Sunday, 23 July 2017

SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION by Gustave Flaubert

This is a book about a grand passion that goes nowhere. Frederic Moreau is a law student who falls madly in love with a another man's slightly older wife. He then pines after her for a couple of decades, and when she is finally available, decides she is now too old for him. He tries the law for a while, but then comes into a small fortune after which he rotates variously through arts, journalism, and politics, all with limited commitment. Meanwhile, major historical events are taking place in France: revolutions and so on. He is only tangentially involved.

So by the end of the 500 plus pages, you seem to have got precisely nowhere. At the end he is talking to his high school friend about a silly teenage prank, and the last lines of the book are them agreeing that that was "the best time we ever had". This an unexpectedly tough ending for a book that covers virtually the whole of someone's adult life, a life which was apparently - but I guess in the end not really - crammed with incident. It's pretty harsh.

Many contemporary critics hated the book, finding it meandering and meaningless. Others loved it, such as Theodore Banville who commented that it was'sad, indecisive and mysterious, like life itself, making do with endings all the more terrible in that they are not materially dramatic'. One of his friends wrote to Flaubert to say the book was popular among his generation:
Do you know . . . the great catchphrase of the day? It comes from your book. You say: "THE LAST PAGE OF Sentimental Education!"And you cover your face with your hands.
This tells me Flaubert's contemporaries were having a lot of issues we could relate to today. It's focus on a broadly meaningless life, while dressed up like a nineteenth century novel, makes it seem oddly modern.

This is not to say it is not boring. It is kind of boring. However the academic who wrote the introduction feels that that is the point:
Flaubert further complicates his scene by staging a confusing abundance of major characters. The inner circle, the fictional space just around the hero, is crowded with figures whose names we struggle to recall. . . . This is undoubtedly deliberate artistic practice, a trick of composition aptly called de-Balzac-ification. True to his exacting sense of the artistic vocation, insulated from the pressures of the market by his modest private income, Flaubert understood that the serious novel, the art novel, must detach itself from popular taste.

Next time I create something people don't like, I'm just going to say that I have detached myself from popular taste. That said, in among the meaninglessness and meander, there is lots of lovely writing. Let's end with this taster, of a life I am so grateful feminism has saved me from:
She was one of those Parisian spinsters who, every evening when they have given their lessons or tried to sell little sketches, or to dispose of poor manuscripts, return to their own homes with mud on their petticoats, make their own dinner, which they eat by themselves, and then, with their soles resting on a foot-warmer, by the light of a filthy lamp, dream of a love, a family, a hearth, wealth—all that they lack. So it was that, like many others, she had hailed in the Revolution the advent of vengeance, and she delivered herself up to a Socialistic propaganda of the most unbridled description.



Sunday, 9 July 2017

INSTEAD OF A LETTER by Diana Athill

This book is surprising in its honesty. I find it surprising Athill is willing to be this frank with strangers; and really surprising she is willing to be this honest with herself. She lays down a real challenge to me in how to think about myself, to myself. The book tells the story of a break-up Athill suffered in her early twenties; and in another way, it tells the story of her whole life - because for her this break-up was . . . let's just say, it was a bad one. And not a couple of weeks of ice-cream in your jammies kind of a bad one. More a twenty years of despair kind of a bad one.

While at University, Athill got engaged to a man she had known since she was fifteen. He went to Egypt for work, while she completed her last year at Oxford. He wrote to her regularly, and warmly, and then one day stopped writing to her. There was total silence for two years, until he wrote formally, asking to be released from their engagement, because he was going to marry someone else. I mean, that's pretty bad. But for her it was enough to send her into a two decade long tail-spin. Here she is, reflecting on what kept her going:
I believe, however, that I owe to Oxford much of the stability and resilience which enabled me, later, to live through twenty years of unhappiness without coming to dislike life. I already had the advantages of a happy childhood and a naturally equitable disposition, and three years of almost pure enjoyment added to those advantages confirmed in me a bias towards being well-disposed to life without which, lacking faith, lacking intellect, lacking energy, and eventually, lacking confidence in myself, I might have foundered.
And:
Lazy and self-indulgent, I was a lively girl only in my capacity as a female, and once I was wounded in that capacity I became, to face the truth, dull. (Since I believe that any recognition of truth is salutary, this should be a bracing moment, but it does not feel like that: it feels sad.)
See what I mean about a piercing, uncomfortable, honesty? That said, the despair is hard to understand. Perhaps in the 1940s, marriage was just that important to a woman's esteem. After that thought occurred to me, I thanked god on every page for the luck of being born now.

It's strange to read about someone who feels she has written off so much of her life. Despite what she says was a lack of interest in a career, she was for many years one of the most important book editors in London. But even this she does not claim as making her life worthwhile:
Eight years younger than myself, my cousin was an exceptionally pretty girl with a haunting personality, so that her life was considerably fuller than mine, and I slid prematurely into an attitude common among good-natured middle-aged women: that of taking so strong an interest in other people's lives that it largely fills the emptiness of one's own. I was comfortable in the routine of those years, and when on rare occasions I felt a stab of misery my reaction to it was not revolt against my circumstances but a deliberate attempt to become resigned to them. But to say that satisfying work was something that made me happy - that I could not have done. Something else, occupying only a fraction of each year and appearing to be marginal, made more difference to the colour of my days than did my work. My holidays.

In her forties, she slowly begins to recover. This is in part, as she says above, due to her holidays; in part, I think, because of her work; in part, because she wins a small writing prize, which makes her feel that perhaps after all she is not a failure. And failure she is not. This lady is a lovely, lucid writer. Enjoy these snippets:
After the late shift the tiny sequins of the traffic lights, reduced by masks during the blackout, changed from red to amber to green down the whole length of empty, silent Oxford Street. They looked as though they were signalling a whispered conversation, and they were the kind of thing with which I filled my days.
and
. . . the olive is the tree I would choose to keep if I could have only one: for the variety of shape, for the comforting roughness of its bark, for its minnow leaves, dark on top and silver underneath, which cast a shadow more delicately stippled than any other, and for its ancient usefulness, which makes it, like wheat, a symbolic thing.
INSTEAD OF A LETTER is full of these beautifully observed moments, which make you feel as if you have traveled deep inside her head. So much so that if one met her, it would be hard to act appropriately - i.e., like a stranger.

The book is remarkable to read today, but I can only imagine how remarkable it was when it first came out, when the genre of the 'memoir' barely existed. Let's end with a little snippet of her teenage fantasy - can you imagine how this must have knocked their 1940s socks off:
I lay sprawled on the parquet in my sage-green art-silk tunic and bloomer and my salmon-pink lisle stockings, thinking, 'If a stevedore' - why a stevedore? I am sure I had never met one - 'If a stevedore would come and rape me at this minute, I would let him'





The intimacy between people working together is an agreeable thing and very real, in spite of the disconcerting way in which it vanishes as soon as the same people meet each other in different circumstances.

OUR MAN IN HAVANA by Graham Greene

This is a very un-Graham Greene Graham Greene, which is odd, as it is a pretty famous Graham Greene. It's got a lot of what you expect: an abortive romance; a middle aged man; obssessive Catholic guilt; and somehow he has tried to mash these elements into a comedy.

Mr Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba who is recruited as a spy by the British government and takes the job for the money. He falsifies reports to the centre, and when this is discovered, it is covered up by the authorities who do not want to be themselves embarrassed. This is I think supposed to be the hilarious and unlikely climax of a rollicking plot. Perhaps in the 1950s, when this was written, it could be read as such. Today it doesn't seem funny, or even improbable. In the era of Trump it reads like: this is what would probably happen. And also: what is there to laugh in about this? Or course spies are of limited competence. Of course the cnetre has its own political agenda. This is the tragic truth of the world.

In summary, if you're interested in Graham Greene, start with the classics, on his perennial topics of hearbreak and despair; THE END OF THE AFFAIR or THE HEART OF THE MATTER; let's avoid OUR MAN IN HAVANA

Sunday, 2 July 2017

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

One sizable subset of books I have read this year is in the category ‘books Jonathan Franzen recommends’, (e.g., the wonderful THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN). DESPERATE CHARACTERS is one of these, an out-of-print rarity that makes you glad Amazon is taking over the world, so you can find it. Here’s Franzen on Fox:
Because the book is not long, and because I’ve now read it half a dozen times, I'm within sight of the point at which every sentence will be highlighted as vital and central. This extraordinary richness is, of course, a testament to Paula Fox’s genius. There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book. Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude don’t happen by accident, and yet it’s almost impossible for a writer to achieve them while relaxing enough to allow the characters to come alive, and yet here the novel is, soaring above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.

It’s 156 pages of one weekend in one woman’s life. The main action is her getting bitten by a cat. Yet somehow, I agree with Franzen: it’s about so much more, I can’t quite describe it. It’s about middle class guilt; about making a success of marriage; about urban blight; about failure; also, tangentially, about rabies. I can’t pretend Fox doesn’t crush it. Here’s a flavour -

On an old friend:
And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume. He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.
. Or this, where the main character is thinking about a man she had an affair with:
She put herself to sleep again, nursing memories of Francis Early, like an old crone with a bit of rag for a baby
. Or here, the family of her caretaker:
Sitting around the kitchen table like collapsed sacks of grain were Mrs Hayes and the three Hayes children

And yet somehow I couldn’t quite enjoy it. Or rather I enjoyed it till page 155 of 156, after which I was like: what? It doesn’t end so much as stop. Someone throws an ink bottle at a wall, and that’s it. It may be that I am intellectually limited and irretrievably ensnared in the Victorians, but I just can’t bear it. I appreciate that this is what real life is like, that nothing resolves, and that this is the very cutting edge of literature, but I just can’t get behind it. I like my novels to at least gently indicate in the direction of meaning. Paula Fox is too tough for that. So I admire it, but somehow I can't quite like it. And yet I admire it hugely: so much so that the fact that it is out-of-print strikes me as indicative of end-of-days, almost as much as the election of President Trump