Saturday, 30 December 2017

Dangling Man

Saul Bellow was a terrific writer – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – and occasionally I have the urge to read all of his books, one after the other. Then I remember all the other books I have on my shelves crying out for attention, and “shelve” the idea. But this year, I did go back to Square One and purchase, and read, Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Out of order, I can add it to Herzog (1964), Seize the Day (1956), Humbolt’s Gift (1975), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Ravelstein (2000).  There’s a bunch I’ve missed, and a few on my shelves I’ve never got to, and since I read Herzog as a teenager, a lot of water has passed under the Du Sable Bridge. I feel I ought to start again. One needs more than one life to read – and at least one, to live.
On the other hand, Joseph – the “hero” of this particular novel, has more than enough time on his hands as he ‘dangles’ between employment (he has lost his job) and recruitment into the US Army. In the diary format, Joseph reflects on his self, at times using the third person to do so – so detached does he feel. December 18, for example: ‘Joseph suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it’ (p.30). At other points, matters seem more urgent: ‘I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely’ (p.148). Between these two feelings – detachment, and let’s call it, potential unrealised – Joseph’s life is on hold, like Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial. He remembers a time when he was a passionate intellectual, as he enters a café where ‘you could hear discussions of socialism, psychopathology, or the fate of the European man’ (p.32). He has an affair with Kitty but ends it when he realises his double life has at its cause his ‘unwillingness to miss anything [since] a compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy’ (p.101). In his unemployed state, Joseph asserts himself among friends, relatives, and fellow boarding house residents – sometimes violently – and gradually finds himself more and more on his own.
Saul Bellow’s novels appeal to me because they are centred on troubled intellectuals, men in crisis, and connect everyday matters with the larger issues of the times in which Bellow wrote. The question of whether such characters can speak for humanity – as the Nobel Prize committee presumably decided they could – or a privileged, educated class of male – is a fair one to ask today, with other relevant voices out there to consider. So, I go back to my earlier point. I’d like to read all the Saul Bellow novels, in order, but I somehow doubt I will, since choice as well as discipline is at play. Maybe I, too, need a stint in the army, as Joseph concludes his diary (April 9): ‘Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!’ (p.191).

Friday, 29 December 2017

Brighton Rock

Graham Greene’s 7th novel, re-released in 2004 as a vintage classic, came into my hands via a book bucket in Katoomba and sat on my shelf for a few years before I got started. I read it in a few days. Compulsive reading. The question is – what’s so appealing to the reader about a ruthless, 17-year old killer? Why has it been adapted into different forms (including a 1944 play, a 1997 radio drama, a failed 2004 musical, and two films – 1947 and 2010)?
I think the answer is, in part, the spectacle of the slow-motion-train crash. The opening sentence of the novel is a brilliant example of foretelling: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’ (p.3). He doesn’t make it out of Chapter 1, this journalist. Chapter 2 then introduces ‘the Boy’ (later known as “Pinkie”) whom we soon figure is Hale’s killer. The story is not a traditional crime story, however -- the primary crime happens so quickly and we know the murderer. What becomes fascinating is how Pinkie attempts to cover his tracks, and remove those who might convict him, and how Hale’s temporary female companion, Ida, acts as a detective-figure when the official police are even incompetent or bought-off by the mafia. Then there is Rose – a poor working girl who falls for Pinkie’s abrasive, brash charms (if there are any) and whose life is soon in danger because of what she knows.
Along the ways, much of what is interesting is to read a British hardboiled novel – I’d previously swallowed the line that this type of writing came from the States. Here it is, in 1938. I was reminded of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – another (later) novel to adopt the American hardboiled style and create a hybrid spy story. But this novel is much earlier – The Big Sleep, for example, was published in 1939, after Brighton Rock. Of course, Marlowe as laconic detective is much more central and the corrupt world written on a bigger scale, but I still say – this is interesting, to read this early British mafia story. To follow the lives of smaller players; to understand something of the terrible need to grasp at something beyond the poverty and banal world in which they exist.
After trying and failing to get something out of “Mr Colleoni” – a successful Mafia figure – the narrator tells us that ‘the poison twisted in the Boy’s veins. He had been insulted. He had to show someone he was – a man’ (p.91). That’s as much motive as Pinkie seems to need – to be a boy who would be a man, and to live his life as though it mattered – itself a brazen act one thinks for his type (Catholic working class) in the 1930s. This, I think, is what makes the novel captivating – to follow the existence of this cruel, egotistical child, more than capable of murder, as he goes about his own demise and brings down with him anyone who lowers his opinion of them by showing loyalty.
It might be time for another go at that musical.

Monday, 14 August 2017


The back cover of the Open Letter Books edition of Gasoline (Benzina is the original Catalan title) includes a quotation from the New York Times: ‘a gifted writer, he draws well on the rich tradition of Spanish surrealism’. Since the book concerns an artist (or rather, two artists) then if Spanish Surrealism refers to Miró, Dali, Massanet etc. then I can see what the reviewer may have meant. I have not read very much Catalan literature, however, and therefore cannot comment on whether the Surrealism referred to goes in that direction too. For me, the literary similarities are perhaps to certain French surrealists (such as Boris Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, 1947); or perhaps postmodern American fiction writers (such as Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). In making these potentially misleading comparisons (my memory of Vian is ancient; Pynchon is much more challenging to read …) I should also say that Gasoline is a very original novel, and I can understand how it might have achieved a sort of cult status as a result.

The plot concerns an artist named Heribert, whose main love is Helena, but whose mistress is Hildegarda, and whose lovers include a myriad of women whose name begins with ‘H’. Heribert is some sort of overnight success in the New York arts scene, and as he prepares for an upcoming exhibition, has reached a stasis and boredom with his success (as an artist and lover of women). His actions are ‘surreal’ in the sense that he is impulsive and defies logic in how he goes about his daily life and art. For example, once he suspects that Helena may have taken a lover of her own, he follows her, dressing in a disguise so outlandish as to provide paradoxical cover. Helena’s lover, as it turns out, is Heribert’s double – named Humbert – and in true Dostoevsky tradition, seems to take over Heribert’s life from this point on.

Humbert is a hungrier version of Heribert, and just when the reader imagines a character couldn’t be a more shallow success as an artist and a man, Herbert takes it all to another level. To say any more would ruin the reading experience for others – as it is, perhaps I have already said too much. This, perhaps, is the difficulty of writing about such a short novel (141 pages) which has a relatively simple plot and is more about the listing of ideas and the playful scenes of eating, drinking, making love, and movement – there’s lots of movement – from one idea to the next, and one location to another.

Barcelona is somewhere in the background with its labyrinth streets and its Surrealist artist’s shadows. It must be a wild ride in Catalan, particularly when it was first published in the early 1980s after years of repression of both Catalan language and (one assumes) sexual expression in Franco’s Spain. To read it now, it’s easier to see satirical elements and perhaps to dwell on those. It’s also just great fun – like Humbert’s endless scrawling in notebooks, or Humbert and Helena’s international meals, or Heribert’s random train catching in search on inspiration. I'd be very interested to hear about what other readers think!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Time of the Doves

According to the introduction (Graywolf Press edition, 1986) Mercé Rodoreda started her career as a prolific writer with five novels by the age of about 28; by 1939 things changed dramatically. No only were Catalan books burned and Catalan newspapers suppressed, but the author herself went into exile and felt disconnected from her language and culture. In 1960, Rodereda returned to the novel form and penned this stream of consciousness novel, in the voice of the long-suffering Natalia from Barcelona. This is a life story which begins and ends with courtship; of Natalia and Quimet, and much later with Natalia’s daughter Rita and her love, Vincenḉ. This life cycle is interesting enough – on the basis of the close observations of domestic life and the relationship between the married couple (with Quimet the domineering, passionate kind – though not without interest in others). What makes it more captivating is the way that the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath enters the lives of the characters and changes their lives, seen from Natalia’s point of view, far from any battle ground or city siege.  We see the initial interruptions (charcoal seller out of charcoal; milkman’s delivery ending; strikes and shortages). Because Natalia has at this time a job cleaning the house of a more wealthy family, we see the threat of the militia and there are stories of petty revenge (while the wealthy family is portrayed not without criticism in terms of their reported actions). Beyond this, churches are being burned and priests harassed or worse, Quimet helps smuggle out of danger a local priest, while at the same time joining the militia as a matter of immediate calling.

The title comes from another passion of Quimet’s – that of doves. He sets up a dovecote in the house and on the roof; Natalia is left to do most of the work and comes to loathe the domination of the birds over her life. The fate of the birds and her own intertwine, at least in terms of characterisation and imagery: ‘And I took off. Higher, higher, Colometa … with my face like a white blotch above the black of mourning …’ (p.151). There are several moments of near madness for Natalia – such as a night when she walks the street with a knife; otherwise she copes with the sort of fortitude and inner strength that drives others to the extremes of faith or despair. This is an intimate portrait – not of the Spanish Civil War directly – but exploring its profound effect of a good woman’s life; a working-class woman who wants nothing more than safety, family, and a little living. It helped me to understand something of the times through this unique and yet very-relatable voice. It ends with ellipsis, which is not to give anything a way but just to suggest the sort of novel it is – dealing with moments mostly, but occasionally years …

Monday, 24 July 2017

Field of Honour

Field of Honour was written by Max Aub in exile in Paris, May to August 1939, and published in Mexico in 1943. Between the writing and the publication – the author’s internment by the French and deportation to a Concentration Camp in Algeria. Although a Spanish national, he was denounced as a ‘German Jew’ and as ‘a notorious communist and active revolutionary’. More could be said about the novel and its author: suppressed during the Franco period, the novel did not receive its due attention in Spain during the author’s life (he died in 1973). These facts I have gleaned from the book's introduction.

Field of Honour centres on the life of one Rafael López Serrador, who grows up in the period between the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and the ill-fated Second Republic. Serrador leaves his small town for Barcelona, where he finds work and then education through a worker’s institute and his own wide-reading of everything from Spanish poetry to Tolstoy. Much of the novel consists of recorded dialogue as the young man mixes with different sides of the political spectrum: from Communists, to Anarchists, to Reactionaries and the Falange. Seeking personal freedom and perhaps swept up by an intellectual Falange-leader, Serrador seems eventually to have found his cause – until the fighting breaks out in Barcelona in the first days of the Spanish Civil War, and he is drawn back to the Anarchists and their immediate passion for a new society.

This was an age of dichotomy and simplification. For example, charismatic Falange-leader Luis Salomar thinks: ‘there were only Spaniards and Arabs’ (p.111). He longs for Castilian Spain, in the days of conquest and glory of empire. Preparing for the coming military coup, Serrador waits in a garden with other young recruits, and Aub takes a moment to divert the reader’s attention to the garden itself. He writes: ‘carnation beds with neat little fences, pink coping everywhere; gleaming yellow corncobs and crimson strings of dried peppers hanging down from the roof; tangled bell-shaped vetch flowers following wire netting along the sun-blistered walls …’ (p.161). It hardly seems the place for marksman practice, in other words, and is nicely juxtaposed to the immediate violence and the shift to the action of the coup and the tragedy that this unfolds on Spain over the protracted civil war.

Field of Honour is the first of a six-novel epic, The Magic Labyrinth, and centres on the events leading to Barcelona’s overthrow the military coup within the city in 1936. As such, we have a glimpse of hope and victory: ‘shivers of triumph run through the city, cars and trucks full of workers, men and women, soldiers in the air, cheering’ (p.230). The final chapter ‘Death’ lists the fate of the various characters who have made up Serrador’s encounters in the years before this temporary state of revolution within the coup: their deaths on the front line, or by firing squad, or by various fates. Even had he not included this, the dialogue about politics before the ‘action’ of the ending would have left the reader with little hope of peace or utopia in Spain in this terrifying period of history. For this and other reasons, the novel would appear to be one that would inform any reader of the complexity of historical forces in an age of turmoil in Spain and beyond. I read it in one sitting (broken up, I must admit, by meals and sleep, as befits a holiday in France).

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Any Human Heart - A Novel

The subtitle ‘a novel’ is included because William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is presented like a scholarly edition of the diaries of Logan Gonzago Montstuart, complete with introductions to each of the separate diaries that make up Montstuart’s life. Indeed, at the end of the book, listed works by Montstuart include ‘Any Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Montstuart’. One would wish this at least of Boyd’s memorable character: that his life should extend beyond mere mortal days (or Boyd’s rendition …). In other words, the effect of reading this book is that the character does indeed appear to have lived. That is a remarkable feat, even if it is the staple trick of any writer.

Leaving Boyd out of all this for the moment, then, Montstuart starts his diaries while in his last year at Abbeyhurst College, where he shares various challenges with his two (lifelong) friends, Peter Scabius and Benjamin Leeping. Like Montstuart, Scabius is bound for Oxford University and then a life of writing; Leeping is set on taking on Paris and a career in the sale of paintings. These early ambitions provide the arc of the character’s existences: compared to the more successful novelist, Scabius, Montstuart’s life is deeper and richer. Compared to Leeping, one is less certain. Montstuart is not without moral scruples but he is essentially a sensualist. For the reader his somewhat frustrating mistakes he makes are made more acceptable by the yearning he has to live and live well. If Montstuart appears to be in the thrall of his most basic sexual needs, his diary brings us to some essential self, some human heart, that is more honest than a typical novel with its constructs and expectations of ‘success’ in one form or another.

Montstuart’s intention is to render the personal onto the page, rather than the political. Through this approach, we see his initial naivety as he writes about the 1930s, even after his visit to Barcelona, and Madrid, in 1936 and 1937. In a novel that covers a period running from the 1920s to the 1990s, historical glimpses are included throughout. For example, Monstuart’s experience of World War II is very limited (to missions in the Bahamas and Switzerland) and yet his personal suffering is profound. Later, the political events of the 1970s see him engage to a point with the restless anarchy of anti-capitalists, though Montstuart will always be ‘an unreconstructed tosser’ (in his wish for beauty, as well as freedom and fairness in life).

The biggest concern in Montstuart’s diary, apart from sex and his career as a writer (he has some highpoints but this book in the main makes you think how wise it is for novelists to have a second career going!) is his personal relationships. These consist in the main of marriages and affairs, of the heterosexual kind, as well as longstanding male relationships, with Peter and Ben, and others. He is a man who engages with others, even while protecting his independence and privacy – at the cost of real intimacy and trust, one imagines. To read about a man’s life like this, and to understand his flaws and his real emotions, is enlightening. It fills a space in literature in an age when one might argue that the personal novel is more the domain of the female novelist.

As Montstuart’s life draws to a close, his diary entries become briefer and more poetic. Consider this little entry: Sultry, fuggy day. No leaf stirs. Butterflies lurch and skitter through the delphiniums I planted around the sundial’ (p.477). One doesn’t want Montstuart’s life or diary to end, with writing such as this.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The 7th Function of Language

Having written a literary detective novel myself (The Copyart Murder, 2015) I read this second novel by Frenchmen Laurent Binet with a mixture of professional jealousy and studied admiration. To take the first emotion – I wondered whether a book like this, full of quotations about semiotics and the functions of language, would get a look-in in Australia, particularly as it could easily be criticised for various forms of sexism, questionable violence, and literary pretension. My publisher rightly insisted that I seek permission for a number of short quotations I had included in Copyart, from Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino and one or two other leading lights I felt necessary to advance the plot. Pages were exchanged with publishers or agents, and in the case of Kundera – I was thrilled to note – with the author himself! How, then, could Binet get away with this? Not only has he included great tracts of work by Foucault, Barthes, Kristeva (to name a few) but he’s included such French theorists as characters, and not kindly. Eco, and perhaps Derida, escape censure but the other European theorists are in the main, vain, self-serving, sexual deviants. Kristeva, for example, is a schemer referred to more than once as a 'bitch'. So, various forms of professional jealousy. How did the author manage to get away with outrageous slander and widespread allusions? And, how he could make something so exciting from Roman Jakobson’s linguistic theory?

The admiration is based on pondering these same questions. Binet makes use of the detective story, a popular form of writing, and puts it to his own unique use. That is, The 7thFunction of Language is a book as much about the power of language, as it is a genre piece (with the typical increasing set of dangers for the protagonist Simon, a low-grade academic put to the services of the State; supported by a rough-detective Bayard who seems to lose rather than gain power as the novel proceeds).  The story moves from Paris, to New York, to Venice, to Naples. We enter the political domain by way of reference to French politics, 1980 (Mitterrand is about to make another attempt at the Presidency and conservative forces are gathering to seize the new function of language that will help sustain their hegemony). There are a few moments of incredible sex (quite incredible, even for a French novel); there are cuts to the body that reminded me of that Calvino short story ‘Beheading the Heads’; there are various murders of the great (intellectuals) and small alike. If the intention is French satire, then it is damned funny. Perhaps it helps that I might be the sort of postgraduate reader Binet is writing for, but I felt he did a very good job in integrating critical theory in a light way that still carried essential meanings. I have no idea how scholars might react, but as someone who completed an Honours degree in the 1990s, I liked the playful interrogation of the French theorists who seemed to take over the study of literature, transforming it into a cultural and linguistic study, and pushing the writers themselves off the stage. The novel is thus a great yarn but also a form of revenge on those who would argue for argument’s sake. No wonder Eco comes off as a grand master beyond reproach: not only did he try to make sense of the world in clear language, he wrote one of the best literary detective novels of all time, in the The Name of the Rose. No one can come close to that. Perhaps that is why literary crime writers keep a tongue in their cheeks, and their metafiction ironically self-referential. Or, perhaps I am just speaking about myself? In this way, I join with the protagonist who understands his own centrality in a decentred universe: 'I am Simon Herzog. I am the hero of my own story' (p.388).