I loved, loved, loved Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel about the horrors of the First World War that managed a complex love story at the same time. Where My Heart Used to Beat is also a meditation on the experience of war, but with a look at the lingering psychological damages many years after. Less of a war story than Birdsong, this novel’s protagonist, Robert, is also less likeable. He’s a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry who’s melancholic and unable to form meaningful relationships. At the start, he thinks and leads the reader to think that this emotional paralysis is due to the heartbreak he experienced while on leave in Italy. But as the story progresses, he finds himself undergoing a sort of talk therapy that makes him revisit his battle field experiences and to some extent those of his father, who died fighting in WWI. With this, his malaise takes on a new perspective and is part of a larger re-evaluation of the his life.
The narrative structure relays these events in ways that make this a page-turner and keeps Faulks on the ‘popular fiction’ bookshelves. But Robert is a self-made scholar whose interests in the classics and philosophy, set alongside the burgeoning field of psychology, make this a deeper, more literary read. In these ways, it stands up to Birdsong, but for me, didn’t have quite the emotional impact as this earlier work. And there were a couple of minor technical flaws in Where My Heart Used to Beat surprisingly not picked up by the literary editor. But for Faulks’ fans, a worthwhile read. all the same..
Occasionally the screensaver on my Kindle pops up with the dour face of Emily Dickinson. She has become one of the most recognisable faces in American literature. Yet, only recently has her life been transferred to the screen with Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion. The film d’auteur has its tableau moments, which slows down the pace and might not appeal to some viewers. But I found this fitting with the nature of Dickinson’s poetry – her elliptical language could cause images to freeze in the air. I liked too that the film contained sharp, intelligent dialogue in keeping with the dialogic style of many of Dickinson’s poems. At the same time, these dialogues – many between Emily and her sister – remind audiences of the social limitations thrusted upon 19th century New England life, especially for women. Although mostly a contemplative and melancholic film, humour and wit are present in a way that I felt was realistic to the poet’s life (Dickinson scholars are free to differ on this point.)
I’m also grateful to this film for reminding me that Dickinson wrote some poems about the US Civil War. We tend to think of Walt Whitman as the Civil War poet and of war poetry as being a male preserve. But here is a Dickinson sampling:
Things go gay
Pierce — by the very Press
Of Imagery —
Their far Parades — order on the eye
With a mute Pomp —
A pleading Pageantry —
Flags, are a brave sight —
But no true Eye
Ever went by One —
Music’s triumphant —
But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near —
Since I was a teenager, I’ve liked Dickinson’s work, though I confess that there was a lot I didn’t understand younger. I think her writing and people’s understanding of it has been more helped by cognitive poetics (and other areas of literary stylistics) than by traditional literary criticism with its focus on biography, religion and history. Cognitive stylistics has shown how Dickinson manipulates grammar and word-choice to create different worlds that wrangle with, among other things, ontological questions. Here, I’m thinking mainly of the scholarship of Margaret Freeman, who gives a wonderful analysis of one of my favourite Dickinson poems:
A Spider sewed at Night
Without a Light
Upon an Arc of White
If Ruff it was of Dame
Or Shroud of Gnome
Himself himself inform.
His Strategy Was Physiognomy.
(J 1138, lines 1-6; ms)
I think it’s time to return to this poet and see how I get on with her language and wisdom in my middle age.
I read James Baldwin for the first time when I was 13. My English teacher was keen on contemporary writers and issued us a summer’s reading list, which included Notes ofa Native Son. It was the first essay collection I had ever read. I was catapulted out of my comfort zone of fiction, poetry and magazine articles from the likes of Time and People and into a world that not only employed metaphors and symbols, but dissected them. This world had a social conscience and an eloquence that went beyond the dinner-table rumblings of my anti-establishment older siblings.
A few months later I read Giovanni’s Room. That was my first openly gay novel – though there were plenty of suggestively gay works from Wilde, Forster and Mann. Neither of Baldwin’s books were part of the standard curriculum. There were other African-American writers taught in those days, but they tended to be historical slave narratives. Perhaps Baldwin’s books were too raw in their expression to be official reading material for young minds. I am to this day grateful for my English teacher. Together these works formed a literary coming of age.
With the release of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, I’ve been reminded of Baldwin’s life as a civil rights activist. Director Raoul Peck takes us on a journey through the civil rights protests and public discussions on race during the 60s and 70s, with some unspoken allusions to present-day hate crimes in America. Baldwin is positioned at the centre of this sometimes-loose narrative. We watch him on television talk shows, lecturing at all-white university campuses and demurely in the crowd of some of the most iconic marches of the twentieth century. The real treat and reason for seeing this film are the sonorous tones of actor Samuel L. Jackson reading passages from Baldwin’s much-quoted works while images recapture the horrors. Although some of these quotes have been exploited on posters, coffee mugs and Facebook postings, in the context of this film they have re-found their rightful home.
I was drawn to this book by its author (loved Swift’s Waterland) and cover, a portion of one of Modigliani’s reclining nudes. I’ll confess that I was also seduced by the compact size of the novel of some 150 pages after having just finished a 400+ pager and having another literary brick waiting for me.
Mothering Sunday is a beautifully written meditation on events that take place in one day in Edwardian England in the life of a maid, Jane Fairchild. Although it says ‘a romance’ on the cover, I thought it more erotic than romantic. Jane has been having an affair with Paul Sheringham, a wealthy neighbour of high social standing who is already engaged to someone of a similar background. More than anything else this novel is a study of character, class and the way our lives can be altered by one incident.
Worth reading for the writing alone, this is a masterclass in controlled narrative, navigating a disrupted storyline with descriptive mood and motifs.
Below is another of Modigliani’s nudes, one which I personally prefer for its boldness – this is from 1916.
Some are describing it as gothic because it’s set in late Victoriana and features the fears and alleged sightings of a winged leviathan. But for me, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is mostly a novel of ideas. It cleverly employs characters to represent the burgeoning sciences placed in opposition to traditional Christianity and superstition. It brought to mind Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, which also mixed history with legend and speculation during the Age of Enlightenment. But unlike Pynchon, at times the opposition performed by characters in The Essex Serpent is perhaps a bit too blatant – the novel works best in its more nuanced and subtle moments.
The story is also more a feminist narrative than it is a gothic one. The main character Cora has lost her husband, but finds it hard to play the role of the grieving widow with her joy and sense of freedom getting in the way. An amateur palaeontologist, Cora is quite happy to tromp around the marshes in men’s tweed jackets, her hair dishevelled. Her companion and maid of sorts, Martha, is an active socialist in what the reader knows is the naissance of the suffragette movement.
The Essex Serpent is nevertheless a compulsive read, with an understated love story competing with other plotlines and always an incident cropping up to change the direction altogether.
Ever the stylistician, I must comment on the writing. The descriptions are exquisite in a pictorial way, though lacking in the psychological detail and intensity one might find in other literary fiction. There isn’t the inventive turn of phrase found in Mantel or McEwan. But the writing contributes to making the work engaging all the same and another reason for reading this book.
Since the publication of my short story ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ some people have asked me why I chose to write on such a subject. And they’re speaking through gritted teeth, unable to hide their discomfort. The story is about a woman paedophile.
The topic surfaced in part because Mslexia announced that their showcase theme for issue 73 was ‘guilt.’ Of course, like any good self-absorbed writer, I first looked to my own life. We all have our residue of guilt. The guilt leftover from actions in my childhood, some of which I’ve written about, are at their strongest when viewed from a child’s perspective. In keeping with the audience and purpose of Mslexia, I wanted this to be an adult woman’s story. Most of my guilty feelings from adult years are rather undramatic and feeble – not so much guilt, as feeling regretful for not keeping in touch with friends or not taking on more responsibilities or not acting in a more sympathetic way – those sorts of things. Then I considered the actions of others I’ve known over the years. While I’ve known some dodgy characters, I was never directly involved in their white-collar crimes. Even those adventures seemed too soft for a short story about guilt.
I needed something with force.
Paedophilia is a topic with force. As a child, it terrified me; as an adult, it sickens me. Unlike other crimes, it’s also something I can’t imagine myself doing. Anytime I see a good heist film, I envision myself with the toolbelt and all the technological know-how to break into the safe, take the rolls of money and get away with it. As an antihero, I’ve even imagined myself committing murder – there are some people I think the world would be better without. But I cannot conjure up a scene involving paedophilia with me in it.
Of course, it’s possible to write about characters unlike ourselves or people we know. I find that easier when I write male characters, and I did in fact write about a male paedophile some years ago in my play A Special Boy. There, I kept myself at a safe distance from the awfulness of the topic. The play was more about a misguided community of vigilantes than a pederast – and that character was an emotional abuser and manipulator, leaving the existence of physical abuse for the audience to decide.
For ‘The Scent of Oranges,’ once again I’ve positioned myself and the reader at a slight distance. I placed the physical act in the past. The paedophile has served her time and has to deal with life on the outside. I drew some ideas from the newspapers. Occasionally one reads about a woman being arrested for having a relationship with a teenage boy – in other words, the boy had to be old enough to get it up, but not old enough for legal sex. But I didn’t want to make it appear that the paedophile was a victim of strict laws about the age of consent – that would have been a copout. So, in the end [SPOILER ALERT] it’s a battle between guilt and temptation to do it again.
Note to self – don’t judge a book by its title. Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love is not genre romance at all. I’d say it’s middle-brow literary fiction. The only love story in it is a small subplot. The rest is a delightful satirical romp through the world of masterpiece art collecting, complete with the avarice, pretence and money-laundering one would expect. ‘The Improbability of Love’ is the title of a painting by Antoine Watteau, a real-life French painter of the rococo period. At some point in its 300-year past the painting went missing and in this story it turns up in a junk shop in London and eventually into the hands of our clueless heroine.
The story integrates elements within the painting, the artist’s emotionally-wrought life and the painting’s history of ownership with a modern-day story depicting many of the same themes. While other novels have fused a painting into a storyline (e.g., Frayn’s Headlong, about a long-lost Bruegel), this is unique in giving voice to the painting – literally. In keeping with the painting’s provenance, the narrative voice of this masterpiece has traces of French and snobbery from years of living in grand homes, including a stint at Buckingham Palace. Rothschild wisely uses the painting to tell only part of the story, allowing for a more tradition third-person omniscient narrator for the bulk of the novel.
But the painting does get some of the best lines, such as this gem:
Like other successful religions, art has evolved and offers glorious temples and learned high priests as well as covenants and creeds. The new churches are known as museums, in which the contemplation of art has become a kind of prayer and communal activity. The very wealthy can create private chapels stuffed with the unimaginable rarities and guarantee a front row seat. It was ever thus.
Although The Improbability of Love is on the whole clever and imaginative, it does falter by bringing into the plot the Nazis and their notorious looting of art works. That plotline is getting worn out.
That aside, it’s an excellent book, deserving of its position on the Bailey Prize shortlist 2016.
My love affair with the writing of Elena Ferrante continues. This time with her third novel, The Lost Daughter, published in 2006. Leda is a divorced middle-aged professor with two adult daughters, who are away living in Canada with their father. On her summer break, Leda rents an apartment at a beach resort. Her observations and interactions with other holiday makers stirs up memories of her relationships with daughters and her now ex-husband. When a little girl loses her doll at the beach, a strangely twisted plot emerges.
Leda narrates the story with frankness and self-reflection which are as refreshing as they are brutal. This, along with the intrigue of the plot and subplots, kept this reader engaged to the very end.
Reading the Buchan novel in the present day, the hero’s language with its ‘good old fellow’ and stiff-upper lip euphemisms seems quaint and artificial. That aside, I did enjoy the sense of drama from this man-on-the-run thriller, along with its descriptive passages of the Scottish countryside and the humble and duplicitous characters that Richard Hannay encounters. But with this fictional drama, the true-to-life historical backdrop triggers a 21st century sense of foreboding.
Set on the eve of the First World War, the story is infused with political intrigue and spies, along with a strong sense of fear and uncertainty. As a modern-day reader, it’s hard to not think about the recent politically-motivated cyberattacks coming from Putin’s Russia, which has already displayed its military might in Chechnya, Crimea and Syria. Our present day also brings with it the destabilisation of America on the eve of the Trump presidency. We live in times that feel alarmingly pre-War.
The cliché about history repeating itself has become as worn and irritating as the need to use the other cliché – that people do not seem to learn from history. Such expressions bring with them the tendency to reduce and dismiss real dangers. Speaking more specifically and less glibly, in this week’s BBC Dateline, panellists brought in the analogy of how the First World War not ending with a viable treaty in Europe had set the stage for the Second World War being akin to the untidy fall of the Soviet Union leaving Europe vulnerable today. Given the mess that America is in at the moment, now is the time for a united Europe to do something to protect post-Soviet Europe. I don’t want to think that too much time has elapsed or that opportunities to do something have been missed. In this Dateline analogy lies a possibility of hope – agreements around trade, land and computer piracy need to be made with Russia to establish the rules of the new games. Will they break these rules? Probably, but doing so will be more difficult with international agreements in place and a united Europe to support these agreements.
As for me, I’ll stay politically active, with the occasional dip into escapism – classic thrillers, where the technology might be less sophisticated than today’s, but at least the good guy always wins.
Some years ago, I read James Shapiro’s 1599, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. I’ll admit I’m not one to read non-fiction books very often – outside of linguistics, of course. I tend to reserve book reading for fiction and occasionally poetry. Reading a year in the life of Shakespeare, however, was a different matter. Shapiro’s 1599 brought together history and social context with textual analysis of Henry V, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, along with some of the influences on Hamlet, which Shakespeare started in that same year. While some critics felt this volume was too encyclopaedic and lacking in soul, it certainly whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, I had to wait some ten years.
I’ve just finished reading Shapiro’s next instalment, 1606, which covers the context around the writing of King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. I’ve never been a strong fan of Anthony and Cleopatra as a play and was glad that it didn’t take up much of the book. Most of this volume is about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the ways it influenced the writing and performance of King Lear, and to a lesser extent, Macbeth. While the political climate of 1606 – and the reminder that Shakespeare was also a Jacobean – made for interesting reading, I found even more fascinating the textual analysis of Lear. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s Lear drew from King Leir, the anonymously-authored Elizabethan play, and more importantly how it diverged from it, rendering a much more complex ending. Shapiro has also unearthed the influence and direct borrowings from Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, which gave guidance on how to spot people faking demonic possession – a popular topic at the time.
I could say a great deal more about both 1599 and 1606, but I don’t wish to give away any more than I already have. Yes, it sounds as if I’m talking about a novel and not a literary history – this is a sign of good writing coupled with captivating interpretations.