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Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much Later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen

Abacus, 2004, 347 p.

 The Tapestries cover

This is a tale of Vietnam in the early to mid- years of the twentieth century when the old ways were beginning to crumble under the influence of the French. Peasant woman Ven is sold to the Nguyen family of Cam Le village as a bride for their seven year-old son, Dan. She protects him when the family’s fortunes are ruined by the local magistrate Toan and the elders of the family are killed or flee. As their faces are both unknown to the outside world they can for a while take refuge in the Toan household where he and Toan’s granddaughter, Tai May, fall in love. During a visitation from an official of the Emperor’s court to betrothe Tai May to Bui, the official’s son, they reveal their identities. In the outcome Ven is accused of the murders of the official and Bui actually carried out by Toan.

Thinking Ven dead, Dan leaves for the Imperial city and due to his skill at embroidery eventually becomes chief embroiderer to the court. (It is this ability and Dan’s handiwork, of course, which lend the book its title.) Meanwhile, the disgraced Tai May has been sent away to join a dance troupe. Their paths cross at the court but they cannot meet due to their respective obligations to the Emperor. On the deathbed of the Lady Chin, still grieving wife of the murdered official, Dan gives her food to revive her and accompanies her to Cam Le to confront the source of both their woes and achieve resolution.

Perhaps because English is not Nguyen’s first language the writing isn’t quite as fluent or crisp as in the very best fiction. There is often a resort to cliché (“with all her might”) and dialogue too frequently tips over into the melodramatic. I also found the love story supposed to be at the novel’s heart so barely outlined as to be almost invisible. We are told of it but rarely experience any of the relevant emotion. Rather, it is the relationship between Dan and Ven which dominates the book. Therein lies its tragedy and pathos. Yet even there the withholding by Ven of a nugget of information from Dan till very late on, twists the arc of the narrative.

Pedant’s corner:- “she said to the him” (she said to him,) “the plastic loop in her hand” (was a metal loop on the previous page and, in any case, plastic? In 1916?) “in the middle of night” (the night,) twenty-four karat (is karat USian? It’s carat over here,) organdy (organdie,) sprung (sprang,) “even her face seemed to have shed its usual plainness and glow with the sparkling mystical world” (glowed,) “the Indochinese Communist Party led by the socialist Ho Chi Minh” (in 1932? Ho did found the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930 but he was in jail in Hong Kong from 1931-33 and then moved to the Soviet Union, not returning to Vietnam till 1941. Would most Vietnamese have even heard of him in 1932?)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Bloomsbury, 2006, 174 p. First published with the subtitle The Modern Prometheus, 1818. This edition also contains ii p Why You Should Read This by Benjamin Zephaniah and 35 p Extra! Extra! of snippets dealing with the history of the author’s times in the style of a modern tabloid newspaper and 3 p listing significant events in her life.

 Frankenstein cover

This is seen in some quarters as the prototypical Science Fiction text though other fantastical tales of course preceded it. It is also an example of Gothic Fiction. The outlines of the story are part of the general background, Frankenstein a cultural reference point (though the name is often attributed to the “monster” rather than to its creator,) as a symbol of meddling gone wrong. The book itself is one I had never got around to till now.

Shelley’s tale is narrated, sometimes at third hand, in the letters of one Robert Walton to his sister, telling of his meeting with Victor Frankenstein on the ice plains of the Arctic Ocean and embedding the relation of that man’s moment of hubris in his act of creation, and the monster’s response to its various rejections.

Unlike in film versions the mechanics of the animation of the creature are not gone into, nor the moment of creation (beyond the opening of an eye.) Such considerations are left mysterious, which arguably means the novel is not Science Fiction, by some later definitions of the term. The ethical consequences for Frankenstein, his responsibility for his creation’s welfare and its actions are the main themes of the book. To create a being in a distorted image so that it is reviled, to refuse it suitable companionship, is a heavy enormity. I found my sympathies lying with the creature, even despite its own iniquities, which, again, occur off-stage. As with the Greeks, hubris leads to nemesis.

The epistolary form, the different forms of phrase and rhythms of story-telling of the Gothic to the modern are a hurdle, but not a high one. In any case I’m glad I finally read it. For completeness if nothing else.

Pedant’s corner:- several archaic spellings – phænomena (oh what a delight,) minutiæ (ditto,) oxyds (oxides,) stept, paradisaical, outstript, æra (era,) doated ,wrapt, controul, pennyless, phrenzy – and usages – sprung, sunk, lighted. Otherwise; “the greatest fluency of potassium and born” (boron???) “and laughed aloud Clerval at first attributed” (is missing a full stop after aloud,) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “when the heavens poured forth its waters” (their waters, surely?) “endeavouring to identity every spot” (identify,) eventufl (eventful,) “nothing is so painful to the human mind as as a sudden change” (only one “as” necessary,) “these are are virtuous” (only one “are”.)

Autumn by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2016, 270 p.

Autumn cover

This is a short novel, very short. Nevertheless it has no fewer than five epigrams. That it starts with the sentence, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is perhaps a signifier that it aspires to literary memorability. It was written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on the EU and reflects (though only in asides) the divisions in the country which that revealed but addresses more fully the latent racism which it brought to the surface. The book has that unjustified right-hand margin that is a feature of Smith’s publications and like Andrew Greig’s When They Lay Bare, which I read immediately prior to this, does not use quotation marks for dialogue, which impairs comprehension not at all.

The narrative is mainly concerned with Elisabeth Demand who as a child formed a friendship with her much older next-door neighbour, Daniel Gluck, but also has an eye for the absurdities of everyday life. Along the way Elisabeth develops an interest in the female Pop Artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth finds has been all but removed from the histories of British Pop Art because she was a woman.

The novel is good on Elisabeth’s problematic relationship with her mother but appears a little unfocused, indeed rambling at times. It’s all easily taken in and has some amusing moments but like most of Smith’s writing (with the possible exception of How to be Both) it’s all a little flat. I don’t feel the burn.

Pedant’s corner:- “it’s one of those coincidences ……but in real life mean nothing at all” (one of those coincidences … but in real life means nothing at all,) “to taxiderm real children” (is taxiderm a verb? I thought the verb was stuff,) dismissible (dismissable.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 213 p One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

The Hound of the Baskervilles cover

This takes the usual form of the Sherlock Holmes story. A client comes to Baker Street to enlist Holmes’s help in unravelling a mystery, in this case a Dr Mortimer, friend of the late Sir Charles of that ilk, who relates the legend of the hound of the title, said to be the curse of the Baskervilles and apparently responsible for Sir Charles’s death and seeking Holmes’s protection for the heir, Henry, about to arrive in the country from overseas. After some preliminary shenanigans in London our narrator Dr Watson is packed off to the Devonshire countryside to seek information and act as a kind of bodyguard while Holmes does his thing, supposedly on other cases but in reality following his own path to the answer. Throw in a few red herrings like the light on the moor at night, disguises of various sorts, people who are not who they pretend to be, and the mix is complete.

The attractions of the form are readily apparent. The book is easy to read, comforting (Holmes rarely fails to set the world to rights,) as well as formulaic. It is not, though, literature of the highest quality. The prose never rises above the workmanlike, the characters are little more than stereotypes and it surely appears on that “100 best” list only because Holmes has become so familiar as a cultural reference point.

The piece of dialogue, “‘Interesting, though elementary,’ said he,” incidentally shows that Doyle did put that word into Holmes’s mouth (though without appending to it, “my dear Watson.”) It also illustrates Doyle’s irritating use of “said he” rather than “he said.”

Pedant’s corner:- “If he would, confine his energies to this all would be well” (surely has an extraneous comma,) rosterer (roisterer is the best fit.)

The Museum of Innocence Museum

I thought I had posted about this shortly after I published my review of Orhan Pamuk’s book The Museum of Innocence, to which I alluded two posts ago.

However, I have searched for such a post on the blog and can’t find it, so it seems I did not.

What there is, though, is an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

It was set up by Orhan Pamuk at the same time as he was writing the novel, to reflect upper-middle class life in Istanbul from the 70s to the 2000s.

The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2006, 476 p, including iv p Translator’s Afterword.
Translated from the Turkish Kara Kitap (published by Can Yayinlavi Ltd, 1990) by Maureen Freely.

 The Black Book cover

Galip comes home to find his wife Rüya (with whom he has been besotted since childhood and who is also his cousin – apparently this last is a custom widespread in Turkey) has left him. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find out where she has gone. Back to her first husband, once a left-wing firebrand? Or to live with her half-brother Celâl, a famous columnist for the newspaper Milliyet, who has also disappeared?

The chapters written from Galip’s point of view alternate with those in which Celâl’s columns are reproduced, a device which allows Pamuk to ruminate on Turkish and Istanbul history, customs and predilections. It is slightly more complicated than that as just over halfway through, with Celâl’s stock of columns and reprints beginning to run out, Galip takes to writing them himself and presenting them as Celâl’s, so it is possible that all such extracts may in fact be Galip’s thoughts. Indeed one telephone caller to Galip in the guise of Celâl asks if these columns contain the signs that would lead to life’s secret meaning -even if that secret meant nothing. He adds his insight that, “‘No one in this country can ever be himself.’”

In search of Rüya, Galip wanders the streets of Istanbul, especially at night. (A habit also attributed to Ibn Rashid, Sultan Selim, and Mehmet the Conqueror.) This is “the endless fascination afforded to those who wander a city in disguise.” In this novel the presence of the city as in effect a character in its own right – as are all big cities to be fair – is extremely pronounced. After reading the book it’s as if I could walk the place blindfolded. Istanbul also loomed large in the author’s later novel, The Museum of Innocence, and that book’s preoccupation with mementos of a life is prefigured here in The Black Book. What Rüya has left behind, Galip’s memories of Rüya and the remnants of Celâl’s existence are described in loving detail. Again prevalent is the habit of smoking. Everyone in this seems surrounded by clouds of blue tobacco smoke. Once more football as an important factor in Turkish life makes its appearance. (Imagine the reception a British “literary” novel would receive if it mentioned the game at all.)

Rüya was an avid reader of detective novels (which is to say Western detective novels, as the Turkish variant barely existed at the time of writing) and The Black Book has been described as a detective, or at least a mystery, novel. There is a mystery, the disappearances, but the usual preoccupations of a detective novel are absent and, as a detective, Galip is spectacularly ineffective even if, ‘murders that explain books and books that explain murders have a universal appeal, because it is only when a man believes himself to be someone else that he can bring the cudgel down on the victim’s head….. We learn all the rituals and telling details of murder from others, in other words, from legends, stories, reminiscences, and newspapers. In short, we learn about murder from literature….. Even the simplest murder … is an imitation, a literary imitation, even if its perpetrator doesn’t know it.’

Rather than a mystery The Black Book is more an examination of Turkey/Istanbul as seen through the apparently random reflections of Galip on his travels through the city or Celâl in his columns. To an outsider at least, Pamuk appears to have captured his city and culture in the round by focusing on the particular. It is also a rumination on the nature of life and story (or stories within stories inside stories.) “Each story led to another story in an infinite chain,” and, “no matter where they were set …. the love stories were sad and moving.”

In one of these a character pleads, “If people would only just be themselves. If only they would stop telling stories!” In another an heir apparent comes to believe, ‘A sultan’s duty is not to be happy – it is to be himself… it is everyone’s duty – everyone’s.’

The novel is a thinking writer’s work. Galip ponders on the second meanings that might be lurking inside pieces of writing – inviting us to speculate on what he might be hiding in plain sight. As the novel progresses so too does Galip develop a belief about the letters of the alphabet to be discerned on people’s faces and that everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were [sic] about dreams, not real life, dreams conjured up by words. That a text provides insights about its author is suggested by the thought, “What did it mean to read a text if it did not mean entering into the garden of its author’s memory?”

Galip (who, a very short passage intimates, may be Pamuk himself, an intimation which might itself constitute a misdirection) comes to the notion that nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing, the only consolation.

Pedant’s corner:- Unfortunately the translation is into USian so that we get “soccer” (it’s football,) “a corner shot” (a corner,) “a head shot” (a header,) and “soccer uniform” (a football kit is called a strip.) One actual phrase used was, “after countering a corner shot with a head shot”. This may be how it’s expressed in Turkish but the English term would be “after heading a corner”. Otherwise: dilipidated (dilapidated – used later!) syphillis (syphilis,) “true to our ourselves” (an extraneous “our”,) Trabizon (now more usually rendered Trabzon,) caravansaries/caravansary (caravanserais/caravanserai,) “that I was on to something” (onto.) “Everything that had ever been written, even the greatest and most authoritative texts in the world, were about dreams,” (everything was about dreams,) “whenever writing about about real life” (remove one of those “about”s,) “it is is located” (ditto one “is”,) Averroes’ (Averroes’s – this was in a chapter epigraph so may be original to that.) “He up and left me” (upped and left me,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) a lightbulb (light bulb,) “illumination than never came” (that never came,) imposter (impostor – used once, though imposter appeared several times,) “who it was who had beat him” (beaten him – it was a game of chess,) “left- and ring-wing splinter groups” (left- and right-wing,) reptutation (reputation,) “‘He asked me come here’” (to come here,) telerium (tellurium,) sawed-off (sawn-off,) “both staring Bruce Lee” (starring.) “‘These amusing little signs you sent out to your poor deceived readers’” (the rest of this tirade is in present tense so, send,) pedestrals (pedestals.) “The only sound to be heard in the hunting lodge were the cries of the crows” (the only sounds were the cries, or, the only sound was the cries,) “because the city could not afford to keep their generators running” (its generators,) ““destabilize”” (destabilize, preferably destabilise; however, the word is in inverted commas so may be a representation of an original deliberate misspelling in the Turkish.)

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa

Vintage, 2007, 234 p including 18 p Appendix (containing a 3 p Afterword and 15 p Fragments of the novel with some sonnets) plus xxiv p Foreword. Translated from the Italian Il Gattopardo (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, 1958) by Archibald Colquhoun. Foreword and Afterword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi. Foreword and Appendix translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman.

The Leopard cover

The good lady read this as it was one of David Bowie’s 100 Favourite Books and she subsequently passed it on to me. Its back cover blurb has a quote from L P Hartley saying it is ‘Perhaps the greatest novel of the century’. It is good but I wouldn’t go quite so overboard as that.

The setting is Sicily at and after the time when the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy during the Risorgimento. The leopard of the title is Don Fabrizio Cabrera, Prince of Salina, whose family emblem, carved as gateposts on his estate, is always translated as such. (More strictly speaking, a gattopardo is not a leopard but a serval, which appears on the Lampedusa family coat of arms.) The character of the Prince is based on one of the author’s ancestors.

It seems that despite its reputation as a classic the novel is also effectively unfinished. In the foreword we are told that from after first publication up till his death the author had been revising, updating and writing new chapters to be interpolated into the text. This edition contains all this new material with the fragmentary chapters plus some poems attributed to the Prince appearing in the afterword.

The Leopard is a chronicle of the decline of the old Sicilian aristocracy and its replacement by new money and new ways – a decline already in train but accelerated by the altered political dispensation. It delves into the relationships of the Prince with his family, his dog Bendicò, his mistress, the locals and the family priest, Father Pirrone. What plot there is centres on the marriage of the Prince’s nephew Tancredi, an enthusiastic follower of Garibaldi and favoured by Fabrizio over his own sons, to Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a local peasant made good (or in Don Fabrizio’s eyes, bad,) Don Calogero Sedàra. Perhaps in an attempt to broaden the book’s scope to wider Sicilian society one of the interpolated chapters describes a visit of Father Pirrone to his home town where he resolves a dispute involving land and a potential marriage.

A sense of melancholy, of things passing, pervades the novel, captured by the sentences, “A man of forty-five can consider himself still young till the moment comes when he realizes that he has children old enough to fall in love. The Prince felt old age come over him in one blow.” On the other hand the brashness of youth, its lack of knowledge that the bloom will fade, is illustrated when Angelica thinks, ‘“Boys at that age are like dogs; one has only to whistle and they come straight away.’”

Don Fabrizio reflects that the new Italy has had an inauspicious start when the local result of its confirmatory plebiscite is announced as having no votes against. The particularities of Sicilian experience are shown by his declaration, “‘We are old Chevalley, very old. For over twenty-five centuries we’ve been bearing the weight of superb and heterogeneous civilisations, all from outside, none made by ourselves, none that we could call our own….. for two thousand five hundred years we’ve been a colony…. ….we’re worn out and exhausted.’” But the Prince is not beyond self-criticism. “‘The Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect.’” However, the tone for me was lightened at one point when the assembled Salina family was served up a “macaroni pie”. To a twenty-first century Scot that designation has quite a different meaning than it has to anyone Italian…..

Later Don Fabrizio reflects, “We were the Leopards and Lions; those who take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth,” and realizes no Salina can really take his place, “The significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions… its vital memories, and he was the last to have any unusual memories.”

The book is in effect a threnody for the perceived lost glories of the Lampedusa family. In that, it may stand as a metaphor for any sense of loss.

Pedant’s corner:- bandoleer (I’ve not seen this spelling of bandolier before,) scrutator (the usual word for someone supervising an election is scrutineer,) “extortioners of their own dependants” (extortionists?) “the valise, which in the end was born by both knightly contenders” (was borne,) arch-type (archetype?) a missing quote mark before a piece of direct speech.

All Our Worldly Goods by Irène Némirovsky

Chatto & Windus, 2008, 206 p. Translated from the French Les Biens de ce Monde by Sandra Smith. (First published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 1947.)

All Our Worldly Goods cover

I have frequently alluded to love, sex and death as the three main novelistic concerns. In All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky focuses on the first of these but throws class and family dynamics into the mix. Interestingly, despite the scope of the narrative extending over the two World Wars, there are only two deaths explicitly dealt with in the text. (A myriad others occur off-stage of course.)

We start in the first decade of last century, on Wimereux Plage, where the Hardelot and Florent families are spending the summer. Normally not mixing much due to their different social standing, on their annual pilgrimages to the beach such niceties are not so strictly observed. Pierre Hardelot’s fiancée, Simone Renaudin, is also present. The engagement is at the behest of the domineering Hardelot patriarch Charles, owner of the paper mill in their home town Saint-Elme, desirous of Renaudin money for investment in the company but also a stickler for protocol. But grandson Pierre does not even like Simone. He and Agnès Florent are in love but resigned never to be together.

Back in Saint-Elme the planned futures all unravel when someone sees the pair on what they believe is their last meeting in a local wood and their association is revealed. As a result Pierre is cut off by Charles, as he marries Agnès and they go to live in Paris. The ramifications of their attachment will resound throughout their lives and the book, which, despite the passages involving their parents and children, is the story of their commitment.

Along with everyone else’s the certainties of Charles Hardelot’s life are thrown into turmoil by the Great War. Pierre is called up, the women from Saint-Elme join the refugees from the German advance. Charles remains behind and spends the war under German occupation. After the war Saint-Elme and the family business are rebuilt and Simone’s husband, whom she met during the retreat, is taken into the business, along with her money.

The book has several jumps in time in which Némirovsky lays out the history of the Hardelot family and the first half of the twentieth century but the wider world (except in so far as it impinges directly on Pierre and Agnès) tends to remain in the background. Still, the hopes and feelings of the immediate post-Great War period are summed up by Pierre’s thought, “It was the final war. There would never be another. The thirst for blood had been satisfied. Not only was it necessary to forget the war. It had to be vilified in people’s memory,” and the strangeness of the post-war world by, “Paris seemed bled dry.”

One of the episodes concerns the relationship Pierre and Agnès’s son Guy with a woman not known to the family and whose conduct leads to his suicide attempt. Years later in the pre-umbra of a future war Guy falls for his father’s former fiancée Simone’s daughter Rose. This description might make the book appear to be soap-opera like but the reality is far from that.

As Guy marches off to the Phoney War in 1939 Pierre notes that unlike in 1914 there were no flowers, no fanfares as the young went off ….. “’they know that all our sacrifices were useless…. they’ve read, or seen, or heard everything that happened then … how do you think they’re supposed to bear it?’” Perhaps this is Némirovsky’s view on why France’s resistance collapsed so quickly in 1940.

Once again in the turmoil of a German advance the women and the men are separated. During this evacuation, in what struck me as an unlikely coincidence, Agnès encounters the woman who betrayed Guy years before but is magnanimous towards her. Agnès’s struggle to return to Pierre in Saint-Elme underlines the book’s theme of closeness between her and Pierre.

“All our Worldly Goods” seems a bit off the mark as a translation for Les Biens de ce Monde (“The Good Things of This World”) but Sandra Smith gives reasons in her translator’s note as she says the spiritual and material nuances of les biens are almost impossible to translate and she wanted to emphasise the marriage connection.

In the end the book is an affirmation. Irony though it may be given the author’s own fate in Auschwitz in All Our Worldly Goods Némirovsky is telling us that despite all the upheavals to which we may be subjected we must cling to the human.

Pedant’s corner:- Charles refers in August 1914 to the start of a world war. It wasn’t called a world war till later; shimmer-ing (no need for the hyphen in the middle of a line,) a missing comma at the end of a thought quote, both start and end commas missing, or the end one placed externally, at other thought quotes, frugalness (frugality?)

Best of 2017

Fifteen novels make it onto this year’s list of the best I’ve read in the calendar year. In order of reading they were:-

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
The Untouchable by John Banville
Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as Murray Constantine
Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
This is Memorial Device by David Keenan
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi

That’s six by women and nine by men. Six were SF or Fantasy, counting in The Underground Railroad, (seven if the Michael Chabon is included,) seven were by Scottish authors.

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