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Monday 21 May 2018

Review: Megan Hunter, The End We Start From

The publicity departments of corporate publishing like to decorate book covers with the Ooohs! and Aahs! of the great and the good, sometimes without much thought about what they say or imply. I drew attention to the dangers in my review of Alex Preston’s In Love and War (reviewed 8 January 2017). Megan Hunter’s book is covered with nine puffs on the outside and twenty four on the inside; among those on the outside, there is this from Hannah Kent (of Burial Rites – reviewed here very favourably on 7 June 2014):

Extraordinary …. I read it in one sitting.

Well, yes, how can one not? This first novel may have been fattened to 128 pages of text and 16 of end materials pages on heavy duty paper, but it is comfortably under 20 000 words long (on page 102, for example, there are just 80 words but I am reckoning an average of 150). The average reader will get through in under two hours, between dinner and bedtime. It is only remarkable to read something at one sitting when it keeps you up past bedtime and even into the small hours. Of course, there are novels which are impossible to read at one sitting, like the one I reviewed yesterday: Jane Eyre is well over 200 000 words long and that is twenty hours plus of reading time.

Nowadays, what with electric light and social media, few people are willing to devote ten or a dozen evenings after work or after the children have gone to bed to read just one novel, but with a book which takes only one evening, I reckon you are in with a better chance. The secret of success is to print the long short story or the novella on thick paper, to give the illusion of substance.

The End We Start From has a stripped-down plot: Woman has Baby (as Private Eye reports when royal babies are born) and at the same time The Great Flood submerges London, forcing mother and baby and car-driving partner to flee north to Scotland. Partner goes missing on the way as civil order breaks down and people start to fight each other lethally for food and accommodation. The Flood subsides, mother and baby return, find partner, and story closes as baby takes his first steps in the brave new post-flood world. I understand it is called cli-fi:  climate fiction but that must be a close call in this case because there is as much here about breast feeding and nappies as about floods.

It is clever and readable with nicely weighed sentences. The author understands that you can leave things to the reader’s imagination since we have all read about flood disasters, about refugees, and about the war of all against all which develops as people struggle for survival. Hunter even dispenses with names for her characters – they just get initials: the baby is Z. You can’t get much more stripped down than that.

Sunday 20 May 2018

Review: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

I read this over a weekend when many of my fellow Ruritanians (and dare I say, most of them female) were transfixed by the wedding of Meghan Markle and Harry Wales(or Mountbatten-Windsor, I'm not sure which is correct). That piece of live costume drama was but one more on-schedule production from the House of Windsor, the latest addition to our Ruritanian cultural world which fills the leisure hours of its subjects with sit coms, rom coms, and costume dramas heavily dependent on out-of-copyright Victorian triple-decker novels, like the one I was reading while others were viewing a marriage made in Hollywood. 

Jane Eyre gives us the phrase Reader, I married him - in my edition, you wait until page 544 to get that.

There must come a time, even in demented Ruritania, and perhaps even within the next hundred years, when all but a few antiquarians tire of nearly all these Victorian novels, at least in their original written form. The accomplished descriptions of nature, the carefully painted human physiognomies, the long set-piece speeches, the heavy stamp of moral rectitude, all of which fatten up the volumes, will cease to charm. The books just go on for so long. People will settle for adaptations which play fast and loose with the originals. The story of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester cut down would do nicely for an overwrought opera, the arias and duets set against a background of a very energetically pumped wind machine. The madwoman in the attic could be filmically Gothed-up to the nth  degree and still legitimately claim fidelity to the original.

Even now, these triple-deckers are no longer read and studied for literary merits which may in any case often strike one as limited (Jane Eyre does go on and on and on). They are read now for the scope they provide for ideological contestation. You can be of the party of Jane, the party of Mr Rochester, the party of the madwoman in the attic, even I suppose the party of Rosamund Oliver, though not the party of St. John. Indeed, confronted by St. John’s attempts to induce Jane to marry him, there can scarce have been a modern reader who has sat through it without mounting anxiety    (literary merit there) and a desire to shout for the whole valley to hear Tell him to fuck off! (and there). What Victorian readers exclaimed, I have no idea, but clearly many felt the same way. That is part of the novel’s achievement, though it would be hard not to be persuaded against a St. John who is capable of saying things like this, "As a conductress of Indian schools, and a helper amongst Indian women, your assistance will be to me invaluable" ( p 488). But when St John goes off from her rejection saying "that he had nothing to forgive" (p 495), Jane comes out with a startling sentence, "I would much rather he had knocked me down" (p 495) which  jumps out from the page to close a chapter.

Nowadays, you are already free to read the novel as anachronistically as you like; no one is going to stop you annexing it to some favoured cause though most of them will be marked Feminist and given good grades accordingly. However, the essay by Elaine Showalter which closes the edition I have read is really very weak; it is not so much a structured piece of criticism, feminist or otherwise, as a rather random (and even desperate) assembly of remarks pointing off in wildly different directions. Most notably, it does not engage with the core of what the book is “about”: the development of the relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester in which both change and develop so that Jane becomes less priggish and prudish (at the end, she is even the coquette sitting on Rochester’s lap, teasing him) and a chastened  Rochester sheds the vanity of seeking to refashion Jane outwardly into a bejewelled vision fit for a sultan’s eye.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Review: John le Carre, The Looking Glass War

This novel was first published in 1965 and the publishers call it “The Fourth George Smiley Novel” though Smiley is really rather peripheral. What is central is an extended tale of bureaucratic bungling, of rigid incompetence, of naivety and self-satisfaction. Except for Avery, who is given le Carré’s own 1965 age of thirty-four, the main characters are older men who have lived through the war, reckon themselves to have had a good war, and do not think they have anything new to learn. It’s still toe-curling to read le Carré’s acid depictions of what they get up to. 

At the centre of it at all, there is Military Intelligence’s project to put an Agent over the border into East Germany to check for a suspected (on very little evidence) missile base and to report back to temporary Base camp over the border in West Germany using a heavyweight crystal radio and morse code. Throughout the novel, if something can go wrong, it goes wrong. A courier and the inserted Agent are both killed.

So the author gets us into a state where we go on reading in a state of horrified incredulity. His characters, for example, think themselves quite above keeping a secret, to be shared only on a need-to-know basis. They are animated by the spirit of a gossip shop; a brothel would exercise more discretion. I was reminded of a story I was once told (by Robert Silman around 1970) of self-assured surgeons who regarded themselves as so much above the ordinary run of mortals that they felt free not to wear surgical masks when working at the operating table.

The novel is dated in an interesting way. I imagined the manuscript given to a present-day London editor. They would either reject it outright or there would be angry Microsoft notes in red all the way through. The novel runs on national, racial, gender, class, you-name-it, stereotypes which all add up to a dreadful picture of Political Incorrectness. A modern editor would hold their nose and turn the whole thing Bland. It would create a very interesting contrast. Le Carré, an angry young man if ever there was, does not mince words and that is the passion of the book; as a politically correct novel, it would have no life to it.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Review: Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes

Advice to writers:

1.      If you want to be remembered for the works you have signed off on – the works which have been printed – then make damn sure to burn all your drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, correspondence, shopping lists. That way, readers have no choice about what to read - and nor do the professors.

2.      If you want to be remembered for your work, and think you are in with a chance of being remembered, then make sure you file all your drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, correspondence, shopping lists. It will guarantee you at least academic attention for even those who claim to be against biographical approaches believe that the unpublished stuff will prove (richly) inter-textual with your printed words.

Roland Barthes died at sixty five after a traffic accident so you could say he didn’t live to decide between the two options. Though he once said that he only wrote to order (Je n’écris que sur commande – I am afraid that is from memory; I can’t give the source), it seems that was very untrue. He wrote all the time and he left behind a great deal of unpublished handwriting, much of it since published. Neil Badmington examines and deploys some of it in this interesting and readable book.

In the opening two chapters, he makes out a good and probing case for the inter-textuality between the mourning diary which Barthes kept for two years after the death of his mother in 1977 and published with some controversy in 2009, and his signed-off for publication book on photography La Chambre Claire, written in the same period. Theorising about photography goes hand in hand with finding ways to both put away and memorialise his mother.

I am more doubtful about the third chapter which criticises the usual suspects: the biographical fallacy (“biographers write the obituary of textuality” p 76), the illusion that the signifier can be a transparent vehicle for expression (“The signifier has no magic, no future, if it has a signified which is guaranteed by an individual” p 76), and so on. But there are paradoxes lurking here. If the author is dead, if writing is the destruction of every origin, then why is it important to assemble into one category all and only the words penned by one individual, Roland Barthes? Surely, that just is a biographical principle of classification. Likewise, why are both structuralists and post-structuralists, modernists and post-modernists, so keen that a novel should be written by just one person? Why do jointly authored novels just not cut it? 

In relation to painting, a related question would be this: Why are we so troubled by the idea of the perfect forgery? If only ‘text’ matters, then the fact that something is a forgery does not matter at all. In relation to film, why do we classify and write about them by their directors, even if we say we no longer believe in auteurism?

Roland Barthes was a very close reader of texts, very obviously so in his S/Z which Badmington invokes in his last chapter reading of Alfred Hitchock’s film Under Capricorn. But there is a paradox, or at least a puzzle, here too. I think it was Roger Scruton who said that S/Z reads like a very traditional explication de texte. It is not a new idea that a text may suggest more than it seems to state, or even alternatives to what it states, that it may in this way be more open than critical attempts to close it assume. There are various ways of theorising this, including most simply the psychoanalytic way which tells us that the unconscious finds its way unbeknown to us into what we write. Other ways point to our unavoidable dependence on signifiers which have histories and structural ramifications vaster than we can ever take account of. And so on. Sometimes we let a line stand in a text precisely because we do not know quite what it means, but it sounds (or looks) good. And our readers may agree and the game commences.

Barthes appreciated such ways of thinking not least because there was a part of him which had hankered after system and science and even closure – as is obvious in such works as Elements of Semiology, the long essay on classical rhetoric, the abortive doctorate on the fashion system, and so on. But he couldn’t complete the systems to his satisfaction(and saw that the whole project was maybe misguided) and he could not resist a digression. When he gave a seminar, he didn’t use standard lecture notes; he used small cards (fiches) which had the advantage that he could always pause between cards and digress or invite a question and either way, ensure that no one was bored.

As a Leverhulme European student, the reviewer attended Roland Barthes’ 1971-72 seminars at L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. His most recent work which involves reference to Barthes is Prose Improvements (2017).