Far To Go by Alison Pick

I was enjoying this until I realised the author was writing a different novel to the one I wanted to read, was following characters I wasn’t interested in. There were clues early on that this was going to go off the rails when an overwrought narrator kept interrupting the wartime narrative to speak in the first person. However, these interludes were short so it was easy to ignore them and hope for the best. What interested me initially was she focused on two characters who were potentially dangerous to the Jewish family at the heart of this novel. Almost always in Holocaust novels the author concentrates on the good guys and makes little effort to depict the bad guys with any insight. They’re just plain evil as if that’s all we need to know. For a long stretch of this novel I thought the author was going to give us the bad guys. Marta is the housekeeper of a wealthy Jewish family in the Sudetenland. She’s having an affair with the pernicious foreman of her employer’s fabric factory. She’s not a bad person but she’s resentful, uneducated, emotionally unstable, easily influenced and clearly dangerous to the wellbeing of the Jewish family that employs her. Most of the considerable tension of the early part of the novel is provided by the volatile whims of these two characters. We’re dealing with the banality of evil.

Then at a certain point a lot of melodramatic domestic stuff happens – the mother, who now takes over from Marta as the villain of the piece and is incoherent throughout the book, sleeps with a Nazi and Marta sleeps with her ward’s father. The novel’s focus undergoes a sea change. This becomes still more evident when the narrative abandons the family and instead follows the young son on his journey to England as part of the kindertransport programme. Here I utterly lost interest. The tone became sentimental, the artistry clumsy. There then follows a long section in the first person that reveals the entire wartime narrative is artifice. I’m afraid I didn’t find this clever. I found it annoying. A very cheap trick. The novel became mainstream cinema – no matter how much bad stuff happens the end will make you feel a bit better about everything.

There’s a scene early on in this book where a group of youths beat a Jewish tailor to death and I wondered why authors never try to get inside the heads of these characters. It’s easy to imagine the good guys. Far more challenging would be to investigate the bad guys. The bad guy in this novel simply disappears when the plot no longer needs him. He’s nothing but a convenient plot device to add tension.download (4)

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Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

Another bloated Booker prize winner. Shared the prize with the infinitely more sophisticated and innovative The English Patient. Another baffling decision on the part of the judges. The English Patient is a torchbearer of how nimble and ironically self-regarding historical fiction will become in the 21st century – I’m thinking of Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell.

This on the other hand, is old school historical fiction. No irony, no mischief, no architectural sleights of hand. Unsworth goes for authenticity of tone which unfortunately often creates a rather leaden feel, most damningly represented by the journal the doctor on the slave ship writes. Here, we’re treated to lots of Victorian soul searching which might have been realistic but to me was also dreary and meant I had little sympathy for the hero of this novel. In fact, I was more attracted to the baddie, Erasmus, without question the best character in the novel. His inept courting of a girl during the rehearsals for an amateur performance of The Tempest was the best part of the whole novel for me. In fact, that was the only relationship in the entire novel that interested me. Life on board the slave ship should have been highly charged and gripping; instead, because of the nature of the journal, the telling instead of showing, and the wholly predictable relationships between the goodies and baddies it was dull. There was also the problem that the characters of most interest were the slaves themselves but we learn nothing about them. Instead we get detailed intimate accounts of many of the rather dreary motley crew of sailors. In fact, Unsworth spends way too much time focusing on minor characters who indulge in pages of pointless chit-chat – I soon learned one could skip these pages without losing a shred of significance to the book’s plot which begs the question, why are they there? The novel repeatedly went out of focus for me.

The novel’s fulcrum is the lifelong enmity Erasmus feels towards his cousin, the surgeon. It never made much sense to me. Was Erasmus gay? That’s the only explanation I can come up with why a man would hate another man because he felt slighted by him when they were children.

On the good side, Unsworth clearly wrote this novel with lots of love (this actually becomes a problem because it causes him to get carried away with all his minor characters who might be vivid to him but were often vague to me because there were so many of them and all with similar names). And he can write well. And it was excellently researched. He does a good job of evoking the base mercantile spirit of Empire but failed to dramatise it effectively for me. download (3)

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Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

For those that don’t know there’s a museum in Florence called La Specola. It’s devoted to works in wax and without question is the most macabre museum I’ve ever visited. This because many of the exhibits are graphic depictions of what disease does to the organs of the human body. There are sculptures there by the protagonist of this novel – Gaetano Zummo. The author here invents a biography of this mysterious artist. Secrecy deploys the basic tenet of romance fiction – an idealised love affair threatened by an ogre. The heroine, of course, has green eyes. It’s not a novel of character development like Wolf Hall; the characters here are like chess pieces, their power of movement fixed from the oft. It’s the good guys versus the bad with little nuance.

Zummo has a secret which has forced him to flee from his native Sicily. When the Grand Duke Cosimo III sees his work, he becomes his patron and commissions him to create a life-size beautiful woman in wax. Zummo meanwhile learns his young lover possesses a dangerous secret too. He will code some of these secrets he possesses into his sculpture. All the many secrets in this novel are of a sexual nature. A puritanical spirit reigns in Florence, personified by the sinister Dominican monk Stufa. Women especially are locked up and tortured on hearsay of sexual impropriety. The Jews are locked into the ghetto at night. Stufa, intent on bringing Zummo down but impeded by the Grand Duke’s fondness for the artist, turns his attention to the girl. Zummo seems to inspire absolute emotions in those he meets – the good characters love him; the bad characters hate him. This perhaps was the clumsiest aspect of the novel. The psychology was a little rudimentary and lacked the persuasive subtlety of a Mantel. The line the author draws between the good and the bad is a little too thick, making it essentially an adventure story. A very engaging adventure story however.

What I most loved about this was the quality of the descriptive writing and the love and imagination with which the author recreates a detailed map of 17th century Florence. It also becomes a gripping page turner when the splendidly sinister Stufa begins closing in on his prey. Not perhaps the most thought-provoking of novels but hugely enjoyable.download (2)

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They Divided the Sky by Christa Wolf

There was a moment while reading this when I thought how fascinating it would have been had Christa Wolf stepped out of her narrative and related in a mirror narrative how difficult it is to write a novel when you live in a repressive regime that will inevitably censor your work. Unfortunately, she didn’t and what we get is a politicised love story whose pro-state propaganda reeks of fawning insincerity. Repressive regimes might provide inspiration in abundance but what artist would choose to live in a country where everything created would be subjected to rigorous petty-minded censorship?

When she’s writing about personal stuff she’s fabulous. The first thirty pages were a joy to read. But then the politics begin. And they bored me silly. The novel is about the love affair of Rita and Manfred. Manfred will betray the relationship by defecting to the West (not a spoiler as we learn this almost immediately since the novel is recounted in flashback). Wolf goes overboard in making Manfred unlikeable from the word go. Despite being ten years older than Rita he lives with his parents who he treats with venomous contempt like a feckless teenager, a rebel without a cause. In other words, he’s a kind of scarecrow of how the Communist Bloc liked to view the West. Rita on the other hand is too good to be true. She doesn’t perform a single unworthy act in the entire novel, because she’s there to represent the purity of the State, an implausible whitewashing that isn’t conducive to dramatic tension. I was reminded of how cleverly Hardy dramatized the weakness in Tess’s nature to bring about her downfall in the face of a jealous male. (I feel I owe Hardy some praise after giving him such an unequivocal clubbing last month!) Manfred too becomes jealous of Rita, though without reason. There are no such darker currents in Rita’s character. Rita receives her political education when she works at a plant where train carriages are made. There is a plethora of male characters here none of whom I could tell apart because they didn’t interest me. Lots of dreary writing about production methods and high-minded point-scoring political squabbling. My feeling was, Manfred was right to grow weary of it all!

This was Christa Wolf’s first novel and she went on to write much better novels, especially her feminist forays into Greek myth. Interestingly, she’s much more widely read in Italy than appears to be the case in the UK and the US. What Wolf does brilliantly in this novel is write of a young woman in love for the first time. But as a novel it’s at heart a heavy-handed work of propaganda which the East German ministry of culture would have little problem endorsing, which they didn’t. Perhaps she was young enough in those days to believe in the Communist dream; thankfully her critical faculties were greatly more sharpened and refined in her later work.download (1)

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra’s Chechnya is every bit as bleak and brutal as the post-apocalyptic world Cormac McCarthy creates in The Road. Life is valued by the governing powers as cheaply as in the Nazi concentration camps. The novel isn’t so much about the wars in Chechnya per se as how individuals relate to each other when law and order has been perverted out of all recognition and they only have their own moral compass as a guide.

The novel features eight characters who will all have a bearing on each other’s lives. These characters are paired up – a father and a daughter, two sisters, a father and a son and a husband and wife. In common with other contemporary American writers (Foer, Krauss, Lethem and the Australian Peter Carey) Marra’s characters are all of the quirky and socially dysfunctional variety – a 21st century tribute to Dickens’ groundbreaking legacy. These characters of Marra’s made me think a lot about the role of character in the novel. How, for example, the best novels create a new human archetype – Don Quixote, Heathcliff, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, old man Karamazov, Rhoda, Molly Bloom spring immediately to mind. And how rarely 21st century novels have scaled these heights in characterisation. For all DeLillo’s stunning prose and uncanny percipience regarding the modern world he hasn’t really created a new character. Offhand only Elena Ferrante’s Lila springs to mind as a character who has added a truly distinctive and memorable face to the pantheon. Beguiling though Marra’s characters are you can also sense the artifice. There’s something artificially constructed about them. They don’t quite ring true. He’s a little over-anxious that they charm and entertain us.

Marra is a fabulous storyteller. He’s also a very good prose writer. And a highly accomplished architect. Technically he ticks all the boxes. It’s very clever, for example, how five days in the novel bring to a head the emotionally fraught events of ten years in the lives of his characters. And clever too how he uses ostensibly crass artefacts to create plot, continuity and epiphany. But overall I felt the characters let this novel down a bit. They were just a bit too standard quirky, a bit too effortlessly loveable. It’s a novel that appealed greatly to my mind but didn’t quite win over my heart. For all its cleverness I found it a little bit soulless, a bit too self-consciously forged from the mantras of a modern American writer workshop program.

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Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford

I was expecting a masterpiece; what I got was a neurotic obese windbag of a novel. VS Pritchett, always an astute critic, remarked that confusion was always Ford’s mainspring as a novelist. This novel is so hysterically confused it reads like a diary of someone chronicling his own nervous breakdown. At one point in the novel a character forms the thought that her companion is still droning on with an idea she thought they had got past. I can’t say how many times I thought this same idea while reading this novel.

I had already seen the BBC production of this before reading it and the first thing that needs to be said is what a fabulous job Tom Stoppard did in editing and extracting every last drop of what’s good in this book and weeding out all the prodigious irritating excesses, including the entire last section.

An obvious example of Stoppard’s masterful alchemy is how he hones down exchanges between characters which in the novel usually drag on for pages and pages into a handful of critical lines. Another example is how much more sympathetic he is to the character of Sylvia than Ford was. When Tolstoy began Anna Karenina he disapproved of the adulterous woman and set himself the task of dramatizing this disapproval of his. Had he continued with this irksome puritanical stance he deployed in The Kreutzer Sonata it’s likely Anna Karenina would have been a dud as a novel. However, Tolstoy came to love Anna and it was the empathy he felt with her that contributed massively to the novel being a masterpiece. Ford Maddox Ford begins with a similar premise – except he doesn’t fall in love with his adulterous woman. He, like his hero, remains a puritan throughout the novel. She’s the villain, the harbinger of everything Ford doesn’t like about the new world (dis)order. At times it’s as if Ford is blaming the promiscuity of restless women for the insane mess the world has become. Not even Stoppard could alchemize this facet of the novel which is why the last two episodes of the TV adaptation fell flat for me. In the novel we’re called upon to boo Sylvia every time she enters the stage and cheer the docile schoolgirl male-honouring suffragette who is her rival for Christopher’s affections. The less said about the suffragette the better. Graham Greene refers to Sylvia as “surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel”. What a load of hogwash that statement is! Sylvia betrays a husband who shows no interest in her, a husband who is emotionally retarded. Ford’s determination to make me dislike Sylvia had the subtlety of a right-wing newspaper maligning the leader of a left-wing political party in every single editorial. Somehow and brilliantly, Stoppard alchemized Sylvia into the most credible and admirable character in the book though I’m not sure Ford would have approved of this outcome.

Ford’s ostensibly grandiose vision of Britain at the time of the first world war contains much that has become rather hackneyed. And a lot of his notions have turned out to be untrue. It wasn’t really the end of the old social order. He pokes lots of fun at the ruling classes. There’s a lot of schoolboy humour in this novel – and maybe how much you enjoy it will depend to some extent on how prone you are to giggling. Like Waugh at the end of Brideshead he seems to romantically and nostalgically lament the decline of the feudal world of the 18th century. But like Waugh he got it wrong. That world wasn’t vanishing into the mists of time. Just take a look at the members of the Tory party who were responsible for the referendum. Same old old boys club.

However, Ford does throw something more interesting into the mix – and this is his obsession with frustrated sexual feeling. Every character in this novel is sexually neurotic. It’s like Ford had just read Freud and believed obsessively but without much clarity that he was on to something. Unfortunately to a large extent Ford comes across as a latter-day Oliver Cromwell in this regard. No coincidence Sylvia is a Catholic. I didn’t understand what he was getting at with his sex obsession but at least it was interesting.

Julian Barnes praises the structure of this book and it’s true this is its most interesting element – the surface of gossip, lies and misunderstandings which defines the social order at the expense of truth. But his declaration that “Few novelists have better understood and conveyed the overworkings of the hysterical brain, the underworkings of the damaged brain (after his first spell at the front, Tietjens returns with partial memory loss), the slippings and slidings of the mind at the end of its tether, with all its breakings-in and breakings-off” is sheer hyperbole for me. Ford dramatizes a confused mind by resorting to endless spatterings of ellipses on every page, a crude, almost schoolboyish technique for creating the interruption of mental processes. (It’s worth remembering this was written long after both Mrs Dalloway and The Waves, in neither of which does Woolf resort to cheap ellipses to show a mind in turmoil.)

At the end of the day I’d say there are about a hundred pages of this novel worth reading; that leaves 800…Five stars though for Tom Stoppard who for me has proved himself to be a superior artist to Ford Maddox Ford. And perhaps Greene and Barnes’ elevated evaluation of this novel have helped explained to me why I’ve never been able to get excited by either of them as novelists.Parades End. Call Sheet # 48

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Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

One way of describing Night and Day might be a comedy of manners without the comedy. Much of the novel takes place in a Victorian drawing room. Katherine Mansfield famously took exception to Woolf’s utter disregard of the war that had recently taken place. And it’s true there’s something distasteful about the relentless vivisection of nuanced sexual emotion that occupies much of this novel. Like Lawrence but without his vitality and flaming insights.

It’s difficult to place exactly when this novel is set. There are allusions to the suffragettes but no mention of the war which is a jarring contradiction. It’s as if Woolf is warping historical context for her own artistic ends. Nothing wrong with that if the end product is successful but it just isn’t here. At times the various characters seem to be living in different centuries. The house in which Katherine, the heroine, lives is Woolf’s childhood home which would place it in the late 19th century. It’s apparently a portrait of her sister Vanessa but at this time in her life Vanessa was already ripping to shreds many of the Victorian social constraints Katherine struggles with. What Woolf is attempting to do is show through the divergence of generational social mores the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian age, something Forster was already doing with much more subtlety. There’s little of Forster’s playful disregard for realism, his mischievous lightness of touch here. This is porridge in comparison.

Katherine has two choices for a husband. William, a slave to convention and appearances and Ralph, the penniless idealist who tends to fall in love with creations of his imagination rather than flesh and blood women. Not much of a choice, in other words. It was odd to trawl through nearly 500 pages of Woolf writing about romantic sexual feeling considering how little interest she was to take in it in later life, both in literary and personal terms. I’d say she was wise to drop it as a principal theme of her writing. It’s also interesting how dismissive she was of the novel’s suffragette. There’s barely any indication in this novel that Virginia would go on to write the ground-breaking novels that followed. She had a breakdown after finishing The Voyage Out, and perhaps fearing she had ventured too far into perilous parts of her mind played it safe with this one. True, it’s a more controlled novel than her debut but essentially, it’s hard to view it as anything but much ado about next to nothing. It’s a novel the interfering Victorian aunt in this novel probably wouldn’t disapprove of. Perhaps an act of clearing out her closet and all its Victorian appendages. Katherine Mansfield did her an invaluable favour by dismissing it as decorous. It stung her into changing her entire perspective.38.661

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