Tag Archives: Novel

The Book Group on David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue

David Mitchell, Utopia Avenue (Sceptre 2020)

Before the meeting: This is the first book by David Mitchell that I’ve read. Once again, the Book Group has taken me off my customary reading track.

The book takes its title from Utopia Avenue, a fictional English rock band in the late 1960s: a socially awkward guitar player from a wealthy Dutch family who wrestles with his personal demons (word chosen carefully), a working-class bass player with long hair and a troubled relationship (an understatement) with his father, a rough Yorkshire lad on the drums, a middle-class woman folk-singer who is a wonder on the keyboards, and their Canadian manager, a decent man who gets them together and believes in their talent. Three of the four band members are song-writers, and the book’s chapters are named for their songs. Its longer sections are named for the band’s three albums.

The novel charts the band’s progress from their coming together, to their disastrous first gig, to a painful but comparatively rapid rise in the charts, to success at home and in the USA and (not a spoiler) their eventual break-up. Plus a brief reunion fifty-one years later.

Even though the book is unmistakably fiction, it has a powerful documentary quality. It feels animated by a love for that moment in pop history (roughly the time when David Mitchell was being born, I just found out). There’s careful attention to period details – how to make a phone call and why you might hesitate to call internationally, how to negotiate sexual politics when the world is on the cusp of second-wave feminism, how to manage the politics of the US war in Vietnam when you’re a ‘non-political’ band, the meaning of long hair. We are often told what song is playing in the background, and although I was living in a monastery in the years in question, this evokes the flavour of the times wonderfully. Historical figures make cameo appearances: Brian Jones, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen – and Jimmy Saville with the faintest whiff of the revelations to come much later. Francis Bacon presides over a whole chapter. Words of wisdom are quoted from Mama Cass and Mick Jagger. The band members sit and discuss the newly-released Sergeant Pepper’s track by track. I felt I was in safe hands: I believe that Jagger actually said the things attributed to him, that Mama Cass gave such sex-and-marijuana parties (in fact I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one just like it in a movie), that Leonard Cohen spoke with this flirtatious formality, that radio and television shows were tacky in something close to this way. The research doesn’t push itself to the front of the picture, but it provides a solid, fine-grained background.

Possibly someone who knows more about music than I do will complain that the descriptions of the band’s concerts are inauthentic (as one of the Book Group has been scathing about Tim Winton’s descriptions of surfing), but I loved them. For example, in Side One of the third album, where the band begins to play Jasper’s song ‘Sound Mind’, I wouldn’t know a chop-slap from a scale of triads, but I do get the excitement of the moment:

Jasper strums; asks the tech-guy for more volume on his guitar; shuts his eyes … and slams into an amp-blowing, bent-string howl; and fires off a scale of triads, starting from high E, all the way down. Jasper rewards his first cheer of the night with a new riff that isn’t ‘Sound Mind’: nobody will ever know it’s a rip-off of Cream’s ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’. It gets the audience thunder-clapping in time. Griff, Dean and Elf join in on drums, bass and Hammond. Jasper steers the jam through three cycles before wrapping it up in a Wah-Wah’d B flat, the opening of ‘Sound mind’. Dean comes in with the bass riff; Elf comes in on the next bar; and Griff chop-slaps on the next. Jasper leans in for his psycho-whisper …

(Page 461)

What I’m saying is that this is a terrific historical novel. But then … astonishingly integrated with the rest, is a fantasy narrative strand. There are characters who are hundreds of years old, something akin to demonic possession and something akin to exorcism. For me as a newcomer to David Mitchell, when this strand comes to the fore, it does so as a brilliant plot twist. Seasoned Mitchell readers wouldn’t be so joyfully blindsided. For them, hints abound. For example, the lead guitarist is Jasper De Zoet, a name that suggests that he may be a descendant of the title character of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. (Again, not a spoiler: he is revealed to be just that.) It turns out that any number of minor characters have wandered into these pages from earlier Mitchell novels, just as others have wandered in from the real-life 1960s, and the weird stuff harks back to the imagined realities of earlier books. It speaks wonders for Mitchell’s writing that I didn’t have a sense that I was coming in late: everything makes sense in terms of the present-time story, and everything is explained coherently. Only towards the end, when there are hints that the odd behaviour of a young child is is doing what in in a TV show would be laying the grounds for next season, I went DuckDuckGoing and found the notion that all Mitchell’s novels are connected into an über-novel – which I think means that each of his novels adds something to an ongoing story that stretches over centuries.

I’m left with at least one mystery. When Dean, the bass player, goes to an anti-Vietnam demonstration in London, he is attracted to a woman named Lara. She says something about the demonstrators being in a great revolutionary tradition, and this uncharacteristically stilted conversation follows (remember, this is in the middle of a demo where people are being attacked by police with batons):

‘What’s yer surname, Lara?’ asked Dean.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘One day yer going to be famous.’
Lara lit a Marlboro. ‘Lara Veroner Gubitosi.’
‘Wow. That’s … long.’
‘Most names on Earth are longer than “Dean Moss”.’
‘S’pose so. Are yer Italian, then?’
‘I’m from many places.’

Something is being hinted at here, and I don’t know what it is. As far as I can find out, Lara Veroner Gubitosi isn’t a historical personage. Nor, as far as I know, is she a character from another David Mitchell novel. I tried for an anagram, and came up with ‘revolutionaries brag’ or ‘love is but a roaring’. Neither feels conclusive. Maybe it too is a hint of things to come in future novels.

So I’m taking two questions to the Group. How do the musicians among us feel about the descriptions of music? and, Why is that minor character called Lara Veroner Gubitosi?

After the meeting: There was some WhatsApp discussion of what music should be playing at this dinner. It was a long list, and it looked like a real possibility that book talk would be secondary to fogeys reminiscing about the 60s, even though a couple of the chaps weren’t born then.

The playlist was there and a source of much pleasure. Likewise the reminiscing. One of us could boast that back in the mid 60s he was a founding member of one of the London clubs that feature in the book. Another was close friends with Joe Strummer. Yet another knew someone who auditioned to replace Pete Best when was turfed as drummer for the Beatles – and believed that Ringo was absolutely the right person for the job. Closer to the experience of the rest of us was the chap who said he still has the little tin he kept his dope in, and when he lifts the lid – every couple of years – he can still smell the 70s.

We did talk about the book, a lot. One or two found it too long. one said that the structure of our meeting – all in a single, focused conversation for some time, then splintering into two or three disparate chats, then back together again, repeat – was similar to the book’s structure. There was a difference of interpretation about Jacob’s story: some read it as a graphic and moving account of schizophrenia, whereas I’m convinced that while that’s clearly there as a metaphorical resonance, the weird events he experiences are real in the world of the book. When I mentioned as evidence that the same immortal creatures appear in other David Mitchell books, someone said that that was all very well, but just sticking to the book in front of us, the schizophrenic reading held up. The one person who had read other David Mitchell novels abstained from the debate, and of course the emotional force of the story was the same whichever way you read it.

It’s a book that conversation can thrive on. Judgements divided about the cameo appearances of real people, heavily leaning toward the view that they worked well. On my question about the descriptions of music, those who knew more about music than I do (which wouldn’t take much) enjoyed the descriptions at least as much as I did. On my question about Lara Veroner Gubitosi, the consensus seemed to be that I have too much time on my hands, though at least one person conceded that David Mitchell may well be playing little games with us. We talked about the book’s portrayal of the difference between British and US pop culture, of the situation of women in rock at that time, of the realism in the account of Dean being hit with a possibly opportunistic paternity claim.

In non-book conversation, we were generally dismayed at Scott Morrison’s statement that it was when his wife suggested that he imagine their daughters being sexually abused that he realised he needed to empathise with a young woman currently in the news; we barely mentioned the former US President; there was some back and forth, mainly back, about Elizabeth Farrelly’s new book, Killing Sydney; Covid got surprisingly little wavelength; there was some amusing reporting on how some women (met at parties? on dating apps? I don’t know) are fascinated at the concept of an all male Book Group, who not only meet, but once they’ve met actually talk about the book. We had what we have come to call a Gentlemen’s Picnic – that is, we brought food. There was too much, and it was excellent.

Anne Enright’s Green Road

Anne Enright, The Green Road (Jonathan Cape 2015)

As a child in North Queensland, I thought of myself as Irish Catholic. My father sang ‘The Rose of Tralee’ or ‘Galway Bay’ when he was feeling romantic, and Patrick O’Hagan was often on the gramophone; the parish priests (Hogan and Fitzpatrick, among others) spoke longingly of their homes in County Kilkenny or County Clare; we sang ‘At the Rising of the Moon’ and ‘Slattery’s Mounted Foot’ in school concerts, and ‘Hail Glorious Saint Patrick’ at Mass on Sundays. No matter that two of my grandparents were from Protestant backgrounds (though one of them converted), and only one of the four was from Ireland, and Northern Ireland at that. I identified as Irish. When, some time in my twenties, I met the concept of an Irish diaspora, I felt I had found my place, or at least a name for my sense of belonging to a place I’d never seen.

When I got to know some actual Irish people, I was shocked that they didn’t think of me as one of them, and even considered my Irishness to be sentimental, delusional and vaguely insulting. When I visited Ireland, it did feel a little like coming home, but no more than when I visited Naples or Valletta (after all, my North Queensland home has huge Italian and Maltese populations, and as well as marching on St Patrick’s Day we had passion plays at Easter and the school choir sang ‘Funiculì Funiculà’).

All the same, whenever I read an Irish novel, or see an Irish movie or TV show, it’s personal. One way or another it’s going to speak to my heritage. The Green Road hit a lot of personal notes.

The novel is named for an actual green road near Galway in Western Ireland, where the novel’s climactic events take place. The title also gestures towards the reality of the Irish diaspora: it’s the Emerald Isle but, the title suggests, the emblematic green has taken to the road. Each of the five chapters in the first half of the book – Part One: Leaving – tells a new story set in a new time and place. If you’re a bit slow on the uptake like me, it takes a while to realise that the serial protagonists are members of the same Irish family, living disparate lives on different continents as the decades pass: a young girl in an Irish village in 1980, her brother a decade later in AIDS-ravaged Gay Manhattan, a sister later still, housewife and mother in Dublin, another brother working for an NGO in Mali in 2002, and finally, back in the unnamed village of the first chapter, the mother, now in her 70s in 2005.

In Part Two: Coming Home, all four children come home for Christmas. As in home-for-the-holidays Hollywood movies, the famil’s unresolved tensions, jealousies and resentments come bubbling to the surface during what is supposed to be a festive gathering. But the novel brings a depth to that genre because we know a lot about each of these people: Dan, the oldest and his mother’s joy, was once going to be a priest but is now about to marry his rich male lover in Toronto; Constance, the responsible one, is now a mother who has had a cancer scare but didn’t want to alarm anyone; Emmet has devoted his life to doing good work for NGOs in developing countries, but can’t form a solid intimate relationship; Hanna, the youngest, is a failing actress, alcoholic and not coping well with having a young baby; and Rosaleen, the mother, is a wonderfully complex character for whom motherhood was her life and who, now that she is widowed, wrestles with ambivalence about her children, and plans to sell the family home.

The novel moves on from home-for-the-holidays when Rosaleen, overwrought, drives off and wanders on the green road in the bitter winter night, filled with memories of courtship with the children’s father, half hallucinating, possibly hypothermic. I won’t spoil the ending.

There are some wonderful set pieces: little Hanna watches her father behead a chicken in the first chapter (a scene that comes close to moments from my own childhood); Gay men party on in the second chapter, in ways that seem familiar from plays like Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance or TV like It’s a Sin; and, my favourite, Constance goes shopping for Christmas – a chore that takes several pages to narrate, ending like this:

She was on the road home before she remembered potatoes, thought about pulling over to the side of the road and digging some out of a field, imagined herself with her hands in the earth, scrabbling around for a few spuds.

Lifting her head to howl.

(page 232)

This family is very different from mine. Yet, whether it’s the Irishness or something much more general than that, the book’s relationships struck many familiar notes. The oldest son’s special status, for example: as someone is looking through Rosaleen’s things, they see postcards of famous paintings and realise they have come from Dan in the wide world – and though my oldest brother, Michael, wasn’t gay, and the big city he went to was Brisbane, he taught us all about classical music, contemporary theatre and foreign language movies, and gave my parents a Blackman print to replace the painting of a gum tree on the kitchen door. I’ve already mentioned the killing of the chook. Rosaleen keeps bursting into poetry; my mother was a very different person from her, but she did love to recite the opening lines of ‘The Hound of Heaven’, and when one of the characters recites the opening lines of the ‘Hail Holy Queen’ I am transported back to the family rosary.

So much of my reading is about people, places and situations different from mine and either informative about how the other 99.9 percent live or invitation to speculation/fantasy. There’s real pleasure in reading something that keeps bumping into and overlapping my own experience and heritage, shedding light and conjuring forgotten tastes and smells – confirming and maybe grinding some sentimental or delusional edges off the identity I took on as a child.

Proust Progress Report 18: The beginning of the end

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 6, Albertine disparue, page 2000 to end; beginning Book 7, Le temps retrouvé

Someone recently commented on a sporting event, probably a cricket match, that watching it was like reading Proust. I would have been tempted to reply, ‘You mean it made you obsess about the sexuality of the players?’ In the sixth book, Albertine disparue, the narrator gradually gets over the loss of his beloved Albertine, but even when his grief is well and truly in the past, he still frets over her probable lesbianism, no longer writhing with jealousy perhaps, but now ruminating for pages on the unreliability of witness accounts, on the universality of lying, and – of course – on memory, imagination, and the gap between them and reality.

So much has happened in what I’ve read this month. When I began, the narrator was in Venice with his mother lusting after young Venetian women, his lust being largely based in what he thought would have stirred Albertine’s desire. There are a couple of encounters with characters from earlier books. M de Norpois, now retired, is still wielding influence in diplomatic circles. Mme de Villeparisis has a lovely cameo appearance which, to use the cricket analogy, is like someone hitting a six. On hearing Mme de Villeparisis’s name, Mme Sazerat, who is a guest of the narrator and his mother, gets all excited. Her father, she explains, had an affair with Mme de Villeparisis many years previously, and was ruined. Mme Sazerat’s only consolation was that the terrible suffering her whole family endured was a result of his having been involved with the greatest beauty of the day. Now she would love to clap eyes on that great beauty for the first time. Marcel escorts her to the restaurant and points out the object of her fascination:

Mais comme les aveugles qui dirigent leurs yeux ailleurs qu’où il faut, Mme Sazerat n’arrêta pas ses regards à la table où dînait Mme de Villeparisis, et, cherchant un autre point de la salle:
– Mais elle doit être partie, je ne la vois pas où vous me dites.
Et elle cherchait toujours, poursuivant la vision détestée, adorée, qui habitait son imagination depuis si longtemps.
– Mais si, à la seconde table.
– C’est que nous ne comptons pas à partir du même point. Moi, comme je compte, la seconde table, c’est une table où il y a seulement, à côté d’un vieux monsieur, une petite bossue, rougeaude, affreuse.
– C’est elle!

(page 2082–2083)

But, like blind people who look in the wrong direction, Mme Sazerat did not bring her gaze to rest at the table at which Mme de Villeparisis was dining, and, looking towards another part of the room:
‘But she must have gone, I can’t see her where you say.’
And she searched on in pursuit of the loathed, adored vision that had haunted her imagination for so long.
‘But yes, at the second table.’
‘We mustn’t be counting from the same point. The second table by my count is one where there are only two people, beside an old gentleman a little hunchback, red-faced and hideous.’
‘That is she!’

Perhaps because Proust died before making a final revision of this book, he lets that tragicomic moment stand without even a sentence reflecting on the gap between imagination and reality. We can be glad of that. And yet it looks as if Mme Sazerat’s great disillusionment is a kind of hinge: from here on, disparate threads of the narrative are tied up, imagined meanings of long-ago events are punctured, and there’s a general sense of things closing down.

When his mother is about to leave Venice, Marcel decides to stay behind in the hope of meeting up with a Mme Putbus for carnal purposes, but at the last minute joins her on the train. They both open letters and the thread-tying begins in earnest: they learn of two marriages. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Robert gets married, and Gilberte gets married, and Jupien’s daughter gets married, and it turns out that Robert (no spoiler here, I hope) has realised he’s gay and is pretty open about it, which causes his new wife considerable distress. M de Charlus has made a kind of amends to Jupien by providing for his daughter. Morel, who seduced Jupien’s daughter and dumped M de Charlus a couple of books back, is now doing very well with another rich patron of Guermantes lineage, thank you very much. The narrator is still curious about Albertine’s sexuality, and has a lot to say about male homosexuality, including speculating that all the Guermantes men are homosexual with only an occasional aberration, and surmising that homosexual men make the best husbands (he does enjoy salaciousness, paradox and gossip, and all the better if he can combine all three).

At the start of the final book, the narrator is staying at Gilberte’s place in the country. After, among other things, completely reinterpreting his earliest memories of her, she lends him some bedtime reading – an unpublished diary of the Goncourts – and in what I have think of as a typical Proustian moment, he gives us six pages word for word of what he read before he went to sleep. In those pages, we are given a version of a salon that our narrator has mocked relentlessly: in this version, the guests are witty, intelligent, creative, and are given credit for inspiring, educating and even instructing at least one artist that Marcel reveres. I think I read correctly that the shock of seeing this difference is so great that Marcel decides he isn’t talented enough to be a writer, or alternatively that literature is too far removed from reality to be taken seriously in any way. And he turns his back on the whole writing enterprise.

Years later – and this is where I’m up to – after spending years far from Paris in a maison de santé (a sanatarium?), he comes back to the capital in 1916 (the first time he has mentioned a date). I’m sure something is about to happen, but currently he is having a fine time mocking the way clothes design has replaced art at the cultural centre, and the newspapers are celebrating the way the war allows glorious innovations in women’s fashion.

Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love with George Eliot

Kathy O’Shaughnessy, In Love with George Eliot (Scribe 2019)

George Eliot’s Middlemarch keeps turning up at the top of people’s lists of great English novels. I read it as part of the great cultural tsunami that engulfed me as a boy who’d landed at Sydney University in 1967, having come from North Queensland by way of a monastery, and I loved it, though I haven’t retained much more than a vague impression of the shining integrity of its main character Dorothea and her dried up stick of a husband Dr Casaubon. My first recent vicarious re-encounter was a couple of years back on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog (now apparently no longer available), when he took his readers through one of Eliot’s long sentences, describing its movements in language he had developed in talking about rap music. I found a nice piece by him in the Atlantic from about the same time: here. Middlemarch is on my To Be Read list, though the tiny type in the copies I’ve seen is pretty discouraging for someone with my eyesight.

When I was given In Love with George Eliot in my Book Group’s Kris Kringle, it seemed a good halfway measure: decent type size, manageable length, written this decade, and promising some kind of George Eliot experience.

The kind of George Eliot experience it offers is not easy to describe. The novel’s main narrative covers the years from Eliot’s arrival in London in 1851 to her death in 1880: the trajectory of her writing career including the agonised gestation of Middlemarch, her years living unmarried with George Henry Lewes, the ensuing scandal and shunning being overcome by her huge fame as a novelist, her late brief marriage to Johnny Cross, which caused almost as much scandal (after her flouting of convention had been accepted, she went and did the conventional thing, though to a man 20 years her junior and too soon after George’s death). In a secondary narrative, a number of EngLit scholars in contemporary London fall in and out of love, take part in mild academic intrigues, organise conferences and write papers about Eliot and her contemporaries. One of these scholars, Kate, is writing a novel about Eliot, ‘but a novel based on fact – biography, letters, diaries.’ In other words, this novel. An author’s note assures us that all the letters quoted, both George Eliot’s and others’ – are from the archives, and so is much of the dialogue.

So it’s a partial biography in which the writer has given herself permission to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. From a reader’s perspective, it’s a partial biography without a lot of paraphernalia or uninteresting detail, but also one that can’t be completely trusted; one that sticks to the known facts with no spectacular flights of fancy, no plunging headlong into the character’s imagined inner life. That is to say, this is just the thing for unscholarly readers who want to know more about George Eliot (real names Mary Ann Evans, Mrs Lewes, Mrs Cross), of whom I am one. But I’m not sure it will do much for readers who are not already interested.

In a way, the book is less about George Eliot herself than, as the title suggests, the people who were and are in love with her.

I knew about George Lewes, but only that he was her partner for many years. The book gives us much more of him: a scholar and writer himself, he was Eliot’s encourager who protected her from negative criticism, building his life around her and her work.

I knew that Eliot was successful in her lifetime. I didn’t know that she was a huge celebrity – on her trip to Venice late in life she is reluctant to leave the hotel for fear of being recognised.

I knew nothing of Edith Simcox, whose passionate love, ‘lover-wise’, for Mrs Lewes, as she wanted to be known, had her kissing her feet and laying her head in her lap. Presumably these details are taken from Simcox’s private diaries published as Autobiography of a Shirtmaker in 1998.

I didn’t know about Johnny Cross, whom Eliot married late in life and who jumped from a hotel window into a canal when visiting Venice with his wife: in the lead-up to this incident the novel shakes off the shackles of the archive a little, and those few pages are alive with Johnny’s weird, unsettled inner life.

Herbert Spencer, Henry James and other literary luminaries of the time have walk-on parts, not as lovers, but filling out the picture.

And then there are the 21st century academics, who in their own ways love her too. Perhaps, too, there’s a reflexive element to the book’s title: it was written in love.

Proust Progress Report 17: She’s still gone

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 6, Albertine disparue, the last pages of Chapter 1 to the first pages of Chapter 3 (pages 2000–2077)

I’m now well into the sixth and second-last book of À la recherche du temps perdu. This was published posthumously, and I gather that it’s the book that has generated most controversy about the correct text. Even its French title chopped and changed – evidently it was originally La fugitive, but had a name change to avoid confusion with someone else’s book of the same name. I mention this because this month I stumbled over a paragraph that’s in my book but not in C K Moncrieff’s translation or the French edition he worked from. So here’s a little tangential story.

As he struggles to come to terms with the loss of Albertine, Marcel’s grief gradually fades but his jealousy and his obsession with her amorous relations with other women persists. His investigations make it increasingly clear that these relations were not figments of his jealous imagination, and he craves to understand Albertine’s inner life in her Lesbian experiences. This narrative line is developed in painful detail, and goes to unexpectedly creepy places, including long interrogations of Andrée, who has been fancied by both Albertine and Marcel. On the way, Marcel hears of evidence from a blanchisseuse. Basic French vocab tells me that this is a washerwoman, or laundress. However, as blanchisseuses keep being mentioned as women who are available for casual sex I began to wonder if the word had a slang meaning. One online dictionary confirms my suspicion, suggesting that it has been slang for ‘prostitute’. After reading one particularly confronting passage, I went to the English translation to see if C. K. Scott Moncrieff found an equivalent euphemism.

He didn’t. His translation is ‘laundress’.

But here’s the thing. The passage that had sent me to Scott Moncrieff isn’t in his translation at all. I thought this might be a case of quiet censorship. After all, it’s not unheard of for translators to spare their readers bits they think will bore or otherwise alienate them. But then I discovered that this passage isn’t there in the only French version I could find online. So the absence wasn’t about sparing delicate English sensibilities. Maybe Proust thought better of it and took it out, only to have it reinstated by an editor/scholar 70 or so years after first publication. Or he intended to put it in, to push the envelope even further, but died before he could make his intentions clear – to have those intentions understood and implemented 70 or so years later.

In the passage in question, Marcel decides he wants to hear what Albertine would have sounded like when taking her pleasure with another woman, so he has two ‘little laundresses’ demonstrate for him. It’s a good example of Proust’s commitment to complexity, even when he’s being quite, well, pervy: while inviting us to imagine a Lesbian sex scene, he discusses the difficulty of interpreting sounds stripped of context and the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being. Part of the passage and my attempt at a translation are at the end of his blog post.

Finally, in the last two days’ pages, Marcel has got out of his bedroom and is now in Venice with his mother, appreciating both of them, and once more going on the prowl for beautiful young women.

It’s been strange this month to settle down to a couple of pages of Proust each day, when so much other time has been spent doomscrolling, reading about world events where deep, slow, complex analysis of thoughts and feelings is almost impossible to imagine. Exasperating as Marcel’s relentless self-dissection may sometimes be, it’s immensely reassuring that this too is possible.


Here’s the passage with the ‘two little laundresses’

Dans un maison de passe j’avais fait venir deux petites blanchisseuses d’un quartier où allait souvent Albertine. Sous les caresses de l’une, l’autre commença tout d’un coup à faire entendre ce dont je ne pus distinguer d’abord ce que c’était, car on ne comprend jamais exactement la signification d’un bruit originale, expressif d’une sensation que nous n’éprouvons pas. Si on l’entend d’une pièce voisine et sans rien voir, on peut prendre pour du fou rire ce que la souffrance arrache à un malade qu’on opère sans l’avoir endormi; et quant au bruit qui sort d’une mère à qui on apprend que son enfant vient de mourir, il peut nous sembler, si nous ne savons de quoi il s’agit, aussi difficile de lui appliquer une traduction humaine, qu’au bruit qui s’échappe d’une bête, ou d’une harpe. Il faut un peu de temps pour comprendre que ces deux bruits-là expriment ce que, par analogie avec ce que nous avons nous-mêmes pu ressentir de pourtant bien différent, nous appelons souffrance, et il me fallut du temps aussi pour comprendre que ce bruit-ci exprimait ce que, par analogie également avec ce que j’avais moi-même ressenti de fort différent, j’appelai plaisir; et celui-ci devait être bien fort pour bouleverser à ce point l’être qui le ressentait et tirer de lui ce langage inconnu qui semble désigner et commenter toutes les phases du drame délicieux que vivait la petite femme et que cachait à mes yeux le rideau baissé à tout jamais pour les autres qu’elle-même sur ce qui se passe dans le mystère intime de chaque créature. Ces deux petites ne purent d’ailleurs rien me dire, elles ne savaient pas qui était Albertine.

(page 2018)

My attempt at a translation, resisting the temptation to break his long sentences up:

I had brought to a disorderly house [Scott Moncrieff’s polite term] two little laundresses from a suburb that Albertine used to frequent. Under the caresses of one, the other began to make a sound of which at first I could not make out the nature, as one never understands precisely the meaning of a new sound that expresses a sensation we don’t experience. If you hear it from a neighbouring room without seeing anything, you can hear as mad laughter that which is drawn from a patient being operated on without being put to sleep; and as for the sound that issues from a mother who is told that her child has just died, that might seem, if we don’t know what is happening, as difficult to translate into anything human as the sound that escapes an animal, or a harp. A little time is needed to grasp that those two sounds express what, by analogy with what we ourselves have felt, though quite different, we call suffering, and I also needed time to understand that this noise expressed what, similarly by analogy with what I had myself felt, though very different, I called pleasure; and the pleasure must have been very powerful to throw the person feeling it into such disarray and draw from the person this unknown language which seems to name and annotate all the stages of the delightful drama being lived by the little woman and being hidden from my eyes by the curtain lowered forever for anyone other than herself over what passes in the intimate mystery of each creature. These two little ones could tell me nothing. They didn’t know who Albertine was.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury 2020)

I tend to think of every book I read as a stand-alone experience, but that’s almost certainly nonsense. With Piranesi I have been acutely aware that like it or not I was reading it with other books in mind. I can think of three.

First, and least significantly, there’s David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue which I’d read immediately before beginning Piranesi (blog post to come in early February). Mitchell is quoted on the back cover of this book: ‘What a world Susanna Clarke conjures into being.’ So I was led to expect something of the interplay of different realities that I loved in Mitchell’s book.

The opening pages of Piranesi, in which the protagonist lives in a labyrinthine House that he perceives to be the whole world, sent my mind hurtling back to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. When I was at university in the 1970s, poet Martin Johnston was a huge Borges fan and a super spreader of enthusiasm for his short fictions. I was one of the many infected. More than one Borges story involves a labyrinth – ‘The Library of Babel‘, for example, imagines a universe consisting of a vast library of interconnected hexagonal rooms containing all the books every written. It’s as if Susanna Clarke had become fascinated by a Borgesian image, in which statues, an infinite number of them, line the walls of an infinite number of hallways, vestibules, and rooms. The protagonist-narrator, named Piranesi, though he assures us that is not his real name, writes with a kind of Borgesian abstraction – though where Borges’ narrators are conducting thought experiments (‘what if there was a library that …’), it’s clear from the start that for Piranesi there’s no scholarly or ironic distance.

Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south western halls
When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

It’s many years since I read any Borges, but I was immediately in familiar, though eerie, territory.

But this is a novel. One begins to want explanations. We meet a man who Piranesi thinks is the only other living human, whom he calls the Other. (Piranesi’s idiosyncratic use of initial capitals is only part of the general strangeness.) The Other has a shiny object that we suspect is a smart phone, and there are other clues that he has a life outside the House. Piranesi actually overhears a snippet of conversation that sounds to the reader as if it comes from a contemporary street on the other side of an invisible wall, but to Piranesi is meaningless and fails to inspire curiosity. A trajectory is established: Piranesi is going to find out what’s going on …

Progress is slow, and I might have lost confidence altogether if I hadn’t read Joanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004 – before I started blogging about my reading). This is a vast, slow-moving story of magic in Regency England, not big on thrills and spills, though the Battle of Waterloo, suitably magicked, features. I have a lasting impression of being immersed in a meticulously created world where magic is part of the texture of life. I would have been surprised if in Piranesi the ‘real world’ outside the House wasn’t revealed to be both recognisably mundane and weirdly fantastical.

I got what I was expecting. The explanation of the nature of the House is only slightly more complex and plausible than Dr Who’s ‘timey-wimey stuff‘, but who really ever cares about such explanations – it’s a fantasy novel, for goodness sake! The history that Piranesi gradually uncovers, on the other hand, is full of intellectual intrigue, complex relationships, and general creep-you-out-ness; and the big climax (foreshadowed in the opening lines I quoted above) kept me reading well past bedtime. (Incidentally, ‘timey-wimey stuff’ gets a mention in a document that Piranesi discovers, and which is incomprehensible to him.)

While Piranesi is looking for the truth of his history, readers (this one, anyhow) are hoping the book will unfold something of what it is about that infinite House filled with statues that captured Susanna Clarke’s imagination, and for that matter ours. I don’t want to reduce the book to an allegory: I’m happy for it to be a story about a house full of statues and nasty magic. But I did find myself brooding on echo chambers and half-overheard conversations about Baudrillard. From Wikipedia: ‘Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality.’ With that kind of thinking in mind, Piranesi’s struggle stirs in readers’ minds our own struggles to reach past the simulacra, dogmas and fairytales have been given since childhood, to an independent relationship with the real world. At least that’s where it took me, and it was fun being taken.

Rhoda Lerman’s Book of the Night

Rhoda Lerman, The Book of the Night (©1984, Women’s Press 1986)

This book is on a list of SF/F must-reads I stumbled on some years ago, a list that has since introduced me to some wonderful novels from the dark crannies of the genre, as well as its spotlit centre-stage (some of my blog posts about them are here, here, here and here). I took The Book of the Night down from my TBR SF/F bookshelf thinking it would be a bit of light reading before I move on to Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do or other demanding reads. Ha! A 1984 Kirkus Review may have been a tad negative, but it captured something of the feel of the book when it called it an ‘an over-riddling allegory, steamy as a cow shed with unprocessed invention and quasi-feminist murk.’

This is a book set on the Irish island of Iona in the 10th century CE, though elsewhere in the world it’s the late 20th century: coke-bottle caps turn up in the first chapter and a tourist group comes visiting at one stage. On the island is a monastery whose monks who are caught up in that great moment when the Irish church was resisting the call to be obedient to Rome. And there is traffic between the world of the living and that of the dead. The main character, Celeste, is brought to the island as a young girl by her father who becomes increasingly lost in incoherent quasi-mystical wordplay. He sends her, disguised as a boy, to join the monastery, and through a series of misadventures, including some spectacularly metaphorical sex, she becomes – as you do – a cow.

There’s a man who by flapping his arms and farting flies out a window. Celeste’s father has unmetaphorical sex with a woman who comes to the island as a cook, and Celeste, who at that stage is believed to be a (human) male, is cast out of the monastery as the putative father. There’s a bloody battle, a walk through the underworld, an underclass who deliberately split their noses to avoid paying a nose tax. There’s more than one scene where a human man and a cow have consensual sex – told from the cow’s point of view. At least, I think that’s what’s happening among all the fiery language. Above all, there’s elaborate punning wordplay, and the whole story seems to revolve around the philosophical concept that, according to an authorial note, under certain circumstances, ‘An organism is able to reorganise itself into a higher level of order, to transcend itself.’

Take this as a confession of my thickness, but none of it made much sense to me. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the ride. The Kirkus Reviewer was wrong to describe the book as an allegory. That’s like wanting the zombies in zombie movies to mean something: maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but if you don’t respond to them viscerally as zombies, there’s no point. Rhoda Lerman may be have been exploring serious ideas, but (did I mention the farting man who flew?) she’s not po-faced about it. I did go back and skim-read the first couple of chapters again, and it turns out that this is one of those books where that’s a fruitful thing to do: what felt like gobbledygook on first reading now casts light on the confusing and tumultuous final few pages. I’m not going to read it all again, at least not right away, but I’m prepared to believe that in the midst of the exuberant, self-contradictory, sometimes chaotic eventfulness and wordiness, which are a blast in their own right, there’s something coherent going on.

As far as I can tell, this was Rhoda Lerman’s only fantasy novel. I have no idea what impact if any she had on the genre. It’s a long way from The Lord of the Rings.

Proust Progress Report 16: She’s gone

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the beginning of Book 6, Albertine disparue (pages 1919–1999)

Albertine disparue (English titles The Fugitive and The Sweet Cheat Gone) takes up immediately after the moment at the end of Book 5 when the servant Françoise tells Marcel that Mlle Albertine has packed her bags and left. The 80 pages I’ve read this month are single-mindedly devoted to his reactions. First he tries to get her back by his usual convoluted method of dissembling his true feelings, and he almost succeeds. Then (I’ll try to avoid spoilers) it becomes clear that Albertine will definitely never return, and the narration gives us the twists and turns of his mental processes: what happens to his obsessive jealousy now that she’s gone? does he find relief from the claustrophobia he suffered when she was living with him? does he love her and need her more than he realised?

If Proust is remembered most for his treatment of memory, these pages, in which his grief-stricken mind remembers Albertine in a hundred ways, must be key. He is made up of multiple mois, each learning of her departure at his own time. Albertine has split up into multiple tiny household deities, each animating an otherwise mundane object with an emotional charge. He catches himself in myriad ways thinking of her as somehow alive and – for example – being glad to see how much he does love her. Many, if not all, of the threads of the narrative so far, help shape these moments (and such is the treatment of time, you can’t tell whether the moments are spread over weeks, months or even perhaps years). All the earlier deaths and liaisons and desires we have been told about are summoned to shed light on his present state.

Though Marcel does take action, at first to persuade Albertine to return and then to seek evidence to support or refute his obsessive suspicion that she was secretly an active lesbian, my impression is that he barely leaves his apartment in these pages or talks to anyone apart from the people he sends to negotiate and investigate.

This is all fascinating, no irony intended. The intricate dissection of the character’s mental processes is stunning. I’m probably influenced by the knowledge that these last two books were published after Proust’s death, and weren’t subjected to the same thorough revision process as the previous ones, but it does feel somewhat repetitious (as opposed to obsessive, and I know there’s a big overlap), and I hope he soon manages to move on.

I may have mentioned that, unlike Miles Franklin whose copy of À la recherche du temps perdu has notes in the margins indicating that she frequently looked up words she didn’t know, and unlike Clive James who took 15 years to read it dictionary in hand, I’m willing to read on with just a rough sense of the meaning. Typically, I’ll look up two or three in every three-page reading session. And it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book that often when I look up a word, it’s as if the meaning of a sentence or an image solidifies before my eyes. An example from this morning:

On dit quelquefois qu’il peut subsister quelque chose d’un être après la mort si cet être était un artiste et mettait un peu de soi dans son oeuvre. C’est peut-être de la même manière qu’une sorte de bouture prélevé sur un être et greffée au coeur d’un autre, continue à y poursuivre sa vie, même quand l’être d’où elle avait été détachée a péri.

This is how I read that at first:

They say that something of a person may live on after death if that person was an artist and put a little of themselves into their work. Perhaps in the same way a sort of blah-blah removed from a person and blah-blahed to the heart of another continues to carry on its life, even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished.

I got the gist. But decided out of interest to look up bouture and greffée. Bouture is a gardening term meaning ‘cutting’, from bouturer, ‘to propagate by cuttings’. I hardly needed to look up greffer, whose meaning of ‘graft’ or ‘implant’ is now clear. And the image comes viscerally alive. Or cardiacally, if that’s a word.

I doubt if I’ll manage three pages every day over Christmas and New Year, as we’ll be taking advantage of the open state borders and doing a bit of driving. But I’ll try to keep to schedule and do another progress report on 14 January. Maybe poor Marcel will have cheered up and got a hobby.

The Book Group and John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Bloomsbury 1989)

Before the meeting: This is an odd book. It tells the life story of Owen Meany, a young man who is tiny in stature and huge in voice like the hero of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum (which I haven’t read, though I’ve seen the movie). From an early age Owen has a profound belief that he is an instrument of God, and he has a vision of his own death, including the exact date and some of the circumstances. His story is told by his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, who doesn’t have a lot to distinguish him from any other child of an old New England family, except that his mother never revealed the identity of his father and she herself was killed in a bizarre Little League accident when he was eleven.

I loved the first hundred pages or so, which introduce us to the characters who inhabit the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend, and tell the story of Owen and Johnny’s childhood friendship, their shared quest to find the identity of Johnny’s father, their adolescent adventures. I was happily back to my enjoyment of The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), both of which I read when they were newly published. John Irving has an eye for the detail that brings a scene to life, and manages to keep his story slightly off-kilter without every completely descending into quirkiness. His characters are vividly realised in a few strokes, with an almost Dickensian oddness. My love waned in a very long sequence involving the staging of two theatrical pieces concurrently, a Christmas pageant and a production of A Christmas Carol. In both of them Owen is improbably compelling, at least in rehearsals, as the Christ Child and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Both predictably descend into chaos. These chapters rattle along, full of amusing and touching incidents and character development, but I was straining at the bit, wanting the story to move forward.

Then at almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, in the narrator’s present time, I was rapped over the knuckles in a moment that’s close to being explicitly meta. John (as he is now known) laments that his girl students don’t read Hardy’s novels with an eye to foreshadowing. ‘I hope you realise,’ John Irving was saying at barely one remove, ‘that all that stuff about Owen as Christ, Owen as a ghost predicting the future, Owen and a number of armless figures, Owen practising a special basketball move, all that was giving you very specific hints about where this narrative is going.’ Well, I took the hint, and from that point on I read everything as foreshadowing.

When all that carefully constructed foreshadowing came together in the final pages of the book, it was most satisfactory – or just a bit too neatly tied together, depending on your point of view. I was left uneasily cold by the religiosity of the story, which to be fair was signalled on the very first page when John-the-narrator tells us that Owen was the reason he believes in God. Owen becomes a Christ figure, but without arms, and John lives out his day as a vaguely religious, celibate man whose only purpose, apart from teaching English literature to teenage Canadian girls, is to bear witness to Owen’s story. Religion is his analgesic. ‘Don’t underestimate the church’ – he says at one point – ‘its healing power, and the comforting way it can set you apart.’ (Page 415) It’s a religious faith that depends on miracles for its existence (the kind of miracles that exist only in the pages of carefully contrived novels), and leads to a lack of engagement with the world, or with anything but the memory of his Christ-like friend. It leaves a sour taste in this reader’s mouth.

But, speaking of foreshadowing, John’s present time coincides with the Contra scandal under Reagan, and though he has been living in Canada for decades he is addicted to the US news. So much of John’s (and presumably Irving’s) commentary on Reagan’s US feels eerily prophetic of Trump and Trumpism. I recognise John’s newspaper addiction as an old-media version of my (our?) Twitter addiction. It’s not that things were the same back then, but by contrasting the Kennedy era of Johnny and Owen’s adolescence with the Reagan era of John’s middle age, the passions that burned over the US invasion of Vietnam with the apathy that greeted the Contra scandal, the novel captures a change in the US’s political culture, a change that has since deepened to an extent that would have looked wildly fantastical in the 1980s.

After the meeting: Last night was our last meeting for 2020 and our second since we all started to relax a little about Covid–19. All but two of us made it – one of the absentees had to attend a family do, and the other had been tested for the Covids with his young daughter and was staying home as a good citizen (he WhatsApped us this morning to say the result was, as expected, negative). We had what we’ve been calling a Gentlemen’s Picnic: everyone brought food. We ate well, including salmon with anchovy butter pats, barbecued sausages, charcoal chicken, several salads and three different desserts. Covid deprived us of meatballs slow cooked with figs. Our host had Gospel music playing as we arrived, which he said was the nearest he could come to the religiosity of the book, and at the end of the evening he treated us to a couple of short films he had made – potentially setting a dangerous precedent as I’m sure may of us have substantial slide shows we’d love to share.

It’s not that we didn’t talk about other things: family news, good TV and movies (a Michael Jordan film is apparently excellent, and I’m not the only one who loved Corpus Christi), a bit of reminiscence about the 18 years of book group and rumination on how it has changed this year (because of Covid and zoom? because of the level of trust that has enabled discussion to become more robust? because the person who noticed the change has been a more frequent attender this year?), Trump deprivation syndrome, and show-biz anecdotes all got an airing. But the book generated a lot of discussion.

I wasn’t an outlier, as it turned out. Someone described the book, memorably, as a shaggy dog story. A man who said he hadn’t finished it was having trouble following comments about how all the threads came together in the last scene: it turned out he’d read all but the last 10 pages or so, which just goes to show how skilfully John Irving postpones his revelations until the last possible moment. Someone said – articulating my sentiments exactly – that in the first couple of pages he breathed a sigh of relief: after reading a number of books for the group that, whatever their other virtues, were pretty rockily written, with this he knew he was in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Someone felt that this was a book written by someone who had a big back catalogue, who now could relax and just spin a yarn without being too serious about it, venting about current politics as the spirit moved him. Not everyone agreed. Some, me included, felt we were expected to take the religious theme seriously but found it pretty hard to do so. One said most of the religious stuff was largely incomprehensible to him. I asked if the recurring image of armlessness was purely decorative or had some thematic significance. One of our architects took offence, demanding, ‘What’s wrong with decoration?’ and describing the way those recurring images created a patterning that was pleasing in itself and helped the reader track the story. Our Book Chooser, who first read the book 30+ years ago, loved it then and loved it again this time, thought the armlessness represented Owen’s helplessness in the light of fate. This led someone to comment that though Johnny keeps his arms, he is ineffectual, spiritually armless. None of us could remember what we were told about the armless image drawn by the 17th century sagamore Watahantowet when he signed away the land to the invaders, but felt that might offer some help. I just looked it up:

Some said it was how it made the Sagamore feel to give up all that land – to have his arms cut off – and others pointed it out the earlier ‘marks’ made by Watahantowet revealed that the figure, although armless, held a feather in his mouth; this was said to indicate the sagamore’s frustration at being unable to write. But in several other versions of the totem ascribed to Watahantowet, the figure has a tomahawk in his mouth …

There’s more. The upshot is that the armlessness could signify many contradictory things. It’s a good example of how so much of the early pages of the book are full of foreshadowing, and of how hard it is to pin down the book’s actual position. Is John Wheelwright a dependable narrator? Does Johnny have a feather between his teeth, while Owen had a tomahawk? The questions aren’t resolved, and we don’t even know if they are meant to be taken seriously. We admired the first sentence of the book as an example of foreshadowing; evidently John Irving himself admired it too.

A number of chaps had done some supplementary reading. One of them had read that John Irving starts with a clear image of how a book is going to end and then makes sure everything leads to that point. This rings very true.

In order to give the appearance of completeness, I’ll finish with a quote from the one chap who hadn’t read the book at all, except for the author’s introduction in his copy. He said he concluded on the basis of that introduction that John Irving was a wanker. Not everyone agreed.

November Verse 5 and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

November verse 5: Letter to my Mother

Dear Mum, I won't write you a novel.
Barely fourteen rhyming lines
I'll manage. No space to unravel
the half a century that twined
our lives. Perhaps I know you better
now than when your weekly letters
filled me in on family news.
I wish that you could know me too,
that you could look down from some heaven,
hear the words I wish I'd said,
see the tears I should have shed
back then, take thanks for all you've given.
The grave is deaf and blind and still.
What we didn't say, we never will.

This is prompted by a marvellous book, a very different letter to a very different mother:

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Jonathan Cape 2019)

The protagonist narrator of this novel, known to his intimates as Little Dog, is a Vietnamese-American Gay man, and this is his portrait of the artist as a very young man. The text is cast as a letter addressed to his mother. He tells her the story of his childhood, including quite a bit of abuse he suffered at her hands and his understanding that that abuse was part of the aftermath of the US-Vietnam war. He tells of his relationship with his grandmother, her mother, and what he knows of her love story with a US serviceman. And he relates his teenage experiences of sex. Given the sometimes excruciating detail about young gay male sex (excruciating both physically and in its turbulent emotional ambivalence), clearly this is not a letter he really expects his mother to read.

Ocean Vuong has won big prizes for his poetry, and parts of this book read as prose poetry. I don’t mean that some parts of it defy any attempt to extract a simple prose meaning, though there are a couple of moments like that. I mean, among other things, some images, as of buffalo running over a cliff or monarch butterflies making their vast annual journeys or Tiger Woods putting in an appearance, do a lot of work. And there are rhapsodic sections that don’t bother with conventional sentence structures, but take the reader with them in not bothering. For example, there are six pages in which Little Dog, sings (that’s the only word for it) about Trevor, the first object of his troubled but reciprocated desire. Here’s a little of it:

Trevor going fifty through his daddy’s wheatfield. Who jams all his fries into a Whopper and chews with both feet on the gas. Your eyes closed, riding shotgun, the wheat a yellow confetti.

Three freckles on his nose.

Three periods to a boy-sentence.

Trevor Burger King over McDonald’s ’cause the smell of smoke on beef makes it real.

The Vietnam War, growing up Gay and Vietnamese in working-class Hartford, Connecticut, the ravages of the OxyContin epidemic, dementia: the book deals with difficult and sometimes tragic lives. But the writing is sharp and rich and, in the end, celebratory.

My favourite scene is the one where Little Dog comes out to his mother in a Dunkin’ Donuts: ‘I don’t like girls.’ The conversation that follows is not astonishingly original (‘Are you going to wear a dress now?’ ‘They’ll kill you, you know that.’ ‘When did all this start. I gave birth to a healthy, normal boy.’ But then:

When I thought it was over, that I’d done my unloading, you said, pushing your coffee aside, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’

My jaw clenched. This was not supposed to be an equal exchange, not a trade. I nodded as you spoke, feigning willingness.

‘You have an older brother.’ You swept your hair out of your eyes, unblinking. ‘But he’s dead.’

And a whole terrible part of his mother’s life is revealed to him. So I need to modify my description of the book as a portrait of the artist as a young man: it’s a portrait that includes an extraordinary openness to the generations that gave rise to the young man.