Category Archives: Reviews

Violaine Huisman – The Book of Mother

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

Image credit: Virago

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Ian McEwan – Black Dogs

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

Image credit: Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

Black Dogs is published by Vintage and is available here.

David Batterham – Dear Howard: Tales Told in Letters

Never was there an apter book for a blog about books than a book by a book dealer. Even aptlier, it was found behind my bookshelves, just a few days ago. I have no idea how it got there, nor who gave it to me: I certainly didn’t buy it. But if Dear Howard tells us anything, it’s that provenance is always a misty business, and who knows where the thing will end up? David Batterham’s decades of letters to his friend, the painter Howard Hodgkin, never received a reply, but then they weren’t written in the spirit of pure correspondence. Batterham diagnoses himself as “a bit like an alcoholic about my letter-writing. I sneak off with my pad and binge a few pages, blanking out the real world and its problems.”

Image credit: Redstone Press

And certainly the world of book-dealing seems, if not unreal, at least unrecognizable to our humdrum lives. Batterham’s peers flounce in and out of the letters: one, “more irritating and successful every visit, has installed a pallid linguist who now conducts all conversations, though I am still allowed to shake his hand.” But if many of his contacts are necessary evils, some become dear and longstanding friends. A letter from Paris in 1990 touches on Charlotte and Jacques, who has just sold four Old Master sketches to the Louvre for 200,000 francs.

On my last visit we had been discussing whether collecting is an obsession, as Charlotte suspected, or a passion as Jacques insisted. Charlotte was very cheered when I said he seemed to have become more obsessive about his passion. Jacques just beamed and clearly thinks he’s more passionate than ever.

By this point, 200,000 francs bats no eyelids. We have long since learned that in the book trade, at least at this level, it’s some pretty handsome sums that change hands, then slip straight through the fingers. In May 1974, Batterham writes that “my overdraft has increased during the last eighteen months from ₤3,000 to ₤18,000. This ₤15,000 doesn’t seem to be on my shelves.” By 1987 he has got this down to ten grand, “but still [has] no stock to speak of.”

The money that Batterham spends on stock, wine and the odd trader-wooing blow-out, he saves on accommodation. The letters give off a shabby, Bohemian glamour, a sort of Graham Greenery with the due jet-setting – his raids include Texas, Tunisia, Venice, Istanbul, etc. – and the mildly vicious streak. In Texas he bumps into “a huge bald slob,” and in Barcelona “a fascinating Jewish gnome” by the scarcely credible name of Edmund X. Kapp (“his chief claim to renown seems to be that he is the only person for whom Picasso actually sat for a portrait”).

Indeed, Batterham is never far from greatness, or rather from the great and the good. We learn that he counted the late Prince Philip among his clientele for a while – “a good customer”, apparently, if an atypical one. “The Duke keeps a cupboard of goodies, such as the books he buys from me, so that people who want to give him a present can choose something he is known to like! They then buy it from him and give it back.” Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Batterham specialises “in books one can enjoy without having to read”: the kings of the coffee table, like Edward Lear reprints or Les Meilleurs Blés, “a seed catalogue with coloured lithographs of ears of corn.” Bibliomania takes many forms, and despite the presence of “no poetry, history or literature,” the reader rests assured of some heavy-duty, lightly-worn culture on Batterham’s part. None of which matters as much as the prose, which rarely strays or falters.

It might be that, like Plato, Batterham fights shy of Literature because it represents his great temptation. “I may be ‘in denial’ over my childhood ambition to be either a Tramp or an Author, or even both,” he admits. In a letter dated 3rd January 2000, he reports that he and his wife Val had a tryst with the Heaneys, Seamus and Marie, at Thomas Hardy’s childhood church on New Year’s Eve. They were there for the turn of the twenty-first century, right where Hardy himself had seen the turn of the twentieth. The party “huddled under a yew tree” to shelter from the pouring rain, while Seamus read “The Darkling Thrush”, Hardy’s great vigil poem on “The Century’s corpse”. If you and I had been party to that, profit and loss would likely have been far from our thoughts, too.

by Harry Cochrane

Dear Howard is published by Redstone Press and is available here.

James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…
    His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

    Mr King told them that story in A-Level English. Kinglish, it was called.
    Mr King gave them each a book. It was fat and red, and full of essays in the back. He circled every word that Mr King said was important, and he circled every word that he thought was important too, and wrote notes so that he would remember why they were important. There were more important words than unimportant words.

So ends my poor pastiche of the book’s opening pages. For a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is pretty inimitable, largely because the style poses a moving target. It evolves, develops, possibly overdevelops over the course of its 200 pages, moving from the tactile babble of a toddler to an expatiation on Aquinas and aesthetics. But after all, Stephen Dedalus is a complex hero (and the book’s working title was Stephen Hero), one whose self-possession and self-regard go counterwise to his family’s fortunes. He is acutely aware of his strange surname, and of the namesake that he has to live up to. And in a coincidence that would surely have delighted Joyce, I have just re-read Portrait, for the first time in ten years, in a copy bought from a man called Icaro. An Icarus sold me a book about a Dedalus.

Boarding school, as we know, is often barbarous. Boarding school in late Victorian Ireland sounds worse than the hell that its rectors and præfects invoked to terrorize their wards. The heart bleeds for the young boy who boards at Clongowes, who is caned for having broken glasses but who can’t have the curiosity beaten out of him:

It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that. He tried to think what a big thought that must be but he could only think of God. God was God’s name just as his name was Stephen. Dieu was the French for God and that was God’s name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying.

You probably wouldn’t describe this passage by the overused term ‘stream-of-consciousness’, but I would like to see the paragraph that more touchingly translated the innocent wonderings of a child. It’s almost as tearjerking as the thought that comes to him out on the football field: “Soon they would be going home for the holidays. After supper in the study he would change the number pasted up inside his desk from seventyseven to seventysix.”

But Christmas does come in a matter of pages, and it’s a fraught affair. Parnell has just died, and the family friend Mr Casey dares to lay his death at the door of the Irish priesthood, all in the presence of the devout Dante (Stephen’s infant pronunciation of “auntie”). The tension simmers, then boils over:

– God and religion before everything! Dante cried. God and religion before the world.
Mr Casey raised his clenched fist and brought it down on the table with a crash.
– Very well, then, he shouted hoarsely, if it comes to that, no God for Ireland!
– John! John! cried Mr Dedalus, shaking his guest by the coat-sleeve.

Even the Fenian-minded Mr Dedalus, who has sided with Mr Casey up till now, balks at the blasphemy. And Stephen, “raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.”

Simon Dedalus grows the more pitiful over the book’s five chapters, while Stephen grows only the more pitiless. They have a father-and-son jaunt to the ancestral home in Cork, a nostalgia trip for Dedalus père and a purgatorial one for fils. Puberty has hit: Stephen writhes in disdain and desire, and addresses the latter with a paid partner in the Dublin stews. Their overtures have a poetry all of their own, as the lights dim on Chapter Two. He “closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips.”

Thus Chapter Three finds Stephen in mortal sin, a fact that is brought terrifyingly home to him when he attends a spiritual retreat with his school. The speaker expounds upon the nature of hell, containing “All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world…a neverending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air.” So far, so hellish, but it’s Joyce’s image of eternity – the length of the sinner’s sentence – that tests the resolve of even the most secular reader:

Now imagine a mountain of […] sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness…and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before the bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun.

One critic reached the end of the sermon and wondered: “My God, what if it’s all true?”

I’m not going to spoil what follows, because I don’t want to give anyone a reason not to read the book for themselves. Certainly, anyone with ambitions of tackling Ulysses should tackle Portrait first, as it stars the same artist and young man, often forgotten for the novel’s other, more famous protagonist Leopold Bloom. Among the general reading public, it seems to me that Portrait has always got lost between two stools. Unlike Dubliners, it doesn’t attract the more timid reader; unlike Ulysses, it doesn’t appeal to the vanity of the show-offs. (Though compared to the equally undermentioned Finnegans Wake, on which I have made three fruitless attempts, Ulysses reads like The Old Man and the Sea).

I have four copies of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which chimes with Joyce’s commitment to omnivorous plurality. Martin Amis argued that he “doesn’t respect the reader enough”; that rather than welcome you into his world, he gives you the wrong address and then, when you finally locate his house, he leaves you sitting on his doorstep for hours until he finally turns up, reeking of alcohol, and then he can’t find his keys… That metaphor may be true of Joyce after Portrait, but it isn’t quite true of Portrait itself. The artist is too young to yet be a drunkard.

– Newcastle 2011
– Firenze 2021

by Harry Cochrane

Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms

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

Image credit: Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

My Phantoms is published by Granta and is available here.

Humphrey Carpenter – W. H. Auden: A biography

In Lower Sixth, my English class trooped down to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the new play by Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. It was a play within a play: a fly-on-the-wall insight into rehearsals of Caliban’s Day, with its uptight, upcoming author looking on. The lead actor, Fitz, plays an old W. H. Auden, who is living out his last years in his alma mater of Christ Church, Oxford. He receives a series of visitors, including his former collaborator Benjamin Britten, a male prostitute, and an earnest young BBC journalist called Humphrey Carpenter.

Ten years later, I spent half a euro on Carpenter’s biography of Auden, not expecting that I would ever read it. Yet last month I did, building on the summer in which I finally ‘got’ Auden’s poetry. Auden disapproved of poets’ biographies, arguing that, unlike with “a man of action,” there was nothing about a poet’s life that a reader could possibly need to know. But he might have approved of Carpenter’s, which in the classical biographer’s tradition is sober, egoless (with one sole mention of “the present author”) and not over-familiar – “Wystan” cedes to “Auden” from the second chapter onwards, when the subject moves into adolescence. Ethically, the book lives up to its (fairly) morally upstanding – and intensely moralistic – protagonist.

Image credit: Oxford University Press

In many ways, Auden must have been a biographer’s dream: generous with his time, a bundle of quirks and eccentricities strapped into the strictest routine, and a font of “memorable speech,” his own definition of poetry. His personal magnetism pulled sundry characters into his orbit, and the book has some great names, like Edward Upward and Nob Snodgrass. Poets of varying quality soon fell under the umbrella of “the Auden school,” from the tall, curly-haired Stephen Spender to Louis MacNeice, who described the former as “a towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen.”

Whatever Spender’s condition, Auden certainly saw himself as fallen in some way. He once said that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” But he himself did a pretty good job of disproving this. There was none of the self-regarding bard in him. One of his colleagues at the BBC, where he contributed to a few documentaries, admitted that he “kept bringing [the most beautiful verse], and – the cheek of us, in a way – we turned down so much.” Auden would say “All right, that’s quite all right. Just roll it up and throw it away.” He set no store by poetry’s post-Romantic elevation; he preferred the then (and still) unfashionable Pope and Dryden, whom he named as “the ideal poet to read when one is weary, as I often am, of poetry with a capital P.” In his later years, he reiterated a line quoted in Bennett’s play: “nothing I ever wrote saved one Jew from extinction or shortened the war by five seconds.” And as if to make up for this, his biography is littered with acts of charity, such as paying the school fees of two impoverished teenagers in Kirchstetten, the little Austrian town to which he retired. He had never met the boys in question.

Carpenter presents a picture of a man ruled by the clock and by notions of what a respectable person should be and should do, yet who frequently flummoxed all expectations. In 1935, his longtime friend and sometime lover Christopher Isherwood wrote to him on behalf of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas: she was seeking a British passport as a way out of Hitler’s Germany. Auden replied with a telegram: DELIGHTED. After the wedding, he commented: “I didn’t see her till the ceremony and perhaps I shall never see her again. But she is very nice.” In fact, he and the Manns saw each other many times more over the years, with Auden fond of saying: “The most boring German writer? My father in law!”

A marriage of convenience is one thing, but the reader will be surprised to learn of Auden’s actual sexual affairs with women. He described himself as “quite ambidextrous,” and generally enjoyed his fair share of “copotomy and sodulation,” which Carpenter accounts for with a perfectly straight face. Neither prurient nor prudish, about the facts-of-life he is simply matter-of-fact, and that was probably quite a brave thing to be back in 1981. Even more so when we consider D. J. Taylor’s recent column in the Times Literary Supplement, which notes that it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that homosexuality became openly mentionable in obituaries, having previously lurked under the euphemism “he never married.” Which Auden, of course, did.

Before settling into a cosy High Church Anglicanism, Auden spent most of his pre-war life hunting for a bedrock of beliefs, which in physical terms gave him itchy feet. Like many Britons, he pitched into the Spanish Civil War, which he found a static, disillusioning limbo. In 1938 he and Isherwood sailed for China, whose creaky coalition of Nationalist and Communist government was held together only by war with Japan. It was all a bit of a jolly to the travellers, who immediately had business cards made with their names transcribed into Chinese phonetics: ‘Y Hsiao Wu’ and ‘Au Deng’. Au Deng sought out the fighting wherever it was thickest, seemingly impervious to danger. As Isherwood wrote to Spender, “Auden knows he won’t be killed, because Nanny would never allow it, and it Can’t Happen Here.”

My summer reading of Auden’s poetry left me with the strong impression of a poet who declined after the War, an impression shared by most of his contemporaries (Carpenter repeatedly begs to differ, but one wonders if he really believed his own defence). He succumbed to the ageing poet’s cardinal sin of tampering with their earlier work, invariably for the worse; and struck one of his most famous poems from his anthologies altogether. Thankfully, ‘September 1, 1939’ was already out there in the world, long past being reeled back in. And no wonder, given the first stanza:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

It may start in a dive in Fifty-Second street, but by line four the poem has soared to what Carpenter calls Auden’s “hawk’s vision,” with “a low dishonest decade” in his sights. It’s a lesson to all poets who fight shy of absolute values and moral judgements. And the final stanza is a lesson to all poets who kid themselves that the words they write make a greater difference than the lives they lead.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden never reconciled himself to the last line, thinking “that’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” In later versions, he changed it to “We must love one another and die.” Geoffrey Hill, as one of Auden’s successors as Oxford Professor of Poetry, ventured that Auden had forgotten his original motive: “He meant to die spiritually, and that seems to me an entirely acceptable sentiment.” But Auden eventually came to think the poem riddled with “dishonesty,” and completely disowned it. Its very mention would probably earn Carpenter a black mark, in his book. But then, good biographers spare no blushes, and Carpenter is a very good biographer. He also wrote Lives of Tolkien, Britten, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, John Murray, and one presumes that they are all as clear, as readable and as unconceited as Auden: A biography. As Bennett notes in the preface to The Habit of Art, he deserves a biography all to himself.

by Harry 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

Helen Waddell – The Wandering Scholars

I bought this book in 2015, read it, and enjoyed the whistling it made as it flew over my head. I had another crack at it this summer, getting halfway through before my holidays ended and I had to go back to Florence. Rightly or wrongly, I chose to leave it behind. So imagine my surprise when I found a copy in the second-hand shelves of the Paperback Exchange, Florence’s Anglo-American bookshop. I did a double take: had I donated it to them? Having established that I had not, I decided it was worth parting with fifty centesimi to wrap up that little summer project.

Image credit: Penguin

Well, it’s now a wrap, which probably puts me in a select company. I estimate that I am one of the few people alive today to have read The Wandering Scholars, one of even fewer to have read it twice, and possibly the only person to have read two different copies of it. There are reasons for this. The Wandering Scholars was written by a Wandering Scholar, or rather a scholar with a wandering mind. Forget Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway: if someone asked me to explain ‘stream-of-consciousness’, I would press one of my two copies upon them.

For one thing, never have I seen such dense name-dropping; in fact, I would like to see the book that cited more proper nouns across 240 pages. Thankfully, some of these names are as memorable as Master Konrad Unckebunck (p.145), which is the least of the battinesses in a book that touches on “the happy spirits who went to mass at St Rémy on Maundy Thursday in procession, each clerk leading a herring on a string, the object being to step on the herring of the man in front, while guarding your own herring from the assaults of the man behind.” Naturally, this diverts us from the serious stuff:

Latin verse composition had always, of course, been taught. Charlemagne bent his great brows on the young dandies of the palace school who failed to produce tolerable verse, and Hrabanus Maurus came to Alcuin at Tours to study metres.

Alcuin (of York) I had heard of, thanks to a recent episode of the BBC’s In Our Time. Otherwise, the paragraph baffled me as much as the herring did. Who were these young dandies? What was the palace school, and what was intolerable about the verse they produced? Once past that, we learn that the early medieval period saw such a spondaise explosion that “by the end of the twelfth century, the writing of rhyming verse was absolutely forbidden to the members of the Cistercian Order: its associations were too dangerous.” Not all verse, crucially, but verse with rhyme, which was alien to classical Latin poetry. No wonder it disquieted the church, and not just because it was new. As the late Geoffrey Hill wrote, “Eros is so palpably present in rhyming verse that it seems like a parody of itself.”

It’s worth saying, at this point, that The Wandering Scholars is less about scholars and scholasticism than about poets and poetry. But it’s also worth saying that the distinction between the two was, if you’ll pardon the pun, academic. Our bards nowadays, especially those in the top jobs, are pretty unscholarly, while most of our scholars wouldn’t be seen dead writing verse. Waddell has no such qualms. She hails the “humorous breadth” and “very adroit rhyming” of one Berengarius the heretic, but really the praise is all hers, the translator:

The Abbot John, in stature small,
   But not in godly graces,
Spake thus unto his elder friend
   – Both lived in desert places –

‘I wish,’ said he, ‘to live secure
   As angels do in heaven:
No food to eat, no garment wear
   Whereon men’s hands have striven.’

His senior said ‘Be not too rash,
   Brother, I counsel you,
For you may find you’ve bitten off
   More than your teeth can chew.’

But he – ‘Who goes not to the war
   Nor falls, nor wins the fight,’
He spake, and to remoter wilds
   Naked, went out of sight.

 ……………………..

John had his bed without, and bore
   The chills of night contrary,
And thus did penance rather more
   Than was quite voluntary.

The camp, forced contrary/voluntary rhyme underlines the farcery of John’s self-mortification. Eventually, he too sees the vanity in it.

Cured of his folly, he’ll let him
   An angel be who can,
Himself he finds it hard enough
   To be a decent man.

But when the original poetry is more serious – be it in Latin or one of those misty, mysterious languages from the old Midi – Waddell translates it with a real grace. Not just the poetry, either: in her hands, medieval Latin prose becomes as distinct and as vivid as her own:

St Peter Damian is hot against the monks who challenge the grammarians at their own idle game, and bandy vanities with seculars as if it were the din of a fair, but Damian himself was in his youth a passionate classicist. ‘Once was Cicero music in my ears, the songs of the poets beguiled me, the philosophers shone upon me with their golden phrases, the sirens enchanted my soul nigh unto death. The Law and the Prophets, Gospel and Epistle, the whole glorious speech of Christ and His servants, seemed to me a poor thing and empty.’

Those final, chilling words remind us just how much was at stake for the medieval man or woman of letters. It’s one of Waddell’s constant themes: the soul torn between art and God, between the Catechism and learning for its own sake – and sometimes, for the sake of one-upmanship. A certain Gunzo of Novara is appointed tutor to the family of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, and on the way stops at the Swiss abbey of St Gall. “It was bitterly cold; Gunzo had almost to be lifted from his horse…and unfortunately, his wits perhaps still sluggish with cold, blundered into an accusative instead of an ablative. And Ekkehard, the scholasticus, heard.” The next day, naturally, it was all over the cloisters.

No publishing house would ever go near The Wandering Scholars now. Despite belonging to Penguin’s Pelican imprint, which anticipated Oxford’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series, Waddell was writing for the fifty most well-read individuals in the country. But however fuzzily the rest of us will remember it, we will be cured of any prejudice against the so-called Dark Ages – indeed, we might forget just how dark they could be, with only the most fleeting of references to the murderous Albigensian persecution under St Dominic. Waddell’s medieval world is one where almost nobody is burned or hanged or dies in childbirth. But however nasty, brutish, short life really was back then, she reminds us that people – lettered people, at least – strove to enrich their souls as well as save them.

by Harry 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.

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