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Saturday 31 May 2014

Review: Susan Cain, Quiet

This book kept appearing on Waterstone's tables and in the end I succumbed.

My first reaction was one of surprise: Introversion / Extroversion? Is that still around? I thought it was something we did in grammar school fifty years ago, administering Eysenck personality tests to ourselves. But, yes, it is still around and - at least in America - seems to be big business. Cain acknowledges the help of over 200 individuals.

Cain writes a reasonably interesting book axed around the Introversion / Extroversion dichotomy and taking the side of the Introverts. She combines interview material with summaries of experimental (behavioural) research, and laces the text with folksy self-help advice. The book will do no harm.

The thing is this: you could write an indefinite number of books around popular dichotomies: feminine / masculine; neurotic / psychotic; narcissism / whatever is the opposite of that. Each dichotomy will have its enthusiasts as well as its critics. Each dichotomy can bolster itself by drawing on the vast reserve of experimental psychological research which has now accumulated in American journals - much of it banal and tautologous ("extroverts tend to interact with more people than introverts"), some of it faked, most of it routinised.

I have a huge distrust of such material. It is the product, on the one hand, of a desire to avoid the challenges of psychoanalysis and, on the other, of a desire to build a subject (a discipline) which can hold its own in any university as a source of research income. And yet to me, I can't really believe that it is real science.

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Review: Jane Fallon, Skeletons - and a few remarks on Style

I doubt that men of an age to have liver spots are among the intended readers of this book. Indeed, the book’s Leading Bad Guy  is just such a man. Nonetheless, I read it right through (all 430+ pages) quite easily and wanting  to find out how things would turn out. The story is one which provokes thought, and the telling of it witty and convincing. So there’s a Reader’s Recommendation. And take note that the woman on the front cover is a 43 year old – this is Literature, not chick-lit

But Jane Fallon does need an Editor who will save her from a couple of stylistic tics –  not disastrous ones.

I offer myself as just that Editor.

English contains tense constructions which are not felicitous:

(1)    Jen said, “I have enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(2)    “Jen said that she had enough haddock”


(3)    Jen said, “I have had enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(4)    “Jen said that she had had enough haddock”

Write (4) into a novel and you ask to be directed to some more suitable occupation, such as Flower Arranging. 

Oh, it’s grammatical and so on. It’s just awful stylistically and to be avoided at almost all costs. And it can be avoided without changing the meaning. You do it by dropping into what I suppose is a form of Free Indirect Speech / Discourse, losing one of the Hads whenever you see the chance, so:

(5)    “She tried to remember what they had had in common when they first met” (page 276)  becomes
(6)    “She tried to remember what they had in common when they first met”

If you get a taste for this, you could go on to rid yourself not only of Had Hads but even of Hads:

(7)    “In the morning, she had waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …” (p 314)  becomes
(8)    “In the morning, she waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …

But this is not obligatory. One Had is inoffensive; two suggests carelessness.

The same strategy will also rid your text of annoying “that that” constructions which probably originate in English public schools determined to make English more difficult for foreigners and other riff-raff:

“Both she and her mother had always known that that would be out of the question” (p. 207)

The other stylistic tic is really a linked pair of anxieties:  that your reader won’t find you funny enough when you tell your gag, so you immediately embroider it; and, second, that your reader won’t quite understand you, so you spell it out twice:

 “ now she found herself looking at Martin, wondering whether he might be a secret philanderer. Or did he like to dress up in her clothes whenever she went out? Or put a nappy on and get spanked by random strangers when his wife thought he was down the pub?” (p 125)

Advice: Delete all from “when his wife …” 

“You have to get something off your chest, never mind if you’re in the check out queue at Tesco’s and your next-door neighbour is behind you ear-wigging. Hoping to hear some gossip she can pass on” (p 59)

           Advice: Delete second sentence.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Review: Jennie Rooney, Red Joan

I picked up this book for a peculiar reason: the story of Red Joan draws partly on the real-life story of Melita Norwood who - some years ago and at the age of 87 - was exposed as a (former) Soviet spy who had passed important atomic secrets to the Soviet Union during the period when it was seeking to develop its own atomic weapons. She was living an unremarkable and modest life in the London suburbs and the British powers-that-be wisely decided not to prosecute her. She was old though still dignified and spry enough to make a public statement about her spying. She was a surprising and not unsympathetic character. She was nicknamed “The Spy Who Came In from the Co-op”.

Melita Norwood, apart from these important things, was the widow of Hilary Norwood – a life-long Communist and schoolteacher (of mathematics, if I recall rightly) who was also - for some time after the War  -President of the British Society of Russian Philately, of which I am a member (since the 1990s - unfortunately, I never met him or Melita Norwood). The Society was founded in the 1930s and many of the original members were Communists or Fellow Travellers. That is no longer true – fortunately, perhaps, because the Society holds its Annual Meeting in London’s Army and Navy club. Its French sister society La Cercle Philatélique France – Russie still meets in the governmental Russian Cultural Centre in Paris, but that of course has changed its flag in recent years.

And now to the novel, which is uneven. The structure works – moving from narratives set in the 1930s and 1940s to recall of those events during an interrogation of the elderly Joan. The Mills and Boon romances (there are two) may work for some, though didn’t for me. 

The explanation of Why? Joan spied is very well done and is morally challenging: she spied because of Hiroshima and wanted to ensure that America could not do to Russia what it had done to Japan. In that sense, she helped develop a situation of Mutually Assured Destruction which came to be called deterrence.

There are anachronisms which are disconcerting, even though they are sometimes the anachronisms of fictional documents being quoted: “Born Leningrad, 20 May 1913” (page 90), “died in St Petersburg in 1982” (page 339), for example; and in a letter of 1949, written in English in England by someone without the background which would enable it, we find “Qu’ran”. 

And there is one bizarre passage which has a 1940s KGB document denouncing one of its victims as an enemy of “the Soviet Empire”(p 285). Enough to get a KGB man shot. Nowadays, maybe he could blame some American Imperialist spell-checker.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Review: J.M.Coetzee, the Life of Jesus

“Something’s Missing”

“This sentence, which is in Mahagonny, is one of the most profound sentences that Brecht ever wrote and it is in two words” (Ernst Bloch)

To feel that something’s missing is to feel that some other world – some new world – is possible, some world which is not this wearying reality of ours. It is the feeling which inspires both religion and utopian politics.

Coetzee’s Simón makes use of this expression. He finds and rescues the lost child David, takes him to a new world where he identifies by pure intuition a seemingly unlikely woman, Inès, as the child’s mother. Together but not together, the two of them struggle to bring up David  - a wilful child just made for psychological labelling and intervention. Eventually, they flee seeking a second new life.

Coetzee sets his novel in a Spanish-speaking geography which might be Argentina (“Punta Arenas” for example). But the social world he describes has something wrong with it – it seems to be straightforward but becomes opaque. It is not a real social world, though its inhabitants seem contented enough and are untroubled with any thoughts that something might be missing. But Simón thinks otherwise. Something is missing.

At first, I thought it would be necessary to decode the story – to nail it down onto the firmer foundation of Joseph, Jesus and Mary. So when, for example, we are told that Simón and David make their way to their new world through a resettlement camp, Belstar – well, I just thought “Bethlehem Star”.

But then I decided that this was a stupid way to read this book and, after that, it got better. And it’s very good not least because you are constantly presented with situations in which you have sympathies pulling you both ways. It is as if the book is made up of vividly presented dilemmas – practical, moral, personal … - which have the common quality of having no obvious right answer.

It’s all very unsettling if you want a straightforward story – but then of course, just to add to your dilemmas, you do also get a straightforward story which holds your attention. You want to know what in the end will become of Simón and David and Inès and some of the other characters in the cast.

And as if things are not complicated enough,, and in case you are still thinking that the book must have a Key, then you have to cope with the fact that David learns to read from just one book and only reads that book and that it is referred to throughout. Don Quixote.

A fascinating book.

Review: Jim Crace, Harvest

Lebensraum for sheep - that was a major aim of England’s Enclosure movement which cleared the countryside of people and replaced them with wool-producers. The people ended up in towns and cities - forced draft urbanisation – and often enough, working with wool. Or else, drowning their sorrows in drink.

Jim Crace has imagined the arrival of Enclosure through the eyes of one man, Walter Thirsk, the first-person narrator of this 270 page novel. Positioned as someone ranking a bit above the ordinary peasantry but as much a helper than a servant to the old Master, Walter is not a hero, has many flaws and faults – but not any shortage of vocabulary.

Crace succeeds in filling his narrator with fine descriptive powers, a lucid ability to express his inner turmoil, well-turned phrases and, perhaps above all, a sense of pace.

As in other novels by Crace that I have read, the pacing is extraordinary. A tired reader will occasionally want the pace to quicken but Crace always takes his time and always uses it well. He has a story to tell and he wants you to attend to it. It’s not going to be complicated and he’s not going to try to mislead you or bamboozle you. He’s a story teller.

Like Quarantine and The Pesthouse, which I have also read, this is a very fine book.