The Narrow Road to The Deep South by Richard Flanagan

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untitledTaking its title from the famous Basho poem, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014 winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep South tells the story of working class boy done good Dorrigo Evans, surgeon, war hero, and national celebrity.

The novel opens with Dorrigo’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds to chronicle his life -time in a non-linear epic narrative which weaves in and out of its key moments.

We see him before, during, and after the war and watch how these strands combine to weave a story about survival and its aftermath.

The passages portraying the older Evans shows a man who has grown cynical about his renown as a war hero and feels himself to be a fraud.

We observe as he does the rounds of receiving various honours befitting a national treasure in an alcohol induced haze and pursuing a multitude of marital infidelities. He seems to be a haunted man unreconciled with himself.

The reasons for this unease with his present are rooted in his traumatic past. We learn that Dorrigo’s wartime experiences entailed being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on constructing the infamous Burma Death Railway.

In the midst of the horror Dorrigo has leadership thrust upon him and finds he must inhabit the role of the “big fella” a name his fellow prisoners have given him.

Knowing he must live up to the legend created by his men, he labours under the weight of leadership. In this role his is called upon to make unimaginable decisions which his post-war self struggles to reconcile with the decisions he made.

Also playing on Dorrigo’s mind is a torrid love affair he conducted with his uncle’s young wife before the war. This passionate encounter casts a long shadow over Dorrigo’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days casting a pall over his engagement and marriage.

Unsurprisingly, I found the parts relating Dorrigo’s war time experiences to be the most gripping part of the narrative. The sections featuring Dorrigo in old age also paint an interesting portrait of a survivor’s difficulty to reintegrate into everyday life. I also enjoyed the sub plots which followed the fates of some of the Japanese guards.

The passages portraying the affair were a little bit too Mills and Boonish for my tastes and I read them cringing a little as the prose veered towards the purple end of the spectrum.

I also found the story a little dragged out, and am still puzzling about the authors decision to follow a well-managed revelation in the plot to be followed closely an unlikely chance encounter, which for me was a coincidence too far and as such rendered what preceded it false.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a staunchly conventional novel which is both its strength and weakness.

Don’t expect any avant garde innovation, the prose is common place and isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but if you are looking for a big pacey slab of narrative to get stuck into you could do worse .

 

 

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.

This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.

The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.

The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.

In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.

We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.

Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.

Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.

The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.

Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.

George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.

George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.

The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.

As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.

George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.

The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.

As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.

Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>

Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.

To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.

The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.

All That Is by James Salter

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All That IsAmbitious in its scope, All That Is tells the story of Philip Bowman from his youth to middle age taking in a few key moments of the twentieth century along the way. Using an impressionistic approach, Salter takes us on a tour of privileged post-war white East Coast America.

This is done by showing us formative moments in his protagonist’s life, as well sketching out a brief back story for pretty much every character we encounter in the story. No mean feat in a story which comes in at under four hundred pages. This is a condensed, vacuum packed novel.

A brief detour to Virginia thrown in for good measure, mainly so we can gawp at the awful moneyed hicks who, according to Salter, live there. Why their East Coast equivalents are any better is never really detailed. Perhaps it’s because they work in publishing.

The novel opens off the coast of Japan around Okinawa aboard an American battle ship. Here we are introduced to Bowman as he partakes in the final stages of Japan’s defeat at the hands of the Americans. We then follow his post-war life as he pursues a career in publishing and, after an unsuccessful marriage, endless affairs.

It is here that the rot, or should I say Roth, sets in. In common with Roth, Salter seems to be of the opinion that watching privileged white men, who work in or around publishing and who, like Ron Burgundy, have “many leather-bound books”, and an apartment which “smells of rich mahogany”, follow their boners is an inherently fascinating activity.

That’s not to say that a certain amusement can’t be derived from such scenarios, but a full novel? To compound the matter, Salter seems unaware of the absurdity of such characters. Because of this, he misses the comic possibilities inherent in these ridiculous vain creatures who accord their sterile, empty orgasms a cultural significance.

This kind of po-faced faux macho American writing just doesn’t do it for me. One almost gets the feeling that the authors are emasculated by their profession and feel the need to compensate for this.

The female characters function as little more than neurotic receptacles for these literary studs. They range from mouthy alcoholics to good time girls with daddy issues. Some of the descriptions of the these characters makes one embarrassed for the author. Take the following sentence for example: “She was lively and wanted to talk, like a wind-up doll, a little doll that also did sex.” Also every female character in the novel is secretly in love with James Salt… ahem, I mean Philip Bowman.

Salter’s descriptions of Europe are equally embarrassing, particularly the passages set in Spain, which have the intoxicated starry-eyed quality of a teenage backpackers prose. Everything is exotic, intense and “authentic”. Inevitably Lorca is mentioned, and Spanish Gypsies play guitar and sing laments. Oh dear. Not that I have anything against Lorca or Spanish Gypsies but the obviousness chafes.

The ghost of Hemingway also hovers around these passages and Salter suffers from the comparison. One could excuse such juvenile depictions of Europe were they merely the characters point of view but I could find no evidence in the text which suggests this to be the case.

All That Is seems to be a swan song for the 87-year-old Salters presumably lost virility. It is an infuriating read because one clearly see’s that Salter can write. Certain passages shine with clarity and precision, alas they get lost among the tedious machismo. All That Is, unfortunately isn’t all that.

The Erl King by Michel Tournier.

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The Erl King Having previously discussed Stoner, in this post I am continuing with the theme of reviewing reissued literature. This time I am looking at Michel Tournier’s second novel The Erl King, which was first published in 1970.

The novel intrigued me from the off by opening in a diary format. I am a big fan of stories featuring aggrieved outsiders raging against the world via a diary, such as Gogol’s Diary Of A Madman and, of course, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground. This particular diary is recorded by a middle aged French mechanic in 1939, an ominous year…

The protagonist, Aubrey Tiffauges, begins by reminiscing about his miserable childhood spent as a submissive student at St. Christopher’s, a boarding school for orphans. Over the course of his recollections he introduces us to his obsession with his former classmate the ‘baby ogre’ Nestor.

Nestor is the deformed son of the school care taker. His age is undetermined and hard to judge due to his unconventional physical appearance, he appears to be a boy albeit with an oversized head, but his worldliness suggests that he is much older than the children who surround him.

Due to these factors he enjoys an uncommon prestige amongst his classmates and possesses a certain immunity from being disciplined by faculty members. When Nestor decides to take the young Tiffauges under his wing, he sow’s the seeds of his future fascination.

The aforementioned diary entries issue from the left hand of Aubrey Tiffauges. He finds that using his left hand to write has unexpected consequences. Long forgotten or repressed memories are revealed to him along with new philosophies and realisations. He collectively terms these revelations as his ‘sinister writings’.

The author uses these sinister writings to establish a set of symbols and tropes which are repeatedly reconfigured, recombined and inverted throughout the novel. The text recurrently cannibalises itself and then regenerates its narrative through this consumption, much as the main character Tiffauges consumes the imagery he fixates on and so becomes it.

The first example of this is found in Tiffauges’ belief that he is an avatar of the tragically departed Nestor who we discover died in a fire some years previously. Fitting with the author’s approach and main characters obsession with inversion, the adult Tiffauges stands as a physical and mental counterpoint to Nestor. He is a giant of a man possessed with an if not entirely infantile, certainly pubescent, understanding of his surroundings.

His impairment is hard to explain as he possesses an extensive vocabulary and expresses complex thoughts, yet he seems to be alienated from his surroundings by what could best be described as a sort of adolescent innocence. He is at once vulnerable and megalomaniacal.

Tiffauges reveals that he has taken to eating raw meat and believes himself to be an ogre or monster. That is a monster in the Latin sense of monstrum, a portent or divine warning which reveals a truth, as well as in the modern vernacular sense of large or deformed. Tiffauges is certainly large and most definitely socially deformed.

A diary entry of Tiffauges’ states: ‘if you don’t want to be a monster, you’ve got to be like your fellow creatures, in conformity with the species, the image of your relations. Or else have a progeny that makes you the first link in the chain of a new species. For monsters do not reproduce… And here I link up with my eternity again, for with me eternity takes the place of both relatives and progeny. Old as the world, and as immortal, I can have none but putative parents and adopted children.

Children play a central role in Tiffauges’ symbolic universe as is indicated by the books title The Erl-King which references the child stealing Faery King of Goethe’s poem, itself inspired by the Old Danish ballad Elveskud. The alternative title to the English translation of this novel is The Ogre one which also invokes images of children being forcibly removed from their parents by monstrous beings.

Over the course of the novel we witness Tiffauges obsession with at first children, then specifically male ones. We follow Tiffauges around Paris as he photographs children and obsesses over these images, lurking outside schools to capture his quarry on film which he later develops to pore over. Again we see the themes of inversion present in the development of photographs from negatives film to positive photographs, as well as themes of hunting which will recur.

Over the course of these outings he befriends a young girl. What happens next is open to interpretation depending on how reliable a narrator we believe Tiffauges to be. All we know is that Tiffauges’ is accused of raping the child, although there is much room in the text to believe that he is some way set up or framed.

This incident results in Tiffauges revulsion with female children a view he justifies with misogynistic argument that female children do not exist as they are all flirtatious coquettes from the get go. Could this be a paedophilic justification? Or misguided as it is does it suggest a rather more complex obsession and affinity with pre-sexual innocence? The character does not yield to easy analysis.

Tiffauges’ fascination with children is certainly sensual, he is obsessed with their scent, their sound and bizarrely their weight or phoric quality, but whether it is sexual is certainly debatable. He is for want of a better term, ‘Michael Jacksonesque’.

Tiffauges’ escapes sentencing for the rape due to the outbreak of World War Two and is sent to serve in the French army in lieu of prison time. This set a chain of events into motion where Tiffauges ends up a prisoner of war and is transferred to a prison camp in East Prussia. At this point the novel switches from a first person to a third person narrator.

Tiffauges finds his fortune changes under the chaotic circumstances of war. His skills as a mechanic enable him to begin a social ascent amidst the chaos of war, soon he is employed in Goering’s hunting lodge and then on to a National Political Academy or Napola where he becomes a eugenicist’s assistant.

Each change in circumstance moves him closer and closer to actualising his potential as an ogre superseding other ogres along the way. His employment at the Napola involves him scouring the Prussian country side looking for Aryan specimens to recruit and study; he literally steals children away from their parents. Yet there is always a larger ogre than the one he supersedes be Goering, Hitler or even Nazism itself.

Towards the end of the novel Tiffauges find a sort of redemption in the Christian trope of St. Christopher, the legendary Christ carrier. In the figure of St. Christopher Tiffauges’ finds an ogre role model of sorts and achieves quasi-atonement.

Like many French writers the author has a fascination with the ludic elements of linguistics and semiotics. And like many French writers, particularly those active in the 1970’s, Tournier relishes giving these elements free reign , sometimes to the frustration of the reader who at times may find the ludic veering perilously close to the ludicrous.

Tournier seems to want to say something about obsession, sexuality, myth, semiotics and the nature of fascism yet never quite gets around to it, opting instead for the effect of juxtaposing these elements rather than an analysing them.

The Erl King is also an uneven and often frustrating novel in terms of pace. I found the parts of the novel narrated in the first person to be much more successful than those narrated in the third person and regretted when the action moved outside of Tiffauges diary.

Yet for all these flaws it is hard to dismiss The Erl King entirely. It’s singular and odd parts add up to a distinctive and strangely haunting whole. The protagonist is one of the more distinctive and unsettling characters I have come across in a while.

I have spent much time puzzling over and pursuing the novels various thematic strands.I plan to reread it at some stage in the future to see if a second reading yields any more clarification. If one has the patience for such a book or merely enjoys the weird in life I recommend reading The Erl King.

Stoner by John Williams

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ISBN:978-0-099-56154-5

ISBN:978-0-099-56154-5

I have finally gotten around to reading Stoner, the famously forgotten novel by John Williams, and find myself grateful for the set of circumstances which led to its rediscovery.Beginning in 1910 it tells the story of William Stoner a 19 year old farmer’s son.

Little does Stoner suspect the experiences which await him as a result of his father uttering, “County agent come by last week… says they have a new school at the university in Colombia. They call it a College of Agriculture. Says he thinks you ought to go”.  From such a seemingly meagre premise our story is spun.

Stoner is the story of a modest man and his modest acheivements. As readers we are accustomed to our protagonists being notable and extraordinary, we watch and cheer as their epic and dramatic destinies unfold.

In fact the vast majority of contemporary fictional protagonists vary only in most superficial aesthetic detail from the heroes of myth. This emphasis is not confined to fiction. If we look at how history has been written we can note its similarity to myth, with its focus on kings, presidents and other exceptional individuals at the expense of the masses.

This focus on extraordinary characters is understandable from a technical narrative point of view, the extraordinary are compelling to read about. But it does beg the question, are the exceptional the only people worth writing about?

The hero figure and the remarkable individual are somewhat problematic in the sense that they are ultimately elitist. Chosen ones are just that, ones, singular. Some writers such as Joyce in Ulysses or Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus decide to approach this problem by accentuating the heroic in the everyday and elevating it to the level of epic.

Williams follow a different route with Stoner. His story contains no echoes of epics. He is neither hero nor anti-hero. In fact he is utterly aheroic; his circumstances are specific to him, but not extraordinary.

The novel tells us as much on the first page: “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910…eight years later… he received his Doctorate of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his course.”

This is a very unusual opening for a novel. How many authors begins by indicating how forgettable their protagonist is? Yet if we continue with the novel we discover that this in no way makes William Stoner unworthy of our attention. Stoner’s concerns are trivial in comparison to the trials of Hercules or indeed Bilbo Baggins, but they do matter.

Upon attending an obligatory Arts class in University Stoner has an experience with poetry which sparks an interest in literature. This diverts him from his previously preordained role as a man of agriculture and propels him towards a career in university teaching.

While two world wars rage in the background Stoner experiences an unhappy marriage, the birth of a daughter, the intrigues of faculty life and the death of his parents. The chronicle of his life catalogues his small victories, defeats and all the things which fall in between.

The character brought to mind a certain Mr Prufock, who memorably states:”No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; Am an attendant lord, one that will do, To swell a progress, start a scene or two”.

The difference being that Stoner is presented to us by Williams without the wry air of mockery in which Eliot cloaks his character, and one doubts that he would desire to “swell a progress” or even “start a scene or two”.

Stoner is no master of his own destiny. He largely responds to what life gives him and tries to make the best of it with varying results. This seems an accurate description of most people’s lives. We are for the most part not Nietzschean supermen.

By the end of the novel I was fully invested in William Stoner’s seemingly unremarkable life and marvelled at the skill with which brought this fictional wallflower was brought to life. William’s novel is achingly beautiful and bittersweet, resigned yet not cynical, reserved yet not stuffy. If you like your fiction to be reflective, meditative, and heart-felt then Stoner is for you.

 

 

 

 

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone

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Home published by Red Button Press

Home published by Red Button Press

Home by Rebekah Lattin Rawstrone is an unnerving novel which stays with you long after you have finished reading it. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly reassuring title. This book isn’t about home in the cosy, stay in, have a pizza and watch a box set sense. The home in the title is referring to the euphemistic antiseptic institutional variety, as in care “home”.

Retired Steve has recently started working in one of the above mentioned homes for the elderly at the behest of his dying wife Fran. Knowing the kind of man Steve is, she realises that he will need something to keep him going when she is gone.

Initially things start well. The work load is manageable and being relieved of the responsibility of being a carer for a few hours a day unburdens Steve, and no doubt eases his wife’s concerns about him being occupied when she has passed. Although they have a son he is living in America and him and Steve are somewhat estranged.

Steve’s new colleagues are bearable if not entirely likable. The homes two nurses are Milos an immigrant and aspiring artist with a wife and child back home and  Sarah. Sarah is a rather bitter and hard done by figure who labours under an unreciprocated crush on Milos.  Steve’s boss is Miss Tacey, whose penchant for aggressive high heels and tightly fitted outfits provide a source of amusement for him and his wife.

Despite Steve’s UKIP like views on immigration it is with Milos that he strikes up a friendship both of them bonding over hot beverages and cigarettes, Turkish coffee for Milos and of course tea for Steve.

Things tick along well enough for Steve and a new routine is developed. Then the inevitable happens and Fran dies. Initially devastated, as time passes and Steve emerges gradually from the fog of immediate mourning, he starts notice some things don’t add up.

Why after working for months in the home has he never set eyes on a resident? Why is the home in possession of an industrial strength incinerator for cremation? And why did the care home employ Steve, an elderly man with a dying wife as caretaker? It’s almost as if they were looking to hire someone distracted who wouldn’t pay attention to their surroundings…

Steve decides some investigation is in order and uses his position as care taker to give him the access he requires in order to get the answers he needs.  But as Steve soon discovers, some questions are dangerous to ask.

Home is a challenging book which offers the reader no easy resolutions. It unflinchingly looks at the way western society treats it elderly and how they are marginalised and commodified for the sake of convenience.

The home itself is anything but that, its bleached neutrality rendering everything interchangeable and impersonal. Here individuals lose their specific histories and become part of the interchangeable mass termed the ‘elderly’ which society consigns those deemed to be past usefulness.

Ghastly families flit in and out of the home to pay perfunctory visits to their alleged loved ones, primarily concerned about easing their own guilt rather than the wellbeing of their relatives.

This novel is not easy to read, especially if you have a friend or relative currently residing in an institution, but things worth reading usually aren’t. While some people will no doubt be defensive in the face of its critique I feel that it is both necessary and compelling.

To say I enjoyed “Home” seems a little perverse given its subject matter. instead I’ll just say it left me unnerved and a little sad, which I mean as a compliment as sometimes one requires something a little more substantial than the sweet lies of happy ever afters.