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.

 

Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.

The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.

 

The Temporary Gentleman

the temporary gentlemanJack McNulty, the hero and villain of Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Temporary Gentleman, which tells the story of a doomed marriage in the first half of the twentieth century, is not the first of his kind to love his wife in a fatal fashion.

No, he has illustrious literary ancestors that include the haplessly persistent Chevalier des Grieux with his Manon Lescaut, and Charles Bovary whose terminal dullness and inability to give his wife, Emma, any emotional satisfaction leads to her sex-and-shopping fuelled rush to the grave. What’s perhaps most interesting in all three cases is that a showily gorgeous prose style is supposed to balance things out in the man’s favour.

If the story is told beautifully enough, the reader will forgive all? It’s an interesting equation, and one that crops up time and again. I think Edgar Allen Poe may have to stand up for some of the blame, having declared in 1846 that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ (Though I’ll let him off the hook for Manon Lescaut which was written just over a century earlier.) This is essentially the impetus behind Barry’s latest novel which is narrated by Jack McNulty towards the end of his life, as he contemplates his marriage to his late, troubled wife, Mai, and begins to perceive maybe the glimmer of a suspicion that he carries a heavy burden of guilt for her tempestuous life and her untimely demise. It was a question that I struggled with time and again across the pages of exquisitely crafted prose: how much did the beauty of the writing compensate for the utter frustrating stupidity of the irritating, denial-ridden, drink-sodden hopelessly oblivious Jack?

Hmm, still not sure.

So, if you are a veteran of Sebastian Barry’s books (which I was not; this was my first) you will apparently have come across Jack already in other stories in which he has been a bit-player. In this novel we begin in 1957, with Jack a ‘balding, ageing Irish ex-major’, hanging about in Accra in Africa, afraid to go home to Sligo. We’re aware pretty early on that back he is going to have to go, as the local authorities have caught up with him for a spot of gun-running. While he waits in limbo, knowing he must leave but unable to shift himself (a pretty common state of affairs for our man), he begins writing about his past:

Maybe now when I think I am understanding, I am instead mistaking everything, but at least I am perceiving something in the place of the great fog that has persisted through my life. A fog that no light apparently could properly pierce. There is a great mountain, and high ravines, and great danger, but the fog says nothing about that, the fog only talks on and on about itself. It is not interested in any fashion in clarity, naturally. But now and then, the fog disperses, and in little gloamings of clear light I seem to see the figures, my parents, Mai, my children, standing or sitting, talking, prosecuting you might say their lives and days.’

When he was a young man in University College, Galway, training to be an engineer and a hard drinker, Jack fell in love with Mai Kirwan, a ‘woman replete, laden with gifts, musical, athletic, clever as a general’. She also happens to be a leg up the social class and therefore out of his reach, theoretically. But Jack displays unusual persistence, and aided by the early deaths of her parents, persuades her to marry him. A teeny clue that something might be up is given when Mai flees the wedding ceremony and runs in the drenching rain to her parents’ house where Jack will find her, half-demented, telling him she ‘wants to go back’. Jack decides to carry on as if nothing odd has happened, and when Mai is given her parents’ home by her brother (a gift that hints at a broader family awareness of the couple’s fragility) they do seem to live the high life in it for a while. Until, that is, the bank manager comes to take away the deeds and the furniture to pay Jack’s gambling debts. We have kept pace with Mai’s awareness of this situation, and so it comes as much of a shock to the reader as to Mai, who rushes upstairs to her hidden bag of coins, convinced she can save the day, only to find it empty, too. They move to more squalid housing, Mai falls victim to post-natal depression, Jack essentially runs away to fight in the Second World War (entirely unnecessary for him, being Irish) in order to escape the situation at home and Mai takes to drink. Jack has already provided an effective example in how to drink, after all.

Oh it’s not like he hasn’t been told. Mai’s friend, Ursula, summons all her courage to make Mai’s mental state known to Jack (‘Whatever you can hear of this, pay no heed, pay no heed.’), and the doctor tries to take him aside too: ‘”Might I just make the observation that your own drinking is very considerable, and not a help to her, especially if you would like her to stop.”‘ To which Jack replies: “‘Well I only drink sociably to be sociable,” I said to my discredit. I think I must call that a lie.’ So what we have here is really a portrait of denial – knowing that is firmly pushed to one side – and also a portrait of guilt. Jack repeatedly tells us how much he loves his wife, and he behaves as if mystified by the collapse of their relationship into abuse and drunkenness, but running through the narrative stealthily and quietly there is this undeniable chain of events and consequences that reveal the ugly truth.

But if Jack can’t help but reveal his guilt, the reader can’t help but be impressed by Barry’s writing. He is a quite brilliant producer of metaphor and simile. Describing his own father in the best clothes he could find to attend the funeral of Mai’s father, Jack says that ‘he looked like one of those old photographs of executed train robbers in America, put out somewhere as a warning to the frontier populace.’ Just a casual description of the days after the monsoon rains have stopped in Africa tells us ‘the mosquitoes are now in a fervent of happiness and hang about everywhere after dark like a crowd of cornerboys in Sligo’. And two of the most striking passages in the entire novel concern extended, extraordinary descriptions of war bombings, both of which spare Jack his life. The first opens the novel, when he is on a supply ship heading out to Accra which gets torpedoed; many good men go down but by sheer luck, Jack survives. The other is when he is training men in bomb disposal in Yorkshire. A random air bombardment destroys the building they are training in, a supposedly safe place for them to be, and kills his company of men, while Jack sits in the bar with a pint of beer.

Perhaps, at the end of the novel, it’s these two scenes of near-misses which stick with me more than the unsurprising decline of his marriage. Why is Jack’s life saved? Is the message of the book that we keep being given second chances until, finally, we manage to see ourselves clearly? Or is it that existence is driven forward by an arbitrariness touched with cynicism, that good men die while the wasters live on to continue creating havoc? In this beautiful, enraging novel maybe it’s that question that ultimately makes it more than the poetic rendering of yet another unnecessary female death.