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52 Books #34: A Single Man

Reissued as a Vintage Classic complete with new jacket artwork by someone who clearly hates Christopher Isherwood comes his 1964 short novel A Single Man. I’ve been reading (wading through) Isherwood’s Sixties diaries, in which he makes some — not terribly many — remarks about the genesis, composition and publication of this novel, and, it having been some time since I’d read any of his fiction, I went for this one.

I’d remembered Isherwood as a fairly stately, reserved kind of a writer. Not so, going by A Single Man. This is an overwrought daydream of a novel — or novelette, to use his preferred term, though it does suggest something absorbent in a bad way — in which recently bereaved English professor George Falconer tries to get over the death of his lover Jim, partly by seeking to get under one of his students, Kenny. This is a flippant summary, but something about this book demands hoots of laughter from the reader, so po-faced is it. Suddenly the 2009 film adaptation — directed by fashion’s Tom Ford and starring, as you will recall, a pair of glasses, an angora sweater and Julianne Moore on full scenery-chewing overdrive — seems to be almost restrained compared to the straining metaphor and overweening symbolism that afflicts the book.

This is a shame, because there are a couple of points where this book really hits the mark. I found the way George goes along with Jim’s parents efforts to cut him out of their late son’s life a moving and cleverly layered bit of psychological insight, and the relationship between George and his lush friend Charlotte is well-drawn, even if she does seem another iteration of Isherwood’s beloved Jean Ross/Sally Bowles from Christopher and His Kind and Goodbye to Berlin. (It’s hardly the book’s fault, too, that I found myself feeling the absence of Julianne Moore — by far the best thing about the Ford film — staggering around, beehived hair in a constant state of collapse.)

But the subtlety and acuteness Isherwood brings to these elements are overwhelmed by his inability to let a spade be a spade. George spends much of the book trying not to dwell on Kenny, understanding that a relationship with a student is not in his best interests, until towards the end he gives in somewhat to the boy’s advances. After they meet one night in what seems to be a cruising bar, Kenny dares Geore to join him for a spot of skinny dipping, and is delighted when his professor agrees: we see, therefore, the spark of spontaneity and fun returning to the mourning George: “I thought you were bluffing,” Kenny says in surprise, “about being silly.” There follows a scene in which your reviewer felt like cowering from the hammer-blows of Symbolism besetting him: there’s a railing they have to jump over to get onto the beach, and while Kenny easily vaults it, George is “clambering over the rail, rather stiffly”. Off they scamper into the vast “barely visible” black waves, and just in case you hadn’t picked up on the nuances, “Their relationship, whatever it now is,” Isherwood intones solemnly, “is no longer symbolic.” All these quotes are from p.132; p.133 is given over to George’s “rite of purification” in the black waves, which of course seem overwhelming and terrifying but soon wash him clean of “thought, speech, mood, desire”, and we see him and his student disporting themselves in this wonderful darkness, their mutual attraction never overtly expressed, while a couple of hundred yards away are the lights of cars and “dry homes”, going about their business entirely unawares of this delihtful jiggery-pokery in the waves: “George and Kenny are refugees from dryness; they have escaped across the border into the water-world” (p.134).

Well, quite.

Isherwood was sixty when he published this book, reasonably happily partnered, an author of note. What this book reminded me of was that other peculiar short novel by a senior man of letters, Philip Roth’s The Humbling (which I reviewed a couple of years ago): like Roth’s misstep, A Single Man reads like an overt fantasy rather than a fully worked-throuh novel. Unlike the Roth, however, Isherwood seems here to be aiming for a fable-like profundity that really doesn’t sit well with the fairly slight plot. We lose sight of the emotional centre of the book — and while that isn’t something I always feel the lack of, this book is overtly set up to be the story of what we’d call these days, horribly, the “emotional journey” of George Falconer. Instead of profundity, we get a self-parodically portentous brand of unrelenting symbolism. I hope I haven’t misremembered, but it seems to me that Isherwood is a much better author than this.

 

Other reading in Week #34:

Thierry Jonquet Tarantula (Serpent’s Tail)

Progress Report: Doctor Who Series 6 (Part 2)


This year’s ‘split’ run of Doctor Who was very arc-heavy in its first half. With some of the series’ ongoing mysteries resolved with great brio in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the opener of this second half, the episodes that followed have sometimes felt rather like elements of a different season altogether. Sometimes that has worked rather well, sometimes it hasn’t.

For instance, there’s ‘Closing Time’. Gareth Roberts’s sequel to last year’s hugely entertaining ‘The Lodger’ capers along quite winningly for most of its duration, replaying its antecedent’s laughs and scrapes with, this time, added baby, added pathos, and added Cybermen. As is common in their new series appearances, the Cybermen are a bit rubbish here, though their guest spot is aided by their more beaten-up appearance and their by now seriously addled priorities. Picking affable, loyal, stay-at-home James Corden — reprising his role as Craig Owens, the only person Doctor Who has ever addressed as ‘mate’ — to be their new Cyberleader is a new low for the race even the Doctor notes are “metal morons” — itself continuing  a long line of putdowns from their enemy: as early as 1975’s ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ they were being taunted as “a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy in an ancient spaceship” (sad fan admission: googling afterwards confirmed I can quote this line verbatim from memory). In the end, of course, Craig breaks free from the Cybermen’s bonds, saved from having his emotions scrubbed by the sound of his baby Alfie’s crying. It’s no sillier than the resolution of many other stories, and while schmaltzy in the extreme is at least at home in a very charming episode, full of lovely lines and details, and a ‘gay agenda’ subplot which will, I’m sure, have Daily Mail readers frothing while their children are roaring with delighted laughter. Making its own return to the show is one lone Cybermat, a sort of diminutive Cyber-pet last seen in ‘Revenge’, and here gnashing its way around a department store for no terribly good reason. (The Doctor stifling his whoop of joy when he catches the little silver fellow in a net is my favourite Matt Smith gag of the episode — try to imagine any of the other Doctors doing that.) In some of the spin-off media, Cybermats are revealed as Cyber-converted stray pets or even (did I imagine this?) babies, which would have lent ‘Closing Time’ more horror than its scenario could really have borne, especially as Craig puffs about with his own baby son in a papoose throughout the episode.

Of course, this is called ‘Closing Time’, and sees the Doctor visiting an old friend just before his own impending death. It’s a lot more fun than when his predecessor stood around in the snow for forty minutes looking sadly at Rose, and Matt Smith shows how good he is as he confides his fears to the baby. Off he goes for “one last trip” at the end — and suddenly we’re jolted to where newly-qualified Dr River Song is hoisted into a spacesuit by villainous Mme Kovarian and two slimy, rattling Silence henchmen. Frances Barber has evidently watched some old Blake’s 7 episodes and is trying to outdo SF’s last great eyepatch-wearing villainess Servalan — if she doesn’t shout ‘Maximum power!’ at some point in Episode 13, I’ll be terribly disappointed. This scene, which brings so many Who threads together to set up the finale, should come as a terrible shock, but instead makes what’s gone before look far more frivolous than it deserves.

Likewise, Toby Whithouse’s thougtful, clever ‘The God Complex’ is banjaxxed somewhat by its own coda, in which the Doctor drops Amy and Rory off, having decided it’s simply too dangerous for them to travel with him any more. Amy, the trollop, is distracted by the nice new house and car the Time Lord has given them (“How’re they going to pay the insurance on that on a nurse’s and a stripper’s income?” wondered a friend), while in a recent interview Arthur Darvill shows he understands his character of Rory far better than anyone actually writing him, saying that his Rory would never come pottering out with champagne glasses but instead watch his wife’s final goodbye to her best friend through the window, staying out of it one last time. Of course, no-one who’s been watching Who the last few years will be conned into thinking this is Amy and Rory’s actual final goodbye; their cameo in ‘Closing Time’ seemed an unnecessarily prompt reminder they’ll be back.

What precedes all this is, as they say, a story you won’t find any other television show doing (okay, maybe Whithouse’s own Being Human), a meditation on faith and fear, set in a chintzy, muzaky haunted hotel with worst nightmares lurking behind every door. This promised a lot in trails — the ventriloquists’ dolls, the mysterious silent clown — and in execution worked thrillingly until, I felt, Star Trek-like explanations started to materialise for the hotel’s surreal horrors. The Doctor also supplies answers without really showing his working: he correctly, through no obvious deductions whatsoever, realises that the hotel feeds on faith rather than, as we have expected, on fear; a clearer alignment with the revelation that mole-like alien Gibbis’s people have survived so long through cowardice might have helped this dozy audience member follow the otherwise improbable leap. As they did by casting James Corden as Craig, the production team still picks its higher-profile guest stars well; David Walliams, virtually unrecognisable as Gibbis, is perfect casting. There’s also an even more latex-covered creature around, a minotaur pacing the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel. Doctor Who has never had great luck with minotaurs (‘The Time Monster’, ‘The Mind Robber’) and this one doesn’t buck that trend terribly: it’s far better partially glimpsed or in distorted close-up than when it lumbers, blue-eyed and mouth agape, into full view. Like the Ood, this chap has to have the potential to be sympathetic as well as monstrous, and maybe errs a little on the side of the former. But then, ‘The God Complex’ is a story about monsters and, in some ways, the suspension of disbelief, so maybe it’s apt that it looks that way.

No such monsters in the preceding story, Tom McRae’s ‘The Girl Who Waited’: the blank corridors of the Two Streams medical facility are patrolled instead by the handbots, featureless white droids whose hidden guns and white void surroundings occasioned great nerd-forum excitement: were we in for a sequel to ‘The Mind Robber’? (For those unfamiliar with that 1968 Patrick Troughton oddball classic, in which the Doctor becomes trapped in a world of fiction, the unsurpassable Adventures with the Wife in Space blog is currently hosting a hilarious ‘commentary’ on the story.) Instead we got a story only New Who could tell, focusing on the companions while the Doctor was written out the script on a McGuffin technicality. Arthur Darvill always quietly impresses; here, Karen Gillen, playing two versions of Amy, demonstrated at last there’s more to her than an ability to quip and pout. I didn’t completely buy the gravelly older Amy, though visually well-realised with some subtle makeup, since the keystone attitude that she would come to hate the Doctor when he failed to rescue her didn’t, for me, really ring true, and seemed to be called upon to stand in place of the more nuanced exploration of what she’d been up to all these decades. (In forty-odd minutes, this isn’t practical, of course.) And while the denouement, giving Rory an impossible choice between two versions of his wife, was well-played and emotionally engaging, I didn’t find it moving, exactly. This is a story which seems to have been reverse-engineered from the final act. It has an intriguing beginning, but the wait for the pieces to be slotted into place to allow that ending is more than a little boring, not helped by the generic white-void backdrop where much of it takes place. (I also didn’t quite believe Amy would find a garden, of all things, so exciting she’d decide she was happy staying indefinitely there with only handbots and Imelda Staunton’s disembodied voice for company.)

And so to ‘Night Terrors’, Mark Gatiss’s fourth script for Doctor Who, and a sight better than his last, ‘Victory of the Daleks’. It’s strangely retro, the council-block setting being something we used to see fairly regularly in Russell T. Davies-era Who, but with a Moffat-era child-centric plot bolted onto that. Moved from the first half of Series 6, it perhaps suffers from proximity to ‘Closing Time’, which again would feature a dad’s love for his son saving the day. In ‘Night Terrors’ there’s a fairly overt gay subtext I found rather touching: when troubled dad Alex clutches his not-quite-son to him and declares he’ll love him no matter his real nature, it releases all from the confines of the wardrobe or, if you will, the closet. As well as being the most gorgeous-looking episode of this batch — stunningly coloured, creepy and filmic — ‘Night Terrors’ also boasts the best monsters we’ve seen in a while, a clutch of blundering, giant ‘peg dolls’ (was I really the only person never to have heard of peg dolls before?) with tiny features crushed into the centres of their bobbing, oversized heads, ratty ropey hair trailing lankly down their soiled costumes. Amy’s transformation into one of these, too, was a great body-horror moment.

Emotion saves the day in all these stories, and it runs the risk of becoming just as predictable an outcome as reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or ending the story with a big explosion. I appreciate that Doctor Who has got where it is today by appealing to the hearts of its audience and not just dazzling them with monsters and effects — a worthy and forward-thinking thing to do in an era of vanishing BBC budgets. But there must be other ways to solve problems than by emoting at them, and there is still a place for spectacle. Memorable new monsters have been thin on the ground this year, the Silents aside; returning baddies the Cybermen aren’t terribly well-served by ‘Closing Time’ (I’d have loved it if the Cybermats had been the chief monsters, desperate to find a suitable human to convert into a proper Cyberman to give them some sort of direction, like the Dalek in ‘Dalek’ who doesn’t know how to behave without a superior giving him orders.)

These four episodes have a problem. They’re standalone stories of the sort Doctor Who has always been about, a variety of new adventures (even if their respective conclusions are strangely repetitive). But sandwiched between the insane ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ and the slightly more restrained but very arc-heavy ‘The Wedding of River Song’ (which hadn’t aired when I started writing this post, but had by the time I reached this conclusion), they seem like they’re treading water while we wait to get to the Big Events again. This is a failing, I suppose, of lots of series which have arcs or mythology: it’s what led to people giving up on The X-Files. If you remind viewers regularly that the ongoing storyline is the ‘important’ bit, it inevitably diminishes those stories which don’t contribute to that strand. That’s why the coda to ‘Closing Time’ is annoying (and now, having seen Episode 13, since this is a show which fastidiously over explains some points while totally neglecting others, I wonder if we did really need to see Kovarian, River and the Silents at the end of Episode 12), and it’s why I feel irked to have felt these episodes were lesser Doctor Who — when in fact it’s the now baffling and overlong ‘River Song arc’ that’s really the least Whoish material we’ve seen this year.

52 Books #32: Open City

Arriving garlanded with praise, Teju Cole’s novel Open City (Faber) tells the story of Julius, a psychologist who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Manhattan. Julius walks a trail blazed by Leopold Bloom and other literary flaneurs, seeking to alleviate the pressures of his personal and professional life by walking his home city, observing, cataloguing, thinking.

Open City is structured as a novel, and there are some recurring characters and low-key revelations to be found in the last fifty or so pages; up until then, the book’s 21 chapters seem so self-contained and meditative that they could almost be read in random order — their sometimes oddly abrupt conclusions are matched in the final chapter, which ends with what I suspect is a very deeply considered and densely allusive final scene describing the numbers of birds which used to die flying into the flaming torch held in the Statue of Liberty’s hand. A wonderful metaphoric image anyway, it comes at the end of a book which is about identity and belonging, and is given to us by a character among whose many interests is birdwatching: so why is it that it doesn’t seem like a beautiful end to the book?

Partly it’s because the book is both very densely written and loosely structured. Julius’s nighttime walks round Manhattan are enlivened by no special events; when there is incident — as in a mugging which seems to stem partly from our narrator’s own naivety, his smiling greeting seeming to turn two passersby into assailants — it’s rendered in the same daydreamy way as his musings and meditations on art and his own past. It’s difficult to maintain this tone for a whole book, but Open City‘s great success is that the reader never fails to believe in this unworldly, wide-eyed, intriguing and frustrating character. Unlike some reviewers, I took Julius’s pronouncements more or less at face value — they can be fatuous and rather po-faced, but Cole didn’t seem to me to be inviting us to mock Julius.

It’s a strange, beguiling, sometimes frustrating novel, reminiscent both in its good and bad aspects of Saul Bellow, whose work I sometimes enjoy but never really love. Likewise Open City, a little too open, is easy to admire, hard to take fully to heart.

 

Other reading in Week #32:

Francis Spufford Red Plenty (Faber)

52 Books #31: Waterline

Ross Raisin’s second novel Waterline (Penguin Viking) is an exceptionally ambitious enterprise modestly delivered. No showboating here: this is a confident, quiet, wide-ranging novel that tackles the biggest of topics without being pompous or self-aggrandising. It’s by no means flawless, but there’s an awful lot to admire here.

It’s the story of Mick, a middle-aged former shipbuilder from Clydebank, whose beloved wife Cathy has died just prior to the start of the book. Mick has long since been laid off from the defunct shipyards; after losing his spouse as well as his job he goes swiftly, irrevocably off the rails. Added to this is his conviction that since his work at Clydebank brought him into contact with asbestos, he is indirectly responsible for Cathy’s death from cancer.

Grief makes Mick churlish, impetuous and devil-may-care: to evade the ministrations of his (well-meaning but, he feels, overbearing) family he hops on a coach to London where he takes a room in a B&B which doesn’t serve breakfast — a Bed — and is briefly employed in a few dead-end jobs before, succumbing to a drink habit, he becomes homeless. After that it’s a succession of dubious allies, refuges and hostels, soup kitchens, scraps and forever being moved on.

Much of the book is told in the present tense over, as it were, Mick’s shoulder. This creates a couple of problems. Firstly, while Raisin’s handling of Weegie demotic is an impressive act of ventriloquism, I felt sometimes that it had an outsider’s insistence on utilising Scots ‘patter’ at sometimes unnecessary junctures, as though to show off learning, or at least to make gleeful use of ‘the patter’. There’s one too many “tollies” for my liking, for instance. Another misgiving — very highly subjective — comes via the ‘I never heard that’ test; while Raisin’s mangling of past tenses (“I’d have went,” “that’s what I seen”) is spot-on, I’ve never in all my years heard anyone conclude a sentence with “well” (e.g., “She doesn’t understand what he means. That makes two of them, well.”) in the way that to end on a “but” (“Mind there’s my programme on soon, but.”) is commonplace. Not saying it never happens — just that it rang false to me. And no Glaswegian — I am certain of this — has ever described a group of people doing something “theyselves”: “theirselves” is the correct incorrect term. On the other hand, a general Scots outlook on life is captured extremely well, notably an innate pride; I especially liked that for Mick, his family and his contemporaries, the idea of going on benefits — “the broo” — after being laid off is total anathema, an indignity worse than redundancy, the ultimate in humiliation.

At the start of a number of chapters we eavesdrop on other characters — a work colleague, a fellow-traveller on the Glasgow-to-London coach — and the effect of these short sidesteps is disorientating and irksome. Who is the woman at the start of Chapter 21 thinking about spreadsheets and emails in a bedroom in (I assume) the airport hotel where Mick’s been working as akitchen porter?Why are we privy to the thoughts of a man sitting on a bench across the river from Battersea Power Station in Chapter 25? What links these bit-part characters — sometimes unnamed, more irritatingly sometimes given names, indicating (falsely) they will have some greater part to play beyond the couple of pararaphs in which they pass through Mick’s life — is their fixation on work, usually hated work, employment being the thing Mick most seems to miss. Are we meant to see these little thumbnails as his own interpretation, based on the blandest of visual clues, of what other people’s inner life is like? (The fact they’re usually written in standard English, rather than Scotticised, would indicate not.) If they are present simply to show how little these vignette characters think of the “tramp” they’re passing on the street, say (as seems to be the case in a coda which strongly hints that Mick has ceased to be alive, in any sense, to those around him), they smack faintly of the right-on. I don’t think a novel, however powerful, is going to jolt people out of that deliberate refusal to countenance what has got someone to the stage of begging next to a cash machine, or stealing alcohol from a supermarket; I’d venture, perhaps extremely unfairly, that the kind of people who read literary fiction of this sort already feel guilt about ignoring the homeless, and the little vignettes are therefore unlikely again to have any galvanising effect on those readers’ consciences.

The slope of Mick’s life runs inevitable downward, punctuated by the occasional plateau when he finds an ally, or safe accommodation, or even a way to mourn his wife that is somehow constructive (he doesn’t quite accept that he is grieving, much of the times; calls it, rather, being “maunderly”). Raisin takes a major risk when he has Mick discover if not a fondness for the Barbara Taylor Bradford novels that Cathy used to read then, at least, some form of comfort in reading them. Three different BTB texts — fictive or real? — are precised within the last few chapters, and the risk Raisin runs is of luring the reader into seeking comparisons and parallels between his almost too grim story and the prosaic and predictable “Barbara” stories. There are certainly points where we sense that Mick’s eye is drawn to women he meets in passing; though he never acknowledges any romantic urge — never admits to more than finding the girl in question attractive in some objective way — there is the occasional sense that Raisin is over-intent on steering his book away from a scenario where Mick might be seen to find any sort of happiness. It’s certainly consistent with his character’s refusal to countenance the possibility of future happiness, but I felt that the authorial engineering could have been carried out with a slightly lighter touch.

Waterline feels to me something like the film Dancer in the Dark, where a single random tragedy sets off a series of ever-worsening events. Dancer in the Dark is viscerally terrible, a film you watch while trying to stuff your fist in your mouth, unable to look away but barely able to watch, but it depends somewhat on people behaving selfishly and giving the decent central character no chance to remedy her situation. Waterline is far less gruelling an experience; the horror and misery of Mick’s situation is sometimes held at arm’s length, and while similar circumstances push Mick lower and lower here, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Raisin intends us to purely sympathise with Mick’s situation. I don’t think he quite does; as a comparison we have Mick’s sometime sidekick Beans, a far less sympathetic figure with a similar story (and who gets embroiled in a purely box-ticking plot incident to illustrate those horrific news stories about hooligans setting tramps on fire), and I think we’re meant to root for Mick, to feel he can and should climb out of the hole he’s found himself in.

But I felt manoeuvred towards this interpretation, somewhat against my will. The urge to tell Mick to pull himself together is strong at times in this book; he accepts the depredations visited on him with frustrating stoicism. I came away from this book faintly frustrated, too, and saddened — in more ways than one — about missed opportunities.

Other reading in Week #31:

Tim Burrows From CBGB to the Roundhouse: Music Venues Through the Years (Marion Boyars)

Greg Milner Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (Granta)

52 Books # 30: Fateless

Originally published as Fatelessness, but with a syllable lopped off for a film adaptation in 2006 (hence horrible tie-in cover; and believe me, I debated a long time in Foyles over whether I should buy this or the much handsomer Fiasco), this is Hungarian author Imre Kertész’s novel about a fourteen year-old Jewish boy, Gyuri, who is sent first to a labour camp and then to Auschwitz.

Gyuri is a curious creation — though not a curious character — and Kertész uses him to present an intriguing new take on a familiar genre, if one whose horrors never pall. Here are pointless labour-intensive tasks, trains filled with abducted Jewish families, the sadly familiar depictions of near-dead prisoners struggling to hold onto a life that has lost any meaning or appeal, simply because it’s life. All of this is coldly, meticulously recorded by Gyuri, an incurious observer, whose own experiences of the concentration camp are, except in a very literal way (there are a lot of medical incisions in this book), curiously bloodless. He’s rejected by his fellow Hungarians, and by his fellow Jews; he’s a man alone, and there is no sense of enduring solidarity with other prisoners. Gyuri’s progress from prisoner to sickbay patient feels dreamlike and detached, and has a strange tinge of inevitability about it; there isn’t much sense of personal risk, and so no sense that the irony of the book’s title (the argument between ‘fatelessness’ and ‘free will’) really has much bearing on the events on its pages.

This lack of subjective horror does not of course preclude the reader’s discomfort: I’ve yet to read any book about the holocaust which doesn’t move and terrify, and Fateless isn’t the exception. Gyuri’s affectlessness makes this book more uncomfortable; somehow one reads it feeling he’s more interested in the (internecine) structure of his sentences rather than what he’s describing with them. Reading them, you see that this coping mechanism, a form of denial, is more damaging than distancing.

And in the end, the true horror of Fateless is that, once freed, Gyuri will look back on his Auschwitz experience with something he describes as ‘happiness’. It’s a wrenching sort of twist, though again in some ways it comes out of nowhere. Similar territory is covered in György Faludy’s excellent gulag memoir My Happy Days in Hell, but in that case it was companionship and a healthy sense of the absurd, sharpened rather than quashed by imprisonment, which justified the title and conceit. While Gyuri sidesteps the horrors of Auschwitz, in no small part by failing (or refusing) to report, and thereby acknowledge, them, it is difficult to view his incarceration as positively as a period of happiness, unless happiness obtains in an enforced solitude — but the text doesn’t supply this interpretation. Despite his protestations, the reader doesn’t come away confident that Gyuri will resume anything approaching a normal life.

52 Books #29: Black Vinyl, White Powder

A slight cheat this week, as I’m only two thirds of the way through Simon Napier-Bell’s Black Vinyl, White Powder (Ebury). From the days before rock n’ roll arrived in Britain, up until the end of boy- and girl-bands’ domination of the charts, Napier-Bell traces a history of musical movements over five decades. He has two emphases: as the title suggests, his thesis is that the music industry and the drugs trade are interwoven inextricably, and he gleefully relates tales of excess and depravity which would turn some readers’ hair white. For every familiar anecdote (the police’s 1967 raid on Keith Richards’ house after a tip-off from the New of the World — nothing much changes) there is something eye-opening (Roger Waters’s unpleasant gift to an enraptured fan at a Pink Floyd gig).

To tell his history, Napier-Bell calls in quotes from innumerable artists, producers, writers and even someone who is styled a “rock n’ roll psychiatrist” which conjures up an intriguing mental image, as well as the feeling that almost every performer who merits mention in this scabrous history could have done with the ministrations of such.

His other unifying strand is his concentration (very useful for me, doing research on a piece which is in some ways similarly themed) on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the record industry. From Dave Clark deciding in the 1960s to undertake his own management — and by doing so earn twenty times more money from each record he sold than did, say, any of the Beatles — to various other musical trends chiefly engendered by record-company execs: punk being a signal example, as Malcolm McLaren sought to artifically change the music business and, by doing so, profit from that change, BVWP is as much a depiction of the changing role of managers and producers as of the stars. Not surprising, then, to read that singers were originally seen very much as the poor relations of the people actually ‘making’ songs — very far from stars, a singer was a disposable and replaceable commodity, at least until the rise of performance-based TV shows focused attention away from ‘songs’ (which could be, and were, recorded by four different acts, each on a different record label, and performed by any number more), towards the people who sang them.

Napier-Bell becomes a music manager himself, and manages the Yardbirds for a time; among his other achievements — which are somewhat downplayed in this book, perhaps because he has two other books available — is to have co-written the English-language lyrics to Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’. He was also, according to some other texts, unwittingly instrumental in Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s suicide, though he draws over this a veil which may be sensitive or may simply mean he’s written more elaborately about the events elsewhere. He’s open enough to describe spending a year abroad for tax-evasion purposes, and while I’ve no doubt that this book is in part a record-straightening exercise, he doesn’t overtly try to play up his own influence.

One letdown that is outwith his control is that the book, published in 2001, could use a tenth-anniversary update which expands and comments on his prognostications in the final chapter for the coming years. But there is still a record business — or a music industry, to be more accurate — which there might not have been, and it’s fairly obvious that its business model still relies to a great extent on the money-making strategies (greatest hits albums and compilations) it devised some time ago. Meanwhile, Napier-Bell and his interviewees make cagey bets about the emphasis shifting back onto songs rather than performers — a very different retread of the 1950s scenario where people just liked (say) ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ without really caring which of the many acts happened to be performing it. The song, rather than the single or the album, is the default unit now, and I’d be intrigued to read Napier-Bell’s comments on that transition — plus there’s the fact that the text doesn’t cover Napster, MP3s, iTunes/iPods or, of course, Radiohead’s experimental ‘pay what you want’ selling of In Rainbows. (Not, I suspect, that anyone — even a commentator as Napier-Bell — can fully assess, even four years on, what effect that has had on the industry.)

Napier-Bell’s prose is workmanlike, unshowy and clear. He isn’t well-served by his publishers, sadly; commas, for instance, could do with being sprinkled over the pages like the cocaine on Noel Gallagher’s cornflakes. Neither, sadly, is the text 100% accurate: much though Napier-Bell bemoans the fact that Sade was far better-known overseas than in her home country, I for one am fully aware that she never released a single entitled ‘The Greatest Taboo’; and if you’re going to namecheck the vastest media conglomerate in the world, it might have been an idea to google whether it’s spelled Bertlesmann or Bertelsmann. This raises the possibility that a lot more is misremembered, poorly fact-checked or just plain wrong than just a song title here or there, and detracts from an otherwise engaging, always entertaining survey.

*

Other reading in Week #29:

Tony Judt Ill Fares the Land (Penguin)

52 Books #28: The Stranger’s Child

Alan Hollinghurst, whose last novel The Line of Beauty won the 2004 Booker Prize, returns with The Stranger’s Child (Picador), a huge and largely engrossing novel that tells, in five discrete but interlinked sections, a secret history of England in the twentieth century, from before the First World War to the age of emails, mobile phones and civil partnerships.

We begin in 1913, with the Sawle family and the visit of the young poet Cecil Valance to their Middlesex home. The youngest Sawle, Daphne, a precocious girl of the Briony Tallis school, becomes obsessed with their guest, but it’s on his friend and fellow Cambridge student, Daphne’s elder brother George, that Cecil is focused. The relationship is teasing and touching; in the setting (chronological and geographical), the tone and even some of the details, E.M. Forster shines through, even down to the homoerotic bathing scene straight out of A Room with a View. Cecil writes a poem for Daphne, ‘Two Acres’, named for the Sawle family home and seemingly addressed to her (he has also kissed her, to her pleasure and discomfort) but clearly alluding to his friendship with George.

This section is the key to the rest of the book: we are shown, relatively straightforwardly, with few elisions, what ‘actually happened’; the remainder of the book follows the descendents and pursuers of these characters, who will spend cumulative decades trying to piece together the facts we have been give, influenced and obstructed by their own politics and prejudices.

The Stranger’s Child is structured around the changing fortunes, over the next hundred-odd years, of Daphne, of the poem ‘Two Acres’, and of the homes of both the Sawles and the Valances. The latter, Corley Hall, is chiefly described in terms of its “jelly-mould domes”, a phrase Hollinghurst’s characters use so often and so rapturously it starts to take on the air of some absurd in-joke. (It probably didn’t help that I didn’t look up exactly what “jelly-mould domes” are until after I’d finished the book — not that the Google results proved all that helpful.) The house is variously coveted and despised, with one owner determined to disguise the period features, a potently symbolic mission in a book all about revelation and concealment.

In the second part, we skip ahead to 1927. Cecil is dead, killed in the trenches, and a would-be biographer, Sebby Stokes, has come to interview the family members. Daphne has married Cecil’s older brother Dudley; George has married Madeleine, a marriage we sense raises more problems than it solves (‘The thing about seeing George with Madeleine was it made you fonder of George’, decides Daphne, a double-edged kind of compliment (p.139.)). A country-house story of misunderstandings, thwarted romances, mysteries and seductions plays out over the next hundred-off pages, and makes for the book’s most engaging and straightforwardly enjoyable section.

As we progress, it starts to become apparent that Hollinghurst’s prose is aiming for what might be called “maximalist precision”, or referred back to Hollinghurst’s beloved Henry James. Although his characters’ motivations may be murky and their (self-)deceptions take time to be revealed, there’s no room for ambiguity in the prose, the text qualifying and elaborating every character’s utterance, almost without exception. Here for instance is a snippet (pp.149–50) of George talking to the valet, Wilkes, about Sebastian Stokes’s interviews with those who knew Cecil:

‘You probably knew [Cecil] better than anybody.’

‘It’s true, sir, in some ways I did,’ said Wilkes modestly, and with something else in his hesitancy, a hazy vision of all the people who nursed the illusion of ‘knowing’ Cecil best of all.

‘Lady Valance made it clear at luncheon that she wants as full picture of his childhood years,’ said George, with a hint of pomp. […]

Wilkes’s pink, attentive face absorbed the idea of this new kind of service, which would evidently be a very delicate one. ‘Of course I have numerous memories,’ he said, rather doubtfully.

‘Cecil always spoke of you with the utmost… admiration, you know,’ said George, and then put in the word he’d just dodged, ‘and affection, Wilkes.’

Wilkes murmured half-gratefully, and George looked down for a moment before saying, ‘My own feeling is that we should tell Mr Stokes all we can; it’s for him to judge what details to include.’

‘I’m sure there’s nothing I wouldn’t be happy to tell Mr Stokes, sir,’ said Wilkes, with a geniality close to reproach.

And so — with a pause, a guarded look, the air of confidences and secrets hinted at and rarely put into words — on.

Obviously this is designed partly to demonstrate the class-related awkwardnesses between the two characters (and after the first section, very few pairs of characters are from exactly the same shade of class). But the effect is somewhat like having someone tell you a joke and then explain every subtlety of the setup and punchline. It’s difficult not to feel that The Stranger’s Child gets much of its heft — nearly 650 pages — from this unwieldy accretion of detail. It also ensures that the occasional irruption of a less heightened English has rather a bathetic effect: after the aforementioned nude bathing scene, Cecil swaps hats with George, ‘whisking his green tweed cap onto George’s bigger, rounder bonce’ (p.84), while on p.178 Daphne  stumbles away from an awkward meeting into ‘the hall, where the grandfather clock was now mellowly stating the time […] with no sense of the mortifying scrumple of her feelings as she hurried to the front door’. (Hollinghurst is also not above resorting to well-worn formulations: one character finds a thought unspoken “on the tip of his tongue”.)

The middle section is set in the 1967, when Corley Hall has been transformed into a boys’ boarding school, and describes the sweet, tentative relationship developing between Peter, one of the teachers, and Paul,  a bank-teller new to the area. Here I had the sense Hollinghurst was treading water: the influx of new characters wrenches us away from the engrossing Valance/Sawle history of the first two parts, and is heralded by an infuriating list of supporting figures on the first page of the section. (The nice man at Clerkenwell Tales,  where I bought my copy, was halfway through reading the novel and described the difficulty of keeping tabs on all the madly proliferating characters: I assume he’d just read this bit.) Paul more or less tells the reader directly to pay close attention, as he has, to the names of his co-workers, because of  ‘the need to tell them apart. Heather Jones and Hannah Gearing; Jack Reeves, the chief cashier; Geoff Viner, the second cashier [and] Susie Carter, a good-natured chatterbox, who was off today, attending a funeral in Newbury.’ (p.245.) For all we know, the funeral might as well have been her own, since if she is even mentioned again in the text this information has long since drifted out of mind, even despite the egregious ‘good-natured chatterbox’ description.

By now Cecil’s ‘Two Acres’ poem has been set to music, and is performed at a recital as a birthday treat for the now septuagenarian Daphne. On her third marriage, she’s now simply Mrs Jacobs; the link to her family has gone from her name, but the poem survives, and there’s a delightful subtle sense of how much she resents that it, unlike its writer and its intended recipient, will not die.

It’s a bold thing – bolder than many writers seem to think, given the frequency such devices are employed in literary fiction nowadays (Adam Foulds, Barbara Kingsolver and the recent glut of books featuring Leonardo Da Vinci come to mind) – to insert a fictive character into a real-world framework, and Hollinghurst is careful and conscientious in the way he weaves Valance into ‘history’. Unlike the much-lauded cameo appearance of Mrs Thatcher – ‘The Lady’ – in The Line of Beauty, ‘real people’ make no appearances here, being at most referred to by name (Forster, to whom, this reader feels, Hollinghurst views himself natural successor, is mentioned; Rupert Brooke is used as a comparative figure both for his work and his looks, Cecil being neither as ‘neurotic’, ‘talented’ nor as beautiful; the Bloomsbury writers are occasionally invoked, though Cecil ‘just misses’ that period). This works rather well, partly because Hollinghurst has chosen to make Cecil first a rather minor and then a rather neglected figure, very plausibly designed as ‘a first-rate example of the second-rate poet who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters’, rather than a huge star, whose work comes, over time, to be dismissed as a rather idealised depiction of pre-War England which only gained widespread renown because the War so utterly shattered it.

While the blooming nervous relationship between the nervous, parochial Paul and the more worldly Peter is sweet and well-drawn, the work of a supreme observer of human behaviour, it seems irrelevant to the flow of the book; only when Peter, musing on the old-fashioned memoir of Cecil Valance which Sebby Stokes ultimately produced, has a notion of writing his own life of the poet (whom he doesn’t much rate), do we see the direction Hollinghurst is taking us. It’s also a peculiarly anodyne vision of the time for a writer whose 1913 and 1927 came alive so clearly; despite the occasional mention of Chelsea boots or the Sexual Offences Act, I had no sense that these scenes could only have taken place in 1967 (at least until characters go to a nightclub and start jiving – which itself seems to strike a slightly dud note); even the circumspection of Peter and Paul’s courtship could be down to Peter’s schoolteacher profession more than to the mores of the time.

In any case, we see little of Peter after this section, and it’s Paul, the bank-clerk, who ends up writing the biography. In Part Four, set in 1980, we see him diligently researching – or, rather, being prevented from researching – Valance’s life. The charms of this section derive mainly from its insights into a recognisable literary world (there’s an affectionately acerbic description of Paul’s visit to the TLS offices, where Hollinghurst used to work), the interest one takes in reading about another’s work, in this case Paul’s research, and the extracts from various books characters have written which seek to refigure the events we have previously seen in Parts One and Two according to the axe each author has to grind. Part Four also contains the only joke I was able to identify in this novel, a book which has wit and charm but little in the way of humour, as Paul searches a stack of review copies of books for useful material: ‘Paul saw a promising mauve cover deep down, gay books keeping generally to that end of the spectrum, but when he dug it out it was a survey of historic thimbles, which wasn’t quite gay enough.’ (p.419, and bonus marks for satirising publishing and literary reviewing, as well as sneaking in the fact that the word ‘gay’ has reached common use by 1980.) Daphne once again recurs here, aged eighty-three, enduring and obstinate, accompanied by the nervous and significantly unmarried Wilfrid (a character seemingly modelled in part on Toad of Toad Hall), both of them determined to obstruct and misdirect hapless Paul’s investigations.

Meantime, the ‘maximalist precision’ of The Stranger’s Child goes for broke, as Hollinghurst lavishes almost an entire page of description (p.501) on a hotel-room tray of coffee (‘the pitted metal pot with the untouchable handle, the bowl of white sugar in soft paper tubes…’) and a plate of biscuits. Very few nouns in this book come unencumbered by adjectives, and when the reader encounters the phrase ‘the rebarbative ginger-nut’ (surely soon to be a band, a song, or the villain of a confectionary-themed children’s TV show?) we are surely in the realm of self-parody. It only gets worse, though, as Paul finds himself ‘touched for a moment by a sense of the inseparable poverty and consistency of English life, as crystallized in the Peek Frean assortment box’. Really? Really? At that same moment, your reviewer was gripped with speechless rage at the sheer inanity that swells this book and which belies my hope that people no longer judge the quality of a book by its page-count. The problem, too, is that in the work of an author who really does not write comedy, this biscuit-tray portentousness, intended maybe as a bit of a lark, just looks foolish.

Back to the plot, and the full extent of Paul’s early hunches about the family’s Dark Secrets™ are made clear only in the final section, set in 2008 and seen from the perspective of yet a new character, a long ex-lover of Peter Rowe’s, and set in part at Peter’s funeral. By this time his book – improbably, for a biography, entitled England Trembles – has been and gone, its revelations have shaken the families involved, and the reader is left in the predictable situation of having none of Paul’s ideas explicitly confirmed or denied. The Secrets of the Valance and Sawle families are rather tediously ‘literary’, and are hinted at by the title – it’s ‘revealed’ that various children of various generations are were fathered by men other than those their mothers married: either ‘queer’ men (Cecil fathering a child assumed to be his brother Dudley’s) or straight men standing in, as it were, for husbands who proved to be gay themselves. (Most people are bisexual in this book, whether they think of themselves that way or not; Daphne explictly rejects another woman’s come-on, but is almost alone in her ‘straightness’.) The problem with these kinds of revelations – a very Victorian problem – is that nothing is ever truly unexpected (space aliens did it!) and we’re long past the point where extramarital affairs among the upper-middle or lower-upper classes make for a shock twist in a novel, even one as stolidly old-fashioned in its construction as The Stranger’s Child. What’s more, the text’s refusal to confirm whether or not Paul’s findings are correct suggests to the reader that Hollinghurst well knows this.

This final part contains a number of further twists, in addition to the conclusion of the recurrent tropes regarding social mores and manners (civil partnerships have been legislated; a man can casually be described as another’s ‘husband’; fifty years of progress have had concrete, pleasing outcomes). One shows Cecil up as more of a scoundrel than we had suspected, and undermines the romantic and sensitive relationship between him and George in the opening part of the book (Part Five’s narrator, Rob, who has no direct link to the Sawle/Valance continuum, views George, somewhat surprisingly, as ‘a cold fish’). In another throwaway line we hear that Paul Bryant became a writer after being fired from his bank job, which is cue for (a) a plaintive cry of ‘So what?!’ from the reader; and (b) great irritation at the fact we had to put up with all that sodding bank-clerk stuff in the first place. ‘There was more, much more’, we are portentously warned, to Rob’s attendance at Peter Rowe’s funeral than simply (he’s a dealer in second-hand books) wishing to buy Peter’s library, a claim rather belied by the scant forty pages left of the book, and indeed by the fact that by this late stage The Stranger’s Child is coasting along on an empty tank, knocking over bollards marked ‘tie up the loose plot threads’. If there was ‘much more’, my interest had waned such that a shock revelation must have passed me by completely.

A third of the way in – before the invasion of the bank staff – I was so engrossed by this book that I was ready to forgive Hollinghurst all the things I’d disliked in his work previously (principally, the fixation on class, which I’m far less interested in than he is, though his dedication to teasing apart the microscopic subtleties of class differences is second to none). By the end, it was back to my usual feeling of ambivalence. He’s an extraordinarily talented writer, an acute observer, and a demon plotter (even if the results of that plotting – the Dark Secrets of parentage – are less enthralling in this book than I feel they should have been). On the other hand, the unremitting lavishness of his prose can be stifling (remember — as though anyone could forget — the rebarbative ginger-nut), the chronological leapfrogging of the five different sections here makes for a disjointed novel whose second half doesn’t compare to its first, and the intended plot-revelation fireworks in the last fifty or hundred pages fizzle rather than thrill.

What he does do is firmly, unapologetically and rather subtly, I think, move things forward. By 2008, when Hollinghurst has shown the reader what has bloomed in the near-century since 1913’s cloistered and secretive world, we have civil partnerships, men dating men as openly as men date women, vastly increased racial and sexual equality. The Guardian’s compendium of reviews of The Stranger’s Child concluded, perhaps rater unfairly, with a snippet from a gushing review in Country Life, of all publications. Interesting, the Guardian highlighted CL’s reviewer declaring this novel had ‘more charm’ than The Line of Beauty since it was not, ‘thankfully, nearly as graphic’ as the earlier book, despite again featuring its author’s ‘regular hobby horse, gay politics’. At Peter Rowe’s funeral, when mention of civil partnerships is made, ‘[t]here [is] a sort of yearning in some of the older faces not to be startled by it’, and Paul Bryant is glad ‘to see the gay subject… brought home here under the gilded Corinthian capitals of a famous London club’ (p.535). Ignorance and insensitivity still need to be challenged, even in the gilded pages of Country Life; and if this novel makes its points less forthrightly than some of his previous ones, it remains the case that few authors challenge orthodoxies quite as sweetly and sophisticatedly as Hollinghurst does in The Stranger’s Child.

Other reading in Week #28:

Lester Bangs Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (Serpent’s Tail)

Robert Coover Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid (Penguin Modern Classics)