Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Review - Pure

So! In the last few weeks:

- I went to see The Woman in Black. You probably... shouldn't. Just read the book.

- I wrote about how romance in fiction is exactly like stalking.

- I also read something that wasn't non fiction! Pure by Andrew Miller just won the Costa book of the year, and since it has been on my radar since mid-2011, when my ex-colleague-with-impeccable taste read the proof and told me it was good, I decided that now I really had to see what all the fuss was about. So I did.

And now I'm going to review it.

I've got to say, I've missed fiction. It's so loose, so free, so unconstrained by things like facts and reality. When you write fiction you can totally fill your book with mysterious violet-eyed miners and extraordinarily tall, good-hearted prostitutes who ply their trade in exchange for fancy copies of The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Or maybe that's just this particular novel. Yes, Pure contains both of the above characters, plus a mentally unhinged priest and an inexplicable elephant, and everyone (apart from the elephant) spends their time running around in a lavishly disgusting cemetary that is the literal representation of all that is rotten in the state of France in 1785. As far as plot goes, engineer Jean-Baptiste is called in to clean up Paris's Les Innocents graveyard, which is beginning to, er, overflow its contents into neighbouring houses and streets, spreading decay and disgustingness into everyday life - much, in fact, like a certain Ancien Regime I could mention. Yes, Jean-Baptiste (which is, meaningfully, French for John the Baptist) must clear away the old, stop the rot and sweep in a new age of purity. Do you see where this is going yet?

Just from the back cover, you can tell that Pure is going to be a novel with serious underlying concepts. The blurb (actually a quote from the book's final chapter) promises
A year of bones, of grave-dirt. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death.
Setting aside the problems I have with the concept of a year of rape, do you see the THEMES that are emerging here? There's DECAY, there's DEATH and more DECAY and yet (as you discover when you read the book) in the midst of the DEATH and DECAY there's the possibility of finding PURITY. But only with an effort. A few chapters of Pure and I was seeing decay everywhere. I started to feel the kind of mental paranoia that I usually get from reading too much Freud, except instead of penises everything was rotting.

Pure's definitely not one for delicate stomachs. Actually, one of my favourite things about it is its complete commitment to the atmosphere it wants to produce. Things drip, things leak, there are yellow puddles, rotting teeth and cracking plaster, and everyone's clothing is covered in suspicious stains. It's firmly in the 'goitres, missing fingers and syphilitic children' sub-genre of historical fiction that's become so popular recently (the best example of which is the absolutely brilliant The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. You should all read it if you haven't already). Miller's got a clear, vivid writing style that's a (slightly gross) pleasure to read, and it lends itself well to his choice of subject.

But while the atmosphere's good, sometimes the content is a little more iffy. I ended up being unexpectedly bothered by Pure's presentation of women. Now, I'm not someone who demands that all female characters should be strong and consistently awesome. I've met just as many idiotic women as I have men. But what I do require is that female characters should behave with intent and agency and some sort of acknowledgement that they too are reasonable human beings. I believe it has been scientifically established by now that a the inside of a woman's brain cannot be compared to what would happen if a troop of vervets took over a spaceship.

And yet, when I think about Miller's female characters, I struggle to explain a single one of their actions in a way that's more meaningful than 'she did it because she is a woman'. I mean, one character actually goes mad at exactly the same time that she gets her first period. I really hope that's a coincidence, but I strongly suspect it's not. It's meant to mean something. Women in Pure are like sexy, insane pinball machines operated by rodents, as leaky and in need of fixing as the cemetary Jean-Baptiste works in. It's a worldview that I'm not impressed by, and I'm not sure why Miller thinks he can get away with it. It's not deal-breakingly bad, but it's there, and it bothered me. That's the problem with having THEMES - your readers become so very attuned to what you're doing that they may notice things you didn't entirely intend to show.

This is exacerbated by the fact that there's just not very much body to the story Miller's trying to tell. It's all drum-roll and no payoff, all heave and (to use a metaphor Miller would be thoroughly in favour of) no puke. We're meant to read Pure and immediately understand that this is 1785 and the French Revolution is looming up just around the historical corner, but, apart from characters discussing The Party of the Future and going to splash some slightly lame anti-monarchical graffiti near the Bastille, nothing particularly revolutionary actually happens. A guy gets asked to clear out a graveyard; he clears out the graveyard; end of story. True, Doctor Guillotin pops up to poke at the bones that get unearthed and the miners hired to help Jean-Baptiste are discontented (don't worry, though, they'll still be discontented 100 years later, in time for Zola to write Germinal about their plight), but it's all oddly coy. I suppose there's so much meaning crammed into Pure that there's not much room left for a plot.

Talking of Zola, Pure definitely gives off whiffs of his style. In Pure, people are feral and oddly shaped, and prone to having sex in public places. There are also strong flavours of Perfume, in that there's a definite sense that a murder may occur at any moment, and a smattering of the kind of weirdness you find in a good Jeanette Winterson novel. All of these are novelists I like, and I think on the whole I did like Pure, but it was so conscious of itself, so intent on what it was doing thematically, that sometimes it was difficult to just read the story without being bludgeoned over the head with meaning.

So, did I enjoy Pure? Broadly, yes I did. It's dark, dirty, fun and easy to read. But does it have a lot of flaws? Definitely. Does it deserve to be Costa Book of the Year? I'm not so sure about that. And could Tea Obreht and The Tiger's Wife wipe the floor with Andew Miller and Pure? Absolutely they could.

3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review - Constance

The wives of great men are boring.

At least, that's the opinion of Gertrude Stein in her book The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Allegedly by her wife-in-all-but-name Alice and apparently the story of  'the wives of geniuses I have sat with', it's actually a biography written by Stein, and what it's really about is the geniuses themselves, because those are the people readers actually find interesting. So says Stein, anyway.

Stein's enormous ego aside, she does actually have something of a point. While she's in one room, hanging out with Picasso and Matisse and working out Cubism and Modernism (as you do), Alice is next door with Fernande Picasso, talking about... hats. Unfortunately, I know where I'd rather be a fly on the wall.

But at the same time, it's not only the geniuses who deserve to have their stories told. History isn't just big men in little rooms, and as both a historically-interested person and a woman I like hearing about women who took the bad historical hand they were dealt and made something of themselves despite the restrictions they had to operate under. So while, sometimes, I think the feminist reclamation initiative is reaching slightly (as in the case of Catherine Dickens - I've written about her in my blog for Litro), I do think it's an incredibly important project, and one that can yield some awesome results. And so it is for Constance Wilde, wife of the more famous Oscar.

The lady un-vanishes
The more I read of Constance, the new biography by Franny Moyle, the more I felt like I not only approved of Constance, but actually liked her. Constance, as a person, was great. She was smart (she put herself down on the 1871 and 1881 censuses as a 'scholar'), she was funny (her letters are masterpieces of sass), she committed herself to everything she could (including the 'healthy' dress movement, several cults and the beginning of women's lib) and all in all she was supremely uninterested in sitting on her behind and doing nothing.

In her own time, she was actually almost as famous (or notorious) as Oscar himself. If Hello! magazine had been around, she would have featured in it every week in a new and completely mad outfit. A slightly reluctant but very visible public figure, she was also - which I did not know - a fairly well-known children's writer. She published quite a few fairy-tale-style short stories, and there's even new speculation that she might be the real author of 'The Selfish Giant'.

Constance was maybe a little whacky (witness the cults and her obsession with Spiritualism), and somewhat obtuse when it came to her husband's extramarital relationships, but I can imagine meeting her and finding that we genuinely had a lot to say to each other. (Contrast this to my imaginary meeting with Catherine Dickens, which would involve me saying "My, what a lot of children you have! Your husband is an awful man," and then the two of us staring at each other awkwardly until it was time to leave.)

A few months ago I read Richard Ellmann's tome of a Wilde biography (aptly entitled Wilde), and, exhaustive as it was, I couldn't help but feel that it missed something crucial. Wilde was an outrageous exhibitionist, mad, bad and fond of turning up places looking like a cello or a sunflower. Ellmann's book, though, manages to make him, and the life he led, seem boring. After Ellmann, I wanted a book that'd tell me the story of Oscar Wilde with as much shock and gossip as possible, and that's exactly what Constance does. Moyle's got a chatty, scandalous style that'll drive you mad if you want serious scholarship, but if you're looking to have fun with history you'll be delighted by it.

I think Moyle gets a good balance between showing Constance as an individual and talking about the experiences she shared with her husband. Constance, in Constance, isn't just a presence in the background, but neither is Oscar - and neither, interestingly, are their two sons Cyril and Vyvyan. If Ellmann largely forgot the wife, he most certainly forgot the children - Cyril and Vyvyan are just walk-on blobs in Wilde. In Constance, though, we get to hear more of how they felt, and what, as children of such weird, brilliant parents, their lives were like, and the result is fascinating.

Not that Moyle doesn't have her faults. At times she's a fairly lazy writer - you get infuriating sentences like
It would be a cause that in the fullness of time Constance would espouse more fully and formally.
Where was her editor? Never mind that, where was her brain?

She certainly isn't a rigorous academic. I suspect that Constance herself could school her biographer on study skills. Moyle has a habit of randomly generalising for the sake of her plot, and even though it didn't bother me unduly I had occasional raised-eyebrow moments. But, as I said, this book is meant to be fun, a razzle-dazzle joyride through an interesting woman's interesting (and ultimately very sad) life, and it succeeds in being exactly that.

Moyle's close to being the perfect biographer for the Wildes. Naughty, funny and irreverent, she conveys their scandalous lives in delicious (if not exacting) style, and ultimately managed to convince me that Oscar and Constance really did, in their own strange ways, love each other. I know! I was surprised too. But that's the nice thing about Constance. It's telling you a story you know, but in an entirely different way, one that, as I've said before, definitely deserves to be told.

Wives of geniuses, despite what Gertrude Stein may think, can be very interesting indeed.

3 stars.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Review - The Man on Devil's Island


- The kind people at Writersdock have struck again, and this time they've done an interview with me. I'm immensely flattered, although I still think they may have gotten a little confused and actually meant me to interview them. Regardless, it's up on their site and you can read it here.

- I've done a review of the new NT production of She Stoops to Conquer over at Litro, and also blogged about why you ought to be able to bring up Terry Pratchett in a university seminar.


I've been on a historical non-fiction kick recently, possibly because I want to read books that my English-lit-crit brain won't automatically start analysing for theme and word choice and Deeper Meaning, but also because I do love history. I once almost read History at university, before I realised that I was being influenced by my father coming into my room several times a day and saying YOU SHOULD READ HISTORY AT UNIVERSITY, whereas what I really enjoyed about history was that it was like literature, except with real people.

I've always loved stories, and the real stories that history spits out not only tend to be madder than most fiction but also give you opportunity to get fascinatingly intricate with the detail of what happened on the night of August the 7th. Obviously, my favourite sort of history is crime, but really, there's not much that doesn't interest me.

Certain bits of history, though, seem to come up again and again in my reading. One of those is the Dreyfus Affair. It just keeps on being mentioned in passing, as something very important, but not important enough to explain - there's a tiresome assumption with these sorts of things that the reader knows all about them already. So when I saw Ruth Harris's book, The Man on Devil's Island, I decided to lay my ignorance to rest and find out who Dreyfus was and what the hell happened to him.

Now, before we go any further, I'm going to explain as briefly as I can what did actually happen, not only because it's very interesting, but because even the Wikipedia article is horribly obtuse.

In 1894, the French government was about as paranoid as the American government is today. They'd begun their terrible run of losing every war they fought (one of the worst results of this was having to cede Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans in 1871), and they saw enemies lurking about everywhere, ready to take more of their land. So when they discovered a letter in the German embassy proving that someone was spying for Germany, they went slightly insane. They needed a culprit, and after an extremely short and completely rubbish investigation they more or less settled on a random man, artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus, because he was a bit stuck up and odd, and also (probably) because he was Jewish.

Dreyfus was swiftly convicted in military court on completely trumped-up and falsified evidence and packed off to a prison island, but while he was languishing people back home in France started noticing that he had been falsely charged, and a movement began to get him exonerated. About half of France (including Zola) were violently for Dreyfus, and the other half (including most of the military, who had been the big movers behind the original conviction) were violently against him. The whole thing brought up a lot of buried issues, like anti-semitism and national identity, and by the time the Dreyfusards managed to get a re-trial in 1899 it wasn't really about Alfred Dreyfus at all, but what he mystically represented.

Alfred was finally pardoned - although never actually exonerated, even though the actual culprit (a man called Esterhazy) was fairly open about having done it - in 1900. It was a fairly sad and inconclusive end, and no one (apart from Alfred) came out of it looking impressive at all.

And that's the very, very potted history of the Dreyfus Affair.

Annoyingly, in The Man on Devil's Island, Harris does seem to some extent to be afflicted by the assumption that her readers already know the story she's telling. Granted, what she's trying to do is less about explaining the linear story of events and more about tracing influences and movements among the people involved in the Affair, but I did still find myself wishing that she wouldn't jump about so much in the timeline. She'll start paragraphs by saying things like 'Although this was not relevant until the second trial...' when we hadn't TALKED about the second trial yet, and I had no idea there even WAS one - but despite this failing, she writes well, if in slightly dense prose, and she conveys the characters of the human beings involved in the drama with great (scholarly) panache.

And my goodness, were there a lot of human beings involved in the Affair. It seemed to me at times, bedazzled by the hail of names I was being subjected to, as though every person in France made some sort of contribution to proceedings. Not only did all the politicians, academics, writers, journalists, officers and lawyers get involved, but completely random people kept popping up to convey their thoughts and feelings on the matter. Over the course of the Affair, for example, Mrs Dreyfus got thousands and thousands of letters from total strangers who either hated her or were under the impression that they were already best friends because they'd read about her in the papers.

The Dreyfus Affair really did seem to have an extraordinary capacity for turning ordinary people into nutters, something that Harris conveys very well. When you hear about two factions arguing, you imagine something quite rarefied and mainly carried out in the correspondence pages of newspapers, but no - grown-up human beings from both sides got so angry about the Affair that they would actually go out into the streets and punch each other in the face. Literally. People got shot, they lost their jobs, they stopped talking to their families - if you want an English comparison, the nearest thing I can think of is the Civil War. It was that bad.

Not that many of the people in question weren't somewhat insane to begin with. The anti-Dreyfus crew boasted a man who wore mandrake root on a chain around his neck to ward off Jewish black magic, and the Dreyfusards had the scientist who first put forward (seriously, I might add) the existance of ectoplasm.

One of the best things about The Man on Devil's Island is how even-handed it manages to be. It's very easy - as Harris says - to think that Dreyfusard=liberal=GOOD, and anti-Dreyfusard=fascist=EVIL, but like all binaries it doesn't really bear looking into. Both sides had their share of anti-Semites, corrupt idiots and philanderers, and both sides did some pretty gross and shady things in the pursuit of what they thought was right.

Many people who joined the anti-Dreyfusard side just thought that it was the only way to protect their country and their society and to hold on to a unified French identity. They weren't really interested in the innocence or otherwise of a single insignificant man - and nor, before you think the other side was any better, were many of the Dreyfusards. They wanted a separation of Church and state and a reduction of the military's powers, and the Dreyfus Affair just turned into something  they hoped would help form a legal precident. When it began to look as though Dreyfus would lose his second trial, for example, his closest supporters seriously considered letting him die in custody, just to prove their point.

So everyone was an ass! That's the basic message of The Man on Devil's Island, anyway. Alfred Dreyfus got hung out to dry by his 'friends' as well as his enemies, and nothing much was accomplished apart from the airing of a lot of issues that keep coming back to bite the French, even to this day. Harris, interestingly, cites the recent ban on the wearing of headscarves as an example of a continuation of fears about the assimilation of different religions into French society that really began with Dreyfus.

It took me a long time to get through The Man on Devil's Island - as I said, it was dense (though I think, with the topic in question, it has to be) - but I'm glad I did. I'm still not convinced I entirely Get the Dreyfus Affair, but I understand a lot more about it, and about French society in general, than I did before, and that's always a good thing. Harris has a lot of interesting and well-argued thoughts about a very interesting case, and though I'm not sure if this is a good grounding in Dreyfus, it's certainly a good book.

3.5 stars.