The Body Lies by Jo Baker – “When the trick is to make the whole thing up and still to tell the truth”

The Body Lies by [Baker, Jo]In this slow-building psychological thriller, a young creative writing lecturer discovers to her cost that she has become the obsessive focus of her most talented student Nicholas Palmer’s work, with the risk that he may move from “merely” recording his close observation of her, intrusive as that is, to actively manipulating her to fit his story, in his belief that, to be authentic, writing must be based on real experience.

It is also a study of how, even in these days of increased equality, men continue to dominate and exploit women in a number of ways, often without being aware of it. It was not until after I finished the book that I realised the writer who narrates this novel is never named, perhaps with the aim of making her a kind of microcosm of women’s lives in general.

At the outset, pregnant and walking home from work in London one dark evening, this young woman is mugged by a stranger, and makes her injuries worse by trying to resist. Three years later, she is still sufficiently traumatised to seize the opportunity to escape in the form of a lecturing post in a northern university, offered on the strength of her success in publishing a novel.

It is perhaps implausible that she should choose to rent an isolated country cottage a bus ride from the campus, or that she should so readily leave her husband behind to continue with his school post until the end of the year, expecting him to make regular week-end commutes to visit her. Of course, these factors are necessary to the plot.

With what some readers have described as irritating passivity, she takes on a mountainous workload, not appearing to have learnt the knack of “saying no”. The boss responsible for this is supposed to be her mentor, doubly ironical in view of the fact he seems perpetually on the brink of sexually harassing her.

I am not sure to what extent Jo Baker is trying to be facetious, but she neatly debunks some recent attempts to ensure equality and respect in academic life. The disruptive student Nicholas objects to the failure to issue a “trigger warning” before a fellow-student’s description of a crime scene. Yet his own writing is far darker and more sinister, bearing in mind that he claims only to write “what happened…the truth”. Also, isn’t it a contradiction in terms to apply censorship to a creative writing course?

Since finishing this I made a start on “A Country Road, a Tree” and realised that Jo Baker is a writer who seeks to avoid any kind of “typecasting”, but rather to create a different style and theme in each work. Comparisons between her books are therefore hard, but “The Body Lies” suggests she has developed in marshalling her material and honing her style. There may be the odd inconsistency in the sequence of events, the skilfully constructed sense of menace may peter out into the damp squib of a somewhat trite ending, and there may not be any very profound fresh insights into the female condition, but she has produced a well-written and neatly plotted page-turner, via a wry parody of the current state of academic life.

Galileo Watcher of the Skies – obscured somewhat by the fog of academia

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies by [Wootton, David]My fascination with Galileo, the brilliant thinker who was eventually gagged by a bigoted Inquisition, was fed by Michael White’s absorbing biography, “Galileo Antichrist”. Although very strong on childhood influences, personality, dealings with friends and family, his inventions and the tortuous path by which he fell foul of the priests pulling the strings behind an insecure and neurotic Pope, the biography seemed a little thin on the all-important scientific theories to do with motion and astronomy, and to have gone too far into trying to make ideas accessible by “dumbing down” the details.

In seeking out David Wootton’s much denser and more academic work, I got both more and less than I bargained for. Following an essentially chronological but more thematic approach, the author devotes lengthy passages to, for instance, experiments dealing with specific gravity, the physics of the motion of falling objects, or mathematical calculations to evaluate the respective merits of the theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy versus the more “heretical” Copernicus, and “fudged” Tycho Brahe. My lack of basic scientific knowledge made it hard for me to understand some of the author’s explanations and arguments, but I also suspected that, himself a historian, he may have strayed out of his own comfort zone. He certainly seems to make things overly complicated and long-winded.

Despite many examples of Galileo conducting practical experiments, Wootton is at pains to stress that these were mainly to demonstrate the truth of his real love, abstract theories, which is what led him to mathematics. Although he sometimes seemed too arrogantly confident, or perhaps simply busy, to put a theory to the test, he seems to me to have combined the two approaches, so that to suggest otherwise is hair-splitting. How could Galileo have done otherwise at a time when the words “experiment” and “scientist” were not used, and it was common for inquisitive thinkers to be polymaths.

Wootton concedes the limitations placed on historical research by the loss and corruption of data. So, we learn that much of the writing from Galileo’s most fertile period of invention was used by a butcher to wrap meat, or sold off as scrap paper. Similarly, his former student Viviani, who did so much to foster a positive legacy for Galileo, was not above fabricating appealing myths, such as the claim that he devised “the law of the pendulum” from observing the swinging of a lamp in Pisa Cathedral. However, in the absence of hard evidence, Wootton seems to me to indulge in too much academic conjecture as to, for example, the extent to which Galileo was a Catholic or even a Christian. For a man born in 1564, I see no contradiction in the fact that he, with unconscious male chauvinism, sent his two daughters to be nuns, that he paid lip service to Catholic belief when there was an Inquisition actively engaged in torturing and executing alleged heretics, but was dedicated to the pursuit of scientific enquiry which some Jesuits themselves pursued, yet could not deny what his reason told him to be true, unless his own life was at risk.

Not until two-thirds of the way through does Wootton state that his “primary purpose is to provide an intellectual biography of one of the world’s greatest scientists-to reconstruct the development of his ideas over time”. At the same time, he observes that, ”Amongst professional historians, biography is not an intellectually respectable genre”. He then makes what seems like a self-evident case for what he calls “a characterological approach to biography” to enable us to understand the study of scientific progress and cultural change, fitting themes for a historian, it would seem. This line of argument appears unnecessarily tortuous. However it explains why Wootton glosses over Galileo’s childhood and career, and why references to his family often seem awkwardly squeezed in, sometimes so condensed as to be hard to follow. I was troubled by the subjectivity of a chapter suggesting out of the blue that a bullying and devious mother may have been to blame for his reluctance to get married, his lack of communication as regards his emotional attachments and private beliefs, and also explain his aggressive, driven personality. In his summing up, Wootton writes, “the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and influence shaped Galileo’s internal life and constitute the cosmography of his self” but I could not find clear and convincing passages in the book to support this.

Similarly, I was surprised by the author’s sudden break from the build-up to Galileo’s trial in order to speculate on his frustration over a missed opportunity to consummate a relationship with some married woman, Alessandra Buonamici who had not clearly figured in the story before. I would have preferred more along the lines of the moving account of Galileo’s close relationship with his daughter Marie-Celeste, a nun, to provide a more fleshed out picture of the man.

Although the work is informative and gripping in places, it continually frustrated me by failing to provide the further insights and deeper analysis I was seeking. The above factors make it an unnecessarily hard and opaque slog at times.

“Elle par bonheur et toujours nue” par Guy Goffette – in painting when many small lies make a great truth

With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.

 

“Forever nude” by Guy Goffette

I read this in French, but presumably my comments still apply, although it is hard to imagine how the distinctive French “stream of consciousness” style could have been translated without something being lost.
With a quirky title perhaps including a pun on “bonheur” and “Bonnard”, these linked short stories form a poetical, fragmented fictionalised biography of the post-Impressionist painter who made a lifelong companion of Marthe, the young woman who captivated him in a chance encounter on a Pairs street, and provided the model for hundreds of paintings and sketches of her, often in the bath, dressing or relaxing on the bed, but “toujours nue” (“Forever Nude” in the English translation).

We learn that Marthe was really Marie, a poor farmer’s daughter who adopted a false name including an aristocratic “de” when she escaped to Paris to make her fortune. Bonnard did not discover this until he came to marry her more than thirty years later. He had his own share of secrets, in particular his liaison with a vivacious young blonde, Renée Monchaty, a marked contrast to the apparently more passive Marthe, increasingly shrewish and sickly as she aged. Renée’s suicide, perhaps sparked by his marriage, shocked Bonnard to the core. All this could have been worked into a dramatic novel, together with Bonnard’s legal problems after Marthe’s death, which led eventually to a change in the law guaranteeing an artist’s rights of full ownership to his or her entire body of work. However, Goffette is much more interested in writing about Bonnard’s art as a form of visual poetry, using colour in place of words, and in portraying the artist as a man who shunned “la gloire imbécile”, wishing only to paint what he pleased, when and how he wanted.

At first, I found the style overblown as in the opening chapter, where Goffette describes entering a gallery hot and flustered, only to be refreshed by encountering a painting of the toujours nue Marthe spraying herself with eau de Cologne. Written from a male viewpoint, the lengthy sensual, even erotic description of Marthe made me uneasy. It seemed voyeuristic and sexist, akin to a man assuming the right to impose himself on a pretty stranger who has caught his eye in the street.
However, gradually, the writer won me over, mainly in helping me to view Bonnard’s paintings with new eyes. This was only possible since I had access to a computer and was able to find images of most of the paintings he describes. It would actually be a better book with photographs of these works included.

Goffette showed me how the use of a black blind, cutting off my view “comme une guillotine”, made it fall “brutalement” to a sleeping Marthe and cat: in fact, it drew my attention to the view outside the window, another theme Bonnard loved to explore. I was also struck by the vivid colours in his last painting, an almond tree in blossom. On his death bed, with his nephew’s help, he still felt the urge to change a patch of ground from green to bright yellow.

Although the flowery style is not to my taste, there are a number of telling insights, and I have also discovered a large number of paintings by Bonnard which I like, and am now able to appreciate why he was and is so highly regarded as a painter, if not by Picasso.

“Les Sauvages” by Sabri Louatah – flawed ambition

If you have not read Tomes 1 and 2 of “Les Sauvages”, the following review contains spoilers. Also, Tomes 3 and 4 will make little sense if you have not yet read the first half of the series. This review refers to both Tomes 3 and 4, which I bought combined in one volume.

This is the second half of the ambitious saga revolving round the Nerrouches, a family of Algerian “Kabyle” origin who have settled in the declining industrial French town of St. Étienne. Their excitement over the possible election of the first French President of Algerian origin, the charismatic, westernised and liberal-minded Chaouch, is shattered when he is not only seriously injured in a gun attack, but the would-be assassin turns out to be Krim Nerrouche, a basically decent but disaffected, drug-addicted teenager who has gone off the rails since the death of his father. A further twist is that he seems to have been somehow manipulated and groomed into committing the atrocity by his sinister, mysterious cousin Nazir, possibly a fundamentalist saboteur bent on destroying the prospect of a moderate Arab leader who might actually succeed in bringing together the opposing factions in French society.

As the plot developed in Tome 2, one began to suspect that Nazir may himself have been the stooge of ultra right-wing French fanatics seeking to eliminate Chaouch for their own ends, and stir up a state of emergency in which they can claim victory through restoring order.

The very ordinary Nerrouche family are also linked to “movers and shakers” through the fact that Nazir’s brother Fouad, a handsome actor who has gained national recognition and popularity through a TV soap, is going out with Chaouch’s daughter Jasmine. The brothers are pitted against each other rather simplistically as “evil” and “good”, although Fouad’s halo slips somewhat under the stressful situation in Tomes 3 and 4.

All this forms the basis of a promising and topical drama. Sabri Louatah is at his most authentic and engaging when creating scenes of family life, showing the relationships between characters caught between Kabyle tradition and very different modern French culture. He also provides a strong sense of place, particularly for St. Étienne and in the scenes set in Algeria. Critics have noted the book’s cinematic nature and, with film rights quickly sold, perhaps it was always the author’s aim to write “a TV series in book form” like one of his favourite authors Balzac, who of course had no option but to create drama in the form of novels!

Louatah has also spoken of his passion for American soaps like “ER”, which may account for the way “Les Sauvages” is made up of short scenes, often focusing on the relationships between individuals in quite banal situations, with much of the high drama conducted off-set, explained or implied after the event. This results in a somewhat fragmented plot, hard to follow at times, ironically defusing the potential for tension which is often such a strong aspect of a good film. The approach also enables Louatah to gloss over the implausible aspects of Nazir’s and right-wing Montesquiou’s scheming . Too often, with the clear exception of Fouad and to a lesser extent Chaouch, who is given to pontificating, the characters seem two-dimensional and too ludicrous to be either convincing or to arouse much emotion – the cane-tapping Montesquiou being a case in point, and Nazir another. By and large, the “baddies” are pantomime figures.

Although covering only a few weeks, the plot loses momentum continually, so that I often found the books tedious. My flagging interest was sustained by the author’s use of a hook at the end of each Tome to keep me reading, although I feared Tome 4 would fizzle out in an inconclusive ending, leaving the way open for Tomes 5-10……. Despite seeming something of an anti-climax, with one of the villains supplying an information dump which is not entirely necessary, since one has in fact already deduced or been told the salient details, the ending ties up sufficient loose ends to reach a satisfactory stopping point.

Louatah claims to be more interested in “fiction” than in “literature”, but, bearing in mind that I think he has a serious interest in portraying the problems of modern French society, “Les Sauvages” would have been more powerful and effective if presented as a single shorter, tighter novel, with fewer characters, more fully developed. As it stands, it will need a lot of work to convert to an effective film script anyway.

Galileo Antichrist A Biography by Michael White – pure reason versus fear of thinking

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

Galileo was a man of remarkable intelligence with the misfortune to be born at a time of intense religious bigotry. Nowadays he would no doubt be a media celebrity explaining and debating his many theories, a multi-millionaire through the sale of his inventions and a Nobel prize-winner to boot.

Instead, in the understandable desire to avoid life imprisonment in his old age and possible burning as a heretic, he was browbeaten into a humiliating refutation of his support for the theory of Copernicus that the earth rotates in orbit round a static sun. His scientific approach, based on observable evidence and mathematical calculations foundered on the Catholic Church’s arbitrary insistence on the immutable truth of Aristotle’s flawed deductive reasoning that an all-powerful God kept the sun and planets orbiting round the earth. The supreme irony is that Aristotle was a “heathen” Greek. Another is that Galileo might have avoided punishment if he had been prepared to escape to a Protestant country like the Netherlands or England, even stayed in the more tolerant city of Venice rather than throw in his lot with the Medicis of Florence, who were less prepared to stand up to the Pope.

In this fascinating account, which makes science comprehensible even to a reader with very limited prior knowledge, the author has a tendency to try to capture our imagination with a good deal of speculation. The most significant example of this is his support for a recent theory that the heresy for which Galileo was convicted was in fact a cynical distraction from the issue which really concerned the somewhat unstable Pope Urban VIII and the fanatical Jesuits at the heart of the Vatican. This was that Galileo’s nascent views on the existence and nature of atoms threatened the belief at the heart of Catholic doctrine, which sets it apart from Protestantism: namely, that in Holy Communion, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, whilst maintaining their original physical appearance.
Although widely admired in his lifetime, Galileo was no saint. As a young man, he was known as “the Wrangler” for his argumentative approach. Never backward in asserting his intelligence and his contempt for those of lesser intellect who contradicted him, he accumulated a number of enemies who were eager to play a part in his ultimate downfall. To gain a teaching post at the University of Padua, he was prepared to give a lecture estimating the dimensions of Lucifer, a topic he must surely have regarded as somewhat ludicrous.

His curiosity ranged widely to include radical thinking on the behaviour of pendulums, the speed of falling objects, even the cause of the tides, where his thinking was in error. He showed entrepreneurial skills in commercialising his invention of the mathematical compass, a widely used tool for making calculations, driven by the need to support an extended family including his feckless brother with a growing brood of children. Despite being an excellent communicator, Galileo detested teaching: he out-manoeuvred a rival to corner the market in another invention with practical application, one of the first telescopes, and used it as a means of gaining a plum post in the Florence of the Medicis, one of the conditions being that he could give up teaching.

The telescope enabled him to view the moons orbiting Jupiter and the “crackled and wavy” surface of a moon which the Church insisted was a perfect, smooth sphere: Galileo’s critics argued that, if it was covered in mountains and craters, it must be contained in a translucent layer which would make it the “right” shape. It is not surprising that Galileo presented his arguments in debates in which foolish arguments were demolished, but when the “fall guy” voicing views held by the Pope was named Simplicio, based on the Italian word for simpleton, he was clearly sailing to close to the wind.

Galileo’s fateful trial is covered in some detail in translations of a tortuous procedure involving legalistic language and specious theological argument which despite being somewhat dry has the power to enrage the modern reader over the injustice of the situation. Yet with successors like Newton to build on his work, the genie could never be returned to the bottle.

“Profession du père” by Sorj Chalandon – in this case Larkin was right.

At the funeral of André Choulans there are only two mourners: his long-suffering wife and son Émile, an artist who sketches the crematorium with an odd lack of emotion as they await the coffin. Narrator Émile then proceeds gradually to account for this tragic situation, going back to his childhood, the France of De Gaulle and the stirrings of rebellion in Algeria in 1961. As an impressionable youngster, Émile craved his father’s approval, believing his web of lies and fantasies, but fearing the violence which he might at any moment unleash on his child and wife. Émile suffers the embarrassment each year of being asked to write his father’s profession on a school form. How can he say that he is a secret agent? This is the latest in a string of professions he is too young to question: pastor, pilot, parachutist, judo expert and singer to name a few.

It soon becomes apparent that the bullying, manipulative André is paranoid but somehow manages to avoid exposure and medical treatment by keeping his little family unit in an isolated bubble. By turns amusing, heartrending, farcical, this is an intriguing psychological study. Émile’s mother is not simply a wife battered into submission, the victim of “coercive control”, but also seems to connive in the situation to avoid trouble. “You know what your father’s like” is her mantra, and years later she asks Émile: “Was your childhood really so awful?” So she occupies herself in making vegetable stews, abdicating responsibility for protecting her son if not herself.

Similarly, as he grows older, accustomed to André’s continual broken promises, to what extent does Émile really believe that his father is serious in involving him in a plot to assassinate De Gaulle, allegedly the former colleague who has ignored his advice and broken his promise to the French colonists in Algeria? Is the idea that another of his father’s friends is a high-ranking CIA agent called Ted, who is his god father too appealing an idea to debunk – even when Ted feels he should be punished for his poor grades?

Another intriguing aspect is the way Émile’s behaviour begins to mirror that of his father. Just as André wants his son to be an admiring acolyte to be subjected to rigorous military drills, a willing stooge prepared to risk daft escapades like delivering death threats, Émile seeks out a friend to share these exploits with, one who can be controlled and dominated as he is. Unfortunately, he chooses a “Pied Noir” boy who really does have a grievance against De Gaulle. To avoid crazed beatings and confinement to “the correction unit” of his parent’s wardrobe, Émile shows a convoluted ingenuity equal to his father’s when it comes to fabricating excuses.

It was hard at times to understand why Émile does not simply hate his father. Instead there seems at times to be, if not exactly love, that mysterious family bond, consisting in part of shared experience, conditioning and duty.

This novel is in fact quite autobiographical, in that Sorj Chalandon’s father was also a violent fantasist. The author has spoken of the “poison” in his system arising from the abuse he suffered, and the catharsis obtained from sharing his experiences by writing about them. He also suggests that the fantasy world was often exciting and enjoyable at the time, but for the violence.

I thought the novel lost dramatic momentum when it reached the stage of Émile’s adult life. However the tale would be incomplete without an account of how Émile eventually establishes his own life as an artist with the talent his parents failed to recognise and nourish. The contrast between his distorted childhood and the love he gives his own son is moving.

Chalandon is a brilliant novelist who deserves to be better known abroad.