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Saturday 22 June 2019

Review: Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

In most novels, the author leaves a trace - sometimes a very obvious one - of the imagined reader who has inflected the writing. In contemporary fiction, it’s quite easy to find novels which have been written with a film-director-looking-for-a-script lodged in mind. It’s very easy to find crowd-pleasing novels in which cardboard characters are put in to represent the “under-represented”, thus ticking at least one and preferably several current political correctness boxes. And, of course, it’s still possible to find books where the author is clearly worried about what their Mum might think.

Experimental prose styles, like those deployed in this novel and (for a relevant contrasting example) in Anna Burns’ Milkman, may be designed with an aesthete or literary snob reader in mind. More often, I suspect, they are ways of stopping any imagined reader from interfering with the story. The writer is determined to tell the story they want to tell, and the imagined reader can go hang. This often enough yields a commercially unpublishable novel, and did in the case of Eimear McBride’s book. 

Even now, skimming the blurbs on the Faber edition, it’s quite clear that there is little inclination to talk about one half of the book. The novel is dedicated to the author’s dead brother and, indeed, the narrator in the novel tells at length the story of her older brother’s life-long illness and early death - the novel culminates with that death. Reviewers are comfortable with that. But half of the novel is about rough sex, about masochistic sex, and about taboo sex - narrated in detail and all of it (to simplify enormously) designed to fuck the narrator’s pain rather than to bring pleasure or closeness. The publisher’s blurb on the back cover of my Faber edition is really an extended trigger warning rather than an engagement with this half of the book.

I did read it right through, in short sessions. I can’t say I enjoyed it. In Milkman Anna Burns has an experimental style which carries the reader along and is the vehicle for a great deal of humour. McBride has a style which constantly frustrates the reader in their tracks, notably through the repeated use of full stops, of sentences which aren’t, and of depictions which are ambiguous or obscure - one isn’t always sure which. It is as if the text is shot-through with a great deal of static through which one has to try to follow the threads.

The threads are undoubtedly there, all the way through. The sick brother and the rough sex threads are tied together with an Irish Roman Catholic thread, which also perhaps deserves a trigger warning: there is a horrific scene of the neighbours coming in to sit round the dying brother’s bedside, help him on his way (pages 185-88).

All this produces a novel of unremitting intensity with very, very few intermissions. There are a handful of passages where the style changes. I noted these: page 92 where the mother is telling her daughter her woes; pages 173 - 74 where the doctor tells the brother that he is dying; page 197 where in the final sexual encounter the prose completely breaks down in a (let’s say) Joycean manner. It’s not enough. If I read the novel again (I won’t) I would look for more of these variations and any serious study would want to look at the use of stylistic change within the narrative.

I can identify with a writer’s need to keep out of their head the kind of reader who will frustrate the writer’s story and I can see that a difficult prose style is one way of doing that. But I would like to think that victory over the censorious reader, the prurient reader, the tiresomely correct reader, could be achieved with a style (or variation within a style) which is a little kinder to an actual reader. Equally, I can see that McBride's style is an attempt to convey the anguish of an inner world which any easier prose would tend to soften.

Sunday 16 June 2019

Review: Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity

Leave aside state honours, like knighthoods, and the peak of an academic or artistic career is not a Professorship or even membership of a selective Academy (like the British Academy) but rather an invitation to give a series of lectures (say six or eight over the course of a term) at a top university, generously endowed and named for the specific purpose of securing willing acceptees. Since 1950, Oxford has appointed a John Locke lecturer to give lectures of the same name; since the 1920s, Harvard has had an annual Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. The BBCs Reith Lectures are the equivalent for a general audience.

When given in universities such performance lectures will be attended by many of  the lecturer's peers and by eager graduate students; sometimes the  hall will be full to overflowing. These are grand occasions on which the lecturer responds to and justifies his or her claim to fame. Very often, there shortly after appears the book of the series.

Lionel Trilling (1905 - 1975) was Norton professor at Harvard in 1970 and the resulting book is, along with his The Liberal Imagination (1950), his best known.

It is an effortless cultural survey, spanning four main countries, (England, France, Germany, the USA) and four centuries. Trilling shows that he has read the original sources; the main critical sources; and is in touch with what a new generation is saying (I was surprised to find the names not only of Sartre but also Lacan, R D Laing, Marcuse, Sarraute). He picks a theme designed to limit and unify his material, the linked ideas of sincerity and authenticity, and seeks to show how those  ideas emerged, developed, and transformed - and who were the writers who didn’t quite go with the flow:

"all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling";
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth” 
(Oscar Wilde, quoted at page 119)

The result is a traditional blend of cultural history and cultural criticism, all done with grace and humour. The book is very readable. I suspect Trilling’s brand of urbanity and ease is nowadays in shorter and less confident supply.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Review: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead

I bought this book because I had read and enjoyed Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, reviewed on this Blog on 4 August 2018. In contrast to that other book, this one has a more conventional structure, with a single first-person narrator telling her story and a whodunnit? story about a series of events (murders) in the isolated area where she lives. It is fascinating.

It perfectly illustrates Milan Kundera’s claim in his L’Art du Roman (reviewed here on 5 November 2014) that the novelist is someone who works with  imaginary people, personnages (characters), and develops their characteristics as far as they are able and with  a view to engaging the reader with the particularities, the specificity of the character.

Tokarczuk chooses to create a character who has to be credible as an educated, older single woman living alone in an isolated rural area - though as a recluse, she is really a rather sociable one -  whose affection for her dogs (her Little Girls) is such that she turns serial and  brutal killer.  The pivot to murder occurs when she realises(from a chance encounter with a hunter’s trophy photograph) that her dogs have been shot by local hunters who find them a nuisance. The credibility is built by making her someone who is very unwell in her body, who prefers dogs to the disappointment of human beings, whose eccentric mind is obsessively choc a bloc with astrological knowledge (which will be of more interest to readers in a similar state than this one), but who is also enamoured of William Blake, quotations from whose work provide chapter epigraphs and book title. Blake also provides the narrator with her eccentric orthography: she Capitalises in eighteenth century Fashion, a Peculiarity which also contributes to our appreciation of the Comic aspects of the narration. The book is, indeed, really very funny - but that the narrator makes us laugh is often enough because her judgments and priorities are cock-eyed, creating that space in which it is credible that she should end up  thinking  herself entitled to murder.

Tokarczuk does not sit her narrator in a prison cell to write  her story, allowing her to escape that fate; had she done the prison version then I would have been tempted to make comparisons with such narratives as those of Pierre Rivière (non-fiction) and Humbert Humbert (fictional).  

I felt confident that the translator knew what she was doing, and only once queried what I was reading, but I don’t have a Polish original here so I can’t extend that remark. The book is produced to the high standard typical of Fitzcarraldo editions - nice paper, print size, good editing, and so on.

Tuesday 4 June 2019

Review: David Rieff, In Praise of Forgetting

When I saw this book in Blackwell’s Oxford shop during a May 2019 visit, I knew I had to buy it even though I wished I hadn’t seen it. For a number of years, I have been working off and on around themes of memory and forgetting, beginning in the 1990s with a critique of moralising theories of individual learning which ignore unlearning ( ) and extending, more recently, into criticism of the emphasis which states place on collective memory and remembrance - there is a recent example of my writing here:

I’ve read David Rieff’s short book twice. It’s excellent, I can’t find anything really to disagree with, and I have a note of half a dozen books I ought to read as follow-up (it’s a pity the book has no Bibliography - I had to create one on the inside cover as I went along). 

Rieff is not only very widely read, he has practical experience as a journalist of conflicts kept alive by so-called collective memories and he turns this experience to good account. He writes well, though sometimes in sentences sufficiently long and complex for me to lose track and have to start again.

Individual memories are extinguished with the death of their bearer. Before then, they have been subject to continuous mental processing and re-processing - things are forgotten completely, details fade, mis-rememberings intrude, sequences are jumbled. These truths apply both to what psychologists call episodic memories - usually, things which we can recall visually - and semantic memories, things which are organised into narratives of events which we believe we experienced first-hand. There is also a category of procedural memory - remembering how to ride a bike, and so on - which can be remarkably enduring. See Jonathan K Foster, Memory (2009) for these distinctions.

Collective memories - or what Rieff calls in his sub-title “historical memory” - are not really memories at all. In my country, there is a widely shared commitment to keeping alive the memory of the Wars - the First and the Second - but the “memory” is actually no more than common knowledge of a very abridged and usually tendentious historical narrative given emotional life by the ceremonies of remembrance in which it is embedded and which are very frequently repeated - once a year for Remembrance Day, and so on, but in reality it's a constant of British political discourse.

David Rieff puts such collective memories under critical investigation and concludes that from the point of view of securing peaceful and prosperous futures, they would often be better forgotten. They are often divisive and they can function to allow avoidance of the current challenges posed by new historical realities. He gives examples, discussed in some detail, and his harshest conclusion is that they are formulas for “unending grievance and vendetta” (page 110). Most of the time, his discussion is much more subtle and nuanced than those words alone might suggest, and this is true of his discussion of Holocaust remembrance which is woven right through the book.

The sublety is most obvious in those passages where Rieff takes his cue from Josef Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982) and probes the idea that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering” but “justice” (page 91) and expands this by introducing the term “peace”. It is forgetting which often enough enables peace, even without justice, but in contrast the demand to remember links easily to the demand for justice, understood in terms of crimes and punishments. Rieff mobilises some significant examples of historical moments when forgetting has been accepted as a way out from conflict which yields peace even if it does not deliver justice: he references the end of white rule in South Africa, Spain at the time of Franco’s death,  Chile in 1990 , the 1995 Dayton accords in Bosnia, and  the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Ireland.

I’m writing this on 4 May 2019 when President Trump is in the United Kingdom to boost his re-election chances by meeting the Queen and going to Portsmouth to remember the 75th  anniversary (75th? what kind of anniversary is that) of the D-Day landings, historical memory in the service of a man who knows no history.