The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2009
Elizabeth Baines

January 2009
The String of Pearls by Joseph Roth

We met at Clare's to discuss this book, translated by Michael Hofmann, which she had suggested. It's the story of the events which ensue when the Shah of Persia, on a visit to Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, desires a beautiful countess and decides that he must have her, and the knock-on effects on characters from various strata of Viennese society.

I have to say we were more than a bit confounded by this novel. Having read Hofmann's translation of the very psychological The Reader, we were perhaps stupidly expecting something in the same vein, and were surprised to find this a somewhat old-fashioned omniscient tale. But we felt it was something about the novel itself which was difficult to grasp. As the novel follows the chain of consequences, the focus shifts from character to character, following each to their ruin and then leaving him or her and moving onto the next with an abruptness we found odd. Ann and I felt strongly too that we were missing things - that there were references we weren't getting, and possibly ironies and jokes. We had no idea whether this were the fault of the novel or the translation or indeed our own lack of historical background, but since this was after all a novel about the tenor of Viennese society at the centre of a crumbling empire, we found this frustrating. We were especially suspicious of the translation when it came to the representations of colloquial speech, which seemed awkward, and we wished that our German-speaking member Hans had been there to advise us, and indeed look at the original as he had with The Reader. Especially, though, we kept not being able to visualise things: for instance, we imagined the characters in Edwardian costume, but then suddenly there would be an indication that a character was dressed in more modern clothes.

Clare suggested that this was an effect deliberately created by Roth, as an indication of the flux and confusion of the society being portrayed. She suggested too that the abruptness of the changes of focus between characters was a formal replication of the effect on them of the disintegrating society. Nevertheless, she had to agree that there had been something unsatisfying about it all. Every one of us, it turned out, had been reduced to reading Hofmann's introduction for clues as to how we should take this novel, yet had found that it provided few, concentrating on the more superficial tropes such as that of doubling and on teasing out the parallels with strands in others of Roth's novels. So, still confounded and unsatisfied, we dropped the subject of the book and turned to other more gossipy matters.


February 2009
Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare

Report written by Clare:

Elizabeth was unable to be at the reading group meeting when we discussed this book. Towards the end of the evening, after possibly too much wine, I rashly agreed to write about our discussion in Elizabeth’s stead. It is now near the end of May and I was reminded in our May meeting of my promise. The tone was such that I feel duty bound to try and write something. There was some acknowledgment that ‘we’re not all experienced writers’ like Elizabeth, so with that in mind….

Doug, who had chosen the novel, outlined the story of a medieval city in Albania, with the citizens’ preoccupation with superstition and witchcraft. The narrator is a young boy, son of a family whose stone house has a central place in the community, having a well in its cellar. The boy is shortsighted, but the hazy, running together of experiences is more than visual. Features of the city, people and events, are indistinct and the boy narrator’s preoccupation with the macabre, bizarre, sexually unusual, convey a world through a child’s eyes. We enjoyed the vivid characters, old crones, the life of the city and the city as a character itself. We generally agreed, though, that the language and perception was often that of someone much older than Kadare’s narrator.

The political backdrop is of the Second World War and national resistance movements. These impinge on the city and the boy’s experience, as the military occupation of the city changes from Italian to Greek armies several times. The transitions are almost comical: one group marching out, southwards, as the other marches in from the north. The changes in power seem arbitrary and disconnected from the life of the city and its people. The first awareness of something going on further afield, is the sight of aeroplanes passing overhead. The boy narrator is in awe of a large aeroplane that lands by the city, becoming almost emotionally attached to it. Yet this contrasts with a sense the book conveys, of the ancient city and its people being violently shocked into the twentieth century.

We moved to discussing Albania, its political and cultural characteristics in this period, helpfully illuminated by Ann’s knowledge of this region. One effect on me of reading this novel was to make me curious about Albania as a country, its people and history, knowing so little about it.

It was a generally well received book. I don’t remember anyone registering dislike – just that observation that the linguistic competence and maturity of observation were not consonant with a boy narrator in his early teens.

March 2009
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Jenny suggested this novel about Roseanne McNulty who is nearing her hundredth birthday in the Roscommon mental hospital to which she was committed as a young woman, and her psychiatrist Dr Grene who becomes intrigued by her as the hospital is made ready for closure and his own retirement approaches. Jenny had been interested in the book because her own aunt had been similarly committed for purely moral reasons and in the same way had become so institutionalized that she never left.

The story is told in two alternating first-person narrations: the secret memoir that Roseanne begins writing, in which she looks back over her life and the tragic circumstances, rooted in political and religious conflict, which led her to the asylum, and the journal which Dr Grene begins at the same time to record his professional progress - in particular his unsuccessful attempts to draw Roseanne out - but which also lapses into a private memoir.

I think Jenny wasn't disappointed, and on the whole the group was enthusiastic about this book. People found it a moving, indeed heart-wrenching story, and most especially people loved the writing: Hans arrived with his copy bristling with post-it notes marking sentences and passages he especially liked. It's 'poetic' in that there is a lyrical rhythm and it is profound and startling in its observations. Here's Roseanne summing up a truth behind her own tragedy: '...history as far as I can see it is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.' Yet the prose is marked by the tics of the characters' psychology as each tries to recall and make sense of their experience, stopping and starting and questioning both their memories and expression. Writing that Roseanne has clearly suffered great pain, and that this 'actually gives her her strange grace', Grene then comments: 'Now, that is not a thought I had before I wrote it down.' In this way the memoir form of the book is unusually dynamic: the journals are not merely vehicles for a story; the actual writing of them moves the characters' development forward. And in this way the book is about not simply Roseanne's particular story - shocking and moving and tied up with the political history of Ireland as it is - but the ways in which we process our own stories and negotiate the aspects of them that are unknown to us.

I said that one thing I loved most about this book was its humanity - the fact that Roseanne never shows bitterness towards those who have wronged her, looking for humanity in even the near-inhuman Father Gaunt, main perpetrator of her wrongs, and the way that both she and Grene constantly reach for understanding. Everyone agreed. Then I said that I did have one caveat about the book, which in fact I was reluctant to mention because I loved the book so much, and it was the same one that the judges had (unusually) admitted to when awarding the book the Costa Prize: I didn't like the way the revelation at the end (which I won't give away here) was achieved. It wasn't convincing, I said, and Ann, Doug and John strongly agreed.

Jenny and Clare didn't quite agree, though, I think: they pointed out all the aspects of the plot which explained the ending and meant that it did all fit together. I said yes, it did all fit together on the level of plot, but I didn't think it worked on the psychological level: there were not enough pointers on that level to make me feel 'Ah yes, of course!' when the truth was revealed. Hans and Doug strongly said that they felt that I'd got to the nub of it. In fact, some people in the group hadn't actually grasped the plot connections, and I think that this was why, because it wasn't backed up by a psychological resolution.

Then Doug revealed that he hadn't liked the book nearly as much of the rest of us, and this seemed to be because he found other aspects of it unbelievable: the fact that Roseanne could have been incarcerated merely on moral grounds and for the rest of her life, and the appalling coldness and cruelty of the priest and her mother-in-law who had put her there. There was now a chorus of objection: Jenny referred back to her aunt, and Clare, who is a psychotherapist, said that she had worked with women in such circumstances as late as the seventies and eighties, and not even in rural Ireland as in the book, but in England. I said that there were exactly parallel stories in the Irish side of my own family, in which people were excommunicated by priests and shunned by the family for similar moral, political and religious reasons. In fact, I said, when I had previously read Barry's earlier novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, in which a minor (though not insignificant) character in The Secret Scripture takes centre stage, I felt as though Barry had somehow heard about a particular member of my own family. Thus I found myself in a very weird situation, for me: it's usually Trevor in the group who appeals to life to justify novels, and I who wag my literary finger and insist that appeals to life are irrelevant because a book has to convince on its own.

Indeed, I said, one of the things which moved me tremendously about The Secret Scripture is that it picks up and makes central an encounter in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty which there seemed strangely incidental yet remained one of my strongest and most resonant memories of that book. Perhaps what is so moving about the cross-novel connections which Barry creates is the way that they formally demonstrate the marginalization of people and their searing experience in a situation of political and religious prejudice. And I must say that everyone in the group, none of whom knew of the other book, was very intrigued by this connection.

And then, for the rest of the evening, we discussed the real-life issues which the book and Doug's objection had raised.


April 6 2009
Austerlitz by WG Sebald

This book, one of my favourites ever, was my suggestion for the group. Narrated by a character who seems very close to the author - a favourite technique of Sebald's, apparently (I have yet to read his other books) - it features the first-person story of Jacques Austerlitz as told to the narrator during a series of initially chance but later arranged meetings from the sixties to the nineties in various European cities and London.

A lonesome and somewhat eccentric figure, Austerlitz is a university teacher of architecture, and begins by sharing with the narrator his fascination with railway architecture - it is in a railway station that they first meet - and, perhaps more importantly, with fortresses and the paradoxes within their design which always lead to their failure as buildings of defence (and ultimate use as prisons). All of this apparently inconsequential and potentially dry material seems yet strangely resonant (although Clare in our group did not find it so). Then on a subsequent meeting (at which point even Clare became engaged) Austerlitz begins to talk more personally and relates his affectless post-war childhood in Wales as the adopted child of a Methodist minister and his wife. Here again there are resonances which seem to float without meaning: Austerlitz's obsession with the drowned village beneath a local reservoir and its tower, a local man's tales of seeing ghosts, and Austerlitz's own childhood sense of a dimension of life which remains invisible. It is only when he is at boarding school and his step-parents are no longer available for questioning (one dead and the other committed to a psychiatric hospital) that he discovers his real name, Austerlitz, and thus any inkling of his European origins, after which he fortresses himself in academic studies and the obsessions with which, during their discussions, the narrator - and this reader - become infected.

During years when Austerlitz and the narrator do not see each other, Austerlitz suffers a serious breakdown which leads him finally to set out to uncover his own origins which inevitably involve the history of Nazi Germany and the Jews.

I told the group that I loved the book, and that I was stunned by the original way it was written. Lacking chapters, it consists of only three sections entirely devoid of paragraphs and which are hardly noticeable as sections as they are divided only by asterisks. Furthermore, long sentences sweep you from one subject to another in a kind of stream of consciousness - one sentence, significantly describing life in the Theresienstadt ghetto, is 11 pages long. The book thus reads like a kind of dream with a dream's weird yet urgent and incontrovertible logic and unanswerable emotional resonance, carrying on the level of form the message that everything in the novel is after all connected: Austerlitz's seemingly dry obsessions turn out to be rooted, stunningly and vividly, in the past which was first hidden from him and which later he failed for a long time even to enquire into.

I said I thought the book was about memory and the repression of memory, and that I thought that Sebald had found a new form to convey them. There were murmurs of agreement and appreciation and Clare and new member Jo said they had loved the book too. I said that there was only one wrong note for me: I know very well that one retrieved memory can open up other lost memories in turn, but it didn't seem to me psychologically convincing that the moment Austerlitz arrives back in his birthplace he so suddenly remembers his post-British early childhood (up to the age of four-and-a-half) in such complete and wholesale detail. I asked Clare, who is a psychotherapist, what she thought about that, and she agreed.

Then Jenny, who had been very quiet up to that point, spoke up and said that she hadn't liked the book. Others were stunned and demanded to know why not. She said, Well, it's such a common story! Presumably she meant the story of the kindertransport of which Austerlitz was of course a part, and I countered that the book wasn't just about that but, as I had said, about memory and repression and the way we deal with loss and pain. Others came in and backed me up, pointing out Austerlitz's signs of repression: his obsessiveness, his depression, his inability to make relationships. Jenny said, But those are the results of his sterile upbringing in Wales. Why didn't Sebald just write about that, why create a whole elaborate device to tack on the story of the Nazis and the Jews? Jo said, No, surely his problems were caused by the replacement of his earlier happy childhood with that sterile upbringing. Jenny said, But he had no memory of that earlier time. I said, But that's the point: it was repressed; his step-parents suppressed the truth, leading him to repress his own memories. Jenny said, But why did it have to be to do with Nazi Gemany and the Jews? And anyway, he didn't repress it, he went looking for his past. I said, But it should have been pretty obvious which way things pointed once he found out his name at the age of 16 or so, yet it took him until middle age and a breakdown to face up to that. As for her objection to its being a kindertransport adoption rather than an ordinary one, I feel we didn't answer Jenny adequately at the time: it would not be simply the memory of an earlier happier childhood which Austerlitzwould be repressing, but the climate of fear surrounding his upheaval, which a child of four-and-a-half would pick up. Surely one of the main points of this book is how we try to wipe history, and the way this is played out on the personal level in this novel is extremely moving.

Everyone else in the group thought the book was amazingly moving, and staggered that this could have been the case when the prose style was so spare, even flat, and the story distanced by the double-narrator device. In fact, I think there is something moving about this double-narrator effect: there's a kind of double-exposure which underlines the novel's theme of cloaked meanings and alternative possibe lives. At times it's hard to remember which narrator is speaking: the ostensibly objective narrator becomes identifed with Austerlitz, and along with him the reader. In this way the concept of narratorial 'objectivity' is challenged and at the same time Austerlitz's psychological state is given a stunning 'objective' authenticity.

John said that he thought it was perhaps the most honest book he had ever read, by which he meant emotionally honest, but Jenny retorted that it wasn't honest at all, it was all device. And then it was Doug's turn to stun us all by saying he wouldn't be reading another Sebald novel. Why? we wanted know. He said that he had thought it was beautifully written, but he could hardly say like the rest of us that he loved it, he couldn't even say he liked it, because he had found it so painful.

At which Jenny said again that she didn't like it at all.

April 23 2009
The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Hans suggested this book, which we all very much liked, after a German friend had recommended it to him: we hadn't heard of it, but in fact it's a bestseller and something of a modern classic in Germany. It's short, a novella, and is told by a narrator who, like that of Austerlitz which we read last, seems very close to the author.

Returning to his native Hamburg, the narrator sets out to prove that the popular dish of curried sausage sold on German street-stands did not originate in Berlin in the fifties as is generally accepted, but was invented by his aunt's Hamburg neighbour, Mrs Brucker, who sold it on the local square immediately after the war. However, tracking her down to an old people's home and getting her talking, he learns far more than the answer to this question - which was yes, she did invent it - and the matter of how she came to invent it is withheld as her poignant wartime story unfolds.

With a husband and two grown children away in the war, Lena Brucker meets at the cinema a young soldier who, failing to leave her flat next morning, becomes a deserter secreted by her there. When the war ends very soon after his arrival, she can't bring herself to tell him and inevitably lose him, and thus he becomes her unwitting prisoner. It is only later, after this story has played itself out, and Lena sets about making a postwar living for herself, that the recipe for curried sausage comes to her more or less by accident.

Thus the search for the truth about curried sausage is a kind of device, or even a McGuffin, for the unravelling of a more emotionally complex tale, but, 'combining the farthest with the nearest' as the narrator says it does, it is also a kind of metaphor for that tale too: the coming together of two disparate people who would not under normal circumstances do so, a woman reaching middle age and a young man with a wife and new baby to whom he feels committed.

John suggested that it also operated as a way to make palatable and approach a subject which is of great sensitivity in Germany, since the denouement of Lena's wartime story, which I won't give away here, hinges on the revelation to her of what had been happening in the death camps. He said he also thought that the double-narrator device which this book shared with Austerlitz was connected with this: a way for the generation of Germans tackling this subject in novels to 'distance' it and make it possible to handle. He thought it was interesting too, and perhaps inevitable as a strategy, that both these novels and The Reader feature a younger narrator forging a relationship with an older person who had been involved to greater or lesser degrees in these events.

Everyone had good things to say about this book. People liked its depiction of the ways that the extremities of war disrupt convention, and in particular the portrayal of the tenderness yet toughness of the unconventional relationship. They loved the little touches, such as the two officers of the occupying English force turning out to have Hamburg accents (and to be Jews), and the portrayal of the postwar black market bartering. They were especially taken by the book's illustration of the fact the people you least expected turned out to be the wartime informers. Clare said that she was amazed when she realized what a short time the two had been together in the flat, as it had seemed to go on for ages, and everyone agreed that this was an achievement of the novel: recreating the suspension of time and reality for the two characters.

I said that I thought the book extremely well written, as far as you could tell from a translation, or maybe you could tell because the translation read so well. Clare then asked me what I meant by well written. I said I meant emotional acuity or truthfulness conveyed via apt language, and John summed it up better by saying that in well-written prose there isn't a false note, which everyone agreed was true about the prose of this book. I also said that one of the things which struck me forcibly about the double narrator device which seems to be a feature of these recent German books is that it serves to subsume the ego of the author: all the emotional and verbal acuity is handed by the author to a narrator, which I said struck me as an act of great authorial generosity, and John wondered if it were a function of the act of reparation which these novels may be seen as.

We did find some false notes on other levels, however. While the narrator reports Lena's story indirectly, thus giving himself room for interpolation, it is nevertheless the story as told to him by Lena, and on one or two occasions the novel swerves unconvincingly from its own convention when we are presented with the interiority of other characters. Some people said they had found themselves wondering if it really were believable that the soldier, Bremer, didn't guess that the war was over as he watched the road from the window all day long. I said I had a slight doubt about the novel's treatment of the business of the informers and people's knowledge of the death camps: the novel seems to imply that people like Lena were completely unaware of what was happening with the Jews (Lena thinks back to a Jewish neighbour leaving with her case and how nothing much struck her about it at the time), yet Lena lived more or less in the Jewish quarter, and also, the novel seems to indicate, people knew that there were informers informing on the Jews.

Doug said that the worst false note was right at the end, indeed the very last word, when the narrator comes upon a scrap of paper on which is one of the crosswords which Bremer whiled away his time doing. One of the words filled in by Bremer is 'even though nobody will believe me - novella'. Everyone cried out in horrified agreement, and Doug said he'd thrown the book down at that final point.

Even so, we liked the book enough to forgive it any of its faults, including this.


May 2009
Falling Man by Don DeLillo

This book was chosen more or less by default: Jo, whose turn it had been to suggest our next reading, failed to turn up, and, off the top of his head, Doug tentatively suggested this because he'd just bought it. Having read Panjak Mishra's Guardian article on 9/11 literature I said I thought it was a book we should perhaps read, and since we'd very much admired DeLillo's prophetic White Noise, we agreed on it.

We were very disappointed, and I found that the book bore out the criticisms in Mishra's article. One of Mishra's main complaints is that, as a study of the psychic effects on a bourgeois couple after the husband Keith survives the twin towers, the book is a retreat into the domestic, and thus away from the wider issues. I'm not sure that such a focus, in theory, would necessarily carry inbuilt failure in exploring the important issues, but we certainly found that it failed here: we found the couple almost entirely unsympathetic (with the exception that John thought the wife Lianne a fairly sympathetic character), and the conversations between Lianne and her mother Nina and Nina's lover almost shocking in their seemingly inappropriate urbane novel-of-manners style - convoluted, arcane and indeed very difficult to follow - and making it hard at times feel the urgency or import of the twin-tower context even when they are discussing the politics. We could see that there might be a political authorial point here, that DeLillo is showing the inability of Americans to absorb the reality of the situation, and indeed Keith's journey through the novel seems to be one away from reality (into a life of gambling), but the effect on us as readers was fatally ennervating. (As Jo said to me in the cafe the week before the meeting, she didn't care a hoot about the characters, and she wouldn't have gone on reading if she hadn't been doing it for the group.) As a result we found similarly ennervating the fragmented non-linear structure and the glancing, cumulative prose which I felt should in theory have been powerful as a depiction of the breakdown of bourgeois American certainty.

For a long time in our discussion we failed even to mention the fact that each of the three sections of the book is concluded with a piece which takes the viewpoint of Hammad, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and the three together chart his progress from his initial conversion to Islamism to the moment of impact. The fact that we omitted them so long from our discussion is an interesting comment, I think, on the ultimately bourgeois focus of the book, and once they were mentioned, people didn't really know what to make of them. Mishra's comment, in line with some other critics, is that the depiction here is founded in unsubtle stereotype. Our group wasn't quite sure what to think, but did find the depiction unconvincing (and someone questioned the factual/historical accuracy of Hammad's geographical origins). It's perhaps again an interesting comment on the failure and pallor of the rest of the book that, even so, some said they found these sections the most engaging and vivid.

If I understand him correctly, Mishra charges DeLillo with subscribing, via this sterotyping and the 'Western'-centric focus of the rest of the book, to a profile of Muslims as regarding 'Westerners' as 'other', while indeed colluding in a view of Muslims as 'other'. I believe that DeLillo is striving hard to avoid this: there are various tropes in the book which seek to break down such concepts of otherness. Most obvious is the fact that Nina's German lover has himself been a terrorist/freedom fighter (and argues the case for Islamist dissatisfaction with the West). Then there is the moment at the end of the book when the concept of 'organic shrapel' (in which pellets of the skin of suicide bombers become embedded in the flesh of survivors) is taken to a striking level when the body and consciousness of Hammad morph in the moment of impact into those of Keith in the tower. Such self-conscious tropes, however, are at odds with the psychic centre of the novel, which is indeed 'Western', forcing the 'eastern' into otherness, and in consequence, it seemed to me, the sections concerning Hammad's story felt more like colonization than the empathy which DeLillo may have intended. As Mishra notes, most Muslims already live with a complex sense of their own Westernization, rather than the polarization of which DeLillo feels compelled to mastermind such a striking conversion in this final scene.

Meanwhile, on the less conscious level, it seems, an undercurrent of polarization runs through the novel: Clare and I in particular felt shocked by an episode in which Lianne hits the woman in the downstairs flat purely for her insensitivity in playing eastern music in the aftermath of 9/11. While there was some sense that her behaviour was a kind of madness that had overcome Lianne (and Keith suffers a similar 'madness' when he hits a man in a department store for a perceived personal slight), there seemed too little authorial indication that the true madness is that her sense of injury and insult could only emerge from a sense of the music as 'other', and it was this that felt shocking.

And the street performance artwork mimicking the famous image of the man falling from one of the towers seemed - apart from highly unlikely: people thought that in reality the artist would have been lynched by New Yorkers - yet another dislocation into artifice of this urgent real-life issue.

Trevor was very late for this meeting, having double-booked, and we had finished the discussion when he arrived. Since he so often likes books others don't, we expected him to put up a defence for it, but when we asked what he thought he lifted his hand and stuck his thumb down, not exactly perpendicular but almost. And Hans had the last word when he said that he had looked on the internet for a real-life film of 9/11, and the very short one he had found he left him a hundred times more profoundly affected than had this novel


June 2009
The Autograph Hound by John Lahr

This meeting was a mauling, and a pretty unfair one at that, since most of us hadn't even really read the book. Published in the early seventies, it is narrated by its 1960s anti-hero Benny Walsh, collector of autographs and busboy at the New York Wild-West-themed Homestead Restaurant, a place frequented by top celebrities and so a source of the choicest autograph pickings. Trevor had suggested it, as he read it when he was in the process of dropping out of university in the seventies, and thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Well, we thought that as a book about an obsession with celebrity it sounded good and, spurred on by Trevor's enthusiasm, we went away looking forward to it. The first obstacle we encountered was that it was out of print, and we all set about ordering it from ABE Books. Mine and John's came back fairly quickly, the original British hardback complete with glossy pink-purple dust cover, but unfortunately I had only just started reading it when I left it in a taxi and we had to order the book all over again. Granted I was coming back from A & E in that taxi, having fallen and sprained my ankle, which may have made me less than competent, but I can't help thinking that the fact that I simply couldn't get into the book may have had something to do with it too. And I know I was also not in the best state for getting into a book, but not many other people in the group could get into it, either, it turned out.

Most of us gave up and failed to read much more than half of it - John giving up very soon after the beginning - and I'm afraid we had a very hazy impression of what we had read. Clare did get to the end but in such a fast, skipping manner that she had missed the dramatic denouement which Trevor revealed to us. We wondered why we had found it so hard to engage with. The critics' comments on the paperback edition I finally got hold of praise the book for its contemporary aphorisms, and we wondered if this was the problem: that Benny's voice, and thus the novel, were so steeped in late-sixties language and mentality that the book was simply dated (much of the lingo, which seems to be authorially relished, now seeming old fashioned or cliched; eg: 'See you later?' 'Not if I see you first.') Anne also said, to general agreement, that the long lists of names of celebrities which mean nothing to us now is de-focussing and distancing.

Trevor groaned in disbelief. But, he said, the book was brilliant! So fantastically written! I said, How could it be well-written if it doesn't draw you in, or give you any sense of what it's all about? What about the character of Gloria, for instance (a young actress Benny meets early on and who eventually tries to get him to sell his autograph collection to save himself from the pickle he ends up in)? It was ages before I got a handle on her, I said, and at the start I pictured a middle-aged woman. I argued that the reason for this was unfocused prose which failed to realize Gloria: I had been left with the impression that Gloria is simply not described early enough. Trevor could hardly believe I was saying this, and argued that one of the great things about the book was its vivid descriptions. After the meeting I set myself the task of starting the novel again and reading it carefully through to the end, and I found that Trevor was right: Gloria is described by narrator Benny the moment we meet her, indeed in list-checking detail, thus: The lady stands out like Mary Martin across a crowded room... She's wearing a long dress down to her ankles, a veil hangs from her hat. So why did I, and others, fail to see her clearly?

The language, along with the atypical clothes, put me off the scent: that word 'lady', and the fact that Benny goes on to refer to her (and characterize her) as 'the well-dressed lady'. But it's not the language in itself. It's not that I simply saw Gloria in the wrong light, but that I had a very strong sense of not really grasping her. There are plenty of novels the language of which is now dated but which we can read without trouble, feeling that we are getting a true sense of the world being depicted. It seems to me the problem is deeper and relates to the way we are meant to take Benny. How significant is Benny's use of the word 'lady'? Are we meant to take it as language of the era and not particularly notable, or are we meant to see it as indicative of Benny's singular psychology - his prudishness and sexual repression (he is 35 years old but worries like a child about his own penis - which he calls 'it', he has failed to detach psychologically from his mother, is clearly frightened of any sexual relations with Gloria and refers coyly to horses lifting their tails and doing their 'number twos')? Or is this dichotomy - prudishness and arrested development alongside streetwise lingo and sex dens - meant to be typical of the age (which I think it may have been) and significanty so? There was huge (initial) disagreement in our group about how we are meant to take Benny. Having read the book properly now it's clear to me that Lahr intends Benny as an anti-hero: he reveals himself as viciously racist and worse, if also pathetically lost in a fantasy world. Yet those of us who hadn't read much of the book had come away without any sense that were we meant to see Benny in this light. Hans gave a list of objections to the book which I don't recall specifically but which amounted to the fact that he considered it juvenile, the very thing which characterizes Benny with his stunted personality, his obsession with celebrity, and his totemic belief in the power of autographs of the famous. In other words, Hans had not seen any distinction between the narrator and the author, and neither had I: I had even come away with the impression that we were meant to see Benny as cool. Those who had read properly to the end - Trevor, Jenny and Doug - were quick to put us right, but all three - even Jenny, who was irritated by the style of the novel - said that they felt sorry for Benny, for his emptiness and his pathetic and doomed attempt to fill it with celebrity.

It seems to me that the problem is that by taking too much relish in its anti-hero's mentality and language, the author fails to satirize them enough - which is interestingly the complaint made by James Wood about Zadie Smith's similarly titled novel (The Autograph Man) on the same subject and theme.

I said that I thought that the book's take on celebrity was dated too: that nowadays people don't hero-worship celebrities so much as identify with them and desire fame for themselves, a phenomenon fed by reality TV. Some people strongly disagreed, citing the huge sales of Heat etc (which, frankly, I didn't see as destroying my argument), and that they definitely feel a bit in awe if they ever meet celebrities. I also said that I didn't really understand this interest in celebrity, which I don't, but I am very interested in the interest in celebrity, and by the time I went home I was in danger of writing my own and yet another novel on the subject...

PS: In a somewhat ironic twist, after I lost our first copy John and I each ordered a copy (so we ended up doubling up) and John's copy turned out to be the original US hardback bearing, of all things, the author's autograph.


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