The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru

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GIANTThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru features themes of memory and forgetting playing out against the type of vague backdrop so beloved of the author.

A great mist has descended on the populace of ancient Britain obscuring the memories of the indigenous Britons and their Saxon neighbours alike.

The novel follows the fortunes of a pair of pilgrims, Beatrice and Axl. Both native Britons are haunted by their lack of memories.

They inhabit a dreamlike post-Roman Britain which is populated by half-imagined monsters such as ogres, pixies and an amnesia inducing dragon.

Determined to regain their past, the pair resolve to undertake a journey to their son’s village where they hope they will be welcomed and find refuge from the mist.

Along the way the couple cross paths with some fellow wayfarers, an exiled Saxon boy who carries a terrible wound, a warrior whose skilful swordplay is matched only by his impeccable politeness, and an aged knight in rusting armour accompanied by his clapped out steed.

These characters, seemingly drawn together by chance, are niggled by a sense that they may know each other. As is often the case with quests, the journey soon evolves into something beyond the characters’ original intentions.

Much controversy, and of course publicity, has greeted Ishiguru’s disavowal of the fantasy genre, with heavy-weights like Ursula Le Guin giving their two cents about the author’s perceived sniffiness towards fantasy.

While I do find more ‘literary writers’ resistance to being identified as having produced genre fiction amusing and somewhat precious, this time I feel myself siding with Ishiguru.

The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Readers of the novel can, and will, argue the toss endlessly, but one particular point disqualified The Buried Giant as fantasy for me. That was the seemingly intentional unreality of its supernatural beings.

To my mind, fantasy seeks to convince us of the literal reality of its monsters. Not that monsters in fantasy are necessarily without a metaphorical dimension, but that the metaphorical dimension functions alongside a sense of the reality of the monster within the text.

When the Nazgûl were hunting Frodo in The Lord of The Rings I could feel them breathing, if ring-wraiths do indeed breathe, down the back of my neck as they mercilessly sought their quarry. The danger they represented in and of themselves seemed very real to me as a reader. In The Buried Giant the fantastical beings are more hallucinatory and less consequential than in fantasy novels.

Some readers have reacted with frustration at the marginal role which Ishiguru has granted the supernatural creatures, perhaps agreeing with Chekhov’s maxim regarding guns:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The rifles being ogres in this instance.

I for one found these creatures all the more intriguing for their elusiveness and lack of consequence in the story.The monsters in the novel act as beautiful scenery which helps to construct a pleasing  phantasmagoria for the characters to inhabit. I found it liberating to walk by ogres, admiring them in passing, without dwelling too much on them.

The Buried Giant borrows some of the clothing of the fantasy genre but underneath its surface lies a very different beast.

The fantasy elements are a backdrop for the human drama central to the story. Of course fantasy can feature human drama, but in The Buried Giant the novel is almost exclusively concerned with its themes of collective memory, psychic repression and the nature of love and forgiveness. The dragons and sword fights really don’t matter much at all, whereas in fantasy proper, for better or worse, they do.

Literary references ranging from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Greek myth are interspersed throughout the tale. These references and fragments contribute to building the novel’s peculiar  kaleidoscopic atmosphere.

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguru’s work and enjoyed The Buried Giant. Perhaps my familiarity with his previous work inoculated me against the disappointment others may have felt with the book.

I never expected balls to the wall fantasy from Mr.Ishiguru, but rather restrained melancholic prose and bitter-sweet musings on memory and forgetting. All of which I found present in abundance.

While The Buried Giant is certainly not the author’s strongest novel, it still has enough going on in it to warrant a reader’s attention. It seems to be a novel which pushed the writer outside of his comfort zone.  The result is this wilfully odd genre bender which is hard to pigeon-hole, and as such worth a look.

I’ve included the link to the original article which sparked the fantasy/not fantasy furore below: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=0

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

ISBN: 978 1 4088 1603 5
The Song Of Achilles is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. The novel covers the familiar ground of Achilles semi-divine origins, his friendship with Patroclus, his training with Chiron, and his role in the eventual siege of Troy. Those who are familiar with the myth may question the point of its retelling.

The answer may be found in the nature of myth. Originating in an era where literacy was a minority pursuit, oral retellings of a tale by story tellers were common place. While we may associate these tales with surviving versions which are familiar to us, such as the version which appears in Homer’s Iliad, these tales were broadly told by multiple tellers.

As such multiple versions of popular myths existed simultaneously, definitive versions being a later product of history. Mythical stories tend to feature archetypical characters and scenarios which provided a scaffold for story tellers to weave their craft around. This accounts for the durable structure of myth which can incorporate multiple minor alterations to its tapestry without losing the core of the story.

So how has Miller fared in retelling a tale told previously by giants such as Homer and Plato? Quite well I’m pleased to report. Instead of taking on these masters in their home territory, the epic, Miller has moved arenas to the very modern realm of the personal and individual. Characters found in preserved versions of the Achilles myth are presented in a more nuanced form derived from realist tradition with added contemporary concerns such as individual psychology and personal motivation not present in ancient versions.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In earlier versions of the myth we are assured of these men’s friendship and take it as a given without been told much about the reasons behind it. This has left the nature of their relationship open for interpretation according to the tastes and needs of the storyteller. Miller has chosen to portray it primarily as a romance and skilfully depicts the maturation of their relationship as it develops from childhood companions to adult lovers, which fully accounts for their devotion to each other.

Despite Achilles’ starring role in the title the tale is told from the perspective of Patroclus which helps to accentuate the human rather than divine aspects of the tale. We observe the deeds of the demi-god Achilles from a very specific human perspective. This alters the dynamic of the tale radically, instead of being passive observers of a hero and his deeds we feel concern about for Achilles’ wellbeing and fret for his safety along with Patroclus. I felt that for the author humanity is the real star of the show, its complexity and contradictions being of more interest to her than the two dimensional traits of godhood. There is evidence for this in the novels focus on Patroclus, and the fact that most of Achilles divine deeds and interactions take place off page whereas his more human moments are what drive the narrative.

The author’s realistic treatment extends to the more fantastical characters also. Chiron the centaur, instructor of Achilles and Patroclus, came alive for me in a way I haven’t often experienced with fantastical characters. The fact that he was a human torso attached to a horse seemed the most natural thing in the world. This rendering of the fantastic as natural had such an effect on me that when Scamander, a river god, suddenly emerged to block Achilles approach of Troy it seemed like an ordinary and logical thing to happen.

The only character to retain some of the remoteness of godhood is Achilles’ imposing mother, the sea nymph Thetis. Thetis enters and leaves the story as she pleases exuding a terrifying inhuman presence as she does so. Yet ultimately her concerns are for her son’s future, maternal instincts being common to both mortals and goddesses. Thetis is horrified at her sons coupling with Patroclus, feeling a mortal unworthy of her demi-god son she shows that status anxiety is not an exclusively human trait.

Humour features throughout the book as well. Two moments in particular stood out for me as particularly amusing, the first being Chiron’s sceptical appraisal of a lavish jacket designed for a horse and the second a comment made by Odysseus to Pyrrhus about historical memory and posterity. The humour serves the novel well and helps lighten the mood in a story concerned with conflict and fate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was surprised by my reaction to it. I had initially approached it with some scepticism given that I knew the broad outline of the plot already and expected to this to temper my enjoyment of the novel. Yet despite initial hesitation I found the book impossible to put down and nothing less than compelling. So whether you are a seasoned scholar of ancient Greek myth, a greenhorn looking for a way into these stories, or just somebody looking for a decent read, pick up The Song Of Achilles, you won’t regret it.