Book review, Literary criticism

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst pic

British writer, Allan Hollinghurst.

A common theme throughout Hollinghurst’s work is how the past can be shaped by the present. The Stranger’s Child (2011) is about a poem written just before WWI but after the poem becomes famous it acts as a microscope on the lives and descendants of the people who were spending that weekend together when the poem was written in a teenage girl’s autograph book. Even his first The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) the past is a crucial element: a young lay-about is asked to write the biography of an ageing aristocrat and in reading the old man’s diaries comes to see the passions, oppressions, and obsessions of an earlier gay life refracted in his own; and, here too in The Sparsholt Affair, a sexual dalliance at Oxford during WW2 , is re-remembered when a lost memoir is discovered shortly after the author’s death. Whatever is happening, or improved, about the present it’s all because of what happened before.

Hollinghurst studied English Literature at Oxford in the 1970’s but concentrated his interests on writers whose homosexuality, though never expressed or admitted to publicly, permeated their work:  E.M. Forster, Philip Firbank, and L.P. Hartly. He is reported as saying that “I was fortunate to come along just as gay-lit was coming into its own” but it was actually his first, The Swimming-Pool Library, that let the way – particularly in literary fiction – in my memory. And that’s the point. Memory is such a slippery thing. Someone once said, “it’s like an oven; you put something in, wait a bit, open the door and there it is: something else.” Yes, there is an affair in The Sparsholt Affair (“Money, power … gay shenanigans! It had everything”) – in fact there are many Sparsholt affairs – but how much people remember about it is what interests Hollinghurst.

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford in 1940 and all eyes, from a room across the quad, are on him as he, in a sweaty singlet, lifts weights in what he thinks is the privacy of his own room. The assemblage, mainly gay, some gay-ish, young men, plot and scheme to get Sparsholt’s attention; all to varying degrees, although one in particular succeeds spectacularly. So ends Part 1: The New Man.

In each successive Part – there are five in all – Hollinghurst jumps decades ahead to the Sparsholt family, friends, some from that Oxford group, now ageing, some new, some older, successful, some dying, to Part 5 which concentrates on David’s son, Johnny Sparsholt, a painter, now in his 60’s whose long-time partner Patrick has just died. Here at the end of the book a regular Hollinghurst theme emerges: how gay life of today is so much different from gay life then, when it was illegal, tragic, rife, but clandestine; and Hollinghurst gives us the most vivid and delicious description of gay clubbing, leisure drug-taking, sex for the moment – during which the past emerges, yet again. Permeating all five parts is the affair from Part 1, or it is the real Sparsholt Affair, the one that made the papers, and shocked the socks off everyone?

“What would two long-ago lovers be likely to feel, one of them twice married, the other losing his memory.”

Curiously, or not, for some, the central character, David Sparsholt is rarely in the spot light; he is relegated to the edges of the story, to the shadows of people’s memory and belief – even his son is a little vague about what his father is like;  but it’s the idea of him and what he did, or did not do, that is at the centre, and what was remembered about him, it.

What has always interested me about novels is not so much what happens but how each is told. Apart from Part 1, which is a first-person memoir, Hollinghurst employs a narrator that entirely operates through what his characters sense. They are all experts at defining and opinionising the thoughts, desires, and threats that flit and tumble over the faces of everyone else in the room. His language is Jamsean and sometimes you relish reading a sentence again just for the pleasure of it. He is interested in the tone, the flavour of things, be it the atmosphere in a bar, of a welcome, in the furnishings of a home, a decision, a sigh; and at times you are impressed by his descriptive accuracy:  “the gay voice that survives through generations, the illusionless adenoidal whine and drag …”

Hollinghurst is a stylist because he has a style, and one feature of this style is his phrases of opposites. It’s his logo, his leitmotif. They pepper all his work.

     ” … seemed to know and not to know …”

     “ … passed from shadow to shadow in doubt and then brief solidarity.”

     “ … he was smilingly both enemy and friend” which, of course is true of any auctioneer

     “ … more present and also more covetably remote…”

     ” … his relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Francesca was mixed with the relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Ivan… “

     “…he might be about to cry, or was just possibly stifling a laugh.”

     “It was as touching as it was annoying.”

     “ … magic as routine …”

It says something about the human condition – always to the fore in a Hollinghurst book – that these opposites are surprisingly apposite.

This is a book I will read again and unlike music which we listen to again because of what we remember, we re-read books because of what we forget, and not just the incidents but the pleasure of re-finding the joy in the details, the words, the phrases, the descriptions.

My only complaint with this book is the editing, or the lack of it, which, sadly, is what we have come to expect these days. I’m pleased that I’m not overtly annoyed by comma splices, of which there are many, but the sloppy use of pronouns especially in scenes with many characters of the same sex make re-reading for clarity an annoying necessity. There is even a sentence on page 181 that makes no sense at all but is due to, I suspect, a cut and paste not being checked for coherence.

Hollinghurst was born in a market town near Oxford in 1954; the only child of a bank manager, he had a happy childhood and especially remembers being flooded with relief, when his father said: “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters.” He didn’t mind at all and rather enjoyed playing Hide-&-Seek by himself: “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother told him. “It’s just Hide.” He had a safe and uneventful childhood and eventually studied at Oxford and after gaining a BA and a MLitt lectured for a while at his alma mater, Magdalen College, and several other tertiary piles before landing a job in 1982 at The Times Literary Supplement and becoming its assistant editor from 1985 – 1990.  He spectacularly burst onto the literary scene with The Swimming-Pool Library which put well-adjusted and happy gay lives firmly into the literary landscape. I remember seeing the book, in hard-cover, large and impressive, being handled and protected carefully in the arms of an Anglophile friend of mine, a mauve sweater draped around his shoulders and a sleeve caught in its pages, like a bookmark. I knew very little about it except its gay theme, but what struck me that day was that it exuded importance. He won the Man-Booker Prize in 2004 for his 4th novel The Line of Beauty.

The Booker, once the sought-after pinnacle of literary fiction in English, has been tarnished somewhat by the inclusion, some say, in 2014, of work by American writers; two of them having won the 2016 and 2017 prizes, Paul Beatty for The Sellout and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, respectively. In February this year 30 publishing heavyweights wrote to the Man-Booker Foundation asking that the 2014 decision be reversed. The reason for the dispute seems to be to avoid “an homogenised literary future;” or, it could be because a Brit hasn’t won it since 2012. The Foundation responded with “The Man Booker prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.” The 2018 prize, its 50th, will announce the long list in July.

You can buy this book in Kindle, hardback, or paperback editions, here.

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Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism

The Attachment by Ailsa Piper and Tony Doherty

Ailsa & Fr. Tony pic

Writers Ailsa Piper and Monsignor Tony Doherty

With the slow demise of intimate snail mail it would seem that the numbers of epistolary books are dwindling, but here’s one to turn the tide; but, yes, not letters, emails.

Ailsa Piper is a ‘walker’, and some years ago she asked friends and their acquaintances if they had any sins they wanted her to ‘walk off’ on a planned pilgrimage along the centuries-old camino in western Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The response was overwhelming and far from the lightheartedness in which the offer was made: she was sent some very serious sins. The walk inspired a book, Sinning Across Spain (2012), now in it’s second printing. It was this book that Monsignor Tony Doherty read and so engaged was he that he emailed the author, a woman he had never met; and so began an extraordinary correspondence that eventually turned into a book: this book, The Attachment.

It’s impossible to say there is no narrative since there is a timeline, or, at least, a sense of time passing: Tony writes, Ailsa replies, Tony replies and asks a question, Ailsa answers and asks one back … a conversation. However, there are pieces written by each of them addressed to the reader, not to each other, which I was very glad about. It saves the work from that tricky sense of rude intrusion that unattractively hangs around a book of letters, like the lingering stench of too much information never intended to be shared. I don’t usually read other people’s letters for this reason.

Ailsa is an agnostic writer, director, walker and performer originally from the red-dry wilds of north-western Western Australia, although, during the writing of this book, from Melbourne; Tony Doherty, an urbanite, has been a parish priest in Sydney for over fifty years. They met well after their conversation began. Initially it must’ve been an admiring reader to an inspiring writer but it soon developed into a friendship that coloured topics like birth, death, child abuse, grace, forgiveness, god, family, belief, siblings, friendship, politics, nature, silence, celibacy, walking, creativity, professional calling, poetry, marriage, language, food, and words.

I once heard of, to my dismay, an Australian fiction writer and teacher who told her writing students to avoid dialogue. I hope I never meet her, but if I do I would simply urge her to read this book, if only as a strong argument for the revelatory and character defining use of dialogue. I should confess here that I know Ailsa but I have not met Tony, although I have recently found there is a close connection; how many degrees of separation are there these days? I had a few thoughts on Ailsa confirmed and a few debunked, but the voice is unmistakably hers, which gives me confidence that the sense I have of Tony is fundamentally correct.

It’s a quick read. Despite its size, the large font, thick paper, and wide spacing make it so – I’d love to talk to a publisher one day about these decisions – although the need to read the next reply, usually short and to the point, is strong enough to add page-turning to its excellent credentials.

Its other strong point is the encouragement, by an annoying urge, to join in the conversation of particular topics, like family, with points, anecdotes, arguments, and examples of my own. Tony comes from quite a well defined family; Ailsa from a messy one, of divorces, other marriages, more siblings, that has morphed into a loving and noisy tribe; mine was neither of these – what two families are alike? – and I was keen to add, “Yes, but…” and “No, I don’t agree because…”.

What this book will ultimately do to you is force you to find your own Ailsa, your own Tony, and tease out what you think and feel about important things that only a duo-logue of dark scratchings on a pale background can ultimately get satisfactorily right.

You can buy both books, Sinning Across Spain and The Attachment, including the audio versions, here.

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Book review, Literary criticism, Short story collection

Touchy Subjects by Emma Donaghue

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Irish-Canadian writer, Emma Donoghue

In April 2008 in the Lower Austrian town of Amstetten a woman called Elizabeth Fritzl told police that she had for the past 24 years been held prisoner in an underground room under her father’s house. He had systematically raped her, she bore him seven children, and kept her from the world; even his wife didn’t know she was there.

This was the inspiration for Donoghue’s 2011 Man-Booker long-listed novel, Room, which went on to be filmed, with a script by Donoghue, in 2015, starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for Best Actress.

This book is a collection of short stories, her third, and came out in 2006. She tackles the foibles of modern people in stories told by various voices, genders, and sexualities: the desperate, but hilarious, lengths a forty-something woman will go to, to beat her biological clock; a cool romance set against the rough and back-slap masculinity of football where two rookies find more than the ball during their training sessions; and a touching and romantic story about the meeting of two minds and two bodies told in two narratives that weave and tangle with each other just like their hands do in the back of a van in the middle of a dark night, lost in the back lanes of Connemara. And that’s just three of them.

There’s a thread here running through these stories: of inner thoughts shared only with the reader that gives Donoghue’s writing the personal warmth and favouritism of dramatic irony; an intimacy with the reader that draws you in and makes you part of her intent.

Donoghue not always, but mostly, instills in the reader a confidence that you are in good literary hands. This is a book that could sit comfortably in your bedside book pile so you can dip into it again and again. Some stories will become favourites.

You can get the book, in various formats, here.

 

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Book review, Creativity, Essay, Literary criticism, poetry, prose, reading

The World Broke in Two by Bill Goldstein

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American academic, Bill Goldstein is the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College.

Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the year that changed literature.

In January 1922 Adeline Woolf, everyone called her Virginia, turned 40 and was very sick with influenza that prevented her from writing; T. S. Eliot, everyone called him Tom, 34, had been over worked, unhappy, in therapy, but now quietly confident since he had started writing again but fearful of returning to the Bank that trapped him between the concrete and the sky; E. M. Forster, called Morgan, 43, was sexually and artistically frustrated; and D. H. Lawrence, called Bert, 36, had the threat of his books being banned  (Women in Love, 1921, ” … ugly, repellent, vile”), and a libel suit against him so wanted to know “For where was life to be found” and thought by going to a quiet place by himself he might find it: Ceylon, New Mexico, or New South Wales.

All four had achieved some degree of literary fame: Woolf had published two novels and the third, Jacob’s Room, was waiting for her final revisions, however her illness kept her away from her work. Eliot had published successfully The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry magazine in 1915 and had been a regular contributor of reviews and essays, primarily for The Times Literary Supplement right up to December 1921. Forster had achieved great success with a series of novels, usually about the English abroad, beginning with Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1905 but by 1922 nothing had appeared after the very successful Howard’s End in 1910. Lawrence was more infamous than famous and had had Women in Love published in June 1921. It garnered bad reviews, and low sales. This added to the outrage caused by its prequel, The Rainbow, 1915, when it was withdrawn by the publisher after it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act. Lawrence had also characterised in the latter work, an acquaintance, Philip Heseltine, and thought he had disguised him enough, but Heseltine was not fooled and threatened legal action.

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Adeline Virginia Woolf 1882 – 1941

For all four writers 1922 did not begin well.

Artistic endeavour is always trying to solve the problems of the art form itself. How does a writer write an autobiography and make it interesting without using the boring phrases, “Then I went …. she cried and so I said …., Then I said, and he went ….”? Novelists for centuries have been using description and dialogue to draw a character; but in an autobiography how do you create an image of the narrator? There must be another way. Yes, there is, and one of the first writers to find another way was James Joyce who began his autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) like this

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.

First of all he writes not in the first person, but in the third (very radical, this is an autobiography, remember) and the above opening is not dialogue, it is prose; it’s not said by the protagonist but by the narrator using the language that the little boy, James, might use to describe what he sees and what he sees is himself! It’s as if the third person narrator is not some all-pervasive, god-like know-it-all but an imp sitting on the shoulder of the little boy seeing the world through his eyes and hearing the thoughts in his head. This literary device has become known as free indirect discourse, or as the literary critic of The New Yorker, James Wood, calls it, ‘close writing’; and it’s as common today in contemporary fiction as Vegemite is for an Australian breakfast. But it can’t be used in the first person. Or can it? Now, there’s a challenge for an adventurous writer!

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Edward Morgan Forster 1879 – 1970

Painters  sought to bypass the ‘real’ bit in order to paint, say, serenity, by trying to paint serenity with just the paint on the canvas, not trying to be something else, a face, a landscape, to ‘portray’ serenity. In other words, they painted not what they saw but what they felt. Writer’s similarly de-focused the ‘real’ bit and concentrated on, not what the characters did – the plot – but what the characters felt and thought. The plot became internalised.

Before January 1922 was over Eliot and Lawrence had succumbed to the influenza that brought Woolf so low and was rapidly becoming an epidemic to rival the devastating outbreak of 1918-19 that killed more people than the Great War. At least for Eliot the influenza kept him away from the bank and, despite the disease, hard at work on his long poem. His ill wife, also being absent, was yet another and usual worry out of the way.

On his way back to London from the unsuccessful trip to India Forster bought and read Proust’s first volume, Swann’s Way in French. He was “awestruck” and marveled at Proust’s use of memory to drive the narrative. Later in the year as the weather warmed he used Proustian ideas, and a poem by J. R. Ackerley, Ghosts, to impinge on him the truth that there is life after tragedy. His tragedy was the slow death of his unrequited lover in Egypt, whose death he almost wished would be sooner than later, as he was slowly re-reading the abandoned pages of his Indian novel, making notes and yearning for his tragedy to be behind him.

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Thomas Stearns Eliot 1888 – 1965

Woolf, with her illness almost past, read Proust too, in the spring while working on an essay about reading and dabbling with a minor character from her first novel, The Voyage Out, Clarissa Dallaway, weaving her into a short story called Mrs Dallaway in Bond Street.  Woolf too was enthralled with Proust’s use of memory to evoke the current state of mind of a character. In the opening scene of the short story, which eventually evolved into the novel Mrs Dallaway, Woolf has Clarissa arrested by the chiming of Big Ben which announces the convergence of the past and present, not only in the character’s mind but also on the page. Very Proustian! Clarissa Dallaway in Woolf’s first novel is described by the narrator but Woolf was determined in this one, this modern one, to have Clarissa think everything the reader needs to know about her. As Woolf wrote later to a friend, she didn’t mind being sick as “Proust’s fat volume comes in very handy.” Woolf, who wrote that she wanted to write like Proust, didn’t of course, but it was because of him that she began to write like herself again.

Joyce, for her, was different. Woolf and Joyce were both British, they were both the same age, and Joyce in 1922 had “a novel out in the world, a massive – expensive – box of a book”, Ulysses, and Woolf had not published a novel in two and a half years. She was jealous. Besides, Ulysses didn’t impress her. She thought it was “underbred” by a “self-taught working man.” What she failed to realise was that Joyce had a degree, she didn’t; it was she, not him, who was self taught.

Lawrence left England in early 1922 for Ceylon, but found it unsatisfactory, then Perth, Western Australia, very unsatisfactory, then Thirroul, south of Sydney, where he transferred his thinking back to what he called his ‘interim’ books, short stories and journalism. Could he write a novel like those, in a month, or less, using nothing but what he had around him, namely Frieda and himself, and what he thought and felt? He decided to give it a go and the novel Kangaroo was born, but this too stalled. It was the third novel in a row that got ‘stuck’. However, without the help of Proust, Lawrence turned to memory, and chapter 12, the longest in the book and the only one not set in Australia, describes the fear he and Frieda experienced at the outbreak of World War I (she was German and had abandoned her first husband and children; he was excluded from service because of his frail body). Lawrence had instilled in his protagonist, Richard Somers, a ‘fear’, exemplified by the vastness of the Australian continent, and it was Lawrence’s explanation of this fear, via his personal experience, his memory, that ‘unstuck’ his progress, and he got the thing finished.

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David Herbert Lawrence 1885 – 1930

T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem, The Waste Land, the poem that had battled with his job, his contemporaries, his wife, his past, and his health, finally published. Goldstein spends a lot of time, too much you may think, on the procrastination, arguments, letters, late replies, betrayals, that stall the publication; and all concerning people, publishers, agents, friends, supporters, who want it published.

For a year that started badly for all of them, 1922 ended like a new dawn: Virginia Woolf had a new novel, Mrs Dallaway; E. M. Forster was well on his way with his Indian novel, the one that had caused him so much anguish, A Passage To India, (1924), and would become his most celebrated; D. H. Lawrence had written a new novel, very different from his previous works, no sex, but had also been vindicated by the courts: The Rainbow and Women in Love were judged not obscene, although some passages were, but the press-obsessed trials led to a resurgence of sales and interest in his work; and T. S. Eliot finally saw his long poem in print, and received the accolades he thought it deserved.

For readers who are interested in literature and its history this book is a must-read. Goldstein has sculptured a surprising and complex narrative, esoteric and detailed, yes, but intriguing, stimulating, and fascinating.

In the year 1922 these four writers, for various reasons, had already been chipping away, with varying intensities, at a ‘crack’ in the English literary world, hoping their artistic challenges and vaguely-inspired experiments would lead them in a new and exciting direction. Then came the thundering blows of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce’s Ulysses which, along with The Waste Land, caused the ‘break’ and English literature did indeed cleave in two and took off in a new direction. However, the ‘piece’ that remained behind kept the majority of readers with it and it was those readers who demanded, and got, a whole array of plot-based genres, the names of which you can see topping a multitude of racks of books in any sizable book shop today; and over there in the corner of the shop topping a not insubstantial, but nevertheless alone, book-stack is another sign: literary fiction.

You can find the book in various formats here.

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Book review, Italian literature, Literary criticism

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

 

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Elena Ferrante is/might-be the pseudonymous name of an Italian writer. Publicity shy, she only accepts interviews by email. There are no photos of her online. James Wood, The New Yorker critic has deduced … a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married…In addition to writing, “I study, I translate, I teach.”

the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: from it comes as arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

That … what are writers stuck with? … the unreliable measuring device of words.

Every tone of voice, every possible meaning of words spoken, every possible meaning of words unspoken, the way they dress, walk, cry, smile, serve the pasta, look, and stand; all are analysed by Elena, the first-person narrator, in her attempt to understand what’s going on. It’s a Brugel-esque landscape of feelings colouring the lives of the Neapolitan working class in the 1960s and all seen through the eyes of Elena Greco  -“always fearful, always subordinate, always pleasingly willing”, the unmarried, bookish one with glasses.

Elena Greco:  I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money, I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured. This could easily be Lina’s creed too.

The title refers to Elena’s brilliant friend, Lina Cerullo and her new name now that she’s married, her married name, Lina Carracci, and, of course, Elena can’t be everywhere, especially in Lina and Stephano’s hotel room on their disastrous wedding night, but we get the scene, in the third person. Ferrante doesn’t need to justify how the narrator, Elena, knows what happened, she does (Lina told me) and clumsily so. However, there are other instances when the narration slips from the first to the third person unannounced. It’s OK. It’s a legitimate literary device, unnoticeable if attention is not drawn to it. It allows a flow of action or insight. This inconsistency is something the editor should’ve picked up. Ferrante is usually masterful at using these literary tools. Quotation marks, and ‘he said’, ‘she said’ are abandoned at times in the frenzy of verbal, sexual, or social violence giving the scene a filmic quality, making the action jump out of the flat page. This is good stuff, but doesn’t need justification.

The story is about Lina’s marriage that fell apart at the wedding at the end of Book One and how it continues on its downhill slide while Elena continues to bump against her upbringing and pursue an academic life, free – she thinks – from her stifling Neapolitan history; but Elena by this book’s end still believes Lina, despite her choices, is the more beautiful, the more intelligent.

Thank god there’s a glossary of families and family members at the front of the book. Ten families and their intra and extra familial relationships make up the fodder of the story and the glossary is well needed; and don’t be afraid to use it (no-one will know). Things get complicated especially with diminutives, family nicknames, and similarities; Alfonso, Antonio, Lina, Linu, which is a diminutive of Elena, not Lina whose real name is Raffaella. See? And don’t skip over the Italian family names, Cerullo, Cappuccio, Scanno, Solara. Say them out loud! You need to be familiar with them all and if you say them, you’ll be saying them a lot, right from the beginning so it won’t take long before you’re at one with the family, families. You’ll be in among them all. That’s the best bit.

The worst bit is the fate of the women. Not only are they treated like shit by all of the men – except when they want something, usually sex – their worst enemies are the other women: mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and  friends. Shame, gossip, inference, innuendo, treachery, lies, superstition, and pride are all weapons these Neapolitan women use against their own. And Elena sails bumpily, battered and bruised, but defiant, through it all, but ultimately aware that she is a woman and people see her more clearly, listen to her more intently, talk to her more respectfully, when she is on the arm, even metaphorically, of a man. Have things changed?

And then the story splits: Elena goes to study in Pisa, and Lina’s messy life of deception, abandoned commercial success, and personal war-mongering continues to engulf everyone in her circle of destructive intent and selfishness. Here I wanted to hear more about Elena, but I had to wait.

And then this:

One morning I bought a graph-paper notebook and began to write, in the third person, about what happened to me that night on the beach near Barano. Then, still in the third person, I wrote what happened to me on Ischia. Then I wrote a little about Naples and the neighborhood. Then I changed names and places and situations. Then I imagined a dark force crouching in the life of the protagonist, an entity that had the capacity to weld the world around her, with the colors of the flame of a blowtorch: a blue violet dome where everything went well for her, shooting sparks, but that soon came apart, breaking up into meaningless gray fragments. I spent twenty days writing this story, a period in which I saw no one, I went out only to eat. Finally, I reread some pages, I didn’t like them, and I forgot about it.

This is Elena Greco explaining herself, describing what changed her life, but it is more; it is a confession from Ferrante: how to write a novel. It’s finding the ‘dark force’ that’s the tricky bit. However, it’s this notebook, hand-written, unedited, that she gives as a gift – despite “I reread some pages, I didn’t like them” – and it’s this notebook that finds it’s way into literary circles, someone types it and shows it to a publisher and …

When Elena and Lina finally re-unite it’s in the most unlikely of places; two women, one about to be hoisted aloft, the other about as low as she can go but united by a shared intellect, history, and belief in the other, no mater how sorely that belief is tested. One ignored the upbringing they both had no control over; the other gave in to it. And like the end of Book One, My Brilliant Friend, this, Book Two, has a sting on the last page that compels you, no matter what you might think, to move on as quickly as possible to Book Three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Ferrante is a reading experience like no other.

You can purchase the book, in various formats including the ebook, here.

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Book review, Literary criticism

Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro.

I have a mild aversion to literary fantasy. I rarely read fantasy novels; I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known by the TV version, Game of Thrones, although I did try to read Lord of the Rings when I was way too young, but I found myself acknowledging the genre, and roping it in support of my argument when a dinner guest, on hearing that I had written a novel on the sex life of a single mum, said, “So, do you know any single mums?” “I’m not writing a documentary,” I said, “I’m writing fiction.” She looked at me as if I’d said the world was flat. I continued, “Well, I’m glad you weren’t dishing out literary advice to Tolkien or George Martin otherwise we’d be without Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.” Zombies, aliens, vampires, fairy god-mothers, elves, and talking rats and rabbits also sprang to mind, but she moved to the other end of the table before I could bring them in to bat.

When the British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature I scoured my bookshelf and found Never Let me Go (2005). I didn’t know anything about it, and all that I knew previously about Ishiguro, was that he had won the Man-Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, was born in Japan, and that his family had moved to London when he was a child.

Page one begins, “My name is Kathy H.” I had just read Sebastian Barry’s memorable The Secret Scripture, a male writer writing in the first person as a woman, so my pre-established prejudice against such literary cross-dressing had been severely weakened, to a point of not caring very much. However, halfway down the page there is this:

“My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’ even before fourth donation.”

The words “donors” and “fourth donation” sent a worry-jolt to my brain and I suspected that the created universe in which this story would unfold was not the one that I live in, but I felt safe from dragons or talking trees, so I continued reading.

It’s important to tell you that I was hooked very quickly but the book also made me think more about why I don’t read novels from the fantasy genre, as I now thought this book belonged to. It’s a general feeling of aversion for the literary ‘cop out’. If the universe of the novel has dragons flying through the air, i.e., the universe of the novel is not your universe, then it seems to me that anything is possible. A plot complication of any magnitude could be sorted out by any deus ex machina the writer deems necessary. This feeling isn’t strong, but with so much to read in the genres I prefer, the urge to delve into others doesn’t really come up. Genres are only important for publishers, booksellers, and readers; I acknowledge them as a reader, but writers, and especially Ishiguro, don’t pay much heed to them. His Remains of the Day, a very English tale of love and painful reticence is in the most English of settings: below stairs in a manor house; while his most recent novel, The Buried Giant is a true fantasy novel set in post-Arthurian Briton.

Kathy H is a thirty-something woman remembering her education at a boarding school, Hailsham, and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The school is recognisably British but with weird and worrying rules, attitudes, and characters. It becomes clear, through mis-matched memories, remembered inconsistencies, and briefly explained circumstances that the world of the novel is not the world of the reader; and the fate of the students is mapped out, rigid, and dystopian.

The almost lazy diary-style of remembrance, “It was just like the time when…”, “… looking back now…”,”I don’t know about you, but where we were…”, “… and that reminded me of Chrissie, who …”, “…the way I remember it is…”, “It’s funny now recalling the way it was at the beginning…”, “… and that’s when we had that talk I told you about …”, gets a little repetitive, and the incidents and events she remembers has about as much dramatic content as “sharpening a pencil”, as one critic joked; but these remembrances of seemingly minor happenings do create something in the reader similar to the experience of the narrator; no mean feat: a jumble-book of seemingly indistinct and trivial memories flavoured with asides and happenstance of their lives that coalesce eventually into a sprawling picture of unease, and controlled morality and personal destiny. You begin to like these young people; wonder how much and what they know about themselves and their circumstances; and what is this curious feeling of dread you find creeping over you like a blanket?  Yes, the remembrances may be small but the stakes are incredibly high and when Kathy H and her peers discover the true meaning of their existence … no, no spoilers here; you’ll have to read it yourself to understand the frightful truth.

Ishiguro’s chosen narrative style is conversational, prosaic even, how a good friend may write a letter (remember writing letters?) telling you what they did on the weekend. No literary language or erudite psychological musings, just memories of a middle-class woman about her upbringing; oh, and allowing un-spoken assumptions that the reader takes in, by osmosis, that creates, deep-down at first, this creeping disquiet.

It’s not a book you can easily forget. It is one of the most unusual and emotionally disturbing books I have ever read. I admire Ishiguro’s control over what he writes; how his skill is hidden and you only marvel at it when the story is over, and then you understand that what you feel is a direct, and deliberate, result of it.

You can find the book, in various formats, here.

The movie version (2010) stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling; adapted by Alex Garland, and directed by Mark Romanek.

Oh, and BTW, here is a piece of advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, Write what you know is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. I wish I’d known about this quote as more ammunition for my brief literary discussion with above dinner guest.

Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

 

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Book review, Irish literature, Literary criticism

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry pic

Irish writer, Sebastian Barry.

Some years ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival I was intrigued and entertained by a British writer called Jill Dawson who had the audience at her session in the palm of her hand, so I checked out one of her volumes in the festival bookshop. I place a lot of importance and insight into a book by its first page. It wasn’t long, still on page one, that I heard a faint gasp from my own mouth and a thunk as I put the book back immediately. Both actions were involuntary. I was alarmed; not by the content but by my reaction to the content: she was writing in the first person as a man. I was not aware that I held this prejudice. Since then I have tried several times to write as a woman; I mean, in a first person (and third person) female voice with mixed success. So, when it was clear that Barry’s first person narrator was a woman I did not act as before but thought it was time I faced my prejudice, although weakened since by my own efforts, and continued reading.

The narrative is, in fact, in two voices: one the old woman, Roseanne Clear, the dominant voice, and the other, Dr Grene, the psychiatrist who tends to her at the Roscommon mental hospital, St Malarky’s, where Roseanne has been living for as long as anyone can remember. Roseanne Clear is very old, maybe even a hundred.

I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.

She writes out her life on “unwanted paper” and stashes it under a loose floorboard; not unusual as the building is falling apart. Barry gives her language that is poetic, articulate, melancholy, and wise but seemingly uneducated at times: “no more”, although this could be her Irish-ness peeking through. Yet she is in a mental hospital. This is usually a theatrical device, a character being one thing to the other characters, and someone else to the audience; a form of dramatic irony.  This is reinforced by conversations she has with Dr Grene where she gives simple answers or sometimes no answer at all, while telling the reader her reasons.

Her aim is to try and remember why she is where she is and whether memory, about a husband, then a non-husband, abandonment, expulsion, and a child, has any relation to reality. Is memory trustworthy?

Her story is one of Ireland: beginning with political unrest and genteel poverty as the daughter of a Presbyterian gravedigger in Sligo, western Ireland in the 1940s. Almost half of the book is devoted to her memory of her childhood with a father she adored, and you will too – even when be is reduced to work as a rat-catcher –  but with a mother who is as distant and silent as a housemaid, which she resembles. Dr Grene has a similar wife, blank, distracted, lonely and you wonder at times whose memory is the more reliable.

The themes here are literary-Irish through and through: the slap-dash care, easy-bitterness, and bloody-mindedness of family; the down-right intractability of a mean-spirited Church hiding behind the skirts of a dour and silent god; secrets of paternity; the hyper-critical branding based on any sexuality that isn’t church-condoned, but done in the dark, and never mentioned; and the dis-empowerment, subordination, and denigration of women.  It’s a very long way from the Ireland of today with its diminished religiosity, liberalism, and political leadership by an openly gay young man whose paternity is from India. However, as long as there are Irish writers who were damaged, but survived, their Irish past, as holocaust survivors survived theirs, there will be books like this.

The writing is luscious, and sometimes you need to re-read aloud a line, a paragraph, just to wallow in the words, to delight in the feel of them in your mouth; and since we read for pleasure – like we listen to music – there’s no need to engage the memory, this is a book for reading again.

The Secret Scripture was short-listed for the Man-Booker, won the Jame Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Costa Award in 2008; which Barry won again in 2016 for Days Without End.

You can find the book in various formats, including audio book and audio CD, here.

The film version, directed and co-written by Jim Sheridan with Johnny Ferguson, was made in 2016 starring Rooney Mara (the love interest to Cate Blanchett’s title-character in Carol, from 2015) as young Rose, Vanessa Redgrave as old Rose, and Eric Bana as Dr Grene; it was released in the USA in October.  It will be in cinemas in Australia from December 7, 2017.

 

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