The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart

October 24, 2011

“If you like ‘introspective’ fiction — [Urquhart’s] books are only 20 yards wide, but they are 300 feet deep — you love her novels.” – Kevin from Canada

I adore introspective fiction.

Cracking open a book by an author previously unknown to you who turns out to be a favorite is one of the great pleasures of reading. The spot-on personal recommendations of bloggers is one of the joys of blogging. The Underpainter has been, for me, the happy confluence of both delights. As the foregoing quote suggests, Kevin from Canada suggested Jane Urquhart as an author I might like. He personally recommended this title to me and I am thrilled he did. I am as certain as one can be about such things that Urquhart will become a treasured author on my shelves. The Underpainter, at least, is a treasured book.

Urquhart does burrow and burrow into her characters and she does so while spinning luxuriously exact prose. She does not seem to go in for plot, although there is plenty of tension and, sometimes, desperate action. The fiercest intensity occurs in a simple sweep of the hand against stray hairs or two words spoken or three not spoken.

Austin Fraser, the “underpainter” of the title, narrates the story of his life. On a trip to Canada, the American artist meets and begins a relationship with a local woman named Sara.* The beginning of the novel describes Sara receiving and acting on a telegram. After describing Sara’s reaction, he tells us:

All of this is a very long time ago now, forty years at least. A very long time ago and purely hypothetical on my part. I did not see her leave her house, ski towards Thunder Cape, turn to watch the thin trail of smoke emerge from her chimney. I did not see her shake the dust off of her father’s underground clothes or strap the skis to his large boots.

The telegram she carries in her pocket, or has left behind on the kitchen table, or has thrown into the trash, the telegram I never saw but know for certain she received and read, has told her that I, Austin Fraser, am waiting in Port Arthur, in a fifth-floor hotal room, hours of distance away.

In his telling, Austin returns to this scene, as with so many others, giving us different perspectives and tunneling deeper toward that most precious metal: truth. Urquhart effectively uses repetition like this, whether of whole dialogues, of complete scenes, or of fleeting imagery, to draw the reader toward her key themes and reward her audience with a world of satisfying wholeness. In that “hypothetical” scene referred to above, the Austin Fraser imagined Sara standing near a window with a telegram.

The unopened telegram in her hand appears to have already darkened with time, darkened in comparison to the white snow around her house, the brightness of sun that enters the room.

She pushes a tendril of her hair behind her ear, a strand that has escaped the braid. This strand contains some threads of grey.

Ten pages later, describing a remembered scene rather than an imagined one, Austin tells of first meeting Sara. She was sweeping the veranda of a hotel while Austin painted. He is enthralled with her form, “the long tendon on the side of her neck and one vein there, pulsing”. He spoke to her, so that she would turn to him

She stopped sweeping then, pivoted, pushed a strand of hair back from her forehead and regarded me with surprise, as if she hadn’t known that anyone was there at all.

This second passage reinforces that the first “hypothetical” is cobbled together from Austin’s actual memories, mixing fact and imagination. The reality of the loose strand and the fiction of “the skein of grey I never saw in Sara’s hair” are blended for this false memory. It is fantasy, but a plausible fantasy. He has captured the look of Sara, her feel, and added something more. In both cases, she, at least seemingly, was unaware of Austin’s presence and, upon becoming aware, she fixes her appearance, however slightly. Sara becomes something more than just “a woman” or even “the woman”. She is a person and the past has weight.

The other thing I love about the hypothetical scene with which Austin begins his tale is that “already darkened with time” telegram. Particularly in retrospect, this seems best interpreted as a darkening in Austin’s mind. The time that has passed is between Sara’s receipt of the telegram and Austin’s imagining of it. The passage suggests that intervening events have darkened it, made it a symbol of sadness or pain rather than joy.

Urquhart peppers her tail with such deft foreshadowing, foreshadowing that betrays nothing specific but which creates a palpable atmosphere of strong emotion. I have not yet read The Sanctuary Line, the Urquhart reviewed at Kevin from Canada, but KfC’s comment on that novel could nearly apply here:

As is usual with Urquhart, there is a darker side to the story — the foreshadowing occurs early in the novel and that story line becomes increasingly dominant as it progresses.

The Underpainter begins with only hints of the darkness to come. The title is a hint and a metaphor too. Underpainting is the painting of a scene on the canvas prior to painting the final product. The technique is typically used to create a map or framework for the final painting. If underpainting is done poorly, the initial images show through in the final work.

Austin Fraser paints detailed scenes first, then paints over them, in both his art and his narrative. His housekeeper is baffled that he paints beautiful pictures, pictures so real the water looks like it would wet her fingers, then “always come[s] back and muck[s] around afterwards and ruin[s] them.” She says, “If you’d just let them alone, they’d be the most wonderful paintings in the world.” At several key points, Austin has trouble with his underpainting. In life, Austin also underpaints, but never manages a satisfactory finished product. He may “muck around” trying for improvement, but always ends by ruining whatever beauty or meaning he was trying to create or protect or discover.

Austin has his painting, his New York friends, and his relationship with George. George, his best friend, was, at a time, a fellow aspiring artist. George goes off to war and comes home from war, as does Augusta, one of George’s love interests. The two war veterans are profoundly affected. By contrast, Austin avoids that intense disruption to life, just as he avoids so many other entanglements in the world’s passions.

Despite their friendship, Austin both pities and scorns George who, rather than painting people on large canvases which end in galleries as Austin does, paints miniature landscapes on kitchenware for sale in a small town china shop. Austin does not disguise his disdain when talking to George:

“At least with a model you would have something to observe and respond to. Then what you do would be more important.”

Austin’s condescension, one of several threads of tension, is borne of a fundamental error. He tells what he knows of passion:

There is nothing in passion, really, except the sense that one should open one’s self to it. In many ways it can be as cold as anything else.

Austin believed that art requires a remove from the world. He viewed himself as a prospector (another recurring motif) mining for elusive meaning. The story of his life gives lie to this secondhand view of his. Meaning cannot simply be found and extracted. True meaning is lived.

Urquhart is a very skilled writer. Everything in this exquisite novel works together to emphasize the importance of taking care in the underpainting of one’s life. The Underpainter is a masterpiece, both of art and of craft.

*I added these two sentences after re-reading the original post and realizing I had forgotten to tell who anyone was before launching into the telegram scene.


The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt

September 6, 2011

Regular readers may recall that I am a fan of Joyce Carol Oates and that my favorite of her novels is Beasts. Oates frequently delves into obsession, near-madness, and madness. She also crafts beautiful prose and suspenseful stories. How she maintains quality given the quantity she produces will likely forever remain a mystery of American literature.

Hustvedt has written five novels over the past, roughly, twenty years. (Somewhere Oates chuckles.) This was her first, though not my first of hers. I quite enjoyed What I Loved and was spurred to explore her (to give Oates a laugh) oeuvre in greater detail. Having explored a full 40% of her novels, I have not developed a crush. I am indifferent to the fact that she has published a novel this year (The Summer Without Men; free excerpt here), while Oates manages only a short story collection and a memoir.

But why am I comparing these two? It is because this book reminded me of Beasts with respect to the plot or, more accurately, the setup. The story of both hinges on a student-professor relationship. The stories, however, are not really the same. The Blindfold is more about identity and the fictions we construct to make sense of ourselves and the world than about the psychology of mentor-mentee romance, the darkness of sexual obsession, and the cruelty of conquest.

It is easy for me to read too much into the fact, so I will, that Hustvedt is, and was at the time of writing this book, married to Paul Auster, author of the identity-obsessed New York Trilogy. Hustvedt’s work post-dates Auster’s and, I am tempted to speculate, owes a significant debt to it. The Blindfold is told in a series of interweaved stories, really, about a young woman named Iris Vegan. Iris is, as are probably most first-person protagonists, a “version[] of [her creator]” pieced together from bits of the author’s “personality, nerves, and [] experiences.” She is intelligent, depressive, and a bit lost.

Some of the stories seem almost allegorical, such as the one in which she finds employment as a dead woman’s medium. In that story, a strange old man is determined to write the history of a young woman who was murdered in his building. He hires female university students to minutely describe objects that formerly belonged to the dead girl, hoping that some psychic residue will rub off on his assistants’ prose. Iris is unaware of this quirk when she begins, but soon has the gist of the story from the old man. The unlikelihood of the fellow having legitimate custody of the dead woman’s things raises the possibility that he was the murderer.

Iris’s project is very similar to that of Blue in Auster’s Ghosts. Both characters are given the task of transcribing details without being told which details are important or what the ultimate purpose of the transcription is. Where Blue is watching a person, Iris is examining an object, yet both are really about the same thing: the way in which reality can be fit into any number of stories and how individuals fill the void of supplied meaning in ways that smooth their own emotional potholes. Of course, the effort of consciously creating a fictional story can be maddening and, again, both husband and wife explore this aspect.

Given that I had already read Auster’s New York Trilogy and Oates’s Beasts, this work was a bit of a come down. It seemed to tread the territory between the two, neither engaging on full-blown philosophical allegory, as did Auster, nor into the dark caverns of the obsessive mind as did Oates. Hustvedt’s first novel seems to me less a combining of the best of two ideas or themes, but a dilution of them. This sounds unnecessarily harsh. While I would recommend either Auster’s trilogy or Oates’s novella before this work, Hustvedt is an excellent writer.

For instance, she makes a more effective critique of the American health care system in one paragraph than Lionel Shriver did in a novel focused on the issue. Hustvedt’s Iris, in the hospital:

That afternoon Dr. Fish sent a psychiatrist to my bed. He spoke to me kindly in a low voice, and he had a white beard that I found reassuring….I think I would have enjoyed my talk with him had I not worried about what the conversation was going to cost. He looked expensive to me, and I kept wondering if his sympathy was covered by my insurance.

The scene is most notably for the humor rather than any political polemics. And this is an excellent part of Hustvedt’s writing, while always serious, she is never only serious. Like one of her more interesting characters, she maintains sufficient authorial distance to treat serious subjects lightly, thereby penetrating reflection. A male friend tells her:

”I watch myself live, Iris, like a movie, and that image of myself is everything. I don’t want to betray it. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m telling you that what I can’t bear is the ordinary. I don’t want to bore myself, to sink into the pedestrian ways of other people – heart-to-heart talks, petty confessions, relationships of habit, not passion. I see those people all around me, and I detest them, so I have to be divorced from myself in order to keep from sliding into a life I find nauseating. It’s a matter of appearances, but surfaces are underestimated. The veneer becomes the thing. I rarely distinguish the man in the movie from the spectator anymore.”

I felt sorry for him and hated the feeling. He had delivered his explanation in a fierce tone of self-mockery and it bruised me. “I do understand you, Stephen, but don’t you think that everybody is finally the same in the most essential ways? Some lives are probably much duller than others, but it’s impossible to know how people live inside themselves, isn’t it? I mean, a life could seem boring on the outside and be tumultuous within. Isn’t cruelty more contemptible than ordinariness?”

Hustvedt’s examination of the intersection of story-generation and identity-creation seems, if not a re-working, then a reply to Auster’s own ideas on the subject.

In Ghosts, Blue is a man of surfaces as well. Through the mysterious writing project, he becomes better acquainted with his own interior. And, too, he comes to realize that the external reality, Black in his case, is “a kind of blankness, a hole in the texture of things, and one story can fill this hole as well as any other.” Iris has the same sort of recognition when trying to speak to or for the dead woman.

I wonder now whether it isn’t dangerous to assign significance to that which is essentially vacant, but we can’t seem to avoid it. We cover up the holes with our speech, explaining away the emptiness until we forget it is there.

The stories she could tell are endless and, therefore, pointless, when only the truth matters to her. The catch is that, like Blue, she also begins to question truth as a concept and as a good. Maybe the world, as far as humans can capture it, is made only of stories. What then of identity? Iris learns less what her identity is than that identity can be as fluid, as full of holes that need filling, as another’s life, whether the life is that of a man sitting, as Black, in an observable room or that of a dead woman evidenced only by detritus she left behind.

Hustvedt is ambitious and, I think, has grown as a writer. Her first effort is good, perhaps even very good. My favorite part of the reading experience was the way The Blindfold recalled to mind other, to my mind better, books and enriched the ideas in them. For that reason alone, it was well worth the read. And, despite being in no rush, I may well snag a copy of The Summer Without Men on the strength of this work and What I Loved. As for you, dear reader, I do think she is worth your giving her a try.


Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

December 19, 2009

Some writers earn my respect. Other writers I merely enjoy. There are writers with whom I become intimate over the course of a long relationship. Some I read and abandon forever. But there are some writers who grab me and promise me a lifetime of reading pleasure and I believe them.

Italo Calvino is that last sort of writer. As soon as I started his collection of short stories, months and months ago, I believed his promises. I still do.

I like reading collections of short stories slowly. Generally, I read no more than a story a day, sometimes only a story a week. This both prolongs the experience, if it is good, and gives me time to digest a story before moving to the next. Of course, at first, I gulped this one. The first stories are so short. Not until the fourth does a story need more than one page, front and back, to finish.

These short shorts are grippingly original. The first section is subtitled “Fables and Stories, 1943-1958” and the stories do read as fables. The very first story is “The Man Who Shouted Teresa“:

I stepped off the pavement, walked backwards a few paces looking up, and, from the middle of the street, broght my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone and shouted towards the top stories of the block: “Teresa!”

My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Someone walked by. Again I shouted: “Teresa!” The man came up to me and said: “if you don’t shout louder she won’t hear you. Let’s both try. So: count to three, on three we shout together.” And he said: “One, two, three.” And we both yelled, “Tereeeesaaa!”

Before long, there is a large crowd helping the narrator, the man who shouted Teresa. They organize, squabble, and are “beginning to get it right” before someone finally starts asking why they are shouting. The narrator explains he doesn’t even know who lives in the apartment to which they are shouting:

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It’s no big deal.”

The others were a bit annoyed.

But everyone is too embarrassed to be angry or to simply go away. They decide to call one last time and then leave.

So we did it again. “One two three Teresa!” but it didn’t come out very well. Then people headed off home, some one way, some the other.

I’d already turned into the square, when I thought I heard a voice still calling: “Tee-reee-sa!”

Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn.

I found the story hilarious. I was hooked. In the next story, the narrator has a moment when he understands nothing, the next is about a town where everything was forbidden. They are too short to be tedious, too well written to be dismissed. Most of these early works are apolitical.

The stories become slightly less fantastical and more political deeper into the book. At first, their target is primarily the military, such as in “The Lost Regiment” where “[a] regiment in a powerful army was supposed to be parading through the city streets” but gets lost and in “The General in the Library” involving a general sent to examine the books in a library after “a suspicion crpet into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige.” But soon Calvino’s flirtation with communism and socialism become quite evident.

Like Dos Passos, Calvino has a fascination with and compassion for working people. His more political stories are often concerned with issues of class and power. In fact, it was the abuse of power, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, that ended Calvino’s association with communism. Many of his stories lampoon the bureacracies and resulting oppressions that spring up under communism and socialism. In other words, Calvino’s primary concern is with respect for the average human, not with an explicitly political goal. In this way, even his explicitly political stories maintain some vitality, though politics have largely passed them by.

The second half of the book is subtitled “Tales and Dialogues 1968-84”. Some of these stories are sci-fi in nature, such as “World Memory” in which every fact in the world is being fed into a computer. This is not a humorous story, but a suspenseful one with an excellent payoff. “Beheading the Heads” is quite political and, perhaps, reveals the anarchism to which Calvino was exposed as a child in addition to his frustrations with political systems generally.

The preface to the book provides some interesting background. For instance, “The Burning of the Abominable House”, a murder mystery in short form, was written in response to “a somewhat vague request from IBM: how far was it possible to write a story using the computer?” The 1973 story is excellent and reveals Calvino’s logical and mathematical rigor.

Finally, late in the collection, Calvino’s fascination with physics and science comes to the fore. Calvino’s parents were scientists and Calvino himself studied the ideas of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck. The final two stories are each inspired by scientific articles. One about black holes and the other about the beginning of the universe. These stories both manage to relate abstruse scientific concepts to intensely personal struggles. “Implosion” is concerned with time and everyone’s inability to truly escape its ravages. Even implosion, the narrator finds, does not provide a sanctuary. “Nothing and Not Much” examines the void and dealing with the void. The story was inspired by a Washington Post article discussing a scientists calculations which “suggest[ed] that the universe was created literally from nothing”. It is a very existential piece.

While Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories is only one short story collection, and not Italo Calvino’s most highly regarded, I am infatuated. I want more. I am going to read a novel next, probably If on a winter’s night a traveler. I highly recommend this collection. I cannot say whether it is the best entry point to Calvino’s work, but it was, for me, a thoroughly seductive introduction.

*To dip before jumping in, you can find links to Italo Calvino stories available on the web and other information about the writer at the Italo Calvino website.


The Stranger Next Door by Amelie Nothomb (Tr. Carol Volk)

December 3, 2009

Tony of Tony’s Book World said Amelie Nothomb is a “Must Read Author”. He said: “If you start to read her books, you will continue to read her books.” Apparently, The Complete Review gave him the scoop. Well, Tony is right.

This book warrants every point of the B that The Complete Review gives it. I think it just missed out on a B+. But, her other grades being what they were, Amelie threatened to be a one-woman grade-inflation-machine. The Complete Review got this one right which makes me eager for her higher scoring submissions.

The Stranger Next Door is a very odd book, though the premise is simple. A retired school teacher and his wife decide to move out to the country for the peace and solitude. They find their dream house, “the House”, and settle into their golden years. Their life is ideal.
Emile Hazel narrates his and Juliette’s experiences that first year in the country.

After one week in the House, we were convinced we had never lived anywhere else.

One morning, we took the car to the village to buy groceries. The store in Mauves was a delight to us: it didn’t sell much, and this absence of choice made us inexplicably joyful.

This is not a novel about planning a dinner party or a story about strolling through Kew Gardens, however. The same afternoon they return from the charming grocer, their neighbor comes to visit:

[A]t about four o’clock, someone knocked on the door.

I went to open it. It was a fat man who seemed older than I was.

“I’m Mr. Bernardin. Your neighbor.”

What could be more normal than a neighbor coming to make the acquaintance of new arrivals, particularly in a clearing consisting of two houses? His face, moreover, could not have been more ordinary. I remember, nonetheless, standing there frozen, confused, like Robinson upon his first encounter with Friday.

Emile is onto something. This is not just a neighbor, this is a stranger. Mr. Bernardin’s opening salvo is longer than any of his other utterances on that first visit, or the second, which occurs at precisely four o’clock the following day. The pattern is set.

The stranger, only made more strange by their knowing his name, continues his routine of arriving at four every afternoon. Emile and Juliette soon realize that he intends to continue visiting at that hour daily in perpetuity. This would not seem to be a major problem, only Mr. Bernardin rarely speaks and, when he does, is very concise. Emile and Juliette find this disconcerting, plus, they have no desire to be held captive to the punctual stranger next door.

Their first attempts to dissuade Mr. Bernardin’s neighborliness consist of attempted murder by kindness. When Mr. Bernardin perseveres, they try mocking him. Nothing seems to work and they cannot decide whether he is an imbecile or diabolical.

The question becomes more urgent and more difficult to answer when they finally meet Mrs. Bernardin. Mrs. Berardin and her situation become the impetus that sets in motion a series of startling plot developments, all of which serve Amelie Nothomb’s philosophical and moral purposes.

This novella is packed with delights which are humorous, grotesque, philosophical, and moral. Despite being so slight, the book is not an easy read. The prose is crisp, but the mood is unsettling for everyone, including the reader. Emile and Juliette and the reader have time to consider whether lack of choice really is “inexplicably joyful”, and the answer is driven home with the force and speed of thumb screws. The payoff is worth the wait, however, when deeper questions regarding manners and morals begin to demand answers.

Emile and Juliette are reactive characters, but circumstances eventually force them to choose. Husband and wife each answer in their own way, with serious consequences for both of them and for the Bernardins.

While this is not one of my favorite reads of the year, the originality of the story, the sprinkling throughout of literary, philosophical, and mythological references, the prose, the humor, and the weight all guarantee that I will try others of Ms. Nothomb’s works. If this is her worst, I am in for some treats.


Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee

November 28, 2009

Two of my all-time favorite books are autobiographies. Of course, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has the contradictory subtitle: “As Told to Alex Haley”. Regardless, it is a powerful work. The insights into the arc of Malcolm’s life, the way his beliefs were formed, and the reasons those beliefs changed over the course of his too-short existence, are fascinating. As the best such works, it uncovers the making of a man, flawed, intelligent, and reflective.

Speak, Memory is even better. Nabokov is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant artists ever to work in the English language. The book is less revealing of the man than his artistry. But this, in itself, is another demonstration of his genius. Even in autobiography, Nabokov is uniquely inventive. And the prose smiles.

Boyhood fits nicely between these two works. Coetzee, like Malcolm (via Alex Haley), tells his story chronologically, but does not write a hagiography. Coetzee, again like Malcolm, discloses in almost frightening frankness some of his formative flaws. We see, as in the Malcolm X work, a progression of character overtime. There is growth, but sometimes it is a twisting, deforming growth.

Boyhood is not a conventional telling. Coetzee writes of himself in the third person. Brilliantly, I think. As intimate as this work is, the third person provides distance, a remove from the subject. We are not shown the author, but a boy the author once was. The effect is to free the reader to judge, to empathize, and to evaluate. And, like Nabokov’s work, the prose of the master is displayed in full. The work is not only the story of the author, but an independent work of art.

What has emerged, both man and book, is something beautiful. Terribly beautiful.

J.M. Coetzee is unflinching in his self-portrait. Always first in his class, the young Coetzee is a brilliant little misfit. The class, caste, and social systems of South Africa parse up the boys until Coetzee is left alone. He has an Afrikaaner surname, an English upbringing, no religion, a bookish disposition, and no interest in the male bonding rituals of youth. When his family moves, he is further isolated in the provincial town of Worcester, not least by the division of school boys according to religion during assembly. As a new student, he and several other boys are taken aside and asked their religion. The young Coetzee is at a loss, so the teacher gives him three choices: Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew. Amusingly in Coetzee’s telling, he chooses Roman Catholicism.

He chose to be a Roman Catholic, that fateful morning, because of Rome, because of Horatius and his two comrades, swords in their hands, crested helmets on their heads, indomitable courage in their glance, defending the bridge over the Tiber against the Etruscan hordes. [Later], he discovers from the other Catholic boys what a Roman Catholic really is. A Roman Catholic has nothing to do with Rome. Roman Catholics have not even heard of Horatius.

The young Coetzee becomes the target of the Christian boys for being a Catholic and the Catholic boys for being an imposter. Still, he is ultimately satisfied with his choice. Coetzee the man provides this brilliant glimpse into the boy’s mind:

If being a Christian means singing hymns and listening to sermons and then coming out to torment the Jews, he has no wish to be a Christian. The fault is not his if the Catholics of Worcester are Catholic without being Roman, if they know nothing about Horatius and his comrades holding the bridge over the Tiber (‘Tiber, Father Tiber, to whom we Romans pray’), about Leonidas and his Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, about Roland holding the pass against the Saracens. He can think of nothing more heroic than holding a pass, nothing nobler than giving up one’s life to save other people, who will afterwards weep over one’s corpse. That is what he would like to be: a hero. That is what proper Roman Catholicism should be about.

The young Coetzee is oblivious to the irony so skillfully deployed by the author Coetzee. I find the quote hilarious and profound. Coetzee manages to unveil the hypocrisy within and the emotional foundation for the sacrificial religions in one breezy memory.

The more frequent target of Coetzee’s penetrating insight is the young Coetzee. The boy can be petulant and cold. His treatment of his mother is atrocious. He covets her love, wants it all for himself:

He wants her to behave toward him as she does toward his brother. But he wants this as a sign, a proof, no more. He knows that he will fly into a rage if she ever begins hovering over him.

At the same time, he returns no affection to her:

His rages against his mother are one of the things he has to keep a careful secret from the world outside. Only the four of them know what torrents of scorn he pours upon her, how much like an inferior he treats her. ‘If you teachers and your friends knew how you spoke to your mother…,’ says his father, wagging a finger meaningfully. He hates his father for seeing so clearly the chink in his armour.

This quality is not endearing. Coetzee has a purpose in showing us this aspect. He is not simply showing us his flaws. His relationship with his mother is borne of his essential character, not only the author suffers for his art:

He is a liar and he is cold-hearted too: a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother. It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent. His only excuse is that he is merciless to himself too. He lies but he does not lie to himself.

There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.

I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.


Quarantine by Jim Crace

September 17, 2009

Quarantine is a thoroughly researched book, spare but with philosophical heft. The details are exquisite and the psychology penetrating. I could not help but be impressed by the work that obviously went into creating this book. The writing is lyrical to the point of being poetic (“Snails shrank into their shells, and mimed the secret life of stones.”). In fact, the lyricism actually started to annoy me towards the end of the book when it became, to me, too rhythmic.

QuarantineThe Booker-shortlisted and Whitbread winning Quarantine is a re-telling of Jesus’ excursion into the desert for forty days of fasting (his “quarantine”). Jesus takes up a relatively small portion of the novel directly. Rather, the interactions of six others who are in geographic proximity to Jesus during his quarantine are frontmost in the narrative. To tell too much about their interactions, or about Jesus’ ordeal, would ruin the story should you read it. You should.

The novel opens with Miri waking to find her husband, Musa, feverishly ill. Miri and Musa are part of a caravan of traders. Everyone is sure he will soon die.

Musa was paying a heavy price, his uncles said, for sleeping on his back without a cloth across his face. An idiotic way to die. A devil had slipped into his open mouth at night and built a fire beneath the rafters of his ribs. Devils were like anybody else; they had to find what warmth they could or perish in the desert cold.

For Miri, “[h]is death would rescue her.” Even so, she provides dutiful ministrations to “lure the fever out”. Musa’s kinsmen and the other members of the caravan do not have the same obligations, so leave Miri in the desert with the dying Musa and some provisions, mostly unwanted or inferior goods.

[I]t was a crippling sadness for them too, make no mistake, the uncles said, but Miri had to stay behind, continue with her singing till the end, and bury Musa on her own.

Miri soon sets out to dig a grave for Musa, in preparation for his death. The work is quite difficult, but Miri finds happiness, if not in the work, at least in the future she now sees for herself. That happy future was a future free of the abusive, domineering man she had married. She is sleeping in the grave she dug when the remaining cast members arrive.

While most “cavers” (people who went out for quarantine) stayed closer to civilization, five came as far out as Miri’s and Musa’s encampment.

But those who made it to the perching valley where Miri – half open-eyed – was sleeping, and where Musa and the fever devil were bargaining in the final hours of his life, sought something more remote and testing than requiems and communal prayers. There were five of them – not in a group, but stung out along the road where earlier that morning the caravan of uncles had passed by. Three men, a woman, and too far behind for anyone to guess its gender, a fifth….

The first four — their problems? Madness, madness, cancer, infertility — had started their journeys that morning from the same settlement in the valley. Though they had observed the proprieties of pilgrimage by keping some distance apart, they had at least endeavoured to keep each other within sight and hearing.

These first four find caves near the grave Miri has dug. The fifth, Jesus, goes off a distance to find a nearly inaccessible cave in which to pass his quarantine. He is more devout than the others. They will break their fast in the evening, he intends not to break his for the full forty days.

The novel unfolds over the forty days of the quarantine, bringing these various characters into contact with each other. The group dynamics are as fascinating as they are convincing. Even more, the individual characters are drawn with a master’s touch.

As a reader, I did not only pardon Miri’s spiteful coldness toward her dying husband, I shared it. And, yet, Crace makes Musa sympathetically human too:

Two men in one; opposing twins, they’d said when he was a boy and couldn’t reconcile his bossy tantrums with his bouts of weeping….

Now that Musa was a merchant and an adult, fearful of derision and defeat, he had learnt to suppress the lesser, tearful twin. Life was too hard and unforgiving for such a weakling. Anyone could drive that tender sibling to an easy bargain. Anyone could trespass in his tent. Anyone could make a fool of him. So Musa kept him hidden, a lost companion of his childhood, and showed the world his tougher self, the one which beat and bargained like no other, the trading potentate, the fist, the appetite. Why was this splendid fellow feared but not much liked by his cousins in the caravan? It baffled Musa, and it made him fierce. They are simply envious, he persuaded himself. But during those late and bitter drinking vigils outside his tent, his judgment was more fiery, and much simpler; They hate you, Musa. Hate them back!

The remaining characters are drawn with equal skill and we come to know them intimately. Each has his own desperation and these desperations collide and combine in sometimes surprising and sometimes inevitable ways. Crace weaves a legend that is more touching and more convincing than the original.

Quarantine2I cannot say it is the easiest read. Partly this is due to the realism of the characters and Crace’s unwillingness to allow his plot to stray to serve the ends of mercy. Good people suffer and evil people prosper. Further, the very nature of a quarantine demands tedium. This book is almost as far from a thriller as one can get. Still, Crace is a good storyteller and this is a compelling story. Crace always keeps several balls in the air and teases out each mystery for maximum effect. Quarantine is a brilliant novel. On the strength of this work, I will definitely seek out more of Crace’s novels.

SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW! SPOILERS BELOW!

I do not want to give away any more than I already have for those who have not read the book. However, it is a fascinating book. As I said above, the prose itself is sparkling, but more than that, the story is terrifically achieved.

Musa is one of the great villains of literature. And this is his story, not Jesus’. Musa steals the spotlight from the first, even as he lays dying in the tent, abandoned by all. I kept wanting him to die, but, of course, he could not. Only towards the end did I really begin to fully understand that the story belonged to Musa, the enchanter.

However, I do not want to imply that other characters were not vital to the story or were not fascinating in their own right. Miri, Marta, and Aphas are all sympathetic and necessary. Jesus does have a gravitational pull on the others, though he and they interact very little. And Badu is an excellent surprise, kept nicely until the very end. Crace’s cast is almost perfect.

But it is not quite perfect. I was not particularly impressed with Shim. He was too flat a foil for Musa. Of all the characters, he is the only one that, at times, seemed to act only because Crace told him to act. I never felt I had an adequate grasp of his motivations and the power of Musa over him. I get that he was something of a charlatan himself, but that would have seemed to make him, in many ways, less susceptible to the charms and bluffs of Musa.

The structure of the novel is brilliant. We get to meet and become somewhat acquainted with the travellers before Musa revives and takes over. The slow disintegration of Jesus coincides with Musa’s slow consolidation of power. Jesus’ death and Musa’s fall perfectly balance the climax. And the final denouement is one of the best I have read.

The ending would have been too neat if Musa died. Besides, Musa has to spread his new gospel of Jesus. Who better to grow the legend of Jesus than Musa the charismatic and practiced liar? Not only does he have a newfound profit motive, but he truly believes.

Crace’s legend is so convincing in its details, it leaves me awed. This is the type of reworking that could go horribly wrong or wonderfully right. Going wrong is much more likely than success. But Crace pulls it off magnificently.

For anyone else that has read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have not read it, I encourage to read it and return with your thoughts.


Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer

August 25, 2009

I was introduced tothe work of Geoff Dyer by Kevin From Canada and John Self at The Asylum. Kevin From Canada reviewed this particular book. While Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi would have been a more timely choice, serendipity led me to Paris Trance instead.

Dyer explains the concept he followed with this book using a quote from D.H. Lawrence:

The usual plan is to take two couples and develop their relationship. Most of George Eliot’s are on that plan. Anyhow, I don’t want a plot, I should be bored with it. I shall try two couples for a start.

The book is concerned primarily with four characers: Luke, Alex, Nicole, and Sahra. Luke and Alex are Englishmen living in Paris where they meet, separately, Nicole and Sahra. Luke is the focal point of the story and his meeting Nicole is well-told, engaging, and romantic. Dyer writes efficiently and with humor. A key description of Luke comes fairly early:

He [Luke] had the handshake of a thin person who has learned how to make a good impression by shaking hands firmly even though that strength always feels as if it is made up of bones and nerves. he knew there was a way of getting an intensity of feeling into shaking hands but he had not learned how to do it. He was one of those people who have to learn everything….When I met him that day — or so it seems to me now — he was poised on the brink of becoming himself, as I came to know him.

This quote brings up an important issue of technique. Dyer writes the story partly in the first person and partly in the third person, always told by the same character. A weird thing, and somewhat creepy to me, is that the narrator stays the same, but talks about himself in the third person. Unless there are giveaways earlier than I noticed, the reader is a fair way through the book before the narrator is identifiable. I think this point is important, because the narrator knows extremely intimate details of the sex lives of the four, details that really could not be known by any one of the four, unless they have very frank conversations.

It could be that this is imagination on the part of the narrator who tells us on the first page:

[B]y recounting this part of my friend’s [Luke’s] life I am trying to account for my own, for my need to believe that while something in Luke tugged him away from all that he most loved, from all that made him happiest, it is his life — and not mine — which is exemplary, admirable, even enviable.

The narrator, we learn, does idolize Luke and may not see him accurately. To delve into this too much farther would spoil one mystery of the book.

It is an important mystery because it is one of the few that Dyer does not spoil himself before it gathers any steam. Dyer reveals what would seem to be important plot points well in advance, presumably to keep the focus on the dynamics in the group of friends and lovers.

That first quote is important to the story itself because it says something about Luke, how he is dissatisfied, trying to find himself, perhaps trying to become someone else. Luke wants much out of life, but does not always know how to achieve his goals. Sometimes his efforts, like the handshake, betray his ineptness rather than disguise it.

There are other aspects of the novel besides Luke and the story of the friends that are interesting from a literary aspect. Dyer is obviously a fan of The Sun Also Rises and quotes from it extensively. I did not discover this from the text. I abandoned The Sun Also rises part way through in utter boredom and have never returned. The back of the hard cover edition I have read includes Dyer’s own list of borrowed quotes from Hemingway’s (and a couple of Camus’) work. With that revelation, the two did seem very similar. There is lots of banter over alcohol and boys being boys. If you do not go in for that sort of thing, be wary.

I enjoyed this book, so perhaps I should revisit that particular Hemingway. However, my delight may have come from the fact that this is, in some ways, Dyer’s retelling of Gide’s The Immoralist. Luke’s motto is “Yes, always, yes.” The women, talking about Luke and Alex, discuss how the men’s preferred mode of existence: “No though, only sensation.” And, as a final example, the narrator muses:

Nothing in the past has any value. You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless. You can dwell on it but not in it. What good does it do anyone, knowing that they once sat with friends in a car and called out the names of cinemas and films, that they ate lunch in a town whose name they have forgotten?

This are only small bites. And, besides, as shown from the earlier quote, the narrator must find some value in the past. He wrote the book in an effort to explain and understand. Dyer tells us early that the relationship between the four friends is unstable. They cannot remain forever in the idyllic year the novel relates. The reason why is important to these philosophical questions, to answering whether the narrator is correct that Luke’s life was “exemplary, admirable, even enviable.”

I have my doubts.

Dyer stays true to his stated mission of examining the relationships of his characters. He deflates plot-driven tension at almost every opportunity, maintaining the reader’s focus on Dyer’s subject. Dyer writes well and, as I stated earlier, with humor. This is not one of my favorites, but it is an excellent book. There are many things to like about this book and you only have to like some of them to find the book worthwhile. I enjoyed it and must thank John and Kevin for making me aware of this author. I will read more of his work.

[I will update this post in the future with a cover photo – Kerry]


Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

July 27, 2009

Ghostwritten is Booker-winner [Update: -shortlisted] David Mitchell’s first book. I had not actually decided to pick up anything by David Mitchell, when I happened upon Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten while perusing the shelves. Over the past few years, I have several times almost grabbed Cloud Atlas due to its Booker win [Update: nomination] and reputation. Ultimately, I chose Ghostwritten instead because I knew less about it and liked the idea of reading the books of this new-to-me author in the order he published.

GhostwrttenGhostwritten is an ambitious novel.

I clarify that it is a novel because it could be mistaken at first for a collection of linked short stories. Most of the chapters use first person narration, though the narrator is seldom the same from chapter to chapter. In fact, only two chapters have the same narrator, each of the others is told in a distinctive voice. For instance, one chapter is told entirely through dialogue between an early morning radio DJ (on from “the witching hour to the bitching hour”), his callers, and his staff.

The novel is ambitious in that David Mitchell showed considerable gravitas in debuting with this complex tale of many voices. He has stuffed big ideas into this book along with the myriad narrators. This is not a simple tale.

The novel is, in many ways, a puzzle. Determining how the various pieces fit together is a large part of the delight. They do ultimately snap into place, though I am sure a second reading would be rewarded. The puzzle consists of both a taut plot that can compete with the latest thriller in terms of the stakes and heady ideas. The full stakes do not become clear well into the book. The ideas are explored earlier, but more slowly. Mitchell is quite an author.

The first chapter, “Okinawa”, opens with the narrator checking into a hotel under the assumed name “Mr. Kobayashi”. Only a few paragraphs in, the narrator is providing clues that he may be a little off kilter:

So what if she didn’t believe me? The unclean check into hotels under false names all the time. To fornicate, with strangers.

The clerk parts with the undoubtedly routine imperative: “If we can assist you in any way, please don’t hesitate to ask?”

Our narrator, having previously “deployed [his] alpha control voice” takes the parting shot personally:

You? Assist me? “Thank you.”

Unclean, unclean. These Okinawans never were pure-blooded Japanese. Different, weaker ancestors. As I turned away and walked toward the elevator, my ESP told me she was smirking to herself. She wouldn’t be smirking if she knew the caliber of mind she was dealing with. Her time will come, like all the others.

Not a soul was stirring in the giant hotel. Hushed corridors stretched into the noontime distance, empty as catacombs.

“Catacombs” is, like every word in this novel, carefully chosen. The religious connotations are relevant as Quasar, this first narrator, is part of a doomsday cult. The cult is called “The Fellowship” and is led by a leader referred to as “His Serendipity.” Within only a few pages, it becomes clear that Quasar, on instructions from His Serendipity, has engaged in some type of terrorist action and has gone to Okinawa in an effort to escape Japanese police. After a phone call in which he uses the code phrase “the dog needs to be fed”, he expects a “levitator” to bring him additional money to tide him over until the heat cools. Quasar is a true believer.

Because the uproar over the terrorist action does not die down as quickly as he thought it would, Quasar travels from the island he is on to one that is smaller, “but not so small that a visitor would stand out.” Of course, he does stand out. The locals are friendly and even elicit a promise from Quasar to speak to a computer class in the local school about life in a real computer company. His interactions with the locals, like his inner thoughts, are often amusing and always unsettling.

Quasar and his terrorism are not the primary driver of the plot. The second chapter has a new narrator with new concerns. In the early going, especially, the chapters seem somewhat tenuously linked. As the novel progresses, the web of connections, between ideas and plot points, grows more substantial and more clear.

An example of one of many ideas Mitchell explores is this one, identified by Saturo the narrator of the second chapter:

[I]n Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.

There are different ways people make this place. Sweat, exercise, and pain is one way. You can see them in the gyms, in the well-ordered swimming pools. You can see them jogging in the small, worn parks. Another way to make your place is TV. A bright, brash place, always well lit, full of fun and jokes that tell you when to laugh so you never miss them. World news carefully edited so that it’s not too disturbing, but disturbing enough to make you glad that you weren’t born in a foreign country. News with music to tell you who to hate, who to feel sorry for, and who to laugh at.

Takeshi’s place is the nightlife. Clubs, and bars, and the women who live there.

There are many other places. There’s an invisible Tokyo built of them, existing in the minds of us, its citizens. Internet, manga, Hollywood, doomsday cults, they are all places where you go and where you matter as an individual. Some people will tell you about their places straight off, and won’t shut up about it all night. Others keep it hidden like a garden in a mountain forest.

People with no place are those who end up throwing themselves onto the tracks.

My place comes into existence through jazz. Jazz makes a fine place. The colors and feelings there come not from the eye but from sounds. It’s like being blind but seeing more. This is why I work here in Takeshi’s shop. Not that I could ever put that into words.

Each of the characters in Ghostwritten are trying to find their place in the world. Some more productively than others, but each is an outsider in some way. The striving to find one’s place is a constant theme throughout.

The postmodern playfulness exhibited in the final sentence of the above quote does not suffuse the novel in the same way, but it is frequent enough to keep the reader aware that this is a postmodern novel. For example, another a character muses in a subsequent chapter:

For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.

I found the first example less intrusive than the second, but these overt metafictional dalliances are infrequent enough that I did not find them annoying. Besides that, this second quote serves a bigger purpose than authorial mischief.

Ghostwritten is concerned with the issues of chance, fate, and randomness. In most of the chapters, a character recognizes that a seemingly coincidental chain of events has had momentous implications for their life. Often, the crucial link in the chain is what connects that chapter to another chapter in the book. Mitchell manages this very effectively, both as a means of providing the reader with something to look forward to in each chapter, that moment where the link is spotted or revealed, and as a means of exploring the concept of randomness and chance in shuffling humans around, either into a comfortably fitting place or out of it.

The question of whether history is ghostwritten for individuals or is created by them permeates the novel. It is never answered definitively, of course, but the characters who explicitly muse on the subject are intelligent enough to speculate in interesting ways. With respect to this aspect, I particularly enjoyed the chapter narrated by the physicist Mo Muntervary.

Mitchell has a fair grasp of quantum physics and some of the conundrums it poses, better than my own, no doubt. However, you do not have to be familiar with the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox to appreciate the chapter. In fact, this may be the most intensely paced chapter despite the scientific asides. It reminded me a bit of the excellent Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. While I enjoy physics, do not let any of what I am saying frighten you off. The science is background, not the main event. You do not have to enjoy or understand physics to enjoy even this chapter, much less the rest of the book. I just point it out because it was a treat for me.

What I find so impressive about Mitchell after reading Ghostwritten is his control over his novel. It is the type of novel which could spin out of control, possibly while growing to unseemly proportions. Mitchell does not let either of those things happen. He manages the novel with incredible skill, allowing both his characters and the plot enough slack to pursue interesting avenues, but not enough to get lost. Mitchell is not the most poetic writer, but he is able to write in a number of different voices in a way that is affecting, effective, and yet not distracting from the overall story. Mitchell completes his story as few authors seem capable. In the end, the once gossamer threads are pulled tight into beautiful stitching which ties the various pieces together.

I feel duty bound to provide one final caveat. There are at least three noncorpa, as one of the incorporeal beings calls them. The first to show is a ghost. Any further hints as to the identity or nature of the others would be to drain the book of some life. However, if you are not into fantastic themes, as generally I am not, you might be pulled too far out of the story to enjoy it. The noncorpa fit tightly within the story and are, in some ways, essential to the themes Mitchell explores. And, yet, I was not entirely comfortable with them.

I am eager to read more of Mitchell. This will not become one of my favorite novels, but Mitchell could well become a favorite author. He is absolutely worth reading. On the strength of this novel, I plan to continue reading his oeuvre and look forward to Cloud Atlas.