Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.

The Other Part of the Reason…

Why I’ve been quiet, is to be found here at the wonderful Numero Cinq.

I’ve been writing about one of my favourite French authors, Patrick Modiano, whose name may be familiar to you after his unexpected win of the Nobel Prize for literature.

patrick modiano for numero cinq

His novels are almost ridiculously accessible – very simple and elegant language, very simple plots in which the main protagonist seeks the answers to some ongoing enigma, often concerning his own past, and yet immense psychological depth. He became famous in France for writing about the period of the Occupation, just at a time when the French were beginning to realise that their own history was much darker and more complex than was comfortable. I think he’s an amazing writer, and well worth your time. Lots of his novels are coming out in translation now, thanks to the Nobel, but my suggestion would be you start with either Missing Person or Honeymoon. And do let me know how you get on.

And Finally, Some Reviews

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been (though I expect you have much better things to think about), then a partial answer is: writing for Shiny.

SNB-logoYes! Shiny New Books, issue 10, is live today. It’s full of the usual stock of bookish goodies, lots of reviews, features and interviews, and these are the books I’ve personally recommended:

A clever and compelling novel about a troubled marriage.

A classic novel that I doubt anyone has read.

A non-fiction account of a profession that’s had a lot of bad press.

A brilliant piece of shrink-lit.

A literary novel that won me over, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing I like best.

And please do check out the BookBuzz section, which includes special features by our friends, Elle and Arti Ripples.

Enjoy!

Listening to the Curate’s Egg

After listening to so many audio books so far this year, I’ve reached the conclusion that a book comes across very differently when you use your ears rather than your eyes. You can’t speed up at fast bits (or dull bits), nor can you go back and reread, or savour any particular sentence. The story is delivered at an unrelentingly steady pace, dialogue is properly dialogue, and I found I was more consciously aware of waiting for the plot to unfold (I confess to being someone who skips ahead at tense moments to see what happens). Add to that a narrator whose voice(s) may or may not delight you and the book is forced to undergo a far more rigorous trial than in the act of reading.

the goldfinchFor these reasons, I think The Goldfinch is a book that it’s probably much better to read than to listen to. It travels at such a slow pace that some parts of it were almost excruciating and when I finally got to the end, I felt like I’d scaled a virtual Everest. I was glad to have made it, though, as it was an interesting book if not (for me, I’m afraid) a good one. I can see why some reviewers have described it as a children’s adventure story for adults, as there are a lot of transgressive or criminal events and very little in the way of consequences. Theo’s drug taking, for instance, never really affects him, and as for the painting, well, I won’t give spoilers but it was all very slick and implausible. Though Theo was perhaps too realistic as an inarticulate and bewildered adolescent. I did salute Donna Tartt for managing to write such a huge novel around a character whose main contribution to any verbal exchange is ‘What?’ Listening to all those ‘What?’s’ got a little old. I’ve had a teenage son of my own.

Essentially, I thought that The Goldfinch was four books and a coda. The first part, with the explosion in the museum, the death of Theo’s mother and removal of the painting, and his time spent with the Barbour family, was the story of The Goldfinch itself, the original part of the story. After that came a series of rewrites: the time with his father was a version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; then New York and the furniture restorer, James Hobart (Hobie), was a mash-up of Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations; followed by the extraordinary Amsterdam part which was pure Bugsy Malone. And then, surprisingly, after 650 pages of pure showing, we get 70 pages of tell, where the meaning of the novel is explained. And yet…. well, the explanation didn’t fit the events. The idea at the end is that life is awful, but art is redemptive, and Theo claims that owning the painting has helped him through a terrible time and art has given him some desperately needed solace. But where has this solace occurred? Throughout the story, Theo barely looks at the painting, it causes him terrible guilt and worry, and from 200 or so pages in, it’s locked up in storage where he never goes. Only its return at the end of the novel seems to free him, and suddenly he goes from this tongue-tied, semi-comatose sufferer to an articulate philosopher, with his life meaningful and under his control again.

Where the novel did intrigue me a lot (besides Boris, who is a great character because he is one of those hero-boys who get away with everything and can carry and subsume any amount of trouble and strain), is in its depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Theo’s shell-shocked demeanour, his longing for calm nothingness which translates into an urgent need to lose himself, and the whole sense that his life has somehow gone wrong and can’t be mended are all symptomatic of severe trauma. I remember when I was a child my mother used to say, if you make that face and the wind changes, you’ll stay that way (which fascinated me because I could never hold my face long enough in an expression to check this out). Well, the wind that changes Theo is the blast from a bomb, and afterwards he is stuck as the good-for-nothing miscreant he felt on that day at the museum. All the other parts of his personality seem to have been blown out of him. Having lost the good mother and getting stuck with the wicked father doesn’t help him either, even though he finds alternative loving parents in Hobie and Mrs Barbour.  Nothing is enough. His adoration of Pippa and Pippa’s own journey through healing were also very interesting. If I’d been editor of that novel, I’d have cut the ridiculous Bugsy Malone part and had the relationship between Theo and Pippa play out properly, against his false-self relationship with Kitsey. They could maybe have really found a way through art and love to health again. But that would have made for a very different sort of book, wouldn’t it? Art is better than life, Tartt tells us, and what happens is all very artful and not very lifelike, and the novel has a certain atmosphere and taste because of that.

sophie and the sibyl2Another book of mixed value I listened to was Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, a post-modern romp around the back end of George Eliot’s life. I had a rocky start with this one, because the narrator’s croaky voice for George Eliot (supposed to signify old age) was not pleasing. But then I decided I could live with it and I ought to find out what happened at the end. The focus of the novel is on Max Duncker, younger of the two Duncker brothers who are George Eliot’s German publishers. Wolfgang wants to secure the rights to Middlemarch at a good rate and so he dispatches his charming but dissolute brother to wait on George Lewes and his common law wife at the spa in Homburg. Also there with her father is Max’s intended, the young and vivacious Sophie, Countess von Hahn. Sophie is a huge fan of George Eliot, but a series of unfortunate events – including Sophie’s experiences at the gaming table turning up as the opening scene in Daniel Deronda – turn Sophie against the older woman. Max falls under the spell of Marian (or Mary Ann) Lewes’ clear grey eyes and her fierce intelligence and forms a bond with her that will also cause trouble. This is a light-hearted, good-natured book that is written with such dash and verve that if you were reading it, you might not notice that not much happens.  There’s no profound meaning to the story, either, except maybe a reproach to George Eliot for punishing her young and beautiful female characters (the implication being that the less-than-lovely Marian is jealous). Perhaps for this reason, Sophie never has to face the music and develops into a tantruming diva by the end of the book and is very irritating. But essentially it was all very pleasant and there was much incidental enjoyment, if the whole thing lacked punch.

the lacuna; barbara kingsolver

the lacuna; barbara kingsolver

Finally I must mention Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which I’d been looking forward to for ages. This is the story of Harrison William Shephard, a would-be writer who falls in with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera when he is a young boy. I can’t tell you a great deal about what happens because the narration was so annoying that it took up all my attention. The novel is read by its author, and while Barbara Kingsolver writes like an angel, she reads like a primary school teacher. I’m going to have another shot at this one in book form, where I think it will be much more enticing.

a spool of blue threadBy far and away the best books I listened to were those by Anne Tyler. I listened to Back When We Were Grown-Ups and A Spool of Blue Thread and they were brilliant from start to finish. Apparently Anne Tyler rewrites her novels four or five times, and one of those times she reads the book out loud in order to remove any ‘false notes’. This clearly works. They made me want to reread everything I own by her, and I might just do that.