Tag Archives: writer’s life

The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

A writer writing a novel is like a serial killer who’s keeping a victim locked in the cellar. Every evening, he slides under the cellar door a tray with a little water and stale bread, just enough to keep his victim alive, anticipating the moment when he descends the cellar stairs to have his fun with her.”

As readers, we pay attention to those who carry off the coveted literary prizes in the publishing world. Those who directly benefit are probably the most interested in following the Trail of the Winners and the Losers. I note who wins this or that prestigious prize, but mostly my interest stops there. I don’t have any interest in reading a book just because it’s a prize winner, and I tend to be skeptical of the entire selection process. Nonetheless, I appreciate the efforts of those who try and read the short list for themselves prior to the announcement of the prize, and I also empathize with authors who wait for the news only to hear they’ve been passed over. It would be tempting (and also torturous) for those who didn’t win to read the prize-winning novel and chew over the reasons why this one won while theirs didn’t.

The ParrotsI’ll admit that the nasty side of me wonders what goes on in the minds of the contenders. The healthy thing, of course, would be for any nominee to cross fingers, ignore the process, hope for the best, and then behave gracefully when the prize falls to someone else. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to lose, and stories of rival authors attempting to sabotage each other through Amazon reviews give me hope for humanity. And that brings me to the Italian novel, The Parrots by Filippo Bologna, the cynical, but very funny story of three authors in Rome all competing for the same prize. These authors are known as The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master–all men at different stages of their lives and their writing careers. They are men who want/need that prize for a range of reasons, and given that I love to read books about people who behave badly, it was almost guaranteed that I’d like this.

The Writer, on his second unhappy marriage, and plagiarizer of his mother’s work, badly needs the prize. He tried writing novels “filled with love affairs, lonely desperate men throwing stones at the stars, missed dates, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends and women dragged by their hair, raincoated figures waking the night streets, cars speeding by beneath the streetlamps, the glances of strange women behind the windows of buses: that was how he imagined the stories he would one day write.”  But “his stories had kept slipping away from him, his sentences had jammed like rusty revolvers.”  

The Beginner turns out to be a tough contender, and according to The Writer’s publisher, The Beginner’s first novel may win the prize because it’s a “first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything.”

The Master plagued with bills, is convinced that other writers have the edge due to computers, if he could just “plug his technology gap,” he’ll be able to “rival other writers in creativity.” Facing cancer, he mulls over the “prizes he hasn’t won, the recognition he hasn’t obtained” and he sees the prize as “the only way to take leave of the world with dignity.” This drives him to desperate measures.

The Prize is organized and financed by The Patroness who as “the lines on her face crease a moment like a ruff, then relax” conjures up the image of an aging fashion model.  Votes roll in. The Publisher tells The Writer that he’s behind in the prize voting which he explains is due to the death of voters they used to count on. The rash of deaths has lowered the age of the typical voter on the panel:

The older they are, the better. What little time they have left isn’t enough to read all the books in the competition. So they have to choose: read or live. They can’t do both. That’s why they have to trust what we tell them.

On the other hand, there’s The Beginner:

They’ve had him park his arse on the right sofas, on TV and in drawing rooms, they’ve stuck him on the covers of women’s magazines. He isn’t very intelligent but it’s not vital for him to be intelligent–on the contrary. He’s polite, good-looking, blue eyes, women have a soft spot for him.”

“I don’t think he’s that good-looking, he has a stupid face.”

Of course, you get the idea that it isn’t about the books, it’s about the projected personalities, the PR campaigns, vote rigging, and  the pathetically unattended book events in provincial towns in which The Beginner offers “himself as a sacrifice to a handful of torturers who have emerged from their houses.” And of course, that’s taking the optimistic look that anyone will even show up. But there’s worse: “the neglected provincial writer chosen to chair the debate”:

Because he could well imagine ending up there himself. The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally knows as “provincial writer who hasn’t made it”.  It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous, anthropological and literary category. Poisoned by the suspicion, if not the contempt, of their fellow citizens, hurt by the smugness of literary society towards them, worn down by rejection and their own inadmissible lack of talent, such people spent their wretched days exiled to their desks, writing imaginary reviews, updating their blogs, working away at novels doomed to the eternal darkness of a drawer. With the passing of the years, they ended up suppressing their feelings of failure and converting them into a sense of martyrdoms. They constructed vast conspiracy theories in which powerful publishers, ensconced in the centre of things, did all they could to crush anyone outside their own charmed circle–the only proof of this conspiracy, of course, being their own misfortunes. They founded small and apparently crusading publishing houses in some cellar, or directly in their own homes, clandestine distilleries where they got drunk on the very spirits they sold under the counter. By so doing, they were finally able to realize their dream and see some of their own manuscripts in printed form, just for the fetishistic orgasm of touching the cover, leafing through the pages, arranging them on display on the mantelpiece in their best room. The most enterprising of them even managed to found schools of creative writing–on the pattern of the more famous ones–in premises placed at their disposal by cooperatives or local authorities, more as an opportunity to exchange a few words with some human beings on autistic winter evenings than as an assertion of their own debatable teaching skills.

Ouch! That long quote gives a sense of the novel’s tone. Caustic, merciless, and cynical, this clever novel pokes fun at the publishing industry, and apart from the occasional sink into farce, this mostly works. I found the objectification of the three authors: The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, a bit wearying at times, and asked myself why the author chose to write the novel like this. Why not give his characters names instead of leaving them as types? But after concluding the novel, it seems fair to argue that individualism doesn’t count–identity beyond production doesn’t matter as in many ways. The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, while three separate human beings plagued with their own issues, are arguably the same person at different stages of their careers in this grubby cannibalistic industry.

The Parrots is a good companion read to Gert Loveday’s very funny novel, set at a writers’ workshop: Writing is Easy.

Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown

“It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there’s so many of us.”

My Biggest Lie, a humorous debut novel from British author Luke Brown is a tale of self-destruction, self-promotion, and the collision of both set against the unbridled hedonistic excesses of the publishing world. Thirty-year-old Liam Wilson was well on his way towards a good career–he lived with Sarah, the girlfriend he claims to love, moved from an indie publisher in Birmingham to a major publishing house is London, and was mentored by rockstar publishing director for fiction, the “flamboyant” James Cockburn.

my biggest lieWith Cockburn out of commission and in hospital under strange circumstances, Liam is entrusted with minding author Craig Bennett whose book Talking to Pedro won the Booker prize. Sarah has just broken up with Liam, and feeling lost and sorry for himself, all of Liam’s self-destructive urges emerge. Set on the task to babysit Bennett and make sure he doesn’t have access to drugs, Liam, as Bennett’s minder engages in a long-drug-fueled evening which ends with Bennett dead and Liam agreeing to “resign.” Now the scourge of the publishing industry, Liam heads to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to write that novel he’s always been talking about.

My Biggest Lie is a look at the life of that familiar character–the Affable Dickhead. That’s my term to describe Liam whose morally reprehensible behaviour is slightly ameliorated by his tarnished charm.  He’s not someone you’d want in your life–although I suspect we all know a Liam, and while as a friend his behaviour is intolerable, he’s great fun to read about. He’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but he’s definitely a dodgy one. He doesn’t initially tell us the whole story of exactly what he did with either his girlfriend or with Craig Bennett. He makes us wait as he parcels out details, hoping to win us over with that overworked charm of the bullshit artist. Once on the top of his world, with a bright future, he blew it all in a series of self-destructive moves, and now he hopes he can win it all back: the girlfriend, the career, and perhaps even the self-respect. Liam is an entertaining narrator–definitely obnoxious, but with just enough self-disgust to make his train wreck of a life well-worth following.

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

The novel started off very strongly but wobbled a bit when Liam arrives in Buenos Aires. Liam doesn’t know what to do with himself, and the plot seems to reflect Liam’s uncertainty. Left to his own limited devices leads to some self-examination, and while Liam admits some ugly truths about himself, he’s not exactly a reformed character.

Becoming a vainglorious prick has never been fundamental to creating literary art. No, I did that because it was fun, because I was morally exhausted and it was easy to pretend my behaviour was separate from my essence. But if the man careening around town in my clothes wasn’t me, then why did I feel so bad, and so proud, about the way he talked to women.

Stuck in a youth hostel with only Bleak House to read, Liam wallows in self-pity and admits his failings, but he’s soon back to his obnoxious ways when he resorts to stalking his ex-girlfriend via Facebook, and even contacts her friend Lizzie, whose macho boyfriend, Arturo, triggers bisexual fantasies in Liam’s already confused brain. While trying to jumpstart his novel, and attempting to arrive at some resolution about his involvement in the death of Craig Bennett, Liam decides to contact the two most significant people in Bennett’s life: Amy Casares and Alejandro Montenegro.

The book is at its funniest when describing the mud-slinging antics of the publishing world–writers who are “needy little vultures,” who chart “line graphs of their Amazon rankings.” The novel sagged in spots, and the endless drug fueled odysseys across London and Buenos Aires felt a bit anachronistic. At one point there’s even a mention of Jay McInerney (a sure sign we’re in Excess territory), and I wondered for a moment if we were in the 80s, but no, it’s post 9-11, present times. Who knew that people in the publishing industry were such party animals? One of the book’s most interesting and subtle aspects is that Liam doesn’t seem to get that when you’re a Booker prize winner or high in the food chain in the publishing industry, self-destruction is a form of celebrity-style self-promotion, but when you’re lower in the food chain, then being drunk at a book fair only makes you a liability.  The same rules just don’t apply.

Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

 I liked this novel in spite of its faults; I don’t think it’s easy to write something funny, but Luke Brown managed it first time out of the gate.

review copy

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The Son by Andrej Nikolaidis

“As a matter of fact, everyone becomes unbearable once we get to know them a little better. That’s why the most beautiful women are those on painters’ canvases, where they’re limited to their appearance.”

The Son, a novel by Andrej Nikolaidis opened with a quote by Thomas Bernhard. I took that as a good sign, and, possibly, an indicator of things to come. Would the novel be morose yet shaped by grim humour? I hoped so, and my expectations were met amply in this dour, yet bleakly funny book. Author Andrej Nikolaidis was born in 1974 and brought up in Sarajevo, Bosnia/Herzegovina, but is of Greek-Montenegrin background. In 1992, Nikolaidis and his family moved to Ulcinj, in Montenegro.

the sonThe narrator of the book is a nameless writer, and as the title indicates, he’s the son of a “blighted family.” He lives in isolation on a hillside in the middle of his family’s olive grove, “fifty hectares of viper-and-boar-infested scrub blocking our view of the sea.”  He hasn’t seen or spoken to his father who’s in bed, “paralyzed by the depression which had abused him for two years,” even though they live just a few yards apart. Stuck in his own swamp of depression, our narrator rants, moans and complains about a range of things–his ex (she finally got the gumption to leave), and the tourists who litter the landscape:

Everything would have been different if I’d been able to control my repulsion, I realized.

The sun was still visible through the lowered blinds. It had lost all its force and now, unable to burn, it disappeared behind the green of the olive groves which extended all the way to the pebbly beach of Valdanos and on so far as Kruce and Utjeha; bays sardined with bathers determined to absorb every last carcinogenic ray before going back to their accommodation. There they would douse their burnt skin with imitations of expensive perfumes, don their most revealing attire and dash off to discos and terraces with turbofolk music, full of confidence that tonight they would go down on another body with third-degree burns; possessing and forgetting another human being almost identical to themselves.

Our narrator is repulsed by the human race and does not exclude himself from his savage, unforgiving, pessimistic commentary. Unable to read anything but the most lurid crime stories, and unable to masturbate, he acknowledges that his “own hunger for the grotesque will destroy” him. Freud could have written a book about this character if he ever sought professional help, but these days, we’d throw Prozac at the problem. The bitterness, the ennui, disgust, and self-loathing all add up to a narrator who’s fun to read but a real downer to live with–hence the departed Mrs. and who could blame her? Even the narrator admits that they had a “fragile and bloodless” marriage, which was tested to breaking point, as they lived, stuck together in a small, smelly house for two years. Now alone, attached to no-one, and with little to do, he feels superfluous to life–a modern-day superfluous man–he describes himself as a “bystander” who’s just “passing through.”

Our insomniac narrator finds mild interest in life through the most outrageous stories about serial killers.

For two whole years I hadn’t read anything except the crime column in the newspaper. The only things which still interested me were crime news and books about serial killers. It was as though only overt eruptions of evil could jolt me out of my indifference. I no longer had the energy for the hermeneutics of evil. That was behind me now. I could no longer stand searching for evil in the everyday actions of so-called ‘ordinary people’. Instead I chose vulgar manifestations of evil. If a man killed thirty people and buried them under his house, that still had a wow factor for me.

Events take our narrator out of his self-imposed isolation and out into town for the evening, and most of the book chronicles his misadventures and encounters with various people. These encounters include a meeting with an old school friend, talking to a Muslim preacher, an assignation with a prostitute and a surreal run-in with a family of lepers who live in an abandoned underground Soviet era parking garage. Everything the narrator sees appears to underscore his life view that “everyone abuses everyone else” and that “human misfortune doesn’t derive from a social system of a geographical location, but from existence itself.

This is just a short book, but author Andrej Nikolaidis packs a lot in these bleak, wickedly funny pages. There’s no down-time between diatribes as the narrator vents against the human race with a wide range of subjects which include cannibalism, PC porn, the comparison between being a writer and a pimp, crime (“every family home can turn into a slaughterhouse,”)  and the “impertinence of beggars.” 

For its bitter, morose humour, The Son should appeal to fans of Thomas Bernhard. Extra house points must be awarded to Andrej Nikolaidis for having the wit, intelligence and balls to take a literary baseball bat to the knees of one of the most over quoted sentences from the giant of Russian literature: Tolstoy. This event takes place in an underground car park and the father of a family of lepers tells the narrator that they stay underground, because they’re “happy there” away from the society that rejects and ridicules them for their afflictions. The narrator sardonically notes that the leper is “unaware that he’d just convincingly refuted Tolstoy, who claimed that all happy families are happy in the same way.” Yet that realization underscores an encounter the narrator has with another family–Djuro and his daughters–all prostitutes. Djuro drives a car a “rusted red Moskvich with ‘Dirty Djuro and Daughters: Sex for Every Pocket’ painted on the side.” The family home, located in a cellar, is a ” three-room brothel,” and the narrator is confronted by the fact that even though Djuro, “endowed with entrepreneurial spirit,” has condemned his daughters to a life of degradation and prostitution, they still worship him. In spite of the narrator’s bleak world view, it’s these encounters that somehow, strangely, show how the human spirit endures–in spite of humiliation, degradation, and the bleakness of the human condition. Perhaps this paradox can be explained by the contrast between our self-focused narrator and those he encounters–people who genuinely lead miserable lives and yet find some sort of philosophy to transcend tragedy and cope with life.

The phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me that a DVD edition of the film Cannibal Holocaust had just arrived from America.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

“A film about an expedition of film-makers, who come across a tribe of cannibals in the Amazon jungle,” he said.

“Sounds good for starters. What happens after that?”

“Nothing much–the rest of the film is about the cannibals eating them. ….”

And here’s another review from Winston’s Dad

Translated from the Montenegrin by Will Firth. Review copy.

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All to Play For by Heather Peace

“We should be emulating the U.S. Look at the quality of their shows.”

If you feel that there’s a lot of crap on television these days, then All to Play For by Heather Peace, an insider’s look at the politics inside the BBC during the 1990s, is the novel for you. While BBC television is admired the world over and held up as the standard to aim for, this novel shows the death of the Old World Order of the BBC and the rise of aggressive new management aimed at cutting costs in a battle between Art vs Commerce.

All to play forThe book begins in 1985 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a time “when art and commerce were the left and right of clashing ideologies.” A group of people are arrested, and as it turns out these 6 people become major characters in the drama that plays out at the BBC. While the story focuses on the careers of these characters, the plot includes many other figures in television, some that become successful and some that do not.

  • Feminist Maggie whose frank opinions win secret admiration but no friends at the BBC
  • Jonathan, good-looking, with the background that puts him on a BBC career track that should take him to management
  • Jill, full of ideas, a writer who can think on her feet, but who is naïve and taken advantage of
  • Nik, the son of a disgraced policeman who reinvents himself as a coke-sniffing, bisexual executive of Magenta Television Productions
  • Chris Briggs, the newly appointed Controller of BB2 “being groomed” for Director General and “possibly” the House of Lords
  • Rhiannon, the Welsh narrator
  • Andrea, a black woman, former secretary for the BBC who joins the production company Sisters in Synch & whose article argues that “The BBC risks remaining stuck in its past, hobbled by the imperialist culture which originally gave birth to it.”
  • Selina, Chris’s PA, blonde, impeccable, whose mediocrity is masked by her icy efficiency
  • Basil Richardson & Stewart Walker BBC drama producers and bastions of the Old Order World

From the debacle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story jumps forward to the “dawn of the nineties.” With the Thatcher government on its way out, privatization the word of the era, and the license fee under threat, Chris Briggs takes the helm of BB2 with the goal to please shareholders by making significant budget cuts. Told primarily from the viewpoint of the drama department, the novel, which alternates from Rhiannon’s first person to third person narration, shows how Briggs takes over the nervous staff at BBC2 and begins to make his imprint. Chris doesn’t understand creativity–he’s more interested in “a scientific basis for choosing programmes. … based on American systems,” and he’s ambitious enough to not be concerned about a body count of fired employees. In the background, New Labour (or “New Tory” as one character calls the party) rises seemly in parallel with the new market forces at the BBC.

One of our main characters, Maggie joins the BBC, initially with a 3 month contract, as a trainee script editor. Given the task of reading unsolicited scripts, Maggie soon learns that she works in shark infested waters, and that all the scripts, regardless of quality are uniformly rejected in this insider’s “Olympian” club. Maggie discovers that “because of the public service remit,” the BBC is required to read these scripts which are referred to as the “slush pile.”

Evidently she hadn’t been employed because they valued her opinions; they merely wanted her to stand at the gates of the BBC with a metaphorical riot shield, turning away the thousands who mistakenly believed that the “Auntie”  affectionately referred to by Terry Wogan was a kind, friendly organisation with writers’ best interests at heart and a sympathetic interest in their work.

And this is one of the best aspects of the book. The author shows that while BBC produces quality programming–albeit expensive programming–it’s programming of a certain ilk. There’s one marvellous scene which takes place during the Drama Discussion Group. Maggie, who’s enthusiastic about The EastEnders, and considers it one of the best things on television, picks up the vibe that the programme is held “in low esteem” by the Drama department. The meeting is basically run by insiders for insiders engaged in a circle jerk of praise. The BBC is a place where skill and intelligence are not enough– you need the “social expertise to navigate the arcane traditions,” and it’s essential to know “the ropes, the rules, the manners, the language, and most importantly, the right people.”  Criticism is  not welcome, and attitudes towards programmes reinforce patronizing snobbery and sexism. During the Drama Discussion Group, Maggie complains about a programme set in Bradford, Maggie’s “home ground.” No one is particularly interested to know if the programme presented an accurate picture or how people in Bradford felt about it. Maggie’s comment about the programme results in a cutting rejoinder:

“Unfortunately neither the ratings nor the audience appreciation figures are broken down by regions as small as that. Of course, we do know that inner city viewers are inclined to select ITV or BBC1 as a matter of choice, so given that Death went out on a Saturday night, I rather doubt whether we succeeded in diverting very many council estate inhabitants from more urgent affairs down the pub.”

From establishing that the BBC needs modernization in its processes and attitudes, the author shows the seismic changes that occur are not all positive.

The irony was that the poor old Beeb desperately needed reform and modernization in its working practices, no-one could deny that–but what we got was closer to Napalm.”

With a rising body count of the now unemployed, nepotism continues to reign–just with a different crowd at the helm. The BBC remains a closed shop especially for anything that smells even remotely ‘controversial’ (Peter Watkins, here’s thinking of you). Meanwhile, Nik Mason, “a self-made man [who] possessed no old school tie,” rises to the top of the food chain by his sheer ruthlessness. The gates of the BBC open to Nik and he becomes one of the Olympians not because of class, or accent but because he has the same vision & values: emulating the model of American television with cost the bottom line. Nik is just as ambitious as many of the other characters in the novel, but in his case he’s not picky about who he treads on to get ahead. Nik, who reinvents himself and fabricates lies about his past, believes that his “public persona was the only one that counted. It dictated everything about your life. It was the real you, because it was the one other people related to. The inner you could be safely ignored, kept private.” But in Nik’s case the public and private persona don’t seem that different. He’s arguably the most interesting character in the novel as he moves up into the highest echelons of the television world.

he laughed when he compared himself to the ‘old school’ staff in the BBC’s own Light Entertainment Department, whose power decreased in proportion to the rise of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ independents like himself. Young BBC producers were even denied royalties on their own work nowadays. They developed shows for a pittance and argued for them until they were hoarse, whilst a guy like him strolled in behind their backs, secured the gig, and strolled out again dripping gold. He loved it. All those public school chins hanging open. He never showed it of course–that would be vulgar–but alone in his loft apartment he smirked into his mirror.

There’s some insider’s information here–for example, at one point a character mentions that the number of programmes in development are 14:1–a reference of course, to the lavish expenditure during better days. While I struggled at times with understanding some of the political requirements behind the BBC agenda, I loved the scenes which depicted the creative process, and the times at which we see an idea or even a few words develop into a story treatment, a screenplay and then the finished product.  The scenes with Chris ordering up what he’d like to see on BB2, even as he demolishes idea after idea, are brilliant and catch the helplessness & depression of the BBC Drama department as their world slips through their fingers. In one scene, Chris states, “I want you to bring me a better, cheaper idea,” while in another, when an idea for a Welsh programme is pitched, he asks a room of speechless, intimidated employees: “Is Wales interesting right now?” As the book continues, we see the Drama department eviscerated due to cost cutting even as many people seem unable to adjust to the New World Order. It’s clear that the writers upon whom this system depends are often the ones given the shaft–either with their ideas sold at a give-away price, royalties that are non-existent and little or no payment for shelved or rejected work. Fans of film and television should find this unusual novel and its insider’s view fascinating, and if you’ve wondered why BBC’s costume dramas are rare, or if you cringe at the following statement, you should enjoy this book:

If we’re not careful we’ll lose everything worth watching, all the new, experimental shows, our television will be exactly the same as in the US: unwatchable rubbish, wall-to-wall mindless nonsense sponsored by corrupt Bible-Bashers, with a five-minute advertising break every five minutes.

This is the only novel I could find written by this author, and I hope she writes another.

review copy

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Kehua! by Fay Weldon

In the extraordinary, funny metafictional novel, Kehua! British author Fay Weldon explores the lives of two sets of characters surrounded by supernatural elements that interrupt and accompany the non-linear narrative. An unnamed writer, obviously a fictional stand in for Fay Weldon, tries to complete her novel in the basement of her haunted house. She frequently interjects her own thoughts into the text even as she tries, with moderate success, to control her fictional characters who develop and evolve sometimes beyond her control. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t, and instead we see the way the writer’s fictional characters become their own beings, get “out of hand,” and capable of acts that “shock[s] even” the author who creates them. This fictional author doesn’t hesitate to demystify the writing process for her audience, and at one point states that “your couple of hours’ reading is my half-year’s work.” Indeed we readers get a sense of the difficulties of the writer’s life as her characters grow increasingly out of control, plot developments pop up like toadstools, and the author is interrupted by the various ghosts who haunt her Victorian mansion. The fictional author occasionally despairs at the way her plot meanders, and that she feels “less real [while] these characters get more real.” But then so much of Weldon’s personal life seeps through the pages, it’s no wonder Weldon’s fictional characters need a great deal of herding towards the desired plot developments.

Kehua!This is a tale of murder, adultery, incest, family, and the way the actions and decisions of one generation work upon those that follow. The latter, incidentally, is a favoured interest of Fay Weldon whose works concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon is a very inventive writer which sounds peculiar as fiction writers are supposed to be inventive since they are, after all, in the biz of imagination, creation and keeping us amused.

Now to the plot …

And this is how the novel begins, and this quote, is, I think, the essence of Weldon, for who else (certainly not Wordsworth) would connect “a host of golden daffodils” with a “life lesson” in rampant male sexuality:

Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.

The family under examination consists of 4 generations of women–there’s matriarch Beverley, originally from New Zealand, a veritable Black Widow who’s been married 3 times to three very different men with each marriage representing a specific phase in Beverley’s life. Her first husband, who traded Beverley for political favours, was a Marxist “who disappeared on his way to join Che Guevara in the jungle,” the second killed himself following a “homosexual scandal,” and the third was a “right-wing journalist and notable drunk.” There was also an early childhood phase, spent in New Zealand, in which Beverley’s past was reinvented for her by the couple who cared for her.

Beverley’s daughter Alice, probably in some sort of fundamental knee-jerk response to her mother’s unconventionality, is very religious. Then there are Alice’s daughters Cynara and Scarlet whose birth names were very boring–Mary and Joan (no wonder they changed them), and Cynara’s precocious daughter, 16-year-old “wayward nymphet,” Lola. Lola left home after her mother threw out her husband, “declared herself a lesbian,”  and moved her S&M fixated lover, D’Dora, with her whips, handcuffs and chains, into the house. D’Dora is a member of LGS “a gay and lesbian subgroup whose members prefixed their given names with D for Dyke.” Lola, disgusted and rebellious, moves in with her aunt Scarlet temporarily while she supposedly waits for the paperwork necessary to travel to Haiti as an aid worker. Lola’s mother, Cynara tells Scarlet “for your sake pray she leaves the country soon.” Scarlet soon has reason to regret allowing Lola to move in, especially when Lola notes Scarlet’s abbreviated sex life with her husband, and with faux innocence comments: “it usually goes on only for about ten minutes, shouldn’t it be longer?” But then perhaps there’s no keeping Lola happy:

“When Mum did it with Dad, you could hardly hear when they had sex,” she goes on. “Now she’s with D’Dora there’s more noise. A lot of giggling and slapping and dressing up. I think perhaps it’s S&M. It can go on for hours. They never even think about my exams and how at my age I need sleep.”

The story opens with Scarlet at her grandmother, Beverley’s house. Scarlet is married to Louis, the owner of an eccentrically designed house, built in the 30s named Nopasaran. The house has become a point of division between Scarlet and Louis, and very possibly a good excuse for Scarlet to indulge in a torrid affair with not particularly bright, but good-looking television actor, Jackson, whose career is in the toilet, but who still has a legion of teen fans swooning over Jackson’s Vampire Rising films. Scarlet confides in her grandmother, and Beverley, who knows rather a lot about affairs has some advice:

Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.

Beverley knows what she’s talking about. She survived the jealousy-based murder-suicide of her parents back in New Zealand when she was three years old. But wait… . Was this murder-suicide or was it murder-murder? And just who was Beverley’s father after all? Was he the man married to Beverley’s mother or was Beverley fathered by the charismatic doctor who sneaked around making ‘house calls’? The question of fatherhood, and just who impregnated several female members of this eccentric family comes up more than once in this tale. So much so in fact that there’s a family myth which conveniently pops up from time-to-time involving a mystery man met while on holiday.

The men in Weldon’s novels are often seen as Attractive Nuisances, temporary fixtures that float in and out of the lives of the women, either leaving them pregnant and fending for themselves or else simply disappearing to greener pastures. They are seen primarily as mostly superfluous beings to the matriarchal structure–at  best trophies for the female characters who scheme against one another to either stir trouble (as Beverley does) or steal another woman’s male (as Lola tries to do). Ultimately, Weldon tells us that women survive and have the scars to prove it. As Beverley ruminates:

it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.

One of the remarkable things about the novels of Fay Weldon and one of the reasons she ranks as one of my all-time favourite modern British authors is that she has no sacred cows and simply isn’t afraid to take the piss out of everything, so there are references to Lady Gaga, Beryl Bainbridge, and we learn a little bit about Louis and his mother through a very funny reference to yet another author:

Louis’ mother is called Annabel: she is a lone parent with genteel aspirations and family money. See him as the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turn him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds. Perhaps he was already married and she didn’t wish to upset his wife.

I loved this quote–not only for its humorous dig at another novelist whose work is so different from Weldon’s but also because the quote shows how the author is in complete control of the narrative. Louis and his mother seem a little out-of-place in this Weldon novel, a little overwhelmed and shoved aside by the other characters who are made of far stronger stuff. Sensitive Louis, whose nickname is “poofter,” is a man who “became hysterical and threatened” suicide at the very mention of the slightest modernizing of his beloved house, Nopasaran. So Weldon’s explanation that Louis and his mother belong in a Brookner novel makes perfect sense.

While in Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, we see a woman who reinvents herself through plastic surgery, here the plot goes back and forth between the fictional writer in the basement and four generations of the McLean family–women who reinvent themselves through their marriages and relationships. Weldon’s females are by far the more interesting sex. They tend to be creative, and capable of making tremendous mistakes, especially in the male and sexual appetites departments, yet they transform themselves to fit life as it is offered to them until that moment when they decide to seize life and make it subordinate to their desires. As always, Weldon’s women are at their best if and when they can patch up relationships with their own sex and finally put that troublesome many-headed beast, Divide and Conquer in its grave.

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Filed under Fiction, Weldon, Fay

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence by David Samuel Levinson

Inside the sanctuary of the shuttered house, the idea of fall settled around her. Fall, months away–when the quality of light shifted from an incessant, blaring yellow to a muted, lustrous gold, when students returned and with them a kind of liveliness, an energizing optimism that floated in the cooler air, when life resumed, and with it came the possibility of love–fresh, unmarried faculty faces, divorcés, widowers. It was like this every fall; she took another deep gulping breath, inhaling hope. While most people she knew looked forward to spring, Catherine looked forward to fall, the drops in temperature, the change in the light and leaves.

Antonia lively breaks the silenceAntonia Lively Breaks the Silence, a debut novel from American author David Samuel Levinson. caught my attention. It’s a terrible title, and a horrible cover (I’m referring to the scribbled-in wine glass), but I wanted to read the book for its intriguing premise: this is the story of a young widow, stranded in a drab upstate New York town following the death of her husband, a once promising young author, who is forced to confront the person who destroyed her husband’s career. The novel is not without its problems (more of that later), but essentially the book examines the power–often tyrannical and misused–of literary critics who act as the gatekeepers of approval. Also under scrutiny is the issue of author ethics, and how books based on ‘true stories’ test the author, the audience and the subjects whose lives are ruined. For a new, young author this is an ambitious novel that includes complex, fascinating, and ambitious subjects.

Catherine Strayed, once a promising PhD candidate, now 39 years old, works in a small, yet bustling bookshop in the town of Winslow. Her husband Wyatt, was an assistant professor of creative writing at Winslow College. He wrote one novel, The Last Cigarette, which was viciously eviscerated by powerful literary critic Henry Swallow, the man “most able to launch or cripple a literary career.”  The book sank without receiving the readership it deserved, and Wyatt never recovered from the incident. Withdrawn and depressed, he was writing another novel at the time of his death which may have been an accident but could also have been suicide. Catherine, a widow now for 18 months, carries on, barely making ends meet in a house that is in dire need of repairs.

Things begin to change for Catherine with the arrival of Antonia Lively, a young woman whose first novel is about to be published into a literary world that is ready to herald her book as a work of genius. Of course, it doesn’t hurt Antonia’s career that she’s sleeping with 59-year-old Henry Swallow, her one-time professor–the lothario who also mentored Catherine. Henry knows all the right people, and he can open all the right doors.

he’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize at thirty, [that] he was the one man in the world most able to launch or cripple a literary career, [that] he’d once written a novel that had never gotten published

But lest we be too cynical about this relationship between influential mentor Henry and his very young student, Antonia is genuinely infatuated with Henry and thinks the relationship is permanent. For Henry, Antonia is just the latest talented young woman in a long line of interchangeable, worshipful students. No wonder Henry has been kicked out of a number of much more prestigious colleges and now finds himself as the director of the writing programme at the relatively backwoods institution, Winslow College.

After years of teaching at Columbia, he had resigned his position before the university could bring him up on charges of sexual misconduct–just as NYC had done years earlier. Perhaps love was more important than teaching, he reasoned, and he left quietly and without a hint of fuss or regret.

Trouble begins for Catherine when Antonia comes knocking at the door looking for a place to rent for the summer. While Antonia ends up renting a place near by, Henry Swallow, whose house is undergoing extensive repairs due to a mysterious fire, rents the small writer’s cottage owned by Catherine. The cottage, remodeled for Wyatt, is a painful reminder of all he didn’t achieve and also, due to the “tens of thousands” poured into it, it’s an almost-embarrassing white elephant symbolic of Wyatt’s interrupted career.   Desperate for cash, Catherine can’t afford to refuse Henry’s overly-generous rent. But within hours, she realizes she’s made a horrible mistake–trouble has a way of following Henry,  and he’s also a painful reminder of Catherine’s past:

Memories both dead and alive swirled inside her, as if she were a snow globe, her thoughts the bits of confetti.

While Antonia settles into Winslow for the summer, she’s pursued by relatives who aren’t happy about the novel she’s written, and Catherine, who’s alternately drawn and repelled by Henry finds herself increasingly drawn into Antonia and Henry’s relationship.  What’s the story there between Henry and Catherine? After all why is she even talking to the man “who damned her husband into obscurity”  ? And what motivates Antonia’s friendly overtures to Catherine?

Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence seems to be two different novels: on one hand there’s a novel that deals with complex, ethical issues of mixing fact and fiction, and the sometimes blurry line between the two. Henry has very strong opinions about writers “who ravaged their own lives and the lives of others,” whereas Antonia believes that “there is no right or wrong when you’re writing fiction. There is no truth. It’s all lies.” If the author uses a true story for the basis of a book, is there an ethical obligation to acknowledge that and stick to the truth (whatever that may be) or is it ‘safer’ to stick to fiction and then use the scope of imagination to manipulate a better story? With powerful zingers dropped into the plot, we see the highbrow world of literary criticism and academia tainted by jealousy and cold revenge while issues of authorial ethics linger tantalizingly in the background, but the questions raised regarding the power of critics (who may be biased) and whether or not writers of fiction have ethical responsibilities are never fully addressed.

But there’s another novel embedded here too, and that novel includes some much more dramatic incidents–shootings, a cryptic message painted in red, and then a narrator who prefaces the story of events, disappears into the narrative, and then re-emerges at the end in a very uncomfortable unmasking. Cut away all this high drama, and you’re left with a much more thoughtful, much better book, but as it stands, the more intellectual novel here is obfuscated by sensational acts of drama which seem to be committed not by logic as much as to fit the plot. I don’t want to be Henry Swallow–and I believe that such people with their own bitter, disappointed agendas exist–but there’s a better novel here fighting its way out.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Levinson David Samuel

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn

“Sisters are,” author Jane Dunn tells us “special,” and with a backlist which includes the book, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, it’s easy to conclude that the author, Jane Dunn, is drawn to these “protean” relationships. Dunn admits in the intro to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing to a fascination with the du Maurier sisters: Daphne, Angela and Jeanne. Not only does the author find it “psychologically interesting” that Daphne’s fame “so eclipse[d]” her siblings, but she found it even more “intriguing” that the three entirely different sisters who led vastly dissimilar lives were so “strongly imprinted with family values.” Before arriving at the book, I was unaware that Daphne du Maurier had any siblings at all, but then again, although I have read many of her novels, I knew very little about her private life other than a few facts about the fabulous du Maurier family and Daphne’s connection to the “lost boys” who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For those who enjoy reading biography, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing comes highly recommended especially for those who have a healthy appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s work. Some readers, I’m aware, prefer not to know the details of the private lives of the authors they read and enjoy. With this book, Daphne du Maurier fans will gain an almost-blow-by-blow account of exactly how each of her books came to be created. I’ve read my fair share of biographies and yet I can’t remember one in which events in the author’s life so clearly morphed into a novel, and author Jane Dunn carefully fleshes out Daphne du Maurier’s life, the books and the themes that became signposts of the various events that took place as well as the places that inspired several of her better-known works.

Daphne du maurierBut here I am allowing my description of the book to concentrate on the very talented Daphne du Maurier to the neglect of her siblings. As Jane Dunn explains, searching for information about Angela led to an “intriguing journey” while the search for Jeanne has been “blocked” by her lifelong partner who retains all of Jeanne’s paintings and papers and is “adamantly set against” any biography of the sisters. This explains why a clear image of Angela emerges while the portrait of Jeanne remains somewhat murky.

Taking a chronological approach, the book opens with the unusual and privileged childhood of the three du Maurier girls–the last of the du Mauriers. Their father, Gerald, an actor and later a theatrical manager, wanted a son, and Daphne, the middle child became his clear favorite serving as a surrogate son while the youngest daughter, Jeanne became the favourite of the girls’ actress mother, Muriel.  Gerald appears in these pages as a glamorous figure, dashing and gregarious, and yet at the same time there is a darker side. While the three girls were definitely brought up in a protected environment, conflicting values emerge in their upbringing. They were mainly taught at home, and their education sounds wildly erratic with a maid, at one point, “engaged in trying to teach six-year-old Jeanne to read.”  While in some aspects of their lives, the girls were shielded, yet they also regularly attended the theatre and were given  a great deal of freedom when it came to their creativity and their imagination. Beyond a doubt, for the eldest two girls, Angela and Daphne, Gerald, “the grand panjandrum of his universe” emerges as the most formative figure of their lives who “alternated between laxity and ridiculous strictness,” and was, according to Angela “an emotional bully” capable of moments of cruelty. Gerald “hated and feared homosexuality,” an attitude that seems significant when considering the adult lives of his daughters. Gerald’s relationships with his daughters was problematic–he was domineering and possessive, and “burst into tears and cried,it isn’t fair’ ” when he heard the news of Daphne’s upcoming marriage. He also somewhat bizarrely confided his amorous adventures to his daughters:

Unusual for his generation, Gerald enjoyed his daughters’ company and this intimacy meant his influence on their growing minds was all the more powerful and potentially malign. Unusually for any generation, Gerald, confided his romantic entanglements with young actresses to Angela and Daphne and made an entertainment of it, inviting them to scoff at the young women’s naivety and misplaced hopes, and compromising the sisters’ natural loyalty to their mother, who was not included in these confidences. These young actresses were nicknamed ‘the stable’ by his daughters, who were encouraged to think of them as fillies in a race for the prize of their father’s attention. His daughters ‘would jeer, “And what’s the form this week? I’m not going to back [Miss X] much longer”,’ and they laughed as their father brilliantly mimicked the voices and mannerisms of the poor deluded girls.  

What’s so fascinating is that even though these three girls had, arguably, the same childhood environment albeit tainted with “manipulative favouritism,” that could so easily have led to bitter rivalry, individual characteristics were quickly clearly apparent.

Already very unalike in character, both girls seemed to inhabit parallel universes, Angela’s emotional, connected to others and Daphne’s bounded only by her imagination and peopled with her own creations. With a macabre detachment she could dispassionately watch the gardener at Slyfield nail a live adder to a tree, declaring it would take all day to die, and return at intervals to watch it writhing in its desperate attempts to break free. Aunt Billy had given Daphne two doves in a cage and she found it tiresome to have to feed and care for them when she would rather be out doing interesting things. She was struck how Angela loved administering to her pair of canaries and sang while she cleared out their droppings and sprinkled fresh sand on the base of their cage. Daphne’s solution was to set her doves free and accept without complaint the scolding that would be forthcoming, for this was the price of her freedom from care.

These sorts of patterns of behaviour only became more reinforced as the girls grew older. Angela became a great lover of Pekinese, a careful, devoted owner while several of Daphne’s dogs seemed to meet a sticky end. All three sisters exhibited a tremendous emotional bond with the houses they lived in and which they imprinted in various ways. Jeanne settled in “an ancient house and remarkable symbolic garden in the heart of Dartmoor,” while both Daphne and Angela were deeply rooted in Cornwall, and of course, all Daphne fans know about Menabilly– –“the love of her life.” This love of the region naturally seeped through to Daphne du Maurier’s work, and the novels Jamaica Inn, the House on the Strand, Frenchman’s Creek, and The King’s General were inspired by places in Daphne’s beloved Cornwall.

The book charts the lives of the sisters through their relationships and creative careers. Angela was also a novelist, but unfortunately her novels were not as well-received as those of her sister, and now she’s almost completely forgotten.  There’s a great moment recounted from Angela’s memoir,  It’s Only the Sister in which Angela tells of an incident in which she was mistaken for Daphne and how a woman who seemed delighted to meet her, turned away, her disappointment blatant, with the utterance that became the book’s title. Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters gives the sense that the three sisters were all fascinating, unique individuals, but also fascinatingly different. I came to the book with a deep appreciation for Daphne du Maurier’s work, and I left with a feeling that I would rather have liked Angela, one of the two forgotten sisters and also that it is a great shame that Jeanne remains in the shadows.

Review copy

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Filed under du Maurier Daphne, Dunn Jane, Non Fiction

Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer

Well, fuck. Whatever happened to the literary bad boys and girls of yesteryear?” (review copy)

literary roguesPerhaps I’ve missed the headlines but the only recent author scandals that I can think of involve shill reviews at Amazon and the occasional case of plagiarism, but feel free to fill me in if I’ve missed anything juicy. Amazon antics can’t really compare with the riotous tales contained within the non-fiction book, Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer.  In the very funny preface, the author relates a childhood disappointment–one could almost say emotional shock–at finally meeting a much-loved Marvel Comics writer who failed to live up to his fan’s imagination. From this point, the author explains his fascination with “cool authors“–those “who were as likely to appear in gossip rags as they were to be on bestseller lists.” Slim pickings these days as Hollywood seems to have elbowed its way into tabloid headlines, and this leaves little room for gossip about writers–especially since authors don’t exactly naturally exude glamour or rock star status. Shaffer’s book is a very funny look at the past ‘rockstars’ of the literary world. Have modern-day authors become tamer creatures or have they been pc-d into submission? A rhetorical question, but  jump in with your opinions…

Here’s the line-up of authors covered in the book:

  •  The Marquis de Sade
  • Coleridge
  • de Quincey
  • Byron
  • The Shelleys
  • Poe
  • Balzac, Flaubert and George Sand
  • Baudelaire
  • Rimbaud and Verlaine
  • Wilde and Dowson
  • The Fitzgeralds
  • Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Hemingway
  • William Faulkner
  • Dylan Thomas
  • Kerouac & Ginsberg
  • Burroughs
  • John Berryman & Anne Sexton
  • Ken Kesey
  • Norman Mailer and Truman Capote
  • Hunter S. Thompson
  • John Cheever & Raymond Carver
  • Jay McInerney & Bret Easton Ellis
  • Elizabeth Wurtzel
  • James Frey

Some of the inclusions were predictable (the Marquis de Sade, for example), and it’s worth noting that the authors that take up the last part of the book are alive and potentially have a few headlines still in them. On the subject of the Marquis de Sade, it was illuminating to discover that as a delinquent child he landed in the care of his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a man who “meticulously curated an extensive pornography collection” which included noteworthy titles such as: History of the Flagellents, The Nun in the Nightdress and John the Fucker Debauched. No wonder he became such a perv.

Since the entries are chronological, one of the things that hit me reading the book is that each age had its vices, so we read about absinthe, the “Green fairy,” and then later move into cocaine and LSD, but this is, of course, too simple a codification, and as the author Andrew Shaffer explains, there’s de Quincey, Coleridge, and Shelley–all potentially candidates to keep the re-hab centres busy–had there been such a thing back in those days. Alcohol is a vice that transcends centuries, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see it appear repeatedly, but what is it about the Chelsea Hotel that attracts doom-seekers?

The author’s light, amusing style keeps the pages turning, and that’s just as well as the subjects, are for the most part, a miserable bunch–along with a number of brave, long-suffering spouses who deserve medals for tolerating the angst, depression, temper tantrums, and all-around bad behavior of some of the authors covered in the book.  I’m thinking of the wives of Dylan Thomas  and John Berryman. There’s a lot of info here I had no idea about: Ken Kesey faking his own death and William Burroughs playing William Tell with his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer:

In the world of awful career moves, becoming a junkie is only a close second to committing homicide, but that’s just what Burroughs did. In September 1951, Burroughs accidentally shot and killed while entertaining some friends at their home in Mexico.

Tired of her husband’s constant bragging about his marksmanship, Vollmer balanced a highball glass of gin on her head and dared Burroughs to take a shot. they were both drunk.

“I can’t watch this–you know I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Vollmer said, giggling as she closed her eyes.

Burroughs took aim at his wife with his .38 caliber pistol and fired. The bullet missed the glass and hit Vollmer squarely in the head. She died instantly.

And who knew that Norman Mailer’s literary parties were so wild?

One time, after asking a model for her number with earshot of his wife, Mailer was treated to a strip show. Adele [his wife], furious at the model (Alice Denham, later a Playboy playmate and novelist), ripped her own shirt off. “Take off your clothes and we’ll see who’s the best woman,” Adele said. “You think Norman’s up for grabs?”

Soon a crowd gathered around the two women. Mailer, egging his wife on, began stripping his own clothes off. Eventually both he and Adele were stark naked. Denham, refusing to strip for free (she was a professional, after all), left with her date. “At least it ought to be a good night for you  two,” she said to the Mailers on the way out.

Not that I’ve done extensive research on the issue, but I’ve read a couple of bios of Byron that include the question of whether or not he had sex with his half-sister, Augusta and by extension, whether or not he fathered an incestuous child.  I think we all tend to come to our own conclusions on the matter, but it’s pure speculation–not proven one way or another yet the chapter on Byron and his lifestyle of “bling, booze and groupie sex” states unequivocally that he “impregnated his half-sister Augusta Leigh.” I think it’s impossible to say that definitively one way or another although we know that there were plenty of rumors at the time that culminated in the general vilification of Byron who was oh-so-effectively drummed out of British society (as was Oscar Wilde who is the subject of another lively chapter).

The author obviously has great fun with his material and his style matches the subject with its riotous irreverence tinged with just a flash of admiration for these authors who figuratively give society the finger while sinking deeper into their self-destructive odysseys. On a final note, I have to take issue with the idea that Balzac bears a “striking resemblance to adult video star, Ron Jeremy.” Although on second thoughts, now that I look at the pictures….

ron jeremy220px-Balzac

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Filed under Non Fiction, Shaffer Andrew

Hunters and Gatherers by Geoff Nicholson

As he made love to the girl last night he kept feeling that something was missing. Actually, several things were missing–passion, affection, mutual respect–but he could easily live without those.”

Back to my celebration of the works of Geoff Nicholson with his next novel, Hunters and Gatherers, and it’s with this novel that, IMO, the author really begins to hit his stride. Hunters and Gatherers is seriously good Nicholson, and I loved it.

Hunters and gatherersThe characters in Nicholson’s novels are often obsessives of one sort or another, and in Hunters and Gatherers, we find an author, Steve Geddes after a failed marriage and a move to Sheffield, who’s trying to write a book about collectors. There’s an inherent problem with this: while the book is supposed to be a “serious but good-humoured, off-beat, non-fiction work about people who collect things,” Steve has little respect for his subject. He intends to fill the pages with details of “dubious but entertaining eccentrics who had unlikely, bizarre or exceptionally useless collections.” Rather oddly, Steve thinks he’s the “right person” to be writing this book, but the truth is that he’s fundamentally “baffled” by the idea that anyone would want to collect anything:

At bottom I was somehow opposed to the activity. I thought it was a ‘bad thing’. I thought the collecting instinct was a form of grasping covetousness. People owned collections in order to experience the dubious pleasures of ownership. What were these pleasures? What pleasure came from owning, say, ten Fabergé eggs, as opposed to only owning five? Only the pleasure of partially satisfied greed, and it is in the nature of greed that it can never be wholly satisfied.

Then there were all those collections that somehow missed the point. People collect toys that couldn’t be played with, plates that couldn’t be eaten from, jewellery that couldn’t be worn. That was insane. And then there were collections of things peripheral to the activity that caused them to exist. I could see why people might want to go to the theatre or to football matches. I could see why people might go wild about Elvis Presley’s music, but not why they wanted to collect Elvis memorabilia.

So here we have an author writing a book he doesn’t believe in–or I should say trying to write a book he doesn’t believe in. And here’s yet another problem–Steve has accepted a large advance for the book, but although he’s compiled extensive notes, he’s unable to actually write anything. By trying to write this book, in the process, he’s paradoxically become a collector–the very sort of person he doesn’t understand. Is this why he’s mired in a serious case of writer’s block? As Steve pushes onward with his interviews of various eccentric collectors and their bizarre collections, something very strange begins to happen–various collections are mysteriously destroyed or simply disappear. What madness is afoot?

The novel goes back and forth between third person and Steve’s first person narration, and we meet an impressive cast of characters who are all obsessive collectors in one way or another. There’s Victoria who collects lovers, Victoria’s husband who collects cars, a comedian who collects jokes, “England’s foremost collector of and expert on beer cans,” a girl who collects sounds, and Mike who owns the successful, used “flash” car lot, Killer Kars, who collects women’s knickers. In the wake of meeting Victoria, Mike quietly undergoes a crisis of character.

He would say  that he believes in trying most things once, but he now sees how little he has tried. Of course there are all sorts of things he wouldn’t want to try–all the obvious ones that are painful and disgusting, and no doubt a hundred and one other things that people no doubt do but which he can’t even imagine, the sort of thing they get up to in London.

While Mike reexamines his life, his underachiever friend, employee and mobile home dweller Jim, embarks on the collection of knowledge. This rather peculiar, never-ending and somewhat ephemeral quest is inspired by Jim’s passion for a passing encyclopedia saleswoman.  Jim decides that “knowledge is power,” and driven by his desire to impress the rather strange encyclopedia saleswoman, he decides to groom himself for quiz shows and “become a bit of a celebrity.” Jim’s collection of knowledge is soon like any other–insatiable and unstoppable. He ‘invests’ in the set of encyclopedias. To say the entries in The Books of Power, are eccentric and bizarre is a wild understatement. Here are some samples entries for England:

English food: the sandwich, sirloin and pease pudding, spotted dick and custard, fish and chips, cakes and ale.

The English character: reserved. Except at pantomimes,  football matches, wedding receptions, in pubs and clubs, on picket lines, at New Year’s sales, at the bingo, at the seaside, on coach parties

Some famous English obsessions: Ireland, public schools, contempt for the French.

World War One: trenches, appalling casualties but some damn fine poetry

World War Two: the blitz, sleeping in the Underground, VE Day–dancing in the streets. The GIs, over here and all over everybody

Democracy:  chained themselves to railings, that woman who threw herself under a horse.

Steve’s rejection of collections is re-evaluated when he discovers that his all-time favourite author, the extremely reclusive novelist, Thornton McCain, may have written another book that appears to have vanished. Obsessed with discovering the truth (and the missing book,) Steve tries to locate his hero who seems to be everywhere and nowhere.

There are three things to remember about Geoff Nicholson novels:

  1. They’re funny in a very dark humor sort of way
  2. Nicholson does not create normal characters. In fact a great number of them seem to be pervies
  3. Nicholson novels spin and build and appear to go out of control, but that’s just because you can’t seen the hidden, carefully constructed design behind all the madness.

And finally one last quote:

If you want to come here and fuck my wife that’s one thing, but if you do then you have an obligation to make a decent job of it, otherwise piss off and stop wasting everybody’s time.

I’ll be skipping the next Nicholson novel, The Food Chain. I’m a vegan and I’m sure the author will understand why I’m giving this one a pass.

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Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval

Jacqueline Raoul-Duval’s remarkable novel, Kafka in Love, largely drawn from Kafka’s letters and diaries, bridges the lines between fiction and non-fiction in its pursuit of biography. The French title of the book is Kafka, L’éternel fiancé,  and what an excellent title that is, for in the book we see Kafka between the years 1912 until his death in 1924 through his rather odd relationships with four very different women. The shared ingredient of these relationships is that they were largely long-distance, and while Kafka appears to have primarily enjoyed the position of fiancé (no less than four times) in order to establish a prolific letter writing campaign, proximity–except perhaps for his last relationship with his intellectual equal, Dora, brought disaster.

indexKafka in Love begins by showing Franz Kafka as an energetic, intense, dapper young man. He met Max Brod “by chance” on November 23, 1903 in Prague at a talk in which Brod called Nietzsche a “charlatan.” Kafka publicly challenged Brod and thus began a lifelong friendship which lasted until Kafka’s death in 1924.

Max examined the young righter of wrongs, who was taller than he by a head. He noticed the young man’s elegance of dress, the tie and stand-up collar, the intensity of his gaze , his black eyes on fire. He was reminded of a Dostoevsky hero. The student’s high-cheekboned thinness and distinction made Max uncomfortable, and he regretted having overindulged in beer and fatty foods and neglected sports.

It’s at Max’s house that Kafka meets Felice Bauer, a relative of Max Brod’s “by marriage” on August 13, 1912. Felice, who lives in Berlin, is an unlikely candidate for Kafka’s interest. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t find her physically attractive (“no charm, no appeal“), a relationship begins which is maintained and fed by a torrent of letters and telegrams. Between October 23 (when Felice finally replies to Kafka’s increasingly insistent letters) until December 31st 1912, he writes and sends 100 letters to Felice “often two or three a day.” Kafka’s long-distance relationship with Felice appears to have satisfied a certain obsessive-compulsive component in Kafka’s nature, and it also allowed Kafka to write the most extraordinarily passionate letters (“Dearest, very dearest! Most cherished of my temptations,”), but, sadly, the passion failed to materialize when the couple finally met again in the flesh. Rather interestingly, neither Felice nor Kafka seemed particularly anxious to spend time together, and it’s almost as if they both sensed that this extraordinary on-and-off again relationship was superior on paper. They were annoyed by each other’s habits; Kafka was turned off by Felice’s teeth and eating of sugar cubes. Felice couldn’t stand Kafka’s eccentricities & asceticism. Kafka didn’t smoke, didn’t drink alcohol, tea or coffee and was a vegetarian. He “slept by an open window even in the heart of winter, [and] swam in icy rivers.” Perpetually late, he always set his watch one and a half hours ahead. All these habits grated on Felice’s nerves, and this didn’t bode well for any imagined future together. In one of his letters, he detailed more habits:

I eat three meals a day, but nothing between meals, literally nothing. In the morning stewed fruit, biscuits and milk. At 2:30, out of filial pity, the same as the others, a bit less than the others. Winter evenings at 9:30: yogurt, wholegrain bread, butter, walnuts and hazelnuts, chestnuts, dates, figs, raisins, almonds, pumpkin seeds, bananas, apples, pears, oranges, and I never get my fill of lemonade. 

We could perhaps chalk up Kafka’s misadventures with Felice as a youthful, impulsive mistake–a relationship that he dove into too quickly and then had difficulties in the retreat, but then when Felice recruited her best friend, Grete Bloch in the campaign to patch things up with Kafka, his enthusiastic letter-writing shifted gears to his fiancée’s best friend, and naturally this culminated in disaster. Then there are Kafka’s other relationships, and while his relationships with the sad milliner, Julie Wohryzek and the glorious Milena are both quite different, they are still maintained at a distance and plagued with a certain reluctance on Kafka’s part. Milena, who “enters” Kafka’s life “like a hurricane,” has a tumultuous past, peppered with scandal. Their relationship lasted approximately 8 months, and “about 150” letters survive as a testament to their mostly long-distance relationship–Kafka in Prague and Milena with her husband “the man with forty mistresses,” in Vienna. Their letter exchanges “reach a feverish pitch, telegrams fly back and forth at a rapid rate.”

The book smoothly integrates extracts from Kafka’s diaries and letters so seamlessly that we don’t particularly notice where they begin and end, and at times, the author interjects the occasional speculative and rhetorical comment in the midst of recounting Kafka’s actions as in one spot when Kafka acknowledges that he will never have children.  There’s an aside “was Felice troubled by this warning?”

It’s impossible to separate Kafka the lover from Kafka the author since the two aspects of his character appear to be so closely intertwined. While Kafka tries romance numerous times and endures the life of an aesthetic, his Diaries reveal no small amount of struggle from the man who wrote The Hunger Artist:

In his Diaries, he lets loose and confesses his hankerings, real and imaginary: “This craving that I almost always have, if ever I feel my stomach empty, to heap up in me images of terrible feats of eating. I especially satisfy this craving in front of pork butchers. If I see a sausage labeled as an old, hard farmhouse sausage, I bite into it in my imagination with my teeth and swallow quickly, regularly and mechanically. The despair that always follows this act, imaginary though it is, increases my haste. I shove long slabs of ribs into my mouth unchewed, then bring them out again the other end, pulling them through my stomach and intestines. I empty whole grocery stores, filthy ones, cram myself with herrings, pickles, and all the spicy, gamey unhealthy foods. Hard candies pour into my mouth like hail from the cast-iron pots.”

And while Kafka’s describes his first sexual experience to Milena, it’s in his diaries that he “confess[es] his taste for brothels,” along with the fact that “he is drawn to large and slightly older girls.”

While we see Kafka through four extraordinary relationships, the book Kafka in Love is ultimately a lot more than seeing Kafka through four strained engagements. We also see the process of Kafka maturing in an ever-increasing anti-Semitic society as he becomes interested in Zionism, learns Hebrew and returns to his Jewish roots–stirring once again, his father’s disapproval.  We also see Kafka in the contemporary cultural society of his times with Ernst Weiss and Franz Werfel as friends., and the touching details of how Kafka consoled a child who’d lost her doll. Haunted by the knowledge that he left so much work incomplete, Kafka despaired about this failure even as his life was cut tragically short by his excruciatingly cruel and painful death from Tuberculosis in 1924 at the Kierling Sanatorium.  At the end of the novel are notes explaining the fate of the letters written from Kafka–along with the fates of some of the significant people in his life., and a description of the battle over Kafka’s estate. The author, Jacqueline Raoul-Duval concludes this poignant, inspired and remarkable novel with an explanation of how she was drawn to her subject.

Translated by Willard Wood. Review copy.

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