What are you currently reading?
V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.
The power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.
He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.
The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.
The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.
The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.
Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.
An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there – and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.
As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.
Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”
Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.
The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.
In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.
Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.
In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”
The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”
V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).
Now I’ve managed to close the lid on 2018 (see my wrap up post here), its time to turn my attention to 2019.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether to join some of the many challenges that are available. But on balance I decided that last year’s experiment with “Reading Naked” (by which I mean picking my next book randomly) was liberating so I plan to continue using that approach this year.
That doesn’t mean my year will be entirely without structure. But I’ll focus on projects rather than challenges. Challenges usually involve meeting a specific goal – reading a targeted number of books for example, or specified categories of books by a set date. I prefer the more open-ended nature of a project that I create for myself, where I get to decide on the scope and parameters. I want the flexibility to go wherever my mood takes me.
Here’s how the year ahead could pan out.
I’m going for simplicity; largely avoiding specific goals in favour of general directions. Most of these are continuations of existing projects and activities but – just to ring the changes – I’m going to start two new activities.
Booker Talk Team Expands
Booker Talk is approaching its 7th anniversary. I’m marking this milestone by expanding the team. Two new faces will be making an appearance on this site shortly, contributing reviews and articles on reading, authors and books.
Cerian Fishlock is currently studying for an MA in Publishing. She’s an Agatha Christie fan who’s desperate to find a modern author that can match the Queen of Crime . She loves novels with a psychological edge and “if that can be combined with defeating the patriarchy, even better.”
Edward Colley is a retired newspaper editor and graphic designer with an eclectic taste in books. He counts Thomas Hardy among his favourite authors. In between reading fiction he enjoys biographies and travel writing .
Connecting with Welsh authors/publishers
For the past year I’ve been trying to support and promote literature from my home country of Wales, through reviews and the odd feature article on this site. Now I’m going a step further by creating a new series where we get to know some of the authors based in Wales.
I’m calling this new series Cwtch Corner. The idea is to get into a conversation with an author about their favourite authors and books, how and where they get their inspiration and what readers can expect from their own novel/s. This is a spot where authors could pitch their work to potential readers.
Never seen that word Cwtch before? It’s a word used in the Welsh language to describe a physical place – a small cubbyhole for example or a small room in a pub. But it also denotes a form of affection, love and caring. Think of it like a cuddle or a hug. So authors taking part in Cwtch Corner are hopefully going to find the experience a bit like being wrapped in a warm embrace.
I’m reaching out to authors to participate at the moment but if you know someone you think might be interested just ask them to contact me via Twitter using @bookertalk. Please note however that I am not intending to feature self-published authors.
During a recent bout of “squaring away” (otherwise known as a “tidy up”) I found my copy of Winifred Holtby’s best known novel: South Riding. It’s set in the world of her upbringing in Yorkshire in which she creates a fictional rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.
Into this community steps a new headmistress with a vision of making changes and putting her school on the map. She needs to win over some of the most powerful local figures including a gentleman farmer whose world is falling apart, Mrs Beddows, the first alderman of the district and Councillor Snaith, a cunning and manipulative fellow member of the council.
So far this is proving to be a marvellous and engrossing tale.
What did you recently finish reading?
The only 2018 Booker contender I managed to read this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. The title comes from the name of a strip joint where Romy Hall, a young single mother once worked. Now she is in a women’s correctional facility in California, serving two life sentences for murder. The novel, written in an unforgettable, direct voice, is an unflinching indictment of the prison system. It’s not a book that you can really say you ‘enjoy’.
Usually I find this a difficult question to answer because I don’t like planning ahead. But on this occasion, it couldn’t been easier. As soon as I heard about Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight, I put in my reservation at the library. It’s just become available but such is the interest from other readers, there’s no chance of renewing the loan. So my default this is my next read though I can honestly say I’m being pushed into this choice.
What a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.
It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.
Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university. He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.
Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.
Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.
Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty. The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.
So why do I say the novel is boring?
Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.
Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.
Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.
The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.
The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind. He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner. But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters? The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.
One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”. Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.
The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer. It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.
The red coat of the title refers to the garment worn by eight-year-old Carmel on the day she went missing at a story-telling festival. She is spirited away by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. As Beth, her mother, desperately searches for her, Carmel realises that her kidnapper has not taken her at random: he believes she has a special gift.
This is a novel told in alternating perspectives of the grieving mother and the missing daughter. I started reading it yesterday and am finding it gripping.
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford was the book I ended up with via the recent Classic Club Spin.
For years I’ve heard Mitford’s work described as brilliantly witty and irreverent in the way it portrays the upper classes in England between the two world wars. Some parts of Love in a Cold Climate did deliver well-time timed comic dialogue and I enjoyed the characterisations of Lady Montdore and Cedric, the outré homosexual heir to her husband’s estate, but overall I was underwhelmed by this book.
While on holiday I’d planned to read the latest novel by Andrew Miller —Now We Shall Be Entirely Free — but the download from the NetGalley site to my Kindle app hasn’t worked. Since I’m having to rely on the usual slow Internet speeds in hotels, I haven’t been able to figure out where the problem lies. So that’s going to be moved back in the queue.
Instead I think it’s time to pick up another of the Booker prize winners. I started How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman last year and — once I’d got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect — began to enjoy it but for reasons that now escape me I put it down and never finished the book.