Archive for January, 2010

Running

January 29, 2010

Jean Echenoz’s latest novel (or perhaps novella would be more accurate) is a fictionalised account of the life of the Czech runner Emil Zatopek. Interestingly, whereas in his previous fiction Echenoz plays with narrative – from the double narrative of Double Jeopardy to the statement on the first page of Piano that the main character will “die a violent death in twenty-two days’ time” – Running is strictly chronological, almost as if the pre-existence of the story in fact makes redundant any reordering of events.

The novel begins when Emil (as he is referred to throughout) is a young man and has not yet taken up running. Only accidentally does he discover his talent, coming second in his first race. As a local trainer remarks:

“You run funny but you don’t run so badly.”

Emil’s unconventional running style is mentioned throughout the narrative. In the words of one opponent:

“It’s unnatural…it’s completely unnatural. The guy does everything you’re not supposed to do and he’s winning.”

Echenoz clearly admires Emil for succeeding on his own terms and in his own way. Not only does this apply to his running style, but also to his training and tactics. As Echenoz points out, Emil ‘invents’ the sprint finish by working on his speed instead of just his stamina. While the long distance runner has always been synonymous with loneliness, the modern sportsman often relies on a team of experts to support them. Emile is entirely responsible for his own success, something that Echenoz emphasises to comic effect when he is the lone Czechoslovakian parading behind his flag in Berlin.

For all that this is a narrative of struggle, it frequently has a light-hearted tone. Sometimes the humour is direct:

“Since the war is over, everyone rearms.”

More often it is a result of Echenoz’s relaxed style, which underplays Emil’s success and makes him a more likeable character. Paragraphs often begin with conjunctions and informal phrases abound (“In tiptop shape, he finds the daily drill a breeze.”) Even finding himself lost in the ruins of Dresden at night is lightened through the use of the vernacular:

“He’s hungry, worn out, tired and, apart form that, it’s raining buckets.”

The narrative voice not only enhances Emil’s likeability by downplaying his successes but by avoiding an artificial feel of tragedy when he inevitably declines:

“It begins in Budapest, with those 10000 metres that are his distance, that belong only to him, but where he’s beaten by a certain Kovacs.”

This defeat is described as a “tough break”, but further victories still follow: this not the Hollywood version where highs and lows are spot-lighted through hyperbole and symbol.

Running, however, is not just Emil’s story; as fast as he is on the track, he can never outpace history. The novel begins with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia:

“The Germans have entered Moravia. They have arrived on horseback, on motorcycles, in automobiles, in trucks…”

And at the other end of the narrative, it all but ends with Soviet invasion which follows the Prague Spring, repetition making Echenoz’s point clear:

“The Soviets have entered Czechoslovakia. They have arrived by plane and in tanks.”

Emil’s own life is not unaffected. He is, of course, a national hero, and used for propaganda purposes. At one point, however, the authorities begin to worry that he may defect and so limit his appearances abroad. His running days over, he reappears in support of the Prague Spring, and earns himself exile to a series of humiliating jobs in the years after. Echenoz’s interest in the historical background is indicated in the fact that nine of the twenty chapters begin with reference to the political situation.

Running is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if at first glance little unambitious. However, it follows Echenoz’s fictionalised life of Ravel, suggesting that they may both be part of some larger project. If so, it certainly one worth following.

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The Comforters

January 23, 2010

If The Children’s Book was like too many helpings of stodgy steam pudding, then Muriel Spark offers the opposite: a delicately-iced, bite-sized, bitter-sweet tart. Although I have read most of Spark’s novels, one or two have escaped me, including her first, The Comforters, recently reissued by Virago with an excellent introduction by Ali Smith. This seemed the perfect antidote to Byatt: Spark not only rejects realism but ridicules it (her main character, Caroline, who is writing a book on the modern novel is “having difficulty with the chapter on realism”). Rather than confuse her novels with history, she is at pains to point out their fictive nature. Her brevity is also intentional; her novels work in many ways like poems, particularly in their use of repeated phrases, and are designed to be read and then read again. This makes reading The Comforters, a novel first published over fifty years ago, seem like a very modern experience.

Of course, reading a writer’s early work last encourages you to look for those traits that will develop over the course of their lifetime. In Spark’s case this perhaps begins with her discomfort with the novel itself and her need to emphasise the artifice of the narrative. In The Comforters this takes the form of having one of the characters, Caroline, hear the novelist typing and the narrative voice:

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

In Spark this is not only a postmodern trick; it is central to her concern with the dynamics between predestination and freewill. Caroline resents the fact that the voice talks about her life in the past tense, suggesting that what she is about to do has already happened. At one point she attempts to usurp the narrative voice:

“The narrative says we went by car; alright, we must go by train. You do see that don’t you Laurence? It’s a matter of asserting freewill.”

However, although they then plan to journey by train, the journey does indeed finally take place by car, confirming both the voice Caroline has heard and the first sentence of the chapter. This car journey concludes in a crash which injures both parties and concludes the first party of the novel, just at the time Caroline is telling Laurence:

“I won’t be involved in this fictional plot if I can help it. In fact, I’d like to spoil it. If I had my way, I’d like to hold up the action of the novel.”

The irony works both ways: as she rejects the “artificial plot” a rather hackneyed plot device comes into play; on the other hand, their injuries do hold up the plot.

The actual plot of The Comforters is almost incidental. As Caroline says at the end, when she goes off to write her novel, when asked what it will be about: “Characters in a novel.” Spark creates a disparate cast and then slowly weaves them together. They include an early example of the ‘nevertheless’ principle, as Laurence’s grandmother is discovered to be involved in a diamond smuggling ring. They also include the malevolent Georgina Hogg, named after the Scottish writer James Hogg, who provided literature with one of classic ‘double’ stories in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Mrs. Hogg is the first in a long line of characters of evil influence in Spark’s work, the most famous being Jean Brodie – named form Deacon Brodie, an Edinburgh figure credited with inspiring Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Her interest in blackmail is also one which frequently appears in Spark’s writing.

It’s possible, though overly simplistic, to see The Comforters as, in part, autobiographical. Caroline, like Spark, is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, though one who finds it difficult to warm to other Catholics. The debate between predestination and freewill is also a religious debate. (The search for truth is also parodied in Laurence’s need to pry into everything he can lay his hands on). Like Spark, she first writes literary criticism, and at then goes on to write a novel – the novel we are reading if we are to believe Laurence, who writes to her, “I dislike being a character in your novel.” The narrative voice she hears may then simply be her writer’s voice, shaping the world around her not narrative, perhaps unconsciously at first.

Whatever the case, this is an incredibly accomplished first novel, to be both devoured and savoured.

The Children’s Book

January 17, 2010

An unexpected return to the Booker shortlist and the novel that I was least likely to read – a book club obligation, and one that had to be met in less than a week, a fact that has possibly influenced my less than charitable view. The main fault of The Children’s Book has already been widely stated, though occasionally almost as if it were a compliment: it is bloated with research, stuffed with facts and figures, crammed with quotations from writers and politicians. At times it reads like a textbook, at others it is merely irritating as a page long history of an unimportant object further delays the narrative.

You don’t have to go far to find an example. What about the third page and its two hundred word description of the Gloucester Candlestick:

“It was dully gold. It seemed heavy. It stood on three feet, each of which was a long-eared dragon, grasping a bone with grim claws, gnawing with sharp teeth…”

Well, perhaps all this detail simply represents Tom’s fascination with object.

“…It was probable it had been made in Canterbury – modelled in wax and cast – but apart from the symbols of he evangelists on the knop, it appeared not be made for religious use…”

Wait a minute – how does Tom know all this? Oh, this is Julian explaining the candlestick’s history to Tom, just as young boys do, in the same didactic narrative voice that is used throughout. This would be forgivable if the candlestick were of symbolic or narrative importance, but it isn’t; it’s simply the beginning of a fetishism of objects that echoes throughout the novel where so many characters feel the need to throw a pot – and I don’t mean at the wall. This is accompanied by a need for historical detail that reaches a low point when we are told for the second time that Arthur Skinner, a character of no importance, had once “tutored the royal children in Siam”.

The novel is not simply overloaded with facts, however, it is also awash with characters. This could be accepted if the novel was intended as social history – and it does seem to have aspirations in this area – but it deals only with those from an atypical grouping of upper-middle class liberals with radical pretensions. Any working class characters are quickly absorbed: Philip, of course, is artistically gifted; but even his sister, Elsie must have artistic inclinations and end up a teacher. Most unconvincing of all is Olive, the writer of children’s stories, who supposedly comes from a mining background. Interestingly, her story bridges any change in her character in silence – one minute she and her sister are deciding to get the train for London; the next they are at an English Literature lecture being given by her future husband, Humphrey. The origins of their relationship also do not feature in a novel that has room for everything else.

When a character does strike the reader as interesting (as Philip does on his first appearance) he or she is then likely to disappear for a hundred pages. Luckily most characters are unlikeable and irritating. Clearly, Byatt intends to show the adult characters acting like children, absorbed in their own small worlds, using their principles to justify their selfish desires – Humphrey and Herbert Methley with their lovers; Olive with her writing. They have little time for their own children; and Olive, in particular, while writing Tom’s story has no time to talk to the clearly troubled Tom who eventually commits suicide – though for no obvious reason. The child characters, however, are hardly more sympathetic – perhaps only Dorothy with her determination to be a doctor. The others seem equally self-absorbed in their struggle for identity – most obviously ‘Charles/Karl’ with his inability to even choose a name. Their radicalism is generally all talk, with only Hedda, a character previously ignored by the narrative, engaging in some minor vandalism in the museum in the cause of woman’s rights.

If the novel were intended as satire then this might all seem more purposeful, but my feeling is that it is not. It certainly lacks all humour. Eventually the impending arrival of the First World War, which will clearly be used to provide some kind of denouement, seems a reasonable punishment for their infantilism (perhaps intended) and a much needed cull of the cast (less likely).

Above all, the novel is very old-fashioned. The author’s voice is ever present, always telling, frequently lecturing. Coincidentally, I have also been re-reading Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things – a novel also set in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, that plays with structure, genre, and narrative voice, has its own historical notes, has much more to say about the world of that time and the present day, and is funnier. It’s also about half as long, and I would recommend reading it twice before contemplating this. (However, I now have a much clearer understanding of why Wolf Hall appeared quite so brilliant.)

Legend of a Suicide

January 15, 2010

David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide has already been widely, and deservedly, praised. It’s a powerful and affecting book, the kind that you feel compelled to immediately recommend to others with an unusual certainty that it will draw in any reader. Its impact is as fierce and direct as the Alaskan landscape in which it is set.

It seems to have been marketed (in Britain at least) as a novel, but is, in fact, a collection of four short stories and a novella. However, the sequential numbering is appropriate as the stories are clearly linked thematically, though they do not tell different parts of the same story. It also helps to know that each story resonates from the real-life suicide of Vann’s father. In particular the short stories add considerably to the impact of the novella. What might have been a weakness – each story revolving around the same event – is turned into a strength.

The first story, ‘Ichthyology’, tells of the breakdown of the narrator, Roy’s, parents, marriage and his father’s attempts to ‘find himself’ by abandoning, not only his family, but his career in dentistry for fishing in Alaska. It contains an example of the father weeping one night while his son sleeps near him, something that will become a prominent feature of the novella, ‘Sukkwan Island’. The story ends with the father’s suicide. The second story, ‘Rhoda’, is about the narrator’s relationship with his father’s new wife. In the third story, ‘A Legend of Good Men’, the narrators tells of the various men that his mother dated after the divorce, and of his own descent into delinquency. All three stories are suffused with violence. In ‘Ichthyology’ the narrator describes the events in his fish tank where “everything in human life was to be found”:

“The silver dollars were slick and merciless and knew how to work as a team. In one quick flash each went for an eye and sucked it out.”

In ‘Rhoda’ he shoots a squirrel while his father and new wife look proudly on:

“I pulled the trigger and saw a chunk of meat fly from him like a small red bird. He seemed to explode. There was the sound of rain through the trees as bits of him fell back to earth.”

In ‘A Legend of Good Men’ he shoots up his own house:

“The sliding glass door in our family room was by far the most beautiful. I blew one small hole through its middle about the size of half a dollar. Everything was absolutely still for a moment, then the glass began to tremble. It rippled and shook its entire length, the glass bending in waves, then shattered into a billion fibres.”

In each case the violence may shock the reader, but not the character. In the last example, the word “beautiful” may equally apply to the glass doors or their destruction.

While these stories all have something to recommend them, the centre-piece of the book is clearly ‘Sukkwan Island’. Roy is thirteen, his father’s second marriage has broken down, and he has decided to spend a year with his son on a remote island off the Alaskan mainland. Initially reluctant, Roy has chosen to go along. Although they have brought supplies with them, they intend to hunt and fish for food, preserving some of this to last them through the winter. From the beginning the signs are not good. The pilot who flies them in comments:

“Most don’t bring their kids with them. And most bring some food.”

Roy’s father, Jim, is also not as prepared as you would expect for someone whose survival is at stake:

“They had brought tools, but it sounded to Roy as if his father were discovering some of this as they went along. The idea that dry wood was not something that his father had thought of ahead of time frightened Roy.”

They struggle to make somewhere to store their winter supplies; a bear breaks into the cabin and destroys much of their food and equipment, including their radio; Jim badly injures himself in a fall. Like any story of survival it is gripping, and made more so by Jim’s mental state. While he attempts to remain positive during the day, at night he weeps, knowing his son can hear him:

“That night, late, his father wept again. He talked to himself in small whispers that sounded like whining…”

Naturally, our understanding is influenced by the preceding stories; however Vann is aware of this and uses it to deliberate effect. The story is divided into two parts and the end of the first contains an event which literally took the breath from me. Obviously, discussion of the story without knowledge of this is impossible, but so rarely have I been as shocked (to the point of reading the sentence again to be sure) by what, after all, is a matter of plot that I don’t feel I can reveal it here. All I can do is echo the many recommendations that the book has already received: not every first book which comes garlanded with praise deserves it, but I believe this one does.