Friday, 11 April 2014

LITTLE FAILURE by Gary Shtenygart

I really did not enjoy this book. But I still read the whole thing, in a kind of weird masochistic way, enjoying hating it.

LITTLE FAILURE is a memoir that recounts the experience of a man who emigrated from Russia to the US. He bangs on and on about Russia. Guess what age he was when he left Russia? A) 40 B) 20 C) 7. Yes, SEVEN. He tells us about how he goes to a little liberal arts school to study creative writing, and you just KNOW that the professors there encouraged him to write about his 'interesting' background, to the point where he has virtually nothing else to say. It's totally fakey. I appreciate you need to find your USP in order to sell, but COME ON.

Let me give you a sample of how American he is: "St Petersburg is a sad place. Its sadness lies in a mass grave in its northeastern suburbs along with the 750,000 citizens who died of hunger and German shelling during the 871 day siege." Imagine saying something like that to someone actually from St Petersburg! What: your city is sad? What nonsense. On the basis of past atrocities, every single big city is sad, and Rome must be a non-stop funeral. It's just so ridiculous and exoticising I can barely stand it.

But its not even the immigrant bit that annoys me the most; it's the heavy layer of cheese over the entire enterprise. There is a big set-up at the beginning, about how the author has a panic attack in a New York book store when he sees a picture of some church, and this church is referenced over and over again, so you think something really major is coming: but no, his dad once him in the face there. That's it. That's the big reveal. Or try this melodramatic language: "On so many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book, I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety"

I don't know if I am being a huge hater, or what. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that I just read a great memoir, A MAN IN LOVE, which comparison is making it most particularly painful.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry

I chose to read A FINE BALANCE in part because it had been recommended to me, and in part because it was reviewed as "sweeping and Dickensian". I love a good Victorian treatment of a contemporary subject, and the subject here was at least in part Partition. I have little/no understanding of the history or politics of Partition, but I know its literature well, being a veteran of such authors as Vikram Seth, VS Naipaul, etc, and as a purely literary event I always find Partition very compelling, and weirdly modern: all these people suddenly cut a drift from their regular lives, and having to start again.

A FINE BALANCE tells the story of four people who all end up living in a small flat together. There's the owner, a single lady of mature years; the two tailors she employs; and her paid guest, who is the child of a school friend. We move back and forth in time, hearing the story of each person, but the centre of the novel is the time in the flat. The co-habitation in the flat begins out of economic necessity, but over time the four develop into a little family, which is very sweet and touching.

Hold up there, because here is where I started to get suspicious. Why are they so happy? Why are so many threads resolved, and I'm only at about 70%? I HOPE MISTRY ISN'T SETTING ME UP TO CARE ABOUT THESE PEOPLE JUST SO HE CAN MAKE A POINT ABOUT INDIA'S SOCIAL ILLS, IS HE? Oh yes. Oh yes he is. He makes you care about the characters so that when they run into the above social ills, you feel terrible. And he sure lays on the ills/ These four characters experience:
- Caste violence
- Rape
- Slum dwelling
- Slum clearance (ie, you think slum dwelling is bad, but it's nowhere near so bad as when they won't let you live in the slum)
- Forced sterilization
- Forced labour
- Religious mob violence

I mean, I'm not playing: this is all in there. And it's not even that long. At the end, one kills himself, and you feel almost relieved.

That said, Mistry is a talented writer, and its an absorbing book, with entirely believable characters, neatly detailed and overlapping, and many delightful turns of phrase. (Here's his description of a village: "There, where typhoid and cholera, unchallenged by science of technology, were still reaping their routine harvest of villagers"). So I recommend, but only on a good day when you're feeling strong and won't get depressed when imagined terrible things happen to fictional poor people.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A MAN IN LOVE by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Deciding what to read next is difficult. I don't know personally very many readers who like what I like, so actual people are not much use; even apparently intelligent people will genuinely suggest that you should try THE DA VINCI CODE. Of late I have been using - though I feel like a capitalist lackey - Amazon's suggestion based on "other people bought." This is proving very successful, especially when tested against what the Guardian/Telegraph/NYT think. And so I found: A MAN IN LOVE by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I thought I would like it when I saw that Karl Ove's inspiration was Proust, and like it I do. It's 6 volumes across about 4000 pages, and his subject is his daily life. And despite the fact that he is not a super spy or international man of mystery, its engaging and charming, and I think I'm going to read it all over the next few years.

A MAN IN LOVE is Volume 2 of his series, which is bizarrely called MY STRUGGLE. It covers his move from Norway to Sweden, his marriage and first children. He gives you a detailed account of absolutely everything, and as with Proust, this is both boring and strangely comforting. The older I get, the more I coming to the conclusion that everyone's life, when closely examined, is weird and embarrassing, and virtually nobody is leading the life we all feel we ought to be: rational, well thought out, properly managed. So for example, when Karl Ove (one can't possibly call him Knausgaard) first meets his wife to be, she shows little interest, and he drinks too much and gets cuts from a broken mirror all over his face, and everyone knows why, and it's horridly awkward. Then when they do get together, he is so happy when she kisses him for the first time that he actually faints. But then he still can't help ogling women on the sidewalk, even while madly in love.

He explains what has pushed him to memoir: "Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Whereever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether whether what they told had actually happened or not . . . ... The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.

This is all very well, but sometime it degenerates into this: "I went into the supermarket down in the Metro station by Stureplan, bought a grilled chicken, a lettuce, some tomatoes, a cucumber, black olives, two red onions and a fresh baguette". No, this is going anywhere. That's his grocery list. There's also a good hundred pages on a child's birthday party during which he is bored. Yes, a hundred pages on a boring party. That takes balls.

On the other hand sometimes this daily detail is very fun, when he gives you a view of normal life in Sweden. Apparently, normal life in Sweden is mind bogglingly safe and controlled and modern. Karl Ove's wife looks after the kids while he finishes a novel, and then he looks after them while she finishes drama school, and apparently he is just one of many men with hipster glasses pushing prams around Malmo. He hates domestic work, finds it boring and frustrating in a way I would say that women are not 'allowed' to, and as he puts it - re: the pram - "I was bound to it like Odysseus to the mast: if I wanted to free myself I could do that, but not without losing everything. As a result I walked around Stockholm's streets, modern and feminised, with a furious nineteenth century man inside me." Hilariously, for someone not from Scandinavia, one of Karl Ove's biggest issues how foreign he feels as a Norwegian living in Scandinavia. Let's try not to fall apart laughing, but as he puts it: "I know nothing about life here. Everything is deeply alien." I hope in some later section of this project he has to go STRUGGLE with Mogadishu. I can't wait to find out.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

ALL THAT IS by James Salter

What I think is interesting, is how one book about a man's life can be totally different from another. STONER, one of this blog's favourite books, is all about work and failure; ALL THAT IS is all about sex. Now, my question is, is this a product of the fact that art projects need themes, and so themes are selected; or is it that people's live themselves, inherently, have different themes? I suspect its the latter.

If so, James Salter's theme is sex. Here we go:
"They made love as if it were a violent crime, he was holding her by the waist, half woman, half vase, adding weight to the act. She was crying in agony, like a dog near death. They collapsed as if stricken.

I can only say: half vase?

Sex aside, ALL THAT IS is an entertaining book. It covers the life of a man from his time in the Second World War through to his career in publishing and on to retirement. It's unusual formally, as while it is focused on the central character, it actually very largely a collection of vignettes of his acquaintance, making a sort of kaleidiscope of mid twentieth century America, which I enjoyed and found interesting.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell

Apparently I have entered the phase of re-reading the books of my youth. Does this mean I am old? No. Probably it is my actual age that means I am old. Anyway, on to an iconic text of my pimply youth: NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell.

As you can perhaps guess by its title, this is a novel of the Industrial Revolution. But, as so often with female authors of this period, it's wrapped up in a love story. The main character, Margaret, is a young woman living with her parents in the charming countryside in the SOUTH. She helps the elderly, darns clothes, is surprised by an offer of marriage, etc. Then her clergyman father loses his faith, and feels he can no longer preach. Hello modernity! The family are forced to scrape about for a new income, and her father is offered a tutoring position in a large city in the NORTH. It's called Milton but I think we all know its Manchester. And so begins Margaret's education in industrialisation. She is horrified by the filth and the noise, but slowly she comes to understand the life, and to value it. It's an interesting transition, but it's hard to get past how Gaskell really goes to town with the workforce. Here's a worker, whose son his going hungry while he is on strike: " Our lil' Jack, who wakened me each morn wi' putting his sweet little lips to my great rough fou' face, a-seeking a soft place to kiss - an he lies clemmin'". It's not nice to laugh at starving children, but what can you do?

Margaret also meets a dark and louring young man, a captain of industry, and it's very obvious where this is going. It's not obvious to Margaret though, who is once again surprised with an offer of marriage. I mean: it's one thing to be demure, it's another to be a dumbass. Anyway, he is rejected and becomes even more dark and louring, while breaking the strike and leaving the children to clem a bit more. Eventually after much tortured distance, they finally get together.
He clasped her close. But they both kept silence. At length, she murmured in a broken voice:"Oh, Mr Thornton. I am not good enough!"
"Not good enough! Don't mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness."

Honestly. I don't know who has been re-writing this novel in the twenty years since I last read it. I don't remember it being like this at all.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


This book tells the story of some Malaysians trying to make it in China. The stories are largely separate, with only occasional overlaps, apparently a most fashionable form at the moment.

What can I tell you? I kind of hated it. The characters are very varied - a migrant factory worker, a successful business woman, a pop star - but they are also all very similar. They all want money, or, perhaps to put it more fairly, they all want the symbols of money. They all find solace in the internet. They all think Shanghai is big. I can't tell you too much about it as I've already forgotten most of it.

FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE has received some good reviews, so perhaps I am being uncharitable. I guess it was sort of interesting to learn about contemporary China, but if that's what China is like - dull and money grubbing - I'm not sure I'm very interested.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

THE AFRICA HOUSE by Christina Lamb

THE AFRICA HOUSE tells the true and bizarre story of one Stewart Gore-Browne, who arrived in Zambia in 1910, fell in love with a lake in the middle of nowhere, and dedicated the rest of his life to building an English country estate there. Over the course of his long life he went from wildly colonial figure – the local people used to lie face down when he walked past; his first act was to shoot a rhino – to someone who Kenneth Kaunda would describe as: “one of the most visionary people of Africa – He was born an English gentlemen and died a Zambian gentlemen.”

The book itself is perhaps not impeccably written – here’s a sample of the kind of cliché you need to wade through: “Above us the equatorial sun beat down from an endless blue sky” – but it’s a very interesting story, and one I found oddly inspirational. This is not so much because Gore-Browne did everything right, but because he really did so many things – packed so much in – and because so many of those things were plainly crazy. He was an original thinker, as many people are, but where he differed from most was in his willingness to actually do what he dreamed. And what he dreamed was pretty crazy: he was going to have a country estate, in the best tradition of the English country estate, in the middle of darkest Africa, by the lake where Livingstone’s dog had recently been eaten by a crocodile.

There were diversions: he fought in the First World War, for example; but he went on with his plan, slowing building an eccentric mansion, and trying to create an estate that might eventually make the place economically self sustaining (orange orchards, perfume oils, cattle: all failures). He loved the place, but he was lonely, and madly in love with a woman twenty years old than him who was unfortunately married. Even more unfortunately, she was also his aunt. Eventually he married a young girl he barely knew, which marriage ended in two children and floods of tears.

Gore-Browne, while never a liberal in the way we would recognize today, understood the local people very well, and increasingly found himself their protector. For example, here he is to a British policeman trying to shut down an illegal shebeen “While you are stuffing your fat faces with beer and chicken and slurping your whiskey sodas, they are surviving on one bowl of watery porridge. And you begrudge them one bowl of millet beer you wouldn’t even let your dog drink!” He knew Kenneth Kaunda, who often stayed at his house, and when Independence came, renounced his British citizenship for Zambian.

He was disappointed to have no role in the state after independence, Kaunda finding him inconveniently white, and he spent his last years alone in his house with his servant and friend Henry. His house now is crumbling, and his son, interviewed by the author, called in a monument to one man’s suffocating vanity. What a whiny little bitch. Children are so uncharitable to their parents. Here’s the end of Gore-Browne’s last letter: “Yes, 84 years are plenty . . . I find my memory is quite childishly feeble now. . . However I’ve had a good life and lots to be thankful for. Henry sends his respectful regards.” This is a great epitaph, and I hope I can say the same for myself at 84. So what that his house is crumbling, and the idea never really worked out. He had a great time trying.

As a side note, here’s a little selection of the handwritten notes I found on the last pages of this book, which I bought in one of Joburg’s many second hand book shops: NO TV ON THE WARD
My bed neighbor ‘hears voices’
4 ward mates have been to Sterkfontein
1 young chap (30) has tried to kill himself 8 times in the last year (certified twice)
B/fast – warm sweetcorn, porridge awful