jueves, 20 de febrero de 2014

Stoner by John Williams

To reveal that “he dies in the end” gives no more away about the plot of Stoner by John Williams than the revelation that “he’s born in the beginning”. Both phrases refer to Stoner, William Stoner, principal character of the book that’s named after him. Perhaps it might be more accurate to refer to Stoner as just the principal, because it could also be argued that Stoner himself really did not have much of a character.

Born in 1981, John Williams, the author, tells us, William Stoner was brought up on a Missouri farm and then went to college to study agriculture at the age of nineteen. A Damascus moment in a literature class soon provoked a change of course and thus Stoner left agriculture behind to plough a literary furrow. A true mid-West lad, Stoner stayed local for his studies. He completed his degree and then a doctorate before academe beckoned, and he began a career in the same University of Missouri where he had himself studied.

Thus Stoner became a teacher. He also became a husband, a husband of sorts to Edith, who tried to persuade herself from the start that she knew what she wanted from life. He also became a father, despite the ever present difficulties in the marriage. Problems mounted elsewhere as well, and relations with students were sometimes tense, while colleagues also often became sites of conflict. Grace, his daughter, grew up whatever way she could, given her father’s apparently limitless devotion to his work and her mother’s undeniable dedication to herself. Stoner’s interactions with fellow teachers, departmental chairs and deans went this way and that, and varied relations with students happened both inside and outside the classroom.

Great events of twentieth century history passed by William Stoner. A First World War was fought. Friends went and did not return. One loss in particular remained at the forefront of Stoner’s thoughts. Denied his own life, the memory of this lost friend regularly returns to Stoner’s thoughts whenever he needs a reminder that life could have dealt him a worse hand. And then the great crash came along to ruin lives and opportunity, especially for the family of Edith, Stoner’s wife. And then, just when you might least expect it, another war comes along. Conveniently for Stoner, this new conflict begins when he is already too old to participate. But rest assured, he knew some of the casualties.

The core of Stoner the novel is the portrayal of a life, the professional and the less so, in a university department. This is mister ordinary writ small. There are feuds, friendships, words of advice whispered towards ears, and simple, blazing rows that bow people apart. No-one, we must hasten to add, is ever killed in these battles, no guns are drawn, let alone fired, and there is no blood letting, except figuratively. But it can be seen that the injured are legion.

If all this sounds rather glib, then it might just be possible that this highly credible scenario does not quite live up to its celebrity backdrop. Yes, Stoner is born at the start and dies at the end. The life in between ought to be the meat, the real guts of this story. But strangely, it isn’t. For all Stoner’s obvious commitment, patience and integrity, he rarely seems to be a participant even in his own life. Things happen to him, and around him, but yet he seems strangely passive, unwilling to express opinion, commit himself or take sides. By the tale’s end, history has come and gone, characters have impinged upon this life, left their mark and gone their own way, and students have grown up to live lives of their own. And throughout William Stoner seems curiously inert, lacking in opinion, unable to influence the impressions that others make on his life. As a character, he seems to be little more than a vehicle through which others’ foibles can be experienced. In the same way that Forrest Gump in film enacts history apparently without reflection, William Stoner sees his friends and colleagues take what the twentieth century can throw at them, but without really participating himself.

Perhaps this is John Williams’s point. In film, Forrest Gump is the embodiment of Middle America, the faithful, uncritical, trusting majority that suffers the consequences, picks up the pieces, makes the best of things, and always puts the wheel back on the wagon. Perhaps William Stoner is similarly an allegory to depict the respectability and value of the suffering Job. There are surely many others who have lived out such plots, such as anyone invented by Anne Tyler, or Saul Bellow’s Herzog. But William Stoner’s determination to remain the third person recipient of his author’s God-like view on his life is truly worthy since, if William Stoner really did have control over his own voice, he would surely have demanded just a little more of the action.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’Doherty

In The Deposition of Father McGreevy Brian O’Doherty transports us into a world and culture that will be quite alien to most readers. By the book’s end, we may even be convinced that this might be a different universe.

But Brian O’Doherty’s book is set in Ireland, not some distant, fanciful galaxy. It’s the west of Ireland, County Kerry to be precise, where there is a remote community on a mountain side. A harsh winter has brought sickness and, in this small place, all the women have died. It’s a momentous calamity, rendered all the more devastating by the community’s inability to bury the corpses, because the earth is too frozen to break. The local priest, Father McGreevy, takes up his pen to describe the plight of his parishioners, as they struggle to come to terms with the fate that has befallen them.

Father McGreevy’s view of the world, of course, comes from a particular standpoint. He deals with sin, guilt and all the other trappings of Roman Catholicism. But he is also a man of the world, and understands much, though not all, of what makes men tick, even though women do seem to remain a tad beyond the pale. He is also aware of how the demon drink can enter a man’s soul and transform him into something he might never have wanted to be.

None of this would have come to light, however, if William McGinn, a journalist in the 1950s, had not come into the possession of Father McGreevy’s jottings. The old fellow was gone to earth himself by the time an envelope with his testimony passed into the hands of McGinn who, out of curiosity and a need to unearth a good story, tells us the priest’s tale. Footnoted to explain the more obscure allusions and references to Irish history, literature and folklore, Father McGreevy’s notes begin with the winter tragedy. What begins to unfold, however, is a decline to death of an entire community, itself a metaphor for a whole way of life.

Pestered by progress, battered by the elements and deserted by its masters, the peasant existence, that for so long had been life’s only option, was now being squeezed into the shape of an in-bred deformity. This village on a mountainside is frozen as much by time as by its winter frost. Perhaps McGreevy’s reliance on religion to seek an explanation for illness and misfortune, an approach that in the past might have united a community struck by adversity, was already itself part of the problem, part of the frostiness that hardened everything into an unyielding, unforgiving, inflexible and hostile environment.

But what we are not prepared for in this tale of degeneration and decline is how McGreevy’s tale develops. The priest bears witness to some deep sins, acts that he previously had never even imagined possible. The lad might have been a half-wit, but he had a complete body, that’s for sure. And, again for sure, the acts in question are not what you think they are. The Father’s deposition has it all, and it’s there for you and William McGinn to read. Let it be said that the local doctor, himself a metaphor for a more pragmatic and modern way of life, takes a remarkably casual, even ungodly line, when McGreevy bares his soul to describe these shocking practices.

But, as ever, as sin leads to more sin, grievous acts lead to more eve grievous consequences. And it’s only via locating some of the participants, still alive but incarcerated in mental hospitals in their decrepit old age, that McGinn forms his own version of what happened up there in the frost on that Kerry mountainside.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy is an extended poem. But it is also a deeply surprising, ever shocking tale of the desperation that almost inevitably rules a way of life. Strangely, we never really did establish what happened to all those women, the ones who died that winter. And we never really established why the ailment was so gender-specific. We do know, however, why the men might just have been the cause of the plague. Because, when left to their own devices, it may be sin and depravity that beckons, and this just might be their true nature. The Deposition of Father McGreevy is often funny, is always graphic and is continually evocative of a potentially endearing culture. But it’s not a reassuring vision of humanity.

viernes, 17 de enero de 2014

Woman Of The Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally

Woman Of The Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally is a thoroughly satisfying novel. Via its pages, the reader shares its characters’ experience, inhabits their landscape and almost participates in the stories told. Late twentieth century Australia is where everything happens, but the country’s apparently inescapable sense of its own history continually seeps through the experience. The novel, thus, is more than a story, more than a personal history, more than a drama.

Kate Gaffney-Kozinsky is the book’s central character. Née Gaffney, she was originally of Irish stock and gained the Polish double barrel by virtue of marriage. Virtue may be a stretch of both truth and reality when describing this particular marriage, however.

Kate Gaffney has an uncle who is a priest. Given the Irish connection this is not altogether surprising. But Kate’s uncle is not the usual sort of cleric. He has particular interests and proclivities that result in his rubbing shoulders with the rich, the powerful and the infamous. Thomas Keneally’s novel pre-dates scandal relating to personal abuse by clerics, and there is no mention of this in relation to the story of Kate’s uncle, but the rest will eventually conspire to condemn him and indeed defrock him. But a tension that is present and one that Thomas Keneally brings out to great effect is the way that this Irishness, this anti-British nationalism, can in Australia be lumped together with the traditional English rump to form a contrast with the later arrivals to the country from Greece, Poland, Lebanon, Vietnam, Italy and elsewhere.

It is pertinent to Kate’s story because she meets and marries a Kozinsky, a Pole, one of the more recent, non Anglo-Saxon antipodeans. The family has made a huge fortune in developing investment property. They are rich, famous and successful. Kate’s life is duly transformed.

Two children are born and they begin to grow up in a family whose cracks are beginning to appear. Kate internalises anything that might appear to fall short of overt success. But then mothers often do regard as failure anything less than perfection in themselves, especially in those things that impinge upon their children’s lives. Kate turns to new relationships, seeking there perhaps to fill some of the cracks that have appeared in the very structure of her own family life. And then things really fall apart.

Kate seeks out a new life. She takes a train into her country’s interior, that vast, even now largely unknown hinterland where it is usually failure, not opportunity, that awaits. She becomes a barmaid in a back-of-beyond town that suffers chronic and regular flooding, and, sure enough, climatic disaster strikes again. A man called Jelly reckons that a hole blown through a railway embankment would relieve the town of its unwanted surfeit of water. Predicting the blast proves more difficult that setting it.

The plot wanders across country after explosive events. A large kangaroo and an emu travel in the party, on their way to a film set where they are cast in parts of a living national coat of arms. Kate thus travels again, but always pursued by her husband’s family lawyer, who wants her to sign away her rights, responsibilities and any presumed guilt.

When, later, abortive attempts at settlement have been attempted and come to nothing, Kate tries to take things into her own hands and seeks a settlement of her own. Her priest-uncle’s fate has taken its turns, as, she discovers, have the fortunes of the Kozinskys. While she has been bound up in the detail of her own life and its imaginings, fears and guilt, things outside of her direct experience have moved on. The world she rediscovers has changed. The landscape, though still unchanging ancient Australia, is now utterly different, offering new possibilities to new lives and even the opportunity to rewrite her personal history. Kate Gaffney thus explores the great inner sea of her country at the same time as navigating the tides of her own innermost fears. The journey, as ever, lands on new shores in old places.

My latest book, One On One, is a romantic espionage thriller set on an island in the South China Sea

jueves, 16 de enero de 2014

The Lost Girl by D H Lawrence

In a very famous context, D. H. Lawrence is himself famous for using a word beginning with ‘f’, a word that is infamous rather than famous. Mentioning this word and then repeating it got the author into some serious trouble that was not resolved until decades after his death. In this book, The Lost Girl, Lawrence is clearly preoccupied with the word and the novel is very much focused on it and its associated act. Its anticipation, achievement, consequences and perceived implications seem to be the very stuff of the heroine’s life, but in this book the word never actually appears. So, like Lawrence, let’s use a euphemism, but let’s also be more direct than the writer. Let’s use ‘fabrication’, an activity that is central to the work of any author.

The Lost Girl is Alvina Houghton. The surname is pronounced with an ‘f’ sound in the middle, not an ‘o’, so its first syllable rhymes with ‘fluff’, not ‘now’. She is the daughter of James, a shopkeeper in a small Derbyshire town called Woodhouse, in the north English midlands. James has a shop selling Manchester goods, the mass produced textiles of the late nineteenth century. He is not the best businessman, however, and his activities shrink over time. His daughter, Alvina - that’s with a ‘y’ sound in the middle, not an ‘e’ - is rather plain-looking and apparently not too interesting either. She thinks quite a lot about fabrication from quite an early age, but she is a determined spectator when it comes to relationships. Her counsel, especially after her mother dies, is from older women, some of them determined spinsters.

After some prevarication, Alvina eventually trains as a midwife. The skill offers her a chance of independence, but she chooses to revert to her preferred state of familial dependence. After all, Alvina will probably inherit her father’s business. Thus she continues her arm’s length relation with life.

There is a short affair with a local man, a rather goofy figure who goes on to Oxford University and probably lives long enough to make a packet. But clearly the safe option is not for Alvina, who equally seems utterly afraid of risk in any form. She clearly cannot bring herself to the fabrication she privately craves and so the affair, surely destined for marriage in the eyes of the locals, comes to nought.

Women close to The Lost Girl die. Others remain like perched birds watching over events. And, when James decides to leave the shop and sell off the little coal mine he also owns there is much consternation. There is even more to chirp about when he announces he is going into the entertainment business by opening up a little music hall, especially when Alvina declares that she will play the piano. Until this point, she had not mentioned being a musician. It is worthwhile remembering that we are in age when playing the instrument was almost part of any single woman’s trousseau.

And so the music hall presents its act, a motley crew of Red Indian impersonators, including a German called Max and an Italian called Cicio. Initially, the show packs them in, but the passing of time sees interest start to dwindle. But suddenly new opportunities arise for Alvina to think of fabrication, and fabrication with foreigners involved to boot!

And so the story of Lawrence’s The Lost Girl eventually fabricates its way from Derbyshire, and we leave Alvina in what looks like a new - though very old fashioned - life in changed circumstances. She seems now completely enslaved in her chosen womanly role, but we are at the start of the First World War and surely the role of women in society is about to change for ever.

The Lost Girl deals with many of Lawrence’s recurring themes, but its fabrication is often rather clumsy and its style often less than comfortable. It is, however, worth seeing through, if only to realise just how much both Lawrence and his fabricated characters - especially the women - are still locked in a soon to be changed mind-set about gender roles and social class.

miércoles, 15 de enero de 2014

Free on Kindle - A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke

A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke was published a century ago. Today it offers the modern reader not only potted, period critiques of important artists, but also a remarkable insight into how aesthetics change from generation to generation. John Charles Van Dyke’s assessments of some work will surprise today’s reader, especially his attitudes towards some contemporary artists who received rather hostile reactions from some quarters when their work was first exhibited.

The book deals with the European tradition. It makes no excuses for this. At the time, non-European art was perhaps less well known in Western critical circles. Perhaps also, it was regarded as somehow inferior, perhaps also merely because it was not European in origin. But Van Dyke does offer us a working distinction that excludes most non-European art from his survey, that of the difference between observation and expression. Only that which aims at expression, for van Dyke at least, is worthy of the label “art”. Somehow ancient Egyptian art makes it into the oeuvre, probably because it was also represented in museums that were close at hand and accessible.

Two painters in particular illustrate the difference in treatment between van Dyke’s age and our own, El Greco and Alma-Tadema. El Greco is hardly mentioned as a figure in sixteenth century Spain, his achievements apparently being regarded as rather localised on Toledo. Thus a figure now regarded as a unique stylist and visionary hardly figures in this text. Alma-Tadema, whose academicism and detail might today offer summary and epitome of the staid Victorian England that toyed euphemistically with the erotic is also dismissed. And one of the few English painters to be raised to the peerage, Frederick Leighton, also did not impress Professor Van Dyke. Neither, it seems, did Albrecht Durer.

Central to Van Dyke’s aesthetic is a judgment as to whether the painter not only represents, interprets and expresses, but also constructs a painting. Mere reality is never enough, it seems, life requiring the skill of an editor or architect to render its experience communicable. It is interesting to reflect on how much or little we still value this aspect of aesthetics in today’s painting.

Some of Van Dyke’s observations will at least entertain. Franz Hals, we learn, lived a rather careless life. William Blake was hardly a painter at all. A Dutchman is attributed with the faint praise of being a unique painter of poultry. Matthew Maris is criticised for being a recorder of visions and dreams rather than the substantial things of earth, while Turner is dismissed as bizarre and extravagant, qualities that today might enhance rather than diminish his reputation.

But Van Dyke’s book remains an interesting, informative and rewarding read, despite its distance from contemporary thinking. He is especially strong in his summary descriptions of the different Italian schools of the late Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is more than useful to be reminded of how independent these city states were at the time and how little they managed to influence one another. A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke remains, then, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of art. Much has changed, but then there is much that has not.

martes, 14 de enero de 2014

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

In A Change Of Climate Hilary Mantel presents what is essentially a family saga, but in settings that add extra dimensions to the expected dilemmas. The family in question is the Eldreds. Ralph and Anna have shared an unusual if not an altogether unconventional married life. They have spent time in Africa as missionaries. They have devoted their time to helping others less advantaged than themselves. Ralph runs a charitable trust in Norfolk in the east of England. But they have also found the time and energy to raise children of their own and experience the day-to-day pressures of any family’s life. But there has been more, more that has not been voiced.

Volunteer missionary work took them to South Africa, to a township called Elim near Johannesburg. It was during the era of toughening Apartheid, a time when new powers threatened whole communities with eviction and resettlement to “tribal homelands”. Ralph and Anna begin to identify with their community and deal with certain people who held particular opinions about the way South African society was being organised. Their activities catch the eye of the local police and, as a consequence of their contact, Ralph and Anna are arrested and imprisoned.

For them there is a way out of jail, and it is a way that is not available, of course, to the others who had been associated with them in Elim, those who have to continue living with the injustice that seems to affect the lives of the Eldreds. Hilary Mantel’s novel, however, doggedly follows the Eldreds to Botswana, where the family apparently gives up thinking about those they have left behind. Known then as Bechuanaland, Botswana provides the family with an opportunity, but they are offered a posting that the previous incumbents did not appear to like. By this time Anna has been through a pregnancy and has been blessed with twins. It seems, however, that the mission’s previous occupants were correct about the undesirability of the posting. Problems ensue for the Eldreds. What happens to the couple in the latter days of their stay in southern Africa is crucial to the plot of the A Change Of Climate. But there are two or three aspects to these events, not just one relating to a child. Perhaps sometimes overlooked is the fate of the others involved with the tragic events at the end of the family’s time in Botswana, a fate that returns to haunt via an almost passing mention towards the end of the book. Guilt, it seems, has many manifestations, mostly ignored.

Back in Britain, the Eldreds devote themselves to assisting those less fortunate than themselves. Thus Melanie appears on the scene. She is young, self-abusing, antisocial and in need. But then all these characters find themselves in need - in need of comfort, reassurance, something that might salve the conscience, replace the loss, turn time around and allow a different path to be taken. Devoted to alleviating the suffering of others, neither Ralph nor Anna can cope with their own traumas. These have to be lived with and relived every day, the guilt they engender colouring most of their lives. Ways out of the impasse of coping are always at hand, however. When Ralph and Anna’s son takes up with the daughter of a local single mum who ekes out a living from standing markets and trading junk, an opportunity burns suddenly bright and new suffering and guilt is wrought in the furnace.

In the end, no matter what life throws at us, we all depend on one another and need the succour of others to survive. This remains the case, even when our ideals lead us blandly towards avoidable tragedy and our ensuing suffering impinges on the lives of others.

Hilary Mantel’s novel invites us to empathise with the suffering and guilt of Ralph and Anna Eldred. But what the book fails to examine in depth is their motives. Given the consequence of some of their actions, whether intended or not, these could surely have come under greater scrutiny.

My latest book, One On One, is a romantic espionage thriller set on an island in the South China Sea

lunes, 13 de enero de 2014

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O’Brien

Brian O’Nolan was an Irish civil servant who wrote fiction and journalism under pseudonyms. Flann O’Brien was the name O’Nolan used on his fiction and it is the name of the author of The Dalkey Archive, a metafictional novel that veers from the philosophical to the nonsensical, from the tender to the coarse and from the religious to the irreverent, often in the same sentence.

The Dalkey Archive is much more than a novel and at the same time much less than a story. There are linear threads of sorts that run through the book, but they are often knotted or broken. But the real ambition of the book seems to be something different from story-telling, something more akin to a flippant, sometimes facetious examination of the relationship between received assumption, demonstrable fact and identity-endowing allegiance.

On the face of it, The Dalkey Archive is something of a farce. There is this fellow called Mick, who is generally surprised by the use of Michael. He has an acquaintance called De Selby who claims both theories and capabilities, one of which is the ability to manufacture a substance capable of sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. He has plans.

But his greatest achievement is to attend a meeting with Saint Augustine of Hippo set up by De Selby, where the attendees can grill the Saint about, amongst other things, his dabbling with Manicheanism and his sexual preferences. But this is no story cast in black and white, though it may make claim to the mundane.

Another of Mick’s adventures is to locate James Joyce, reportedly resident nearby. He wants to ask the great man a few questions about his work. He traces Joyce to a seaside resort called Skerries, which means he is on the rocks. James Joyce is working as a bar assistant, which is convenient because Mick likes to spend quite a lot of his time in bars.

But Joyce remains enigmatic. And why wouldn’t he be? He denies all knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake and maintains that someone else wrote Ulysses. It’s all right, especially when the concept of truth is under scrutiny. After all, the eternal Holy Ghost only became extant - in its non-extant way – at the Council of Contantinople in 381AD, so there!

Now if anyone might think that things are getting a tad silly, then spend just one day - as Leon Blum did in another place - just making notes on the things you saw, said or thought, however random. At the end of the day, have a look at what is there and realise that you have been everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Welcome to being human. Oh, and there are some pretty strange policemen in the book as well, often riding bicycles, of all things. They have made appearances in another book.

It is hard not to read The Dalkey Archive in a Dublin accent. Even then, it remains incomprehensible, the blast of reality coming, perhaps, with Mary’s final words. Which Mary? you might ask. Now there’s a story…

As novels go, The Dalkey Archive might itself be intoxicated. Certainly most of its characters are intoxicated for a good proportion of their time. Read it to realise, amongst other things, how much other writing, especially that we often describe as conventional or mainstream, is no more than illusion sugared with unreal reality. Also realise how much of life, itself, and our assumed beliefs within it are delusional. Oh, and have a good number of laughs along the way.