Author Archives: George Cochrane

Violaine Huisman – The Book of Mother

A winner of several major prizes in its native France, Violaine Huisman’s now-anglicised debut has received predictably little coverage here. I picked it up on the strength of that half-eaten apple on its spine – Virago – but what about all those readers who aren’t so brand loyal or who need that thousand-word panegyric from The Guardian to tell them what to read? Such is our attitude to literature in translation.

Image credit: Virago

Keen-eyed readers will note my ambiguous use of the word ‘debut’. A debut what? I have kept it vague because I myself am unsure. The dust jacket calls it ‘a novel’, but a quick Google search reveals that the ‘Mother’ of the title and the family of the narrative align almost exactly with Huisman’s own mother and family – to the extent that our narrator shares a name with our author! And yet, despite its basis in fact, I agree with our copywriter: the book does read like a novel. It jumps back and forth in time; it switches tense and perspective; it has a kind of wild energy that you would never find in ordinary memoir. Making it what, then? Making it a genuine example, I think, of that most misattributed of genres: autofiction.

After a whirlwind account of Maman’s manic-depression, breakdown, hospitalisation, violence, drug-taking, devastating beauty and heart-bursting love for her two daughters, we get, on the final page of Part I (of three), an explanation for why Huisman turned to the wardrobe of fiction to clothe her mother’s story:

Catherine could only be an idea for me, an abstract notion, at best an unknown. As for the woman who had existed before giving birth to me, I had no access to her. To me, Catherine could only ever be a work of fiction […] to give shape to her I had to imagine her, interpret her. I had to become the narrator of her story in order to give her back her humanity.

This in itself, however, is something of a red herring, for, with Part II, the whole novel resets, beginning as you would expect a memoir to begin – “Catherine was born in Paris, on April 1, 1947” – and continuing chronologically from there, this time without the intercession of Violaine’s narratorial ‘I’.

Yet the section is no less authored for that, as can be intuited from its next two sentences: “April Fools’ Day! So things got off to a funny start.” You recognise, here, the extravagant use of the exclamation mark from Part I – where you couldn’t move for the things! – and, if you are as weary of all that as I was, you groan. For I wanted the novel to slow down at this point; I wanted Peter Ackroyd to take over. But no – after just a few pages of reasonably well-behaved biography, we’re off again, back on the express train of manic-depression, breakdown, hospitalisation, drug-taking, etc. It’s exhausting.

Which is not to deny the lived experience Huisman is drawing from, or to downplay the skill with which she fictionalises it. The writing is very vivid, at points, and the translation by Leslie Camhi fluent. But a book needs light and shade, andante and allegro, and for all that The Book of Mother chops and changes and claims to be a book in three parts, it is really a book of one part. It’s all allegro.

by George Cochrane

The Book of Mother is published by Virago and is available here.

Ian McEwan – Black Dogs

Writers are rarely the best judges of their own books. Take Ian McEwan, who has expressed grave reservations about his obviously brilliant Cold War thriller, The Innocent (1990), while singling out his deeply flawed second crack at the Cold War, Black Dogs (1992), as his finest work. It’s the other way round, Ian!

Image credit: Vintage

The fact that Black Dogs goes over the same ground as its predecessor is not one of my issues with it. The novels are actually very different: The Innocent a tight, linear, le Carré-esque page-turner; Black Dogs a time-hopping metafiction. The better comparison (and book) is Atonement (2001), the acknowledged inspiration of which, L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), I am certain is lurking in the background of Black Dogs, too. Or maybe not lurking: narrator Jeremy literally goes back and forth between his divorced parents-in-law, keeping the one informed of the other while collecting anecdotes for a proposed memoir about them.

This being an Ian McEwan novel, though, Bernard and June are more idea-vessels than flesh-and-blood human beings, representing, respectively, that classic McEwan dichotomy of rationalism and faith. How these former Communist Party members came to possess such different ideals is where the black dogs of the title come in. As described by a dying June to her dutiful son-in-law at the start of the novel, her encounter with these beasts on a summer’s day in France, 1946 was “the defining moment” of her life, “the experience that redirected, the revealed truth by whose light all precious conclusions must be re-thought.” “I met evil and discovered God [that day],” she says. “[The dogs] set me free.”

To this faithful transcription of direct speech, a “sceptical” Jeremy appends this important disclaimer:

Turning-points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning-point, surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory?

In other words, was June’s conversion as Pauline as she claims? Or has the dogs’ significance for her become distorted over time? There is also the suggestion, elsewhere, that she is deliberately exaggerating to give Jeremy’s memoir, and her life as described in it, a shape and “centrepiece.” Either way, what the novel is saying, and goes on to perform via Jeremy’s aimless wanderings through Europe and his entertainment of various tellings of the black dogs incident, is that reality does not conform to a three-act structure and that there is no such thing as a definitive version of the past.

This enactment of thesis – good for the brain, no doubt – does not make Black Dogs the most pleasurable of reading experiences. Divided into four discrete sections (as well as a preface about Jeremy’s childhood that has almost no bearing on the rest of the story), the novel has little to no narrative momentum, and its 175 pages feel twice that. The characters, too, test the patience, so self-absorbed are they by their personal mythologies. This solipsism is no better displayed than when Jeremy and Bernard fly to Berlin to watch the Wall come down – “History was happening” – and then spend their entire time there discussing Bernard’s marriage. Clearly, McEwan is poking fun at his creations here, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. And when, at the end of the novel, it is argued (tenuously) that geopolitical horrors like the War and the Holocaust and the partition of Germany derive from personal horrors like June’s encounter with the dogs, then we lose even the pleasure of McEwan’s laughter, he seeming to have succumbed to his characters’ myths as fully as they.

What makes all of this so frustrating is that, on a prose level, the novel is immaculate. I think we take this for granted with McEwan, but the man is incapable of writing a bad sentence. He can do description (“The face creased into the complexity of a finger print as her lips pushed across her cheeks whorls of parallel lines that encircled her features and curled round to her temples”); he can do dialogue (“Jeremy, you’re a dear old fruit, but you do talk such twaddle”); he can do axiom (“It was a myth, all the more powerful for being upheld as documentary”); and he can even do action, when he wants to, as proved by the final section’s terrifically exciting blow-by-blow of the black dogs episode. If only he hadn’t left it so late.

by George Cochrane

Black Dogs is published by Vintage and is available here.

Books of 2021

As 2021 draws to a close and this blog nears its first anniversary, I feel almost contractually obliged to do a round-up of my books of the year. So here we are: ten books, new and old (and ranked only by author surname), that I particularly enjoyed over the past twelve months. Not all of them I got round to reviewing, alas, but I include them here anyway for the sake of interest. I’d be keen to hear your picks.

Unfortunately, my copy of The Interest could not be located in time for the photoshoot.

David Baddiel – Jews Don’t Count
It is a testament to how well this book makes the case for Jewish inclusion in identity politics that I hesitate to even use so subjective and negotiable a phrase as ‘make the case’. That is, Baddiel marshals his evidence of Jewish discrimination so convincingly that I closed the book feeling that the case, too, was closed; that Jews aren’t counted and should be. A brilliantly argued polemic.

Saul Bellow – Ravelstein
In my quest to consume all of Saul Bellow, 2021 saw me read both his first novel, Dangling Man, and his last, Ravelstein. Though one is the work of a twenty-eight-year-old, the other that of an eighty-four-year-old, it is the latter that is the more vigorous, with passages as powerful as anything in Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift. Straight on the reread pile it goes.

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me
There are many things to love about Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, but, for a Billy Wilder superfan like myself, it is its reclamation of the director’s little-seen but infinitely fascinating penultimate film Fedora that I loved most. A story about a faded star of the silver screen, Fedora is essentially a creaky rehash of Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard, making it, for Coe, a sad reflection of where the director himself was at this point in his career, i.e. old, past-it and disillusioned with the film industry. But don’t let that put you off. Just as Wilder maintained his sense of humour to the end, so does Coe’s novel, which I devoured in two pleasurable sittings. No novel went down more easily this year.

Joshua Cohen – The Netanyahus
Who knew there was a rip-roaring comedy to be written about Israel’s first family? Who else could have written one but Joshua Cohen? As James Wood said in his review of Cohen’s previous novel, “his sentences are all-season journeyers, able to do everything everywhere at once. He can be witty, slangy, lyrical, ironic, vivid; he possesses leaping powers of metaphor and analogy […] his fiction displays the stretch marks of its originality.” The same – and then some – applies to The Netanyahus.   

Jude Cook – Jacob’s Advice
Though it couldn’t be more unlike a James Bond film, Jude Cook’s Jacob’s Advice gave this locked-down reader the same travel-by-proxy pleasures: of a main character flâneuring around a beautiful European city (Paris); of witty, alcohol-fuelled repartee; of a transnational romance with a preposterous age gap. Turns out I didn’t have to go abroad, after all; I just had to read Jacob’s Advice.

Iris Murdoch – The Bell
Having not enjoyed the picaresque of Under the Net, I was only persuaded to return to Iris Murdoch by the recent In Our Time episode on her. What a lesson in second chances! With its broad-church approach to sexuality and its sly send-up of middle-class mores, The Bell has as much to say now as it did when it was first published in 1958. I look forward to finding out whether her other novels hold up in 2022.

Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms
Like Ravelstein, My Phantoms is a novel that puts all its eggs in the basket of character yet is as page-turning as a thriller. Proof, if proof were needed, that plot and character are not discrete elements of storytelling but are inextricable; that if you have characters as complex and interesting as the mother and daughter at the centre of My Phantoms, then that is all the plot you need.

Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind
I’ve read two more of the Patrick Melrose books since I read Never Mind, yet neither of them delivered quite such consistent pleasure as this first instalment. Never Mind is lean, clever and wonderfully outrageous, with characters you just love to hate.

Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
There is an interesting connection between Elizabeth Taylor and one of the other authors on this list. In 1971, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was among the shortlisted novels for that year’s Booker Prize and the favourite of all the judging panel. All of them, that is, except Saul Bellow, who vetoed Mrs Palfrey on the grounds that it reminded him of “the tinkle of teacups” and insisted the prize go instead to V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free State. Well, Bellow was wrong about that. Yes, there are teacups in Mrs Palfrey, but they don’t do anything so decorous as tinkle; they crash, break and slice your hand. That’s how sharp the writing is.

Michael Taylor – The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery
Of the many myths this important exposé of British slavery punctured, the most relevant one for my reading was the myth that history books are long, dry and dull. For Michael Taylor’s The Interest is none of these things and was read at great speed and with great fascination. I really must read more history. (I actually interviewed Michael about this book for the Berwick Literary Festival. You can view the conversation here.)

by George Cochrane

Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms

Gwendoline Riley’s short, scalpel-sharp novels may not be getting longer, but they are getting heavier. It must be the weight of expectation: her last novel, First Love, won a whole cabinet of awards; and over the past few weeks her latest, My Phantoms, has appeared on countless best-novels-of-the-year lists. But will it appear on mine?

Image credit: Granta

That it has so little plot to outline immediately endears it to me; likewise that it has so few characters to introduce. The only ones I really need to tell you about are our narrator, Bridget, and her mother, Helen (a.k.a. ‘Hen’); it is their fractious relationship that is under the microscope here. Not that a microscope seems necessary at first: from Bridget’s account of her childhood in the novel’s early chapters, it is obvious where the fault lies – with Hen.

My mother loved rules. She loved rules and codes and fixed expectations. […] In conversation – or attempted conversation – her sights seemed set on a similar prize. She enjoyed answering questions when she felt that she had the right answer, an approved answer. I understood that when I was very small, and could provide the prompts accordingly. Then talking to her was like a game, or a rhyme we were saying together.

Stray off script, however, and “my mother quickly got upset. She used to clam up, as if she’d detected she was being duped, or being lured into a trap.” I like how this sentence clams up, too, its three clauses each ending with that clipped, stressed ‘p’ sound that makes elaboration impossible. Riley doesn’t waste words.  

The same is true of Bridget herself, who barely records a line of dialogue in the novel’s first fifty pages. Whether this denotes actual silence or not, the result is the same: her parents end up talking to themselves. This is most damning (and hilarious) in the chapters with Bridget’s estranged father, who is possibly even worse than his ex-wife. Take this soliloquy on the subject of Chekhov:

   ‘You do know there’s no point reading things in translation,’ he said.
   ‘Because it’s not the original language,’ he explained. ‘It could be anything.’
   ‘Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,’ he said.
   ‘What you’re reading could be anything,’ he said, again.
   I didn’t have much to say to this.

Riley is subverting our expectations of page layout here; exploiting our preconception that a new line signifies a new speaker to emphasise just how overbearing and destructive this man really is. It is bold, adventurous writing, though I do take exception – in this passage and throughout the novel – to Riley’s overuse of italics (presented here, confusingly, in roman). Good writing shouldn’t need them – should convey stress and emphasis purely through syntax – and in fact Riley’s doesn’t need them most of the time. I would hear the sneer in “point” without the slant.

The real magic of My Phantoms, though, is in the way it plays with our sympathies. These change so gradually, so subtly, that I would be hard pressed to put page numbers to it; but I suppose it starts when Bridget leaves home (which is Liverpool) and moves to London. From this distance, Bridget’s interactions with her mother are reduced to “stubbed-toe, short-leash exchanges” on the phone and an annual dinner in celebration of Hen’s birthday – distance enough for her to develop her own personality, speak in direct speech and dare to challenge her mother. Here is the first microaggression I noticed:

Once, having laboured through an exhaust-flavoured squall, I stood wet-legged by our booth, easing off my half-sodden coat, and said,
   ‘Why don’t you move your birthday? Like the Queen. You could come down when it’s less freezing cold.’
   ‘Oh. No,’ my mother said, ‘my birthday’s today.’

Again, I am impressed by the density of the writing in this passage; the way those stodgy compounds make that first sentence as laborious to read as it was for Bridget to walk through the rain; but also how much work that full stop is doing after “Oh”. Usually, “Oh” and “No” exist together in their own little sense unit (‘Oh no!’), but here they are separated. There’s something ‘off’ about that, I think; something ‘off’ about Hen.  

What that thing is Riley doesn’t dignify with a medical diagnosis. Indeed, what’s wrong with Hen may not even have a name beyond loneliness, maladjustment and frustration. The point is that Bridget doesn’t care enough to make enquiries. She has her job, which we don’t learn anything about; she has her boyfriend John, who we don’t learn anything about; and she’ll be damned if she’s going to share any of it with her ailing, isolated mother. You’d think she might at least share these things with us, though – we who took her side during all those family arguments; we who saw things from her point of view. It’s almost as if we can’t rely on her. It’s almost as if she’s… an unreliable narrator.

This is confirmed by Bridget’s dealings with her sister, Michelle. (Yes, she has a sister!) We meet Michelle in the novel’s early chapters, when Bridget is reluctantly yoked to her family, but after that she almost completely disappears until, late on, Bridget checks her phone and finds a missed call from her. “That was a jolt, to see that name, and my first thought – and the explanation I preferred – was that she must have called me by mistake.” We don’t learn any more about the relationship than this – and I’m glad. Silence is so much more intriguing than exposition – and Riley knows just when to keep shtum. The genius is in the gaps.

by George Cochrane

My Phantoms is published by Granta and is available here.

Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle

For such small books, pocket Penguins sure burn big holes. From the 80p Little Black Classics to the £3 Mini Modern Classics, I’ve bought dozens of the blighters over the years at an estimated cost of shamefully-close-to-triple-figures. More shameful still, I don’t think I have even opened half of these, and I am certain I have read none from cover to cover. In a spirit of amends-making, then, and in full expectation of receiving more of the shelf-squatters at Christmas, I recently decided to call in the rent, beginning with one of my longest-owned pocket Penguins, Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle.

Image credit: Penguin

I had every reason to fear this encounter. The title is scary enough, and as someone who has been properly scared by other of James’ stories (The Turn of the Screw, ‘The Jolly Corner’), I had no doubt that The Beast in the Jungle would live up to it. More terrors awaited me in the novella’s front matter, which states the year of its first publication as 1903 – the same year as that famously difficult James novel The Ambassadors. This was not going to be easy.

My fears were confirmed within a few pages. John Marcher is a man who, for as long as he can remember, has had the sense that “[s]omething or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.” What this “something” is or when it will come, he doesn’t know; nor what it will do when it does. “It signified little whether the crouching beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point” – which is the definite point of all good horror and why my palms were already starting to sweat at this early stage – “was the inevitable spring of the creature.”

Marcher’s only confidant on this matter is May Bartram, though what is strange is he doesn’t remember when he first confided in her. All the same, Marcher takes comfort from their encounters, of which The Beast in the Jungle is effectively a highlights package. So do not read this expecting high teas on bright lawns, or grand tours to Italy. There is none of the jet-setting of Early James here. The outside world is barely glimpsed at all, and but for a passing reference to “his little office under Government” and “the people in London whose invitation he accepted and repaid,” you could be forgiven for thinking that Marcher lives in May’s drawing room.

This interiority – a hallmark and common criticism of Late James – makes perfect sense given the subject matter. Why would a doomed man be noticing the outside world? It also, to address the main criticism of Late James, justifies the prose’s prolixity. Marcher is a man who has been thinking about one thing and one thing alone all his life; naturally his thoughts would be tortuous and confused. And it is not like James isn’t aware of this, either. For as close as the point of view cleaves to Marcher, there is, every so often, a more external, ironical voice at play. I sense it in this sentence:

This was why he had such good – though possibly such rather colourless – manners; this was why, above all, he could regard himself, in a greedy world, as decently – as, in fact, perhaps even a little sublimely – unselfish.

Someone of Marcher’s supreme self-obsession would never think his manners “colourless”; would never use so self-mocking an adverb as “sublimely.” This is somebody else talking.

It may as well be us. For we too find Marcher pompous and insufferable. Yet we also, increasingly, care for him, no more so than when his fear of the beast is replaced, in old age, by a fear that the beast may never come, that he has wasted his life waiting for it:

He didn’t care what awful crash might overtake him, with what ignominy or what monstrosity he might yet be associated – since he wasn’t, after all, too utterly old to suffer – if it would only be decently proportionate to the posture he had kept, all his life, in the promised presence of it. He had but one desire left – that he shouldn’t have been ‘sold.’

It was about this point I realised that I had been sold; that nothing dramatic was going to happen; that The Beast in the Jungle is not really a horror story at all. But I did not resent this, for what follows is one of the most penetrating accounts of regret I have ever read, and some of the most moving prose. It packs a big punch for a little book.

by George Cochrane

Susanna Clarke – Piranesi

“Exquisite,” “Miraculous,” “Spellbinding”: just some of the adjectives that clutter the cover of this new paperback of Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s much-garlanded second novel from last year. “A dazzling fable about loneliness, imagination and memory,” the hyperbole continues in the book’s novella-length front matter. It is a confident publisher that can do this; in my experience, such encomia only prejudice a reader against a book, encourage them to look for flaws that bust the consensus. It is a testament to the novel’s genuine quality, then, that I find myself unable to offer this revisionist view. I loved Piranesi.  

Image credit: Bloomsbury

At least, I ended up loving it. For I struggled with its opening chapters. In the first, we are given a tour of the House, the endless suite of statue-filled chambers in which our titular narrator resides, and my frustration here was that Clarke’s unquestionable genius for world-building is not matched by her prose, which is flat, plain and repetitive. From page five:

No Hall, no Vestibule, no Staircase, no Passage is without its Statues. In most Halls they cover all the available space, though here and there you will find an Empty Plinth, Niche or Apse, or even a blank space on a Wall otherwise encrusted with Statues. These Absences are as mysterious in their way as the Statues themselves.

No sentence is without its statues either, it would seem, though the real crime here is the fact that adjoining sentences end with the same word. Ear-scraping!

Nor does the repetition please the eye: you skim-read when prose gets repetitive. It was not long, for instance, before I stopped taking in the numbers preceding the House’s Halls (“To this end I have travelled as far as the Nine-Hundred-and-Sixtieth Hall to the West, the Eight-Hundred-and-Ninetieth Hall to the North and the Seven-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Hall to the South”); the sentences were becoming too congested otherwise. As for the absurdly long subheadings that appear every few pages or so (“ENTRY FOR THE SEVENTH DAY OF THE FIFTH MONTH IN THE YEAR THE ALBATROSS CAME TO THE SOUTH-WESTERN HALL”) – well, I stopped reading these entirely.

I did not stop following the story, though, and as soon as I realised that what I was reading was effectively a thriller in disguise, then I gave up worrying about the language and allowed myself to get lost in the generic pleasures of the narrative. On which level, even the repetition makes sense: you may detect from those subheadings, for instance, that the novel is structured as a series of diary entries, albeit ones which do not conform to a familiar calendar. This is because Piranesi is a “Child of the House,” not seeming to have known a life outside its Halls or beyond his humble regime of fishing, diary-writing and weather-reading.  

This last task Piranesi does on behalf of the “Other,” the only other living human in the House. Yet there their resemblance to Adam and Eve ends, for, unlike our guileless narrator, the Other is full of guile, manipulating our man into doing his dirty work and gaslighting him when Piranesi “wonder[s] why it is that the House gives a greater variety of objects to the Other than to me, providing him with sleeping bags, shoes, plastic bowls, cheese sandwiches, notebooks, slices of Christmas cake etc., etc.,, whereas me it mostly gives fish.” It’s a fair question, and we find ourselves asking similar ones when we see the Other “tapping at one of his shining devices.” Maybe the House isn’t the only world, after all; maybe the world as we know it isn’t so far off…

To say more would spoil things, though it’s not as if the gaslighting/amnesia tropes Clarke draws on will be new to you. What will be new to you is the novel’s portrayal of innocence. Because innocence is usually annoying, right? (Holden Caulfield I’m looking at you!) Or at least uninteresting. But Piranesi is neither of these things. He’s thoroughly interesting – and funny. Upon finding litter, for example, he responds with this peremptory delight: “I do not know who it was that ate all the crisps and the fish fingers and the sausage rolls, but I cannot help wishing that he or she had been more tidy!” Which brings me to another of his charms: his environmentalism. This is totally instinctive in Piranesi; he does not need the threat of climate emergency to make him care. Even the ugliest of the statues he loves: “Their Beauty soothed me and took me out of Myself; their noble expressions reminded me of all that is good in the World.”

Can the same be said of Piranesi? I think so. As long as you remember it’s a story, not a style guide, then I think you will be completely taken out of yourself. I was.

by George Cochrane

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

Joshua Cohen – The Netanyahus

Or, to give the novel its full title, The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. That episode, we are told in an afterword, was related to Cohen by the late literary critic Harold Bloom, who, as a young professor at Yale, “was asked to co-ordinate the campus visit of an obscure Israeli historian named Ben-Zion Netanyahu.” In Cohen’s telling, these facts are recast as follows: it is the winter of 1959-60 in “not-quite-upstate New York,” and as the only Jew on the staff of Corbin College, Taxation Studies professor Ruben Blum is asked to assess the application of that same Israeli historian and put him, his wife and their three children (Benjamin among them) up for the night when he comes for interview. They are less than model guests.

Image credit: Fitzcarraldo

Blum, meanwhile, is having family trouble of his own: intrusive parents-in-law; a dissatisfied wife; and a daughter so self-conscious about her “too long, too big, too bumpy nose” that she contrives to have her grandfather slam a door on it so she can get reconstructive surgery. This last scene is a masterclass in suspense, its climax unfurling with the agonised grace of a Brian de Palma set piece:

“OK, Zeyde,” Judy said. “I’m out of the way,” but of course she wasn’t, she just stayed where she was, kneeling at the door like some meditating monk or imam salaaming on her carpet, her face up close to the knob, and, with an exhalation, merely surrendered her hands to gravity and let her arms drop limply to her sides, so that when my brute father gathered his garment-worker strength and charged the door, the door flew open and its interior knob slammed her nose as if her nose were a spike to be driven through her face.

The novel is full of long sentences like these, though they never feel long: like Philip Roth’s, Cohen’s sentences are perfectly weighted. In the passage above, however, this facility is disarming, the lack of full stops meaning there is no opportunity to gather oneself before the horror hits. When it did, I actually winced.  

Disarming, too, is the novel’s humour. Combining the campus comedy of Lucky Jim with the slapstick of the Three Stooges, The Netanyahus leaves no comic convention unturned. This includes toilet humour: a scene in which Blum talks to his mother-in-law (oh yes, there are mother-in-law jokes, too) to the sound of his father-in-law’s excretions. These are knowingly hackneyed, I feel, and only get away with it by the quality of Cohen’s prose: “From the bathroom came the soft screech of the toilet paper being unwound, the metal dowel spinning in its socket.” But why risk cliché at all?

Because it is distracting. Because, as Netanyahu’s cartoonishly dilapidated Ford coughs and splutters its way towards Blum’s house, you are “almost made [to] forget that its maker was a Nazi.” Which is what Blum wants. He wants to forget and he wants to assimilate, confessing to feelings of shame about his Netanyahu-inspired “resurgence of interest in subjects Jewish.” Indeed, he only deigns to assess Netanyahu’s application when the rest of the house is asleep – as if his Jewishness is a dirty secret: “It was during those hours that I’d put aside my taxes and turn to the Jews. That’s what I’d say – I’d get up from my desk and stretch and say, “Time for the Jews”.” See, even when he’s alone, Blum is cracking jokes. Comedy is how he copes.

It is not the same for everyone. We know this because in chapters three and five (of twelve) we actually get to escape Blum’s perspective courtesy of two letters of recommendation by ex-colleagues of Netanyahu – and these are not comic at all. This makes the first of these letters – a hagiography of Netanyahu – admittedly rather a chore; but this is redeemed by the second letter, whose claims that Netanyahu is not only unpleasant, but a terrorist leave us not knowing what to think about the man. “I hope for your sake that the Netanyahu you meet will be another Netanyahu,” concludes this second correspondent. “I hope that he will genuinely be another, bearing no resemblance to the man I have described.”

We are made to wait to find out; Netanyahu does not turn up until more than halfway through the novel. When at last he does, though, it quickly becomes clear which letter was more accurate:

He was about fifty years old then, his face a tough nut of vaguely Mongol features, tiny olive pit eyes and absolutely enormous and fleshy oyster-shell ears, strong nasolabial folds that I’m not going to call “smile lines” or “laugh lines”, because the mouth itself was humorless, tightlipped.

The opposite of Blum, in other words. As for the children that pile out of the Ford behind their father, Yoni, Bibi, and Iddy – well, they are not much better. For one thing, they are uninvited, the babysitter having cancelled for reasons Ben-Zion and his wife Tzila suspiciously cannot agree on. For another, they are absolute horrors, trashing just about every trapping of middle-class America that Blum has filled his house with – including the new colour TV. And in fact they are not unlike TV characters themselves: “if the scene were any more animated, little dizzy cartoon birds would’ve flown around their heads in haloes.”

That Blum can joke about them in this way, though, suggests that they are assimilable. Ben-Zion, on the other hand, Blum cannot find the humour in – perhaps because he is so anti-assimilation. “What was true for Europe at the emergence of Zionism,” Ben-Zion says towards the end of his rather abstruse lecture on the history of Jews in Iberia,

will one day be true for America too, once assimilation is revealed as a fraud, or once it’s revealed that the country contains nothing to assimilate to – no core, no connate heart – not just for the Jews, but for everyone.

“This, at least, was his implication, the text behind the text of his lecture,” Blum reveals in the next sentence, again casting doubt on everything that has come before. Trust nothing in this novel.

Nothing, that is, except its quality. Maybe I haven’t got this across. I loved The Netanyahus. Difficult, hilarious and obscenely well-written, it is a novel that stretches the mind and tickles the funny bone, and it confirms Cohen’s place among the first rank of contemporary American novelists. Not so minor and negligible after all, then.

by George Cochrane

The Netanyahus is published by Fitzcarraldo and is available here.

Geoff Dyer – The Search

Knowing Geoff Dyer as a writer of brilliantly titled, slippery works of non-fiction (Out of Sheer Rage, Working the Room, Zona), I almost didn’t bother with this blandly titled, early novel of his. But I’m glad I did.

Image credit: Canongate

Well, I was glad by the end. Among the laudatory quotes on the back of my Abacus edition, one reviewer intriguingly describes The Search (1993) as a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Italo Calvino; yet there is not a whiff of my beloved Calvino until at least page seventy – more than a third of the way through. Before that, it is the most cod noir you ever read: a woman, Rachel, approaches a man, Walker, and asks him to find her missing husband. That’s it. The only jot of invention is that Walker isn’t a detective; he’s a Tracker, someone who – you guessed it – tracks people down.

Now, I’m all for genre, but genre isn’t an excuse for cliché, and I’m afraid to say there are some real clunkers in The Search. “Wind and rain howled through the window”; “Rain hammered on the roof of his dreams”; “[the train] rattled past”: these all come within a few pages of each other. An unfortunate corollary of this is that when Dyer does reach for an interesting word, it feels forced: “the sun flinching in and out of clouds”; “[he] squelched up a narrow lane.” As does his habit of dropping pronouns at the start of sentences: “He parked opposite the only place that was open, the Monroe Diner. Killed the engine and listened to the rain, the wind creaking through signs.” It’s almost as if Dyer’s trying to draw attention to the clichés…

I wouldn’t put it past him. Lured into a false sense of security (and boredom) by its oh-so-familiar surface, it took me some time to notice what was happening beneath: the world was getting stranger. I’d assumed the novel was set in America – where else do you get diners? – yet the names of the places Walker visits become increasingly transnational (Durban, Kingston, Queensland), even allegorical (Ascension, Despond), as his journey progresses. Not that it progresses very much. However far Walker travels, he never seems to get any closer to finding the husband: “whoever he was looking for was really just an excuse to propel him on his adventures.”

Readers of Calvino will be starting to note the parallels now; his genre-hopping detective novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979) also resists closure. The Calvino that The Search most closely resembles, though, is Invisible Cities (1972). In that book, Calvino dreams up fifty-five cities of the most staggering originality: like Argia, which has “earth instead of air,” so that its “streets are completely filled with dirt”; or Armilla, whose only proof of existence are “the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be.” Dyer proves no less inventive. In the city of Independence, everything is suspended in time: birds in the air; cars on the road; even, eerily, a suicide falling to his death. Horizon, by contrast, is not really a city at all, more a city-sized building, where “corridors and hallways served as thoroughfares, vast ballrooms as parks, rooms as houses.”

I just wish the novel showed this level of imagination earlier. I understand that Dyer is invoking genre conventions only to break them, but conventions don’t have to be as hackneyed and tiresome as they are at the start of The Search. So, to call on some clichés of my own now (I am writing this on the day of the Euros final): The Search is very much a novel of two halves; a late winner saves it.

by George Cochrane

The Search is published by Canongate and is available here.

Jessie Greengrass – The High House

Critics among you: kindly refrain from using the term “climate fiction”. (And don’t abbreviate it to “cli-fi”, either – that’s even worse.) For one thing, climate change is not a fiction, and for the sake of the deniers out there I think we have a duty to keep the two words as far apart as possible. Secondly, it does a great disservice to a novel like The High House, whose scarily convincing account of climate catastrophe suggests that author Jessie Greengrass may have a future in climatology if the fiction doesn’t work out. On the strength of this book, however, I suspect the fiction will work out.

Image credit: Holly Ovenden

The novel’s prologue, titled “Sally”, begins after the disaster, with the titular narrator living a hand-to-mouth existence in a house just above the new waterline:

From here I can see what is left of Grandy’s cottage, and below the half-gone pub, the village green. The rusting arc of the swing frame rises like a monument. Each year, between water and neglect, less and less of the village remains.

Sally is not alone, we learn – half-siblings “Pauly and Caro are upstairs” – and although things are hard for them at “the high house,” Greengrass’ ritualistic present tense implies that they are adjusting: “In the morning, I wake earlier than the others. I climb out of bed in my jumper and my socks and I pull on my dressing gown, and after it my leggings and my boots.” There is clearly comfort in routine – and danger. In the next chapter, titled “Caro” and told from that character’s perspective, Caro reflects on life before the floods, and it becomes clear that routine was how this all came about in the first place: the notion that “[t]he unexalted, tedious familiarity of our daily lives would keep us safe” meaning people kept on polluting.

This back-and-forth structure is nascent in the prologue’s punctuation. Observe the commas in this sentence from paragraph one; how they focus attention on the adverb and stall our reading: “My boots are beginning to go at the heels, now, but I am trying to get this last winter out of them.” Now, in the next paragraph, observe the comma at the end of these two sentences; how it sidelines the adverb: “I pour the last of yesterday’s well water into the kettle and set it to boil, put dried mint leaves in a mug, make tea. I would have had coffee, once.” This is how past and present are experienced by the occupants of the high house: the grimness of their current circumstances intruding on their every thought; the memory of their pre-flood lives growing more distant and fairy tale. It’s an ingenious use of punctuation, and Greengrass knows it: she will encase an adverb at the slightest opportunity. Yet the device never fails to have the desired effect, and I have to say it is thrilling to see our smallest units of ink being put to such original use.      

For the most part, I feel the same way about the novel’s structure. Greengrass’ realist approach to climate crisis does not lend itself to drama – the setting is England, so there are no hurricanes or tsunamis – yet by shifting perspective, jumping between past and present and breaking up her chapters into very small sections, Greengrass manages to wring a surprising amount of tension out of what are essentially “incremental alteration[s]” in weather. This fragmented architecture serves her characters well too, withholding Sally’s first proper encounter with Pauly and Caro until the midpoint so that we get to watch them grow up independently of one another. This is important. The children of absent parents, Pauly and Caro have a very strong, almost symbiotic bond (“The world with just the two of us in it was very small but it was easy”); Pauly is often to be found “curled” up in his big sister’s lap, his body perfectly tessellated with hers. Sally’s intrusion, then, inevitably causes ructions.  

The intensity of this Pauly-Caro relationship reminded me a lot of the sisters in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, another novel in which water plays a starring role. Where Housekeeping turns increasingly metaphysical, however, The High House moves the other way, towards realism – and not always for the better. The mystery of the house itself, for instance – of how it has managed to keep its occupants safe where so many have perished – is punctured when we learn that it was simply well stocked with food. Nor am I convinced by the overlapping viewpoints in these latter chapters, whereby we see the same events from each character’s perspective. That said, I like how short these chapters become, as if our survivors cannot even afford to waste words anymore. For me, and other readers I imagine, this is The High House’s most persuasive argument for environmentalism: the idea that if climate change reduces us to survival mode, then art will be the first thing to go.

by George Cochrane

The High House is published by Swift Press and is available here.

V. S. Naipaul – Miguel Street

In the most literal sense of the phrase, I absolutely do judge books by their covers, and won’t read one if its design and condition don’t meet my high aesthetic standards. At the same time, books can be too good-looking. A case in point is my mint Penguin copy (from 1969) of V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas (1961). I just can’t bring myself to read it: the cover is too beautiful; the pages too clean. Breaking its spine now would break my heart. So until I get a less precious copy of it, Naipaul’s most famous novel will have to wait, I’m afraid, and you and I both will have to be satisfied with an earlier work, Miguel Street (1959), which I do own in a dispensable edition.

Image credit: Pan Macmillan

I use the word ‘work’ rather than ‘novel’ advisedly. Miguel Street is not a novel – not really, though its seventeen sections each have the same narrator and feature a recurring cast of characters. ‘Linked short stories’ is closer (and is how Wikipedia classifies it), but even that overdramatises what are essentially just small slices of life. Major events happen – so in the first, a tailor nicknamed ‘Bogart’ disappears without trace, then suddenly reappears again months later – but they do not register as major. What sticks instead – for reader and narrator – are the people themselves:

It was something of a mystery why he was called Bogart; but I suspect that it was Hat who gave him the name. I don’t know if you remember the year the film Casablanca was made. That was the year when Bogart’s fame spread like fire through Port of Spain and hundreds of young men began adopting the hard-boiled Bogartian attitude.

Every character gets a myth like this – all just as hazy – giving them just enough background to feel embodied, yet not so much that they feel burdened by it. It’s a brilliant balancing act of characterisation, and for all their violence and drunkenness, I loved being in these people’s company.

And in this place, too. Though the stories never really stray beyond this one, fictional, Trinidadian street, nor do they feel cut off from the world, either. There’s a war on during most of them (Casablanca dates that first story to 1942), and the odd glimpse of American soldiers means it’s hard to forget the continent lurking just off-camera. Particularly in a story like ‘Until the Soldiers Came’, in which the actions of amateur painter Edward, brother of Hat (see how these stories all connect?), pass beyond Bogart’s harmless Hollywood mimicry:

He began wearing clothes in the American style, he began chewing gum, and he tried to talk with an American accent. […] To hear Edward talk, you felt that America was a gigantic country inhabited by giants. They lived in enormous houses and they drove in the biggest cars of the world.

The estrangement is complete when Edward marries a “white-skinned woman.”

She looked very pale and perpetually unwell. She moved as though every step cost her effort. Edward made a great fuss about her and never introduced us.     
     The women of the street lost no time passing judgement.

There is a fine line, in other words, between American and American’t, and Naipaul navigates it with great humour. That final sentence, which is its own paragraph, is a typical Naipaulian payoff: short, pithy and marvellously matter-of-fact.

This is a word that could be applied to Naipaul’s style as a whole. He is very matter-of-fact. Which makes the prose hard to talk about, I find. The only way to really do it justice is through quotation, so here is another passage from ‘Until the Soldiers Came’:

His favourite subject was a brown hand clasping a black one. And when Edward painted a brown hand, it was a brown hand. No nonsense about light and shades. And the sea was a blue sea, and the mountains were green.

I quote this because I feel it’s what Naipaul’s doing, too: painting in big, bold, primary colours. And because it shows off his love of ‘and’. Never has a writer got so much mileage out of this word. It perfectly suits the setting: this place of no knock-on effects; where one thing happens, and then something else happens, with no causal relationship between them; where the clock resets after each story. It’s delightfully lulling.

Yet the book isn’t entirely devoid of plot. One person does change – our narrator. We don’t learn much about this character to begin with – though the language immediately pegs him for a young boy – and for the most part, he is just a window through which we view the likes of Hat and Bogart. As the book goes on, however, our narrator’s reflection clarifies, and his interactions with others become more meaningful. One particularly strong influence on him is B. Wordsworth – B for “Black. Black Wordsworth” – a poet who writes at the rate of “one line a month”: “But I make sure it is a good line.” Under B.’s tutelage, our narrator gets his first glimpse of beauty:

We went for long walks together. We went to the Botanical Gardens and the Rock Gardens. We climbed Chancellor Hill in the late afternoon and watched the darkness fall on Port of Spain, and watched the lights go on in the city and on the ships in the harbour. [….] The world became a most exciting place.

And from here on in, his course is set. He starts to read, he starts to write, he starts, worryingly, to turn into V. S. Naipaul, who would later hold his birthplace in great contempt. Thankfully, Naipaul has the good sense to end his book before his avatar gets too bitter, so that the spell of Miguel Street is still just about intact as the curtain falls. Another page would have spoiled it, I suspect.

by George Cochrane

Miguel Street is published by Picador and is available here.

« Older Entries