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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. 

Tuesday 28 May 2019

Review: John Gray, Seven Types of Atheism

I don’t want to read this book a second time so this will be a short review. From its title, I expected something more elegant but, in fact, it’s a rather ragged book, as if written in a hurry or with lots of cutting and pasting. Bits of important argument are jammed up against thumbnail biographies. There is a very large cast of characters, some of them new to me and who sound as if they are worth reading. I’ve never read Santayana or Schopenhauer and Gray makes me feel that I’ve missed out. That’s something worth taking away from any book.

It’s an interesting book the most general theme of which is the claim that modern (post eighteenth century) positivisms and humanisms, supposedly atheist or secular in character, repeatedly mirror and repeat key mistakes of Christianity, notably the ideas that there is progress in history and that human beings are perfectible. As a result, they end up less liberal and humane than they often set out to be.

For Gray, history is cyclical - things get better, then they get worse - and human beings are always going to let us down. If I had to sum up his views in two words, they would be Shit happens. Three words and it would be Shit happens. Whatever. 

In this context, Gray makes some interesting remarks about Joseph Conrad and the sea (pp 132 - 141). The sea does not know the idea of progress, nor does the sea care much for our prayers. One might add: American evangelical conmen (they are always men and they are always conning people) who see hurricane floods as God's wrath directed at gays or abortion (or whatever) sometimes find their own houses struck by lightning. It may be poetic justice, but it is not part of a Plan nor does it represent Progress.

Lots of potential lines of argument are opened up only to be fairly rapidly abandoned. Some nuances are missed: the French revolutionaries changed the calendar, in a root and branch way; the Bolsheviks also changed the calendar (page 81), but the Bolsheviks actually did no more than move from the inaccurate Julian [as in Caesar] calendar to the more accurate Gregorian [as in Pope Gregory] calendar used throughout  the bourgeois capitalist world, 31st January 1918 followed by 14th February 1918, a reform still in place because it works better. It never had any Millenarian credentials.

Monday 27 May 2019

Review: Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Click on image to enlarge

I still buy books in shops. I like to browse and I try to buy books I haven’t heard of - in contrast, if I go to Amazon it is to buy a book I already know about. At the end of my last visit to a shop (Oxford Blackwell’s) I left with six books, including this one.

As a result, I now have a new rule about buying in shops: avoid books with multiple product endorsements. This one has over thirty. I really don’t understand why.

There is always a danger in trying to write fictions based on current newspaper or TV preoccupations. The fiction can end up being read as simply a non-fiction contribution to the ongoing debate: Should we let young people who went off to join ISIS return to the UK when they change their minds or - more commonly - when ISIS loses the fight it has picked? I am going to guess that that is how some reviewers have read this book and some book groups have discussed it.

Novelists might claim that they concretise the question to individuals, make us see the human side of such questions, but insofar as those individuals are characters in a novel they are not real characters in life but imagined ones and imagined ones ought not (as a general rule) count for  much in real political debate. There are exceptions of which Scrooge is the all time stand-out case of a literary character you can legitimately deploy in real-world debate, treating the character's name as a shorthand for an argument or a gesture towards an area of common understanding. But from the fact that Miss Havisham does not lend itself so easily, one can begin to see that the traffic from novel to life is not so great as that between  life and the novel or would-be novel.

Imagined characters can be flat or rounded, caricatures or fleshed out, cardboard or something more solid. In my reading, Shamsie’s characters don’t quite make it across the line to become really interesting. Especially at the beginning, I was bored by their flatness. I began to say to myself “Potemkin village”.

They do improve but the characters then suffer the fate of being moved around in a plot which comes across as increasingly contrived and which ends up cynical: the ending seems designed for a crass Hollywood film even though the novelist gives her story cover as a re-working of Antigone. Again, I found myself saying “Potemkin village” which is for me partly a way of questioning whether the author’s heart is really in the work or whether the novel is something which has been knocked up for reasons which are not particularly heartfelt but more designed to impress - the Potemkin village is precisely a theatre scenery facade designed to impress the world but behind which there is nothing substantial.

The book has its moments - characters are given some good lines, including funny ones; the  bad guy, Home Secretary Karamat, ends up as a fairly multi-dimensional character; jihadi Parvaiz has an interest in the world of sound around him which is developed in a thoughtful way. But then again, when Kamsie seeks to shift gear from plain narration to heightened narration, the prose and the imagery becomes overwrought.

I would like to have Liked this book; it’s more fun writing positive than negative reviews - and a mistake made in a browse-purchase inevitably makes you think about the book you didn’t buy.

Monday 13 May 2019

Review: Guy Shrubsole, Who Owns England?

This is a readable, accessible book which roams much wider than its title. It provides a comprehensive introduction to the subject of land ownership. In the first half I felt I was being reminded of things I already knew from Private Eye and The Financial Times but as the book progressed I learnt many new things - for example, about English land reform movements in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, including the role of the National Trust,  and then about more recent and extensive actual land reforms in Scotland which the author thinks point the way for reforms in England.

Shrubsole correctly makes the case for believing that land is different from other goods. It is finite and we all depend on it in many ways. For this and other reasons, it’s important to know who owns it and for that knowledge to be in the public domain even though it deprives owners of a kind of privacy which we might accept for other goods - no one, for example, is arguing for a register of all oil paintings in private homes, something which would have the great disadvantage of being of great value to burglars. Land can’t be carted away - at least, not by an averagely equipped burglar. 

Everyone’s dependence on land for food, water, housing, recreation and so on, also creates a very strong case for its ownership and use to be publicly regulated even where land is not publicly owned.

Shrubsole focusses mainly on rural land and in that context makes much of the historical importance of common land - the commons of the past - and the importance now of publicly accessible land, land made accessible by “right to roam” legislation. He emphasises just how much land is privately owned and how few people own it.

 I felt that he would benefit from an over-arching concept of public space which gets used by theorists of the city to think about pavements, parks, and so on, and the way they are separate from though sometimes encroached upon by private spaces. Using the concept of public space, one can think not only about rights but also responsibilities. What we call public space is also the space where anti-social behaviour occurs, which is an important reason why so much of it is degraded; it’s not just the consequence of austerity budgets but of human disregard - littering the most obvious example. 

In the countryside context, Shrubsole only once mentions dogs (page 252). But one of the harsh realities of contemporary public space is that dog owners regard it as provided primarily for the benefit of an ever expanding number of dogs. The amount of public space from which dogs are excluded is pitifully small: think only of those small, fenced off and overcrowded children’s playgrounds surrounded by acres of land more or less monopolised by dog walkers. Walkers in the open countryside have to contend fairly constantly  with exciteable off-the leash dogs.

Shrubsole documents the power of the land-owning lobby, exercised over the centuries to secure more land for itself (the enclosures), and later on, tax breaks and subsidies. Any programme of reform faces a thanklessl task, not least in an England now with a much weakened administrative and political system in which voters have ceased to give governments the kind of thumping majorities which allow them to face down lobbyists and donors. Shrubsole tries to point a path to a better future. I fear it will be an uphill struggle, not helped by the fact that younger people, who are supposed to be more environmentally conscious, do not vote with anything like the enthusiasm of the elderly.