A house with no foundations and lessons in survival A Review of ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver

A new Barbara Kingsolver book is always an event in the literary calendar, although I haven’t read them all.  I loved The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna and Flight Behaviour.  In the latter the central character is a woman from small town America whose life normally bounded by childcare, domestic duties and caring for the in-laws,  is changed by the arrival of a scientific observation team who have come to examine the effects of climate change on the migration patterns of Monarch butterflies.

Kingsolver

Unsheltered uses similar tropes for the central character of the modern story Willa although reverses them.  Willa is a professional woman (a journalist) with two adult children who having moved to Vineland, New Jersey for her husband’s job finds herself trying to undertake freelance work and then trying to survive, in that order.

The book has two time shifts.  One, the modern story,  is set in Trump’s America (2016  ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ says Willa on hearing the result of the New Hampshire primary) and the historic story set in 1871 amongst the same community.

Willa’s journalistic ambitions are seriously stymied by the illness of her ageing and impossible father-in-law, Nick,  who has no plans to go gently into that good night and whose care falls to Willa.  Another catastrophe strikes as Willa’s adult son Zeke, married with a newborn, is suddenly faced with the death of his own partner.  Urgent childcare is needed, a breach into which Willa also steps.  As if those things are not enough, the Vineland house into which the family has recently moved is diagnosed as literally falling to pieces.

Because this is Kingsolver we know there will be science.  The historic section of the book is set in houses on the same street, and concerns a lady called Mary Treat (a real person), a naturalist and entomologist who wrote many books and articles and corresponded with Charles Darwin.

Willa’s belief that Mary Treat might have lived in the house that her family currently occupies  gives her hope that she could register the house as being of historic interest and so be eligible for grant funding to do urgent repairs. After research, though,  It turns out acclaimed biologist Mary Treat did not live in Willa’s house but in a house over the road.  Willa’s house was in fact occupied by the family  of a local school master named rather uproariously Thatcher Greenwood.

We learn that Thatcher is a proponent of Darwinian science –  beliefs considered dangerous and ungodly by the head of the school in which he is employed as a teacher.   He is peremptorily told not to fill the children’s heads with ungovernable nonsense such as evolution.   Ultimately Thatcher is told to disavow his Darwinian beliefs which -sensibly on the side of history – he refuses to do.

Back to the future, and undaunted by research showing the absence of Mary Treat or her ilk from her home, Willa sets about trying to find a possible connection between Thatcher and Mary.   Was there a connection between Thatcher Greenwood and Mrs Mary Treat, Willa wonders (you’ll have to read the book to find out)  and if so was it sufficient to enable her to make an application for historic registration of her property?

‘These two iconoclasts living in one another’s line of sight, anode and cathode, had some current flowing between them that Willa had accidentally stuck a hand into.’

This story is not just about someone trying to apply for a housing grant.  As part of the modern story, Unsheltered is also about generational differences but not the sort of generational differences that the boomers had with their parents which was all about cool and uncool and music and vibes. The expectations of the boomer generation was achiever fever,  to outdo their parents in wealth, position collecting of stuff, size of house.    The new generational differences are much more fundamental.  They relate to understanding the depths of disaster that the planet is facing and the price of survival.  They are about recognising:

‘The global contempt for temperance and nurture, the fierce entitlement to every kind of consumption’

This whole books is a metaphor for how we are going to have to completely redefine things which are important to us in the future.  A timely metaphor indeed on a day when Greta Thunberg has addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos asking us to act as if nothing matters more than our children.

Oh boy can Kingsolver do metaphors!  You only have to look at the central tenet of the story –    a house with no foundations!   And one of the minor characters in the story quite literally gets away with murder.  The title of the debate ‘Darwin versus Decency’ in which Thatcher takes part,  sounds as ridiculous to modern ears, as the utterings of climate deniers will sound to the ears of generations into the future.

But though I admired this book, somehow I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to enjoy it – not as much as some of the previous books.  I found the historical storyline less absorbing than the modern day one, the characters harder to get a handle on.  I think I kept waiting for a ta-dah sort of revelation, but there was none.  The reader has to be satisfied with small victories and uplifting moments, against a background of relative awfulness. And isn’t that just like life.

Are the only sparrows left the ones we dream about?

20201

 

I dreamed about sparrows last night which I found rather sad if the only sparrows left are in dreams.

“Miners use canaries to warn them of deadly gases.  It might not be a bad idea if we took the same warning from the dead birds in our countryside.”

So wrote Lord Shackleton in 1963 in his introduction to Rachel Carson’s now iconic book Silent Spring

We couldn’t see it then could we – yet now it’s here.

Reading the right books  suddenly feels like a huge responsibility but which are the right books?

***

woman sitting while reading a book
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books in 2020 and to read more books about the environment, painful though it is.     Suggestions welcome in the fields of poetry, memoir, biography, literary fiction, philosophy and new nature writing.

So far on my list I have:

Figuring by writer, genius, blogger and writer of genius Maria Popova.

This was a daunting looking read coming in at a cool 545 pages – but fascinating and endlessly erudite.   I’m on p429 (yes, thank you Christmas).   Published by Canongate. Review upcoming  in the next week–

Bird Cottage by author, artist, singer, songwriter and philosopher Eva Meijer. Pushkin Press.

Really looking forward to this one on the connections between ourselves, the natural world and the epidemic of loneliness.

A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar,

the latest book from American born British/Libyan Pulitzer prize winning author of The Return, about the author’s search for his father. Published by Viking.

Dark Enchantment by Dorothy Macardle (Tramp Press).

Not an author I know anything about but I found this reviewed in the FT Weekend and thought it sounded intriguing – a sort of gothic ghost story set just after the Second World War.

Whose Story is This? Rebecca Solnit (Granta).

Who gets to shape the narrative of our times?

Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman. (David Fickling Books).

Famed author of His Dark Materials trilogy in a series of talks/lectures about his influences including Milton and Stephen Hawking.

Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver (Faber & Faber).

Mmm! A long way short of 50 but it’s a start!

2019 goodbye to all that …

As 2020 is upon us,  here is a brief look at some of the titles I reviewed in 2019. I would like to wish everyone a Happy – and not at all volatile – New Year.

January I looked at Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant:

“Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.”

April

VanGogh

“Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.’

This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.”

May

I reviewed this savage memoir of rape and childhood trauma

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe,  Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

 

 Also in May I looked at a collection of essays by Mary Oliver,

 

He was probably only looking for a partner. So begins one of Mary Oliver’s short essays from this collection ‘Who cometh here?’about a black bear.    This poor bear having struggled long and hard to reach Provincetown (‘crossing Massachusetts, swimming the channel, striding the length of the Cape’) got tranquilised and put in a van and returned to,  as far as the rangers knew, the point where he had begun.”

 

 

June – From bears to invisible women,  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

I reviewed Caroline Criado Perez research on the data bias that causes invisibility of the female in data about ‘mankind’.  Essential reading for anyone who assumes that in the 21st century equality of the sexes is a done deal.

 

July – Virginia Hall’s daredevil exploits during World War 2

Review:

“her service is even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.”

 

In September – my book of the year,  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

At once both ultra contemporary and completely ageless, this book sums up societies both sides of the Atlantic as they ruthlessly are rather than as we might like to see ourselves.

” Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK.”

 

In November Edward Snowden came to tell us about the world we are creating for ourselves through unbridled and poorly understood – yes even by those who are supposed to know  – technology.

snowdencover

 

“I was worried that the book might be quite technical and I wouldn’t understand it.  But I need not have worried.  Permanent Record is much more about the why rather than the how.  Why a young man might give up his whole life as he knows it – home, family, friends, extremely well paid job – for his principles.”

 

In December, Harry Lee Poe’s  biography of writer C.S. Lewis

“Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.”

 

 

 

 

Always Winter, never Christmas: The Hero’s Journey to The Ivory Towers

Review of #Becoming C.S. LewisA Biography of young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway)

 Harry Lee Poe

This biography of C.S. Lewis (1898-1918) covers the formative years:  his childhood, his mother’s untimely death, family relationships with especial emphasis placed on the rather miserable scool years  in a place called Wynyards, which thankfully doesn’t exist any more,  and later on,  Malvern College.

Poe writes:

“In September 1908, without benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, contrary to magna carta, and in the absence of habeas corpus, young Jack Lewis found himself interred in a concentration camp.”

(aka boarding school)

Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.

The latter half of the book deals with Lewis as a teenager from leaving Malvern to being tutored for Oxford Entrance in the private home of a man called Fitzpatrick – a friend of his father’s. There is also a lengthy section dealing with Lewis’ literary influences including:

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey,  Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes.  William Morris’ tales of Siegrfried and The Well at the World’s End – a story set in an historical medieval world where the four sons of King Peter of Upmeads set out to explore the world.  Spenser’s Faerie Queene,  The Norse myths.

The horrors of the First World War, in which his brother Warnie was fighting for his and everyone else’s lives, scarcely impinged upon the young Jack sheltered in his mentor Kirkpatrick’s house in Great Bookham in those days surrounded by open country.  Jack’s letters to his friend Arthur continue to reflect his literary obsessions.  Lewis referred in other writings to that sense of longing and desire that nothing in ordinary experience could satisfy and doesn’t strike me as being anyone who ever wished to engage with the world.  Given what was happening at the time perhaps that’s unsurprising.

But the values that he cared about in literature were not reflected in the ‘brute universe that consisted of a meaningless dance of atoms’

But then oddly after such arguments Poe states of Lewis:

“He could be dismissive of imaginations as a teenager because he thought the world of imagination was not real.”

Yet it seemed the imagination is where Lewis mostly dwelt. Rejecting his father’s faith in his struggle for his own identity and independence “the last thing Jack wanted was an interfering God from whom one could never escape,” there followed a struggle with various ideologies, materialist and metaphysical. Lewis embraced theories such as ‘logical positivism’ (the view that only what can be verified by sensory evidence actually exists and has meaning) and a confusion of scientific and philosophical strands.

Describing him as a typical teenager – a construct that barely existed at the beginning of the 20th century – Poe’s descriptions of Lewis immersing himself in classics, philosophy, literature and history from a young age, in Homer, Spenser and Ruskin,  show a young man earmarked for the ivory towers of Oxford,  where he meets and befriends J.R.R. Tolkein.

The book covers Lewis’ entry into Oxford and his concerns about the possibility of conscription.  In 1916 apparently oblivious to the fact that his brother was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, Jack and his father were making plans regarding his entrance examinations into Oxford.  Until a letter arrived from his brother describing being surrounded by “things which were once men”.

The author describes Jack as being adolescent and rebellious and perhaps for those days he was but he comes across more as complacent and the idea of a seventeen year old being considered rebellious because he doesn’t want to do what his father tells him is  a bit old hat.  Certain sections of the book covering whether or not Jack would enlist, or with whom he would spend the Easter holidays, which operas he may or may not have attended,  struck me as being superfluous.

For fans of the Chronicles of Narnia and other of Lewis’ writings,  there is some interest here in following the trail of white stones that led through the forest of his young psyche.

But for those who wish to find the wardrobe and pass through behind the fur coats to the forest where it is always winter, never Christmas – and especially for those who wish to meet Mr. Tumnus carrying his packages wrapped in brown paper –  you are much better off reading the books.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Crossway for this review copy.

 

 

The Stray Cats of Homs, Eva Nour (Doubleday)

Partly fiction, but mostly not,  the story charts Sami’s life a young man growing up – or trying to – in modern day Syria.

The protagonist Sami is a child when the story starts, a loved child of a good family.

‘On the surface, nothing was wrong or lacking. There were hospitals, schools, holiday resorts, churches , mosques.   The problem was the arbitrariness, that you could never know when the fabric would rip in two and reveal the other side.’

The fabric starts to tear shortly after Sami leaves University and is a little slow to sign up for his compulsory military service.  He is rounded up and carted off in handcuffs by the militia to endure two years of brutal military training which, though agonising, he survives.   When he is finally and belatedly discharged more than two years later he feels freedom beckons.

On the bus home, a sense of freedom filled Sami’s chest.  His body was no longer owned by anyone he was free to come and go as he pleased.  Outside the landscape rushed by, the air had a new edge of cold and the evening sun dipped the trees in gold.

This sense of freedom is shortlived.  In fact his problems are truly just starting.   By the time Sami receives his longed for discharge from military service,  his country has plunged into Civil War.

The regime would never dare, they said.  As soon as the first missile is fired, the US, France and the international community will react.  They said.

Assad’s regime forces and anti-government protestors battle it out over a red line which goes plum through the middle of Sami’s home town of Homs.  The international community sits on its sofa with a glass of wine and watches  as the bombs start falling.

Sami’s family leave but he chooses to stay.   More and more checkpoints are erected until fourteen city blocks are surrounded and those who have elected to stay are trapped.

The streets where he lived and attended school are reduced to white dust and rubble.   Food becomes difficult to find, then impossible.   Gradually his friends leave if they are able or some are killed either in the fighting or just because.  Sami starts to photograph the war, still believing that someone will care about these blatant abuses of human rights, this devastation by Assad’s forces of his own people.

This is not a political book.  It is a book about a humanitarian disaster.  If the author  makes judgement at all,  is of one of the tragedy of any civil war – when boys who were at school together, who ate in each other houses and played football round the streets, grow up and kill each other.    These days children play football among the ruins and a little girl wears a necklace made of spent cartridges.

Nour’s book is a book which celebrates small moments of freedom; it bears witness to our attempt to cling to some kind of normal domestic routines in the face of desperate odds.  It bears witness to our inability to rationalise such waste, such senselessness. 

He didn’t think about revenge or justice, only this one simple thing: that there’s a limit to what you can get away with.  That life couldn’t be allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

May usually smelled of jasmine flowers, now it smelled of dust and fires.   Among all the other concerns, there is the worry about what to do with family pets when there is no-one left to look after them.

The book is levied with moments of humour as when Sami receives a letter from a German lady enquiring after Homs’ population of cats:

 I will try to shoot some more, he tells her.

No! The woman replied.  We must save the cats not shoot them.

I meant photograph them, Sami replied.

Sami is a beautifully realised character and I hope he is real and exists somewhere out there because that means there is hope for the rest of us.

Eva Nour is a pseudonym. A name taken to protect people in the book.   Whoever she may be, this author has penned a book that will do for the suffering of the Syrian people what Khaled Hosseini (an acknowledged influence) did for Afghanistan and Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak for Turkey.  Placing the Syrian people firmly in the centre of Western consciousness Nour’s quiet voice says:  look,  this happened. This is still happening.   What did you do when you knew?

***

 

 

#TheStrayCatsOfHoms #NetGalley  

My thanks to NetGalley and Random House (Doubleday) for this review copy.

 

 

Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not.  Up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.  This one has to be high on the list of my all time top ten books on the planet.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.

 

 

 

 

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.