Thursday, 31 December 2009

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters is one of the finest contemporary novelists - whatever she writes is a pleasure to read. Her plots are intricately thought out and her characters utterly believable. The Little Stranger is not as detailed or enthralling as Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet, but still a compelling read. Hundreds Hall is the haunted grange of all our imaginations. It is the decaying relic of a dying way of life - symbolic of the fate of the landed gentry after two world wars and the rise of socialism.
Dr Faraday, the narrator, is a working class boy, raised to a higher social level by scholarships and education, but not entirely comfortable in the social no-man’s land between classes. His mother had been a nursemaid at Hundreds Hall before she married, so when he is called to attend a member of the household, he never expects to become on intimate terms with the aristocratic Ayres family.
His life becomes increasingly entwined with the neurotic, widowed Mrs Ayres and her two children - Roderick, heroically injured in the war, and Caroline - a young woman aging towards spinsterhood, trapped in her role as family lynch-pin. Sarah Waters has the ability to carry you into the minds and emotional centres of her characters. Faraday’s social ineptitude is beautifully done and his ingrained attitudes - so typical of the period - are toe-curlingly believable.
At the centre of the novel is a tale of gothic horror and psychological drama, which may or may not have a Freudian solution. It calls into question our whole attitude to mental health issues and the definition of insanity. The novel is haunted, not just by the paranormal manifestations of Hundreds Hall, but by all those eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic novels - Castle Rackrent, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White, The Turn of the Screw and many others. But this is a post-modernist novel too and it turns in on itself unexpectedly, using the gothic conventions in new ways and playing on our twenty first century knowledge of psychology.
Sarah Waters is never tempted by the sentimental options. She charts the social revolution of the years immediately post-war - the birth of the NHS, the fall of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class - and gives the story exactly the right ending. Dr Faraday’s fascination with the aristocracy echoes our own - the same fascination that funds the National Trust and keep the stately home industry going.

Faraday continues to visit the deserted hall in its progress towards ruin, hoping ‘that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognise it, as she did. If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed - realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.’

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: Pt 2

The Burning of the Books and other poems
Bloodaxe, Sept. 2009

One of the sequences in this collection is called The Penig Film. Penig was a concentration camp in Hungary during World War II and George Szirtes’ mother was imprisoned there as a very young woman. On his blog, George has a photograph of her standing with one of the soldiers who liberated the camp. Although she married someone else, she named her son after this man. A fragment of film from the Penig Camp was discovered recently.

In the poem, George describes watching the film, ‘a small thing, wound down to a few/inches, running across your life on the screen’. He wonders if any of the faces on the celluloid belong to his mother.

‘And so in Penig, in the unexpected sighting
of a moment that she, who is at the centre
of this poem yet not there, lost in its low lighting,’

The poem is a dialogue with Clio, muse of history, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Goddess of Memory) here portrayed as something of a cool media babe.
..................................You are not her lover
after all, merely a figure she meets while staging
one of her periodic out-takes in an ordinary place
on cheap location.’
Like a hardened journalist, Clio ‘does not/believe in getting involved.’ The poet, the protagonist, is left to write his own script.

‘Go on working in the dark, in the long night
of the empty cinema, I’ll leave you to it now.
I must catch my beauty sleep. I have an early flight.’

The poem reminds us that History can so easily become

that which propriety requires, the tidy sum
of tidy greynesses in an official film, shot
by army officers on an afternoon, glum

as the century’s mood, emerging from your cot
of earth, mud, lime and bone, to rise, or be carried
to a hospital from the place Clio forgot......'

The most powerful section of the poem is the last section ‘Excuse’ where Clio considers how history can be edited like a movie to fit any particular point of view. ‘Everything’s allowed.’
.........................................We can
say what we like about the past. We can raid

its archives, find films and texts, select a span
of it, cut and re-cut, splice, add soundtrack;
we can resurrect the voice of woman and man,

slur it, dub it, subtitle, caption it, run it back
so it sounds like prophesy, use it as prologue
or epilogue, render its subtle grey as black
or white,’
The past is always ‘delayed present’. ‘The past is no excuse’.

Part of the power of the poem is in its tightly controlled structure. Like a number of the poems in this collection, it’s written in terza rima. George Szirtes - ‘Poetry without shape is not poetry’ - is a master technician, choosing to write in some of the more challenging forms, finding a framework for chaos. Meaning and structure represent ‘the triumph of civilized values over barbarity. I think here of the barbarity that overtook my parents’ generation, that is never as far from us as we believe or hope.’ Language can be used ‘to exercise a degree of control over our otherwise inexpressible, inarticulate, inchoate lives.’

Writing, at best,’ George writes on his blog, ‘is a wrought set of dimensions within which it is possible to live. The young poet moves from self to language, makes a self inside language. That language provides its dimensions, the dimensions within which a written self can live. And through those dimensions it begins to explore the world, which is out there and not the self alone, but the wind and the cold and the cry of animals and the whistling of the planets and the voices of others.’

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Book Art and Maurice Gee: Going West

I was given two novels by Maurice Gee by my New Zealand publisher and was ashamed to confess that I hadn't ever read any of his work. I read 'Plumb' first and was knocked out by it. 'Blindsight' didn't impress me as much, but it is a brilliant thriller with a twist I didn't see coming. Now I'm going to read more of his work. Thanks to Sarah Salway for pointing me in the direction of this little film.