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Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Review: Annie Ernaux, The Years




France was (and in many respects, still is) a nation of shopkeepers, and Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 into that very large part of the French petite bourgeoisie which is separated by only a cigarette paper from the paysans and ouvriers. Her parents ran a café and épicerie, her early childhood marked by the everyday wartime and early post-war privations common to nearly everyone. But she is clever and achieves her own upward mobility into the teaching profession and, of course, eventually becomes a famous writer.

This is her autobiography published in 2008 and covering the whole period of her life until then. But the word “I” never occurs, except in occasional extracts from diaries. She writes in the third person (“She”) when directly referencing herself, and at other times uses a generic “We”, and less frequently, a “They”. The reader has surely noticed this before Ernaux draws attention to it and its motivation in the closing pages (page 225 in the English edition). But the English reader will not notice that the translator renders the author’s “On” and “Nous” fairly consistently as “We”, occasionally as "People" except at page 225 where the translated author mentions that she has been using both One and We.

 There is a certain amount of slippage, and sometimes I felt that the “We” of this English version sounded unavoidably like the English Royal We, the “We” which Her Majesty uses when talking about herself. This is unfortunate:

And we [translating Nous ], on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment, we were struck by the strangeness…” (p 130)

As I read it, this “We” is rather like defensive irony, the voice we often slip into when talking, for example, about the embarrassments of adolescence. Its function is to permit us to talk about things which would otherwise remain unspoken. I think this is how  "She" and“We"  and "They" all function for Ernaux. Specifically, it allows her to write extensively about her own sexuality - the fumblings, the awakenings, the dissatisfactions,the experiments - in a context where she has children and other people close to her who are still alive. The distance of "She" and "We" or "They" provides protective cover; “I” would be too exposing. There is a topic there for a seminar discussion.

But “We” and "They" and "One" are also used because Ernaux is trying to write not only her own story but the history of her times, so that the autobiography is also a biography of a generation:

There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we”, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before (page 225)

All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time….By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History (page 224; see also 169 - 170)

That her experiences are typical of those of a larger group she establishes by means of one primary device, basically the device of assembling proper names. For each  year or decade, she recalls and writes out (often as not much more than lists), the names of currently popular songs, singers, films, TV programmes, household products, shop names, politicians of the moment,  faits divers (murders, crashes, suicides), slogans, catch-phrases and slang. Thus to evoke the varied destinations of the soixante-huitards after the events of 1968, she writes:

            Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)

It continues with five more namings and the general stylistic choice of enumeration is sustained for over two hundred pages. I think it poses some problems. Clearly, The Years is not just a work of remembering. People just don’t remember as much as Ernaux does, at least without a prompt. Nowadays, the prompt is provided by the internet. You can simply Google to have your memory jolted: what did we wear in, say, 1970; what films came out that year; what were the slogans on the banners; what word did we most often use to express approval; what were the amusing cinema advertisements [ I have prompted myself there: at the cinema, there was the very sexy advertising for Dim collants, with sing-along music. The ads. were much talked about and it was said that Godard had directed them …].

You can surf for hours and you will be richly rewarded. Ernaux says as much:

The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)

I think this identifies a real problem. The list which results from googling may generate a general nostalgia and often (Ernaux must surely hope) an “Oh, I remember that”. But the feelings evoked are essentially diffuse; they have not been focussed by a single, experiencing self; they were often enough given to you in the infinite present of the computer screen rather than by some inner searching and recovery. So though the lists evoke passing nostalgic thoughts, surely different for each reader, they do not really disturb, and there are simply too many of them. They are not like Proust’s entirely idiosyncratic experience of dipping his biscuit which nonetheless works because it can do duty for something different for each reader. Another seminar.

It’s true, there is a major thread of Ernaux’s book which is about the experiencing self, and which does disturb. That is the thread about her sexuality and I think it is the strongest part of the work, strongly expressed. It is also the part of the work which fitted into my own pre-conception that post-war France was simply Vichy but without the Germans: conservative, Catholic, claustrophobic without liberty or equality, neighbours primed to denounce you.

There is a third possible seminar besides those devoted to distancing pronouns and the lists. The Years ticked off in decades do not on their own provide a strong narrative structure. Of course, there is growing up, settling down, starting again, growing old. But partly because of the wider aspiration to write a collective biography, it doesn’t quite have the force one would get (and expect to get) from an "I" focussed Bildungsroman. Only in the last few pages does Ernaux take centre stage, very effectively so.
*
I bought French and English versions at the same time and decided to read the English one since I thought that in the French there would be too much temporary vocabulary from the past which needed looking up. I consulted the French when I was puzzled or disliked something in the English. I do think that translating “C’est à dire” as “i.e.” is unsatisfactory (page 158) and unnecessary when what is replaced is a colon which could have been retained (page 219). I.e.  just does not belong in literary prose. And I've not come across before the use of "abolishment" for "abolition" (page 136 and elsewhere)

And I think the following translation has to be either a howler or a typo:

A la fierté de ce que l’on fait se substituait celle de ce que l’on est, femme, gay, provincial, juif, arabe, etc. (page 205)

Pride in what one did was substituted for pride in what one was - female, gay, provincial, Jewish, Arab, etc. (page 184)

In the translation “for” should read “by”, or alternatively, “In place of pride in what one did was substituted pride in what one is …”: identity politics is what comes after, not what comes before.






Sunday, 24 February 2019

Review: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited




The English as a people must now be reckoned mentally incapacitated from a surfeit of royal babies and costume dramas. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books which like those of Jane Austen is now only read because it is the script for wide and small screen country house productions. By the end of reading it you will know a lot about what everyone wears and about interior furnishings; the script is very detailed and seeing it on screen requires less effort.  Over the years, since its publication in 1945, it's been a good money spinner.

Brideshead Revisited is also a book about a world where everyone thinks it possible to have their cake and eat it, and thus fits neatly with our contemporary English incapacitation. They may not always succeed, but much of the time they do not suffer (or suffer very much) for things which would be fatal to the little people on whose labour their lives depend. There will always be someone around to get you out of a scrape, and if money is needed to lubricate the extrication or soften the blow, well, there is an awful lot of it about. As for religion, it’s Roman Catholicism and that is particularly accommodating, providing both terrifying rhetoric and obliging side-deals. It is against divorce, but if you have the necessary, an annulment can be arranged. Adultery merely requires that appearances be kept up. As for homosexuality, well, you simply condemn and turn a blind eye, or condemn and join in.  When it comes to writing a fiction based on the fact, it’s very simple. You let the reader know what you are on about but you don’t do anything as tasteless as dwell on the fact. (I discover that this has provided scope for critical debates about whether the book is “about” a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles, thus casting it into the dire category of books written in code. I found myself impatient with the book because it was so obviously coded, and not only because of the censorship priorities applied by London publishers back in 1945 but probably also because coyness may have been the only way the author could handle his material. The London censorship priorities are, of course, different now).

There is an extravagant death bed scene, which according to taste is either very well done or simply de trop. From a structural point of view, the interesting thing is that Waugh selects for the death bed not one of his major characters but the relatively minor pater familias. The mother of the family, who plays a much larger part in the narrative, is despatched with no mise en scène. The novel thus ends on a fittingly patriarchal note, the death of the father which re-arranges everyone’s future and re-establishes  the order of things. And the priest is very happy with his three pounds, the price of sending pater to heaven after a lifetime of having his cake and eating it (page 318).

There are some passages which I found funny, and some very well-written. The book was composed and published in England at a time (1944 - 1945) when the little people were preparing  to install, by a landslide of unprecedented scale, a socialist government. It was written, as they say, against the current and, of course, deliberately so. Nothing much has changed there when you think of the royal babies and the perennial costume dramas.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Review: Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl





Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford University, sets out to research a breach in his Dutch family of origin. His father was the youngest child of the van Esses whose family included an adopted daughter who ought to have been Bart van Es’s aunt. But in 1988 she had been expelled from the family by Bart van Es’s grandmother, and Bart has had no contact with her. In 2014, the aunt is still alive, in Amsterdam, and Bart approaches her (by email) and goes to visit.

His aunt, Lien, was taken in by the van Esses during the second World War. Born in 1933, she was Jewish, handed over by her secular parents to non-Jewish foster carers when it seemed there was no other way for her to survive. The parents were right; both died in Auschwitz, victims of the very efficient Dutch operation to round up and deport its Jews, some of them able to trace their Dutch ancestry back to the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Lien spent the war being moved from safe house to safe house, though was lucky to spend two extended periods with just two but rather different families. At the end of the war, and with no credible Jewish relatives to claim her, she is asked to choose between the Social Democratic and warm van Esses and the Calvinist and cold van Laars. She chooses the van Esses, not least because she has been sexually abused by a van Laar uncle. In due course, the van Esses learn about this,

All goes as well as might be expected given her start in life, until one day in 1988, Bart van Es’s grandmother writes to her adopted daughter to sever all relationships with her. The van Es grandfather had died in 1979; other family members more or less fall into line with the exclusion. What has gone wrong?

Rather like Philippe Sands in East West Street (reviewed here on 5 February 2018), van Es combines the interviews with his surviving aunt with archival research and interviews with those still alive who knew the van Esses, the van Laars, and knew Lien. So instead of writing a family history, he ends up writing a history of the Netherlands from the 1930s and well past the end of World War Two. But he focusses on the war period, on the Dutch Jewish experience of the war, and on the lives of those non-Jews who became helpers. I found all this very interesting, partly I think because though we are used to reading about the German experience and to some extent the French one, the Netherlands in the Nazi period is not so familiar to English readers. His narratives of the complexities of Dutch society were all new to me.

I feel there is a strange lacuna in the book. Maybe I have missed something but I will proceed as if I haven't. It may be that it is a lacuna which cannot now be filled. In one sense van Es solves the puzzle of the family breach, and thereby achieves a work of reparation (there is a sub-plot of reparation of difficulties within his own family). But he does not examine the most obvious narrative which explains it, even though he provides all the evidence. Lien’s exclusion begins immediately after the death of her adoptive father in 1979. His widow - Lien’s adoptive mother - leaves Lien’s name off the printed death notification to which the names of mourning family members are, as convention dictates, appended.

In 1953, at the age of twenty, there was a moment, during a weekend visit home, when Lien's adoptive father made sexual advances to his adoptive daughter. She repulsed them and they were not further pressed; but from Lien’s point of view the damage was done. To me, an obvious narrative is the one which says that the mother somehow knew about this, or at least sensed it, and that the death of her husband freed her to act, making it clear that she blamed her adoptive daughter for whatever had happened. There was a strong motive to exclude Lien at that point, even though the breach was not fully finalised until ten years later. It’s possible that the father made a death bed confession, or that he confessed to someone else at an earlier point who then re-told the story, maybe much later.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Review: Julian Barnes, The Only Story





At the heart of a melancholy disposition is a divided heart. When experienced, things which are presented to us as opposites - courage and cowardice, calm and panic, love and hate - always turn out to be two faces of the same coin. A melancholy life is one lived in a state of fragile ambivalence.

Julian Barnes presents his love story as an instance of The Only Story, but then twins the first person novel of the first 150 pages with a fifty page third person narrative, as much essay as story, which reviews, rows back, turns on its head, much of what has gone before - at the same time still acknowledging it as the only story. It’s all very well done. Julian Barnes has an even, conversational style of writing; he breaks up the main narrative line with unobtrusive but effective anecdotes, tall stories, and jokes; he doesn’t blind the reader with science or Literature. I read this book with pleasure and quite quickly; it’s very good.

The heart of the matter is the love story which starts out with nineteen year old Paul and forty eight year old Susan, who leaves her husband for her lover, who in turn leaves her - ten or a dozen years later - when he can no longer endure her alcoholism.

We are less used to stories about younger men and older women than vice versa. The etiquette is different. When I once had occasion to google acceptable age differences, I found a mathematical consensus: it was acceptable for an older man to date a younger woman provided she [WA] was at least half his age [MA]  plus seven (WA > = [MA divided by 2] + 7). So a non-sexually discriminatory application of the etiquette would make Susan’s conduct unacceptable by a margin of twelve years: (48 divided by 2 = 24)  + 7 = 31. The result will suggest to some readers that the google consensus does not apply equally to older women and younger men, since even thirty one will appear eyebrow-raising to many readers. But it's academic anyway: he's not thirty one, he's nineteen; the local tennis club rightly expels both of them

I did in fact try to imagine that the novel might have been an inverted, coded version of the love story of an older man and a younger woman, and I am sure Barnes could write its twin, even though he has older Paul professing exaggerated distaste for “those men in their sixties and seventies who carried on behaving as if they were in their thirties”. Paul or the author protests too much at pages 203-204.

The recessional second half of this book reminded me of the one which forms the second half of Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (reviewed here on  8 June 2017) and also an example of the only story. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Review: Sally Rooney, Normal People




This novel does get a lot better in its final seventy pages, but for a couple of hundred pages it is simply too normal and I did not want to turn those pages. It’s a regular, non-experimental novel, regular length, regular structure. It is dialogue-based between a small cast of main characters and the dialogue is fine, but not extraordinary. The characterisation is fine, but not exceptional. The plot is repetitive - that’s the point - though with  revelations introduced,  but perhaps not enough of them.

It’s a coming of age story or, more grandly, a Bildungsroman set in a contemporary Ireland from which the priests and the fascists have been eliminated and the currency is the €uro. It’s a novel which could only have  been written there in the fairly recent past; fifty years ago, it would have been banned even if conceivable and the author would have gone to live in a free country.

The core story of the on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell from school days to graduate studies is well developed, often delicately so, and only towards the end did I feel there were moments of authorial intrusion into their evolving consciousness - pages 198-99; p 221; p 239, for example. There are very few jokes and I suspect that the humour at page 235 where a man lays down the second half of a football match for his woman is unintentional.

For an older reader like me, there were a few puzzles. I get the bit about being interconnected via social media, but Rooney’s characters live in a world where gossip is the norm, and where people are very anxious about their current gossip-status. Is it really that bad? Is that what it’s like for normal people? Likewise, they cling to their groups, so that the school group lives on even after everyone has gone their separate ways. For some people, the rule is surely never to go back but rather to keep on moving away. In this novel, no one does that even if they travel and study in foreign countries.

The novel could be compared to Elif Batuman's The Idiot about which I wrote here on 24 June 2018, but whereas I did not finish Batuman's book, I did finish this one.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Review: John le Carre, The Little Drummer Girl




This is a very long book, 640 pages of reasonably spaced text in my edition. Published in 1983, the story is set within the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The setting remains much as it was, nothing much has changed there. The book does not have a dated feel at all, which is surprising given that it mobilises a great deal of then-current contextual information.

It is not the most popular of le Carre’s books and one can see why.  Though an enthusiast, my attention weakened during Chapters 6 and 7 which record an extraordinarily long and intense interrogation of Charlie, the main character, by agents of the Israeli security services. It is only much later in the book that the pace quickens and we are hooked into a Who will Survive and Who will Die narrative. I made it to the end. Like A Perfect Spy, it is a novel of great emotional intensity.

Google won’t tell me who it was who said that the same causes which make one person a Protestant on this side of the Pyrenees would have made them a Catholic on the other. I think it was Voltaire but maybe it was John Stuart Mill. But le Carre’s novel could be thought of as a prolonged, and profound, exploration of that theme. He finds a way of showing how one could believe at the same time both in Israel and the Palestinian cause. Know enough, learn enough, and you will find your loyalties totally divided. Only ignorance or accident of birth on this side or the other side of the Golan Heights could lead you to plump uncritically one way or the other.

He achieves this result by inserting his main character into both sides of the conflict. She is recruited into the Israeli cause, as their agent, partly on the basis of her public espousal of the Palestinian cause. This makes it possible for her to act credibly when she is inserted deep into a Palestinian terrorist group, but that then also puts her in tension with her sponsors and her agent-runner, Israeli Joseph who doubles as Palestinian Michel until both are totally confused in Charlie’s mind. All this is very well done, in detail and in depth. And I read the conclusion of the book as at best ambiguous and more likely as an expression of the view that, joker or thief, there is no way out of here. That’s the legacy of  what is now a long century of history.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Review: Tiffany Watt Smith, Schadenfreude




I bought this book on the same visit to Waterstones as yielded the previous book reviewed here, Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari. I was looking for short books that would take a few hours to read, having just failed to get stuck into two very long books which would each take twenty plus hours of my time. 

But their brevity aside, the two books are chalk and cheese. If McGarvey’s is a working-class book, this is a middle-class one - very much so. McGarvey tells us about his sharp-edged anger at the world; Watt Smith about her sharp-elbowed envy and jealousy. It’s hard not to imagine her as someone who would have voted for David Cameron.

The book aims to be lightweight and one can imagine a great deal of it emerging from determined googling, examples and anecdotes - many of them amusing - piled up fairly haphazardly. Uncertainty about its intended audience gives us “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche” (page 108), a bit odd in the context of a book which has a title in German, the English sub-title providing the translation. 

More surprisingly, the book is the product of a Wellcome Trust research fellowship attached to the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London - that bit of the blurb, read in the bookshop, made me expect some Foucault but he nowhere appears and Watt Smith looks to American psychologists for inspiration. Those psychologists though themselves mostly university academics also aim to be popular, the sort of academics who now make use of the fact that the internet is made of tubes (page 113 for the Schadenfreude story).

The theme of the book is the joy we take in the misfortune of others. The author suggests that the emotion is natural, universal and often desirable despite its poor reputation. The concept of Schadenfreude has acquired fresh relevance in a world where social media allows many millions of people unrestricted access to express their uninhibited joy at the misfortunes of others, and I can see that there is scope to take that fact seriously and to seek to understand it, however distasteful the work may be. Fortunately for Watt Smith, she finds her Twitter feeds and such like exciting. De gustibus non est disputandum.