Tag Archives: Novel

Richard Powers’ Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(The Overstory, page 385)

That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.

The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.

In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.

The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.

In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?

If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.

The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:

The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.

(Page 211)

When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.

Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.

Janice Galloway’s Trick Is to Keep Breathing at the Book Group

Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989, Vintage Classics 2015)

Before the meeting: When I was about half way through this book, the following exchange happened on WhatsApp:

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing is a possibly-brilliant novel that I, for one, hated.

It’s a first person narration by Joy, a woman who has tipped over the edge into extreme depression and mental disorder when her married lover drowns on a holiday in Spain. At first I thought that my copy of the book, in a Penguin Vintage Classics edition, had been poorly reproduced from old film: the type is mostly dark and slightly blurred, though occasionally, apparently at random, a sentence or two is lighter and clear. There are odd blank spaces as if several lines are missing. And every now and then the margin boasts a word or a column of words, perhaps partly obscured by the gutter or running off the edge of the page. It took a while to realise all this was deliberate, a way of physicalising the state of Joy’s mind, on a continuum with the way the width of the column changes every now and then when Joy relays to us a horoscope or an advertisement from a magazine, or the type switches to italics as, bit by bit, the traumatic event in Spain is revealed.

It must be this typographic play that led the New York Times reviewer quoted on the back cover to write: ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath.’ I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, but a bit of unconventional typesetting doesn’t make a Tristram Shandy.

The portrayal of Joy’s unrelenting descent into darkness, starvation and disorder must be what led the judges to award it the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year for 1990. According to the website of ‘mental health charity’ MIND, ‘this well-established literary prize celebrates writing that heightens understanding of mental health issues in all their forms’. Elsewhere, Fay Weldon, a frequent judge, acknowledges that it is a little-known prize, and that ‘”literature” is not what concerns us here, but effectiveness, accessibility, honesty, optimism and helpfulness’. She wrote that in 2011. The judges’ desires were different in 1990, or they read the book differently from me, because I found very little optimism or helpfulness in it, and while Joy’s experience is vividly realised, I don’t think my understanding of anything is heightened.

The novel is a nightmare account of an experience of grief, anguish, disordered thinking, despair, self-starvation. The men in Joy’s life are generally sexually exploitative and/or clueless about her mental state. Her one woman friend has gone to the USA, and that friend’s well-disposed mother offers baked goods as an optimistic panacea. The doctors she encounters are unable to help, and in some cases, callously, don’t even try. If her account of her time in a mental institution is even half accurate, then the system needed to be burned to the ground: but it’s more of a darkly satirical fantasy, almost certainly with some truth but not something you’d trust as an account of anyone’s actual lived experience. For me, and I may be completely idiosyncratic here, the book came across as a kind of mental-illness porn.

At least one member of the group has signalled in advance that he loved the book. I’m open to persuasion, but only by a crack. I expect there will be discussion of the ending, which may be ambiguous, though I’m fairly clear about how I read it. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

After the meeting: Covid–19 brought restrictions to Sydney again on Wednesday, and though we were only six people and could have met legally in someone’s home, we decided to meet online.

Once we got settled in – ‘Hi, I like your beard’ ‘How did the test turn out?’ ‘Are people wearing masks in your part of town?’ – we moved on to a terrific discussion of the book.

Why it was terrific is that two completely incompatible readings of the book were aired, and the proponents of each could see that the other was coherent and justifiable from the text. It was all in how you read the tone. I guess I was at one extreme, reading the tone as something like that of Truffaut’s movie The Story of Adèle H, unremitting misery: Joy is sunk in grief and depression, goes through the motions of daily life and relationships, keeping up appearances but unable to show anyone – friends, former lovers, current sexual predators, co-workers, doctors – the depth of her despair. The chap putting forward the other extreme read it as grimly comic: through her terrible grief, Joy never loses her sense of herself, holding onto what she can of relationships and keeping with her routines as a way of staying in the world, vulnerable to predators but keeping her core self shielded from them, bantering defiantly with the useless doctors. Others were in different points along a spectrum between the two readings. No one else had read the ending as grimly as I had, and when I read the final paragraph to make my point, my opponent offered a completely valid alternative reading. I say ‘opponent’, and at one stage someone thought we were being a bit intolerant of each other, but I really don’t think that was happening: certainly I was delighted by the difference, and my respect for the book ballooned, give that it could sustain such different readings.

There was some talk about the terrible weather in Glasgow, and how what someone from tropical North Queensland (that is, me) might see as unrelentingly grim, might be seen by others (including possibly Janice Galloway) as dourly amusing. we’re reading another Scottish nook for our next meeting to put that theory to the test.

Proust Progress Report 22: The end

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2334–2401

Finished!

Seven volumes, 2401 pages, finished!

Having read a little of À la recherche du temps perdu first thing most mornings for the last 22 months, I’ve reached the end. My copy of the book has suffered: not only has the print on its covers worn way as in the image to the left, but the back cover has broken free, taking the last four pages with it.

I probably should have something brilliantly perceptive to say, but nah! I’m enjoying Patrick Alexander’s translation of the whole work one tweet at a time at @ProustTweet, and seeing how much I missed by reading it with my inadequate French; and I’ll probably read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life sometime soon, but if my life has been changed I can’t tell (yet).

In the final 70 pages, Marcel continues his detailed account and analysis of the currents and undercurrents of high society, of the toll taken by time on his A-listers as seen at his last matinée. When he meets Gilberte’s daughter, he realises that this young woman is like a place in a forest where many roads meet (‘les «étoiles» des carrefours‘) – so many threads of his life, so many relationships converge in her person, and through her he is able to see how different parts of his story interconnect.

But then, with hardly so much as a paragraph break, he moves on to contemplating the huge project he is about to embark on – namely this book. There are wonderful passages about his plans and expectations. Having long since lost his fear of death, he now fears it again, but now he fears it for the sake of his work, not for himself. He will write all through the night, perhaps for a thousand nights, but cannot know whether his destiny will, like Scheherazade’s sultan, allow him to live another day in order to hear the rest of a story:

Et je vivrais dans l’anxiété de ne pas savoir si le Maître de ma destinée, moins indulgent que le sultan Sheriar, le matin quand j’interromprais mon récit, voudrait bien surseoir à mon arrêt de mort et me permettrait de reprendre la suite le prochain soir.

And there’s this, about what it would mean to take on the project:

[L’écrivain] devrait préparer son livre, minutieusement, avec de perpétuels regroupements de forces, comme une offensive, le supporter comme une fatigue, l’accepter comme une règle, le construire comme une église, le suivre comme un régime, le vaincre comme un obstacle, le conquérir comme une amitié, le suralimenter comme un enfant, le créer comme un monde sans laisser de côté ces mystères qui n’ont probablement leur explication que dans d’autres mondes et dont le pressentiment est ce qui nous émeut le plus dans la vie et dans l’art.

In English:

[The writer] would have to prepare his book with meticulous care, perpetually regrouping his forces as for an offensive, to bear it as a load, to accept it as a discipline, to build it like a church, to follow it like a fitness routine, to overcome it like an obstacle, to win it like a friendship, to feed it like a child, to create it like a world, bearing in mind those mysteries which probably only have their explanation in other worlds, the sense of which is what moves us the most in life and in art.

Later, typically, he undercuts this heroic tone, saying that the project is less like building a cathedral and more like sewing a dress. He says that Françoise, his barely literate housekeeper, understands the nature of the work better than many educated, literary people.

The prospect of death hangs over the closing pages, and the knowledge that his anxiety was well founded – this volume and the preceding one were published after Proust died – intensifies the poignancy. Having lived with this book for nearly two years, if only for a couple of minutes a day, I’m now surprised to find I have an urge to start all over again. Here’s the last sentence:

Aussi, si elle m’était laissée assez longtemps pour accomplir mon œuvre, ne manquerais-je pas d’abord d’y décrire les hommes, cela dût-il les faire ressembler à des êtres monstrueux, comme occupant une place si considérable, à côté de celle si restreinte qui leur est réservée dans l’espace, une place au contraire prolongée sans mesure puisqu’ils touchent simultanément, comme des géants plongés dans les années à des époques, vécues par eux si distantes, entre lesquelles tant de jours sont venus se placer – dans le Temps.

I had serious trouble translating that, and when I looked up Stephen Hudson’s translation (here) I got the impression that he had trouble too. Here’s his (the ‘…’ in the first bit marks the omission of several phrases that aren’t in the edition I’m reading):

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to … therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.

I don’t think mine’s any better, but here it is:

So, if a long enough time was left to me to accomplish my work, first of all I would not fail to describe men in it, making them resemble monstrous beings that occupy a place so much more substantial than the restricted one reserved for them in space – a place, rather, that extends immeasurably because, like giants immersed in the years, they simultaneously touch all the distant periods they have lived through, between which so many days have been placed – a place in Time.

That ‘longtemps‘ at the start of this sentence reaches all the way back to the first sentence of the first novel:

Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.

Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Headline 2020)

The Emerging Artist has been urging this terrific book on everyone who will listen (it was her insistence that made it jump my To Be Read queue). It’s a novel that manages to include mini-essays about politics, economics, religion, cancel culture and the art of war while telling a deeply personal story about an immigrant Pakistani Muslim family in the USA, particularly after the 11 September attacks and during the Trump era. The author has described it as literary reality TV, by which I think he means that while it follows the author’s life closely and is populated by recognisable characters from his real story, and so reads like memoir, it’s actually carefully structured fiction. The epigraph, from Alison Bechdel, gives fair warning:

I only make things up about things that have already happened …

Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer winning dramatist. His play Disgraced was put on by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2016, so some of my readers may know his work, but this book is my introduction. It has made me a fan.

Like Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Homeland Elegies starts with current presidential scandals – for Roth it was Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours, for Akhtar it’s Trump’s all-round egregiousness. But where Roth forgot about Clinton and moved on to his protagonist’s own misdemeanours, Akhtar stays with Trump, or at least with his (or the narrator’s) father’s infatuation with him, and Trump remains at least an ominous background presence for the duration. In the end, the book is an exploration of the state of the US nation under Trump. I read it as a kind of elegy for the USA that has been ailing for decades and been given what may be its death blow by Trumpism (it was published before the 2020 election, but hasn’t been defanged by Biden’s election). It also includes an earlier immigrant generation’s lament for a lost homeland – hence the plural elegies of the title.

In the first pages, in a section named ‘Overture: To America’, the narrator’s university mentor remarks ‘almost offhandedly’, long before the advent of Trump or even the Tea Party, that

America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment is paramount and civil order an afterthought. The fatherland in whose name – and for whose benefit – the predation continued was no longer a physical fatherland but a spiritual one: the American Self.

The rest of the book can be read as the narrator’s process of discovering what that means.

I may be making it sound dull and programmatic. It’s anything but. Its arguments are complex and compelling, and given to Proust-like reversals. Its characters, especially the narrator’s father, leap off the page. At the sentence level it’s alive and engaging. Take this brilliant passage about the early part of Trump’s ascendancy:

The national mood was Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, nihilistic – and no one embodied all this better than Donald Trump. Trump was no aberration or idiosyncrasy, as Mike saw it, but a reflection, a human mirror image in which to see all we’d allowed ourselves to become. Sure, you could read the man for metaphors – an unapologetically racist real estate magnate embodying the rise of white property rights; a self-absorbed idiot epitomising the rampant social self-obsession and narcissism that was making us all stupider by the day; greed and corruption so naked and endemic it could only be made sense of as the outsize expression of our own deepest desires – yes, you could read the man as if her were a symbol to be deciphered, but Mike thought it was much simpler than all that. Trump had just felt the national mood, and his particular genius was a need for attention so craven, so unrelenting, he was willing to don any and every shade of our moment’s ugliness, consequences be damned.

(page 242)

‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.’ That is, the characterisation of Donald J Trump may not be startlingly original, but this is beautifully put, and there’s a lot more of it in context. No sooner have you stopped cheering (if you’re me) for this passionate statement of a vital truth, than the narrator takes us into the sleepless night that his friend Mike’s tirade has brought on. And just in case the reader wants to cheer for Mike, it turns out that Mike makes a logical – or at least logical to him – leap to arguing that it makes sense to vote Republican. This is a book that never falls in love with its own rhetorical power. It avoids cheap shots and easy answers. In a short final section, the narrator is to give a talk at a university. At first the Muslim student organisation calls for his invitation to be rescinded because his work is ‘offensive and demeaning’, but then when someone puts up posters accusing him of being pro-terrorist, the Muslims rally to back him. He’s not implying the bogus argument, ‘I’m being attacked from both sides, so I must be right,’ but holding out for complexity, for thoughtful reading. The book as a whole repays thoughtful reading in spades.

Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus

Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus (Allen & Unwin 2019)

I’m not a Christos Tsiolkas fan. I read most of The Slap aloud on a long car journey and it wasn’t a pleasant experience – the sex scenes were embarrassing and the characters’ misogyny repugnant. But I knew I had to read Damascus.

Like two other novels that come to mind – Mary’s Testament by Colm Tóibín, and The Book of Rachel by Leslie Cannold (links are to my blog posts) – this promised to explore the stories I received in childhood as containing the deep and enduring meaning of life; to explore them, interrogate them, reimagine them. Those other novels told the stories of Jesus’ mother and imagined sister respectively; the central character of this one is the man most responsible for shaping the Jesus story, St Paul, once known as Saul of Tarsus.

Damascus delivers on the promise, in spades. I’m not equipped to comment in any detail on Tsiolkas’ use of the sources. I have only read excerpts from Paul’s epistles, I couldn’t say for sure whether I’ve ever read the book of Acts, and I know nothing about the apocryphal gospel of Thomas except that it exists. Tsiolkas has immersed himself in these documents, and emerged with a story stripped of holy-card or gold-leaf piety, about a man, and a nascent community, coming to grips with a transforming way of understanding what it is to be human.

The world of the novel is callous and often violent. Israel and the rest of Western Asia is under brutal Roman occupation. It’s a place where divisions between free and enslaved, male and female, Jew and Stranger, Roman and non-Roman are rigidly enforced. For a man to touch a woman, or a free person to touch a slave, is a shocking transgression, and in the wrong time and place can meet with shocking punishment. Anyone born disabled or with a physical abnormality, or even sometimes a person born female, would be dumped alive in a cave outside the city and left to starve or be killed by wild beasts. The novel doesn’t draw a discreet veil over any of this horror: the opening scene is a graphic account of a stoning; the fate of rejected babies is realised in nightmarish detail; a man is seen breathing his last after days suspended on a cross, pecked at by carrion crows; a young Jew is castrated and has his tongue plucked out for desecrating a Roman shrine, and then is killed and buried unceremoniously by his brothers because of the shame. Pagan practices involving animal sacrifice that are familiar enough to us are described in stomach churning bodiliness.

In this world, the people who follow Jeshua, as he is called, believe in the brotherhood and sisterhood of all. Slaves and free, women and men eat and drink and embrace together. They are reviled as a death cult because they revere someone who was subjected to the ultimate humiliation of crucifixion, but they are tender and affectionate with each other. Their ritual greeting – ‘He is risen’ ‘Truly he is coming’ – sounds a little Handmaid’s Tale-ish, and foreshadows the way that community was to harden into an institution, but in the present time of the novel we see a genuine striving to live the truth of loving all.

At the beginning, Saul is a zealous, scholarly Jew who supplements what he earns as a tent-maker by hunting down Christians, entrapping them and handing them over to the authorities for execution. He’s also riddled with guilt and self-hatred because of his compulsive sexual attraction to men, and has a troubled relationship with his family because he is unmarried. According to Acts, he was struck down on the road to Damascus where he heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ and that moment marked his dramatic conversion to Christianity. The book handles that moment beautifully. it’s told from Paul’s point of view, and we’re never completely sure what happened. There is a lot of light. He is brutally beaten, incurring permanent injuries, and it’s the days of care he received from a Christian group, even though they know he is their persecutor, and even though he repudiates them, that brings about his conversion. Part of the care is warm intimate connection with another man – and though we’re never told whether any actual sex is involved, a strong homoerotic tenderness pervades his relationships with other male followers of Jeshua: much kissing on the lips, sleeping in each other’s arms, bathing each other and so on. Paul is loving with the women members of the community as well, but never with this kind of intimacy.

Paul wants to expand the community to include non-Jews – Strangers. He takes on a young man, Timothy (who is there in Acts), whose mother was a Jew and father Greek. Acts tells us that Paul circumcised him. Damascus gives us the detail of that – the gore (this is a Christos Tsiolkas novel, after all), but also the religious dilemma: Paul is going against his own preaching that is the coming kingdom there is neither Jew nor Greek, but the emotional and social demands of the moment overwhelm the correct line.

The Biblical Paul’s injunction, ‘Slaves be obedient to your masters,’ is the basis for a major narrative thread. Consistent with the rest of the novel, the horrors of slavery and the terrible implications of that injunction are realised.

As anyone who has read even a little about the beginnings of Christianity knows, those early years were full of controversy. The first Christians were Jews, and what now reads as antisemitism in the gospels was written as one group of Jews attacking others. The story of Mary Magdalen meeting the risen Jesus is a vestige of her role as a leader in the early community. The story of doubting Thomas, who said he wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen unless he saw him with his own eyes, is polemic against the real-life Thomas who preached a different version from the one that became canonical. One of the terrific things about Damascus is the way it includes the controversy: a body of belief is in the process of forming, and the proponents of different positions have enormous difficulty staying loving with each other, and can fail spectacularly. Realistically, none of them shake off the religious world-views they inherited as children: conversion is always a work in progress.

Thomas is a major character. In this novel he, not John, is the disciple most beloved of ‘the Lord’. He is the one who witnessed the crucifixion. And he doesn’t believe in the resurrection. He and Paul – and the other leaders, mainly James in Jerusalem, whom we don’t meet – clash, and he is expelled from the community. By the end of the novel, there are four generations of Christians, the belief that Jeshua will return in triumph imminently is wearing thing, and there is a groping towards a different way of understanding the meaning of his life and death. We – or at least I – feel it is unbearably sad when Thomas, who is every bit a generous, forgiving and loving against the odds as Paul or any of the others, is rancorously dismissed, when his understanding – that the kingdom of heaven is to be found in how we can be with each other, not in any supernatural intervention – is perhaps the richest of all.

So, it’s a terrific book. I don’t know what Christos Tsiolkas’ devout Orthodox relatives will make of it, but it helps this lapsed Catholic look back on his roots with fresh respect, even awe. I hope it’s not pushing the Biblical allusions too far to say that in this book the word of the Christian New Testament is made stinky, fluid-emitting, blistered, burned and suffering flesh.

Proust Progress Report 21

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2273–2334

If I’d kept to my original plan of five pages a day, or even my second plan of three a day, I would have finished À la recherche du temps perdu by now. But I’ve slowed down and had a couple of gaps, so I’m only just entering the strait.

Not that the pace is picking up, but this last month’s reading has had a definite end-is-nigh feel. As I mentioned last month, a sequence of tiny experiences – standing on some uneven paving, hearing a spoon click against a plate, feeling a starched cloth against his lips – send the narrator into complex rumination about the nature of memory and art.

I won’t even try to summarise his reflections on art, but he has a lot to say about the importance of drawing on one’s own experience, and on paying attention to one’s own idiosyncratic (not his word) responses to the material experiences. The specifics of this, remembered, half-remembered, retained only in the unconscious, are what make a work of fiction live. ‘A book’, he says, ‘is a great cemetery where we can no longer read the eroded names on most of the tombs.’

Un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés

Having earlier given up on his pretensions to be a writer, he now decides to write a book based on his fresh understanding of a certain kind of memory as a way to transcend time. It’s fabulously self-referential, and it does make me want to start all over again to see how the book lives up to his stated intention.

All that thinking happens in the library of a house where he has turned up for a social event. The musical piece in the next room finishes and he goes into the salon, which is full of people he hasn’t seen for years while out of town at health establishments. And they’re all in fancy dress: the men have stuck white moustaches and beards on their faces and most people are wearing white wigs; one young man has put on ingenious fake wrinkles; a glamorous woman has made herself look overweight … which leads into reflections on old age. Just as he as decided to write a work about transcending time, he is confronted with evidence of time’s inexorable effects on human beings.

Individual humans age, some more devastatingly than others. Some people disappear from society altogether – they may have been the subject of scandal, or they may have been Germans. Some who were barely on the fringes of le monde now have great prestige. Others have swapped dubious reputations for status as men of high moral standing. The same title is now inhabited by a different person altogether. The young have no idea of the origins and history of the people who now shine on the social scene. And who but the old now remember that the still-beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes – Oriane – could once make or break a social occasion by deigning to appear for half an hour, or staying home.

Proust’s contrast between the virtues of solitude and the emptiness of social life is here the clearest it has ever been.

Through all this, there’s what amounts to a roll call of the novel’s characters alive and dead: the devious Morel now gives character references in court; Mme Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes; Bloch is a prestigious man of letters; no one quite remembers how Gilberte became a Guermantes; Oriane is as commanding a presence as ever, but in a flash-forward of three years we see her in sad decline.

The loose ends are being tied up. I have 70 pages to go and am missing Proust already.

Proust Progress Report 20: Getting to the point

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2217–2272

I was away for a couple of weeks over Easter and didn’t take my whopping great copy of À la recherche with me. On top of that, I’ve been reading fewer pages at a sitting because, well, eyes. So I’m slowing down as I approach the end. All the better to savour it (le goûter), I suppose.

At the end of last month’s report I wrote:

According to the IMDB, a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people buttonhole each other on street corners or something is about to change in the next pages.

Well, something changes. Once M De Charlus goes on his way, the narrator is left to wander the dark wartime Parisian streets alone and with a fierce thirst. He enters a seedy hotel, the only building that shows signs of life, and there he overhears a group of young men speak of beating a chained captive. So of course, suspecting that a crime is in progress, he joins them for a chat. His suspicions confirmed, he goes snooping and fairly improbably gets to witness some consensual S&M that, if I grasped the tone accurately, has a broadly comic shock effect. Assuming that I don’t need to worry about spoilers nearly a hundred years after the book was published, I’ll just say that we get to see the dark side of M De Charlus at a ludicrous extreme, and at the same time feel compassion for his misery.

Then, after a time slip, the narrator has what I’m guessing is his final encounter with M De Charlus, who is at an even further and more pathetic extreme, having had a stroke.

At the point I’ve reached this month, three more things have happened: avoiding a carriage in the street, the narrator has stepped on two paving stones of unequal height; he has pressed a starched cloth to his lips; and he has heard a spoon tapped against a plate. Each of these events has triggered a spontaneous, vivid recall of a moment from the past, and has flooded him with intense, joyful emotion. He has been experiencing an overwhelming sense of failure and gloom at his impending death; these three tiny events completely change his mood and restore his confidence. On his way to a social engagement, he pauses to reflect on this transformation, and I guess these pages contain the heart of his thinking about memory and creativity. These triggered memories, quite different in kind from those that are like flicking through the pages of a picture book (feuilleter un livre d’images), allow one to transcend time and make contact with eternity, if only, paradoxically, for a brief moment. It speaks volumes that I’m no longer impatient with Proust’s longwinded and repetitive expositions: I’m now following their twists and turns with avid concentration.

Such unbidden flashes of complete recall, he muses, are like the things one finds in ‘the internal book of unknown signs’ (livre intériieur de signes inconnus), and it is the work of a writer to decipher these signs. This is where today’s reading ended:

Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L’impression est pour l’écrivain ce qu’est l’expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l’intelligence précède et chez l’écrivain vient après. Ce que nous n’avons pas eu à déchiffrer, à éclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui était clair avant nous, n’est pas à nous. Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.

Here’s my translation, leaning heavily on Stephen Hudson’s first translation:

Intuition alone, however insubstantial it seems, however hard to grasp, is a criterion of truth and so it alone deserves to be seized by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract its truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it unalloyed pleasure. Intuition is for the writer what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows. That which we have not had to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before our arrival, is not ours. We ourselves produce only what we extract from the darkness within us which is unknown to others.

Things like the Dreyfus affair or a world war are just excuses for writers to avoid this hard work of figuring out what is actually going on in their own minds.

I imagine whole PhDs have been written about that contention. I’m just going to note it as an interesting and provocative author statement about this massive novel. Or I should say, the beginning of a complex, labyrinthine author statement which I will be reading over the next couple of days.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon

Colum McCann, Apeirogon (2020)

Apeirogon is not a meal but a table littered with ingredients: a paw of garlic, a frozen lamb shank, two potatoes, a big knob of celeriac, three peas. (Dwight Garner in the New York Times)

It’s a masterpiece, a novel that will change the world, and you don’t hear that very often. (Alex Preston in The Guardian)

I tend to agree with both critics. On the one hand, by design, Apeirogon is made up of numbered fragments, ranging from just a few words to several pages, but most a single paragraph. It takes a while to get one’s bearings, and once you’ve got them you might still be irritated by fragments like the one that explains why the sugar dextrose got its name, or the many that describe bird life. On the other hand, the central story is a compelling account of two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, whose young daughters were killed, one by a suicide bomber and the other by a callous exercise of state-sanctioned violence, who now travel the world telling their stories and arguing for peace between Israel and Palestine. They are real men, members of real organisations (Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle – Families Forum) that promote this form of activism.

The irritation almost got the upper hand for me in the early pages. It’s always a bad sign when I slip into proofreader mode, and that happened here when some birds are ‘held by their feet over a vat of pure Armagnac, dipped head first and drowned alive’. My mental blue pencil scribbled in the margin: ‘Delete “alive”. If something is drowned, by definition it’s alive before dipping.’ Happily, apart from one section that simply lists without comment 36 species of birds that are seen over the West Bank (a list that’s repeated in the final sections), irritation soon gave way to full engagement.

A structure emerges. First, there are 500 fragments numbered in ascending order, in which the Israeli man, Rami Elhanan, rides a motorbike to a gathering in an ancient monastery in the Left Bank, culminating in a version of his ‘talk’: his life story, the murder of his daughter, his peace advocacy. At the centre is a fragment numbered 1001, a single, beautifully Proustian sentence that describes the location, purpose and participants of the gathering, with an implicit descriptionj of the nature of the book we are reading. The audience in the monastery, ‘you and me’,

sit for hours, eager, hopeless, buoyed confused, cynical, complicit, silent, our memories imploding, our synapses skipping, in the gathering dark, remembering, while listening, all of those stories that are yet to be told.

(Page 229)

A second fragment 500 follows, in which the Palestinian man, Bassam Aramin, gives his talk, and we count down back to 1, as Bassam drives home to where his wife is waiting for him.

That’s the underlying structure. But a reader opening the book at random would mostly be hard pressed to tell where they were along that arc if not for the identifying numbers. The stories of the deaths of both girls and their aftermaths are told in fragments throughout both parts. The stories of their parents lives and post-tragedy activism likewise. The frustrating and often humiliating experience of passing through an Israeli checkpoint. The history of Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle, as well as both men’s tentative first joining them. And in what I now take to be an enactment of a listener’s mind – synapses skipping, remembering ‘all of those stories’ – there are shiny fragments: François Mitterand’s last meal, observations of bird life, mathematical curiosities, a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Nazi camp in Theresienstadt, facts about birdlife, Christopher Costigan’s ill-fated exploration of the Dead Sea, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philippe Petit’s highwire walk over Jerusalem in 1987, Peter Brook’s performances of The Conference of Birds in Saharan villages … the list could go on, and on. There are two Australian connections: an Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969, and an Australian artist, Janet Venn-Brown, was effectively widowed by Mossad agents’ assassination in 1972 of Palestinian poet and translator Wael Zuaiter.

An apeirogon is a polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. I don’t even know what that means. I suppose as a title for this book it suggests the futility of trying to understand the situation in Israel and Palestine as simply two-sided, though the book isn’t so much an infinite sided shape as a piling up of fragments along a barely discernible straight line. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Why not just tell the story straight? It’s a question I asked, especially when I got irritated – as by the short explanation of how the sugar dextrose got its name. I do think it works, this piling up of detail, ranging from incidents immediately relevant to the main story, to things the writer has retrieved from his personal rabbit-holes. At least, I was completely absorbed. I’d heard of Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, now I feel that I know about them, have a better grasp of what they’re up against and what they are doing, and am invested in it. So when the author’s acknowledgements end with contact details of organisations one can send contributions to, it feels as if it’s anticipating the reader’s desire rather than tacking on a plea for funds.

Also, apart from those birds who are drowned alive, it’s beautifully written.

Proust Progress Report 19: Mentioning the War

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 7, Le temps retrouvé, pp 2151–2215

This month’s whole reading has been preoccupied with the War: how it has affected Parisian fashion and the salons, especially Mme Verdurin’s little band of fidèles; how different kinds of masculinity respond to the ardures of combat (the French equivalent of stiff upper lips as opposed to the transmutation of homosexual desire into praise for gallantry; the ridiculousness of people having strong opinions of things they know nothing about; the persistence of Napoleonic strategies in a world that has changed; the hypocrisy of ‘experts’ …). Robert is becoming more like a version of M. De Charlus, and M. De Charlus himself buttonholes the narrator to express his disdain for unthinking patriotism and his sympathy for the Kaiser (whom he confesses he hasn’t written to since the War started, except perhaps once). In the last couple of pages, we are given a flashforward to a shocking revelation about M. De Charlus and Morel, and hopefully an indication that the story is to progress.

I photographed two passages on my way. In the first, the narrator notes that Gilberte’s butler believed what he reads in the newspapers when he must have known from experience that reality was otherwise:

Mais on lit les journaux comme on aime, un bandeau sur les yeux. On ne cherche pas à comprendre les faits. On écoute les
douces paroles du rédacteur en chef comme on écoute les paroles de sa maîtresse. On est battu et content parce qu’on
ne se croit pas battu mais vainqueur.

(page 2173)

My translation:

But we read the newspapers as we love, with a blindfold over our eyes. We don’t try to understand the facts. We listen to the sweet words of the editor as to the words of our mistress. We are beaten and happy because we believe ourselves not to be beaten but victorious.

So the information bubble was already there in Proust’s time.

In the other passage, M. De Charlus reflecting on the way Parisians ignore the war raging a short distance for them, but he could be prophesying about the pandemic and the climate emergency almost exactly a century later:

Les gens vont d’habitude à leurs plaisirs sans penser jamais que, si les influences étiolantes et modératrices venaient à cesser, la prolifération des infusoires atteignant son maximum, c’est-à-dire faisant en quelques jours un bond de plusieurs millions de lieues, passerait d’un millimètre cube à une masse un million de fois plus grande que le soleil, ayant en même temps détruit tout l’oxygène, toutes les substances dont nous vivons ; et qu’il n’y aurait plus ni humanité, ni animaux, ni terre, ou sans songer qu’une irrémédiable et fort vraisemblable catastrophe pourra être déterminée dans l’éther par l’activité incessante et frénétique que cache l’apparente immutabilité du soleil : ils s’occupent de leurs affaires sans penser à ces deux mondes, l’un trop petit, l’autre trop grand pour qu’ils aperçoivent les menaces cosmiques qu’ils font planer autour de nous.

(p 2189)

My translation (taking quite a few liberties):

People go about their habitual pleasures without ever thinking that, if etiolating and moderating influences were to cease, microscopic organisms would proliferate to their maximum, that is to say, make a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days, and so expand from cubic millimetres to a mass a million times larger than the sun, in the process destroying all the oxygen, all the substances that we need in order to live; without ever thinking that if that were to happen there would no longer be any humanity, or animals, or earth. They don’t dream that an irremediable and quite realistic catastrophe could be set off in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy that lies behind the apparent immutability of the sun. They go about their business without a thought for these two worlds, one too small and the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic threats that hover around us. 

Both Proust and his main translator Charles Scott Moncrieff died before this book could be published. (It was translated by Scott Moncrieff’s friend Sydney Schiff, under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson.) I’m still hopeful that Proust managed to get things resolved to his satisfaction, leaving just some polishing undone. According to the IMDB a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people stand on street corners haranguing each other or something is about to change in the next pages.

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 doing what 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.