Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

During the section of The Stranger's Child that takes place in the 1960s, a young gay character called Paul stages his own tiny sexual rebellion by covertly reading a novel with gay themes in it. Unfortunately, since he was living in the 1960s, the novel he read was by Angus Wilson.

Wilson wrote mainly in the 50s and 60s, and the books he produced were (I think) far more remarkable for their relative openness about the contemporary gay lifestyle than for their literary merit. They're perfectly fine - I had to read one for my MA course - but I don't think they're any more than that. There is a marked absence of either literary fireworks or (which might have mattered more to Paul) particularly salacious scenes - in fact, most of Wilson's gay characters seem to spend a large portion of their time wandering moodily around gardens. Poor Paul. If only he'd had an Alan Hollinghurst novel, he would have ended up considerably more amused.

In fact, all readers in 2012 should bless the fact that we are part of a world where Alan Hollinghurst writes books. If Angus Wilson was a gay man who happened to write novels, Hollinghurst is an absolutely fantastic writer who just so happens to be gay. Sure, Hollinghurst is very interested in gay experiences. The Stranger's Child is essentially a tour through 80 years of gay literary history, a version of the family inheritence novel with very little actual sharing of genes involved. Hollinghurst's universe, in fact, has such an abundance of gay characters that at times you begin to wonder how his human race ever managed to reproduce itself. This is slightly odd but, I think, excusable - after all, so many Great English Novels of the past have pretended that no one is gay that it's about time someone took a little pro-homosexual revenge.

Indeed, Hollinghurst is responding to all those monumentally certain Great English Novels, pointing out that often it's the things that seem most obvious that turn out to have an entirely different explanation. For Hollinghurst, of course, those hidden truths tend to be along the lines of '... but ACTUALLY all the men were sleeping together!', and to back this up he does a very nice job of unearthing the gay literature of each era and weaving it into his action. In 1913 the characters are given speeches from Tennyson to read; in 1926 they party like Evelyn Waugh's directing the action; and in 1967, as I said, the poor things get stuck in a distinctly Angus Wilson-esque countryside farce.

The starting point for all these shenanigans is as follows. In 1913, youthful poet Cecil Valance comes to visit his 'friend' George and George's family for the weekend. While Cecil's there he writes a romantic country-house poem which he then presents to George's little sister Daphne. Most people in the house, including Daphne, assume that it's about her. Of course, the reader knows that it's really to George, with whom Cecil's spent the weekend rolling in bushes and hammocks and so on. Because he's gay. Because everyone is gay in this novel except Daphne, who is magnificently oblivious. With that first fundamental misunderstanding in place, the rest of the novel is a dash through the twentieth century, as successive generations try to understand What It All Meant and succeed only in getting more and more confused and wrong.

I was completely bowled over by Hollinghurst's writing style. He writes gorgeously, with a beautifully assured tone that's backed up by some extraordinarily well-chosen details. I think he's got a rare talent for conveying time and place and, which is even more valuable, an ability to create characters that don't make you want to beat them over the head with a spade. I do think, though, that the structure of The Stranger's Child may not have done him justice. I felt, especially as I got towards the end of it, that Hollinghurst was the victim of his own ambition. Because the important event (Cecil's poem) takes place so early in the novel, everything that follows feels slightly anticlimactic, like we're moving away from where we want to be and who we want to be with. That's obviously exactly the effect Hollinghurst intended, but knowing that didn't make it feel any less damp-squibby. That enormous time-range also doesn't quite work. I could have happily read a 500-page novel about Cecil, George and Daphne in 1913, but the fact that I had to read 200 pages of awful Paul the budding literary biographer as he alienated everyone and behaved like an idiot made me less delighted. And worse, every time I felt like I was getting to know one set of characters the novel picked me up, hurled me forwards twenty years and forced me to meet an entirely new group. It was like the first day of work five times in a row, and it left me feeling exhausted.

In a way, this is exciting, because it means that there are better books by Alan Hollinghurst out there that I get to read next. But I really wish he hadn't been so over-eager with this one. A simpler premise would have made The Stranger's Child amazing, whereas as it stands it's just really good. Hollinghurst's an absolutely stellar writing talent who just got a bit clever-clever with his plot. I nearly gave this one 4.5 stars from sheer delight at the words on its pages, but in the end I think I'm sticking with

4 stars.

Which is still fairly awesome.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Review: Rosemary's Baby

My boyfriend and I are just about to start looking for a flat together. One of the things we have to decide is whether we go for a new build or an older house, and after finishing Rosemary's Baby, I believe I have the answer, which is NEW BUILD NEW BUILD FOR THE LOVE OF GOD NEW BUILD.

In a new build we have a chance of getting a kitchen with drawers that actually close and have backs to them, and in an older house we have a chance of becoming mixed up with a Satanic cult that wants to use my body as the receptacle for the Devil's seed. That, essentially is the plot of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby: man and woman move into creepy old building, there are witches, woman ends up knocked up with Lucifer's very special offspring. Oops.

The whole thing is narrated by sweet, slightly derpy victim Rosemary, who has absolutely no idea why her neighbours lend her black candles and why she's suddenly craving the raw heart of a chicken. Let's be honest, though, it's not hard for the average reader to get wise to what's really going on. I may have been affected by the fact that I've already seen - and loved - the movie (if you've seen the movie, by the way, the book is exactly the same), but even absolute beginners with basic brain function engaged will be able to make the leap.

That's not to say that I'm entirely skeptical about Rosemary's lack of understanding. Levin's great at emphasising just how easy it is to get sucked into a situation that seems, from the outside, totally crazy. Rosemary's quite a bit younger than her husband, and younger again than the witches in her building's coven, making her automatically feel as though she should defer to them; everyone seems very friendly and attentive, making it difficult for her to reject their help; and if it's your own life, it's actually quite hard to believe that everyone you know is actively working to destroy you.

It doesn't help, of course, that Rosemary is a young woman in the 1960s, and thus culturally conditioned to expect about as much attention and respect as is given to the average twenty-first century dog. My friend Amy tells me that I read too many books in which women are downtrodden. I think the problem may be more with 99% of history rather than my taste in reading material, but nonetheless: Amy, this is not the book for you. Levin actually goes pretty light on Rosemary's day-to-day housewifely oppression - apart from a charming episode when her husband Guy wakes her up when she's deathly hung over because he wants his breakfast, she seems pretty in control of her life - so when the full impact of her essential powerlessness is revealed towards the end of the book it hits you like a train.

And when you've finished making me my sandwich you can bring me the Antichrist
But all the same, what surprised me about Rosemary's Baby was how possible it still feels. It struck me, as I was reading, how much my situation is the early twenty-first century analogue of Rosemary's. Transplant me back to the 1960s and my boyfriend would become my husband, my MA would become Rosemary's pottery class and at 24, the age that she and I share, I would be thinking less about jobs and more about the colour of the curtains in the nursery. And it doesn't even need to be set in the 1960s. If that new flat of mine turned out to have lots of friendly older neighbours, and if my boyfriend started hanging out with them a lot and making me feel obliged to as well, and if those friendly neighbours were on the lookout for a young lady of a female disposition and went to my boyfriend with a business proposal ... couldn't Rosemary's story happen to me?

I mean, obviously not, for many reasons, but that's what Rosemary's Baby makes you wonder, and it's that insidious normality which makes its concept so terrifying. It's also - and oddly, this makes it even more scary - very funny. Levin's great at seeing the ridiculous aspects of the situation he's created. He's got a light, witty writing style which is both easy and fun to read (I finished Rosemary's Baby in about two hours), and the denouement, when it came, was so outrageously, blackly hilarious that it made me laugh out loud. I realise that Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman have absolutely read it, and suddenly Good Omens makes a lot more sense.

It's weird that Ira Levin's not a name that means anything to most of us. His brain-children (he's also the guy who wrote The Stepford Wives) have cultural lives that run and run, but their author himself has vanished from our collective consciousness. It's a pity, because Rosemary's Baby is absolutely top-notch tongue-in-cheek horror, and its creator deserves to get remembered for it. If you have any kind of interest at all in weird fiction, or if you're just in the mood for a really black-hearted laugh, this is a book that you need to read.

4 stars.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The Shadow Line, Exercises in Style and Good Morning, Midnight: Three skinny book reviews to get me back in the 1001 Books game

My failure to get on with my 1001 Books goal has been concerning my friend Boadicea. She does not like to leave problems unsolved, and especially she does not like to think of people not reading books, and so a few weeks ago she arrived at my flat bearing an enormous pile of the thinnest titles from the List she could find in her house.

I thanked her profusely, and then gratefully proceeded to read something completely different. I know, I felt bad. But now I have been getting through my lend-pile, and as a consequence I now bring you three short reviews of three extremely slender tomes.

First up, The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad.

Have you ever read any other books by Joseph Conrad? You have? Well, imagine that book, and then imagine that it is called The Shadow Line, and you will pretty much have a handle on what is going on here.

There's the same grotesque, vaguely hallunicatory atmosphere, bringing with it the sense that the world is rapidly tipping out of control into TOTAL CHAOS. Whatever dialogue comes out of people's mouths, you get the feeling that what they really want to say is "THE HORROR, THE HORROR!"; everyone's cheek is haggard and wan; and you get the definite impression that their doom is rapidly approaching.

The Shadow Line may be brief, but it punches far above its weight in terms of sheer creepiness. There's a prefatory note by Conrad asking readers to please remember that this is not a ghost story, thereby ensuring that everyone for ever more will read it as a ghost story. I have the feeling Conrad knew that. Smart guy.

It's all about a young European sailor in the Far East (read: Conrad in his youth) who unexpectedly gets given his first naval command. But his new ship's last captain died a mean and nasty death on board, and the first mate is now convinced his spirit is still floating about, bringing plague and destitution and DOOM on all of its remaining crew. They set sail against his advice, and what follows is a lot of illness, confusion and despair. And DOOM, of course. Plenty of that.

Is it all because of a vengeful ghost? Who knows. Whatever the cause, the whole thing is vintage Conrad, but, maybe because ships as a setting always leave me slightly cold, this just felt like a less-interesting riff on something of his I'd read before.

3 stars.

And now for something completely different: Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

How do I even begin to explain this book?

A man's on a bus one day when he notices a guy with a really long thin neck and an ugly hat. He gets into an toe-treading argument with his neighbour and then makes a dive for a suddenly free seat. A few hours later, the man notices the guy again, walking with his friend, who's telling him to move a button on his coat.

And that's it. Queneau takes that single boring little incident and retells it in 99 different ways. We get it from the points of view of different bus passengers (a Cockney, a bigot, a neurotic, a statistician), different literary styles (an ode, a sonnet, the vocative), different senses (only touch, only smell, only colour) and then some really crazy conceits, like the one where he sets himself the challenge of describing the episode using only the names of animals, or (my favourite) only botanical terms.

Sounds kind of stupid, doesn't it? That's what I thought. In practice, though, it's brilliant. It's so pedantic that it's almost delicious, a perfect little manual for almost every way it's possible to write a scene. It's also unexpectedly funny. I began it in a very suspicious frame of mind but, once I had really got with the programme, kept finding myself laughing out loud.

Best read in little bits, because every retelling deserves your full attention, it's a perfect tool for writers who want to be reminded of the limits of what can be done with writing, and it's also just a delight for anyone who loves language. It's worth noting that this was originally written in French; it's been stonkingly translated into English by Barbara Wright, who probably deserves almost as much credit as Queneau for the text I read.

Stunningly smart stuff.

4 stars.

There is, though, a problem with Exercises in Style, and it became apparent when I picked up Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight straight afterwards: after you have read it, you will automatically put everything else you read into one of Queneau's categories.

Good Morning, Midnight is full of sentences like

Ah yes, that's life... those blank-faced rooms, those cruel cafes... sometimes it makes me want to sit down and weep. Yes, just weep!

and what they made me think was, ah, an example of the modern style. And then I laughed, which was awkward.

Good Morning, Midnight is a sozzled ramble round 1930s Paris in the company of narrator Sophia, a lady d'une certaine age who reeks of despair and Pernod. As Sophia wanders, falling in and out of the company of unsuitable men and crying a lot, we hear disjointed reminiscences from her tragic life story. We also get a lot of drunken, paranoid stream-of-consciousness that is, frankly, bordering on the insane. Since Jean Rhys went on to give the world Wide Sargasso Sea, a retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of insane alcoholic Antoinette Cosway (you'll know her better as Bertha Rochester), it's not a vast stretch of the imagination to suggest that all this insanity and alcoholism may be emanating from the character of Jean Rhys herself. She, like Sophia and Antoinette, was probably not someone who you'd want to invite over for a dinner party.

Anyway, Jean/Sophia's boozy, lonely stay in Paris unravels in a way that's deeply depressing but not particularly surprising. In fact, it may leave you wanting to lock up your drinks cabinet and throw away the key. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not an upbeat novel.

My dislike of Good Morning, Midnight boils down to pure personal preference. It's one of those books that, even though I objectively saw that it was well-crafted (if a bit heavy on the elipses),  I subjectively couldn't enjoy. It felt a bit wandering, a bit self-indulgent and, frankly, really, really crazy.

Sorry, Jean Rhys.

2.5 stars.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Prizewinner Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way it responds to the story of Achilles and Patroclus. The ultimate were they/weren't they? of Greek mythology, the evidence is so vague and the sources are so contradictory that readers find themselves in the pleasant position of being able to pick and choose the hints that suit their own moral universe.

In the roughly one frillion translations and adaptations of the Iliad there have been over the years, Achilles and Patroclus have been reimagined as (with varying degrees of offensiveness) asexual warriors, manly manly impregnation machines, just good friends, good friends with benefits, each other's One True Love and card-carrying members of NAMBLA. What they really were - well, that's anyone's guess.

I'm of the school of thought that says that they probably did sleep together, but also slept with other people - and who cares, anyway? It's incredibly anachronistic and slightly dull-witted to assume that people have always been gay, straight or bisexual in the way we understand those concepts in 2012. I suppose making Achilles and Patroclus unambiguously gay might come closer to the original state of affairs than making them rampagingly homophobic lady-pleasurers, but it's important to remember that neither of those artistic choices is right.

It's also important to remember that how writers choose to represent the boys from Troy is due in large part to the atmosphere they're writing in, and so it's both inevitable and pleasant that, when gay marriage is legal in six US states (and getting close to legal in many more) and the President himself has decided to publically declare it A Good Thing, a book by an American writer all about the True and Very Sexy Love Story of Achilles and Patroclus has just won the 2012 Orange Prize.

The Song of Achilles is the first novel from writer Madeline Miller, who read Classics at university and then taught it, and how to adapt it for modern-day audiences, for ten years (TEN YEARS!) while writing her magnum opus on the side. With that background, and that time-scale, I was expecting serious literary fireworks, an entirely new interpretation of the old story to match what Zachary Mason managed last year with his brilliant take on the Odyssey. Add to that the fact that I'd just finished Fire from Heaven, the first in Mary Renault's trilogy of books about Alexander the Great (hands down the best thing I've read all year, but more on that later) and it's not entirely surprising that the reality of The Song of Achilles failed to match up to my hopes for it.

I do have to give Miller points for some of her storytelling choices. There's been a recent trend towards grittifying Classical myth, crossing out all those troublesome Baroque gods in order to tell the 'real', unvarnished story underneath (this usually boils down to a lot of men rolling about in the dirt and bleeding). Miller's Achilles, though, has a full complement of gods, godlings and miscellaneous others (Thetis, Apollo, Aphrodite and Scamander all represent), and ancient Greek magical beliefs run riot through it. If someone says they're a child of a god, they literally are; sacrifices actually work; plagues really are brought on by deitic displeasure and there's a centaur who lives in a pink cave in the mountains. It's nice to see someone going back to the unreality of the original texts, and in this respect the book works. Possibly as the inevitable consequence of this, though, the result feels like nothing more than a fairly straight-up rehash of the familiar story, told in Patroclus' voice and with the (arguably already present) homosexual subtext pumped up into a fully tricked-out plot.

One Million Moms would disapprove
Ah yes, that love story. Well. If you desire even vague ambiguity in your romance, you will not find it here. After a decent period of adolescent soul-searching on both sides, Achilles and Patroclus leap into bed together with wild abandon and proceed, with one brief exception, to remain pure and true to each other for ever and ever, amen. And who am I to question Miller's choices in the matter? As interpretations go, it's no more or less silly than many of the others I've read. What it isn't, though, is new, in any way, shape or form - and that, for me, is problematic in a book that's been marketed as a completely groundbreaking take on the old myth. Not only have scholars been entertaining this possibility for years, but even the most cursory trawl of the internet will reveal hundreds of works, of varying degrees of explicitness, all dedicated to exploring the concept of how the story of the Iliad would go if Achilles and Patroclus had actually been sleeping together.

Maybe it was unfortunate that I made that link, because The Song of Achilles started to feel to me like nothing more than a piece of well-crafted but unexceptional fanfiction. It has that fanfiction air of earnest world-bending emotional wish-fulfillment, where likelihood is sacrificed on the altar of the beautiful idea. There's a moment, for example, when Achilles claims Briseis as his prize (because Patroclus wants her to be Achilles' beard - the situation is ALREADY getting silly), and to reassure her that her chastity will not be in any doubt Patroclus and Achilles make out in front of her. Really. This happens.

I'm not sure I actually have the right to be annoyed by this. After all, Miller has two Classics degrees more than I have, so she surely must know what she is talking about. But The Song of Achilles doesn't often feel like a book written by someone with any kind of special scholarly insight into its world. While at least it doesn't suffer from godawful over-description of authentic pottery and medicines and so on, I think it almost goes too far the other way. The book is all about plot (and EMOTION) rather than local colour, and I realise I sort of miss historical geekery when it's gone.

Greeks baring hips
In fact, I don't think this is a book for Classics geeks at all. It's Iliad 101, a perfectly accessible and competently-written introduction to the story and its characters, but without either depth or fireworks. With one or two exceptions (most notably, the casual aside which mentions that Achilles is older than Patroclus, which is unfortunately just COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY WRONG), Miller does have a good handle on her material, and I think The Song of Achilles will make the story of the Trojan War interesting to a large new group of people. You can't really argue with that as an achievement, but - couldn't there have been something more?

I came to The Song of Achilles expecting to be overwhelmed. In the event, I'm not sure I could even describe myself as whelmed. A perfectly sweet if somewhat unrealistically presented romance plot and a capable retelling of a favourite story, overall this felt... unexceptional. After such a score with the choice of The Tiger's Wife last year, surely the Orange Prize judges could have done better this time around?

3 stars.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

1001 Books: Now you can fail with me!

So. This 1001 Books List of mine. Up till now I've just been blithely assuming that you all know exactly what I'm talking about every time I mention it, but, judging by recent questions put to me (by my friend Boadicea and also two people from the internet) this is not at all the case.

You (all three of you) overwhelmingly want to know what it is, what it does and how you, too, may set yourselves up to fail, and so, in response to your questions, here is my super-quick guide to the 1001 Books List.

1. What is it?

1001 Books is, actually, a book. It's part of a series on Things To Do Before You Die (there's also one that covers films, one for cities and one, for the alcoholically inclined, on beers). It was first published (in England) in 2006 and there's been a new edition roughly every two years - the most recent is 2010 but a 2012 edition will be out soon.

2. What's in it?

Obvious things first: it's a list of 1001 (allegedly) must-read books. It's compiled by a large group of people who are supposed to know their literary stuff; professors and editors and so on. The list changes with every edition because new things get published and older things fall out of fashion.

From this you may see one of its flaws, and the reason why I'm not trying to read everything on it: especially where newer titles are concerned, the List is incredibly subject to industry trends. Memoirs of a Geisha got on in 2006 because it was THE cool book that year, but by 2008 it was uncool and so was bumped off to make way for White Tiger, which got on in turn because that year it won the Booker. Don't get me wrong, both of those books are good, but if I had died without reading them I don't think I'd be spinning in my grave right now.

What I try to use the List for, and where I think it comes into its own, is as a spur to read classics with daunting reputations (like Moby Dick or War and Peace) or to try well-respected but not particularly cool authors (like Isherwood or Iris Murdoch). All of those, by the way, I now LOVE, and I'm not sure if I ever would have read them without the List.

3. How do I get hold of it?

You could always buy the book (that's a link to the forthcoming 2012 edition), but if you're not afraid of computers or you have weak wrists I would heartily recommend Arukiyomi's brilliantly geeky spreadsheet. This glorious document contains the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Lists, so you can pick and choose which one you're working from (or if you're hardcore you can do all three) and it's got a lovely stats page so you can see how well (or badly) you're doing. You could get the lite edition, which is free, but believe me, the paid version is the one you want. It's excellent value and you won't regret forking out. (NB: Arukiyomi informs me that the List now comes in handy iPhone format, so you will never have to be without your book bible again).

4. So, how's your own challenge going?

Terribly, dear readers. TERRIBLY. People keep publishing new books that, obviously, are not on the list, and then I go into bookshops and they're on three-for-two offer... and you can guess the rest. Also (fair warning to fellow nerds) sci fi and fantasy are horribly under-represented on the List, as are crime novels and historical fiction. I tell you, if that List was mine for the compiling, it would be a whole lot more fun and a whole lot less about James Joyce. And do we need every book Dickens ever wrote? Do we really? I don't think we do.

At the moment, I'm on 19.58% of the 2008 List (which is the edition I have a physical copy of, although I try not to look at it because it has American Psycho on its front cover). My friend Boadicea gave me a large pile of the shortest books on the List to help speed me along, and I was going to start reading them, but then I picked up Mary Renault's Alexander Trilogy instead and it's so excellent (all 700 pages of it) that I want to go live inside it for ever. And I've got that dissertation to write...

Nevertheless, you can still triumph! Now that I have given you the information you need to succeed, go forth and download (or purchase) your copy, pick a (*SENSIBLE) target and start your reading.

You can thank me later. (?)