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June and July Books

August 21, 2010

I was lucky enough to be away a lot in June and July and got a lot read over the last couple of months, here and abroad. Here are some of the highlights (and some of the timewasters).

Family Britain (Bloomsbury) is the second volume in David Kynaston’s series on the social history of post-WWII Britain, and covers the years 1951-7. I find these colourful and comprehensive histories entirely fascinating — which mingle political incident, cultural firsts and (most uniquely) material from contemporary diaries and journals of ‘ordinary Britons’, themselves split between observations on the events of the day and the more engrossing concerns about the content of television programmes (they generally disapprove) or the affecting delight of being able, post-rationing, to buy proper butter again. Kynaston’s lightness of touch and occasional waspish remarks keep these books, which are monumental in size, entertaining and readable, and one marvels at the control he exercises to keep them from being fragmented completely. Some broad trends are becoming apparent in this second volume; early moves towards decriminalisation of homosexuality are dramatised here (usually in the form of obscenity cases, or the even sadder example of Alan Turing’s treatment by the authorities of the day), and the gradual liberalisation of postwar British attitudes is set against the subtle but consistent mentions of what one Margaret Hilda Roberts, whose rise to power will be chronicled as Kynaston’s series concludes in 1979, is up to even as early as the 1950s.

The life of Frank Lloyd Wright gets a fictive treatment in T.C. Boyle’s The Women (Bloomsbury) which, as the title suggests, opts to tell the architect’s story via those of his wives and mistress. The book has an intriguing structure, its three sections working in reverse chronological order, each beginning with the departure of the woman we’ll only learn more about in the subsequent parts of the book, and so that by the end of the book the hints at the violent death of his first wife are given some pay-off when we, braced for it, see the horrific events unfold. Unlike Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, which uses a similar backwards-moving tripartite arrangement, The Women generates therefore some drama and tension by way of its structure. Regrettably, this is one of the few accomplishments of a book which is thickly but crudely written and has more than a hint of the souped-up soap opera about it. Framed, bizarrely, by the first-person narration of Tadashi Sato, one of Lloyd Wright’s architecture-student interns, Boyle peppers the book with footnotes which seek, in Sato’s voice, to undercut some of the wilder fancies of the text. Too little, too late, thinks the beleaguered reader. This is a swampy, dull book. Googling his name reveals that T.C. Boyle lives in an early Lloyd Wright house himself, and makes one wish that the spirits of dead architects could be relied upon to chase out meddlers in their vanished lives.

Dubious classics corner: Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns is a somewhat leaden Victorian melodrama, distinguished by its author’s interest in industrialised Britain, but not by his workmanlike prose. From another country and another era, Charles Webb’s The Graduate reads like an adaptation of the script for the film, rather than vice-versa. Lacking any interiority or psychological insight, the result is a flimsy story of a young man’s largely incomprehensible errors.

Two first novels, by authors of exceptional short-story collections, arrived in July. Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (Penguin Viking) is a lengthy historical novel about the travails of three brothers and their families in WWII-era Hungary. A brief scan of the acknowledgements reveals that this is a faintly fictionalised account of the lives of her grandparents and their siblings, and puts the author in the difficult position of tackling not just real-life events, but the lives of people she knows and loves. As such, the book is sentimental to the point of toothache-inducing, and as its outcome is never in much doubt, a lot of the book seems rushed and superficial (the third brother, Matyas, for instance, is thinly characterised in his scant appearances before his off-stage, as it were, death: as though knowing his fate means Orringer refuses to spend time on him, but neither, for reasons of family-historical accuracy, can she cut him from the manuscript: thus the difficult position of the fictive family memoir). Likewise, the historical notes (Hitler’s rise, Horthy’s alliance with the Nazis) are very broadly sketched and sit uncomfortably as characters scan newspapers or hear stories of (what we know to be) crucial events at just the right time to keep the reader abreast of the historical context. Where The Invisible Bridge takes off is in the last quarter or so, where the true cost to the Hungarians becomes apparent: in a novel of this length, however trite some of it has been, one inevitably becomes attached to the characters. I was particularly affected by the fate of the Levi brothers’ parents, who sacrifice everything for their surviving sons’ welfare; but the guessable-at, bittersweet ending for Andras and Tibor stretches credulity, albeit entirely in keeping with the sentimental drift of everything that’s come before. This will make a sweeping and visually majestic Hollywood film, and here Orringer works hard to hit every beat the inevitable screenplay woul ask for: love at first sight, exemplary incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual violence, all-is-feared-lost moments of despair balanced by soaring-strings scenes of redemption, impossible escape, against-the-odds survival. This family history should appeal hugely to the real people whose lives it commemorates and actions it praises. For the rest of us, it’s a damp squib, disappointing given the immense promise of her first book, How to Breathe Underwater.

Better by far is Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic (Tuskar Rock) which, like Orringer’s book, follows on from a great collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here. This is a timely novel: the title refers to a doomed American bank, and its principal character, Doug Fanning, is a deftly-characterised version of the ‘greedy banker’ archetype society has grown used to hating over the last couple of years. The reader brings knowledge (and prejudice) to this book, therefore, and so Haslett is able to avoid great chunks of exposition to get us up to speed on the banking system and Doug’s confident abuses of it. Around Doug, various other characters move: next door to the massive, hideous mansion he has built as a monument to his earnings, his neighbour Charlotte Graves becomes obsessed with bringing a lawsuit against him for building on land she thinks belongs to her; Nate, a student who comes to Charlotte for history tuition, becomes likewise obsessed with Doug, for less lofty reasons; and a small, varied cast of supporting characters includes Doug’s co-conspirator, his boss, Charlotte’s brother, and Nate’s teenage friends. Haslett does a lot here with characters from contrasting backgrounds, and draws them well (an account of Nate and friends getting stoned at a drinks party while their parents, the great and good of the local community, mingle and talk politics is particularly nicely done), though a peculiar trope of having Charlotte believe her dogs talk to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X goes from intriguing to hectoring very quickly. It feels like Haslett loses control of the book a little, but overall it’s a great showcase for what he can do as a novelist.

Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard (Vintage) is a peculiar and likeable book about peculiar and horrible real-life events. In 1975, the entire giraffe population of Prague zoo was slaughtered in an operation overseen by the secret police, after zookeepers’ fears the animals were suffering a form of foot-and-mouth disease. (There’s a good article on the facts behind the story, which includes quotes from Ledgard, here.) An opening chapter told from the perspective of a newborn giraffe prepares us for perhaps a more experimental book than follows, which although told by multiple voices doesn’t ever quite return to the startling effect of the first few pages. Meantime, to be generous to Ledgard, one might point the quibbling finger at his translator, but someone somewhere doesn’t know the plural of the word “hoof” which, in a book about animals which possess four of them, is a problem which set my teeth on edge frequently throughout.

I blogged previously about John Worthern’s biography of D.H. Lawrence. As a complement, or contrast, to this, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (Abacus) could not be bettered. Worthen’s biography is generous to D.H.L., but Dyer’s book — in which the author goes round in circles as he seeks a way to start writing a study of Lawrence — has the edge in its author-to-author empathy. After a sticky start — tedious and seemingly endless recursions along the lines of “I should have brought Lawrence’s Collected Letters with me so I could write about it, but were I to have it with me, I would no doubt find it even more impossible to write about it — oh, look, I did bring it after all, thus justifying giving up on the attempt I’d made at starting to write when I thought I didn’t have them to consult”, etc — the book settles down into a very frank, very funny account of trying to write, trying not to write, the craft of writing, the author’s life, and notions of celebrity, inspiration and idols. By halfway through, I was noting down whole pages of Dyer’s book. I especially liked his description of seeking out what is now Via David Herbert Lawrence in Sicily to see the writer’s one-time home:

We had found it. We stood silently. I knew this moment well from previous literary pilgrimages: you look and look and try to summon up feelings which don’t exist. You try saying a mantra to yourself: ‘D.H. Lawrence lived here.’ You say: ‘I am standing in the place he stood, seeing the things he saw…’, but nothing changes, everything remains exactly the same: a road, a house with sky above it, and the sea glinting in the distance. (p60)

I was so taken with this that I did exactly the same thing two weeks later in Taormina, standing outside an undistinguished peach-coloured block on the very down-at-heel Via D.H.L. A cross-looking lady hung washing out from an upstairs balcony, while I wondered whether this was in fact the right house, and assuming it was, sympathising greatly with Dyer’s feelings, if indeed it’s possible to empathise when he has admitted to feeling absolutely nothing.

Also in Sicily, I read — at the Verdura Spa resort near Sciacca, pronounced ‘Chaka’, as in Khan — the hotel’s gratis copy of Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati (who, I read on ever-reliable Wikipedia, was Leonardo Sciascia’s mentor). The story of the incredibly handsome Antonio, by whom all of Taormina feels betrayed when it turns out his reputation as a great lover is a lie, tells us a great deal about Sicilian society in wartime, where a local sex scandal causes more outrage and panic than a bomb attack. As one character crows: “Others may have freedom, but Italy has women!” (p.40).

I’ve become rather taken lately with Penguin’s Central European Classics range, which presents ten texts from authors from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and elsewhere. Jacketed attractively — and even better, re-typeset, for the most part, so that one doesn’t battle with the blobby crowded type of some reprinted editions of old Penguins — these are immensely appealing and collectible.  Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters, a single-paragraph description of two old (in both senses) friends’ visits, every second day, to view the same Tintoretto painting, is an interesting experiment in style, being largely composed of remembered conversation (about art and philosophy). Technically, it’s extremely impressive: it’s also funny and has a genuinely surprising ending. In the same series, Josef Skvorecky’s The Cowards is the tale of a Czech jazz troupe whose members get enlisted into the army and find themselves fighting first the Nazis, then the Russian Red Army who arrive to invade their home. A little like the characters in Beautiful Antonio, Skvorekcy’s narrator Danny is more concerned about scoring with the girls than with the catastrophic events going on around him: this is a strangely light read.

Lightweight, in a bad way, is David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries (Faber) a book of musings on almost anything that crosses his mind. The chapters are themed around particular cities, and rather tenuously linked by his thoughts on each as a place fit (or unfit) for cycling. Byrne is a thoughtful commentator, though not an insightful one, and despite the claims in the acknowledgements, this never reads as more than a stringing together of blog entries.

More Sicily books: Rupert Thomson’s book on (sort of) the Moors Murders, Death of a Murderer (Bloomsbury) is an affecting, surprisingly subtle read — and, as the Monkey pointed out, a shoo-in for a stage adaptation. Having inspected the D.H. Lawrence house in Taormina, I started on Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Penguin Classics), which provokes much stronger feelings: I suppose I had in some ways considered there to be two distinct phases in literature — a tangible gap between the Victorian and the Modern, maybe — so it is still shocking to read the book which in many ways is an exemplary ‘old-fashioned’ book with what seem very modern attitudes (and of course frank language). Well worth reading. Christopher Taylor’s history of The Berlin Wall (Penguin) is comprehensive and well-written, though I felt I would have liked a few more accounts of inidviduals’ acts of defiance or rebellion (my favourite: the would-be defector who removed the windscreen of his low-slung sportscar, hid his wife in the car boot and simply drove beneath the barriers at the checkpoint. A few more of these stories — assuming thre are more to be told — would have leavened an otherwise somewhat dry history.

No such lack of anecdote in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy (Granta), this year’s finest non-fiction (thus far), a tremendous, captivating account of the lives of ‘real’ North Koreans. Demick interviewed six defectors from the regime, gaining an unprecedented insight into life in the country, and giving her book the narrative momentum of a great novel: their stories are by turns vexing, terrifying, and incredibly moving. The descriptions of how families tried to feed themselves during the great famine visited upon them in the late 1990s by a brutally uncaring regime are astounding: the soup made from boiled weeds, the porridge made from ground-up corn husks. There are times when it is next to impossible for the Western reader to comprehend that this is not some science-fiction dystopia: this is the modern day, and it’s our world. A terrific book, eye-opening and chilling in equal measure. I’ve been buying copies for everyone I know.

More repressive regimes in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (both Vintage Classics), two utterly fascinating laughter-in-the-dark accounts of everyday life in the gulag. A more fantastic dystopia is explored in P.D. James’s The Children of Men, a more traditional and in some ways less uneasy investigation of a world brought to more aggressive life in the film adaptation (with which the novel shares a central character and conceit regarding the imminent extinction of the human race due to worldwide sterility, but not much else); that central character Theo just happens to be the cousin of (and, spoilers, the successor to) the UK’s totalitarian overseer Xan is a whopping great cheat and means the direction the book will take is clear from the outset. There is, however, a nicely open ending, in some ways more chilling than the similarly ambiguous vision of Clive Owen and a newborn baby adrift on open water on which the film closes.

And now for one I read in May, and hadn’t till now quite marshalled my thoughts on.

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (Vintage) was published in France (and in French) in 2006, as Les Bienveillantes, and an English translation by Charlotte Mandell appeared last year. The front matter of the UK paperback goes to slightly mystifying lengths to mention that Mandell’s is the sole English-language version of the novel available, which seems to me (ever suspicious) a tacit acknowledgement that a better translation may be along shortly.

I assume that the slightly flat, unshowy prose here is an accurate reflection of the original French; though at least one review has suggested that what’s inevitably lost in English is the subtly disorientating effect of the hard-edged German military titles cropping up amid the mellifluous French, and I’m vaguely interested in picking up a copy of the French version simply to see the visual effect of the crashing together of two such different languages. (My rusty high-school French might even be able to deal with the prose.)

This is a massive book, 975 pages in the paperback, and exhibits the usual benefits and setbacks that attend very long books. The reader can’t help but be immersed in the world of the book, and a certain level of — is enjoyment the right word for a graphic depiction of wartime and Holocaust atrocities? Well, clearly not: immersion will have to do. The fact is, you get to learn a lot about the narrator SS officer Maximilian Aue, and by the end of the book (barring one major misstep, which I’ll come to later) have come to have an insight of what passes for the psychology and philosophy of what we are led to realise is not a ‘typical Nazi’ or some sort of distillation and representation of the Nazis as a whole, but of one psychotic and bloody individual.

Necessarily, too, a certain amount of fiction-fatigue sets in, and in the later stages of the novel, to my great discomfort, I realised I was in some sense skipping over the horrific descriptions of corpses piled in streets, soldiers literally wading ankle-deep in the blood of their victims, and so forth: things that turn the stomach even to paraphrase, but which after 900+ pages the carnage-weary reader somehow manages to distance himself from.

One wonders, though, whether the mash-up of Aue’s personal bloodthirstiness and his more or less slavish following of his superiors’ orders with his culturally high-minded tastes — his liking for Bach and Flaubert — is really anything more than a cliche. Contemporary historical readings of Nazi Germany have started to suggest that writing off the acts of soldiers in wartime as ‘only obeying orders’ is a problematic one, perhaps not least because it depersonalises the individuals involved in the same way as fascist rhetoric and propaganda sought to ‘dehumanise’ their enemies.

In any case, Littell works to differentiate Aue from other officers of the SS by the interesting method of making him absolutely bonkers. Frustrated homosexual? Check, plus additional points for making him a borderline pederast. Incestuous relationship with his sister? Check; and again, finessed or warped yet further by the inclusion of twin children whose identity is never given but who — we are fairly elbowed in the ribs on this matter — are likely to be the offspring of Aue and his sister. Murderer acting outside his jurisdiction: yes, and of course he kills his parents. By the time Littell introduces a Gestapo double-act, two police officers who have blundered in from some other book entirely and spend much of the time failing to arrest Aue (somewhat in the manner of the two detectives in the Tintin books), the book has turned into a queasy mix of the horrific, immaculately researched and unflinchingly related historical detail, and the airport blockbuster from hell. Things get much better/worse in the penultimate section, ‘Air’ (all seven parts are named for musical movements), where Aue makes for Pomerania and his sister and brother-in-law’s abandoned mansion where, alone in the cold house, he engages in a prolonged orgy of masturbation. He jacks off in bed, on curtains, on books, out of windows, outside in the snow-covered gardens. It is difficult to describe how awful this section is without quoting all  fifty pages, though perhaps a mention that he is visited by an image of his sister dead in the snow and responds by getting into a further onanistic frenzy over the thought of necrophilia should suffice to show how over-egged this cake has become.

This is a bizarre book, which evidently needed a stricter editor than it had, or possibly a stricter writer. Not only that: it’s an important book, one which starts out astonishing and manages to sustain its initial jaw-dropping effect almost throughout, for a variety of reasons. Despite my (many, major) misgivings, I can’t honestly say The Kindly Ones isn’t worth reading — and not just to see what all the fuss has been about.

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