated to his earlier work with a very broad brush approach to current social issues. A bit like a bad observational comedian he makes points on spam emails, cappuccinos that are served too hot and the contradictory nature of friends on Facebook. But this is misleading in fact perhaps Coe uses this to lure the reader in to a narrative about an alienated, lonely, broken man who through a journey discovers some truths. And at the end, which I won't give away, it is arguably one of the most experimental passages that Coe has ever written.

The "unreliable narrator" is Maxwell Sim as he outlines his own breakdown and his voice is a difficult one. Part of the problems of the early part of the work stem from this I think as he is an unengaged man who loves the structure of motorway service stations, idealises chain restaurants and finds difficulty expressing his feelings or even describing anything (a point he makes in the first chapter) and dislikes books. This is risky as it relies on the reader sticking with him even though it seems he has nothing to say. I remember feeling similarly about the narrator in Alexei Sayle's underrated novel Overtaken, who was much more dislikeable (deliberately) than Max Sim. On the other hand it is clearly not Coe's own voice which in some of his other works I think intervenes in a not very subtle way.

Of course this develops - he is a keen observer of humans and their various schemes which ultimately lead to his own catharsis. The narration is also broken up by 4 pieces of writing - a letter, an essay, a short story and a memoir - written by 4 other characters who will all have significance. Through these writings Max gains his self awareness. This episodic use of different forms of writing is quite a common trait of Coe's but he uses it to full effect here. He also labels each one of the elements - following the Structure of Eliot's Four Quartets - which is significant in itself.

This makes the novel sound poe faced and academic which it is miles from - it is very funny, hilarious actually, in places and moving ultimately. The title "Terrible Privacy" is good as well as we seem to value privacy talk of it as a human right but not recognise the isolation which it can also bring. So society never really thinks of privacy as "terrible". A common theme is the inability of people to communicate even in a wired world.

Max's journey is across Britain as he recovers or rather doesnt from depression seemingly brought on by the break-up of his marriage, for some half-arsed business promotion which requires him to drive to the Shetlands going via Birmingham, the Lakes and Edinburgh. The use of a road trip to discover home truths is not a new idea in Art but the structure and link with the other texts give this one originality.

The ending seems a little pat - revolving around Max and his relationships - and you can see it coming from about two thirds through but even this is teasing of the reader - because even after the revelation Coe pulls his experimental writing trick- this turns your feelings on their head, if feelings can have heads!

I felt some similarities with Franzen, the keen eye for contemporary detail and how it interacts with the most intimate issues people have, the unreliable voices and the use of different types of text within a novel but the ending is most definitely Coe-style.

There are some nods to BS Johnson particularly in the memoir part (written by Max's father) with a character who bows to pagan ritual, which BSJ does. It also has a parallel with the life of doomed sailing fraudster Donald Crowhurst , contemporary Artist Tacita Dean who did work on Crowhurst and as always with Coe the nature of writing and the novel particularly with his ending

Ultimately Coe is such a confident writer so although I think all these themes are there they stream by as you turn the pages because it also is a "cracking good read"!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Orlando - Fantastic Life.

An incredible piece of work. Quite unlike anything I have read before but in some ways one of the most significant.

Ostensibly a fantasy, Woolf herself apparently called it a writer's holiday, but don't worry it's not about goblins or medieval characters called things like Spatcock as that genre usually has. It covers the life of the aristocrat Orlando over a 500 year span during which she changes gender from male to female. It ends literally at the current day - 1928 - coinciding with the date of publication.

The historical sweep is massive and one part of the work is its overview of English history and literature. Yet part of its brilliance is the work's combination of this with its dissection of the intimate and the exploration of what it means to be human and how to live.

I particularly enjoyed the summaries of the 19th Century and its imposition of a moral code vis a vis marriage which attempts to declare itself as universal yet in Orlando's experience is in direct contrast to her previous 300 years of life! The chaotic baroque period of the 17th century is also done very well. And of course as a modernist the 20th Century scenes are remarkably observed - but by an outsider.

For Orlando is that, an outsider, not simply because of Gender but throughout history she is ancilliary to great events - from the Elizabethan period to the Civil War to World War 1 - these do not really figure in her life.

Literature and Biography are constant themes as well. On the face of it this is written as a biography of Orlando - who in many ways reflects Vita Sackville West - an adventurous aristocratic woman who Wolf had a love for and sometime relationship. Yet the limits of biography and indeed writing about the human experience are commented on by the writer throughout. The work opines that one individual has a thousand characters or more yet a biography has to distill that to one or two at most, outlining that writing can never really do that.

As a parallel there is a character who appears twice - a hack writer who rips off Orlando - in the Elizabethan times he attacks the current writers Shakespeare, Marlowe et al as a pale reflection of the Classical Roman and Greeks. Then he re-appears in the 19th and 20th Century to attack modern writers and praise the Shakespearean era. This reflects attack on Virginia Woolf's work which moves away from traditional narrative to try and be a closer reflection of human experience.

The last chapter set in the "modern day" does this to amazing effect - all of the character's 500 years of life bubble around her head as she walks around her estate and come out in different ways. Many writers Becket, Joyce, Flann OBrien etc do this but this is one of the more accessible examples of this I have read.

It is also experimental in other ways - it uses faux illustrations like a normal biography mostly of Vita S-West to represent Orlando. It also pre-figures magic realism by a few decades with its surreal elements, use of nature and animals and obviously the central scene of her sex conversion.
The change of gender is obviously crucial in the work yet I dont think it is a bold statement on transgenderism or transvestism - rather its an exploration of the flexibility of gender in some ways particularly over a long historical period. What it means to be a woman and a man is explored - the nature of attraction and love. All Orlando's partners are fairly ambiguous sexually - from a Russian princess to a sea captain.

In part I guess this is about Virginia Wolf expressing her love for Vita but it is more I think about a love of people or life and how gender only is only one part of it. The nature of sexual relationships is not really explored indeed she has quite a witty side swipe at DH Lawrence's work on that issue.

But gender aside the work explores life and what is important - the strength of nature, home comforts and friendship. One of my favourite chapters occurs when Orlando is in Turkey and has just become a woman - ends in a debate with gypsies over what is important - a 365 bed -roomed house versus wandering across the earth.

It is an aristocratic vision which Orlando has - the nature of work or labour which is so significant to most of us because of the nature of society is never an issue to him/her because she never has to do it. Even in the last scenes she visits a department store where goods are brought to her and taken from her car by her servants. This liberation from work, which I think intrigued Woolf who was from a more traditional bourgeois life, allows the experimentation of thought and gender. Orlando's house is more like a town than a normal house - similar to Vita's mansion which significantly due to property laws although an aristocrat was not allowed to inherit because of her gender.

There is so much more to the work though - the nature of mortality - interesting as the character is more or less immortal: the clock on the mantlepiece as Woolf says. The awkward conversations that men and women can have - there is one hilarious scene with an Archduke! Shakespeare is also commonly referred to - the master of English literature because I think the book also deals with the nature of English identity particularly around its ruling class.

A masterpiece, definitely, and not easy but if you dig around it I think some of the secrets of happiness and life are here.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review of Ajax, the Dutch, the War.

A relatively quick summer read this one from my favourite sports writer Simon Kuper of the FT. From a English/South African/ Dutch background Kuper in this book tries to explain what happened to football during the Nazi occupation of Holland and its aftermath.

In doing so he says he is attempting to redress the balance of Dutch history - that there was a brave resistance to Nazism to one where most people were neither resistant nor compliant, they just were.
This is quite a big ask from a football book and I dont think it really achieves it. Essentially it begins with an examination of Ajax who pre-war and since the 1950s had a strong relationship with the Amsterdam Jewish community. However the issue is that this population were almost completely wiped out by the Nazis. The book is full of intriguing data from the time and there was a lot of original primary research. One chapter consists largely of Kuper going through the minutes of football club Hercules, which covers the expulsion of Jewish members: an order from the occupiers to dealing with the aftermath of the war and collaborators. There is a lot of data in this bit which I think could have done with a bit more editing.
There is also a bit of confusion of the scope of the book it seems to try to deal with football across Europe during the war - a chapter on England and German football at this time; the politics of pre-war international friendlies.
According to the introduction this started off life as a magazine article about Dutch football - maybe the publishers didnt think this was a big enough topic. But the broadening approach is a bit frustrating as it doesnt get its teeth into the other subjects enough.
Where the work is fascinating is in its use of facts: Holland had the most registered footballers of any country in the world for large periods, Holland was the only country in the World! to buy broadcasting rights for the 1938 World cup. It also has a dissection of Dutch Football which is second to none - the history of Ajax, its links and equally its distance from the Jewish population, its links with Israel and the animosity with Feyenoord, their Rotterdam rivals, was all new to me.
These make the book worth reading though I think he overstates his argument, which has a degree of validity, that the Dutch Resistance was pretty weak and ineffective. There are some real heroes highlighted here from the Jewish community and from broader Dutch society this is done through some very moving testimony.

So a very strong intelligent football book but over-stretching itself a little. I would have bought a book that solely dealt with the Dutch aspect (as the title itself suggests) but there is more to it than that. As a result it loses a wee bit of focus.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Review of Iain Banks' Transition: Multi-versatile work

I don't know if you can accuse a writer of plagarising themselves. I suppose it is something that is never really mentioned it is normally discounted as a writer going over similar themes and ideas developed in slightly different ways. For example there is a criticism of Philip Roth's last few novels that he has engaged in this.

But when you write in two completely different persona as Iain Banks does (his science fiction is written by Iain M Banks) I suppose the p word becomes a possibility. Iain M Banks is the name adopted by Banks (his full one!) when writing his science fiction which he has done as long as his more traditional literary fiction.

It has long been a bug bear of mine (and apparently Banks) that readers who devour his work draw a line at his science fiction. This has even been the case, in my view, when in the last few years his strongest and most inventive work in terms of style, structure and character has been his SF. And given that a few of his more recent mainstream contemporay novels although OK have been treading water a bit - I'm thinking of the Road to Garbadale and the Business.

Banks has dealt with this now in a fairly obvious way now though by transposing a lot of the themes of his science fiction directly into this work. Not completely a first - he dabbled with this a bit I think with the Bridge one of his earlier novels - but never as full on as this.

Limited to Earth (or Calbafreques!) this is no space opera. Indeed the existence of alien life or humans making contact with them form an essential question of this work. Where the sci-fi comes in is the existence of an infinite number of planet Earths and humans within them. Ones where we died when we were 4 or had coffee rather than tea this morning or have blue hair or.... So for example one of the worlds has a problem with Christian Fundamentalist terrorists, this is quite well done but draws very much on Dawkins' God Delusion. This is an actual area of theoretical physics at the moment speculating over the nature of infinity and what it means for humans - but it is purely at that level - theory which makes it ripe for fictional treatment.

There are a group of individuals structured in a bureaucratic organisation - the Concern who can travel or transition across these multiple worlds and do so by entering other people's bodies. Familiar to anyone who has seen Terminator 2 or the early 90s tv show Quantum Leap, currently on just before the Tour de France! They intervene across the world ostensibly to do good; to prevent bad things happening but at the top of the organisation there is some foul work afoot with a hidden agenda or is there?

The debate over intervention whether helping an individual to benefit society or indeed killing many more individuals for the same reasons is dealt with here. This is a central theme of Banks' sci fi particularly with his utopian space communist society the Culture who have to interact with a variety of worlds. That is where I get the idea of plagarism - accusation is not really a fair word though because he deals with these themes really well here. I just think he has done it before and with a lot more detail in his sci-fi work. I think it is telling the Concern is also a 7 letter word beginning with C - although a more exclusively human form. It criticises the money-grabbing aspect of a version of Earth which looks very much like ours.

And I suppose that is the difference the Culture doesn't engage with the planet Earth - its scale is much vaster than that. There is I think just one short story where the two interact. In contrast this is very much a human story - exploring how we would deal with these theoretical themes.

In that there are strong characters this is done well - Mr Oh, a transitioner who is used by the Concern and comes to his own conclusions over what to do, although his awakening near the end is a bit too close to the Matrix conclusion for me, Mrs Mulverhill - his lover and mentor, the Philosopher (a torturer) and Adrian (a hedge fund manager (closer than you would think in job) are all interesting creations and all drawn into the Concern.

Sometimes there is a slight tendency to crowbar a theme around a character though - the torturer (philosopher) has a dialogue with another man who has tortured for a greater good which amounts to a text book discussion of Kantian autonomy of the individual versus utilitarianism. As outlined so well in Michael Sandel's recent series on Justice. It is worthy of discussion as many of the ideas are but breaks the narrative flow.

However where the work is excellent is the study of self - what it means to be a human. It explores the vanity we have as individuals - solipsism - which suggests we are the centre of the world, bad things wont happen to us - everything revolves around us. Very much a modern Western vanity which we all suffer from including most of the characters in the book especially Adrian who really personifies the pre-2008 crash mentality of capitalism. His end though is not particularly drawn up with events around Lehman Brothers which I thought it would be. I thought these philosphical themes and their discussion show Banks at his best which he normally reserves for his sci-fi.

It also is fairly experimental in narrative structure for one of his traditional novels. The multi-narration overlaps and is difficult to keep a handle on - I think this is quite brave and well done. It dives right in so the reader will have to work, cross reference and so on. This means the conclusion could be seen as a little convaluted - I am still trying to work out if I fully understand it.
The descriptions of other worlds - which are remember essentially this one where I am typing this - also takes no prisoners in their flowing and alien detail and I wonder how much his traditional literary readers enjoyed it. The book seems to have got great reviews from the blurb though this can sometimes be misleading - because I think it shows the link between contemporary issues and philosophy which Banks expounds much more in his science fiction; but Im not sure all readers will agree.

There is more in the book, perhaps too much some times, and it takes a while to get going because of the narrative style. Sometimes Banks could be more subtle - the first line whilst great is a bit undercutting of his own strength as a writer: "Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator" It's like he doesn't have the confidence to leave this unstated and let the reader work it out - this narrative art being a central part of much of modern fiction.

My advice would be to stick with it for it says a lot about the nature of being human, sexual relations, materialism and alienation. There's even an inter-planet Earth chase culminating in a European tourist trap! A bit Bourne-esque. I liked this but I hope it doesn't reflect Banks draining the well of ideas from his sci-fi for his contemporary work or indeed vice versa.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Review: John Cheever's stories Part 1 - A Modern Mad Microscope.

As the maelstrom of marking eases (onset a little earlier this year) and the battle to resist compulsory redundancies has abated for a little I have found a bit more time to read ma books.
It was a bit of a palaver to get the full collection of Cheever stories this year but I finally did. I have devoured the first half which covers the beginning of his short story writing after his dismissal from the army at the end of WW2 and the end of the 1950s.

What Cheever does is present a complete meticulous dissection of the growing wealth of American society and the individuals involved. New York Apartments, the tea-time drinking of Martinis and Old Fashioneds, suburbia (then in its infancy), swimming pools, adultery and city life. But just as with Irvine Welsh's similar approach to working class communities in the East coast and the sub-cultures within it Cheever provides us with startling insights on the nature of human relationships, mortality, love and life really.

He also does explore the poor - in particular elevator operators - very significant in Manhattan, janitors and nannies - serving the wealthy. This is an interesting comparison to his Wapshot novels when only really one part of the Saga could really be said to focus on the New York work/suburb/bourgeouis ennui nexus. Those works' focus are much more older wealth in the States - an earlier generation.

Many parallels with these stories could be drawn with the show Mad Men (have never watched it) which I see has been done a lot online. I have wondered why that show is so popular and I think it is partially to do with why I find the stories so resonant. They deal really with a group of people for who wealth is not a problem (although see the Housebreaker of Shady Hill story - similar to the movie 30 years later Fun with Dick and Jane) in a different way to the "old money" and they throw that into consumerism - of which this era was the first really. And it is one in which many of us now live or are definitely influenced by - property booms, commuting and consumer products.
Thus they are the first really alienated middle class in human society - they work in a different location from their home, in many ways this is reflected in their behaviour when they are literally different people - see Housebreaker, the 548, the Chaste Clarissa, their comforts dont solve their unhappiness - see pretty much every story! And there is a group desperate to enter that class The Pot of Gold, O City of Broken Dreams a move indeed which will be resisted by the incumbants.

As in Mad men the position of women is dubious and I think Cheever is ambiguous over the role of women of whether they are to blame for their partner's boredom or over indulgent of male excesses. See Torch Song and the Trouble of Marcie Flint for this.
Or whether they are the victims of male predatory behaviour - The 548 and the Chaste Clarissa.
Some say that these stories present a misanthropic view of human relationships and indeed some are not for the faint hearted - pardon the pun - but I think when there is a glimpse of genuine happiness and love then it is truly moving.
There are less classical references than in his novels but there are similar mentions of bisexuality and alcholism both of which were a struggle for Cheever. There is also a continual theme of absent or neglectful fathers - not sure how that was reflected in Cheever's own life.
I have also read one set in Italy the Bella Lingua which is very good and reflects his own ex-pat life and a big part of the Wapshot Scandal.
So far I have really enjoyed the Summer Farmer, the Sorrows of Gin and the Housebreaker. But their real brilliance is that a phrase or sentence jumps out from every page sometimes at quite surprising moments. The detail is also depressing but brilliant - the shabby bar by the train station, the faded wealth of Rome.
A break for some other books then ill read the second half. Highly Recommended - gives an insight into the Madmen world that only a novel could do.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

At Swim Two Birds review: Experimental Pub Chat?

I started this book to help my daughter who was reading it as part of her uni course and was a bit flummoxed by it. Anyway she gave up on it 20 pages in but for me it has been a relevation.
A complex work I suppose you could call it an “experimental” novel, it was Flann O’Brien’s first work. Having said that , although written in 1939, its structure is similar to the early novel: Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy et al.
There are no real chapters although the words Chapter I cheekily emblazen the first page but are never referred to again. It is episodic and in some ways a patchwork quilt of different work – fragments are drawn from a variety of sources – a circular letter from a dodgy bookmaker, an old poem, encyclopaedia entries, a Western novel. Ostensibly though it is about a waster student in Dublin who lives with his sanctimonious uncle but spends most of his time on the drink or in bed.
He is a writer however, and I think this is right, he is writing a novel about a corrupt writer, Trellis, who rips off his ideas from another writer – of Westerns – and creates a series of characters including some lifted from Irish legend. These characters despise their creators and gang together to torture and destroy Trellis. This is done by another writer an illegitimate child of Trellis – caused by him violating one of the female characters he created!
Thus the work is about the nature of writing, narrative structure and character. There are a couple of passages which may, or may not, be O’Brien’s view of the nature of the novel: “A modern novel should be largely a work of reference”. This makes it sound drier than it is but it is actually very funny.
As well as dealing with the nature of the novel though it explores the Irish character – it juxtaposes the re-telling of ancient Irish myth, Finn MacCool and Sweeney being turned into a bird – with guys having banal drunken chat. For example there is a hilarious argument over the nature of poetry and what is “good”. A poet of doggerel also makes an appearance.
The drunken conversations are particularly good – some within the novel within the novel and some by the student himself. They are out of time I think I have had some of these chats! Can also see why it may not appeal to a 19 year old female undergraduate though.
There is so much more in it as well though. The nature of creating myt h – some of the language telling the sagas from old Ireland is quite beautiful, how to take minutes of boring meetings, the joy of drinking and many comments on Dublin itself. It is difficult though but more accessible than say Becket who deals with similar issues. Although Becket never really engaged with the Irish identity to this extent. There also seems to be quite a casual misogyny as well: there are no female characters of note or if there are they literally are a plot device. Maybe he’s making a point about the male writer.
Glad I read it and a challenge but shows the power and unique things that a novel can do compared to other forms of art. And remember A Pint of Plain is your Only Man!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Not Sidney Poitier - review

An unusual one. A word I had heard a few times but never knew the meaning of until last year was "picaresque" - it means an episodic adventure with an unreliable hero. I think this is one of those.
Using the character who is born (after a two year pregnancy) and named Not Sidney Poitier Everett uses his rites of passage to humorously explore race, class, money and education in modern 21st Century America. And it is very funny in places especially with the understated wit of Not-Sidney. I am not sure it succeeds in everything it is trying to do though.
N-S's mother dies early on in his life and in essence he is adopted by Ted Turner whose company NS has made a fortune from. The portrayal of Turner is surreal (dreams play a big part in the novel) but hilarious a bit like a minor Simpsons character. But Turner flits in and out of the book as NS goes to school, college, home with his girlfriend, gets arrested for being black, escapes, gets arrested again and solves a murder!
I think each chapter is meant to centre around a Sidney Poitier - who NS grows to look more and more like by the end he is indistinguishable - rmovie which is quite a clever device. I spotted the Defiant Ones, Guess who's coming to Dinner, the Heat of the Night, to Sir with Love and er the one about the nuns! All of these took place in the 60s when America was having to deal with race in a central way. Poitier won an Oscar then I guess for many white Americans Poitier was the only interaction with a black person they had. By fast forwarding it 40 years and throwing it up in a crazy refracted way Everett is showing how much or how little has changed through the years. There are some twists the disapproving parents of NS 's girlfriend are light skinned African Americans rather than Tracey and Hepburn. The college he attends is nearly all-black. But the ignorance of racism is still fairly universal.
I also think it is a novel about identity -this is particularly evident in the closing speech. What does a name mean - how does it affect the way people interact with you.? There is also a degree of existentialism in the way Sidney self reflects constantly at his actions - it reminded me a little of Camus - honest!
Along with Turner and Jane Fonda a real person featuring in the novel is the author himself. I am not sure this device works well, at all. I think a few writers have tried it. There is quite a self indulgent bit where he (as character) reflects on the nature of the novel and in particular his most successful work : Erasure. Also his annoyingly obscure lectures are well annoying.
But having said that it is ambitious and at least it tries to do something a little different. So a funny writer with a semi-experimental work that doesn't quite come off.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sex, Death and Boredom: The Wapshot Scandal Review

Hot on the heels of my first Cheever experience I have now devoured his other Wapshot novel - published almost 10 years later: the Wapshot Scandal.

A sequel? Of sorts: Leander is now dead although a lost chapter from his journal reemerges to give us a reminder of his struggles and demons. His wife also gone, mentioned as an afterthought. The senior materfamilias(? though she's not actually the mother) Honora is still here as are the separate but equally unhappy brothers : Coverly and Moses. Though there is no narrative link really.

I must say the vibe of this book is very different the Chronicle had a turn of the nineteenth century early American Capitalist feel to it - even some earlier periods with modernity only being introduced through the last chapters. This is a mid-twentieth century work in every way: the Nuclear race, suburbia, adultery, consumerism are all dissected with minute accuracy.

I would also say the influence of Cheever's short fiction is more apparent here. Though there is some continuity in character and lightly in plot - the development of a torrid but sad affair, the pursuit of a tax dodger - essentially each chapter reads like a set piece short work in itself. Nothing so wrong with that because what it does do is give minor characters incredible depth in their moment in the sun: Dr Cameron the sinister scientist who is Coverly's boss at a nuclear development site, Emile the young delivery boy who Moses bored and alienated wife takes an interest in.

But above all the writing. The writing is consistently magnificent - I found myself highlighting passages. There is humour throughout and it does in its own way paint an accurate picture of American life at that time. But I think death is the continual theme here. It begins and ends with a death. The last phrase in the work is "nothing at all". All characters are struggling with the fact that one day they will not be here and react to it in different ways.

The classical references are less but there is an interesting portrait of post-war Italy intertwined in the work. Loads of great parts - I particularly enjoyed the disintegration of Coverly's wife Betsey the roots of which were laid in the earlier book. But you could choose any piece - I have to say for its differences I think I preferred this work.
And the Scandal? Difficult to say it could be one of many things but taken apart they look so minor yet heart breakingly major in their consequences.

But let the writing speak for itself:
"The pain in her chest seemed to spread and sharpen in proportion to her stubborn love of the night, and she felt for the first time in her life an unwillingness to leave any of this...."

Now if only Amazon would deliver his collection of short stories.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Decline and Fall and Fire of ...Review of the Wapshot Chronicle

The next book following Freedom was always going to be difficult but this 1950s American novel was ideal.
Cheever is apparently better known for his short fiction a bit like Chekov. He is also an influence on modern writers like Eggers and Franzen. So a thoughtful Xmas gift.
The novel as title suggests is a family saga. Indeed this New England clan can trace their origins back to the original settlers. But this family has seen better days. In many ways the family parallels the development of American capitalism.
Though the background is given the time setting is the 1920s and 30s. Significantly, i thought, this is never made explicit with no clear references to external events, it is more implicit. Both sons of the family work for the state in some capacity.
The faded glory is encapsulated by the father Leander a sailor trapped on a tourist ferry and his wife who is obsessed with gift shops.
For a novel written in the 50s and set twenty years before it is very frank on sexual issues. Theeldest son iis a Lothario with fairly misogynistic attitudes. The other is struggling with his sexuality - these passages seemed very hearfelt - I am not sure of Cheever's own background
Both marry into relationships that have their own specific style of unhappiness.
As a writer of short fiction each image in the work seems intricately crafted. I like the descriptions of train stations on Sundays. There is also some narrative experimentation with extracts from Leander's journal quite difficult to follow. An excellently written novel with a lot of originality - a lot of emphasis on fire as an image. Set in Massachusetts the Great Boston Fire of the late 19th century is a seminal moment. A book to think about once read.