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Saturday 29 November 2014

Review: Jane Austen

A year or so ago, the publisher Carmen Callil resigned as a judge for the Man Booker International prize, which was shortly thereafter awarded to Philip Roth. She complained that all his books were the same. I wonder what she would say about Jane Austen.

I've just read three: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion, in that order. I've bought Emma so no doubt I will read that too and, of course, a couple more and then I will have read all of mature / completed Jane Austen. I'll soon be an expert. Much easier than Shakespeare.

Jane Austen is, I understand, best known in England as the inventor of romantic country house costume dramas for television. I don't watch television but I can imagine that it's great fun for the Costumes department and hard work for the Props department, oiling all those doors to permit the constant Entries stage right and Exits stage left. Anyway, it's enough to get Jane Austen's portrait onto English banknotes. I do hope Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are in the queue, even though they didn't write romantic novels.

Jane Austen got onto University reading lists probably thanks to F.R.Leavis, who didn't think she wrote romantic novels but was instead a writer inspired by Serious Moral Purpose, unlike people like Charles Dickens ("an entertainer") and Laurence Sterne ("a trifler") - see Leavis's moralising tract The Great Tradition for the epithets.

Anyway, I am not entirely convinced my Miss Austen's novels. I thought Sense and Sensibility plodding and, as a result of reading editorial Introductions, discover that this is a common enough view. And in Persuasion, where you pretty soon figure out what has to happen and wish she would get on with it, there is an awful chapter IX in volume II where Mrs Smith is allowed a very long monologue (pages of it) to trash the character of Mr William Elliot and knock him out of any possible contention, leaving the way clear for the return of the gallant Captain Wentworth. It is laying it on with a trowel. I guess they have to abridge these things on TV.

That leaves Pride and Prejudice as the best of the three, with some very funny moments and a livelier style. But all three novels are weighed down by a cast of minor characters who no doubt fill up the background on TV but who contribute very little to the narrative, yet whose names must be remembered.

I am not saying I Rest My Case. I will proceed to Emma and think some more. But I now have an explanation for something which puzzled me. A few Blogs ago I reviewed Milan Kundera's L'Art du Roman. I was surprised by the virtual absence of English writers from his history of the European novel. He has good words for Fielding and Sterne and that's about it. He doesn't mention Jane Austen. Now I think I can see why. I think it is the illustrative moralising which sticks in his throat.

Postscript 8 December 2014: I have now read Emma and even though I had 'flu while reading it, I think it is the best so far. The outcome of the story isn't so obvious, though you can still guess  it as you go along. More importantly, there is more subtle character development. It's still terribly judgemental - or, at least, peopled by characters who spend their lives Judging - but there is more psychological insight. I haven't read the critics but it occurs to me to doubt that many of them will dwell on Mr Knightley as the Good Father figure who has loved Emma, faults and all, since she was, er, 13 and who is loved in return precisely because of that willingness to love her, faults and all.

Postscript 18 December 2014: It gets worse. In Mansfield Park, where amateur theatricals are condemned but living off the labour of slaves is not, Edmund Bartram marries his first cousin Fanny, who he has loved, guided and protected  "since her being ten years old" (page 436).

Thursday 20 November 2014

Review: Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

“What If?” historical novels and alternative histories are inevitably at risk of failure. The reason is very simple. We expect our stories based in everyday reality to be plausible – to possess verisimilitude. But a book which imagines what might have happened, what would have happened if history had been different, defies plausibility because all the time we are likely to be thinking, “Actually, it didn’t happen like that”.

Philip Roth makes a good shot at a counter-factual novel, imagining what would have happened if in the 1940 US Presidential election, Roosevelt had been defeated by a pro-Hitler Republican, a role for which he casts Charles Lindbergh, the pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish aviator. 

But the novel works best when it is farthest away from the specific counter-factual reality he has constructed. So, for example, chapter 2 “Loudmouth Jew” builds up characteristic Roth tension on the basis of conflict erupting between diners in a restaurant because one table doesn’t like what the other is saying. It’s extremely well done but it is plausible, has verisimilitude, because it can be imagined by the reader as something which could occur independently of the overarching, counterfactual Lindbergh story.

The novel weakens in the last two chapters which almost seem to be in the wrong order. Chapter 8 tells us that Roosevelt gets back in to power in 1942 which brings to an end the open and growing anti-semitism triggered by the Lindbergh regime. But then chapter 9 takes us back again to the Lindbergh period. I don’t think this works; it tries to bring back the tension after the tension has been defused.

Worse, at the beginning of chapter 8 (page 290), there is either a typographical error or a howler in the editing which allows us to know – just as things are going from bad to worse -  that there is after all going to be some kind of happy ending: we are casually thrown forward to 1960 and the at least tolerable fate of one of the book’s main and most troubled characters, Alvin. Did nobody pick up the mistake here? There is no other fast forward to a date as late as 1960 anywhere else in the book.

To counter-balance these critical remarks, I thought the book's main characters are interestingly cast in shades of grey, with personality traits which in one context seem admirable and then in another context become questionable. They also change under the pressure of circumstances in ways which defy simple morality tales.

Friday 14 November 2014

Review: Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim

Published in 1954, this book is still funny to this English reader 60 years later. It’s probably a very English kind of humour: it belongs to the world of Carry On films and there is a connection between the novel’s Jim Dixon and Mr Bean: both use facial contortions to express their feelings when they think they are unobserved.

It relies heavily on caricature, some of which modern readers may find offensive. Kingsley Amis, like George Orwell, has no time for poseurs with beards and berets or limp wrists and fancy names. In fact, anything which suggests upper middle class Bohemia or self-indulgent provincial academia.

 His principal character, Jim Dixon, may also be found offensive, addicted as he is to alcohol, tobacco, nasty practical jokes and failing to get his act together. A lot of the book is Carry On  Up The University.

In his Introduction to the novel, David Lodge makes out a case for Dixon as a morally serious character, searching for authenticity in an inauthentic world and finding it in the (rather stereotyped) shape of the shapely Christine. It’s pushing it a bit: true, he does make a real effort to secure Christine but he’s greatly helped by a stroke of luck, the offer of a job in London for which he has not applied. Whether landing on his feet will improve him remains, at the end of the book, an open question. He may simply rely on more Luck to get him out of future scrapes.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Review: Lynda La Plante, Wrongful Death

As a teenager, I read lots and lots of Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner but since then it is only recent ill-health which has led me back to the genre of crime fiction, murder mystery, detective thriller. I have enjoyed John Grisham and Martin Cruz Smith and been impressed by the lines of social criticism they develop.

Lynda La Plante is another story. It’s not so much a Novel as a Production – the author indicates as much in her Acknowledgements. And as a production it clunks.

The prose is wooden and the author misses no chance to state the obvious: the reader is never expected to use their imagination to complete the reading of a situation since the author spells it all out, as I have just done.

The characters are as they say Larger Than Life in a way that ensures that you don’t sympathise or identify but merely gawp. Occasionally, they are put into unintentionally comic scenes, notably when Anna and Blane get very excited over solving their Murder Mysteries on the sofa, barely leaving time for the Quick Fuck presented to the reader as (potentially) True Romance (Chapter Thirty). It’s hilarious but it’s not meant to be.

The Production occasionally slips up – one of the production team fell asleep – notably when a character (Marisha) who is still alive but soon won't be is presented as already dead (page 401).

As for social criticism, I see it a bit like this. People who read Celebrity gossip magazines know and believe that there is often a dark underside which they would love to hear about – and often do when tabloid newspapers dish the dirt. This book does the same, it gives us all the dirt on Lady Lynne and her family – strip clubs, fraud, murder, bigamy, incest – and then allows her and her daughters to walk free thanks to the incompetence and susceptibility to political pressure of the, er, Metropolitan Police.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Review: Milan Kundera, L'Art du Roman

This is a book of great clarity, a virtue linked (as Roland Barthes once observed) to the desire to persuade. It is also a book which charmingly conveys the commitments, the enthusiasms and the excitement of the author. This is especially true of the two long interviews which comprise the second and fourth chapters of this seven part book of essays, first published in 1986 and which I used to assign in its English translation for the "theoretical" part of a course in Creative Writing on which I once taught.

Kundera sees himself as a novelist (romancier), not a writer (écrivain). His job is to say or express in the novel form what can only be said or expressed in that form:

“la seule raison d’être du roman est de dire ce que seul le roman peut dire” (page 54)

This makes him specifically hostile to those who use the novel form to illustrate ideas which they have already formulated and which could have been written out in ordinary prose. For this reason, and despite sharing totalitarianism as a common enemy, he clearly dislikes the works of George Orwell. These are “romans de vulgarisation” which translate a non-novelistic understanding into the language of the novel (page 54)

The novel of which he writes is the European novel and it has a (great) Tradition which starts with Cervantes. The would-be novelist needs to familiarise himself with this Tradition, to learn the novelistic possibilities which exist and which have been explored. In this the apprentice novelist is just like the apprentice painter. That is me writing, not Kundera, and a me who has read T S Eliot and F R Leavis and Harold Bloom, none of whom figure in Kundera’s text.

In fact, the novel in English figures in Kundera’s Pantheon only in the names of Fielding and Sterne – a characteristically European choice: for Leavis, Sterne is no more than an annoying “trifler”. Austen, Eliot, Hardy, Henry James and the awful D H Lawrence (another Orwell-type writer) go unmentioned. 

Kundera instead names and discusses the great writers in French and in German and in Russian: Flaubert, Kafka, Tolstoy and many others including notably Hermann Broch to whom the third essay is devoted and which I skipped because I have not read Broch.

At the end of it all, Kundera formulates a definition of the novel:

“La grande forme de la prose où l’auteur, à travers des egos expérimentaux (personnages), examine jusqu’au bout quelques grandes thèmes de l’existence » ( page 179)

This is, of course, written not without irony but it does identify the Things Good To Think With ( les choses bonnes à penser – Lévi-Strauss) with which the novelist specifically works: characters.
One might say (and I tried to say this in the lectures on aesthetics which I gave in the 1980s and 1990s – see that each of the traditional and great art forms has its own specific things “good to think with” or perhaps more accurately “good to express with”. For the potter, it is clay. For the sculptor, stone or metal. For the composer, sound and silence. And so on. 

When the novelist works with characters, he or she has the chance to discover and bring into focus ways of human being and possibilities of existence which would have eluded discovery in mere prose.

Added 9 June 2019: For examples of novels which work with characters in the way Kundera describes, see - for example - Otessa Moshfegh Eileen (reviewed here on 28 July 2017) and Olga Tokarczuk Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead ( reviewed 9 June 2019)

Sunday 2 November 2014

Review: Ismail Kadare, The Concert

This is a translation from the French, itself a translation from the Albanian. I have to think that the author is badly served by one or both of his translators. I hope so!

There are problems at three levels.

First, there is parochialism: only in the United Kingdom do governments have "home secretaries" and "foreign secretaries" - everywhere else they have Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers. But Barbara Bray gives us the parochial form in translating a novel set in Albania.

Second, there is wooden prose:
Back in the office, the boss still hadn't returned. Linda collected some papers and took them along to the typists. Silva sat for a moment with her elbows on her desk. She didn't feel like working. She got up and went over to the window, looking out at the square with its surrounding ministries and the grey, rainy day (page 53)
Is it really that bad in the original?

Third, there is a problem of Register. Characters in emotional turmoil are assigned expressions like Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and vent frustration thinking things like "the whole blessed evening" (170).This is compounded by a choice of English colloquialisms taken from a quaint manual on How The Other Half Speaks In An English Tea Shop - unfortunately a mismatch with the Albanian characters of the book, who are intellectuals and Communist Party officials.

Equally, the novel itself is not without faults. It begins with a chapter introducing a large number of characters. The reader dutifully tries to absorb the names and the relationships. But then most of these characters promptly disappear. I am not sure that all of them even re-appear and if they do it is often as bit players. Bad technique: your opening chapter was pretty irrelevant, and irrelevant at the moment when your new reader was giving you maximum attention.

The story is complex, digressive and was probably a lot funnier in the original than it is now. Everything is spun off from the breakdown of relations between Albania and Communist China - thirty odd years ago. The focus is on how fairly ordinary lives and everyday expectations are upset by this breakdown with its attendant regime of paranoia, rumour and jockeying for position. Though half a dozen characters appear and re-appear as the main bearers of the burden of Sino-Albanian relations, I am afraid none of them really engaged my sympathies still less my emotions, with the possible exception of Linda.

But faced with my own doubts about the translation, I feel it would be unfair to judge this book in any kind of definitive way.