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.

Steampunk spy action

The Vesuvius Club
by Mark Gatiss

A friend passed this book on to me describing it as a “romp”. I think that’s an excellent assessment. All very silly and over-the-top but undeniably fun.

This is the first book in the Lucifer Box series, that being the name of their outlandish hero. Box inherited wealth and a property on Downing Street and as far as most of the world is concerned he’s a dandy and a so-so artist with a big ego. But he has a secret life as a spy for the British government. Throw in an Edwardian setting with a touch of steampunk, some rather open sexuality and a black sense of humour and you get the gist.

The story in this case is that two prominent scientists have recently died and a British secret agent who reported having suspicions about their deaths has gone missing. Box is asked to investigate and looks forward to the necessary trip to Italy, but first he has to get his best friend Christopher Miracle out of a spot of bother and he’d quite like to close the deal with the beautiful Bella Pok. And what’s with the suspiciously un-businesslike undertaker Tom Bowler?

As you can see, the names are fantastic. Dickensian, or perhaps sillier than that. And Box is deliciously twisted, initially seeming quite unfeeling and cruel, though his concern for his friend Miracle proves that assumption wrong. The story powers along at full speed, with multiple attempts on his life, including a horse and carriage chase through a cemetery. Like Sherlock Holmes, Box has his London low-life helpers, who are a brilliant touch even if the attempt to write in their Cockney accents did grate a little.

Box narrates the story as a cross between a memoir and a casebook. He delights in the religious connotations of his name and plays on this often. As he does in misleading the reader. And there were some nice touches. The “office” he goes to receive his spy missions is a men’s toilet, because the government can’t afford better. And the scattered illustrations by Ian Bass add a certain stylishness.

To be honest, this was fun but it wasn’t great. The characters are all absurdly over the top, which is I’m sure deliberate but not my taste. The attempts to surprise or gross out the reader are blatant, the science/technology stuff is ridiculous and the action got a bit hard to follow. Not that you need to follow it closely, the detail isn’t hugely important, but considering I read this in one day it’s pretty bad that I still got a bit lost whenever I put it down and picked it up again.

I should probably add that I am not a fan of the League of Gentlemen, Gatiss’s most famous writing credit, though I do really like the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series, which he co-writes. I generally dislike caricatures and gross-out comedy. If you like League of Gentlemen you will probably like this book a lot. I think it says something about the skill of the writer that I didn’t dislike it and I did laugh at times. But I won’t be rushing to pick up the sequels.

First published 2004 by Simon and Schuster.

Don’t be put off by the title

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
by José Saramago
translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero

This month’s book club pick sounded a tad intimidating and I certainly would never have picked it up if not for the group. What I discovered was a complex, at times difficult, but also beautiful and funny book that I’m glad to have read.

Much could be made of the heretical aspects of this book. It was written by an atheist shortly after the publication of The Satanic Verses and definitely attracted the attention of the Church. But what struck me the most was that it seemed to be at least partly an attempt to answer some genuine questions – if Jesus experienced life as a real human man (whether or not he was the son of God) what would that life have been like? Saramago answers this in depth, from the landscape and food to the people, ways of speaking and acting, and the historical context – Jesus’s part of the world was under Roman occupation, which had its effect on everyday life. Saramago also explores how Jesus might have been treated when he started talking about his relationship with God, the reactions of those close to him and those of strangers.

Of course, it’s about more than that because it also takes some small but significant deviations from the accepted Biblical story. Mary and Joseph conceive Jesus in the usual way, with God only later claiming to have had some part in the union. God is indifferent toward his people but then decides he wants more followers so starts to pay attention and make demands of Jesus. Jesus and Mary Magdalene are lovers. Satan is a friendly, approachable, “human” character. And Jesus is perhaps a little too human even before Mary Magdalene comes along:

“…such is youth, selfish and thoughtless, and there is nothing to suggest that Jesus was any different from other boys his age.”

So yes, it’s certainly heretical. It suggests God only wants to expand his leadership, to have more followers, but is unhelpful in terms of how and tricks Jesus into accepting his fate. It also says that God and Satan are equal, or rather balance each other out. This is certainly not a cuddly, loving God.

The style is a little difficult to start with, written in Biblical rhetoric, sometimes reverent sometimes very not. It can be very detailed and descriptive, even beautiful (OT-like, perhaps), especially near the start. But in other places it is bareboned, more like reading the New Testament. There are no paragraph breaks (a Portuguese thing?) and speech is not marked out by speech marks. But I got used to those things quite quickly and found I was reading at a faster pace than I had expected considering how demanding the prose is in terms of references and allusions. There is a lot of pathos. These characters are so human, with hopes and fears and guilt and temptation and the little niggles of everyday life. It could have been a very serious book, so thank goodness for the wonderful sense of humour:

“…this revelation did not escape Mary despite the angel’s obscure speech, and, much surprised, she asked him, So Jesus is my son and the son of the Lord, Woman, what are you saying, show some respect for rank and precedence, what you must say is the son of the Lord and me, Of the Lord and you, No, of the Lord and you, You’re confusing me, just answer my question, is Jesus our son, You mean to say the Lord’s son because you only served to bear the child, So the Lord didn’t choose me, Don’t be absurd…”

Clearly a lot of research went into it. It directly references not only passages from the Bible but also other religious writings and historical/archaeological knowledge of what life would have been like in that time and place. To a certain extent it fills in the gaps left by the Biblical gospels, therefore there’s lots of detail about Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ childhood, but it skips quite quickly through the evangelism and miracle-working of Jesus’s last few years.

I was never clear about who the narrator is. The title suggests that it’s Jesus but it doesn’t read like that, it reads like one of his followers. But no-one could know all of this except an omniscient narrator so is it God? Or Satan? Or Jesus but much later from his seat in Heaven talking about “Jesus” in third-person because he’s now Michael?

Whoever it is, the narrator sometimes interjects in a manner that drags you out of the beautifully and believably constructed world of 2000 years ago to the present day, whether by directly referencing something modern or by applying a modern perspective. For instance, the narrator is often at great pains to point out the misogyny of life back then.

Joseph takes centre stage for the first half or so of the book and is therefore fully fleshed out, despite his brief appearance and disappearance in the Bible. He is a good man who, in contrast with the thinking of the time, is tormented by guilt for his own personal wrongdoing, which lays the groundwork for the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, according to this text – that Jews say prayers and give thanks and make sacrifices as part of the collective guilt of mankind, wheras Christianity is about acknowledging and asking forgiveness for personal sins.

At book club we discussed how, because the reader already knows the story, or thinks they do, Saramago plays with this. There’s a sense when reading this book of “when’s it going to get to the part when xyz” and xyz either happens later than expected or in an underwhelming sort-of way or even doesn’t happen at all. But some scenes are taken almost word for word from scripture, cleverly woven in.

There was some symbolism that I noticed but didn’t get, and I suspect it would help to have some solid theological knowledge when reading this rather than just a semi-deliberately forgotten memory of Sunday School and acting out Bible stories for Girls Brigade. I did find myself looking up some passages because they either rang a bell or rang false and the result varied from discovering they were surprisingly similar to the Bible (e.g. the wedding at Cana) to being a combination of different gospels put together in a new way (Jesus’ birth) to being a twist or slightly skewed take on the Biblical telling (Judas betraying Jesus to the Romans). Sometimes the narrator gives us a clue as to how this “true” account might become altered, for instance when Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights talking to God and Satan he is not in the desert, but almost immediately on his return his followers are talking about it as his time in the desert.

There is so much to say about this book (clearly), and it was definitely a good one to have a roundtable discussion of.

O Evangello segundo Jesus Cristo first published 1991 by Editorial Caminho, Lisbon.
This translation first published 1993 by Harcourt Brace.
José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1998

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2

Absorbing the pain

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

This is a big book and, like all the best chunky tomes, it’s a little bit heartbreaking when you get to the end to leave that world and all of its characters behind. Which is a long way of saying that I liked it.

Like Chabon’s previous books, this is a historical novel with a strong Jewish slant and a great deal of research has clearly gone into creating a believable setting for the action. Many’s the time I reached for my laptop to look up details mentioned, famous people or events named in passing, but I invariably changed my mind because I was too eager to carry on reading to pause, even briefly.

The story is that of two Jewish men, cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, during and after World War II. Joe escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and goes to live with Sam and his mother in Brooklyn, NYC. Sam’s mother has somewhat exaggerated his career and influence in her letters to Joe’s family but the appearance of this strange foreign cousin – and Joe’s astonishing skill as an artist – spark an idea in Sam that shapes the rest of their lives, and proves his mother’s faith worthy. Sam and Joe create a series of comic books that take America by storm, their greatest character being The Escapist, a superhero with Houdini’s escapism skills and a particular hatred for Nazis.

The book follows Joe and Sam’s changing fortunes over a couple of decades, but it also tells the larger story of comic books in America, as well as, on a much smaller scale, looking at changing attitudes toward Jews, Germans and homosexuals in the US.

With such huge events and themes, it is inevitable that some things will be dwelt on while others are skipped past quickly. The examples that stood out for me were the excellent long passage covering a brief section of Joe’s military service – a brilliant study of loneliness and self-evaluation – and the woefully short description at the start of Joe’s escape from Prague. Joe trains, as a boy, in escapology and it is his escapology teacher who plans his escape in a coffin. The origins of the plan, based around the smuggling out of German territory of a golem, precious to Jewish clerics, are detailed over several chapters but when it comes to the actual escape, a brief paragraph summarises Joe’s route before his arrival on Sam’s doorstep. This seemed to me to be a shame but it certainly added to the mysterious silence that Joe maintains regarding his past and his violent anger toward Nazis and Germans. Having left his family and friends behind in Europe the origin of his anger is obvious and his helplessness whenever he hears more bad news is devastating to follow.

I know very little about Jewish culture or escapology and, while I’ve read a handful of graphic novels, my knowledge of the history of comic books is almost non-existent, but I don’t think any of that matters. I loved this book. The tone and subject matter could veer from light comedy to the darkest exploration of humanity’s guilt and yet it never stopped being readable. The characters and story were absorbing, the writing style a good balance between faux memoir and adventure novel, and there were some descriptions of brief moments that were astonishingly vivid. This is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

Published 2001 by Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-1-8411-5493-0