Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book, but I’ve only read mixed reviews of it. If you know of a good one, point me in the right direction. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.

Wish I Could Be There

wish i could be thereThe feeling of panic that overwhelms the sufferer of a phobia must be one of the most unpleasant feelings that we are routinely forced to endure. I think that being set upon from behind and strangled must be akin to it – the increasingly laboured fight for breath while the heart hammers in terror, digestion deliquesces, vision dims and dizzies, sound is cut off and comes from far away. But worst of all, the urge to turn and run, fuelled as if by the energy of a nuclear explosion, has to be ignored. The phobic must sit and smile and try and look normal, while inside chaos rages, the Titanic sinks, great earthquakes rent the foundations of the self. Oh yes, I speak from personal experience.

Which is why I had to get hold of Allen Shawn’s amazing memoir, Wish I Could Be There, as soon as I heard about it. A composer, pianist and writer, Shawn is also an agoraphobic, afraid both of entrapment in subways, tunnels and lifts and the wide open emptiness of fields, car parks and bridges. He has a lot of trouble travelling on a road he has never taken before and struggles to get on a plane. Having fought against it for most of his life and not really got very far, he decided to write about the experience of being phobic and about some of the possible circumstances and causes that might have produced it. The result is one of those rare books of insight and compassion, utterly clear-sighted about the condition and a piece of admirable literary non-fiction as well.

Shawn says an awful lot of very useful things about phobias, not least that they have only a passing relationship to anxiety or nervousness. He points out that in his regular line of work, he often has to cope with the sort of public performance that scares the pants off most people. A phobia is quite different: ‘to describe the reaction simply as a mental phenomenon is misleading. By the time it constitutes a ‘problem,’ it has become a habitual response of both body and mind, as automatic as an allergic reaction and equally impervious to willpower.’ It’s provoked as much by physiological changes in the body – often almost imperceptible ones – that are ‘mistakenly interpreted’ as threats to our survival as it is by the symbolic or associative properties of an experience. ‘I remain dumbfounded,’ Shawn writes, ‘at how automatic, instantaneous, and severe my reactions are, not to mention how trivial the triggers can be.’ And it has been tied to certain personality traits:

phobics tend to be perfectionists, they tend to have an exaggerated need to please others, they tend to seek certainty and… many of us have in common the “need and ability to present a relatively placed, untroubled appearance to others, while suffering distress on the inside.” This describes me rather well.’

Yup, Allen, like looking in a mirror for me, too.

Whilst I found the more theoretical parts of this book full of interesting insights, I have to say that it’s Allen Shawn’s descriptions of his family that really engrossed me. He writes so well, with such generosity and tenderness, about a family that was shockingly unique and awkward to live in. Shawn knows that his father, an editor, suffered from similar phobias and that his mother may have done too – genetic inheritance is very much a part of the phobic landscape. But there were other factors that he believed may have had an impact. He was born with a twin sister, Mary, who had some severe form of autism compounded by other psychological problems that resulted in her removal to a care home when they were both eight. This was the fifties, and so nothing was said about the sudden and irrevocable absence of Mary. She was there one day and gone the next, and from then on they visited her very rarely. Allen Shawn was aware only later in life of the deep impact this had on him.

As someone who had grown up trying to decipher my mysterious sister, I was exquisitely attuned to implicit messages about how I should behave. The result was that I held in my feelings and my problems, and they grew without my even knowing it.’

To add to the underlying tensions and stresses of the household, his father kept a serious long-term mistress of whom they were abstractly aware in the form of their father’s odd double life: ‘it wasn’t uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend, four or five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life.’ Something more, then, to keep under wraps, more seismic, churning emotions to be denied in the very act of living alongside them. ‘Cheerfulness that masks hidden anguish can be even more frightening than the messy truth,’ Shawn writes.

From my perspective now, the idea that as a child I felt the presence of dragons at the end of each corner of the known conversational world seems relevant to the development of my agoraphobia. That so much was off-limits seems pertinent to my current dread of exploring the unknown.’

Yet he is quick to defend his family from blame, too, insisting on the large number of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who all suffered from phobias of one kind or another, without such family circumstances to generate them. These are factors that in hindsight seem to have had a part to play, but his implication is that if you are born with a phobic mindset, you’ll find the reasons for that strange underground fear one way or another.

Ultimately, I think we have to see phobias as existing in the same existential constellation as dreams – overdetermined places where the knotty pathways of mind and body meet, a strange and sometimes sadistic way of processing more fear and dread than we have words for, a process whereby false correlations take on the power of divine judgements. And yet another curse on the heads of those who are sensitive and creative: ‘If they didn’t cause so much suffering, we could come to appreciate these strange revulsions as touching evidence of the human imagination,’ Shawn suggests, ‘spontaneous projections from our inner selves.’ If you are phobic then I strongly recommend this beautiful book, for all sorts of surprising and comforting ways of looking anew at a crippling problem.

 

 

 

Mentor

mentorThis memoir of the tortured trajectory of the writer’s life was completely fascinating, if not always for the right reasons. Tom Grimes’ brave and excruciatingly honest account of sixteen rollercoaster years of his life is a startling documentation of the craziness, both literal and figurative, that can descend when a person decides to stake his entire life on becoming A Published Author. One small anecdote caught my eye: it’s reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at community college that inspires Tom to become a writer; he wants to be Jake Barnes, journalist and the novel’s narrator. ‘The only problem was, I’d romanticized Jake’s life so completely that, until my professor pointed out this fact in class, I didn’t realise Jake was impotent.’ Beware all would-be writers with urgent ambitions. Whether he intends it or not, Tom Grimes is a terrible warning rather than an excellent example.

Ostensibly, the memoir is about the relationship between Tom and Frank Conway, author of a classic memoir, Stop-Time (and not much else), when they first meet, but more crucially, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tom is waiting tables in Key West, Florida, a struggling writer going nowhere, but all that is about to change. Having crudely snubbed him when they first meet, Frank Conway astounds Tom by phoning him after he submits his application to the workshop. ‘”I never call anyone,” he said, “but I’ve read your manuscript.”’ At this point, doors to the Aladdin’s Cave are flung wide, with Frank offering Tom his agent’s services, scholarships, and every other glittering prize he can think of. Tom enters the program at Iowa as teacher’s pet, his arrival heralded in advance on the strength of the early chapters of his literary novel about baseball. Over the next two years, buoyed by such spectacular support, Tom writes his novel with manic intensity. An earlier novel is picked up by a small publisher and put out to encouraging reviews, and a play he has written also finds backers and a theatre.

The speed at which Tom’s star rises overwhelms him somewhat, and this sense of swimming out of his depth culminates in the auction for his novel, not quite the bidding frenzy he had thought it would be, but a painfully drawn-out day of escalating advances that never seem to come from the right people at the right time. Having already overthought this moment too many times, Tom has a whole shopping list of literary ideals – the right house, the right editor, the right price – but ultimately in the confusion of having to make a decision on the spot, he does not go with the house he has always wanted, but takes the larger offer from Little, Brown. In no time at all, the editor he signed with has switched jobs, leaving his novel an orphan. And now Icarus feels the intolerable heat of the sun on his wings. The novel is handled as ‘just another baseball novel’, the reviews are meagre and bad, the book never makes it out of hardback into paperback, and the chapters of the new novel he has recently begun are looked upon from this tainted perspective and roundly rejected.

But Frank’s faith doesn’t waver in his star pupil. He simply exerts himself even more to get teaching positions and grants and awards to sustain Tom while he works on his second novel. Frank doesn’t want to hear the negativity and brushes all the bad stuff off. As he negotiates for Tom, Tom has an unsettling moment of clarity. He knows Frank is genuine in his admiration, but ‘he also wanted to prove he still had the clout to bestow upon me a major literary honor solely on the strength of his name.’ For Frank’s star is currently in the ascendent – the novel he is writing has editors salivating and offering outrageous advances. And meanwhile, Tom Grimes sinks into delusion and paranoia in a mental breakdown from which his creativity never seems fully to recover (until, we suppose, this memoir).

Let us pause here for a moment and consider the impossible equation that is publishing. Tom accepts an advance of $42,000, with which he is a little disappointed, truth to tell, as Frank had thought he’d get $100,000 at least. The novel took him about three years to write, and he could have earned $10,000 a year if he’d stayed waiting tables. However,

A year after Seasons’s End’s publication, its paperback edition was nonexistent. Twenty-two hundred hardcover copies sold. Thirteen thousand were remaindered. And Little, Brown had recouped only forty-four hundred dollars of my forty-two thousand dollar advance.’

Ouch. He does publish his next novel, for a $17,500 advance. It had six reviews, mostly positive, but only sold 4,000 copies and again never made it to paperback. Even Frank Conway’s much-anticipated novel, Body & Soul, although it certainly does recoup its large advance, never makes it to the bestseller list and receives somewhat mixed reviews. What are we to make of all this? Tom Grimes’ memoir never comments upon it, viewing the situation entirely from the perspective of his own humiliation and thwarted longings. But what is going on here? And how is it sustainable for any of the players involved?

What does come across, loud and clear and somewhat mesmerising, is the painful solipcism of the author. Tom never spares himself any harsh criticism, but does he realise his own self-obsession? His sister attempts suicide a couple of times in the book, but having mentioned it and indeed flown back to see her, the narrative focuses exclusively on Tom’s research trip to the local baseball team (I’m sure they’re famous but baseball makes no impression on me and I can’t be bothered to look their name up). What takes his attention is the slighting behaviour he has to endure from a journalist for the New Yorker, who asks about the publisher for his first novel and then seems to dismiss him and ignore him for the rest of the day; ‘his publishing pedigree made me feel more than ever like a literary mutt’ Grimes writes. It’s all so desperate, this hunt for status, this desire to be one of the players. In retrospect, Tom blames his mismanaged first auction on the fact that he had to handle it alone. ‘Frank should have been sitting behind his desk and I should have been sitting across from him in my chair,’ he writes, because nothing is so important as that auction, certainly not Frank’s life. It’s no wonder that when Tom falls ill, it’s paranoia – an anxiety disorder that arises paradoxically out of the fear that one is insignificant – that holds him in his grip.

And what of Frank, the wonderful mentor? Grimes argues that his story’s obvious trajectory, from success to failure, can actually be overwritten by a more important arc: ‘The meaningful story is: I arrived fatherless; I departed a son.’ But you can’t help but think that Frank’s input has been a lot of baseless enthusiasm that might have been swapped for more insightful literary critique.

If I’m making this sound like a bad book, I don’t mean to at all. It’s an excellent book. It is gripping and engrossing and, I fear, all too true to life. Grimes’ straightforward, show-don’t-tell style means that we are left with a lot of questions that a more self-aware and nuanced character portrait might have elucidated. But goodness it’s fascinating trying to come up with answers to those questions. An absolute must-read for anyone who thinks they not only want to write, but publish, too.

Strangers on a Train

strangers on trainToo many psychological thrillers these days think they’ve done sufficient work by placing their female heroine under multiple threats of peril. They need to have a look at the dark and twisted novels of Patricia Highsmith to see how it’s really done. Highsmith knew that no amount of external threat can rival the psychological terror we are able to inflict on ourselves. In her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), she created a story of claustrophobic menace that turned any simplistic understanding of morality upside down.

Guy Haines and Charles Bruno are chance acquaintances on a train heading south to Texas. Guy, an architect, is travelling to see his estranged wife, Miriam, whom he hopes will finally agree to a divorce. Miriam is pregnant by a new lover, and Guy feels that here, at last, is the leverage required to settle the matter, though he is sure she will continue to kick up as many obstacles as she can. Guy has become steadily more impatient as he is nominally engaged to Anne, an altogether better prospect for the wife of a man with a budding career. Anne and her moneyed, harmonious family offer Guy the sort of social status he needs, and charming, elegant Anne inspires his genuine love.

Guy is accosted on the train by Charles Bruno who thrusts his company upon him. Bruno is already three sheets to the wind when they meet, and will drink steadily through their encounter. He has the sort of entangling presence that certain unstable people wield with cunning; a genius for ingratiating himself where he is not welcome. Guy drinks more in his presence than is wise and he ends up saying a little about Miriam – more than enough for Bruno to come to some astute conclusions. And so Bruno offers him partnership in a criminal scheme he’s been brewing for a while. Bruno hates his father and longs for him to be dead. He’d kill him if he thought he’d get away with it, but his homicidal desire is too evident. What he suggests to Guy is a tit for tat. He’ll kill Miriam if Guy will kill his father, and they will never be caught because there is no motive to link them to the crimes.

Guy is horrified by this idea and by Bruno himself. He ends the conversation and hopes never to see him again. But by the time he arrives in Metcalf, Miriam has miscarried and is threatening to accompany him to his new architectural project, a commission that could make his name. He can’t help but acknowledge a few murderous impulses towards her. When Miriam is found strangled at the local fair, Guy has the sickening sensation that his unconscious enmity has killed her, even though he is sure it was in the form of the all-too corporeal Bruno.

For Bruno turns out to be a man of queer passions. He loves his mother a little too much, and he has fallen into an idealistic veneration for Guy. This is a murder committed primarily out of twisted love – partly because he has been longing to reveal his own capabilities to himself, partly because he wants to offer it like a gift, a homage, to Guy. When Guy reacts with hostility to his actions, Bruno is deeply wounded. But not diverted from his determination to make Guy keep up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but if you’ve seen the Hitchcock adaptation, you should know that from here on in, movie and book diverge. Hitchcock, with a mainstream cinema audience to please, keeps Guy riveted to his ‘good man’ persona, whereas in the book, Guy knows his integrity is lost from the moment he wishes Miriam dead, a moment that isn’t even articulated, but is no less potent for all that: we know he did because of the guilt he feels when she dies. From now on, the story of Guy will be a study in guilt and what it can make us do. Guy will find himself pushed to the extreme because the guilt he feels is so intolerable he will do anything – even compound his crimes – in the crazy desire to be free of it. I was writing last week about Patrick Modiano and his ability to create characters who are guilty until proven guilty. Guy is another in this mode. It’s a very common part of the human condition, and it makes a mockery of this idea that we have control over our lives to the extent that we can choose to be good or bad. We’re human and so, under duress, we do good things and we do bad things, and sometimes doing nothing is the most damning thing we do of all.

If Guy is the good man forced to the bad, then Bruno is the bad man who forces us to feel pity. Sure, he’s a fledgling psychopath, but it’s the love that’s inside him we cannot deny, however horrifying its manifestations may be. His descent into the worst terrors of alcoholism are car-crash mesmerising, and we wait on tenterhooks for the moment when he can no longer contain all his messed-up emotions – worship for Guy, pride in his cleverness, terror at his own steady disintegration. We know Bruno can’t be all bad, despite appearances, because Guy becomes bonded to him, in an act of brotherly recognition:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast-off self, what he thought he hated but perhaps in reality loved.’

This is not a pleasant book but it’s a gripping one. The claustrophobia that Highsmith builds up is brilliant and sickening. Although much of the book is about people doing dreadful things, its centre is the tragedy of our longing to be pure. Guy shows how nothing that has value in life – love, success, money – is worth a fig when set against the horror of feeling besmirched in our own sense of self-worth. Guilt dominates, and almost nothing can appease it at the height of its power. The kind of novel that sends a genuine chill down the spine.