Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes – “If it’s crude, it must be good!”

 

 

This is my review of  Vernon Subutex Tome or Volume 1  by Virginie Despentes – read in French, but also available translated into English.

Vernon’s odd surname Subutex is also a medication used for treatment of drug addiction, which indicates the tone of this novel. The former manager of a popular Parisian record store in the heyday of punk, forty-something Vernon has fallen on hard times in the face of competition from digital streaming. On hearing of the suicide of singer Alex Bleach, who has paid his rent for the last couple of years, Vernon’s first reaction is to wonder how he will manage when the bailiffs arrive. His only solution is to sponge off a succession of former friends and lovers, sinking rapidly into life on the street. Self-centred and weak-willed, he retains much of his old charm and power of attraction, appears quite perceptive and resourceful when sober and drug-free, but seems to be going through a kind of mid-life crisis. What may save him in the end is that news has spread of his possession of recorded monologues produced by Alex Bleach, which have gained extra commercial value from his recent death.

The first in a trilogy, this book has won many awards in France, been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and made into a television series. It has been praised in glowing terms by critics as a “formidable” portrayal of “contemporary French society”. I cannot agree, since it seems to be mired in a narrow, sordid urban world of foul-mouthed promiscuity, cocaine-addiction, drunkenness, materialism, fascism and violence. A strong thread of prostitution and topical transgender sex runs through it, hardly surprising in view of the author’s previous life as a sex-worker and the themes of her early writing triggered by the experience of rape.

The flimsy plot serves as a vehicle for a series of disjointed portraits of mainly dysfunctional or unorthodox individuals, some of whom seem to play only a passing role, although they may reappear in Parts 2 or 3. Perhaps because the end was in sight, I found some of the later characters more authentic and well-drawn, even to the extent of evoking sympathy: Patrice, the wife-beater who can neither control his emotions nor express true remorse for the violence which has driven away the woman and two children he loves; Sophie, who has been driven a little mad by the death through an overdose of her elder son, a long-term addict for reasons she cannot comprehend.

There is a good deal of stereotyping and cliché in this novel, and I often found the female characters less fully developed and convincing, not counting their ludicrous names (La Hyène, Lydia Bazooka, Vodka Satana, and so on). I found it hard to credit that ex-porn star Deborah would decide, it would seem on a whim, to transition into Daniel, with so little effort or distress, and then be so successful in “mixing with the boys” and having heterosexual girlfriends.

I struggled through this for my French book group, by turns depressed, irritated and bored. The characters have a tendency to indulge in quite entertaining, exaggerated rants, there are some useful idioms buried in all the oppressive obscenity, but having reached the rushed and unresolved ending, clearly intended to make one read Part 2, I do not feel inclined to find out what happens to Vernon.

Privileged with their musical, poetical language, the French seem to delight in “slumming it” with over-rated imitations of the truly great, boundary-crossing, no holds barred novels which somehow “work” much better in English. I happen to be reading Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” at the same time, which really is “magistral et fulgurant, Une œuvre d’art. Une formidable cartographie de la société américaine” des 1990

The Woman on the Stairs: never too late to learn


This is my review of  The Woman on the Stairs  by Bernard Schlink.

A lawyer by training, most famous for his novel “The Reader”, Bernard Schlink has a direct, analytical approach to fiction which sometimes seems dry, but can be moving and insightful in its precise, pared style. This novel is apparently inspired by Gerhard Richter’s blurred painting, “Ema” (Nude on a Staircase), based on a photograph of his wife.

A successful German lawyer in late middle-age, the anonymous narrator describes how he came across a familiar painting in a Sydney art gallery: “Woman on Staircase” is the nude portrait made years ago by the now famous Karl Schwind of Irene, when married to the wealthy entrepreneur, Peter Gundlach. The lawyer recalls how, years before, he became embroiled in a bizarre legal dispute, in which the manipulative Gundlach ensnares Schwind in a kind of groundhog day situation, in which he damages the painting in order to summon Schwind to repair it. This is part of a tortuous plan to persuade Schwind to exchange the painting he is desperate to regain for Irene who has left her husband for him.

This intriguing scenario gradually shifts into the serious themes Schlink is perpetually drawn to exploring. It seems he cannot relinquish the troubling question of how, having inherited the moral burden of collective guilt, suffered the pressures of a divided country, Germans should now live. Has the narrator followed false values in pursuing a well-paid career and material comforts? Irene’s desire to break away from being a trophy wife or an ambitious painter’s muse, limited to exploiting her sexual attractiveness, has led her to spend years caring for troubled children, but has she also at one time been caught up in a Baader-Meinhof type terrorist movement? This aspect of the book seems somewhat unsatisfactory because it is underdeveloped.

Schlink also explores at length how with age, we reflect on the past, imagining what might have been, regretting past actions or gaps in our recollection, with belated understanding or self-delusion in distorted memories. The narrator appears to have fallen in love with the idea of Irene rather than the woman himself, whom he does not really know, yet when he at last meets up with her in later years their relationship becomes a vehicle to reveal the price he has paid for his highly controlled and repressed emotions, the product of his upbringing.

I read this novel in a single day, initially finding it a page-turner, but was disappointed that it seems to lose dramatic drive, with the final “Part Three” rather tedious in its lengthy portrayal of the narrator in the, for him, unfamiliar role of caring for Irene in her illness, although I can see that it is probably very realistic. The book builds up to a satisfactory conclusion, but I was left with the sense that a potentially unusual and thought-provoking story has somehow misfired, either through a weakness in the translation, which seemed good at first, or through an uneven development of the wide range of ideas touched upon.

Himself by Jess Kidd: if Dylan Thomas had written detective fiction.

This is my review of Himself  by Jess Kidd

In the late spring of 1976, roguish Dublin charmer Mahony saunters into off-the-beaten track Irish coastal town of Mulderrig, “a benign little speck of a place…pretending to be harmless”, “his trousers…ridiculous…wide enough at the bottom to mop the main road”. After years spent in a bleak orphanage, he has discovered his true name and identity, and comes in search of his mother, or at least to find out more about her, the bewitching, wayward teenager Orla Sweeney. So begins a tale of detection with a difference.

Since Mahony has inherited Orla’s powers of clairvoyance, and sees ghosts at every turn, he is likely to glean more information from them than the sly locals with much to hide. Yet it seems that having the second sight does not enable Mahony to see straight away the truth which is partly revealed to us in the brutal hook of the prologue, in which a young girl is savagely murdered by an assailant, but her baby son is mysteriously spirited away while his back is turned.

Usually, I would avoid like the plague a book run through with so much ghostly magic realism. Yet in this first novel, Jess Kidd proves to be a kind of female, Irish Dylan Thomas, sustaining such a vivid imagination, and spinning her blarney with such easy skill, mixing humour with poignancy, that I was won over. This novel is not merely a page-turner to see how it will all end, but a joy to read for the sheer language: when the unpleasant local priest is punished for his worldly cynicism by the appearance of a spring in his library, he tries to look “rigidly unperturbed” as “near the fireplace…a thick layer of frogs seethe in heathen ecstasy where the hearthrug used to be”.

Since the story is “off the wall” from the outset, although managing to convey a good deal about tight-knit, isolated rural communities given to superstition, I found the build-up to the denouement a tad too ludicrous. References to some of the ghosts, like the eccentric ageing actress Mrs Cauley’s long-dead lover Johnnie become a bit repetitive, and phrases including “arse” too tediously frequent, but overall it is a surprisingly good read.

Although somewhat flawed in certain respects, this is a remarkably talented work, more entertaining, humorous and moving by turns, and in fact better written than many a more hyped and “literary” novel.

“Ghost Wall” – warped time

 

This is my review of  Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss

This novella packs a more powerful punch than many a longer novel, with never a word wasted as it grips us with the sense of menace building beneath its wry humour, the strong sense of place on the moors and beach below Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, the characters and situations revealed through the observation of the narrator Sylvie, named by her father Bill after Sulevia, the Ancient British goddess of springs and pools.

A bus driver to earn a living, Bill is a self-taught expert on Iron Age life and survival skills. He is also a working-class racist, male chauvinist bigot, a control freak who dominates his downtrodden wife and teenage daughter with verbal sarcasm which tips into physical abuse, often as a means of releasing his own frustration when he feels criticised or undervalued by other people. “He didn’t always like it when people laughed”.

This and more becomes slowly apparent as Sylvie describes their family “holiday” taking part in an exercise to re-enact Iron Age life, alongside three students of the ebullient Professor Slade who drops by each day to see how they are getting on as self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, spending hours foraging for bilberries, burdock root, garlic “greens” and mussels at low tide, skinning rabbits for “mum” to stew in a cauldron over an open fire, when not washing a student’s filthy smock after he has slipped into a bog.

Dressed in a coarse, shapeless tunic and thin skin moccasins rather than what would seem like essential hiking boots, Sylvie can “feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet”.

Having delegated the drudgery, the Professor and Bill have time to turn their minds from mundane to mystical matters, and get carried away planning the Iron Age-style “ghost wall” of the title, a palisade of willow lattice and skins, decorated with animals’ skulls in the absence of human ones. When dusk falls, the desire to drum on the skins and chant proves irresistible, and from this it may be only a short step to the “play-acting” of some darker ritual.
Silvie is shrewd enough to recognise that her father is “a show-off given to brutality” and has not had too much spirit beaten out of her to argue. Yet she seems tied to him in their appreciation of a natural world free from the false pressures and values of modern commercialisation. She appears trapped in childhood, frightened of venturing out into independence – even her attraction to the student Molly seems like a kind of adolescent crush, perhaps the dawning of an awareness of how she might become a liberated young woman, perhaps a rejection of the maleness which has so far crushed her, rather than an indication of lesbianism.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of reading this book for the quality of the writing and the tight, entertaining plot, many issues arise for consideration: prevailing class differences, the north-south divide, male versus female relationships, how we have lost touch with nature, how values have changed over time in some ways, and in others perhaps essentially remarkably little.
My only slight reservations are over the formulaic, over-used device of a prologue with a dramatic, violent hook to catch the reader and the very abrupt, anti-climactic ending. Yet I can see that there is strength in leaving matters open for the reader to decide what happens next.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.

 

This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

The Diary of a Nobody – Finding out exactly what led to Pooterism

 

This is my review of George Grossmith’s  The Diary of a Nobody

“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.” So begins Charles Pooter’s diary, which started as an intermittent serial in “Punch” from 1888. At first it was belittled by critics – proving incomprehensible to a “New York Times” reviewer – because it was based on the banal life of an ordinary office worker. Gradually, it became appreciated as an early form of satire, with “Pooterish” coined as a word to describe a ludicrous sense of self-importance and narrow-mindedness. Despite his excessive concern with conventions, delusion over his authority at work and complacency over his state of “domestic bliss”, not to mention his appalling puns, Charles Pooter has been regarded with affection by generations of readers, a household name even for people like me who have never bothered to read the book until now.

When obliged to do so for a book group, I expected to find the “diary” very dated with its gently slapstick humour. In fact, it provides a fascinating insight into daily life in late Victorian London. On a clerk’s pay, Pooter was able to rent a six-roomed house which, judging by the original illustration, would require a hefty mortgage nowadays. His wife did not need to go out to work and he could afford to employ a live-in maid. Although often proving unreliable, tradesmen seemed readily available when something needed to be fixed. If the meat went off in the pantry because of hot weather, the maid could be sent out in the evening to buy chops from the butcher. When Pooter’s brash son Lupin got the sack, he could easily get another job through word-of-mouth: no formal applications required. The family always seemed to have the money for a holiday, buying new clothes for the purpose, or go out for some entertainment. In the absence of television, they made their own daft yet touchingly innocent entertainment, like “put the tail on the donkey”, which modern children would find rather tame for a party, or scared themselves with séances, wilfully gullible in turning a blind eye to patent cheating.

As typified by the contrast between Pooter’s resistance to change and his son’s determination to get away from Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, (“There’s no money in it, and I am not going to rot away my life in the suburbs”), this short novel happens to capture a stable, conventional society on the brink of dramatic change. The ending was so abrupt, I thought there was a fault on my Kindle. It was as if the author had tired of his creation, and although I am glad to have read this, I had had enough as well when it came to a halt.

Le Train by Georges Simenon


This is my review of  “The Train”   by Georges Simenon.

This slim novel, not part of the Maigret series, establishes Simenon’s right to be considered one of the last century’s greatest writers, in fact Belgian rather than French as commonly supposed. With great clarity and concision, making the process seem effortless, he paints a vivid portrait of an unplanned snap decision to flee in advance of the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He explores both the general sense of unreality, in which one’s past life recedes rapidly, perhaps to the point of appearing never to have existed, and also the freedom to experiment and to live in a new and different way that a disruption like war can bring. At least some of this authenticity must result from the time Simenon spent organising Belgian refugees in France.

Despite having a heavily pregnant wife and young daughter, with little experience of life outside the quiet, conventional small town of Fumay, Marcel Feron does not hesitate to abandon his radio repair business to join the hordes at the railway station clamouring to board the next available train. When the family is separated from the outset, wife and daughter sent to a carriage with the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room while Marcel is consigned with the other men to one normally used to carry livestock, he is not unduly concerned. Even when the train is split in two parts, and he has no clue as to his family’s whereabouts, he does not lose his cool. In fact, his calmness seems implausible, even unnatural, until one grasps that he has a fatalistic attitude to life, it would seem owing to previous traumatic experiences on a par with war, such as the memory of his mother brought home naked and head shaved as a punishment for fraternising with German soldiers while her husband was absent fighting in World War 1. Four years as a teenager in a TB sanatorium have also made him innately something of a self-contained loner.

At the same time, the experience of being a refugee en route to an unknown destination, of being abruptly uprooted from everything and everyone familiar to him, is in a strange way liberating. So, without ceasing to love his wife and daughter, he is able to enter easily and without any torturing sense of guilt into a relationship with Anna, the enigmatic, penniless young foreign woman who is clearly vulnerable without his support. He knows that their love has no future, but accepts the situation, simply trying to make the most of it. “Ce qui arriverait, je l’ignorais. Personne ne pouvait le prévoir. Nous vivions un entr’acte, horse de l’espace, et je dévorais ces journées et ces nuits avec gourmandise”. Quite what Anna thinks we are never told, although her own past troubles seem to have made her expect very little, other than to survive.

In later life he writes a secret journal of these events, kept under lock and key. He wants his children to read it one day, to realise he was not the conventional, unadventurous man, incapable of passion that they may imagine.

A final shocking twist at the end leaves one with a sense of ambiguity, uncertain and conflicted as how to judge him as a man. It seems that in real life, Simenon may have been a bit lacking in courage if not exactly a collaborator in France, which may have made him well-placed to invite us to empathise with a flawed man who puts pragmatism and self-interest above bravery and risk-taking.