Tag Archives: academia

The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

review copy

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Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

If all the pages identifying its author were removed, I’d still be able to tell that An Academic Question was written by one of my great favourites, Barbara Pym. The book includes many of her types of characters: dissatisfied wives, potty animal lovers, peevish, backstabbing academics, supportive mother-in-laws, lonely spinsters, and vain, asexual men who frequently assume the role of confidantes. While Pym often writes of the world of the clergy, there are no confused vicars here, but the church appears in the background for its role of stepping in for that end-stage of death and dying.  The matter of author ‘identification’ is important as An Academic Question is an unfinished novel but it’s still quintessential Pym, put together from two drafts and Pym’s notes after her death by her biographer, literary executor and “editorial associate,” Hazel Holt. When I came across the novel, I was a bit puzzled. How could I have missed a Pym Novel? Why hadn’t I noticed it before? Of course, these questions were answered when I read the flyleaf. It’s certainly not Pym’s best, and I hope that first-time readers don’t find this Pym title first. Publishing an unfinished novel raises the question whether or not the book should have been released. As a Pym fan, I’m glad I read it, but this reading comes after enjoying all of her other titles, and I’d recommend leaving this to the end.

an academic questionThis is the story of Caroline, “changed to Caro,” for her identification with “poor Lady Caroline Lamb, who said she was like the wreck of a little boat for she never came up to the sublime and beautiful.”  Caro is married to Alan, an emotionally-remote academic, but there’s a lot that’s remote about Caro too. In her youth, she had a “Byronic affair,” and while there are no details, it’s clear that the relationship ended badly. We know, because he pops up later in the book, that this “Byronic suitor” was David, her “first love,” and it’s possible that the embers still burn. Did Caro marry Alan because he was dull and reliable, the polar opposite of that first wild and miserable affair?

Caro and Alan have one child, 4-year-old Kate, who’s mostly taken care of by the physically impressive Inge, the au pair, and Caro seems to have a horror of taking care of her own child. The few glimpses we see of Kate aren’t flattering. There’s a slyness to the child that’s vaguely repugnant.  Part of Caro’s dilemma is that she feels useless, but she’s also discontent. She married Alan right after finishing university, and while she doesn’t want a career, she’s aware that she’s “lacking any special maternal feeling and this seemed an even greater inadequacy.” She feels inadequate in all regions of her life: as a wife (her husband works with Iris, a very attractive, divorced woman), and as a mother (she thinks that Inge is much better with Kate). The subject of Caro taking a part-time job is discussed, and because of this desire to occupy her time, at the suggestion of one of her friends, Dolly, Caro finds herself reading to the elderly at Normanhurst, an “old people’s home.”  (Now there’s a term from the past)

“Alan thinks I ought to have a job,” I told her, “and as I can’t really help him with his work I suppose I’ll have to look for something else–something to do with research and card indexes he would like, but I’d prefer something unusual that I could make my own.”

“What about the old people’s home?” Dolly suggested.

My dismay must have shown itself on my face, for she went on to say that some people there were quite interesting.

“It’s for gentlefolk, as Sister Dew never tires of pointing out, and most of them have their own furniture with them.”

The idea of elderly persons of gentle birth surrounded by their own bits of Chippendale and Sheraton, not to mention Chelsea, Waterford and Meissen, was not one that attracted me, and I said so.

“Besides, what could I do there?”

“Read to them,” said Dolly.

“Read to them? How appalling! What should I read?”

“Novels and biographies, poetry, the Bible–do you know that Professor Maynard sometimes looks in on a retired missionary there?”

So Caro begins reading to former missionary, Reverend Stillingfleet, a man who guards a chest full of unpublished manuscripts that both Alan and his department head, Crispin Maynard want to get their hands on….

Caro finds herself involved in some morally questionable shenanigans, and while that might seem to be the novel’s central dilemma, an unexpected problem also appears in her relationship with Alan. Caro is very jealous of  Alan’s relationship with his  colleague, the very attractive and available Iris. Is she a threat or is Caro imagining an attachment where there is none?

An Academic Question is clearly much less polished that Pym’s other superb (perfect) novels. Caro, as the book’s central character lacks a solid centre. She’s sometimes sympathetic, but at others quite repellent. In common with other Pym heroines, she’s a little lost, not sure of her role in life–she’s more an appendage to her husband than anything else. She contemplates taking a lover, but an accidental meeting with an old beau seems to reinforce the tepidness of such a move.

One of the wonderful things about Pym as a novelist is that she is always very generous to her characters, and this author’s novels of manners are, above all, gentle. Somehow, An Academic Question is a little harsher and there’s some definite ugliness. There’s an abortion, an affair, and some cruel words spoken. Written at a point in Pym’s career when she was used to publisher rejections, she stopped work on this novel as she considered too much like all the others. Instead she continued to work on A Quartet in Autumn which is my very favourite Pym novel, and makes my all-time favourite book list. A Quartet in Autumn is one of the best books on the subject of aging that I’ve ever read, and while it’s sad in its depictions of the lonely lives of 4 retirees, An Academic Question gives us a peek under the layers of society on some of the same issues: those who are young, vigorous and on their way upwards in their careers, and those who are facing death. Alan can’t wait for Crispin Maynard to retire, and although Alan may not directly benefit from Crispin’s departure, he has the notion that Crispin stands in the way of his career.  The old must make way for the young.  Caro sees Crispin as kind and thoughtful, but Alan sees him as an archaic thinker, a backstabber of the first order.

The book’s best scenes are those of the nastiness of Academia. The dinner parties, the lectures–they’re all opportunities for conceit and snide insults. Pym understood the worlds she created, and so the scenes of academic life–the two-faced smiles and the backstabbing at faculty dinners and parties are perfect.

The biggest problem with the novel is that some of the characters are undeveloped and underutilized. One of my favourite characters is Dolly, a spinster who pours her love and her life into hedgehogs. Whatever else is going on in the world matters little when compared to Dolly’s colony of hedgehogs she nurtures in her back garden. She is the epitome of Pym’s belief that we all need something to love–no matter the object. Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a vain woman who lived on a Caribbean island  and misses the privilege of her colonial lifestyle, is mostly talked about and not seen. Her asexual, gossipy, vain son, Coco is in his 40s but still lives with his mother; his relationship with Caro is complicated and could have been developed. The most troubling problem with the novel, however, is that the two central dilemmas in Claire’s life are unresolved. They are both biggies and yet they just seem to melt away….Of course, it’s impossible to guess how Pym would have finished this novel before submitting it for publication. We can only speculate.

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Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie

Again the idea that he has fallen into a Henry James novel occurs to Fred; but now he casts Rosemary in a different role, as one of James’ beautiful, worldly, corrupt villainesses.”

Late last year, I read and enjoyed Alison Lurie’s novel,  The War Between the Tates, and so I decided to reread Foreign Affairs, a novel I enjoyed the first time around, and one I enjoyed even more on a reread. This is a very clever, subtle book with more than a touch of Henry James, but then what else could we expect with two Americans–one a hopeless Anglophile, both in Britain for research. Even though these two Americans, one in his prime and the other a middle-aged woman, have vastly different attitudes towards Britain, they are both seduced by the culture in different ways, and one of these Americans catches himself feeling rather like a lost character in a Henry James novel.

Foreign affairsThe novel’s main character is 54-year-old Virginia, “Vinnie,” Miner, an American professor who fancies herself as inherently more British than American, so when she finds herself on a flight to London sitting next to Chuck Mumpson, a  loud, badly dressed American tourist who mistakes her for a woman who’s returning home, she’s initially annoyed by his disruptive presence but then secretly delighted by his assumption that she’s British. Hailing from New York and teaching at “upstate” Corinth university, Vinnie is travelling to Britain for a six-month long research study into “folk-rhymes of schoolchildren.” Vinnie sees Britain as her spiritual home, and if she could wrangle a way to move there permanently, she would. She feels that she’s a “nicer person there and that her life was more interesting.” In London, she has a regular round of friends and a more glamorous social life that seems to be lacking at Corinth.

England, for Vinnie, is and always has been the imagined and desired country. For a quarter of a century she visited it in her mind, where it had been slowly and lovingly shaped and furnished out of her favorite books, from Beatrix Potter to Anthony Powell.

Vinnie’s chance encounter with Chuck, the very sort of American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with, continues when Chuck, deciding that Vinnie is the only person he knows in Britain, asks for help tracing his noble ancestry. Vinnie, at first annoyed by Chuck, soon begins to feel a sort of responsibility for him.

The novel’s second main character is the young, extremely handsome professor, Fred Turner also from Corinth, who’s supposed to be in London researching John Gay. Following a quarrel, Fred and his wife are in a “trial separation,” and that leaves Fred alone and lonely in London, unable to concentrate on his research in the British Museum (renamed Bowel Movement), surrounded by “other readers, many of them eccentric or possibly insane,” and leading a miserable existence on a pittance. Fred’s life seems to turn around when he meets the glamorous British actress, Rosemary at one of Vinnie’s parties. Rosemary is known for “frequent, sexual lapses–referred to later with laughter in phrases like ‘I don’t know what came over me’ or ‘It must have been the Champagne.’ “

The novel follows the literal and figurative “foreign affairs” of Fred and Vinnie.  Fred, is swept up in Rosemary’s intimate circle, and he’s soon embroiled in the social life of her set, leaving his American friends and acquaintances in the dust. Partly by observing Fred, Vinnie, on the other hand, begins to feel not so involved with her British acquaintances, and the fact that Fred is invited to social events that she isn’t a part of serves to underscore the tourist/temporary nature of her many stays in Britain. The novel has a great deal to say about being an American in Britain, and ultimately our characters realize the impossibility of thoroughly fitting in or completely understanding the subtler nuances of behaviour and conversation which isn’t something one can read about in a guide book or pick up casually during a few months holiday. Fred’s miserable American friends Joe and Debbie Vogeler are prime examples of tourists who don’t get it. They feel that Britain has somehow been misrepresented–from the weather to the food–everything is a huge disappointment:

After making a big effort for over a month they have given up on the whole scene. They are also really pissed off at themselves for having been dumb enough to come here on leave from the adjacent Southern California colleges at which they teach, with a year-old baby on top of everything. They were warned, but they had been brainwashed by their admiration for British literature (Debby) and British philosophy (Joe). Why hadn’t they listened to their friends? they keep asking each other. Why hadn’t they gone to Italy or Greece, or even stayed home in Claremont, for god’s sake? Britain might have been great in the past, all right, but in their opinion modern London sucks.

In one very humourous scene, the Vogelers complain about the natives: the grocery shop owner was who “really disagreeable,” when Debbie suggests he stock American items, a disgruntled plumber, and the woman at the dry cleaners who handled Debbie’s pants “as if they had a smell.” Disillusioned and feeling swindled by images of a Britain that exists only in their imagination, Debbie and Joe are convinced that the locals are “in collusion” against “dumb young American professors.” Fred’s attempts to get the Vogelers to mingle only ends in disaster, and oddly enough while the Vogelers can’t assimilate, they are entranced by a Druids meeting that Fred finds absolutely appalling. Fred felt just as alienated and disappointed in Britain as the Vogelers, but falling for Rosemary changed his mind.

One of the novel’s themes is appearances vs reality, so of course, the fictional imagined postcard Britain is unfavourably compared to the reality of unattractive accommodations, the impossibly tiresome British Museum and the tinselness of the tourist circuit. As Fred notes:

I get this weird idea that I’m not really in London, that this place isn’t London, it’s some kind of imitation.

And of course as a tourist, regular daily life is something that Americans in London will not experience. The theme of appearances vs. reality  also extends to the two main characters, Fred and Vinnie. Vinnie has always been a plain woman, but now in her mid 50s, slim and neat, she’s suddenly attractive when compared to other women of her own age group. She thinks she’s ‘almost’ British, but in reality, Rosemary’s set find her rather peculiar. And then there’s Fred–a man who is so good-looking that incorrect assumptions are made about his character. Both characters are judged on their appearances and neither of them really have a good grasp on how they appear to others. Vinnie also initially judges Chuck on his appearance, dismissing him as exactly the sort of noisy uncouth American tourist she doesn’t want to be associated with.

Foreign Affairs is, above all, a very amusing novel of two academics far from home engaging in behaviour that would not exist in their native surroundings. Vinnie is a delightfully real character–bribing urchins to recite, as it turns out, raunchy rhymes, and at other times retreating into self-pity or revenge fantasies against her academic enemies. She also has a habit of appropriating items and adding them to her household “in the vague but recurrent belief that life owes her a little something.” In spite of the novel’s lively humour, there’s also a sad strain to the story which involves last loves and disillusioned love. Emma’s review shares my enthusiasm, but with a different take.

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King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

Last year, one of my favourite reads: The Northern Clemency, came from the mind of British author, Philip Hensher, so naturally I was delighted by the news that he’d written another book. While The Northern Clemency, as the title suggests, is set in the north of England and spans several decades in the lives of various characters, King of the Badgers, yet another marvellous novel from Hensher, is set in Devon.  

Now before you start thinking ‘Devon, how quaint’ and memories of picturesque coves, pretty postcards, donkeys and cobbled streets start bouncing in your brain… STOP! Think again. This is a Hensher novel, and that means a study of the pettiness and quirks of human nature, a dissection of human relationship fraught with barbed humour. I loved every page of it. I read one blurb which compared King of the Badgers to Thackeray; another offered a comparison to Eliot. For this reader, King of The Badgers is a 21st century Trollope. Those who’ve read Trollope’s Barchester Towers will remember that the drama begins when the position of Bishop becomes vacant. This sparks a fallout of petty rivalry and politics as the claws appear and various people vie for the job. In a similar fashion, Hensher also puts his characters in a social petri dish and watches the action, but in King of the Badgers, the action is initiated by the disappearance of China, an eight-year old girl.

King of the Badgers is set in the small fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. To visitors, Hanmouth is an incredibly picturesque town set on the Hain estuary. Hanmouth seems to offer the sort of idyllic quaint life that no longer exists elsewhere in Britain, and the local shops reflect an almost-Disney-like facade of a bygone world. There are “three historic pubs,” one of the few butcher shops left in Britain, “knick-knack shops, “amateur jewellers making a go if it,” an  “Oriental emporium,” a dozen antique shops, a junk market, a fishmongers, a used book shop, and a “specialist cheese shop” which boasts such delicacies as “lesbian bleu d’ Auvergne.”  Hanmouth may sound the ideal place to live– indeed it does attract newcomers, disparagingly called “Grockles” by the locals, but as the novel plays out, Hanmouth, a veritable Peyton Place of over-mortgaged homes and nasty, snobby people, is revealed to be a seething hotbed of gossip, rabid class divisions, adultery, dogging dates, orgies, and relentless social preening.

One of Hanmouth’s leaders of society is university lecturer, Miranda–a powerhouse of a woman whose innate snobbery hides behind her “post colonial” theories and the “collecting box for an African cause” located prominently near the front door. Miranda, who specializes in Regency woman poets, leads and dominates the local book group, and directs the Hanmouth Players in productions of such atrocities as The Bacchae or Woyzeck:

She was aware of the dangers to a woman of her size and age of flowing red and purple velvet, of ethnic beads  and the worst that Hampstead Bazaar could do. She would not, like most of Hanmouth’s women, be inspired by Dame Judi Dench on an Oscar night, and she dressed , as far as possible, in the black and white lines and corners of the fat wife of a Weimar architect.

Just who you are in Hanmouth is dictated by your address, and the streets are sharply delineated by geography. With just four main streets, the most expensive homes are located at the town centre and afford  “at its most expensive, unfettered views of the estuary and the hills beyond, crested with a remote and ducal folly-tower.”  The highly desirable Dutch-gable houses are the homes of the nouveaux riches, while the second street harbours the throughly affluent, solid and conservative middle-class. The third street is the niche for the local “bohemians,” and things go downhill from there until you hit one of the seedier suburbs that are not “Hanmouth proper.” This is the section for the riff-raff, and it’s not considered part of Hanmouth at all–a handy division as it turns out. Nothing much happens in Hanmouth–well at least nothing much appears to happen in Hanmouth until the small town makes the headlines with the disappearance of China, the daughter of slatternly hairdresser, Heidi O’Connor, a resident of one of Hanmouth’s scummier suburbs. China, left at home with her siblings, slipped down to the shops and never returned:

“In any case,” Heidi said to the police later, quite calmly, “I knew China hadn’t gone to visit her friends for one straight and simple reason. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s not been a popular girl, ever. They bully her, I expect, because they say she’s fat and she smells. I don’t think she smells, but at that age, it’s always some reason they’ve got to pick on her, isn’t it? I knew she hadn’t gone to visit a friend. To tell the truth, I thought at first, China, she’s playing some trick on her brother and sister. I’ll tan her hide, I thought at first.”

When the book begins, Heidi and her gormless live-in lover “a moon faced reprobate” named Mickey, the epicentre of a media storm, are having the times of their lives. Meanwhile, the unbalanced zealot John Calvin, the chairman of the Hanmouth Strand Neighbourhood Watch Committee, and the self-appointed, self-righteous  liaison, agent and spokesperson for Heidi O’Connor takes the disappearance of China as the excuse to crackdown on the local population, and he demands the installation of even more CCTV cameras. As the case of the missing child grows bigger, most of Hanmouth’s residents are more concerned with the image Heidi O’Connor gives of Hanmouth than the implications that they may have a child abductor in their midst. The greatest critics of the case are snobby Miranda and her book club crowd. The topic is up for discussion at the book club meeting:

“The thing I truly object to, Kitty said, “and I know this sounds trivial and I don’t care if it sounds a bit snobbish, but I do care about this. It’s that the whole world now thinks of Hanmouth as being this sort of awful council estate and nothing else, and Hanmouth people like this awful Heidi and Mickey people. Absolutely everything you read in the papers is about how they live in Hanmouth, and frankly, they don’t. They live on the Ruskin estate, where I’ve never been and I hope never to go anywhere near.” 

While most of the characters are an unpleasant lot, by far the most sympathetic characters are two outsiders, middle-aged Catherine and her retired husband Alec who, lured by the promise of picture-postcard-perfect vistas, make the mistake of moving to Hanmouth from St Albans. The book notes their forays into the real estate market and their diminishing expectations which end with the purchase of a flat–built, it seems, to deliberately ruin Miranda’s view from her million-pound plus Dutch gable home.

The book, which is divided into more-or-less into three sections, also follows the glum efforts of Catherine and Alec’s overweight, social reject gay son, David, to get the semblance of a social life. David can’t acknowledge his distress or sense of abandonment when his parents take off for Hanmouth. One subplot concerns David’s visit to Hanmouth with the very attractive Italian waiter, Mauro in tow. Mauro, under financial obligation to David,  agrees to pose as David’s lover with mixed results. David and Mauro spend an awkward weekend attending Catherine and Alec’s flatwarming party only to leave in order to attend an orgy.

In King of the Badgers, author Philip Hensher appears to be fascinated by the dichotomy between personal and private lives, and the sensitive distance between the two which is vulnerable and in increasing danger of being trespassed. It’s interesting to note that in spite of the plethora of CCTV cameras in Hanmouth, no visual record exists of China’s disappearance, yet this doesn’t stop the rabid puritanical John Calvin (is his name any coincidence?) from demanding even more CCTV cameras, eventually violating the ‘sacred’ idea of   “an Englishman’s home is his castle.”

The issues of personal and public life is prominent throughout the novel and goes far beyond the installation of CCTV cameras. There’s Miranda–a woman who lives very much in the public eye who’s guilty, as Dickens would say, of “telescopic philanthropy” saving coins for Africa while her husband leads a double life, and their daughter Hettie, disliked and mostly ignored, silently and sulkily tortures her dolls:  “Child Pornography,” “Slightly Jewish,” “Dead in Childbirth” and “Shitface.”

The book has no shortage of well-drawn characters–including Sam, the owner of the artisanal cheese shop and his gay lover Harry, whose looks, money and peerage leads the locals to punctuate his name with the well-worn phrase “what-a-waste.”  Sam, a member of Miranda’s book club, seems to attend just to stir the pot and replenish his wickedly funny observations of the local haute-ton. He  “relished [these] moments of embarrassing social disposition.” Here’s a scene from the book club meeting in which Sam stokes the disdain towards the family of the missing girl:

“I saw a newspaper photographer in a boat in the middle of the estuary, taking photographs,” Sam said eagerly. “Out there in Brian Miller’s ferryboat. Taking a photograph of the church and the strand and the quay. That’ll turn up in the Sun as a photograph of Heidi’s home town, I promise you.”

“As if that family could live somewhere like this.”

“Or, really, more to the point, as if they would ever contrive a story like this if they did live on the Strand,” Miranda said. “One may be cynical, but one does think that moral attitudes and truthfulness and not having your children kidnapped for the sake of the exposure don’t go with deprivation. It’s material deprivation that starts all this off.”

“They’ve got dishwashers, Miranda,” Bill said. “They’re not examples of material deprivation . But you’re right. You don’t hear about children disappearing from Hanmouth proper, do you? It’s just bad education, ignorance, idleness and avarice.’

“And drugs,” put in Sam. Don’t forget the drugs.”

As the novel continues, its characters forget the disappearance of China and dreams up fantasies that she’s off having a grand time in Butlin’s, and so as readers we are taken along for the ride and we too become mired in the petty dramas of life in Hanmouth. Some characters get their comeuppance, but for most, life carries on…

That should give you a taste of what you have in store in King of The Badgers. This a novel that seethes with gossip, hypocrisy, snobbery, false lives, and sheer pettiness, and I loved every bitchy minute.

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The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

The rapid descent to alpha male dominance was complete.”

The Vices by American author Lawrence Douglas is both an intense character study and an exploration of the nature of identity and authenticity. The novel begins with the knowledge that the main character, 41-year-old philosophy professor, Oliver Vice, has disappeared while a passenger in a Cunard ship sailing from London to New York. Evidence strongly suggests that Oliver threw himself overboard, but with no suicide note left by a man who was an eternal thinker and chronicler, the story’s unnamed narrator is left with the puzzling question: why did Oliver commit suicide? 

And this is how the book begins:

On July 18, 200-, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24, with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.

This seemingly simple passage establishes several things: Oliver’s disappearance, the strange nature of the relationship between Oliver and the unnamed narrator, and the idea that while facts and figures may exist around the perimeters of life, numbers and facts don’t offer explanations.

With the knowledge of Oliver’s disappearance, the unnamed narrator begins to introduce shades of Oliver’s complex personality. A symbolic funeral is held for Oliver (the body was never found) which is attended by Oliver’s five “widows” who are “drawn from various spots on the globe” to mourn for the man they all loved:

The ‘widows’ cried openly, but not in competition. I doubt they knew fully of each other. Like members of a terrorist cell, each lover had knowledge limited to one degree of separation, a blinkered picture of Oliver’s romantic entanglements.

From that point, the narrator goes back to his first meeting with Oliver which took place about 12 years earlier when they met in a book shop. Oliver, an independently wealthy philosophy professor considered “aloof” and “arrogant” by colleagues, was a “hot commodity” in the academic world. He was extensively published and was hired with immediate tenure at Harkness College where he enjoyed celebrity status. The narrator, with just one novel under his belt, is also at Harkness on a temporary position as the writer-in-residence . While the two men are about the same age, they are a study in contrasts. Oliver comes from old money;  he’s suave, popular and polished, and while we don’t know much about the narrator’s background, he’s under considerable financial constraints (enough to worry about book purchases). As the two men become unlikely friends, the narrator is introduced to Oliver’s glamorous and eccentric family. Gradually the narrator begins to resemble Oliver. This is due in part to the fact that the narrator copies Oliver’s style of dress and even wears his cologne. But curiously, the narrator is mistaken for Oliver–it’s never the other way round. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. We have a central character who’s no longer there, and then there’s the ghost of a narrator, a hollow cipher who attaches himself as an identity parasite rather like Nick in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

The narrator charts his relationship with Oliver Vice, and although the narrator marries, has a career and children, his focus is squarely and obsessively on Oliver, so while there’s a top-layer story here–Oliver’s many love affairs, his bizarre extra-curricular activities, his strained relationships with his overbearing Hungarian mother, Francizka Nagy and his “gargantuan fraternal twin” brother Bartholomew, and the over-growing mystery concerning Oliver Vice’s background, there’s also an unexplored undercurrent. Why is the narrator so fascinated by Oliver? Why does the interest in Oliver swamps every other aspect of the narrator’s life?

Identity is a major theme in the novel, and the narrator seems to be a fairly colourless, nebulous personality  in contrast to the larger-than-life Vice family. The narrator is exposed to Oliver’s insane home life in which the past is rolled out at every opportunity by Oliver’s mother–a woman whose terrible stories about suffering and betrayal don’t add up. Oliver appears to be a well-defined person, a vegetarian and avid art collector with definite political opinions that he is willing to risk his career for, but in reality Oliver is a morass of contrasts and contradictions who devotes a lot of energy to projecting the image that he’s created for himself. On one hand, in his professional life he is “a creature of Kantian firmness, intolerant of excuses or embellishments or missed deadlines,” and yet in his private life, he’s incapable of making the simplest decision. This dichotomy of personality is held together by a very fine and fragile web of projected persona which is eventually challenged by the events that take place. Oliver’s major book, Paradoxes of Self, is the physical detritus of his secret struggle with self-identity. At the time of his death, Oliver, plagued by writer’s block was working on another book, The Fakea book that promised to wed his philosophical and art historical interests.” His colleagues at Harkness considered Oliver a “wunderkind who, after an early splash, had drifted into premature irrelevance.”

If Oliver has a hero, then that person is Wittgenstein (a telling selection). Oliver’s book  Paradoxes of Self  is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and what’s more Oliver quotes Wittgenstein frequently. But the Oliver Vice-Wittgenstein connection goes beyond philosophy. According to Oliver’s troubled lover, Sophia, Oliver is “like his hero, Wittgenstein. Brilliant but incapable of some pretty basic stuff.”  Here’s Oliver explaining why he’s been fired by his therapist:

He became so fed up with my endless frantic rehashing of the same problems, so dis spirited by my compulsive tendency to seek advice which I then ignore or declare myself incapable of implementing, so perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end, and so alarmed by my inability or refusal to restrain my thoughts, which overheat and go nowhere, like bats flapping around a closed attic, that he began last week’s session with the simple declaration, ‘I don’t think I’m helping you. I don’t think I’m capable of helping you.’ He apologized and we shook hands; I even tried to cheer him up–he did as good a job as anybody could have…

My only complaint about the novel is that I guessed one key element, but then again, perhaps I was supposed to. This put me in the position of being one step ahead of the narrator who’s blinded, after all, by his proximity to the Vice family.

The Vices is not a novel of action or dialogue. Instead this is an intriguing and complex study of one troubled man by another. This multi-layered novel comes highly recommended for fans of Michael Frayn.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.

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Changing Places by David Lodge

A tale of two professors

As part of an exchange programme, Britain’s Rummidge University swops literature professors each year with Euphoria State in California. Humble Rummidge University–set in the darkest heart of the Midlands sends lowly Phillip Swallow to glorious, golden California, and Euphoria State sends Morris Zapp to England. Both professors leave their wives and families behind–Swallow is chomping at the bit for the freedom that beckons, and Zapp is hoping that his second wife won’t go through with a threatened divorce.

Zapp and Swallow are opposites, but they are both unpleasant and unappealing in different ways. Swallow loves literature–in all its forms, but his “undiscriminating enthusiasm” has resulted in an inability to settle on a period or a writer. He is, however, considered an expert in the drafting of examination questions, and he seriously considers compiling a book of his “best-ever” questions. In Swallow’s mind, this book of questions is destined to become a significant work of philosophy. Zapp, the Californian, is a Jane Austen scholar (his children are named Elizabeth and Darcy), and he suffers from recurring nightmares in which placard-carrying students demonstrate against studying Jane Austen. Unlike Swallow, Zapp doesn’t believe in the power of questions and declares that it is the “answers that separated the men from the boys.” While Zapp possessed stunning credentials years ago, the truth is that he hasn’t published anything in years. His last attempted project was to produce a mammoth work on Jane Austen in the hope that this will put “a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject.” But Zapp is mired down in Sense and Sensibility, and with his wife threatening to divorce him, Zapp accepts the trip to England to buy some time.

Swallow takes to the California lifestyle with gusto. He begins dressing more casually, and within days he’s visiting strip clubs and joining in enthusiastically with the student activists on campus. In one hilarious episode, Swallow attends a departmental function, and asks that everyone play a game of “Humiliation.” The object of the game is to prove that you are the least well-read person in the room. As we all know, this game is the antithesis of the typical English major’s behaviour. The dilemma for the players is whether or not to reveal their superior knowledge and lose, or win by exposing and promoting their ignorance in a room full of PhDs.

Zapp finds lodging with an eccentric Irish doctor who can’t stop salivating over his new lodger’s television. At Euphoria State, Zapp is used to being the darling of the English Department, and it takes him some time to adjust to the new social conventions at Rummidge. While trying to adjust to the English climate, Zapp also undergoes a moral transformation and actually commits an unselfish act or two. Rather uncannily, Zapp and Swallow both become embroiled in some startlingly similar situations, and it soon becomes apparent that the professors did more than just exchange jobs!

About halfway through the novel, the author switches to the epistolary form. This later changes to various reprints of newspaper articles. Then it’s back to standard novel form before the ending, and the ending is written in the form of a play or script. The novel is amusing from beginning to end–although I do have to say that the ending was a bit of a disappointment. But, that said, the book really gave me a lot of laughs and a great deal to think about. If you enjoy novels with an academic setting, then you will enjoy Changing Places.

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