The Ambassadors by Henry James

A gay friend of mine once put Henry James’ tendency to play hide and seek with the reader down to the same trait within himself with regards to his sexuality. Apparently he was deeply suspicious of everything that gave him pleasure. “Nothing came to him simply.” And in this novel nothing comes to us simply either.

I think it took me longer to read this than War and Peace. And that’s because virtually every sentence is like trying to figure out a rubic cube. There’s a moment when a character feels he is moving “in a maze of mystic closed allusions”. I couldn’t help wondering if Henry, not a renowned comedian, was having a laugh at the reader’s expense because that’s exactly what I felt as a reader during this novel. There were times when I was reminded of Nabokov and especially Ada, another novel that only inches open its door by degrees when we knock. So there’s something very modern about The Ambassadors. There’s a character who says, “Oh I don’t think anything now. That is but what I do think!” And this kind of mystification, these modifying clauses and sub clauses are a constant trait of this novel. Every sentence is a maze it takes two readings to get out of. It’d be easy to certify this novel as insane, an over-elaborate joke whose wit is lost on virtually everyone except the author, but once I managed to enter into its spirit of wilful obfuscation I began admiring it more and more. Communication, after all, is one of the major stumbling blocks in our lives. Every sentence delivered up to us contains numerous points of departure. To understand what’s communicated to us we simplify it and, as a result, often misrepresent it. Rarely is communication straightforward. We realise this most keenly when we are in love and find ourselves studying the words of the beloved with a metaphysical microscope. In a sense every character in this novel has the keyed up sensibility of the lover, both wilfully deflecting and hungrily truth seeking. The role of ambassador, like lover, is to mask the truth as often as to disclose it.

That said it baffled me when I read afterwards what Henry James thought was the defining passage of this book – “Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?” Is this novel an exhortation to live life to the full? I don’t understand how any character who circles around an answer to a simple question for four paragraphs could be seen as living life to full. In the time it takes the characters to arrive at any defining disclosure in this novel one could have caught the Eurostar to Paris and enjoyed lunch on the terrace of a brasserie. At times it was like a literary version of Big Brother – watching people who have nothing else to do but plot and unmask amorous or tactical alliances. Answers to questions in this novel always give rise to more questions. No one in fact seems capable of ever delivering up a clear answer to any question. There’s one instance where a character answers a question by saying, “Yes”, and then adding as an afterthought, “absolutely not”. Whatever anyone says is inevitably qualified, sometimes contradicted. At the end of every page you can feel you’re back at the beginning. Strether on whom all this elaborate subterfuge is enacted does gain our sympathy because in essence his plight is that of all of us – the struggle to make sense of the bigger picture with broken shards of incomplete information, like the archaeologist down in the trenches of a dig.

Interestingly James creates a world in which men are depicted as pawns for the queenly powers of women until the final stages of the game. There’s also a fantastic female villain who never once appears in the novel. As usual the poor, the downtrodden have no existence whatsoever in Henry James novels. An alien reading HJ might think all earthlings have unlimited leisure. And there’s a fabulous scene where Strether walks into the living reality of a painting he couldn’t afford to buy when he admired it in a Boston art gallery. This was one of the cleverest ways I’ve ever come across of showing how a character has made strides during the course of a narrative.

There’s no way on earth I’d recommend The Ambassadors and yet ultimately I found it an enriching experience, especially in what it has to say about the nature of communication. I also ultimately loved the war it wages on commercial fiction’s tendency to encourage skim reading onto the next twist in the plot. Just try skim reading this! And of course James, again like Nabokov, can write a dazzling sentence…download (8)

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It must be hard for a writer to create an uneducated character. It’s not really something you can research. Toni Morrison has set the benchmark, an almost impossibly high benchmark. Of late Marilyn Robinson did a good job with Lilla. Whitehead evades this challenge principally by giving his central character Cora little if any inner life. Therefore this is a novel principally of surface realities. It’s a narrative of the eye more than the heart. What this means is I never felt I got to know Cora. She was eluding me as energetically as she was trying to elude all her other pursuers. Maybe that was clever on Whitehead’s part; an ingenious irony. Because Cora never stays with anyone for long she never has a faithful sounding board or foil which enables her to dramatise her inner life. She remains very cinematic, an image rather than a sensibility.

There’s something fundamentally unthinkable about the brutal inhumanity of slavery. It beggars belief that educated human beings could treat other human beings with such perverted humiliating abuse. In that respect it’s an historical event that has parallels with the Holocaust. The Holocaust is often used by writers nowadays as the winning template for a thrilling and moving story. In other words the unspeakable, the inconceivable are reduced to everyday forms of reference we all recognise – essentially the good guys running from the bad guys. There is an element of that here too. We get to feel good about ourselves for cheering on Cora and booing the plantation bosses and slave catchers. The Punch and Judy principle of storytelling. For me the success of Twelve Years a Slave was it never strained to entertain. The Underground Railway does try to entertain and the outcome for me was that it was less moving as a result. It’s well written, well plotted and has some memorable visuals but I can’t say anything about it excited me as a novel with all the plaudits this has received surely should have done.

Somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.  download (7)

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The Parnas: A Scene from the Holocaust by Silvano Arieti

There are probably half a dozen ways to describe the form of this book. One would be a fictional narrative of twenty four hours in the life of Giuseppe Pardo, a beloved spiritual leader (parnas means lay leader) of the Jewish community in Pisa written by his pupil and friend Silvano Arieti, a distinguished psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Another would be a compelling creatively inspired dissertation on mental illness, in the form of a particular and crippling phobia.

Arieti tells us first about his last meeting with Pardo before he emigrates to the USA in 1939. We learn Pardo has a strange phobia. He is terrified of animals. He walks with a cane which he continually swings around behind his back, as if to ward off any animal creeping up behind him. The entire community knows of this fear of his. Children tease him. They know the sight of a dog fills him with terror and sometimes ambush him with a pet. What this means is he is reluctant to ever leave the relative safety of his home. For a Jew and especially a wealthy renowned Jew this is obviously a dangerous condition, especially when the Nazis arrive.

It’s now July 1944 and we’re in Pisa. The Allies have reached the south side of the Arno but across the river, home of the Piazza dei Miracoli, the Nazis are not budging. Pardo is sheltering in his house several other Jews and four Christian women who work for him and refuse to leave him. Thus begins a series of dialogues. Fearing for their safety, Pardo tries to persuade his guests to leave his house. He himself cannot leave because of his phobia. One by one they tell him they feel safer by his side. For the first time he openly discusses his illness, tries to understand it rationally. His guests see his illness as part of the Shekhinah (divine presence) that has come to rest on him.

There’s also a conversation with a young Jewish boy called Angelo who is about to set forth on a dangerous attempt to reach the Allies. In the next chapter we follow Angelo through the curfew in Pisa’s streets and in a stunningly beautiful scene see him make his way through a pine forest. His contact tells him he has never met a Jew before but that it was a Jewish doctor who saved his mother and him when giving birth after the midwife had given mother and son up as lost. The son of this doctor is the author of this book, Silvano Arieti.

The tension is razor sharp. We pray the knock on the door won’t arrive. The author’s storytelling skill in maintaining this tension is no less impressive than his psychological insight into the nature of good and evil.

Eventually Arieti will show us how Pardo’s mental illness is actually a key trigger of the healthy part of his sensibility, that his phobia has always been symbolic and grounded in the prophetic part of his mind.

Does it matter that the conversations in this book are essentially imagined and never took place? No, not at all. This is a beautiful and moving little book that deploys fictional devices to tell the truth about one man’s struggle to fight evil.

 

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Changing Heaven by Jane Urquhart

I’d describe this first and foremost as a pretentious novel. Sometimes an average writer can write a really good novel simply by knowing her limits and working within them. Jane Urquhart is a very good writer who here is overreaching herself. I found a certain insecurity in the other novel of hers I read; in this one it’s more apparent. There’s a constant strain on her part to add more and more profundity, as if we are in the presence of an oracle.

Essentially this novel takes obsessive or romantic love as its theme. In her other novel I read romantic love was depicted as a liberating transcendental force, not an idea I have much time for. When people read about Sylvia Plath they often get angry at Ted Hughes; I find myself getting frustrated with her. There seems something pathological in her love for him, something wilfully self-harming, as if she’s glad of the excuse he provides. She’s got this prodigious talent and yet she allows a male to be the sole custodian of her self-esteem. It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Virginia Woolf was wise about romantic love in The Voyage Out; she showed it as being as stifling as it was stimulating. She never bothered addressing the subject in depth again, as if for her it was little more than a colourful sideshow in life. I think the wisest novel ever written about romantic love is Wuthering Heights. Which is perhaps why Urquhart drafts Emily Bronte into her novel. Changing Heaven has a dual narrative – on the one hand a straightforward, if heavily freighted, narrative about the obsessive love of a female Emily Bronte fan for a Tintoretto scholar; on the other a dialogue between the ghost of Emily Bronte and a young girl murdered by her lover. The former narrative, though often overstraining with purple prose, contained much to admire; the latter was just daft. Emily Bronte becomes the mouthpiece for the author’s ideas, sermonising and intellectualising in a fashion that could hardly ill suit the ghost of Emily Bronte more. It’s a novel into which Urquhart chucks everything but the kitchen sink. As was the case with A Map of Glass she seems compelled to employ in her narratives every image that bewitches her no matter how unrelated, duplicating or clashing. The connections she subsequently makes feel forced – in this case, the wild weather on Bronte’s moors, Tintoretto’s canvases and Antarctica. It all ends up very hit and miss; at times she can make connections that are exciting; at other times it’s like she’s trying to construct a coherent whole with various pieces of two different jigsaw sets.download (3)

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This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz

Italy is my adopted country and it sometimes pains me that it was allied to the Nazis – usually this happens when the subject of the war is raised and the discomfort of my Italian friends becomes palpable. It’s a legacy they still live with. On the other hand all of us from countries that weren’t allied to the Nazis can discuss the subject without any troubling ancestral guilt. We can count ourselves lucky in England that we were never occupied by the Nazis and so never found out how much latent hatred existed in our country for the Jews. But we did gratuitously bomb to dust the beautiful city of Dresden; the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Japan; it was the Vichy government and not the Nazis that introduced the race laws in France and the right wing French press who first stirred up anti-Semitic hatred; there are horrible stories about how Poles treated Jews and we all now know what a monster Stalin was. Arguably the worst thing the Italians did in the war is drop mustard gas on Eritrea. Yet no one’s ashamed of that. It’s barely mentioned. Italians are ashamed of adopting Hitler’s race laws and therefore assisting in the Holocaust. I’m not sure if anyone has ever done a comparative study of how these race laws were greeted by the populaces of various occupied countries. There’s a lot of evidence that in Italy they were met without any enthusiasm, without the bullying war whooping they received in other European countries. I know 85% of the Jews in Italy survived the war. And this was largely because of the help they received from the Italian populace, strangers who often barely had the means to support themselves and risked death by assisting Jews. A greater percentage survived in Italy than in France and a much larger percentage than in most of the other occupied countries. I can’t help feeling this should be a source of pride to Italians; that they should no longer have to squirm when the war is mentioned.

Piera Sonnino was arrested with her entire family – mother, father, three brothers and two sisters. They were all taken to Auschwitz. Her mother, father and eldest brother were all gassed immediately. Piera and her two sisters were transported to various work camps. Only Piera survived. Piera narrates her story with heartbreaking eloquence.images (10)

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The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt always gives me more information than I need. Two people will be talking and you get a description of all the furniture in the room, a description of what’s on TV, a description of what’s going on outside the window, sometimes a memory, sometimes a dream before the dialogue is resumed. Thus it can take pages for two characters to exchange four lines of dialogue. In this novel she also gives me too many characters.

As always with Tartt it’s crime that motors this novel. In particular the effect a mysterious murder has on the family of the dead boy. Harriet, the boy’s younger sister, is at times a riveting portrait of troubled female adolescence. Her home life in a forsaken claustrophobic deep southern town was often brilliantly evoked. There’s a compelling portrait of a black housekeeper – not the usual sentimentalised fairy godmother figure of Hollywood who adores her little white wards but a mother so pinched by poverty and exploited by the family that she has little real affection to spare.

Tartt is also a master at creating suspense. When she introduces into the narrative a born again preacher with crates of poisonous snakes the impulse is to get those pages turning quicker to reach the scene when the snakes are let loose, as we know they will be. But in this novel the denouements of the created suspense often fell a bit flat for me, sometimes straying into cartoonish melodrama. In fact the best parts of this novel were those depicting the inescapable claustrophobia and loneliness of life in an environment that has been forsaken. The high octane cinematic set pieces by comparison felt forced, superimposed. Ultimately there was a sense for me that the frame of this novel was too large for its canvas.download (5)

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But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

The memory of someone who survived a Nazi death camp. If I try to imagine what it must be like to carry such a memory through life my imagination fails me. We’re talking about someone who witnessed, suffered, even participated in unspeakable horrors every single day for months, sometimes years. A person who has experienced such a relentless barrage of horrors that some of them only return to memory in later life. As if there’s always another new recollection of horror waiting in the memory to be developed. A person haunted by the faces of the most cruel and hateful individuals imaginable. For example the SS officer who beat her unconscious for hugging her father. How could you ever stop hating that man? And how could life ever be normal again when you’re carrying in your body and mind all that hatred, all that horror? The answer is it can’t.

I can’t remember the last time I finished a book the same day I started it. It helps that this only runs to 100 pages but it’s written with such intimacy and honesty that you feel like the author is sharing her experiences with you personally and so it’s unthinkable that you should walk away and delay the rest of the story until tomorrow. Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested with her father while running away through the garden of the house where they lived during a raid. It’s often said the French police were just obeying orders but it takes zeal to catch someone who is running, especially when that someone is a fifteen year old child. The French do not come out of this book well. Especially when we learn Marceline still encountered lots of anti-semitism after the war. What perhaps distinguishes this book from other holocaust stories is the very moving and unfiltered account of the aftermath, the lifetime of emotional damage the camps did not only to the survivors but the families of survivors, even those who were “lucky” not to be arrested. The war was never over for them. The book is written in the form of a letter to her father who didn’t survive the camps. Rarely can you believe the blurb on the covers of books but in this case it’s all true – this book is “haunting and unputdownable”.download (4)

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