The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2008
Elizabeth Baines

January 2008
Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

Jenny chose this book because she wanted a laugh. One of Graham Greene's 'entertainments' (as opposed to his more serious novels), it's the first-person narration of middle-aged bachelor Henry Pulling, newly retired from his position as a bank manager and committed to his safe suburban life of tending his dahlias - until, that is, the day of his mother's funeral when he meets an aunt he hardly knows. From this point on, his life is overturned: he is hurtled into an itinerant world of hippies, smugglers and war criminals which he has hardly guessed exists.

Jenny said she had been richly rewarded: the character of Aunt Augusta is a wonderfully eccentric one, although she said with a giggle that she thought she would be a real pain to be related to in real life.

Nearly everyone else agreed that the book had been fabulously entertaining and also brilliantly written. Well, I couldn't disagree with the latter: as usual with Greene there's a clarity to the prose - a sense of everything clearly visualized - which involves you from the first sentence. But then I said that actually I had a problem with the book because it was so rightwing. People seemed surprised at my making such a serious and political objection to a piece of such light entertainment, but I said that it was precisely because the book was so light, and treated with such urbanity subjects which are actually very serious, that I found it rightwing. It's not that I think you can't treat such subjects with humour, and I certainly wouldn't have minded a savage satire - indeed, I'd have loved one - but I found the urbanity hard to take (the apparent cosy stance that this murky underworld was just a good laugh), especially when you take into account the ending, which I won't reveal here, and the treatment of the fate of one of the characters, Wordsworth.

Hans said that actually, he agreed with me, he'd had similar thoughts himself: to what end was this brilliant writing being employed? but that hadn't stopped him enjoying the book as it had me.

And then people couldn't think of anything much more to say about it, and we hadn't even been discussing it for half an hour. There was a bit of a silence and then John said, well perhaps we should consider if Greene did in fact have a more serious purpose. Maybe the book, published in 1969, was a comment on the changes in society at the end of the sixties - and indeed Henry says at one point near the end that he had been brought up unprepared for the modern world. But then someone else pointed out that the world he encounters after leaving his old-fashioned suburb is in fact even older, with its roots in the war and thirties Bohemia and back further (indeed Aunt Augusta is described as dressing somewhat in the style of 'the late Queen Mary' and thus identified with an older world). Or, said John, maybe it's about the way people exist unthinkingly, and that Henry who has unthinkingly obeyed the tame suburban rules can also, ironically, succumb unthinkingly to a quite opposite mode of existence.

But Clare said that maybe we were seeing too much serious purpose in the book, and I said well, in any case I still didn't find the humour savage enough, and somehow began to feel grumpy, quite the po-faced lefty, and not very sociable either, and sat and demolished a bowl of carrots instead, and Clare accused me of eating all the hummus.

February 2008
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

It seems to be generally agreed that Lolita is the best novel we have discussed, so when John suggested another Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, everyone jumped on it.

This book, written some twenty-three years earlier, follows the same Nabokovian scenario, with differences: that of a middle-aged man caught in a doomed passion for a childlike young woman.

Originally written in Russian with the title Kamera Obskura and soon after translated into English as Camera Obscura, it was eventually retranslated by Nabokov himself - and, I understand, to some extent revised - and republished as Laughter in the Dark. The bones of the story are set out at the beginning of Laughter in the Dark:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and though there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.

Thus it is established that what will be of interest is not the what of this story but the how, and what follows is an omniscient-author view (not unlike the encapsulated panoramic view through a camera obscura) of the circumstances, coincidences and manipulations - all masterfully handled - through which Albert Albinus is ruined at the hands of the gold-digging prostitute Margot and her diabolical lover, Axel Rex.

The theme of the novel is clearly that of insight, conveyed through images of darkness and brilliant light. Albinus is sadly lacking in moral insight and, symbolically, falls in love with the unsuitable Margot in the dark of a cinema and eventually is physically blinded.

Most people had enjoyed the book immensely, but Doug surprised us all by disagreeing. He said he found it impossible to care about the fate of any of the characters, and found it quite unconvincing that Albinus should leave his wife for Margot. There followed a long discussion about this last: people said, Well it was passion, irrational passion! But Doug said that was precisely what he didn't get any sense of with the stuffy Albinus.

It is true that most people had been surprised, after the psychological complexity of Lolita, that the characters in this book are indeed stereotypes. The book has a cartoon quality, as colourfully vivid indeed as a camera obscura image, and to a great extent relies on farce. It is therefore only by accepting these terms, and indeed entering into Nabokov's contract and taking pleasure in the process of narrative (rather than expecting psychological complexity or expecting to identify with the characters) that one can fully enjoy this book.

March 2008
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Trevor suggested this novel which concerns a young married but sexually estranged couple, Port and Kit Morseby, who escape the aftermath of the Second World War by travelling to North Africa and later into the Sahara, only to find themselves divided further.

Trevor said he thought the novel would raise some really interesting issues, but as it happened no one else was fired enough by it to discuss it with much passion. Two people said that they couldn't even finish it, Jenny because she simply found it boring and Ann because, having lived in that area of the world, she found it unrealistic.

Trevor found this hard to believe. He said he thought it was great: didn't we all think it was dead exciting and vivid, for instance, when Port went off on his dangerous sexual adventure at the beginning of the novel? And weren't the larger-than-life mother and son, the Lyles, whom they meet along the way - with the hint of their incest - fascinating? And what about that amazing scene when the dogs are running around in one of the towns with pieces of the body of an abandoned baby?

People seemed a bit nonplussed by Trevor's reaction to the novel. Sure, these things were vivid, they said, as were the striking descriptions of the North African towns and the Sahara, but what about the central characters? They just weren't at all likeable and you couldn't care about their story.

I said that you don't need to like the characters to like a novel - though Jenny said she did need to like at least one - but I did agree that you do need to have some emotional investment in their fate. I wondered if the reason we didn't is that although we are treated by the omniscient narrator to very detailed accounts of their feelings and motives, those accounts are very clinical and so those feelings and motives remain at a distance to us.

The book is in three parts and, for reasons I won't reveal here, in part three Kit has an adventure alone, joining a merchant camel train in the desert, and in this part the book undergoes a pretty radical change of style. John said he said he found this third part the best, in fact he really only liked this part, at least things start happening and the pace of the prose hots up - and Trevor quickly agreed. Doug and I cried that we much preferred the first two parts, in fact we hated the last part, not finding it believable in the slightest. Trevor said, But Kit had no choice but to join the caravan, and she had no choice but to succumb to whatever the merchants then demanded of her. I said, that's not the point: I can well imagine in theory that this would be the case, but the novel doesn't convince me, ie the way it's told, and Clare said, You mean the writing, and Trevor said sardonically, Oh, the writing!

I insisted. I said it is the prose in part three which is unconvincing - rushed and staccato. Clare said, but rushed and staccato prose can be appropriate, after all Kit's in a state of turmoil. I said, Yes, it can - for instance I thought the rushed (though fluid) prose replicating Port's typhoid delirium is beautifully done and this is one of the points in the book I find psychologically and emotionally involving - but in part three the prose rhythms and the sentence constructions seem rushed to me in the sense of being unconsidered, even lazy.

John said that what he liked about this last part was that in focussing on Kit it made the book about women and the condition of women, and most of the men agreed. I said that I didn't actually think that this was a specific intention on Bowles' part, as not only are parts one and two more about Port than Kit, I had read in Michael Hofmann's introduction to the new Penguin Classic that when Bowles had got to the end of part two he had decided to use a different writing method for the rest of the book: automatic writing (which eschews thought or conscious 'art') - which would also explain not only the change in style but the nature of the prose here. In other words, I felt that by loosening the reins of his artistic consciousness, Bowles had merely reproduced here an unconvincing male fantasy about a woman, a fact which showed up in the prose.

At which Trevor insisted once more that this was how Kit would have behaved.

Ann said that she wasn't even convinced by Kit's behaviour in the first two parts, which was why she had stopped reading before then. Also, she had found the book unremittingly colonial in its perspective, and that it colluded too far with Port's racist view of Arabs as 'monkeys'. (How on earth could they have made a film out of it at that rate? I asked, and Clare, who had seen the film, said that they had excised all the racism and romanticised it all, especially part three, and indeed bleached it of the real theme - the emotional and existential barrenness of the characters - so that in fact it had been like watching paint dry.) Some people quibbled with Ann's point, saying that there were some sympathetic Arabs in the book, that the author is not necessarily to be identified with Port, and that even Port despises the anti-semitism of the Lyles. But as Ann said, the perspective of no Arab is ever represented (although she guessed that was par for the course at the time of the novel's writing), and it's all relative.

And then Trevor said how much he'd enjoyed the exciting bit towards the end and Kit's imprisonment and escape, and explained to us doubters why she would have acted exactly as she did.

April 2008
The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Three parallel narratives, featuring respectively Virginia Woolf struggling with her demons, a young woman, Laura Brown, trapped in suburban motherhood in the nineteen-forties and longing to escape and read Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, and a middle-aged woman Clarissa arranging a party in the nineteen-nineties for an old lover who is dying of Aids and who once nicknamed her Mrs Dalloway after that fictional Clarissa.

Ann, who had suggested this novel, said that in the event she wasn't sure what she thought of it, as she didn't feel that the perspectives of the three women were sufficiently differentiated and in particular she couldn't get to grips with the Laura Brown character: she understood the trap Laura was in but couldn't see how such a strong-willed character could have got into such a trap in the first place.

This caused some surprise: others felt on the contrary that the characters were very well differentiated, and those who had grown up in sixties suburbia in Britain had found Laura Brown and her position entirely recognizable. Indeed, everyone else thought this book was wonderful - even Jenny. Initially Jenny had resisted the idea of this book as she didn't like parallel narratives, but even though the connections between the different strands had seemed superficial she had found it absorbing, and in any case at the end it is revealed that they are not separate stories at all.

We had quite some discussion about this last. Trevor said that when he suddenly realized the connections so near the end he wondered if he had been really thick in not guessing them before. I said I didn't think so: I thought it had been deliberate structural strategy on Cunningham's part to spring a surprise. I thought that there was nothing so moving as to discover that an old woman you were despising along with one character was in fact the same person as a young woman you'd been identifying with, and Hans strongly agreed.

On the other hand, I couldn't help questioning this strategy, since had we known the connections as we were reading there would have been resonances which inevitably we missed - though as Jenny said, the thing about great literaure is that it makes you want to read it again, and on a second reading we would experience them.

I think we were in no doubt that this was great literature. John had been seriously ill while I had been reading it, and the book's overriding theme of death had at times made it quite difficult for me to read, yet I had always gone back to it: it had seeped into my consciousness the way great literature does. The only other quibble was Doug's: he wondered about the occasional breaches of the novel's convention when we are given the viewpoint of minor characters; yet Doug was perhaps one of the greatest admirers of this book.

It wasn't overall a long discussion. It was the kind of occasion, I think, where a book hits you in the gut, and intellectual discussion seems not quite the point.


May 2008
The Gathering by Anne Enright

Jenny looked pretty intent as we gathered in her living room, and when we were all seated she asked in some disgust, 'Who chose this?' I think she thought it was me, since when Clare had offered it as one of her two alternative suggestions I'd persuaded everyone to choose it over the other possible book.

Clare looked a bit non-plussed, but went ahead with her admiring introduction. She thought it was wonderfully written, she said. It was a very bleak book in many ways: the first-person narration of 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty who is grieving her brother Liam's suicide and coming to terms with it by imagining the events at the heart of a family secret which may or may not have led to it. But the writing transcended the bleakness of the subject matter, Clare said: lively, witty and full of the most stunning phrases. She was most struck by the scene which Veronica first imagines early on, that of the first meeting between her grandmother Ada as a young woman and Lamb Nugent, a man she could have married but didn't, marrying his best friend instead. However, Clare had one criticism: these scenes were so beautifully imagined and written that she didn't feel that they were realistically Veronica's (as we are meant to take them), but were too much those of the author. I said that this too been Adam Mars-Jones's only criticism, just about, in his review for the Independent, and (although I loved this book so much I was loathe to criticize it) I supposed I had to agree that the register wasn't exactly Veronica's, although it hadn't struck me as I was reading it.

At which point everyone else began laying into this book. Ann said that she had liked the beginning too, but she felt it went nowhere; as she went on reading it she was thinking, 'Come on!' 'Come on what?' asked Clare, but if Ann gave an explanation it was overridden by the criticisms of the others so I don't remember it. John said he too found the book disappointing: he had thought it was going to be about unravelling the mystery of how Liam died, but it turned out to be something far more amorphous. Trevor and Doug said that they liked the Ada stuff but not the rest, or maybe they said the opposite, or maybe one expressed one view and the other the other, but Jenny came in most memorably with the firm view that the book was terrible and she had no idea how it could have won the Booker. None of it was consistent or made sense, she said: nothing happened, it was all conjecture.

I said, but that's the point: it's a book about not knowing and how we deal with that. Jenny countered that none of the characters were realized: you were expected to take for granted the close relationship between Veronica and her dead bother Liam: it was never shown except for perhaps one childhood scene when they stole into a bus garage; and Veronica's estrangement from her husband over the loss of Liam is never made understandable. And look at Veronica's other brother Mozzie: he's supposed to have been a psychopath, as Veronica calls him, and then he's supposed to have this miraculous change at the end and be some kind of nice family man: you're just expected to take that on trust, and it's just not believable.

I said, But isn't that all about Veronica's perception of him, which changes? Isn't this a book about that very thing, perception, and how we make up stories about other people and give them characters in order to cope? Jenny looked even more disgusted and said that I was putting a spin on the book it didn't deserve: these things just weren't there.

I have to say I had had one niggle about the book and now someone honed in on it: the connections that we are indeed meant to take on trust between the circumstances which led to the sexual abuse of Liam as a child and Liam's adult emotional problems and suicide. Would Liam really have been that affected by it? people asked. Clare said, Well, it depends what the abuse means to the child, and it usually means something and is damaging if the child is emotionally involved with the abuser. We all agreed that this must be so. But people pointed out that Liam could not have been emotionally involved with his abuser and cited examples of others they knew, including spouses, who had similarly experienced abuse by a family friend and yet had grown up not be emotionally disturbed by it. But then Clare pointed out a moment in the book which even I, its great champion, had missed (and which I won't give away here), and everything fell into place. This moment is fleeting, though vivid. Once you catch it it is devastating, and in retrospect justifies the whole structure of the book and Veronica's speculations. At this point in the discussion even I began to wonder if the glancing, allusive prose which I love in Anne Enright's work does sometimes militate against her.

Doug now asked us what we thought about the sex, which he had found so graphic it was somehow disturbing. People agreed and wondered about it without coming to any conclusions, and the discussion turned, with some relief it seemed, to a general consideration of sex. In fact, said Doug, getting back to the book, he had found the whole book disturbing. He had certainly admired the prose, and he was glad he had read the book but he had found it extremely painful to read.

Clare and I were stunned, insisting that it was witty, even funny - only to be met with sceptical stares, and Jenny reiterated that she thought it was awful.

Some days later Hans called round at our house to find out about the next meeting, and we discovered why Jenny had informed us so meaningfully yet cryptically that he wasn't coming to the last one. He hated the book, he told me. He had travelled back from Glasgow that day and he couldn't face sitting talking about a book with which he had utterly failed to engage, and which he had found frankly pretentious.

His wife Jan had liked it, though...


June 2008
Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is one of the few books I have loved so much that I have read it three times in spite of all the other books out there waiting to be squeezed into the time and, more importantly, the headspace left over from my own writing. Once I told him so, at one of those legendary Waterstone's Deansgate readings, and I'm not sure what he thought - whether he was embarrassed or amused or believed me, but anyway I had to say it. It's the structure I find most beautiful - a structure so resonant with aching meanings - so I'm not a huge a fan of the film which alters it so radically.

So anyway, when Doug suggested this, Ondaatje's next novel, I had mixed feelings. Surely this too, would be great, but then surely no writer could ever come up with something so thrillingly resonant twice? In any case, I read it through the filter of the first.

The novel is set in the late eighties and early nineties in Sri Lanka, when government squads were hunting down and murdering antigovernment insurgents and separatist guerillas, and concerns the events which ensue when Anil, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka but having lived abroad for most of her adult life, returns to uncover on behalf of a human rights group the source of the organized campaigns of murder.

This book takes further Ondaatje's use of unusual structure to embody the themes, and this time the rationale is more overtly political. It is essentially episodic, moving from character to character and back and forth in time in a way which can seem baffling, but which people in the group quickly noted mimics both the processes of civil war in which people and meanings are scattered and the procedure of forensic archeology which must piece together seemingly disparate elements. Introducing the book, Doug began by saying that it is about Anil, although he said this rather uncertainly and we quickly agreed that it's not possible to talk about this book in such conventional terms, or appropriate to bring to it conventional expectations. While the beginning appears to focus on Anil - arriving in Sri Lanka, remembering a doomed love affair, and meeting Sarath, the Sri Lankan anthropolgist with whom she will work - by the end of the book the focus has shifted to Sarath. Indeed, it is significant that the first section is titled 'Sarath' and the title of the book does not refer to Anil herself but to her 'ghost'. Most people in the group took this last reference - the 'ghost' - to refer to the skeleton on which Anil and Sarath work, but I thought it meant something much more significant: it is revealed some way into the novel that a 'ghost' is a Sri Lankan informer, and Anil does indeed have her 'informer' on the deepest level: someone who points out to her that she with her outsider's perspective is not only useless but potentially dangerous to those she purports to be working to help. As people noted, Anil has dropped out of the book's focus altogether by the end, and by creating such a major shift in perspective the structure of the book thus makes a deeply political statement. I had intended to ask the group why they thought certain sections of the book were in italics, notably Anil's memories of her work life, but I forgot and it wasn't discussed. I think now that it's another authorial device to distance and parenthesize Anil's perspective and illustrate its impotence.

Nearly everyone thought this was an immensely clever book, and nearly everyone seemed to agree that it was moving (although it struck me that they said it without seeming particularly moved). Doug said he had found it very vivid - both in terms of the depiction of the scenery and atmosphere and in terms of the character depiction, although there were some things he couldn't quite get to grips with, like the point of Anil's memories of her affair and of her friendship with another, female colleague with whom she has now also lost touch. Clare said she thought that the point of these last were that they illustrated that people never really made lasting connections because they never really knew each other, another instance of Anil's impotence and alienation.

All of this praise had rendered John completely silent, as he had been unable to engage with the novel at all, and I now said that in spite of everything I admired about the book, my experience had been rather similar: unlike others I hadn't been moved by the book since I hadn't found the characters ever came to emotional life. Jenny suggested that that was deliberate authorial strategy, a replication of the repression of people living under such regimes - which is probably true, but sadly means for me that the novel's devices were too successful, and deprived it of the resonance I'd found in The English Patient.


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