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Showing posts with label graham swift mothering sunday. Show all posts
Showing posts with label graham swift mothering sunday. Show all posts

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. 

Saturday 21 July 2018

Summer Reading Picks: Changing The Question

It’s the time of year when celebrities of one kind or another are asked to tell us their Summer Reading plans, providing them – if they choose - with opportunities to show themselves in a good light and do favours for their friends. The latter is not always acknowledged – though in today’s Financial Times, I notice Philippe Sands prefacing a book choice with a “My friend …” thus avoiding any risk of a later appearance in Private Eye’s end of year log-rolling awards, for which there are no shortage of candidates among those who review and recommend books.

I had the thought that the Summer Reading formula could be varied a bit. Instead of asking about actual reading plans, I imagined this question:

If you could only take on holiday this year a book which you read sometime last year (2017), what would it be?

The question is a challenge for me because I don’t go on holidays and don’t often read a book a second time unless in connection with something I am writing. But I looked at the books I reviewed here in 2017 and decided that if I had no choice this summer but to re-read, I would pick:

Madeleine Thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing, reviewed here on 12 April 2017, which has an extraordinary layered complexity which deserves a second reading.

And then, since that book would take up a lot of my imaginary holiday, I would settle for a short novel which I have already read twice and would have no trouble reading again:

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday, reviewed here on 8 June 2017

But having re-written the summer reading picks question, it's now back to Freud.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Review: Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

Click on Image to Magnify

I read this novella - 35 000 words – and thought it was beautifully conceived and crafted, one of the best things I have read this year. So a couple of weeks later, I have read it again to see how it is done. Some of the results are quite surprising. For example, the text runs to 149 pages. Exactly half way through at page 74, Swift baldly announces the death of his second most important character, Paul Sheringham:

She had not known he was already dead.

That one sentence provides new interest for the reader, now waiting to discover how Paul died and what will happen next.

The story is heavily marked by premature deaths, starting in the very first line:

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed…

The short lives of boys killed in the trenches of the first world war then stands in dramatic contrast with the longevity of the main character, Jane Fairchild, who appears first as a twenty-two year old housemaid involved in a passionate, sexual relationship with Paul who at twenty four is the youngest of all the brothers, the only boy from two neighbouring families who was too young to be sentenced to death in the trenches.

The heart of the novel  is a narrative of the last time Jane and Paul are together, Mothering Sunday 1924. This occupies the first half and is exquisitely done. Paul dies at twenty four but Jane lives to ninety-eight (it works out at 1901 – 1999), a long life on which Swift places great emphasis, and she becomes a well-known and much-interviewed novelist but one who never discloses the tale which Swift has told in the first half of his book.

Second time around, I had some doubts about the long recessional which forms the second half of the book. Swift writes about how Jane becomes a novelist, the books she reads and what she says about them when interviewed in later life. ( She reads Kipling, for example, who wrote a Recessional).  It chronicles the titles of the novels she writes. It is as if Swift is seeking some quieter objective correlative for the emotions which sear the first half of the book and the abrupt loss which on Mothering Sunday 1924 brings to an end the love affair of the young maid Jane and the young master Paul. But it also suggests, I suppose, that though we normally think that novelists will always end up writing about what has most touched them in their lives, that may not be a general truth. When her secret life as Paul’s lover ends, Jane has to carry on as the housemaid almost as if nothing has happened. She has to close that book and can only find a future by opening a new one. Art is long, but life is short.