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.

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt

Well here's a book I gobbled up over a couple of nights. It's that very unusual thing, a smart and worthwhile book that's also a serious page turner. Here's how it begins: 'Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw,' that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

I mean a longing for sex, yes. Money, yes. Power, definitely. But the picturesque? And yet that's what this story is about. The plot may be summarized as: young man becomes overly involved with his classics class.

The young man in question is a freshman in college when he gains admission to a tight little clique focused on the Ancient Greeks, and over time we learn that they harbour a big secret. They have been trying to live the life of the Ancient Greeks, up to and including attempting to meet with Dionysus in the woods of Vermont, and as part of this bizarre project have unintentionally killed a farmer. One member of the group, Bunny, a somewhat unstable young man, begins to suggest he is going to tell people about the murder. The group try and placate him by pandering to all of his whims, but slowly they realise that they are going to need to find a more permanent solution. So this time it's an intentional killing - but it doesn't end their problems, because now they all begin to fear that the others will tell. I won't give away what goes on after that, except to say that the book carries on to explore what it would mean if we really tried to live the life of the Ancient Greeks - sibling sex and all.

The key lesson I learned is: always commit your murders on your own.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

LEAVING BEFORE THE RAIN COMES by Alexandra Fuller

I've read all Fuller's books of memoir about her life in southern Africa. This sounds like an endorsement. It is, and it isn't. They're reasonably good books, but I think I've read them not so much for their quality as for their rarity. If you are American, or British, or Indian, or from any other large group, there are many novels about your experience. If you are Zimbabwean, not so much. The only white Zimbabwean I've ever seen portrayed on screen for example is Leonardo DiCaprio, doing a horrible South African accent.

There's much in Fuller's life that I can identify with, from the dirty to the malaria:
the Fullers . . drank whatever they could find, lukewarm if need be, and had no compunction about using ice made from unboiled water. 'A few germs never hurt anyone,' Dad always said. And if a bout of diarrhea ensued, it simply proved his point. 'See? Keeps you from getting all blocked up.
and
Like most drinking families, we usually aired our feelings late at night.
But I struggle with some of it; the Fullers are clearly somewhat new arrivals in Africa, so there is a sense of foreignness that I struggle to understand: (We) were alone in the house. Although truthfully we were alone only in the ways Westerners speak of being alone in Africa, as if the few hundred locals by whom they are almost always surrounded are part of the landscape, instead of part of humanity"

This novel is the story of the author's divorce. She married young, to an American named Charlie. As with many Africans, she imagined an American could give her stability.
Charlie was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness, quietly stepping in whenever he thought we were drinking excessively, ruining our health with cigarettes, or courting intestinal disaster with undercooked chicken. This made the Fullers howl with laughter and did nothing to make them behave differently.

They began their lives in rural Zambia, and unsurprisingly being twenty two and living in a remote location with a small screaming baby did make make for immediate bliss. They therefore moved to America, where they had two more children in short order. They have financial troubles, and their marriage starts to unravel. It's very sad. It's also somewhat annoying. She claims repeatedly that she 'can't understand the accounts' which is an frustratingly female way of dodging responsibility. The financial trouble seems all very American - the poverty of having too much. As she puts it:
True, we had a house, a cabin, some investments, but it turned out we didn't own any of the roofs over our heads, the bank did. We had three horses on some pasture in Idaho, those were ours . . .
Two residences and three horses and you wonder why you're in debt?

Anyway, this is a sweet and touching novel. I recommend it.



FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Irene Nemirovsky is famous for SUITE FRANCAISE, a novel about the German invasion of France, which she wrote during the German invasion of France. It's a fantastic novel, and was almost lost to the world, as Nemirovsky died in a concentration camp while the book was still in draft. Her daughter took a suitcase of her mother's papers around with her for fifty years, and never opened it, fearing it would be too upsetting; and only at the end of her life finally unpacked it and found the novel. FIRE IN THE BLOOD was similarly found in some old papers of Nemirovsky's and while not for me as great as SUITE FRANCAISE, is still a very fine novel. The theme is covered in the opening quotation, from one of the favourite novelists of this blog: Marcel Proust.
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitude that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a paterfamilias or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed around them. The represent a struggle and a victory.

The story is told from the perspective of an older man, who watches with fascination his young niece cheating on her husband.
It wasn't just about the pleasures of the flesh. No, it wasn't that simple. The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . that was what we wanted.

He feels that his old age has come on him unexpectedly, and references a charming old French proverb - "The days drag on while they years fly by". He has much to say on the relative serenity of middle age:
"They are happy with themselves. They have renounced the vain attempts of youth to adapt the world to their desires. They have failed, and, now, they can relax. In a few years they will once again be troubled by great anxiety, but this time it will be a fear of death; it will have a strange effect on their tastes, it will make them indifferent, or eccentric, or moody, incomprehensible to their families, strangers to their children. But between the ages of forty and sixty they enjoy a precarious sense of tranquility."

The niece's mother is presented throughout as a sweet older lady, but we slowly learn that the narrator was in his time her lover. She was then married to a dying old man, and so wouldn't sleep with him. He left her to travel to Africa to recover. He suffered much over this at the time, but really at heart this is a dark little novel, about how all our sufferings will eventually be eroded by time, till nothing much is left. Here he is, last line of the novel, the last time he saw her before he left for Africa:
"Helene," the dying man called out, "Helene." We didn't move. She seemed to be drinking me in, breathing in my heart. As for me, by the time I finally let her go I knew I had already begun to love her less.