The residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours areThe residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are incomers. Roger and Arabella Yount bought their upmarket property from the proceeds of Roger's job as an Investment Banker. Freddy Kamo is a Premiership footballer. Ahmed Kamal runs the corner shop with his wife and two brothers. Meanwhile, Zbigniew the Polish builder is putting up Arabella's shelves, whilst Quentina Mkfesi, a political refugee from Zimbabwe, is walking Pepys Road in search of parking infringements.
When the residents begin to receive postcards of their houses with the sinister message "We want what you have", the relationship between them and their material possessions are placed under the microscope. The appalling Arabella Yount has completely objectified herself in material terms. Roger needs a £1million bonus to meet his family's extravagant requirements. Freddy's father Patrick wishes that he was back in Senegal where life was poorer but simpler. Petunia's grandson Smitty is a Banksy-style artist whose anonymity is a commodity. Zbigniew monitors his share portfolio so that he can return to Poland to set up in business with his father.
Overlying the material relations are typically modern physical threats. The postcards turn nasty. The Kamal's brother is arrested as a terrorist. Freddy is injured playing football. Quentina is interned. Petunia has cancer. Roger is caught up in the banking crisis.
Yet despite these pitfalls, this is a surprisingly warm-hearted book. These tribulations are generally redemptive, underscoring the importance of family, love, friendship and respect. Only Arabella Yount is too far-gone in her materialistic cocoon to be able to contemplate the opportunities that Roger's change in lifestyle may offer, and whilst the fate of the admirable Quentina gives little to be optimistic about, she knows that Zimbabwe will not be ruled by a tyrant forever.
John Lanchester has succeeded in writing an immensely enjoyable State-of-the-Nation novel. The way in which each set of characters' lives impinge on each other only very tangentially is exactly how a modern street works. Admittedly most characters are not sketched in much depth and the novel lacks complexity - yet it is this lightness which captures the superficial freneticness and interconnectivity of modern life so well.
I hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarriedI hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried middle-aged man working as a celebrity look-alike whose two best friends are both Jewish, and both have recently lost their wives. Samuel Finkler, a friend of Treslove since school, is a successful philosopher, academic and TV pundit, writer of "The Existentialist in the Kitchen". The elderly Libor Sevcik was their teacher. Both may be Jewish, but they have conflicting attitudes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Libor supporting the Israeli government's position, whereas Finkler takes the lead of the ASHamed Jews who are opposed to Israeli aggression in Palestine.
Julian has always had an ambiguous relationship with the confident, successful Finkler, defining his attitude to Jewishness through him (to Treslove, all Jews are "Finklers"). However, after being the victim of an possibly antisemitic attack in London, he starts to learn more about the religion before striking up a relationship with Hephzibah, Libor's niece. Nevertheless, despite trying to learn Yiddish, contemplating circumcision and recognising rising antisemitism on London's streets, Treslove never quite manages to fully reconcile himself to his nascent Judaism.
This is such an intimate, affectionate portrait of the varieties of Judaic experience, that, like Treslove, the gentile reader feels as if they are an onlooker, peering in to lives that are similar yet different to our own, trying to understand yet always conscious that there is a gap - religious, political, cultural, historical - that is impossible to transcend. In Treslove's case this is partly because he seems emotionally deficient at times, but a non-Jewish reader can only imagine the complexity of feelings and responses generated in Jews by the Palestinian conflict.
This is also a book about families and of death. Finkler and his wife Tyler coexisted up until her death in what was basically mutual enmity driven by Finkler's numerous infidelities (Treslove is surprised to learn that she wasn't originally Jewish, but converted on her marriage). Libor, on the other hand - and despite being intimate with Hollywood's most beautiful actresses - was always loyal in his heart to his beloved Malkie. Both find it difficult to come to terms with their loss. Treslove, meanwhile, fantasizes about a beautiful woman dying in his arms.
It is not easy to summarise all the themes of such a sensitive, intelligent novel. Jacobson eschews easy solutions and trite answers. Themes are argued back and forwards but none of the characters find easy resolutions and neither does the reader - questions are simply raised and left hanging. All this is done is the most beautiful prose by a master of the well-turned sentence and ironic juxtaposition. This is not laugh-out-loud funny like previous works by Jacobson, but it demonstrates a wry humour throughout.
However, this is not meant to be a funny book - it's a deadly serious one. In Treslove's terms The Finkler Question is nothing less than the Jewish Question, a fundamental set of issues for a Jewish writer such as Jacobson. With its subsidiary reflections on life, love and death, this is as serious as it gets.
I remember receiving The Name of the Rose as a Christmas present back in the 1980s and finishing it around 5am on Boxing Day, captivated by the cleverI remember receiving The Name of the Rose as a Christmas present back in the 1980s and finishing it around 5am on Boxing Day, captivated by the cleverness of it all, so allusive, playful, dark and learned. After Foucault's Pendulum was released, a fellow Eco-afficianado and I rushed to the Musée des Arts et Métiers at lunchtime whilst on a training course in Paris in order to gaze at the Pendulum itself, and the site of the novel's dénouement.
Since then, Eco's works have frustrated as much as entertained. All have displayed his vast erudition, yet none has captured the energy and inventiveness of his earlier narratives. His last book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, even sought to recapture this lost elan through discarding medieval texts in favour of the cartoon storybooks of Eco's childhood, with only partial success.
The Prague Cemetery, however, promised to be a return to familiar territory, the conspiracy theories and secret societies so effectively spiked in Foucault's Pendulum. It is the tale of a spy and master-forger, who is responsible in part for all the most important conspiracies of the late nineteenth century from the reunification of Italy to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Being Eco, all the characters except for Simonini, the antisemitic protagonist, really existed. Being Eco, though, one needs a fair knowledge of 19th century history in order to separate fact from fiction from conjecture and invention.
The historical parts of the novel are great: they race along engagingly, and, as Dan Brown knows, there is a ready appetite for even the most bizarre conspiracies, factually based or not. Simonini plots with the Carbonari, follows Garibaldi's troops through Italy, is the mastermind behind Leo Taxil's antimasonic Satanic fantasies and writes both Dreyfuss's incriminating letter and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whilst introducing us to several of the most unsavoury peripheral characters in France and Italy in this period. In actual fact, Eco carefully charts the links between Freemasonry and the movement for Italian reunification, and how it subsequently become linked with anti-jewish propaganda through the works of Maurice Joly via novelists Dumas and Sue, and Taxil's wilder fantasies, culminating in the Protocols. Even allowing for some flights of fancy, notably some murders and a racy black mass, this is heady stuff.
The problem, though, is with the novel's superstructure. It is supposedly the recollections of Simonini, interspersed with the diary of a Jesuit priest by the name of Dalla Piccola with whom Simonini shares a flat but who may only be an alter-ego or a figment of Simonini's imagination. You know that there is an issue here when Eco presents us with a table in an appendix to try to tie together the diaries, recollections and actual events. It simply doesn't work, and detracts, especially in the first part of the book, from the otherwise engaging narrative. There is a sense that Eco actually has several themes he wants to write about - il Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, Freemasonry and the anti-Jewish conspiracies, and this is the only way that he can shoe-horn them together, when in fact it is unnecessary. Eco doesn't generally do character much and this is no exception, and ultimately the endless successions of names becomes overwhelming. Which is a pity as the material unearthed by Eco is fascinating, and with better organisation it could even give Dan Brown a run for his money, perish the thought...
Five celebrations, five portraits of a family, five windows on the passing of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is his most ambitious yet, a disseFive celebrations, five portraits of a family, five windows on the passing of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is his most ambitious yet, a dissection of the impact of the passing of time on a family as their reputations rise and fall, but also on the nature of biography as family secrets are withheld or revealed - or could they even be fabricated? - as the past is picked over.
Cecil Valance is a poet, beautiful, carefree, charismatic, who just prior to the First World War visits the suburban house of his friend and lover George Sawle and kisses his young sister, Daphne. He celebrates the visit by writing a poem to Daphne, “Two Acres”, which later becomes much anthologised. Like Rupert Brooke, on whom Valance is clearly based, his poetic reputation is enhanced by his heroic early death in the trenches. Churchill quotes “Two Acres” in his obituary. His body is brought back and entombed in the Valance’s private chapel in their house at Corley Court, whilst cabinet minister Sebastien Stokes reaches out for the memories of his friends and family in order to write his memoir.
Yet time is a harsh critic, and as it passes Valance’s poetic reputation is re-evalated and his Georgics, seemingly so elegant before the War, seem insipid beside the masters of his age. He is remembered as a dashing romantic figure, a breaker of hearts and for his tragic early death, not for what he wrote. Ironically, his unattractive brother Dudley, whose insensitive alterations have ruined the interior of Corley Court, emerges initially with the stronger literary reputation on account of his acerbic memoirs. Meanwhile shy, suburban George has the sad fate of being known to a generation of schoolchildren thanks to a history textbook he wrote with his wife.
A generation later, and biographer Paul Bryant is trying to uncover the truth about the Valances. He pieces together information from his own boyhood, from a reticent Daphne, from an increasingly senile George. But what information is to be trusted, and can Paul be trusted himself? “And year by year our memory fades”...
Hollinghurst plays with the reader as with a powerful fish – successively letting out line collusively, then reeling in sharply. He writes so carefully with subtle phrases, little hints, that one feels complicit when a character reveals his weakness, shocked but not surprised at the manner in which it is made manifest. Yet, as one moves to each new period, characters from the past are revealed only reluctantly, from their hiding place behind married names and titles, as the reader has to reconstruct their backstories from sparse hints and snippets of information, though at the same time the reader is knowingly aware of information that the new characters are not privy to, such as when the schoolboys reveal Sir Dudley’s sword for their museum, one recalls what use Sir Dudley put his sword forty years before. It is a style at once both subtle and explicit, one cannot escape the sense that one is being playfully manipulated.
The truth is never quite as simple as it appears on the printed page - all the memoirs of the family are unreliable in some way, everyone has an angle. Much is hinted at but little is explicit - not even Hollinghurst's trademark gay sex. But there is an unmistakable sense of sadness and decline that pervades the whole book. It is only latterly that you learn that the mighty Vallances, with such a Norman sounding name, have only received their baronetcy as a result of the fortune created by the first baronet in grass seed. Within three generations the family heir is living in a ramshackle cottage, but apparently not without means.
But their is also a counterpoint - the book is also a celebration of the liberation of gay men over the course of the twentieth century. The hints and occlusions in the early memoirs are an attempt to hide the illicit secret of Cecil Vallance's bisexuality. Harry's love for Hubert is never fully understood until many years later and the George's marriage of convenience to the unappealing Madeleine contrasts with the apparent satisfaction of later relationships such as Peter and his civil partner Desmond.
Hollinghurst never gives his readers the satisfaction of an easy resolution. The trajectory of the family, of their reputations, their properties and the instability of the means of their evaluation all remain elusive right to the end, and you are immediately wanting to go back and reread, to search for further clues. To reread would be a fitting reward for an exceptional book.