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.

1 comment:

  1. That "Exercises" book sounds fascinating. I will have to check my library. I am just about to read a similar (but different) book, similar in that the whole story is written in questions. It's called something like "The Interrogative Mood" by Padgett Powell. We will see if it works or not. :-)

    I love it when authors play with language especially when it's well done. Thanks for the tip.