Fiction: May – June 2010

Philip Roth The Ghost Writer

An odd little book. Creepily written with self-doubt and self-aggrandisement alternating in the rather charmless protagonist’s consciousness, this is classic Rothian meta-fiction. All about the process – in thought and deed – of being a writer, but also of being a neurotic egotistical blowhard. I suspect it comes fairly easily for the old chap, having been a fan of his work for some time now. The book pivots around a wonderfully audacious twist which I can’t help thinking is just too damned big an idea. Not normally one to criticise ambition in the arts, but for me this came across as a little arrogant (without giving too much away). As usual, the prose is just masterful – pages run by efficiently and then you are smacked about the chops by a sentence like this: “Yes, nothing less than love for this man with no illusions: love for the bluntness, the scrupulosity, the severity, the estrangement; love for the relentless winnowing out of the babyish, preening, insatiable self; love for the artistic mulishness and the suspicion of nearly everything else; and love for the buried charm, of which he’d just given me a glimpse.” It has the usual Roth Achilles’ Heel – a seedy lust for a young girl – but the crafting of Nathan Zuckerman’s human relationships, especially with his father, is excellent.

Muriel Spark The Driver’s Seat

I picked up this slender volume in a very musty second-hand bookshop full of dog-eared Penguins. This has Elizabeth Taylor on the front cover, taken from the film adaptation (“Identikit”, of which I was completely unaware). This book was recently nominated for the Lost Booker Prize as it was published in 1970 when the dates of eligibility were changed and fell between two competitions, though it was beaten by J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. The story concerns a thirty-something office worker who goes on holiday in Italy. It’s hard to describe the narrative in much more detail without giving away crucial plot devices, so I will concentrate on the characterisation, mood and psychological aspects of the book, which are its real foci. The protagonist, Lise, is a strange and complex character for a novel written in 1970 – she is portrayed as facing some sort of crisis, brought on by her self-perception and also the expectations of others: for her role, her age, her appearance and femininity. The daily activity of the office is clearly a grind, but the importance of decorum and front is emphasised (this brought to mind some of those great, awkward scenes in Mad Men with women taking off to the bathroom for a quick – and completely routine – minor breakdown). The men who pay attention to Lise see her either as weak and manipulable, as fragile and washed-up, or as a purely sexual object. Each perception is explored and no redemptive depth or synthesis can be found, just a variety of two-dimensional roles for a woman to play in spite of the (then-recent) ‘sexual revolution’ – indeed references to other tenets of sixties hippydom are rather scathing. The book is melancholy and detached, with moments of crystal-clear pathos which are quickly abandoned to cold calculation. It is a book as much about mental health as about agency and femininity, and seems to be incredibly forward-thinking for its time, though not without some strange, jarring moments. Well worth a read, it was disturbing and perverse, and totally confounded my expectations.

Christopher Isherwood Mr Norris Changes Trains

A great little book about pre-war Berlin and the budding friendship between an idealistic young teacher (based on Isherwood himself) and an old blustering con-man named Arthur Norris. Norris is quite a character, charming, repellent and baffling all at once. He is a communist, he is a crook, and he is partial to a spot of masochism. The book is based in 1930s Berlin, against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism, and all of Mr Norris’s characteristics rub up against the growing authoritarianism in some way. The great success of the book, in my view, is that it manages to keep the enormous socio-political changes being wrought on Germany some way in the background without ever treating them lightly. It is the story of Arthur, of his friendship with the narrator, William, and of his strange relationships both with his exploitative, blackmailing assistant, Schmidt, and the increasingly clandestine Communist Party. Despite the latter narrative, it isn’t really a political book at all. Instead I would describe it as an excellent series of characterisations, which convey the context with a great delicacy and lightness of touch. Really good.

John Wyndham The Day of the Triffids / The Outward Urge

I can’t really overstate what a revelation reading Wyndham again has been for me. I read The Chrysalids at school, but had never got around to the more famous Triffids (and hadn’t heard of The Outward Urge until I found it buried in a pile of second-hand books somewhere on Donceles street). The Day of the Triffids is, simply, brilliant. Whichever level it is read on – science-fiction thriller, political metaphor, prediction of future apocalypse and subsequent human survival (and implicit revival) – it is frightening, exciting and utterly plausible. While the gripping narrative of monstrous plant invasion is near-flawless, the more interesting parts of the book for me chronicled the fractious relationships between the survivors, and the competing conceptions of how the remaining humans should organise themselves – along militaristic, religious, anarchist or communitarian lines. It is a fascinating debate carried out with a masterful touch, letting the menace of the Triffids fade into the background just for long enough to become distracted before it whips back to the foreground, often with devastating brutality.

The Outward Urge is a series of short, interrelated stories – effectively a family history, though that isn’t too crucial. It is the story of humanity’s colonisation of space, and of the concurrent declines and recoveries of the human race on earth (a lot of the ground that is covered in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, actually). Wyndham predicts a grim future for the northern hemisphere, with a nuclear war wiping out the superpowers and leaving Brazil and Australia as top dogs on earth, each looking to space as the only option for expansion. Without a managed transition, Wyndham also posited a massacre of white rulers in South Africa and a subsequent expulsion of Indians, not dissimilar to what Idi Amin actually did in Uganda in 1972. I will be reading The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos as soon as I can – as such a Radiohead fan I should probably seek out Chocky too.

Aesop Fables

I thought it would be interesting to read the whole series of fables from which so many aphorisms and proverbs are derived. While many are simply common sense advice wrapped in an elegant animal story, there are some startlingly timeless insights into human nature – particularly those fables concerning vanity, egoism, treachery and greed. One thing which did surprise me, given Aesop’s own position as a slave, was the number of his fables which call for the acceptance of one’s place in the social order. I might be missing some two-thousand year-old subtleties here, or they may be lost in translation, but Aesop seems incredibly conservative, and time and again calls for the reader to rein in their ambitions and to accept one’s lot in life.

John Le Carré The Looking Glass War

I’d never got around to reading Le Carré, which is perhaps surprising as my topic of study is basically the Cold War, and I grew up loving spy books and films. I was pleasantly surprised by this. I know Le Carré has a good reputation but he is sometimes lumped in with Len Deighton and Frederick Forsyth, who are great storytellers, but not really good writers (in my opinion). Le Carré, though, is both. His prose is neat, efficient, sometimes cruel and always gripping. The detachment of the storytelling is also quite unusual and arresting – there’s more than a hint of existentialist alienation in there (though I’m hardly suggesting he is some sort of Camus). This book is the story of the botching, repairing and second attempt at a mission to garner intelligence from East Germany. It begins with a meeting and information exchange which goes badly wrong, then follows the development of a young Oxbridge spooks-type, and finally the training and insertion of a Polish agent. It ends as abruptly as it begins, with compromise suggested as betrayal followed by hand-wringing and hard-headed realism. A great insight into the mindset of Cold War intelligence, and the dangers of unchecked and unaccountable power in the secret services. Apparently Le Carré’s least-successful book – this is perhaps testament to his other work, though he himself thought it was because TLGW was too realistic. Maybe so, but for that reason alone it is worth reading.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 5:40 pm  Comments (12)  

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. If you liked that, the other great Le Carre which gets a bit overlooked because it’s pre-Smiley, is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a devastatingly sad book.

    btw R4 has been broadcasting dramatisations of all the Smiley novels, and they’re available for download from another site (not archived for more than a week on the BBC site) – a friend just sent me the bookmarks for them, and I think I’m going to have a Smiley orgy. Let me know if you’d like me to pass them on.

    • I think I read about those – with Simon Russell Beale? – I would like that indeed, thanks. Though I will always see Alec Guinness’s face (oddly perhaps, given I never actually saw the television adaptations).

  2. The TV adaptations were also great. Still haunted by the Geoffrey Burgon version of the Nunc Dimittis which was the soundtrack. Here they are, all but the most recent which should still be on R4 site:

    Tinker Tailor:
    Honourable Schoolboy:
    Smiley’s People:

    Spy who came in from the cold:

    Murder of quality:
    Call for the dead:
    Looking glass war:

    this site is apparently good for all kinds of stuff which has disappeared off the R4 site.

    • Thanks very much – I’ll use those as a kind of home-made Book at Bedtime!

  3. Bill, if you liked The Driver’s Seat, try The Ballad of Peckham Rye next. Dark, demonic, eccentric – and a superb ear for the absurdities of everyday English speech. Spark really was a genius writer of black comedy (some compare her to Waugh because of the Catholicism and the acerbity) but she’s almost sui generis really.

    • Thanks Andrew, I will try that. I kept laughing out loud at really inappropriate moments during The Driver’s Seat, but it really is very surreal and arresting at points.

  4. I think the only contemporary writer you can compare Muriel Spark to is Hilary Mantel. The obliqueness and black humour have a certain similarity, plus the Catholicism (lapsed in Mantel’s case, I think).

    • I’ve never read any Hilary Mantel. I remember there was a bit of a divide about Wolf Hall, but the subject matter sounds interesting enough and plenty of people have recommended it to me.

  5. I think Wolf Hall’s superb, as is her other historical novel, A place of greater safety, where she has the effrontery to take as her central characters Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. But the most Sparkian (Sparkesque?) is probably Beyond Black, set on the psychic fayre circuit around the M25, with a central character who hears spirits in her head: she may be psychic, may be traumatised or may be mad. It’s grimly funny. Happy to lend you any we have when you get back. Oh, and An experiment in love, which is really a homage to Spark’s The girls of slender means – fear and loathing in the apparently demure setting of a women’s university hall of residence in the 60s.

    • Forgot to reply to this – would be delighted to borrow any and all of those!

  6. You’re very welcome to borrow the ones we have (fairly sure we don’t have the Spark). Plus we seem to have lent out APOGS and it’s gone awol…

  7. […] Wakes (as an aside, the recent Penguin editions of Wyndham’s fiction are rather lovely). I’ve written about my admiration for Wyndham before, here – and some of you may have noticed that this blog is in fact named after one of his first […]

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