Tuesday, 30 October 2012

My Month in Books (Oct)

This month was devoted mainly to Dickens completion and re-reads of Gogol, Sorrentino, Nabokov, Ellison and Burgess.


1. Jonathan Franzen — How To Be Alone

Franzen hits the target when literature is being discussed. The career-making accidental cri de coeur ‘Why Bother?’ and ‘The Reader in Exile’ and the Gaddis love-in-cum-demolition ‘Mr. Difficult’ are all sublime pieces, if a little uncertain. The more reflective, personal essays show Franzen’s likeable man-on-the-street intellectualism, especially the Alzheimer’s piece ‘My Father’s Brain’ and the hilarious Oprah-era insight ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ He is less successful when broadsheet feature writing. ‘Lost in the Mail’ and ‘Control Units’ are niche articles written in a by-the-numbers journalistic style, with only a few flashes of insight. When it comes to presenting a non-personal alien experience, Franzen is no Foster Wallace. On the whole, a solid compilation of honest and entertaining (if unmemorable) non-fic licks.

2. Charles Dickens — A Tale of Two Cities

Chris Sarandon saved me. His excellent performance as Sydney and Charles in this respectable 1980s TV adaptation helped me over the hump of a confused first attempt to engage with this splendid tale. Despite forever entwining Sydney to Nick Cave in my imagination (a bad thing?) Chris played the two heroes with plank-like charisma and bouffant hair. The novel itself is a quiet epic—for all the tumult, uprising and bloodshed, this a story of personal sacrifice and silent, sorrowful heartbreak. An exquisitely weaved narrative, hewn with rare Dickensian restraint and more quotable lines than at a blurb writers’ convention. Masterpieceish. [Madame Defarge has been reincarnated as Anne Robinson. If she could introduce a guillotining element to The Weakest Link, she would. One head per wink. She’d love that].

3. Charles Dickens — Great Expectations

It is frustrating being slapped around the head by classics that leave you trouserless in a lukewarm puddle. Because the failure, as Mr. Gass points out, is never with the book. You are to blame, always. I am to blame for not embracing Great Expectations with the same open-armed ever-lovingness with which I embraced Little Dorrit and David Copperfield and so on down the line. My reasons, thus: the second act loses the momentum and powerful perspective established in Part One, as Pip becomes a priggish late teen and the manoeuvrings of the cast of characters replaces the exacting and beautiful childhood reflections. The story doesn’t bounce, build or blow up for me. The plotlines hinge on a series of not-that-interesting revelations about Pip and Estella’s parentage. The characters (Joe excluded) don’t have that heaviness, that heart-crushing quality about them—instead, an all-purpose grimness pervades the novel, lending it a faux-gothic tone that doesn’t transform into swinging emotional lurches and surges. Also, Pip’s narration isn’t as interesting as an omniscient Dickens third-person panorama. Pip, as a writer, is a dull bugger. For me. Remember, I am at fault, always.

4. Zadie Smith — NW

This is the novel I hoped Zadie would write. Since On Beauty in 2006, she’s been brushing up on the post-Eggers American hipster canon, hanging with the Brooklyn crowd, writing dissertations on DFW. This structurally inventive, stylistically diverse and playful novel should have set my eyes aflame with love for the precocious stripling who wrote those three unwieldy social satires in her early-to-late twenties. But it didn’t. Divided into a series of cryptic sections with titles like ‘visitation’ and ‘crossing’ and ‘host’ that stink of French theory, and making use of rangy chapter-chopping devices (short numerical chapters improperly ordered, chapters arranged by locational specificity) with varying typographical quirks (en dashes for dialogue, then no en dashes, long v. short paragraphs, mixing up the narration with reported thought and dialogue) . . . I SHOULD F**KING LOVE THIS. But I didn’t. So what happened? Would it be reductive of me to say, and pardon this sense-lapse, I didn’t “like” the story? Or, and hang on to your hats, I didn’t “like” the characters? I respect the carefully observed micro-analysis of the four lives depicted here, but the style seemed to work contra to deepening our empathy for these inexcusably ordinary Londoners and their scrambled lives, and the passing-of-time-leaves-empty-lives-waiting-to-be-filled vibe that was working to provide the novel with a through-line of profundity seemed a little pedestrian. I should add an extra star for Zadie’s successful navigation around a wholly new fictional terrain and reupholstering (uphipstering?) her style, it’s livelier and fresher than it ever was. And I should have loved it. But I didn’t.

5. Louis Ferdinand-Céline — Journey to the End of the Night

A full-on misanthropic epic, like if E.M. Cioran met Thom Yorke for a fly pie in a Nigerian slum. Céline is a deliberately choppy, lawless stylist, Dostoevskian in his fondness for the nerve-racked ellipsis and the hysterical exclamation point (tics that would characterise his later, practically unreadable, work). Bardamu is the Céline stand-in whose detached cruelty acts as a necessary galvaniser for his adventures in WWI, French-occupied African hinterlands and a stint in a freshly industrialised American scream. His ranting adventures run on a manic, darkly comic energy, a teeth-clenching horror, a rubberneck’s glee at such innate human beastliness, and genuinely momentous plot shapes and shifts. Overlong and falling short of enduring classic status. But wild. Tortuously human. A writer to be experienced at least once—this is, no doubt, the best place.

6. Nikolai Gogol — The Collected Tales

First: this is not The Complete Tales. The unlearned distinction between Collected & Complete has angered completists the world over. Collected means incomplete: a mixtape of works that constitute, critically, the best this writer has to offer. Complete means the totted-up totality, depending upon what is being completed, i.e. Complete Works is ambiguous and open to omissions, depending on what is classed as a work—prose? plays? Just assume a fuller completion when it’s Complete, not Collected. Except in those rare moments when Collected means Complete. In the case of Gogol, Yale U Press have the one Complete Tales in print, in two volumes, incorrect lumped with the Collected Tales eds. This beautiful Everyman’s hardcover edition (and, presumably, the paperback equivs) omit a slab of material from Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which only exists as an old Oxford paperback conflated with Mirgorod stories, suggesting the work is so lacklustre it doesn’t bear reprinting.

For the sake of tedious exactitude, this edition omits all the story fragments, and, from Evenings: The Fair at Sorochintsï, May Night or the Drowned Maiden, The Lost Letter, A Bewitched Place. From Mirgorod, Taras Bulba is omitted (available as a separate book from the Modern Library). These tales, presumably, are found in Yale’s Complete Tales. The tales in this Collected Tales perform the Gogol mixtape function perfectly, from the rambling horror of Viy and The Night Before Christmas to the hilarious sinister satire of The Nose and The Overcoat. Not all the tales spark and sizzle, like the slight St. John’s Eve and Old World Landowners, but the best of these, the bestest, are, at their bestestest, some of the premier examples of the Russian short story: chilling and macabre, thigh-splitting and mad.

7. Anthony Burgess — A Clockwork Orange

A favourite of my late teens, still a favourite now. The brutality of male blooming and the private patois of our teenhood . . . splattered across this brilliant moral satire, abundant in vibrant, bursting language and a structural perfection: Shakespearean, dammit. Goddamn Shakespearean! nadsat is second only to the language in Riddley Walker for a perfectly rendered invented language that is consistent within the novel’s own internal logic. This book is musical! This book sings, swings, cries and rages! Oh this book, this book! My first encounter with unbridled creativity, intelligence, elegance, thematic unity, this book made me weep for the future of poor sadistic Alex. Oh, he must grow up, he must! But he doesn’t Oh Humble Skimmer, he doesn’t! His nadsat is in place up until his story ends, and all that cal, so Alex remains a perpetual teen, like the boring little shit in Salinger’s unambitious literary haemorrhage (I forget the title). This book, this book! Oh my droogies, oh my Bog . . . nothing hurts so much on your stomachs and your heads and your hearts as this book . . . except maybe having Earthly Powers dropped on your tootsies . . . !!! [collapse into gibberish] !!!

8. Vladimir Nabokov — Pnin

I read Pnin in 2009 but reread the book today to decide whether my love merited buying an Everyman’s hardcover edition. Verdict? No. I’ll stick with Lolita in Everyman’s and, after a reread, possibly Pale Fire. Pnin is lighter, but by no means lexically less impressive, than Lolita and has more in common with the high-class comedies Pictures From an Institution or Lucky Jim than earlier, more cunning Nabokovs (the unreliable narrator twist isn’t as ingenious as Manny makes it sound). Updike’s Bech books seem to take this as their role model too, except in those books the arch asshole narrators are supposed to be lovingly embraced by the readers. Despite Nabokov’s claims to this work as a rounded novel, it feels sketchy, it feels like episodes in a classy HBO number. It is a novel, why can’t it be, but its insides feel all loose and stringy. Still. A laudable upper-minor work.

9. Ralph Ellison — Invisible Man

A powerful, energetic tour de force: timeless, breathtaking, politically ablaze, tremendously comic. I only have one more thing to say: Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Read this. Please.

10. Gilbert Sorrentino — Red the Fiend

The thing about Gilbert Sorrentino is that he is, only occasionally, a metafictional pioneer and postmodern innovator. Half the time he wrote books like Red the Fiend which, although conceived in his usual book-as-useless-artefact style, is a work of bloody-minded breakneck realism, spliced with a world-weary comedy and an ever-present tenderness. Tenderness came to define Sorrentino’s later work, especially in the beautiful and haunting memory novels Little Casino and A Strange Commonplace—both rich in spectres at once tragic and screamingly funny. Sorrentino, perhaps more than anyone, understands the precarious, perhaps nonexistent line between comedy and tragedy. Split into forty-nine chapters, Sorrentino’s glib narrator coolly describes life among a dysfunctional Brooklyn family, focusing on only-son Red and his sadistic Grandma, a superb Dickensian villain of (somewhat) exaggerated Irish-Catholic cruelty, where any minor violation of proper behaviour results in Red being ladled, whipped, bashed and clobbered. There is no Dickensian moral equilibrium for Red in this novel. He’s trapped in a Depression-era reality—all he can do his endure his pain and steal occasional looks up his teachers’ skirts. As Sorrentino said, Art cannot save anybody from anything. It certainly won’t help poor Red here. Red the Fiend is a heartbreaking and blackly comic book, and also doubles up as an effective satire of those Dave Pelzer-inspired, Please Daddy No books clogging up British airports.

11. Charles Dickens — Our Mutual Friend

Better to read Dickens in week-long rushes—serialised readers, without the aid of Wiki or plot recaps, will have to summon the heroic powers of recall commonly the resource of Victorian bookworms. How torturous to be put on tenterhooks for months as to John Rokesmith’s identity enigma, to think of the vagabond Wegg ruining the sweet old Mr Boffin. Perhaps now, at the end of my Monster Dickens reading, it is pertinent to ask of these novels—page-turners of their day, morally instructional entertainment, or works of art? Answer: all three and more. These are omninovels that defy snubbing. In his last completed work before a long novel-wards sabbatical, Dickens once more chips away at an old theme: the corruption of money, how it seeps into society, and poisons everything. Not that Chaz was a raging anticapitalist, quite the opposite, but there’s no point in being a millionaire if you behave like a spoilt child hoarding all the sweets. In an age badly in need of strong moral fiction (hurts me to say, but tis true), this message still needs to be drilled into the heads of the moneyspinners of the free world. Our Mutual Friend is a brilliant (complete) swansong from Chaz, full of collectively captivating plots and subplots, and some more complex personnel than usual (Wrayburn and Headstone) and your usual vivid, striking and compassionate prose mastery. Farewell, big Chaz!

12. Javier Marías — Written Lives

My alternative to pumpkin soup and pop-culture clichés on this, The Halloweenshire of Hollowness. Bitesize essays on a limousine of luminaries, plus some titbits on unknown promiscuous darlings of the demimonde. The final essay, ‘Perfect Artists’ is an illuminating gloss on famous author portraits. Marías plucks out the pertinent data and serves his musings in a coulis of wit and irony. A charming ickle stocking filler for the literate pater in your life. See Mike’s review for some scrumptious selections. Published in the Brattish Isles by Canongate, who sometimes sprout a set of balls and print something original.

Next month: Steven Moore’s encyclopedic Alternative History of the Novel, Vol. 1.

5 comments:

  1. I read "My Father's Brain" in an extract of How To Be Alone, which was published in the now-defunct Arena magazine. Must go back over it some time. Also, I had to read Great Expectations as part of GCSE English Lit, and I didn't get on with my teacher which is why I'm not overkeen on the book. I appreciated it a thousand times more when I saw David Lean's masterful 1946 interpretation. If you haven't seen it, you should. Also also, I've just finished The Real Life of Anthony Burgess, a biography that details- among many things- Burgess' time in Russia and how this contributed to the creation of Nadsat. Well worth a look if you find it.

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  2. Thanks, Matt. Burgess the man is perhaps more interesting than Burgess the novelist. The Lean Great Expectations was my first encounter with Dickens . . . wasn't so fond of the story then either.

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