Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Murder in Venice: Acqua Alta by Donna Leon

Crime fiction is one of my addictions, so when you add in Italy, archaeology and opera, this book ticks quite a lot of my boxes. Donna Leon follows the conventional crime fiction path - her hero Guido Brunetti is a kind of Italian Morse, though his family life is happier (he does have one!) She develops his character with each successive book, and we learn a lot about the chaos and subterfuge of Italian police procedure. There are several police forces in Italy - the Polizia and the Carabiniere are constant rivals with overlapping territories; then there are the money police - the Guardia di Finanza; then the local police called the Polizia Municipale. Quite a minefield.

In Acqua Alta (high water), Venice is flooding with winter rain and high tides. The archaeologist lover of a famous opera singer is beaten almost to death, and the head of the Venice Department of Antiquities is murdered. A digital trail of bank accounts, telephone numbers and hotel bills links the suspects together. Tension is kept high by constant danger from the rising flood water and the shadowy presence of what the Italians call 'the problem of the Mezzogiorno' - the country's troubled south. 'They seemed to be moving north, coming up from Sicily and Calabria, immigrants in their own land.' And they bring with them a level of violence to add to the casual corruption that keeps Italy ticking over.

Donna Leon illustrates this well in the novel. The archaeologist is American and doesn't understand the way Italy works 'in nero' ie on the black side of the economy. Brunetti skirts past bureacratic restrictions with the ease and charm of a true Venetian, quoting ironic asides on the Italian attitudes to law and order. 'The Germans, it was rumoured, saw the law as something to be obeyed, unlike the Italians, who saw it as something first to be fathomed and then evaded.'

You have to know how the system works in Italy - even nurses in the hospital have to be given tips to change the sheets on the bed, and back handers are regularly given to advance a patient up the queue for treatment.

Leon shows graphically the almost farcical results of this corruption - a hospital built without drains, lying empty and vandalised. 'The opening cermony had been held, there had been speeches and the press had come, but the building had never been used....... it had been planned like this from the very moment of inception, planned so that the builder would get not only the original contract to construct the new pavilion but the work, later , to destroy much of what had been built in order to install the forgotten drains.'

This is the Italy of Berlusconi, where 'Colpo Grosso' - a kind of D-list celebrity strip show with lots of silicone - was the highest rated TV show.

Donna Leon is a Professor of English, married to an Italian and living in Venice. Her books are intelligent and well written and I can recommend them as a Good Read.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

John Banville: The Infinities

I opened this book with great anticipation; I love John Banville's writing - the way he uses words, shapes sentences. But initially I was disappointed, because I realised straight away that I had read the first chapter of the book already. This first section was published in 2007 as a short story in the Faber Book of Irish Short Stories. I loved it as a story - so much that I rushed out to buy The Sea and anything else of Banville's that was in stock. So you can see that I have really looked forward to publication of The Infinities. After my first reaction, I swallowed my disappointment - after all what is to stop an author expanding a really good story into a novel? - and read on to discover how he was going to develop his ideas further.

The story centres on the Godley family - a dysfunctional Irish family - alcoholic wife - self-harming daughter - emotionally inadequate son - beautiful, though rather detached daughter-in-law - who have all assembled at the family home - a rambling, ramshackle mansion somewhere in Ireland - to wait for the death of Adam Godley, who has sunk into coma following a massive stroke. Adam is a world famous mathematician, who can deal with numbers but not relationships. He is celebrated for puncturing the pretentious 'Theory of Everything' as well as exposing the 'relativity hoax'. Chaos Theory had already discovered that it wasn't the perfect equations that were important, but the imperfect - the ones that mathematicians left alone because they couldn't be worked out - the numbers that scuttled off into the dark mysteries of Infinity. Adam's achievement was to place The Infinities at the centre of the universe, where they make perfect sense, causing the kind of revolution not seen since Einstein.

The action takes place during a single day in summer. Adam, deeply unconscious, can hear everything and reflect on his life and relationships. For the family, he is already dead and his presence, in the Sky Room at the top of the house, haunts the novel.

The narration is in the omniscient mode, but in this case the narrator really is god - the son of Zeus, who also features in the story - all the Immortals inhabiting a parallel universe. This initially bothered me and I had to struggle to bridge the credibility gap - I was fine when the author was inside the minds of his characters, but when the gods began to comment, Banville lost me. But then I began to realise that the novel really needed these Immortals. I can't remember which author it was who wrote 'Never discuss ideas except in terms of character and temperament', but this is one of the uses John Banville makes of the deities. They are a device to discuss and comment on human behaviour, difference and the nature of reality. They also ponder on the benefits and drawbacks of immortality, which is, it seems, sometimes too much of a good thing. But no-one wants to die. Not Adam Godley, or John Banville, who thinks that life is like a wonderful party he doesn't want to leave.

Consciousness of our own mortality is the thing that is supposed to separate us from the animal kingdom. The dog Rex, observes the way in which this knowledge affects human beings.
'There is a thing the matter with them, though, with all of them. It is a great puzzle to [Rex], this mysterious knowledge, unease, foreboding, whatever it is that afflicts them, and try though he may he has never managed to solve it. They are afraid of something, something that is always there though they pretend it is not. It is the same for all of them, the same huge terrible thing, except for the very young, though even in their eyes, too, he sometimes fancies he detects a momentary widening, a sudden horrified dawning. He discerns this secret and awful awareness underneath everything they do.'

What is our place in the universe? At times the novel seems to suggest that we are the playthings of the gods who are capricious and fond of jokes. The Immortals have an additional function in that they do add humour (Pan is unforgettable) to what otherwise could have been a rather bleak situation. And they are also necessary to make the ending (no spoilers here!) work.

I still find it hard to look at the book as a whole - I can still see the first section as a story - densely written, beautifully shaped. The rest of the book is thinner, inevitably stretched. I can't quite see it as the blurb promises 'A gloriously earthy romp and a delicately poised, infinitely wise look at the terrible and wonderful plight of being human', but the writing is everything you would expect from such a brilliant author.

John Banville talking about mortality on You Tube.

Novels and Novelists - Katherine Mansfield on writing

Riddle: - Wanted a New World

‘I am neither a short story, nor a sketch, nor an impression, nor a tale. I am written in prose. I am a great deal shorter than a novel; I may be only one page long, but, on the other hand, there is no reason why I should not be thirty. I have a special quality - a something, a something which is immediately, perfectly recognisable. It belongs to me; it is of my essence. In fact I am often given away in the first sentence. I seem almost to stand or fall by it. It is to me what the first phrase of the song is to the singer. Those who know me feel; “Yes, that is it.” And they are from that moment prepared for what is to follow.’
June 25 1920

Remarks on keeping notebooks. ‘It would be almost amusing to remember how short a time has passed since Samuel Butler advised the budding author to keep a notebook.’ Nowadays young writers rest ‘their laurels’ on them. ‘They shall be regarded as of the first importance, read with a deadly seriousness and acclaimed as a kind of new Art - the art of not taking pains’.
June 13th 1919
(Ironic considering that her notebooks contain much of her best writing and are nowadays what she is most famous for.)

‘Very often, after reading a modern novel, the question suggests itself; why was it written? ..... We cannot help wondering, when the book is finished and laid by, as to the nature of that mysterious compulsion. It is terrifying to think of the number of novels that are written and announced and published and to be had of all libraries, and reviewed and bought and borrowed and read, and left in hotel lounges and omnibuses and railway carriages and deck chairs. . . . .’
4th April 1919

KM laments the endless supply of novels all the same like freshly baked buns made from the same ingredients to be endlessly consumed, leaving the consumer empty:

‘We are quickly tired. Repetition - the charm of knowing what is coming, of beating the tune and being ready with the smiles and the laugh at just the right moment, no longer has the power to soothe and distract us. It wakes in us a demon of restlessness, a fever to break out of the circle of the tune, however brilliant the tune may be.
Jan 30th 1920

In ‘A Novel without a Crisis’ KM sets out what she is looking for in the plot of a novel.
‘... having decided on the novel form, one cannot lightly throw one’s story over the mill without replacing it with another story which is, in its way, obedient to the rules of that discarded one. There must be the same setting out upon a voyage of discovery (but through unknown seas instead of charted waters), the same difficulties and dangers must be encountered, and there must be an ever-increasing sense of the greatness of the adventure and an ever more passioante desire to possess and explore the mysterious country. There must be given the crisis when the great final attempt is made which succeeds - or does not succeed.’. Without this ‘central point of significance’, ‘the form of the novel, as we see it, is lost. Without it, how are we to appreciate the importance of one ‘spiritual event’ rather than another? What is to prevent each being unrelated if the gradual unfolding in growing, gaining light is not to be followed by one blazing moment?’
May 30 1919

Novels and Novelists - a collection of reviews by Katherine Mansfield which appeared in the Athenaeum between April 1919 and December 1920 edited after her death by John Middleton Murry.
More information on Katherine Mansfield's life and work.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sharon Olds: the Poetry Challenge

I chose Sharon Olds for my first poet in the Poetry Challenge just because the volume of her 'Selected Poems' was on my bedside table. I was first introduced to Sharon Olds' poetry by a friend. Then I heard her read last year at the Wordsworth Trust and I liked the way she opened the reading with two poems by someone else she wanted to share. Few poets do this because it means there's less time for their own work. She was quiet - tall, grey haired, self-effacing, dressed rather drably. But when she began to read, it was the words that took centre stage. Her poems, unlike herself, are bold and assertive. Also unlike her public persona, they are all about herself - the 'I' word is at the centre of every poem. This is her territory.

There's a lot more humour than I expected, like the wry ending of 'My Father Snoring',

'.........He lay like a felled
beast all night and sounded his thick

buried stoppered call, like a cry for

help. And no one ever came:
there were none of his kind around there anywhere.'

But what first got Sharon Olds noticed, was her capacity for 'Writing the Body' and writing about forbidden things. Not necessarily forbidden in terms of censorship, but things that poets didn't write about and women didn't talk publicly (or often privately) about. Menstruation, rape, miscarriage, contraception and sex. It takes courage to write about the things we all think about or speculate about, but prefer not to admit. There's a poem where she imagines her parents' wedding night, another where she catches a glimpse of her father's penis. Then there is the surprise and pathos of 'The Connoiseuse of Slugs'. I found a wonderful reading of it (by a man) on You Tube.

These are passionate intimate poems - with such nakedness the reader becomes a voyeur - party to Olds' most private moments, which are often sexual. One of the best erotic descriptions of love making in either prose or poetry is in 'You Kindly'. In 'Adolescence' she writes about the first fumbling horrors of contraception, with the wit of hindsight. The graphic images in 'Miscarriage' are balanced by the delicate observation:

'A month later/our son was conceived, and I never went back/to mourn the one who came as far as the /sill with its information: that we could/botch something, you and I.'

But 'The Language of the Brag' was the poem I kept going back to, with its long, Whitmanesque lines, following the conventions of the 'heroic brag', but using it to put a woman's achievement in giving birth to another human being, up there, equal to all the other heroic achievements of men.

'I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,

stool charcoal from the iron pills,

huge breasts leaking colostrum,

legs swelling, hands swelling,

face swelling and reddening, hair

falling out, inner sex

stabbed again and again with pain like a knife.

I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and shit and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out

and they have lifted the new person free of the act

and wiped the new person free of that

language of blood like praise all over the body.'

If I have a criticism of this selection, it is because there are too many poems on the death of her father. By the sheer weight of numbers they tip the balance in one direction. Her troubled relationship with her father - both before and after her parents' divorce - has obviously been of great importance in her life, but I could have done with fewer poems. In 'Beyond Harm' the last lines point up the difficulty of their relationship. As Olds' father lay dying, just before he sank into coma, he told her that he loved her, a statement she had never felt able to rely on and couldn't even then.

'......Right up to the last
moment, I could make some mistake, offend him, and with
one of his old mouths of disgust he could re-

skew my life. I did not think of it,

I was helping to take care of him,

wiping his face and watching him.

But then, a while after he died,

I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always

love me now, and I laughed - he was dead, dead!'

Olds' poetry reminds me of Anne Sexton - but these poems are forensic rather than neurotic. She examines the interior landscape of her own body with the rigour of a scientist, adding the sense of wonder you'd expect from an explorer who has just landed on the shores of an undiscovered country. She dissects flesh and bone like an anatomist, analyses emotions like wiring diagrams, showing you just how, exactly, it all works.

And the poems are structured with the same precision - the rhythms carrying you unobtrusively, relentlessly through the poem, with the stresses falling in all the important places, making you look at words you might otherwise have glanced over, revealing meanings you'd never have guessed at.

But I did wonder how her partners or her children felt about being written about so graphically - you can't write truthfully about your own life without also exposing others. Do you have the right to make their lives public too?

I sometimes found the subject matter unsettling, but the writing is wonderful - two or three of the poems (the Language of the Brag for instance) were worth the whole book.

'I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.'

Sharon Olds talking about her poetry.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Leviathan - or the Whale

I found a review of this book on someone else's bookblog and realised that it was a book I really wanted to read, so I bought it to take on holiday with me. Then, by a complete coincidence, when I arrived in Italy and went out for a drink in my favourite Piazza, I found that they were hosting a sculpture exhibition that was all about whales. The exhibition was completely in tune with the book, since it focussed on man's exploitation of the animal.

Three fibreglass minke whales hung from a gibbet and a gigantic blue whale swam across the marble paving, pulled on a rope behind a small girl. The message was very clear.

Philip Hoare's book, Leviathan, won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction this year and absolutely deserves the award. It is profound, beautifully written, exhaustively researched, and manages to achieve the impossible - to be both readable and as complex as its subject. Philip tells the story of mankind's relationship with the whale - from the mythical and mystical animal of ancient stories, to the commercial object of modern times. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is the central thread of his narrative, but round it is woven everything we know or have heard about the Whale. The book is a very personal journey for Philip Hoare, who has been obessed by whales since he was a child, perhaps, he writes, the result of almost being born under water - his mother having gone into labour on a submarine.

His descriptions of the wholesale slaughter of whales in the twentieth century is stomach churning (more whales were killed in 1951 alone than in the entire preceding hundred and fifty), but his account of swimming with whales off the islands of the Azores moved me to tears. Why do whales evoke such a response in so many of us? Is it just their massive size? The mystery of their hidden lives in the vast depths of the world's oceans? The empathy of one intelligent mammal for another?(the human race hasn't been renowned for too much of that). Or is it something much more primeval? Something in the whale's song that echoes far back in our own evolution? Whales are old, much older than our own species.

Philip Hoare points up the paradoxes - the Hubble telescope looking back at the origins of the universe on machinery lubricated by spermaceti oil; space probes programmed to play whale song far out into the cosmic night; the fact that a quarter of a million whales are still killed every year, some of them supposedly for food - though the whales they catch have flesh too polluted to eat. Many whale species now have breeding pools too small to regenerate. We have managed, in two hundred years, to wipe out something that evolution spent a billion creating.

This book is a celebration of one of the greatest species ever to live on earth, and a savage critique of the way humanbeings treat those who share the planet with us.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Recommended Reading

I'm always interested in other people's holiday reading. One of my co-habitees at Peralta is reading himself into the heart of American history, engrossed in Derek Robinson's novel Kentucky Blues - set in the town of Rock Springs, and spanning a time scale from the 1820s to the present day, through the Civil War and the birth of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s told tersely, with black humour and its inhabitants are described as ‘the authentic ancestors of Jerry Springer’s guests’. I liked the spare style, as in this desription of the onset of winter. ‘In December the skies turned to blue, frost struck, and mud turned to brown.’

He's also brought Isabella Bird's 'In the Rocky Mountains' urged on him by a girl friend. Isabella Bird, born in the 1830s, was the daughter of a clergyman who went abroad for her health and became an intrepid, emancipated traveller, going to Persia, Australia, Hawai, Japan, Kurdistan, Tibet, Korea and China, at a time when women didn't go anywhere much and certainly not on their own.

He also has another book, which really fascinated me, and which I've made a note to get hold of as soon as I get home. It’s a collection of the photography of Edward Curtis, who spent his life recording , in photographs and text, the final days of the native American Indians - images of their faces, and their daily lives accompanied by a unique record of their stories and traditions. Initially JP Morgan paid for his work, but after a bitter divorce from his wife Clara, Curtis lost the rights to his own negatives and had a lot of financial problems. He almost killed himself dedicating 30 years of his life to this project. But without him we simply would have no record of these people who were so casually displaced. By the time an exhausted Curtis died, most of the native Americans were dead too, the rest corralled into 'reserves'.