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Bornin Glasgow, The United Kingdom
Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, Keith Waterhouse, Douglas Adams, Franz Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, Keith Waterhouse, Douglas Adams, Franz Kafka ...more
I was born in Glasgow in 1959 and although throughout my life I have lived in most parts of Scotland I have found myself continually drawn back to the "friendly city" where I now live quietly on the outskirts with my wife.
My writing career began at school and I continue to write and publish poetry to this day. During the nineties I experienced a length period of writer's block - it lasted two years - then one day I sat down and started writing. Twenty-one pages left I had the bare bones of a novel, Living with the Truth.
Since then I've started to broaden my horizons completing two plays and a decent body of short stories. I am currently trying to decide if I'm writing my sixth novel or just kidding myself.
Librarian Note: There is more than I was born in Glasgow in 1959 and although throughout my life I have lived in most parts of Scotland I have found myself continually drawn back to the "friendly city" where I now live quietly on the outskirts with my wife.
My writing career began at school and I continue to write and publish poetry to this day. During the nineties I experienced a length period of writer's block - it lasted two years - then one day I sat down and started writing. Twenty-one pages left I had the bare bones of a novel, Living with the Truth.
Since then I've started to broaden my horizons completing two plays and a decent body of short stories. I am currently trying to decide if I'm writing my sixth novel or just kidding myself.
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information. ...more
All good things come to an end, and all bad things, too, one supposes, and, as a matter of course, the noncommittal and the inconsequential… The More Things Change, Jim Murdoch
This will be my last post. The last for a while in any case. A good while. Maybe forever. I’ve been doing this for ten years now—my first post was on 6th August 2007 following the death of Ingmar Bergman—which is a long... Read more of this blog post »
Published on August 13, 2017 04:30 • 13 views
Jim Murdoch Average rating: 4.28· 106 ratings · 40 reviews · 10 distinct works
Living with the Truth
3.69 avg rating — 16 ratings — published 2008 — 2 editions
3.91 avg rating — 11 ratings — published 2013 — 2 editions
Milligan and Murphy
3.82 avg rating — 11 ratings — published 2011 — 2 editions
Stranger than Fiction
4.13 avg rating — 8 ratings — published 2009 — 2 editions
This Is Not About What You Think
4.75 avg rating — 4 ratings — published 2010
The More Things Change
4.50 avg rating — 2 ratings
The Whole Truth
liked it 3.00 avg rating — 1 rating — published 2011 — 2 editions
Reader Please Supply Meaning
0.00 avg rating — 0 ratings — published 2015
The best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2012
Jessica Bell (Goodreads Author) (Editor),
Dawn Ius (Goodreads Author) (Editor),
Adam Byatt (Contributor)
4.83 avg rating — 35 ratings — published 2012
Poetry Pact 2011
Angela Felsted (Goodreads Author),
4.28 avg rating — 18 ratings — published 2012 — 2 editions
Living with the Truth (Literature & Fiction)
1 chapters — updated Mar 29, 2010 04:33PMDescription: A novel about a old bookseller who finds himself forced to spend two days with the personification of truth.
This is the fifth book by Amélie Nothomb I’ve read although I see I’ve only reviewed two on Goodreads, Fear and Trembling and Hygiene and the Assassin; I’ve also read The Character of Rain and The Stranger Next Door. Nothomb is an author who I’d read
This is the fifth book by Amélie Nothomb I’ve read although I see I’ve only reviewed two on Goodreads, Fear and Trembling and Hygiene and the Assassin; I’ve also read The Character of Rain and The Stranger Next Door. Nothomb is an author who I’d read anything by despite the fact none of the five novels I’ve read have much in common apart from the fact their author has a tendency not to attack her subject matter straight on. She’s not infrequently described as “quirky” or “eccentric” and I can’t take issue with either adjective. I think I’ll lump for “peculiar” as in strange, uncommon and distinctive. Oddly though this particular novel is one of her most straightforward although there’s no denying the fact the titular Pétronille is an odd bird and one kept at arm’s length.
There is often a strong autobiographical element to Nothomb’s work and it’s especially apparent here because the book’s narrator is a Belgian writer who is not only called “Amélie Nothomb” but who has written books with the same titles as her. Whether or not the real Nothomb is a connoisseur of champagne I do not know. This is an alternate reality where Nothomb becomes friends with a young woman called Pétronille Fanto who goes on to become a successful writer although not so successful she can support herself by writing alone. It’s an interesting approach to a book, to insert a fictional character into your life and imagine where she might lead you.
Basically this a book about the nature of friendship, of a very specific kind of friendship. It’s partly about what it’s like being a writer and obviously friendships arise out of commonalities but writing’s a solitary business and there’s no instance in the book where the two women sit around scribbling away together. There are, however, numerous instances where they drink—and, inevitably, get drunk—together. That is the bedrock on which this particular friendship rests. Nothomb, at the start of the book, was on the lookout for a drinking buddy—less “companion”, more “comvinion” as she puts it—and Pétronille fits the bill perfectly. Drinking alone is something most people think of as sad; company masques the sadness but it doesn’t obliterate it. Neither is an alcoholic. I wouldn’t say they even have a drink problem but drink inhibits their friendship’s growth into something more meaningful. Is a drinking buddy a true friend or simply an enabler? I like the way Nicholas Horne describes the relationship in his review for Frenchly: “The two become close in the way that only truly closed-off people can…”
At first, and for quite a while, their story seems frivolous and slight and I couldn’t really see where it was going but little by little it becomes clear Pétronille has issues and is less interested in the art of drinking, in achieving “a state of transcendent inebriation” as Trevor Berrett put it; she wants to have fun and, for her, fun inevitably includes an element of risk that Nothomb finds she’s not always comfortable with. But they’re friends and so she goes along with whatever Pétronille has in mind. Unsurprisingly things don’t work out well for Pétronille. She loses interest in boring jobs and chooses to support herself by engaging in drug trials which take their toll on her:
In early January, 2010, I got a call from the Cochin hospital:After three months of struggling to live together Pétronille and the next thing we hear she seems to have got her life together; she’s “now working as a literary critic for a major weekly publication in Luxembourg” and has a new novel coming out. Crisis averted. Lessons learned. And they all lived happily ever after.
The final two, short chapters will kick the feet from under you. I’m obviously not going to talk about what happens but it did make me want to reread the whole book to see if there’d been clues I’d missed. “Pétronille’s life was awash with mystery,” is an easy enough sentence to write but it’s really not very helpful. Can you ever truly know someone? One might think at the end of the book we get to see—or at least glimpse—the true Pétronille and maybe we do. I’m not sure. What would she have been like if, like it is with the rest of us, all she ever got to know about Amélie Nothomb was what she read on the page? They say you should never meet your heroes. Probably best not to go for a drink with them either. ...more
Reviewers have struggled to describe this book. It feels like it ought to be classified as dystopian fiction were it not for the fact the world described—though barely explained—within its pages seems quite a happy and content place. Fairy tales ofte
Reviewers have struggled to describe this book. It feels like it ought to be classified as dystopian fiction were it not for the fact the world described—though barely explained—within its pages seems quite a happy and content place. Fairy tales often begin, "Once upon a time..." but how would that read in the future tense? I'm going to lump for, "Once the future’s here..." Because that's what this book feels like, a fairy tale of things to come.
There’s not much of a story. In reality it’s an expositional novel. The post-urban Japan described in the book has suffered a major environmental and technological tragedy that’s resulted in significant changes to the populace’s way of life. Much of the soil has been contaminated, the surrounding seas too, its plants continue to mutate (red or square pineapples are not unheard of), there are few animals and fewer fit for human consumption without risk; there are no more computers, telephones, vacuum cleaners, washing machines or even cars—there is still electricity though—and yet the country has plodded on stoically:
Since watching television led to weight gain, many dieters threw theirs away. Air conditioners had gone out of fashion more than a generation ago. The only appliance left was the refrigerator, though the ones now in use didn’t have cords. The most popular model, the “Arctic Star,” ran on solar energy.Stoicism is a Greek term, of course, and not one you would hear used in this changing world; they would be instructed instead to talk of the gaman spirit, a Zen Buddhist expression meaning to "endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity."
The Japanese government has chosen to take an isolationist position and broken contact with the rest of the world. It might seem an odd thing to do when clearly the country’s in need of international aid but it seems Japan is not the only country experiencing serious problems so who’s to say what’s happening here isn’t happening the world over? It is mentioned at one point that the whole earth has become “irreversibly contaminated.” When Mumei, Yoshiro’s great-grandson, asks him why Japan is closed to the outside world the old man tries to explain:
“Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself. Remember when I took you to the Showa-Heisei Museum? All the rooms were separated by steel doors, so if a fire starts in one room it can’t spread to the next one.”It’s an explanation suitable for a young child but not one Yoshiro is entirely comfortable with. And he’s not alone but “no one openly discussed the isolation policy.” Like the Berlin Wall, one day they could travel freely and the next, without warning (and most certainly without a referendum), the “walls” went up. The public was rightly shocked but this wasn’t the first time Japan had chosen to seclude itself—the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868) adopted the sakoku policy (“closed country”) as a means of combatting the colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal—and so they hunker down and make the best of it.
What does feel distinctly dystopian, however, is how the government goes out of its way to control language. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Newspeak obviously is the touchstone here. As Orwell explains:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. – Nineteen Eighty-Four – Appendix: The Principles of NewspeakThis is very much the mindset of the powers that be here. As I suggested earlier Western expressions have fallen into (well, been pushed) into disuse but it didn’t stop there:
The shelf life of words was getting shorter all the time — it wasn’t only the foreign ones that were falling out of use. And some words that had disappeared after being labelled “old-fashioned” had no heirs to take their place.For a writer, which is what Yoshiro is, you can only imagine how painful that must be.
There was an article in the newspaper about a woman who drew wrinkles on her face and dyed her hair white in an attempt to hide her youth, but acting older than your real age is actually quite difficult. Suspicion fell on her when people realized she couldn’t tell the on and off switches on old farm machinery apart, which meant she must have been younger than she looked. The ability to understand even a little English was evidence of old age. As studying English was now prohibited, young people didn’t know even simple words like on and off.Why would anyone want to act older than they were? Because in this new word it’s the old who have strength and vigour and people are still working and living active lives after turning a hundred:
Retirement — what an odd system, but it was important back then, as a way of handing jobs over to younger people.That, of course, had to change because with each successive generation getting frailer and frailer were it not for the ranks of the “young-elderly” (seventy- to eighty-year-olds), the “middle-aged elderly” (people in their late-nineties) and centenarians like Yoshiro the wheels would’ve stopped turning long ago. Why they’re so ridiculously healthy is not explained and doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s best with this book not to get bound up in the science of it all. This is the way the world is. “Mumei’s teeth were so soft he couldn’t eat bread unless it was softened by steeping.” The obvious solution would be to increase his calcium intake and to that end “Yoshiro had tried giving him about half a cup of milk every morning, but the boy’s body had responded with diarrhoea.” “[T]he adjective healthy didn’t really fit any child” any more. Even the seemingly simple task of drinking orange juice is a problem:
His eyes circling in their sockets with the effort, he would struggle to keep his Adam’s apple pumping up and down like an elevator, trying to force the liquid down. Sometimes it would come back up, burning his throat. Or on its way down it would enter his bronchial tubes instead, bringing on a coughing fit. Once he started coughing it was hard to get him to stop.At one point the boy complains:
We kids don’t have even a single drop to spare. If I spend too much energy getting dressed I don’t have enough left to walk to school and end up riding on the back of Great-grandpa’s bicycle. It’s embarrassing to ride all the way so I always try to walk at least the first ten steps or so, but my legs get so heavy I can’t walk anymore.By the end of the book he’s in a wheelchair, he can no longer talk without mechanical aid and is expecting to need a breathing machine any day soon. He is fifteen.
There are a lot of questions you’re not going to get any answers for here. But that doesn’t mean what we do get isn’t enjoyable even if it’s not as satisfying as it might be. Just imagine wandering round a zoo and marvelling at the behaviour of the different species. Well that’s what we have here:
[Y]ou know, the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined. I mean, maybe we’re moving toward the octopus. Watching my great-grandson I certainly get that impression.”This book isn’t written on a grand scale like Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men or The Shape of Things to Come but they’re close relatives. This feels like one section from a much bigger storyline like Cloud Atlas which it absolutely is; all stories are. You’re inevitably left wondering and wanting more. And a part of me wanted to pick up my pen and start filling in the blanks. It’s hard to know when to leave well alone. Not everything has to be explained in microscopic detail. That’s not the purpose of fiction. But it should intrigue and fascinate and this book does manage that quite well. ...more
I suppose if you’d asked me to sum up Billy Collins before I’d read this book—at which juncture I’d avoided reading all bar a smattering of his most popular poems—I would’ve probably likened him to the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, technically prof
I suppose if you’d asked me to sum up Billy Collins before I’d read this book—at which juncture I’d avoided reading all bar a smattering of his most popular poems—I would’ve probably likened him to the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, technically proficient enough to please the masses who don’t know much about art but know what they like but missing that certain something to find an in with the cognoscenti. According to Josh Spiro in an article in The Guardian Vettriano’s “style is superficially like Edward Hopper’s” but whereas “Hopper's paintings are filled with strong emotions, despite their apparent simplicity … Jack Vettriano's paintings are as daring as rich tea biscuits.” It’s an unkind article but I can imagine much the same being said about L.S. Lowry when he was alive. Even now forty years after Lowry’s death academics are miserly in their praise.
Unlike the two artists above Billy Collins has pretty much always been a part of the in crowd though. He received a B.A. in English from the College of the Holy Cross in 1963 followed by an M.A. and Ph.D in Romantic Poetry from the University of California, Riverside whereupon he became a Professor of English at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he joined the faculty in 1968. These are not the credentials of a popular poet—compare the career paths of Brautigan and Bukowski.
It took me four days to work my way through this lot but halfway through I took a break and decided to look him up because there was something there I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something familiar. The answer came quickly enough. A name kept appearing in quote after quote by him. To illustrate from Rollins360 :
I read humourless poets in school. They were all dead, they were all white, they all had three names and they all had beards. Then I read Philip Arthur Larkin and he allowed humour back into poetry. I realized it didn't have to be a sad day.”And this from The Boston Globe :
I always go back to Philip Larkin. I’ve lost interest in finding the cutting edge, if there still is one. When I became poet laureate I was in a slightly uncomfortable position because I think a lot of poetry isn’t worth reading.Larkin is why I became a poet. I don’t write like him—and neither does Collins—but once you realise he’s there in our pasts you will start to notice his shade in the background. What surprised me was to see Collins, in the same article, name check my other literary hero:
Discovering Samuel Beckett in college was a big deal for me. I realized you could be very funny and very dark at the same time. Whenever I go to a Beckett play I always notice that the audience divides itself into the ones who are laughing and the ones who are looking disapprovingly at people laughing. I’m one of the people laughing.I’m a great believer that all writing should stand on fall on its own merits. That doesn’t mean knowing a little about the writers isn’t helpful like; for example it helps to know R.S. Thomas was a Anglican priest. Possessing no sense of spirituality myself there’s a gulf between me and Thomas and although culturally there’s a huge gulf between Collins and me—over three thousand miles—knowing we have Larkin (and to a lesser extent Beckett) in common goes a long way to bridging that gap.
Collins is often referred to as an accessible poet. For some that’s as disparaging a term as “popular” and it’s easy to see why although Collins prefers the term “hospitable” as he says in conversation with Neal Conan:
That word has become “like nails on a blackboard” to him. But access is still essential to his craft. “It's a way of getting a reader into the poem,” he says, but once they get there, he hopes to move them into worlds that are “a little more challenging, a little more hypothetical, and finally, a little more mysterious.”It’s a good way of thinking about it because the experimentalists have done so much to remove poetry from its roots most of its original audience, the man in the street, is wary of anything called poetry that doesn’t go da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah.
Collins is not Larkin any more than Vettriano is Hopper (For the record I’m a huge fan of Hopper’s work too) but it would be a sad world if they were. Since they died Larkin’s and Hopper’s work is now finite and has appreciated in value because there’ll be nothing more by either of them and maybe what both Vettriano and Collins need to do is die to garner the appreciation they’ve been missing out on while they’ve been alive.
But what about the poems in this collection? Before that a quote from Nashville Scene :
"I'm not a formalist, but I'm always seeking form," Collins says. "It might be a much looser set of principles, but when I begin a poem, I'm always seeking a stanza. And if at some point the poem doesn't want to go there, if it's just rebelling against that idea, then it turns into something different." He shifts in his seat, unself-consciously slurping down the remaining sips of his iced coffee.Larkin managed to subsume form. It’s there but it doesn’t overpower. When I read Wendy Cope (another popular poet) I was put off by her devotion to (to my mind) outdated forms, especially the sonnet. I can’t see what’s to be gained by their use except to show off. Wisely Collins sticks to free verse—not that he hasn’t dabbled: see the Wikipedia entry for Paradelle—but at times, especially with some of his longer sentences, the rhythm lost me and I might as well have been reading chopped up prose; prose can get away with being poetic but it doesn’t work the other way round so why the theory and practice of versification gets called prosody is lost on me.
None of the poems in this book grabbed me in the same way Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ did when I first read it. To my mind that poem perfectly exemplifies what Collins’s goal is in poetry. The subject and the language is so ordinary—boring even—and yet he leads you to a cliff edge and leaves you there, wondering. ‘Dining Alone’ nearly manages it—better than ‘The Fish’ and ‘Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant’—although it’s a little on the long side. All three describe a man dining alone and why he’s not to be pitied but what I liked about that one was the ending. After conforming to his own set of rules, what he believes solitary dining should encapsulate, he leaves the restaurant:
I pierced a buttered spear of asparagusWe all know what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people. Aloneness is generally seen as a bad thing but there are people—I am one of them—who appreciate solitude. This is exactly the kind of situation that would’ve inspired Larkin. Most of the things Collins writes about are quotidian and often mundane.
The one I found myself nodding at the most was ‘The Trouble with Poetry’. Trying to explain what being a poet is like to non-poets is a thankless and pointless task and unless you’re a poet you really won’t get this one but who said we could only write poems non-poets could get?
the trouble with poetry isIt does sort of hit the nail on the head. The plight of the poet seems to be a popular theme with him as exemplified in poems like ‘Royal Aristocrat’, ‘The Great American Poem,’ ‘Velocity’ or, perhaps especially, ‘The Suggestion Box’:
It all began fairly early in the dayHow can a poet explain to a non-poet why none of these things will ever appear in a poem other than one like this when some of the things we do choose to write about are every bit as banal? Oh, if only I had the answer to that one. As he says in ‘No Things’:
This love for everyday things,Actually the more I look back through this book the more I see poems about poetry and about being a poet. That’s another thing the purists look down on for some reason I’ve never understood because I can’t understand a poet not wanting to explore this thing he’s addicted to, to try to understand it better.
The bottom line is Billy Collins does what he sets out to do. He writes poems that are easy to get into but hard to shake off. That said, and this goes for all collections like this, their quality is diminished by their quantity. In a perfect world I’d suggest reading one a day before setting off on a leisurely walk to the office. In a perfect world. ...more
Jim rated a book it was ok
I’d just passed the halfway point when I put this book down, picked up my tablet and read half a dozen reviews of this book. They were mostly glowing. Although none pretended the book was the easiest of reads, what with its labyrinthine (not a word I
I’d just passed the halfway point when I put this book down, picked up my tablet and read half a dozen reviews of this book. They were mostly glowing. Although none pretended the book was the easiest of reads, what with its labyrinthine (not a word I use lightly) sentences and lengthy paragraphs, the general consensus was this was a worthwhile and, indeed, rewarding read. So it was with a heavy heart I decided on my fourth day plodding though this novella—and with the prospect of another four days ahead of me—that enough was enough. This isn’t the first novel that’s got the better of me—Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man and Herman Hesse’s Gertrude failed to keep my interest—but I’m a better judge of books than I used to be and can usually tell within a couple of pages if it’s the wrong time to read a particular book. So I’m not saying I’ll never return to Blue Self-Portrait because I never say never but I’d need a much clearer head than I have at the moment for anything to go in.
I do doubt I’ll ever finish this though because in my heart of heart’s I’m a grammar Nazi. I have no problem with long sentences IF they punctuated properly—look to Gerald Murnane or Laszlo Krasznahorkai if you need any lessons in that regard. These weren’t and there was no reason for them not to be. In the translator’s note Sophie Lewis says that Lefebvre “weaves her text in approximation of a serialist piece,” and I see where’s she’s coming from but having listened to Schoenberg’s music for over forty years all I can say is that it obeys more rules than it breaks. His musical phrases are no different to Beethoven’s. In fact in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition when he defined a musical “sentence” as an eight-measure theme, that consists of two different phrases ending in a cadence, the example Schoenberg cited was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F Minor, op.2. I actually think I would’ve got more out of an audio version of this book.
Here’s a sentence, picked pretty much at random, to illustrate my point:
Two days later, leaving the Kaiser Café where I had once again all but spelled out to the virtuoso pianist how to handle his piano, a stroke of luck that I’d stopped myself just in time, I uttered my notorious Ich habe zu viel gesprochen for it was true, I had said too much, so much too much that I had to proclaim this brand-new truth the very moment it occurred to me; my noble pianist: no, not at all, it’s quite all right, he sweetly replied, warmly replied, even though it wasn’t fine, not only not fine but catastrophic, so catastrophic as to be irreparable, besides I didn’t repair anything but on the contrary promptly went and dug myself in deeper: of course I had to interrupt again, when I had only just said Ich habe zu viel gesprochen, I didn’t pause and count to ten, not to ten nor to any lesser number, I didn’t count at all; I just had to go on and on in the underground car park when he, our poor pianist, was already and indeed for some time had been, broken, kaput, as they say, in fact just five minutes after stepping inside the Kaiser Café he’d already begun to yawn, ten minutes in was out of commission and quite kaput, and yet here we are in the underground car park and I’m picking on his car, I have to make some comment about his car being unworthy of a world-class pianist, as if all that I’d said before in the Kaiser Café hadn’t been appalling, about music in general and the pianist’s playing in particular even though I haven’t the first notion about music in general, and as for the pianist’s playing in particular here I go even now critiquing it from every angle, not only the music performed by the pianist but also that composed by the composer, the pianist being both pianist and composer, I am a pianist first and foremost and yet foremost and first of all I am a composer, the pianist said one day to all within earshot, indeed the pianist did have a talent for composing that not every pianist is blessed with—and the composer a pianistic virtuosity to which few composers may lay claim, both gifts united in a single person, in the perfect bodily and spiritual harmony that alone could justify the general and nevertheless exceptional title of musician; I am, above all a musician, the pianist said, it isn’t my profession but my condition, yet in spite of his condition I held back a mere hair’s breadth away from explaining to the pianist how to play the piano and to the composer how to compose.Let me just say that’s not how I’d punctuate this. You can read a longer excerpt here.
Anyway I’ve found myself reading for the sake of reading simply to get to the end, to say I’d read it when I know full well I won’t be able to remember a damn thing about it in a fortnight’s time. There are so many better books than this I can’t remember reading. What is especially annoying is that I jumped this book the top of my to-read list because it really appealed to me and I think its message is one I would appreciate IF the author hadn’t buried it in such a morass of words.
If I haven’t put you off—that was never my intention—do check out the following reviews which I found illuminating. Nothing will be lost by reading them up front; in fact you might find them helpful:
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre review – sex, art and neurosis
The Blue Note: on Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait
In Blue Self-Portrait Noémi Lefebvre created a space to breathe ...more
May 21, 2018 10:52AM · 1 like · like · see review · preview book
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In his Amazon review Paul Pellicci boiled these three plays down to a single sentence, “They are about the life of affluent New Yorkers by an affluent New Yorker and their society which looks great until you put on your glasses.” It’s a fair comment
In his Amazon review Paul Pellicci boiled these three plays down to a single sentence, “They are about the life of affluent New Yorkers by an affluent New Yorker and their society which looks great until you put on your glasses.” It’s a fair comment which you could just as easily apply to a number of Woody’s film like, in particular, Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours. I don’t see that so much as a criticism as a statement of fact. We’ve come to expect certain things from the Woodyverse but that was equally true with Charles Dickens and Philip K. Dick. Woody excels at chamber pieces and it’s surprising he’s not written more stage plays because he doesn’t need a large canvas to make his point.
Before discovering this book I was aware of four stage plays, Don’t Drink the Water, God (the only one I’ve seen performed live), Death and Death Knocks. I’d forgotten about The Floating Light Bulb and that Play It Again, Sam was originally a play. In addition to the three collected in this volume there’s also been A Second Hand Memory (his first full-length play since 1981) and Honeymoon Motel. September, of course, was always intended to be a “play on film” and has since been successfully adapted for the stage by Jacqueline Cohen.
Part of the problem with some of Woody’s later films has been the need to cast a Woody proxy and most, including the otherwise fine actor Kenneth Branagh, have not been up to the task. There are lines that only Woody can deliver and if anyone else tries the illusion is shattered: we know this is only an actor saying what they’ve been paid to say. In these three plays there isn’t really a fully-fledged ‘Woody character’ although Phyllis in Central Park West does get some of the play’s best retorts:
CAROLFred, in Riverside Drive, comes closest but I’ll come back to him.
Woody’s witty come backs are legendary and we look forward to the (seemingly) off the cuff remarks—so Jane Austen—but there’s a place for humour and this’s a problem I’ve been having with The Orville: just because Seth MacFarlane can be funny (and he can) doesn’t mean he should be. That’s Woody Allen’s problem too because every time he does something a little different (or a lot as in the case of Interiors) we miss how good it was because it wasn’t what we were hoping for. As the aliens told him in Stardust Memories: “We enjoy your films! Particularly the early, funny ones.”
There are plays it seems and then there are Woody Allen plays. Oddly two of the three reminded me of God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza. If you don’t know it it’s, according to Wikipedia, “about two sets of parents, one of who’d child has hurt the other at a public park. They agree to meet to discuss the matter in a civilized manner. However, as the evening goes on, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting in the evening devolving into chaos.” Both Central Park West and Old Saybrook involve sets of couples struggling to come to terms with a reality they didn’t realise they were a part of. The more interesting of the two is Old Saybrook because there’s a twist I didn’t see coming that adds a fantastic element to the play which I don’t want to spoil. Central Park West is simply a study in infidelity: a successful psychoanalyst discovers her husband’s been cheating and decides to tackle the woman directly. What makes things interesting is when the woman’s husband arrives and then the psychoanalyst’s husband turn up with his new girlfriend not far behind.
The first play, Riverside Drive, is the easiest to read on the page because for the bulk of the play there’re only two characters and even when the third appears she’s not around for long. There’s a touch of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story here: Jim, a writer, is leaning on a rail watching the Hudson River flow when he’s accosted by Fred, a large and somewhat threatening homeless man, who accuses his of stealing his idea:
FREDIt’s not an original idea but it’s as good a starting point as any. And everything’s going swimmingly until the writer makes a brief comment about his marriage:
JIMand the focus of the play switches to his—surprise, surprise—infidelity and it doesn’t help that he’s waiting to meet his current lover down by the river. When the woman arrives Fred forces a confrontation having realised Jim’s really in love with his wife at which point we’re suddenly in Crimes and Misdemeanours territory:
FREDI think, of the three plays, I liked this best because Fred, being a bona fide neurotic, was the closest to the ‘Woody character’ although a more malevolent version than we’re used to although he’s nothing like Albee’s Jerry. He can, however, get away with the kind of silly remarks that seem, at times, forced in the other plays.
I’m on record as saying even a bad Woody Allen film is still watchable and that goes for a bad Woody Allen play too. Not that any of these are bad. They work better than his television series because all that was was a film that needed to lose half an hour of material cut into six “scenes.” None of these one-act plays overstays its welcome and that’s a good thing.
There are several clips from these plays on YouTube and even a few complete versions if you can understand Spanish or Russian. The best I could find was an English version of Riverside Drive with a female Fred (here). ...more
A couple of days before I read this book I happened to watch a BBC interview with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was an interesting programme, the interviewer had clearly done his research and there’s no arguing with the fact Stockhaus
A couple of days before I read this book I happened to watch a BBC interview with the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was an interesting programme, the interviewer had clearly done his research and there’s no arguing with the fact Stockhausen has many fascinating ideas about music but the one question the interviewer avoided—and shame on him—was: Does anyone actually listen to your music for pleasure? Because every excerpt they included was excruciatingly awful. No one would suggest for a moment that Stockhausen was not completely dedicated to his work—nor do I think he’s a charlatan—but there’s nothing in what I’ve heard so far (and I’ve dipped in an out of his oeuvre for over forty years) that reaches me. Mozart reaches me, Beethoven reaches me. Hell, even Schoenberg and Ives reach me. But not Stockhausen.
I’ve also been reading and writing poetry for the last forty-odd years too. Some poets I get—Owen, Larkin and William Carlos Williams were early favourites—but others I’ve struggled with. I know the names and some of their better known poems but so much of what I’ve tried to read has just lost me. I want to know what’s so great about them because I can’t see it. And it must be me, surely.
Live or Die was the winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. So it’s got to be good poetry, right? People write theses about her book—I’ve just downloaded three of them—and yet I still find myself asking what’s so great about this poetry because I can’t see it. As something to be studied, yes, there’s tons of material here and there’s no doubt that Sexton herself was a fascinating character and her suicide only increased people’s fascination. It certainly didn’t harm Plath’s reputation and it does seem, reading between the lines, that Sexton lived (unhappily) in Plath’s shadow. Of course at the time she wrote this book Sexton was very much alive and continued to be for another eight years but knowing she took her own life changes how we read these poems; we read into them more than is there. Not that there’s nothing there but in the absence of a suicide note her poems are all we have.
Of course we can’t be sure what we’re reading here is the truth. Sexton herself drew a distinction between actual truth and dramatic truth. Talking about one of the poems in this book she said, in an interview with Patricia Marx in The Hudson Review:
As an easy example, in my long poem to my daughter and about my mental illness, I don’t imply that I was ever in an institution more than once, but that was the dramatic truth. The actual truth was something quite different … it made it a better poem to distort it this way… You can exclude many things. You can even lie (one can confess and lie forever) as I did in the poem of the illegitimate child that the girl had to give upSo whereas she’s known as a confessional poet in truth she delved, like the rest of do, into her life and edited it to meet her needs. “I use the personal when I am applying a mask to my face,” she wrote, “like a rubber mask that the robber wears.” Not that any of that matters. The poems either work or they don’t. They weren’t as inaccessible as Stockhausen’s music’s proven to be but they were all hard work and none of it very rewarding. Listening to Stockhausen talk makes his music seem interesting because he’s interesting and the more I’m reading about Sexton after the fact the more her poems are staring to make a kind of sense to me. But you shouldn’t need that. If you do the work is somehow deficient.
I suppose some might wonder if my being a male is the problem. Well, no doubt in the sixties there were plenty of males who would’ve found poems about menstruation, abortion, masturbation, incest, adultery, and drug addiction hard going. But this is the twenty-first century and things like that don’t shock any of us even if they’re often uncomfortable to read about. To be honest I dislike the term “confessional;” it’s frankly pejorative and diminishes her work. Would anyone call Primo Levi’s If This is a Man confessional? He writes about what he went through as did Sexton and, okay, not much compares to The Holocaust but it’s pretty clear she too suffered and was mistreated. The term “confession” makes us think of sinners, bad people. I’ve no doubt Sexton had her flaws—no one’s perfect—but she did what any writer worth his or her salt would do, she examined those faults and that’s why, I imagine, people are drawn to her poetry, to try to understand. The thing is, and the same goes for the Levi, we can’t understand. We can share or watch but I didn’t come away from this book understanding Sexton. I felt for her. That’s the best I could do.
Firsts are always lauded. Kazimir Malevich will be remembered forever for his white painting and John Cage for his silent music. Both pale into insignificance before the greats from the past. But they were the first. Which is why The Bell Jar will be remembered and the same here. They’re historically significant. That doesn’t make them masterpieces.
I don’t have the time to devote to this book of poetry. I found it interesting in the same way I’d be interested to listen to something new (new to me, I mean) by Stockhausen. Just so I could say, “Now I know.” As well as the theses I found an eye-opening article by Jessica Schneider which appeared in Cosmoetica where she analyses, then literally rewrites, ‘Live’, the last poem in Live or Die and she does not pull her punches. At the end of the article she ranks the four poems she refers to including her own (which she awards 72 out of a 100): ‘Live’ only warrants 42 but Sexton’s earlier poem ‘The Abortion’ wipes the floor with the rest with 95. Oddly, since Schneider sees Sexton as a Plath wannabe, none of Plath’s poems are included and I would’ve been interested to see how, say, ‘Lesbos’ would’ve stood up.
I had, of course, read ‘The Abortion’ before—it’s probably Sexton’s most famous poem (I won’t argue if it’s her best)—but the only poem in Live and Die I’d read about (not read) was ‘Menstruation at Forty’. I can see why it was “the straw that broke this camel’s back” (that’s how Sexton's friend, the eminent poet and critic Louis Simpson described it in his review of the book) but it didn’t shock me. I like the conceit, linking her birthday with her potential child’s (David or Susan’s) deathday. I just feel that a great poem is buried in a fairly decent one. And if I had one single issue with Live and Die as a whole is that she does go on a bit. I’m a great believer in saying what you have to say and getting off the page; less is more and all that.
On the plus side—if this is what you look for in your poetry—there’s a lot you can read into this collection. I’m always wary of readings of texts. The one that most obviously jumps to my mind are the varied interpretations of Waiting for Godot. It can’t possible mean all the things people imagine it does. Genius or not Beckett wasn’t that clever. And neither was Sexton. That said because the poems are wisely presented in chronological order it is possible to see a story unfolding but, again, that’s so much easier to do if you know what was happening in her life at the time to give the poems some context.
If you have the time and are interested enough there’s plenty of reading material available online but far too much for me to absorb in the time I’ve allowed myself. Here’re some links:
• Live or Die: Unmasking the Mythologies of Anne Sexton’s PoetryWhen I finished the book the first time I was all for giving it two stars but even if I had I would’ve felt the need to explain why which it why I ended up spending more time researching Sexton that I did reading her book. Hence the extra star. I don’t expect to be spoon-fed and my research was rewarded but I can’t see me rushing out to buy her Complete Poems any day soon. Or even her Selected Poems. ...more
I’m not sure what possessed me to pick this. I think I mixed her up with Libby Houston and was feeling nostalgic; they’re about the same age although that said Houston published her first book in 1967 whereas Cope hung around until 1980.
The publishe I’m not sure what possessed me to pick this. I think I mixed her up with Libby Houston and was feeling nostalgic; they’re about the same age although that said Houston published her first book in 1967 whereas Cope hung around until 1980.
The publisher is the venerable Faber & Faber so I expected something decent. What I got reminded me more of Pam Ayes than T.S. Eliot and that I wasn’t expecting. I’m not the first to jump to that conclusion; it’s an easy one to jump to. And uncharitable. On a second reading I could see she had more in common with Betjeman and there was even a touch of Larkin here and there but just a touch:
When I was home in the holidays“She has a keen eye for the everyday, mundane aspects of English life, especially the desires, frustrations, hopes, confusions and emotions in intimate relationships.” So says Wikipedia and it’s a fair description. She also has a fondness for rhyme and many of her poems are sonnets, mostly Shakespearian although there was one (the sentimental ‘To My Husband’) whose rhyme scheme I couldn’t place but apparently it’s a cross sonnet: AABBCDCDEFEFGG.
I don’t have much time for traditional poetic forms. They’re artificial and restrictive. One of the best poems in the book is entitled ‘A Statue’ and was one I could personally relate to and strongly but she insisted on forcing the words into a sonnet:
Here is a statue of a man who diedThere’s absolutely nothing wrong with the sentiment and I remember clearly the one and only time I visited Morecambe and queuing—so British!—to take my turn with the statue. (Yes, I have a photo of me being Ern.) But why a sonnet?
I’ve nothing against rhyme—John Cooper Clarke has shown just how powerful rhyme can be—but of all the poetic tools it’s the easiest the mess up; a little goes a long way. It’s best when it’s buried and if you want to see a good example of a poem that rhymes but doesn’t feel like it read Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’. For the most part I didn’t find Cope’s use of rhyme added anything to the poems and her insistence on capitalising every line was especially annoying and old-fashioned. (Yes, I know Larkin does it too but I can’t see the benefit of it.)
I believe very strongly that all forms of writing should stand or fall on its own merit which is why for years I avoided reading biographies of my literary heroes. That said the more I read about Cope the more I realised there was something more going on here. Especially in the poems about her childhood like the holiday one I quoted from above. I would recommend having a read at an article by Emma Brockes in The Guardian. It’s quite helpful. In it she writes, for example, “The depth and pathos of Cope's poems have always been obscured by her wit, a trade-off that maddens her, since a lot of her work has been motivated by—and seeks to articulate—total despair.” You can see why Brockes might write that reading a poem like ‘The Damage to the Piano’:
You can barely seeThat might actually be my favourite poem in the book. The Christmas and religious poetry did nothing for me and ‘At 70’ pales besides Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ although I didn’t hate
Perhaps I am intolerant, a tad authoritarian,A. M. Juster’s review of Anecdotal Evidence for the Los Angeles Review of Books is worth a read because he spends a fair bit of time on Cope’s early work preparing us for what he has to say about the new book. For the likes of me who’s read nothing by her before, nothing that’s stuck in any case, this was helpful. From what I gather this is not a book that lovers of her early work will automatically fall in love with. I think, for me, this was a good place to start and probably a good place to stop too. ...more
I never read Gulliver’s Travels growing up but for many years I assumed it was merely a children’s book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland not realising both were, in fact, satirical works, the former, a transparently anti-Whig satire whereas the
I never read Gulliver’s Travels growing up but for many years I assumed it was merely a children’s book like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland not realising both were, in fact, satirical works, the former, a transparently anti-Whig satire whereas the latter lampooned the ordered, earnest world of Victorian England.
When George S. Kaufman proclaimed that “satire is what closes on Saturday night,” he was referring to its ephemeral quality: satire dates quickly. I would add that political satire dates twice as quickly. Probably because the painful realities it mocks are all too immediate, political satire seems particularly funny while it is fresh. But the intensity of satiric humour is often inversely proportional to its durability. Try looking at the opening monologue from last year's Tonight Show. We don't even get the jokes. Or look at any reruns of Saturday Night Live that bash then-current presidents. For every political satire that remains funny, there are a dozen that could be called Saturday Night Dead. – Elisabeth Weis, ‘M*A*S*H Notes’, Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, p.311There is no doubt that Philip Roth’s novel Our Gang is dated. I was thirteen at the time of the Watergate scandal and although I took note—it was hard to ignore even here in the UK—I can’t say I was especially interested or cared that much. I knew who Nixon was but I didn’t know anything about him. That was not the case in the Roth household: “Richard Nixon was known as a crook in our kitchen twenty-odd years before this dawned on the majority of Americans as a real possibility.” (Conversations with Philip Roth, p.87) In Reading Myself And Others he wrote: “The wonder of Nixon (and contemporary America) is that a man so transparently fraudulent, if not on the edge of mental disorder, could ever have won the confidence and approval of a people who generally require at least a little something of the ‘human touch’ in their leaders.” Sound familiar?
This book should’ve had its day. That it hasn’t underlines what Hegel said two hundred years ago: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Okay there’s a lot people won’t get here, the specifics, but the gist will be all too familiar, as Roth put it, “the fine art of governmental lying” (Conversations with Philip Roth, p.54):
[L]et’s not underestimate the imagination of the American people. This may seem like old-fashioned patriotism such as isn’t in fashion any more, but I have the highest regard for their imagination and I always have. Why, I actually think the American people can be made to believe anything.Roth takes as his jumping off point a statement Nixon released in San Clemente on April 3rd 1971:
From personal and religious beliefs I consider abortions an unacceptable form of population control. Furthermore, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life including the life of the yet unborn. for, surely, the unborn have rights also, recognized in law, recognized even in principles expounded by the United Nations. – Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1971, p.500In the book the president, Trick E. Dixon, has strong views about the rights of the unborn:
I will not be intimidated by extremists or militants or violent fanatics from bringing justice and equality to those who live in the womb. And let me make one thing more perfectly clear: I am not just talking about the rights of the foetus. I am talking about the microscopic embryos as well. If ever there was a group in this country that was “disadvantaged,” in the sense that they are utterly without representation or a voice in our national government, it is not the blacks or the Puerto Ricans or the hippies or what-have-you, all of whom have their spokesmen, but these infinitesimal creatures up there on the placenta.Sounds commendable enough until you realise what’s driving him, the desire to be re-elected. He proposes to “extend the vote to the unborn in time for the ‘72 elections.” It’s ludicrous of course but that’s the whole point.
I would be less than candid if I didn’t say that when election time rolls around, of course the embryos and foetuses of this country are likely to remember just who it was that struggled in their behalf, while others were addressing themselves to the more popular and fashionable issues of the day. I think they will remember who it was that devoted himself, in the midst of a war abroad and racial crisis at home, to making this country a fit place for the unborn to dwell in pride.Satire is meant to be over the top—just look at something like Spitting Image—but there is always a danger that the important message gets lost along the way. That said, Dwight McDonald, in his review for The New York Times in 1971 wrote, “Of course it's all very exaggerated, one-sided, fantastic, etc. Common sense tells us that. But common sense is, as often, wrong.” He then goes on to quote Jules Feiffer from a interview he did with Playboy: “That's all satire is—creating a logical argument that, followed to its end, is absurd. . . . Satire concerns itself with logically extending a premise to its totally insane conclusion, thus forcing onto an audience certain unwelcome awarenesses.”
To that end the book ends with Dixon in hell having been assassinated and although the rest of the book has lost its edge this final chapter is razor sharp. Dixon, feeling that Satan could’ve done a better job, has decided to run for the position of Devil. The whole chapter in which he addressed the Fallen is worth quoting but I’ll content myself with three brief excerpts:
[L]et me make one thing perfectly clear. Much as I respect and admire his lies, I don’t think that lies are something to stand on. I think they are something to build on. I don’t think anyone, man or demon, can ever rely upon the lies he has told in the past, bold and audacious as they may have been at the time, to distort today’s realities. We live in an era of rapid and dramatic change. My own experience has shown that yesterday’s lies are just not going to confuse today’s problems. You cannot expect to mislead people next year the way you misled them a year ago, let alone a million years ago.If you’re going to read this read it now. It’s never been more timely and Christ knows how much time you’ll have left to read it.
If you’re interested in Nixon’s own response to the book you should read Jon Wiener’s article in the Los Angeles Review of Books which includes excerpts from the White House tapes from February 1971 to July 1973. ...more
Jim rated a book it was amazing
Jacqueline Carey opens her review of Visitors for The New York Times with the following paragraph:
Anita Brookner is a frightening writer. A decade ago, my friend Anne went to Paris for a soul-searching type of vacation and happened at the outset to rJacqueline Carey opens her review of Visitors for The New York Times with the following paragraph:
Anita Brookner is a frightening writer. A decade ago, my friend Anne went to Paris for a soul-searching type of vacation and happened at the outset to read three Anita Brookner novels in a row. She did not get out of bed for the rest of her visit. Because of Brookner's almost antiquely elegant prose and the occasional glittering flash of her scalpel, it is easy to forget how truly bleak her vision is. Set beside it, the despair found in most modern novels feels as artificial and forgettable as an advertisement based on the already dated heroin chic.I’ve no idea, obviously, if Visitors was one of those three novels but this is the seventh book by her I’ve read and I can tell you this is by far the rawest and most insightful I’ve read yet. I’ve never given her less than four stars and three of those six books warranted five. With this seventh book I think I can rightly say that Brookner is now my favourite female author. I started—and gave up on—three books in quick succession before I picked up Visitors. It doesn’t really matter what those books were because on any other day I might’ve read them without any problem but for whatever reason I was struggling and so decided on a safe bet. And that’s how I’m coming to view Brookner, as reliable; she never puts a foot wrong.
In some respects the world in which she places her characters is as alien to me as Beckett’s. As much as I love Beckett’s work there’s always something a little abstract about his characters and not just the ones in jars and bins. That you cannot say about anyone in this book. She has such an eye for detail. And a way with words. Take, for example, this sentence:
She was to be an adjunct, but not necessarily an intimate, admitted to certain colloquies but not to others, her status as family member once more to be negotiated.This perfectly sums up Mrs May’s relationship with her in-laws. Since her husband’s death they are all the family she has left and—dutifully—they all send out the necessary invites and make the requisite phone calls. They’re all old, in their seventies, but more importantly they’re old-fashioned, dated, fast becoming out-of-date. Of course they can’t see that or if they can they make light of it. Until a trio of twenty-somethings invade their lives and force them to look at themselves in a new and not especially flattering light.
Mrs May, Dorothea, was married to Henry but has been on her own now for fifteen years. Once a week she receives a phone call from one of Henry’s cousins Kitty or Molly. She’s invited over for the occasional meal “but at the same time there [is] a tacit acceptance that she would continue her alien life at a distance.” This doesn’t bother Thea one bit. She accepts their efforts to stay in touch are “motivated by love for the absent Henry rather than for herself” and doesn’t judge them too harshly—really Henry was all they had in common—and if a few minutes enduring their efforts at extending goodwill—after all “she was still Henry’s wife”—so be it. When the calls end with a thoughtful, “What are you eating tonight?” she always dreams up something healthy and interesting rather than admitting all she’s planned to nibble on is a banana while she reads her book. Not that she can’t afford to eat well—her husband left her well taken care of—but that’s all she wants and one of the joys of living on your own is being able to indulge your fancies even if a banana couldn’t count as either an indulgence or something fancy.
The plot of the book kicks off when Thea receives a phone call from Kitty:
‘Ann is coming over from America. You remember Ann, my granddaughter, don’t you?’All well and good. The catch is Steve:
‘Ann and David will stay here, unless I can persuade Molly to put David up. I don’t think he’ll be any trouble.’ David was dismissed, a mere accessory ‘The thing is that David’s bringing his best man with him. At least I assume it’s his best man. Ann merely said, “David’s friend.” I’ll be frank with you, Thea; we know nothing about him. We were wondering if you’d help out.’Thea tries to wriggle out of it but a single shot across her bow— ‘I thought you’d be glad to help us out,’ said Kitty, her voice stiff. ‘After all, what are families for?’—and she acquiesces.
As it turns out Steve is no real trouble at all but his presence—indeed the presence of all three youngsters—takes Thea’s thoughts into directions she wouldn’t have considered under normal circumstances. Not that she says anything to anyone—she’s courteous and does what’s expected—but we get to listen to her inner turmoil.
Although Steve ends up with her for over a week—longer than she’d been told to expect—they mostly keep to themselves. The few exchanges they share—hard to call them conversations—shake Thea though. Not that Steve goes out of his way to make the old woman feel awkward in her own home. Most of her fears are imagined and boy does she have an active imagination:
Living alone, she had discovered, was a stoical enterprise but one that could be rewarding. And now, after only a few days, she was once again anxious, fearful of displeasing this stranger in her house. The date of his departure, fixed for the Wednesday of the following week, when he was supposed to fly to Paris with the newlyweds, struck her as unreal; she was half convinced that at the last moment he would refuse to go.There is something Pinteresque going on here, albeit Pinter-lite. She describes Steve as “not … immediately lovable … too stony, too empty, too defiantly solitary” and fails to see, at first at least, that’s maybe the pot calling the kettle black:
[S]he sensed that he was lonely, as lonely in his way as she was in hers, except that her loneliness was the outcome of a fiercely guarded reclusion, and all that she required to help her was a deeper sense of reverie. Young people were not given to reverie, were not particularly articulate, lacked the sort of patience that only the old could command. Seeing him moody and unoccupied made her feel sympathy for his predicament, yet she herself could provide few distractions. She pitied his straitened youth of jogging and rock music, yet on the rare occasions on which she had heard him speak he appeared to be educated, even gently bred, but determined to hide the fact. She had had to come to the conclusion that he preferred to live as he did, to have no regular employment, to drift into the company of those who might make his decisions for him. It was a sadness to her to contemplate such a life. Her own, by comparison, seemed infinitely rich.What struck me was the ending of this book. Brookner’s too classy a novelist to do anything predictable—the book is grounded in realism and believability—but Thea does do something out of character at the end. Or at least she starts to. Throughout the whole book she’s behaved impeccably, “present and absent at the same time, available,” and one can only hold it in for so long. Has she left it too late? Perhaps:
[S]he felt a measure of relief herself, together with a sharp sense of anticlimax. It was like waking after a particularly enthralling dream, to find that her course of action was not to be dictated by magical thinking but was circumscribed by mundane reality, and that instead of encountering and overcoming mythical obstacles she had merely to take her shopping basket and mingle with the other suburban ladies at the supermarket....more
When it comes to the big topics in fiction I guess love’s got to be right there at the top, maybe even the top. It’s the one we all get to struggle with and even though we often fail at it or mistake it for something else we rarely give up on it. Eve
When it comes to the big topics in fiction I guess love’s got to be right there at the top, maybe even the top. It’s the one we all get to struggle with and even though we often fail at it or mistake it for something else we rarely give up on it. Even old cynics like me. Which is probably why I picked this up in the first place. Once more into the breach. The thing is there are many kinds of love—just ask the Greeks—but I naturally assumed the love in question here was going to be romantic love. Which it is and it isn’t.
There are two storylines, Vibeke’s and her son Jon’s. Vibeke is a single mother who, four months earlier, has moved to a new town with her then eight-year-old son. They have an odd relationship which seems to be driven in part at least by the boy’s need for space. Apart from sharing a meal during the book they each go their own way and assume they know where the other is and what they’re doing. The reality is quite something else.
Vibeke’s a reader from which I took she was a romantic more drawn to the imaginary than the real. She goes through three or four books a week (not that we’re told what kind) and she’s run out so she decides to head to the library thinking it’s late opening:
She goes out into the vestibule, buttons her coat and studies herself in the mirror, pops her head back into the hall and calls out to Jon. She looks at her reflection again. She decided on hardly any make-up at all. He’s not answering. She calls again and glances at the time, less than half an hour before they close. He’s started going to bed on his own now, she’s not even allowed to come in and say goodnight. She thinks of his eyelashes, almost white. She moves her head from side to side, checking her hair in the mirror, the way it falls so softly about her face, her scalp still warm from the time it took to dry it. She snatches the keys from the little table, picks up the bag with the books in it and smiles at herself in the mirror again before opening the front door and stepping out.What she doesn’t know is a) the library’s shut—late openings are Tuesdays and Thursdays—and b) Jon isn’t in the house; he’s taken himself out, first to sell raffle tickets and then just for a wander. From here on the narrative bounces back and forth between Vibeke and Jon as they blindly wander into one potentially dangerous situation after the next. Jon, for example, manages to sell all his raffle tickets at the first house he goes to:
The old man turns toward him, handing him the raffle book and the money.I mean seriously, in this day and age what almost-nine-year-old (it’s Jon’s birthday the next day) willingly goes down into a basement with an old man he’s never met before? They must have ‘Stranger Danger’ in Norway or something similar.
(Actually the child protection service is Norway is called Barnevernet and it is not afraid to relieve parents of their children because they simply “lack of parenting skills;” its heavy-handedness occasionally even makes the international news. In the real world the likelihood is that Jon would’ve been taken into care years earlier. Whether Vibeke loves her son is neither here nor there.)
In an interview the author admits…
I don’t know to what extent the characters feel love: one of the scariest things in the novel is that you don’t really know that. Vibeke does all the right things for Jon—except that night when she should have been there, she should have remembered his birthday —, she takes care of him, she cooks for him, she takes him to school. From the outside, she does all the right things, she’s a good mother. But is she? That is quite the question of the novel. What is to love and how does that show?Vibeke is desperate for love. Jon, not so much; curiosity drives him. Both are innocents and neither of them thinks before they act. They’re completely wrapped up in their own worlds and easily side-tracked by their own thoughts as can be seen when they’re having their meal. They really say very little to each other:
She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.It is an odd relationship as I’ve said but we learn precious little about what their lives were like before the move. I don’t think Jon actually says one word to his mother. What does stretch credulity a bit are the other adults in the book, those who encounter Jon I mean: none of them takes the initiative to make sure the boy gets home safe and sound. The mother I could accept even if I disapproved but not these others.
I really can’t make my mind up about this one. I think you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it. If it’d been set in the distant past or one some strange planet I could’ve accepted the way things are allowed to play out but this is modern day Norway. A thought-provoking read nevertheless. ...more
“Conversations consist for the most part of things one does not say.”
― Cees Nooteboom
― Cees Nooteboom
“I don’t know how to pray,
but I’ve seen them do it
on TV; kneeling by a bed
in nightgowns, hands woven
like secret friends.”
― Jessica Bell,
but I’ve seen them do it
on TV; kneeling by a bed
in nightgowns, hands woven
like secret friends.”
― Jessica Bell,