Oct 012014

I was reading a Guardian review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and came across this:

[W]riting is often seen as a profession like any other. To take this year’s Man Booker winner, Eleanor Catton, as an example of what might be seen as a novelist’s ideal career in 2013: one does a degree in English literature, and immediately afterwards a master’s degree in creative writing. Your first published novel is your MA thesis. Afterwards, you are given a post teaching creative writing in a university, and your second novel wins a major prize.

Not to criticise the excellent Ms Catton, but this model of a novelist’s career is going to produce novelists with a narrow grasp of human experience, whose novels are increasingly going to have to come from historical research and meta-fictional game-playing and, ultimately, novels about creative writing degrees. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee – review by Philip Hensher.

I think he hit that nail right on its [elephant in the room] head.

Sep 272014

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, 1989.

I decided to re-read The Remains of the Day, to see if I liked it any better than I did when I first read it. Unfortunately, I still felt rather angry about the same things that annoyed me during my original reading. The narrator of the book, Mr Stevens, is an old-school butler who served a British aristocrat, Lord Darlington, for thirty-five years in the first half of the twentieth century. He takes great pride in his profession and is also very proud of his ability to maintain his ‘dignity’ – dignity, as Stevens sees it, is what makes a butler ‘great’. As I see it, he squanders his life in pursuit of ‘dignity’ when a little adventurousness may have rendered his life happy and fulfilled. Instead of stepping out to met life head-on, Stevens hides behind his starched shirt front and impeccable manners and lets life go by without him. In the end, all he has left is the ‘remains of the day’, during which he will serve a new master until he gets too old to perform his duties. The way Stevens narrates his story would have us believe that he is totally unaware of his own feelings, but that is just bravado attempting to cover his utter despair.

I freely admit that the whole master/servant thing is anathema to me. Stevens can talk all he likes about his professionalism and dignity, but in reality he is complicit in his own oppression by the ruling classes, and he in turn oppresses the ‘lower’ classes of servants. Stevens is so indoctrinated into the class system that he carries on serving port in the dining room as his father lays dying upstairs – his master, Lord Darlington, comes first in his eyes, before his own father, whom Stevens (weirdly) talks to in the third person. ‘Father’ is a construct, a super-butler in Stevens’ imagination and he pays homage to him as a commoner would to a member of the royal family, but he is unable to show any warmth and feeling to the flesh-and-blood man. He is sad that his father has died and he weeps as he continues to do the rounds of the gentlemen with the port decanter, but he avers that he is more proud of the fact that he was able to maintain his ‘dignity’ and continue doing his job than he is grieved by his father’s death. At least, that is what we are led to believe, but I think it is a lie and Stevens is trying to justify his actions to himself, and to us. Stevens carries his British reserve and ‘stiff upper lip’ to ridiculous lengths and rather than appearing dignified he seems to me as cold as a deep, dark lake. He completely represses his emotions and feelings so that nary a ripple appears on the surface, and although he may appear dignified, he seems to me to more of a toady than a man of integrity. [I guess feelings such as these are bound to appear when someone with Marxist leanings reads a book such as this!]

As for his relationship with Miss Kenton, well, Stevens is just a scared dunderhead. He is obviously crushingly lonely, but he is too ‘dignified’ to take a chance on love. Ishiguro shows us Stevens as being representative of that class of servants who subsumed their own lives in order to serve another’s needs, wants and whims, and who ended up with nothing but bitter sorrow in their old age. Clearly, he wanted us to feel pity for Stevens, with his stuffy and humourless manner, his misguided beliefs, his inability to connect with people on anything but a ‘professional’ level. Perhaps in addressing such issues such as love, loyalty and integrity, Ishiguro makes a strong point about trust and its consequences; Stevens ‘backed the wrong horse’, so to speak, and look what happened. Stevens is a consummate butler who negates his own personal needs in order to serve the needs of others, and what a tragedy it all turns out to be.

I re-watched the film adaptation of the book recently and found it a bit disconcerting. The hard edges have been neatly rounded off and Stevens is less starchy than he is in the novel. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are good in their roles, but the film is far less bleak and miserable, I think. I do like the way the book is written, but the story just made me feel too sad.

Sep 182014

Swimming Home, Deborah Levy, Bloomsbury, 2012.

When Swimming Home was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker I saw a lot of reviews online, but I ignored them because of my terrible relationship with literary prize books, and Booker entrants in particular. The other day I saw the book at the library, read the blurb, and decided to take it home. I sat down to read for half an hour on Sunday morning and did not stir until I had turned the last page. This seldom happens to me, so to say I was glued and could not put the book down is a bit of a big deal.

The narrative revolves around a young woman named Kitty Finch. She is one of the more memorable fictional characters I have encountered recently, with her long copper curls, pale skin, green fingernails, and a penchant for being naked in public. We first meet Kitty floating face down in a coffin-like swimming pool that is carved out of the rock surrounding a villa near Nice. Two English families have rented the villa and travelled there to spend some time in the sun. When they notice something, or someone, floating in the pool there is momentary consternation, but when the interloper turns out to be a pretty young woman with nowhere else to go, she is invited to stay in the spare bedroom.

Deborah Levy has not only produced a narrative that is original and fresh, but the subtlety with which she draws her characters is admirable. I really liked her writing:

It shouldn’t be happening, his search for love in her, but it was. He would go to the ends of the earth to find love. He was trying not to, but the more he tried not to search, the more there was to find. He could see her on a British beach with a Thermos of tea in her bag, dodging the cold waves, tracing her name in the sand, looking out at the nuclear power stations in the distance. This was more her landscape…

I think it is altogether possible that certain words actually floated off the page, entered my eyes, and zapped my brain with a huge shock of recognition. ZZZZZTTTTT!!

‘I know what you’re thinking. Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely. You did not get home at all. That is why I am here, Jozef. I have come to save you from your thoughts.’

I was riveted to the page because I could not anticipate what would happen. How would it all end? Why were the characters behaving the way they did; what was their motivation? What secrets were they hiding? What is the ‘truth’ about Kitty? The novel is a very slow reveal but patience is rewarded, although the ending was rather abrupt and not at all what I half-expected. It is very difficult to write anything about the plot without giving too much away. This is definitely one of those books best approached without too much prior knowledge.

I may have to look at the 2012 Man Booker longlist again and see if there are any other good books I have missed out on, because this was an excellent read. I still cannot make up my mind about Kitty Finch, though…

Sep 072014

The Public Image, Muriel Spark, Virago, 2014.

First published in 1968, The Public Image tells the story of Annabel Christopher, who is a movie star, and her husband, Frederick, an actor who never made it big. They have known each other since their youth, and it was only by chance that Annabel was ‘taken up’ by a PR expert and turned into a celebrity. Annabel has become very popular in Rome and her much-polished public image is that of an ‘English Lady-Tiger’, which I take to mean that she was rumoured to be be pretty hot between the sheets. Ho Hum. Plus ça change, and all that.

Spark’s tone is world-weary and cynical. How much more world-weary would she be now, having to deal with our ludicrous celebrity culture and a 24-hour news cycle that spews out headline after headline after headline. Anyway, when Annabel had a small part in an Italian film, the film-maker took a fancy to her and decided that she would be the next big thing. She is one of those actors who plays herself on the screen, but she does it very well. The public is intrigued by her manufactured image and before too long she is given better roles and a lot more money. Her husband is jealous because he thinks Annabel is stupid and he cannot understand how she got to be so rich and famous. Their marriage is on the rocks when Annabel decides that a having a baby would be a good PR move. Frederick does not have much say in anything any more, and the baby is duly born. Not long afterwards, something happens to throw everything into disarray, and we get to see the ‘real’ Annabel hit her stride as she does whatever is necessary to maintain her public image.

I felt rather ambivalent about this book. I like it, but the writing feels a bit detached, a bit cold, somehow. The Public Image was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1969 and critics had plenty of good things to say about it, but it did not really hit the spot for me. Maybe that is because in the nearly fifty years since the book was written, the world has changed a great deal and what was once fairly cutting edge – the idea of a woman taking control – was somewhat fascinating back then. Many famous actresses of yesteryear seem to have had a husband or manager controlling them, but Annabel is not putting up with that. Although she is objectified as a ‘Lady-Tiger’, she remains true to who she is and does what she wants to do. She is content to play the role of a ‘Lady-Tiger’ for the public, but she does not fall into the trap of believing she really is one. When the ordure hits the fan and things are looking grim, Annabel refuses to fall in with other people’s plans for her and plays her adversaries like the champion player she is.

Second-wave feminism was kicking off in the late 1960s, and Annabel’s actions can be seen as an awakening of her feminist self and a bid for liberation from male control. I think there are a lot of issues to do with identity construction, self-image and role playing that could be explored through this book. No one is quite what they seem – including a very creepy little girl who speaks as she finds and almost ruins everything. The main characters are scrabbling for fame and money but none of that makes them happy. There is a lot of outright lying, and some surprising twists as people behave in unexpectedly good ways. The narrative zips along and is funny, bordering on the farcical at times, but the only real warmth is in the relationship Annabel has with her baby. There is certainly not a lot of love lost between Annabel and her husband:

She smiled reproachfully, apologetically and conspiratorially all in one, a composite smile that infuriated Annabel. She went to look at the baby. On the way she heard a key in the lock. Frederick, it must be. She intended to hiss instructions to him to get rid of these tramps and queer louts at once, at once.

There are some zinging lines:

…in those earlier times when she began to be in demand in English films, she had no means of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid, for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that it thrives on the absence of a looking-glass.

I like Spark’s writing; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite novels and I love the adaptation starring Maggie Smith. I am looking forward to reading this biography and some of her other novels. There are twenty-six Spark novels, I believe, so that should keep me going for a while.