Saturday, 30 June 2012

My Month in Books (June)

1. Charles Dickens — Nicholas Nickleby

I have a titular affinity with this novel since it incorporates many common misspellings of my surname: Nicols, Nichols, Nickles, Nicholas, Nicolls and (once) Amber Juliana Swami. Dickens’s third novel unites the comedic episodes of The Pickwick Papers with the melodramatic realism of Oliver Twist in a brilliant 832-page (OWC edition) adventure filled with more manipulative drama than Lot 45 on Hollywood Studios (known as the Robin Williams Crap Mound). Unlike the aforesaid former comic actor’s appalling attempts at emotional tittypinching (one for the DFW fans there), Dickens peoples his entertainments with unforgettable characters—from the terrifying Uncle Ralph, the hilarious charmer Mantalini, the excessively Geordie John Browdie, to the sadistic Wackford Squeers—this is another exemplar of peerless storytelling and a further excuse to fall prostrate before this impeccable master at once. Enough said. [A word on Oxford World’s Classics v. Penguin Classics. I was a devoted Penguin man for most of my life until OUP redesigned their books in 2008 with the exquisite designs seen here: a simple white strip with red and black text over the delightfully colourful cover images, beautiful! Penguin texts still boast better translations and notations, alas, so style over substance?]

2. Émile Zola — Nana

Zola’s ninth instalment in the Rougon-Macquart cycle tells the tale of steely-hearted coquette Nana—part-time actress, part-time prostitute, full-time booty-shaking Venus mantrap. The first quarter of the novel is a bacchanalian romp through the Théâtre des Variétés demimonde, introducing Nana’s rolling revue of sexual partners and sugar daddies. After her semi-nude debut (where she shows off her ‘corncrake’ singing voice), she has all Paris’s men drooling at her calves. First she settles down with the abusive comic actor Fontan who slaps her around and steals her lamb cutlets. Next she humours the doting teenager Georges before yielding to the tortured Count Muffat—a nobleman corrupted by sensual urges, willing to surrender his fortune to collapse into Nana’s arms. As fun as the decadent antics are, the novel is festooned with exhaustive room-to-room descriptions (more so than the overcooked Ladies’ Paradise), which is common for Zola, but far too many pages are bogged down in tedious, prolix passages. Like this mouthful:

The velvet drapes, flesh-coloured like the tea-rose pink sky on fine evenings when Venus is gleaming against the soft glow of the setting sun on the horizon, were dotted with the bright stars of silver buttons, while the barley-sugar gilt mouldings descending from each corner and the gold lace round the central panels seemed like darting flames, tresses of red hair floating loose, half-veiling the stark simplicity of the room and emphasizing its voluptuous cool tints. (p.400)

I know. I also found the novel lacking focus, flitting from character to character in a very distracting way, making it hard to lock on to the story (Nana’s moral corruption as moralising metaphor) or sink your teeth into Nana as a fully-rounded filly out for our hatred or sympathy. The characters’ behaviour is more ludicrously OTT than in other Zola novels (where OTT is a philosophy, but he’s really pushing it here, esp. with Muffat). The central flaw in Nana—her charms are never properly delineated. By Zola’s account, she is chubby, broad-hipped and whorish. To have all Paris’s men begging at her feet, she’d need to be much more than a pretty face with a tongue like a New York cabbie. Still, this novel offers a change from the po-faced social realism of his other famous works. A closing limerick:

Little Count Muffat sat on his tuffet
praying his soul to stay
along came that Nana
as quick as mañana
and sent him to hell that day

3. Best European Fiction 2010

This European Fiction series is a commendable and awesome idea, and as Zadie Smith says in her intro, one size does not fit all with anthologies. But the Best European Fiction 2011 collection was ordered in a more palatable way (not alphabetical by country as arranged here) and seemed a richer and more bountiful batch than this debut. Among my personal favourites were the excerpt from Ornela Vorpsi’s novel The Country Where No One Ever Dies, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘Zidane’s Melancholy,’ Georgi Gospodinov’s ‘And All Turned Moon,’ Giulio Mozzi’s ‘Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read,’ Cosmin Manolache’s ‘Three Hundred Cups.’ Other pieces impressed here and there (like the excerpt from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home) but many of the stories were surreal or meandering in uniformly frustrating ways. A mixture of poetical, imagistic writing and Barthelme-influenced whimsy, no concrete aesthetic or unifying feel at play, unlike the 2011 anthology. The Polish story ‘Didi’ was outright appalling—full of awkward slang and pouting street cool. Denmark and Switzerland have yet to prove their capability at producing semi-decent hacks. And Scotland shamed itself with an appalling ballad by Alasdair Gray. Plus yellow is never a popular cover colour. Look, I did like this—in spots. A good start to a series that will hopefully run for decades to come.

4. Charlotte Brontë — Jane Eyre

Tackling Brontëism #3—Jane Eyre

Matchmaker profile: Jane Eyre

Independent orphaned teenager seeks ill-tempered, unattractive landowner for theatrical squabbles and ice-cold nature walks. Must treat me with haughty contempt at first, then wily condescension, then try to marry me despite having a mad West Indian wife locked up in the attic. Must speak in long over-the-top soliloquies and be prone to exaggerated exclamations of love. Must have a French daughter from a previous mistress whom he treats with disdain and can’t wait to pack off to boarding school for being French. History of sleeping with prostitutes important. Must call me Janet when I have persistently told him my name is Jane. Must be clairvoyant when it matters.

Matchmaker profile: Edward Rochester

Hideous tortured layabout seeks dowdy woman half his age to tutor his frog-loving bastard daughter and stand swooning beside drawing room curtains. Must persistently assert her independence and cling to her blasted God like a holy barnacle of stubborn piousness. Must run away and make herself destitute, almost leave me for her asshole half-cousin, then decide she can’t resist me after I have burst one of my eyeballs and my wife has burned down the estate. Must conveniently inherit a fortune when I lose mine so she is technically wearing the trousers in the relationship. Must be clairvoyant when it matters.

5. William H. Gass — Cartesian Sonata & Other Novellas

James Wood, critic and finger-drummer extraordinaire, nails the problem with Gass’s style in this quartet of novellas from 1998 (reprinted by Dalkey in 2009)—Gass stretches the credulity of his characters’ interior narration by bestowing them with the same stylish gifts as Gass the narrator. It doesn’t stop each novella excelling on its own terms but for a consistent stylistic trick, this problem bobs to the surface all too often (for this reader). The title novella is the oldest (dating to the 60s) and most inscrutable: a baffling musical structure obfuscates for the first forty or so pages before a blackly moving tale of an abusive husband emerges from the gloaming. ‘Bed & Breakfast’ reads like an homage to the nouveau roman movement’s obsession with interiors and their imprint on consciousness—a travelling accountant flits from B&B to B&B, doting upon the rooms’ contents (as metaphors for loneliness and the harsh self-sacrifice of fundamentalist Christians?). ‘Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s’ is structured around the sentence: The slow fall of ash far from the flame, a residue of rain on morning grass, snow still in air, wounds we have had, dust on the sill there, dew, snowflake, scab: light, linger, leave, like a swatted fly, trace to be grieved, dot where it died. This is a beautiful novella dripping with sweat, murder and a deep, gasping loneliness. ‘The Master of Secret Revenges’ is more in the comic and philosophical mode of The Tunnel: Luther is a semi-fascistic terror out to wreak revenge on all those who have slighted him by spreading his propaganda pamphlet ‘An Immodest Proposal,’ which inverts Swift’s child-eating satire into a more cold-blooded medieval pissing torture program. So: 3.5 stars rounded up to 4. I still have an immense hard-on for Gass.

6. Charles Dickens — The Old Curiosity Shop

Not too sentimental. Oscar Wilde was clearly in a bad mood. Boasts the evillest dwarf outside German folklore, the irrepressible Qulip. Cute kid  who dies and her put-upon granddaddy who dies in King Lear and Cordelia metaphor. A crackerbox of eccentrics: the morally unsure Dick Swiveller, the ruthless Brasses (precursor of the legal vipers in Bleak House), the hero-in-waiting Kit. A rodomontade of freaks and carnies, from Mrs Jarley’s waxwork nobility to the stilt-walking Punch performers. Classic Dickens comic brio and irresistible, long-flowing sentences. Padding that tastes like pudding. Terrifying tension between Qulip and his victims. Poignant climax. A single gentleman who sleeps enough for a double gentleman. A servant girl who prospers. A lady more masculine than her brother. Twice as many dei ex machina than in Nicholas Nickleby: from Nell suddenly inheriting a house (after spending the night soliciting help from plague-ridden slums with dead infants for doorstops), to the typical Dickens solution of a benign rich relative dishing out fortunes. Popular songs embedded in dialogue. An allegorical pilgrimage. The liberation of an abused wife. Improbable marriage between stepdad and daughter. Faultless Men of God. Great notes in the Oxford Classics edition. Um . . . What’s that? You want some more? Why, you rascally scoundrel: back in your chair! I loved this.

7. Gore Vidal — The Judgement of Paris

Titled after one of those devilishly entertaining tales from Greek myth (which all erudite authors must refer to in their novels if they ever want to make it big—no shirking now!), Gore Vidal’s seventh novel (written aged 27!) makes things happen in Rome, Cairo and Paris. Indecisive aesthete (and lawyer) Philip bumbles around the landmarks, shacking up with senators’ wives and expat British homosexuals with a penchant for cute Italian kids in saunas. As the narrative progresses, Philip has to decide which attractive wealthy married woman to turn down. All in all: a rambling travelogue of upper class life with some delightful comic episodes—notably the Nabokovian tale of a crime writer who fails to help a depressed fatso commit suicide. As a novel it lacks cohesion or purpose, prone to long monologues and rather dreary descriptions. One extremely self-conscious sex scene stands out, where Gore spends two or three pages bemoaning the fact sex in novels is never remotely realistic, then goes on to offer us various unrealistic sex scenes anyway. A flamboyant, careless piece of work, completely ignorable.

8. Thomas Hardy — The Mayor of Casterbridge

When Thomas stopped writing novels in the early 1900s, he concentrated his bitterness on spectacularly peevish poetry, dripping with more melancholy self-loathing than mid-90s Morrissey albums (has anyone actually heard Maladjusted or Southpaw Grammar the whole way through?) These poems captivated my downbeat imagination as a teenager but the novels remained out of reach—I wanted heartbreak-to-go, I wasn’t looking to eat in the restaurant of shattered dreams. Now, I find myself pulled towards the Great Grump’s masterworks. Starting with this terrific novel that reads like a transcript of my first two goes on The Sims—I lost my father, killed my mother, made a series of kitchen-fire hotchpotches and ended up killing all my close friends and children, then killed myself. The details are different in The Mayor of Casterbridge (only slightly), but if ever a writer was Sim-like, it’s Hardy. He is like an existential bingo caller with a grudge. Mayor no more—forty-four! Poisoned by hate—eight-eight! No women survive—twenty-five! This Oxford World Classics edition stifled me with its academia and I confess I skipped the intro. Usually I like the setup and context intros give me but here, I wanted in to the action. Since this review is stressfully scattershot, I might as well conclude with this track from Nick Cave: sums up the fate of the poor Mayor perfectly, as well as being amazing in its own right: When I First Came to Town

9. Charles Dickens — Barnaby Rudge

Is this the least-read Dickens novel? According to Goodreads, yes. Only 121 reviews on this one, with Martin Chuzzlewit a close second at 141. The reason? Lack of cinematic exposure hasn’t helped. Disney can’t turn an historical narrative about the Gordon Riots of 1780 into a feel-good schmaltz-fest, especially when the protagonist has the sinister talking raven that inspired Poe’s poem about a raven (I forget what it was called) as a best mate. A silent adaptation was made in 1915 (Crikey! Our prison is burning down!) followed by a BBC production in 1960 which isn’t a hot topic on those I-Love-the-60s clips shows. But I digress. It is what I do well. I am not here to write fluent, entertaining reviews with educational content. Or to take paragraph breaks. Barnaby Rudge was Dickens’s attempt to branch out as a “serious” novelist after the picaresque modes he’d written in prior (although his previous books contained hard-hitting content)—to do this, he chose to imitate Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. So what we have here is an awkward mash-up of the romantic Scott plots, detailed historical re-enactments, and the usual irrepressible Dickens comic mischief. This mix makes for an uncertain novel—the characters don’t impose themselves on your cerebrum as in his prior books (except perhaps Barnaby or Lord Gordon) and the three central plots—the romance, the riot and the ghost story—don’t sit comfortably. So this would seem to be for the most patient Dickens devotees. When it works it soars: the riot scenes (esp. the prison break) are riveting and Lord George’s hopeless cronies fall victim to a satirical evisceration. Barnaby almost succeeds as the moral or emotional crux of the novel but as an “idiot” he isn’t that vividly rendered. The raven steals the show with its chant: “I’m a devil I’m a devil I’m devil! No popery no popery!”

10. Curtis White — Monstrous Possibility: An Invitation to Literary Politics

A hotchpotch of essays on literary theory and the state of “experimental” fiction (or non-mainstream or “potential” literature, if you prefer) circa 1983-1996. Most of the pieces on theory have dated but as someone who shrieks like a big-bosomed college girl at a Freddy Kruger convention at Derrida and Baudrillard, pieces like ‘The War on Theory’ help demystify several complications about theoretical discourse(s) in literature, which seem only to exist within an academic bubble, or in small academic presses and their bubbles. More fun are White’s snarky pieces ‘Writing the Life Postmodern’ (which first appeared in Foster Wallace’s Future of Fiction RCF issue) and the pseudonymously devastating ‘The Culture of Everyday Venality, or A Life in the Book Industry,’ whose title says it all. White, as past co-editor of FC2, basically preaches to the choir (i.e. me) with his encomiums on small presses like Dalkey and his contempt for mainstream lit-rags, and the brevity of this collection makes for an all-too-brief mini-polemic, when a fatter volume of acerbic rants would have been more welcome. As for theory, I respect its place in engineering fiction and its importance in freeing novels from the shackles of a Tradition and literary Order (capital letters mean theoretical concepts!), but I really can’t fathom half of the stuff—brain capacity too small. The last essay on Marx I had to skip, lest my neurons split. [Edit: I read the essay. It was an academic paper not an essay. I’m tempted to dock a star for that].

11. James Wood—The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel

Twenty-two essays from the Durham-born finger-drumming superstar (no Wood, I won’t let that lie) and part-time Harvard professor and New Yorker hack. Wood is unique as a critic as he snipes at the level of the sentence, where other reviewers may linger on theme, imagery, context. He rolls up his sleeves for delicious close readings of all his books and will not let those tonal lurches, authorial intrusions and pesky non sequiturs lie. Often he misuses his examples: sometimes he’s diagnosing a wider malaise with technique within an author’s corpus, sometimes it seems like clever-dick point-scoring. The essay of interest to the layman in this collection is his piece ‘Hysterical realism,’ where he invents a subgenre of literature within a review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Pretty gutsy stuff. Lumping Delillo, Pynchon, Rushdie, Smith and Foster Wallace together wasn’t the wisest move, but gutsy still applies, and that essay is as important and convincing as any post-postmodern theorising. As for the rest, they’re all localised to one author per piece: we have riotous excoriations of Rushdie, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen on one side, and eighteen or so giddy exhortations of his lesser-known favourites on the other, among them Italo Svevo, J.F. Powers and Monica Ali. Reading these pieces can be frustrating if you are unfamiliar with the work—either he piques your interest immensely (as in the case of Shchedrin and Bellow) or locks you out the love-in by being so damn particular. Also, Wood’s idea of comedy seems more gentle and subtle than satirical or ironical, making the humour explored in the texts often dryer than a Kenyan wheat paddy. Such is humour. Overall, an overlong but beguiling bounty.

12. Felipe Alfau — Chromos

I read Locos: A Comedy of Gestures over two and half years ago, so I have no idea how Alfau’s two fiction books dovetail. I can assert that (as far as my memory of Locos extends, which isn’t very far, though I do recall reading portions on the fifth floor toilet at Napier U—strange how memory works) Chromos is the superior work. Despite its “anticipating the fictional inventiveness of Barth, Coover et al” the novel is quite straightforward to read: stories-within-stories is the form and the reader’s full commitment for the central frame tale (a ‘corny’ MS about the Sandoval family’s fortunes in America written by Garcia, one of the several ‘Americaniards’ in the main narrative) is required along with the tales within the narrator’s own streetside antics. The prose is a stunningly erudite mixture of stylistic, witty English with occasional Spanish flourishes, and consistently entertains with the intellectuals Dr de los Rios and The Moor, whose revelries at the El Telescopio hostel— along with the narrator’s fondness for inventing his own runaway narratives about his friends—explore the more peculiar aspect of the post-war Spanish immigration experience in New York. The Garcia sections satirise the sentimental mode of Spanish writing and the text is an astonishingly confident piece of work for a (then) underrepresented voice in American fiction (Chromos should have been published in the 1940s but was unearthed by Dalkey and published in 1990). Profound, hilarious, darkly comic, wildly inventive. Begging to be read.

13. Coleman Dowell — Too Much Flesh & Jabez

An excellent novel and the ninth title Dalkey ever published. You want a five-star review? See this man. You want a four-star review? See this woman. You want a three-star review? See this hermaphrodite. You want an even longer four-star review? See this zebra. You want a review from me? See you later. 

Next month:

Martin Chuzzlewit
Foreign Parts
A Temple of Texts
Under the Greenwood Tree
Dombey & Son


  1. I love Southpaw Grammar...And Jane Eyre...So ashamed of myself right now....

    Always been curious about Zola. Is there a good place to start?

    1. Oh hello. Zola. Good place to start is Therese Raquin, lets you know what your getting yourself in for.

  2. Thanks, Mark! I enjoy Naturalism, but have never read Zola. Go figure!

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