Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo: Paula Huntley

It’s an irresistible title, and it’s a much better book than I expected. Paula Huntley went to Kosovo with her husband when he was posted there after the Croatian war, as part of the rebuilding process. She lived among the Albanians of Prishtina, teaching English as a foreign language, and it exposed Paula to the harrowing life stories of her young students. Some of them had been in concentration camps, or hidden in bombed out buildings in order to survive the Serbian death squads, others had watched relatives executed or raped, most had eventually become refugees in neighbouring countries before returning to what was left of their homes. They are all desperate to learn English in order to better their lives and help to support their families.
Among the squalor and the dereliction, the violent reprisals and the black-marketeering, Paula begins to run a book club, obtaining material from America, and their first book is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. At first she wonders if the book is too culturally alien to be understood, but the students identify with the old man’s struggle against adversity and the book club becomes a great success. Paula kept a journal of her daily life to send back to friends and family, and the journal eventually became the book.
It’s interesting to watch Paula’s perspective changing with her experiences. The view of the world that she had learned in America becomes radically different. Soon she can write about
‘...the ignorance of Americans. We are, by the world’s standards, wealthy, and we have virtually unlimited access to news and books and magazines. We can travel, we can learn. But we are an island, cut off from the rest of the world not so much by geography as by complacency, by a lack of curiosity, by arrogance, perhaps. We are worldly, but we know little of the world.’
I’ve been reading quite a lot of Balkan history recently, because I’m thinking of using it for a narrative I’m working on. The story of what happened in the old territories of Yugoslavia is so appalling, it can hardly be credited in modern Europe, or that we allowed it to happen - not once, but again and again. It’s no coincidence that both the first and the second world wars were triggered by events in the Balkans. Its history is one of reprisal and counter-reprisal, conquest, colonisation and division. The nineteen forties was a particularly terrible period, yet, despite what was learned in Europe in 1945, our governments stood back and watched genocide, and we allowed them to. That is going to be a big blot on twentieth century history.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dan Brown: The Lost Symbol

It’s become very fashionable to knock Dan Brown’s novels - more from envy of his success than anything else I suspect. How can such mediocre trash sell so many copies? authors ask, wishing they’d been lucky enough to tap into this unsuspected lode in the geological strata of reader interest. DB’s blend of historical fact and fiction, flavoured by scientific mumbo jumbo, has caught the mood of the moment.
I read the Da Vinci Code, (which kept me up all night) and I’ve just read The Lost Symbol. Whatever you may think of the prose, or of the sheer commerciality of instinct behind it, you can’t deny that this man knows his craft as a writer and there are a lot of other authors out there who could learn a lot from it. He knows how to make a reader turn the page. There are a lot of ‘literary’ writers out there who can compose a beautiful phrase and make you weep over a paragraph, but you don’t necessarily stay up all night to finish the book. Dan Brown is a master of the Narrative Hook.
He also makes you believe - or at least suspend your disbelief - for the length of the novel, because his background research embeds his fiction in a matrix of fact and scientific detail. In this case, it’s the masonic movement, just sufficiently secretive enough to be intriguing and mysterious to the rest of us, and the new para-psychological sciences. The heroine is engaged in using new technology to measure the weight of (and therefore prove the existence of) the human soul. I’m quite happy to believe that people are doing things like this.

DB’s action and pace are very similar to the James Bond novels, with similarly unbelievable sequences where the hero is drowned, shot, endures 24 hours of sleep deprivation, but still manages to fend off twelve armed and dangerously fit SAS trained security guards single-handed. No one is who they are supposed to be and it all works out in the end. These books are stylish, amazingly well crafted and I can forgive the cliches and the odd heavy handed line for a bit of compulsive light reading.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game is a Faustian tale of the temptations created by poverty and childhood deprivation. In pre-war Spain, torn apart by the collision of conflicting political beliefs, a young boy is abandoned by his mother and brought up by a violent, alcoholic father who is murdered in front of his son’s eyes. It's no surprise that the author - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - is a great lover of the novels of Dickens and the other nineteenth century Gothic blockbusters. What is really good about the Angel's Game is the way that Zafon plays with the conventions.
The hero, David Martin, survives the degradations of adolescence by writing ‘penny dreadfuls’ which become compulsive reading for the inhabitants of Barcelona. He falls deeply in love with a young woman but their romance is frustrated - in the traditions of the genre - by a series of apparently insurmountable obstacles.
Though David never makes a great deal from the books he writes, he earns enough to rent a big house saturated in Gothic atmosphere and haunted by a mysterious smell emanating from a locked room. Myself, I would have had the door down straight away out of sheer curiosity, but the devices of narrative suspense prevent the giving way to natural human instincts until a convenient moment in the plot.
One of the delights of this book is the appearance of the devil in the guise of a publisher. Hell is a publishing contract with no opt out clause. The whole novel could be seen as a satire on the publishing industry and the authors who fuel it. One wonders if it is the novelist speaking when the hero remarks cynically, ‘Emotional truth is not a moral quality, it’s a technique.’
My favourite ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ makes a cameo appearance in this novel, but it is never quite as magical as The Shadow of the Wind. The happy ending requires a suspension of belief and the machinations of Magic Realism. This isn’t as good as its predecessor, but if you love a Gothic novel of suspense, beautifully written, this is a Great Read.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Martin Stannard: Muriel Spark, The Biography

After reading Martin Stannard’s biography, published last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that Muriel Spark was barking mad - an obsessive egocentric who let nothing and no one get in the way of her artistic ambitions. Her lovers, her friends, her mother in hospital with a broken leg, her dying father, her abandoned son - all came second to her art. Publishers and agents were ruthlessly sacrificed if they didn’t come up to expectations. Her last book hadn’t sold out its advance? Then they hadn’t tried hard enough to sell it! How much for the serial rights? Rubbish! I’m Muriel Spark and you’re lucky to have me. She refused to do author publicity events (except under special circumstances) opted out of television interviews at the last moment and reached for the lawyers if anyone dared to criticise her in print.
At the beginning of her career, she held down part-time jobs to pay the rent while writing late at night. She popped ‘uppers’ to keep herself going until she began to hallucinate. She heard voices in the cupboards, detected secret codes in every piece of text she read, and thought that T S Eliot was stalking her in the guise of a window cleaner. From then on, Muriel shivered on the edge of breakdown every time she came under stress. Neurotic and needy she leant heavily on those around her and wore out friendships quite quickly. A wounded, very-much-former, friend told the biographer that she used and discarded people ‘like a box of Kleenex’.
Born into a secular Jewish family, Muriel eventually converted to Catholicism, gave up sex and contemplated becoming a nun. She wrote part of her first novel in a religious retreat. Three more novels followed quickly - she wrote faster than her publishers could keep up. Dissatisfied with the reception of her work in Britain, she lived for a while in New York and then rented a grand apartment in Rome which had belonged to Cardinal Orsini. For the last thirty years of her life she lived in Tuscany with the painter Penelope Jardine - who was prepared to dedicate her life to looking after Muriel. She felt at home in Italy. The Italians saw her as ‘Kafka in a skirt’, though Muriel preferred to think of herself as ‘Lucretzia Borgia in trousers’.
Her (very-much-former) lover, the poet Howard Sergeant, told her that she was ‘arrogant and conceited .... in no sense have you ever showed any loyalty. Indeed your one concern has always been your own self and everything and everyone else had to take second place. Your sole conception of love is selfish.’ (Stannard, 2009,p.102) This is a comment her son, Robin, would no doubt have endorsed had he been allowed to. Robin’s opinion isn’t in evidence anywhere in the biography and I presume that either the author wasn’t allowed to talk to him or that Robin declined to co-operate.
When Muriel Spark’s teenage marriage came to a sticky end in Africa, during the second world war, she parked him - aged 4 - in a boarding school or with foster parents while she returned to England. After the war Robin, now 7, was shipped back and Muriel deposited him, like the cuckoo’s chick, at her parents’ flat in Edinburgh. She sent cheques, but visited rarely. Small wonder that he grew up hostile towards his mother, who described him as a ‘lousy’ painter and ‘one big bore’ who had ‘never done anything for me’ in public. He was eventually disinherited for producing proof that Muriel’s family was more Jewish than she cared to admit.
I found the biography suffered from the limitations of most ‘authorised’ lives. There is a sense that the biographer has fallen under their subject’s spell, become one of their acolytes. Too much is taken at face value; too few questions are asked. We are never told why Muriel had to leave her job at the Poetry Society, though her feelings at being ‘forced out’ occupy several pages. No details are ever given of the publishers’ advances that Muriel deemed too small, and though the biographer states that newspaper estimates of the money that she left in her will (to Jardine, not her son) were wildly inflated, the actual sum is not given, even though it is a matter of public record.
The reason is probably the amount of control exercised by Muriel Spark herself and afterwards, by her estate. Apparently, when she invited Martin Stannard to write her life, she ordered him to ‘treat me as though I were dead’. But when he began producing copy, she argued over it, line by line, because she didn’t think he had treated her fairly enough. The book was first agreed in 1992, but didn’t appear until 2009 after Muriel’s actual death.
I found the ‘high’ style a bit off-putting too - a problem with much literary biography; a mass of accumulated detail cluttering the prose; themes that over-ride chronology, so that characters appear and are dismissed before they have properly been introduced into the narrative - they are sacked or storm off towards the horizon pages before the scenes actually take place.
But Martin Stannard’s analysis of the fiction is excellent (I must re-read some of those novels) and his struggle to complete the project under terrible circumstances has to be applauded. Given the constraints, and the litigious personality of his subject, the achievement is amazing. My fascination with the awfulness of Muriel Spark kept me reading right to the end.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Rose Tremain: Trespass

This is Rose Tremain’s first novel since the Orange Prize winning ‘Road Home’ which I thought was one of her least successful books. So I began reading ‘Trespass’ on the plane to Italy with some reservations - afraid to feel that sense of let-down after all the anticipation of a favourite author.
But this time I wasn’t disappointed. Rose Tremain’s prose is as glorious as ever. ‘Trespass’ is set in London and France. Veronica Verey and her companion Kitty have moved to the CĂ©vennes region of France, ‘incomers’ into a rural French community which views even Parisians as outsiders and has very mixed feelings towards an influx of colonising Brits.
Veronica’s brother Anthony (the Anthony Verey) is an antique dealer in Chelsea, badly affected by the economic downturn and wondering whether he, too, might be happier in France. His search for the ideal property brings him into contact with Aramon, an alcoholic farmer and his elderly sister Audrun, when Aramon puts the family home, Mas Lunel, on the market.
The collision between the two cultures re-animates uncomfortable memories and old rivalries which result in a tragedy which is not a tragedy, but revenge and resolution. Rose Tremain’s skill in unfolding this is so great that it’s only now, sitting down to write about it, that I can see the parallel she was setting up - the two sets of siblings, brother and sister, whose lives have been blighted by the actions of their parents, setting in motion a narrative arc of cause and effect that takes 60 years to complete.
The characters are wonderful - the stoical, resourceful Audrun, the spectacularly awful Anthony, the inadequate, insecure Kitty.
Rose Tremain’s writing is so good that I feel quite sad that so little attention was given to her collection of short stories - The Darkness of Wallis Simpson - when it came out. The title story is wonderful, and her tale of hope and loyalty in a newly liberated Germany - ‘The Beauty of the Dawn Shift’ - should be a modern classic. This is someone who can WRITE.