What are you currently reading?: The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst
Author Archives: BookerTalk
Time for another Six Degrees of Separation. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and the idea is to link it to six other books to form a chain. The links can take any form: similarity of themes or setting; written by the same author or winners of the same prize. The basis of the link is really limited by nothing more than our imagination.
This month we begin with a favourite novel of mine, Atonement by Ian McEwan.
It’s set in a large country house in England between the two World Wars. Events are triggered by the actions of thirteen-year-old Briony who has a vivid imagination. Her accusation about an event she witnesses one hot summer evening has life-changing consequences for her elder sister and the boy with whom she is in love. For the rest of her life she regrets her actions.
I’ve read the book twice and seen the film multiple times and still can’t make up my mind whether Briony is a minx who deliberately misconstrues the event.
For another minx who likes to meddle in other people’s lives let’s turn to Emma by Jane Austen. Though many in her village think she is charming, Emma is a girl who has been indulged throughout her life and ends up thinking she knows best for herself and everyone around her. She loves nothing more than a little matchmaking, thinking she is doing this for the best of the parties concerned but ends up causing more harm than good.
In the league of schemers however Emma is small fry compared to the most wonderful character in the next book in my chain. Obadiah Slope in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers is a master manipulator, a man who hides his monstrous ambition for wealth and prestige under a cloak of piety.
Lest you think that devious behaviour and trickery are confined to England, the third book in my chain should convince you otherwise.
John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row gives us a lovable bunch of rogues, chief of whom is Mack. Steinbeck describes him as “the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.
It’s Mack who comes up with a way to say thanks to their friend Doc, who has been good to them without asking for reward. The entire community quickly gets behind his idea of a thank-you party. Unfortunately things get out of hand and Doc’s home and his lab where he studies and collects sea creatures from the Californian coast are ruined.
The novel is shot through with nostalgia and sadness (there are three suicides) but also has its humorous moments. By far the funniest episode in the book is when Mack and the boys embark on an expedition to collect frogs for the Doc. Of course it all goes horribly wrong.
Collections of sea creatures reminds me of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wasn’t all that enamoured by it but it was highly rated when it came out a few years ago . I seem to remember it was one that the then President Obama took on his summer holiday.
It’s the tale of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in occupied France during World War II. Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, take refuge from the war in St Malo. There the girl’s imagination is fired by the marine life described in her Braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and she becomes a collector and expert on molluscs.
Most of her collectables don’t sound edible although the principal character in my next chain, The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, would probably disagree.
Pierre Arthens is the greatest food critic in France. He relishes dishes like “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”
Now before I turned vegetarian about a quarter of a century ago I was quite partial to duck. But I disliked the sweet sauces in which it was often served. Remember duck a l’orange or duck with blackberry sauce? I’ve no idea what you’d get if you ordered any menu item “à la Jamaïque” – even a Google search can’t provide an answer (it appears to be the title of a French musical). But I can’t begin to imagine that grapefruit and duck are meant to be companions.
But then I am decidedly not a gourmand. Nor would I want to be if it involves the kinds of concoctions beloved by the central character in my sixth and final book: Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea.
Charles Arrowby, retires to the country after highly successful career as a London stage director. In his tumbledown seaside cottage he swims, writes his memoirs and concocts some rather bizarre meals.
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil is essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)
The kidney beans/tomatoes/celery/oil and lemon juice combination sounds interesting and I might even be tempted to try that one day. But what they are doing on the same plate as baked beans is completely beyond my comprehension.
All this talk of food is making me feel peckish. Time to wrap up the chain and head for the kitchen. The supermarket was completely out of edible molluscs on account of the fears about post-Brexit catastrophe amongs the bivalve community. So it will have to be beans on toast again. Oh wait a second, bread is in short supply because everyone is stocking up for the inevitable shortage in December.
Right well it’s just cup a soup then…..
The Classic Club is entering a new era with a changing of the guard (in other words we have a new set of moderators). They’re fired up with bags of enthusiasm and some of that has clearly rubbed off on me because it’s prompted me to revisit my Classics Club list.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Classics Club the idea is that we list 50 classics that we’d like to read over the course of 5 years. The definition of ‘classic’ is very fluid so there’s no compunction to be reading Tristram Shandy if it doesn’t appeal.
I put my list together in August 2012 and made good progress for the first few years. But I’ve neglected it for the last twelve months. I read only two from the list last year and so far it’s just been one – The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola So naturally I didn’t make the “deadline’ of completing 50 by the end August 2017. I still have 14 titles to go. But really it doesn’t matter. It’s a self imposed deadline and I can’t imagine any of the club moderators are going to throw me out as punishment.
To coincide with the ‘relaunch’ of the club, we get to play in the Classics lub spin where the idea is to choose 20 titles from our Classics Club, number then in sequence starting with 1. On August 1, 2018 the wheel will turn and reveal the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List, by 31 August 2018.
The moderators would like us to put the list together in four categories:
- 5 books you are dreading/hesitant to read
- 5 books you can’t WAIT to read
- 5 books you are neutral about
- 5 books which are free choice
I don’t really understand the point of creating a reading list that includes books I am dreading to read. So I don’t have any in that category. Nor do I have any that I can’t wait to read – if I truly couldn’t wait then I would have read them long ago. So I’m going to have to go with just a free choice list. Since I don’t have 20 titles remaining, I’ve had to add in a few to the original list just in case a number between 15-20 comes up on Wednesday.
My list is as follows: it’s a mixture of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I’ve included two Welsh authors and an Australian to bring a little diversity
- The Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil— Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage — Anthony Trollope 1861
- New Grub Street— George Gissing 1891
- Lord Jim — Joseph Conrad 1899
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent — Vita Sackville West 1932
- The Pursuit Of Love — Nancy Mitford 1945
- The Quiet American — Graham Greene 1955
- My Brilliant Career — Miles Franklin 1901
- O pioneers — Willa Cather 1913
- The Last September — Elizabeth Bowen 1929
- Old Soldiers Never Die— Frank Richards 1933
- Troy Chimneys — Margaret Kennedy 1952
- Gone to Earth — Mary Webb 1917
- Never No More— Maura Laverty 1942
- Return of the Solider — Rebecca West 1917
- A Kiss Before Dying — Ira Levin 1953
- Turf or Stone — Margiad Evans 1934
If I had to choose a few that I would most like to read it would be Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton whom I read many years ago but don’t feel I appreciated her enough at the time. I would be quite happy with some of the Virago classics too such as the Mary Webb or the Maura Laverty.
All will be revealed on August 1.
This was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.
I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?
What did you recently finish reading? The Latecomers by Anita Brookner
Few authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner. The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building. We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman? It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library. I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.
There was a time not so many years ago that the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker Prize would have me heading straight to the library.
How things change. I’m still interested in the prize but not to the same extent. It’s not the fact that the rules changed to allow American authors but that it meant there were fewer authors from other countries on the list. It became less international.
This year I forgot that today would see the long list for the 2018 prize released. It was only that I happened to be in a bookshop and overheard a customer asking the shop owner for his reactions to the list, that my memory was jogged.
There are a few positives about this year’s list:
- Four debut novels
- Good mixture of genres with the first ever graphic novel to be long listed. Plus a crime novel. This latter isn’t the first time we’ve had a crime novel on the list but it doesn’t happen often. I have to believe that it reflects the influence of Val McDermid who is a judge this year.
- Continued presence of independent presses. These publishers deserve the help that inclusion on prize lists can bring because they so often take a punt where the larger companies play safe.
- Two authors from Wales are included. We’ve had a Welsh author before who actually won the prize (Bernice Rubens in 1970 with The Elected Member) but never two on the same list. Ok the purists among you might say there is only one since unlike Sophie Mackintosh, Belinda Bauer was not born in Wales (in fact the Booker website describes her as English) but she worked in Wales and lives there. Cause for further celebration is that Bauer who is long listed for Snap, lives in my neighbourhood and I see her in our local library. Now that should surely count for a few votes?
Despite that reflection of diversity I’m sad to see that the international flavour of the prize has diminished even further. In a nutshell we have a list made up of:
• Two Canadian authors
• Six authors from the UK
• Two writers from Ireland
• Three writers representing the USA
So yet another year when there is not a single author from Oceania on the list. Strange that Peter Carey, a previous winner, didn’t make it this year.
No author from the Indian sub continent. Last year at least we had one Indian and two UK/Pakistan writers on the list.
But once again no author from any African country.
This is such a disappointing trend. One of the things I loved about the Booker lists in the past was the international flavour because it introduced me to new authors from parts of the world whose literature was generally an unknown quantity to me. The Man Booker International Prize doesn’t entirely fill the gap because that is only for fiction translated into English, so many Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans are not eligible.
Do I have any predictions for this year’s ultimate winner? Short answer is no, I haven’t a clue because I’ve not read any of these books. I do have Bauer’s novel on hold at the library because I’ve enjoyed her previous novels but there is a long waiting list. As good as it’s likely to be, I don’t see it winning purely because the Booker judges would be afraid of being labelled “popularist” if they dared to choose a crime novel. I’d be happy for Donal Ryan to win because I thoroughly enjoyed The Spinning Heart and Michael Ondaatje’s previous winner The English Patient is one of my top 3 Booker favourites across all the years. Is it likely they would choose him for their 50th anniversary. If they did it would be a remarkable feat since he was only recently announced as the winner of the Golden Booker prize. Stranger things have happened with the Booker prize however.
The Man Booker Longlist 2018
Belinda Bauer (UK) : Snap (Bantam Press): a thriller by an author from Wales
Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a ‘creepy’ novel set against the background of The Troubles in Ireland
Nick Drnaso (USA): Sabrina (Granta Books): the first graphic novel to reach the
Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues
Guy Gunaratne (UK): In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press): a debut novel
Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel from a Welsh author
Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape): a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo
Sophie Mackintosh (UK): The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton): debut dystopian novel from a young Welsh author
Michael Ondaatje (Canada): Warlight (Jonathan Cape): the only previous winner of the prize to be selected this year
Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo.
Robin Robertson (UK): The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse
Sally Rooney (Ireland): Normal People (Faber & Faber): the second novel from the winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award
Donal Ryan (Ireland): From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland): Ryan is a previous nominee having been longlisted in 2013 for The Spinning Heart
Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.
This month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.
So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city. He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.
From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.
But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.
The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..
I wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.
They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.
And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?