Author Archives: George Cochrane

Margaret Drabble – The Millstone

In a recent piece for the TLS about unfashionable literary genres, D. J. Taylor cited “the unwanted-pregnancy novel of the 1960s” as just such a dinosaur and singled out this book among its major fossils. He has a point: The Millstone is definitely dated. Yet, as a warts-and-all celebration of the National Health Service, it also feels strangely contemporary, and, if you are looking for another way to celebrate our wonderful health workers at this time of Covid, you could definitely do worse than read this.

Image credit: Penguin

Don’t let the tagline put you off. “Rosamund is clever, very independent – and pregnant” is how my cheap eighties’ paperback tries to sell it. What that tagline crucially leaves out is that Rosamund is pregnant after just one sexual encounter. Yes, in a rather amusing subversion of sixties’ counterculture, Rosamund Stacey is actually afraid of sex and not very countercultural at all. Living rent-free in a lovely flat belonging to her parents, she spends most of her days in the British Museum, working towards a doctorate on Elizabethan sonnet sequences. Hardly the Swinging Sixties!

Her only real quirk is that she has two boyfriends. Each convinced that Rosamund is sleeping with the other, Joe and Roger refrain from stepping on each other’s toes, and so Rosamund evades the stigma of virginity without having to worry about sex. That is until she meets George. A one-night stand with this radio newsreader leaves her pregnant and with her own sexual revolution on her hands. After an incredibly grim attempt at self-induced abortion, Rosamund defies expectations by deciding to keep the baby (though she doesn’t tell George any of this), thus beginning the innumerable trips to doctors and hospitals that pregnancy entails. All of a sudden, then, this incredibly independent, self-reliant woman, who has almost never been to the doctor’s in her life, finds herself having to put trust in others and accept help.

It is a cute moral and it does feel forced at times. Late on, I was astonished to find a sentence as bad as this one: “as I grow older, I find myself changing a little.” Has character development ever been so obviously signposted? For the most part, though, Drabble is a very good writer of sentences. Take this one:

George was at first sight rather unnoticeable, being unaggressive and indeed unassertive in manner, a quality rare enough in my acquaintance, but he had a kind of unobtrusive gentle attention that made its point in time.

That last part bears repeating, I think: “an unobtrusive gentle attention that made its point in time.” Brilliant. The way those ‘t’ sounds gradually accumulate as the sentence goes on, then snap to our attention in “point in time”; the delaying of this last phrase so that the sentence literally does make its point in time. I wish Drabble always showed such consideration for the full stop. As if unable to leave her sentences alone, she is constantly elongating them via colons and semicolons. It’s very annoying, and doesn’t look very good on the page, either. If and when I read her later fiction, I will be interested to see if she grew out of this habit.

As I say, though, the chief pleasure of this book for me was its portrayal of the NHS: the waiting rooms, the waiting times, the incomprehensible buildings, the always-educational nature of a hospital visit. When Rosamund goes for her first checkup, she is astonished by what she finds in the waiting room:

[H]ere, gathered in this room, were representatives of a population whose existence I had hardly noticed. There were a few foreigners; a West Indian, a Pakistani, two Greeks. There were several old people […] Then there were a couple of young secretaries or waitresses […]

Modern Britain is in full swing and Rosamund hadn’t even noticed. Doctors and nurses, so often relegated to walk-on parts in novels, are given page space, too. In one particular comic set piece, Rosamund is lying on her hospital bed, about to give birth, and tries to distract herself from the pain by listening to the gossip of the nurses outside her door. We only get a couple of pages of their conversation before the baby comes, but in that time we get a wonderful glimpse into these nurses’ lives – their rich, empty, damaged, ordinary lives. A timely reminder that those who care for us are people too.

by George Cochrane

The Millstone is published by Penguin and is available here.

Peter Brooks – Balzac’s Lives

I am very new to Honoré de Balzac. Last year, without really knowing anything about The Human Comedy (La Comédie humaine), I read its most famous instalment, Père Goriot, and loved it. Keen to read more, I naturally hopped on the internet for recommendations and there my enthusiasm died; I hadn’t realised the Comedy was so formidable. Comprising ninety-one completed works (and countless more uncompleted ones), Balzac’s magnum opus runs the gamut from very short stories to very long novels and features more than two-thousand characters, many recurring. Where was I supposed to go next? What I really needed was a good introduction to point me in the right direction. How fortuitous, then, that one has just been published; Peter Brooks’ Balzac’s Lives is the perfect companion for Balzac newcomers.

Image credit: Katy Homans

Brooks begins by saying what the book is not: it is not a biography of Balzac, and those looking for one ought to go elsewhere. Rather, Balzac’s Lives is “an antibiography or maybe more accurately an oblique biography” that tells the novelist’s story through his fictional creations. The titular “lives,” then, are those of the characters, as living and breathing to Brooks as they so obviously were for Balzac. For a reader like me, who is more interested in the work than the life, this format is ideal.

With 2,472 characters available to him, Brooks clearly has to narrow his focus: he chooses nine. A rather meagre sample, you might say, but these nine, who include Eugène de Rastignac, Jean-Esther van Gobseck and Jacques Collin, are among the most important and regularly-occurring in the whole project and their stories intersect with hundreds of others’. So, in reality, we get far more than just nine. These connections are often coded by Brooks in filmic terms (“The last part of Père Goriot plays out on a split screen”), and, call me a millennial, but the scale and scope of the Comedy, as described here, did put me in mind of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Given the size of his subject, Brooks deserves credit for making it so comprehensible; I, for one, would not like to have to summarise those labyrinthine plots.

Brooks does far more than just summarise, though. After explaining where each character fits narratively into the Comedy, he then goes on to explain their thematic significance. This is where Brooks’ choice of characters begins to make sense: each somehow embodies one or more of Balzac’s major themes. So Rastignac, that penniless student desperate to enter the upper echelons of society, represents “unbridled and possibly unscrupulous ambition”; the moneylender Gobseck “greed”; and Collin, that criminal mastermind, the role of “the novelist” himself.

If these seem rather broad, then consider the context in which Balzac was writing: France of the 1830s and 40s. Though the monarchy had been restored in 1815, the Revolution had set in motion changes that no monarch could halt. No longer was a good name the only ticket to power; money could get you there, too. Hence the emergence of an upwardly mobile middle class who, with the backing of moneylenders like Gobseck, could end up in the Faubourg Saint-Germain. That is the trajectory Rastignac’s life takes. But now that social roles are no longer fixed, now that lawyers and moneylenders hobnob with aristocrats on equal terms, “how do you know the distinctions between them?” That, according to Brooks, is the question that The Human Comedy seeks to answer, and if Balzac’s characters seem broad, then remember: his subject is nothing less than the whole of society.

Brooks is at his best in these moments: when he’s writing about the conditions of the Comedy’s production. I particularly enjoyed his section on Lost Illusions, in which he considers the changing nature of print culture in post-Revolutionary France and how Balzac shaped, and was shaped by, that. He is less convincing when he makes broad, sweeping statements about his subject’s legacy. For instance, where is the evidence to support his claim that Balzac is “the first writer truly to seize the meaning of the emergent modern world”? He is also a little too insistent on the writer’s proto-Freudianism. These conjectures are few and far between, though, and for the most part Brooks is a servant of the facts. It pays off. Balzac’s Lives did for me what any good introduction should do: make me want to delve deeper.

by George Cochrane

Balzac’s Lives is published by New York Review of Books and is available here.

Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

It is a rare book that can make me laugh out loud, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont managed it – many, many times. A testament to Elizabeth Taylor’s skill as a humourist: her novel turns fifty this year and yet nearly all of its jokes still land. Just as well, too, because the book is also desperately sad and would have been quite unbearable had it not been so funny.

Image credit: Virago/Sarah Maycock

The title sums up the plot nicely. It’s about an elderly widow, Mrs Laura Palfrey, who goes to live at a faded hotel in Kensington, the Claremont. Within a few pages of her arrival, it becomes clear that Mrs Palfrey’s status is not unique among the hotel’s clientele: they are all elderly widows. For these people, the most valuable currency is company, and they cling to those few occasions when dutiful family members pay them a visit or take them out for the day – as much for the social cachet these confer as for the company itself. Mrs Palfrey, however, is a little short on family; her only relation in London is her grandson Desmond, with whom she is not particularly close. All the same, she expects Desmond will at least be decent enough to pay her a visit and, when pressed by the other guests at the Claremont, tells them as much. Desmond is not decent enough, however, and when he doesn’t show, Mrs Palfrey’s loneliness becomes highly conspicuous.

An opportunity to save face arises, though, when Mrs Palfrey falls down on the street and is helped up by a young man called Ludovic Myers. Ludo is a young, out of work writer in desperate need of a hot meal and, to thank him for helping her, Mrs Palfrey invites him to dine at the Claremont. Boasting to her fellow residents that she is expecting company that evening, one of them asks if it is Desmond she is expecting and, for whatever reason, she doesn’t deny it. Thus begins an elaborate deception whereby Ludo pretends to be Desmond, out of which a genuine friendship develops between the young man and the old lady.

At least, the friendship seems genuine; yet there is always that transactional element to it. Both, after all, are gaining something from each other’s company: Ludo is getting money, meals and material for his novel; Mrs Palfrey is gaining social esteem. At other times, though, their friendship seems a little too genuine: during one of their meals, Ludo coyly pops a biscuit into Mrs Palfrey’s mouth and the pair lean towards each other “like lovers.” Interestingly, this book came out in the same year as that great film Harold & Maude (1971), also about a relationship between a very young man and a very old woman. Taylor does not take things quite as far as that film does, however, and Mrs Palfrey wisely retreats from any latent sexual feelings she may have for Ludo:

He was almost beautiful, she thought, and the idea so alarmed her that her glance flew away from his face and fastened on one of his shoes, as it swung back and forth, the thin sole flapping.

You could say that Taylor’s glance flies from such thoughts, too, though that is not a criticism. By avoiding the characters’ true feelings for one another, she cleverly keeps this central relationship murky and ambiguous, and stops it straying into the saccharine territory it could so easily have entered.

I love the fact that Ludo is “almost beautiful” as well, as if Taylor can’t quite bring herself to fully beautify any of her creations. She is far more interested in ugliness; like Ludo’s shoes, nearly everything in the book is broken or disfigured in some way, including the people. Therein lies much of the novel’s humour. For instance: “[Mrs Burton’s] face had really gone to pieces – with pouches and dewlaps and deep ravines, as if a landslide had happened.” Or Mrs Palfrey herself:

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

The environment, too, is consistently grey and depressed, the novel’s young characters permanently poor and hungry. It’s a pretty bleak portrait of late sixties/early seventies Britain, and were it not for a few very passing mentions of long-haired youths and the Beatles, you would be forgiven for thinking the sexual revolution had never happened at all.

The Britain that Taylor presents instead is one that is clearly feeling the loss of its empire. Thus Mrs Palfrey’s comparison to a general is no accident; the book is replete with old military men, on the verge of extinction now there are no colonies to govern. Mrs Palfrey herself, we learn, was the husband of a British governor to Burma and she still reminisces fondly about those days when “nearly all the world was pink on her school atlas – ‘ours’, in fact.” As well as being a fantastically entertaining novel, then, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is also a fascinating historical document: of Britain’s wilderness years after empire and why, in 1975, the country tried to anchor itself again by joining the European Union. For my money, it also offers one of the most astute explanations as to why that anchor never really took and why, in 2016, it came loose altogether:

When she was young, [Mrs Palfrey] had had an image of herself to present to her new husband, whom she admired; then to herself, thirdly to the natives (I am an Englishwoman). Now, no one reflected the image of herself, and it seemed diminished: it had lost two-thirds of its erstwhile value (no husband, no natives).

The British obviously never got over that last devaluation, did they?

by George Cochrane

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is published by Virago and is available here.

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

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

Image credit: Faber & Faber/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Yes, I had got the message.

by George Cochrane

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

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

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

Image credit: Virago Press/Loïs Mailou Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie’s only coping mechanism are those stock phrases:

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind

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

Image credit: Shutterstock/Timothy Allen/Pan Macmillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

Never Mind is published by Picador and is available here.

 

Jude Cook – Jacob’s Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

By way of introduction…

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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