Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Larkin With Toads

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Philip Larkin, the city of Hull is organising Larkin25. Amongst the events organised over the next 25 weeks is Larkin with Toads, a mass participation public art event that is populating the city with enormous decorated toads. I have to say I was mildly sceptical at first. I don't think I realised how big they would be, or how impressive. It's wonderful. Here's a few of them we managed to find the other day:









A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow


A Silver Dish (ASD) comes from the 1984 collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth And Other Stories, but first appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. Although, at the time (and despite his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976) Bellow’s reputation was declining, this collection was well received. Cynthia Ozick describes it as “five stories, awesome yet imperfect… brainy language shocked into originality.” Jason Cowley calls them “time capsules in prose, studies of consciousness.” Michael Glenday comments:

The intensity of this cultural recollection is extraordinary, both in terms of the wealth of material detail, and of what one may term the evocation of historical character. This lyrical vein is, I think, too rarely present in Bellow’s novels.


The stories present, he continues, “narratives of memory to provide a backdrop against which the venality of contemporary life can be exposed” and in them “degeneration is seen as radical and ubiquitous, written into the constitution of national life.” Although this may sound close to Raymond Carver territory, there is about this collection, and about ASD in particular, a warmth which is all too often missing in Carver’s work. Joyce Carol Oates describes ASD as “one of the most beautiful, and beautifully crafted stories I have come across in years.” Margaret Manning says that it is “about a coarse-grained life. But whose life is made of silk?”

ASD is a character study of two men, Woody Selbst, sixty, a self-made man, and his father, Morris – or Pop – a man of truly outrageous behaviour. The story begins with a breathtaking first paragraph:

What do you do about death – in this case the death of an old father? If you’re a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who’s been around, like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it to you – the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That’s what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis.


This is classic Bellow. The shocking directness of the first sentence immediately draws the reader into the story. As it continues, it seems to ask uncomfortable questions: after all, no-one cares to admit to ambivalence about the death of a parent. Then, before the story has a chance to become too introverted, it sweeps out to an extraordinary degree by encompassing global terrorism and the violence of death. In the second paragraph it sweeps even further, with a remarkable description from Woody’s youth of a buffalo calf being dragged from a riverbank into the churning river while the parent buffaloes look around as though “asking each other dumbly what had happened.” It is clear what territory we are in here: this story is about bloodlines, about family, about connectedness.

Marianne Friedrich suggests that “the beauty of this short story lies in its fortunate balance between an amazing vitality and freshness of life, and a complex artistic representation.” She then points to her own research at the University of Chicago which suggests the genesis of ASD is a series of character sketches from real life with no semblance of plot or narrative technique. She explains how Bellow grafted and re-grafted characters into different plot ideas, discarding material and gradually distilling it until the characters and their actions felt drawn from real life. Thus, Friedrich concludes, it is “the inquiry into character, not ideas or general concepts of plot, that give the creative process the decisive first impulse.” Given that an enduring criticism of Bellow, particularly in his later novels, is that his characters have, in Sanford Pinsker’s words, “too much of the non-fictional essay pressing on their chests”, and that “the balance between texture and talkiness was tilting, unhappily towards the latter,” this conscious re- and re-working by Bellow of the text of ASD can be seen as significant. And what is undeniable is that it is successful.

The story takes the form of a tryptich covering three time frames – the past, when the silver dish of the title is stolen by Pop, “last Tuesday”, when Pop dies in Woody’s arms and “now”, the Sunday morning when Woody is reviewing his past. It is a complicated structure but perfectly comprehensible. Partly, this is due to what Dieter Schultz identifies as:

shifts in narrative technique. While the central section dramatizes the theft of the dish by means of scenic narration, sections one and three alternate between showing and telling, with emphasis on reflection and summary.


The first section gives us an introduction to Woody and to the fact that Pop is dying. As Schultz points out:

it establishes a narrative voice, a local and temporal setting, and a set of moral coordinates that guide the reader through the barrage of memory bits flooding the protagonist’s mind. Even when the reader may feel whirled around by a multitude of data and impressions, such a strategy prepares the “quiet zone” from which moral authority emerges.


In this section Woody is reflecting, after Pop’s death, on how his life has turned out. We learn a great deal of Woody’s character – an individualist, someone who fights the system for no reason other than he feels he ought to. He is clearly mourning his father and turns to memories as a way of managing the grief.

The long centrepiece of the story relates one particular memory, the theft of the silver dish by his father which results in Woody being suspended from the seminary and which, therefore, transforms his life. The final section returns us to Pop’s deathbed and the harrowing scene where Woody gets into bed with his father to try to stop him from pulling out the intravenous needles. That the reader should care as much as Woody about this ogre of a man is testament to Bellow’s skill as a writer.

In Woody and Pop, Bellow has created two timeless characters. Pop is, in many ways, a ghastly man, a “metaphysical gargoyle”, someone who walked out on his family when Woody was fourteen, saying airily: “It’s okay. I put you all on welfare.” In the next breath he asks his son to give him money to buy gasoline:

Understanding that Pop couldn’t get away without his help, Woody turned over to him all he had earned at the Sunset Ridge Country Club in Winnetka. Pop felt that the valuable life lesson he was transmitting was worth far more than these dollars, and whenever he was conning his boy a sort of high-priest expression came down over his bent nose, his ruddy face.


Years later, the now worldly-wise Woody smiles as he remembers Pop’s attitude of “that’ll teach you to trust your father.” He recalls that: “Pop was physical; Pop was digestive, circulatory, sexual.” Pop loves to be outrageous: for example, referring to Aunt Rebecca’s removed breast, he tells his son: “if titties were not fondled and kissed, they got cancer in protest.” Pop is a self-made man who arrived in Chicago from Liverpool as a boy:

He became an American, and America never knew it. He voted without papers, he drove without a license, he paid no taxes, he cut every corner.


Apparently without scruple, Pop forces his son to take him to the home of his sponsor at the seminary, Mrs Skoglund. There, he intends to ask for $50. While the religious Mrs Skoglund goes to another room to pray for guidance as to whether or not to lend the money, Pop steals a silver dish from a locked cabinet which he unpicks with a penknife. Woody reacts in horror and the two have a wrestling match in which Pop punches Woody in the face three or four times and knees him in the mouth. Later, he promises to put the dish back but “of course,” he keeps it and pawns it. When the theft is discovered, Woody is suspended from the seminary and Aunt Rebecca turns him out of his home. Even now, Pop acts badly. “So what, kid?” he says. He even justifies stealing the dish:

“I didn’t hurt myself, and at the same time did you a favor.”
“It was for me?”
“It was too strange of a life. That life wasn’t you, Woody. All those women…”


Why did Pop do it? After all, he was not a foolish man and must have known he had little chance of success. Partly, it was simply a challenge:

Morris [Pop] knew that Mother and Aunt Rebecca had told Mrs Skoglund how wicked he was. They had painted him for her in poster colours – purple for vice, black for his soul, red for Hell flames: a gambler, smoker, drinker, deserter, screwer of women, and atheist. So Pop was determined to reach her. It was risky for everybody.


Reprehensible that may be, but it is only part of the story. “That theft was part of Pop’s war with Mother… Mother represented the forces of religion and hypochondria.” Pop hates the way his ex-wife – a convert to Christianity – and her brother-in-law, Doctor Kovner, preach fundamentalism. “Unless I take a hand,” he tells his son, “you won’t even understand what life is. Because they don’t know – those silly Christers.” Pop himself isn’t religious, not even especially moral, and yet, as Frederick Glaysher notes:

Contrary to what might be expected, [Woody] and his coarse, scheming father remain more loyal to the old values than the pious Christians who merely want the boy Woody as a convert so that he might proselytize among the Jews.


Pop genuinely believes he is helping his son. He sees himself, in Schulz’s words, as a “reality instructor.” Through the theft, Pop believes he has won the war with Mother:

Pop had carried him back to his side of the line, blood of his blood, the same thick body walls, the same coarse grain. Not cut out for a spiritual life. Simply not up to it.

Pop was no worse than Woody, and Woody was no better than Pop.”


Unsurprisingly, his upbringing has an impact on Woody’s character. Early in the story, we are shown that he is unconventional. He smuggles hashish out of Kampala because “he liked taking chances. Risk was a wonderful stimulus.” Woody is a highly complex character, an amalgam of the incorrigibility of his father and the piety that his mother represents, if not attains. He is “leading a double life, sacred and profane.” He is far from perfect: as a child he steals food from the mission house for no reason other than he likes to be reckless. When, speaking in church, he finds that his heart is not in what he is preaching, he turns to techniques his father would have appreciated: "sincere behavior got him through. He had to rely for delivery on his face, his voice – on behavior." And yet, despite this, Woody is a decent man. Where Pop abandoned his family, Woody goes to elaborate lengths to help his:

Since his wife, after fifteen years of separation, had not learned to take care of herself, Woody did her shopping on Fridays, filled her freezer. He had to take her this week to buy shoes. Also, Friday night he always spent with Helen – Helen was his wife de facto. Saturday he did his big weekly shopping. Saturday night he devoted to Mom and his sisters.


Peter Hyland describes ASD as “the story of a man whose life is blighted by his need to be loved by a father who is incapable of giving love.” However, there is textual evidence to the contrary. We are told, for example, "Did he [Pop] love anyone (he was so busy?) Yes, he loved Halina. He loved his son." Second-billing, perhaps, but Woody knew his father loved him, in his own way. Hyland goes on to describe Pop as “cynically selfish,” which again is too literal to capture the depth of the man. Certainly, Pop was cynical but, even so, traces of decency can be found:

If Woody had a weakness, it was to be unselfish. This worked to Pop’s advantage, but he criticized Woody for it, nevertheless.


Hyland then suggests of Woody that “for his own emotional and spiritual equilibrium he needs to redeem a man who cannot be redeemed.” Again, this seems too narrow a view of Pop. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole story is an elaborate redemption of this complex, infuriating man. There is an infectiousness about his total refusal to be ordinary which makes him quite appealing. The reader can only admire Woody for the way he has assimilated his father’s devilry and spirit. Ozick gets the tone right when she describes ASD as the “companionable trials of Woody Selbst and his rogue father.” Schulz goes even further:

Almost from the outset, parallels and affinities with Pop [and Woody] abound to the point where one can argue that “A Silver Dish,” far from dramatizing a conflict between father and son, actually presents a story of male bonding.


As with much of Bellow’s work, ASD draws its strength from the way Bellow uses character to make a point about society in general. By focusing on the individual, he can bring the general more clearly into focus. So it is with ASD. Schulz describes Woody as combining “elements of American modernity with a larger, more spiritual realm.” John Clayton explains that “the story moves towards an integration of the two conflicting worlds of the physical and metaphysical,” This is made possible by the creation of two vibrant, living, colourful personalities, by establishing what Schulz describes as “the opposition of idealist son and realist father,” and by leaving them to find their own ways to their respective states of grace.

That moment is surely reached in the beautiful conclusion to the story, when – in a counterpoint to the earlier wrestling scene – Woody has climbed into bed beside his father and holds him as he dies:

After a time, Pop’s resistance ended. He subsided and subsided. He rested against his son, his small body curled there…Pop, whom Woody thought he had stilled, only had found a better way to get around him. Loss of heat was the way he did it. His heat was leaving him. As can happen with small animals while you hold them in your hand, Woody presently felt him cooling. Then, as Woody did his best to restrain him, and thought he was succeeding, Pop divided himself. And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death. And there was his elderly, large, muscular son, still holding and pressing him when there was nothing anymore to press. You could never pin down that self-willed man. When he was ready to make his move, he made it – always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.


This ending, elegaic, spiritual, above all human, could, one imagines, even have brought a tear to the eye of that old rogue, Pop. Well, almost, and that is the genius of A Silver Dish.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow (1915-2005), “the genius of portraiture,” straddled the modernism of early twentieth century literature and the postmodernism and detached irony of its middle and later years. In doing so, some would say he bestrode the American literary landscape. Just as many would disagree. For every Irving Malin (“Saul Bellow is the most important living American novelist”) there is a Norman Mailer (“I cannot take him seriously as a major novelist.”) Given that, during his career, Bellow frequently tilted against the windmills of both the literary and critical elites, it is unsurprising that he engendered so much feeling. He is a writer who makes the reader take a stance.

Nonetheless, Bellow did not see himself as being confrontational. “I am going against the stream,” he said. “That’s not an attitude. Attitudes are foolishness. It’s just that there’s no use doing anything else is there?” The stream he was swimming against was the culture of despair and alienation which was dominant in American literature, what Chirantan Kulshrestha describes as “the ideology of exaggerated wretchedness.” In reacting against false optimism, Bellow felt, writers had too often gone to the opposite extreme. Still in thrall to the modernists and their “legacy of pessimism,” still wallowing in wastelands, writers were acceding to the wider cultural expectation to “say no powerfully, ‘in the accent of thunder.’” Where, Bellow asked, was there real life, written realistically?

It is in the question of reality and art that Bellow moved further away from the accepted stance of the day. Kulshrestha perceives that Bellow had left behind early twentieth-century writers’ hostility to the reality of the present and, like mid-century writers, believed that art could not be a substitute for life. “Life or reality, for Bellow, is intractable and mysterious,” he notes. Because it stepped beyond intellectual systems it could not be exchanged for art. Art could, though, be a powerful means of interpreting reality, as seen in the works of many mid-century writers like Camus, Faulkner, Moravia et al. Bellow differed from them, too, however, because he refused to believe in a “lost paradise” or to accept a life-view tinged by a sense of loss. Instead, his fiction was, as Michael Glenday notes, “an effort to grasp a more authentic reality.” Bellow himself states that: “one of my themes is the American denial of real reality, our devices for evading it, our refusal to face what is all too obvious and palpable.” Glenday summarises this as a means for Bellow to expose “the inauthenticity of the everyday.”

In fighting for realism, Bellow took a stance against what he saw as the macho destructiveness of the prevailing modernist mood, its relentless pessimism. “I don’t see that we need to call for the destruction of the world in hope of a phoenix,” he wrote. Instead, Bellow concentrated on examining the human condition. Writing of Him with his foot in his mouth, Cynthia Ozick states there is:

no romantic aping of archaisms or nostalgias; no restraints born out of theories of form or faddish tenets of experimentalism or ideological crypticness; no Neanderthal flatness in the name of cleanliness of prose, no gods of nihilism; no gods of subjectivity; no philosophy of parody.


Gloria Cronin summarises Bellow’s stance against the current orthodoxy most succinctly:

No other post WW11 American writer has analyzed so completely and so humanely the effects of American cultural anxiety with the age of technology and rationalism, existentialism and the legacy of high modernism.


Bellow’s objections to the orthodoxies of the day – be they modernist or post-modernist – were not superficial: rather, they go a long way to explain his extraordinary, rich, humane prose style. In an interview with Jo Brans, he declared that, unlike Joyce, he had no interest in writing for the literary intelligensia. Although he denied he was trying to teach people how to live, he did accept that he believed he had “something of importance to transmit.” He saw himself “as a historian. Every novelist is a historian.” And what do historians do but relate the story of people? Thus, character – or the representation of humanity – is an essential component of the Bellow ouevre. He concluded his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1976 by stating:

A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice.


This is what Joyce Carol Oates alludes to in her portrait of Bellow:

“big ideas”, though obsessively aired, aria-like indeed, seem to us pretexts to enable the author to display, and to admire, and to analyze, the phenomona he loves best: the haunting contours and textures of the physical world, and the mystery of human personality in its extraordinary variety.”


Bellow focused on the individual as a way of understanding the general. He was essentially an optimist who saw beauty in humanity, but who nonetheless deprecated the isolation felt by many in a society which crowded the individual. Christopher Taylor identifies one of Bellow’s great themes as “the fate of the individual in an age which, Bellow feels, doesn’t put a proper value on individualism.” Robert Baker describes the “two themes that pervade [Bellow’s] work – the horrible price of insularity… and, transcending this, the common humanity shared by all.”

It is here that Bellow rebelled once more against contemporary rhetoric. In his Nobel speech, he quoted Alain Robbe-Grillet:

The novel of characters belongs entirely in the past… Individuals have been wiped out… The exclusive cult of the ‘human’ has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less anthropocentric.


Bellow countered: “Can it be that human beings are at a dead end?” He rounded on the intellectual community – “another group of mummies” – which had “laid down the law”: “It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms… We must not make bosses of our intellectuals.”

Although he conceded that “there is no reason why a novelist should not drop “character” if the strategy stimulates him,” Bellow was clear on the importance of character in his work:

A "character" has his own logic. He goes his way, one goes with him; he has some perceptions, one perceives them with him. You do him justice, you don't grind your axe. I have no axe to grind, one way or the other.


Thus, it can be said that character dominates Bellow’s work. It is through character that his novels and stories gain their narrative depth; it is through the detailing of minor, often contradictory truths – those weaknesses and foibles in all of us – that his voice is formed; it is through thought and belief – and the testing of belief in times of stress – that his vision of humanity emerges.

Therefore, it may be argued that Bellow’s narrative style is more straightforward than those of his predecessors and many of his contemporaries. By concentrating on character, he can reveal his truths through narrative. Glenday notes that: “Unlike Hemingway…or James… Bellow does not rely upon symbolical properties to give narrative depth.”

This is not to say that he aimed to be straightforward or didactic. In his essay on the future of fiction, he stated:

we have developed in American fiction a strange combination of extreme naivete in the characters and of profundity implicit in the writing, in the techniques themselves and in the language, but the language of thought itself is banned, it is considered dangerous and destructive.


He cited as evidence Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea where the reader is offered:

a sort of Christian endurance… The attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought begins to look like a curious and highly sophisticated game. It shows a great skepticism of the strength of art.


There is no question that Bellow thought himself a novelist of ideas, and that he used his work to project his own, essentially optimistic, outlook on the world. However, for a man whose entire career was spent in pursuit of his own artistic goals, regardless of current literary tastes, it is unsurprising that there are dissenting voices. Bellow was clear that character led and narrative followed. Of Mr Sammler’s Planet, he wrote: “One doesn't arbitrarily invent these [character traits] in order to put anything across.”

Allan Massie, however, notes that he was “more interested in ideas than in fiction, or rather interested in fiction chiefly as a vehicle for argument.” Further, he argues that far from being an acute chronicler of human behaviour, Bellow “has a deficient sense of how other people behave.” Sanford Pinsker, writing of Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories, notes that the collection “mercifully” doesn’t preach, as some of his recent novels had done. Sam Phipps writes that Bellow “has always loved the sound of his own literary voice too much to worry about reining himself in.” And David Galloway says:

The imaginative structure fails to provide adequate support for the intellectual structure, so that at crucial moments the author’s ideas fail to be embodied in character, action, or image.


Thus, the author who decried the didacticism of others stands charged with the same thing, while it is suggested that his characterisation, far from being integral to the narrative, is seen as unconvincing.

Who is right? The answer, as always, lies in the middle. Certainly, as he grew older Bellow’s novels became more preachy, less interesting, but it is in his shorter fiction that the qualities of his writing continue to shine. Massie suggests his novels will date and become “old hat” and – since, from Dangling Man onwards, they are undoubtedly products of their time – he may well be right. But in Bellow’s shorter fiction there is the thread of genius. It is in his short stories that character comes to the fore and can truly be said to be fundamental to the narrative drive, to lead the story naturally, to establish a voice and convey a vision which is fresh and original and the equal of any writing in the twentieth century.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham


Nightmare Alley was published in 1946, and a film adaptation, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, followed in 1947. It is an atmospheric noir thriller which, ultimately, begins to stretch beyond the perceived limitations of the genre and ask questions about the nature of the modern world. William Lindsay Gresham builds on the sub-cultures at the fringes of our societies, peopling them with characters displaying a range of human foibles, and creates a creepy, nightmarish world of greed and ambition and failure, of redemption and loss. And what makes the novel most frightening is that the nightmare alley Gresham conjures is, in all respects, a mirror of our own strained existence. We are all running down our own nightmare alleys, with the light forever ahead, just out of reach, and fear snarling at our heels. The novel’s opening image, of the geek who has fallen as low as it is possible to fall, thus becomes not so much a warning as a presage, something reflected and amplified by the novel’s grotesque and shocking conclusion.

Nightmare Alley
begins with a superb evocation of life in the carny, the travelling shows that traversed the US in the early years of the twentieth century with their array of freaks and fortune tellers, jugglers and jokers, contortionists and acrobats. Amongst the tortured and fractured souls that make up this group is Stanton Carlisle, a young man of high ambition, clever and calculating, and Molly Cahill, an innocent abroad still infatuated with her recently deceased father. Stan develops his magic skills and seduces fortune teller Zeena. When he accidentally kills Zeena’s husband, Pete, he takes advantage of the situation by gaining access to and memorising his mind-reading system. With Molly, he forms a mentalist act and Stan realises he has a gift for hustling. People are all the same, he discovers, and reading minds isn’t so difficult when everyone wants pretty much the same things. This early section of the novel depicts the sleazy world of the carny in vivid detail, from the grisly opening set-piece with the geek biting the heads off live chickens to the moment when Stan and Molly realise they have outgrown it and depart for New York to make better use of Stan’s skills.

The mentalist act continues to prove productive, and Stan acquires a mail-order ordination, styling himself the Reverend Stanton Carlisle, Spiritualist minister. After all, as Zeena told him when he was starting out, they're 'not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher’. He preys on gullible and susceptible souls who are trying to contact lost family members, while waiting all the time for a perfect victim – wealthy and vulnerable - into whose life he intends to ingratiate himself with the intention of robbing them of everything. Meanwhile he becomes embroiled in a sado-masochistic affair with a corrupt psychologist, Dr Lilith Ritter, and it is she who is responsible for introducing him to his perfect ‘mark’, the wealthy industrialist Ezra Grindle. The novel sweeps inevitably to a terrible climax.

Carlisle is a superbly drawn character, deeply scarred by childhood traumas and relentless in his pursuit of money, callous in relationships and deeply cynical. He is a supreme hustler and, while the reader sees him for what he is, he is brilliantly successful at duping everyone who falls within his ambit. Everyone, that is, except Lilith, and it is she who proves to be his nemesis. She, too, is a remarkable character, a bloodless and terrifyingly predatory individual who could have acted as an inspiration for Serena Pemberton in Ron Rash’s Serena, which I reviewed recently. She is without scruple and effortlessly manages to con the conman extraordinaire, Stan Carlisle.

Nightmare Alley
is a superb blend of noir thriller, tragedy, character study and social comment. It deals with the ambitions and fears that affect us all, revealing the individual terrors and global nightmares that comprise life on this ‘dying planet’.

Friday, July 09, 2010

William Golding, Bob Dylan and Satan

A fantastic quote from the NYT review (which I won't link to because they're going behind a paywall soon) of John Carey's biography of William Golding:

Many of Golding’s misadventures involved drink. He fell a lot, missing couches he meant to sit on. After a 1971 dinner party, Golding destroyed a puppet of Bob Dylan that belonged to his host, the writer Andrew Sinclair.

“He had woken in the middle of the night, attacked it under the impression that it was Satan, and buried it in the back garden,” Mr. Carey writes.


There are just so many questions lining up to be asked....

Thursday, July 08, 2010

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt


My character type, according to the Jungian Myers Brigg Type Indicator, suggests that I am someone who is a seeker of truth, for whom the actual experience of something is secondary to the understanding of it: the concept, rather than the experience itself, is the motivating force. I am happier to have done something than to be doing it. Another such character is Leo Hertzberg, the narrator of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. This is the story of an ageing man, an art critic who is turning blind, looking back on his life and seeking to understand it. In this reflective state – the unavoidable result of the passage of time – he and his family and friends are ‘no longer the actors in the story, but its spectators who have chosen to speak.’ And the speeches that ensue form the basis for a retrospective search for understanding. What is real, what is artifice? Does the nature of love, like the characters of each one of us, shift over time? How are our lives shaped by those whom and that which we love?

The trouble for characters like Leo and me, of course, is that we have a tendency to over-analyse. In our search for meaning we delve deeper and deeper into any situation, seeking the elusive answer. Everything has to be understood and then explained. That can make us difficult people to live or work with. And it can make any novel written from the perspective of someone with such a disposition extremely hard work. What I Loved is extremly hard work. It is also extremely good. If it were only a hundred pages shorter it would be superb.

Leo Hertzberg is a professor of art history. His best friend, Bill Weschler, is a significant modern artist. They and their families – Bill and Violet and Bill’s son Mark, Leo and his wife Erica and their son Matthew – form the core of the novel. They are close, and live conventionally privileged lives within the cocoon of the New York art establishment. This is drawn in elaborate detail. Each of Bill’s art works is described exactly, both figuratively and symbolically, and the characters’ daily events are subjected to precise psychoanalytical dissection. This is not simply the characteristic perspective of the truth-seeking narrator: all of the characters, even the children, are constantly analysing themselves and their situations to such an extent that one wonders how they found time for any new experiences at all amid all that agonised self-examination. The INTP character type shared by Leo and me is relatively rare – only about 1% of the population – and there’s a good reason for that, because get too many of us in a room together and a kind of psychic chaos ensues. Life is meaning, and meaning is understanding. Thus, reality cannot be allowed to proceed until everyone understands everything that is happening. Physical responses become subsumed by intellectual analysis. If 22 INTPs were playing a game of football it would take them until half time to realise they’d forgotten the ball, by which time they’d have changed the rules anyway so that they were playing chess. What I Loved seems to be stuffed full of INTPs, all trying to invent their own rules for life. My guess is that Siri Hustved, herself, is such a character type, and it has infested each of her creations. It is a serious weakness.

It is not until 130 pages in, when tragedy intervenes, that the novel truly takes off. Even then, as you would expect, the resulting bereavement becomes the focus of much agonised soul-searching (and never try to manipulate the feelings of an INTP, we instinctively kick against it), but it proves the catalyst for a shift in the novel which is fascinating and sustained and drives the narrative forward. Bill’s son, Mark, becomes the key character, an initially sweet child who increasingly becomes a troubled youth, and who falls under the spell of a charismatic but malevolent artist, Teddy Giles. Giles is part Andy Warhol, part Svengali but, as the novel develops, the overriding question becomes whether he is, too, part Ed Gein. Michiko Kakutani calls this section of the novel ‘a hokey thriller‘ with ‘sensationalistic tone and implausible events’ but as usual she is wilfully misreading the narrative to confirm her preconceptions. One gets the impression that Kakutani makes snap judgements, from which derive strident soundbites – positive or negative –and all subsequent reading must either confirm that judgement or else be discounted. Far from being implausible, what makes this section of What I Loved so skilful is that Hustvedt creates a genuine sense of doubt in the reader. Giles’s art is shocking, focusing heavily on dismembered bodies and the detritus of death, and he is, too, surrounded by hints and rumours of dark events in his real life. He may simply be a charlatan courting sensational publicity, or he may be dangerous. Indeed, he may have killed a young man who had formed part of his entourage. We don’t know which he is, opportunist or psychopath. Nor do we know the extent to which Mark is complicit in Giles’s machinations, or or to which he is simply an ingenu caught up in forces he cannot understand. Out of this confusion Hustved creates an impressive degree of tension, and her characterisation of the troubled Mark is beautifully handled. He is easily the most intriguing character I have read this year, with Giles not far behind. If it wasn’t for the narrator Leo continually dragging the narrative back into tortured reflection and analysis, theirs would be an extraordinary story. As it is, it remains an excellent one.

Hustvedt is an impressive writer, with an acute psychological understanding of her characters. This is both her strength and her weakness. What I Loved creates living, breathing characters, but at times one gets the feeling that Bill, Leo, Violet and Erica are essentially the same character, endlessly dissecting the world to establish its meaning. Having created such living, breathing characters, it is a pity that Hustvedt didn’t leave them to analyse a bit less and live a bit more.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Serena by Ron Rash


This book was recommended to me a while ago, but I couldn't get hold of a copy in the UK. I picked one up when I was in San Francisco a few weeks back and have just finished it.

Serena is certainly an ambitious novel. And certainly, in its eponymous anti-heroine, Ron Rash has overcome the weakness I felt affected his previous novel, Saints at the River, that it was all a little too pat, too straightforward, too nice. This is not a straightforward novel, nor is there anything nice about it. Rather, evil infests it, and a hopeless fatalism but also, ultimately, tremendous, selfless bravery.

Serena is Lady Macbeth transplanted into Depression-era North Carolina (with the one exception that Lady Macbeth ultimately displayed a sense of guilt – “out damn spot,” which Serena never does). We are introduced to this malign character in an extraordinary opening which I suspect will be much quoted over the years:

When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton’s child. She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.


Oh dear, you think. The poor wife, brought all this way into the country and widowed within five minutes of stepping off the train, with the added horror of discovering that her husband had been a philandering playboy. It’s going to be a novel of hardship, then, with this plucky woman surviving against the odds, gradually gaining the respect of the locals, probably finding love anew with the gruff old backwoodsman who formerly made her life so miserable, settling down with a strapping family of young men and a token girl to do the housework. So far, so Hollywood. But no, Serena is not Hollywood.

Serena faces down the angry father. Whatever her husband did before she met him is no concern of hers, she says; the pregnant girl, Rachel, was lucky to have such a sire to breed with, but she has no further hold over him. Then, not so much encouraged by his wife as instructed ("Get your knife and settle it now, Pemberton,”) Pemberton kills the father. Serena removes the knife from his stomach and gives it to Rachel, telling her it is the only thing she will ever receive from the Pembertons. And so the tone is set. The Pembertons are a frighteningly intense couple, ruthless, ambitious, deadly. And it is Serena who is the driving force.

Together, they set about establishing a lumber empire with the intent of raping the Smoky Mountains, stripping it completely bare of its forests. Serena obtains and trains a deadly eagle to control the rattlesnakes that regularly attack their workforce. Her concern, of course, is not for the men’s welfare, but purely their productivity and hence the profit that can be derived from their investment. Thus, the Pembertons drive their workers to the limit. Many of them die, but this is the Great Depression and they are easily replaceable. And these early, accidental deaths presage something much darker. The Pembertons negotiate to buy further tracts of land, competing against those who would seek to turn the Smokies into a national park, and gradually those negotiations, whenever they threaten to frustrate their ambitions, turn to violence. There is death at every turn in Serena, and Serena is behind most of it. She is evil personified.

The novel is more than just a character study of evil, however. If it were, then character would be everything and plot would be a subsidiary element, fulfilling only the role of developing the character. But, in Serena, Rash is clearly intent on exploring the tensions that have always existed between conservationists and development. He also addressed this theme in Saints At The River, but rather less successfully. In Serena, he goes back in time to the 1920s and 1930s, when the debate over the future of the Smokies was at its height. Ultimately, Theodore Roosevelt’s financial intervention saved the day by helping to create the Smoky Mountain National Park, but previously there had been considerable dispute, and great swathes of the area had already been cleared by the end of the 1930s. In Serena, the Pemberton’s aim is to extract every dollar out of their investment in North Carolina, as quickly as possible, with no regard to what is left behind, and then move on to Brazil where the giant mahogany forests offer even greater prospects – and profits. One character surveys the degradation left in their wake: “I think this is what the end of the world will look like,” he says quietly.

Stylistically, Serena is ambitious. It can be read – very successfully – on the level of gothic novel, with Serena a particularly nasty villain. And, as discussed, Rash is clearly also exploring the vexed question of conservation. It is also, however, a boldly literary novel, even experimental at times. It is important to understand this because it does explain what otherwise might seem like serious weaknesses in the plot. In particular, some of the early dialogue between Serena and Pemberton sounds extremely clunky, with huge chunks of exposition and the characters saying things to each other that a married couple would already have known and would not have felt the need to say. This is a classic beginners’ fault, of course, using dialogue to tell the reader the backstory, but Rash is no beginner, so there is clearly something else at work.

In structure, Rash treats his novel as a cross between an Elizabethan drama, a form which he is on record as greatly admiring and a Greek tragedy. Thus, we have a shape to the novel which is reminiscent of Shakespeare, along with the Lady Macbeth-like examination of power and corruption and greed and the evil that exists in the world. It is here that the dialogue between husband and wife comes in: as a twenty-first century novel it may sound stilted, but as Elizabethan dialogue it makes perfect sense. This is how we must consider it, then. And, most ambitiously of all, Rash intersperses his narrative with a a classically Greek Chorus of outsiders, who observe the action, explain it, weigh it, making their wry, often extremely funny observations on the machinations around them. It works extremely well and once the reader becomes accustomed to these occasional digressions into external observation, they become an integral part of the novel’s charm. It is a bold melding of forms and, broadly, it works.

One could argue that the character of Serena is one-note. She is evil from the first page to the last, without even Lady Macbeth’s final remorse to offer a humanising element. In purely literary terms, that would be argued to be a mistake, but the fact remains that there are people like that in this world. Simply because the (current) conventions of the novel suggest there must be some degree of character movement doesn’t mean that a great writer should accede to such limitations of his vision. Rash sticks to his guns: Serena is a study of how far evil can go if it remains undiluted by human sensibilities. She finally finds her husband, immoral though he is, to be unworthy of the purity of her vision. She wants a mirror of herself, someone for whom nothing exists except the principle, whatever that principle might be, someone who sees what must be done and does it without question, someone for whom murder is an occupational hazard, for whom human sympathy is an alien concept.

Step forward Anton Chigurh, your dream date awaits you.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Beryl Bainbridge

Well, we've lost another great northern writer. Last week, Alan Plater died, and now Beryl Bainbridge has died too. Plater was labelled a writer from the north-east (perhaps unfairly, because there is always an underlying pejorative sense to such labels, and he was a great writer full stop). Beryl, although she came from the north-west, was never really considered a regional writer. Rather, she was a very English writer, and she wrote some lovely, spare, quixotic books. She was also almost completely barmy, which added immeasurably to her charm - you could never be quite sure what she would say next, but whatever it was it would be said with feeling. Writers of the bloated, overwritten fiction which is so prevalent today would do well to go back over Beryl's oeuvre and wonder how she managed to say so much in so few pages.