Sunday, 23 November 2014

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Regular readers of this blog will know how I love MY STRUGGLE, a 6 volume, 4000 page account of the life of one ordinary Norwegian man.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY is Book 1 of the series. I had been avoiding it now for about a year, reading Books 2 and 3 first, because I thought that its central plot, of the death of Karl Ove's father, might be a little too close to home for me. You can certainly tell its the beginning, because it kicks off in fine Karl Ove form, with that typical opening for any autobiography: a reflection on death
"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body's lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whiter skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain."

Oh Karl Ove! You're such a kidder. Then he goes on to the storage of dead bodies:
"A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead. . . .no, the way we remove bodies has never been a subject of debate, it has always been just something we have done, out of a necessity for which no one can state a reason but everyone feels: if your father dies on the lawn one windswept Sunday in autumn, you carry him indoors if you can, but if you can't you at least cover him with a blanket.
"

In this novel, Karl Ove's father, a reclusive alcoholic has just died, and himself and his brother Yngve must go to clean up the filthy home he was living in with his senile and also alcoholic mother - Karl Ove's grandmother. We hear all the mundane details: going to the grocery store to buy bleach, stopping for cigarette breaks, etc; but also a horrifyingly honest assessment of Karl Ove's family relationships:
When we were growing up, I chatted all the time with Yngve and we never had any secrets, but at some juncture, perhaps as early as when I was a gymnas, this changed: from then on I was immensely conscious of who he was and who I was when we were talking, all spontaneity vanished, every statement I made was either planned in advance or analysed retrospectively, mostly both, apart from when I was drinking, then I regained the old freedom. With the exception of Tonje and my mother, that was how I behaved with everyone: I couldn't sit and chat to people any more, my awareness of the situation was too actute, and that put me outside it. Whether it was the same for Yngve I didn't know, but I didn't think so, it didn't seem so when I saw him with others. Whether he knew that was how I felt, I don't know, but something told me he did. Often it felt to me as I were false, or deceitful, since I never played with an open deck, I was always calculating and evaluating. This didn't bother me any more, it had become my life, but right now, at the outset of a long car journey, now that dad was dead and so on, I experienced a yearning to escape from myself or at least the part that guarded me so assiduously.

This impresses me as a really good account of how some people I know manage their lives; but it also amazes me, when I think that Karl Ove's brother is very much alive and well and reading Karl Ove's books. Can you imagine writing and publishing this sort of thing about your most intimate relationships? Karl Ove always makes me feel better about everything. It's so very rare to hear anything even close to the truth about how people really are, inside. One's more likely to get this kind of honesty in literature, than in life, but in either case its a special thing, and immensely comforting; it makes you feel less alone in this world. He's even honest about luggage:
Even though the case was heavy I carried it by the handle as I walked into the departure hall. I detested the tiny wheels, first of all because they were feminine, thus not worthy of a man, a man should carry, not roll, secondly because they suggested easy options, short cuts, savings, rationality, when I despised and opposed wherever I could, even where it was of the most trivial significance.

And about his childhood relationship to plumbing:
He also knew I was frightened of the sound the pipes made when you turned on the hot water, a shrill screech that quickly changed to knocking, impossible for me to cope with, I had to take to my heels, so we had a deal whereby he wouldn't pull the plug after washing in the morning but leave the water in the sink for me. Accordingly, every morning for perhaps six months I washed my face and hands in Yngve's dirty water.

All six books have already been out in Norwegian for some time, but the last three are yet to be released in English. HURRY UP TRANSLATOR!!!

MRS HEMINGWAY by Naomi Wood

It's never a good sign when I look back at a book in order to blog it and see I have not highlighted any passages as being of special interest. Indeed, I did not find this book to be of any special interest.

It's a novelisation of Ernest Hemingway's four marriages. His first is to a nice young woman he meets in Chicago; the second to a much wealthier woman who can fund his career; the third to a hotshot journalist, who proves too successful for his taste; and the fourth to an unfortunate lady who gets the booby prize: a fat, alcoholic old man whose writing days are behind him.

Sounds like a good basis for a book, right? And yet somehow it was dull and I've already forgotten that I read it.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

HER PRIVATES WE by Frederick Manning

This is a novel of the First World War written by a veteran of it. I hate to say it, as it seems disrespectful, but it is deeply dull. I guess it shows that simply having lived through something does not give you the ability to explain it.

HER PRIVATES WE tells the story of a man named Bourne who is in the front lines. Because this is a British novel, the main narrative tension (other than that of being randomly killed) is around . . . wait for it . . . class. Apparently he is of a slightly higher class than the other privates, and thus should be in a higher military rank. I think you must have to be British to find this compelling.

The book is also extraordinarily dated. Here's a sample:
"In the shuddering revulsion from death one turns instinctively to love as an act which seems to affirm the completeness of being. In the trenches, the sense of this privation vanished; but it pressed on men whenever they moved back again to the borders of civilised life, which is after all only the organisation of man's appetites, for food or for women, the two fundamental necessities of nature"

Ladies, that's giving it to us more frankly than we usually hear it.

The book ends abruptly, mid-narrative arc, with Bourne's death. It is quite random, with no literary foreshadowing, no build-up, no resolution and no meaning, and he is quickly forgotten by his lower class colleagues. In some ways this was the most interesting part of the book, where the author abandoned the conventions of literature for a taste of real life / real death.

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.