Reading Horizons: 20 March 2019
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The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola
When a novel is described as “a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special.
Imagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling.
As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.
Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war. She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.
Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.
For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities. Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.
It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce. The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery, while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.
The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.
Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled. Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious. It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.
This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be. I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.
The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.
That number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World.
It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.
Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen. She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of 18th-century society. The novel is a satire on Georgian society.
I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues. It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.
I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.
I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.
The Next Big Thing is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness.
This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life.
Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.
Has this all come too late?
“He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him.
Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents.
He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.
The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.
He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art.
The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.”
He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.
Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid.
But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”
A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?
The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace.
Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed.
It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.
The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Anita Brookner’s “funniest yet.”
I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor, for example, he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis. The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion.
On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.
The Next Big Thing is unfortunately not one of the best novels Anita Brookner has produced even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.
The Kill (La Curée) by Émile Zola
I’m long overdue a return to the world of the Rougon-Macquart families as depicted in Émile Zola’s 20-volume series. April 1 sees the start of
#Zoladdiction2019 – an annual event of reading all works related to Émile Zola – which has given me the impetus to pick up The Kill. This is the second novel in the series and deals with the lives of the extremely wealthy Nouveau Riche in Paris in the mid nineteenth century, laying bare their lust for power and money. Zola describes this period as
… a time when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds,, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches. The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months. The city had become an orgy of gold and money.
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
I’ve seen a number of comments in the blogosphere that Setterfield’s book is rather slow and overly long. That wasn’t my reaction at all. Even though it contained some mythical elements, which usually are a turn off, I thought this was a terrific story. Review to follow soonish….
I have an advance copy of the latest novel by Alys Conran that I’d like to read soon (it’s published on April 4). I thoroughly enjoyed her debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her new novel Dignity is a story of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse.
Also vying for attention are two works of non fiction, both of which were Christmas presents: Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, a memoir of a couple who lose their farm and home when the husband gets a diagnosis of a terminal illness. With nothing left, they make an impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.
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This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.
I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way. Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.
Given the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland Islands.
My plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK.
So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.
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Posted by Edward Colley
According to the Wikipedia notes on Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis, the author takes great care to describe minutiae in much detail. Such meticulous description, we are told, gives rise to humour and brings ‘the world of the novel as close as possible to the physical world of the reader’.
Well possibly. I see the point – and it may work for some readers – but for me this approach delivers tedious and rather boring passages. I’m afraid I had to jump ship after some 70 pages (my absolute minimum litmus test).
Amis tends to squeeze the pips out of a scene and then jump up and down on the pulp. The impression is of a writer rather over-pleased with his verbosity.
Of course, allowances have to be made for the passage of time. Amis was one the Angry Young Men on the British literary scene in the 1950s but he was 38 when this book was published in 1960 and times were changing. As Amis’ friend Philip Larkin remarked:
Sexual intercourse began in 1963 (which was rather late for me) between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.
The coy and knowing way in which Amis deals with sex in Take a Girl Like You (and it is a novel largely about sex, though without much actual sex) is slightly exasperating to the modern reader.
Like many modern readers, I am not held by ‘will she, won’t she?’ passages (unless, of course, they done well by the likes of Austen). My reaction after a dozen or so pages of attempted seduction is: ‘For God’s sake just get on with it or play cards’.
The story concerns a comely (is one still allowed to say ‘comely’?) Northern lass of 20 and her determination to hang on to her virginity until her wedding night. Jenny Bunn has moved to lodgings in a London suburb to begin teaching at a local school. Her comeliness does not go unnoticed and soon the wolves – one in particular – are circling.
Patrick Standish is the sort of stock Leslie Phillips-type character familiar to anyone who has watched those formulaic British comedy films of the 1950s and 60s (‘Ding dong! I say!’ whenever a pretty girl hoves into view; lots of drooling, eye-rolling and pitiful chat-up lines – that kind of thing.)
Pursuit of a desirable female by such a character was regarded as a kind of hunting game; one in which the ‘prey’ really wanted be caught but insisted on a bit of chasing around the Mulberry bush before melting in the arms of a macho charmer.
If the depictions were cringe-worthy in those days they are positively laughable now, as well as being insulting to both sexes.
I’m not getting into revisionist territory here. I appreciate that this novel was of its time and perhaps even then offered up stereotypes for comic effect.
Comedies of manners from previous eras, satirising contemporary social mores, ridiculing conventions and so on, can still be entertaining to the modern reader (Austen, Dickens, Spark for example). But tales of the tedious sexless sex games of the 1950s have not travelled well, as this novel demonstrates.
My previous experience of Amis’ work is limited and mixed. Lucky Jim, his best-seller of the early 1950s, I found irritating, unfunny and dull while his 1980s Booker prize-winning The Old Devils is a masterwork which improves on re-reading.
Amis is regarded as one of the best authors of the 20th century and comes highly recommended by many writers whose opinion I respect. So I’m not giving up on old Kingsley just yet. I have several more of his novels lined up as well as a hefty biography.
But in the case of Take a Girl Like You, I’ll leave it thanks.
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