Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Category

Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.

Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.

Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.

Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.

Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.

The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …)  McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice.  If you can be bothered.

You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

In the interests of fair disclosure, I have to say up front that I’m not a fan of Peter Carey. I didn’t even enjoy his (second) Booker Prize winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), reviewed here. The Chemistry of Tears (2012) shares one of the same devices used in the earlier book: a story imagined around a real event or object. In this case it is an automaton, a swan that moves as if real. The story is partly about its creation, and partly about its restoration. Carey says that happening to see it being refurbished in a museum was the impetus behind the book.

Catherine Gerhig is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum (the V&A?) in London. One day her secret, married lover, who also works there, dies suddenly, leaving her bereft. Her boss, who may be in love with her too, gives her a new project to distract her: the reconstruction of a mechanical swan. The other half of the story, told in sections that alternate with Catherine’s, concerns Henry Brandling, a rich Victorian whose beloved son is ill with consumption. Henry hopes that the gift of a mechanical toy will improve his health, or even cure him. He initially thinks he has commissioned a mechanical duck, but the German watchmaker/inventor instead constructs the swan. Catherine reads Brandling’s story in the journal he kept of while the automaton was being constructed.

There are clearly meant to be parallels between the stories: whether ‘the huge peace of mechanical things’ can overcome grief is central to both of them. Both Catherine and Henry experience misery, rage almost amounting to madness, frustration and betrayal. It is a matter of opinion whether the two stories are fitted together like a well-oiled machine, or are mechanical in the pejorative sense. Catherine’s story has oddities enough, but Henry’s journal is positively opaque, and I got quite lost trying to work out what was going on. Much of it relates the story of the German watchmaker, Sumper, who has more or less kidnapped Henry; he tells Henry about the time he spent in London working with Sir Albert Cruickshank on something that sounds a bit like a computer, whose aim was to bring order out of chaos. Again there is a clear parallel with the reconstruction of the swan, but so what?

It doesn’t help that I found it hard to empathise with Catherine. She seems to have been made needlessly unpleasant, responding to grief with alcohol, drugs and rudeness. Nor could I understand her relationship with her assistant, who is apparently some sort of spy – but who for and why bother – with the Dickensian name of Amanda Snyde. She seems to have some kind of weird religious interest in the mechanism that makes the swan work, but again, I couldn’t see the point of it. I understand that not everything in a novel has to have some point, but in a novel about fitting together parts so they will move, you’d think her role would one of those moving parts. Perhaps it was and I failed to see it. But if so, I’m surprised that no one else in my book group could figure it out either.

Of course it’s not Catherine’s fault I couldn’t relate to her, or Amanda’s that she seems crazy; it’s Carey’s. I just don’t think he writes well about women. I didn’t find either of them convincing. It’s true I’ve been prejudiced against him ever since he wrote dismissively of his former wife – who had been his editor and muse – in his 2006 book Theft: a Love Story (though he shrugs this accusation off. You can read about it here). But the rest of the book club, who don’t share my prejudice, agreed neither character was realistic.

A review in the Guardian by the eminent writer and critic Andrew Motion didn’t suggest he had any of these problems with the book; rather the opposite. For him Carey exhibits ‘an easy-seeming mastery’ and is ‘too subtle a writer to spell out precise meanings …’ You can read his glowing assessment – ‘an impressive achievement’ –  here.

I have to admit that the swan itself is interesting, though I find it a bit bizarre. It was actually made in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth as in this story. It is housed in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Teesdale, County Durham, England. You can read about it here, and watch a YouTube of it in action here.

You can read more about Peter Carey’s life and work on his website.

Read Full Post »

Graham Swift is not a prolific writer; he publishes a new book every four or five years. Having loved two of his earlier ones, Waterland (1983) and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders (1996) (reviewed here), I always have high expectations of a new one. Wish You Were Here (2011) (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song of the same name) is the second to last of his books. It covers some similar ground to Last Orders, but somehow it doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the earlier book.

The story uses the same techniques as much of Swift’s writing in that it jumps backwards in time from present to past. Like Last Orders, it tells of a journey that ends in a funeral. Jack Luxton, the last of a long line of dairy farmers in Devon, has sold his land and with his wife Ellie has become the owner/manager of a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. The story begins with Jack standing with a shotgun in his Isle of Wight cottage after a fight with his wife. Is he going to shoot himself, or her, or both of them? The pressure of not knowing builds throughout the story. The fight seems to be over something relatively trivial: Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to the funeral of his brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. But it has called into question everything in Jack’s past: the effects of the mad cow disease cull of their farm animals, his brother Tom’s decision to run away and join the Army, the death of their father, his marriage to Ellie, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the sale of the farm land, and of the old farm house to London yuppies as a country retreat.

Unlike Last Orders, where a range of people had a voice in the story, this story is told largely from Jack’s perspective, though Ellie and Tom do get brief turns. This allows Ellie to be presented in a largely unfavourable light. It is she who has taken the initiative in selling the farm and moving to the Isle of Wight, she who resents the hold the memory of Tom has over his brother Jack. Has she trashed the things that were important to Jack? Her contributions to the story do something to balance this negative view of her, and after all, Jack went along with all this. Perhaps it is his sense of self-betrayal that Swift is getting at – the giving up of his heritage. ‘The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?’

One of the issues with Jack is that although the story is mostly in his hands, he is essentially inarticulate. He has trouble putting his feelings into words. The title of the book comes from the wording of a postcard he sent as a boy to Ellie while away on a rare beach holiday in a caravan with his mother and brother. The holiday is one of the best times of his life. Yet he misses Ellie. How can he convey this complex message of ‘honesty and guilt’? The other side of the inarticulate coin is that a single word, like ‘holiday’ or ‘caravan’ conjures up a whole complex of emotions. When his brother leaves, he gives him a card and says goodbye at the same time. But he can’t think of anything better or more intimate to say than: “‘Good luck, Tom. I’ll be thinking of you.’ Which was a foolish thing perhaps to have said, because it was exactly what he’d written on the card.” While I’m sure that Swift is making the point that inarticulate people have strong feelings, it forces him at times into third party narrator expedients like ‘he might have said but didn’t’ which aren’t really convincing. Which is not to say that Swift doesn’t write well; he does, really well.

Even though both are about a death, Wish You Were Here is a much grimmer book than Last Orders. It seems that Swift’s world view has darkened. The decline of the dairy industry, hit first by BSE and then by foot and mouth disease (after Jack has sold up, but he still feels somehow involved), the war in Iraq, the shadowy war on terror, economic and social inequality, all have more or less direct impacts on Jack. One of Swift’s great talents is to draw connections either directly or through metaphor; Jack’s shotgun, for example, is both a real object and a symbol of other deaths, both in the story and beyond, so a story that is limited in time and space acquires much wider ramifications.

I note that the Guardian review sees the story as a meditation on Englishness. Certainly Jack thinks of the farm as a ‘little bit of England’. It is an elegy for a lost world, and perhaps loss is a particularly English sentiment at the moment. I’m not sure of Swift’s intention. It may be so, but he is at least as interested in the impact of writers from outside Britain in the magic realist tradition as in internal soul searching. There isn’t any magic realism as such in the story, but there is a slightly surreal quality to some of the writing. For example Jack finds he can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s merely in his head. And to bear out my point about the interrelatedness of Swift’s themes, there is the madness everywhere – arising from BSE, reflected in of culling healthy animals, the madness of the war in Iraq, the madness, it seems, of modern life … Such madness is hardly confined to England.

You can read the review I referred to here. Swift doesn’t seem to have a website – which isn’t really surprising, he seems a very private person – but you can read a bit more about him here. His most recent book, Mothering Sunday (2016), has received much praise, so is a must read for me.

Read Full Post »

This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

Read Full Post »

I recently reviewed Grenville’s The Lieutenant (2008), a moving but rather grim story about the first contact between white arrivals in Australia and the Indigenous inhabitants. A friend lent me The Idea of Perfection (1999) with the assurance that it was just as well written and much happier, and she was right.

The two main characters both consider themselves and their lives to be far from perfect. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer, good at his work, but self-conscious and awkward with people. He has been sent to Karakarook, a small town in outback Australia, to demolish and replace a damaged bridge. Waiting to be served in the local pub, ‘he felt the urge to apologise simply for existing, much less wanting breakfast’. Harley Savage is equally gauche, and carries with her the belief that she is somehow likely to damage people she becomes close to; she feels she has ‘a dangerous streak’. She is an expert in fabrics who has come to Karakarook to help a local committee establish a pioneer museum. Karaakarook (Gateway to the Foothills), like so many outback towns, is dying, and the committee hopes to give it a fillip by encouraging tourism. The first meeting of Douglas and Harley, where they literally bump into each other, in inauspicious: ‘a moment extending itself into awkwardness … two bodies hitting together, two people standing apologising’. To make matters worse, they seem destined to be on opposing sides on an issue that is dividing the town: should the bridge, which is a piece of pioneer history, be replaced, or repaired? But seasoned readers are likely to guess that obstacles will be overcome, and that the two will find friendship, and probably something more. Their story is counterpointed by that of Felicity, the bank manager’s wife, who thinks the local butcher is in love with her, though it very soon appears to be the other way round. She wants to be perfect, but it is obvious that her idea of perfection is completely dysfunctional, and constrains her.

The craft of quilting runs through the story, and is one of the themes that offers contrasting views of perfection. Reflecting on the tradition of deliberately placing an asymmetrical piece in an otherwise symmetrical hand-made quilt, Felicity thinks ‘it was just another part of the perfection, really, not being perfect. But it only counted if you were not being perfect on purpose.’ She gave up quilting for fear it might damage her physical perfection (yes she is a bit crazy). But all of Hayley’s quilts are purposely asymmetrical; she thinks that ‘to anyone else [they] would probably look like something gone wrong’. Yet her quilts are highly sought after works of art, reflecting her passions and insights; any ‘perfection’ they have is unspoken.

One of the things that makes the book such a pleasure to read is that Grenville is ultimately kind to all her characters. This is despite the fact – or maybe because of it – that she writes about them with a certain dry humour, often conveyed by the italicising of certain words, as in: ‘The trouble was, even as woman looked at dog and dog looked back at woman, still life turned into life’.  Both Douglas and Hayley initially find the small town atmosphere somewhat hostile and intimidating – but this is a perception partly born of their self-consciousness. On better acquaintance, they find that the townspeople, despite, or even because of their eccentricities and inquisitiveness, can be kind and approachable. They both learn from their experience there. For Douglas, ‘the thing he would like to learn was not something you could ask anyone, although it was so simple. How do people get on?’  He realises that ‘crankiness could be a kind of intimacy’. Hayley comes to realise that ‘out here, people went by different rules … You forgave people for being who they were, and you hoped they would be able to forgive you.’ Coralie, the driving force behind the idea of a museum, and her husband Chook, foreman of Douglas’s work gang, seem initially hostile to Haley and Douglas respectively. They are furthermore on opposite sides in the bridge controversy which might be expected to make them antagonistic to each other. Yet by the end of the story, Grenville grants them ‘a second of simple love’, and Hayley realises that the love she has thus far pushed away, however complicated, could be ‘the simplest thing in the world’. And just as they learn from the town, the town learns from them.

Another nice thing about this book is its cover, which shows a wooden bridge which has bowed in just such a way as the bridge that has brought Douglas to the town. The cover is a photo – meaning that the story is inspired by a real life bridge. No wonder Grenville’s descriptions of it are so detailed and evocative.

You can read more about Kate Grenville here. The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize for 2000.

Read Full Post »

This, Stead’s best known book, was published in 1940 but largely ignored until it was reissued in 1965 with an introduction by the American critic Randall Jarrell, who hailed it as a masterpiece. A new edition (2010) has an introduction by Jonathan Franzen who is just as enthusiastic. They concede the book’s weaknesses, but find great strengths to weigh against these. I guess it’s a personal choice whether you can appreciate the great things about the book, or feel depressed by the awfulness being described, and disinclined to read further. Even Franzen questions whether ‘enjoy’ is an appropriate response to the book. Either way, I have to agree it contains some great writing.

The book covers a year or so of the life of the Pollit family, Henny and Sam, and their six – soon to be seven – children. The eldest, Louisa, is Henny’s step daughter. The story is episodic, in that there are a number of set piece scenes – sometimes in my view over-long – that describe the life of the family, rather than forwarding the action. Indeed there isn’t much action until the end, when some of what has arisen earlier comes together in the climax of the novel. Instead of action there is wonderful description of landscape and keen observation of behaviour – though few of the adult characters are presented as likeable people.

It’s pretty trite to use Tolstoy’s comment that ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ in relation to this story, but I’ll do it anyway. This is because Tolstoy has got it wrong; you can’t separate families into ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ in this way. This is the story of a very unhappy family: Henny and Sam fight frequently, openly and bitterly. Sam ‘called a spade the predecessor of modern agriculture, she called it a muck dig; they had no words between them intelligible’. ‘Ugly duckling’ Louisa is the butt of their malicious comments and jokes, in addition to which, being the eldest at eleven, she has to look after the younger children and wait on her mother. But the Pollit children don’t know they are unhappy, because they know no other form of living, and they are objectively happy at least some of the time. For Louisa it is when she can escape into books or daydreams. To me, this blending of the experiences of childhood is far more convincing than ‘all happy’ or ‘all miserable’. But the misery is certainly laid on thick; every humiliation or disappointment one can remember from childhood appears here magnified by a factor of ten. ‘They all laugh at me,’ cries Louisa in despair. Henny sees everything in the blackest terms: ‘Isn’t it rotten luck,’ she exclaims. ‘Isn’t every rotten thing in life rotten luck?’ Sam thinks he is the voice of reason, but he is as selfish and cruel as his wife. The baby-talk language he uses to his children makes me cringe in the same way as fingernails on a blackboard. Yet the children seem to love them both. Even the tragic climax grows out of love.

Knowing a bit about Stead’s life helped me better understand the book. It is to a significant degree autobiographical, with the character of Sam based on her father, David Stead, a marine biologist, who seems to have been a domestic tyrant. Louisa is modelled on Stead herself; her mother died when she was very young, and her father married again, producing a further six children. I don’t know if her step-mother treated her as Henny does Louisa, but I hope not – though Stead no doubt cherished some of Louisa’s ambitions and dreams. The adult Stead had left-wing leanings, eventually marrying William Blake, a German Jewish Marxist, but she is clearly no starry-eyed idealist; Sam’s doctrine of universal love, his ‘humane folly’, is unswervingly revealed as superficial nonsense. Franzen suggests that Stead’s treatment of Sam is at times funny; I didn’t find it so, but she is certainly satirizing such ideas. The book has no overt politics, but the slide of the family from gentile poverty into grinding want underlies the bitter climax of the story; money – having it, not having it and losing it run like a red thread throughout the book. Sam’s belief in eugenics is an even blacker mark against him when one remembers that Stead’s partner was Jewish.

One aspect of the book that interests me is that the story was originally set in Australia, but the setting was changed because Stead’s publishers in America – where she was living at the time – thought an American setting would be more appealing to American readers. Critics like Jarrell and Franzen – both Americans– see some inaccuracies in setting and language, but I was completely unaware of these. Indeed I find it hard to see how it could have worked as a story in Australia, though I suppose gentile poverty is the same the western capitalist world over.

It’s a challenging book to read just now, when the spotlight in Australia is being turned on domestic violence. As Franzen points out, Stead, who probably never heard the words ‘domestic violence’, treats what we would call ‘abuse’ as a natural feature of the familial landscape. I found it heavy going.

It is impossible to do justice to the book in a short review. Read Randall Jarrell’s introduction if you have the Angus and Robertson edition and you can read a long review by Franzen in the New York Times here. There is a good short biography of Stead in the Australian Dictionary of Biography here, and there are several full-length biographies of her, the most recent of which is by Hazel Rowley (1993). The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Australian fiction is named  the Christina Stead Prize in her honour.

Read Full Post »

This book was published in 2009 in Sweden, but has had a spike of interest because a film of the book, advertised as a comedy, was released in Australia in 2014. Our book club thought it might be nice to read something a bit more cheerful than we had been doing, and tried this. But it wasn’t one of our better choices.

Jonasson apparently said he wrote the book because he thought the title was so good it needed a story to go with it. The window which the hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of is that of the nursing home to which he has recently been relegated, and I agree that the idea of escape from a nursing home is pretty appealing. But for me the joke ends there. What follows is a picaresque series of adventures, during which Allan gains a fortune, a group of friends and finally a wife. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to his past life, during which he met some of the twentieth century’s major players, including General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Harry Truman, and played a role in some of the century’s major events.

Some of what happens might be funny in a film – for example the role of the elephant – but I didn’t find it funny on the page. The book has been very popular; some people must find it charming. I just found it silly. So silly that I assumed it must be satire. Now I am very dense when it comes to satire; I need to understand clearly what is being sent up. I thought at first that Jonasson was echoing Voltaire’s Candide, where everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – even when the reverse is actually true. Allan is an expert in explosives, and has a hand in creating the atomic bomb. Surely the capacity to destroy humanity is being set against his optimism – his ‘unstoppable ability to look on the bright side’? There are other similarities to Candide too – the picaresque nature of the story, the somewhat sadistic treatment of enemies, the matter-of-fact tone, and the fact that the story deals with events of the time. (You can read about the original Candide here.) But there are major differences. There is no tutor Panglos urging optimism; Allan is his own Panglos. He emerges unscathed from his adventures; there are no terrible outcomes for him or his friends as there are in Candide. In other words, despite his capacity for destruction, his optimism is rewarded – after all we know from the start that he lives to be a healthy 100-year old. This surely isn’t satire.

If not satire then what? We all sat around trying to drag some deeper meaning from the book. Maybe the story is intended to be absurd in the philosophical sense of absurd, where human purpose meets, in Camus’s phrase ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’? But Allan ‘had never been given to pondering things too long’ – he doesn’t seem to have much purpose, and certainly doesn’t try and see any purpose in the world; he accepts whatever will be will be. Naivety and simplicity win out. Is the book a sort of Swedish Forrest Gump, where: ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’. Forrest Gump makes history in extraordinary ways, through a series of accidents and happenstance, just as Allan does. We also thought of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, where Chance, the simple-minded gardener, almost by accident becomes Chauncey Gardiner, Presidential candidate. (Being There is well known for being Peter Sellars’s last film). But Allan is not simple-minded like either of these characters. Is he more like Jaroslav Hašek’s hero in The Good Soldier Švejk? Švejk appears to be ingenuous, but is actually very clever at getting his own way; this is also true of Allan. But it’s drawing rather a long bow to make the comparison. We even wondered if Allan’s oft-stated lack of interest in politics or religion was meant to be significant; after all, by just being friendly and pleasant, he plays a major role, so he says, in dampening down the tensions of the Cold War.

Perhaps the moral of this post is that there is not any deeper meaning in the book, and that we shouldn’t be trying to create one. It doesn’t have to have some cosmic message, or to fit into some literary tradition. It is what it is – which in my opinion, isn’t up to much.

You can read a little more about Jonas Jonasson here. This was his first book; his second, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (2014), is in a similar vein. I note that the publisher’s description says it’s written in the ‘same light-hearted satirical voice’ as his first novel, so maybe I was right first time about the satire being there, whether I could see it or not. You can read here a very much more favourable review of the book from The Guardian, where it was nominated by readers for the Guardian First Book Award. It didn’t make the short-list though.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »