Category Archives: Reviews

Walker Percy – The Moviegoer

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

Image credit: Brill/Darren Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

The Moviegoer is published by Methuen and is available here.

Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends

With a third Sally Rooney novel on the way and a TV adaptation of this, her first, in the works, Conversations with Friends is surely about to re-enter the conversation. So let’s talk about it.

Image credit: Elliana Esquivel/Faber

The title tells you two important things about the novel: its dialogue-heaviness and its simplicity of prose. What it fails to give you a sense of is the novel’s narrative. There are arguments, yes, soliloquies, certainly, flirtations, most definitely, but I’m hard pressed to remember anything so mundane as a conversation ever happening. Part of the problem, though I accept this may just be my problem, are these so-called ‘Friends’. There is nothing that annoys me more, in life and in art, than a precocious teenager who has the entire history of Western philosophy at their fingertips, and in Conversations with Friends we get just such a character in Bobbi (okay, she is just out of teenagehood, but she is still preternaturally brainy). Mercifully, Bobbi is not our narrator – that would be her friend (and ex-girlfriend) Frances – and she is somewhat redeemed by the suggestion that maybe her brilliance is all in Frances’ head. That idea I like.

Frances, you see, is comparatively unremarkable. Early on, she admits to having no “real personality” of her own and, by way of disguising this, will change her spots on cue:

Bobbi and I often performed [Frances’] poetry at spoken word events and open mic nights that summer. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things.

Given this talent for acting, Frances’ involvement with an actual actor seems a match made in heaven. Nick is in his early thirties and, though his career may be on the wane, his looks are not. He is “exceptionally handsome” – to the point of absurdity, I have to say – and genuinely quite nice too, if a little withdrawn. There is just one problem: he’s married. Worse, his wife, Melissa, is a friend of Bobbi and Frances’ and is writing a hagiographic magazine piece on their poetry act. These are our players, then, these our complications, and the rest of the novel is about how these rub up against each other – literally rub, in the case of Nick and Frances.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the setting. Frances and Bobbi are students at Trinity College Dublin, and apart from a brief sojourn in France, the whole novel takes place in Ireland. But you would hardly know it. Not a single mention of the Troubles, nor an ounce of self-consciousness about same-sex relationships. It’s refreshing, and Rooney is surely at the vanguard of a new Irish literature here. She is particularly good on technology, something many contemporary writers are still afraid of, and quotes emails and texts with a reverence usually reserved for letters. She is aware that we communicate differently online, is alive to how ambiguous and easily-misconstrued these messages can be, and gets those registers just right. She’s not completely damning of technology, either. Trying to work out Bobbi’s true feelings for her, Frances “decide[s] to start reading over [their] old instant message conversations” one night:

It comforted me to know that my friendship with Bobbi wasn’t confined to memory alone, and that textual evidence of her past fondness for me would survive her actual fondness if necessary.

How is this different from Bendrix poring over Sarah’s diary in The End of the Affair? One of the most common criticisms of the internet is its permanence, but have we not always been recording our innermost feelings on things that will outlast us?  

Published in 2017, Conversations with Friends must also mark the first appearance in fiction of the Netflix generation. Bobbi and Frances have a very casual relationship with film and TV, putting things on to zone out in a way that seems completely true to how we live in 2021. That said, they have good taste (of course they have), and the novel is deliciously cineliterate. All the way through, its frank, almost screwbally depiction of female friendship smacks of Greta Gerwig and, sure enough, the novel does not leave us without a reference to Frances Ha. However, where a ninety-minute film can get away with a threadbare plot, a three-hundred-page novel can’t, and perhaps my biggest issue with Conversations with Friends is how it meanders. Frances and Nick break up and get back together one too many times; the alcoholic father thread seems to be coming from a whole other kind of Irish novel; and the late-in-the-day illness of our main character is such a clichéd way of injecting energy into a flagging text. I wish Rooney had had the courage of her convictions and stuck to her conversations, rather than falling back on these false notes of melodrama, because as a chronicler of how we communicate in the twenty-first century, she is peerless.

by George Cochrane

Conversations with Friends is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

I can’t imagine a career in medicine leaves much time for writing novels, so the fact that practising oncologist Austin Duffy has just released his second is impressive enough. What’s more impressive still is the quality of that novel. Low-key, but with a cumulative power that sneaks up on you, Ten Days is a deft and affecting meditation on grief and memory.

Image Credit: Brian Podolsky/EyeEm/Getty Images

The rather nondescript title refers to the Ten High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. The novel begins on the eve of these, with sixteen-year-old Ruth and her goy father, Wolf, on the plane from London to New York. In the baggage rack above them are the ashes of Wolf’s recently deceased wife, Miriam, whose dying wish to have her remains scattered on the Hudson they are on their way to honour. At least, that is the official reason for their visit. Wolf, however, has a few more things on his agenda, including selling his London property and arranging for Ruth, who has only packed for ten days, to stay on in New York and live full time with Miriam’s Jewish family. It is unclear, initially, where he will be going.

The day after their arrival, the pair join Miriam’s family at their home in Queens for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a tense occasion. Cremation is all but forbidden in Judaism and so the very fact of Miriam’s ashes is an uncomfortable one for her devout relatives. Doubly so that Wolf is carrying them. Irreligious and a serial philanderer, Wolf has only recently re-entered Ruth and Miriam’s lives after a long estrangement and has never been popular with his wife’s side of the family. Nor his own. Under no illusions about how he treated her mother, Ruth is outwardly hostile to Wolf and the pair are constantly bickering. Fortunately, Duffy knows what a teenager sounds like:

‘So what do you want to do today then?’
She ignored him, so he had to repeat the question.
‘Nothing’ Ruth said, not looking up from her phone.
‘Well we have to do something.’ […]
‘I told you already,’ she said. ‘I’ve got plans.’

Now doesn’t that ring true?

Of course, Ruth’s uncommunicativeness is intensely painful for her father. Even more so when he does occasionally get through to her. For instance, during one of their exchanges, he cracks a joke that makes her laugh and “for just a minute there was no tension between them and they sat like any other father daughter.” But only for a minute. Duffy is excellent at these glimpsed moments. A photographer by trade, Wolf is alive to them too. The following sentence comes from the dialogue above, where I have put the ellipsis:

When she did look up for a split second it was Miriam’s face staring back at him. The reddish tint to Ruth’s hair, it was all Mir, her complexion darker than normal in the light they were sitting in. He didn’t want to move an inch in case she disappeared.

These misrecognitions become more frequent as the novel goes on, so much so that we start to question Wolf’s mental state. Clearly he is grieving, but is there also something else?

All the while, the world around our characters is carrying on as usual. That’s the cruel thing about grief, the indifference of others, and there is surely nowhere more indifferent than New York City. Duffy evokes the place well. During their stay, Wolf takes Ruth on a tour of her mother’s old haunts and shows her the exact bit of pavement where he said goodbye to Miriam after their first date:

Ruth was silent and they both stared and at the same time moved towards the totally nondescript patch of sidewalk that he was pointing at, absorbed for a few moments by its imaginative stimulus and – for the pair of them if for nobody else on the planet – its historical resonance.

The way we invest places with memories – place attachment – is one of the novel’s central concerns. Later on, Wolf visits Miriam’s old flat. Though it has been renovated beyond almost all recognition, “as if the past was an infectious disease that had been stamped out,” Wolf recognises it instantly. But when he is dead and gone, and his memory gone with him, what will remain of Miriam then? Especially in a city like New York, where the landscape is always changing, where life is moving at a million miles per hour, memory will always be losing ground to modernity.

In this context, religion does still seem to have a place in the modern world. For all Wolf’s sneering, it is a fact that Miriam’s Jewish family are better at remembering than he is; the pictures of long-dead ancestors on their walls, their rituals and litanies are all ways of keeping the past alive. Duffy makes a compelling case for this but doesn’t overstate it. Rather, Ten Days is a novel of character and connection, a story of memory that has continued to live in mine.

by George Cochrane

Ten Days is published by Granta and is available here.

Kate Clanchy – How to Grow Your Own Poem

How to Grow Your Own Poem is a title well chosen. It pops the myth of ex nihilo creation, which as Kate Clanchy repeats throughout the book, is not how people write poetry. It invokes Keats – if poetry does not come like leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all – and it puts poetry right in the ecosystem, a breathing and pulsing kingdom of life. If the poet, the title implies, gives words the care and nourishment that a gardener gives their garden, a poem will naturally result.

Clanchy believes in composing poetry as ‘a fundamental human activity…something we need to do and of which, even more than dance and music, we are deprived in the modern world.’ Hence the ‘Permission to Write’ sections, intermittent pages of sedative prose to help the reader/writer bypass their personal ‘shit detector’, as Hemingway called it but Clanchy doesn’t. Generally, though, there is very little holding forth across the book’s seven chapters, which share a broadly similar structure. Here’s a poem; here’s what it’s doing; here’s a prompt; now it’s your turn. The exemplars come from poets alive, dead and undiscovered, as Clanchy’s own students, some of them not yet into their teens, see their work set alongside the Audens, Duffys and Armitages. The comparison is often to their credit.

Image Credit: Macmillan

The cues and exercises in How to Grow Your Own Poem tap into the primal, rhythmic impulse in all of us, the urge to shout and chant while stomping a foot. One of the first tasks revolves around Edwin Morgan’s ‘A View of Things’:

what I love about dormice is their size
what I hate about rain is its smear
what I love about the Bratach Gorm is its unflappability…

When Morgan’s finished, it’s ‘Your Turn’, a fixture in every chapter. Clanchy has her reader use Morgan’s poem as an ‘ion engine’, while ‘making sure that all your details are real and concrete and come from your own experience’. She then shows us how her sixteen-year-old student Han Sun Nkumu responded:

    …What I love about long drives is stopping for coffee
What I hate about love is that it is undeniable
What I love about love is that there is no maths involved

After which we might wonder who really should have been the Scottish Makar.

How to Grow Your Own Poem is without doubt the ‘practical book’ that Clanchy wanted. But if she puts admirable trust in the student-poet’s ear, she stakes very little on their boredom threshold, fighting almost pathologically shy of verse mechanics. Her advice generally holds for all poets, whether unestablished or establishment: it is always worth being reminded that ‘poems have plots’. But the poet in love with their craft, the poet who could talk about poetry’s cogs and tunings all day, will be disappointed by a subchapter called ‘Couplet Island’ in which Rumi is translated into distichs without rhyme or repeated rhythm: hardly couplets. When Clanchy does broach the term ‘iambic’ she questionably explains it as ‘limping’, and declines to scan a single iambic line to illustrate her point.

Thus How to Grow Your Own Poem diametrically opposes Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, where poetic form is treated with crusading zeal and bouncing nerdery. Quite apart from delighting verse mechanophiles with the expected Frydian brio, the latter makes for a more recognisable read than Clanchy, who eschews such passé units as the paragraph. This often sinks her into the annoying habit of hitting enter before each new sentence, but sometimes it makes a point. ‘It often helps me to think of the white space as enormous. / As all of time and all of space. / Infinitely big, and very cold. / My sentence is a moon buggy across endless frost’. And so on. It’s another example of Clanchy giving us an example. How to Grow at least makes us think seriously about the difference between poetry and prose, a difference that can be reduced to nothing so facile as formatting.

As a primer, the book is still a little too primary school, appealing to our poetic impulse but to none of our curiosity. It makes no apologies for its classroom origins, however, and in the classroom it will find its true calling. We can riff on Morgan’s listicle at home, finding all sorts of weird reasons behind our loves and hates, but our poem will feel incomplete until we share it with someone else. Composing poetry may be a private activity, but Clanchy never lets us forget that it always demands an audience.

by Harry Cochrane

Saul Bellow – Ravelstein

For as long as I’ve had this blog, I have been itching to write about Saul Bellow. No writer has influenced me more. At least, no writer has influenced my reading more. After three years studying the English canon, I finished my literature degree feeling rather canon-ed out and went through a period where I didn’t read very much. Bellow got me going again. Exactly why my parents had a copy of Humboldt’s Gift I (and they) don’t know. Nor do I know what moved me to read it. What I do know is that my folks aren’t getting their book back anytime soon. For me, that novel was so brimming with life, so electrically charged, that it completely re-energised my reading and set me off on a whole odyssey of American literature that I am still on. Naturally, there have been many more Bellows along the way, but I am only now getting around to his last novel, Ravelstein. It was worth the wait.

Image credit: Penguin

Published in 2000, when Bellow was eighty-four, Ravelstein is inevitably mellower than Herzog and Humboldt, less rambunctious. At 230-odd pages, it is also significantly shorter. Neither fact should surprise. Shorter and mellower was the direction in which Bellow’s fiction had been heading for a while, with stories that dwelt increasingly on the past, that weren’t always barrelling forward. Though it rarely receives attention, some great writing emerged from this period: the 1989 novella The Bellarosa Connection is up there with his best novels for me, and short stories like ‘Something to Remember Me By’ and ‘A Silver Dish’ are wonderfully moving. At 230-odd pages, then, Ravelstein is actually a lot longer than you might expect, and a whole lot more vigorous.

This late-career burst of energy is indebted to the novel’s subject, Abe Ravelstein, in whom Bellow found the perfect outlet for his talents. As with Humboldt’s eponymous poet, this maverick philosopher is seen through the eyes of another, Chick. Though Chick is considerably older than Ravelstein, the two are “close friends, none closer”: the former in awe of the latter’s dazzling intellect; the latter indebted to the former for convincing him to put his ideas down in a book. That book, remarkably, has become a bestseller, and when we meet our two characters in Paris at the beginning of the novel, Ravelstein is putting his newly acquired millions to good use, whirlwinding his friend around cafés, restaurants and boutiques. Ravelstein is in his element here and seems to practically crackle with energy:

Ravelstein scribbled his name wildly on the check while bringing a bun to his mouth. I was the neater eater. Ravelstein when he was feeding and speaking made you feel that something biological was going on, that he was stoking his system and nourishing his ideas.

This rapaciousness predates Ravelstein’s wealth; he has always been excessive, his engine-like body fizzing with so many ideas, so much talk, that his hands literally tremble with the stimulation.

People are understandably drawn to this force of nature. At the unnamed university where Ravelstein teaches (clearly Chicago), he is worshipped by his students,

who dressed as he did, smoked the same Marlboros, and found in [Ravelstein’s pizza-and-basketball parties] a common ground between the fan clubs of childhood and the Promised Land of the intellect toward which Ravelstein, their Moses and their Socrates, led them.

I share their fascination. Indeed, I would almost go so far as to say that Ravelstein is one of Bellow’s greatest creations, except that he is not Bellow’s creation. So clearly is the character modelled on Bellow’s close friend Allan Bloom that Ravelstein can sometimes read as straight biography. He has the same bald head as Bloom, wonderfully likened to a “honeydew melon”; he has the same gangly frame; and, of course, Bloom too was the author of an unlikely bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind. And the Bloom connection means another thing: that Ravelstein cannot possibly end well. A homosexual, Bloom died of AIDS at the age of 62, and the same happens to his fictional self.

Knowing that he will die before his friend, Ravelstein canvasses Chick to write his biography:

Ravelstein’s legacy to me was a subject – he thought he was giving me a subject, perhaps the best one I ever had, perhaps the only really important one.

In a rather meta kind of way, Bloom gave Bellow a great subject, too, and were Philip Roth the author of this book, no doubt he would have had all sorts of postmodern fun with that. But this is Bellow writing, the least postmodern of authors, and what interests him is the human cost of this legacy: how Chick “may have nothing more to do in this life than commemorate [Ravelstein]”; how this “unfinished work” might be the only thing keeping him alive. These concerns become very real when, a few years after Ravelstein’s death and with the biography still not written, Chick eats a diseased fish while on holiday and almost dies. Having almost died of the same thing himself, Bellow is clearly writing from experience here and the last fifty or so pages of the novel give a breathless and convincing account of illness, from the first twinges of fatigue to the intervention of the life support machine.

Even so, I missed Ravelstein in these pages; he is barely mentioned, only reappearing in the last few. Bellow has written too strong a character to leave out. So let’s return to him for a moment. For me, Ravelstein’s appeal is Bellow’s appeal. “[J]ust as familiar with entertainers like Mel Brooks as with the classics,” Ravelstein too moves between the high and the low, pop culture and high culture, street talk and Socratic dialogue. For both Ravelstein and Bellow these things are one and the same, are all part of the human comedy, so that, even in a book full of death, there is more than enough life to keep you laughing.

by George Cochrane

Ravelstein is published by Penguin and is available here.

Margaret Drabble – The Millstone

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

Image credit: Penguin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

The Millstone is published by Penguin and is available here.

Peter Brooks – Balzac’s Lives

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

Image credit: Katy Homans

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Elizabeth Taylor – Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

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

Image credit: Virago/Sarah Maycock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

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

Image credit: Faber & Faber/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Yes, I had got the message.

by George Cochrane

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

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

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

Image credit: Virago Press/Loïs Mailou Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janie’s only coping mechanism are those stock phrases:

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

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