Henry Green, Loving (1945)

Writing is all just words, isn’t it? After all, differences in language notwithstanding, each writer uses essentially the same building blocks. Well, there’s nothing like reading a book where an author writes about a relatively unremarkable situation in an apparently ordinary way – yet still produces something utterly distinctive – to demonstrate that there’s so much more at play than only words. Henry Green’s Loving concerns the lives of the servants and masters of an Irish country house during World War Two, is told largely through dialogue – on the surface, nothing too unusual; but the way Green approaches his material turns it into something more.

Reading the dialogue of Green’s characters is rather like eavesdropping on them: sometimes we join them ‘in the middle’ of a discussion, and there’s often a sense of details remaining unsaid, as of course happens in real conversation. Come to that, there’s a naturalistic feel in general to the structures and rhythms of Green’s dialogue; that, and other techniques such as shifting between separate conversations without a scene-break, encourage a slow, concentrated approach to reading, which suits a book that reveals its details gradually and obliquely.

What emerges within the pages of Loving is a portrait ofKinaltyCastle as a building of contested space: the different servants have their own areas, and for one to enter another’s domain has political meaning. Charley Raunce, the head footman, seizes the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy when the old butler dies; but his wish for one of the maids (rather than his own pantry boy) to bring his tea in the morning becomes a bone of contention because of the shift in power it would represent. Even the manner in which one addresses another is important for the relationship it indicates; Agatha Burch, the head housemaid, tells Raunce: ‘you’ll never get a Mr out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.’

Loving begins with ‘Once upon a day…’ and ends with ‘…happily ever after’, though it’s clear enough that conventional fairytale happiness will not be easy for the characters to achieve. Yet there is something of the fantastical edifice about Kinalty: its inhabitants are so isolated from the war and the outside that the castle effectively becomes a threshold between worlds; the vivid imagery Green often uses to describe Kinalty only adds to the atmosphere of intrigue.

Then, as the novel’s title suggests, there is love. From the complex dance of attraction between Raunce and the maid Edith, to Violet Tennant’s (daughter-in-law of the household) dealing with the absence of her soldier husband Jack – and beyond – love manifests itself in various ways as part of the novel’s web. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel quite like Loving before, and would certainly be intrigued to read Green again.

Thanks to Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog for hosting Henry Green Week, which was what led me to read this book.

Sunday Salon: Thirty Years of Adrian Mole

Thirty years ago this month, Sue Townsend published The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, which makes the series a little younger than me, though Mole himself is a good dozen years older. Perhaps the latter is why I never got around to reading The Secret Diary as a teenager myself; I was in my mid-twenties when I finally did – but I probably got more out of the book than I would have if I’d read it a few years earlier, and certainly enjoyed it enough to read the other books in the series (two further volumes have been published since) over the subsequent months.

Penguin have reissued all eight Adrian Mole books in new editions to mark the anniversary, and it has been interesting to revisit some of them. Certainly The Secret Diary remains a beautifully-crafted comic gem, and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (which begins the day after the first novel ends), is much the same. Through the pages of his diary, we meet Adrian Mole: convinced he is an intellectual, obsessed over the spot on his chin, with a crush on the lovely Pandora Braithwaite; yet unaware of how bad his poetry is, and oblivious to the signs of his parents’ marital turmoil.

What I really appreciate on this re-reading is just how well-constructed Townsend’s humour is, both in terms of its one-liners (‘I am reading The Mill on the Floss, by a bloke called George Eliot’), and the broader structural jokes which help establish Adrian’s character: intelligent (albeit perhaps not as much as he thinks he is, or would like to be), but not self-aware, nor adept at picking up the emotional cues of others. Yet, although we are often laughing at Adrian’s misfortune, we still root for him – there is a sense that ultimately he means well, and deserves more than he gets.

In some ways, the first two Mole novels stand apart from the others, because they are a little lighter in tone, and focus on Adrian as a teenager. Subsequent volumes revisit Mole’s life as an adult: in The Wilderness Years (1993), he is twenty-four, and less endearing because some of the traits that could be explained away as teenage foibles – his pedantry, pomposity, and self-obsession – are harder to take in a grown man; when Adrian is dwelling on his lack of success and action with the opposite sex, for example, it’s not so easy to be sympathetic, as one can see quite clearly why his personality and behaviour may be unattractive (there is a woman who likes him, but naturally Mole doesn’t take her hints). Yet Townsend’s humour remains, and one is back on Adrian’s side by novel’s (rather uplifting) end.

In 2009’s The Prostrate Years, Adrian Mole is thirty-nine; living with his wife and young daughter, in a converted pigsty next door to his parents – though his marriage is under strain, and the future of the second-hand bookshop where Adrian works is uncertain. His key character traits are the same as ever, but there’s a bitter sting in that, now, Adrian is trying his best to ignore the signs of prostate cancer. He’s a sympathetic character once again, because of the sense that he is trying to hold on to himself and his life in the face of all that’s happening; the single word ‘treatment’ in many entries gains its force from how much is obviously being left unsaid by this character who has always been so open. The dramatic irony of Mole’s asides carries more bite here than in the earliest books (‘It is good to know that whatever travails we may suffer in life, Woolworths will always be there’), and it serves as a reminder that none of us knows what may be around the corner.

Why do the Adrian Mole books remain so fresh after all these years? Partly because they’re very funny, of course; but I also wonder if Sue Townsend didn’t tap into something fundamental – maybe there’s something of Mole in all of us. Leaving aside his pedantry, for me Adrian represents ultimately represents thwarted ambition: wanting to be or achieve more, but not knowing how to do so. And Adrian is all the more frustrated because there are people in his life who have done what they wanted; it’s surely no coincidence that the lifelong object of Mole’s infatuation – Oxford-educated MP Pandora – is the character who has achieved her ambitions more than any other.

I want to finish with a quotation from The Prostrate Years which, to me, sums up the character of Adrian Mole. His marriage has broken down, and he’s reflecting on the absence of his daughter, Gracie:

I miss the physical presence of that indomitable little girl, trying to make her mark on the world. The feeling of those small strong arms around my neck. I miss the made-up songs she used to sing in the bath, I miss the certainty of her world. She knows nothing of nuclear proliferation or the misery that comes from loving somebody too much.

The comment on nuclear proliferation illustrates Mole’s tendency to dwell on issues at less-than-appropriate times; it might puncture the mood of the rest, but does not destroy that mood, because Adrian means everything sincerely. Those last few words – ‘loving somebody too much’ – are Adrian Mole all over; they show that, beneath the pretension and everything else, there’s a real human heart. That’s why Mole is such a great and enduring character.

Review Response Bingo Redux

In light of various… interesting review comment threads that I’ve seen lately (this one, for instance), I thought the time right to revisit and extend a post from last year. These are all responses (or variations thereon) that I’ve seen to negative reviews, and they’re all ways of trying to dismiss criticism rather than actually having to engage with it. Can you score a full house?

It’s just your opinion. You are jealous of the author. What are your qualifications? You are over-qualified to review this book. You don’t understand the genre.
You don’t appreciate how much time and effort the author put in. You make unreasonable demands of the book. How many novels have you written? I don’t care about good writing; I just want to be entertained. You want to appear smarter than you are.
You don’t know good books. You have a vendetta. BONUS SQUARE: Reviewer addressed as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ You are just trying to prove that you are cleverer than the author. You are being deliberately contrarian to satisfy your ego.
You should be grateful to the author for having written the book. You really need to have read the other books in the series. But what about all these positive comments? If you had read the book properly, you would see that… You shouldn’t be critical.
The minor factual inaccuracies/typos in your review invalidate your argument. You are overthinking. The book is too clever for you. Arguments from “evidence” are pointless. Who reviews the reviewers?

Simon Lelic, The Child Who (2012)

Simon Lelic is developing a track record as a novelist who approaches his subject matter from interesting angles and explores thorny moral issues, notably in his 2010 debut Rupture, a multi-viewpoint examination of what drove a teacher to open fire in a school assembly. Lelic turned the conspiracy thriller inside-out in last year’s The Facility; now he has returned to contemporary crime with The Child Who. This new novel concerns the case of a twelve-year-old boy who killed a girl at his school; though Lelic’s main focus is neither victim nor murderer, but the boy’s lawyer.

Leo Curtice is the solicitor who takes the call and ends up representing Daniel Blake, in what becomesExeter’s most attention-grabbing trial in years. From the beginning, Lelic makes clear what a double-edged sword this assignment is for Leo: on the one hand, such a high-profile case is an opportunity that comes around very rarely; on the other, the job is repugnant, because there is no doubt of the boy’s guilt. Leo isn’t entirely comfortable with viewing the case as an ‘opportunity’, and struggles to justify his involvement to himself and others; his purpose seems nebulous even when he discusses it with Daniel Blake, and reveals that it’s not so much a matter of defending the boy as presenting his culpability in the least worst light.

The Child Who builds into a study of a man under emotional pressure from all sides (we learn relatively early on that Leo’s involvement in the case rips his family apart).

Leo deals with negative reactions by focusing in on his work, and there’s a strong sense that he is using the formal words of his profession as a shield; when Leo tries to explain to his daughter Ellie why he’s representing Blake, all his talk of habeus corpus does not satisfy her when she just wants to know why it’s he in particular who has the case. And Leo is still falling into the same pattern of behaviour when his wife Megan is about to leave him:

‘I need a break. From the house as much as anything. And it’s clear you need to focus. If you really feel you need to do this, it would be better, for your sake, if you did it without any more . . . distractions.’

Leo nodded – not conceding the point, just bobbing past it. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I was looking at some recent cases. At the coverage in the press once things actually got underway. And what happens is, when a trial begins, there’s actually less attention in a way because of all the restric . . .’

Leo stopped himself. From the look on Megan’s face, the coverage was not the point.

‘I’ll be in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Let me know when you’re ready.’

For all that Leo acts in this way, he finds it no easier to deal with being on the receiving end of similar behaviour; he is himself frustrated by the rhetorical fencing of Ellie’s headteacher. This is one of the most interesting things Lelic does in The Child Who: to gradually place Leo in the same position as the parents of Felicity Forbes (the girl killed by Blake), and examine his response. Leo begins to receive threatening notes, then Ellie disappears; and his feelings towards the anonymous culprit are no less hostile than others’ have been towards Daniel Blake.

There are several striking scenes in which Lelic presents emotionally-charged events from a distance, because of Leo’s perspective. There’s a violent protest when Daniel is driven to court for the first time, but we experience it all from inside his police van, where it becomes particularly abstract and menacing for Leo. Felicity Forbes’s funeral is a national event, but, seen on television (and as the only glimpse we get of Felicity’s family), it could as well be happening in a different reality. In keeping with the idea of Leo’s personal life and work mirroring each other, it might be considered that eventually he becomes as distanced from his family as he was from external views of the case. In its complex portrait of the protagonist and his situation, The Child Who might just be Lelic’s most effective novel yet.

Elsewhere
Scotsman interview with Simon Lelic
Some other reviews of The Child Who: Reader Dad; Julie Martis for Bookgeeks; Mean Streets.

Book notes: Harris, Dafydd, Clare

Shelley Harris, Jubilee (2011)

Satish Patel was a boy at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the son of an immigrant Ugandan family in an otherwise all-white Buckinghamshire village; he was a key figure in a photograph taken of the village’s Jubilee celebrations, an image which became iconic. Thirty years on, Satish is a successful cardiologist with a habit of helping himself to diazepam from the medicine cabinet; he receives a call from an old friend, telling him of plans to stage a reconstruction of the photo – but Satish is reluctant to take part.

Shelley Harris’s debut novel unpicks its central situation carefully, revealing the tensions beneath the apparent harmony shown in the photograph, and the secrets hidden by Satish and his friends and neighbours. If the ending feels to jump the gap of years a little too quickly in terms of how it deals with the issues between characters, the journey up to that point is engaging – with the writing of Satish’s addiction particularly sharp – and the book as a whole represents a promising start to Harris’s career as a novelist.

Fflur Dafydd, The White Trail (2011)

Time for a look at the latest in Seren’s series of books reworking tales from the Mabinogion. Fflur Dafydd’s contribution is based on the myth of ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’; but, rather than a straightforward modern retelling, the author sends her story off in a different direction grown out of filling in gaps in the beginning of the original tale. Dafydd’s protagonist is Cilydd, who’s searching for his missing pregnant wife when he finds evidence that she is dead and the baby has been stolen. Cilydd becomes involved with a missing persons charity, and is settling into a new relationship, when his son Culhwch reappears, with the story of his strange upbringing, and the desire to rescue a beautiful girl named Olwen from the father who keeps her prisoner.

The White Trail examines what drives Cilydd to go on as he does, how far it’s  genuine concern and compassion, and how far the need to fill holes in his life. The book also explores the rights and wrongs of looking for people who may not want to be found, and this is where Dafydd uses the fantastic to great effect. The opening section on Cilydd’s life is firmly grounded in the reality of contemporary Wales, but the novel slides towards fantasy when Culhwch appears on the scene; this is imagined so convincingly that it’s a quite a jolt to be pulled back into quotidian reality at the end – and that jolt represents the way that characters’ actions and motivations which seemed reasonable to us at the time suddenly appear less so when the circumstances change. It’s a wonderful moment in a fine piece of work.

Horatio Clare, The Prince’s Pen (2011)

The Mabinogion story of ‘Lludd and Llevelys’ forms the inspiration for Horatio Clare’s novel, and his reinterpretation is less oblique than Dafydd’s: the myth tells of three ‘plagues’ which befall Britain (an invasion by a seemingly omniscient people; the maddening screams of two dragons; and the disappearantce of food from the king’s larders); Clare translates these threats into the context of a near future where only remnants of England lie above sea-level, and Wales is one of the last outposts of the free world. The volume we hold is the story of the Welsh bandit kings Ludo and Levello and their battle against the Invaders, as told by Clip, trusted associate (and amanuensis) of the illiterate Ludo.

Perhaps more so than with Dafydd’s story, The Prince’s Pen gains effect from comparison with the source tale; Clare’s updating of the ‘plagues’ is smart and speaks firmly to contemporary concerns. The book faltered a little for me as a narrative at the beginning, in that the battle scenes didn’t feel to have as strong an anchoring in reality as they might. But The Prince’s Pen works well as a portrait of the complexities faced by rulers trying to stick to their principles in time of war.

Anatomy of a library visit

One of my bookish resolutions this year is to diversify my reading, and there can be few better ways of doing that than going into a library and browsing the shelves. That’s just what I did today, and I thought I’d share the process by which I decided what to borrow. I resolved to limit myself to five titles; but, well, that didn’t quite work out.

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My first thoughts were: Stu is hosting Henry Green Week over at Winstonsdad’s Blog later this month; I’d not heard of Green before, but it would be fun to join in. There are only two Henry Green books on the shelves; I choose the one which my brief research from last night suggests is particularly well-regarded.

Book 1: Loving by Henry Green

I browse the G section further. There’s a book by Niven Govinden, whom I’ve meant to read for a while, but I’m after something older today. Elizabeth Gaskell, perhaps? Not this time. I decide that I want to read something by Iris Murdoch. There are quite a few, but it no difference from my perspective which I choose; I go for one whose title (pardon the pun) rings a bell.

Book 2: The Bell by Iris Murdoch

(Only later does it occur to me that I may have been thinking of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.) Passing the L section, a silver-spined Penguin Modern Classic catches my eye – The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. It sounds interesting and different, but I decide to put it back on the shelf for now. Instead, I go in search of something specific: I have a review copy of a book called Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, which is about a graduate who uses Stevenson’s novel as a guide to life; I thought it might be a good idea to read the original first, and am lucky enough to find a copy on the shelf opposite where it should be.

Book 3: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I leave the S section, and move on to T; I keep meaning to read Anne Tyler – maybe next time. I look at the last of the fiction shelves and spot a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We; an influence on Nineteen Eighty-Four, says the back cover. I’ve recently read Orwell’s novel, but I don’t feel like trying Zamyatin’s so soon after. How about something by Émile Zola? Not today. Another idea: Kim at Reading Matters is hosting an Australian Literature Month in January, and I don’t think I have any Australian books on the TBR, so why not borrow one now? At this point, my knowledge of Australian authors conveniently escapes me; I read a David Malouf novel a couple of years ago, but let’s see if I can think of someone else… ah, Peter Carey – I’ve never read him. There are four Carey books on the shelves, and I’d prefer one that’s set in Australia, so it’ll be this:

Book 4: My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

One slot left, and I think it should be a classic – something by one of the Brontës, perhaps. Wuthering Heights? Another time. None of the books I can see by Charlotte seem good introductory ones, and that’s all there is… until I spy a novel on the shelf below that appears to fit the bill nicely.

Book 5: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

And those are my five books.

Except… I saw one book earlier which I know I’ll forget if I don’t borrow it now, so I go back and get it.

Book 6: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Right, that’s definitely it for the library. But then I find a used-book stall in town, and one book there catches my eye. It’s far my usual reading fare, but that’s the whole point of this exercise – and it’s only 50p, and it’ll contribute to the Mixing It Up Challenge, so why not?

Book 7: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

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So there are a few more books which will be sprinkled into my reading over the next few weeks.

(This post is also a contribution this week’s Library Loot.)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

I always find it interesting to read iconic books and discover what they’re really like, and here’s perhaps one of the most iconic of all: one of the key works of dystopian literature, whose author’s name entered the language as a byword for oppression, largely as a result of this particular book… But, read from the vantage point of the present day, Nineteen Eighty-Four is in some ways unassuming, even unsatisfactory, as a novel: its characterisation is rather broad; its plot relatively simple; its portrayal of the ‘proles’ seems cartoonish when compared to the pin-sharp precision with which Orwell depicts the higher echelons of society; and the main female character, Julia, has relatively little role beyond being an adjunct of the protagonist, Winston Smith.

And yet.

Yet Nineteen Eighty-Fourstill has power, even for a new reader who knows its basics, and partly because of the same clarity of execution which gives rise to the issues I just noted. For me, the overriding atmosphere of the novel is one of great bleakness. The ruling Party may respond with violence against any opposition to its anthology; but it’s the grim drabness of everyday life, and its acceptance by the majority of the population, that leaves the greatest impression. As Winston Smith reflects:

In any time that he could accurately remember, there had never been quite enough to eat, one had never had socks or underclothes that were not full of holes, furniture had always been battered and rickety, rooms underheated, tube trains crowded, houses falling to pieces, bread dark-coloured, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient – nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin. (pp. 62-3)

It’s not the operations of Orwell’s totalitarian society that I find most disturbing, but the thought processes which the Party embodies and has engendered. The whole concept of Newspeak – a language with restricted vocabulary, deliberately designed to limit the range of possible expression, and therefore of ideas – is abhorrent to me, especially as someone who loves language. The Party are oppressive rulers after power for its own sake, and literally beyond reason – when one senior figure starts spouting official pseudo-science, there is no way of knowing whether he genuinely believes it, or whether he knows that it’s just what the Party deems expedient to say; and, as the novel underlines, that doesn’t matter, because what the Party says is as good as true in the society it has created.

Nineteen Eighty-Four highlights the importance of diverse thought and opinion; that is what the Party cannot tolerate, what might cause their downfall if they allowed it to spread. We also see the dangers of not engaging – Julia may oppose the Party, but her approach is no basis for effective opposition, because she’s not interested in building the future or talking about politics. It’s the portrait of a world where options have been closed off and forgotten about that makes Orwell’s work so chilling, even now; and long may that continue to be so.