Books Read – January 2020

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

Since he died recently, I thought I’d revisit Alasdair Gray’s work. Many years ago now, I read 1982 Janine, which I enjoyed, mostly I think for its depiction of how boys in our society are repressed into a masculine indifference to feeling and emotion (a favourite theme of Obooki’s) – though often in summaries of Gray’s work, you’ll find the book referred to (dismissed) as pornographic. Since then I’ve read a few of his other books (Something Leather, Kelvin Walker, the beginning of Lanark), which have not measured up to my initial impression, and disinclined me to read further. – And I’m not sure Poor Things has changed my opinion: basically a Frankenstein story, it gives Gray scope to rant on about socialism and Scottish nationalism (or at least his hatred of the English – although perhaps not quite as strongly here as in other novels). It’s entertaining enough, I guess. (The footnotes contain a poem by “Kipling”, which fails to deceive for 2 reasons: 1) it doesn’t scan properly (a curse of the prose writer turning to poetry); and 2) the views put forward about empire are not Kipling’s, but Gray’s).

An Explanation of the Birds, by António Lobo Antunes

I read half of this several years ago, and this month read the other half, without any attempt at reminding myself of what had happened before. It appears to be a story of a man on holiday with his girlfriend, who intends to split up with her and ultimately commit suicide because of the failure of this and past relationships. The story is told in part as the random reminiscences of his acquaintances when confronted by his suicide, all mixed up together with the on-going narrative in meandering sentences as is Lobo Antunes’ way. My impression – which is my general impression of Lobo Antunes – is that his wonderful style is somewhat let down by his uninteresting subject matter – hence, no doubt, the reason why I stopped reading it a few years ago.

Contes Français, by Various

A collection of c19th French short stories, the best of which was (er) Pushkin’s The Duel. I remember reading all Pushkin’s short stories once, but curiously don’t remember this, which has to be the best duel story of all (though I guess I should re-read Lermontov). Now I look closer at the table of contents, it was included because it was a translation by Mérimée (?): – all the other stories were of French origin (Balzac’s was probably the next best – though typically unBalzacian), including some writers (Erckmann-Chatrian, Coppée) I wasn’t previously familiar with.

The Land at the End of the World, by António Lobo Antunes

Even though I knew I had another copy of this book under another title and I’d already read it, I still went ahead and bought it and read it again. Luckily I don’t really remember much that I read: – only having the impression while reading that I’d read a book before by him in which a man recounted his experiences in the Angolan war while sitting in a bar chatting up a woman. The book is a denunciation of the Portuguese involvement in Angola, and the Salazar government generally. Enjoyable enough if you like dense, meandering sentences – and particularly if you also like your books to contain at least one metaphor per line.

A Dream of Something, by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini’s one of my favourite film directors, but I’d not read any of his literary works. This is a novel about young men coming of age in Pasolini’s native Friuli, and is a reasonable instance of the genre.  The latter half of the novel is almost entirely to do with socialist insurrection and unemployed workers’ demand for jobs.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

I started reading this last year due to some Defoe anniversary, and because there was a copy at my father’s house and I had a lot of time to kill. If I hadn’t had a lot of time, I imagine I’d have given up, since it isn’t always the most interesting narrative. I remember giving up pretty quickly on Journal of the Plague Year; and it strikes me in general that Defoe wrote the kind of books which would actually be more interesting if they were factual – i.e. merely knowing Journal of the Plague Year is fictional makes it even more boring than if it wasn’t. A few things interested me about Crusoe: his occasional relative morality (that it was just his Christian paradigm which made him think cannibalism was wrong, but really he shouldn’t be judging the cannibals by his own moral standards); and the fact that he only turns from his sinful life to Christianity because he ends up on a desert island (though I don’t think this is Defoe’s point).

I also read Beaumont & Fletcher The Maid’s Tragedy, which was very good – at least for the first 4 acts, before it descended in traditional tragedy fashion into the unlikely death of every single character. There’s a nice emotional set-up, which – unusually for ex-Shakespearian Jacobean tragedy – is reasonably psychologically. (I was driven to read it – I already had the text – after coming across a comment in the introduction to The Mock-Tempest – a re-working (?) of the Shakespeare play – largely about the beginnings of Restoration theatre, about how the underrated Beaumont & Fletcher were very popular at this time).

Sanctuary, by William Faulkner

I wrote this post ages ago, but never posted it. I had more to say, especially about Faulkner’s treatment of women in the novel, and its connection with other Faulkner novels: the character of Temple appears in other guises in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August (just here a bit more extreme). I also read Light in August after this, but it was too long ago now. Maybe Absalom, Absalom! next, or the Snopes trilogy.

Once he’d finished The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner decided to try writing a book that might actually be popular and make him some money, so he wrote the first draft of Sanctuary and sent it off to his publisher, who replied, “Good God. I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.” so Faulkner laid it aside and wrote As I Lay Dying instead and published that; and only afterwards did his publisher return to the idea of Sanctuary and suggest maybe they should publish it after all; – but by then Faulkner had his own reservations and decided it needed revision.

It turns out what Faulkner thought might be more popular is something between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blue Velvet; – and, since in three months it outsold all his previous book put together, it seems this wasn’t a bad summation of his public’s taste. What his revisions from the first version were I’m not entirely sure (maybe, like with Sartoris, he merely cut out lots of tedious bits to do with Horace Benbow, and kept in all the more salacious material), because it is still quite extreme – and indeed, caused consternation among Faulkner’s fellow townsmen, who weren’t exactly pleased with his portrayal of them.

Sanctuary was the second Faulkner novel I ever read, and again I don’t think at the time I was very impressed by it. I also don’t remember too much about it; but what I do remember is that I was very confused reading it and felt I hadn’t taken the time and effort properly to understand it (I was a bad reader even back then). For a long time after I associated this vague state incomprehension with reading Faulkner, and conceived the notion that you really had to pay attention with him, particularly at the beginning; but reading it again, I do wonder partly at my confusion. For Sanctuary is a move away stylistically from anything before in Faulkner’s writing, and in particular the point-of-view experimentation of the previous two novels (I will note again, As I Lay Dying was really written after Sanctuary). Gone too are the long meandering sentences. The entire novel is written instead in simple sentences and in the third person, with only the occasional (usually descriptive passage) where Faulkner seems to forget this and drifts off into the baroque. Indeed, I think the novel is essentially intended as a sort of mass-market thriller. Where I do sympathise with my earlier self is in the central scene in Sanctuary – the rape of the character Temple – which is described so vaguely, and is so apparently contradictory to later elements of the story, that I was left bewildered as to what had actually happened – particularly by the time of the legal scene towards the end, and any sort of understanding of the character’s motivation at this point. In the end I had to resort to sources outside the text. It may be that this isn’t entirely Faulkner’s fault; perhaps he wouldn’t have been able to publish a clearer description of events (rather like my reading of Effi Brest, where I only realise there had been a sex scene about 100 pages afterwards, because otherwise nothing makes sense); – but in reality, let’s face it, it is just Faulkner being cryptic.

Based no doubt on its success, this was the first Faulkner novel to be made into the movie; and I’d kind of like to see what they made of it. The issue is not merely the material, but the outcome. If you’re accustomed to your thrillers turning out with the truth coming out and the guilty being found guilty, then you’re not exactly going to be too gratified with Sanctuary; for in Sanctuary truth is subordinate to the prejudice of society. In particular, the atypical reaction of the character Temple to being raped, and how she subsequently conducts herself, is far from what I – or most people – would expect; but on the other hand, people don’t always react in the way that is set down for them. The power of Southern society to force people to act in the way they do and not as their own personal morality dictates seems to me one of the main motive forces in Faulkner’s writing. This again is seen in the town’s reaction (and particularly his sister’s) to Horace Benbow’s willingness to defend the accused and to help his wife. Which is all to say, there’s a lot of similarities really between this novel and To Kill a Mockingbird; but Sanctuary is never going to be held up as a great moral novel and taught in schools.

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Snopes in the novel: well yes there is; he is a corrupt senator and appears in a series of comic scenes involving two yokels who move to the city and end up renting a room inside a bordello without realising it is a bordello – scenes which, frankly, have very little connection with the rest of the novel, and just seem to be an amusing idea Faulkner came up with and thought he’d stick in.

So relatively uninteresting then in literary terms, but fascinating in terms of Faulkner’s vision of the South and human inter-relations.

Books Read – July 2018

After a long break from blogging, I thought I’d try another style in the hope of keeping it going: somewhere between longer individual reviews and my long-lost mini-reviews. (I’ll fill in some of the books I’ve read in the interim at some point).

The Girls, by Henri de Montherlant

(That is, volume 1, called The Girls, of the tetrology called The Girls). I’d read this before, but thought I’d better refresh my memory of it in preparation for the other three books. My edition claims it is notorious for its misogyny: – perhaps, in parts; I can certainly see how women might find sections of it annoying, at the very least; – I myself didn’t particularly enjoy the more theoretical parts (essentially, if I recall, that men aren’t interested in long-term relationships, whereas that’s all women ever think about); – but the basic core of the story is one that always fascinates me – something strangely rare in novels, though common enough in life: – unrequited love – at least, unrequited love from the point of view of the one doing the unrequiting. In this case, a famous author (no doubt, entirely different from Montherlant himself), is plagued by women who have read his books and believe that he is just the man they are looking for. The author, however, feels nothing for these women – except a terrible pity, which prevents him from properly confronting them about their delusions; – and even when he does attempt to confront them, finding they are endlessly capable of maintaining that delusion whatever he says to them. The second volume is called Pity for Women, so I’m imagining it’s much of the same.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert

A readable account of how the Medici took control of Florence, dominated it for a time, and went on to patronise almost every artist you’ve heard of from the Renaissance. It re-inspired me at least to read more of the books I have about that period.

Knulp, by Hermann Hesse

In the first two parts of this book, I was struck by a similarity with Samuel Beckett: a man lives life as an eternal wanderer, refusing to get on or conform as others would have him; – but the last part Beckett would never have written, where he confronts the reasons behind his attitude to life, all caught up in a moment from his adolescence when he was betrayed in his naïve vision of the world and learnt never to put his trust in others.

Barabbas, by Par Lagerkvist

I read The Dwarf recently too, and there are a lot of similarities between that and this book. Again Lagerkvist chooses as his hero a despised outsider, though Barabbas isn’t quite as extreme as The Dwarf in his attitude towards the rest of humanity. Having witnessed Christ die in his place, he becomes fascinated by the early Christians, but while perhaps wanting to believe and join them, cannot ultimately overcome his sceptism and his ingrained belief that he is an outcast whom no one will accept. I find Lagerkvist’s obsessions interesting – but I don’t think there’s much more of his in English (one more book maybe).

Bid Me To Live, by H.D.

The only other book I’ve read by H.D., Her, I remember as one of the hardest reading experiences of my life, written in a painfully difficult and obscure manner but, unlike most such works, actually worthwhile persevering with. Bid Me To Live is much easier-going (I read it in about a day): a fictionalised autobiography (of the sort that was seemingly invented in the 2010s, according to current literary criticism) recounting her life, largely in London, during the First World War, centred around a kind of alternative Bloomsbury set – the disintegration of her marriage to Richard Adlington (whose hatchet job on Lawrence of Arabia I have somewhere) and her friendship (but not sexual relationship) with D.H. Lawrence (who is the one who bids her to live, and then comes over all prudish when she decides to run off and live in sin with one of his friends).

Cosima, by Grazia Deledda

Another fictionalised autobiography, this time perhaps a little disappointing in comparison to the other fiction of hers I’ve read. I preferred those aspects which depicted her growing up in Sardinia and the lives of the people there; what rang kind of hollow were the sections about her escaping all this by becoming a writer, which all seemed far too easy and unlikely.

The Modern Husband, by Henry Fielding

I never managed to get far through Tom Jones, finding it incredibly tedious, but luckily Fielding wrote lots of plays which by their nature are much shorter. These plays split into two categories: satires and comedies. This is a comedy – and in dramatic terms, not a particularly good one – of the typical Restoration variety: – some men love some women and at the same time require some money. What marks it out is its portrait of a society where men essentially prostitute their wives for the sake of wealth and preferment, while those who have wealth and position ruthlessly exploit both the men and their wives for their own gratification (as usual with Fielding, the villain is apparently based on Walpole). One is naturally disappointed by an ending where virtue yet again succeeds improbably against the entire essence of the play and its social setting.

The Gentleman Dancing-Master, by William Wycherley

A much better Restoration comedy than the above – better written, better structured – though far less interesting in terms of social comment. It has a lot of foreign stereotypes in it. If you’re French, for instance, you probably wouldn’t appreciate it much, but the character of Monsieur, an Englishman who is pretending to be a Frenchman, because French things are fashionable, by misprouncing English words and misconstructing English sentences, is an extraordinary comic idea, and provides much of the best humour. (There is also a Spaniard who is purely obsessed about his honour).

The Eumenides, by Aeschylos

I read this again (purely because I picked up a Loeb edition: – I read it in English, with the occasional glance at some of the Greek terms), my main interest being: what the hell is this play about (given that it’s not about the shift from a barbaric system of bloodfeud to a civilised idea of murder trials, as textbooks would have you believe)? – I’m not sure I reached any great conclusions this time either. – Orestes claims he does not come to Delphi as a suppliant; that he has already been cleansed of his crime in that respect; but he is still pursued by Furies. I find myself reading this as that rationally he has convinced himself he is not guilty of the murder of his mother, but that he is still nonetheless possessed by guilt for what he has done. The Furies, as they say, pursue people for crimes which are inexpiable; essentially they will hound him to death (from which point Hades will take over). The younger gods (Apollo, Athena) seek to expiate him of his inexpiable crime, and succeed in doing so (though on a 50/50 ballot, with Athena having the casting vote) by means of a trial of sorts, whose conclusion is that women don’t really count anyway. The rest of the play attempts to provide an identification of the Furies with the Sacred Goddesses who lived near the Areopagos in Athens and shared a few of the same characteristics. (People in the Ancient World seemed to like that kind of aetiology quite a lot). – The two other plays I connect this with in particular are Sophocles’ Ajax and Oedipos in Colonos, which again are both about guilt born out of terrible crime, for which Ajax is cleared by the society around him (and religiously cleansed) but still cannot live with himself, while Oedipos – well, whatever happens in that play. But these three plays share in the essential core of Greek tragedy: that someone is destroyed by guilt over something for which they are not truly responsible. – Also, having watched a film called Absolution the other day (based on a Peter Schaffer play), in which a Catholic psychopath confesses a murder to a priest, who is driven mad because he is bound by the oath of confession and cannot tell anyone (the plot is in fact far sillier than that), I wonder about the parallel between the concept of cleansing in Greek religion (catharsis), and the concept of confession and the absolution of sins in Catholicism – and, not being religious and finding it easy to connect the concept of God with conscience, whether all these matters are about an attempt to square the inexpiable with oneself. (All this shall be worked into the novella I’m writing about Orestes). – Other people will tell you that the Greeks had no real concept of guilt, that seeing the Furies in psychological terms is an error of modernity, and that Greek and Christian religions in fact have very little in common; – and they are entitled to the wrong opinions. I’m of the belief that the experience of being human is much the same in all societies – only the superficialities change.

(If I continue to struggle as much as I did today even to get this posted I might have to give up blogging again. I may have to write all future reviews on my phone, because it’s the only device I have left that seems capable of connecting to the internet).

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Damn, I knew I should have written this review, as I’d intended, yesterday.

Many years ago I read Ishiguro’s first two books, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World (the second I remember quite liking), but I’ve read nothing since; meaning my reading of him coincides with him being relatively obscure (this edition claims two of his novels sold over a million copies, which I find difficult to believe, but shows the value of having a film made out of your book). Nonetheless, I’ve always had in mind that he’s one of our best writers – his contribution to one of those Granta anthologies of best young British writers seemed far superior to all the others – and yet, I’ve not been inclined to read anything more by him; because frankly it’s not much of an accolade these days, to be the best writer in these lands.

The Buried Giant on the face of it sounded quite interesting – largely I guess, because he’d set it in Dark Age England, which is an area in which I’ve been recently immersing myself; plus I also had my SF project in mind (it has a quote from Neil Gaiman on the back cover!),

The plot: an old couple, who have difficulty trying to remember the past, decide to leave the warren in which they live to visit their son – though they don’t really remember where he is. On their way they meet a variety of people and weird creatures. The England through which they travel is divided in an uneasy peace between the Britons and the Saxons. In fact, no one can seem to remember the past, because it has become lost in a persistent mist, which is the creation of a dragon living up a mountain. The couple’s journey, along with those they take up travelling with, turns into a quest to slay this dragon and bring back these memories; – but, as we increasingly learn, maybe they don’t want to remember the past.

So what’s it all about really? A meditation, no doubt, on whether it’s better to bury the past, or revisit it – the couple, after all, are happy because they cannot remember events which before have come between them; the population of England are at peace because they don’t recollect past grievances and atrocities. I’d assumed for a long time the dragon too was a metaphor; but no, there really is a dragon. There isn’t a giant though; he is a metaphor; but there are ogres (who reminded me somewhat of the troubling Manga series Attack on Titan).

It’s more thoughtful than the other SF I have read, has better human characters, and yet is at the same time more boring. I wouldn’t say that I struggled to read it (maybe I did, at two-thirds of the way through, have to press myself to go on), but it wasn’t exactly a compelling read. Ishiguro writes in a mannered style; – particularly I found, perhaps more so as the novel went on, the characters’ speech – especially the old couple – is mannered; partly no doubt as an attempt to evoke a different time, or their age; but increasingly I felt annoying (all Ishiguro’s characters in all his books, I suspect, possess this same restraint – I always imagine Ishiguro has the worst of two worlds, the restraint if the British crossed with the restraint of the Japanese). On the whole I wasn’t convinced of the novel’s ultimate worth; it seemed an empty, unsatisfying read; and I can’t see I’ll be reading anything further of his in a hurry; – or any English literary fiction.

Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

Non-Stop is what I’d term perfunctory SF. For a start it’s 240 pages and I read it in a single evening. – So it’s gripping, yes? – Or perhaps it requires no particular application of mind. (The next SF book I’ve been reading, in contrast, had been remarkably slow-going. We can maybe examine the reasons more in that future review).

It has a very familiar SF plot: a group of people, who’ve spent their lives living within an enclosed society, decide against the rules of that society to go “outside” and discover the reality of the world, which is no doubt quite different to what they conceived. We can immediately think of other examples: Arthur C Clarke’s The City and The Stars, for one; also, the next but one book I’m reading; – I’m sure there are plenty of others. – It’s a slight variation on that other SF template: a group of people discover a world different from their own and wander about in it. – There’s some inherently pleasing, I find, in both these stories.

This is the kind of book where I’m tentative about giving away anything of the plot; and that makes it kind of difficult to say anything about it in concrete terms, since it is almost entirely plot-driven; so I shall be very abstract. The events of this novel seem very contrived; a lot of things happen at the same time so that they can be included in the novel and so that the novel can reach a satisfactory conclusion. It also seemed highly unlikely to me that nobody for so many years ever learnt the things that were learned during the short duration of this novel; the entire world they lived in cannot have been very large, since they do not take that long to cross it, so it seems unlikely that nobody for generations has bothered travelling round it. Once again, psychic powers were developed in the novel, though on this occasion rats were channeling them through other animals – rabbits, for instance – and there were some psychic moths. Also, I’d personally have expected they’d have imposed a much more strict quarantine. If you want to understand much of this, you’d probably have to read it.

I guess why I’m calling it perfunctory SF is that it just uses an SF template, and then moves its characters around in it, but it never particular seeks anything deeper than this. It’s just an adventure story.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is a quite different SF book to anything else I’ve read so far, I think in that it’s entirely contemporary (written in the 1960s) except for the single SF conceit at its heart; and also that its concern is largely with human psychology.

The SF conceit here is that a new operation has been developed which can make people more intelligent. This technique has been tried on mice, and now it is being trialled on the first human being, a man called Charlie who has what we would now term learning difficulties.

As part of the experiment, Charlie keeps a diary – which forms our novel. He starts off barely able to write; but as the treatment goes on, this improves. – Straightaway I see the potential for this in terms of novelistic form and style: we start off something akin to the first part of As I Lay Dying, and end up with him writing like Proust, or I don’t know, Martin Heideigger; – but sadly Daniel Keyes doesn’t take it that far, contenting himself after the first part with the standard simple English of most novels.

Charlie was ignorantly happy in his life before the experiment, but as he develops he begins to see a) that the people he thought were his friends back then were mocking him; and b) now that he’s actually more intelligent than everyone else, he still can’t really relate to people. Also, his emotional development doesn’t mirror his intellectual development – although this is an area again which I feel has much greater possibilities than those explored in the novel. Although it’s a broad statement, I’ve always felt there’s a gulf between SF writers and literary writers in their human understanding; and I sense with this novel, issues in human development are not wholly thought through. That he reads say Dostoevsky is linked to his intellectual development; but novels, it seems to me, are not really intellectual – there are much more to do with your understanding of society and your own emotions; and if these areas of his life are underdeveloped, what will he find of worth in Dostoevsky? See also Frankenstein no doubt (doesn’t the monster read Paradise Lost?), which this novel at times resembles.

There seemed a lot of other problems with this novel too: the attitude of the scientists towards Charlie, and the way they talk about him even when present, seemed to my mind unlikely (unless one were to suppose scientists too entirely without a sense of human understanding), and largely just a plot trigger; and the inherent problem of portraying someone whose intellectual capacity is way beyond any other human was not, I felt, sufficiently avoided by the author (hard, I suppose, in a first person narrative). Also, the flash-backs to his former life I began to find tedious; but for all this in general I found it an interesting book.

The Forever War, by Jon Haldeman

I’m going to be doing a series on SF novels, of which this is the first. A lot of it will be taken from Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series.

The Forever War is about a war between Earth and the Taurians, after both races discover wormholes in space which allow them to travel vast distances. In reality, though, it’s about the Vietnam War, in which Joe Haldeman took part.

The SF conceit of this novel is that the relativity involved in travelling vast distances means that time passes differently for some combatants than others, meaning that when a spaceship turns up for a battle, it has no idea whether its opponents might have developed its weapons technology beyond anything it might be able to cope with. Also, the soldiers have their lives essentially ruined by orders from above which might mean everyone they knew will have died by the time they return from a mission.

I say all this, but actually the novel doesn’t explore these ideas too much. It probably in fact has more to say about how humans can cope with the g-force involved in sudden evasive manoevres in space. But mostly it’s just a story of one man living through this experience, at the whim of his duplicitous superiors. The introduction by Adam Roberts claims it’s not the SF elements as much as the human character of the narrator which makes the novel; I remain uncertain, though I did find it enjoyable.

One SF trait I find generally annoying which this book shares is that certain humans are shown as having undeveloped psychic powers. Philip K Dick is another one who likes this trope (prior to the series I read Martian Time-Slip, where again such characters appear). I find this all to go against a fundamental grain I expect in SF, which is that it should have nothing whatsoever to do with religion and superstitious nonsense (I fear I’ll be coming back to this idea again and again). We don’t have latent psychic powers; people who claim they do are charlatans. (Technology to give us psychic powers, on the other hand, is perfectly allowable).