Category Archives: books

The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

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Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

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Celine’s existential nightmare novel on the human condition

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This was Celine‘s second novel after Journey to the End of the Night and is a prequel to it. It focuses on Ferdinand Bardamu‘s (Celine’s fictional alter ego) troubled childhood and youth in Paris.

Reading Celine, you experience his incredibly intense emotional and intellectual understanding of our desperate, existentialist and unresolved – conundrum – human condition.

Celine makes it clear he sees no escape and that humanity – what there is of it – is pathetic, disease-ridden and without hope. The one consolation? To grasp a few moments of joy in a life of poverty and hardship. It is a story that is powerfully told, and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.

His raw, unadulterated, yet poetic style of writing – the use of ellipses and hallucinatory scenes mixing with the gutter and destitution – worked powerfully with his themes of desperation and poverty. In the 1930s there was no one with whom to compare him or to match him for the depth, complexity and violent negativity of his impoverished world.

You find yourself being drawn into and compromised by Bardamu’s viewpoint, anger and hatred. You drown with him and his constantly argumentative father and are at a loss to help his exhausted-to-the-bones mother.

You also can’t forget Celine’s deep and abiding compassion and that he later qualified and practiced as a doctor who worked only in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods of Paris (about which he writes so effectively in Journey to the End of Night). Nor, too, the fact that he was himself persona non grata before and after his “profession”; and you are further troubled by knowing that, besides, he lost his reputation as a writer – shunned by the literati of Paris – in his own lifetime because of his fascistic views (even though it’s important to note that in practising his medicine, he attended to everybody, irrespective of whether the person was Jewish or otherwise).

And while Celine and Bardamu both hated “humanity”, both were always specific, explicit and thankful for those few people that made a difference in their lives, including the wonderful characters of certain women, who plied the trade of prostitution, Violette, Lola (in Journey), and others.

It is a compelling novel, and in some ways is even darker and more troubling than his first, and most famous novel. If you come to this having been impressed by Journey, you will be all the more so when you finish reading this prequel.

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To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

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A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

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A Visit from the Sh*it Squad: Jennifer Egan’s novel about watching toxic paint dry on cr*ap music

To order the Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Sh*it - oops - I mean Goon Squad, with free worldwide delivery, click on the book image here

Ah, dear reader.  I can tell from this post’s title and you clicking on it that you’re obviously expecting a rave review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, aren’t you? (Ahem.)  In fact, this really is a brilliant, wondrous, stunning novel and one of the masterpieces of 21st century literature.

Actually, no. Sorry. It really is Sh*it.

Don’t leave yet!  Please allow me to tell you why, because this snapshot review will be sure to save a few hours of your precious time by helping you to avoid – I hope – making the same mistake I and many other horribly disappointed readers did by purchasing this novel and believing it was actually, really literature.

No, it’s not. I’ve read pulp fiction with more class and intelligence than this. And certainly more entertaining.

So why is this novel – notably a winner of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – and recipient of rave reviews and accolades from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Village Voice and countless others; that was endlessly cited as one of the Best Books of 2010 (Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Village Voice and more, besides) – well, why is it so frickin execrable?!

Well, first, obviously disregard the positive reviews. They must have all been snorting washing up powder or something.

Egan’s attempts to be wry, clever and ‘with it’ – in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery – leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they’re all ego-inflated bores).

Sadly, pathetically (in every sense), her attempts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals’ views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including – of course – footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).

You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn’t. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I’d stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.  Spend a couple of hours with a friend. Call a family member you’ve not spoken to in a while and have been meaning to catch up. Paint your nails.  Do your hair. Take a long nap. Bunjy-jump.  Do a Tom Cruise backward jump onto a sofa (impossible spontaneously, so it’ll take you probably the same time as reading this novel to succeed). But don’t, under any circumstances, be fooled by this Empress’s New Clothes.

If you do, be sure to hold the book with a pair of kitchen or gardening gloves. Do not contaminate your skin!  Apart from that: enjoy!

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A beautiful literary classic: The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

A stunning rites of passage novel to rank with Catcher in the Rye

Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, leaving behind two unpublished novels and an impressively determined mother who succeeded – after much badgering – in gaining the novelist Walker Percy’s interest and support in the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Cover of "A Confederacy of Dunces"

Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces. Published posthumously, the  novel garnered instant and great acclaim and has been continuously in print ever since and translated into numerous languages.

While The Neon Bible was in fact written before A Confederacy of Dunces, it only came to light during the successful reception of the later novel, and its publication was delayed by some years because of legal wrangling involving Toole’s mother, the publishers and the courts.

Nonetheless, the novel is an astonishing achievement, not least because it was written, it seems, when Toole was barely a teenager. It will arguably become regarded as a classic of contemporary American fiction, and a classic of Bildungsroman literature. It is a haunting and poetic evocation of a boy’s loss of innocence in the rural America of the 1930s and 40s. There are echoes of Mark Twain, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and S. E. Hinton, to name but a few and, impressively, the ‘voice’ and identity of the central character, the young boy, Dave, are as distinct and compelling as any by those others.

In a series of linking memories we learn about Dave and his painful trials and tribulations growing up. His mother becomes emotionally unstable when her husband returns in a coffin, from fighting in Europe during the second world war; his Aunt Mae, an eccentric, once-travelling singer, and Dave’s only real friend and companion, discards him for the sake of her infatuation with a 70-year-old fiddle-playing boyfriend and the temptations of Nashville; and his local preacher inflicts a destructive hypocrisy upon him (in fact, it is this preacher’s church that displays the tacky, monolithic, ‘neon bible’). As if these weren’t enough, yet more troubles ensue, accumulating to the point that he is compelled to escape to the city, leaving innocence in his wake, and only the memory of bitter experience for reflection.

Juxtaposed, Toole’s two novels differ in style, language and humour – understandably, as he was just 13 or so when he wrote The Neon Bible, whereas he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces as an adult. In the latter novel, we have the fantastic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, towering, Rabelaisain and Falstaff-like, battling against the dim-witted and the short-sighted in his quest for truth, beauty, and a bountiful supply of hot dogs, his favourite food. Its language is rich and boisterous, its style sweeping in its intensity. In The Neon Bible, Dave is the centre, holding the novel together with his rural speech; his gentle, graceful and easy language complementing the impression we have of him and his world. Even so, their lives and their principles are, arguably, the same: both value Platonic ideals above all else; both are outsiders, most often alone – feeling the loss of their innocence – and reflect a pervading sadness that is at the very heart of their lives. There is no question that the publication of this, his only other fiction, underlines the awful tragedy of Toole’s death.

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‘The Leopard’ Lampedusa’s light-hearted, deeply learned, always entertaining letters

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Famous for his 20th century classic, The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics) – and Visconti’s wonderfully evocative film of the name, The Leopard [1963] [DVD], with Burt Lancaster – this slim collection of Lampedusa‘s letters, mostly to his two cousins, is a delicious, quirky and charming epistolary treat. Quirky because his deep learning typically combined with his often scatological, irreverent humour (most notably, there are some very funny letters written in the style of a proprietor of numerous models of high-quality testicles to gentlemen in such need), and the fact that he referred to himself in his letters in the third person, as The Monster (because of his voluminous appetite for reading; the title was given to him by his cousin and poet, Lucio Piccolo, one of the recipients of the letters).

Lampedusa was a deeply cultured man, loving – and being immersed in – literature ancient, medieval and modern, especially Italian, English and French. (He wrote a 1,000-page study of English Literature, published in 1990-1991 by the Italian firm Mondadori; he also wrote an incomplete, densely handwritten 500 pages for an intended follow-up study of French literature.) He also loved going to the cinema – he’s insightful, for example, about the now-classic King Vidor’s The Crowd (1938) – sadly not available nowadays to us on DVD – loved architecture, and enjoyed bespoke, quality-made clothes.

If this collection was not already a sufficient joy for Lampedusa’s sense of humour and impressive sweep of literary references, and his easy display of learning and culture with an always light touch, he’s also terrific at capturing the essence of a place he visits (he was a great and regular traveller, typically following a `circuit’ that included London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and other vistas) and with great relish he conveys his tremendous Epicurean sensibilities. As one terrific example, let me quote the following, on his love for English food:

But the Monster, as he has already given you to understand, contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig – of which he is proud. And as a pig he appreciates and rejoices in fleshly pleasures. At times the Spartan simplicity of the pure English cuisine terrifies him. But more often he is delighted – whether he is drinking, as he is today, thick buttery milk which leaves a trace of cream in the cup, whether he is biting bloody steaks which pass on to him the vigour of noble and select young bulls, whether he is tasting large thick slices of rosy ham, lying on beds of soft real bread and coming from the heraldic loins of the illustrious hogs of Yorkshire, whether again at the end of the meal, sinking a greedy spoon into the supplies of the lordly cheeses of Chester, rosy as onyx, or Stilton, green as aquamarine, or Cheddar, transparent and amber-coloured. Because here cheese is not served in prosaic slices, but whole cheese are brought to the table, and the dilettante (I was about to say the lover) digs into the tasty recesses, rummages in them with a horn spoon and tries them out. And the waiters are often so incautious as to leave the multicoloured treasures in front of the Monster – and their eyes pop out when, instead of three cheeses of about ten kilos each, they find only three fragrant but empty shells.

Isn’t that just wonderful? I get hungry every time I read it and even now am fantasising about chomping on a giant wheel of cheese. And his powers of description extend also to human portraits; in particular one very beautiful, utterly captivating description of a brilliant curator of The Wallace Collection.

But he’s not an absolute star; meaning he’s not – as with all of us – without some deep faults; far from it. An occasional snobbery does come in matters of certain social classes and individuals, and he can be quite (though rarely horribly) cruel in some of his characterisations; these are forgivable, but what is far from palatable is his unquestioning support of Il Duce and fascism, and his barely concealed abhorrence of Jews (at one point he cites the Russian progroms as an example of `Russian wisdom’). (And if there are readers who say, it’s unfair to criticise someone of the 20s and 30s being anti-Semitic, as anti-Semitism was common at the time, I think this is no excuse, for we are all responsible for our individual actions and beliefs, and Lampedusa was far from ignorant in his understanding of many other aspects of life and society in general.)

Still, a fascinating insight into a way of life and living that Lampedusa already knew was on the cards (Sicilian aristocracy, and the aristocratic way of life in general).

As to the quality of the publication itself, there’s no complaint, save one absolutely almighty one: It is the infuriatingly stupid way in which each note to a particular reference in the letters has – instead of being numbered – been itemised with an asterisk. As you turn the pages, and the notes inevitably accumulate, you find yourself being advised to – as an example – `See first note to p.43′ to return you to the original note in which that particular reference occurred. But then you turn to p.43 and find that it is not the relevant note but instead is the first occurrence of that reference, so then you have to go and turn the pages of that individual letter’s notes, on p.53, for an explanation of that note! Bloody, hugely frustrating. I can understand completely why the editor wanted to be economical and avoid repeating the same notes – after all, extra pages bump up the cost of publishing a book, and this collection may perhaps only interest the most devoted of Lampedusa fans (I hope not, they’re well worth the read), but then why weren’t all the notes itemised with numbers, so that you could be told to, in the same example, `See p.53, note 1′ – simple, surely?!

Highly recommended.

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Who’s Your Daddy? An appreciation of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev - Penguin book cover

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During his lifetime, Turgenev was the most popular Russian novelist in Europe, even taking into account Dostoyevksy and Tolstoy. Fascinatingly, he was also the most controversial.  (The controversy surrounding this novel continued at least up until the 1950s.)

While he spent most of his life abroad, living in Paris, in particular (he was a passionate Europhile), he remained throughout his life devoted to Russia and its people.

Turgenev’s greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his lead characters’ deeper humanity and greater emotional complexity in his novella-length fictions. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, their own characters often begin in conflict and are riddled with anxieties that get progressively worse while often see sawing still between only two opposing viewpoints over many hundreds of pages .

Of the characters themselves, there is much about them to enjoy, be engaged with as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady’s landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia’s farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons’ is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov’s deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern advocacy of such miserable, cynical views to Nikolai and Pavel.

The story is worth reading just for two characters alone: Bazarov, who is infuriating and an unforgettable anti-hero. Supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others, he respects no codes of conduct and appreciates nothing, save that which he defines and determines. He’s rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who himself is in such awe of Bazarov he can’t help but appear to collude with his all-encompassing miserable and bitter worldview.

Bazarov’s nihilism confounds and upset Arkady’s father – and angers Pavel. Yet ironically it is Bazarov’s own rejection of Arkady’s friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, reconnecting him with a sense of humanity, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.

Pavel is another compelling character; he’s amusing, with a caustic sense of humour and irony and is superbly realised. He’s a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, with a reputation as a `lady-killer’, sustained by his aristocratic flair and his taste for colourful English bespoke tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He’s deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent perspective and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having given much of his money to Nikolai, to help his brother keep his farm and land. 

It is no surprise, given the brilliantly drawn and vivid characters of Bazarov and Pavel, that it is their debates that make the novel such a compelling read. We witness Pavel regress from civilised decorum to bemusement, yet all the while becoming increasingly agitated, and failing in trying to stay true to his sense of honour and code of conduct. Bazarov mirrors him for integrity, yet insults by his bored manner, his steely, offensive and effortless cynicism. 

Their discussions constitute the heart of the novel and convey Turgenev’s conflict over the ever-deepening rift between his own generation of ‘fathers’ and that of Russia’s ‘sons’; a portrait of a country in turbulent times and anticipating even more troubled times ahead. Powerful, evocative and deeply thoughtful: it more than merits its status as a classic novel.

——-

A note on this edition:

There are several English editions of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861) including some cheaper than this (e.g., the Wordsworth edition), but this is by far the best to date for two reasons:

  • Rosemary Edmonds’ translation from Russian into English in this edition is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent – providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev’s talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through.
  • The second reason is that as far as I can tell, this edition is the only one that has Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards. It has an invaluable review of the novel’s historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev’s lifetime.

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