My Year(s) of Reading Voraciously

1001 books…on a deadline

47. The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)

“I want to be Salman Rushdie’s fifth wife”. So proclaimed fellow student Toby as we discussed our favourite writers in one of our early English Honours classes. (The rest of us gently explained that as far we knew, Rushdie wasn’t that way inclined but I don’t think Toby was deterred) At the time, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with him. Rushdie is prickly, and his books take a sort of stamina which I didn’t have at 21. Indeed, it was only partway through a borrowed The Satanic Verses last week that I realised that I had attempted to read it before…and in fact already had a copy of it at my parents’ house. Awkward. I think that when I first attempted it, the biggest surprise around the book’s controversy was that anyone could have first gotten around to finishing the dense, magical realist novel. Then again, I suppose that issuing a fatwa doesn’t necessarily require finishing the book. As with so many other censored books and films, much of the outrage was – and continues to be – largely fuelled by hearsay.

I have since been converted though (no pun intended!) and now think that Rushdie is a genius. By the way – his self-important writing style would suggest that he knows the same. Yet I would still hesitate to say that The Satanic Verses has been my favourite book this year (and certainly believe that it should have ceded the 1989 Booker Prize to the wonderful Oscar and Lucinda). Almost par for the course for a Rushdie novel, The Satanic Verses weaves together stories of history, migration and the (hazy) power of the word. It is also full of magic – but Rushdie limits his reliance on magic to that which is necessary for his purposes. Yes, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha fall from a seemingly unsurvivable plane crash and go on to represent, respectively, the Angel Gabriel and Satan in their adopted home of London, but this is part of a wider representation of good and evil and how the two concepts interchange. Gibreel is a celebrated star of Indian cinema, who has played gods so frequently in so-called “theologicals” (such an Indian term) that he is almost seen as one himself. Chamcha is an actor who has emigrated from smoggy Bombay to foggy London, to become a largely unrecognised voice actor. Gibreel is the obvious choice of born-again Angel while Chamcha is mortified to discover that he is developing goat’s horns and hooves after his fall from grace. In reality, Gibreel’s jealousy (exhaustively equated by Rushdie to that of Othello) is a little like the halitosis that he never fully manages to hide and ends up transforming him into Azraeel, the angel of death, as his radiance intensifies to consuming fire.

Throughout the novel, Rushdie ponders: “How does newness come into the world? How is it born?” More and more, the answer seems to be through migration. Rushdie tries his hand at so many stories in this novel, but all of them center on some type of journey. Each is expertly done. My favourite modern-day story was that of Alleluia Cone, Gibreel’s lover/famous mountaineer who keeps a tiny ice replica of Everest in her freezer “brought out from time to time to show off to friends”. As Gibreel gains in strength, he seems to zap that of Allie’s – with Chamcha stepping in to help her achieve her (naturally) Desdemona-like end. Meanwhile, the Baphomet figure of Chamcha hides in the attic of the Shalmaar Cafe, which is agony for him because he’s spent years cultivating a genteel (read: Caucasian) Englishness and distancing himself from the ghastly sub-continent. Migration is never as simple as it seems, though. The riff-raff from whom Chamcha had tried to escape turn out to comprise – in part – two beautiful Bangladeshi-English girls who live in a “Bungleditch” cafe but would rather eat bangers and mash. Well, what else do you expect from a novel with Indian-English migrants that are – worse luck – also animal-human hybrids? Here, the ridiculous is normal. Yet, despite the surreal, the sentiments of the characters in Satanic Verses are rooted in basic and real human emotions. Migration is a dilemma, even if it doesn’t ordinarily manifest itself in the form of a “lionheaded goatbodied serpenttailed” man. Early in the text, Rushdie describes the important plane crash (well, when isn’t a plane crash an important plot point?!) as follows: “The aircraft cracked in half, a seed-pod giving up its spores, an egg yielding its mystery.” The particular beauty of that line left me gobsmacked for a while – and changed my enjoyment of my daily egg.

Protests against Rushdie in the UK. Awkward, given Chamcha's transformation.

Protests against Rushdie in the UK. Awkward, given Chamcha’s transformation.

Other stories of migration are slightly more controversial, though. “The Satanic Verses” is another example of Rushdie’s way with titles, but he did have some help this time. The term refers to a set of pagan verses mistakenly included by Muhammad in the Qu’ran before he realised that they were the words of Satan. The verses themselves speak of three goddesses who rivalled Allah’s monotheism – and who, coincidentally, were the same goddesses worshipped by the Meccans who had otherwise persecuted Muhammad and his dogged band of followers. Rushdie weaves this already-compelling truth into a parallel narrative, in which an entrepreneurial Mahound recites and quickly retracts the verses, making him friends and enemies amongst his own crowd. In a recent article, Geoffrey Robertson QC – another husband contender – states that the “six blasphemies in the book” which were alleged against Rushdie during his trial for blasphemous libel (a crime abolished as a result of this case – law and literature unite!) were each “based either on a misreading or on theological error”. With respect, though, I’m not sure that the particularities which Robertson details are the ones which truly cause offence in the novel. Yes, “the book contains criticisms of the prophet Abraham for his conduct towards Hagar and Ismael, their son”. More importantly though, The Satanic Verses depicts a world in which people’s words/the Word are frequently wrong. When Rushdie’s Mahound claims that the verses were instigated by Satan, his relieved followers assume that it was part of his larger plan to expose them to the Devil’s workings and so enrich their faith. His response? “Yes…It was a wonderful thing I did. Deeper truth. Bringing you the Devil. Yes, that sounds like me.” In other words: sure, why not? In the same article as Robertson, a publisher at Penguin India at the time notes his surprise at learning that “there were passages in [the novel] that could be seized on by politicians and mullahs, taken out of context, and used to create mischief.” I find this astonishing – but then again there have been other plane crashes since The Satanic Verses and we might live in a slightly less innocent world.

In any event, Rushdie’s opponents should not feel too perturbed. The author uses this novel to express his own views as to the lush malleability of language. His writing is sublime but for those who don’t know Hindi, Bollywood/Kollywood cinema, Islam and Islamic history, and a smattering of Arabic it can be rather bewildering. Rushdie does not translate…there are no footnotes and no elaborate explanations. Perhaps he’d rather leave it to his audience, for fear that he too will misinterpret the “word(s)”. (I love his final acknowledgment – “the identities of many of the authors from whom I’ve learned will, I hope, be clear from the text” – Salman, we are not all as clever as you!). Sneakily, he even inserts an image of God into the novel, making it the second time this year I’ve imagined God as a young-ish, wry man – but here he is bearded. Who to believe?! There is much more to say but I might not say it right now – this novel was exhausting to read and writing this entry has proven much the same. Suffice to say, I am almost ready to join the same (surely long) queue as Toby, but hesitate slightly at Rushdie’s own words: “To meet a writer is, usually, to be disappointed.” Maybe that explains the disappearing wives?

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46. Money: A Suicide Note (Martin Amis)

Money holds the dubious honour of being the most self-referential novel I have read on a List in which post-modernism is already over-represented. I told a friend recently that I was in the middle of it. “Oh – that novel?” she said wearily. “I couldn’t finish it. Have you got to the part where the author appears in the book yet?” Yes, like a Woody Allen movie, Martin Amis creates a place for himself in this novel – as a scriptwriter who is employed by John Self (the book’s protagonist) for his new film. Incidentally, Martin Amis’ first appearance in the novel is, reputably, the moment at which his father (the famous Kingsley) threw the book across the room in disgust, proving that readers such as my friend are sometimes on the money (no pun intended) with their book reviews.

Late in the piece, Amis talks to Self about the author’s challenge when his reader “[reads] so fast – to get to the end, to be shot of you. I see their problem. For how long do you immerse yourselves in other lives? Five minutes, but not five hours. It’s a real effort.” This statement does not only reflect Self – who believes that Animal Farm is just a novel about uncommonly intelligent pigs – but also says something about this writer. By almost all (Internet) accounts, Money is a cracker of a novel…but almost impossible to read. It maintains a frenetic pace, as it follows Self from London to New York and back again (with brief detours in Paris) and details all of Self’s addictions, which range from handjobs – in his view, the most democratic of all sexual acts – to wine, cigarettes, fast food and, of course, money. My addictions are somewhat more pedestrian (although I was at one point pretty tempted by his description of kebabs for breakfast) but I kept flicking from television program to World Cup to Le Petit Prince to postpone reading Money. It might be a sign of general fatigue at the List or it could be that Amis/Self’s voice in the novel is too filthy to read without a distraction. And yes, that Amis/Self association could explain why Amis so firmly intruded into this novel. Which Frankenstein would want to be associated with such a monster?! Because Self really is. He is a booze-soaked idiot whose occasional attempts to rape his girlfriend – and more-than-occasional lamenting of the fact that he has given up hitting women – are only salvaged by his articulate, Amis-like musings and realisation that money is the only thing which allows him to behave in the way he does. Oh – and his one-liners pretty much make the book. There are too many to quote in this short entry, but here is one that is particularly appropriate for my current exercise levels:

“I take all other kinds of exercise too. I walk up and down the stairs. I climb into cabs and restaurant booths…I get in and out of bed, sometimes several times a day…”

(Judging from the number of Facebook “likes” that this quote garnered, it might be appropriate for others too).

An artist's (the BBC) imagining of John Self

An artist’s (the BBC) imagining of John Self. Ladies, don’t all come at once.

There is a plot to Money but it is so tightly intertwined with Self’s (self-?)talk and repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as another strange manifestation of the protagonist’s psyche. Throughout the novel, Self’s film (titled Bad Money) seems an unlikely success, as he contends with a delayed script, a conniving girlfriend, arrogant actors and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who regularly calls up Self to threaten him). At the very close of the book, it becomes impossible. As it turns out, Bad Money was a rort. Fielding Goodney, his duplicitous business partner and producer of Bad Money, makes Self sign a series of contracts throughout the novel which purport to finance a (fictional) film but bankrupt him in the end. And how did Goodney avoid liability himself? Easy: he got Self to double-sign each of the contracts under both “Co-Signatory” and, well, “Self”. It’s not a particularly sophisticated ruse but it works on Self – who has never been the sharpest tool in the box…

…Or is it as simple as that? The other Orwell novel referenced by Self in Money is 1984. Self reads the novel less incredulously than he did Animal Farm, believing that he would have made an “idealistic young corporal in the Thought Police”. Perhaps this is because he is playing a similar role in 1980s London / New York. Much as we would like to dismiss Self, his desperation and self-loathing are (we imagine) shared by the characters around him – it’s just that we don’t have the same level of access to their thoughts. Internet reviewers laughed a little when Self declared himself “consternated” by the atrocities committed by Germany under Hitler. “And you’re telling me it’s true?” But I didn’t find his comment especially funny. It was actually a refreshingly guileless reaction from someone who had never witnessed (or seen photos of) WWII, and who has not grown immune to its horror. In the same way, Self’s solitary pursuits and unabashed entrepreneurial greed sit neatly with a 2014 audience – although I am so thankful that the Internet has replaced well-thumbed magazines at seedy corner sex shops. When we laugh at Self, we’re laughing at a heightened version of other selves as well. And as hilarious as Amis’ dissection of Self’s excess is, it’s not something that I would recommend for weak stomachs.

45. Le Petit Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

It might have been the perfect time for me to (re-)read this one. Having recently decided that it was time to reinvigorate my French, I stopped by my favourite local library to find that…it has its own foreign language book section! Off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember which French novels were on the list (Dumas? Sartre) – but I was almost certain that Le Petit Prince, as the most translated work in French literature, wouldn’t have missed out on a spot. As my re-acquaintance is taking a little longer than expected – which happens when you abandon a language for about a year – a large print and soi-disant children’s novella seemed like the perfect option.

As most of my readers will know, Le Petit Prince tells the story of a pilot whose plane has crashed in the middle of the desert. As he tries to fix it, he meets a young boy who has fallen onto Earth from his own asteroid home. Named “the little prince” by his pilot friend, the boy recounts tales of his tiny planet and his travels around the universe. Almost all of the little prince’s observations serve as an allegory for the vicissitudes of life. Indeed, the book begins with a personal anecdote in which the pilot – as a young boy – drew a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, which the adults around him routinely mistook for a drawing of a hat. The world-weary young boy tells his readers that “grown-ups never understand anything all by themselves – and it’s tiring for children to keep having to give them explanations”. The pilot claims that adults’ inability to understand his art is what led him away from a potentially successful life as an artist. I imagine, then, that the publication of Le Petit Prince “with the author’s own watercolours” would have given Saint-Exupéry great satisfaction.

I read Le Petit Prince for the first time when I was seventeen. It will sound trite, but the book feels so different now that I am ten years older. After the little prince leaves his home, he visits six other asteroids, each of which is inhabited by an “archetypal” adult, including: a king with no subjects, an impossibly vain man, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame caused by his drinking, a businessman who frantically counts the stars in the sky, all of which he claims to own; a lamplighter who extinguishes and relights a lamp every single minute based on out-of-date instructions; and a geographer who is so wrapped up in theory that he does not trust himself to explore the world that he is mapping. Each story probably has differing levels of significance for different people, but I liked the image of the businessman most. For the past week, I’ve been caught up in all-day meetings for a very important deal on which my firm is working. Without detracting from the significance of these discussions, there were occasionally times when this lawyer heard yet another commercial representative counting the immeasurable – and remembered the words of le businessman: “I count and I recount the stars. I manage them. It’s a difficult job. Je suis un homme sérieux!”

tumblr_m49x8ea36X1r0sys4o1_1280The little prince also speaks at length about the rose who he cared for and subsequently left alone on his planet before travelling through the universe. The rose is beautiful, coquettish and capricious. She demands of the little prince that he build a glass globe to protect her from the wind. Although the prince quickly falls in love with her, he chooses to leave her (and his planet) because he believes that she is taking advantage of him. When he arrives on Earth, he is astonished, too, to see a field of roses – a sight which leads him to doubt that his rose was particularly special. It is commonly thought that the rose represents the author’s wife, Conseulo de Saint-Exupéry. The couple’s marriage was tempestuous, and Saint-Exupéry was often unfaithful to her (and vice versa). Through his travels, the prince’s inability to stop thinking about his rose possibly signifies Saint-Exupéry’s enduring love for his wife. Now that I am re-reading the book, I wonder a little about the rose in Le Petit Prince. I’ve met a couple of guys over the past ten years who seem so frustrated with the “erratic” nature of beautiful women and the way in which they operate (the hot / crazy scale, anyone?). I suppose the same could be said for women’s sometimes misguided opinion of men, but I can’t help but sympathise with Conseulo. I’m almost certain the love story was more complex than Saint-Exupéry suggests.

This book sits so differently from anything else that I have read as part of The Project. It is full of beautiful, universal statements about life and human relationships which will stay with you long after it is over. And of course, the book cannot be divorced from the sad demise of its author. Like the protagonist of Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who oftentimes found himself stranded in the desert. He was part of the La France Libre movement during WWII but did not get on with Charles de Gaulle, who in turn publicly implied that he was a collaborator and prevented him from flying with the Free France air force for eight months. Soon after the ban was lifted, Saint-Exupéry took off from a Corsican airfield on a dangerous photo-reconnaisance mission over occupied France. His plane was tracked crossing into Southern France, but beyond that, he never returned. Just like his little prince, Saint-Exupéry just vanished. It’s not clear whether the death was an accident or a suicide, particularly as Saint-Exupéry was thought to be deeply unhappy at the time of his death. Either way, the melancholy and ephemeral nature of the book seems all the more poignant once we know what happened to this brilliant man.

44. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)

This is a blog which is mostly about what I read, but also sometimes about how I read it. When you are reading 1001 books in 5 years (a target which is becoming increasingly aspirational), you need to mix it up, after all. If money were no object, I think I would always prefer to buy the book as it gives me the freedom to dog-ear and annotate as I see fit. Money is. however, just the teeniest bit of a concern – so I’ve taken out a membership at the local library (my second preferred reading method, even though I might be the only one who doesn’t visit Chatswood for the wifi alone). I’ve tried a Kindle and I can’t say that I’m hugely impressed, although it certainly beats planting myself in front of a computer and scouring an out-of-copyright version of The House of Mirth on the screen as I used to do before exams in Year 12… Anyway, this time I went for something different and printed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd out, double-sided, on my work printer and with work-provided bulldog clips keeping the “book” together. I almost tricked myself into thinking that I was reading a judgment, except that Christie is significantly more exciting than even some of the other books I have read so far. She of course would have been appalled at the comparison, given her view of lawyers: “With [Mrs Ackroyd] was a small dried-up little man, with an aggressive chin and sharp grey eyes, and ‘lawyer’ written all over him.” And yet still not as scathing as her view of debt collectors, whose names might sound Scottish but who “still had a Semitic strain in their ancestry.” Ah, Agatha…

Despite the fact that my mother and sister are big fans and own a huge collection of Poirot novels (except, obviously, this one), I’ve never read an Agatha Christie book. I knew that Roger Ackroyd was particularly well regarded, mostly because of its twist ending. Well, how good can an ending be? As it turns out, fairly astonishing – and you should probably stop reading if you would like to experience the same one day… I tend to blithely spoil the ending of many books in this blog, but I feel like ruining a Christie is unforgiveable 🙂

Roger Ackroyd does not begin in a hugely unconventional way – at least for a Christie novel. Dr James Sheppard – a doctor in a small English village who is not to be confused with the other Dr Shepherd (or McDreamy) – narrates the piece. By virtue of his role, Sheppard is the first person to find the body of Mrs Ferrars, a wealthy widow who was reputed to have murdered her husband a year ago. Her death is initially believed to be an accident until Roger Ackroyd, a widower who had been expected to marry Mrs. Ferrars, reveals that she had admitted to killing her husband and then committed suicide. He is soon found murdered, and the pressure is on to find out which of the (various) possible suspects could have killed him. It was tempting to tie the murder to Mr Ackroyd’s stepson: Ralph Paton is impecunious, doesn’t think much of his (rich) stepfather and disappeared as soon as Ackroyd was killed. But since we are reading a Christie, the answer is not that simple.

Roger Ackroyd recently won Christie an award for “best ever” crime writer. According to the judging panel, Christie won that award

Its original cover. The twist ending was a shock for the 1920s!

Its original cover. The twist ending was a shock for the 1920s!

due to her “elegant precision and her perfect sense of place”. Unlike any other novel on the List, however (and perhaps predictably for a crime novel), the precision and sense of place in Roger Ackroyd was only obvious once I finished the book. I finished the novel at midnight on Monday and by 11.30pm, I was still telling my sister that I didn’t think there was anything special about it. With the exception of the glorious Poirot – who enters this book by accidentally throwing a vegetable marrow at Dr Sheppard – the characters are not well-developed and the dialogue can sometimes seem flat. I suppose I didn’t realise that it’s the plot which keeps Christie in play. For in an enormous twist, the murderer of the novel ends up being…

…our narrator?! The reader only finds out at the very end of the second-to-last chapter – although I will proudly admit that this reader worked it out at least two pages before that. After Poirot carefully explains Sheppard’s actions, I found myself scouring through the novel, picking up the hints that I had missed (of which it turns out there were many). While lots of hard evidence ties Dr Sheppard to the crime – including a particularly ingenious trick with a dictaphone – it is Poirot’s ability to understand human psychology that finally reveals the killer. Dr Sheppard serves as Poirot’s partner in this novel and keeps an account of the murder investigation, which he gladly provides to Poirot towards the end of the novel. It is his reticence to write himself into the account which makes his manuscript “strictly truthful as far as it went…but it did not go very far”. A good hint might have also been that Dr Sheppard was a bit of a loner, who lived with a “spinster” sister (Agatha!) whom he occasionally felt the well-disguised urge to throttle. But perhaps I shouldn’t speak: I am after all a single woman living with her sister… Hmm. Well, regardless of my status as a spinster, Christie’s understanding of evil, and that horrible feeling of distrust that accompanies an unreliable narrator, is incredibly well-done.

Roger Ackroyd is strangely haunting for what seemed (at first) to be a simple book, and the twist ending, along with a final chapter that serves as Dr Sheppard’s suicide note, will stay with you for a long time. Especially if you read it just before bed, which I don’t recommend. For those who are interested, you can find a copy of the novel here.

43. The Green Man (Kingsley Amis)

I think I have always had a love-hate relationship with horror. Three consecutive birthday sleepovers were spent standing in front of a mirror with my friends, doggedly willing Bloody Mary to appear – and three consecutive nights-after-birthdays were spent petrified in my bed, hoping that she would not. I was never able to watch Nightmare on Elm Street because The Simpsons‘ parody was sufficiently frightening to put me off the original. And just when you think I would have been old enough to handle it, I spent the nights after watching both Paranormal Activity and Funny Games (the latter still one of the more horrifying films I have ever seen) curled up in a sleeping bag in my parents’ room… Seriously.

But I continue to watch horror films and, on occasion, read ghost stories. That’s one way to describe The Green Man, which is the first Kingsley Amis novel that I have read. Other ways to describe the novel include: sex comedy, anti-alcohol parable, religious encounter and, well, so British. The Green Man also includes a very funny, and I suspect realistic, description of a threesome, which is – like The Simpsons – enough to put me off ever trying one. Confused? Well, genre-hopping seems to be one of Amis’ fortes. Maurice Allington, the narrator of the novel, is the proprietor of an English country inn called The Green Man. He begins the novel spending most of his time drinking like a fish and – in his occasional moments of sobriety – trying to convince his wife, Joyce, to get involved in a threesome with another woman, Diana (with whom he is having an affair). All this while conveniently ignoring the presence of his thirteen-year-old TV-addict daughter, Amy, and assuming that any trouble which he might be having with Joyce can be easily solved with the help of more alcohol and sex. Like many of the narrators on this List, Maurice is not especially sympathetic. When he starts to see the ghost of a former occupant of The Green Man – the dark-natured sorcerer Dr Thomas Underhill – readers can see why Maurice is a “good security risk” for ghost-spotting. As Maurice himself puts it, he has gone from being an incorrigible drunk to being an incorrigible drunk who sees ghosts – and his family, while curious, never quite believe that Dr Underhill is actually haunting the inn.

One of the many frightening images that appears after doing a "green man" Google image search

One of the many frightening images that appears after doing a “green man” Google image search

I’ve heard it said that Kingsley Amis is the voice of the brilliant man stuck at a boring party. The observation seems apt for this book, where Maurice – undeterred by others’ general disbelief and unwilling to seek help from those who would give it – goes on a frolic of his own to try and find out more about Dr Underhill, which requires locating his diary at a nearby university library. As it turns out, Underhill was a practised seducer of girls, using dark arts to enable him to enjoy “fleshy Delights & all such Concerns”. Awkwardly, Maurice’s genuine concern for the fate of Underhill’s young victims sits at odds with his total lack of concern for his daughter and his decision, at the end of the harrowing library visit, to continue plotting how to get his mistress and his wife in the same bed.

“The Green Man” is not an especially scary book, although some parts are indeed genuinely creepy. Underhill does not have the capacity to cause death himself, so he enlists the help of a truly horrifying spectre that “rustles and crackles” as it moves and makes a strange whistling sound before it tears its victims to pieces. But for me, the most chilling part of this book involves Maurice’s not-so-chance encounter with God, which occurs towards the end of the novel. Like most (conventional?) believers, I’ve always shared the prevailing view that God omnipotent and, generally, benevolent. I’m not sure that God is just one being, but if I were to subscribe to the monotheistic view, I would probably wager that God would be old and hirsute. Apparently not for Amis, who describes God as “…about twenty-eight years old, with a squarish, clean-shaven, humorous, not very trustworthy face, unabundant eyebrows and eyelashes, and good teeth.” Frighteningly for some of us, God does not seem to be quite as powerful as we would like to think (“people think I have foreknowledge, which is a useful thing for them to think in a way, but the whole idea’s nonsense logically unless you rule out free will…they were just trying to make me out to be grander than I could possibly be”) and not completely in control of his abilities (“between ourselves…I took some fairly disreputable decisions right at the start”). Amis’ lasting impression is that while God exists, there is nothing particularly comforting – or, indeed, indestructible – about Him.

Reading this novel also answered another, more mundane, question, which is that Kingsley Amis is in fact the father of Martin Amis. Who will feature in the next entry of this blog 🙂

 

41. The Bell and 42. The Sea, The Sea (Iris Murdoch)

I’ve already mentioned my prior (unsuccessful) membership of various book clubs. When asked to make a selection for one of those clubs, I chose The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I wish that I could articulate why I love that book so much. I read it during a train trip which I only miss now that it is firmly part of my past: a harrowing 13-hour nighttime journey from Pune to Goa. We had only booked one skinny sleeper for the three of us, and my prevailing memory of the trip is of sitting straight-backed against a wall at 2am, reading the novel by the light of my phone and glaring balefully at the two “friends” whose presence prevented me from sleep. But I couldn’t have chosen a better travelling companion than Ms Murdoch (sorry, Aylin and Danny!). There is a sense of urgency and doom in this novel, which begins as soon as renowned playwright Charles Arrowby – enjoying a sojourn in his house by the sea – sees coiling up out of the water a horrible monster, which disappears as soon as it is spotted. The monster might be a hallucination on the part of Arrowby but it is never convincingly explained away. In this way, Murdoch presents (at least in my mind) a very British type of mysticism – skeptical but with just enough beneath the surface (no pun intended) to disturb.

Arrowby’s initial obsession with the sea monster fades as he re-finds an old love, Hartley, and instead focuses his fixation on her. He loved her when they were eighteen and has never learned to stop loving her, even when she left him for no apparent reason. (Of course there was a reason, but Arrowby likes to manipulate stories so that he comes out of them well) That was another reason why I adored this book: it so perfectly captures the intensity and, well, madness of first love. Even though the middle-aged Hartley has lost her charm and turned to fat, Arrowby continues to believe that she is the key to his happiness, based on a relationship that existed so many years ago.

The infamous train trip

The infamous train trip (the novel is in my hands)

Needless to say, I recommended this book without hesitation to my club. They hated it. I’m still not exactly sure why, but I think it was because Charles Arrowby was a very unlikeable – and unreliable – narrator (my favourite kind!) and the plot was unwieldy and non-linear. Plot-wise, The Bell might have been a little more to their tastes, although I still doubt that they would have especially liked any of Murdoch’s characters. In The Bell, Dora Greenfield, the flibbertigibbet wife of art historian Paul, leaves her husband because she is afraid of him. She returns to him for the same reason: “the persecution of his presence was to be preferred to the persecution of his absence”. In this way, both novels start with protagonists who are caught up in fear. Dora’s response involves her leaving London for Imber, a lay religious community in the countryside where Paul is currently stationed to research ancient manuscripts. To Dora’s great amusement, Imber is a community of misfits. This is a good point at which to remind my readers that The Bell was published in 1958, when “misfit” meant something different from what it does now. Mr and Mrs Mark are a couple on the brink of divorce, who bury their marital unhappiness by becoming indispensable to the communal rural community of Imber. Dora and Paul are a couple who probably should divorce, but who keep coming together in spite of their better judgement. Most importantly, Michael Mead – leader of the community – must continually work to suppress his closeted homosexuality, a task which becomes more difficult as he is confronted by former and future flames.

I have read in several reviews of the book that Murdoch’s treatment of male homosexuality is somewhat dated. I disagree: the stigma of homosexuality might have subsided, but the sheer anguish of Michael’s attempts to keep his sexuality in check appears true to life for those people who do remain closeted. Throughout the novel, Murdoch makes a not-so-veiled link between religion and sexuality. She seems to suggest that religious afflatus is inevitably erotic, and that this eroticism needs to go somewhere. Michael regrets that his homosexuality has cost him a potential priesthood, but he also recognises that his love for men and attachment to his religion stem from the same, powerful source. Dora and Paul’s eroticism is more damaging, but Dora channels her begrudging love for the Imber community into an attempt to replace the current Abbey bell with its ancient equivalent, a symbol of religion and magic which has long been lost in the Imber river. And if that requires her to have sex with the young and nubile Toby along the way, well then so be it. Meanwhile, the cloister of nuns in the Abbey adjacent to Imber quietly watch the goings-on.

Iris Murdoch is not a poet. Her books are, sometimes, too British, and read more as an intricate description of her characters’ surrounds and their meals than the traditional stuff of novels (infamous example from The Sea, The Sea: “What is more delicious than fresh hot buttered toast, with or without the addition of bloater paste? Or plain boiled onions with a little corned beef if desired? And well-made porridge with brown sugar and cream is a dish fit for a king.”). But her characters are intriguing and I will keep reading more of her substantial body of work.

 

40. Unless (Carol Shields)

Yesterday, my mother asked me why I insisted on immersing myself in sadness. It’s a fair question, really. At the time, I was in the middle of the season finale of Rectify, watching (well, fast-forwarding through) a scene in which the lead character, Daniel (a man recently released from 20 years on death row for a crime that he may or may not have committed) is brutally attacked by the brother of the young girl that he (maybe?) killed. Next to me was a copy of Carol Shields’ Unless – which is about a mother who loses her daughter to a Toronto street corner and spends most of the novel “somewhat despondent” as a result. The book jacket promised me that it was an “unflinching, often very funny meditation on our society”, but I was having trouble seeing the “funny” in it all.

My mother’s questions might have had something to do with recent events. As anyone who knows me (and now the occasional stranger who reads this blog) would know, it has not been an easy six months. Recent miserable events have included the death of my grandfather, and putting a beloved dog to sleep last week. So why do I keep up with my depressing popular culture? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have all that much choice when almost all of The List has a tinge of sadness to it. And, as Daniel and a melancholy shopkeeper tell each other in Rectify:

My friends think I’m a sad-aholic.
Don’t get help.
I just like to have somethin’ to balance out the farce, you know? I think farce may be sadder.

Unless is a deceptively simple novel. It seems to be about a girl who absents herself from ordinary life in favour of a streetside existence. In reality, though, it’s about Norah’s mother, Reta Winters, who spirals into near-obsessive self-reflection (the makings of any good novel, really) as she tries to work out why her daughter left. The book is packaged as carefully as a Babooshka doll. Reta writes in first person about Norah, who is studying modern languages at the University of Toronto. Reta is herself an author of novels “for summertime”, which revolve around the fashion journalist Alicia. The structure of Reta’s novel-within-a-novel mimics the author’s own life, and her teaching that “characters in books need to be supplied with a childhood of some sort, with parents at the very least” (in relation to Alicia) is quickly followed by an exploration of her own family. Reta can see the insularity of it all: she is aware of “being in incestuous waters, a woman writer who is writing about a woman writer who is writing”. Well then, how does Carol Shields feel, as the woman writer who started it all?

Babooshka dolls and strong women. How could I *not* mention Kate Bush?

Babooshka dolls and strong women. How could I *not* mention Kate Bush?

Pretty angry, as things turn out. Reta acts as a translator for the brilliant Danielle Westerman, who has her own theory as to Norah’s abandonment. I won’t transcribe it in French (much as I would like to), but for Westerman, Norah “has simply succumbed to the traditional refuge of women without power: she has accepted in its stead complete powerlessness, total passivity, a kind of impotent piety.” Ne faisant rien, elle avait revendiqué tout (You’ll permit me some pretension). I repeated Danielle Westerman’s theory to my mother and she snorted. Well, it does seem far-fetched – until you keep reading. Influenced by Westerman and beginning to notice the world around her, Reta speculates that her “nineteen-year-old daughter…has been driven from the world by the suggestion that she has been doomed to miniaturism”, the feeling that a woman’s life is simply too small for this world. The novel is beautifully meta because Shields herself has been the subject of reviews praising the smallness and “domestic ordinariness” of her novels. Does that sound familiar? It’s the same backhanded compliment that attaches to other female authors like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Margaret Atwood (before the last-mentioned took the wackier route of “speculative fiction”). Reta begins to write a series of letters addressed (but not posted) to men guilty of failing to recognise women’s achievements. As Reta sees it:

…The world is split in two between those who are handed power at birth, at gestation, encoded with a seemingly random chromosome determinate that says yes for ever and ever, and those like Norah, like Danielle Westerman, like my mother, like my mother-in-law, like me, like all of us who fall into the uncoded female otherness in which the power to assert ourselves and claim our lives has been displaced by a compulsion to shut down our bodies and seal our mouths and be as nothing against the fireworks and streaking stars and blinding light of the Big Bang.

As it turns out, Norah’s decision to live on the street is made, at least partially, for reasons of women’s powerlessness (although not in the way that you would expect). Even if the narrative hadn’t come together quite so neatly, Shields’ work is much more complex than it seems. The novel is powerful because it is small, because it tricks readers (myself and my mother included) into thinking that the book is “only” the story of a mother who has lost her daughter to teenage rebellion. Named after a tiny conjunction, Unless demonstrates the power of the miniature, reclaims it, and gives value to the daily details of women’s lives. And to end this entry on a (predictably) sad note: Shields was suffering from breast cancer as she wrote this novel. This revelation adds some poignancy to Reta’s novel-within-in-a-novel, which she freely admits to writing as a distraction from the sorrow that surrounds her. Shields died soon after the novel’s publication, and this might be why her great ideas were condensed into only 200 pages. In this way, she reminds me of another great miniaturist, Austen, whose final (and my absolute favourite) work Persuasion is testament to a great novel – and life – cut too short.

39. The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)

An old boyfriend’s parents gave him a copy of Bonfire for his birthday, on the basis that it was published in the same year (1987) as he was…well, “published” and subsequently became a classic (Side note: excellent idea for an eighteenth birthday present). The title intrigued me so much that I knew I had to read the novel one day. In fact, Wolfe borrowed the glorious title from the Italian concept of falò delle vanità – or burning objects that are deemed to be occasions of sin. And there is a preponderance of sin in Bonfire. Sharing the point of view in the novel are bond trader Sherman McCoy, public prosecutor Larry Kramer, British journalist (and alcoholic) Peter Fallow, and black activist Reverend Reginald Bacon. When McCoy and his girlfriend drive and hit a young black man during a misadventure in the Bronx (the inadvertent trip to the Bronx possibly their greatest sin of all), they panic and do not report the incident to the police. A very unfortunate interview between McCoy and the police – and the sudden re-appearance of the only other witness to the hit and run, a street crack dealer called Roland Auburn – leads to McCoy being publicly pursued by Bacon, prosecuted by Kramer, and finally killed and buried by the wily Fallow.

I finished the book last Saturday, but had spent the Thursday before that at a private screening of The Wolf of Wall Street with a wunch of investment bankers. Just like Bonfire, Edith Wharton and (*cough*) Sex and the City before it, Wolf was a portrayal of New York captured at a point in time. When we look at Wolf and Bonfire, we see that these novels represent mass greed. It’s slightly more subtle in Bonfire than it is in Wolf, where Jordan Belfort uses wads of $100 bills to make a mattress for himself and his impossibly beautiful wife to sleep on. In Bonfire, McCoy is the most obvious example of Wall St avarice. It is a running joke through the novel that he is unable to explain his job, with his wife Judy snidely commenting that Sherman “passes somebody else’s cake around and picks up the crumbs.” But just as Sherman clutches at money, Kramer – self-righteous about his decision to forego big bucks to work in public interest law (making a certain reader conscious of her own greed) – assumes that every beautiful woman who crosses his path is there for the taking, including a juror who he calls “the girl with the brown lipstick” (just in case you forgot that this book was written in the 1980s). A poor Fallow wheedles food and booze from strangers, and in his rich incarnation steals stories from more worthy writers. Wolf shows us the dark side of trading, but Bonfire posits that the darkness stretches further than Wall Street. (Also, Jordan Belfort used The Bonfire of the Vanities to teach himself how to write while he was in prison. I knew that this long-winded analogy had a point to it…)

Me at the time that I became a "classic". Well, why not?

Me at the time that I became a “classic” at eighteen. Well, why not?

Wolfe used to be a journalist, and so his interest lies in the creation of the Pulitzer-winning myth behind Henry Lamb. Was Henry Lamb an honor student? Fallow recognises that the story would be considerably more compelling if he were. Well, according to his teacher: “At Ruppert High, an honor student is somebody who comes to class and doesn’t piss on the teacher.” So, yes, Fallow can describe Lamb as an honor student without any qualms. Attempts to expose and correct the system are few and far between, and rarely come from the four main characters. Tommy Killian, McCoy’s street-smart Irish lawyer, reveals “The Favor Bank” which drives criminal law , and does his best to save McCoy – even when McCoy runs out of funds to pay him. The irascible Justice Kovitsky stands up for justice in a case otherwise driven by public opinion. And yet these brief spurts of goodness are rubbed out by the background noise of New York: the people who go hack hack hack hack, people who go heh heh heh heh, people who go ho ho ho ho, people who go haw haw haw haw at the back of the court room (Wolfe’s language).

When reading Bonfire, I was reminded in many ways of the wonderful series The Wire, in that Wolfe’s depiction of New York reveals the many limbs of an apparently flourishing society – all of which are connected and all of which seem, on close inspection, to be rotting. And just like The WireBonfire finishes with a suitably ambiguous (at best) view of the city’s future.

38. Saturday (Ian McEwan)

When your reading is based on an anthology that was published circa 2003, it is rare to find a novel that references events that you have actually lived through. Saturday by Ian McEwan is one of the few. Set in a post-September 11 world, all of the events of the novel take place within one twenty-four hour period – a period which includes the London protest against the Iraq war. At some point in the novel, I wondered about the season in which the novel took place – and then fairly quickly dated the titular “Saturday” to a Saturday in February 2003. I was able to do this so easily because I participated in that same protest – or at least its Sydney equivalent. I was sixteen at the time, and generally opposed to the upcoming war in Iraq – but my prevailing reason for attending the protest was, I suppose, so I could tell my children one day that I had been there. I’m not sure that Ian McEwan would approve… Dr Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Saturday, witnesses fellow London liberals (including his own family) gravitate towards Hyde Park, but is skeptical of the masses and their intention.

“Self-interest is a decent enough cause, but Perowne can’t feel, as the marchers themselves probably can, that they have an exclusive hold on moral discernment.”

Dr Perowne is a neurosurgeon with a near-perfect life . He is happily married to the beautiful media lawyer (!!) Rosalind, and we are informed that the couple have sex frequently and at pleasingly irregular timings. The pair have two grown-up children, Daisy and Theo, who are making their own mark on the world as poet and blues musician respectively. This Saturday evening, the immediate family is converging on the Perownes’ family home for a sort of reunion dinner, along with Rosalind’s difficult father John Grammaticus. It is Henry’s task to prepare the dinner, as well as engage in the multitude of other activities which usually take up his Saturday. Appropriately enough for a neurosurgeon, the twenty-four hour time period of the book means that much of the novel takes place within Henry’s mind. From Perowne’s 3am sighting of a possible terrorist attack (he watches a plane in distress and imagines the ensuing “fumbling in bags for phones and last words, the airline staff in their terror clinging to remembered fragments of procedure, the levelling smell of shit…”) to his slightly guilty purchase of fish for the stew that he is making for dinner (“it turns out that even fish feel pain…this is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy”), we are privy to all of Henry’s innermost thoughts. Early in the novel, Perowne speaks of “mentalese”, a pre-verbal language which is “hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second”. McEwan does not allow us any mentalese in the novel, and instead clearly articulates each of Perowne’s musings on topics as diverse as British politics, squash and tea kettles. Well, it’s not as though Perowne leads as eventful a life as Jack Bauer, is it?

A photo from the local cafe where I read this book during the Christmas break

A photo from the local cafe where I read this book during the Christmas break

Ian McEwan’s novels always seem to warn their readers against smugness. Just as Enduring Love cut deeply into the formerly, well, enduring love of Clarissa and Joe, so too do the events of Saturday intrude upon the near-idyllic Perowne family life. One of Perowne’s Saturday activities leads him into a dangerous situation with a young man named Baxter, whose erratic behaviour and random spurts of aggression cause Perowne to diagnose him almost immediately with Huntingdon’s disease. While Perowne uses his diagnosis as a form of defence against Baxter, it backfires on him at the climax of the novel. When Baxter returns to wreak revenge on Henry, he must rely on other family members’ facilities – his father-in-law’s courage and his daughter’s poetry in particular – to stave him off. It might seem contrary for a McEwan creation to deny the power of fiction, but Perowne does: “The times are strange enough. Why make things up?” In fact, (great) poetry will save his life. But I won’t give away that twist.

Another irony of Saturday which struck me is that while Perowne obsesses over the dangers of international terrorism, the threat which he ultimately faces comes from a source that is much closer to home. Understandable, really – Perowne’s fear reflects that of all Western governments in 2003. Henry is prone to several errors of judgement in the book, not least his begrudging support for a war which we now know to have been a ten-year failure. I’m not sure what they all point to, but I will say that the shift from public terrorism to the Perownes’ own private terror is ominous. Perowne may end the novel having completed another successful operation (not to mention another bout of successful love making with Rosalind – naturally), but something has changed in his erstwhile comfortable life. I couldn’t help remembering the London underground bombings, which took place about two years after the publication of this novel. It’s as if McEwan foresees the imminent dangers and demands of an increasingly confusing outside world. In any case, the end of the novel is appropriately unsettling for a novel which Wikipedia classifies as September 11, 2001 attacks in popular culture.

37. Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates)

Recently, I have been hunting through Pinterest to find inspiration (in the form of pithy quotes), and am always surprised to see how many have been attributed to Marilyn Monroe. I give you some quotes that will cheer any girl up:

    • “I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”
    • “A girl doesn’t need anyone who doesn’t need her.”
    • “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”
    • (and my personal favourite – after being served matzo ball soup at her Jewish in-laws’ home) “Isn’t there any other part of the matzo that you can eat?” (This did not appear on Pinterest…)

I suspect that some of these quotes are apocryphal, but perhaps not as many as you would think. At first, it is a little jarring that someone so beautiful and so much a victim of typecasting (as a “dumb blonde”) could also be the source of so many witticisms. Yet it seems that Marilyn was gorgeous – and thoughtful and intelligent too. She was also very troubled, which is probably the other reason why she has inspired so much interest and so many biographies. Beautiful and troubled is a winning combination! In 2000, Monroe was the subject of Joyce Carol Oates’ work Blonde. On publication, Oates was at pains to emphasise the fictional nature of her book. You’d think the title would be a giveaway: Monroe was not, after all, a natural (dumb) blonde and (if we believe Oates) spent hours bleaching not only her hair but also her pubic hair after being instructed to do so by the ubiquitous “Studio”. Similarly, neither is Oates’ Blonde an entirely accurate representation of the “blonde” who sits at the heart of it. For example, “The Playwright” who marries Monroe in the novel is twenty years older than his wife, while in reality Miller was only nine years her elder.  Nonetheless, anyone who has seen a photo of “the Bombshell and the Egghead” together would understand the poetic licence that Oates takes when she describes their incongruous union. We know little about Monroe’s relationship with her mother Gladys (who was interned in a psychiatric home for most of Marilyn’s life) but Oates extrapolates from the few details that we do have to create a startling portrait of a woman who let her infant daughter sleep in a drawer, and almost left the two of them to burn in the Los Angeles fires.

I will admit that I became a little obsessed with Monroe while making my way through this novel. The last twenty or so Google searches on my iPhone are all Marilyn-related, meaning that reality did occasionally detract from the task at hand. When reading about Monroe’s “discovery” at the hands of “Otto Ose” (in reality, David Conover) while working at the Radio Plane Aircraft munitions factory during WWII, I looked up those famous photos for the first time. Voilà:

Babe.

Babe.

What a babe. And although it is tempting to say that Hollywood ruined her, that the Kennedys conspired to kill her or to dredge up any other conspiracy theory, Oates does not go down that path. Indeed, despite his initials of “RK” (alluding to Robert Kennedy?), the “Sharpshooter” who kills Marilyn by the end of the novel is more metaphorical than real. I watched the film My Week With Marilyn last week (…well, of course I did) and while I enjoyed the movie, I couldn’t help but think that nothing in that piece had been vetted by Marilyn. It was merely Colin Clark’s story of what he believed had happened between them. Yet Oates treats Marilyn with so much understanding and patience as she delves into her world. Snippets of Marilyn’s “writings” are invented, yes, and intensely private moments with her lovers are intruded. But the array of narrative voices that share Marilyn’s story are generally sympathetic. Read this description of Marilyn by a fellow student as she is sitting incognito in her Hollywood poetry classes:

“Tense and quivering and her backbone ramrod straight so you could see she was a girl who made too much of things like every instant was a streetcar rattling past she needed to catch and was in terror she might miss.”

Oates rarely names Marilyn’s famous lovers in Blonde. Instead, we hear of the allegorical “Ex-Athlete”, “Playwright” and “President”. At various points in the novel, Marilyn tells each one of these men that she is having the “happiest day of her life” with him. Her staunch belief each time that this is true is heartbreaking? I found her relationship with the Playwright to be one of the more moving passages in the book. Oates has publicly spoken of Arthur Miller as being “the most worthwhile and the most superior person in [Monroe’s] life” (American intellectual bias? Perhaps, but perhaps also true) and this description shines through in her work. Monroe seduces Miller tentatively and innocently, skating over to the still-married man on the middle of a Central Park ice-skating rink. This is a nice contrast from the beginnings of Monroe’s relationships with the Ex-Athlete and the President, both of whom ask their agents/brothers-in-law to “find” Marilyn after they have seen and chosen her like an item from a catalogue. From the outset, it seems as though both Marilyn and the Playwright are trying desperately to fill the void which exists in the other’s life. Because their fate as “characters” is pre-determined, they cannot succeed, despite our best wishes. Marilyn’s neuroses and insecurities overwhelm Miller, while he in turn makes the mistake of seeing Marilyn as a rescue object, someone who he can keep afloat without drowning himself. I imagine the reality was slightly less lovely, but then again, who could really know?

Although it is (loosely) based on fact, so much of the novel seems to be surreal – and often borders on horror. Monroe’s character has a movie-like urgency at the back of her mind that always threatens to overwhelm her grip on everyday events: we sense that the actress tries assiduously to direct the various “movie-like” moments of her life, which might be why her life so frequently falls away from her. The horror in the story arises from Monroe’s own demons but more often from the crawling Hollywood misogyny that surrounds the actress. Described as all manner of things by the Studio (a “slash on legs” and at most meetings dismissively as the “vagina in the room” – notwithstanding that she is the vagina who keeps her male minders employed) and treated most contemptously by the President himself, Marilyn is the constant victim of a male sexuality that desires her as much as it despises her. This part of Oates’ analysis is, I’m sure, true of Marilyn’s real life. Perhaps her ultimate revenge though is that she remains the subject of so much myth, interest and adoration. As Oates shows, Monroe’s enduring power has much to do with her victimisation and vulnerability at the hands of others.