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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

faber and faber, 2005, 238 p. First published 1963.

 The Bell Jar cover

It is very difficult to read this without an awareness of the troubled life of its author, who, like her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, lost her father in early life and on reaching young adulthood developed mental health issues. As it did with Plath herself, the shadow of madness, or at least disturbance, lies heavily over the book’s second half.

Esther, a nineteen year-old from a provincial background has won a fashion magazine contest to jaunt about New York. The early part of the novel describes her experiences there and some of her fellow winners, one of whom wears, in a beautiful phrase, “dressing gowns the colour of sin”.

Esther is somewhat naïve as well as still a virgin. “When I was nineteen, pureness was the great issue.” Magazines told her, “The best men wanted to be pure for their wives, and even if they weren’t pure, they wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex.” Her would-be husband Buddy Willard is, “the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for,” and when she finds he isn’t so fine and clean himself she rejects him and reflects staying pure may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But she “wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself.” It’s a conflict she finds difficult to resolve.

In this first half the book is feminist in an early 1960s kind of way but it soon drives off on a darker tangent as Esther’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

The novel’s first sentence sets it in the summer the Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted. This is something that clearly preoccupies Esther as it perhaps did Plath. In an exchange which illustrates Esther is perhaps more humane than some “normal” people Esther as narrator tells us, “I said, ‘Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?’ ‘Yes’ Hilda said. ‘It’s awful such people should be alive.’” Electrocution is a fate Esther suffered as a child due to a faulty lamp – and will again as she is trundled through a succession of mental hospitals and subjected to electro-convulsive shock therapy of varying degrees of intensity. How much this helped or hindered is difficult to assess. Plath’s fate suggests the latter. Esther does describe madness as being like inside a bell jar which lifts – temporarily? – after the milder shock treatment she receives from a (slightly) more careful practitioner than her first.

There is a particularly horrific scene in the aftermath of Esther losing her virginity. Put together with the emphasis on pureness from Esther’s early life such an outcome seems like a punishment. It is possible from this to argue that one of the book’s purposes was to suggest that sexual naivety consequent on the insistence of the purity of women before marriage is at the least detrimental to well-being, maybe even a major contributor to madness.

It would be tempting to think that this book gives some insight into Plath’s later life but as an account of the onset of mental problems and its inadequate treatment it doesn’t really.

All I’d read about this – and its author – suggested that it would be a difficult book but it is in fact extremely easy to read. It may be autobiographical (or at least semi-autobiographical) and there is her poetry to take into account but from the perspective of a reader of novels it is a pity Plath never wrote (or perhaps never had the time to write) another one.

Pedant’s corner:- sewed (USianism, I prefer sewn,) the women (it was one person, so woman,) “why couldn’t I just got to the classes?” (just go to,) “I was my last night” (It was,) a missing start quote mark, “with pinks tips” (pink.)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Fleet, 2016, 373 p (plus an additional 16 pages extract of Colson’s first novel, none of which I read.)

 The Underground Railroad cover

Even if this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for 2017 I might not have got round to it for some while had it not also won this year’s Clarke Award (- not to mention the shadow Clarke Award.).

The main viewpoint character, Cora, is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, whose grandmother bequeathed (informally of course) to her descendants a small patch of ground in the slave quarters on which she grew scrubby vegetables. Cora’s mother ran away when she was small – the only runaway from the plantation not to be recaptured – and Cora tries to defend the patch as best she can, before she is pushed out to the Hob (a kind of depository for the less fortunate slaves.) This demonstration of the hierarchy that existed within the slave community is one of the features of Whitehead’s book. While Cora lives on the relatively benign half of the plantation this benignity is still only relative. Whitehead does not go overboard on the indignities and horrors but nevertheless portrays slave life in all its wretchedness, yet he doesn’t skirt over the harshnesses they endure nor can themselves inflict. Cora is female: no more need be said. Things change when the Randall brother in charge of her half of the estate dies and the whole plantation becomes subject to the whims of Terrance Randall. When she steps in to absorb his blows on a slave boy he becomes her implacable enemy and so she accepts the offer of male slave Caesar, who has been in contact with the Underground Railroad, to escape with him. They do not make it to the Station without mishap and in a confrontation with a group of whites Cora, in order to evade capture has to kill one of them by striking his head with a stone. This makes her even more of a target for tracking down.

At the Station they descend below the cellar and come to a tunnel along the floor of which run two parallel steel lines. Thus is the metaphor of the organisation which helped runaway slaves, and gave Whitehead his title, made literal. This literalisation is the sort of thing Science Fiction does and I suppose is what allows the book to be classified as such (or, indeed, an Altered History) and thus eligible for the Clarke. In other respects though the story the book tells does not rely on this speculative element – could have been written without this device – and so would lie outside the boundaries of the genre. The book might not have received as much attention without this presence of steel and steam, though.

The main sections are titled for the various States in which Cora finds herself, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and “The North” while shorter chapters relate aspects of the lives of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, captured and enslaved in Africa; slave-catcher Ridgeway; an anatomist and “resurrectionist” called Stevens; Ethel, the wife of one of the Railroad’s agents; Cora’s escape companion Caesar; and the ironical fate of Cora’s mother.

Cora ponders the US Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident truth” that, “All men are created equal,” with the thought “unless we decide you are not a man.”

Set in the time and place it is there are of course frequent uses of the “n” word, which therefore appears in full in some later quotes here.

It is not just slave-catchers – and Ridgeway in particular – that Cora has to be wary of. In South Carolina she and Caesar find the authorities are collecting data about and performing medical procedures on the “coloured” – controlled sterilisation, research into communicable diseases by pretending to give treatment but really allowing the disease to run rampant, perfection of new surgical techniques on the socially unfit – to protect “our women and daughters from their (the coloureds’) violent jungle urges” which was understood “to be a particular fear of southern white men.”

Whitehead tells us, “The ruthless engine of cotton required its fuel of African bodies. More slaves led to more cotton.” But more slaves represented a problem. “Even with the termination of the slave trade, in less than a generation the numbers were untenable: all those niggers.” North Carolina’s response was to advertise for Europeans to be indentured for a while to pick the cotton. “In effect they abolished slavery. On the contrary, Oney Garrison said in response. We abolished niggers.” Coloured men and women were banned from North Carolina soil on pain of death. Bodies of those unable to flee lined the so-called Freedom Trail for mile upon mile.

The resurrectionist anatomist reflects on the irony that, “when his classmates put their blades to a coloured cadaver, they did more for the cause of coloured advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

About the excesses of his fellow slave patrollers Ridgeway ruminates, “In another country they would have been criminals. But this was America.” And later, that justification of acquisition, “If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now. Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property. slave, or continent. The American imperative.” Later he tells Cora about the country they are travelling through after she is captured, “Settlers needed the land, and if the Indians hadn’t learned by then that the white man’s treaties were entirely worthless, Ridgeway said, they deserved what they got.” Ridgeway describes the American spirit, “to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

Cora is freed from Ridgeway’s clutches and finds a temporary refuge in Indiana where a black speaker orates, “‘Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are. And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

On her first journey underground Cora was told, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” But, “It was a joke then from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.”

All nations have their darker shadows. Slavery is the USA’s original (and in the form to which it evolved, racism, its besetting) sin. Whitehead shows how the patterns it produced were engrained, embedded by the “Peculiar Institution”. The Underground Railroad is extremely well-written, its characters far more than ciphers or types – and Whitehead gives due consideration to the views of the slave-holders – but the tale it tells seems, sadly, to be as relevant today as the organisation it was named for was all those years ago.

Pedant’s corner: a pile of ball and chains (balls and chains,) “The doctors were stealing her babies from her, not her former masters” (is ambiguous. “The doctors, and not her former masters, were stealing her babies from her,” would make it clearer,) forbid (forbade, x 3,) “Every town … held their Friday Festival” (its Friday Festival,) hung (hanged,) “the fire had eliminated the differences in their skin” (in their skins,) laying (lying,) “The two rifles turned to him” (on the previous page it had been “his pistol” and “A second man held a rifle,” so not two rifles then.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

Harvill, 1996, 302 p. Translated from the Russian Белая гвардия, (Belaja gvardija, first published in 1925,) by Michael Glenny.

The White Guard cover

There is a sense in which – like Tolstoy’s happy families – all Russian novels are alike. A blizzard of polysyllabic names potentially confusingly embellished with the corresponding patronymics not to mention the seemingly obligatory diminutives, with always a sense of foreboding in the background, if not the foreground. You certainly don’t turn to them for sweetness and light. Then again, love, sex and death are the wider novel’s perennial preoccupations.

To be sure there isn’t much focus on love in The White Guard, no sex at all, and I can recall only three actual deaths described in the text; but the prospect of death hangs over everything. Here there can be, too, as I also noticed when reading War and Peace, a sudden lurching through time from a particular chapter to the next. One surprising thing I discovered from it is that a Ukrainian clock seems to make the sounds tonk-tank rather than tick-tock.

The novel is set in Ukraine, in “the city” (only once identified as Kiev,) amid the turmoil that followed the 1917 revolution and centres round the affairs of the Turbin family and those who live in the same building. During the novel the city starts out under the rule of the Hetman – in whose army the male Turbins serve as officers – but is threatened by Ukrainian Nationalist forces led by Simon Petlyura; and beyond that, the Bolsheviks. The disorganisation and unpreparedness of the defending forces is well portrayed – a bit like Dad’s Army but without the laughs – and the mist of rumour and counter-rumour accompanying the situation when the city falls to Petlyura conveys the commensurate sense of febrility.

Bulgakov’s first novel and the only one to be published in the USSR in his lifetime, The White Guard is an insight into an all-but forgotten moment in an interregnum of upheaval and change and is worth reading for that alone. But a marker of the futility of it all is the thought that, “Blood is red on those deep fields and no one would redeem it. No one.”

While it has touches of the fantastic, including several dream sequences, The White Guard does not (cannot) touch the heights of the same author’s The Master and Margarita but it is well worth reading on its own terms.

Pedant’s corner:- While at the end of a piece dialogue a full stop, question mark or ellipsis is included inside the quote marks; if the sentence carries on and so requires a comma this, against the accepted practice, is almost – though not quite – invariably set after the quotation. Otherwise; the Ukraine (when first translated this usage was common, but nowadays its inhabitants prefer “Ukraine”.) “As if at by unspoken command” (“As if at”, or “As if by”, not “As if by at”,) Karas’ (Karas’s,) négligé (usually négligée,) Tubirn (Turbin,) hung (hanged, but it was in dialogue,) Toropets’ (Toropets’s.) Exct ed (????) a missing start quote mark, french window (French window,) I thought earlier on I had spotted a waggon but did not note its place (later on there were wagons,) St Nicholas’ church (St Nicholas’s.)

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Viking, 2016, 349 p.

 The Power cover

The Power imagines what it would be like, how interactions between the sexes would be affected, how society would be changed, if women developed the ability to administer electric shocks – in much the same way a manta ray can. The premise is a fantastical one but is given a Science-Fictional rationale by positing an area of muscle across the collar bone, called a skein, as a centre for the power and an origin for the mutation in a Second World War chemical agent (Guardian Angel) which protected against gas attacks, which inevitably leaked into the environment.

The story of how this power changes the world is told mainly through four points of view: Allie, who becomes the head of a new religion emphasising God’s female nature by transforming herself into Mother Eve; a London gangster’s daughter called Roxy; Margot Cleary, a US city mayor eager for further political advancement and Tunde who, initially by accident, becomes the journalistic chronicler of events.

There is, of course, a backlash to the new reality, both in the political sphere and in the darker (and perhaps not so hidden) recesses of the internet. One conspiracy theorist called UrbanDox believes that Guardian Angel was leaked deliberately just to do men down.

Yet Alderman’s is no simplistic account. Biblical cadences emphasise the mythical nature of the origins of her future society. Her characters are by and large agreeably nuanced, their actions not entirely predictable but still credible. Roxy is wonderfully realised but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Alderman’s US ones, and wondered whether Saudi Arabian women would throw off sexual inhibitions quite so quickly as one does here. But I suppose in the heady throes of a revolution anything might go and Alderman’s tale implicitly argues that human nature is indivisible, characteristics and behaviours shown by any one individual may or may not be shown by others, irrespective of their sex.

Where I have major reservations is with the framing device, a series of letters supposedly sent five thousand years hence between “Neil” and “Naomi” wrapped around the contents of a manuscript whose title page reads The Power: a historical novel by Neil Adam Armon (the anagram is easily deciphered) and which purports to be an imaginative, speculative, account of how the power originated and precipitated what became known as the Cataclysm. These letters stand on their heads widely held beliefs (in our present) about the proclivities and habits of, and attitudes to, men and women. Alderman’s point in a nutshell, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. Between each section of the book (which count down from the power’s first appearance to the Cataclysm) are illustrations of little understood artefacts from around the time described in the manuscript. The interpolation into the manuscript of seemingly intact “Archival documents relating to the electrostatic power, its origin, dispersal, and the possibility of a cure” also strains credibility. How could they have survived more or less intact, remaining understandable, when the illustrated artefacts did not? Moreover the manuscript itself is too close to present day speech patterns – especially in the character of Roxy – to make the framing device believable. A five thousand year hence Neil Adam Armon would have got so much of our present wrong that he actually gets right. From this point of view it might have been better just to present the story as speculation rather than an imagined history from the future. This is a very purist position, of course, which argues for every detail of the overall book to be true to its own reality as presented to the reader – and very difficult to bring off. And anyway, SF is always about the present, never the future (or in this case the manuscript’s distant past.) I also doubt whether the inhabitants of such a world would in fact call the historical break a cataclysm but all this is mere quibbling. Though its interpretation of human nature, power and how it is implemented is bleak, The Power is engrossing, well written and with a lot to say about relationships between the sexes.

Pedant’s corner:- “over to her cousins” (cousins’,) “the particulate and debris grow” (particulates and debris?) “the music reaches a crescendo” (no, a crescendo is a rise, not the climax at its end.)

The Untouchable by John Banville

Picador, 1997, 412p.

The Untouchable cover

The novel is the memoir of Victor Maskell, scion of the estate of Carrickdrum in Northern Ireland, an Art Historian, expert on Poussin; and a spy for the USSR since his time at Cambridge in the 1930s. His journal is written down as if for Miss Serena Vandeleur, a journalist who comes to him after his exposure to the press long, long after the Security Services had become aware of his treacherous activities. He thus bears a more than superficial resemblance to Anthony Blunt but doubtless the parallels are not entirely exact.

The attention here is incidental but Banville has previously had painting and painters as a subject – as in The Sea, Athena, The Book of Evidence and Ghosts. The focus here (obviously drawn from Blunt’s non-espionage career) is Poussin, specifically Maskell’s prized possession, The Death of Seneca, but, in keeping with the book’s theme of duplicity and subterfuge, there is a suggestion that the work is not genuine, or at least not by Poussin.

The novel is wonderfully written. Each sentence is in perfect balance; a work of art in itself, the text studded with unusual observations, “The silence that fell, or rather rose – for silence rises, surely?” or comments, “He was genuinely curious about people – the sure mark of the second-rate novelist,” and the occasional barb, “Trying for the common touch .. and failing ridiculously.” The literary allusions include a reference to Odysseus’s men drinking sea-dark wine.

There are subtle inferences to the insights of a spy, “He made the mistake of thinking that the way to be convincing is to put on a false front,” and the regrets of the trade, “It is odd, how the small dishonesties are the ones that snag in the silk of the mind,” and later, “It is the minor treacheries that weigh most heavily on the heart.” On encountering a tramp with a dog inside his coat Maskell tells us, “(I was) ashamed that I felt more sorrow for the dog than I did for the man. What a thing it is, the human heart.”

Maskell claims almost from the outset to have been disenchanted with the USSR, a feeling to which his visit there in the 30s only contributed, and that his controllers consistently misunderstood England (as he puts it.) “Much of my time and energy … was spent trying to teach Moscow to distinguish between form and content in English life.” Despite his betrayals he says, “I was nothing less than an old-fashioned patriot.” In mitigation he asks, “who could have remained inactive in this ferocious century?” and avers, “We should have had no mercy, no qualms. We would have brought down the whole world.”

He receives the Order of the Red Banner (his medal glimpsed only once by him before being hidden away by his handler) for contributing to the Soviet victory at Kursk by transferring details, relayed from Bletchley, of a new German tank design. How much such information really affected that battle is of course debatable.

Some of the dialogue is representative of the times in which the book is set, “Mind if I turn off this nigger racket?” and “‘What’s the matter with the dago, sir?'” being cases in point.

One of Maskell’s defining features is his homosexuality (though he came to it late, after marriage to the sister of one of his University friends.) Of a lover of his he tells us, “Patrick had all the best qualities of a wife, and was blessedly lacking in two of the worst: he was neither female, nor fertile,” and further comments “(I ask myself….. if women fully realise how deeply, viscerally, sorrowfully, men hate them.)” He is of the opinion that in the fifties “to be queer was very bliss…. the last great age of queerdom.” The “young hotheads” of the narrator’s present day, “do not seem to appreciate, or at least seem to wish to deny, the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear.”

Part of his early protection from wider exposure was that he was sent by the King to Bavaria after the war to retrieve some potentially compromising papers. A distant relation, he refers sardonically to the Queen as Mrs W.

He has a jaundiced view of humanity and at one point he describes the American system as “itself, so demanding, so merciless, undeluded as to the fundamental murderousness and venality of humankind and at the same time grimly, unflaggingly optimistic.”

His observation about his work on Poussin, that he was trying “to pull together into a unity all the disparate strands of character and inspiration and achievement that make up this singular being,” might be a description of the novel itself. In The Untouchable Banville has laid out for us a life in just such terms.

It is all a fascinating examination of the existence of a spy. As he ponders who it was who unmasked him – possibly twice – Maskell begins to question everything about his life but asides such as, “My memory is not as good as it’s supposed to be. I may have misrecalled everything, got all the details wrong,” and, “As to this – what? this memoir? this fictional memoir?” point to the unreliability of his account.

Brilliant stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval, on first mention we have Petersburg but when Maskell travelled there, in the thirties – and indeed till the nineties – it was called Leningrad, as it is denoted a few pages late, an ambulance siren (in 1939? I’m pretty sure British ambulances had bells at that time,) a missing full stop at the end of a paragraph, “Not the kind of thing you expect to hear from a Harley Street consultant, is it.” (That’s a question so requires a question mark,) “men and women, girls, youths,” (so youths means males only?) Prince’s Street (Princes Street,) “what the Americans delightfully call the pinkie” (I think, my Irish friend, you’ll find they got that word from us Scots,) hoofs (in my youth it was always hooves,) a paragraph starting “Those were the,” and then stopping, the three words repeating at the beginning of the next paragraph – but the nrarrator had just stated his mind was wandering so this may have been intended to indicate that circumstance, for Maskell to be watching a Jean Harlow film in a cinema in the 1950s seems a bit unlikely as she died in 1937, some Highland lough (it’s loch, my Irish friend,) “She made me sit me down” (made me sit down,) slippers turn to sandals then back to slippers within two pages.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

A Novel in Nine Parts. Sceptre, 1999, 446 p.

Ghostwritten cover

The novel is true to its sub-title. The first eight parts are all narrated in the first person from the respective viewpoints of a brain-washed cult member, perpetrator of a gas attack in a Japanese subway (in thrall to His Serendipity); a young half-Korean worker in a Tokyo shop selling jazz records; a compromised English banker in Hong Kong; a woman whose misfortune it was to live in China through most of the Twentieth Century; a mind-dwelling entity who can transmigrate from person to person by touch; a gallery attendant in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, who is an agent of an art-stealing syndicate; a London-dwelling, womanising ghostwriter; a female Irish physicist with the key to making atomic weapons worthless; and to round off we have transcripts from the broadcasts of Night Train FM, 97.8 ‘til late. The last two are awfully familiar but I can’t put my finger on from where (beyond the section set in Ireland in the same author’s The Bone Clocks.)

At first the connections between the parts seem tenuous, that between one and two is a misplaced phone call, between two and three seems to be a reference to the couple embarking on a love affair in part two, but gradually, the more sections come into play, the more resonances between them build up. Still, the Queen Anne chair mentioned in Hong Kong and a biography of His Serendipity seem lobbed into the London section when they arrive, gratuitous intrusions; the Music of Chance is the name of the ghostwriter’s band but also occurs as a phrase in a later section. Each part, though, is wonderfully written, suspending disbelief is never difficult – except in the case of the transmigrating mind entity, an interpolation of the fantastic which seems at odds with the realistic tone of the other parts. But then we find the fulcrum on which the novel comes to turn is a process called quantum cognition. This is not merely smuggling quantum physics into the literary landscape but making it the book’s focus – a piece of bravery (or potential folly) in a first novel which almost makes the previous mind-hopping seem mundane. “Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” is not the sort of comparison common in literary texts.

Asides like, “For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing,” or “I added ‘writers’ to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up,” is perhaps over-egging the pudding, however. “Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous,” is a pessimistic view of humanity. The last bit is always worth repeating, though.
The pessimism is carried on by phrases like, “‘Loving somebody’ means ‘wanting something’. Love makes people do selfish, moronic, cruel and inhumane things,” but “‘womanisers are victims – unable to communicate with women any other way. They either never knew their mother or never had a good relationship with her,’” is more compassionate. The killer line follows as the womaniser is told, ‘I don’t quite know what you want from us. But it’s something to do with approval.’”

At one point one of the narrators says, “Italians give their cities sexes…. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay.” I suspect all cities are secretly gay. “The USA is even crazier than the rest of humanity,” is either a prescient thesis or one now in the process of hard testing.

Ghosts, of memories and of sentience, begin to permeate the book. “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present,” while, “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting….. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us,” which leads to, “The real drag about being a ghostwriter is you never get to write anything beautiful.” Pessimism again.

But, “Technology is repeatable miracles.” That is the age in which we live.

I read in a recent(ish) review (of Slade House?) the opinion that Ghostwritten is still the best Mitchell has done. Not for me, of the ones I have read that would be The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet but in Ghostwritten I found the intrusion of the fantastical elements took away from the whole. Perhaps if they had been fully present from the start – part one is in the viewpoint of a delusion sufferer, true, but it is only the later parts which suggest it may not be a delusion – I would have felt differently, but I suppose in that case Mitchell might not have found a publisher. It’s brilliantly written and the characterisation is superb, but paradoxically, I thought Ghostwritten came to something less than the sum of its parts.

Pedant’s corner:- “The rest of for ever in a cell” (forever,) in paper bag (in a paper bag,) the owner of the greengrocers across the street (greengrocer’s) he jubilated (as an example to be avoided of an alternative to “he said” that is an absolute cracker,) I stunk (stank,) flack (flak,) uppercutted (uppercut?) leeched (leached,) emporers (emperors,) wracked (racked,) a group of … were waiting (was,) “There are less than one hundred left” (fewer than,) noncorpi (Mitchell’s previous plural form for noncorpum was noncorpa.) “like a virus within a bacteria” (bacterium,) reindeers (reindeer,) Ulan-Bator (Ulan Bator,) more muscle that (than,) a trio were playing … (a trio was playing,) some passersbys (passersby,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) staunch (stanch,) acquatic (aquatic,) the only good thing about Oxford Street are (things; or “is”,) I’d betted (bet – used 12 lines above!) Kyrgistan (nowadays spelled Kyrgyztan,) scaley (scaly,) wrapped into ((wrapped in,) Maise (Maisie – but it may have been an affectionate diminutive,) “A Lighter Shade of Pale” (Whiter,) “ ‘We skipped the last fandango” (light fandango.) “The only words for technology is “here”, or “not here” (The only words are,) “in Dr Bell and my case” (in Dr Bell’s and my case,) the aerobatic corp (corps,) practise (practice,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie,) coup d’etats (coups d’etat,) the Brunei’s (the Bruneis.)

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Penguin, Reprint of 1964 edition, 237 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

To The Lighthouse cover

Quite why this is on any list of Scottish books is something of a mystery. Yes, the nominal setting is somewhere in the Western Isles but it could really be anywhere. There is nothing intrinsically Scottish about the subject matter nor the characters and certainly not their speech patterns. I always suspected that Scottishness would be a false premise under which to read the book. Granted, there are references to the Waverley novels, but that is not enough to make a book Scottish. Neither are there sufficient descriptions of the landscape to bring it under the umbrella.

I understand Woolf is revered by some (a cover quote from Jeanette Winterson says, “Woolf is Modern. She feels close to us. With Joyce and Eliot she has shaped a literary century.”) Yet I found this novel to be …. odd.

To The Lighthouse is structured in three sections, The Window, Time Passes and The Lighthouse, of which the first is the longest and the second not much more than a placeholder but mercifully more cogent than the other two. We begin eavesdropping on the Ramsay family and their acquaintances as they contemplate a visit to the titular lighthouse the next day. There is little conflict between the characters (except in their unspoken thoughts) – certainly none that is dramatized, only Mr Ramsay saying he doubts they will be able to make the trip. Not a lot happens. Arguably the most important event in the book occurs offstage in Time Passes and is only reported – but people reflect on the little that does happen either at length or a tangent.

I have no problem with stream of consciousness as a technique – Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon uses it well – but without a focus it can reel off into irrelevance. The narrative viewpoint here can flit from mind to mind within the same paragraph (sometimes it felt like the same sentence.) As a result any insight into the human condition ends up drowned in the deluge. Any wood here is difficult to distinguish amongst all the trees. The copy I read was the good lady’s and she has told me she didn’t take to the book either.

I note from the entry on Woolf in The Oxford Companion to English Literature that she co-founded Hogarth Press – the original publishers of To The Lighthouse and others of her works: this is surely tantamount to self-publishing – and from her Wikipedia entry that her first novel was published by her half-brother’s company; which smacks of nepotism to me.

It’s the first of her works I have read and maybe I ought to sample more but I’d be delighted if someone could tell me just why Woolf is supposed to be good. On this evidence, and as that advert used to have it, her writing is dull, dull, dull.

Pedant’s corner:- galoshes (galoshes,) stood (x2, standing,) trapesing (I had not previously come across this alternative spelling of traipsing,) a comma at the end of one paragraph, shrunk (shrank,) waterily (what an ugly word; “like water” would have conveyed the sense,) sunk (sank.)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Windmill, 2015, 378 p.

 Tigerman cover

When I started this it read like some sort of odd fusion between Michael Chabon and Gabriel García Márquez. Why? Well, there’s the boy whose great interest is in comic books (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay). Then the viewpoint character is referred to all but exclusively as “the Sergeant” (The General in his Labyrinth) and the setting is exotic – to me at least. The island of Mancreu in the north part of the Indian Ocean. The Sergeant has seen (messy) service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia and been farmed out to the island as a British Brevet-Consul with strict instructions to do, or interfere with, nothing. Yet in his new home he has a quasi-police role. Think Death in Paradise with all the twee bits ruthlessly excised except in a different ocean and a menacing air to the whole island.

For Mancreu has been the subject of an environmental disaster in its subterranean magma well (all sorts of undesirable biological emanations now proceed from there at irregular intervals) and is under sentence of death, “so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire,” by the international community. People have already left – Leaving parties de rigueur – and the rest of the population is only biding its time. On land an international force known as NatProMan has a sort of rules-enforcement function. Offshore a Black Fleet is up to no good and tales circulate of a criminal/pirate/underworld type dubbed Bad Jack who lurks in the island’s shadows.

The Sergeant has developed a fatherly interest in the boy – who seems to have no parents but is liberally supplied with comic books and speaks fluent comic. In a meta-fictional moment the boy says of the stories in the comics, “There must be development-over-time or it is just noise.”

Things are shaken up when a bunch of gunmen come into Shola’s bar (where the Sergeant and the boy go to take tea) and shooting starts. Shola is killed but the Sergeant protects the boy with a nifty piece of action using for a weapon a tin containing custard powder which he employs as a sort of grenade. It explodes when the gunmen fire at it in defence. This gives the Sergeant the opportunity to overwhelm the remaining gunmen.

After the Sergeant discovers the boy – who may be called Robin but then again that could be a Batman joke – has been severely beaten and some of his comics systematically ripped apart as a punishment they cook up a plan between them. Inspired by the Sergeant’s somewhat magic realist encounter with a tiger (which he has related to the boy) the Sergeant, with the aid of a mask and some painted body armour, will become “Tigerman” to deal with the island’s bad guys. After all, “Myths and monsters were a human weakness, even on places not about to be evacuated and sterilised by fire.”

The plot sharpens when a missile is fired from the Black Fleet onto the building where the arrested gunmen are being held but it kind of jumped the shark later when the exact relationship between the boy and Bad Jack is revealed.

Along the way the NatProMan chief ruminates, “You had to listen to what a Brit was saying – which was invariably that he thought X Y Z was a terrific idea and he hoped it went well for you – while at the same time paying heed to the greasy, nauseous suspicion you had that, although every word and phrase indicated approval, somehow the sum of the whole was that you’d have to be a mental pygmy to come up with this plan and a complete fucking idiot to pursue it…. they didn’t do it on purpose. Brits actually thought that subtext was plain text.”

The last few pages strive for an emotional reaction from the reader but Harkaway hasn’t done quite enough in the preceding ones to earn it which is a shame as I really liked his previous novel Angelmaker.

Pedant’s corner:- Bad Jack is at one point rendered in French as Mauvais Jacques. I had always thought Jacques was French for James, as in Jacobite, not Jack. Otherwise; the \Sergeant is told to “rest up” by the previous Consul (rest up is a USianism, a Brit would more likely say rest,) “which he could use about now” (use is an USianism; which he could do with about now,)”the bigness of this idea”(x2; what an ugly expression,) mortician (undertaker,) sit-uations (not at a line break so situations,) with with (only one with required,) Freddy Mercury (Freddie Mercury,) “‘She wants a friendly face, is all’” (is all is USian, a Brit would say, ‘that’s all’,) a missing comma before the end quote mark of a piece of dialogue and another missing before a new piece, phosphorous flares (phosphorus,) there were a lot of positions (there were lots of positions.)

The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez

Penguin, 2014, 290 p, including i p map of New Granada, iv p author’s thanks and xi p Chronology of Simón Bolívar. No translator given but it is most likely Edith Grossman as she was the translator for the Jonathan Cape edition from which the original Penguin paperback was derived. First published as El General en Su Laberinto, Mondadori Espana, 1989.

 The General in his Labyrinth cover

This, an account of the last days of Simón Bolívar, The Liberator, on his final trip down the Magdalena River from Santa Fe de Bogotá to the sea, is not typical Márquez. There is no hint of magic realism here and the book often reads more like a history than a novel. In that it is a portrait of a leader in decline it bears some similarities to The Autumn of the Patriarch but it would not do to stretch the parallel. In any case, unlike that novel, this one is not at all experimental in its writing. Márquez’s Bolivar (his name is only given once, and then in full, Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios) – known throughout as simply the General – is all too human, his wife’s untimely death, without which he may never have embarked on his adventures into history, locked away inside him, yet his liaisons with women legendary.

The novel starts in Santa Fe de Bogotá as the General, his hopes of uniting the lands of South America (certainly the former Spanish parts) into one country now lying in tatters, is awaiting Government permission to leave and go to Europe. At a gathering, “No one was certain, however, who was there for the sake of friendship, who in order to protect him, and who to be sure that in fact he was leaving.”

The details of the journey downriver are intercut with scenes from his life and military and governmental careers wherein Márquez has the opportunity to comment on the condition of being a military strong man, or any dictator. When official reports had led the General to believe the scourge of smallpox was being conquered, evidence to the contrary has him say, “‘It will always be like this as long as subordinates lie to make us happy.’”

The General is also biting about any criticism of the harsh measures he had taken in his campaigns, “‘Europeans would not have the moral authority to reproach me, for, if any history is drowned in blood, indignity, and injustice, it is the history of Europe,’” the difficulties of running a newly founded country, “‘I warned (General) Santander that whatever good we had done for the nation would be worthless if we took on debt because we would go on paying interest till the end of time. Now it’s clear: debt will destroy us in the end.’” In a letter he tells another General that, “Every civil war had been won by the side that was most savage.” Then to an aide, “‘Don’t go with your family to the United States. It’s omnipotent and terrible, and its tale of liberty will end in a plague of miseries for us all.’” Despite all his achievements he reflects ruefully, “‘It was not the perfidy of my enemies but the diligence of my friends that destroyed my glory.’”

An item I found curious is that Bolivar was initiated in Paris as a Mason “of the Scottish rite”. Odd how often Scotland pops up in these South American fictions.

The novel’s title is an allusion to the General’s last words which were, “‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!’” It is, of course, the same way as the rest of us.

This was obviously a subject to which Márquez felt he had to turn, taking up the idea from an unfinished work by his friend Álvaro Mutis. to chronicle the end of a life which may as well be a myth.

Pedant’s corner:- to not deprive (not to deprive,) Elbers’ (Elbers’s,) Andrés’ (Andrés’s,) Páez’ (Páez’s,) Palacios’ (Palacios’s,) duchess’ (duchess’s,) Valdehoyos’ (Valdehoyos’s,) Sáenz’ (Sáenz’s,) English and British are used almost interchangeably, Britain is nearly always referred to as England.

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