Monday, 27 October 2014

THE SPORTSWRITER by Richard Ford

This book tells the story of one weekend in the life of a divorced man. It won the Pulitzer, and is about more than just a weekend; it's about how you accept the scope - be it limited or large - of your life.

The man's divorce still smarts, and much of the book is about absorbing that loss. Here he is, rather beautifully, on his marriage: "We paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out, went to cocktail parties, visited schools, and romanced each other in the sweet, cagey way of adults I looked out my window, stood in my yard sunsets with a sense of solace and achievement, cleaned my rain gutters, eyed my shingles, put up storms, fertilized regularly, computed my equity, spoke to my neighbours in an interested voice - the normal applauseless life of us all."

I just love 'in an interested voice' - sometimes I think that's my whole life. He is full of dreadful, despairing wisdom, like:
"For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or you life will be ruined."
and
"Sometimes we do not really become adults until we suffer a good whacking loss, and our lives in a sense catch up with us and wash over us like a wave and everything goes."

So, full mid-life crisis mode. Curiously, he's only 37. This book was written in the 1980s, and I guess people married and had children sooner then, so also had the mid-life crises early. After a while, I started to find it annoying. I wanted to say: protagonist! you are living through the last golden days of being a middle class American man. Enjoy it! Feminism and China are coming to end it.

But who can fail to enjoy this description of air travel, for which I can forgive him everything: "It must be said, of course, that the interiors of all up-to-date conveyances of travel put one in mind of the midwest. The snug-fitted overhead bins, the comfy pastel recliners, disappearing tray-tables and smorgasboard air of anything-you-want-within-sensible-limits. All products of midwestern ingenuity, as surely as a waltz is Viennese."

THE GRASS IS SINGING by Doris Lessing

THE GRASS IS SINGING is Doris Lessing's first novel, and in it she comes out swinging. The book opens with a snippet about the murder of a white woman by her 'houseboy,' and Lessing's first line is: "People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could only have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have."

Ouch. Thanks Doris. I guess if Zimbabwe is only to have one Nobel laureate in literature, I am glad it is her. It is a fiery book and I admire her courage in having written it in the Rhodesia in the 40s. It has the distinct smell of burning bridges to it, having been written just before she left the country forever. She was not yet 30, self-educated, and had just walked out on a marriage and two children.

The story focuses on one Mary Turner, who marries because she feels she must, and leaves her happy life in Salisbury for a remote farm. Her husband is rather a failure as a farmer, and she becomes increasingly eccentric/insane over time. She becomes a little obsessed with her domestic worker,and when she dismisses him at last he returns to kill her. If this seems like an odd summary, this is because this is an odd book. It's stressful to read, pulsing with complicated feelings about race and about the land.

Like most people from small and poor countries, I have little experience of fiction about my home, so I found it very interesting in that way. For example, there's something about the solidarity of the small community that's still there:
"It's not customary in this country, is it?" he asked slowly, out of the depths of his bewilderment. And he saw, as he spoke, that the phrase 'this country' which is like a call to solidarity for most white people, meant nothing to her.

A powerful and unusual book. It made me glad Independence came when it did, so I could grow up in Zimbabwe, not Rhodesia.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

MRS CRADDOCK by W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham's OF HUMAN BONDAGE is life changingly wonderful (or at least I thought so in my twenties), so I had high hopes for MRS CRADDOCK. It's neither life changing nor wonderful, but it's still to be recommended. It tells the story of a wealthy young lady called Bertha, who falls madly in love with one of tenant farmers on her estate, and marries him in face of huge opposition. Appallingly, for her, everyone comes around to loving him, just as she falls out of love with him.

For a novel of this period, the book is shockingly frank about physical desire. I was not surprised to learn it had to be published with excisions at first. Bertha is obssessed with his 'manly hands' and his 'big mouth', and entirely overlooks his tiny brain in consequence. It is not however his stupidity that wears her down, but rather his placidity. Bertha is a wildly passionate woman, and her husband is not. Thus he never gives her 'enough' love, and this is the central issue of their marriage. She tries to leave him, and almost runs away with an eighteen year old, but in the end simply finds a way to live with him, rather unhappily. One day she comes down overdressed to dinner, and encapsulates the central issue of the novel with this comment, said under her breath: "That is my whole life . .. to eat cold mutton and mashed potatoes in a ball dress and all my diamonds."

It's a pretty sad story, but Maugham is always a funny writer. Here he is on a dull and pretentious dinner party: "It is an axiom of narration that truth should coincide with probability, and the realist is perpetually hampered by the wild exaggeration of the actual facts. A verbatim report of the conversations at Mrs Branderton's dinner party would read like shrieking caricature." This I find to be very true - it's amazing how often what happens in real life would appear fantastical if in fiction.

I also quite enjoyed this little snippet: "Sometimes in the twilight of winter afternoons, when the mind was naturally led to a contemplation of the vanity of existence and futility of all human endeavour, she would be seized with melancholy." I don't know why but I found this both funny and sad, much like this odd little novel over all.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

THE HISTORY OF MARY PRINCE: A WEST INDIAN SLAVE by Mary Prince

This short book is Mary Prince's account of her life as a slave in the West Indies and later in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

What struck me particularly in her account was the huge variability in quality of her life, which entirely depended on the whim of her owners. Obviously, at all times slavery is completely immoral, but in the first family to who she belongs she is treated quite well and expresses great affection for the children she looks after. However, when she is then sold, she is separated from her mother and siblings and goes to a very harsh couple. With them, she works incessantly, from before dawn to well past dark, and is beaten for even small infractions. Unfortunately she is then sold again, to an even worse family, who force her to work collecting salt. All the slaves have to stand in salt water all day, so they acquire terrible boils. Sometimes they have to work all night, in which case no alteration is made; they still have to work all the next day. This couple then takes her to England with them when they go their on a visit. Now apparently at this time slavery was illegal in England, but legal in the colonies, so she is theoretically free to leave at any time. It struck me as very odd that her owners did not think she would leave, but curiously she does not for many months, until their treatment becomes so terrible that she goes to see some of the abolitionist activists, who assist her to leave. Her previous owner bizarrely then tries to blacken her name, so she can get no other employment and will be forced to come back to him. Even more weirdly, when he is offered her full price for her freedom (so she can go back to Antigua and be there free also), he refuses this too, presumably out of malice.

This book has a lengthy preface, in which the abolitionist who assisted her tries to convince the British public of the honesty of her words and the importance of total abolition across the Empire. It was very interesting to see what were the real debates of the period. It appears that many people did not believe that such awful things could possibly be happening. For example, Mary tells us that one of the old men was tortured by the owner, who kept throwing extra salt in his wounds so he would never heal. He didn't do this to the other slaves. You can see where this seems so unimaginably horrible that you might doubt it's reality, and he spends much of the pamphlet explaining that slavery brutalizes owners also. I find it interesting, just by the by, how little one hears about the efforts of abolitionists, which was after all really key to ending slavery. Perhaps, as they were mostly religious people, it is because they are now unfashionable?

There are also a couple of pages at the end by a West African called Asa-Asa, who tells us how he was abducted. This is very sad. The neighbouring people set his village alight, and then returned over the course of about a month to capture any and everyone they could. He does not know what happened to his family as he hid in a tree and they kept running when their enemies came. It sounds pretty much exactly like what you hear about happening today in DRC. He also tells us he changed hands as a slave five or six times within Africa itself, before he was sold to a white person, which also says something pretty sad about slavery in Africa at the time.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

THE LIVES OF OTHERS by Neel Mukherjee

When I saw this novel described as a Dickensian romp through Bengal in the 1970s I hit BUY NOW without thinking. I do love a sweeping novel of the twentieth century in India. I am you will therefore find strangely well informed about subjects such as Partition. Not that I could tell you much about the actual border of Pakistan, but how people felt about the border with Pakistan, that I am well informed on. I am not sure why I like this kind of fiction so much; I suspect that it is because India’s history in the twentieth century mirror Africa’s in an interesting way, so it is like reading about your own story in a new setting.

This novel tells the story of one extended family living in a single house. The sons of the house are slowly losing the modest fortune acquired by the patriarch. It is full of interesting characters, from the bitter and unmarried sister, to the neglected child prodigy, to the older son who is becoming an alcoholic. The story is intercut with letters sent home from one of the children, who has become a Naxalite. Get ready to have your mind blown, and to feel you are a wussy: these are middle class university students who choose to go and live in poverty with the villagers so as to enlighten them about capitalism and forment a class war. Yes, that is their plan. It is pretty crazy. For example, these ordinary middle class men murder a money-lender in cold blood to provoke an uprising. They suffer a lot (though not as much as the money-lender), and do not meet with unmitigated success. However, extra points to the Kindle dictionary, for having a definition for Naxalite, and minus points to me: where is my idealism? All I thought about in university were grades and boys.

The novel is not profoundly memorable, but it is soothing and absorbing, and has some good writing. Here we are on the unmarried sister, who Mukherjee likes to emphasize is very very ugly:
Every since Chhaya had learned to identify the face looking back at her from the mirror as her own, she had been intimate with the fact . .. .of her own ugliness, and harder still, with the awareness that the world outside shared the knowledge too. To know that you are ugly is one thing, but to grow up with the imprint that it leaves on others’ thoughts, facial expressions, murmurs, talk, gossip is quite another; the former is a reckoning with oneself, the latter an instilling of that most adamantine knowledge of all: that the world is at is, and knocking your head against its hard shell is only going to break you, not dent the world.

In the end, there is death by torture, and death by suicide – yawn – contemporary fiction loves a good despairing finale. But it’s a good book over all, and I recommend it, particularly if you stop about twenty pages before the end.

SOME HOPE by Edward St Aubyn

SOME HOPE is the last book in the Patrick Melrose trilogy, and the weakest. Patrick is in his thirties, over his drug addiction, and attending a party. Many of the characters from previous books resurface, to various degrees of resolution.

Patrick is less fun now than when he was a drug addict. There’s an awful lot of moaning, and blaming everyone’s parents. Sample: “as his struggle against drugs grew more successful, he saw how it had masked a struggle not to become like his father.” Barf.

Three books in the social milieu is also getting a little wearing. There’s only so much of self-congratulatory snobbery one can handle. Poor old Patrick tells us he still believes that ‘rich people are more interesting than poor ones, or titled people more interesting than untitled ones.’ The mind boggles. There are also an awful lot of social climbers. Here’s one gold digging wife, on her new husband:
He may be worth two hundred and forty million dollars, but is he going to spend it? . . . . You think it’s all going to be private planes, and the next thing you know he’s asking for a doggy bag in a restaurant, or implying that you ought to be doing the cooking. It’s a complete nightmare.
I can’t believe anyone is actually like this; certainly I’ve never met them – but perhaps they do exist, and I should be glad I don’t have the kind of money that would mean I would meet them.

St Aubyn is a fine writer, and if I didn’t enjoy all the books quite the same, I’m certainly glad I read this trilogy.

BAD NEWS by Edward St Aubyn

In this novel, the second in the Patrick Melrose series, Patrick is in his twenties and struggling with a major drug addiction.

As with the other novels, there is much precise prose to enjoy. As, for example, “he could feel the onset of withdrawal, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.” Or, this, on stepping out into bright daylight: “This must be what the oyster feels when the lemon juice falls.” Or: “Kay told him about her own dying parents. ‘You have to start looking after them badly before you’ve got over the shock of how badly they looked after you,’ she said.

However, I’ve yet to read a novel about addiction that isn’t fundamentally dull, and this novel is no exception. St Aubyn does his best, structuring the novel around a few days during which Patrick is collecting his father’s ashes, but there’s not much he can do with the boring routine of wanting to shoot up, and then shooting up, and then feeling bad and wanting to shoot up again. I guess ex-addicts remember it as thrilling, but I struggle to find it so. There are some particularly bad pages where he recounts the various fragmented voices he heard while high, which are almost as bad as a dream sequence.

I know it’s mean of me, but it’s also hard to feel bad for someone who admits he never “spent less than five thousand dollars a week on heroin and cocaine,” and who gorges on expensive wine he doesn’t really taste. Presented with a large bill:
He was secretly pleased. Capital erosion was another way to waste his substance, to become as thin and hollow as he felt, to lighten the burden of undeserved good fortune, and commit a symbolic suicide while he still dithered about the real one. He also nursed the opposite fantasy that when he became penniless he would discover some incandescent purpose born of his need to make money.

There’s also a bit of misogyny. Here is his entirely unbelievable attempt to write from a woman’s perspective:
It was enough to make a girl feel guilty about being so attractive. She tried to avoid it, but she had spent too much of her life sitting opposite hangdog men she had nothing in common with, their eyes burning with reproach, and the conversation long congealed and mouldy, like something from way way way back in the icebox, something you must have been crazy to have bought in the first place.
I knows boys think that girls think like this, but I've never met one that does.

So, Book 2 not quite as good as Book 1. I have hopes for Book 3.