The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2010
Elizabeth Baines

January 2010
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Jenny chose this book which has sold like wildfire in its native France, and, by the time my copy was printed in 2008, over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Seeing it on Waterstone's front table she was intrigued, as it didn't in fact look like a populist book, but a pretty typical serious French novel about some pretty serious themes, being the parallel and converging stories of two people in a very plush Left Bank apartment block: fifty-four-year-old concierge Renee who is hiding from the residents that she is an autodidact passionate and knowledgeable about culture, the arts and philosophy, and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, extremely bright daughter of intellectually left-wing but bourgeois parents, determined to avoid such a hypocritical future for herself and therefore to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. The narrative consists of alternating sections of their journals as their lives slowly come together - indeed, as they come to recognize each other as fellow spirits - and as they contemplate their artistic and philospohical concerns, most particularly around the subject of 'Beauty' and our ability to apprehend it.

Jenny said that she had enjoyed the book, but that she hadn't been able to escape the feeling whenever she got to the philospohical bits that it was pretentious. Doug immediately said that it was the most pretentious book he had ever read, and some people nodded furiously while others looked dismayed.

A core objection of the detractors was that Renee herself was hypocritical. For one thing, it is hard to see why in this day and age (the novel, despite its dated air, is set in contemporary Paris) she needs to go to such lengths to hide her intelligence and refinement - she puts the residents off the scent by keeping her television running and the smell of boiled cabbage drifting under the door while she reads philosophy or appreciates good tea and home-made fine cakes with her immigrant cleaner friend (her only luxury) - when the residents' alleged prejudices would most likely blind them to the truth about her anyway. Indeed, the opening pages are intended to illustrate this last: here Renee is so disgusted by the intellectual pretension of one of the young adult sons of the apartment block that she lets slip a comment that shows she has a far greater understanding than he of the subject about which he is showing off (Marx), but of course he's so fixed on the notion of her as an ignorant peasant that he doesn't notice. And why does she want to hide it anyway? There is a reason given later which most of us felt didn't hold water, but could it be that Renee, and indeed the author, are as much in thrall as the residents to the old-fashioned French class consciousness which the book claims to despise, and as unwilling to upset it - indeed, pleased to relish it? Thus am I, poor concierge, says Renee, resigned to a total lack of luxury - but I am an anomaly in the system, living proof of how grotesque it is, and every day I mock it gently (note that word 'gently': not savagely or passionately then?), deep within my impenetrable self.

I said that the thing that I really didn't like about the book was its deep contempt. In both Renee's and Paloma's eyes the world is crudely divided into Us-and-Them, goodies and baddies, beautiful souls and non-beautiful souls. Beautiful things belong to beautiful souls, says Renee, but in this novel it is not the rich who have beautiful souls, as a rule. She says: For those who have been favoured by life's indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement ... To the rich ... falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die. And of course, as a rule, in this novel they cannot. To be rich in the universe of this novel is to be by definition basically stupid, or at least lacking in insight and true intelligence or culture, however 'arty' or 'literary' like Paloma's despised mother you are, or however academic like her despised sister Colombe who is writing a thesis on the philosophy of an obscure medieval monk. (There is no real evidence that any of Paloma's family are as hypocritical as she claims: as someone in the group said, like most of the residents they remain shadowy stereotypes). Ann said at this point that the book was as much as anything an attack on the pretensions of the French education system, which seems true, but then, I said, it's a hypocritical attack: Renee makes much of the complete waste of public money on the arcane subject of Colombe's research, its uselessness to society and the fact that it's being conducted on the backs of hard-working men and women, but this makes something of a mockery of her own allegiance to the contemplation of art and truth for its own sake (so much for its own sake that she'll hide it from the world). Only the autodidact is intellectually pure, the novel seems to be saying (and some bits of culture are snobbishly more worthy of contemplation than others), and, presumably, that Renee justifies her intellectual life and pursuits by being a hard-working woman herself (not that in fact she seems to do much work). All of which makes the accusation that Paloma's mother has (according to Paloma) a 'holier-than-thou-intellectual-left-wing-pose' seem like the pot calling the kettle black.

Others who come in for Paloma's contempt are her rich schoolfriends, particularly for their affectation of the manners and mores of poor kids, which presumably by rights belong, in the division-compounds of this novel, to the poor kids exclusively (and presumably the rich kids should be embracing the mores which the novel despises). Someone in the group commented that the only 'real' person in her class, and the only one Paloma befriends, is truly working class, but is in a fact very much a stereotype, being also black, and that the novel portrays her patronisingly as something of another noble savage (Renee being the other). Meanwhile, there's Renee's Grammar Nazism (a strong feature, indeed, of the French education system which the novel purports to critique). While this is typically French, as I conceded, and while I can be a bit of stickler for grammar myself, it's very over the top here. A resident leaves a casual note for Renee which contains an extraneous comma, and Renee responds thus: 'I was not prepared for such an underhand attack. I collapse in shock on the nearest chair. I even begin to wonder if I am not going mad, and then spends two pages of her journal expounding the iniquity of this comma and its author, and ending in the above quote about those rich folks who can't assume the burden of Beauty deserving to die.

Both Paloma and Renee are enamoured of all things Japanese, which in the simplistic context of the novel struck most of us as mere exoticism as well as a contrived coincidence, unless you believe as they do that only the Japanese appreciate true 'Beauty'. (Paloma and Renee do not know each other at the beginning of the novel). (People had noted early in the discussion that, apart from the applied teen-speak in Paloma's, the two journals are very alike in tone, concern and voice.) The novel rather suddenly takes on the character of a fairytale when, after one of the residents dies, who should move into his flat but Kakuro Ozu, a distant relative of Renee's favourite Japanese filmmaker. Sure enough, Ozu turns out to be the one rich person who appreciates true 'Beauty', and is a fellow spirit for both Paloma and Renee whom he befriends individually (he and Paloma immediately share their suspicions that Renee is really a cultured soul). One of my objections to this novel was that, in spite of all the tracts of philosophising, it seemed to me (insofar as I could concentrate on the philosophical bits which often seriously held up the narrative) 'Beauty' is taken as an absolute. At this point, however, it is inadvertently revealed as a matter of mere taste, and material taste at that, more material indeed than the concerns of Paloma's own family. What makes Ozu so cultured is not just his music and his films, but his beautiful blue bowl and his special musical flushing toilet and his elegant sliding doors and his taste in refined Japanese food. And lo, he is after all Prince Charming, who whisks Renee off her feet and sends her, if not a glass slipper, elegant clothes to wear out to dinner with him, such that no one in the lobby recognises her! So much for her intellectual independence and purity, divorced from the taint of riches! Maybe we are meant to see that Renee, like Ozu, is one of those rare souls who can take on the burden of Beauty in spite of riches, but this rather undermines the original conceit of the novel in which her poverty has purified her, and seemed to most of us to pull against a deeper impulse in the novel irrevocably linking riches with hypocrisy.

While we had been saying these things, Clare had been throwing in rather annoyed protests, though without managing to say very much to support her viewpoint. Now she had formulated her thoughts, however, and she said rather passionately that she thought that we detractors were entirely mistaken about the novel, and that all of the inconsistencies we had been pointing out were in fact intended by the author: we were meant to laugh at Renee and Paloma for their hypocrisies. This dumbfounded us rather, and looking back at such ludicrous moments as the comma incident, we could see their potential for comedy. However, none of the rest of us had found that the tone of the novel had led us to read it in that way: while we agreed that there had definitely been comic moments, mainly in relation to other characters (and particularly in Paloma's depictions of them), we felt we had been meant to take entirely seriously the philosophical musings of both main characters, Renee's especially, and in turn the two characters themselves and their situations.

We considered the possibility that perhaps the translation was at fault and had failed to convey the comic tone of the original. However, I said that one thing that made me doubt that the novel was as clever as Clare was saying was that there were some pretty fundamental errors in the narrative voice and structure. Neither journal has a very convincing register in that each directly addresses an objective reader in the way journals simply don't, with phrases like Don't you think? More radically, one of the journals continues after the death of its author, indeed describing that death. Trevor said that that was ridiculous, I couldn't say that, (ie that these things could indicate that the author wasn't being deliberately comic). But also, I said, endings of novels are particularly telling, and don't the final words of this novel constitute a conclusion to the philosophising, which we appear to be meant to take deadly seriously? but as Clare hadn't actually finished reading the novel yet she couldn't comment on that. John said that he also thought that the ending in terms of action/plot (which I won't give away here) was a clumsy cop-out, the only way that the author could find to resolve a basically psychologically and socially unconvincing situation, but Trevor and Jenny and Clare said that they'd liked the ending. Andrew said he had found it very moving indeed, and I had to confess that I had found it moving too in spite of everything.

Clare stuck to her guns about the cleverness of the novel, but she did concede that there was some stereotyping of a 'goodies and baddies' nature - she remembered being shocked by Paloma's utterly vicious attack on the dying resident as a 'nasty man', which is backed by not a shred of evidence.

New member Andrew then spoke up and said that actually, he had liked this novel, and Trevor said that he had as well, in spite of agreeing with some of the criticisms, and Jenny repeated that in spite of her own doubts she had too. Andrew said that most of all he had enjoyed the philosophical passages, as he didn't normally get to read philosophy, and had found it really interesting. The doubters among us groaned, and I said that I'd found them both pretentious and holding up the action. But wasn't I interested in those ideas? Andrew wanted to know. I replied that yes I am, very interested in philosophical ideas, and indeed when it comes to novels I am most interested in novels of ideas, but I think that in novels ideas work best and most dynamically when they emerge through the action. Here they were of course presented wholesale, and I found I just couldn't concentrate on them. Clare said that she didn't have that problem as she was basically familiar with the ideas, having done a philosophy course as part of her degree. I said that I had too, and that I too was familiar with the ideas, but I wasn't inclined to try to follow them here as the way they were presented required a different kind of attention from that with which you read novels (apart from the fact that I was alienated by their proponents' intellectual snobbery). Clare said but this is a very French mode for novels, and Andrew said, but there are plenty of novels where there are long passages of philosophy, what about Crime and Punishment, and Jenny said, but it's an old-fashioned long-winded mode which nowadays she just can't stand any more. And anyway, I said again, there seems a discrepancy between the idea of taking Renee in a comic light and taking her philosophising so seriously, and that on the whole I felt that this reflected the fact that the novel itself was muddled.

Then someone posed the question as to why, in spite of the intellectual content and its difficulties, the novel had been such a runaway populist success. Ann said that she thought that it appealed to a certain kind of intellectual snobbery which is particularly strong in France, whereby one can feel good by check-listing all the cultural references - including, here, the reference in the title to Isiah Berlin's distinction between two different types of writers as single-minded foxes or intellectually versatile hedgehogs. This last had been lost on the rest of us in our group, however, and on reflection it seems to me that in fact not many people would truly appreciate all the references. Therefore, rather, it seems to me, the book flatters most of all the reader who doesn't, by making him/her feel clever in spite of it, as part of an exclusive little intellectual club with Renee and Paloma.

At which point we agreed to differ, and the group began to break up and the first of us ventured back out into the snow.


February 2010

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

John suggested this classic novella which he had read in the summer and found fascinating. It presents the story of an unnamed young governess employed by the uncle and guardian of two orphans - a young sister and brother whom he has established in an ancestral country house - with the specific and somewhat strange instruction that she is to take complete charge and not trouble him in his London home. Initially overwhelmed, indeed frightened by the task ahead of her, the governess is then exhilarated by finding the children 'perfect', but very soon comes to 'realize' that they are being haunted by the ghosts of two dead and reputedly evil servants, who have 'come for them'.

John said he had found the book fascinating as what seemed to him a repudiation of the certainties of Victorian realist fiction and a presentation of the ambiguities of perception. He pointed out that the governess's story itself is shrouded by layers of displacement. Most obviously it is framed: the novel begins with a narrator recounting a typical Victorian Christmastide ghost-story telling session in just such a country house in which the governess's story will take place - a comparison the narrator indirectly but explicitly draws. While the novel begins, The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, it becomes clear - though not immediately - that the story referred to here is not the one with which the novel will be concerned. Meanwhile, there is comment on the part of the house guests on the quality of each others' ghost tales. All of this serves to set the governess's story right away in a context of comparison and evaluation, while much is made of the delight that the female house guests take in being frightened, in other words of their complicit gullibilty. The governess's story is offered by the guest Douglas, who promises that it will top all the others for 'dreadfulness'. Rather than tell the story himself he says he will read them the governess's own written first-person account. Now while this may seem on the surface to be a proof of its authenticity, the story is at this point rendered peculiarly remote by the fact that, as Douglas reports, although it was once told to him in person by the governess, it had happened many years before that telling, and was written down years after that telling, and the written version was handed on to Douglas only on the death of its author, which is now twenty years past. Not only that, it is physically remote, and indeed locked away in a drawer, and Douglas must send off for it, with a key to have the drawer unlocked, and the company must wait a full two days for its arrival. Meanwhile Douglas provides the background to the story - the facts of the governess's provenance as the daughter of a clergyman, and the circumstances of her employment - which results in a temporal narrative distancing for the reader of the novel. Douglas makes much in his account of vouching for the governess's 'niceness' and 'cleverness', but the validity of his view is somewhat held in suspense by the fact that the ladies present detect in this very speech indications that - in spite of his protestations that she had been ten years older than he - Douglas had been at least a little in love with her and thus biased.

John said that, as a child psychologist himself, he was very taken with what he believed was James's questioning of the concepts of good and evil and what he saw as James's overturning of the simplistic pretty=good and ugly=bad associations one finds in novelists like Dickens. At the start of her employment, the governess sees the pretty children as utterly pure, but right from the beginning we have to question her view as unreliable: they have been orphaned, they have been more or less abandoned by their guardian, and the boy, it turns out, has just been expelled from school, yet she expresses the judgement that they have been untouched by unhappiness. This is only thrown into an ironic light when she later comes to see them as communing with the 'ghosts' and indeed, deceitful and touched by evil themselves. Everyone agreed with John that as the story progresses the governess's perceptions become less and less reliable, culminating perhaps in the moment when she reports to Mrs Grose the housekeeper that the 'ghost' of the dead governess Miss Jessel spoke to her, completely contradicting the earlier blow-by-blow account in her narration of the encounter with the ghost. Her perceptions are extreme, unsubtle, wildly reversed and, with a close reading of the text, unsubstantiated, often because of unfinished sentences when she interrupts, or fails to challenge when others - chiefly Mrs Grose or Miles the boy - break off speaking, seemingly eager to jump to her own conclusions. Finally she tips into a kind of illogical madness: all appearances of innocence must be fraudulent and therefore indicate the presence of evil.

Many critics have pointed to the ambiguity of the figure of the governess in Victorian fiction, caught between upstairs and downstairs, and John said he thought that this was pretty central to the ambiguities of this novel, and pushed here to a particular limit. With what seemed to him something of a plot manipulation (the governess not allowed to contact her employer), James forces her into extreme isolation, a situation in which she has no employer to talk to but cannot talk freely to the servants, not even the housekeeper Mrs Grose of whom she longs to make a friend but from whom she must keep a certain professional distance, resulting in a deeply ambiguous relationship. (We hear in passing that she is also isolated from her family by the fact that they are suffering their own troubles, to which she will not add in correspondence.) John pointed out that James often names his characters symbolically (Miss Jessell, was, it seems, a Jezebel, as someone else in the group pointed out; one meaning of the name Miles is 'uncertainty') and John wondered about the apparent negative connotations of the name Mrs Grose, as well as its possible meaning of 'big'. Could it be that the housekeeper is a more significant element in this story than many interpretations have allowed for? It seemed to John that the housekeeper who appears so homely and dependable in the (unreliable) governess's eyes would in reality resent her arrival in the household, having previously been left to run it herself, and having been very close to the little girl Flora who must now remove her affections to the governess. It is interesting that at the end, when Flora turns against the governess and becomes frightened of her, Mrs Grose 'reclaims' her, even to sleep in her room, and then flees with her, albeit it with the governess's 'blessing'. Mrs Grose might well, in terms of social and psychological reality, want the governess out of the way. Could it be that the whole 'haunting' is a setup engineered by Mrs Grose to achieve that very thing?

At this point the room erupted, and everyone said that it seemed that John had been reading a different novel from the rest of us. Everyone else had read the novel aware only of two main conventional and opposing interpretations: either that the ghosts were indeed real (as early critics of the novel assumed) or that they were a figment of the neurotic imagination of the (thus dangerous) governess, the Freudian reading established by the critic Edmund Wilson. There was now some discussion in which people spoke up for either interpretation, but on the whole people were unable to decide, though Trevor said that he reckoned there were definitely two ghosts in this book.

I said that, having read the novel previously, this time I had read it very carefully, trying to see which of those two interpretations held water, but that I had found that neither did, and the places where it all came unstuck were in the conversations with Mrs Grose which were unfathomable in their ambiguity. It was often impossible, I found, to know exactly how to assess Mrs Grose: when she was being sincere in her sympathies, or when she was perhaps humouring the governess over her belief in the ghosts. The extent of the unreliability of the governess-narrator was not always clear. Others in the group nodded in agreement. I said that on the whole I came down on the side of the psychological interpretation (James was a psychological novelist, after all), but that there was one particular scene where that simply doesn't hold water at all. After the governess sees the 'ghost' of Quint looking in through the dining-room window, she describes his very distinctive appearance - red hair, strange little whiskers - in great detail to Mrs Grose, who immediately recognises the description (with apparent horror) as that of Quint, the master's previous valet. At this precise point the governess has never even heard of Quint and has yet to be told that he is dead. This would seem to indicate that in the objective terms of the novel, the ghost does indeed exist as an objective reality. It had seemed to me that the only conclusion to draw was that a novelist as conscious as James and unlikely to make a mere mistake, must thus, as some critics have concluded, be deliberately creating an ambiguity of possibilities. However, I now wondered if John could be right, and we all reconsidered the novel in the light of his suggestion.

John drew our attention to something in that dining-room window scene which had indeed struck me as very strange and the meaning of which I'd been unable to fathom. At the end of her description, the governess says of the ghost: "He gives me a sort of sense of looking like an actor." Mrs Grose responds: "An actor!" and the governess-narrator comments: It was impossible to resemble one less, at least, than Mrs Grose at that moment. Does this mean that Mrs Grose is so shocked by the governess's unwitting touching on the truth (ie that someone is indeed posing/acting as the ghost) that she momentarily has no need to go on acting herself? There is a passage very soon after the governess's arrival which I couldn't make much sense of, but which in the light of John's interpretation seems to be the governess-narrator's (and the author's?) implication, or indeed statement, that in retrospect (ie from the years-later perspective when she is writing the account) she should have been suspicious of Mrs Grose. Having persuaded herself at the time that Mrs Grose is an ally, the governess then wonders:
The one appearance indeed that in this early outlook might have made me shrink again was that of her being so inordinately glad to see me. I felt within half an hour that she was glad - stout simple plain clean wholesome woman - as to be positively on her guard against showing it too much. I wondered even then a little why she should wish not to show it, and that, with reflexion, with suspicion, might of course have made me uneasy.
In other words, she noted at the time that Mrs Grose was dissembling, and comments now, while writing it all down, that it should have made her uneasy (and the housekeeper was dissembling in a different way from the one which the governess at the time assumed). What we have in this novel is not so much an unreliable narrator, as a narrator reviewing with hindsight a situation she couldn't fathom at the time and indeed misinterpreted. There are many subsequent instances in the unfolding story when the young governess sees Mrs Grose apparently reining in her own emotions and 'holding herself in', and she spends much of her time with the woman assessing her and trying to work out her reactions, but failing to question her and rashly jumping to conclusions. Some of the passages which I earlier felt portrayed Mrs Grose as possibly humouring the governess and indeed suspicious of her (though I wasn't sure), can, in the light of John's interpretation, be read without trouble as portraying Mrs Grose as genuinely shocked by the extent to which the governess has run with the idea of the haunting, but then cleverly deciding to use it. In the scene where the governess reports her first sighting of Miss Jessel's ghost, Mrs Grose is at first shocked, but then turns away to the window (in thought, and to hide the fact that she is thinking?) and then: After a little while she turned round... She slowly came back to me. 'Miss Jessel was infamous [this in fact has been the governess's suggestion].' She once more took my hand in both her own, holding it as tight as if to fortify me against the increase of alarm I might draw from this disclosure. 'They were both infamous,' she finally said - the 'slowly' and 'finally' indicating calculation rather than growing conviction as to the reality of the ghost as I had previously considered and which the governess assumes. The young governess is unreliable in her perceptions, but not just in the matter of the ghosts and the children: she is misreading Mrs Grose.

And what about the fact that, when things reach a crisis, and the decision is made to write after all to the uncle, the supposedly illiterate Mrs Grose says that she'll write to him? The governess questions her: how could she write? and Mrs Grose quickly says that she communicates with the master through the bailiff. Has this been a slipup on the part of Mrs Grose, who found it useful to go along with the governess's assumption of her illiteracy - which in fact has never been substantiated? In fact, in social reality Victorian housekeepers needed to be literate - particularly those left for extended periods in sole charge of a household, as Mrs Grose has been - which the naive governess overlooks. Was Mrs Grose indeed acting her illiteracy when she refused to look at the letter from the school announcing Miles' expulsion? Could this very strange unexplanatory (and indeed thus unlikely ) letter be part of some plot which is linked with the deaths of the former servants? Do the circumstances around those deaths need to be covered up? And if so, is that the reason little Miles must be kept from school, to stop him blabbing - saying things, as he later puts it to the governess. And the bailiff who Mrs Grose says writes for her? Where did he pop up from? He has never previously been mentioned. And what's this 'communicating', apparently in the continuous present? Have they already contacted the master behind the governess's back? Could it be that Mrs Grose and the bailiff are in league in some way - could the bailiff, indeed, be the 'actor'? - and capitalising on the very young governess's nervousness, suggestibility and overactive imagination based in sexual repression and fear (what, indeed, in her years-later narration she calls her 'obsession')? Is Quint so named by James - the name means 'fifth' - because he is the fifth player in an intrigue concerning the housekeeper, the bailiff, the hoodwinked governess and the two dead servants? It's an interpretation that seems to gather credibility in light of the fact that, with his brother William, James was involved in attempts to make scientific studies of paranormal phenomena, many of which were of course uncovered as frauds. (At this point one sees parallels with Affinity by Sarah Waters.) Is the message of the novel that an over-readiness to believe in ghosts, indulged in by the houseguests at the beginning of the book, can actually get you into serious, indeed deadly trouble (and open you up to manipulation)?

John said that he thought that this possible interpretation had been overlooked by critics out of middle-class prejudice: that as a female servant Mrs Grose and her role have been invisible to them. Everyone agreed that Mrs Grose is indeed a major character in the book - she is so often present and constantly referred back to - yet critics so often treat her as a minor player, or a mere foil. Some of us said that we now wanted to read the novel again in the light of this interpretation but others groaned, Doug the loudest, and said No way, they had had real difficulties with James' convoluted prose, and when I said that it did actually suit the governess's convoluted oxymoronic mentality, they retorted that all James's prose was like that. Hans read out the very worst sentence, which others of us had noted, and in which the young governess persuades herself with Jamesian pomposity that the house is a benign place: But there was everything, for our apprehension, in the lucky fact that no discomfortable legend, no perturbation of scullions, had ever, within anyone's memory, attached to the kind old place. Jo, however, a real lover of James, jumped to the defence of the prose.

We then discussed the sexual undertones or indeed overtones of the novel. Clare said she totally went along with the interpretation of the film some years ago now, which presented the whole thing as a portrayal of child sexual abuse - ie in which the children had indeed once been sexually abused by the now dead servants. There is something about this interpretation that rings true, but the question remains: how much of it is intended as factual reality, and how much the governess's imaginings? As subscribers to Freudian interpretations have pointed out, a close reading shows that the sexual interpretations stem from the governess herself: Mrs Grose's confession about the licentious relationship of the two dead servants is, as we have seen above, prompted by the governess's own decision that Quint is 'infamous'; it is the governess who first interprets in homoerotic terms the fact that Miles spent time alone with Quint (and Mrs Grose picks up on it and 'elaborates'). We never hear the foul language which Flora is meant eventually to speak: it is only ever reported by Mrs Grose, and at a time when, in John's interpretation, Mrs Grose is far gone into manipulating the governess and taking advantage of her psychology and assumptions. It is to be remembered that, in love/lust with the absent master (a point which Douglas makes much of in his opening introduction), the governess is in a heightened state of (repressed) sexual frustration, and the fact that the sexual spin on things stems from her psychology seems proven in one of the most unsettling statements of her narrative that when she and Miles were finally left alone in the house together, she compared the two of them to some 'young couple' 'on their wedding journey' (and there is an earlier conversation between the two in the churchyard which has unsettling sexual undertones). To the governess the abuse is 'out there' (with the ghosts) but ultimately, she is the abuser, clasping the children too tightly out of her own need for affection, flirting with the child Miles, and finally, through her own sexual fears, frightening Flora to the extent that she won't come near her and frightening or suffocating Miles to death.

Nevertheless, there are hints of the sexualization of the children, or at least of Miles: he appears to flirt back at the governess and there is the very strange conversation in which he confesses that the reason for his expulsion is that he has been 'saying things' to boys he liked, and that they in turn have passed them on to boys they 'liked'. Is this the author's portrayal of the cycle of corruption set in motion by corrupting adults? And if so, how many of the adults are involved? Are the two ex-servants really dead, or have they been dispatched as the result of a scandal? Mrs Grose is certainly evasive when the governess, with rare straightforwardness, questions her about the circumstances of their deaths, and when Mrs Grose eventually recounts those of Quint's they bear suspicious similarities to Rochester's fall in Jane Eyre. Could it be that this is Mrs Grose's derivative made-up tale and that Quint is in fact still around, and, rather than the 'bailiff', is performing his own 'haunting'? Does the quintet of abusers include the master (rather than the conjured-up bailiff) who, although he so strangely never comes to house now was clearly once there, attended by his valet Quint? (No bailiff appears in the list which Douglas gives in his introductory account of the persons associated with the household, a list so oddly precise that it includes 'an old donkey'.) Could Mrs Grose's shock at the governess's sexual interpretation of the ghosts' motives be indeed genuine, but a reaction to the governess's once more stumbling (unwittingly) on the truth? At any rate, this seems a remarkable tale of a convoluted series of abuses: the neglect, or more, practised by the master, the shadowy but certainly dubious doings of the two now-gone servants, the manipulation of the governess by the housekeeper, and the unwitting abuse of the children by the governess.

Towards the end of the evening I remembered that for years I had carried with me the very idea about this book that John had suggested: that the housekeeper dunnit; but in the intervening years had forgotten.

We mentioned the glances in the book towards other classic ghost/country house stories, the reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho and the echoes of Jane Eyre (where another governess is isolated in a lonely country house), and the fact that the novel thus operates as a comment on the convention. We discussed the fact that the frame breaks at the end of the novel: the narrative does not return to Douglas or the narrator, but finishes with the end of the governess's account and the dramatic denouement of her tale. Mark said that to return to the frame would have clearly watered things: the dramatic moment obviously makes the best end. In retrospect, it seems to me that James's intention is more subtly to indicate the power of the unconscious to break through (and break down) the kind of civilised structures that the opening frame represented.

Anyway, time for another close reading, in my opinion, whatever the rest of the group may think.


March 2010
The Kindness of Women by JG Ballard

This book is billed as the sequel to JG Ballard's 'semi-autobiographical' novel Empire of the Sun which was based on his experiences as a boy in a civilian prison camp near Shanghai in the second world war. The events of this book follow the details of its biographical note: boyhood imprisonment, return to England in 1946, two years at Cambridge reading medicine, work as a copywriter and a stint in Canada with the RAF, before employment as an assistant editor of a scientific journal and a writing career. It is also well known that the wife of the real-life Jim Ballard died young and that famously, through the sixties and seventies, he then brought up his three children alone in the suburb of Shepperton while pursuing his writing career, just as happens to the Jim of the novel. Thus this novel too is self-avowedly autobiographical, but as with all autobiographical fiction, precisely how autobiographical is unclear, and much of our discussion kept stumbling up against this issue.

The book follows Jim's struggle with the lifelong psychic damage which the war perpetrated on him as a child in Shanghai and on our collective consciousness.

Introducing the book, Trevor said that he had expected to like the book more than he discovered he did. He thought there was a lot about it to admire, but had found it rather repetitive - not just in the way that the first section covers the same ground as Empire of the Sun, but that having read several Ballard books he was now realizing that there were repetitions across the books as a whole (indeed, a later section in this novel covers the same ground as Crash, which we discussed previously). In addition, he found the prose repetitive: Ballard keeps repeating phrases throughout. He noted that narrator Jim just has to have sex in the end with every woman who comes into his life - even if for most of their relationship the fact that sex is off the agenda has been the essence of it, as with his Shangai au pair Olga and Peggy, his sister/mother substitute in the camp. While Trevor is famous in our group for liking sex in books, he said that on this occasion it made him 'squeamish' - most particularly the fact that Jim has sex with his wife's sister the moment he gets back to England after her death abroad. To his great surprise, Trevor had come away from this book feeling that Jim/JG Ballard wasn't a very pleasant person.

I laughed and said yes, it was as though all the women in the book are there on earth just to make Jim better through sex. Others laughed too, and Jo said with grim irony and some force that she found it totally ridiculous that he and his wife had sex in the moments after she had given birth - he wishes, she said: total male fantasy! It was generally agreed at this moment that the amount and tenor of the sex in the book was basically male fantasy. But then someone (it may have been me) said, Well, some men do behave like that, or did in those days, the sixties, when there was an ideology that sex was the answer to everything, and women did go along with it. It did seem conceivable to me as a pattern of behaviour at that time, whatever you may think of it, and anyway wasn't it a very autobiographical novel?

Ann then said that she had got very interested in this question of the book's autobiographical nature, and she had looked up some of the details, and found that in reality Ballard's wife died of pneumonia, and not as the result of a fall, as happens in the book - a fact which I now remembered I had previously known. Later, too, someone pointed out that the prison camp details differ between the two books: in Empire of the Sun narrator Jim is imprisoned with his parents - which seems to be the implication of the biographical note here - whereas in this book he and his parents are separated, in different camps. Also, someone said, his fellow prisoner Peggy Gardner, a key figure in the camp episode of this book, doesn't even appear in Empire of the Sun, and Ann suggested that she was possibly a fictional construct, taking the place of the parents. The conclusion, therefore, is that the book is not all that autobiographical.

Trevor, getting back to his introduction, said that he felt that this blend of autobiography and fiction was very good - one of the good things about the book - because by making the book fiction Ballard was able to include episodes which otherwise you would be likely to find unbelievable, for instance those which chime with the novel Crash, where Jim's old friend David Hunter plays erotic games of dicing with death in cars. I didn't quite understand what Trevor was saying here about the nature of autobiography and fiction and how we read them, but in any case, Jo cried: But there is so much in the book that isn't believable - that thing about the sex just after the birth, for instance! But Jenny, who had been quite quiet up to now, said that some people do do that.

Ann got back to the question of Jim's character and said that the way she had taken Jim was, above all, as damaged. Most of us agreed, and Clare, who is a counsellor, seemed most insistent on understanding rather than condemning him. I said that one thing I still found unacceptable (however understandable) about Jim, however, was the fact that he seemed completely to discount the possibility of his children's grief at the death of their mother and their own lasting damage: in his eyes these small children - the girls, at any rate - got over it very quickly, they were 'sensible' (unlike him), and, even on the journey home from the funeral, had, like all the women in his life, set about the task of looking after him and healing him in some way. Later he states that his children brought him up rather than the other way round. This, I have to say - male abdication of the adult and caring roles to women and girl children, and colonisation of the role of central player/victim - is a classic sexist position, and while I understand it in the light of the social ethos of the time, I still consider it an abdication of the responsibility of parenthood. Clare commented significantly that I clearly felt very strongly about this (which I do in principle) and I think that from this point on I was cast in the discussion as over-emotional in my response to the book (although in fact, as I kept saying, the book failed to provoke strong emotions in me) and as Jim's biggest detractor, which I think rather weakened anything else I tried to say. I mentioned the scene in which Jim, unseen by his children, comes upon them trying on their dead mother's wedding clothes which they have found secreted away, and which they then secrete away neatly again afterwards. Just as Jim concludes that a lover who nearly drowns but is saved by him does so to allow him to exorcise the fact that he couldn't save his wife, his conclusion here is that by being able to trying on the wedding clothes and then put them away and out of their minds, his children have demonstrated that they have got over their grief. The possibility that their action is both a trying-out of their unacknowledged grief and a subsequent reinforcement of its repression does not occur to him. Jenny pooh-poohed this last, and concurred with Jim's interpretation. Clare said that she had read an account by one of Ballard's daughters of being brought up by him in Shepperton, and that it had been a representation of a very happy childhood, unclouded by grief.

Jenny then said that she felt quite differently about Jim/Ballard from the rest of us: she had found him a really pleasant and attractive character, and if she had known him in life she was sure she would have been attracted to him.

I said that my main thoughts about the book were the same as I'd had about Crash. I was enthralled by Ballard's themes: the idea that our reality is now filtered and displaced by film etc and confused with dream, our erotic relationship with machines and our resulting loss of affect. I felt he was onto great truths there about our contemporary world. But I wasn't convinced by the way he tackled it, ie by the writing. As in Crash, there is a lot of lush and vivid writing which I do really admire: Ballard can conjure up vivid pictures and the atmosphere of place in a way that few writers can achieve, but there is also something sadly lacking for me. I never feel that his books take me, on any emotional level, through the psychological journeys of his protagonists that will prove his ideas - and this is surely the main function of fiction. In fact, when it comes to the psychological journeys of his protagonists, Ballard tends to make the amateur writer's mistake of telling not showing - which is why I was able to be detached emotionally and consider a different interpretation of the wedding-dress scene from Jim's. Jim tells you outright, for instance, that he is erotically wedded to the bombers he flies, he constantly tells us that we are living as if on a film set - and the constant telling results in the repetitiveness Trevor noted - but we are never made to share in any deeply emotional way that feeling of erotic marriage or of displacement, and I was often left with the sense of things having been glossed over and of being cheated of the emotional substance. At this point John, Doug and Mark put in that they had found the book most unengaging, boring even, and John said that although he had read it only a few weeks ago he couldn't remember much about it, which was why he wasn't taking part in the conversation.

In other words, I said, as I found with Crash, the prose colludes with the lack of affect about which Ballard is writing and thus is in no position to anatomize it. I thought a good example was the early section where seven-year-old Jim is caught up in the first bomb released on Shanghai. The description of the aftermath - the bodies and detached limbs lying around - is so matter-of-fact and indeed perfunctory as to be almost overlooked in the reading, and I almost decided at this point not to go on reading as the book seemed so unengaging. Later of course I realized - one could hardly miss it with Jim's explicit assertions - that what was supposed to be being conveyed here was Jim's own emotional disengagement through shock, which would reverberate through the rest of his life. However, there was nothing in the writing of the scene - no image, no diction or sentence construction - that prefigured those devastating psychological reverberations, and to my mind there was chiefly a sense of the author's (continuing) lack of emotional engagement with the scene. Needless to say I was less articulate than I can be here in retrospect, and I think I failed to make people understand what I was saying. Clare and Jenny simply objected that that lack of engagement was what seven-year-old Jim would be feeling at the time, and after I tried to explain again Clare said that surely the later scene where thirteen-year-old Jim has to watch a Chinese man being murdered by Japanese soldiers without showing any emotion is full of the right sort of tension (and I agreed: it was better handled).

Someone referred to the section in which Jim attends medical school and dissects a body which happens to be that of a female doctor (the first, as he implies at the outset, of a long line of helpful women with the role of healing him) (and several of us agreed that we had found this bit vivid and fascinating). This process, he tell us, helps him to come psychologically to terms with the dead bodies he had seen in Shangai. I said we have to take that last on trust, though: I never really understood on an emotional level how that healing happened (the woman's body may be anatomized, but this process inside Jim's head and emotions isn't). Jenny objected: but she doesn't heal him, because he goes on being damaged, and needs to run off to the RAF and yearns to be a bomber etc. I said Well, the narrator explicitly states that she does:
...the woman doctor on her glass table had identified herself with all the victims of the war in China, and with the young Chinese clerk I had seen murdered against the telegraph pole. By dissecting her, exploring her body from within, I felt that I was drawing closer to some warped truth ... it was that dead young woman doctor who had set me free.
This was precisely the problem I was trying to get at: the fact that the narrator states things but fails to demonstrate them on an emotional enough level to make us convinced (and indeed in this instance goes on to demonstrate the opposite). It's interesting to note that it's the dead woman who is made to be the active agent in parts of the piece quoted here: she did it to him, rather than he finding his own salvation through her (as indeed in the episode with the near-drowned lover) - a passivity on Jim's part which perhaps links to the lack of authority I find in the book as a whole.

I said that all of this was partly a function, too, of the autobiographical nature of the book. If it were purely fiction there would be a far greater onus on the author to convince emotionally, because we read autobiography and fiction differently. Jenny said, No you don't! Why do you? Mark said it was to do with the assumptions you bring to them. I said that the premise of autobiography is that what is being conveyed is factual truth, so there may seem less of a need to convince than in fiction. On the other hand, I went on, with autobiography you are paradoxically free to consider taking it with a pinch of salt, simply because the issue of the factual truth of the contents has been raised. Doug said yes, when someone is writing an autobiography one usually assumes in fact that they are putting forward a manipulated image of themselves. What we were implying is that with fiction this fraught question of whether it really happened is beside the point (and one can focus on the deeper truths). Trevor clearly inferred this and was nodding vigorously, and seemed to feel that we were corroborating his earlier statement that Ballard's fictionalisation had solved the problem of believability. But the trouble with confessedly autobiographical fiction is that, since the issue of the factual nature of the contents is raised the issue of believability is not beside the point, yet because of the fiction element one is of course even less clear than in straight autobiography about how far to take any of the individual contents as facts. However, Jenny insisted that she didn't read autobiography and fiction in different ways.

I said - to Clare's surprise - that I didn't even think the prose was always good on a working sentence level. Too many paragraphs were hampered by amateurish repetitions of constructions and rhythms, as here:
Warning Henry to stay in the car, I ran into the water... Wading out, I jumped chest high..
Trevor said, well, he does that on purpose - with which I don't agree: it looks more like carelessness to me - but I said even if it is on purpose it doesn't work, it deadens the prose, and Trevor I think agreed. There is frequent amateurish (and coy) anthropomorphism as this in the same section:
The foam seethed at her feet, delighted to greet this beautiful and deranged young woman
There's a cliched and even bourgeois coyness in the depictions of Jim's social relations: Sally took to [Dick] instantly, and Dick could see that she was everything I needed. I said I had found the dialogue - especially between Jim and the women - clunky and twee, the latter stoking my sense of the book's psychological inauthenticity.

John said bluntly that the prose was just flat, and Doug agreed and said that as a result he had found the episodic nature of the book - which jumps across time - very disengaging, giving him a sense of things being glossed over and the whole being superficial.

In fact, the episodic nature of the book was one of the things I had liked about it - with its poignant sense of time passing while Jim remained damaged. Clare and I also found that we had had quite different senses of Ballard's depiction of suburban Shepperton. Clare, who had once lived there herself, felt that he had depicted it as grey and dull, just as she remembered it, whereas for me he had rendered it exotic. Someone pointed out to me that after Jim's LSD high, in which he sees the place as ultra-exotic, he sees its dull reality, and that's true, but that reality is an aberration to him, as for most of his life it is a 'paradise of the ordinary' and a place, as someone in the book says, 'where a city dreams'.

I also said that the one really moving moment for me was near the end of the book when Jim witnesses a passing stranger saving a young girl's life by giving her the kiss of life and then picks up his bag and walks on. What I found most moving was that Jim wants to call out and ask him who he his, but then realizes that, to all intents and purposes and through the man's actions, he knows who he is. Everyone agreed that this was moving (although John has since said to me that he found it significant that when all the women in the book make efforts to save Jim it's taken for granted and so isn't particularly moving, but when a man saves someone it's considered really something and is made moving!).

After all our criticisms, Mark asked: so why then is Ballard considered by many our greatest twentieth-century writer? I shrugged rhetorically, but I do think that perhaps there's a very good answer: that whatever his failings, Ballard was really onto something about the nature of our twentieth-century psyche, and, in the final analysis, the fact that his failings may be symptoms of that psyche just renders it all the more vivid.

* Edited in: I should have mentioned that when several people said they'd found the book boring, Jenny said that she had found it really engrossing: she really looked forward to picking it up again each time, which is an experience she rarely gets with books nowadays, and longs for.


April 2010
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Ann suggested this book because she had attended a lecture given by an American academic, in which he had advanced the notion that fiction is better at conveying the reality of historical moments and situations than 'factual' history. The two novels he cited as being excellent examples were Coetzee's Disgrace, which we have also discussed, and this 1987 novel set in mid-1800s Kentucky, when slavery was under attack from the abolitionists. The Beloved of the title is the baby daughter of escaped slave Sethe, whom Sethe killed with her own hands rather than have her taken back into slavery when the slave owners caught up with her - named 'Beloved' because that was all that was written on her gravestone - and who returns to haunt and disrupt her mother's house and claim retribution. The Author's Forward in my edition makes clear that the story is based on a real-life case, that of Mary Garner (whose slave-owner name, Garner, Sethe shares). Amazingly enough, in spite of the fame of this book, and the fact that Morrison has won both the Nobel and the Pullitzer, none in our group - or at least none present for the discussion - had previously read it.

Ann said that she hadn't found the book an easy read at all (at which everyone else nodded), mainly because of the structure of the novel which constantly shifts back and forth between both the viewpoints of the characters and the past and the present, but also because of the language Morrison employs: an intimate third-person which takes on some of the vocabulary and syntax of the characters' own language, and indeed at one point morphs into (a shifting) first person. However, Ann thought it was a very powerful book, and most of us strongly agreed.

Jo said she wondered why Morrison had written it in such a complicated way. I said I thought it was the only way she could have written it and achieved emotional veracity, since the story is about a suppressed history, in particular the subjective experience of slaves; the structure constantly resurrects the buried past into the present of the novel. Ann added the even more salient point that the characters themselves don't want to remember their past experience (since it is so painful). As a result the past is only revealed in layers: one scene from the past will be presented in a way which seems vivid enough, but then we will return to it again and a further detail will suddenly illuminate the scene in a new, and often horrifying, way. Thus we are forced constantly to reassess our own insights, and this, it seems to me, is the political force of the novel, and others agreed. There is one particularly horrifying detail, for instance, about the physical appearance of the character Paul D (who was enslaved with Sethe and now comes into her life again) which is revealed only at the end of the novel. The surprise is breath-stopping, and one is forced to come consciously to terms with the fact that for the length of the whole novel one's view of him has been partial, and that therefore one has underestimated his experience, as well as that of those around him.

I asked Ann what the American academic had said about why he thought fiction worked better than factual writing in conveying such histories, and Ann said it was precisely this, that it operates on the feelings of the reader by inhabiting the feelings of characters - a point with which I heartily agree. The structure of this novel in particular forces a kind of retrospective reading which most of us thought emotionally and politically powerful. Ann commented that another thing which makes the novel especially powerful emotionally is, paradoxically, the matter-of-fact way in which the horrors are conveyed. The contrast between the tone and the events being described, and the implication that for slaves this was day-to-day experience, is particularly shocking. Ann said that she had listened to a World Service podcast of an interview with Morrison who had said that she had made the conscious decision that she must avoid anger in the novel, and that the only character she could allow to be angry was the ghost (because she had been murdered).

John now said that it was interesting that we hadn't really mentioned Beloved up to now, although she was in many ways the focus of the novel. This wasn't really picked up for further discussion, though I think in retrospect she's a kind of medium, in the terms of the novel, for the conveyance of the past into the present of the novel. There was some discussion as to whether she was a real ghost or not - she finally materialises as the eighteen-year-old woman she would have been had she lived; and twice there is reference to the rumour of a young woman, kept as a sex slave, having escaped from a shed nearby - but our conclusion was that we were not meant to read the novel in these either/or realist terms, but to inhabit the mentality of the characters and their attitudes to an ambiguous spirit world. Some people, Ann in particular, wondered how differently Americans, to whom this history of slavery belonged, might read the novel. Ann said that in the podcast Morrison states that she made the decision to address her novel to black people (unlike the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher-Stowe, for instance, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had been addressed to white readers) - although it seems to me that her technique of retrospective revelation is employed on ignorant white readers most usefully of all. John pointed out that it was ironic that as Mancunians we should feel a distance from slavery, since as a cotton port Manchester was intimately involved in the three-way cotton-sugar-slave trade. (A novel that explores that three-way trade is Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.)

However, Trevor now said that he had had a lot of trouble with the language and complicated structure of this novel, and Clare said so had she. Trevor said that he'd even gone off and read something else in the middle as relief and then gone back to it.

We then recalled some of the horrors that the novel exposes, such as the fact that after the slaves are caught trying to escape, those considered of little use are beheaded and dismembered and their headless limbless torsos hung from trees, and the fact that the slave owner thinks of them as farm animals and talks of the 'breeding one' and her 'foal'. Ann told us the horrifying fact she had learnt from the podcast that the abolitionists had tried to get the real-life Mary Garner tried for murder, because if she were capable of murder then she would have to be acknowledged to be human.

Ann, or perhaps Jo, said that one impressive thing about the novel was the way that early on we are led to see the Garners as unusually philanthropic slave owners, but later realize that this is just a matter of relativity, and that they have their own cruelties. I said that one of the most horrifying moments for me, though, was not the out-and-out cruelty from which it's easy to distance oneself, but the incident towards the end when Sethe's living daughter Denver goes to the abolitionists' house to ask for work. Here she comes across something which horrifies her: a small statue of a black child with its head pulled back and its lower lip extended to receive coins casually thrown down, ready for paying tradesmen - a figure so like the Little-Black-Sambo collection figures that stood unremarked outside shops and in arcades in my own childhood, that I was pushed up suddenly against my own unconscious collusion in racism.

Then we talked about the fact that the TV Black-and-White Minstrel Show went on into the seventies, and that Robinson's golliwogs weren't discontinued until the eighties, and ended up, I think, quite subdued...


May 2010
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Warning: plot-spoilers. I have found it impossible to report our discussion without disclosing the outcome of the plot of this novel.

Clare suggested this book because a friend of hers who is an Irish professor of poetry had told her that Colm Toibin, none of whose books she had ever read, is the greatest writer, indeed prose stylist, in English alive today. Others of us were interested to read this particular novel, as it has had much praise heaped upon it: it won last year's Costa Award, and was the novel which has seemed to be most quoted in all the recommended and favourite-read lists that pop up all over the place.

This meeting was a particularly disorderly one, for some reason, with people constantly setting up separate simultaneous conversations, so it's not easy to pick out a coherent thread, but I'll do my best.

Brooklyn is a historical novel, set in the 1950s, and tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living in the Co Wexford town of Enniscorthy (which I understand is Toibin's own home town) where there is little or no work to be had, but who is offered work in America. The book follows, via a simple linear structure and exhaustive but almost clinical detail, her prior scant experience of work before the offer (one day a week in a local grocer's), her journey by ship to New York, her work in a department store there and the life of the Irish boarding house in which she lives with several other young Irishwomen, and eventually a dilemma. After some time in Brooklyn she becomes involved with Tony, a young Italian-American plumber, but the death of her elder sister Rose at home means that she must make a return visit. Afraid that she will not come back, he persuades her to marry him before she leaves. However, once she is back at home Eilis finds she does not want to return to America, nor to disclose to anyone her relationship with Tony and the fact that she has married him. Inevitably, she experiences social pressures to stay and take her sister Rose's place as her mother's companion, and meanwhile she becomes involved with Jim Farrell, a young man in the town. Thus her dilemma ensues...

Clare said that she didn't know after reading it whether it was true that Colm Toibin was the greatest living writer in English because she isn't that well read, but she certainly very much enjoyed and admired the book. The main thing she admired about it was the thing for which Toibin is generally praised: his plain, unadorned prose in which the motives and feelings of his characters are not explicitly stated. There was one moment, though, when the painful nature of Eilis's first experience of sex was described very explicitly and in a way that was very truthful - and Jenny and Jo chorused, yes, it is, and the fact that it can be painful is so rarely even acknowledged in literature! Clare had wondered how on earth a man could know such a thing, so she had read up about Toibin and had found an interview in which he said that he had asked a female friend who had described it to him. Mostly, however, the reader is left to infer the feelings of the characters, and it's all very understated.

At this point Doug said dryly that it was certainly understated, and it quickly became clear that, contrary to general critical opinion, several people in the room did not find this a strength in the book. John, who is never one to mince his words, said it was 'F******* boring.' Jo said she couldn't stand Eilis, she was just such a wimp: it wasn't just that Toibin didn't portray her feelings, she never expressed them herself when to do so would have allowed her to take charge of her fate. Indeed, she didn't even seem to have any feelings much: she just drifted off to America when other people told her to, she drifted into her relationship with Tony and married him when he pushed her to, and she drifted into her relationship with Jim Farrell. I said I had to agree that there were many moments when I wanted to wring her neck.

There was now however a chorus of objection from Clare, Trevor and Jenny, who appealed to social reality: that's how young women were in the fifties, they said: they very much felt that they had to conform. I said that it was true that there were great pressures on young women in that era to conform, but that didn't mean that they didn't have an internal life of passions - indeed, it seems to me that one's internal passions become the greater the more you are outwardly repressed, and Jo vehemently agreed. Where, in this book, I said, is the inner life? (For instance, when Eilis hears that her sister back home in England has died, the line we read after the news is 'Eilis said nothing', and that's all in this scene that we know of her reaction. It's true that later we are told - dispassionately - that she can't stop crying, but this leaves us very outside of her experience, and I certainly wasn't moved by her grief. There are other incidents when her emotional reactions aren't even touched on.) Clare said, the emotions may not be stated on the page, but you are meant to infer them. I said but that's not good enough, though didn't get the chance to say why: ie, that it's one thing for an author to imply an inner life without actually stating it, through diction, images etc and thus leave a reader in no doubt about it (indeed, it’s the best way), but if you leave out so much that readers need consciously to make inferences, they can be left in doubt, and the way our conversation(s) then went seemed to prove this point.

Jenny indicated that Eilis didn't have any real passions to infer, by saying that she thought this book was precisely about the fact that people do just drift through life without any real inner passions, marrying the first boring person who comes along etc and then suddenly finding themselves in old age having wasted their lives. Jo and I exploded with amazement. I said, of course people lead boring lives, but you can't tell me that most people don't have yearnings, and a sense of anguish if they feel those yearnings aren't going to be fulfilled. Jenny said, no they only feel anguish at the ends of their lives when they're disappointed. I said, Well, people do marry boring people, but they don't think they're boring, for goodness' sake: they fall in love and love is blind! They feel passion! and Jo and Doug cried agreement.

Jo said, but what was awful about Eilis was that she wasn't in love with Tony or Jim, she just drifted into her relationships with them. Then it turned out that people in the group had made opposite inferences about this, some thinking the same as Jo, but others thinking that Eilis was in love with both men and truly torn between them. (My inference was that she is both physically attracted to and fond of each of them, but not passionately enough in love with either to give up everything else for them. But it is simply how she behaves which told me this: I was taken by surprise when it becomes clear that her relationship with Jim Farrell is physically sexual, and I felt cheated of the emotional journey towards this point, and because I hadn't been on that journey with her, had to wonder consciously as I read it what it meant: has she fallen in love with him? Or is she simply giving in to lust and having a fling? Do I now need to reinterpret some of the scenes leading up to this?) I said that I did very much like the idea, which is actually spelt out in the book at this point, that once you leave home, the home you have left becomes an unreality, a dream, but that if you then go back home, the new life you have made for yourself can become the unreality instead; I have indeed experienced this myself. Others nodded, indicating that they had too. But, I said, I didn't find that it was satisfactorily conveyed in this novel in terms of Eilis's inner consciousness. I said also that although this book has been so praised for its portrayal of a woman, I really couldn't imagine a woman writing something so devoid (shy?) of the emotional dimension (John added: 'She's just a blank!'), and I had noticed that all the reviews I had read praising this book so profusely had been written by men. (Great credit, though, to the exceptionally sensitive men in our group who also missed the passion!) Clare said that she had in fact come across one appreciative review by a woman.

John said that, actually, Eilis struck him as not very Irish, and I agreed: she seemed, in her repression, much more like a young Englishwoman of the time. There was now loud communal objection: of course she was Irish! Very Irish! Irish women at that time were more repressed than English ones! My own appeal to social reality – that Eilis reminded me far more of my Welsh aunts when they were young than my feisty Irish aunt who’d actually been a nun – fell on utterly deaf ears (and I smiled sweetly and bit my tongue when Trevor – who, I hasten to add, has Celtic roots of his own - said that Celts were all the same). John said that the repression of emotion was a very English trait, and he wondered if this is why Toibin’s writing was so popular in England.

Doug said that actually, you know, Eilis wasn’t a wimp: there were times when she stood up to people, including the Brooklyn landlady. I said yes, and she did in fact make choices, (and Doug strongly agreed): there were several occasions when she thought hard about alternative courses of action and made the conscious decision to do nothing. (In fact, these were some of the moments when Eilis came over to me as dislikeable, rather mean-spirited in fact – another function, I think, of the novel having failed to make me identify with her). Now that this had been pointed out, Jo and others had to agree that it was so and there began to be general puzzlement, rather than disagreement, about how we were meant to take Eilis.

Ann now spoke up for the first time and said that she had found the book a really tedious read. All the detailed descriptions of the grocer's shop in Ireland, the lists of things on the shop shelves and the ways they had to be packed, of the voyage across and the berth in the ship, and of the department store in Brooklyn and the way all its processes worked, of the domestic arrangements in the Irish boarding house - all of this, as far as Ann could see, was just research which had been included for the sake of it. Clare, Jenny and Trevor and even Jo now said, But they had loved all that! They loved finding out, for instance, that one bathroom was shared between two berths on a ship, with a separate lockable door on each side, and that when your berth was deep down in the bowels of the ship you especially felt the force of the waves. They then spent some time recalling many such things in the book that they had relished. I said, But your interest in all these things is anthropological, and that's not relevant to whether or not they operate towards creating a powerful novel, and people did then generally agree. Ann said that the episode on the ship, with the relationship that's built up between Eilis and her berth-mate, seemed especially inserted for its own sake, leading nowhere in the overall plot of the novel, although it had been given enough attention and space and had been recounted in such a way (with detail and dramatisation) as to make you think it was going to. Ann said, Compare this novel with Toni Morrison's Beloved, which we discussed last time, where every single thing that was mentioned or portrayed was deeply significant to both the plot and the theme of the novel. I agreed, and said that for much of the time that I was reading Brooklyn I couldn't help thinking that this was a real-life story that Toibin had been told by an aunt about her own life, and had failed to shape satisfactorily into fiction, and Ann nodded vigorously. In any case, I said, unlike others I found much of the description too flat to be interesting in itself (and Ann, Doug and John nodded agreement). For instance, I said, one of the things I remember very vividly from my early childhood is the metal canisters containing bills and change that zoomed on wires across a department store in Barry in South Wales, from the counter to the high-up cashier's desk and back. But Toibin's description of this in the Brooklyn department store was so flat that I felt cheated. The others had said that they loved the description of the Sunday-night dance in Enniscorthy, but I said that I had experienced those small-town dances, and what I missed in this description was their overriding atmosphere of aching(a quality you wouldn’t miss, for instance, in a writer like Edna O’Brien).

Trevor now said that one thing that he found very frustrating about this novel was that in a book of 250 pages nothing actually happened until page 170 when Eilis gets word in Brooklyn that her elder sister Rose back home has died, and most people agreed. I said that this point was really interesting: whether or not nothing significant does happen up to that point. In fact, when you get to the end you do realize that some of what has seemed inconsequential is after all significant. This particularly applies to Mrs Kelly who owns the Enniscorthy grocer's shop where Eilis works before she goes to America: right at the end a connection will be revealed between Mrs Kelly and Brooklyn which will be Eilis's undoing. I did say that this was the one thing I found moving about the novel: the revelation at the end that in spite of the sense of dislocation and isolation in emigration, the world is after all a very small place and those controlling forces of home can't be escaped. However, it seems to me that the surprising revelation of this connection does not arrive for the reader with as much of the satisfaction (and shock) of underlying inevitability as it might, because of the lack of resonance in the way Eilis's time in Mrs Kelly's shop is portrayed, with an imbalance of clinical, list-checking attention to the details and processes of the shop. Jenny said, but what that description illustrates is the control of the older women over the younger ones in these small societies (and there was then some very interested discussion of this social fact, and the fact that in some apparently patriarchal societies it's actually the women who hold the real power).

This led on to a discussion of Eilis's mother at the end of the novel, and the way that she behaves when Eilis finally reveals that she got married in America. As with the question of whether or not Eilis is in love with Tony and Jim, people had different ideas about Eilis's mother's feelings and motives, and indeed were more uncertain about them. Some saw her as shocked by the news and consequently punishing Eilis, others saw her as merely upset and unable to cope with the fact that it meant Eilis would have to leave her. It turned out that several people had missed the fact that it wasn't actually news to her; that she had known, or at least guessed, all along, and had chosen to ignore the matter while Eilis said nothing about it. Her apparently resolute avoidance of asking Eilis anything whatever about her life in America is thus explained: it's a way of sweeping under the carpet an unpalatable fact which, if acknowledged, would in all morality have to take Eilis back to America and away from her.

How had she known, when Eilis had never even mentioned Tony to her in her letters? Well, there are clues, but the trouble is that the very flatness of the prose and the authorial refusal of evocation of emotion with which they are presented in the course of the novel, mean that they are submerged in the profusion of other detail which is of no particular narrative significance - which is why, I think, some in our group missed this major revelation. The book, it turns out, does have a subtext, but because it reads for most of its length as if it doesn't, it loses much potential resonance. Ann said that if she hadn't had to finish the book for the group she would have given up on it very early on as clearly leading nowhere, and several of us agreed.

Clare, however, stuck up for the book and repeated that she had enjoyed reading it very much.

June 2010
Cloud Street by Tim Winton

I've been struggling to do my scheduled reading as I'm very busy with my own writing, so when the group met in June to discuss this book (Doug's suggestion) I hadn't managed to find time read it, and John, who had already read it, dissuaded me from bothering , as he felt it would put me off my stride: there are enough similarities with the book I'm writing, he felt, to make me feel I ought to change mine (which he didn't think I should). In fact, of course, this made me curious enough to have a sneaky peek, and I immediately felt I would love it. And now I've read it - though it took me ages! - and it's true there are things which chime with my own, but not enough I feel to matter.

Like my WIP, it's a kind of family saga. In this case it's the story of two Australian families, the Pickles and the Lambs, who live one each side of a rambling, ramshackle house in Perth, bought with a win on the horses and inherited by Sam Pickles whose own life is directed and misdirected by a compulsion for gambling and a quasi-religious belief in luck. The Lambs arrive in the wake of a tragedy - one of their sons, the previously bright Fish, has been brain-damaged through near-drowning - and in the half of the house they rent they set up a grocer's shop. For many years relations between the two families are fairly strained, particularly between the two wives, beautiful drunkard Dolly Pickles and plain, hard-working Oriel Lamb with her Protestant ethic, but inevitably the lives of them all become entangled. There's a rich, rumbustious realism to this novel: as one critic has said, it's as vivid and concrete as a soap, and the character depiction is to my mind sublime; yet there are ghosts and hauntings. There's a windowless room with a piano that rings out middle C when no one's in the room, and the shades of the pianist and original owner, a cruel woman who once ran a missionary for black girls in the house, and the sobbing black girl who died there, probably from a beating; there's a singing, talking pig, there's an unearthly aboriginal man who haunts the family, especially Fish's brother Quick, and the whole story is watched from another dimension by Fish after his death, the true drowning he has in the end (and at the beginning of the novel).

As far as I remember everyone present for the discussion liked this book, though none were quite as bowled over as I'd expected them to be after dipping into the beginning. What was clear to me then was the impressive language: the use of a vivid and energetic Australian demotic, and the most striking and apt images: 'diesels throbbing like blood', 'the water was a flat bed of sunlight', 'the sky kiting over', and when I came to read the book, for much of its length I was hooked on this language and the way it successfully combines the earthy, realist elements and the surreal.

However, some people in the group didn't find the mix so seamless: it seemed to be agreed that the aboriginal man, for instance, was 'plonked in', someone suggested as a political sop, and some hadn't found the fact that the story is narrated by an after-life Fish particularly significant or memorable. In fact, there wasn't really much discussion at all: Doug said he also very much admired the language and Clare said that the book was notable for its generosity, the lack of judgement of the characters that you so often find in English novels, with which I heartily agree. But the conversation petered out, and John noted that the book hadn't given rise to the discussion of any issues, and it was generally agreed that there weren't really any issues to discuss; it was just the story of a pair of families.

Having now read the book I'd say that this is a book in which as in a soap much happens on the level of event - as you would expect in the story of two generations of two families - but as in a soap nothing much happens in terms of development of theme. The structure of the book is circular, beginning and ending with Fish's death, and you do very much get the feeling of not having moved on in insight, rather having simply watched a vivid tableau and got to know and love a set of characters. There are themes, those of luck and autonomy, guilt and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty, and the novel proper begins with a situation in which Sam Pickles and his family are in thrall to his sense of luck (the 'shifty shadow'). But the novel shifts focus (if entertainingly and excitingly) to other characters and other story strands, and any resolution of this theme is forced and indeed sentimental: the birth of a child which banishes the malignant ghosts of the house. In fact, I found the last part of the novel disappointingly sentimental, with a telling loss of rhythm in the prose and a certain coyness or perhaps formality creeping into the previously gritty diction. And I found I agreed about the narrative device: ultimately, I couldn't see any thematic point in the use of an after-life narrator.

At the time of the discussion it seemed to me that this book was likely to be great in the most serious sense of the word, and I asked the others if they thought it was. They didn't think so, but they thought it a great read. For much of its length while I was reading it I couldn't imagine how they could be so lukewarm, but having ended up disappointed I'm afraid I have to agree


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