Wednesday, 30 March 2016

John McGahern: ‘one of the greatest prose writers of the twentieth century’

When John McGahern passed away in March 2006 his body of published work comprised six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, two volumes of collected stories and one play (an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness). He had also scripted a small number of radio and television adaptations. Reviews and other prose essays were brought together in an edited collection after his death.

Given that his writing career spanned five decades, McGahern’s output was not prolific. The relatively low volume of work can be explained by his creative imperative: he once said that “rather than write novels or stories I write to see”. This perception of writing as an act of seeing, of discovery or self-discovery, did not lend itself to a steady flow of finished work – or work that he was satisfied with. McGahern also continuously refined and edited his work, believing that it was the writer’s primary duty to write well.

Having found a publisher for his first novel, he made the unusual and courageous decision to withdraw it: dissatisfied with the work, he offered The Barracks in its place. He later rewrote the second half of his third novel, The Leavetaking, and republished it 10 years after it first appeared. This lack of complacency about his writing was characteristic of McGahern for whom complacency was the writer’s enemy.

What McGahern wanted “to see”, the quest for clarity, could only be achieved through painstaking attention to detail. He shared with Henry James the belief that “responsible lucidity can be wrested from [the darkness] only by painful, vigilant effort, the intense scrutiny of particulars”. And what he sought to apprehend – and gloriously succeeded with such lucidity – was how the individual might best negotiate her or his place in the world. The forward momentum of McGahern’s life’s work was driven by this need.

In The Barracks this negotiation is realised through the consciousness of a dying woman for whom any attempt to invest her death with meaning yields to a recognition that “what is happening is enough in itself”. This debut novel revealed McGahern’s preoccupation with the innate dignity and value of human life in its actual living, rather than in any transcendent meaning. In his often overlooked novel, The Pornographer, the bereft eponymous hero expresses the brief hope:

“That all had a purpose, that it had to have, the people coming and going, the ships tied up along the North Wall, the changing delicate lights and ripples of the river, the cranes and building, lights of shops, and the sky through a blue haze of smoke and frost. And then it slipped way, and I found myself walking with a light and eager step to nowhere among others, in a meaningless haze of goodwill and general benediction and shuffle, everything fragmented again.” This fleeting grasp at meaning, framed – as such moments often are in McGahern’s work – by an aesthetic response to the environment, leaves no residual sense of loss. Instead, there is acceptance of the ways things are, and a palpable sense of relief that the burden of seeking a higher purpose to life is lifted.

Notoriously reticent when discussing his novels and stories, John McGahern likewise refused to yield to any interrogation that sought to ascribe particular significance or meaning to his work or to offer the reader any guide to how it might be interpreted. Nor did he like to claim too much authority for his own work, suggesting that a book is “a coffin of words” until opened by the reader.

While loved by readers, he is often referred to as a “writer’s writer”, in the way that a craft is sometimes best appreciated by those who recognise the graft behind it – the constant stretching toward the elusive image, the struggle to get the “words right”.

When he wrote Amongst Women, published 11 years after The Pornographer, many readers and reviewers believed he had found the perfect words. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and for many it remains his finest work. Now that we can assess his work in its entirety, it becomes clear that the work that followed Amongst Women had to look beyond the self, turning away from the “pool of narcissis”, toward a connection with the wider world.

The novel’s tightly controlled prose, in a clear alliance of form and content, is reflective of Moran’s desire to contain himself and his family, itself a microcosm of Irish society. But Michael Moran’s hermetically sealed environment is a rejection of the world that previous McGahern characters had struggled so hard to come to terms with, and with which an accommodation must be reached. Moran had refused any form of negotiation.

Turning outwards, McGahern’s last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, and a number of late short stories continue his scrutiny of the individual’s relationship to one’s environment, but the focus shifts from the private to the public, or common, realm. As the yearning for self-knowledge through others – through the broader community of mankind – is explored, McGahern’s awareness of the need for responsible lucidity is not compromised. The writer never becomes complacent.

Each of the later works contains its warnings: about the consequences of narcissism; about the absence of shared understanding; about trading achievement for feeling. They also propose that when we leave the past behind we should bring its insights with us. But wanting to live, in McGahern’s world, demands reflection on how to live.

The quiet power of McGahern’s prose should not be underestimated. This became even clearer to me when working on a collaborative project to dramatise two of his short stories for performance. As the script writer, concerned too with finding the “right” words, I did not fully grasp the audacity of the undertaking until the first dramatisation was completed. Great care had been taken, but was it enough?

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Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: a masterpiece and its genre

The title of Charlotte Palmer’s It Is, and It Is Not a Novel (1792) could describe a lot of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century prose fiction. It was a time when novels could be declared on their title pages to be histories, adventures, tales, true stories, romances, narratives, or simply “a work”; their eventual lumping together under the label “novel” was a back formation. Palmer’s cheeky title and sharp preface point up perfectly the era’s classificatory disquiet.

It Is, and It Is Not a Novel crops up in Karen O’Brien’s introduction to her and Peter Garside’s collection of essays, English and British Fiction 1750–1820 (Volume Two of a planned twelve in The Oxford History of the Novel in English). There the obscure Palmer and her equally obscure epistolary fiction are credited with having anticipated “what now would be called ‘crossover fiction,’ as well as novels commenting on the process of fiction writing”. That may well be, but Palmer’s taxonomic precociousness doesn’t guarantee a good read. As Steven Moore concludes of Palmer’s creation in The Novel: An alternative history (2013), “Let’s just say it is, and it is not an interesting novel”.

Jane Austen’s Emma, on the other hand, is an interesting novel, full stop – a masterpiece, if not the masterpiece, of the genre. Emma’s opening line is not as famous as Pride and Prejudice’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, but provides just as much to mull over. Of Chapter One’s first six words, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich”, the critics ask why is the heroine handsome not beautiful, clever not intelligent, rich not wealthy? Austen famously quipped that Emma was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. This unusual novel – about a privileged, matchmaking, misreading but redeemable young woman whose story may teach us to be better readers ourselves – is celebrating its bicentenary. The question is: when?

The title page of Emma is dated 1816, but the book first appeared in print on December 23, 1815. Such post-dating is briefly mentioned by Jan Fergus in Peter Sabor’s Cambridge Companion to “Emma”. But it is in the OHNE that one learns of the banality of the practice. As OHNE’s James Raven argues, in a tour-de-force chapter on “Production”, “post-dating was common, designed to extend the currency of the novel . . . . Novels printed and published in August or even as early as April carried the date of the following year”. Bicentenaries of Emma are rightly celebrated in both 2015 and 2016, something likely to remain confusing to all but diehard Janeites.

The OHNE attends to very different bicentenaries. In his “Afterword: The rise of the ‘rise’ of the novel”, Clifford Siskin calls attention to two of them – “the shared anniversaries of the novel and Literature”. He marks the moment of the novel’s securing a place in the canon, alongside the emergence of the first English Department and the establishment of a body of texts that comprised Literature (with a capital L) in Britain. Siskin dates these twin phenomena to the 1810s and 20s.

Emma declares itself “A novel” in its subtitle, and literary histories have long noted that Austen’s claim was a relatively bold one, amid all those true stories and romances. Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), with its brief defence of novels, has emerged as our go-to text for illustrating the genre’s once fragile status. Newly available datasets (including the online database British Fiction, 1800–1829) allow us to put to the test such assumptions about the novel’s gradual reputational shift from trash to treasure. We can more reliably gauge whether Austen’s vindication of novels was behind, of, or ahead of, her time. (The best answer seems to be “of”, if we are talking about its first moment of composition in the 1790s, and “behind”, if we mean the 1810s.) Still, old habits of quotation die hard; the very frequency with which Austen’s defence is referred to props up the myth that hers was a lone voice in the literary wilderness.

The wilderness was hardly uninhabited. Certainly, there is no doubt, from a quantitative standpoint, that the numbers of novels (or whatever they were called) rose. Raven estimates that a total of 3,374 novels appeared between 1750 and 1819 of which 7 per cent are now lost to history. Steady growth each decade from the 1750s (231 titles) to the 1800s (778 titles) was followed by a dropping-off in the 1810s (667 titles). How many now recognize that Austen was publishing during the first decade that experienced a strictly numerical downturn for novels in more than half a century?

In studies of the novel in English, as in many humanities fields, such quantitative data can prompt groundbreaking new interpretations. The OHNE refers to this methodology as the “new bibliography”. (Siskin gives it, after Francis Bacon, a more science-fiction sounding name, the “new organon”.) Its work is notable for featuring graphs, tables, percentages and four- and five-digit numbers in every paragraph, no longer only for marking acts of Parliament or regnal years. The new bibliography propels the overturning of some truisms about novels, authors, books and reading practices, while simultaneously ratifying others, at least as numerical truths.

Throughout the massive OHNE volume for this period, thirty-four contributors consider the novel from an array of vantage points, describing the genre as a multivalent, powerful “cultural force”. OHNE’s Gillian Russell calls it “the novel complex”, evoking its “dynamic, expansive relationship with other media”. Siskin dubs it “novelism”, a “placement procedure” and “construction technique” that came to dominate other “overwritten kinds”. (By overwritten, he does not mean full of purple prose, but rather, in IT terminology, erased under.)

These grand claims are most convincing for readers who have taken in the OHNE’s entire concatenation of details, such as those in M. O. Grenby’s chapter on children’s and juvenile literature, one of the novel’s eventually “overwritten kinds”. Grenby describes how titles “originally aimed at adults . . . were quickly appropriated by or for young readers”. Sometimes forbidden to youth, adult novels were also placed in young hands in the absence of a defined body of children’s literature. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was reading novels designed for adults by the age of six. Charlotte M. Yonge, at the age of eleven, was allowed one chapter of a Walter Scott novel a day, provided she first read from a more “solid book”. Grenby’s chapter builds on and extends the arguments of others in the OHNE, such as Anthony Mandal’s in “Evangelical Fiction” and Anthony Jarrells’s in “Short Fictional Forms and the Rise of the Tale”.

Sabor’s Cambridge Companion to “Emma” provides fewer moments of cross-fertilization, but its twelve chapters set out to guide the reader to a deepened understanding of the novel from its creation to the present day in just 219 pages. It takes readers to many useful places the OHNE does not, including the period’s musical culture (Ruth Perry) and games, riddles and charades (Jillian Heydt-Stevenson).

New insights into Frank Churchill’s gift of a Broadwood piano and the now defunct meaning of charades productively shift our ability to read Emma better. The Companion and the OHNE cover some similar ground, albeit in different registers, such as looking at translations (Gillian Dow in the Companion and OHNE’s Wil Verhoven in “The Global British Novel”).

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Monday, 28 March 2016

D. H. Lawrence: Beautiful Old Age

It ought to be lovely to be old
to be full of the peace that comes of experience
and wrinkled ripe fulfilment.

The wrinkled smile of completeness that follows a life
lived undaunted and unsoured with accepted lies
they would ripen like apples, and be scented like pippins
in their old age.

Soothing, old people should be, like apples
when one is tired of love.
Fragrant like yellowing leaves, and dim with the soft
stillness and satisfaction of autumn.

And a girl should say:
It must be wonderful to live and grow old.
Look at my mother, how rich and still she is! -

And a young man should think: By Jove
my father has faced all weathers, but it's been a life! 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Christina Rossetti: A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
         My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
         Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
         No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
         O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
         My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
         And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
         No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
         O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
         A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
         Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
         Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
         O Jesus, drink of me.

Malamud’s Grace

The Times headline reads: “Bernard Malamud is Dead at 71. Author Depicted Human Struggle.” Well, yes, I think, after recovering from the shock and starting to feel the sorrow, he did do that. But don’t all writers do it in one way or another? Isn’t there a depiction of human struggle even in those books that don’t make it their theme or subject, even in those “inhuman” works (as Robbe-Grillet’s novels were called) that are more concerned with the nature of language or perception than with lives? To write at all, to set down words in formal ways, to imagine fictively, is to report on a struggle. Malamud did that, more directly than most.

But what kind of a writer was he? Rilke spoke of fame as “the sum of misunderstandings that has gathered around a person.” Malamud was known for having had “compassion,” “moral wisdom,” a concern for the “ordinary man.” True, but was that what made him a good writer? The misunderstanding in his case lies in how the relation between those virtues and writing itself is seen.

If anything, what we might call the humanistic values of his writing gave him an air of being a little out of date—earnest, kindly, thoughtful. His gaze was on the perennial, instead of conjuring with our confusions and chaos and inventing brilliantly in order to confront and combat them. He was a storyteller in an era when most of our best writers have been suspicious of straightforward narrative. Nobody thinks of him as an innovator, unless being among the first to bring the rhythms and intonations of Jewish, or Yiddish, speech to formal prose counts as innovation.

He himself contributed to the image of a somewhat old-fashioned, or unfashionable, champion of the spirit, a humanist in a literary era in which humanism is almost anomalous. Again and again he used the word “human” in the occasional interviews and speeches he gave: “My work ... is an idea of dedication to the human. ... If you don’t respect man, you cannot respect my work. I’m in defense of the human.” And he spoke of art as “sanctifying human life and freedom.”

So what’s to object, as he might have put it? Those lofty, sonorous phrases, more mottoes than anything else, left me uncomfortable when they came from him and leave me so when they come from others. It isn’t enough to speak of defending the human or respecting man, or rather it sounds a bit self-serving and even pompous. Did he think it was what was expected of him? To shift the burden to us, isn’t it naive to say that he “touched our hearts”? Bad fiction, melodramas, kitsch touch our hearts too, bring tears more reliably, certainly in greater floods, than does good writing.

It seems to me that Malamud was usually at his weakest when he sought or fell into too direct a way to our emotions, when he was most self-consciously “humane.” I think of stories like “Black Is My Favorite Color,” “The Lady of the Lake,” and “The Loan,” each brought down by predictable sentiment, and even more of novels such as The Fixer, at once heavy, pseudo-lyrical, and tendentious; The Tenants, where social painfulness isn’t fully transmuted into imaginative truth; and God’s Grace, embarrassingly cute in a mode of fantasy—jocose, biblically flavored science fiction—to which he wasn’t suited.

To what, then, was he suited? To begin with, there is that swift rooting of so many of his protagonists in an occupation or a past. His opening words located his characters: “S. Levin, formerly a drunkard”; “Davidov, the census-taker”; “Manischevitz, a tailor”; “Fidelman, a self-confessed failure as a painter”; “Kessler, formerly an egg-candler.” Having so placed them, relieved of the necessity to develop them, yet having granted them a specificity that kept them from being parabolic, he moved them quickly into position to experience their fates. These are destinies of self-recognition—ironic, painful, lugubrious, or threnodic—and they are, when all is working well, revelatory of the morally or psychically unknown, or not yet known. And along the way, there are the pleasures of the text, the little fates of language:

From Idiots First: “He drew on his cold embittered clothing.”

From “The Magic Barrel”: “Life, despite their frantic yoohooings, had passed them by.”

From “The Girl of my Dreams”: “... he pitied her, her daughter, the world. Who not?”

From “The Death of Me”: “His heart, like a fragile pitcher, toppled from the shelf and bump bumped down the stairs, cracking at the bottom.”

From “The Jewbird”: “The window was open so the skinny bird flew in. Flappity-flap with its frazzled black wings. That’s how it goes. It’s open, you’re in. Closed, you’re out, and that’s your fate.”

From Dublin’s Lives: “On the road a jogger trotted toward him, a man with a blue band around his head. He slowed down as Dublin halted. ‘What are you running for?’ the biographer asked him. ‘All I can’t stand to do. What about you?’ ‘Broken heart, I think.’ ‘Ah, too bad about that.’ They trotted in opposite directions.”

From somewhere: “exaltation went where exaltation goes.”

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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Murder in Miniature - Orhan Pamuk: My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk is a fifty-year-old Turk frequently hailed as his country's foremost novelist. He is both avant-garde and best-selling. His eminence, like that of the Albanian Ismail Kadare, looms singularly; Western culture-consumers, it may be, don't expect Turkey and Albania to produce novelists at all—at least, novelists so wise in the ways of modernism and postmodernism. Pamuk, the grandson of a wealthy factory director and railroad builder, has been privileged to write without needing to make a living by it. From a family of engineers, he studied engineering, architecture, and journalism, and practiced none of them. Until the age of thirty, he lived with his parents, writing novels that did not get published. When literary success dawned, he married, and now, living in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, he composes, according to an interview he gave Publishers Weekly in 1994, from eleven at night till four in the morning and again, after arising at noon, from two in the afternoon till eight. The results have been prodigious: six novels that recapitulate in Turkish the twentieth-century novel's major modes. His first, “Cevdet Bey and His Sons,” was likened to Thomas Mann's “Buddenbrooks”; his next, “The Silent House,” a multiply narrated week of family interaction, suggested to critics Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner; his third, “The White Castle,” a creepy seventeenth-century tale of double identity, evoked comparison to Borges and Calvino; the fourth, “The Black Book,” a missing-persons adventure saturated in details of Istanbul, was written, by Pamuk's own admission, with Joyce's “Ulysses” in mind; the fifth, “The New Life,” a dreamlike first-person contemporary tale, was described by a reviewer as “Kafka with a light touch”; and the sixth, “My Name Is Red” (translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar; Knopf; $25.95), a murder mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, uses the art of miniature illumination, much as Mann's “Doctor Faustus” did music, to explore a nation's soul.

 “My Name Is Red” weighs in, with its appended chronology, at more than four hundred big pages and belongs, in its high color and scholarly density, with other recent novels that load extensive book learning onto a detective-story plot: A. S. Byatt's “Possession” and Umberto Eco's “The Name of the Rose” and “Foucault's Pendulum.” One worries, with such ambitious flights, whether they aren't a bit narrow-shouldered for the task—whether the rather ironically melodramatic story can carry its burden of pedantry and large import. Nineteenth-century novelists catered to a more generous, less nibbled attention span; they breathed with bigger lungs and naturally wrote long, deep, and wide. Although Pamuk demonstrates the patience and constructive ability of the nineteenth-century fabricators and their heirs Proust and Mann, his instinctive affinity lies with the relatively short-winded Calvino and Borges, philosophical artificers of boxes within boxes. Pamuk's boxes are bigger, but the toylike feeling persists, of craftsmanship exulting in its powers, of giant gadgets like those with which the Europeans used to woo Turkey's sultan with evidence of Western technology.

Pamuk's ingenuity is yoked to a profound sense of enigma and doubleness. The doubleness, he has said, derives from that of Turkey itself, a nation straddling Asia and Europe and divided between the progressive “Kemalist” heritage of Kemal Ataturk's radical reforms of 1924—secularism in government, public education for all, voting rights for women, the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Roman one—and conservative Islam, now resurgent as a repressive, potentially violent fundamentalism from Morocco to Malaysia.

The ostensible topic of “My Name Is Red” is the threatened Westernization of Ottoman pictorial art, an offshoot, protected by Sultan Murat III (r. 1574-95), of the Persian tradition of miniature painting. To honor the thousandth anniversary (measured in lunar years) of the Hegira, which occurred in 622 A.D., an illustrated book is being prepared for the Sultan in the “Frankish,” or “Venetian,” style of receding perspective and recognizable individual portraiture. In the first chapter of “My Name Is Red,” a miniaturist named Elegant, a specialist in gilding, objects so strenuously to the blasphemy of this stylistic change that another miniaturist, unidentified, kills him and drops his body down a well. Later, the same assailant kills Enishte (“Uncle”), the organizer of this dangerous book. One of three miniaturists involved—who are named, in picturesque Ottoman style, Butterfly, Olive, and Stork—must be the murderer. The detective, for want of another, is Enishte's nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul “like a sleepwalker” after twelve years spent in Persia, “carrying letters and collecting taxes” and “working as a secretary in the service of pashas.” In his youth, he studied with the miniaturist apprentices but did not last the course; he exiled himself after Enishte rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte's daughter, Shekure. Now Black has been summoned back by his uncle to help him organize the book for the Sultan. When Enishte is slain, Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years earlier, hastily weds Black but will not let the marriage be consummated until he brings the murderer to justice.

This curious, sumptuous, protracted thriller consists of fifty-nine chapters told from a total of twelve viewpoints, including that of the murderer. The two slain characters address us from the afterlife, and we are even treated, at the end of the longest chapter, to the viewpoint of a severed head, whose eyes and brain continue, in morose fashion, to function for an interim. The reader participates, wincingly, in two blindings by means of the very needle (a “turquoise-and-mother-of-pearl-handled golden needle used to fasten plumes to turbans”) with which the supreme master of Persian miniatures, Bihzad of Herat (c. 1460-1535), blinded himself, by one interpretation, “to make the statement that whosoever beheld the pages of this book”—the Mongol “Book of Kings”—”even once would no longer wish to see anything else in this world” or else, by another theory, to avoid being forced to paint in an uncongenial way for the new conqueror of Herat.

Black, as he rushes about Istanbul trying to win Shekure's heart with feats of detection, relates the most chapters, twelve. Shekure relates eight chapters, and these speed by with the most ease and psychological interest; in her voice the novel becomes a romantic one, driven by emotion and intimate concerns. Preoccupied with her own feelings, her own survival, and the protection of her two young sons, she rarely lectures us on the nuances, stylistic and religious, of Persian-style miniatures. When other characters do, “My Name Is Red” acquires the brilliant stasis of the depictions themselves, and seems to go nearly nowhere. Esther, a Jewish clothes peddler and matchmaker who furthers Shekure's amorous affairs, is another welcome female voice in this stiflingly male world. At the men-only coffeehouse behind the slave market, an unnamed storyteller—a “curtain-caller,” in Persian terminology—performs nine impertinent, irreverent monologues based on rough drawings supplied by the miniaturists. After taking on the personae of a dog, a tree, a coin, Death, the color crimson, a horse, Satan, and two dervishes, he surpasses himself with a discourse on the topic of Woman. He realizes that in his society the topic is pretty well covered up:

In the cities of the European Franks, women roam about exposing not only their faces but also their brightly shining hair (after their necks, their most attractive feature), their arms, their beautiful throats, and even, if what I've heard is true, a portion of their gorgeous legs; as a result, the men of those cities walk about with difficulty, embarrassed and in extreme pain, because, you see, their front sides are always erect and this fact naturally leads to the paralysis of their society as a whole. Undoubtedly, this is why each day the Frank infidel surrenders another fortress to us Ottomans.

Though celibate, the storyteller as a youth succumbed, he confesses, to his curiosity about this exotic gender and tried on the clothes of his mother and his aunt; instantly he was invaded by tinglings of feminine sensitivity, along with “an irrepressible affection toward all children” and a desire “to nurse everybody and cook for the whole world.” When he stuffed his aunt's pistachio-green silk shirt with socks and cloths to simulate breasts, he enjoyed a rich range of contradictory feelings:

I understood at once that men, merely catching sight of the shadow of my overabundant breasts, would chase after them and strive to take them into their mouths; I felt quite powerful, but is that what I wanted? I was befuddled: I wanted both to be powerful and to be the object of pity; I wanted a rich, powerful and intelligent man, whom I didn't know from Adam, to fall madly in love with me; yet I also feared such a man.

These androgynous intuitions lead the storyteller to sing of the doubleness that haunts the novel: “My other parts insist I be a woman when I'm a man and a man when I'm a woman. / How difficult it is to be human, even worse is living a human's life. / I only want to amuse myself frontside and backside, to be Eastern and Western both.”

Shortly after this recitation, the storyteller is killed by a mob of the followers of the cleric Nusret of Erzurum, who preaches that the woes besetting Istanbul—fires, plagues, war casualties, counterfeit coins, decadent drugged behavior of dervishes and others—should be laid “to our having strayed from the path of the Prophet, to disregard for the strictures of the Glorious Koran.” Pamuk (who, in his interview with Publishers Weekly, pointed out that he was the first person in Turkey to defend Salman Rushdie and claimed that in his childhood “religion was something that belonged to the poor and the servants”) makes us tremble for the fate of storytellers in a culture where, to quote him again, “the fundamentalist movement [is] the revenge of the poor against the educated, westernized Turks.” The Times last June gave a grim report on the condition of books and fiction in Muslim lands. “In recent years in Egypt,” the Times said, “mere questioning about a novel's content by any religious faction is usually sufficient grounds to get it banned.” One wonders how religious factions in Turkey reacted to the Islamic content of “My Name Is Red,” which treats of the Islamic afterlife in deadpan detail, including “a portrayal of Our Exalted Prophet's bewilderment and ticklishness, as angels seized him by his underarms during his ascension to Heaven from the top of a minaret,” and which investigates with what might seem blasphemous closeness the sacrilege lurking in pictorial representation.

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Thursday, 24 March 2016

Cesare Pavese: Passion for Solitude

I’m eating a little supper by the bright window.
The room’s already dark, the sky’s starting to turn.
Outside my door, the quiet roads lead,
after a short walk, to open fields.
I’m eating, watching the sky—who knows
how many women are eating now. My body is calm:
labor dulls all the senses, and dulls women too.

Outside, after supper, the stars will come out to touch
the wide plain of the earth. The stars are alive,
but not worth these cherries, which I’m eating alone.
I look at the sky, know that lights already are shining
among rust-red roofs, noises of people beneath them.
A gulp of my drink, and my body can taste the life
of plants and of rivers. It feels detached from things.
A small dose of silence suffices, and everything’s still,
in its true place, just like my body is still.

All things become islands before my senses,
which accept them as a matter of course: a murmur of silence.
All things in this darkness—I can know all of them,
just as I know that blood flows in my veins.
The plain is a great flowing of water through plants,
a supper of all things. Each plant, and each stone,
lives motionlessly. I hear my food feeding my veins
with each living thing that this plain provides.

The night doesn’t matter. The square patch of sky
whispers all the loud noises to me, and a small star
struggles in emptiness, far from all foods,
from all houses, alien. It isn’t enough for itself,
it needs too many companions. Here in the dark, alone,
my body is calm, it feels it’s in charge.

Translated by GEOFFREY BROCK

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Emile Verhaeren: The Silence

Ever since ending of the summer weather.
When last the thunder and the lightning broke,
Shatt'ring themselves upon it at one stroke,
The Silence has not stirred, there in the heather.

All round about stand steeples straight as stakes,
And each its bell between its fingers shakes;
All round about, with their three-storied loads,
    The teams prowl down the roads;
All round about, where'er the pine woods end,
The wheel creaks on along its rutty bed,
But not a sound is strong enough to rend
    That space intense and dead.

Since summer, thunder-laden, last was heard.
The Silence has not stirred;
And the broad heath-land, where the nights sink down
Beyond the sand-hills brown.
Beyond the endless thickets closely set,
To the far borders of the far-away.
    Prolongs It yet.

99 Ways of Looking at Kafka

The Statue of Liberty holding not a torch but a sword. A massive insect on its back in an apartment bedroom. A decaying machine designed to inscribe a prisoner’s sentence into the skin of his back. These images, like so many others from Kafka’s mind, are so strange and immediate as to belie their age. His stories seem disturbingly contemporary, as if they had not been written by an author who died nearly a century ago. To enter Kafka’s cosmos is to enter a space of unease, one that retroactively casts our own world in an unfamiliar light.

The urge to explain how anybody might possibly conceive these seemingly inconceivable stories is overwhelming. Was Kafka estranged from daily life? Was he deformed or antisocial? Not at all, says Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach. “Kafka’s social life is striking for the fact that he was generally well received by all,” he tells us at the start of an anecdote about the one person who bore him any ill will. “In his everyday life, Kafka was friendly, helpful, charming, a sensitive listener, but also discreet.” This veneer of innocence is every bit as evident in his prose. Sentences that were characterized by Hannah Arendt as “the purest German prose of the century” and by George Steiner as “stainless quiet” only serve to underscore how sinister, how nastily vivid Kafka’s visions were. All these innocuous attributes, like the Kafka we see in his photographs—his distinctive hair, those piercing eyes, that calm expression—simply feel like a façade.

Those who would delve deeper to seek explanations must turn to Reiner Stach’s magisterial biography, which has come out, part by part, over the past 14 years. Due to various complications, including a trial around the ownership of Kafka’s papers (which Judith Butler discussed at length in the London Review of Books), Stach was forced to postpone completion of the first volume. In the meantime, he published the second volume—covering 1910 to 1915, the five years when Kafka’s best-known books were written—in 2002, and the third volume—from 1916 to 1924, the year he died—in 2008. The long-awaited first volume, covering the 27 years from Kafka’s birth in 1883 to 1910, was finally published in German in 2014; the English edition (which Princeton-based translator Shelley Frisch has been translating nearly simultaneously with Stach’s writing thereof) is currently anticipated for this fall.

Two years before readers in Berlin and Vienna could finally buy this literary equivalent to a foundation stone, Stach’s German publisher put out Ist das Kafka?: 99 Fundstücke, a textual cabinet of curiosities displaying 99 “finds” from Stach’s extensive research. This book, now metamorphosed into English by Kurt Beals as Is that Kafka?: 99 Finds, offers extracts from Kafka’s octavo notebooks; musings on beer drawn from the full breadth of Kafka’s correspondence; an investigation into various reports of the color of Kafka’s eyes; and even an explanation of how Kafka once schemed (and failed) to become a millionaire. Somehow, this surprisingly hefty book of trivia does not feel like a gimmick. Its various components, rather, present many different facets of this writer who was anything but anodyne. We are introduced to a complex figure who, for example, struggled mightily to tell a single lie for his own sake (as we learn in Find 8), but who (in Find 70) overcame this reluctance to console a little girl who had lost her doll, telling her a stream of invented stories from the doll’s new life.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

John Donne: Death, be not proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

W. H. Auden Can Teach Us Not to be Afraid

He wrote a poem in praise of limestone. He wrote a poem about Sigmund Freud. He wrote poems about cats and opera, about the minute organisms that live on human skin. He wrote an achingly beautiful love poem, a lullaby that stands among the gentlest and most forgiving poetry of the 20th century. Years after his death, when the World Trade Center towers were brought to the ground, traumatised New Yorkers faxed each other copies of a poem he had written for an earlier and greater crisis, “September 1, 1939.” They took comfort in his words even if many of those who received them must have had no idea who he was.

My own discovery of W H Auden came in the early 1970s, when I was living in Belfast and working at Queen’s University. I picked up an edition of his collected shorter poems—many of which are, in fact, rather long. It was done on impulse, as many of our personal literary discoveries are, but I immediately felt that the voice I heard in the poems was speaking directly to me. That may sound like solipsism, but it is just what a great poet often does: he or she is there in the room with you, at your elbow, addressing you in particular. You can hear the voice. For me, some of the attraction of Auden was the hint of the political in the backdrop to his earlier work; to read him in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles seemed somehow right.

A few months later, when I was back in Edinburgh, Auden arrived to give a public reading in George Square. I was in the second row and watched as the great poet shambled in, flanked by committee members of the Scottish Association for the Speaking of Verse. He was a terrible mess: a shapeless grey suit, stained and covered, as far as I could work out, in cigarette ash, complemented by a pair of ancient carpet slippers and that face, famously lined with what he called its geological catastrophe. The same face has been described as looking like a wedding cake left out in the rain. But there he was, and he mounted the platform to read—or rather to recite, as he needed no notes. And at that moment there was an involuntary intake of breath from the audience. His flies were undone.

Not that it mattered. Auden’s words, particularly when we hear them delivered in that curious mid-Atlantic accent that he developed after he left England for the United States, have an electrifying beauty and, in the case of so much of his work, profundity. It is this combination of lyricism and intellectual depth that makes him, I think, the most engaging of 20th-century poets.

From that early encounter with his work, I developed an increasingly strong interest in his writing. I began to travel with a collection of his poems in my suitcase; lines of his verse came back to me at odd moments; I started, I suppose, to look at the world through what might be described as an Audenesque set of spectacles. I taught our daughter, then aged four, to recite his ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening.” She enjoyed it. We are all pushy parents in one way or another, and may as well admit it.

When I started to write novels set in Edinburgh, the characters in these books—unsurprisingly, perhaps—began to show an interest in Auden. In particular, Isabel Dalhousie, the central character in my Sunday Philosophy Club series, thought about Auden rather a lot—and quoted him, too. A couple of years after the first of these novels was published, I received a letter from his literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who is a professor of English at Columbia University in New York. Unlike those writers who appoint coevals to look after their work, with the result that their executors either predecease them or do not last much longer, Auden made the wise move of appointing a young man to watch over his literary legacy.

Mendelson was then a junior academic at Yale—and this gave him the opportunity to devote much of a long and distinguished career to producing commentary on Auden’s writing. It transpired that he was a reader of my Botswana novels and he wrote to me to tell me that, in his opinion, Auden and Mma Ramotswe would have agreed on practically every subject. However, what particularly pleased him, he said, was the attachment my other fictional characters had to the poet.

The letter led to a friendship. I then wrote Professor Mendelson into an Isabel Dalhousie novel, creating a scene in which he comes to Edinburgh to deliver a public lecture on the sense of neurotic guilt in Auden’s verse. A year later, we translated fiction into reality by bringing Mendelson to Edinburgh to deliver before a real audience the lecture that he had previously given to a group of fictional characters. Such is the interest in Auden that almost 400 people came to hear him speak.

That is not bad for a poet who died 40 years ago this month. What explains the continuing appeal of his work? The language he used probably goes some way towards it. Auden had an ear for the rhythmic possibilities of English—at one time or another he used virtually every metre available to a poet writing in English. It is the syllabic verse, though, that he consistently used for so many of his later poems that has the strongest and most consistent appeal. It appears effortless—rather like the steady flow of a clever lecture—but it is really very skilfully constructed and has an extraordinary capacity to resonate with the reader. Yes, we think. This is exactly how it is. This is true.

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A Different ‘Darkness at Noon’ - Arthur Koestler

Last July a German doctoral student named Matthias Weßel made a remarkable discovery. He was examining the papers of the late Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht for a dissertation on Arthur Koestler’s transition from writing in German to writing in English at the end of the 1930s. Oprecht was a left-wing fellow traveler who had founded his famous publishing house Europa Verlag in Zurich in 1933, and was well known for his anti-Nazi views and support for writers in exile, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Ignazio Silone—and the young Arthur Koestler. Weßel told me that at the time, “I was looking for letters and royalty reports, because I wanted to know how many copies were printed of the first German edition of Koestler’s Spanish Testament.” He failed to find the answer to his question, but while looking over the Europa holdings in the Zurich Central Library he came across a cryptic entry: “Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.”

This was extremely odd. Weßel knew of no such novel (Roman) in Koestler’s German writings, but the name Rubaschow rang a bell. Rubaschow (in English, Rubashov) is the hero of Koestler’s finest novel, Darkness at Noon. Weßel hardly dared think about what he had found, suspecting a sequel or perhaps a false entry, for it was well known that the original text of the novel—the last one Koestler wrote in German before he switched to English—was lost during his flight from France at the start of World War II. That was seventy-five years ago and it has never been seen since. With trepidation, Weßel ordered a scan, which showed a typed carbon copy, with corrections in Koestler’s handwriting. The date on the title page, March 1940, was the date on which Koestler is known to have finished the novel. There was no doubt. Weßel had stumbled across a copy of the German manuscript of Koestler’s masterpiece.

The implications of Weßel’s discovery are considerable, for Darkness at Noon is that rare specimen, a book known to the world only in translation. This peculiar distinction has been little discussed in the vast critical literature about Koestler and his famous novel. In my lengthy 2009 biography of Koestler I barely touch on it, yet the phenomenon is all the more extraordinary when one considers that the novel has been translated into over thirty other languages, every one of them based on the English edition, meaning that they are not just translations, but translations of a translation. This includes the German version, which Koestler himself translated back into German in 1944.

It is not certain that the Zurich typescript is the absolutely final version of Koestler’s novel, but it’s undoubtedly very close. Weßel has compared it with Koestler’s back-translation, and while the plot and characters are the same, he has found a host of discrepancies between the two. “The more pages I analyze,” Weßel wrote in an e-mail,
the more the differences between the Zurich MS, [the English] translation and Koestler’s retranslation add up. The deviations vary widely in quality and quantity, but taken together the versions are so different in content and style that there can be no doubt that a new German edition…is not only justified but rather absolutely necessary.
It’s hard to believe the same author could have produced two such different versions of his own novel, until one remembers that Koestler was working from the English edition the second time around. In the intervening four years he had learned to think and write in English himself, which helps to explain why the discrepancies were so wide. When he ran into trouble with his translation into German he consulted some native German speakers for advice and showed a sample to Rudolf Ullstein, scion of the great German publishing house (for which Koestler himself had worked in the 1930s). Ullstein noted that Koestler was using “a great deal of foreign words instead of German expressions” in his translation and asked for permission to change them into idiomatic German. There is irony here, for the English translation Koestler worked from is itself full of German words and phraseology, a neat reversal. After further drudgery, Koestler acknowledged his limitations and asked another German friend to revise the entire translation for him, but the final version, with all its weaknesses, was still his.

With the original text of Darkness at Noon now available, Weßel hopes it will help to secure for Koestler a much better literary reputation in Germany than he has had up to this point. Koestler’s prison memoir, Dialogue with Death, incorporated into Spanish Testament and praised by Orwell, Sartre, and Camus, among others, was written in German, along with his two major novels, The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon, but neither of the novels has appeared in its original form, only in translations into German from the English versions of the originals (The Gladiators was translated from a translation by Edith Simon). As it happens, I found four copies of the German original of The Gladiators in a Soviet archive many years ago, when doing research for my biography, but I was forbidden to copy the novel or bring it out of the country.1 Weßel plans to obtain and publish it now, and calculates that the publication of both The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon in their original German will sway German critical opinion and vanquish the widespread idea in Germany that Koestler wrote important works only in English.

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I was blind, she a falcon - Elena Ferrante

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or – a question not happily answered – were you Lila? S. said she had got back in touch with an estranged friend to give her the first volume in the series; K. felt that, impossibly, embarrassingly even, the books captured how she’d gone about finding an intellectual identity for herself. And we couldn’t stop talking about the experience of reading them: S. read under sodium-orange streetlight while smoking a cigarette outside a pub, unable to break off to go in to the friends waiting inside; E. had a week of violent dreams after she finished the first volume; A. had sleepless night after sleepless night to finish them, and walked to work the next morning her head still full of Naples; B. – a man – couldn’t go on reading as he started to feel bad about being a man. I got so confused about what was real and what was not while reading Ferrante on a train that I kept on forgetting that I hadn’t missed my station. The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante. She knows it too: writing the Neapolitan quartet, she has said, was like ‘having the chance to live my life over again’.
Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep. It would be enough to have books in which we recognise the truth of women’s lives in all its darkness, but the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. The publication of the fourth and final volume is a terrible moment. M. compared it to having sex with someone after you realise you’re in love with them: it almost can’t not be bad. For 1200 pages we have followed the lives of Lila and Lenù from academic dominance at school in their native, rough neighbourhood of Naples to dynastic marriages of one sort or another, political engagement, career-making, childbearing and now ageing; all the while, as Lenù, who tells their story, puts it, ‘continuously forming, deforming, reforming’ each other. ‘I was blind, she a falcon,’ Lenù has it in the first book, as if she didn’t know this to be the starting point for many reversals.
Before the Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante allowed three novels into print, each just over a hundred pages long yet with the dense expansiveness of a dream, or a nightmare, about them. These short books, Troubling LoveThe Lost Daughter and The Days of Abandonment, told of periods in a woman’s life – the death of a mother, the loss of a child, the departure of a husband – when things seem to slip. Her protagonists are women who expect more from life than their mothers did, and are disappointed when they come up against much the same: ‘The difference is that these women don’t submit,’ Ferrante said in 2006. ‘Instead they fight, and they cope. They don’t win, but they simply come to an agreement with their own expectations and find new equilibriums.’ They try but don’t manage not to go crazy when their mother is found drowned wearing only an improbably expensive bra; or their husband leaves them for the twentysomething daughter of an acquaintance; or they’re befriended on holiday by the type of family they’ve spent their life trying to escape. They fuck the neighbour and kill the dog, or spend days tracking their mother’s ex-lover, or steal a toddler’s doll. ‘Something in my senses wasn’t working. An interruption of feeling, of feelings,’ as Olga, whose husband has left her, tries to describe it in The Days of Abandonment. ‘Sometimes I abandoned myself to it, at times I was frightened.’ There is also a Dido-like beauty in their madness. At one point Olga is stuck in the house with her two small children, and one of them is sick. She is in the sort of state where calling a doctor is intolerable, even if there wasn’t a disturbance on the landline and her mobile could be found, but so is looking after her son herself. She therefore recruits the boy’s older sister, who comes up with her own scheme for keeping his fever down:
The child had on his forehead three coins and in fact he was sleeping, breathing heavily.
‘The coins are cool,’ Ilaria explained. ‘They make the headache and fever go away.’
Every so often she removed one and put it in a glass of water, then dried it and placed it again on her brother’s forehead.
‘When he wakes up he has to take an aspirin,’ I said.
Ferrante writes us into a place where the idea of taming a fever with three coins dipped periodically into a glass of water – recalling the coins the Greeks used to place on a corpse’s eyes to pay for the passage across the Styx – seems sensible, indeed useful. And who’s to say it isn’t? Olga seems to accept the care shown in the gesture, even pins her hope on it, as an imaginative response to the impossible situation wife and children, abandoned by their husband and father, are in. The surface of things threatens to split; the hopeful placing of a coin both gives in to and holds back the darkness. Olga’s calm comment about the aspirin admits that when this is over, when the waking dream ends, medicine will be available and equilibrium will be found.
Ferrante’s first three novels finish when the crisis is over. The extent and so the mood of the Neapolitan quartet is different: since the moments of crisis are seen in the context of a life, there is a darker suggestion that recovery might only be temporary. The surface is always liable to rupture, and some people know this and others don’t. Rafaella Cerullo, or Lila, the narrator’s foil or alter ego in the quartet, is someone who knows this. In a Paris Review interview Ferrante described Lila as suffering from a ‘lack of boundaries’, which is evident from the first childhood scene of the first book,My Brilliant Friend, when she lures the narrator, her friend Elena Greco, or Lenù, ‘up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment’. He’s the person in the neighbourhood the children are told not to go near. Lila and Lenù ‘climbed slowly towards the greatest of our terrors of that time, we went to expose ourselves to fear and interrogate it’. Lila throws stones back at the boys; Lila teaches herself to read; Lila outpaces her classmates academically; Lila goes from scrawny to Jackie Kennedy-esque; Lila is loved by the neighbourhood boys without any of that love being sought. For Lenù, life without Lila is drab: ‘I soon had to admit that what I did by myself couldn’t excite me, only what Lila touched became important.’ Lila’s lack of boundaries is first discernible as a disdain for proprieties and a youthful ignorance of the way things are done but it moves into something else at adolescence, when she begins having episodes of what she comes to call ‘dissolving margins’.
Like the refreshing coins on the sick child’s forehead, the fact that ‘outlines of people and things’ can ‘suddenly dissolve, disappear’ for Lila is another acknowledgment of what’s below the surface. She is at a party on New Year’s Eve on a roof terrace surrounded by everyone in the neighbourhood; she looks around at the laughing, dancing, talking figures with a ‘sense of repulsion’ and suddenly can’t not see ‘how poorly made we are … how insufficient’. The simple horrors of living in a mafia-dominated neighbourhood (the next things Lila hears are gunshots) are as nothing compared to the terror of normal life. Lila sees people as constantly on the edge of breaking, of bursting their boundaries. A copper pot explodes while she is washing up; she tells Lenù that it scares her more than anything. The ‘cracked and crumpled’ copper – like the ‘cracked tin kettle’ in Madame Bovary that exemplifies Rodolphe’s weariness at hearing Emma say ‘I love you’ – comes to stand for worn-out forms. ‘I knew – perhaps I hoped – that no form could ever contain Lila,’ Lenù writes, ‘and that sooner or later she would break everything again.’ In the first three novels, a specific event disrupts things; in the Neapolitan quartet, Lila is the kindling force.
‘While I’m slicing salami I think how much blood there is in a person’s body. If you put too much stuff in things, they break. Or they catch fire and burn,’ she tells Lenù later on, after marrying the neighbourhood grocer. She goes on to hope her marriage will burn. The shapes that patriarchy, capitalism, tradition have forced our lives into are too readily accepted; when we see clearly, we understand that they can’t be tolerated. Lila feels that life is taking a shape which accords with her sense of things only when she leaves her husband for her lover, Nino, and even then only for a moment: ‘She had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading towards a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.’ All Ferrante’s women and men are struggling with the old forms. Even the husband who beat Lila, whom she is leaving, sees that his time-honoured way of showing her he loves her doesn’t work, but doesn’t know what else to do: ‘To see her in the morning, in the evening, to sleep next to her and not be able to make her feel how much I love her, with the strength I’m capable of, is a terrible thing,’ he tells Lenù.
The sense Lenù has of life when Lila is close by – their relationship is like a love affair, like sisterhood, like two people living a single life – is that everything intensifies. ‘Lila was too much for anyone,’ she says early on and it is never not true. Nino and Lila met on Ischia, an island a ferry-ride away from Naples, where Lenù had summered, and where she had fallen in love with Nino herself the year before. Watching the two people she loves fall for each other is intolerable, yet intellectually she tries hard to make it bearable, relying on the strategies she developed at school to keep up with Lila: studying, writing, reading. ‘I called on poems and novels as tranquillisers,’ Lenù remembers. ‘Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.’ She goes to university in Pisa and achieves their joint childhood dream of writing a novel when she finds herself setting down the summer on Ischia as a way to avoid finishing her thesis. When the book is published Lenù realises its origin had actually been in a story Lila had written at school called ‘The Blue Fairy’. At this point the two are estranged, but Lenù wants Lila to share her book, which was ‘different, adult, mine, and yet inseparable from hers’. Writing becomes a way to bring together two women’s experiences, to defy time, to bridge distances.
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Sunday, 20 March 2016

A long look at Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt is a wonderful writer. Look at how she arrived in 1992: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

The Secret History more than lived up to the promise of that opening. It was a glorious combination of intrigue, in-crowd appeal, mystery and wrong-footing cheek. It was intelligent, fresh and a compulsive page-turner. It turned Tartt into a star and sold truckloads of copies, as did her next book, The Little Friend. After only three novels, she is one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine.

Which goes to explain why editing Donna Tartt must be a daunting task. Why it would have taken steel cojones to ask her to trim down some of The Goldfinch’s 864 pages. Why no one would want to be the person to tell her that the last 30 pages of her novel are among the worst ever committed to paper by a serious writer. Not least because an editor with good instincts would know that Tartt was also clearly doing something right. This book, eagerly awaited for more than a decade (it was originally scheduled for publication in 2008), has done the business. It’s sold millions of copies. It got a rave review in the New York Times from the great Michiko Kakutani. It won the Pulitzer prize. Better still, Stephen King liked it. He said: “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.”

I’m not about to disagree with Stephen King; not entirely. I’d maybe quibble about the “smartly written”, although there are undoubtedly some fine moments of drama and of comedy. But there’s no doubt that this book does connect with the heart and mind.

Just in case you aren’t among the millions who have already read the book, here’s a quick summary. Theo Decker is 13 years old when his life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. There’s an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch. He’s taken this masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to do so. This man also gave Theo a signet ring that leads him to the house of a charming old furniture restorer called Hobie – a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to come to terms with his loss and deal with his alcoholic and chronically unreliable father, then falls into his own spiral of self-destructive behaviour and substance abuse. Oh, and fails to return that rather important painting to the proper authorities...

Theo, the narrator, is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish and does very silly things. But Tartt gives him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine old gent, while Theo’s friend Boris can at his best set the page alight with all the fire of a Betsey Trotwood or a Falstaff. He’s a fantastic rogue, swaggering, swearing, half-cut and all heart. His catchphrase is the splendidly insouciant “fuck it”, and I fell for him almost as hard as Theo does.

Meanwhile, there are those cerebral rewards that King referred to. This is a novel that references Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s mighty Wind, Sand And Stars , that asks fascinating questions about human fallibility and culpability, that has a great deal to say about the way we value art - both financially and as a measure of human achievement and the human soul.

But it’s on this latter point that the problems crowd in. When I write “a great deal to say”, I mean it. There are pages and pages of dull theorising and cod-philosophising. And then, just in case you miss it first time, there’s a great clump of useless explanation at the end of the novel, tacked on after the action concludes.

There are other large sections of the book that seriously drag. The Goldfinch has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, with critics such as James Wood saying its success represents “further proof of the infantilisation of our literary culture”, and howling that the emperor has no clothes. The fight - as explained in this fine Vanity Fair article - is often portrayed as one between readers who understand the value of good old-fashioned entertainment and snotty critics who want something more serious. But my objection to The Goldfinch isn’t to do with not being smart enough, but that too much of it is dull.

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