Tuesday, 30 April 2013

My Month in Books, Part Two (April)

9. George Orwell — Keep the Aspidistra Flying

The reader’s response to Gordon Comstock’s behaviour will depend upon whether the reader has ever tried to live a “self-sufficient” life free from bourgeois respectability, or seriously pursued an artistic vocation with stubborn single-mindedness. Orwell’s novel is pretty one-track plot-wise—what happens when a person renounces money and its interminable grip?—but Comstock’s obsessive pursuit is a societal conundrum of universal proportions and makes for a frustrating and bone-deep trip to the depths. In my own case, my mother abandoned college ambitions to support her parents, and my two siblings have ditched artistic ambitions in favour of reasonably stable and well-paid occupations—as the third child, with this history of “selling out to the man,” I felt a strong need to have convictions as an artist manqué, privations being part of the plan on the road to obscurity. Comstock’s artistic drive is not strong enough to triumph over his money worries, suggesting his desire to write poetry is nothing but an excuse for rebelling against a predetermined bourgeois society (more horrible in the 1930s than it will ever be again). As with all Orwell’s fiction: it burrows into your conscience and lays eggs there.

10. Hubert Selby Jnr. — Song of the Silent Snow

HSJ’s only story collection, released in 1986, lacks the power of his novel work—those books thrive on slow-building doom and the repetitive grind of addiction and madness, whereas these vignettes can’t attribute their weaknesses to style. Selby’s affinity and loyalty to the down-and-outs of New York never relented, unlike Lou Reed, who switched from bourgeois reformist to street-smart wiseguy in the space of two albums (listen to New York then play the laughable The Blue Mask to see my point). Like Reed’s 80s lyrics, some of the material here is nigh-unreadable: Selby makes Writing-101 mistakes in stories like horror schlock ‘The Sound’ or the diabolical mess ‘Liebesnacht.’ A more direct approach suits the form, with the epistolary ‘Im Being Good’ and ‘Indian Summer’ among the stronger hits—surprising shocks of reality from lives barely held together with lint-fluffed sticky tape. But Selby’s style (and inability to advance beyond that style) simply doesn’t satisfy in the same way as those masterpieces, and Selby’s standards are lightyears beyond the writing in evidence.

11. Anthony Burgess — One Hand Clapping

Burgess’s 1961 satirical jeu, “dashed off to make a hundred pounds or so,” concerns that evergreen of topics: “The cheapness and the vulgarity and silliness and brutishness and nastiness of everything and everybody.” Is there any other topic worth writing about? Narrated by typical northern lass Janet Shirley, the novel uses the quiz show as a metaphor for the above commentary—how the Great Poets & Writers remain unread and unappreciated, relegated to trivia questions and fodder for fact-vacuums like hubby Howard. As the novel progresses, a dark tension unravels as Howard experiences the hollowness of a consumerist universe and takes drastic steps to escape the futility of it all. Despite its plainly improvised plot, and occasional slapdash phrasing here and there (tut tut, Anto), for a novel completed in a month for a cynical buck, it is a pleasingly fine product of Burgess the contrarian lunatic mastermind and one-man book-shitting machine. I intend to read this man raw.

12. Vladimir Nabokov — The Enchanter

The Enchanter is the blueprint for Lolita, there’s no dancing around that fact. The story concerns a middle-aged man-of-private-means who falls for a twelve-year-old nymphet and marries her unappealing mother, later bumping her off to satisfy his crazed libido. The slinky prose wonderment of Lolita is here in miniature too, minus the distinctive lyricism of HH and pervading darkly comedic tone. In true [P] style, all that remains is to tell a 2000-word anecdote about my early years and in some wildly tangential way try to relate it to the novella. Try this on for size. I was working as a travelling salesman in Dundee, selling old paperbacks door-to-door when this foxy teenage delight swung back the door and asked for the latest Louise Bagshawe. She had beautiful cheekbones and silky astral-dark manes of luscious hair, not to mention two of the pertest prehensile dugs this young farmboy had ever seen. But because she chose repulsive chick-lit written by a Tory dragon I slammed the door in her pretty face, despite the come-to-bed eyes she was making and the lusty lip-licking she did in response to my manliness and scholarly power and standing as 5th most popular reviewer on UK Goodreads. Integrity is integral in this reading game—nymphets don’t read at my speed.

13. Guy de Maupassant — Bel-Ami

A rollicking tale from Flaubert’s protégé chronicling the inexorable rise of social climber Georges Duroy. Translated by Douglas Parmée, who rendered A Sentimental Education into irresistibly sumptuous English, Bel-Ami is powered by electrifying dialogue and a terse descriptive prowess Flaubert seemingly overemphasised to Maupassant—the prose is so compact you could park it in your driveway. Duroy is a misanthropic schemer and exploiter, but something of a “working-class hero,” if we understand the term to mean someone who manipulates the money world to his advantage and tramples upon bourgeois society to achieve his fortune—you can’t be content as a poor-rich person without pissing on the little people who helped you up. Far from being a satire, the novel is a comedic romp that somewhat revels in the machinations of upper-middle-class society—clearly Maupassant was not averse to a little strategic foreplay in his career (but he died in the nuthouse, so don’t worry) and the moral lesson is only there if you imagine it to be. Most importantly Bel-Ami will remind you how much naughty sexy fun French classics can be, and still make you feel cultured and refined for reading them.

14. H.G. Wells — The History of Mr. Polly

Everyone at some point in their lives will suddenly realise in their naive exuberance they made a colossal mistake that now has its python-like grip around their cowardly little necks, and that the only solution is to burn the shop and down and become a country hobo. Or maybe only the first part of that sentence. Life in the early 1900s was uniformly dreary for the working classes, but at least they were born and raised to expect nothing—nowadays we are taught from the womb to reach for the stars and dream big dreams and made to feel like failures if we haven’t achieved everything by the age of twenty-eight, when we are still young and sexy enough not to be worn down by bitterness and remorse to take some pleasure in our achievements. Mr. Polly is like you and me—witty but not witty enough and clever but not clever enough to escape the humdrum, drummed into a predetermined life of oafs, clots, lollygaggers, pissants, pipsqueaks, miscreants, toadies, bores, whiners, haters, tyrants and psychos. The only rebellion in this sprawling penitentiary we call civilisation used to be the pursuance of personal pleasure at all costs, so at least when you dropped dead at thirty you could do so with very happy memories, but nowadays such revolting self-interest is the reason our civilisation is quickly rotting from the inside and heading for a swift and painful annihilation by the time our grandchildren hit forty. Books like this one provide a necessary anatomisation of our repugnant species, and do so with a breathless passion for change.

15. H.G. Wells — The Island of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Doctor Moreau? Please! Who among us hasn’t gambolled in fields with apecats, badgies, cockpigs, donrets, elephocks, ferrats, gerbats, horsharks, iguanomones, jagutans, kookakeys, llamoles, monkelots, narwhelks, ostringos, pandicoots, quaileeches, rhinilgais, shaardvarks, tigeels, uintapmunks, volemice, wombulls, xanthraffes, yakapes and zebrams? In your back garden (or if you live in a city, in the countryside—a mythical place where grass exists), trillions of micro-organisms are cross-breeding right now to introduce even more wondrous deviations and half-breeds to the planet, twice as splendorous as the cloned sheep and spliced deer-penguin hybrids being created in underground labs by Evil Docktors and their hunchback locums. Nature is a language, can’t you read?

16. William H. Gass — Fiction and the Figure of Life

First, an admission. Gass’s first collection of essays is lightyears beyond my intellectual level. Switching between heavy philosophical investigations to poetical and opaque literary meditations (by way of book reviews), the essays here lack the same layman’s entrypoint as in later collections Finding a Form or A Temple of Texts—two stronger, more musical and spellbinding books. So my three-star verdict is a partly a reflection on my own shortcomings and partly because Gass has not fully mastered the masterful nonfiction prose style in evidence in later books—this one behaves like something of a unified manifesto of sorts, with strange footnotes scattered in each essay directing readers to other essays, in a mostly distracting way. The second part contains my favourite pieces on Stein (surprise), Coover, Barthelme, Borges and Nabokov, and later a waspish one on Updike. ‘The Concept of Character in Fiction’ and ‘The Medium of Fiction’ are fascinating insights into Gass’s fictional world (and future) and contain the purdiest writing. Later pieces on Henry James and Wittgenstein are less my literary bag and sent me into a pleasant snooze to the music of a superior brain. For Gassheads only.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Month in Books, Part One (April)

1. George Orwell — Burmese Days

George’s fictionalised account of his time in Burma with our brave old lads in the Indian Imperial Police. Flory is our antihero, desperately striving for decency and brotherhood and love in a moral backwater populated by the drunk whore-mongering Old Guard English and corrupt local blackmailers, rapists and tyrants (rolled into one here as U Po Kyin). Caught in the middle are the unfortunate Burmese and Indians trapped in an easily manipulated honour system, ruled over with contempt by the institutionally racist English masters. An unflinching depiction of yet another bleak chapter in Britain’s history of world-conquering adventures in repression and brutality. Since all the “bad” archetypes are bundled into the book (i.e. the characters whose attitudes George has to blast) the novel’s credibility is occasionally stretched. But there’s no denying these warped human dung beetles existed and befouled the planet with their pestilence for far too long. As Wayne Coyne and his Lips know well, with loving hands, evil will prevail.

2. George Orwell — Coming Up for Air

Released in 1939, Coming Up for Air is perhaps the final kiss-of-death to pre-war life in miserable old England, and the first ready-for-war book to soberly embrace the next six agonising years. The protagonist George is a First World War veteran whose life has settled into the predetermined routine of people of his class and age—a travelling insurance position, a nagging harridan of a missus, and two kids too many. After kvetching about his sorry lot in Part One, he recalls his childhood in Part Two, nostalgic for the privations of his working-class boyhood—somehow they’re better than the privations of his lower-middle-class adulthood—and takes a trip to his youth in the later parts, where everything has slowly modernised and the fishing pond has been tarmacked to make way for an asylum. The novel is written in the first-person, making it hard to discern Orwell’s intentions—is he satirising this look-back bore, or sympathising with the lack of free-will in his life? Probably both. A darkly funny if mainly miserable book about the people who lived lives of quiet despair so we could access Goodreads on our iPhones.

3. Charles Webb — The Graduate

Charles Webb is a possible candidate for the BURIED book club, if this book wasn’t still popular, and it isn’t really—the film and stage show and tea towel and thong range are popular, who reads the book nowadays? The novel is written so sparsely and simply it functions pretty much as a blueprint for Mike Nichols’s script—90% of the action is told in dialogue with occasional flat descriptive passages for the frantic parts. A neurotic boy wonder returns to the suburbs to deliberate on the predetermined future laid out before him, and sets about breaking every taboo imaginable under the sun, but mostly sleeping with an older woman and trying to marry her daughter simply because grown-ups told him not too. As a comedic novel, the dialogue does all the work—Webb’s prose lacks any especial humour—and most of the famous movie lines are here with the added bonus of having Dustin Hoffman’s voice in our heads as we read them. As to Webb’s credentials as a novelist, apart from a Graduate sequel and another book that was turned into a horrible movie (Hope Springs), the rest seems out of print and unloved.

4. Evan S. Connell — Mrs Bridge

A quietly devastating portrayal of a housewife shorn of all personality or free will, raising her typical kids in a typical Midwestern breadbasket under the aegis of her all-powerful husband (who has a sequel in which to express his own typicality). The effect is similar to the poetic melodrama of The Book of Disquiet, but with a more lightly mocking and tender-heartedly sympathetic tone, and less insufferable moaning posing as philosophical profundity. In under 200 canny pages this novel slowly disassembles the American Dream and blasts the capitalist utopia into smithereens with achingly lovely paragraphs of emptiness, loneliness and trivial domestic matters. At times unbearably sad and poignant. As friend Grace Barron ably sums up: “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairytale—the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?” (p176)

5. Alexander Theroux—Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual

Having read the spellbinding Darconville’s Cat á coups de dictionnaire, I anticipated similar dizzying feats of sesquipedalianism from this outrageously funny follow-up. But unlike the stylishly ad unguem prose in that 1980s masterpiece, Laura Warholic is a frowstier monster: its prose is no less captivating or fine-tuned, but replaces the musicality and sumptuousness with pricklier symphony of aeolistic attacks. “Character is plot,” says Theroux, and the titular anti-heroine dominates this vaudevillian doorstop. Laura is an allagrugous rock groupie in her mid-thirties, her speech and demeanour frozen in a Clueless-era slacker-speak, derided by everyone in the Quink offices—the magazine where our hero Eugene Eyestones works as The Sexual Intellectual—but especially her amurcous ex-husband who intends to sue her for every penny she doesn’t have. Eugene is the only kind-hearted character in the novel (Duxbak excepting): the moral and spiritual nucleus in a world of cartoon malfeasance and anhedonious loathing. His articles for the magazine are adoxographic musings in the Therouvian mould: quote-heavy mini-essays on love, romance, and female behaviour, all drawn from his observations of Laura. Laura is an autoschediastic bandersnatch who lies, betrays, steals and uses men to live a life of idle corruption and chaos, constantly dependent on Eugene’s Jesus-like charity and patience, and as the novel progresses, Eugene is trapped in a battle between his Christian conscience and his need to lance Laura like a boil—an agathokakological conflict that sits at the heart of the novel. Surrounding this relationship are brilliant Dickensian caricatures, rendered with fiendish devilry and typically waspish prose as Theroux preaches his lessons on the decay of American culture. Bursting with wondrous neologisms, relentless trivia and inhuman erudition, this is one of the finest and funniest novels it has been my pleasure to perch on my hydraulic ram and read. For those who dismiss Theroux as a sub-Nabokovian crank, the final chapter has some of the tenderest, more painfully beautiful prose in the Alex oeuvre, as Laura the tortured autothaumaturgist falls into one of the deepest abysses of loneliness ever rendered in prose. One of the most powerful works of fiction composed this century—indispensable, and perfect for the gynotikolobomassophile in your life.

6. David Bellos — Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

David Bellos, famous for translating Life: A User’s Manual and his compendious Georges Perec bio, writes a comprehensive, semi-scholarly and semi-accessible book exploring translation in its multifarious forms. Covering the complexities of literary translation—from verbatim likenesses to humour to style—into wider world areas such as legal and political translation (less captivating material for laymen), Bellos is a witty and super-smart writer who makes a convincing case for the importance of translation and its unsung participants. For those among you (that means Manny) still convinced a literary work loses too much in translation to bother reading—if this marvellous book doesn’t persuade you, nothing will. Last word from David:
“A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek or miss out the grey hairs in the sideburns—and still give us a good likeness. It’s hard to say just what it is that allows viewers to agree a portrait captures the important things—the overall shape as that special look in the eye. The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good. But the users of a translation, unlike the friends of the portraitist’s sitter, don’t have full access to the model (they would barely need the translation if they did). That’s probably why translation raises such passionate responses. There’s no choice but to trust the translator. When it comes to speech and writing, people are an untrusting lot.” (p331)

7. Anthony Burgess — Byrne

A. Burgess and me agree that all art should aspire to the condition of music (we paraphraseth Walt Pater), both for the harmony of form and content, and the visceral impact music has on a listener’s nerve-endings, always stronger than responses to books or paintings or YooToob kittehs. More than any other novelist, Ant Burg spent his life inventing musical forms to contain his explosive, spontaneous creativity, whether in the musical play Blooms of Dublin, the orchestral novel Napoleon’s Symphony, or this swansong Byrne, a novel in verse. (He also recorded a musical version of A Clockwork Orange—don’t ask). Most critics and wine-swiggers are unanimous in their opinion that Anto Burge failed to musicalise the novel and create anything particularly innovative in the novel form (in terms of long-term usability), leaving behind a canon of daring experiments (i.e. failures) and almost masterpieces (i.e. not masterpieces). This novel in verse (in Byronian ottava rima stanzas) is full of the bawdiness of Chaucer and Rabelais, and far from revolutionising anything simply shines as another wacky entry in an eccentric and loopy bibliography of one the smartest, comb-fearing bruisers of 20thC lit. And for me, that’s enough.

8. Andrew O’Hagan — The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and Her Friend Marilyn Monroe

To be filed alongside the brightest and funniest animal-narrated fiction (not a competitive field—ha, see the pun?), O’Hagan’s novel is a debonair shaggy dog story (homage to Tristram Shandy evident in the title) that concerns the exploits of a Highland pup, passed into the hands of Vita Sackville-West, Natalie Wood’s princess mother, and finally (via Frank Sinatra) Marilyn Monroe. Maf was raised a socialist in the Scottish Highlands, and is extremely au fait with European, American and Russian literature, as well as philosophy and human psychology. As he accompanies Marilyn in her final year of life, he bumps into Brooklyn rats and soup-flies with attitude problems, all the while observing Marilyn’s airy complexity and her run-ins with Sinatra, her psycho psychologist, Carson McCullers, and JFK. Told in a light but consistently amusing way with insights on Kafka, Proust and Woolf you wouldn’t expect from an Aviemore maltese, O’Hagan’s short novel is a charming and finely written comedy. Note: Monroe obsessives need not apply—this isn’t a barrel-scraping “fresh perspective.”
PS: Tara in her review has complained that this narrator is insufficiently doglike. Apparently she prefers her talking dogs to “sniff their butts” and “chase after [sic] dropped potatoe [sic] chips.” She is also upset because this talking dog used “words that I don’t know” when as we all know, most talking dog narrators should limit their vocabulary to doglike words such as “woorf” and “owf,” both one syllable, so more realistic for a talking dog. You’ve been warned!  

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Swallowing the Dictionary

Why has the English-language novel ended up in the hands of ventripotent thumb-twiddlers and feckless gaberlunzies? Remember when Charles Dickens wrote those compendious novels rich in voluminous word-spinnery (The Circumlocution Office in Little Dorritt, or the legal satire in Bleak House?) Remember when James Joyce blasted the ultracrepidarians with his beautiful masterwork Ulysses, and dis- and re-assembled the language for the craic in Finnegans Wake? As the novel continues to exhaust and normalise taboos, one taboo forever shunned is the unmarketable and temerarious practice of engaging with the dictionary. Why do all these spoffokins with their stercoricolous “lit-fic” offerings refuse to colour their prose with geflugelte Worte? Their ramfeezled dribblings hardly deserve a second glance beside thegalumptious masterworks by writers like Alex Theroux and co. That’s all.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The House of Trouts

Kilgore Trout’s latest book, World’s Funniest Thermonuclear Accidents, was forthcoming from Michael O’Mara. He shared a bathroom with Kilgore Trout, whose latest book, Complications in the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum, had forthcome from Yale Press. The two Trouts co-rented a kitchen with Kilgore Trout, whose book I Was a Teenage Obergruppenführer, had not found a publisher. All three Trouts did not read each other’s books and did not discuss literary matters at all. When one Trout saw another, he said: “Nice day, Mr. Trout.” If one Trout was working on his book and the other Trout spotted this, he said: “Hard at work, Mr. Trout?” One time, Kilgore Trout broke Kilgore Trout’s prize antique cup, handed down nine generations of the Trout family. Kilgore Trout looked at his shattered heritage and said: “Accidents happen, Mr. Trout.”