Monday, April 14, 2014

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil is a novel just asking to be misunderstood. And misunderstood it it.

The trouble with postmodern playfulness arises most significantly when that playfulness is at its most serious. Take Donald Barthelme’s "The Indian Uprising", for example. It’s a postmodern analysis of the pernicious nature of our avaricious modern society, but no-one takes offence because its potshots are general, its targets largely undefined.

Yann Martel’s strange novel, Beatrice and Virgil, on the other hand, is a playful analysis of the Holocaust. Hence the difficulty for readers: something as baleful as the Holocaust is difficult to approach on any level; turning it into a fable about a talking howler monkey and its donkey companion is only ever going to leave readers perplexed at best, apoplectic at worst. But beneath the postmodernism is something timeless – not for nothing does Martel quote –at length – Flaubert and even Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. And it is intensely serious, too, asking questions about the nature of memory and the ways in which human beings can reconcile themselves to the evil inflicted by ourselves on ourselves. It is a debate that has perhaps stilled since the immediate postwar years, when Hannah Arendt and others tried to comprehend the banality of evil, and since the fifties and sixties when the critique of modernity was its peak – or do I mean nadir? – with Horkheimer and Adorno and their analysis of post-holocaust meaning, but the debate has not gone away. How can it, when answers are still as elusive as they always were? Cormac McCarthy, for one, has devoted a career to the questions posed by Martel in this novel and, as we can see from McCarthy’s script for The Counselor, he’s no closer to getting to the truth. Nor is Martel. But Beatrice and Virgil is a brave, intriguing, intelligent exploration of intensely difficult material, which many critics simply misunderstand.

For Ron Charles, it is “dull”, “misguided” and “pretentious”. He suggests “the allusion to Dante's Divine Comedy is just one of several dead ends”. Well, they are only dead ends if you don’t see the doorways leading from them, and Charles most certainly does not see those. Rather, he suggests: “Martel clearly has set out in all sincerity to commemorate the Holocaust and consider its effect on victims, survivors and perpetrators.” But this is only part of what Martel is attempting to do in the novel. Charles is missing the thematic depth. For him, Beatrice and Virgil is “well-meaning sentimentality dressed up with postmodern doodads.” No it isn’t.

Michiko Kakutani’s critique is more trenchant still. Never one to mince her words – or, usually, get them right – she suggests: “Mr. Martel’s new book, Beatrice and Virgil, unfortunately, is every bit as misconceived and offensive as [Life of Pi] was fetching.” It reads, she argues, “as an allegory about the Holocaust in which the tragic fate of the title characters — a donkey named Beatrice and a monkey named Virgil, who are stuffed animals in a taxidermy shop — is seen ‘through the tragic fate of Jews.’” Maybe it does, but only if you’ve read the novel completely wrongly. Kakutani sees an unfortunate conflation of the Holocaust and animal rights:

[Martel’s] story has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, using it as a metaphor to evoke “the extermination of animal life” and the suffering of “doomed creatures” who “could not speak for themselves.”
Again, this is not so. Other critics have expressed similar reservations, however. For James Lasdun it’s “perplexing”, a mixture of “clarity and confusion, insight and banality, boldness and a persistent, self-monitoring nervousness.” The nervousness, Lasdun suggests, is understandable, because: “What author wouldn't be nervous offering up a fable about the Holocaust featuring a talking donkey and monkey?” This presents the major difficulty with most critical readings of the novel: they underplay the thematic content to a significant degree. For this reason, Lasdun sees the story’s structure, with the intricate layerings of retellings of the same story, as “a kind of serial distancing of author from content”. As we shall see later, this is not the case at all. Kakutani makes the same observation, when she reasons:
Mr. Martel tries to distance himself a bit from this narrative strategy by attributing the story of Beatrice and Virgil to an amateur playwright, who mourns the dying of animal species around the world and who may actually have been a Nazi collaborator.
This is wholly wrong. It is as though these critics believe Martel came up with the conceit but did not have the courage to see it through to its conclusion and sought, instead, to set himself at an ironic distance from the allegory he has created. That cannot be the case. Thus, Lasdun suggests:
Likely objections to the material are foreseen and articulated, presumably as a means of defusing them: "Winnie-the-Pooh meets the Holocaust", scoffs the author's wife when she learns of the taxidermist's play.
Well, no. The opposite is true. This is taking literally what Martel is presenting, in typical postmodern fashion, ironically. The result for Lasdun, then, is that the idea of the novel is “dimly appalling”. That is because he hasn’t understood it. He is concerned that:
as the book progresses we discover that, far from using animals to think about Jews, the taxidermist is more interested in using Jews to think about animals. This does seem problematic, if only because the Holocaust is a concrete historical event, and to use it as an integer in a fable about something else is inevitably to falsify it.
Having comprehensively underplayed the novel’s themes, Lasdun then reaches the extraordinary conclusion:
Beatrice and Virgil seems, despite its evidently large ambitions, strangely trivial and narcissistic: a book that ends up thinking about neither Jews nor animals, but using the extermination of both to think about, of all things, writer's block.
Such an explanation is almost perverse in the way it wilfully ignores the depth and range of thematic concerns Martel explores. The Holocaust is certainly used as an important device in the novel, but this in no way means the novel is “about” the Holocaust. It’s about much more than that. It’s about how we remember the Holocaust. It’s about how we reconcile the Holocaust with our human aspirations, with human love, with community. It's about memory, truth, time. Pasha Malla begins to get close to this in her critique when she states:
There are ruminations on how the Holocaust has been aestheticized and commemorated through writing, but if the book is about the Holocaust, it focuses more on what the Holocaust represents than how it is represented - and then only tangentially. So what is Beatrice & Virgil about?
She quotes Henry in the novel itself, who suggests that all good novels are essentially about truth. And that is so. Specifically, however, this novel explores truth in the context of a world fallen into, first, horror and, second, despair. Thus, you could argue it is a critique of modernity. But it is more than that: in true postmodern fashion it is also a critique of the critique of modernity, and that is something wonderfully refreshing in the depressed and depressive literary Weltanschauung that seems to have taken hold in the early twenty-first century.

The exploration of truth in a desperate world would appear to recall Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and many critics note, not altogether flatteringly, the similarities between the play-within-the-novel written by the taxidermist and Godot’s play. Michiko Kakutani calls it “a derivative recycling of Beckett”. For Benjamin Secher, the novel’s “language echoes Beckett, but lacks both his poetry and his wit.” James Lasdun refers to the “odd, pastiche-Beckett” of the play in which Beatrice and Virgil appear. Joy Lo Dico is more positive, writing of the “beautiful Beckettian scene in which a donkey asks a howler monkey to describe a pear to her – and a note asking for help.”

While the references to Godot in the novel are obvious and intentional, however, perhaps a more striking similarity could be found in Beckett’s Endgame, where the action unfolds in a failing, possibly dying world in which the characters appear fated to live and relive and relive their lives, their mistakes, their crimes. This existentialist nightmare begins to probe questions of time and its meaning, or perhaps meaninglessness. The continual cries of “Me to play” by the central character, Hamm, are instructive. Playing what? Playing a role? A performance? So he is a performer? Perhaps the teller of the story. Or stories. If he is a storyteller, what is his story? How does it link to other stories? How does it link to life? All of these questions could be applied, too, to Henry in Beatrice and Virgil and, indeed, to Beatrice and Virgil themselves, and the taxidermist who created them (twice, once as stuffed animals and once as characters in his play). All of them, then, are players, players in a game, the game, in games, all games, all games are one game, over and over, endlessly recycling, everywhere, everywhen. This is the cloistered, claustrophobic world of Endgame. And it defines what happens between Henry and the taxidermist, between the stuffed animals Beatrice and Virgil, between the oppressor and the oppressed throughout history. So, in Beatrice and Virgil, the Holocaust is a particular, certainly, but it is only a particular. The Holocaust is not so named in the taxidermist’s play. Rather, it is called “the horrors”: the nomenclature is important. Despite what Kakutani thinks the Holocaust is not used here as a metonym for evil; it is but a particular example of it. And this evil exists through time and ever will and it will return and there is nothing that any of us can do about it. So argued Beckett and so argues Martel.

Therefore, evil must be considered a principal thematic concern of the novel. This comes across most strongly in the beautiful and stark relationship between Beatrice and Virgil. Virgil says to Beatrice at one point: “But there’s evil every day of the week.” “Because we’re around every day of the week,” replies Beatrice. “But we’ve done nothing wrong!” exclaims Virgil. Except, of course, they have, as we have, all of us, if one accepts the doctrine of original sin, if one accepts the fall of man, if one suggests, in particular, that the Holocaust, because it happened in human history, is the guilty secret of all of us, even the “children of ghosts” who have come after. Virgil asks Beatrice: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible. It’s an insult... how are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”

This takes us to a key question in post-holocaust philosophical debate. How can we reconcile the evil that was undertaken by humanity? Returning to Endgame, German philosopher Theodor Adorno made a study of that text in 1961 as part of his Notes to Literature. More famously, along with Max Horkheimer, he produced the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the Second World War, and Education After Auschwitz in 1966. Horkheimer and Adorno began the Dialectic of Enlightenment thus:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.
This provoked them to question “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly new human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism”. Later, in a much-quoted and little understood conclusion, Adorno suggested: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. This is, to an extent, a dangerous argument. However repulsive the Holocaust was, it must never be allowed to stand metonymically for human nature. It is one aspect of human nature, certainly, but it does not represent it. Adorno was clear about this. Martel is clear about this. I am unconvinced that his critics understand it.

There is a very conscious allusion to Adorno’s reference to poetry and Auschwitz in Beatrice and Virgil, when Beatrice asks: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through?” Again, however, one should be wary of assuming this therefore proves the novel is specifically about the Holocaust. For German thinkers in the immediate postwar period, such as Adorno and Eric Voegelin, attempts to “master the past”, in the context of postwar Germany’s understanding of its Nazi history, are entirely problematic and, indeed, impossible. Adorno, in Education after Auschwitz argued that unreconstituted National Socialism survived in the make-up of postwar German institutions, much like the residue of plague that lingers after the outbreak in Oran has been overcome in Albert Camus’s The Plague, ready to reinfect an unwary world. Thus, Adorno argued in Negative Dialectic that Nazi barbarism imposed a “new categorical imperative” on human beings to ensure that “Auschwitz would not repeat itself [and] nothing similar would happen”.

This is what Martel is seeking to explore in Beatrice and Virgil. In Beckettian fashion, he creates recycling and replaying worlds in which the same horrors are rehearsed over and over – in Henry’s flipbook alternately presenting the fiction and non-fiction of the Holocaust, in the taxidermist’s play, in the narrative of Henry and the taxidermist – and in each iteration the same vile results are reproduced.

Thus, the story of Beatrice and Virgil is mimicked by the actions of Henry and the taxidermist, so that they begin to meld into one another. In this, we are seeing a rehearsal of a theme which has dominated the late fiction of Cormac McCarthy, the notion of all stories being one story, all history written in a seed, everywhere, everywhen. Just as Virgil reads about the new category of non-citizen and realises it describes him, making him feel instantly self-conscious, Henry, too, is disconcerted by the eccentric behaviour of the taxidermist in the cafe and is conscious of being observed. Later, Henry admires a soliloquy in the taxidermist’s play, noting that “[t]he change of pronouns was effective, from ‘someone’ and ‘they’ to ‘you’, hinging on ‘one’ in the ironic ‘life goes on, triumphant, one might say.’”. A page later, Henry performs in a play himself and the same formulation he admired in the taxidermist’s prose is used to describe his performance: “The play ran Thursday to Sunday two weeks in a row and it went well, although one can never tell about a play in which one is a participant because one never sees the play oneself.” The change of prounoun is marked, and it permits a Husserlian examination of intentionality.

It seems likely that the taxidermist and Henry (and, probably, Martel as well) are one and the same – everyman, all of us, hubristic man simultaneously seeking understanding, love, pity, redemption. Early in the novel, Henry tries to explain his flipbook novel to the philistine editors who cannot understand its worth:

My book is about representations of the Holocaust. The event is gone; we are left with stories about it. My book is about a new choice of stories. With a historical event, we not only have to bear witness, that is, tell what happened and address the needs of ghosts. We also have to interpret and conclude, so that the needs of people today, the children of ghosts, can be addressed. In addition to the knowledge of history, we need the understanding of art. Stories identify, unify, give meaning to. Just as music is noise that makes sense, a painting is colour that makes sense, so a story is life that makes sense.
Once more, the thematic resonances behind this are pure McCarthy, right down to the idea of “bearing witness”. The whole of our existence, for McCarthy, is an act of bearing witness. As the heretic priest tells Billy in The Crossing: “Acts have their being in the witness. Without him who can speak of it”. This is broadly Hegelian, in the way it seeks to present the unity of vision of God and his children. In Beatrice and Virgil, Henry develops the theme when he quotes Meister Eckhart:
The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him; my eye and his eye are one. In justice, I am weighted in God and He in me. If God were not, I would not be; if I were not, then He would not be.
It is clear that too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil miss this essential theme. It seems a strange omission, given the highly theological turn Martel took in the latter stages of Life of Pi, and the use of Beatrice and Virgil as the names of his central characters in this novel. They, of course, guided Dante through purgatory and paradise respectively in The Divine Comedy, the essentially Thomistic allegory of the search for understanding of and access to the transcendent God. Thus, while too many critics of Beatrice and Virgil dwell too much on the manifest evil of the mundane world, not enough give sufficient attention to the novel’s aspiration for release from this evil into redemption and transcendence. This is why Joy Lo Dico, in a broadly sound critique, is wrong to state: “Where Life of Pi was about belief, in stories and God, Beatrice and Virgil is about crushing belief.” Late in the novel Beatrice expresses the desire “To remember and yet to go on living.” This is the belief that matters in the novel, a humanist belief in humanity and the reflection that the fight, however painful, is worth it.

Gordon Smith

I have a tendency to make the glib statement “I don’t have heroes”. It’s obviously not true. I even qualify it by citing Oskar Matzerath, a character from The Tin Drum, who is such a hero to me he’s tattooed on my arm. Of course I have heroes. We all do. Norman Russell and Bob Fyall, my Latin and English teachers, respectively, are heroes. And Gordon Smith was my hero.

Gordon Smith has died. I can almost guarantee that none of my regular readers on this blog will have heard of Gordon Smith. Probably not many people will have, full stop. But he means a lot to me, and I’m very sorry to hear of his death.

On a very sunny April day in 1975 I was taken to Muirton Park for the first time. Muirton Park was home of St Johnstone Football Club, and it was the last day of the football season, and Saints had to beat the mighty Celtic in order to win a place in the new Premier League which was starting the following year. For a ten year old boy it was an overwhelming experience. I remember climbing the dark wooden stairway into the Centre Stand and emerging from the gloom to see a pitch that was more vividly green than anything I’d ever seen, exactly like the experience of the kid in Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. There were thousands of people already in the stadium, filling the terraces surrounding the pitch, huge swathes of green and white directly opposite, the blue and white of St Johnstone all around. And the noise. The Celtic fans in full voice. I didn’t know then it was mainly sectarian bile they were singing, of course. I was just swept along by the tide of noise they created, and the Saints fans returned that noise with songs of our own. It was my first ever football match, and it hooked me for life. Everything seemed so important.

We won. We won 2-1 and gained our place in the new league. That evening I was so excited I danced around my bedroom, waving my scarf, singing “When the Saints go Marching In”. I couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t want to talk about anything else. It was a magical day. You can never recapture your childish sense of excitement and that will always remain one of the greatest days of my life.

Gordon Smith was the matchwinner. We went 1-0 down in the first half and the dream looked over. Then Jim O’Rourke equalised and the tension ratcheted up another notch. And mid way through the second half we were awarded a penalty and the world stopped spinning and I stopped breathing. Silence in Muirton Park. Up stepped Gordon Smith, the right back. I can’t really remember the details of it, but he scored and we were 2-1 up and we held our lead until the end and won the match. And in this way Gordon Smith became a hero.

From his obituaries, I discover he was only 59 when he died. That means he was only 20 when he took that penalty, a mere ten years older than me, scarcely older than a boy himself. But to me he was – and always will be – impossibly heroic.

The point of this is that heroes are not gods or saints or impossibly exotic individuals. They are the ordinary people who do things which change the course of your life. They can do so in subtle ways and you may not even be aware they are doing it. Gordon Smith never knew me, never realised the impact he had on a young boy’s life. But what he did that day has had a profound effect on me. Ever since, St Johnstone have been a constant for me. I haven’t lived in Perthshire for twenty-seven years, and I don’t suppose I’ve seen Saints play more than twenty or thirty games in that time, but I’m still fanatical about them. I get nervous before matches, I follow the results religiously, still experience the (occasional) highs and (frequent) lows of being a true supporter. It's an irrational thing, but it is as much a part of me as my left arm or the tattoo of little Oskar.

Yesterday, St Johnstone beat Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final to reach the final for the first time in our 130 year history. We won 2-1. Both of our goals were scored by a 21 year old kid, a striker called Stevie May. Well done, Stevie. You don’t know this, but yesterday you will have become a hero to some young boy or girl who was at that match. You will have changed them. You will have created a moment, a memory they will never forget, will always cherish, will talk about in years to come.

Just like Gordon Smith, on 26 April 1975. Thank you, Gordon.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Crows in a Winter Landscape by Colin Andrew McLaren

Crows in a Winter Landscape is children’s author Colin McLaren’s second novel. Like the rest of his works, it is out-of-print. I think that’s a pity, as they are exciting and fast-paced novels, intelligent but with sufficient gore and detritus to keep any bloodthirsty young reader interested.

The novel begins with an “Animadversion to the Reader”, in which the fictitious J. Wellesley Gunn, Professor of Mediaeval Antiquities in the University of London, explains that the manuscript that follows is a work of fiction by journalists of his acquaintance, Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, based on the Professor’s own researches in the archives of mediaeval Bohemia. Gunn’s researches uncovered, he states, the suggestion of “a hitherto unknown strand in the Prague Plot of 1394”. He has been unable to verify his conjecture, however, which is why he passed the information to his journalists friends, who turned it into the fiction that follows.

Mr Rimmer and Mr Mark, of course, were the central characters of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, and this device thus offers a link between the two novels, despite them being set almost 500 years apart. There is, in truth, a further link, because the two central characters of Crows in a Winter Landscape, the charlatan Kreuss and the young trainee doctor Alan, are clearly further iterations of the same Rimmer and Mark characters, playing out broadly similar adventures.

The setting for this ambitious novel is the Holy Roman Empire. Life is brutal and dangerous. As the novel begins, our two heroes narrowly avoid execution by a gang of mercenary soldiers called the Crows who are in the employ of the king of Bohemia for the purpose of quelling a rebellion. It is the cunning of Kreuss that saves the day, when he manages to negotiate a reprieve by dint of promising to uncover, in the archives of the town recently overtaken by the mercenaries, Milovice, evidence which would lead the mercenaries to the doors of traitors and creditors who are bankrolling the rebellion against the king.

Set to peruse the archives, Kreuss and Alan do, indeed, find the evidence they suggested they would and this sets in train a series of events which unfolds rapidly and with bloodthirsty relish. Kreuss and Alan team up with the Crows, and they are sent to Divohora where, it is suspected, illegal silver mining is being undertaken in order to raise sums of money for the rebellion. They arrive in a town which is catastrophically afflicted, with most of the citizens dead and those who remain blinded and dying. A web of intrigue is uncovered, putting the Crows and Kreuss and Alan in grievous danger.

As I said, there are similarities with the plotting style of McLaren’s first novel, Rattus Rex, although, of course, the two stories are very different. They do remain resolutely boys’ fiction: in Rattus Rex there was only one strong female character; in Crows in a Winter Landscape there are two. All the same, they are well written and entertaining novels, with rich and intriguing settings and highly imaginative set piece adventures.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Rattus Rex by Colin Andrew McLaren

I first read Rattus Rex by Colin McLaren maybe 25 years ago, when I was a children’s librarian. It’s a rattling good children’s story, clever but very briskly plotted, appealing to younger children. I think it’s long out of print, which is a shame. I’d like to think that whoever owns the rights, if they read this, might consider republishing it.

The story is narrated by Matthew Mark, a poorhouse boy set to work in the Dickensian misery of Pratt’s the engravers but released from this drudgery into a world of excitement by the mysterious Rimmer, a larger than life, one-eyed adventurer straight out of central casting. Peter Carey used much the same character (and also the same character as Matthew Mark) in his recent Parrot and Olivier in America. Together, Rimmer and Matt become embroiled in a dangerous battle against time to defeat a monstrous invasion of giant rats, who appear to be mobilising the millions of ordinary rats in 1860s London into organised armies, systematically waging war against humans.

There is a fine sense of place in the novel, and a breathless rush of adventure. The plot unfolds briskly and without sentiment: characters come to wholly unpleasant ends and none of this is sugar-coated. There is a battle between good and evil, in the form of the giant rats, but also between good and evil in the human world, and between altruism and self-interest, common sense and arrogance. There are real characters interwoven into the narrative – much of the drama takes place in the sewers being built, at that time, by Joseph Bazalgette, and he is a main character in the novel, as is the artist William Powell Frith, who painted,among other things, scenes of the deprivation of Victorian England.

The novel is by no means perfect. There is only one strong female character, for example, which feels unbalanced these days. The use of phonetic dialect in the dialogue – for an Aberdonian, and Irish and London characters, is a mistake and feels amateurish. But that can be overlooked and, overall, this is good fun.

It’s also, in some ways, a forerunner of steampunk. It was written in 1978, some time before the term was invented (to describe, according to Wikipedia, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and Homunculus by James Blaylock, and I’d heartily recommend both of these novels, too). Although we’re set in Victorian London, we’re firmly in the age of technology, and Rattus Rex features an iron-clad train, a dirigible balloon and a subterranean vacuum tube designed to circulate parcels quickly across the city but used, here, to surreptitiously move people about.

If you know of reluctant readers, this is a cracking entertainment for them to get their teeth into.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Finally

You may have noticed I've been quiet on here for the past three weeks or so. I've been preparing for my viva for my PhD defence.

Delighted to say that I passed it today. Looking forward to a quiet night doing nothing tonight...

I'd like to thank all the regulars on here whose comments and observations and ideas have fed in, however tangentially, to my final thesis. I love the discussions on here and hope to be able to enter into more of them, now that I'm free to read normally again.....

Friday, February 07, 2014

Waterstone's

Waterstone's or, as they like to style themselves these days, Waterstones, have a display up in their Hull branch at the moment for Westerns, called "Ride 'em cowboy".

Here we have it. East of Eden? Maybe you could argue it is a western. Part of it is certainly located in the west. The Sound and the Fury? Hmm, pity the poor Zane Grey reader picking that one up and trying to make sense of it. And behind it, upside down, is Suttree, that great western from Knoxville, Tennessee, c. 1951... Ride 'em Cornelius...

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite books is Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And one of the extraordinary things about that novel is that McCullers was only 23 when she wrote it. It scarcely seems possible that someone so young should have such an understanding of human nature. Françoise Sagan was eighteen when Bonjour Tristesse was published. The precocity is mind-boggling. How could she have written this? How could she have known?

Cécile, the narrator of the story, is seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood. It is a difficult stage of growing up. Are you a child or an adult? For a period, around that age, you can be either, depending on circumstance. In moments of stress you revert to childishness; in moments of calm you stretch your emotional responses, experiment with differing perspectives. It can be a confusing time, disorientating, sometimes even upsetting. For Cécile, her difficulties are compounded by the fact that her mother is dead and her father is a philandering wastrel. During their long summer holiday on the French Riviera, her father has invited his 29 year old lover, Elsa Mackenbourg, to join them and the three live a bohemian existence which Cécile, knowing no better, takes for normality. This idyll is thrown into disarray when Raymond later invites another friend, the older and more mature Anne Larsen, to join them. Anne is a friend of Cécile’s late mother and she brings an element of sophistication to their ramshackle lifestyle. Raymond proposes to her, she accepts, and from here Cécile’s difficulties begin to grow.

After being treated as an adult and an equal by her father, Cécile is shocked by and resentful of the controlling way that Anne begins to deal with her. She is forced to study for her exams. She is treated as a child. She is forbidden to meet Cyril, the young man whom she has been seeing during the summer. She concocts a plan. Disaster ensues.

The novel focuses on Cecile’s intellectual growing pains. It is an irony that when she is at her most immature she is treated as an adult and as she matures she is increasingly treated as a child. This, of course, adds to her confusion and resentment. One feels for her: she is, unknowingly, at a massive disadvantage, with a feckless father who is intent solely on indulging his own selfish tendencies. She has no-one on whom to model herself until Anne appears and, not surprisingly, rather than learn from this intelligent and wise woman, instead she rebels against her imposed authority. Even now, all might not be lost if only her father could derive some sense of paternal competence but that is beyond Raymond. Cécile is let down. Everybody is let down.

The novel is beautifully written. The prose is uncluttered and simple, yet lyrical and evocative. It is very short, and it does not strain for great depth, but it explores the pain of youth, its confusions, its delusions, its sense of timelessness. It is an exploration of love, and we know what a difficult emotion that can be. In this novel there is only one true and honest love, that of Anne for Raymond. All the other permutations – Cécile for Cyril, Cyril for Cécile, Raymond for Elsa, Elsa for Raymond, Raymond for Anne – they are only varying forms of delusion, self or otherwise. Only one true love exists here, then, and in the end it is not sufficient to carry the day. Cécile describes the tristesse that informs the title as “her realisation of the responsibility involved in exercising her freedom to make choices”. Human beings are, indeed, free to make choices, but we are seldom very good at it. And in Sagan’s beautiful little novel, Cécile leads us to the enduring truth that, with the advent of adulthood, we are most of us generally forced to say hello to sadness.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Ragtime by EL Doctorow

What do Harry Houdini, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, J Pierpont Morgan, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman have in common? Fans of EL Doctorow’s 1975 masterpiece Ragtime will be jumping up and down with their hands in the air. All of these real historical characters – and a slew of lesser known ones, too – are central characters in this remarkable novel. We are fairly accustomed to novelisations of real characters nowadays – Charles Lindbergh in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, for example, or John Brown in Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter or Fyodor Dostoevsky in JM Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg. And Doctorow, of course, returns to the device in later fiction too, such as his telling of the story of the Collyer Brothers in Homer and Langley, or General Sherman in The March. He had done it before, too, with The Book of Daniel, about the Rosenberg case, more famously immortalised in fiction in the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And let us not forget the masterful George MacDonald Fraser, whose fiendishly funny Flashman novels taught me most of what I know (for right and wrong) of Victorian history. But at the time, Ragtime was innovative. And controversial. In a later interview, Doctorow noted:
I heard secondhand that the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, was very critical of the book, that someone prepared a major review and he said no. I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people had never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.
Ragtime truly is extraordinary in the way it melds real and fictional characters. Moreover, the technique is vital to the thematic thrust of the novel, given that it focuses on the establishment of the American nation and the development of the American psyche: the process of assimilation of millions of immigrants from dozens of countries, particularly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries was an extraordinary piece of national re-invention. It saw people almost literally become someone else as they threw off the trappings of their old lives and adopted new ones; it saw ordinary people grow to prominence and fame; and it saw famous citizens slide into lives of unutterable fantasy and delusion. America at this time was massively polarised between people playing out different types of ragtime – the ragged poverty of the underclass on one hand and, on the other, the syncopated, life-affirming joyousness lived out by those innocent rich who had no idea what was to unfold in the rest of the century.

Drawing the disparate real-life characters together are three fictional families around whom the novel revolves. Firstly, there is Father, Mother, the Little Boy, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother, a middle-class, well-to-do family making a good living from Father’s fireworks and flag-making business (gunpowder and the sanctity of the flag – what could be more quintessentially American?). Secondly the immigrant family of Mameh, Tateh and The Little Girl, who initially live in abject poverty but (the surviving members, at least) end the novel with unimagined riches. And thirdly the black ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, a maid whom he makes pregnant, and their illegitimate baby. And so, of course, we have a cross-section of the melting pot that became America. The way these three families come together is clearly connotative of the establishment of this brave new country and we, the readers, are forced to recognise that beneath the veneer of progress terrible hardships and deprivations and cruelties abounded. For Coalhouse, in particular, a victim of terrible racism, the idealism of this young nation is a blighted notion indeed.

Part and parcel of the development of this new America is, of course, industrialisation. The Industrial Revolution may have started in Great Britain but it flourished in twentieth century America. Enter Henry Ford, and the principle of the assembly line. As Ragtime explains:

From these principles Ford established the final proposition of the theory of industrial manufacture - not only that the parts of the finished product be interchangeable, but that the men who build the products be themselves interchangeable parts.
One can read Ragtime, then, as a critique of modernity and the dehumanising effect of progress and technological advance. The novel ends during the First World War, a calamitous event of which the immediate (though not the underlying) cause was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, another character who makes a cameo appearance in the novel. Indeed, the assassination itself, by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in August 1914, is dramatised in the narrative. Given that Modernist sensibilities regularly decried the First World War as proof of the calamitous turn that humanity had taken since the Enlightenment, such a critique of the novel’s thematic intentions might seem apposite.

And yet it is not sufficient, I think to explain the complexity of Ragtime. For all Doctorow’s unblinking gaze on the less salubrious aspects of American nationhood, it does not feel, to me, like a reactionary social critique of hubristic modernity in the way of Eric Voegelin and novelists who advanced his theories, such as Flannery O’Connor. Rather, I would say it is closer in tone to Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, which likewise did not flinch from portraying the seedier side of life but managed to do so without being either too critical or too sentimental. Doctorow, a beautifully nuanced writer, asserts a similar degree of balance. How does he do it?

Principally, he does it by nature of the narrative itself and, in particular, the three fictional characters who dominate it. The scene is set from the word go. This is the opening:

In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
That one word – “seemed” – tells us all we need to know about this edenic scene which is being suggested to us. Although their stories are, initially, separate, the three families begin to coalesce and it is clear that each impacts on the other in manifold ways. The connections of humanity are mysterious things, the community of being is a web we cannot see and do not control. A simplistic reactionary binary of technology/modernity – spirituality/tradition will not suffice here.

The very first chapter of the novel ends with The Little Boy speaking to Harry Houdini and telling him, apropos nothing at all, “Warn the Duke.” This means nothing at this stage, but it becomes clear that this little boy has some form of divinatory powers. Later in the novel, Houdini does indeed meet the Duke – Archduke Franz Ferdinand – but he doesn’t “warn” him and we know the outcome. Those little connections of humanity, those random chances, those coincidences and happy or unhappy occurrences that populate our existence: these are the stuff that matters in our lives. And those writers, like Cormac McCarthy, who suggest that, for all our hubris, our paths are ordained from the very first and we can have no say in our own progress, are simply wrong. Doctorow knows there is much wrong with our modern ways of life, but he is equally certain that the remedy is in our own hands. That is what Ragtime can teach us.

Child of God

The Counselor was a flop, but I'm intrigued by James Franco's adaptation of Child of God.

It's been hanging around for a while now with no release date. That would tend to suggest another flop, but this trailer looks pretty faithful to the novel. It's not exactly how I pictured Lester, but the overall mood seems right.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Gloaming at Sage Gateshead

Went to the Sage at Gateshead last week to see The Gloaming in concert. The Gloaming are the latest Irish supergroup, comprising Iarla Ó Lionaird, Thomas Bartlett, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and the outstanding duo of Martin Hayes & Dennis Cahill.

I've written on here before about Hayes and Cahill, who I think are geniuses. It must be over ten years ago I first saw them, is Gosport, and it is still one of the first concerts I think of when I look back on outstanding occasions I've attended. I was fascinated to see what they'd be like with a group alongside them.

Overall, it was a bit of a curate's egg, I suppose. For me, there was just a touch too much of Iarla Ó Lionaird. He is an extraordinary singer, of course, but it was pretty much tune - song - tune - song all the way through, and it felt unbalanced to me. That said, I can't go along with The Scotsman's review of their concert in Glasgow, which complained: "the songs often differed little from Ó Lionaird’s solo material." Well, come on. What did they expect Iarla to do - start belting it out like Ethel Merman? Similarly, The Scotsman bemoaned the fact that "it was disappointing that much of their sound resembled a fleshed-out version of Hayes and Cahill’s duo work". Again, quite what did they expect?

I think there is a criticism to be made here, though. The amazing thing about Hayes and Cahill is the way they draw the audience into the music. It becomes hypnotic. It's just Martin Hayes's fiddle and Dennis Cahill's guitar, plus Martin's dancing feet on percussion and rhythm, but it builds so slowly and intricately and insistently the audience is sucked into the moment. There is utter silence when they play. Nobody coughs, nobody moves, just the audience listening to the music.

With The Gloaming's work - at the moment - this contract between artistes and audience is occasionally broken. The spell is lost. The magic dissipates. That may just be because they are still tightening up the act, or it may be that the Hayes and Cahill partnership is sufficient and nothing else can be added without losing some of their intensity.

But I'd certainly go and see The Gloaming again, and if you get the chance to see them I'd highly recommend it.

This is Hayes and Cahill playing solo.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger has died, aged 94.

But what a man he was. A force for good. That beautiful soft, slow voice was so beguiling.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

This little collection, part of a Penguin Books series, “Great Loves”, brings together eight short stories from three of Katherine Mansfield short story collections. The stories collected here are: “Something Childish But Very Natural”; “Feuille d’Album”; “Mr and Mrs Dove”; “Marriage à la Mode”; “Bliss”; “Honeymoon”; “Dill Pickle”; and “Widowed”. And what a beautiful collection it is.

I find Katherine Mansfield’s style utterly beguiling and completely intriguing. Her stories are so simple, hardly stories at all really, just vignettes, little slices of life, and yet there is such an astonishing depth to them. Her characters are lovely creations, so fragile and vulnerable and human. You ache for them, for the quiet sadness of their existence, for the failed ideas and lost hopes, for the brittle confidence and stoic resignation. You long for them to be able to communicate, one with the other, to convey their true feelings and allow those feelings to inform their actions. You share their desolation when love, as it so often does, founders. These stories are wonders.

Mansfield herself was dissatisfied with her short stories. She said: "I've been a selective camera, and . . . my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive." I think she is being unnecessarily hard on herself here. While many of her stories end in great unhappiness, there is nothing malicious in them. On the contrary, the stories are designed to allow us, the impartial readers and observers of these people’s misfortunes, to assess what might be done to remedy those misfortunes. They are, then, entirely hopeful and honest endeavours.

Shortly before her death (at the very early of 34, from tuberculosis), she wrote witheringly of her friends in London who:

have come to an agreement not to grow any more, to stay just so – all clipped and pruned and tight. As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact –no, a thousand times!
And this, it seems to me, is the key to her work. There is a serious and earnest searching for something in these stories, some understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive, to be in love.