Tag Archives: review

Ian McEwan – Black Dogs

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

Image credit: Vintage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

Black Dogs is published by Vintage and is available here.

David Batterham – Dear Howard: Tales Told in Letters

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

Image credit: Redstone Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Harry Cochrane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Newcastle 2011
– Firenze 2021

by Harry Cochrane

Gwendoline Riley – My Phantoms

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

Image credit: Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

My Phantoms is published by Granta and is available here.

Humphrey Carpenter – W. H. Auden: A biography

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

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

Image credit: Oxford University Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Harry Cochrane

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.

Jan Morris – Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

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

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

Image credit: Faber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Harry Cochrane

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

Geoff Dyer – The Search

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

Image credit: Canongate

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

The Search is published by Canongate and is available here.

Jessie Greengrass – The High House

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

Image credit: Holly Ovenden

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

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

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

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

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

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

by George Cochrane

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

Penelope Fitzgerald – Innocence

Penelope Fitzgerald’s sixth novel Innocence (1986) concerns the Ridolfi, a family of quietly dignified, denuded Florentine aristos who trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. It opens with the story behind “the Dwarfs”, a group of statues that crown the family residence, Villa Ricordanza. “Strictly speaking they are not dwarfs, but midgets…pathologically small, but quite in proportion”, and they bear witness to the grotesque, heartbreaking tale of the Ridolfi’s midget forebears who decided that their daughter Gemma should remain ignorant of her own smallness. Thus these early Ridolfi modified the villa’s architecture, employed only little people, and erected the statues. Eventually, the Count reasons that Gemma “would be better off if she were blind…And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.”

Image credit: HarperCollins

Most readers would prefer not to believe it, and Fitzgerald lets us turn aside if we so choose: “This story is not the one given out nowadays in the leaflet provided by the Azienda di Turismo”. But though the novel settles into a stiller, sadder key, this nauseous moment is not the last. One of the few non-Ridolfi characters is the angry young southern doctor Salvatore Rossi, who has left his native hole, Mazzata, to practise his trade in Florence. An early chapter flashes back to his ten-year-old self, accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Antonio Gramsci, Comrade Nino, effectively a prisoner in Mussolini’s Rome. Gramsci’s body is decaying, his ideals are decayed: the former repels Salvatore, and the latter destroys his father. “On that afternoon he [Salvatore] decided that as soon as possible he would be emotionally dependent on no one.”

Thus Innocence arrives at the classic rom-com setup, the gamophobic bachelor whose non-marriage vows are upended by a singular woman. Yet the reader is hard-pressed to find much singular about Chiara Ridolfi, the half-American daughter of the wearily splendid Count Giancarlo Ridolfi – not really a count, “although the leaflet calls him that, because all titles were abolished in Italy after the Second World War”. It is 1955 and Giancarlo is wondering how to take his daughter’s news, namely that she is to wed Dr Rossi. Then we rewind to the moment when the couple met, a musical evening at the Teatro della Pergola:

   Chiara gave the doctor her hand.
   ‘You enjoyed the Brahms?’ he asked.
   She looked at him politely, but in wonder.
   ‘Of course not.’
   Perhaps we might agree about everything, Salvatore thought. No-one ever agrees with me, but she might…a young girl wearing a diamond necklace…as if she didn’t know how she had it on, and quite without the elegant gesture, the Grace Kelly gesture, of lightly touching the jewels with one hand. Perhaps this young woman didn’t know how to be elegant, or perhaps Grace Kelly didn’t. He felt deeply irritated. He had an intimation that he was lost.

Chiara’s candour gets through to Salvatore, who has no idea what to do with his furtive new emotions. When she tries to catch him after work, he bawls and screams her out of his practice; he takes a mistress and tries to shag his feelings away. Chiara, meanwhile, enlists her bulldozing English friend Lavinia ‘Barney’ Barnes to run as a go-between, and Barney pretty soon comes to the same conclusion as us. “I’m not at all sure that Cha ought to marry this man”, she tells Chiara’s silent farmhand cousin, Cesare.

When part 2 opens, however, Chiara and Salvatore are married. Fitzgerald cannily spares us the thaw, showing her magisterial instinct for scene-shifting. Innocence is a cinematic novel: some chapters run to ten pages, some to two paragraphs, never longer than they need to be. And it gets the Florentine detail absolutely right, without ever laying it on thick. ‘Why doesn’t Florence have a proper airport?’ Barney demands, still a valid question in 2021. Yet somehow Fitzgerald’s Florence feels older than 1955, almost Edwardian. The book strikes a similar note to Lampedusa’s The Leopard – they’re both wry, painful, gorgeous novels of fading glories, of old orders crumbling to modernity. Count Giancarlo Ridolfi shares some of Don Fabrizio’s magnificence; he just wears it much more lightly.

For Innocence has that quality of lightness that Italo Calvino thought a writer’s greatest possible virtue. It’s something to do with the prose, which punctures any character – usually Salvatore – who takes themselves too seriously. Of Salvatore’s pre-marital mistress:

This hair of Marta’s was somewhere between blonde and brown, a colour which, Marta’s sister continued, rapidly drove men mad. Franca claimed the right to say these things, presumably, by right of seniority and of possessing the experience of marriage, although it was pretty clear that Dr Rossi was not being driven mad in the least and that Franca’s experiences in the Empire style matrimonial bed were not very different from Marta’s in the top room.

The funniest line is never the punchline; it’s always tucked in somewhere before. It’s not “Franca’s experiences”, it’s the clause just prior to that. This is what I mean by the prose’s lightness: Fitzgerald never pauses in expectation of a laugh. The same is true of Salvatore’s walk along the river Arno with the even-tempered Dr Gentilini, also a non-native:

He glared at the umber-coloured river, sunk to its lowest point. ‘Note that it’s not much more than a gutter, this Arno of yours, a gutter between the hills.’ Gentilini, to whom this was addressed, replied that it wasn’t his Arno, and that in the Po valley they found it much cheaper and more practical to put up with the floods and give up prevention altogether. He himself would never have been able to start out on a medical career if it hadn’t been for the flood compensation his family received in 1924.

Salvatore is usually snarling like this, and few readers will root for him. Instead, it’s the tenderness between Chiara and Barney that glues the novel together, especially when the latter, who seems invulnerable, opens herself up to Cesare. She has met him twice before, most recently at Chiara’s wedding, where she helped him carry the overcome Signora Gentilini out back.

    ‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Barney. ‘It won’t take long, because I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve been thinking it over for some time. As far as I can see, all Italian men get married, unless they’re… Right, well, as far as you’re concerned, I’m prepared to marry you right away…Now I’m getting to the real point. I want you to listen to me carefully. I’m in love with you. I love you.’ 
    ‘Yes,’ said Cesare.

by Harry Cochrane

Innocence is published by HarperCollins and is available here.

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