Tag Archives: Novel

Violaine Huisman – The Book of Mother

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

Image credit: Virago

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Ian McEwan – Black Dogs

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

Image credit: Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

Black Dogs is published by Vintage and is available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Newcastle 2011
– Firenze 2021

by Harry Cochrane

Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms

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

Image credit: Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

My Phantoms is published by Granta and is available here.

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.

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.

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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