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.
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.
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.
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.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s sixth novel Innocence (1986) concerns the Ridolfi, a family of quietly dignified, denuded Florentine aristos who trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. It opens with the story behind “the Dwarfs”, a group of statues that crown the family residence, Villa Ricordanza. “Strictly speaking they are not dwarfs, but midgets…pathologically small, but quite in proportion”, and they bear witness to the grotesque, heartbreaking tale of the Ridolfi’s midget forebears who decided that their daughter Gemma should remain ignorant of her own smallness. Thus these early Ridolfi modified the villa’s architecture, employed only little people, and erected the statues. Eventually, the Count reasons that Gemma “would be better off if she were blind…And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.”
Most readers would prefer not to believe it, and Fitzgerald lets us turn aside if we so choose: “This story is not the one given out nowadays in the leaflet provided by the Azienda di Turismo”. But though the novel settles into a stiller, sadder key, this nauseous moment is not the last. One of the few non-Ridolfi characters is the angry young southern doctor Salvatore Rossi, who has left his native hole, Mazzata, to practise his trade in Florence. An early chapter flashes back to his ten-year-old self, accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Antonio Gramsci, Comrade Nino, effectively a prisoner in Mussolini’s Rome. Gramsci’s body is decaying, his ideals are decayed: the former repels Salvatore, and the latter destroys his father. “On that afternoon he [Salvatore] decided that as soon as possible he would be emotionally dependent on no one.”
Thus Innocence arrives at the classic rom-com setup, the gamophobic bachelor whose non-marriage vows are upended by a singular woman. Yet the reader is hard-pressed to find much singular about Chiara Ridolfi, the half-American daughter of the wearily splendid Count Giancarlo Ridolfi – not really a count, “although the leaflet calls him that, because all titles were abolished in Italy after the Second World War”. It is 1955 and Giancarlo is wondering how to take his daughter’s news, namely that she is to wed Dr Rossi. Then we rewind to the moment when the couple met, a musical evening at the Teatro della Pergola:
Chiara gave the doctor her hand. ‘You enjoyed the Brahms?’ he asked. She looked at him politely, but in wonder. ‘Of course not.’ Perhaps we might agree about everything, Salvatore thought. No-one ever agrees with me, but she might…a young girl wearing a diamond necklace…as if she didn’t know how she had it on, and quite without the elegant gesture, the Grace Kelly gesture, of lightly touching the jewels with one hand. Perhaps this young woman didn’t know how to be elegant, or perhaps Grace Kelly didn’t. He felt deeply irritated. He had an intimation that he was lost.
Chiara’s candour gets through to Salvatore, who has no idea what to do with his furtive new emotions. When she tries to catch him after work, he bawls and screams her out of his practice; he takes a mistress and tries to shag his feelings away. Chiara, meanwhile, enlists her bulldozing English friend Lavinia ‘Barney’ Barnes to run as a go-between, and Barney pretty soon comes to the same conclusion as us. “I’m not at all sure that Cha ought to marry this man”, she tells Chiara’s silent farmhand cousin, Cesare.
When part 2 opens, however, Chiara and Salvatore are married. Fitzgerald cannily spares us the thaw, showing her magisterial instinct for scene-shifting. Innocence is a cinematic novel: some chapters run to ten pages, some to two paragraphs, never longer than they need to be. And it gets the Florentine detail absolutely right, without ever laying it on thick. ‘Why doesn’t Florence have a proper airport?’ Barney demands, still a valid question in 2021. Yet somehow Fitzgerald’s Florence feels older than 1955, almost Edwardian. The book strikes a similar note to Lampedusa’s The Leopard – they’re both wry, painful, gorgeous novels of fading glories, of old orders crumbling to modernity. Count Giancarlo Ridolfi shares some of Don Fabrizio’s magnificence; he just wears it much more lightly.
For Innocence has that quality of lightness that Italo Calvino thought a writer’s greatest possible virtue. It’s something to do with the prose, which punctures any character – usually Salvatore – who takes themselves too seriously. Of Salvatore’s pre-marital mistress:
This hair of Marta’s was somewhere between blonde and brown, a colour which, Marta’s sister continued, rapidly drove men mad. Franca claimed the right to say these things, presumably, by right of seniority and of possessing the experience of marriage, although it was pretty clear that Dr Rossi was not being driven mad in the least and that Franca’s experiences in the Empire style matrimonial bed were not very different from Marta’s in the top room.
The funniest line is never the punchline; it’s always tucked in somewhere before. It’s not “Franca’s experiences”, it’s the clause just prior to that. This is what I mean by the prose’s lightness: Fitzgerald never pauses in expectation of a laugh. The same is true of Salvatore’s walk along the river Arno with the even-tempered Dr Gentilini, also a non-native:
He glared at the umber-coloured river, sunk to its lowest point. ‘Note that it’s not much more than a gutter, this Arno of yours, a gutter between the hills.’ Gentilini, to whom this was addressed, replied that it wasn’t his Arno, and that in the Po valley they found it much cheaper and more practical to put up with the floods and give up prevention altogether. He himself would never have been able to start out on a medical career if it hadn’t been for the flood compensation his family received in 1924.
Salvatore is usually snarling like this, and few readers will root for him. Instead, it’s the tenderness between Chiara and Barney that glues the novel together, especially when the latter, who seems invulnerable, opens herself up to Cesare. She has met him twice before, most recently at Chiara’s wedding, where she helped him carry the overcome Signora Gentilini out back.
‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Barney. ‘It won’t take long, because I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve been thinking it over for some time. As far as I can see, all Italian men get married, unless they’re… Right, well, as far as you’re concerned, I’m prepared to marry you right away…Now I’m getting to the real point. I want you to listen to me carefully. I’m in love with you. I love you.’ ‘Yes,’ said Cesare.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the thirdtime 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.
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?
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 Waterand Other Stories.
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 Quasar13, 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.
I’ve owned this slim little book for nearly seven years, and it still has the paper price tag on the back: £3.99. Those were the days. I bought it after a night of undergrad boozing chez my friend Tristram, whose bookshelves I had combed in conspiracy with another friend, Thea. Thea pulled out this very edition of John Berryman – I remember being struck by the stack of shot glasses on the cover – and told me that I had to read him. The Dream Songs especially.
And though 58 Dream Songs (chosen from 385 of them) make up about three-fifths of the book, it was Berryman’s sonnets that I first latched on to. At this point in life I was devoted to poetic form, slavishly so, and that devotion struggled to find a place for The Dream Songs’ histogrammic six-line stanzas, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not. The sonnets attracted me by virtue of their shape – time was when everything I wrote was a sonnet – but they were sonnets with a voltage that I had rarely felt:
All we were going strong last night this time, the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris were drowning, supine on the floor lay Lise listening to Schubert grievous and sublime, my head was frantic with a following rime: it was a good evening, an evening to please, I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstacies – among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold, as I made for the grove, without expectation, some hundred sonnets in my pocket, old, to read her if she came. Presently the sun yellowed the pines & my lady came not in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.
For years I wished that the book gave me more than a tiny window onto Berryman’s sonnets (21 out of 115), but over time I have come to think Michael Hofmann’s selection near-faultless. It’s surpassed only by his introduction, possibly the finest poet-to-poet preface that I’ve ever read. Hofmann admits that “any selection of Berryman has, to some extent, to oppose itself to the worst tendencies of the poet. There will be a little denial in it, and a little false innocence”. Otherwise one gives too much space to Berryman’s most irresponsible speech-acts, like this:
The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer… I hope to be nearly crucified.
Berryman suffered the worst possible ordeal at the age of eleven, when he saw his father walk out into the garden and shoot himself in the head. The sins of the father did not die with him: instead, the son inherited the urge to self-destruct. This translated into alcoholism, the extra-marital affair chronicled in the sonnets, and finally his own suicide, when he jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi.
Those catastrophic tendencies find voice in the Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry, who comes and goes, twirling around Berryman’s own biographical trajectory. But whether writing about his own implosions or the implosions of others, Berryman usually resists (self-)pity, which of course makes him the more harrowing. TheDream Songs include a handful of elegies for Delmore Schwartz, the Brooklyn poet who crashed and burned and became an Adonian martyr figure among Berryman’s circle, inspiring the title character of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In DreamSong 149, however, grief is “too astray [perhaps in the sense of ‘wild’] for tears”:
This world is becoming a place where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die? I don’t suppose in all them years a day went ever by without a loving thought for him. Welladay. In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual blazing with insight, warm with gossip thro’ all our Harvard years when both of us were just becoming known I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref and grief too astray for tears.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news, that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone, in New York: he sang me a song ‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’ when he was young & gift-strong.
The poem is studded with allusions to the greats. “Can Delmore die?” picks up Shakespeare’s “Can Fulvia die?” (Antony and Cleopatra), while “Harms & the child I sing” grotesquely inverts the opening three words of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing” (arma virumque cano). But the poem’s pathos plays along the language of dead platitudes: “I imagine you have heard the terrible news”. And “his promise” – at how many funerals has the inadequate word ‘promise’ been trotted out? Perhaps the saddest thing, which anyone who has read Humboldt’s Gift will recognise, is that Delmore died “miserably & alone”, deserted not only by his friends but also by his talent. “When he was young” he was “gift-strong”, but his gift, like Humboldt’s, abandoned him in later life. In the next Dream Song, #150, Berryman writes “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so”.
For his part, Berryman pre-empted a similar decline by sabotaging his own poetic praxis. Love & Fame (1970) reads like a man who has given up trying to make sense of life and is content to laugh at it; certainly, he’s stopped trying to shape it to a real form – the book’s quatrains seem token, almost a mockery of the verse tradition. As one Dream Song says, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”, a gloss that probably applies to most of the Berryman corpus. After all, what is there to understand in the opening ‘stanza’ of ‘First Night at Sea’?
I’m at a table with Canadians. He translates Villon. Villon! What Canadian could English make of those abject bravura laments? He says he’ll give me a copy.
But reading with the hindsight of an age when most poets are ‘prosey’ at one point or another, these poems have a power of their own. They involve some cognitive leaps that the reader can only hope to keep up with, but they speak with a plainness alien to much of Berryman’s oeuvre, not least the sonnets. No one could call them disciplined, and my recent purchase of Berryman’s Collected Poems (everything except TheDream Songs) has shown me how uneven his body of work is, an unevenness that Hofmann does a fine job of hiding. When you have access to all the sonnets, you realise that they’re riddled with ellipses, which in my view represents a failure of syntax. Indeed, most of Berryman’s poems smack of something unfinished, unconsummated; however astonishing they are, very few of them invite the word ‘perfect’. One that might, though, is Dream Song 145:
Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong for going on forty years – forgiveness time – I touch now his despair, he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower but he did not swim out with me or my brother as he threatened –
a powerful swimmer, to take one of us along as company in the defeat sublime, freezing my helpless mother: he only, very early in the morning, rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong and so undone. I’ve always tried. I – I’m trying to forgive whose frantic passage, when he could not live an instant longer, in the summer dawn let Henry live on.
That brutal, tight-lipped terseness, “did what was needed”. And the compression – not “I’m trying to forgive him / whose frantic passage”; just “I’m trying to forgive / whose frantic passage”. No words more than necessary, as necessity is the argument that Berryman puts for his father, who “could not live an instant longer”. It relieves his father of the guilt of choice, perhaps so the son can lay the questions to rest. All attempts to “read that wretched mind” have failed, though “I’ve always tried”. Is there a poem more simple and devastating?
Well, maybe. Maybe the last poem in this little book:
Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts. Her having gone away in spirit from me. Hosts of regrets come and find me empty.
I don’t feel this will change. I don’t want any thing or person, familiar or strange. I don’t think I will sing
any more just now; ever. I must start to sit with a blind brow above an empty heart.
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.
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.
With a third Sally Rooney novel on the way and a TV adaptation of this, her first, in the works, Conversations with Friends is surely about to re-enter the conversation. So let’s talk about it.
The title tells you two important things about the novel: its dialogue-heaviness and its simplicity of prose. What it fails to give you a sense of is the novel’s narrative. There are arguments, yes, soliloquies, certainly, flirtations, most definitely, but I’m hard pressed to remember anything so mundane as a conversation ever happening. Part of the problem, though I accept this may just be my problem, are these so-called ‘Friends’. There is nothing that annoys me more, in life and in art, than a precocious teenager who has the entire history of Western philosophy at their fingertips, and in Conversations with Friends we get just such a character in Bobbi (okay, she is just out of teenagehood, but she is still preternaturally brainy). Mercifully, Bobbi is not our narrator – that would be her friend (and ex-girlfriend) Frances – and she is somewhat redeemed by the suggestion that maybe her brilliance is all in Frances’ head. That idea I like.
Frances, you see, is comparatively unremarkable. Early on, she admits to having no “real personality” of her own and, by way of disguising this, will change her spots on cue:
Bobbi and I often performed [Frances’] poetry at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things.
Given this talent for acting, Frances’ involvement with an actual actor seems a match made in heaven. Nick is in his early thirties and, though his career may be on the wane, his looks are not. He is “exceptionally handsome” – to the point of absurdity, I have to say – and genuinely quite nice too, if a little withdrawn. There is just one problem: he’s married. Worse, his wife, Melissa, is a friend of Bobbi and Frances’ and is writing a hagiographic magazine piece on their poetry act. These are our players, then, these our complications, and the rest of the novel is about how these rub up against each other – literally rub, in the case of Nick and Frances.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is the setting. Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College Dublin, and apart from a brief sojourn in France, the whole novel takes place in Ireland. But you would hardly know it. Not a single mention of the Troubles, nor an ounce of self-consciousness about same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, and Rooney is surely at the vanguard of a new Irish literature here. She is particularly good on technology, something many contemporary writers are still afraid of, and quotes emails and texts with a reverence usually reserved for letters. She is aware that we communicate differently online, is alive to how ambiguous and easily-misconstrued these messages can be, and gets those registers just right. She’s not completely damning of technology, either. Trying to work out Bobbi’s true feelings for her, Frances “decide[s] to start reading over [their] old instant message conversations” one night:
It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.
How is this different from Bendrix poring over Sarah’s diary in The End of the Affair? One of the most common criticisms of the internet is its permanence, but have we not always been recording our innermost feelings on things that will outlast us?
Published in 2017, Conversations with Friends must also mark the first appearance in fiction of the Netflix generation. Bobbi and Frances have a very casual relationship with film and TV, putting things on to zone out in a way that seems completely true to how we live in 2021. That said, they have good taste (of course they have), and the novel is deliciously cineliterate. All the way through, its frank, almost screwbally depiction of female friendship smacks of Greta Gerwig and, sure enough, the novel does not leave us without a reference to Frances Ha. However, where a ninety-minute film can get away with a threadbare plot, a three-hundred-page novel can’t, and perhaps my biggest issue with Conversations with Friends is how it meanders. Frances and Nick break up and get back together one too many times; the alcoholic father thread seems to be coming from a whole other kind of Irish novel; and the late-in-the-day illness of our main character is such a clichéd way of injecting energy into a flagging text. I wish Rooney had had the courage of her convictions and stuck to her conversations, rather than falling back on these false notes of melodrama, because as a chronicler of how we communicate in the twenty-first century, she is peerless.