The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

  ‘But you live in Croydon,’ he said.

  ‘What on earth has that got to do with anything?’

  ‘If you don’t know, then there’s very little point in me trying to explain.’

   ‘I’ll have you know that Croydon is becoming quite gentrified these days.’

   ‘I just prefer a postcode that begins with a SW, that’s all,’ said George.

‘My father instilled certain values in me from the start that have stood me in good stead over the years. Carrying a monogrammed handkerchief, for example. Having a good tailor. Matching one’s belt with one’s shoes. The stuff of civilised living.’

‘You can’t make life decisions based on letters of the alphabet.’

‘I don’t see why not.’

It sounds like Boyne’s channelling Noel Coward! But if you’re out to write a comic novel Coward isn’t a bad role model. 

Boyne calls The Echo Chamber, his 13th novel for adults, a farce and indeed it is; and it should be read as one. Outrageous characters with appalling attitudes, self-serving decisions with names to match. Boyne, I think, had a ball writing this one and after his pummelling via social media by internet trolls and hate-loving twitter-ites over his last YA book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019) – he could’ve avoided a lot of angst had he called it My Sister’s Name was Jason –  he had a lot to say and scream at, and a lot to get off his chest.  

The plot involves a famous British couple, George Cleverly, a Michael Parkinson-like BBC TV talk-show host; his popular novelist wife, Beverly Cleverly, who since her first success now employs ‘ghosts’ to pen her novels; their three Children, Nelson, an anxious nelly who can’t make up his mind who he is but likes to wear uniforms; Elizabeth, a social-media acolyte whose narcissism is only second to that of the youngest, Achilles, who scams older men via his charm and good looks while waiting to get laid by any pretty girl who sees him. It’s a family to loath but you also hope it will suddenly see the errors of its ways and move to the Outer Hebrides, or at least to somewhere without an Internet connection. 

This book is a lot of fun and is nothing like anything Boyne has written before. I hope he’s freed himself from his victimhood, taken a deep breath, and, since he’s blessed with booming sales, he will eventually, once all the PR appearances, chat-shows, and media interviews are over, settle down and chill out and let his novelistic talent that created, The Absolutist (2011), The History of Loneliness (2014), and (his masterpiece) The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), surge again. THAT I’m looking forward to very much. 

The Echo Chamber is a great quick read to make you laugh out loud, groan a few times, and blow away a few lockdown cobwebs.  

Tring, a small town NW of London, in Herefordshire, holds an annual Book Festival; you can watch John Boyne being interviewed by fellow writer, Clare Pooley, at the 2021 event and talking about The Echo Chamber here

You can purchase the book in various formats here

The Lonely Man by Chris Power

British writer Chris Power

I was intrigued by a review of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man by Zoë Apostolides in the May 5 edition of The Financial Times for two reasons: the reviewer dubbed it ‘a literary thriller’ and used the word ‘postmodern’. I downloaded it immediately.

postmodernism: a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art”.

Oxford Dictionary

Literary theorists, usually critics, search for patterns in the literary output of the recent past. In simple terms what they found was a tendency ‘away’ from the well-plotted naturalistic narrative to a freer, less neat product. One of the postmodern techniques is incorporating the world of the writer into the world of the written; for example auto-fiction. Other examples of literary postmodernism are parody, unreliable narrators, and the abandonment of a single theme.

Although I’m not a great believer in genres, I am interested in how writers write, what the literary industry will allow, its latest trends, and how best to tell a story, but always with the reader in mind. Postmodernism, I think, lets the reader slip from the top position of the writer’s responsibilities; to be replaced by the writer.

Robert Prowe (anagram of Power), with his wife Karijn, live in Berlin. He is a writer trying to write a novel but it isn’t going well. He meets Patrick, who appears to be a rather dishevelled drunk, in a bookshop and then on a few other occasions until they form a friendship, of sorts. Patrick is a writer too and also struggling, but as a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin, who “pissed of Putin and had to get out of Russia” and so wants to write his memoir to clear his name, but, it seems, at Putin’s expense. Robert finds Patrick’s story of his meeting with Vanyashin not only fascinating but also inspiring. The meeting is described in novelistic detail until you, the reader, realise that what you have just read is not narrated by Power’s third-person narrator of A Lonely Man, but narrated by Robert and is his first attempt at novelising Patrick’s story. Robert’s dilemma is what can a writer use? Is Robert thieving or creating? The ‘thriller’ element is the threat felt by Patrick from Putin’s henchmen is transferred to Robert, but this only works if you, the reader, finds this transference plausible. This reader didn’t.

The other postmodern element is the incredibly un-neat ending: the henchmen certainly make their threatening presence felt, but then just walk away. This blunt ending feels less postmodern and more like a literary waterfall full of the expectation of a sequel.

I always enjoy writers writing about writing, and here the writing is assured and competent, but this ‘literary thriller’ did not, for this reader, live up to the hype.

You can watch an interview with Chris Power here.

And here you can buy the book in various formats.

The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) British playwright, novelist, and short-story writer; one of the most popular and highest paid writers of his day.

W. S. Maugham’s first literary success was his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth (1897); his greatest work is Of Human Bondage (1915); by then he had 10 novels published and 10 plays produced, and at one time had 4 plays running simultaneously on London’s West End; 40 films have been made of his writings – Of Human Bondage has been filmed three times, The Razor’s Edge twice, and The Painted Veil twice, the latter, a very faithful adaptation, in 2006 starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Diana Rigg.

He had an affair and a child with Syrie Wellcome, an interior decorator, whom he later married in 1917. Their daughter, Elizabeth, eventually married a Baron. However, he had other female and male lovers until he met, an American, Gerald Haxton in the Red Cross at the outbreak of WWI. They were mostly together until Haxton’s death in 1944. His later partner was Alan Searle until Maugham’s death in 1965.

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around. – WSM

-oOo-

The Merry-Go-Round (1904) is his fifth novel.

The axis of a merry-go-round is usually covered in mirrors; all the better for us going round and round to see ourselves going round and round. In Maugham’s The Merry-Go-Round the axis is Miss Ley and doing what every freshly polished mirror does.

Miss Ley accidentally witnesses a romantic assignation by a married friend:

“None was more indifferent to convention than herself, and the marriage tie especially excited her ridicule, but she despised entirely those who disregarded the by-laws of society, yet lacked courage to suffer the results of their boldness: to seek the good opinion of the world, and yet secretly to act counter to its idea of decorum, was a very contemptible hypocrisy.”

The themes of The Merry-Go-Round are those that obsessed Maugham throughout his writing career: social and marriage hypocrisy, the class divide, conscience vs sense, love vs reason, and the tyranny of money.

The wealthy spinster, Miss Ley, a bastion of realistic good sense, observes those around her as they confuse themselves with what they want to do and what they feel they must do; they hurt themselves and each other and rarely do good; they go up and down and round and round. Dominating her social landscape are three couples: Basil Kent, law clerk, righteous and duty-bound, and the beautiful but lowly barmaid, Jenny Bush; Grace Castillyon, bored wife, and Reggie Bassett, young, lazy, handsome, but frivolous; and Bella Langton, sympathetic, plain, but devoted, and Herbert Field, young, poetic, sensitive, but consumptive.

As you can see from the above quote, the language is dense with every word used to its maximum effect. As with Hardy, James, and Dickens I read the first few chapters, stop, go back and start again: I need to rehearse the understanding, get ‘into’ the language, before the full meaning of the text is revealed. But when you do the rewards are powerful; even the melodrama, by our contemporary standards, is rendered real and moving.

We live in a very different world to those who lived 120 years ago. The rules of our social behaviour are also different and far less rigid. Maugham’s language not only relates the story but creates the world within which his story can effectively be told.

You can download the ebook for free here. Project Gutenberg allows free ebook downloads from works out of copyright. Most of Maugham’s works are available for free on this site.

The paper version is available here.

And here is a BBC interview with Maugham at his villa on the French Riviera in 1965.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, British novelist and screenwriter

There is a constant with contemporary crime writing: you don’t get to know the victim until after they’re dead. There is a focus on the mystery, the who-did-it, the victim is not so important, except in relation to why. Consequently, popular crime fiction has, usually, left me cold. Of course, as sheer entertainment, it fills the bill, but I don’t really care who did it; that’s not the point, I’ve been told: it’s the working it out, of having it worked out for you, that provides the satisfaction.

What attracted me to pick up Magpie Murders (2016) from my sister’s bookshelf, in the beautiful Barossa Valley, while waiting for international travel to re-start so I could go home, was the promise that this was something different; not just a who-done-it.

This is a book about a book. A book editor, Susan Ryeland, is to read the latest manuscript of her author client, Alan Conway; a man she doesn’t like very much but she likes his work (because it’s successful and makes her company a lot of money that secures her job) and is looking forward to reading Conway’s latest, Atticus Pünt mystery #9, Magpie Murders. We meet Susan in the first-person prologue as she sits in her house in Crouch End London preparing herself to read and telling us that, she didn’t know it then, Magpie Murders was going to change her life.

But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live at Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard, Alan Conway.

Then we turn the page and get to Alan Conway’s typescript itself – the book that this book is about – satisfactorily in a different font, a typescript font, Courtier, always used for screen and tele plays. However, to cement the pretense we first read About the Author, Alan Conway, and his many achievements; then a list of his other Atticus Pünd titles; then a page of glowing quotes from writers, newspapers, and magazines ending with a capitalised announcement:

SOON TO BE A MAJOR BBC1 TELEVISION SERIES (and it probably will be)

We, now, like Susan, are about to read Alan Conway’s new book, Magpie Murders.

And yes, the first victim has already been dispatched.

23 July 1955. There was going to be a funeral. Two gravediggers, old Jeff Weaver and his son, Adam, had been out at first light and everything was ready. (Gravediggers! So classic, Shakespearean even. Detail has always been the novelists’ trick to make you believe their fiction, and a day and date is the most believable detail of all.)

Conway’s Magpie Murders is set in a small English village, Saxby-on-Avon, and, as expected, small village life is far from quiet, or straight-forward; all reminiscent of Horowitz’s other vastly popular invention, Midsomer Murders. Then there’s another murder, a decapitation no less, and then another death with Atticus Pünd fishing around for clues and revealing all the undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, lies, and treachery that seem to make up British village existence.

This is all faithful to the genre in the great tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But if you flick through the pages-to-come you will see a change in font and a return to Susan’s first person narrative in Crouch End in 2016:

Annoying isn’t it? She says. I dared not read or flick further as I wanted to let Horowitz do his work on me, and read the book as he intended it to be read, but I was re-assured that, yes, this was probably going to be a very different crime novel. I was intrigued because what we discover is that Alan Conway’s Magpie Murders is … (no spoilers here).

(I was reminded of Ian McEwan who also likes to play around with the reader, as in his novel Sweet Tooth (2012) where the fact that you’re reading it tells you how it ends.)

Whatever it was that I was expecting from Horowitz, the different fonts, and information from the front and back covers, my sister’s comments, doesn’t happen. Something else happens. The book, Conway’s Magpie Murders, and the dilemma that faces Susan Ryland, when she, and you, get to page 219 of Conway’s Magpie Murders, takes Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, off in a completely different direction … or does it?

For crime buffs, this is a real and unexpected treat, although the unexpected bit turns out to be another who-done-it: two for the price of one!

Horowitz also has his tongue firmly in his cheek – and for this reason alone I j u s t might read another book of his. (Look at that smile on his face!) Susan arranges a meeting over a cup of tea with the local policeman. He gives her 15 minutes of his time but he spends almost 12 minutes of this time telling her about the reality of murder:

All the murderers I’ve met have been thick as shit. Not clever people. Not posh or upper class. Thick as shit. And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV. Half the time they leave their DNA all over the crime scene. Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it … if you want my advice, you’ll go back to London and forget it. Thanks for the tea.

If you read who-done-its, read this one, if you haven’t already.

Here, at the end of my blog I usually supply links to interesting videos of, or about, the writer and/or their book, to compliment what I have written. But not this time. Too much information would give away the surprises.

However, I will tell you where you can buy it. Here.

Released this year is another Susan Ryeland mystery: Moonflower Murders (Magpie Murders 2). He loves alliteration.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.

Ageing:

It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns pic
British writer from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns.

The very first line begins,

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …

and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.

When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means  a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …

there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law,

… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.

No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma,  her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.

The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.

Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.

The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger –  there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when do does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said.  Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?

Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.

Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given it’s intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can by the kindle version here.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst pic
British writer, Allan Hollinghurst.

A common theme throughout Hollinghurst’s work is how the past can be shaped by the present. The Stranger’s Child (2011) is about a poem written just before WWI but after the poem becomes famous it acts as a microscope on the lives and descendants of the people who were spending that weekend together when the poem was written in a teenage girl’s autograph book. Even his first The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) the past is a crucial element: a young lay-about is asked to write the biography of an ageing aristocrat and in reading the old man’s diaries comes to see the passions, oppressions, and obsessions of an earlier gay life refracted in his own; and, here too in The Sparsholt Affair, a sexual dalliance at Oxford during WW2 , is re-remembered when a lost memoir is discovered shortly after the author’s death. Whatever is happening, or improved, about the present it’s all because of what happened before.

Hollinghurst studied English Literature at Oxford in the 1970’s but concentrated his interests on writers whose homosexuality, though never expressed or admitted to publicly, permeated their work:  E.M. Forster, Philip Firbank, and L.P. Hartly. He is reported as saying that “I was fortunate to come along just as gay-lit was coming into its own” but it was actually his first, The Swimming-Pool Library, that let the way – particularly in literary fiction – in my memory. And that’s the point. Memory is such a slippery thing. Someone once said, “it’s like an oven; you put something in, wait a bit, open the door and there it is: something else.” Yes, there is an affair in The Sparsholt Affair (“Money, power … gay shenanigans! It had everything”) – in fact there are many Sparsholt affairs – but how much people remember about it is what interests Hollinghurst.

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford in 1940 and all eyes, from a room across the quad, are on him as he, in a sweaty singlet, lifts weights in what he thinks is the privacy of his own room. The assemblage, mainly gay, some gay-ish, young men, plot and scheme to get Sparsholt’s attention; all to varying degrees, although one in particular succeeds spectacularly. So ends Part 1: The New Man.

In each successive Part – there are five in all – Hollinghurst jumps decades ahead to the Sparsholt family, friends, some from that Oxford group, now ageing, some new, some older, successful, some dying, to Part 5 which concentrates on David’s son, Johnny Sparsholt, a painter, now in his 60’s whose long-time partner Patrick has just died. Here at the end of the book a regular Hollinghurst theme emerges: how gay life of today is so much different from gay life then, when it was illegal, tragic, rife, but clandestine; and Hollinghurst gives us the most vivid and delicious description of gay clubbing, leisure drug-taking, sex for the moment – during which the past emerges, yet again. Permeating all five parts is the affair from Part 1, or it is the real Sparsholt Affair, the one that made the papers, and shocked the socks off everyone?

“What would two long-ago lovers be likely to feel, one of them twice married, the other losing his memory.”

Curiously, or not, for some, the central character, David Sparsholt is rarely in the spot light; he is relegated to the edges of the story, to the shadows of people’s memory and belief – even his son is a little vague about what his father is like;  but it’s the idea of him and what he did, or did not do, that is at the centre, and what was remembered about him, it.

What has always interested me about novels is not so much what happens but how each is told. Apart from Part 1, which is a first-person memoir, Hollinghurst employs a narrator that entirely operates through what his characters sense. They are all experts at defining and opinionising the thoughts, desires, and threats that flit and tumble over the faces of everyone else in the room. His language is Jamsean and sometimes you relish reading a sentence again just for the pleasure of it. He is interested in the tone, the flavour of things, be it the atmosphere in a bar, of a welcome, in the furnishings of a home, a decision, a sigh; and at times you are impressed by his descriptive accuracy:  “the gay voice that survives through generations, the illusionless adenoidal whine and drag …”

Hollinghurst is a stylist because he has a style, and one feature of this style is his phrases of opposites. It’s his logo, his leitmotif. They pepper all his work.

     ” … seemed to know and not to know …”

     “ … passed from shadow to shadow in doubt and then brief solidarity.”

     “ … he was smilingly both enemy and friend” which, of course is true of any auctioneer

     “ … more present and also more covetably remote…”

     ” … his relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Francesca was mixed with the relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Ivan… “

     “…he might be about to cry, or was just possibly stifling a laugh.”

     “It was as touching as it was annoying.”

     “ … magic as routine …”

It says something about the human condition – always to the fore in a Hollinghurst book – that these opposites are surprisingly apposite.

This is a book I will read again and unlike music which we listen to again because of what we remember, we re-read books because of what we forget, and not just the incidents but the pleasure of re-finding the joy in the details, the words, the phrases, the descriptions.

My only complaint with this book is the editing, or the lack of it, which, sadly, is what we have come to expect these days. I’m pleased that I’m not overtly annoyed by comma splices, of which there are many, but the sloppy use of pronouns especially in scenes with many characters of the same sex make re-reading for clarity an annoying necessity. There is even a sentence on page 181 that makes no sense at all but is due to, I suspect, a cut and paste not being checked for coherence.

Hollinghurst was born in a market town near Oxford in 1954; the only child of a bank manager, he had a happy childhood and especially remembers being flooded with relief, when his father said: “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters.” He didn’t mind at all and rather enjoyed playing Hide-&-Seek by himself: “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother told him. “It’s just Hide.” He had a safe and uneventful childhood and eventually studied at Oxford and after gaining a BA and a MLitt lectured for a while at his alma mater, Magdalen College, and several other tertiary piles before landing a job in 1982 at The Times Literary Supplement and becoming its assistant editor from 1985 – 1990.  He spectacularly burst onto the literary scene with The Swimming-Pool Library which put well-adjusted and happy gay lives firmly into the literary landscape. I remember seeing the book, in hard-cover, large and impressive, being handled and protected carefully in the arms of an Anglophile friend of mine, a mauve sweater draped around his shoulders and a sleeve caught in its pages, like a bookmark. I knew very little about it except its gay theme, but what struck me that day was that it exuded importance. He won the Man-Booker Prize in 2004 for his 4th novel The Line of Beauty.

The Booker, once the sought-after pinnacle of literary fiction in English, has been tarnished somewhat by the inclusion, some say, in 2014, of work by American writers; two of them having won the 2016 and 2017 prizes, Paul Beatty for The Sellout and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, respectively. In February this year 30 publishing heavyweights wrote to the Man-Booker Foundation asking that the 2014 decision be reversed. The reason for the dispute seems to be to avoid “an homogenised literary future;” or, it could be because a Brit hasn’t won it since 2012. The Foundation responded with “The Man Booker prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.” The 2018 prize, its 50th, will announce the long list in July.

You can buy this book in Kindle, hardback, or paperback editions, here.

A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall with his husband farmer. They raise barley and beef. He plays the cello in a string trio, is chair of the Endellion Summer Music Festival, and loves gardening, dogs and nature.

Finally, on page 47, the complicated filial relationships of the four main characters, are explained. Several readings of the first three chapters doesn’t make them clearer, and the introduction of another family with a similar structure only confused matters even more. (I even cheated at the blurb on the back cover) It’s never clear to readers, and neither should it be, who makes these structural decisions, writer or editor, but waiting ’till page 47 is too long. Many readers would’ve given up; I nearly did, but I’m glad I persevered.

A common, and probably over-used, novelistic structure is a brief introduction followed by a major plot point – a birth, death, a prodigal brother, an earthquake – and then the back stories to fill in the gaps; and finally, the consequences that lead to a climax (another plot point or two) and finale. Gale doesn’t really abandon this structure, he stretches it and the long wait for the first plot point is ameliorated by his interesting characters and relationships.

Dido is a 9-year-old girl going on 25. Her upbringing is shared by her aunt, Eliza, Giles, Eliza’s estranged husband, and Julia, Giles’ girlfriend. All three are involved in music: Giles is an impossibly handsome counter-tenor, Julia works for the agency that handles his career, and Eliza is a musicologist who is struggling to complete her doctorate on the Elizabethan madrigalic composer, Trevescan. Dido’s single mother, Hannah, Eliza’s older sister, a wayward but determined woman died in a mountaineering accident well before the action begins. Dido’s father is unknown. They all have eccentricities of dress, self-regard, expectations, failings, and sexual proclivities; they are all in the beginnings, middles or ends of their warm, messy relationships, or planning, or foreseeing new ones; but are all basically good people trying to get along in the world as best they can. A trip to Cornwall, the discovery of a ‘lost’ madrigal, and a broccoli farmer change everything. As a reader, you want them all to find what they are looking for. They deserve to be happy.

Then finally, Gale drops in the first plot point. It isn’t another character, or an event, or an action; it’s a piece of information, something only some of them know. He could’ve plopped it down near the beginning but he saves it for near the end; and once it has hit you between the eyes – it’s something I can guarantee you would never guess – a few little more bombshells are dropped and the webby entanglements of all their lives re-arrange themselves (probably to begin a new cacophony of bumpy attachments); but Gale leaves these wonderful people at the moment of most contentment, or, at least, the promise of contentment, and the reader closes the book with great satisfaction.

The book doesn’t stop there. There is an interview with Gale, and a little essay by Gale himself about the writing of the book: it’s his only work to date based on a dream.

You can buy the eBook here.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

pg-wodehouse-pic
British humourist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)

With an opening like this…

I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don’t suppose I have come much closer to saying ‘Tra-la-la’ as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning. God, as I once heard Jeeves put it, was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. (He added, I remember, some guff about larks and snails, but that is a side issue and need not delay us.);

a setting of a country pile called Totliegh Towers near the village of Totleigh-in-the-Wold; wold, by the way, apart from being the past participle of ‘will’ which we never use, is, apparently, a piece of open ground in Lincolnshire; and a cast of characters such as Sir Watkyn Basset, his daughter, Madeleine, Roderick Spode, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Emerald Stoker, the Rev. Stinker Pinker, and his fiancée, Stiffy Byng, you know what to expect, and that’s exactly what you get.

The irrepressible, and un-embarrassable Bertie Wooster and his faithful and loyal Man, Jeeves, motor to the said house to mix with the said folk and chaos ensues but it’s chaos of the very English countryside kind: all misunderstandings, gnashing of teeth, rolling of eyes, and spurious and fuzzy relationships where love is something like a decision about which scarf one should wear today, given the unseasonable weather.

Bertie Wooster, always the narrator, who doesn’t have a job – unless a job is having lunch at his club – often refers to himself in the third person, a somewhat English habit not unrelated to the royal ‘we’ and the uppity ‘one’. He has the hide of a hippo and the intelligence of a gnat. He seems to hate everybody except those he likes, and those he hates, hate him back, of which he is totally unaware; and those he likes think he’s a bit of a dill. That’s where Jeeves comes in, and always in the nick if t.; and that is one of Bertie’s little tropes, if ‘tropes’ is the word I want? (Ditto). But if it weren’t for Jeeves, who when he does come in it’s usually with tea on a tray, there’d be no story, no 14 books, and no laughs. Thank god – no, thank Wodehouse – for Jeeves since he knows absolutely everything about everything. Wodehouse, by the w, is pronounced ‘Woodhouse’ contrary to usual English pronunciation; so very Bertie Wooster!

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) was a prolific writer of humour and social commentary: novels, articles, short stories, and lyrics for musical comedies (Anything Goes, 1934), – at one time he had 5 musicals – in which he had a hand – running on Broadway, films (Gentleman of Leisure, 1915, Sally, 1929, The Girl on the Boat, 1961), and the creator of many memorable characters, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves being just two of them. At the age of 93 he received a long-overdue knighthood in 1975, but died on St Valentine’s Day 45 days later.

In his 90’s he was asked, “How about writing?”

Oh, as far as the brain goes, I’m fine. I’ve just finished another novel, in fact. I’ve got a wonderful title for it, Bachelors Anonymous. Don’t you think that’s good? Yes, everybody likes that title. Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, nearly always alters my titles, but he raved over that one. I think the book is so much better than my usual stuff that I don’t know how I can top it. It really is funny. It’s worked out awfully well. I’m rather worried about the next one. It will be a letdown almost. I don’t want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn’t stop writing.

“Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves” was first published in 1963. The plot? Well, let’s see. It has something to do with an ugly black amber objet b’thingummy which may or may not be stolen; an engagement that may be off, or it may be on; which all has something to do with a steak and kidney pie (see jacket cover). Perhaps I need to explain that the engagement is also threatened by conflicting opinions about sunsets, elves’ bridal veils, and something Dante wrote. Does that help? Oh, and there’s also a bit of fisty-cuffs and the cook elopes with someone’s fiancée which has a devastating effect on the prospect of dinner. Anyway, it’s all very cleverly muddled together to be as light as a … what’s the word I want? Starts with an f. Oh, yes; as light as fluff. And if you’ve ever tried to describe fluff you’ll know what I mean; light fluff is even trickier, but this being so light in fact, it blew away with the breeze before I had a chance to remember it. So, sorry, but entertaining? Very! If you like this sort of English thing; but it can be an effective diversion if read after Frank Morehouse and James Joyce.

-oOo-

You can find all things Wodehouse on his official website: http://www.wodehouse.co.uk

This particular book you can find here.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

McEwan’s first published work, First Love, Last Rites, appeared in 1975; another short story collection, In Between the Sheets, appeared in 1978 then two short novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). My then he was known as “Ian Macabre” for the subject matter in his work. An early story is about a love affair between a writer and her pet ape told from the ape’s point of view; another concerns a disgruntled husband who discovers a technique of body manipulation that results in the person disappearing into himself; he tries this on his wife during sex.

His work settled down a little but there is always something dark at the centre of his stories. His three most accomplished works belong to this latter period; Enduring Love (1997) which concerns a science writer being stalked by a disturbed man: both of whom witness a horrendous accident involving a hot-air balloon; one of the most suspenseful and superbly written opening chapters you can ever hope to read, rendered rather ho-hum by the 2004 film starring Daniel Craig; Atonement (2001) in which a young girl witnesses her sister having sex but misconstrues it as an assault and ruins her sister’s and lover’s lives, which the young girl, as a grown-up novelist, atones for by writing about it but with a happy ending. This was superbly adapted as a film in 2007 with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. And Saturday (2005), a day in the life of a neurosurgeon who is confronted on the street by a man, who, as recognised by the surgeon, has a neurological disorder; the mentally ill man then menacingly invades the surgeon’s home.

He won the Booker Prize for a slim volume called Amsterdam in 1998, about a pact between two male friends who re-connect at the funeral of a shared lover, and he was nominated again for On Chesil Beach (2007) which begins with the wedding night of an extremely sexually naïve couple. I was so embarrassed for them, McEwan’s writing was truly effective, that I shut the book at page 6 and have never opened it since.

His 2014 novel, The Children Act, confronts a modern dilemma involving personal faith and medical intervention. You can read my blog on this here.

Nutshell, is another slim work, –  nothing wrong with that – which begins with a superb, but short, opening line – I’ll leave it for you to discover. It is basically about the planning and execution of the murder of a poet, John, by his estranged wife, Trudy, and her lover, his younger brother, Claude. The identity of the narrator of this murderous pact by two unpleasant but intriguing people is the crux here: John and Trudy’s unborn foetus. Generally a reader can accept all of what a writer conjures, and this is the main ask a writer makes; however this foetus prefers a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol, over a grassy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; loves the radio; tends to use Latin and French in lieu of English when the urge arises; insists on words like ‘youngly’; is intimate with the physics of sound and the work of 20th century composers; clearly au fait with the intricacies of human sexual behaviour and romantic attachment; has a fine understanding of poetics, and has studied the psychological preferences of murderers, all garnered it seems from BBC Radio podcasts favoured by his mother. But if you have made your narrator a foetus then it is de rigueur to make him an intelligent one; no use boring your readers with goo goo and gar gar. Although how much suspension of disbelief is too much?

It feels like a short story s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a novella: too much about the self-absorbed (and observed) narrator and not enough about the protagonists. But then how is he to know? It’s a dilemma McEwan side-steps. However, if you accept without question what the writer throws at you it’s an entertaining and amusing read.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the continued illusion to that work – the main players, the victim, John Cairncross, A.S. Cairncross is famous for a 1936 book entitled The Problem of Hamlet, the mother, Ger(Trudy) and the usurper, (Claude)ius, (get it?) – still doesn’t raise it above a minor work. Let’s hang out for the next one.

You can find all editions, including the ebook, here.