Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Jan Morris – Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Who wouldn’t take down a title like that? I did, from the family bookshelves, in the summer of 2017. I had just returned from Ravenna, a city known for its mosaics and the tomb of Dante Alighieri, but otherwise a small provincial town that sits on the same crook of shallow grey water as Trieste, just on the other side. Perhaps I took it down because, for the previous year of my life, Trieste had always been there, on the far shore.

In May 2018 I was back in Italy, this time in Florence. After work, I would go to the Harold Acton Library and sit on the sofa in the Sala Ferragamo, facing out over the Arno until closing time. For whatever reason, the book that I selected for those late spring evenings was Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere: having already read it once, I felt that I could take my time with it and luxuriate in Morris’ prose, letting it transport me from one of Italy’s most iconic cities to one of her most illusive.

Image credit: Faber

Jan Morris, when she was James Morris of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, was stationed in Trieste in 1945. At that time the city was a free territory, belonging to no nation, and it made her feel – as it would always make her feel – “an unspecified longing [that] steals narcotically over me – the Trieste effect, as I call it.” She strives to define this feeling over 200 pages, but she never strives too hard. The book’s beauty is like the beauty of the city itself, misty but not quite misty-eyed, aching with sad smiles. Like in Venice, you don’t really want the mist to clear.

On those evenings in the library, Morris stirred in me a longing for the town that she was writing. One of the most extraordinary cities in the world lay outside the library window, the palazzos and the belltowers and the Ponte Vecchio, but there was nothing that I wanted to do more than to take one of the overnight Intercities, round the Adriatic and wake up in Trieste. Or better yet, to wake up on the final approach, rumbling over the Karst – “a loveless limestone formation”, a spur of the Julian Alps that almost shunts Trieste into the sea.

There seemed something utopian about it, in utopia’s twin senses as ‘good place’ and ‘no place’. Morris quotes a Triestine mayor – “We are the eastern limit of Latinity and the southern extremity of Germanness” – adding “the western extremity of Slavdom, too.” In its Habsburg heyday, it was a place where Italians, Slavs and their Austro-Hungarian overlords lived and worked together with little apparent friction and a great deal of common civic pride. Various incentives were offered to Jewish immigrants: freedom of worship and investment, exemption from military service, things that could hardly be taken for granted elsewhere in eighteenth-century Europe.

Before Mussolini came along, Trieste was a place that was happy to have you. Of course, it preferred you if you were rich and enterprising, but the permanently penniless James Joyce managed to make it his home, there writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, much of Ulysses, and a play, aptly titled Exiles. He even “became an oddly welcome guest in some of the rich mercantile houses of the city.” But Trieste was less happy for Nora Joyce, from the moment when she first arrived at the train station, only to be stood up by her husband. Jim was carousing with sailors, got drunk and disorderly, and was arrested. It took an unimpressed British Consul to prise him out of gaol.

Those were the last glory years of Trieste, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s window onto the Mediterranean. Indeed it was often called ‘Vienna on the sea’: Triestine clothes could usually be read as an index of the latest Viennese fashions, while its bars could be mistaken for Viennese coffee houses (Illy, my choice of ground espresso coffee, when I can afford it, is Triestino). And though it all fell under the distant aegis of the Emperor, its order was not driven by a feckless, philistine aristocracy but by “that well-heeled business society, solid and earnest, [which] flourishes still…Like the governing classes of Chicago and Manchester, it interested itself assiduously in the arts.”

As with so many other places, Britain among them, Trieste’s golden age ended with the First World War. It was passed to Italy in thanks for their part on the Allied side, but what with Venice, Naples and Genoa, Italy had little use for another port city. Robbed of its raison d’être, Trieste lost its self-confidence: it embraced Mussolini’s promises of power and glory, though kept a strong enough grip on its humanity to help speed the escape of central-European Jews, mostly to British-ruled Palestine. It even earned another nickname, the Port of Zion. But in 1943, Italy threw in its lot with the Allies: the very next day, the Nazis took Trieste in reprisal, and converted the rice treatment plant of San Sabba into the sole extermination camp on Italian soil. “I hate to go there now,” Morris writes:

It is the one place in Trieste that speaks of the tragic rather than the poignant. Although it is now an Italian national memorial and a tourist site, with its bare walls and shadows, its death chamber, its vile cells and the site of its crematorium, it still feels menacingly terrible to me. As it happens it stands not far from the city’s Jewish cemetery, where in happier times Jews had passed to a more proper end.

After the war, Trieste spent nine years as a bewildered free state. Churchill’s “iron curtain” quote is famous, but we usually forget that in the same breath he drew it “from Stettin to Trieste.” Now it lies once again within the compass of Italy, that part of Italy snagged on the Balkans; and if its destiny as a trade centre has been lost forever, it has at least, Morris argues, remembered its destiny as a calm, cultured, compassionate melting pot. “If race is a fraud, as I often think in Trieste, then nationality is a cruel pretence,” she writes. “You can change your nationality by the stroke of a notary’s pen.” At a time when nostalgist mythmongers currently shout across Italian politics, one hopes that Trieste still maintains its traditional, polite scepticism.

In early January 2017, on a cold, dark winter’s night, I landed at Venice airport. I boarded the bus that would take me to the train station, where I would catch two regionali back down to Ravenna. As the engines idled, the woman sitting across from me struck up conversation, obviously recognising me as part of the TEFLing diaspora. I taught English in Ravenna, she in Trieste: while my train would take me south, hers would take her up and around the Venetian lagoon, all the way down to the Istrian peninsular. It seemed impossibly far away. Years later, now in Florence, two of my students would name Trieste as their favourite Italian city. They were both of a type: sober, thoughtful young men, gentle and kind. Had she met them, Morris would have known who they were:

There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists….They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality…They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if only they knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste.

by Harry Cochrane

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is published by Faber and is available here.

Geoff Dyer – The Search

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

Image credit: Canongate

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

The Search is published by Canongate and is available here.

Jessie Greengrass – The High House

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

Image credit: Holly Ovenden

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Penelope Fitzgerald – Innocence

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.”

Image credit: HarperCollins

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.

by Harry Cochrane

Innocence is published by HarperCollins and is available here.

V. S. Naipaul – Miguel Street

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

Image credit: Pan Macmillan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

Miguel Street is published by Picador and is available here.

John le Carré – Call for the Dead

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

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Image credit: Matt Taylor/Penguin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

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