Something from that moment needed to be kept

all the days and nightsAll the Days and Nights
by Niven Govinden

This is a short, lyrical, even painterly novel about a dying artist. It’s in some ways the epitome of literary fiction, with a very simple storyline playing second fiddle to the style and language, but it didn’t feel at all pretentious or complex.

Anna Brown is a famous artist nearing death in her home in a small farming community not too far from New York City. She has her faithful housekeeper/cook/companion Vishni and her agent of sorts Ben for company in her final days, but her husband John – her muse and subject of most of her paintings – has gone missing, he just walked away. Anna addresses him, trying to imagine his journey and his state of mind, while also reminiscing on their life together. In the present she is painting her final work, turning her little household to turmoil as she forsakes oxygen tank and rest for her art.

I loved the language of this book, and the way it talked about art from so many perspectives – creating it, appreciating it, collecting it, displaying it. Anna doesn’t talk about death or dying but it’s clearly there in the forefront of her mind. She is obsessed with her art to the point of pushing people far beyond the bounds of most friendships, and her feelings for John are complicated by his being her muse as well as her husband. The story is sweet, moving, contemplative but never boring.

“You were bronzed and smooth, flaxen and happy; it was as if the last days of young manhood were making themselves known. I was blinded by the beauty of it, from the way you smiled to the trail of mosquito bites on your lower arm and the redness of your lips from all the beer…I wanted to shout at you…hold your pose because something from that moment needed to be kept. You were perfect. But I held my voice, because to explain it would be to kill your naturalness.”

Published October 2014 by The Friday Project.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Life had no before and after

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
by Andrew Sean Greer

This odd book has sat on my shelves for years unread but finally, after enjoying a couple of his short stories, I decided to give this a go. It’s a beautifully written book but it didn’t entirely engage me.

The story is that of Max Tivoli, born with the appearance of an old man in his 70s and ageing backwards over the years. In a sort of magical realism moment, no explanation is given for how that birth could possibly have worked, especially considering his mother survives it, but after that it takes the tack that Max has a condition that no-one will understand, though perhaps a handful of other people might have it. So for most of his early childhood he is hidden away, with a series of nurses brought to the house to look after him. Once he is old enough mentally to get away with it, he agrees his mother to always act the age he appears. And in time-honoured tradition, it is really only when he disobeys this mantra of his mother’s that things go wrong for him.

“I could never write a true history of my childhood, because everything happened before I knew what time was…Life had no before and after, was not yet strung upon a thread, and thus cannot be brought out from the drawer intact.”

Max is a largely unsympathetic main character, though obviously he has reasons for being how he is – selfish and stubborn – and perhaps the book is more interesting that way than if he had been a good person who sacrificed himself every time his medical condition got in the way of someone else’s happiness. But as the story is narrated by him in slightly dense prose, I found that to be a lot of time spent in the mind of someone I found unpleasant.

The conceit is an interesting one. Max is writing the story of his life as an old man with the appearance of a 12-year-old boy. He is now facing perhaps the most difficult part of his life – receding into a small child’s and then a baby’s body, and he does not know quite how it will end. So he is writing his confession, frequently addressing other characters in the story who he hopes will read it.

“This morning you were the ink monitor and soberly filled our clay inkwells to their brims before gaily dropping a tiny frog into mine. Until it perished, gagging on the lampblack, the creature left a leaping pattern across my lesson book so exquisite – a hail of dark roses falling from the sky – that I will try to place it here in this memoir as the only evidence that I am not lying.”

Though Greer does not attempt at all to make this science fiction, he does address the physical and emotional challenges of Max’s life in some detail. Which is at times disturbing, as it should be.

In a purely practical vein, I can see that the historical setting (from San Francisco in 1871 to a small Mid-West town in 1930) was necessary because a modern-day version of this story would be so much harder, what with widespread photography and needing to show ID for everything. At the very least it would have been more of a story on the run from authorities. Whereas the historical setting allows Max to spend most of his life in one city. And it also gives Greer the option to pick which historical events intrude into Max’s life.

Despite the highly unusual premise there were some clichés, and plot turns that were phrased as though they were intended as revelations but did not surprise me for a second. Was that actually the intention or a failure of plotting? It’s hard to tell. Perhaps it was intended to show that even Max’s extraordinary life is subject to the same banal basic needs as everyone else’s.

“We all hate what we become. I’m not the only one…I have seen men back from war, squinting at themselves in shop windows as they feel their skull beneath their skin. They thought they would shed the worst of youth and gain the best of age, but time drifted over them, sand-burying their old hopes. Mine is a very different story, but it all turns out the same.”

As for secondary characters – Max’s mother features very little despite her being so central to his survival. Again, I can see that this might be a deliberate device, showing how little Max thinks of his poor ever-sacrificing mother. Max’s best friend Hughie is wonderful, even if he is the subject of some of the worst clichés in the story. But even he and Alice, the love of Max’s life, really aren’t fleshed out fully. And you can go on filing that under Max’s narration and his character flaw of being selfish and not really trying to understand other people, but there should have been a way to let them come to life.

It’s certainly not a bad book by any means. It was a slow, thoughtful read and really moved me at the end. I’m glad I finally picked it up. I will certainly check out Greer’s other novel The Story of a Marriage, which got a lot of positive noises a couple of years ago.

Published 2004 by Faber and Faber.

Source: I think this was a freebie from an old job. It’s been sat on my shelves a long time.

Challenges: I read this for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it?

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

This book has left me puzzled. I was happily reading it, enjoying the slow, thoughtful prose, and then the last page happened and I thought, “What?!” Is that a standard sign of a Booker prize winner? Or is it just my standard reaction to Julian Barnes?

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. It’s so short, only 150 pages, and is one of those books where you could say very little happens, or that a lot happens. Which is fine. The language is beautiful, measured and philosophical.

Briefly, narrator Tony Webster is retired, divorced, but generally happy with his ordinary life. Then something happens (and we don’t find out what until halfway through) to remind him of his childhood friend Adrian. Adrian was always the brilliant, serious, passionate one and Tony muses on the lost passions of youth, love, friendship, life and death. There’s a lot of musing.

“The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

Through flashback, Tony revisits his childhood and early adulthood. During the story he is led to question his memory, not just of events but of other people’s experiences of the same events. Which isn’t exactly original, but it’s done reasonably well.

“I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

The storyline annoyed me but the writing was provocative, intellectually stimulating. I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure I rate it as highly as other Booker winners I’ve read. I know a few people have said that it’s a book that demands re-reading so perhaps I should do that to see if I missed something?

“It ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011.

At the end

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood

This is probably a book I should have saved for 30 or so years, because it’s difficult to sympathise with a meditation on old age when you’re fairly far from being old. I’ll have to read it again later in life to see if my reaction is any different.

I picked this up because Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of the best books I have ever read. This was written much later in his life and it shows. The characterisation is much improved (which is odd seeing as both have strong elements of autobiography) but the atmosphere is very different. The similarly self-involved lead characters have rather different lives about which to obsess.

The single man of the title is George, an Englishman living in California, teaching literature, approaching old age and trying not to think too much about his dead gay lover Jim. He has distractions – the noisy neighbourhood children, the eclectic ever-so-young students and a few friends – but invariably his mind returns to Jim.

In the manner of Ulysses this book covers one day in George’s life in great detail, including his morning bowel movement, a drunken romp and a, er, act of self-pleasure. In fact, I’m sure if I went back and looked carefully I’d find more similarities – the detailed routes of each journey that George takes, for instance. But (thankfully?) this book is 160 pages, not 600, and it sticks to just the one writing style.

Like George himself, the tone is slightly sad, romantic, angry, bitter, occasionally hopeful and eventually accepting. George has his faults – some bizarre notions about women, for instance – but overall he is a sweet, intelligent man trying to grow old gracefully in a world that does not make it easy. He may be living in ultramodern LA but in the 1960s it was still illegal to be a practising homosexual there and the secrecy that this requires of George has clearly taken its toll. It is heartbreaking that he feels he has to bury his grief around most people for fear of what it will reveal but this is the way the world was not so long ago and in some places still is.

The writing is undeniably brilliant. George came to life for me right from page one and his interaction with a favourite student was particularly well played. And yet – I was not hooked. I wanted more excitement of some kind and it wasn’t there. As I said, I’ll take this book out again when I’m older and maybe the added empathy will make it more meaningful for me.

First published 1964 by Eyre Methuen & Co