The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen

For me this novel is overloaded with mystification. Bowen is trying too hard to charge every line of dialogue, every piece of descriptive writing with psychological insight. When it works it’s brilliant but too often here it doesn’t and she seems guilty of the charge most often levelled at her – that she is more sensibility than substance. There’s far too much elaborately described minutiae in this book.

The Little Girls has a terrific premise. Three elderly women meet up again to dig up the coffer containing secret cherished objects they buried as children. The novel is divided in three parts – the middle section shows us the three women as the children they once were.

The characters, like the narrator, skirt around the many mysteries raised, few of which don’t remain hidden from us. Her experiments with dialogue are at their most stylised here. Apparently throwaway lines, often with inverted sentence structures, are wired with depth charges and explode relentlessly. Here it’s a technique that seems like a hit and miss mannerism; in the subsequent Eva Trout it acquires a masterful artistry – the ostensibly realistic and throwaway dialogue containing within its linguistic mannerisms, contortions and inversions deep psychological truths about the private soul of the speaker. It’s dialogue as oracle but expressed in simple everyday language. In The Little Girls however it felt like Bowen is forcing meaning on everything as if we’re in the midst of a poem, not a novel.

Along with her first two books, The Hotel and Friends and Relations, my least favourite Bowen (10)


Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Objectively this is probably a four star book but I’m going the full hog because of how much relentless pleasure it gave me, not least of all because of its laugh-out-loud humour and original and wholly compelling cast of characters. It took Elizabeth Bowen a long time, until her last two books, to try her hand at a full blown comic novel and boy does she do it well. (The inept introduction makes the extraordinary claim that in this novel Bowen abandons comedy.)

Eva Trout, an orphaned heiress, cannot find her feet in the world. She’s a familiar Bowen heroine, the bluster of her unschooled innocence creating havoc wherever she goes. Few writers do children better than Bowen and this is again the case here. She gets that wondrous x-ray tilt children put on things. Iseult, her former teacher, is a fabulous portrait of the disillusioned clever woman who has married beneath herself and Constantine, her lawful guardian, is one of Bowen’s best ever creations.

It’s purposely overwritten (see the quote below about a day in Cambridge) but in a mischievous and consistently mannered way which wages its own private war on cliché. Bowen, you can tell, hates clichés and often mocks them by turning them on their head or inserting them into a sentence or passage which is grammatically bizarre. “But absence,” he wheedled, “makes the heart grow fonder. It’s completely unheard of that it should fail to.” There’s barely a sentence in this novel anyone else could have written – with, maybe, the exception of late Henry James who she pays homage to with her contorted sentence structures. Fitting that the leading male is called Henry.

On a social level the novel can be read as a depiction of England’s uneasy transition from the pastoral into modernity– there’s the village vicarage which becomes a kind of foundation stone for Eva and contains in atmosphere the inexpensive reassurances of the 19th century; this is counterpointed by the sexually predatory charlatan Constantine (Eva’s dead father’s lover) in his high rise office who, though super rich, has no job title. Eva herself finds sanctuary in the vicarage until the inevitable expulsion. She then fills her new home with all the inventions of modernity. The old world priest is replaced by a succession of faith healers, art therapists and new age ministers. When these fail her she is drawn back to the past which takes the form of a visit to the National Portrait Gallery where she goes from the Tudors to the Stuarts through to the Victorians in an effort to find out how much identity can be found in a face. Not much, she concludes, still trying to find her own face.

Part of my love for this book was instigated by my familiarity with its settings – fantastic evocations of Paris and especially London which enabled me to see the familiar anew; and the description of Chicago where she goes to buy a child on the black market reminded me of my own trip there as a child when I felt the full force of its aggressive insistence on the future, its alienating and dwarfing rejection of every yesterday.

The novel also pays lip service to psychoanalytic ideas of its time, which act as a kind of hidden floorplan. The child Eva buys is a deaf mute which offers Bowen exuberant opportunity to explore the world of alternative healing. Every relationship here is subjected to a psychological autopsy. We seem decades further up the line from Virginia Woolf when in fact only twenty years have transpired. Bowen is confronting modernity with a razor sharp eye for satiric detail, but without the wistful sentimentalised nostalgia of Brideshead Revisited, and a hair-triggered sensibility alert to both the beauty and absurdity of the worlds in which Eva finds herself.  One of the things that makes this so fascinating is that it’s the work of a writer precipitated out of her own era into a new one – the 1960s. She’s as tenderly affectionate as she is scathingly mocking and it was this subtle and difficult tightrope act that helped make this novel so loveable, that and its high tide imaginative vitality, awesomely impressive for a seventy year old woman.



Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf

Not as good as I remembered it. For the most part interesting rather than inspired. But then Virginia Woolf never intended this collection of memoirs to form a book. That said, how I’d love it if a member of my family had written such a detailed memoir of another era.

What’s striking is how one individual circles all her recollections like a menacing fin. George Duckworth, her considerably older stepbrother, once made her stand on a chair and put his hands all over her young body. It would appear he continued to take liberties with her body as she grew older. He’s portrayed as the epitome of everything Woolf was to fight against in her life. A stickler for tradition, convention, appearances. A social climber and a dullard. More than once she was to attribute her breakdowns to what she suffered at his hands. The rage she felt though seems dormant, drugged, buried beneath the determination of the artist in her to always write beautiful or humorous sentences.

Probably the most fascinating facet of this book is reading first-hand accounts of scenes that were deployed and transmuted in her novels, primarily To the Lighthouse. It becomes still more clear how deeply rooted this novel is in her own childhood and how it dramatises her expulsion from this childhood. woolf-sad415x575


Forest dark by Nicole Krauss

I’ve read all three of Nicole Krauss’ previous novels and one thing they all have in common is the writer is well concealed behind all the artistry. In this new novel of hers there’s a character called Nicole speaking in the first person with an intelligence at the height of its powers. So the first exciting thing about this was the feeling of intimacy with which Krauss seems to speak her mind.

There are two narratives here. The writer Nicole is struggling to write a new novel and is about to split with her husband; the parallel narrative, also about a lost character who runs away to Israel, is perhaps the story the writer is struggling to bring into existence, though they never once obviously connect at any point. Both characters are undergoing break downs; both struggling with the form their lives have taken. Both trying to reconnect with a purer self within. Form itself is one of the themes of this novel. As is the idea of the double lives we all live. In this sense the Nicole of the narrative is both Nicole Krauss and not Nicole Krauss. Kafka too will get to lead a double life in this novel. Krauss in this book focuses on the unlived double life we all sense we’ve forgone for one reason or another.

Both Epstein and Nicole meet mysterious strangers who lead them into what might almost be called alternate realities. Nicole is told an extraordinary story about Kafka. That he staged his death in 1924 and lived out a kind of afterlife in Israel. Eventually she will be in possession of a suitcase of his lost papers. Epstein is told he is a descendent of King David. Both narratives build to fabulous denouements. I especially enjoyed Nicole’s epiphany. There were shades of Fellini’s brilliant 8 ½ in the Nicole narrative, the quest to find a new form of inspiration in the annals of memory. And there was some fabulous absurd humour in the Epstein narrative. It’s not difficult to follow the various threads of this novel; but it’s hard to work out what Krauss intended to convey as a whole. The big picture, how the two narratives related to each other, left me scratching my head. Both narratives could probably stand alone as novellas without losing much, if any, significance. I didn’t feel one was feeding the other with vitality or a reciprocal deeper understanding. At times it felt like she was sloughing all the artifice involved in writing a novel, opening a window directly onto the mind’s struggle to compose narrative – perhaps exemplified by the sense that the coalescing of two disparate narratives felt forced and flimsy. It’s perhaps an act of mischief on Krauss’ part that she structures the novel as if in subordination to convention’s laws of order which both Nicole and Epstein are eager to escape from but that this structure seems more like a smoking mirror than robust intricate engineering.

In a nutshell, it starts really well, shows some signs of huff and puff towards the middle and winds up brilliantly. It feels like a laboured novel rather than an inspired one. Perhaps cathartic in that she is breaking with her reputation, moving onto new ground, which I found exciting. Don’t expect another History of Love. There’s no whimsy, no attempt to charm the pants off the reader in this novel. It still fascinates me who most influenced who in her marriage with Jonathan Safran Foer – the similarity in tone and subject of History of Love and Extremely Loud is too uncanny to be coincidence. I have a hunch he influenced her more except she bettered him at his own game (which must have been galling!) Personally I’ve always found more depth in Nicole’s books. And this was the case again in their post-divorce books. Forest Dark for me is more poetic and honest and courageous than Here I Am.

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Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

This would make my short list for the most overwritten novel I’ve ever read. It’s Michael Chabon so of course there are some fabulous lines. But at times I felt like I was reading Thomas Pynchon or Nabokov fan fiction. Several times I was on the point of abandoning it but annoyingly Chabon would suddenly bring all his considerable talents as a storyteller to the table and produce a great chapter. Problem was, that was almost always followed by another five rambling overwritten ones.

It reminded me in ways of Jonathon Safran Foer’s last book, which is essentially a small-canvassed novel about the breakup of a marriage but given monumental import by inventing an apocalyptic war in Israel as a backdrop. This too is essentially about the break-up of a marriage and this too reinvents history to up the stakes. Such vast world changing premises, often used in science fiction, are an effective device for heightening expectation, promising untold revelations but there usually arrives a moment when you realise what you’re reading is just another story about a man and a woman who can’t get on any more. Maybe though that’s clever as all good storytelling is essentially about raising expectation. It didn’t though seem especially clever here because my expectations were quickly punctured by all the grandiose overwriting.

A tactic he uses is to often describe the insignificant in terms of something infinitely more significant through high voltage overwrought similes, so the everyday has a kind of bogus epic sweep to it. Again maybe this is clever as the novel has at its heart on the one hand an existence of thrift and on the other a belief in transfiguration symbolised by a Messiah character. But for me it came across as someone indulging in the kind of fun that gets out of hand.

It’s also about a murder and I’m guessing pastiches or high fives famous noir writers like Chandler and Hammett.

There’s lots of talk of the great American novel but I wonder if, behind the scenes, there isn’t also a kind of competition to write the great Jewish novel. Interestingly, Nicole Krauss in her new novel alludes indirectly to the existence of such pressures. I suspect you’re much more likely to enjoy Chabon’s novel if you’re Jewish because if you’re not it’s often like eavesdropping on family jokes as an outsider. For me it had an elitist strain running through it which I didn’t like. Writers surely should be intent on breaking down barriers, not reinforcing them, no matter how playfully.



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)


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)