Monthly Archives: January 2021

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

A new Kazuo Ishiguro novel is always something of an event and his latest, Klara and the Sun, looks to be no different. I’m just sorry I can’t get more excited about it. Despite their regular appearances on best-novels-of-all-time lists, I never warmed to The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go and thought, after the second disappointment, that that was it for me and Ish. But now with this new book coming out, and not much else to look forward to at the moment, I thought I would at least try to muster some enthusiasm for Klara and would give the man another chance. Well, having now read A Pale View of Hills (1982), I am afraid to say that Ishiguro’s blown it again.

Image credit: Faber & Faber/Getty Images

Like those other two books, Pale View is a memory novel. In this case, the memories belong to Etsuko, a Japanese widower whose daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide. Holed up in an English manor house with only her younger daughter, Niki, for company, Etsuko spends most of her days reminiscing about Japan. Specifically, she keeps returning to those few months before Keiko was born, when she was living on the outskirts of Nagasaki and becoming friendly with a neighbour called Sachiko. This is shortly after the War and the dropping of the atomic bomb, and Sachiko and her young daughter, Mariko, are among the many people displaced by those events. Though clearly of good stock, the pair’s straitened circumstances lead them to take up residence in the tumble-down cottage opposite Etsuko’s high-rise, and Etsuko can’t resist making their acquaintance. It’s not like she has much else to do. Still under American occupation at this point, Japan’s post-war economic miracle is yet to take hold and, though there is the sense of things changing, the country remains in the grip of old, patriarchal family values. Hence Etsuko stays at home while her husband, Jiro, goes to work.

The relationship that develops between the neighbours is a curious one. Etsuko, young and pregnant, is deferential towards Sachiko, who is older and already a parent. Yet Etsuko is far more of a mother to Mariko in these months; Sachiko is positively negligent, not seeming to mind if her daughter runs off or gets hurt and regularly leaving her to fend for herself. Sachiko is rather irritated, in fact, when Etsuko suggests they look for Mariko or offers to mind her. Still, the two women spend an increasing amount of time with each other, to such an extent that one cannot help but wonder why these memories are so preoccupying the older Etsuko. There is no great falling-out between the friends, no major drama. Why is she not thinking about Keiko, whom we never learn very much about?

By Ishiguro’s own admission, his answer to this question is not a very satisfactory one and the way in which Pale View’s final pages try to draw past and present together is far too hasty and abstruse. But that was the least of the book’s problems for me. What annoyed me most was what annoyed me about the other Ishiguros I’ve read: its self-possession. Ishiguro’s famously simple language, I don’t mind in and of itself. In fact, it works terrifically well at points, when the simplicity is concealing complexity. Like here: “Jiro looked up and threw me a glance. I put down my sewing and got to my feet.” There is so much going on between these two sentences – years of marital discord, for one thing – and yet the elision of this emotional history and the prose’s bare statement of facts suppresses all that, performing the novel’s theme of convenient forgetfulness. But when Ishiguro literally repeats the same plain sentences over and over again, it does become tiresome. This is at its worst in the dialogue, where characters will often alight on a phrase and then reiterate it several times over the course of a conversation. I see the desired effect – to amplify the sense of amnesia – but it just doesn’t work for me.

I feel the same way about the book’s structure. You can almost hear Ishiguro at times, his stage-management is so apparent. This passage comes from near the beginning:

I have no great wish to dwell on Keiko now, it brings me little comfort. I only mention her here because those were the circumstances around Niki’s visit this April, and because it was during this visit I remembered Sachiko again after all this time.

Where’s “here”? “This point in the book”, you mean? Now, I am under no illusion that I am reading a book, but for a novel trying to replicate the function of memory, this withholding of information – this wish not to dwell – simply does not ring true. That is not how memory works: we can’t choose not to think about something because it is painful. No, this is the author speaking here, not wanting to spill the novel’s secrets too soon. It smacks of the creative writing class to me.

In fairness, this was Ishiguro’s first novel, and he had just completed a creative writing course when he wrote it, but truthfully I don’t think he writes memory any better in his later books. The way in which one memory seamlessly leads to another, and often chronologically: those things don’t ring true either. At least in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro doesn’t write anything as on the nose as this:

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.

 Yes, I had got the message.

by George Cochrane

A Pale View of Hills is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

I can only liken the first few pages of this novel to a Cubist painting. I was baffled at first. Everything seemed out of place. Body parts were not where they belonged. The perspective was all distorted. More specifically, the porch-full of women to whom we are introduced did not seem like women at all, but rather collages of women. The way they “chew[…] up the back parts of their minds” with envy; the way one woman “drawl[s] through her nose”; the way they all fill “their ears full of hope”: everything is muddled.

Image credit: Virago Press/Loïs Mailou Jones

That’s how it seemed to this White British millennial, anyway. Back in 1937, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published, such phrases would have been everyday idiom for African Americans like Zora Neale Hurston, whose taste for street talk extends to writing dialogue phonetically. This can be discombobulating, too. For instance:

‘Lawd,’ Pearl agreed, ‘Ah done scorched-up dat lil meat and bread too long to talk about. Ah kin stay ‘way from home long as Ah please. Mah husband ain’t fussy.’

But, as with Shakespeare, you quickly adjust and you find the rhythm of the thing and, before long, comprehension is no longer an issue.

What might remain an issue is the prevalence of this idiom. Lesson One of Creative Writing Class tells us to avoid cliché and aphorism like the plague (oops!), to find new ways of saying things, and yet Hurston does exactly the opposite. Open to a random page in the book and you are sure to find at least a few of these false quantities. This extract has one in every sentence:

He had seen Death coming and had stood his ground and fought it like a natural man. He had fought it to the last breath. Naturally he didn’t have time to straighten himself out. Death had to take him like it found him.

Even when the idioms are new to the reader, it is still obvious that that is what they are and their novelty does not stop them clunking. So how does Hurston get away with it?

Because she’s not trying to get away with it. The institutionalised racism and misogyny of America, Hurston realises, are codified within the very language of the place, and her use of a straitened lexicon reflects and effects that. Observe how her style changes as main character Janie Crawford does. Having grown up on equal terms with white children, Janie does not initially identify as black and the freedom this affords her is apparent in the prose:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.

This is extraordinary. The way it seems to both zoom in and out at the same time, holding both the microscopic and the macroscopic in mind simultaneously: it’s like a Whitman poem.

Shortly after this “marriage,” however, Janie is married for real – to ugly Logan Killicks – and her vision is never so intense again. After a brief honeymoon period, Logan “stop[s] talking in rhymes” to his new wife and his language becomes dull, literal and idiomatic: “You done been spoilt rotten,” Logan complains when Janie refuses to chop wood. So Janie walks out on him and elopes with friendly passer-by Joe Starks to Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Ambitious and enterprising, ‘Jody’ is determined to make something of this all-black settlement and his success at doing so wins him the town’s mayorship, making Janie ‘The Mayor’s Wife.’ But this is not a blessing. With their rise to power, Jody becomes jealous of Janie, forbidding her to mix with the other townsfolk and forcing her to hide her famous locks beneath a shawl. Perhaps even more inevitably, he builds an enormous house and paints it “a gloaty, sparkly white,” making “The rest of the town look[…] like servant’s quarters.” Sound familiar?

Janie’s only coping mechanism are those stock phrases:

‘Maybe [Jody] ain’t nothin’,’ she cautioned herself, ‘but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t go nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.’

Janie “[doesn’t] read books,” we’re told in the next paragraph, and so, with no new words coming in to challenge those old clichés, she begins to be convinced by them. As a result, this happens: “She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew.” Not so many pages ago, a whole sentence was devoted to the flight of a bee; now, between one sentence and the next, twenty-four years have passed. Maybe if Janie had had a richer vocabulary, she’d have noticed.

Fortunately, after Jody’s death, Janie does find a decent man – Vergible ‘Tea Cake’ Woods. Twelve years younger than Janie, Tea Cake still has access to his inner child and that helps to unlock Janie’s again:

He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crunching aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.

I love this: how crushing and crunching become productive activities; how every sense is exercised; how dazzlingly original it all is. There are no tired sayings here. But there are, still, in the mouths of others. Towards the end of the novel, an all-white jury uses that most hackneyed of phrases – “He worked like a dog” – to describe Tea Cake, for dogs are what come to mind when they think of black people, and it reminds you all over again that the language that slaves were forced to learn upon arrival in America was always rigged against them. Doesn’t that resonate?

by George Cochrane

Their Eyes Were Watching God is published by Virago Press and is available here.

Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind

With his tenth novel, Double Blind, coming out in March, now seems as good a time as any to get acquainted with Edward St Aubyn. I am rather late to the party, I know. Never Mind, St Aubyn’s debut, was published in 1992 and begat four more novels about antihero Patrick Melrose that have collectively become one of the most celebrated series in contemporary literature. Having not had great success with romans-fleuves in the past, however, I have been hesitant to get involved with Melrose. The two I have started in recent years – Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (1960-80) and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75) – I never felt much compulsion to persevere with beyond their first volumes. So having now read St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose outing, I can offer it no higher praise than to say I can’t wait to read his second.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Timothy Allen/Pan Macmillan

I look forward to more Patrick, for one thing. At just five years old, he features surprisingly little in Never Mind, which takes place over the course of a single day. The book’s main players are the adults – Patrick’s alcoholic parents and their friends – and as these aristocrats variously ready and converge on the Melroses’ South-of-France chateau, a sense of ill-fated anticipation builds for the dinner party they are to have there that night. The way St Aubyn cuts between them is very skilfully done, alighting on such character-revealing moments each time that no other introduction is necessary and the point of view can ping-pong back and forth with impunity. When we meet David Melrose, for instance, he is hosing ants; when we meet his much younger wife, Eleanor, she is popping pills; when we meet philosopher Victor Eisen and his much younger wife Anne, they are sleeping in separate bedrooms; and, finally, when we meet Nicholas Pratt and his twenty-year-old girlfriend Bridget, Nicholas is hungover and Bridget is anticipating becoming the fourth Mrs Pratt so that she can divorce Nicholas and “get half a million pounds, or whatever.”

It helps that these characters are so similar. Belonging to a class in which difference is spurned, they are all desperate to fit in and “be conventional,” and their essential sameness is the reason why this roving point of view never jars. There is only so much time a reader could spend in one of these people’s heads, anyway; they are ugly places to be. Even the characters long to escape themselves, their bodies exhausted by a lifetime of keeping up. Here’s Eleanor:

By the time they got back to the car, the cognac and tranquilizers had come into their own and Eleanor felt her blood tumbling like ball bearings through the veins under her numbed skin. Her head was as heavy as a sack of coins and she closed her eyes slowly, slowly, completely in control.

The weight of those repeated sounds – “blood tumbling […] under […] numbed skin” – and those two sentence-lengthening prepositions make this a suitably numbing reading experience. Given how elaborate St Aubyn’s similes tend to be, the plainness of these ones is also striking. This is more typical of him:

[Eleanor] settled into her body, like a sleepwalker who climbs back into bed after a dangerous expedition.

Separated by punctuation, this simile comes as an afterthought, the external world to which metaphor gestures not troubling the main body of the sentence. In the previous passage, by contrast, the similes are right in the midst of things, hurting the sentences’ internal logic in the same way that the drugs and booze are hurting Eleanor’s internal logic.  

The constant comparison – and there are a lot of similes in this book – makes sense given the kind of characters we are dealing with. Comparison is how they police their sameness, and they are constantly eyeing and scrutinising one another to work out how to behave. So frequently, in fact, does St Aubyn compare things that his raw materials start to suffer as a consequence and the outside world begins to take on the ugliness of his characters. For instance: “The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like defeated lungs.” Naturally, all of these people are smokers, so it follows that the Melroses’ house would begin to feel the effects of all that smoke. Sometimes it is hard to believe we are in the South of France. At one point, Anne opens a door and it gets “stuck on a bulge” in the floor, as if the very ground at her feet is ill and pustulent. Yet, like the best purveyors of the grotesque, St Aubyn writes about ugliness so precisely that it takes on a kind of beauty:

His oyster-coloured complexion and the thick jowls that looked like a permanent attack of mumps were the unhappy setting for a large hooked nose with tufts of intractable hair about the nostrils.

There it is again: the tumorous, mid-sentence simile.

With such ugliness in his life, it is perhaps unsurprising that Patrick is turning out the way he is. Cruel, sadistic and a bully, he is a little David Melrose in the making, and if this book had an epigraph, it would surely be those Larkin lines: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They don’t mean to, but they do.” At least, at five years old, his body should be okay, right? Wrong. In the most memorable and shocking scene in the book, David hauls Patrick over his knee, spanks him with a shoe and then does something even more unspeakable. While this torture is going on, Patrick spies a gecko on the wall and, jealous of its freedom, “disappear[s] into the lizard’s body” to escape his own:

The gecko understood, because at that very instant it dashed round the corner of the window and out onto the wall. Below he could see the drop to the terrace and the leaves of the Virginia creeper, red and green and yellow, and from up there, close against the wall, he could hold on with suckered feet and hang upside down safely from the eaves of the roof. He scurried onto the old roof tiles which were covered in grey and orange lichen, and then into the trough between the tiles, all the way up to the ridge of the roof. He moved fast down the other slope, and was far away, and nobody would ever find him again, because they wouldn’t know where to look, and couldn’t know that he was coiled up in the body of a gecko.

A transcendent moment, the more poignant for its brevity; in the next paragraph, Patrick is Patrick again. It does not bode well for his future.

by George Cochrane

Never Mind is published by Picador and is available here.

 

Rupert Christiansen – The Faber Pocket Guide to Opera

Last month, Rupert Christiansen stepped down from his role as the Telegraph‘s opera critic. This sent me back to his 2002 book, The Faber Pocket Guide to Opera, from which I am never very far very often. I can pinpoint where and when I got hold of most of my second-handers, but this one eludes me. It feels like it’s been a long and faithful companion. And though an updated version was published in 2014, it’s the original that I have to hand.

Unless there was some terrible falling off in the intervening twelve years, I can recommend the later edition as warmly as the first. For opera hacks like me, The Faber Guide is an enormous boon. Plot sketches, performance biographies and ‘What to listen for’ in 264 operas somehow fit into a genuinely (jacket) pocket-sized format, without scrunching good prose into mere bullet points. Christiansen writes in a no-nonsense, unthreatening way, presuming no musical knowledge (his own, he admits, is ‘frankly A-level’) and appealing even to dramaturgs and theatre-lovers with no particular operatic bent. ‘Like Hamlet, there is something about Don Giovanni that doesn’t quite add up, and this is perhaps why there are so few satisfying productions of the opera’. Woah…

All opera lovers, I think, have to possess a keen sense (and tolerance) of the absurd. It’s a precondition of the art form, and it’s one that Christiansen brings out with the driest of wits. The first performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo made use of four castrati employed by the Mantovan court, but ‘Orfeo, also a castrato, was borrowed from the Grand Duke of Tuscany.’ Yet although he enjoys opera’s more farcical aspects as much as the next person, the dramatic voltage of his prose leaves his reader in no doubt about the stakes involved. Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is a role that ‘no singer has ever found easy…the nearest it gets to [a show-stopping aria] contains a killer high C that has embarrassingly floored several great names.’ In opera, Christiansen never lets us forget, the sublime and the ridiculous are rarely more than a semitone apart.

The book contains a regrettable lack of operas by women, less Christiansen’s fault than the fault of historical conditions. Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs does a sterling job of habilitating women composers whom we ought to know better; but even her subjects mostly confined themselves to solo and chamber music. Few were the theatres willing to pit their resources in a woman’s work; the Vienna State Opera staged its first female-authored opera in 2019. But one feels that Christiansen might have made more of an effort (and to be fair, he may well have used the 2014 edition to do so). The omission of Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Sofa (1957), which scandalised audiences with the first onstage sex scene in opera’s history, represents the book’s chief disappointment. And it seems that at the time of its writing, frighteningly few opera houses had even let women take the directorial reins.

It’s a touch of complacency in a book that is clearly the work of an independent mind. Christiansen never gives the impression of spouting a consensus. He has the critic’s sine qua non, fearlessness. It might be easy to rubbish a ‘glib and tendentious’ production that turns Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron into ‘a tired corporate businessman and his sleek spin-doctor’, but he also dares to be underwhelmed by some of Jonathan Miller’s work. If he uses the word ‘kitsch’ once or twice two often, it’s because productions of so many operas traditionally laid themselves open to the charge. All in all, it’s a cracking read. With the theatres closed, I hope that The Faber Pocket Guide is coming down from the shelves and coming into its own, as company for the armchair opera-goer.

by Harry Cochrane

Jude Cook – Jacob’s Advice

The idea of a Gentile convinced of his Jewishness was done (to death) by Howard Jacobson ten years ago in his wearisomely one-note The Finkler Question. Fortunately, the philosemitist in Jude Cook’s new novel, Jacob’s Advice, is not its main character and the book has many more ideas in its head than just that.

Its actual main character is the wannabe-Jew’s older cousin, Nicholas Newman – an historian of Revolutionary France. Nearing forty-five, Nick is in Paris for a year, ostensibly to work on a new book, but mainly to escape the problems waiting for him back in London. Those include an alimonious ex-wife, an increasingly estranged son and an accountant who has run off with all his money. The one thing he can’t leave behind is his health: a dodgy drug taken for “a prosaic urology-related problem” has resulted in a severe case of neuropathy and he is in near-constant pain. By way of distraction, Nick spends most of his time in the company of cousin Larry, also based in Paris, and one of the many pleasures of Cook’s novel is the repartee of these two characters: Nick chiding Larry for his twenty-year-old French girlfriend and his “Semitic infatuation”; Larry lecturing Nick on his financial and medicinal gullibility.

If this is all starting to sound a bit Saul Bellow, then I don’t think Cook would deny the influence. From its Humboldt’s Gift-esque title to its Herzog-ian narrative, Jacob’s Advice actually invites the comparison. Here is its first sentence:

My cousin, the well-known pharmacologist Larry Frost, always maintained his three favourite Americans were Jewish men: Bob Dylan, Saul Bellow and Woody Allen.

The Bellovian influence is even felt in the prose, which is impressively exuberant throughout. Sometimes too exuberant. Take this sentence from page three:

An eager, garrulous, indiscreet man with wild, dark curly hair and mobile (even manic) eyes the same colour as my own, [Larry] often appears shorter or squatter at a distance – as if he’s carrying a bit too much weight for his height.

There are one too many adjectives here, their collective music just one notch too loud. Thankfully, this superabundance of description is gradually tamed and the novel does quieten down.

It has to. Beneath its comic trappings lies real-life tragedy. Set in 2015, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack and the Hyper Cacher supermarket siege, the book depicts a Paris on edge, with armed police rarely out of frame and questions of discrimination rarely off people’s lips. An obvious Francophile, the author deserves credit for tackling so ugly a moment in France’s history – a moment that will chime with readers after the Black Lives Matter year we have just had.  

In such a moment, even Larry’s identity quest begins to make some sense – a tribe offers protection – and the novel becomes a surprisingly moving meditation on the idea of belonging. As with Bellow, the emotion sneaks up on you and there are some beautifully tender scenes towards the end, especially between Nick and his son. Here’s one:

The boy ran towards me, his arms outstretched. In seconds those arms were around my waist, my own legs palpitating. I pulled him closely into the folds of my coat in a tight embrace, my hand stroking his hair. He seemed so new, somehow, like a coin minted that morning. Looking down, he appeared to have shrunk, as if time had stopped, or gone backwards, since I last saw him.

With the tightening of the father’s embrace, so the prose tightens here, those dangling modifiers cleaving close to their parent clauses. The warm, parenthetical hug around “somehow” is also quite wonderful, blunting the rather sharp simile that follows and smoothing the passage from reality to metaphor.

Despite its intellectualism – and this is a deeply cerebral book – it is moments like this that stand out for me. Particularly now, when we are all starved of company, the pleasure of so interior a narrator as Nick escaping his self-absorption every once in a while and making a connection is a great one. A novel of both the head and the heart.

by George Cochrane

Jacob’s Advice is published by Unbound Books and is available here.

By way of introduction…

Hello, my name is George. Welcome to Bookstalling, a literary blog where I write about what I read.

There was a lot of time for reading in 2020, what with one thing and another, though it didn’t always feel like it. I raced through books like nobody’s business, picking up a new one before I’d barely put down the last. Well, I want to stop doing that, to slow things down and to think more about what I’m reading. That’s why I’ve set up Bookstalling: to pay attention.

If fellow readers get something out of this, too, then fantastic. I welcome discussion and recommendations and am always looking to expand my literary horizons. So do get in touch! I will hopefully not be the only person contributing to this blog (my brother, for one, has agreed to help), so you can expect a range of different opinions coming from this side at least.

In the meantime, here are a few of the books I enjoyed most last year. You will notice there aren’t many (if any) contemporary books, which is something I definitely hope to change via this blog.

Favourite reads of 2020

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Money by Martin Amis

Pnin by Vladmir Nabokov

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

The Counterlife by Philip Roth

Washington Square by Henry James

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

The Bellarosa Connection by Saul Bellow

by George Cochrane