Author Archives: George Cochrane

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.

John le Carré – Call for the Dead

George Smiley: a character I’ve encountered many times on screen and radio, but never actually on the page. Yes, Call for the Dead is my first John le Carré novel, and at the risk of giving “the game” (as Smiley would call it) away too soon, all I will say for the moment is that it won’t be my last.

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Image credit: Matt Taylor/Penguin

My impetus for reading le Carré now, of course, is his recent death, or rather the glut of tributes that followed his death about how great a novelist he really was. I don’t know why I ever doubted this – probably because of some ingrained snobbery about spy novels, I suspect – but when I saw the eulogies of John Banville and the like (“As a writer [le Carré] transcended mere genre, showing that works of art could be made out of the tired trappings of the espionage novel”), then I knew I had to give him a go. And what better place to start than where it all started? Published in 1961 while its author was still in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Call for the Dead was le Carré’s first novel and Smiley’s introduction to the world.

I’d be interested to know how the world responded. This reader, for one, was rather surprised by the book’s opening paragraph:

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

When I read this, I thought maybe I’d picked up a Muriel Spark novel by accident: the antique adverbs, the gentle satire. This was not the hard-boiled prose I’d been anticipating. I never got that. When le Carré’s tough, it’s rarely down to an austerity of style: “The witnessing of death in war brings a sophistication of its own; but beyond that, far beyond, is the conviction of supremacy in the heart of the professional killer.”

The effect of this floridness is a kind of detachment, a key word in Call for the Dead and a defining characteristic of Smiley. Here is chapter one’s account of his years in Germany as an MI6 recruiter:

It intrigued him to evaluate from a detached position what he had learnt to describe as ‘the agent potential’ of a human being; to devise miniscule tests of character and behaviour which could inform him of the quality of a candidate. This part of him was bloodless and inhuman – Smiley in this role was the international mercenary of his trade, amoral and without motive beyond that of personal gratification.

He has softened since then – the marriage to Ann – but not much. Now in his fifties and a bachelor once again, he is just as disinterested as ever, so that even when he is implicated in the suicide of a suspected commie spy, he is able to separate his personal connection with the case from his professional responsibilities and give it his full, dispassionate attention. In another life, he’d have been a great killer.

But this is not Bond. Emphatically not. In fact, there is a moment just before the final confrontation – when Smiley considers bringing his gun, then decides against it – that can only have been a nod to Fleming: “Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.” A frightful row, and a whole lot of paperwork, no doubt. Spying is not glamorous and, as it transpires, the case is rather small fry. This is all to the good. At barely 150 pages, Call for the Dead is taut and tight and had me heading straight to Amazon for the next Smiley. The game is only just beginning.

by George Cochrane

Call for the Dead is published by Penguin and is available here.

Lisa Harding – Bright Burning Things

This is the third time I am writing about contemporary Irish fiction on this blog, and if I didn’t quite have the confidence to say it in those reviews, then reading Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things has given me the confidence to say it in this one: Irish literature is in a very good place right now.

Image credit: Evgenij Yulkin/ Stocksy United/Bloomsbury

This is more than can be said for the novel’s protagonist, Sonya. As if being a single mother to a boisterous four-year-old wasn’t hard enough, Sonya is also an alcoholic, and when we first meet her on a Dublin beach, the two are mixing dangerously:

The fever builds and I find I’m stepping out of my trousers and pulling my T-shirt over my head, dropping them in a puddle at my feet before I sprint towards my boys [son Tommy, dog Herbie]. My imp is waving, beckoning me into the shimmering water. Hello, Elation, you spangly bitch.

“[L]ethal and irresistible,” this imp functions as a kind of shoulder devil throughout the novel, urging Sonya to drink and lash out at the worst possible moments. In the same scene, for instance, she confronts an old lady who has quite rightly pulled her up for leaving Tommy alone on the beach:

‘Is there someone I can call?’ Her voice a hag’s voice. I knock the phone out of her hand and grab my son from her arms, which are stick-thin with loose swathes of skin. Feel repulsed by this old woman: her proximity, her bossy intrusion into our happy, happy world.

Harding will often drop her pronouns like this, so that her first-person verbs almost read as imperatives – as if Sonya is telling us to “[f]eel repulsed by this old woman.” It is very confrontational writing.

Maybe too confrontational at times. The first fifty pages or so are less a stream, more a torrent of consciousness, and Harding’s relentless present tense means there is little by way of backstory to soften this. Something that does emerge in these pages, though, is the fact that Sonya was once an actor. Quite a successful one too, and although she is under no illusion that her career is over (“failed actress, failed mother”), what she hasn’t quite let go of is the sense of an audience watching. It’s there in the beach scene, this feeling that she is constantly under scrutiny, is always having to perform, so that, later, when her father stages an intervention and tells her “you have a problem with alcohol,” Sonya takes it more like a bad review than a hard fact:

How dare he waltz, jive, shimmy, slink – no, shove – his way in here after all this time, with his disdain and his arrogance, telling me what I am, who I am, what kind of a mother I am.

Thankfully, she does listen in the end and, faced with the prospect of losing Tommy to social services, she agrees to go to rehab. Thus begins Act Two and a whole new kind of performance, as Sonya learns to cope without alcohol and live without Tommy.

For all the flashiness of Act One, it was this second section that really impressed me. As Sonya detoxes, so the prose detoxes too, both becoming a little more grounded:

I’m back in my body, heavy and exhausted, shins sore. No sign of Lady Madcap now. I walk, slightly limping, heart thumping. Try to gather the disparate parts of me. I draw on everything I’ve learned in here. Feel the ground beneath my feet, look around me, try to see, to really see, what is really here: the shedding trees, the leaves underfoot, the murky sky above.

Maybe it’s the short sentences, the repeated sounds, but there is definitely more weight to these words. As there should be. After years of light-headedness, Sonya is finally returning to earth, is finally grasping the gravity of her situation. She really could lose Tommy and, if sobriety is the way to avoid that, then she knows it’s a price worth paying.

For this, we forgive Sonya anything. For all her faults – and she has many – her love for Tommy is undeniable, and her hotheadedness is largely just protectiveness. Even at Sonya’s worst, they are a tight little unit, with their own private language they communicate in. As far as Tommy is concerned, for instance, Sonya is “Yaya”, “a name he concocted in response to me calling myself Sonya at times, then other times Mama, and his little head got confused.” The dog, too, gets all sorts of names – “Herbie”, “Hewbie”, “Woofter” – in a way that dog owners will undoubtedly recognise. I was less convinced by Sonya’s relationship with her father and stepmother, which did need more backstory I felt. But I’m nitpicking. Bright Burning Things moved and thrilled me immensely, and what more can you ask of a novel than that?

by George Cochrane

Bright Burning Things is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.

Martin Amis – Heavy Water and Other Stories

I know it’s passé to like Martin Amis but I do. The first Amis I read was Money (1984), and if you’ve read that novel you’ll know that, for better or worse, that’s not an encounter you’re likely to forget. For me, it was all positive: a junk-fuelled wonder of voice and vocabulary that had me laughing throughout. I’ve been less dazzled by his other novels, but who wouldn’t be after such an introduction? What has never failed to delight me, though, is the non-fiction. Amis is a terrific essayist and reviewer – forthright yet unpretentious – and his collections The Moronic Inferno (1986) and The War Against Cliché (2001) are essential reading for any budding scribbler. In my eagerness for more short-form Amis, then, I turn now to this, his second book of short fiction, Heavy Water and Other Stories.

Image Credit: Vintage

It’s more a collection than a book. Published in 1998, Heavy Water draws together nine stories dating back as early as 1976 – and it shows. Like the pre-Money novels, the pre-Money stories find Amis still fishing for his style, still very much under the influence. So with ‘Denton’s Death,’ the oldest story here, we get Amis trying Kafka out for size:

Suddenly Denton realized that there would be three of them, that they would come after dark, that their leader would have his own key, and that they would be calm and deliberate, confident that they had all the time they needed to do what had to be done.

Another apprentice work is the title track, ‘Heavy Water,’ about an elderly woman caring for her intellectually disabled son during a cruise. A tragicomic chamber piece, the story makes its confined setting a microcosm of society at large, in this case England circa 1977:

This year […] the cruise operators had finally abandoned the distinction between first and second class. A deck and B deck still cost the same amount more than C deck or D deck. But the actual distinction had finally been abandoned.

The result is oddly old-fashioned, the sort of story Angus Wilson might have written in the ’50s. But I can’t deny it moved me: the mother’s forbearance, the son’s sadness. Not what you expect when you open a book by Martin Amis.

What you expect is a story like ‘State of England.’ Its protagonist, Big Mal, is a classic Amis grotesque. A bouncer-turned-petty criminal, Mal “is built like a brick khazi: five feet nine in all directions” and is currently nursing “a shocking laceration on the side of his face.” This he got, hilariously, while attempting a clamping scam on some operagoers’ cars and getting caught in the act: “it must have been decades since he had been with a rougher crew,” he explains to his estranged wife Sheilagh. The occasion of this marital meeting is their son Jet’s school sports day, where the real competition is happening on the sidelines: “The dads: half of them weren’t even English – thus falling at the first hurdle, socially.” An outed philanderer, Mal is even lower on the pecking order and finds himself cold-shouldered by the other parents. In response, Mal does something we all recognise – turn to his mobile phone: “With a mobile riding on your jaw you could enter the arena enclosed in your own concerns, your own preoccupation, your own business.” Well, we recognise this now; but it seems a very percipient observation to have made back in 1996.

Amis proves himself an acute observer of other aspects of society: of LGBT issues in ‘Straight Fiction’; of algorithmic living in ‘Let Me Count the Times.’ In the later ones, though, Amis’ greatest inspiration is unfortunately himself. Too often he slips into self-parody. I return to ‘State of England’: “Bouncing wasn’t really about bouncing – about chucking people about. Bouncing was about not letting people in. That was pretty much all there was to it – to bouncing.” Amis is famous for this kind of wordplay, and gets away with it in the novels, I think, because novels are elastic and capacious and can take it. In a short story, however, every word needs to count, and so when Amis starts to riff like this, the work suffers.

It is no coincidence, then, that the best story here is also the most rigorously structured. Inverting the worlds of poetry and film, so that poetry is a big bucks industry and “screenplay writing” an earnest, solitary endeavour, ‘Career Move’ flicks back and forth between the life of a poet and that of a screenwriter. It’s a brilliant inversion that sends up the absurdity of Hollywood better than any realist telling could:

They talked about other Christmas flops and bombs, delaying for as long as they could any mention of TCTs ‘’Tis he whose yester-evening’s high disdain’, which had cost practically nothing to make and had already done a hundred and twenty million in its first three weeks.    

It also permits Amis to show off his talent for nomenclature. Among our screenwriter’s works, for instance, are such gems as Offensive from Quasar 13, Valley of the Stratocasters and, my personal favourite, Medusa Takes Manhattan. And as for the names of the prequel and sequel to the hit poem ‘’Tis’ – well, they are too good to spoil here. In fact, the whole story is too good: the first in the collection, it sets an unattainable standard for the others, meaning a sequential reading of Heavy Water will inevitably disappoint. So if you do happen upon a copy of this book, my advice is this: save ‘Career Move’ for last.

by George Cochrane

Heavy Water and Other Stories is published by Vintage and is available here.

Walker Percy – The Moviegoer

I’m always wary when new editions of old books trumpet their trophy cabinets. The really great ones don’t need to. Take my Penguin Modern Classics Invisible Man, for instance: you have to look very closely in its front matter to find any mention of its National Book Award. Whereas my Methuen edition of The Moviegoer emblazons its National Book Award across its front cover. Happily for readers, this is not a reflection on the novel’s quality; only on its impact. For while The Moviegoer may have come top in ’62, it is the novels that didn’t win that year, Franny and Zooey, Catch-22 and Revolutionary Road, that have had the last laugh, all going on to achieve classic status and platinum sales figures (much later in the case of Yates’ book) in a way I don’t think The Moviegoer has ever quite managed. Which is a shame, because it really is a terrific novel. 

Image credit: Brill/Darren Peterson

Evoking The Great Gatsby and not suffering by the comparison is just one of its achievements. Take its narrator, Binx Bolling. He bears a strong resemblance to Nick Carraway. Both do the same job; both are on the cusp of thirty. He even sounds like Nick:

I am a stock and bond broker. It is true that my family was somewhat disappointed in my choice of a profession. Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longing […] It is not a bad life at all.

You can be sure that anyone who says that at the start of a novel is not going to feel that way for long. Though it is hard to pinpoint exactly what throws Binx off course. As you can see, he lives a fairly hermetic life. A bachelor and a business owner, his only real vice is his womanizing, with each of his secretaries – Marcia, Linda and the one we meet, Sharon – falling foul of his charms. These are also hard to pinpoint. Like Nick, Binx is really quite feckless – “sure” is his response to just about any question – and his snobbish Aunt Emily is allowed to completely engineer his life.

With this in mind, you might expect Binx’s voracious moviegoing to be his way of escape, of living by proxy, but it is not quite that. This extract illuminates it, I think:

it was here in the Tivoli [theater] that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a re-release of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint stirrings of curiosity about that particular seat I sat in […] I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered, will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now?

Place and time are key. Binx’s nightmare is that he should “be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time.” He craves specificity, what I’ll call “here and now-ness.” That, as I understand it, is the object of “the search” he talks so much about, and when he does not have it, he feels untethered. That’s when “the malaise” sets in; the malaise that suddenly “settles […] like a fall-out” during an otherwise-happy day out with Sharon. There are a few more of these Don DeLillo-esque abstractions throughout the novel, none clearly defined, suggesting to me a depressive who doesn’t have the language – or want the language – to understand that’s what he is. And he’s not the only one. Ever since her fiancé died in a car crash the day before their wedding, cousin Kate has also suffered bouts of blackness and has been a constant source of worry to her family. With Kate now due to marry again, her mental state is once more under the microscope and Aunt Emily enjoins Binx, the only one in whose company Kate feels comfortable, to keep an eye on her.

Given the place and time of the novel – New Orleans circa 1960 – Aunt Emily’s concerns are perfectly plausible. This is a society held together with spit and glue; an old world not yet touched by civil rights, but about to be, and an erratic element like Kate is a threat to that. In Aunt Emily’s African American manservant, Mercer, for instance, Uncle Tom is still very much in evidence: “My aunt truly loves him and sees him as a faithful retainer, a living connection with a bygone age.” But there is change in the air. Watching a Mardi Gras parade file past, Binx and Kate bear witness to “a vanguard of half a dozen extraordinary Negroes dressed in dirty Ku Klux Klan robes” who seem to presage this change. The result is a New Orleans of semi-mythic power, like Fitzgerald’s Long Island; it’s no coincidence that Binx lives in a suburb called “Elysian Fields.”

There is also literal change in the air; storms are forever brewing and venting, with direct consequences on those below: “[Kate] will not feel wonderful long. […] I know very well that when the night falls away into gray distances, she will sink into herself.” Now, I am usually allergic to descriptions of sky and weather – and advise all writers to avoid them – but Percy’s really are wonderful:

The squall line has passed over. Elysian Fields is dripping and still, but there is a commotion of winds high in the air where the cool heavy front has shouldered up the last of the fretful ocean air. The wind veers around to the north and blows away the storm until the moon swims high, moored like a kite and darting against the fleeing shreds and ragtags of cloud.

In a novel of ideas and alienation like this one, such lyricism really leavens it. That doubling up of adjectives in “cool heavy front” I particularly like. Percy will often do this: ask two opposing adjectives to get along without the help of a comma. Others include “furious affectionate,” “rapturous rebellious,” “peevish-pleasant.” In these, we get a microcosm of the whole novel, which depicts a place in barely functioning harmony.

Sometimes it doesn’t function at all. There is an awkward episode late on when Kate and Binx sit on a mezzanine and look down on one of Aunt Emily’s society dinner parties that really doesn’t work; seriously, I have no grasp on the geography of this scene. The humour we get at the expense of Mercer also sits uneasily. Apart from that, though, I struggle to think of a reason why The Moviegoer is not in the first rank of novels. It did for me what DeLillo (to come back to him) fails to do for me: discuss big ideas with wit and warmth.

by George Cochrane

The Moviegoer is published by Methuen and is available here.

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