Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

This is a story about Lawrence, a tree surgeon and a man at the mercy of his emotions and those that love him. In a bout of jealousy he shoves his wife, Bonnie, and she falls and does far more damage than he ever intended. She leaves him and takes their daughter, Lucy, with her. She not only leaves, she disappears. Coincidentally, the charred and unidentifiable remains of a female is found in a shallow grave near his house the next day and he is implicated, jailed, and tried by media as the (very) possible murderer.

This is the entry into Lawrence’s family: his mother, Dora, his father-in-law, Charlie, and his ‘batchelor’ uncle Darius. These characters are well drawn in true Patrick Gale fashion; he is a master not only of character-building but also of character-differentiation.

What impresses me about Gale is his succinct strokes of the novelistic brush: he describes Bonnie’s inexperienced seduction of Lawrence as ” … inquisitive as a Brownie, insistent as a nurse.” How clear!

We learn of everyone’s back story and the velcro-ed relationships that take us up to Lawrence’s incarceration. Bonnie and Lucy, having ‘disappeared’ to Paris with the cause of Lawrence’s jealousy, Craig, and so know nothing of the legal and media furor that enveloped her husband, return and Lawrence is released although his career, business, and demeanour are all smashed.

The bridge-expert, Darius, takes Lawrence on a transAtlantic card-playing cruise to try to restore the poor man’s self-confidence. The characters he, and us, meet are also expertly drawn; people that he wouldn’t usually come into contact with crowd around him and try as he might to distance himself from ‘these people’ they sustain him. He falls in love with the on-board entertainer, Lala, who everybody believes, and as her publicity infers, was born a man. This is handled with great subtlety, skill, and truth.

Then in Chapter 20 while on a stopover on the Caribbean island of St Martin, the plot goes off the rails. A tiger, another (unclear) death, a murder explained, a disappearance, an even more unlikely marriage, and a long-lost twin.

Keeping the reader’s suspension of disbelief* in tact is the writer’s main aim; losing the writer the greatest sin. Gale lost me with the fate of Lala and her later … no more spoilers here.

What happened in this book is that Gale let the reader fade from his novelistic decision making. I had to go back and re-read sections to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I shouldn’t have to do this. I still enjoyed the writing, but I felt this book needed another draft. When something ultra-surprising happens – and it’s my belief that if the reader is surprised the author probably was too – the writer has to overcome the disbelief of such a surprise and take the reader along – not leave them behind; take the time to describe the detail. Detail, afterall, is the hallmark of novelistic belief. Some of the twists and coincidences in this novel from 1998 were hurried and veracity lost.

Nevertheless, I remain a Gale fan and will continue on my quest to read all his work; eleven so far, nine more to go; some I want to re-read. He also has a new novel coming out this year, Mother’s Boy.

*The concept that to become emotionally involved in a narrative, audiences must react as if the characters are real and the events are happening now, even though they know it is ‘only a story’. In other words, you know you’re sitting in your reading chair by the window in your living room, all of which is real, but you can also engage emotionally, believe, the characters and setting of the fiction, which isn’t real, that you happen to be reading. This is exactly what happens in the theatre. The disbelief is that what you are reading is not real, because you are sitting in your reading chair at home – that is real; you need to suspend this disbelief in order to become engaged with the book, i.e., emotionally believe it. And this is exactly what happens with religion.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

British writer, Jane Gardam.

First of all, the title Old Filth (2004) isn’t about anything untoward: it’s the acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong; and if it’s about anything it’s about how our childhoods create us adults.

We first meet Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth, in his very latter life: a statuesque man, private, handsome, charming, brusque, and mildly famous. Gardam then cherry picks events from his life: birth, schooling, the War, but saves the most tantalising bit of news for the end. No spoilers here.

The book is a delight! Gardam’s economical prose – where most of the humour lies, and there’s a lot of that – and her wry eye for the eccentricities of the British character and, in particular, the blatant indifference and cruel incapacity of the British to care for their young make you smile, grown, laugh, sigh, and then shake your head in disbelief, all in the same paragraph. Children seem to appear by magic, get sent away from home as soon as possible and then become exactly like their parents whom they hardly know, but are expected to love and obey. Blood may be thicker than water, but water is far more versatile and doesn’t leave stains.

I was impressed with Gardam’s complete control over the reader, her confidence in her authorial voice: I would’ve followed her everywhere, anywhere and I believed whatever she wanted to tell me. Her close writing and sparse dialogue do most of the characterisation – dialogue is good at that – and Gardam also has a healthy respect for the reader. Time jumps around but she never lost me.

Highly recommended.

She has been quite prolific since she was first published in the early seventies, in her forties – she is now 92 – and her nine novels and ten short story collections (she also has written thirteen children’s books) leave a lot of searching, collecting, and reading to look forward to.

In 2015, a BBC survey voted Old Filth among the 100 greatest British novels.

I hate the idea of sequels,” Jane Gardam told The Guardian in 2011. “I think you should be able to do it in one book.” Nevertheless her The Man in the Wooden Hat came out in 2013 which is more of a companion piece and focuses on Filth’s wife Betty, a shadowy figure in this book. And then in 2013 came Last Friends, and again not really a sequel but another companion piece focusing this time on Filth’s arch-rival and later neighbour, Veneering, again briefly mentioned in Old Filth.

Here is a charming video of Jane Gardam reading the opening of Old Filth.

Here you will find Old Filth and other Gardam books in various formats including a boxed set of the so-called Old Filth Trilogy.

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 he 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 its intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can buy the kindle version here.

The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

Vita pic
Vita Sackville-West (1892 -1962) British poet, novelist, gardener, free spirit. “I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.”

Book’s narrators – who are they? where are they? why are they telling me this? why do they care? – always interests me. It can often be a character in the story; it can sometimes be the protagonist themselves; but it is usually some nameless god-like know-all. There are many ways to tell a story so why did the writer pick this particular way to tell it? This interest makes the first page of a novel so informative. Sackville-West makes it very clear in the opening of The Edwardians that it is no-one but her, the writer,  who is telling me this story. This is rare.  She begins:

Among the many problems which beset the novelist, not the least weighty is the choice of the moment at which to begin his novel.

And ends the first paragraph with:

The arbitrariness of choice has already been made sufficiently evident, and no further justification is necessary to explain why we irrupt into the life of our hero (for so, I suppose, he must be called) at the age of nineteen, and meet him upon the roof a little after midday on Sunday, July the 23rd, nineteen hundred and five.

As you can ‘hear’ by the language it is written English from another time, but not so far away. Sackville-West had The Edwardians published in 1930, less than a hundred years ago.

The story is set at Chevron, a country house of the aristocracy lorded over by the widowed Dowager Duchess of Chevron but owned by her son, Sebastian, the current Duke, but who ‘hasn’t yet attained his majority’, hence his mother’s stewardship until he comes of age. Summer weekends at Chevron are weekends as they always have been: house parties, where the landed rich, and some hangers-on who may not be wealthy but have other necessary attributes, lavishly dine, drink, play bridge, and have affairs. Sebastian, soon to be initiated into a sex life by his mother’s best friend, Lady Roehampton, and his sister Viola, overlooked but who surprises everyone, try to follow their hearts and their belief in the inevitable; but tradition is strong and exerts itself the most on dutiful sons soon to be heirs of age and pensive daughters branded for an appropriate marriage. However, an interesting ‘adventurer and sailor’, Leonard Anquetil, not of anyone’s set, but one who went to Siberia in search of mammoths and who had lived in a hut near the South Pole was deemed amusing enough to be invited to the Chevron’s house party. His intrusion ultimately leads the two children to see their own paths, and possible destinies, independent of their social standing. Just what they needed .

Dialogue has always been an efficient painter of character, and Sackville-West is a master of  it but with children and maids hovering around the Duchess as she dresses for dinner it’s a monologue that paints her character so precisely:

Now, Button, haven’t you nearly finished? Don’t drag my hair like that, woman. Give me the tail comb. Don’t you see, it wants more fullness at the side. Really, Button, I thought you were supposed to be an expert hair-dresser. You may think yourself lucky, Sebastian, that you were born a boy. This eternal hair, these eternal clothes! They wear a woman out before her time. Oh there you are  Miss Wace. This plan is all wrong. You must alter it. Do it here, as quick as you can. Sebastian will help you. And Viola. Come in, Viola; don’t look so scared, child. I can’t bear people who look scared. No, I don’t want you now, Button; you get on my nerves. I will call you when I want you. Get my dress ready. Children, help Miss Wace – yes you too Viola; it’s high time you took a little trouble to help your poor mother – and do, all three of you, try to show a little intelligence.

This book was incredibly successful in 1930 at the beginning of the depression. The reading public, when austerity was beginning to bite, craved this story of extravagance, selfishness, and a doomed social order. It is set in 1905 at the beginning of the WW1 when an earlier social order was under threat. It was Vita Sackville-West who saw in the young an understanding of the transition that both her readers and characters were going through, but the older generation could not see it; they saw nothing but what had never changed and so could not believe that it ever would. The book was so successful that she and her husband, the diarist and diplomat, Harold Nicholson, bought Sissinghurst, an estate that resembled a pile of rocks at the time, for just over twelve thousand pounds and turned it into the most famous garden estate in the land, and certainly Kent.

Sissinghurst Castle. Her later home and famous garden

Here, her description of one particular Edwardian set:

Their solidarity was terrific. They had a way of speaking of one another which reduced everybody else to a mere petitioner on the doorstep. Too well-bred to be arrogant, too uninspired to sneer, they were simply so well convinced of their unassailability that the conviction required no voicing, but betrayed itself quietly in glances, in topics, in the set of shoulders, the folding of hands, and in the serene assumption of certain standards and particular values as common to all. They moved all together, a large square block in the heart of English society, massive, majestic, and dull.

You have to re-read some of her sentences just for the joy of them; she criticises everyone but with wit, style, and a masterful use of biting words. The scenes in her story are always there for more than one reason. Like the boisterous Christmas party for the tenant’s children presided over by Sebastian, his sister Viola, and Sebastian’s guest, Teresa, Mrs Spedding, the doctor’s wife. The innocent parlour games they play with the children are full of adult manipulation and intrigue: Sebastian, against his better judgement, to ensnare, tantalise, and seduce the innocent and fragile Teresa; she in knots of fear and delight at his attention; and Viola who sees and understands everything, but cannot save her, nor stop him.

Sackville-West was a fascinating woman. A peer’s daughter married to a knight of the realm, Vita was a pillar of the Establishment but, like her husband, had affairs with her own sex; but she bore him two children, and became a best-selling author, poet and gardener. Eleven years after her death her son Nigel Nicholson had a book published about his parent’s relationship under the title of Portrait of a Marriage. In it he chronicled his mother’s tempestuous sexual relationship with the author and socialite, Violet Keppel (1894 – 1972). Vita also, famously, had an affair with Virginia Woolf who used her as inspiration for her novel Orlando,: the adventures of a man who lives for three centuries but who changes, mid-life, into a woman.

In The Edwardians, apart from the extravagant world of ‘above stairs’ – emeralds, gowns, white-tie, champagne, Canard à l’orange, port, and gossip; there is also the greyer, but equally fascinating, world of ‘below stairs’ – hatpins, aprons, bracers, beer, shepherd’s pie, sherry, and gossip. Such stories in such settings have recently become popular again: Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park, set in 1930, and the many series of ITV’s Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015), set a little earlier, but both written by Julian Fellowes and both sharing cast members. If you liked Downton Abbey you’ll find The Edwardians equally as entertaining but with a sting in its tail.

And what better climactic scene to highlight all that Sebastian loathes about his prisoned live than a coronation: that of George V, in 1910. The ending comes a little quickly but it’s unexpectedness is novelistic and provides an out for poor privileged Sebastian (and for independent Viola). A great read!

Vita Sackville-West 1955 – straight from the garden

You can find the ebook of The Edwardians here.

Two short stories, A Tale of Mr Peter Brown and Chelsea Justice in the one volume, plus some poetry can be found for free here from Gutenberg Press.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

The first thing that strikes you is that McEwan is writing in the first person, as a woman. I used to have a prejudice against this: a writer writing as another gender, but I called myself out and tried it myself. Now, it doesn’t bother me; in fact, it’s one of the things I like about this book. Generally speaking, I believe that people are more alike than not. Gender, sexuality, and up-bringing affect us in profound ways, but also don’t affect us at all. We all experience and react to the range of human emotions and consequent actions: a young homosexual female bus-driver and an old straight rich male banker could react to jealousy, a home-invasion, or a heart attack in exactly the same way. I don’t need to research the work space and tasks of an astronaut when I’m writing about her marriage breakdown, just like I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.

Writing in the third person is the more common format. The third person allows the writer to create a narrator that is god-like, knowing everything about everyone, past present and future. Writing in the first person gives the writer access only to what the protagonist experiences; but this can be useful to the writer who may not want the protagonist to know everything. Hold that thought.

I’ve read almost all of McEwan – I say almost because as yet I haven’t been able to get past page 3 of On Chesil Beach (2007): I find the situation the young couple are in so embarrassing. I must get over it, I know; and I will, just not yet. It’s a tribute to McEwan’s craft that it effected me so strongly.

McEwan’s early work, up until the turn of this century, were generally dark tales with something black, dangerous, or hellish at the heart of each new novel. He became known as Ian MaCabre. However since the turn of the century his style has changed although he still likes to play with the narrative form; as he did with Atonement (2001) – one of his best – by creating a fake ending which allowed the title to be so appropriate.

But, back to Sweet Tooth (2012) set in 1972: Serena Frome (as in “plume”) is a young, pretty, blonde who isn’t very picky about her sexual partners. In fact, she admits her hunger for approval but not her hunger for affection. She is recruited into M15 by an older lover who then abandons her for reasons she, and the reader, only find out about much later. She is placed in a lowly paid clerical job in a lowly department; with a 3rd mathematics degree from Cambridge but an enthusiastic love and ever-growing interest in literature, especially fiction. That is why she is given the job of signing up a new, intelligent, and promising writer – will he win a prestigious prize? – named Tom Haley, for a pension, seemingly from a creative arts foundation, but really as a way for the government to have some control over the culture of the society it governs; not control really but making sure they foster the right creative minds. This interesting idea is at the core of the book. It also leads to some very informative and rewarding discussion of the relationship between writer and reader. She prepares for her undercover work by reading three of his short stories and these stories aren’t presented as complete works by Tom Haley, although I wonder if McEwan actually wrote them out in full; but Serena tells us about them, giving the reader insight into what they tell her about the man she will soon meet.

Serena’s dilemma is how much does she tell Tom. This becomes critical when she falls in love with him, and he with her. As the romance deepens so does her duplicity. The reader can feel the doom gathering as events conspire against her – and then the media get hold of it: headline “HALEY’S SEXY SPY”; and it’s possible that you will have a choice of what you may think will happen. She of course calls him, visits him, but he is gone; nowhere in sight. No matter what you may think will happen when she finds him, I can safely guarantee you will be wrong. Here is an ending like no other, although in retrospect, it’s very McEwan. Only when you read the last page, the last line, do you really understand what happened. Oh, please don’t be tempted to look.

There are no spoilers here; but I will say that the success of the plot lies in the fact that Serena, and you the reader are oblivious to a very important piece of information and it’s crucial that it not be revealed. It’s only when it is that you realise that McEwan really had no choice: it had to be written in the first person.

For lovers of McEwan, this is a gem. So much better than his latest Nutshell (2016); such a disappointment.

You can find the novel, in various formats, here.

The Paris Review’s interview with Ian McEwan – “The Art of Fiction No. 173” – from 2002 you can find here.

Latecomers by Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner pic
British novelist, Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016) won the Booker Prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac.

When Brookner’s editor Liz Calder rang her up to report the news of her Booker Prize nomination Anita replied, “I think I shall go out and get a pair of shoes resoled. That will help me keep my feet on the ground.”

Everyone thought J. G. Ballard would win for Empire of the Sun – the odds were 6 to 1 that he would. He didn’t. She did.

Before becoming a novelist – she was always a writer –  she was a celebrated art historian and the first female Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge. She wrote 24 novels, almost one a year, from 1981, she was 53,  to 2011. She was an only child of “unhappy” parents who lived with her grandmother. “They were transplanted and fragile people, an unhappy brood, and I felt that I had to protect them. Indeed that is what they expected. As a result I became an adult too soon and paradoxically never grew up.” She never married or had children.

Fellow British writer and friend, Julias Barnes remembers, “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon. I can’t think of a novelist less likely to write an autobiography. She was fiercely moral without being moralistic, and fiercely truthful.”

With the opening to Latecomers you know you are in the safe hands of an authoritative wordsmith:

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette. The ensuing mélange of tastes and aromas pleased him profoundly, as did the blue tracery of smoke above the white linen tablecloth, the spray of yellow carnations in the silver vase, and his manicured hand on which the wedding ring fitted loosely, without those deep indentations that afflict the man who has gained weight or age, a man to whom in any case his wedding might be presumed to be an affair of the irrelevant past. 

She then describes Hartmann’s gaze falling on a group of middle-management men and Brookner drops into the second person as Hartmann chastises them for gorging themselves on lobster cocktail and steak and kidney pie:

My dears, you do not look well … your complexions are not clear, your haircuts unbecoming.

It’s the story of two German Jewish immigrants, Hartmann the voluptuary, Fibich the worrier, who, although from the same background and bind their lives together in the same work, are two very different men, marry two very different women, and have, one each, two very different children. The narrator tells us about them. There is very little dialogue, hardly any; only carefully considered sentences almost bursting with detailed information. As you can see from the quote above hardly a noun is allowed to exist without at least one apt adjective. Brookner places a lot of trust and love into her adjectives and adverbs. When my book-fairy brought me this one from Europe late last year I looked at it and said, “Oh, I didn’t know about this one.” He said, “What? Oh, I don’t recall their titles, I just read her, over and over,” and he made a face as if to say, “Well, why wouldn’t you? They’re delicious.” Another apt adjective. Hers is the type of writing that brings you pleasure no matter what the writing is about. Of course, she honed her writing skills as an art historian writing about art, until hers became an art in itself.

Her style won’t please everybody; her focus is on what these people are like, not what they do but on the way you find out what they did, and how they did it, why, and what they felt about it. I often write about the image of a novel’s narrator as an imp sitting on the shoulders of the protagonists having access to what the protagonist not only sees and hears but also what they think; but in Brookner the imp is sitting just behind their eyes surrounded by the cluttered furniture of their hopes and fantasies, feelings and thoughts, and so by telling us all this the characters emerge and she shows us what being human is like.

Although the action is minimal, time passes – actually over 50 years pass, from when the boys first meet at boarding school to their latter years when grandchildren are on the way, mixed with the feelings of love, pride, and even disappointment in what their children have, or have not, achieved. Many critics of Brookner chastise her for her moody, timid, and undemanding characters due, they say, to her never marrying and not having children. However, for a husbandless and childless woman she deftly handles the changing feelings, the stings and shadows, joys and love-bursts of two very different couples for their offspring: one becomes a self-centred and ebullient actor, one a passive and disappointed housewife.

Fibich, the desperately thin and always fearful one, takes a courageous journey back to Berlin in an effort to try to recapture something of himself as a child; some inkling of what home might feel like. His journey is revelatory because of a chance scene he witnesses; something that has nothing to do with Germany, but all to do with memory. It’s Brookner at her best.

It’s a handsome volume and part of the Vintage Contemporaries Series, but don’t take much notice of the blurb on the back: it makes it sound something it isn’t, but then if you take the ebook, which you can find here – and where you can read the first few pages for free – you won’t be tempted.

Anita Brookner died on March 10th, 2016 and an obituary appeared in the Guardian, on Tuesday, March 15 You can read it 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.

Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro.

I have a mild aversion to literary fantasy. I rarely read fantasy novels; I’ve never had the slightest interest in reading George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known by the TV version, Game of Thrones, although I did try to read Lord of the Rings when I was way too young, but I found myself acknowledging the genre, and roping it in support of my argument when a dinner guest, on hearing that I had written a novel on the sex life of a single mum, said, “So, do you know any single mums?” “I’m not writing a documentary,” I said, “I’m writing fiction.” She looked at me as if I’d said the world was flat. I continued, “Well, I’m glad you weren’t dishing out literary advice to Tolkien or George Martin otherwise we’d be without Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.” Zombies, aliens, vampires, fairy god-mothers, elves, and talking rats and rabbits also sprang to mind, but she moved to the other end of the table before I could bring them in to bat.

When the British writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature I scoured my bookshelf and found Never Let me Go (2005). I didn’t know anything about it, and all that I knew previously about Ishiguro, was that he had won the Man-Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, was born in Japan, and that his family had moved to London when he was a child.

Page one begins, “My name is Kathy H.” I had just read Sebastian Barry’s memorable The Secret Scripture, a male writer writing in the first person as a woman, so my pre-established prejudice against such literary cross-dressing had been severely weakened, to a point of not caring very much. However, halfway down the page there is this:

“My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’ even before fourth donation.”

The words “donors” and “fourth donation” sent a worry-jolt to my brain and I suspected that the created universe in which this story would unfold was not the one that I live in, but I felt safe from dragons or talking trees, so I continued reading.

It’s important to tell you that I was hooked very quickly but the book also made me think more about why I don’t read novels from the fantasy genre, as I now thought this book belonged to. It’s a general feeling of aversion for the literary ‘cop out’. If the universe of the novel has dragons flying through the air, i.e., the universe of the novel is not your universe, then it seems to me that anything is possible. A plot complication of any magnitude could be sorted out by any deus ex machina the writer deems necessary. This feeling isn’t strong, but with so much to read in the genres I prefer, the urge to delve into others doesn’t really come up. Genres are only important for publishers, booksellers, and readers; I acknowledge them as a reader, but writers, and especially Ishiguro, don’t pay much heed to them. His Remains of the Day, a very English tale of love and painful reticence is in the most English of settings: below stairs in a manor house; while his most recent novel, The Buried Giant is a true fantasy novel set in post-Arthurian Briton.

Kathy H is a thirty-something woman remembering her education at a boarding school, Hailsham, and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The school is recognisably British but with weird and worrying rules, attitudes, and characters. It becomes clear, through mis-matched memories, remembered inconsistencies, and briefly explained circumstances that the world of the novel is not the world of the reader; and the fate of the students is mapped out, rigid, and dystopian.

The almost lazy diary-style of remembrance, “It was just like the time when…”, “… looking back now…”,”I don’t know about you, but where we were…”, “… and that reminded me of Chrissie, who …”, “…the way I remember it is…”, “It’s funny now recalling the way it was at the beginning…”, “… and that’s when we had that talk I told you about …”, gets a little repetitive, and the incidents and events she remembers has about as much dramatic content as “sharpening a pencil”, as one critic joked; but these remembrances of seemingly minor happenings do create something in the reader similar to the experience of the narrator; no mean feat: a jumble-book of seemingly indistinct and trivial memories flavoured with asides and happenstance of their lives that coalesce eventually into a sprawling picture of unease, and controlled morality and personal destiny. You begin to like these young people; wonder how much and what they know about themselves and their circumstances; and what is this curious feeling of dread you find creeping over you like a blanket?  Yes, the remembrances may be small but the stakes are incredibly high and when Kathy H and her peers discover the true meaning of their existence … no, no spoilers here; you’ll have to read it yourself to understand the frightful truth.

Ishiguro’s chosen narrative style is conversational, prosaic even, how a good friend may write a letter (remember writing letters?) telling you what they did on the weekend. No literary language or erudite psychological musings, just memories of a middle-class woman about her upbringing; oh, and allowing un-spoken assumptions that the reader takes in, by osmosis, that creates, deep-down at first, this creeping disquiet.

It’s not a book you can easily forget. It is one of the most unusual and emotionally disturbing books I have ever read. I admire Ishiguro’s control over what he writes; how his skill is hidden and you only marvel at it when the story is over, and then you understand that what you feel is a direct, and deliberate, result of it.

You can find the book, in various formats, here.

The movie version (2010) stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling; adapted by Alex Garland, and directed by Mark Romanek.

Oh, and BTW, here is a piece of advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, Write what you know is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”. I wish I’d known about this quote as more ammunition for my brief literary discussion with above dinner guest.

Happy reading!






To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.

Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism.  It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do.  As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.

In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.

The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.

It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”

What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.

ToThe Lighthouse Original cover
Original cover design by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell: 1927

It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.

If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,

For he wished, she knew, to protect her.

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.

However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.

Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.

The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.

Although the story is set on the Isle of Skye, western Scotland, Godrevy Lighthouse, built in 1858–1859 on Godrevy Island in St Ives Bay, Cornwall, was the inspiration for Woolf’s novel.

You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.


* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal

** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.