A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

This is literary fiction with big black bold capitals. Sometimes literary fiction can be defined as telling a story through oblique methods, filtering it through more than one prism. Done well this can be an ingenious device that opens up multiple levels of the story, a way of making the present answer to the past, one narrator finding clarity in relation to another. Not done so well and it can come across as pretentious obfuscation, sterile auditing or plain over ambition, like a pole vaulter choosing to open his competition at a height he has never in his life jumped. For me this novel was a slightly uneasy balancing act at times – straining just a bit too hard to be unerringly profound, sagging at times under the weight of its relentless clutter of forced symbolism.

At the heart of this novel is a fabulous story with compelling characters and big important themes. It’s conventionally written and it’s supremely powerful as narrative. We are given a piece of Canadian history. The Woodman family found a timber and ship-building empire on an island where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River. This involves cutting down all the island’s trees and changing the topography of the landscape. The pursuit of material riches by successive members of this family will do catastrophic damage to the ecology of the island. The author peoples a microcosm of manmade environmental damage with tremendously engaging characters and conflicts. But the author gives this story another existence. How it reaches us in the modern day. And all the problems for me were with the modern day characters, all of whom seemed like constructs rather than living plausible people.

The novel begins when an artist on a retreat discovers the body of a man frozen in ice. Anthony Woodman, it turns out, had Alzheimer’s and returned home. He was a landscape geographer; the artist who finds him is a photographer who imaginatively reconstructs how landscape might once have looked. Anthony’s lover, Sylvia gets in touch with the artist after reading about the body preserved in ice in the newspaper. She’s essentially an unhappy housewife but to make her more interesting, more profound, she’s given an unnamed mental health condition – a kind of combination of OCD and agoraphobia (her real problem, if you ask me, is she doesn’t have a sense of humour). She builds texture maps for a friend who is blind. Basically we now have three people engaged in an almost identical (and wholly obscure) occupation, the first sign of how overcharged this novel will be of symbolical synchronicity. Less really is often more. The multi-layering of the same motif can be a form of insecurity rather than a sign of unanimity of purpose. Often there was a lack of subtlety in the design of this novel as if the author was continually seduced by images she couldn’t bear not to insert even though they duplicated other images. I could never fathom out how these texture maps worked or why there was a blind character in this novel, except that we equate blindness with spiritual profundity and spiritual profundity seemed the author’s default setting in this novel. (It’s likely Anthony Doerr got some of his ideas for All the Light from this book – blindness, the models, agoraphobia, except he uses them for purposes of dramatic tension and not as somewhat hollow emblems of spiritual complexity). When Sylvia goes to see Jerome, the artist, we learn about her affair with the dead man. Another problem I had was that the author never acknowledges her depiction of romantic love is essentially adolescent. Sylvia’s pious descriptions of her exalted relationship with Andrew is merely the experience all of us have when in love. I needed a bit more irony here. She’s describing what’s essentially a commonplace experience but as if she’s been singled out for some rare and historic achievement. At this point I was asking myself why does this novel need Sylvia? Or if it does why not simply portray her as an unhappy housewife who finds salvation through love – why does she have to have this affliction that sets her apart as otherworldly? At this point this novel really needed to be brought down to earth for me. Her husband, the only down to earth character in the modern part of the novel, is merely sketched in as a pantomime villain. For one thing the presence of Sylvia determines that the story at the heart of this novel reaches us through notebooks, a hackneyed device. Broadly speaking, the novel is about our vain attempts to preserve the past. The presence of the notebooks contradicts this premise.

Anyway, we then get by far the best part of this novel – the account of the Woodman family. The narrative here takes the form of a conventional historical novel (it resembles in form no notebook I’ve ever seen so the notebook motif seems gratuitous). In this part of the narrative we get the sprightly humour and mischief that was missing in the over-earnest overcharged modern part of the novel. We get characters we can identify with who are likeable and, more importantly, plausible unlike the thematic constructs which serve as characters of the modern part.

Finally, I realise this is a harsh review because there was much more to like than dislike about this novel and I’m going to read another of her novels. It would be easy to imagine her in a creative writing class with Michael Ondaatje as her teacher but ignoring his advice not to get led astray by arresting images or clutter her narrative with symbolical signposts.  download (3)

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Exit West by Moshin Hamid

There’s a clue early on that Mohsin Hamid posits attachment to place, even cultural identity as skin deep, an adaptation rather than any quintessential expression of identity. Nadia, the heroine, covers herself in black veils but as a defence against predatory or bigoted males rather than as an expression of religious or cultural conviction. Living spaces in this novel are depicted as temporary, transient, replacable. Even national identity is largely a series of acquisitions and adaptations, rather than some ineradicable essence of our being. National identity when articulated in language is so often just bigotry. I remember during Brexit the Brits who spouted off about national identity were individuals who made me feel ashamed of my country. If that’s what being British is you can lump it. What even is national identity? To my mind about 80% of it is simply speaking the language of the country you live in, the simple ability to communicate – which is why tourism might easily be seen as a more lethal contributor to cultural homogeneity than immigration: ask any Venetian. I’ve lived half of my life in Italy; Italians tell me I’m more Italian than British. But this isn’t true. I haven’t had to change much about myself to live in Italy. I go to a bar for breakfast; I gesture more with my hands than I did in England. But it’s wholly irrelevant that I’m not catholic for example. To fit in I’ve barely had to change anything about myself. So if there is such a thing as national identity and it’s linked to cultural identity – both essentially dubious notions in my view otherwise why would I find myself relating much more to a Somalian jewellery designer than the neighbours of my parents? – you could say the true enemy is not the immigrant but the tourist, who rarely learns the language of the visited country. Hamid is saying we’re all, in the context of history, migrants, just as we’re all tourists. There’s a distinction between Hamid’s two central characters, Nadia and Saeed: she is open to change, he, more the tourist in mindset, far less so. The magical device Hamid uses in this novel might on the one hand been seen as the digital ease with which we can now move about the planet but can also be seen as a metaphor for the travel agency in all its modern myriad forms, including people smuggling. There’s a nice little aside from a Native American in California towards the end of this book which brings home how absurd many of our concepts of national identity are.

It’s probably invalid to criticise an author for not doing something he had no intention of doing but I’m going to do it anyway. Hamid is so caught up with presenting a big picture that he often seems to neglect his characters. Sometimes they’re unable to articulate his ideas so he introduces a fleeting character of convenience who can. It was like the ideas of this book left his two central characters behind. At times it can seem more like some kind of brilliantly imagined essay than a novel. Perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m all for extending the boundaries of what a novel can achieve. But his virtual indifference to developing character began to make this novel seem like the literary equivalent of an air-conditioned environment for me. There was no weather. There was one particular moment when I most strongly felt this. The two refugees are in London and face racism and xenophobic nationalism in the form of a rioting crowd. The entire scene is depicted as if through a wide angle lens. It’s impersonal in nature. I couldn’t help feeling it would have been much more powerful and emotionally engaging had the author shown these two refugees being racially insulted close up by a small group of individuals and wondering why he didn’t do this. Racism at its most emotionally disturbing for me is when I see footage of one or more individuals insult another individual face to face. When the hate and hurt caused are of a highly personal nature. That’s when empathy for the victim is at its most powerful. And as a result of the impersonal nature of the hostility it seemed to have little effect on the character of the characters. They just drifted off to the next location with barely a metaphorical scratch. As the novel progressed the camera angle got wider and wider until I could barely make them out anymore. The ideas utterly dwarfed them. It felt more and more like this novel was written as a warning and the central thesis felt like a corset the characters were forced to wear which prevented them from developing as characters. They ended up little more than shadow shapes flitting over the globe – on the one hand brilliantly indicative of a universal modern truth but on the other frustrating from the point of view of my need to relate to the characters I read about.

Exit West is a tough one to star rate. Probably the most straightforward way to rate a novel is simply by how much you enjoyed reading it. If someone hated reading The Waves or War and Peace then why shouldn’t she give it one star irrespective of how much literary merit it might have? But sometimes we’re able to admire what we feel little love for, like the eloquence of a politician all of whose convictions we disagree with. Not that I disagreed with Hamid’s convictions but I can’t really say I loved this novel as a novel, though it was hugely thought provoking and extremely relevant to the times we live in.22292117

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf

My second reading of Orlando bore out my overriding impression the first time I read it – that this is a brilliant comic performance until Woolf, before finishing, runs out of steam. Towards the end it becomes apparent she’s no longer in the same spirit with which she began the book. What begins as pure parody ends up a serious attempt to understand her subject. The delicious light skip of her lyrical irony no longer seems at the beck and call of her wit towards the end. You can sense, even see that she’s already beginning to formulate both A Room of one’s Own and The Waves. Her lightly handled mischievous mockery of the conventional historian and biographer is replaced by a more heavy handed feminist polemic and awkward, overly lyrical philosophical musings on the nature of fame and multiple incarnations of self. She’s lost the original spirit. It’s as if a children’s play about pirates and mermaids ends with a religious sermon. As Shakespeare demonstrated, if you start off silly, you should probably end silly. Imagine if at the end of As You Like It all the characters held forth on the psychological and philosophical connotations of why they changed sex during the play. Basically, Virginia tries to force a resolution on this novel that is completely at odds with its spirit. And for that reason all the tension goes out of it in the last fifty pages.

The first half of Orlando pastiches the traditional historian/biographer as mischievously and hilariously as Nabokov’s brilliant Pale Fire pastiches establishment’s literary critic. It’s the work of a writer inspired, on a roll and thank heavens we have this evidence of Woolf’s comic genius. Anyone who thinks of Woolf as a rather pretentious humourless prig clearly hasn’t read Orlando. Of all her books it’s the one which most gives you an idea of what she was like at a dinner table. Thus, ironically, the most biographical in terms of giving us some essence of the social Virginia – offhand, witty, versatile, self-deprecating, a show off, intellectual, silly, indignant, giggling. Orlando is like a guided tour through VW’s likes and dislikes. We learn what pleases her and what angers her – and of course she writes beautifully of her love of England, its countryside, its history and its capital.  There’s also a sense that she’s sometimes showing off with certain friends in mind – you realise while reading this book that there’s a subtle but hugely significant difference between genius in full stride and showing off: even though genius in full stride can seem like showing off it never quite does. You don’t see the performance. Here you sometimes can see the performance. You can see the anatomy of the dance steps rather than one continuous fluid motion. So who was she showing off to? I don’t think it was Vita at all. It might have started as a bit of fun with Vita in mind but to my mind it’s Lytton Strachey she’s often thinking about while writing this. He was the writer who sought to revolutionise biography as a form and probably the male intellect among her brother’s formally educated friends she was most intimidated by. It’s like she’s now found the confidence to feel herself his equal, which she didn’t feel as a young woman.  While he was receiving his Cambridge education she was compelled to read many of the countless biographies in her father’s library. No wonder she hates conventional biography so much. Orlando was her revenge on all those dull male minds who believed identity was constructed from dates, battles, rank and official documents. The same kind of men who believed women were better seen and not heard. What does all this have to do with Vita? For me far too much has been made of her relationship with Vita. Nearly all my female friends have had lesbian crushes at some point in their lives. It’s something we laugh about; not something that history should use to define who we are. The idea that had Woolf lived in more tolerant times she would have lived happily in a lesbian relationship to my mind is just daft, as daft in its way as the convictions held by the historians and biographers she mocks in this book.images-9

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Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Just as you sense some authors haven’t yet written their best book – Zadie Smith? – you feel others have already written their masterpiece and no matter how many more they write they will never quite top it. Nicole Krauss with The History of Love springs to mind. As does Chabon with The Amazing Adventures. I’d be amazed if he ever tops that. Moonglow doesn’t but nevertheless it is a thrilling and highly distinguished achievement.

First of all, think of your own favourite grandfather and try to put together a narrative of his life. I’m sure you’ll soon realise some defining “facts” have never quite been verified, that there are conflicting reports of certain events, one or other of which you choose to believe to suit your own narrative, that there’s a fair bit of hearsay colouring his story and there are blanks you yourself have endeavoured to fill in. It was fitting I read this together with Orlando, a high spirited pastiche of the pretensions of all biography. Moonglow is purportedly a memoir of Chabon’s grandfather but it reads like a highly sophisticated novel. Often while reading I found myself thinking, no one surely could have a grandfather this interesting, so tailor made to be the hero of a novel. The same was true of his grandmother who, it will turn out, has created a fictitious self to survive the fallout of her wartime experiences. That misted twilight realm between fact and fiction is where this book mostly operates. It makes you think a lot about memory, its expedient ordering principles, its white lies and its hindsight stocktaking and balancing of the books. The other hugely impressive facet of this book is its structure. Chabon’s grandfather is dying of cancer when he narrates haphazardly to his grandson his memories. Chabon resists any temptation to write a chronological account of his grandfather’s life. Instead it’s as if he mirrors the non-linear laws of memory’s treasure hunting determination to find meaning and order.

Like I said the material he has to work with is the stuff of any novelist’s dreams. His grandfather’s role in the Second World War is to find the Nazi rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, before the Russians do. When he learns of the thousands of slave workers deployed to build the rockets his intention is to kill Braun. He marries an Auschwitz survivor. She is as compelling a character as the grandfather and their marriage is depicted with moving though unsentimental tenderness. When she has a breakdown his anger is such that he tries to kill his boss, for no reason except to vent his rage, and is sent to prison. He has a lifelong obsession with rockets and space travel, a talent in this field too. “The rocket was beautiful. In conception it had been shaped by an artist to break a chain that had bound the human race ever since we first gained consciousness of earth’s gravity and all its analogs in suffering, failure and pain. It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place.”

Annoyingly I watched a documentary about the hunt for the Nazi rocket scientists a month before starting this. I can’t now remember if Michael Chabon’s grandfather was mentioned. No doubt in my memory of the programme he will eventually play a starring role. Often fiction can come so much closer to defining truth than facts.2715

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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

After I had devoured all Virginia Woolf’s books, Elizabeth Bowen was my next major crush as a young girl. I think it was her poetic evocation of place that thrilled me the most. It helped me get out of my narcissistic glass jar and connect more with my surroundings. I took more notice of the world and its detail. Bowen added a new depth and delight to my visual response of the external world. Many of her novels use the regency houses around Regent’s Park for a setting and the park acquired an almost magical dimension for me every time I went there. It still does now.

It’s as if throughout this novel Bowen’s sensibility is heightened to the pitch of a lonely woman in a big house who hears what sounds like an intruder downstairs in the middle of the night. Inanimate objects become animated and not only contribute to the tension of every passing moment but define it. The way light falls or dwindles becomes a coded text of prophecy. AS Byatt says in the introduction that she had initially dismissed this novel as too much a work of fine-drawn sensibility. But the novel hinges on a moment of barely plausible melodrama so the fine drawn sensibility is absolutely necessary to sustain not only its tension but its credibility.

Both houses in this novel are ruled by vampiric matriarchs, one, you might say, dressed in pink, the other in black. Interestingly you won’t find much feminism in EB’s novels. Women often maintain a tyrannical reign of emotional censorship in her novels. Husbands are reduced to the equivalent of head butlers, emasculated, never speaking out of turn. Karen, the heroine, has such a man lined up as her future husband. Her mother runs a regimented house where deep feeling is considered an affront to good manners. In such houses it’s a struggle for children to achieve identity. This is well dramatised in the first part of the novel where two children struggle to assert themselves in a house dominated by the overpowering Mme Fisher, aided and abetted by her subservient daughter, Naomi. Leopold is waiting for his mother to arrive. He has never knowingly seen his mother and knows little of her history.

Part two tells us the story of how Leopold got to be born. Karen, engaged to be married, meets up with Naomi and her fiancé in London. Max is a protégé of Mme Fisher who Karen was in love with when she stayed with the Fishers as a young girl. She and Max begin an affair which has to be kept secret from her family. Only now does she realise how oppressive is the emotional regime of her home imposed by her mother. Bowen’s depiction of young love in this novel is brilliant because her lovers are intelligent and can see through to the other side of all the exalting adrenalin. They are not fooled by the joyful anarchy of their bodies. They know they are committing an aberration which will bring two houses down.

Each of the three parts of this novel gets better. The first part when the two children arrive at the spooky house in Paris is perhaps a little over-laboured. The second part, a flashback in time, is a fantastic dramatization of an illicit affair, and the third part when everything comes to a head is the best of all. Bowen doesn’t write naturalistic dialogue, often used as a criticism against her by readers perhaps used to reading a more commercial form of fiction. Her characters, even the children, are all as eloquent as Bowen herself and their speech patterns blend seamlessly into her mannered prose style. The marvel though is that her children are completely convincing as children.

4+ stars.   download (2)

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David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Call it an act of heresy but I’m abandoning this. I’ve got to page 600 which means I’ve only another 150 pages to go but I’ve completely lost interest. The characters are too one dimensional and you can see the plot coming as if it’s daubed in road marking paint. I’ve read all of Dickens’ novels except the early ones and mostly loved them except for Tale of two Cities and the reason I’d never read this was I believed, mistakenly, it was another early one. However it reads like an early one, so I wasn’t completely mistaken. By which, I mean it’s lathered with sentimentality.

It was Dickens’ favourite of his novels which I find odd and doesn’t say much for his critical faculties but explains to me why he never quite excised the sentimental strain in his writing: he simply couldn’t see it. Because the sentimentality is like a sickly sweet smell on virtually every page of this novel. Perhaps because of its autobiographical nature he enjoyed writing this a bit too much. When an author gets carried away with the delights of his own story perhaps the inner editor goes into abeyance.

It doesn’t begin well. David as a character reminded me of the AI in Stephen Spielberg’s film of the same name, except, unlike the AI, his programming as irreproachable child never falters. We’re presented with a moral universe of absolutes. There’s no nuance.  Mr and Miss Murdstone are pantomime baddies, as lacking in subtlety as their name suggests; Peggoty, his nurse, is a paragon of virtue. David, as child, isn’t any kind of child I recognise. He’s never mischievous or unruly. Cruelty has no meaningful effect on his character. He’s never capable of irrational response – good people after all can still be highly irritating and bad people fascinating and especially authoritative. But only good people have authority for David which basically means he will never develop much as a character, which he doesn’t. David is a neutered foolproof moral touchstone. The novel throughout has a pantomime binary moral system. A character, with one or two exceptions, is either wholly good or wholly bad. So, the first 100 pages were a bit of a struggle for me. I found Peggoty and the evil Murdstones tiresomely predictable. It was therefore a massive relief when the morally ambiguous Steerforth arrives on the scene. Finally we sense David might evolve from a potted plastic flower into one rooted in soil and subject to weather. Finally we see his moral judgements are subject to error. Finally we see the possibility of him being influenced by something other than unadulterated virtue. Unfortunately though Dickens soon repeats the early template of moral absolutes with a new set of characters. And Steerforth, the only character capable of messing with David’s programmed predictability, vanishes from the novel.

There’s no character development in this novel. Even as an adult David still seems like a ten year old. No surprise then that he falls in love with a female counterpart – an adult ten year old female. Before reading this I would have nominated Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch if someone had asked me which couple in the history of literature I found it most difficult to imagine having sex together. However David and Dora now get that award. In fact, sex, like everything else that happens to him, has no notable effect on his character. The moral light in this novel is glaring; it hurts the eyes. No surprise then that the unpredictable dark charge of sex is hostile to its regulated lighting system and so ignored.

Of course it’s not all bad. The sentence writing is consistently brilliant. And as ever Dickens creates his characters with the startled wide-eyed wonder of a child – always they have an almost hallucinated detailed vividness, that larger than life quality, a single oddball defining trait, with which we tend to see grownups as children. We magnify one detail which comes to represent the person in question. It was probably his most inspired feature, his ability to see the world through the eyes of a child but narrate his findings with the eloquence of an adult. Dickens has never been a great psychologist; he doesn’t have much to say about the inner life; his terrain is generally surfaces. The surface of this novel reminded me of a gaudy birthday card with embossed pink hearts and ribbons splashed all over it.  For me Dickens is the master purveyor of the novel as light entertainment. But this sucked!download (1)

 

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Roderick Hudson by Henry James

At a certain point I couldn’t help wondering if Henry James hadn’t used the two main characters in this novel to have a detailed and protracted argument with himself. Rowland might be seen as HJ in his social guise and Roderick a mischievous projection of his precocious genius. You could describe both characters as half baked. Roderick, somewhat of a romantic cliché, has the talent but no money; Rowland has the money but no talent. An alliance is formed. Rowland offers to become the young provincial sculptor’s patron and take him to Rome. Before leaving Rowland meets Roderick’s fiancé and falls in love with her. Roderick has the girl but doesn’t really want her; Rowland doesn’t have the girl but wants her. This isn’t going to end up well!

At another point the character of Roderick appeared like an eerily prophetic portrait of Scott Fitzgerald, the man who has been gifted with genius but isn’t responsible or strong enough to marshal it and who falls in love with a somewhat self-centred beauty queen who will inevitably provide further obstacles to his artistic ambition.

At times I felt there were things in this novel James probably wasn’t conscious of putting in there. Emotionally Rowland lays down relentless laws for himself and strictly abides by them; James, as author, appears to sanction many of these laws. Rowland doesn’t allow himself to feel anything that isn’t self-effacingly chivalrous, that doesn’t conform with social propriety. I couldn’t help wondering to what extent James was aware of the darker illicit currents in Rowland’s nature. He could have been a fantastic villain. Perhaps he was a fantastic villain. HJ never alludes to any such currents; he clearly admires Rowland more than he does Roderick. Rowland is a type that barely any longer exists in our century. The sixties probably put an end to his ilk. Someone who limits himself to nothing but rationally judicious thoughts and feelings; who never raises his voice. Probably the notion that HJ was a kind of celibate gay finds a lot of ammunition in his portrait of Rowland. His admiration for Roderick is a lot more convincing than his admiration for Roderick’s girlfriend. His self-denial in relation to the girl perhaps more of a smokescreen than a noble rectitude of character.

At the same time it’s a huge shame authors of modern romance fiction don’t have an inner Rowland to curb the saccharine nonsense they write about romantic love.

For a first novel this is a hugely impressive achievement. It can be a bit long-winded with the sense of the same scene being played out several times but James’ facility with stunning sentence writing gets him off the hook time and time again. He can make even a rather banal observation or idea sound the height of wisdom and eloquence with the beautiful highly mannered craftsmanship of his prose. It’s been a treat to reacquaint myself with HJ and I’m looking forward to the next date.220px-Henry_James_by_John_Singer_Sargent_cleaned

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