Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

I purchased this novel with high hopes - the blurb sounded just my thing: a story about an author accused of murder, and a young writer and protégé who must assist his mentor in solving the crime through writing a novel of his own. A metafictional premise, in other words, with a picture from Edward Hopper on the front cover. I should have been more weary of the heavy bold title which obscures the Hopper painting; there is something emblematic in this in terms of the promise of the book.

In reviewing a highly successful novel written by a young European writer one is very conscious of not sounding like a bitter-and-twisted would-be-but-can't-be bestseller author oneself, jealous of the twists and turns of another's life. Keeping this in mind, I will do my best to be fair on the novel and author and begin with what works well (perhaps this is where the grab quotes normally come from).
The novel has been compared to Stief Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yes, it has a small town setting with a big city backdrop, and hints of corruption of the adult world (police, publishing, even perhaps schools and universities). The protagonist is an investigator/writer looking into the past and reconstructing events in a way that has left the authorities baffled (or unwilling to expose the truth). However, Larsson's work is clearly more developed in all these areas, particularly in his exposition of the political sphere. One writer I was reminded of was Carlos Ruiz Zafon, with the Shadow on the Wind and its subsequent follow-up novels. I don't think the novel is as good as Shadow, but what it has in common is the concentration on the young investigator; the idea of an intensely romantic and impossible relationship and its effects over time; they are both 'literary thrillers' with 'twists and turns'. So, this is the genre. Although I was drawn to what I thought were metafictional elements, and they are present in the novel, a more accurate portrayal of the book is the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster: the 'truths' in the novel are those found within the genre and not within the life it might be said to draw from. For example, a young writer who becomes a celebrity on the basis of his first novel; the offer of a two million dollar writing deal for the follow up; a police inspector who drinks beer with the young novelist and shares all his findings freely and collaborates with an outsider, and so on.

As a writer myself (if not a would-be-best-seller) I found the opening particularly hard to deal with, because the clichés seemed stacked against each other, even at a sentence level. I wondered, is something lost in translation? But I persevered and I did find the novel successful as a page turner, so long as one puts literary pretentions to one side and very willingly suspends disbelief in terms of probabilities. The novel draws together the past and the present successfully and assembles a host of suspects who each play a part in the action. The premise of a writer reconstructing the past allows Dicker to side-step the issue of how a scene could be known from a narrative perspective: the novel continues to reconstruct conversations and thoughts in a way that typical crime writing cannot (typical crime writing being much more concerned about ontological matters when it comes to the idea of how we can know what we know). To compare to another blockbuster, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code merely played with the detective genre but didn't feel limited by its tendency towards realism and connection to the real-world. If Dicker can be, before the age of thirty, compared to writers like Brown, Larsson and Zafon then he might be on to something: a highly successful career as a writer who connects with a broad public via the literary thriller genre. Whether he writes successful sentences might be a moot point.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Alfred de Musset - Confession of a Child of the Century

This novel was a gift, and not in the sense of unexpected pleasure or revelation. It was a birthday present from someone very close to me, and someone quite French. As such, I read it - at first with some interest - and then out of a sort of mix of duty and despair at ending up with another unfinished novel on my bookshelf.

The opening is interesting - the context of wars and revolutionary ideals betrayed, an Emperor come and gone, and the sense of modernity and change (published in 1836) and an awareness of the Romantic movement in the arts gives it a contemporaneous feel. But soon it becomes what is its central theme - a story of the search for love of one betrayed by his mistress. It is like Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821) only less visionary, in every sense.

Perhaps it is a French thing to enjoy stories of aristocratic debauchery, where hints of sexual feats must serve over detailed descriptions in the sense of good taste, but I found it all rather self-aggrandising, none the less. In some ways, it helped me to understand a more contemporary French novel I read earlier in the year - Frederic Beigbeder's A French Novel (2013), set around a temporary arrest for snorting cocaine of the bonnet of a sports car - and reflecting on one's childhood, love and other regrets.

I stuck at both novels and ended up glad that I am not French, after all. Musset's piece has at least the extremities of emotions of the time in its defence - there are direct allusions to The Sorrows of Young Werther, for example, by then a classic of suicidal contemplation in the service of passionate, artistic, self-indulgent and unrequited love. In Musset's case, he does an excellent job of building tensions towards the end of the novel as Octave's relationship with Brigette deteriorates into jealousy, paranoia and self-destruction on the part of the young man.

Evidently it was made into a not-so-good film, and perhaps a few (more recent) copies of the novel were sold on the back of that. I am not sure how you would make a good film of this tale, unless you found a way of slowing down the plot even further into a series of melancholic, slow-pans across the faces of a beautiful actress while a fraught Romantic struts his stuff outside of the frame and groans, as he must, in time with some beautiful music.

Or, perhaps I am simply jealous that if I had a secret affair to confess, I wouldn't write a lengthy novel on the strength of it - I am simply not French enough, or aristocratic enough, to pull it off. One for the deluded Romantics (of which I usually consider myself to be one).

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole

Karinthy's Metropole was given to me in France over Christmas by my brother-in-law; it appears to have been published in French in 1999 by Editions DENOEL and in English in 2008 by Telegram (UK). is a Kafka-like novel. I had never heard of the novel or the author, but now understand that he was from Hungary, and according to the back cover, was a novelist, playwright, journalist and water polo champion. Busy people, these Hungarians!

As others have noted, it is a Kafkaesque tale, built on a simple premise (like The Trial, where Joseph K is under arrest but doesn't know why). In this case, the protagonist Budai is on a trip to Helsinki to attend a linguists' conference but someone ends up on the wrong plane, and subsequently, in an unknown, multicultural city, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere (he eventually establishes, from the stars) but really - God-knows-where. Budai's incomprehension at his fate bears some similarity to Joseph K; it's a matter of a European bureaucracy
and initial rage against the scandal of ill-treatment ('He hardly knew what he was shouting. He demanded his passport and aeroplane ticket; he wanted to see the manager, he called for an interpreter, he raged and threatened ... p.20). From here, it's a slow path to reconciliation and an acceptance of his fate, to be a stranger in a strange land, to live and function without his former identity and despite his vast knowledge of languages, to be able to make no (and eventually, only some) understanding of a language which sounds something like this: 'Gorrabittepropopotu? Vivi tereplebeubeu?' (p.23).

The blurb describes the novel as 'suspenseful' but this is stretching things. It's more like agonising; it's the tradition of Beckett and perhaps Sartre ('No Exit'). It's an absurd premise which would make a neat short story but I think could only turn into a novel and be published as such by a Hungarian living in the Soviet-era (it was published in 1970). The novel develops some conventional ideas, such as a relationship with a lift attendant that keeps the protagonist going for a while, but eventually he ends up on the streets, and joins the bums earning a pittance loading and unloading trucks around the markets. I thought of the end of Paul Auster's City of Glass when I read this section. The last part of the novel involves Budai accidently joining in a violent revolutionary movement from which he eventually flees. The ending is ambiguous and yes, the novel is haunting as promised (if only because it sort of echoes a fate which you read as universal and yet Other). I'd recommend this book, but only for readers happy to suffer a little for their art (the art of reading). Dystopias are not meant to be fun, but the absurdist humour comes close; it's not so much 'the pleasure of the text' as 'the pleasurable agony of the text'.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Dancer Upstairs - Nicholas Shakespeare

I have read three Nicholas Shakespeare novels in recent years, and have found each one to be intriguing - novels with plots, which I like, novels about troubled men and mysterious women. Call me old fashioned, but I like that combination as well.

I read the novels all out of order in terms of when they were published, not that this probably matters very much. Inheritance (2011) appealed to me with the premise of the failed writer who inherits millions by chance and has all the distrust to deal with that comes with that. There's an Australian mining story behind the money and a search for the truth in events of the past. I really enjoyed Snowleg (2004) and its evocation of East Germany before the wall came down; two cities I know well enough feature in the story - Leipzig in the East, and Hamburg in the West. The protagonist, Peter, falls in love in Leipzig but the authorities get in the way and he leaves with profound regrets, guilt and uncertainty about his actions which plagues him for years. Again, a search in the past for the truth creates narrative interest.

The Dancer Upstairs is a modern terrorist novel, a genre which ought to be very important in the contemporary age, if done well (and this one is). It gives insight into the elusive, intellectual guru Peruvian leader Ezequiel; our police protagonist tells the story to an English journalist and reveals his love for a dancer, an idealistic young woman, as well as the rural setting where the revolt draws strength and represents Rejas's past. Like Snowleg, the novel also gives the reader insight into the corrupt and powerful state. Technically, there's a lot of dialogue in the novel; setting up a conversation scene that carries the plot forward is not easy and students of fiction writing (like yours truly) might be wise to study a few pages to see just how Shakespeare does it. Shakespeare. What a burden to carry! No wonder his novels are full of dark ideas, with empty male characters struggling with demons in a world of deception and distrust. Enjoy!

Monday, 21 April 2014

The Train to Paris

The Train to ParisOver the weekend, I read Sebastian Hampson's debut novel 'The Train to Paris'. The premise of the novel was appealing: a young traveller (Lawrence) meets a French woman (Elodie) at a train station and his plans to get back to Paris are delayed; an adventure unfolds. The front cover has a wintry, black and white image, a scene from the end of the novel, one assumes after reading. It was only when I got home that I read about the author, a New Zealander born in 1992; at this point the aging author in me became both jealous and suspicious - a combination of the worst traits of Lawrence and Elodie, perhaps. I read the first few pages and began to scoff at the unlikely meeting and the stereotypes of the French. I kept reading, however, and found the novel engaging on a number of levels. First, the dialogue and relationship between the two characters and the shady third wheel, an American pornographer named Ed, was engaging and true to itself. The settings were well imagined, on the whole, particularly the fading opulence of the Biarritz hotel and the dingy apartment Lawrence returns to in Paris and shares with his musician friend, Ethan. In terms of plot, there was enough fear and suspicion in Lawrence's first sexual encounter to balance the erotic moments (which I think have been well handled and I imagine, well edited). I expected worse from Elodie - but perhaps Hampson's restraint here was well-advised (my own thinking would have taken her into a darker world more directly than is hinted at here). Altogether, I found the novel engaging and crisply-written and imagine on this evidence that this young New Zealander will go on to write many more published novels. Part of the effect of the novel is that it does make you think about your own travels and inspire an immediate sort of nostalgia for the past and lost youth. I hope Lawrence doesn't end up as Elodie teases: married with kids in the suburbs of Auckland, a lawyer who has given up his artistic dreams. One imagines perhaps not.

There is an interesting tradition of young Australian novelists (and perhaps New Zealand writers; I am only aware of this one) writing about sexual encounters in Europe, with backgrounds in the antipodes, these characters are often in search of something in themselves and torn between the authentic but safe former-self and the possibilities of the new (a sort of European artistic decadence). I am thinking here of a few examples on my own bookshelf (Rod Jones' Nightpictures set in Venice, with much darker tones; Larry Buttrose's The Maze of the Muse set in Barcelona in the time of Franco; Julian Davies The Boy, set in Paris and New York; Michael Meehan's Deception, a novel with an historic premise but the same sort of discovering young artist character. On a different level and written in a different time, Henry Handel Richardson's Maurice Guest is an early and still wonderful prototype: a provincial musician from England in love with an Australian in Leipzig but in the shadow of both European culture and the genius of a German composer and pianist.

The European cities of these novels pit the young protagonist against new and sometimes dangerous experience; they are about the sort of new understandings of self that come from travels beyond a visit to the local Westfield or its equivalent. And for this reason (let alone any more complex cultural readings) they have my interest, perhaps especially as an Australian traveller and writer who has lived overseas and returned home to tell the tale but found it difficult to do so in any normal, conversational sense. People don't want to hear about your travels. A novel with an intriguing premise, on the other hand, allows the reader to recall and converse with that most open of listeners - the inner ear of the writer's lingering voice.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I have just finished reading Richard Flanagan's latest novel, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' and thought I would write a few lines about it, while it's fresh on my mind. What follows is not so much a review as a few thoughts and observations.

Flanagan knows how to write about suffering, and sometimes this is not easy to read. For example, in this novel, the Australian POWs (Prisoners of War) are deep in the Siam jungle, building an impossible railway as part of the Japanese war effort. In one scene, a character named 'Darky Gardiner' (on account of his Aboriginal heritage, we discover late in the novel) is beaten relentlessly and without reason, already a broken man, dragged from the hospital to appease some loss of face between the commandant and a visiting official. The commander, Nakamura, has left the scene but comes back, surprised that the beating continues in the dark (he hasn't ordered it to stop), '[Darky] ... no longer looked like a man, but something wrong and unnatural' (p.308). What is most affecting here is the simplicity of the understatement, coming after some pages of a description of the scene from a variety of points of view.

The fact that the commander cites poetry should not be surprising; at one point the central protagonist understands and to a degree admires the 'terrible will of Nakamura' (p.304). I was reminded at such points of Gould's Book of Fish, another story of immense suffering, this time in Australia's colonial past, at Sarah Island (a penal colony). In what could be described as a Marquez-like leaping of ideas, the Commandant seeks to transform Sarah Island into a New Europe, which includes the development of a railway. The obsession with will and empire are points of comparison in these two very different novels: "'time! dear Surgeon is what our Nation does not have!' because now in his mind His Destiny & that of His Nation were one & the same ..." (Goulds ..., p.204)

In a different way, I was also reminded of Death of a River Guide in the clever management of time in this novel. Whereas the past and present scenes wash over a drowning man and the stories he recalls are generational, in The Narrow Road North, Flanagan centres around the life of the central Australian protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, from the perspective of old age, to memories of his Tasmanian childhood, to the bitter days of his strange heroism as a surgeon and leader on the Thai-Burma death railway. There is a danger in writing about such a man as Dorrigo Evans that he could become too heroic, or too prophet-like in his leadership of other man. Flanagan avoids this trap by making the character self-conscious of his 'act' (and confession of really being a bastard, deep down) and through the depiction of him as a womaniser with a long-suffering wife. The stories of his surgical success and adulation in life are not really the point of the novel and so much here is unexplained; the truth is reserved for the moments at the centre of the novel where he embodies the sort of Australian spirit which in war is deeply mythical and yet (it seems) embodied in such men. Like Death of a River Guide, the Tasmanian colonial stories reach well into the 20th century, and continue to affect and shape such men.

I haven't mentioned the love story at the heart of the novel, or the Japanese scenes, or the possible faults of the novel (if there are some). Towards the end, as Dorrigo faces his fate, the sense of the past we have witnessed in the novel rushing forward into the future is palpable and profound, and I (for one) read the novel with a sense that Flanagan once again has managed to write something of cultural and historical significance. Here's such a paragraph from towards the end of the book. The last words in this non-review go to the author:

He was in any case hurtling backwards into an ever fast swirling maelstrom of people, things, places, backwards and round and deeper and deeper and deeper into that growing, grieving, dancing story of things forgotten or half-remembered, stories, lines of poetry, faces, gestures misunderstood, love spurned, a red camellia, a man weeping, a wooden church hall, women, a light he had stolen from the sun ...(p.463).