Sunday, 23 August 2015

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, and THE STORY OF A NEW NAME and THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY by Elena Ferrante

This is an absolutely fantastic series of three novels following a pair of female friends from their childhood in Naples through to their thirties. They grow up poor, in the 30s in Naples, and their lives take very different paths: one leaves school at 14, marries early, and divorces straight away; the other stays in school and becomes an author. Interestingly though it is the former that is the brilliant one, and her more successful friend feels permanently under her shadow.

It's hard to say what makes these novels so compelling. I didn't note down any particularly clever quotes, I can't remember any brilliant concepts; and yet I inhaled these books in a single week. They're so real that I feel as if I have friends from Naples; as if I can talk knowledgably about gender in pre-war Italy. There's one more book to complete the series, and I can't wait.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

THE END OF THE STORY by Lydia Davis

This book sounded like it might be good. First published in the 90s, it has recently been re-published, and re-publishing always suggests good things. I hesitated, however, and I should have hesitated some more. The summary told me that there was an unnamed narrator - BEE BAH BEE BAH - warning sign! Another major warning sign: It's a novel about someone (unnamed) try to write a novel BEE BAH BEE BAH! The novel is about the end of her last relationship, which was, in the way of all tortured modern novels, naturally tortured.

I can't quite summarise quite everything that annoyed me about this book, but in brief:
a) Narrator unnamed
b) Feelings about last boyfriend complex. So complex (ie. negative) are her feelings that after a while you wonder why she's bothering to write a novel about him
c) Writing simple. I didn't think this was possible, but apparently you can strip your writing down so far that all that it becomes irritating

Sorry Ms Davis; just not my sort of book.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

WESTWOOD by Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons wrote some twenty novels, but is famous for only one: COLD COMFORT FARM. It a fantastic, hilarious little novel, about finding a peaceable way to live in a complicated world, and I had high hopes for WESTWOOD. WESTWOOD it turns out is a complicated novel about a complicated world, and while I did not really enjoy it while I was reading it, I'm glad in retrospect that I did.

The novel is set in London at the tail end of the second world war, and captures the feel of the city at that time quite remarkably:
The fire-fighting people had made deep pools with walls round them in many of the streets. and here, in the heart of London, ducks came to live on these lakes that reflected the tall yellow ruins and the blue sky. Pink willow-herb grew over the white uneven ground where houses had stood, and there were acres of ground covered with deserted, shattered houses whose windows were filled torn black paper. . . And the country was beginning to run back to London; back into those grimy villages linked by featureless road from which it had never quite vanished, and which make up the largest city in the world. Weeds grey in the City itself; a hawk was seen hovering over the ruins of the Temple, and foxes raided the chicken roosts in the gardens of houses near Hampstead Heath.

The central character is Margaret, a young teacher, and the story is largely about her obsession with the home and family of a famous playwright, Mr Challis, who happens to live near her in Hampstead. On the one hand, this obsession is about a hankering for beauty/meaning/etc; on the other, to a modern reader in any case, it appears to be a weird fascination with the upper classes. Margaret attempts to insert herself into their lives by 'helping' the nanny with the children - basically becoming an unpaid nanny herself - which everyone seems to view as extremely normal. She is 'allowed' to have tea with the servant as a great favour, while doing lots of manual labour for free; and she is happy about it. Here she is with the playwright:
"Please forgive me for saying it, but I do want you to know that this is the greatest moment of my life."
"Thank you, my child," replied Mr Challis, promptly and with grace.

Mr Challis meanwhile is secretly trying to have an affair with Margaret's very pretty friend Hilda, who he met during a blackout. Hilda however is not interested:
Unlike the working-girl of fifty years ago, whose desire for luxury and comfort was often the cause of her downfall, Hilda was not tempted by luxury. She had as part of her everyday life the cosmetics, clothes and amusements which fifty years ago had been reserved for ladies or unfortunates, and to which poor chaste girls could never hope to aspire to . . .
See what I mean about this being a difficult book for a modern reader?

In an odd twist, Margaret starts looking after the developmentally disabled child of her father's colleague, and for a while it looks like the novel might resolve into a traditional romance; but this ends in a doorstep kiss, never repeated. Eventually Margaret discovers Mr Challis' plans for Hilda, which ends her desire for him, but does not stop her desire for some larger and more beautiful life; and that's where we leave her: still as lost as she was at the beginning, still yearning, though she's not sure for what. So it's a very strange book over all, hard to categorise; apparently at first a romance, or coming of age story, but in the end something larger and much more complex.

Friday, 17 July 2015

AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa

I've read one other book by Vargas Llosa, the wonderful terrifying THE FEAST OF THE GOAT, which I bought because it was the only English language book on sale in Acapulco airport. I then read in one stint over a twelve hour bus ride through Mexico. A book that frightening should not be read on your own, and certainly not without any breaks. It's about the Dominican Republic, making it my second favourite book about a country I can't even find on a map. (Favourite: THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO).

THE FEAST OF THE GOAT has that great essential of a good novel: a plot. AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER, unfortunately, does not. It alternates, chapter by chapter, between a quite acceptable premise - 18 year old man falls in love with his much older aunt - with a selection of short stories which are unrelated and annoyingly unfinished. Vargas Llosa is so talented that unwillingly I kept getting interested in the short stories, even though I knew they would not end. I think it's all just showing off. What's he trying to say? Surprise surprise, life lacks narrative coherence? WE KNOW THAT. That's why we read novels.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen

MANSFIELD PARK was one of my A-level set books, and being an anxious student, I probably read it nine or ten times over the period of that course. Once I'd written the exam, just seeing the Penguin cover was enough to make me nauseous. I therefore haven't opened it since I skimmed it on that exam day, which, horrifyingly, is now almost twenty years ago, though I can still easily call up that exam room smell as if I was there last week.

MANSFIELD PARK has always been my least favourite Austen, largely because it contains my least favourite Austen heroine, Fanny, who is a total drip. This is not helped by the fact that Austen likes to refer to her as "my dear Fanny" - actually wait maybe that does help a bit. Books do tend to change over the years, so I was surprised to find that this one was actually much as I remembered it - Fanny's still a drip, I'm afraid. The only thing which struck me anew on this reading was how very moral a story it is. It's very much about the value of stillness, and stern principle, and about how seductive and charming and finally dangerous is the reverse. I don't know why this didn't strike me as a teenager? Perhaps I was more convinced then of the value of principle, and so it struck me as simply true, rather than as a moral position. But it's very clear. Here's Austen's summary, near the end: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." Jeez.

Let's be clear here people. I say it's my least favourite Austen. That's still puts it among the best books ever written.

THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

This book proves that originality is not needed for success. It's a very basic concept of opposites attracting: socially awkward boy meets socially able girl. Various misunderstanding accrue, they get together in the end.

For all that it's charming.

EQUAL RITES by Terry Pratchett

It seems I can't turn my back on a book for even a decade or so without it changing. Who is rewriting these things in my absence? SENSE AND SENSIBILITY: When did that become such a morality tale? MIDDLEMARCH: what's this new plot? EQUAL RITES: Well, we won't bother with the plot, because Pratchett is never about the plot; but sadly, so sadly, it's not as funny as I remember. I loved Terry Pratchett as a teenager, and it's sad to see that he or I have changed. It almost makes me scared to go back to other much loved books; I think I'd rather have my memory of the book I loved, rather than the book itself.