Tuesday 24 April 2012

The Book Of Life - Stuart Nadler

'where my heart belonged'

I'm going to be brutally honest here and say that I read Stuart Nadler's debut story collection from cover to cover and enjoyed it (not without qualification, there were a few points I knew I would want to make when it came to writing my thoughts up, but in the meantime I set the book down and begun the next one on my list) but when I picked it up again a month or so later to write this post I realised that I could actually remember very little about the seven stories contained within. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, I am a forgetful chap, that's the whole reason why I started writing this blog in the first place; and secondly Nadler has produced a very polished set of stories which share certain themes and traits and their very proficiency means that they lack distinction from each other. In a collection where infidelity, Jewishness and familial relations loom large there is a tendency for the male characters in particular to all seem very similar (even when doing very different things - I think this might be because the dialogue isn't sufficiently different). There are even some moments of actual repetition, like for example the awkward kiss that results from one party going for the mouth and the other for the cheek. Whether these are supposed to be artistic echoes or not the effect is of reading a young writer who doesn't realise that he's repeated a trick in more than one story. Ok, that's the hard bit over (sorry Stuart) let's get on with looking at the actual stories.

There is a distinct whiff of Cheever about the collection as a whole with its suburban families, kids in college, crumbling marriages and infidelities. In fact that feeling is so strong that I had to remind myself that these stories were set in the modern age rather than the 50's and 60's of Cheever. Opening story In The Book Of Life features a man who takes the young daughter of his best friend to bed only to discover that his best friend has been conducting an affair with his wife. Winter On The Sawtooth finds one husband actually cohabiting with his wife's lover but who finally finds the confidence to challenge that after his son visits from college, having found not only love but a new connection with his Judaism. The Moon Landing does actually look back to the ticker tape parade that followed Armstrong et als return to terra firma in 1969, as two brothers clear the house now left empty by the death of both their parents in close succession. Unfortunately for Nadler I had recently read Karl Ove Knausgaard's incendiary novel which uses a similar device and frankly blows this story out of the water.

Perhaps the most effective story about infidelity is Catherine and Henry. At the prompting of a friend, Catherine hires a woman to pose as a model in order to test the fidelity of her artist husband, Henry. She has been made suspicious by finding dozens of paintings of the same woman - 'and in Henry's work she found a new sense of attentiveness that discomfited her. Part of this, surely, was that Catherine believed these paintings to be his best work.' So torturous is the whole sting for her personally that she believes she might be able to forgive him if he fails - 'What she isn't sure she is capable of doing is negotiating her own envy. Absolution, she figures, is what comes after forgiveness.' He doesn't pass the test, the relationship ends and when she goes to visit him two years later, to see whether they might be able to rekindle their romance, she finds a man who has aged more than seems possible in so short a time, whilst she remains deeply affected by the guilt of having set a trap for him.

Characters often know that they feel something that might be called love but like the narrator of the final story, Beyond Any Blessing, 'What I didn't know was whether there was a way to quantify the love I felt in my life. I wanted desperately to find some graph to plot my feelings upon, where I could find inarguable proof of where my heart belonged.' Nadler writes with maturity and insight about the complications surrounding love and relationships, finding great mileage in the many different ways that we can mess them up and continue to make the wrong choices even after having apparently learned from our mistakes. But the shadow of those writers Nadler clearly admires looms a little large in this debut and when coupled with those repetitions I mentioned earlier takes something of the gloss off. Nadler is clearly a writer of promise but it may be his next book (a novel) that truly shows us what he's capable of.


Tuesday 17 April 2012

The Chemistry Of Tears - Peter Carey

'a clockwork Taj Mahal'

My first Carey. Why this one? I don't know. I've never been desperate to read any of his novels but something about the mention of an automaton on the back cover intrigued and how comparisons between this and human emotions might in turn have something to say about what exactly it is that makes us human. As Catherine Gehrig, the narrator of this twin-stranded novel, notes -

But really, truly, anyone who has ever observed a successful automaton, seen its uncanny lifelike movements, confronted its mechanical eyes, any human animal remembers that particular fear, that confusion about what is alive and what cannot be born. Descartes said that animals were automatons. I have always been certain that it was the threat of torture that stopped him saying the same held true for human beings.

Catherine is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum in London as a conservator. Both her  father and grandfather were clockmakers so she has always seen it as a soothing occupation - 'For years I thought clockmaking must still any turmoil in one's breast. I was so confident of my opinion, so completely wrong.' Coming in to work one day she discovers that her colleague and lover for the last thirteen years has died. She is sent reeling into grief, a grief that must remain as secret as their affair, but perhaps luckily for her they were never quite as discreet as they imagined and her boss is well aware of what happened between them. He gives Catherine a special project, the restoration of an automaton modelled on 18th-century inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical duck. That device supposedly ate, digested and then excreted grain in front of a live audience but, with the droppings prepared in advance, hoodwinked its audience slightly. Catherine's project is slightly different and amongst the boxes of machinery she discovers several notebooks, each 'densely inscribed in a distinctive style. Every line began and ended at the very brink, and in between was handwriting as regular as a factory's sawtooth roof. There was not a whisker's width of margin.' These are the journals of Henry Brandling, son of a railway entrepreneur who leaves his loveless marriage and travels to Europe in order to effect the construction of a replica of de Vaucanson’s duck, to aid the recovery of his consumptive son. Along the way he falls in with characters who may intend to help or hinder him, he is never really in control of the project he finances and as Catherine obsessively reads his account she wonders what exactly he hopes to achieve with it anyway.

I could not doubt Henry Brandling's real desire to keep his promise to his son. But he did not seem to have imagined what would happen when the duck was finally made. Did he really expect his wife to fall in love with him again? Or was he, without knowing it, building some mad monument to grief, a kind of clockwork Taj Mahal? Or was that me?

I found my interest waning in Brandling's story with each successive page I'm afraid but Carey's portrait of a grieving lover is far more engaging. Catherine medicates herself with alcohol and sedatives, stumbles into work where rather than commit fully to the restoration she trawls through her old email exchanges, lost in remembrance. She is even assigned a young assistant cum spy to keep an eye on her, an 'overenthusiastic' young student who is the counterpoint to Catherine's technophobe. Often hooked up to her 'frankenpod' and glued to web images of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as it unfurls live, it is she who cannot bear to watch Catherine mooning over her inbox and downloads all the messages to a USB stick for her to take away. Catherine meanwhile becomes immersed in the notebooks, the slow reconstruction of the intricate machine, and the deconstruction of her own life to its most basic elements, so that she too becomes almost machine-like, echoing de Vaucanson’s duck once again as she struggles to keep herself together near the novel's conclusion - 'Ingest, I thought, digest, excrete repeat.'

It's an enjoyable enough read but my enthusiasm for turning the pages towards the end came more from the prospect of finishing it rather than wanting to know how it finished. The book doesn't seem to have the fastidious construction I had expected from a Carey novel. As I said, one half of the book is much weaker than the second but it is also in the very obvious ways in which themes are linked between the various narrative strands that one starts to notice the machinery rather than the art. A little like looking at an unconvincing automaton. I suspect this is not one of his best books, or that if it is then Carey is probably not for me.


Tuesday 10 April 2012

Seven Years - Peter Stamm

'together and always separate'

translated by Michael Hofmann

Oh my, what a beautiful book. Opening the envelope in which it came I had no idea what was inside, but once it was in my hand I almost didn't care. With its tracing-paper like dust-jacket and monochrome photograph cover image printed directly onto the boards I was smitten immediately. The white text revealed an author I hadn't heard of previously but underneath that the very well known name of translator Michael Hofmann. Flip to the back cover and there's some nice quotes from Zadie Smith amongst others who is moved to profanity in her praise for this novel that makes you 'doubt your own dogma.' I was intrigued. The icy coldness of the book's outer shell is replicated inside with Stamm's clear  and uninflected prose and the emotional detachment of the characters. This definitely won't be a book for everyone, female readers in particular may find the male narrator far too off-putting, but it is a brave and unsettling read that questions how we relate, feel desire and find fulfilment.

Alex and Sonia seem to be the perfect couple. He is good looking, she beautiful; both of them architects with a successful firm and a luxurious lifestyle. The only thing missing from their life is their first child and it is the strain of trying to achieve that final piece of the picture that threatens to disintegrate the foundations of their marriage. It's slightly more complicated than that of course but the idea of marriage as a construct is very fitting for this couple. Alex chose Sonia as a fitting mother for his children, a woman who seemed to ooze success and the promise of a good life together. Looking back on his marriage many years later he realises that 'Sonia was a project ... No sooner had we reached one goal than the next loomed into sight, we were never done.' What is crucial is what came before this logical decision to marry Sonia.

The second woman in Alex's life is Ivona, a plain Polish woman whom he met when she simply made up the numbers on an evening out with friends at college. With a 'docile and long-suffering manner' she gives 'the impression of a natural born victim' something that makes Alex feel both sorry for her and hugely irritated by her. But she seems devoted to him, something very different to 'the usual back-and-forth, the game of trying to seduce a woman.'

I had the feeling Ivona was giving herself to me, and I had absolute power over her, and could do whatever I liked with her. I felt utterly indifferent to her. I had nothing to lose and nothing to be afraid of.

Their strangely chaste affair takes place in her dorm room amongst the soft toys, romance novels and cheap jewellery that mark out her emotional immaturity.

The pokiness, the untidiness, and the absence of any aesthetic value only seemed to intensify my desire.. Thre was nothing there to inhibit me, by reminding me of my life and the world. It was as though I became someone else in that room, an object in Ivona's chaotic collection of treasured and neglected knickknacks.

Then he meets Sonia, 'the absolute opposite of Ivona', a woman who intimidates him and gives him 'the feeling of having to try to be better' than he actually is. But for all her beauty, charm and social ease 'Sonia would never say to a man that she loved him, the way that Ivona had said it to me, as if there was no other possibility.' Perhaps it is this that draws him back to Ivona when he encounters the seven year itch and he conducts an affair that contains passion but not attraction in 'those sluggish hours we spent together in her overheated room, stuck to one another, crawling into each other, together and always separate.'

Her unconditional love for me, however purely random, drew me irresistibly to her and, by the same token, repulsed me the instant I was satisfied. Then I would feel the need to hurt her, as if that was my only way of breaking free.

It feels very much like an addiction: illogical, dangerous, destructive and yet something towards which he is irresistibly drawn.

At the same time his relationship with Sonia deteriorates. In his opinion she had always been inhibited by her beauty, incapable of passion, Alex sometimes with 'the feeling she was watching herself while we made love, to make sure she kept her dignity.' He too is an observer to their intimacy and in this novel of construction it is a moment in their new apartment together that shows just how detached they have become.

We stood next to each other in the bathroom and looked at ourselves in the mirror. Two beautiful people in a beautiful apartment, said Sonia, and laughed. I turned and kissed her, and thought of the beautiful couple in the mirror kissing as well, and that excited me more than the actual kiss itself.

I won't go any further in describing just how destructive and messed up this love triangle becomes except to remind you of the element missing from that perfect marriage. Alex's behaviour is a mystery to himself, he never seeks to investigate his motives or actions, and that selfishness and solipsism may be hard to stomach for some readers. He is an unsettling guide through the novel and even when his marriage and business are ruined not to mention the well-being of Ivona, he is unrepentant, finding solace in a line he remembers from a film (Adaptation) - 'you are what you love, not who loves you.'

It seemed to me that everything had just happened to me, and I was as little to blame for it as Sonia and Ivona. I wasn't a monster, I was no better and no worse than anyone else.

Plenty of readers won't be so quick to let him off the hook but however you feel about Alex personally he is the perfect unsettling guide to this ice-cold examination.


Tuesday 3 April 2012

A Death In The Family - Karl Ove Knausgaard

'life's a pitch'

translated by Don Bartlett

For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.

It was this article in The Guardian that alerted me to Norwegian writer Knausgaard. Towards the end of last year apparently, a new Norwegian translation of the Bible sat at the top of the bestseller lists, selling nearly 80,000 copies in less than three months. However it wasn't that book I wanted to read after finishing the article but the only book to beat it to the number one spot in that period. Enter Knausgaard who has published two critically acclaimed novels but achieved real fame and notoriety with his six-volume series of autobiographical novels entitled My Struggle (or Min Kamp in Norwegian. Yes - just like Hitler's own memoir). Harvill Secker have published the first of these under this new title and part two will follow next year. I can only hope, pray and if necessary demand that they publish the following four books, all 3000 pages of it, after finishing part one. Knausgaard's writing is beautiful, ugly, honest and true and whatever you feel about the 'Faustian bargain' he has made by achieving such success by writing about his friends and family in such an exposing manner there is no doubt that he does so with incredible skill. In yet another book in which very little actually happens I found myself increasingly fascinated as I went along and impatient for the next instalment by the time I reached the final page.

I should mention straight away that after a couple of hundred pages I was far from convinced. In fact I was a bit bored by parts of the book and a little bewildered as to where it was going. But about half way through, when Knausgaard changed locale and focus, I found myself gripped and even able to better appreciate what had come before. You could argue that the speed-writing approach (all six volumes of this series appear to have been written in about three years in total) makes for a slightly unsatisfactory reading experience in places but I found that once my brain had clicked with the book I was happy to follow Knausgaard's flighty train of thought anywhere it wanted to take me and it wasn't just the quality of the writing that pleased me but the bravery and power of it which rendered the few books I read afterwards tame by comparison.

We are invited, naturally, to think of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu and Knausgaard has a similar disregard for chronology, his interest lying more with microscopic details, digressions into the place and purpose of art and a desire to conquer the greatest fear/fascination of all: death. If you want plot then look elsewhere. All that really happens in this book is a teenage boy drinks and goes out with the wrong girl and, when a grown man, clears the house in which his father died (and his grandmother still lives). Having 'nigh on imbibed' Proust's masterpiece himself and spent much of his life thinking about the past Knausgaard finds himself on marriage number two with a young family and barely thinking about it at all - 'I believe the main reason for that is our children, since life with them in the here and now occupies all the space. They even squeeze out the most recent past: ask me what I did three days ago and I can't remember.' Perhaps that too is why time no longer seems like a linear journey and why this book follows a different structure. In searching for an image to illustrate this different view of time he alights on a a boat being raised in a lock - 'As time seeps in from all sides our life is essentially the same with only he details changing, and the wait is for the moment when the sluice gates open and real life moves on.'

Domestic family life has also robbed him of his most prized creative resource: solitude. He craves great swathes of it in order to write and is still driven by 'the ambition to write something exceptional one day', his recent attempts to grapple with his father's influence frustrated by form.

For several years I had tried to write about my father, but had got nowhere, probably because the subject was too close to my life, and thus not so easy to force into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form...Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called 'writing'. Writing is more about destroying than creating.

And so we have this melding of memoir and fiction. How much of it is either of those two things is impossible to tell, although the vast majority of what we read would seem to be based very much in fact. Ignoring the sensation with which the books are accompanied (and given that most of that comes from his writing about his ex-wife who barely merits a mention in this first volume) what we seem to have at the beginning is a writer writing about the process of writing, whilst we read what he has written. But Knausgaard the writer drops away from the foreground and what we have really is Knausgaard the rememberer. Looking back on an adolescence of experiment with drink (alcohol looms large in the book as a whole and the contrast between the youthful excitement around it and the degradation it causes in later life is sharp), fumbles with girls, embarrassing attempts at making music, there is something a bit directionless about the first half of the book. One thing I did pick up on was the way the adult Knausgaard is now able to appreciate when looking back to his childhood how different his days were to his father's.

While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. "Family...career..."

Their family is soon split, his parent's separation announced matter-of-factly whilst dealing with a shopping list. The time that Karl Ove spends alone with his father is painfully intimate at times, as when he catches his father in moments when he thinks he is alone. Returning home early for example to find him nursing a bottle of wine (and making plenty of noise as he enters in order to announce his presence so that his father can clear it away) or another occasion when even his attempt at a noisy entrance cannot rise above the loud music to which his father is listening; eyes closed, head moving to and fro with the music, cheeks wet with tears. Young Karl Ove walks out unnoticed and leaves the house immediately. His father eventually removes himself to his own mother's seaside home where he slowly drinks himself to an early grave. It is the cleanup after his death which dominates the second half of the book and it is a truly stunning piece of writing that takes squalor and destruction and turns it into art.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing's location and aim. But how to get there?

Joined in the cleanup by his brother Yngve, a graphic designer whose control only serves to heighten the manner in which Karl Ove has been sideswiped by his father's death, we watch Knausgaard stumble through the filth and detritus, weeping uncontrollably, trying to piece together exactly what had happened in the years of his father's self-imposed exile. One extraordinary realisation is that his father had actually spoken of suicide several times; his belief that statistics didn't show that many car accidents with single drivers were deliberate attempts to end a life, his thoughts on the various methods; but all of this had seemed nothing more than a topic of conversation, Knausgaard unable to see it as anything else, his father having imprinted his image of himself so clearly in Karl Ove's mind that he was 'always engaging with the person he had been' rather than the one he had become. On of the lowest points is related by his Uncle Gunnar who tells both boys about the time when their father had broken his leg but remained lying on the living room floor, attended by his mother, rather than calling a doctor.

"He's crapped his pants. Can you imagine? He'd been lying on the floor drinking. And she'd served him. "This is no good," I told him before the ambulance arrived. "This is beneath your dignity. Now pull yourself together. And do you know what your father said?" "Are you going to push me even deeper into the shit, Gunnar? Is that why you've come, to push me even deeper in the shit?...He destroyed everything. This house, her, himself. Everything. Everything."

Even more painful perhaps as they clear the house of its broken and ruined furniture, its soiled clothing, the smell of waste everywhere, working around their gaunt, wan, dementia-suffering and incontinent grandmother is the dawning realisation that she suffers from the same alcoholism that killed her son. Her innocent enquiries as to whether they'd like a drink in the evening (and her abstinence when they refuse) suddenly take on a different hue when the boys realise her plight. And when they finally relent and give her what she so clearly needs they watch the transformation as the glint returns to her eyes, colour to her cheeks, 'like a vampire that had finally got a taste of blood...life was returning to her, filling her limb by limb. It was terrible, terrible.'

Those that write purely as an act of catharsis often produce terrible work. I've read far too many plays by people who should really have been having that conversation with the person involved (or a therapist) rather than pretending that it was ever a good subject for drama. But this book, which so clearly serves a double purpose (to conquer the shame instilled by a father who belittled his son from a young age and to conquer an even grander foe: the fear of death), somehow manages to claim its position as a work of art whilst also being an act of confession, a personal memoir and also a piece of fiction, a book hard to categorise and even to enjoy at times but one which despite its meandering makes other books seem spineless afterwards. One that succeeded in helping Knausgaard to deal with his father's death, one can only wonder whether it worked the same magic on his legacy.

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks inn the wind, a jackets that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.


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