Darkness Visible, by William Golding

Golding is one of the few writers whose complete novels I’ve read, so now I’m getting around to re-reading one or two. From this perspective, his novels fall into 2 categories: those I can remember something about (The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Rites of Passage), and those I remember absolutely nothing about (Free Fall, The Spire, The Pyramid); – and, of course, Lord of the Flies, which I think we can give a category to itself.

Darkness Visible is one of those I remember nothing about. I had an idea it was notoriously obscure; and that Golding had taken no pains to elucidate it.

For someone whose complete works I’ve read, I’m still not sure how I consider Golding’s writings. He’s not a particular stylist; but I do find him an interesting writer. The last book of his I reviewed, I said that what I found interesting was his penchant for peculiar states of mind. And yet here, it is these parts of the book which I found least interesting (which I actually found quite annoying), perhaps because I didn’t really understand the states of mind he was describing (a problem too, I felt, with the Greek prophetess in The Double Tongue). At times I’m not sure I believe in what Golding is describing: the whole centre part of this book is about 2 sisters rebelling against society in the late 60s/early 70s; and I just don’t credit Golding, who seems a writer stuck anyway in the English society of the 40s/50s, with depicting this with any real attempt at sympathy or understanding. I’d almost say he’s a man who sees society around him changing (sixties culture, seventies terrorism, immigration) and doesn’t like it.

The treatment of race in this novel I found perplexing (and I come from a point of view where, for instance, I don’t find Conrad to be particularly troubling from the point of view of race), and I still don’t really know what I think about it. In every external scene, where a character is wandering around what I take to be a rural town, Golding makes a point of the fact that the crowds of people contain a lot of immigrants – referred to in various ways, but let us say as times using words like Paki and nignog. Now I’m not sure if this is the narrator’s view (there is no narrator character, but perhaps it is just an attempt to build a particular sense of the world), or if this is meant to be part of the characters’ views of a world changing around them (it’s certainly not clear if it is). The nignog, for instance, sees one of the sisters in a bar, and then follows her home, seemingly with the intent to rape her – and that’s his entire portrayal in the novel. – Was this all just standard fare in 70s England? (In English culture, it is a period which today has the character of being particularly racist). But I can’t off-hand think of any similar novel from any time or country.

Again, this may sound strange, but the most effective parts of the book, it seemed to me, were the sections about the paedophile schoolmaster – perhaps because they were the most human and were treated the most sympathetically by the writer. The intent of this is perhaps to make the other characters, in contrast, seem, though on the surface perfect members of society, to be less decent in comparison. Certainly I guess we’re in a world that’s lost its moral compass: everyone seems to have lost their way and be searching for something.

So yeah, it’s interesting in parts. And I haven’t even managed to mention the book’s main character (a half-burnt boy who suffers from celestial visions).


Jean Christophe, Part IV – Revolt, by Romain Rolland

One of the good things about reading these multi-volume novels so slowly, is that you’ve no idea any longer what happened in any of the previous parts. I think at some point Christophe (or possibly Christoph, since we’re in Germany) fell in love with a woman, and had a platonic friendship with another boy. Anyway, by now he’s grown up and become a (classical) composer; and has started having his pieces put on by local orchestras, and even at times being respected for them.

The trouble is though that Christoph has ideas about what constitutes good music, and this includes nothing in the contemporary world, and nothing that anybody else seems to like (where have we heard this before?); and this leads to Christoph showing only contempt to the entire population of whatever German town on the French border it is he’s living in. Naturally this only manages to alienate him from everybody; and so they stop playing his music and his career grinds to a halt. All this is fairly amusing; and I can’t help feeling it’s intending as some sort of warning. (Why doesn’t Christoph just play the game a bit more? Give a few good reviews to works he’s maybe not really so enthusiastic about? Why does he just have to keep being stubborn and saying what he thinks about everything?).

Eventually he decides the only solution is to leave Germany for the promised land of Paris. Unfortunately, this means leaving his mother, whom he loves, and he can’t bring himself to do this. Luckily, however, Rolland manages to contrive a deus ex machina ending in which he starts an affray with a solider, and has to escape Germany under fear of arrest. – Will the people of Paris prove any more pleased with his criticism? We’ll see in the next episode.

Sansevero, by Andrea Giovene

I’m not aware of ever having heard anyone mention Sansevero or Andrea Giovene, and yet volumes of the book can be found from time to time occupying secondhand shops. There are in fact two editions (one by Penguin, and one by Quartet), with two different translators, which is perhaps surprising for a 1,000+ page work which no one seems to read. One of the translators though is Giovene himself who (as evidenced by the penultimate section of this) lived in London for a time (in fact, areas Obooki has on occasion frequented: the Holloway Road, Archway, Waterlow Park: – more Obooki’s area than Richardson’s recent Pilgrimage anyway, which depicts poverty in regions of London (the Euston Road, Gower Street) which are these days well beyond Obooki’s means).

I started reading this a long time ago (by which I mean years), and so a lot of the early parts I have no doubt forgotten (there are events – no doubt quite crucial to the overall narrative – referenced in the later parts which I could no long remember having read about). The problem for me with the book is the dull middle section, when our hero decides to build a house in rural Italy (I don’t know, somewhere in Apulia, I guess – near where Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli is set – which I’m sure was mentioned at one point). This house-building seemed to go on forever (many months of reading time anyway) – though, as often with these things, if I re-read it, it would probably turn out to be quite short. Aside from this, however, the book is generally interesting.

The cover compares the book to Proust and Lampedusa: so you would be right in assuming that it’s long and (I’m guessing) largely autobiographical, while at the same time being about the decline of a noble family as the old order of Europe gives way to the forces of populism during the twentieth century. Our hero Sansavero grows up in a palace in Naples; his father, as far as I remember, as well as being a noble, is also some kind of architect (owns a firm of architects?); there are odd relatives; he has a sister and a brother; he’s sent away to school; he joins the military – that sort of thing. Then along comes fascism, which he forms a sort of ambivalent relationship with. He also has some relationships with women. These are all the good parts of the novel. The bits I didn’t enjoy are the bits when he decides to retreat from the world (and Italian politics). I guess I didn’t really grasp what his issues were (especially the last part of the book, which seems a terrible let-down from the penultimate part in London). After building his house in the country, he discovers that the world around him is not idyllic (in fact, people are just are devious and grasping as elsewhere), and instead he returns to life and ends up as part of the Italian occupying forces of Greece in WWII, eventually ending up a German PoW (after the Italians pull out of the war), becoming involved in the collapse of the Reich (again, he is shelled by the Russians), before returning back to Italy. This again is all interesting; and I particularly liked the final excursus into Britain near the end.

What does he have to say about all these things? – Not much, seemingly; or not that I particularly took in. There were certainly more philsophical parts to the book; but I’m not sure I took much effort to try to understand them. One thing which did stick in my mind was Sansavero’s interest in underage girls. This recurs throughout the novel, and yet (unlike say Lolita) there’s no obvious authorial comment on his behaviour, as if this were all perfectly accepted; and yet, one doesn’t feel that those were such different times.

I also liked the fact that the book was split up into 13 separate novellas. This is, of course, how all books should be structured.

The Portuguese Princess, by Tibor Dery

I read another book once by Tibor Dery, but since I can find no reference to it on this blog, it must have been a while ago. I can’t remember anything about it either – not even the name. (Consulting Wikipedia, I think it may have been Niki: The Story of a Dog, but about even this I’m unsure. – I remember reading a book from communist times about a dog called Ruslan – but, according to Wikipedia, this was written by someone called Georgi Vladimov, whom I can’t say I’ve ever heard of).

A few books by Tibor Dery exist in English, mostly editions from the 50s and 60s – and one book translated more recently by George Szirtes. The edition I have of this was published by Calder Books in 1966, and has easily the worst cover of any book I possess.

The Portuguese Princess is an example of how one’s reading sometimes seredipitously mirrors events going in the world around you. It’s a collection of short stories, the majority of which are taking place in Budapest as it is being shelled by Russian artillery at the end of WWII. The residents are hiding in the basement of their apartment block, where they continue acting out their lives and social relations from pre-war days (e.g. the richer people take over the best spaces, and are generally in charge). If it’s not the Russian shellings that they must be wary of, it’s the SS – and as the war draws to a conclusion, people worry for their safety, whether they supported the Germans or not.

I enjoyed the writing, though I find it hard to recollect now why. It was published by Calder Books, but wasn’t particularly experimental; but then not entirely straight-forwardly written either.

My edition also has the worst cover of any book I possess. I can’t think why you’d have such a bad cover, and not just instead leave it blank. Even the part which looks like a stain appears to be included in the design.

Professor Hieronymus, by Amalie Skram

Amalie Skram isn’t much mentioned in the English-speaking world (if you type her name into Amazon, it asks you: Did you mean “amelie scream”?). My own 2014 review of Betrayed makes it onto the second page of a Google search (which is always a good sign of a writer’s obscurity). Norvik Press have a few novels of hers available. This is a two-parter called Under Observation, by a publisher called Women in Translation.

The novel is about a woman who agrees that she is suffering from mental issues (she is agitated, can’t sleep, has hallucinations, takes opium), and agrees with her husband to have herself committed to an institution. However, while she imagines at the institution she will find the peace and quiet she needs to recover, once there she is in fact subject to a torture of sleeplessness because she has to listen all day and night to the insanity of the other patients. She finds herself at the same time tormented and incarcerated, and there is no way she can persuade the doctors that this world they’ve provided for her is the last thing she needs to make her recover; the doctors, naturally, just taken her recalcitrance as a sign of her insanity. The only option, as the nurses who sympathise with her explain to her, is to be quiet and peaceful, and most of all uncritical, and then maybe she’ll be let out.

The novel is designed to make you very angry, and to this end it is very effective. You feel yourself trapped in the woman’s mind, unfairly imprisoned and with no way out. As with Antonio Lobo Antunes’ Knowledge of Hell, which we read only a month ago [ed. it is longer than that now], the psychiatric profession is again shown as only torturing its patients and adding to their insanity, having no idea in its pride of how to cure them – or even bothering to listen to them.

All the foregoing story actually happened to Amalie Skram, so as with ALA, she’s at least speaking from experience; and she certainly bears a grudge. I like her books, which portrays unusual worlds / unusual slants on situations. This was written in 1895: – I’m not sure I can think any other books from that time quite so unflinching in their portrayal of asylums.

The introductory waffle makes this out to be a feminist text: how women are disregarded as artists (the character is an artist), and oppressed (held captive) by men. Yes ok, this can be read into the text, if you like: but I’m not sure really Skram is so narrow: – her view of oppression is more universal: the oppression of one individual by another – not necessarily on account of sex. The doctor doesn’t listen to her (but does he listen to anyone? he is far too convinced of his own certainty). Nor is her pursuit of art seen as pejorative. The only person who expresses an opinion on it is her husband, who is entirely in favour of it. (Perhaps the psychiatrist does, but of course, if he does, it only serves to confirm his view of her – he’s not really interested in her art at all). – On the other hand, it does contain this feminist slant, in that the only people who understand that she is not insane are the nurses (who, of course, are all women); but because of their subordinate position, no one listens to their opinion (they are dismissed often without even a hearing), and all they can advise her to do is on what strategy to adopt to get around the (male) doctors.

In the end, this book actually becomes quite repetitive, since every day in the asylum is much the same, and it doesn’t really have anywhere to go. (Other books by Skram are much better from this point of view. I think I might leave the sequel for ten or so years).

Le Calvaire, by Octave Mirbeau

I associate Octave Mirbeau with pornography – or at least, erotica. Maybe some of it is (the other books I have of his are Le Jardin des Supplices and Le Journal d’une Femme de Chambre). This novel, which was his first (1886), reminded me in this sense of Pierre Louys’ La Femme et Le Pantin (in turn, the basis of Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire). It has the same intense interest in the flesh, in desire, without actually being noticeably pornographic.

I read half the book this time last year, and half over the last few weeks. What I recall of the first half is that he grew up rich but without much love (his father, at one point, kills a cat), and I had the impression that at some point he also went off to war (corroborated by a recollection in the second half). Anyway, at some point he comes to Paris, where he meets an artist called Lirat, who encourages him to devote his life to art, and have nothing at all to do with women. He’s determined to follow this advice – but instead straightaway falls in love with a woman called Juliette.

So, we enter the traditional French territory of the story about the rich man and his relationship with his mistress / prosititute, who gradually, through her expensive tastes, deprives him of all his money. Which is very like, in our memory, La Dame aux Camelias. His mistress even loves him (perhaps); but, being a man, he cannot let himself live on the proceeds of her other liaisons. So he attempts futilely to forget her etc.

There’s a lot in the novel of our hero’s obsessions – pages and pages of his thoughts and his desires. In fact, it comes across as very similar to Taxi Driver: – even as our hero himself descends into the fleshpots of the demi-monde, he sees nothing in the world around him but vice and degeneracy, and contrasts it with his own unlikely dreams of purity. – There’s also in it a strong strain of misogyny (especially from the character of Lirat): – that all women are essentially distractions from the true of purpose of life (which is being an artist), and any contact with them will inevitably lead to a man’s downfall. – And there’s a surprising degree of violence too, if not actually carried out, at least contemplated (and, you know, – no animals were harmed in the writing, and all that).

So yes, I quite liked it really.

Paul et Virginie, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre

I was lead to read this by a concatenation of ideas. I was reading a short-story by Jean-Christophe Rufin, which mentions it, and then I happened to be re-watching Orson Welles’ adaption of Isak Dinesen’s The Immortal Story, where it turns out the central character are called Paul and Virginie.

The novel is something of a French classic, though not sure how much it’s really that known / read in the English-speaking world any more. Two women end up, because of their “bad” life choices, living an idyllic life on Mauritius, where they bring up together their two children, Paul and Virginie, together who are innocent creatures of nature. The children fall in love and plan to marry, but unfortunately the corruption of the outside world (e.g. Europe, and European manners) seeks to prevent this.

It’s all very straight-forward. French society is corrupt; life in a idyllic paradise is innocent. (Much the same attitude, then, as we see in Stendhal, Merimee). The story is fine as it is, though there’s pages and pages of moralising towards the end.

It’s an iconic vision. You can see its influence on things like The Blue Lagoon – and indeed, The Immortal Story (which is itself very much concerned with ideas of innocence and corruption).

Slaves in this novel are all happy to serve their masters; they don’t desire any other life. Indeed, one runaway slave is discovered at one point by Virginie, who leads her back to her master, and merely tells him to be kinder to her. And it’s left at that. – I was expecting the innocent Virginie to be at least a bit disillusioned; – but it seems everything was ok and the matter is never mentioned again.

Agape Agape, by William Gaddis

(Maybe the title would make more sense, if I could figure out how to do accents on WordPress).

I think every writer should write at least one short book, so that I can read it and make up my mind on whether to read any of the longer books. Not that I have any great idea whether this book of Gaddis’ inclines me to read anything else of his. Its virtue is its shortness: if it was longer, I can’t imagine I’d ever get around to finishing it.

This novel is recounted in a style which we will call by the term “rant” – which of course always reminds me of Juan Goytisolo [it should remind you of Thomas Bernhard. The afterword says it’s based on Thomas Bernhard] – Thomas Bernhard, then. Gaddis makes several references to the fact that people (writers, thinkers) keep stealing his ideas before he’s written them down himself (yes, it’s annoying that: – and you have no proof that they were your ideas). – What’s this rant about? It appears to be an old man’s rant about how all art these days is useless: – that in these days of technology and democracy, any elite concept of art has been lost (everything has been reorientated around money, and skill – the pleasure of the craftsman – forgotten).. His main exhibit in this is (perhaps somewhat strangely) the history of the automated piano-player. (I forgot to mention, the narrator is writing all this, fearing that his death is imminent – i.e. in a very Beckettian manner).

It’s very much a stream-of-consciousness affair. Gaddis will quite happy break off one thought in the middle of a sentence, and constantly skips about in a jumble of recurrent ideas. Obviously this doesn’t much help in demonstrating what Gaddis’ point is – unless, of course, Gaddis’ only point is that his thoughts (the thoughts of his character) are a jumbled composite of his obsessions, which he’s never going to gather properly into coherent ideas.

Who’s this kind of thing aimed at? – I don’t know: perhaps precisely the kind of people Gaddis doesn’t really conceive of as existing any more. I guess I should like it more myself: – he references two non-fiction writers I like but whom I’d consider to be relatively (not obscure, just) specialised: E.R. Dodds and Johan Huizinga. I think probably this is a novel you should read in one go – but if, like me, you stop at any point, it’s not so easy to pick up the thread or continue enjoying it exactly as you were (also, like Goytisolo). To be honest, it just becomes tiresome, repetitive, a struggle.

The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is not exactly an obscure book (except maybe to literary people). It won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010. It was a left-over from a sci-fi project from last year, mostly on the subject of androids.

Actually, I’m not there are technically any androids in The Wind-Up Girl. The wind-up girl herself has aspects of android-ness, but really seems to be some sort of genetic development of humanness (or a mash-up, maybe – as usual, the science is not fully explained). All of The Wind-Up Girl is about genetic meddling – in a usual science-will-lead-to-bad-things type way. In this case, this is mostly to do with genetic modification of crops. Bacugalupi presents an interesting world in which, due to human meddling, most crops have become overcome by disease (which somehow also affects humans), causing the collapse of global trade, and the isolation of individual societies. The book is set in Thailand, which has cut itself off from the world, and is interested in preserving its own pure strain of crops – but naturally, there are evil corporations which want to steal these, and open Thailand up again to trade, and there are enough human prepared to take bribes etc. In general, it is pervaded by the depressing, but not unrealistic, view that human greed will overcome any good intentions.

There’s a quote on the dust jacket that Bacigalupi’s book has more ideas than multiple other sci-fi books combined, but I’m not entirely convinced – it has a few ideas, and these are thankfully (unlike many sci-fi books) not entirely overwhelmed by the thriller plot. Perhaps though the issue is that, during the reading of this, I also read Lem’s Peace on Earth, which has more sci-fi ideas per chapter than this book has in its entirety. In fact, the Lem, which wasn’t even included among my android books, has far more to say on androids and AI than this book does.

Do we get the sense from this book that androids are going to rise up (against their programming) and destroy us? – Only in a sense. As I say, the wind-ups are not really androids (or it’s hard to see exactly how they’re conceived); but it is certainly stated that they are taught rather than programmed (though to what extent this is the case was never made clear), and all they are overcoming, when they rebel, is their teaching. – Rather, I suppose, they are seen as an alternative future for mankind, when true humans are likely to get wiped out eventually by their own continual meddling – which I find all fair enough.

The writing was ok, functional, not actively bad.

The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

I started this, as you may remember, at the beginning of the pandemic; and now I’ve finished, as is fitting, towards the end. (My government has determined that the pandemic will finally end some time next week). I find myself wondering though, if our pandemic had happened in Boccaccio’s time, whether anyone would have noticed.

Like many books, it was good to read it slowly, occasionally. Perhaps I read the first half too fast; – or perhaps Boccaccio just became more accomplished – or his story-tellers did; – or he just saved the better stories for the end; – or maybe it was just a delusion of recency: – but I certainly think that books 8 to 10 were the best.

A friend of mine once told me that he’d started reading The Decameron; but he’d made the mistake of mentioning it to his priest, who told him to stop, because the book was under ban of the Catholic Church. Strangely, my friend did actually stop. (People are odd). – What could the Church have against such a book? – Well, certainly it’s deeply anti-clerical (not uncommon in medieval literature): – if it has a single good word about a priest, it will go on and on about his uniqueness. Priests are all frauds, charlatans, hypocrites. – Maybe it was that. – Or maybe it was the fact that the one thing on everyone’s mind in the medieval world (according to Boccaccio) was sex: – where they could get it; preferably without getting married first; – as if no one cared at all chastity, virginity.

Perhaps as well it was the way I read it, but I could never distinguish at all between his ten narrators. – Do they even have separate characters? – I wonder. – Chaucer was very influenced by Boccaccio: but, if there’s the interest in sex and the stories, there’s nothing in here about the idiosyncrasies of individual narrators. – Or is it all just lost in translation – in my own lack of concentration? Who knows? – I certainly shan’t be enquiring into it any further.