Spectral shadows across the tamed gardens

Black Vodka

Black Vodka: Ten Stories
by Deborah Levy

I loved Levy’s novel Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and Levy was the National Book Awards Author of the Year 2012, so I was pretty excited when I found out this would be the first book in my subscription to And Other Stories.

These are very modern short stories, zipping around different European locations and ethnicities, and incorporating modern technology reasonably well (which is something I basically never say, so kudos to Levy on that). But they’re not about story or location, they’re about emotions and characters and relationships.

“I was instructed in the art of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange. Go Ho-me Ali, Go Ho-me. In fact I was born in Southend-on-Sea, and so were those boys, but I was exiled to the Arabian Desert and not allowed to smoke with them behind the cockle sheds.”

Most of the stories might be better described as sketches or scenes, which I think I’ve also said about Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I loved both, and I do see some similarities. Both are modern and city-centric, and sometimes the central character can be a little mysterious and cold. But more often, Levy’s characters are warm and racked with emotion.

“At night the satellite dishes on the roofs and walls throw spectral shadows across the tamed gardens. I have grown to love the bronze doorknobs in the shape of jungle beasts: a lion’s head, a tiger, a snake…It gives me a thrill because I know the world is very old.”

Both the characters and the events tend to be oblique, not straightforward. As with Swimming Home there are subtleties at work that mean a few different things could be happening. Sometimes details or even names of characters overlap between stories. I wanted to re-read some of them right away.

My favourite is one of the shortest in the collection, “Placing a call”. It uses the second person and repetition and it’s immediately apparent that the narrator is unreliable. I also loved “Pillow talk”, which is at once a sweet love story and brutally honest.

My only tiny gripe would be that none of these stories is new, they have all been previously published, which smacks a little of cashing in on last year’s award wins, but on the other hand it gives us Levy newcomers a chance to discover more of her great work, and it has definitely solidified my interest in her writing.

Published February 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I am a subscriber to And Other Stories.

The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

NW
by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

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

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

Questionable influence

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!

Swag!

I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.

Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.

Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.

Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.

Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.

Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.

The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.

I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.

First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.

What a character

The Book of Other People
edited by Zadie Smith

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to one of Tim’s favourite shops, Forbidden Planet. It’s a collection of short stories written by some pretty big names in the literary world, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Miranda July, Toby Litt, David Mitchell, Vendela Vida and ZZ Packer. They were all commissioned to “make somebody up”, in aid of homelessness charity 826 New York. It’s interesting just to see the many ways that can be interpreted, but it has also resulted in a genuinely very good collection.

The 23 contributions cover a range of ages, characters, backgrounds, storytelling methods (first person, second person, third person, illustrated, comic strip, reliable narration, unreliable narration, linear, nonlinear, etc etc) and even venture beyond humanity in a few cases (“Theo” by Dave Eggers is a very touching story about a giant). There is a certain tendency to white, western, middle-class-ness, which reflects the authors involved, but beyond that the only link is the high-quality of the writing.

Not all of the characters are likeable, in fact those that stuck with me most are decidedly unlikeable. David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle” is first a snob, then increasingly unreliable until I felt so cold toward her that only Mitchell’s wonderful humour could make me want to read about her. AM Homes’s “Cindy Stubenstock” is vomit-inducingly rich, taking a private jet with her equally rich friends to Miami and gossiping about other people, art, how less rich people live. It’s darkly ironically comic.

There are also some very sad stories. “Puppy” by George Saunders was tough for me (Note to Tim: Do Not Read It, trust me.) – the story of a mother taking her children to buy a puppy from a less well-off neighbourhood than their own. The title is a little misleading because it’s not told from the dog’s perspective, but the dog is key.

For me, this book acts as a little snapshot of the writing styles of all sorts of names that I have heard great things about but not yet sampled (I mean, not all of them, I have read novels by six of the contributors, I think, and some of the names were entirely new to me). Though, Zadie Smith does mention in her introduction that she felt the brief gave writers a chance to break free from their usual style or method, if they wanted to, so maybe it’s not the best way to decide if I want to read more by any of them.

I don’t think there were any stories here that I outright disliked and I am having a little trouble choosing a favourite, but I think it has to be “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” by Heidi Julavits, about an old woman sat in her study with a book that she isn’t enjoying, reminiscing about her life recent and long past. Julavits uses the language of the mystery novel (good ones, that is) to make this simple evening into a fascinating tale.

Published 2007 by Penguin Books.

Lonely reflections

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories
by Ernest Hemingway

This set of short stories starts with the sad and beautiful ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a brilliant piece of writing, but for me the rest of the collection didn’t live up to its beginnings. This was a real shame after I recently read and enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and looked forward to delving into more of Hemingway’s work.

‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is about Harry and his lover Helen, camped out near Kilimanjaro, waiting for Harry to either die or be rescued after his leg had been badly injured. Harry passes in and out of consciousness, tries to hide his pain from Helen and tries to help her to accept that he’s going to die. He is also cruel to her, making it clear that the best part of his life had passed before he met her, picking fights and refusing to say that he loves her. It’s a painfully evocative bit of writing, intense and yet strangely peaceful.

The other stories were more varied in terms of whether they touched me. They are brief snapshots rather than whole stories, with some recurring characters, especially a man called Nick. The format is always the same: lonely man gets on with life, always an outcast in some way, often because of war. The introduction to each story is a seemingly unrelated snippet, generally much more violent than the main story. The themes of these are war and bullfighting.

The general mood is contemplative. The moments of action are brief flickers between longer scenes of loneliness, restlessness, thoughtfulness. Descriptions are very evocative and detailed. However, sometimes the lack of action or passion is just plain tedious.

The stories work together inasmuch as Harry, hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, frequently lapses into reminisces about his life – adventures he’s had, moments that stand out – and the rest of the stories could almost be more of his reminisces, if only the heroes were all called Harry.

Overall, though, after the first story I struggled to remain interested and am now a little put off reading the rest of my Hemingway boxset.

First published in Great Britain in The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine by Jonathan Cape, 1939.

Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.