The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2013
Elizabeth Baines

January 2013
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I wasn't at the meeting when the group discussed Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the well-known and acclaimed autobiographical first novel by Jeanette Winterson, in which a protagonist with the same name as the author is brought up to be a preacher by an adoptive and fanatically evangelical Christian mother who burns her books, but, discovering her lesbian sexuality, finally rebels and escapes to university.

What follows is the report of the discussion written by John:

Jenny chose this book. Or rather she suggested two other books and was met by a number of people very obviously not keen to choose either of them. She then mentioned she’d seen a programme with Jeanette Winterson talking about her memoir, recently published, which she found interesting. There was then the suggestion that we read Oranges and general agreement.

Jenny, whose initials, like JW’s, are JW, said she felt very close to the book, being adopted herself in rather similar circumstances – she was adopted into a “working class” home and became a university lecturer. Jenny said her mother was not like JW's – but that she was nonetheless a mother with a mission.
Jenny said she had enjoyed the book, and that it is very funny. She (hailing from Stoke), Mark (Moston), John (Skem and New Mills) and Trevor (Bolton) all agreed about the interesting and vivid picture of life in Northern towns it presented. There was general agreement that the women were particularly well portrayed. Trevor said he could exactly imagine the café – and at this moment Mark phoned to apologise for being late for the meeting. He was, he said, in the chippy with his kids and would be along soon (typical northern life!).
Jenny said she liked the book because it is short and sharp with no long words. I pointed out “marmalade” and “Factory Bottoms”, but she still insisted there are not many long words. Ann also admired what she called the matter-of-fact tone, “No violins”, no in-depth analysis of personality. Clare said the characters are great, and Ann added, Particularly the women, in general strong women, in an environment where the men are absent or weak. Ann and Clare agreed the mother was mad, gloriously mad.

Two particular incidents were mentioned: the father’s carefully wrapped birthday present to his wife, a catapult, I think to get rid of squirrels or some such, and another incident, typical perhaps of northern life, or perhaps of the non-rich everywhere: the pressing of a glass against a thin partition wall to hear what’s going on next door. Surprisingly, this was not the mother’s glass for her false teeth, but a wine glass! This led to a discussion of the mother’s background. She is not typical of the working classes in small northern towns, but has at least one wine glass, knows some French and has had a French lover, a relationship that seems ended for her with some regret. She is also a fan of the Brontes. However she tells JW her own versions: Jane Eyre ends early, with Jane marrying the preacher man, St John!

The mother’s husband is introduced early, but takes very little part in the book. JW refers to him early on not as her father, but as “her mother’s husband”. He oozes supressed aggression. The first paragraph of the book was discussed, in which the mother wrestles with God. This is highly significant in terms of what we are told about the father. A man who says nothing and has such a wife, and spends much time watching wrestling must surely be someone who is suppressing aggression? The mother says nothing to him, and very little about him, one of her main statements being “He’s not one to push himself”.

Jenny said she wondered if she hadn’t previously read the book after all as she had thought, because she couldn’t find it in her house and wondered if she knew the story well because she knew it from the television series. It was agreed that the TV adaptation presented a more dramatic storyline. Ann wondered if the book is a memoir rather than a novel. Most agreed and it was stated that there is no central drama, but an attrition of information. The book drifted rather than focusing on the story. It was agreed there are non-memoir elements, that is the Arthur and the Knights stuff and the cod philosophy. It was felt that these last were “showing off”, though they had not particularly bothered any one – most people had skirted over them.
The symbolism of the title was discussed, and the large number of references to oranges in the text. The title [EB: a favourite saying of the mother's] suggests that there are alternatives, and ironically the mother did not believe in alternatives but in good/evil, friend/enemy dichotomies. Two possibilities for the meaning of the title were discussed: that there is the religious view of life and the non-religious, and that there is not just one type of sex. The mother is well aware of lesbianism, having stopped the young JW going to a particular newsagent's shop, run by two women she “suspected”. The link between oranges and Nell Gwyn was mentioned, and after the group meeting a Google search of “Jeannette Winterson” and “lesbian” brought up something like a million references. However “Nell Gwyn and lesbianism” brought up more.

I mentioned that in spite of any faults the book is a great achievement for an author who was so young when she wrote it, having been able to absorb much painful material.
It was agreed that JW was given a remarkable degree of self-confidence by being moulded by her mother – Ann mentioned the Jesuits, give me a child until he is 7... The groups’ attitude was that JW was both to be admired and pitied. Her famous entry for book of the year for a newspaper was mentioned, and the fact that most people put forward their friends, whereas she put forward only herself.
It was said that she seems in a way like Mrs Thatcher, but more vulnerable than was usually evident. Various members of the group seemed to think she’d had a hard time about 15 years ago, and had tried suicide.

This was one of the more popular books recently discussed by the group.
It was generally agreed that the last paragraph of the book is brilliant. “This is Kindly Light calling, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light.”

The group went on to discuss its own possible claim to fame. Nicholas Royle’s recent novel, First Novel, set in our area and referring to real-life characters, mentions a reading group. There is the implication that this is a mainstream group, with possible negative connotations. I read out some passages from the book, which had been sent to one group member, directing them at Mark. It gradually dawned on him that he and his wife bore some remarkable similarities to a couple in the book, the wife having 'meringue-like breasts', which seemed to be intended as a compliment. Clare suggested that the group should choose to read and discuss the book. This was met with howls of horror and laughter. One member of the group is Elizabeth Baines whose blog this is. She wasn’t present however. She appears named in this book, with some physical description and apparent life details – and to no precise purpose it seems. All the group were shocked by this. They asked me, as a friend of hers, what she thought.* I said I didn’t really know. Three group members were enraged on her behalf.
[ End of report]

* Elizabeth Baines: You can read what I did think about it towards the end of a post on my Fictionbitch blog. Click here for the post.


February 2013
A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex

Once again other commitments have kept me from writing up the report, and once again, I'm afraid, I have to rack my brains to remember the discussion.

The book was John's suggestion, a very short novella - perhaps really more of a long short story - set in April 1942 in the author's home town, the Swiss cattle-market town of Payerne, and recounting a true incident in which, as a 'birthday present' to Hitler, a group of Nazi locals (known to Chessex who in school sat next to the children of their leader, the thuggish Ischi) lure a Jewish cattle merchant into a stable and kill him with an iron bar.

My first memory is of John opening the discussion by saying that, short as the book was, it was certainly value for money, a statement with which I fully agreed, sensing others agreeing around me. He then went on to say what made it so: the spare prose, the calm, indeed stark way in which the author recounts the horrifying events, including the detailed process of the murder of Arthur Bloch which throws into ironic relief the town's previously homely tradition of butchery, a sobriety of narration which, as Jenny would say later, made the events somehow even more horrifying; the way the beauty of the surrounding countryside is contrasted with the moral ugliness at the heart of the town, and the way, especially, that the book anatomises the evil of idealism: the fact that the perpetrators saw their crime as an act of glory and wanted to be found out - Ischi walking towards the arresting policemen as if towards triumph and believing that once the Nazis took over Switzerland their action would make them heroes.

My next and main memory is of being most surprised, even shocked, to discover that Mark didn't think much of the book at all, and that to some extent he was backed up by Doug. Mark said it had left him absolutely cold, and he couldn't understand why it has had such a great critical reception. One thing he strongly felt was that it was banal and unoriginal. The book makes vividly clear that the main 'justification' for the murder - apart from the perpetrators' personal desire for political advancement - is the historic European resentment of the success of Jews in the professions and in business (Arthur Bloch being a supreme bourgeois example), now given impetus by Hitler's anti-Jewish campaign taking place beyond the Swiss mountains. Mark said, but we know that this is why there was general resentment of Jews, and he compared the book to the film Conspiracy in which the Nazi party plot their extermination campaign without ever referring to the imagined Jewish Conspiracy to dominate, but simply taking it for granted, which Mark found much more chilling. I was too stunned to gather my thoughts and say what I have thought since: that throughout history anti-Semitic propaganda set out precisely to deny the Jews any right to bourgeois or professional success by presenting them as dirty and subhuman, and inevitably (surely) in the process erasing or at least diminishing in the general (non-Jewish) mind concepts of the Jew as bourgeois and professional. In addition, it seems to me that the shock I often still hear expressed about the middle-class and professional status of so many of those sent to the death camps implies that not everyone has an understanding that the notion of a Jewish Conspiracy fuelled European anti-Semitism and Hitler's Final Solution. Indeed, Trevor proved this by wondering suddenly during the discussion why, out of all the racism there is and has been in the world, Jews should have been so subject to such a sustained concerted campaign, and had to be reminded by Mark of the historical roots, the occupation of money handling falling to Jews in a time when such an activity was forbidden to Christians.

The book's revisiting of this historic and wartime prejudice is therefore to me salutary:
A Jew has a bank account and a big belly - nothing surprising in that... The Jew grown fat from robbing us with his banks, pawnbroking and dealing in the cattle and horses he sells to our army. Our army!
and I find moving the contrasting depiction of Arthur Bloch as a typical yet exemplary and very human Swiss cattle trader:
With the point of his stick he presses on the flank of one of the animals from Villaz-Saint-Pierre, reaches out a hand, moves back to feel its haunch and gently strokes its neck... Arthur Bloch is deliberate, never peremptory or imperious. Unruffled and perspicacious, he displays the same wise caution as the local farmers. Rubbing shoulders with them, despite his difference he has long felt at one with them, that they esteem and respect him.

All I could think to say to Mark at the time was that just because we know things doesn't mean that they can't be anatomised in novels, but Mark retorted that in any case, and above all, the book didn't move him. Here Doug came in and said that for most of the book he found the same. I now remembered, and John reminded me, that while I was reading the book I had also commented that it wasn't moving - until, that is, I got to the end, to a years-later chance encounter between the author and the unrepentant pastor whose Nazi agitation was central to the plot, which I found devastating, and finally to Arthur Bloch's funeral: by then I was in floods of tears. Doug conceded that he too found the end moving, but he said it was hard to see why, with which I couldn't help but agree, as the prose at the end is rather declamatory.

There is probably a clue in the manipulation of viewpoint in the novel, which John commented on, saying he thought it brilliantly done. While adopting to begin with an omniscient third person and looking down on the town from an omniscient visual perspective, the book segues subtly into the viewpoint of the Nazi thugs, as in the first quotation above. Finally, we get the angry, grieving years-later viewpoint of the author confronted by the pastor's continuing hatred, and looking back on the whole affair. It is the contrast between the earlier cool anatomisation of the situation and the author's final outpouring that is so devastating. As John pointed out, far from being unoriginal, the book is special in being written by someone who was at the time embedded in anti-Semitic Swiss society. At one point Jenny commented that the book is about shame.

In response to Mark's objection, Ann also pointed out that the book is about far more than the single incident of the Nazi murder of one man by a handful of thugs in a single rural Swiss town, but (I think she said) wider issues of racism and prejudice and the way that the poison of seemingly distant events can filter into the smallest communities and make all of us culpable.

People commented on the title of the translation, A Jew Must Die. Jenny said she had been reading the book on the bus and it had suddenly occurred to her how it might look, and had felt the need to cover it up. It was generally agreed that the original French title Un Juif pour l'example (A Jew as an Example) was a more apt title for the book, although I can't help thinking that the English title is a clever way of endorsing the book's message of our culpability

[EDITED IN: Ann has reminded me that one comment we made at the end of the evening was that the shortest book we have ever discussed had given rise to one of our longest discussions.]


March 2013
Saturday by Ian McEwan

Warning: plot spoiler.

Mark suggested this book which he said he really admired, considering it a truly great book: a novel set, like James Joyce's Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, in the course of a single day, the day here being the momentous one of Saturday February 15th, 2003, when hundreds of thousands of protestors converged on London to demonstrate against the Iraq invasion. It concerns minutely the experiences and thoughts of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, from the moment he wakes before dawn in his beautiful and beautifully appointed several-storey town house on Fitzroy Square - when he sees from the tall window a plane on fire and hurtling down towards Heathrow - to the moment he falls asleep at the end of the day. In between, he watches the news for information about the plane he saw (by lunchtime it turns out it was a cargo plane that landed safely and its fire was put out; it was after all no terrorist event), and makes his way through the rituals of his own private day (comfortable chat in the kitchen with his amenable blues-guitarist son Theo, lovemaking with his beautiful lawyer wife Rosalind before setting off into demonstration-clogged London in his top-of-the-range Mercedes for a squash game nearby, shopping for, and later cooking, a fish stew for an evening family get-together, a routine visit to his mother suffering from dementia in a nursing home, and a visit to a rehearsal of Theo's band), rituals punctuated and threatened, along with the whole of Perowne's extremely comfortable life, by two dramatic events concerning a thug, Baxter, and his henchmen, and indirectly caused in the first place by the peace march. All of these events are filtered through Perowne's highly introspective and visually observant consciousness, his thoughts about the state of the world and his appreciation of his own material comfort and relish for the modern technology that facilitates it.

Mark began his introduction by reiterating his admiration for the book. He said it was full of wonderful set pieces: the lengthy descriptions of brain surgery, and most especially the 16-page description of the squash game. The writing was superb, the sentences brilliant. Mark said he found stunning the brilliant and accurate way the squash game was conjured up, and thought it just an amazing feat of writing. He thought the book was exceptional in capturing the atmosphere and preoccupations of our times. Finally, though, he said that he did have to concede that the denouement is ridiculous, in which Baxter - having invaded Perowne's home, threatened the family with a knife, forced Perowne's daughter Daisy to strip and demanded that she read a poem from her own newly-published book of poems - is put off his guard by being overcome by the poem she does actually recite, Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach.

There was now a huge chorus of derisive agreement about this last, and expressions of strong dislike for the book. Everyone else had found it tedious, the squash game in particular, which some said they had skipped; many had found the descriptions of brain surgery ridiculously preening and self-congratulatory as well as tedious, Ann saying she had skipped all but the first (Mark said that McEwan had done two years' research so of course he had to use it! and was met with howls of protest that Of course he didn't!), and someone, I think Jenny, roundly said that the book was smug.

John expressed a certain doubt about this last: was the book really smug, or was the author McEwan, a famously controlled writer, perfectly aware of Perowne's potential smugness and distanced from it? McEwan has insisted that, in spite of the novel being set in a house identical to his own Fitzroy Square townhouse, he isn't to be confused with Perowne and his views, as some critics have assumed. John noted that at times McEwan points to Perowne's potential failings: the fact, for instance, that he can't relate to literature in spite of his rising-star poet daughter and his very famous poet father-in-law John Grammaticus, and the fact that his son Theo needs to point out to his ridiculously un-streetwise and possibly patronising father that he may have made a mistake in humiliating Baxter (in his first, morning encounter with him). While Perowne presents his daughter with arguments for the invasion of Iraq, his daughter's opposing view is also carefully presented, and elsewhere, towards the end of the novel, Perowne expresses doubt about the pro-war position he has espoused in the argument. But John said he simply couldn't decide while reading precisely what was the attitude of the author to the character. I said, In fact, Perowne expresses a fair amount of doubt about his own actions and perceptions, he's constantly turning them over and questioning them, but I too felt there was a certain air of smugness, a self-congratulatory satisfaction about that very self-questioning characteristic.

I thought that the clue lay in the fact that I found the viewpoint of the novel hard to grasp. In a long 2009 interview with Daniel Zalewski for The New Yorker which I have read since (culled over months of meetings with McEwan and running to 14 pages), McEwan talks of using a 'free indirect style' to stay close to the thoughts of a character but also to be able to comment on that character. He is referring in the interview to his novel Solar (then in progress) but I presume the comment also relates to Saturday. Although I had agreed with Mark that the novel was good on the level of the sentence - the sentences sound beautiful, elegant, and their meanings ring with clarity - I don't think McEwan employs this mode as cleverly as his reputation as a master manipulator of prose would indicate. Perowne, the only character whose perspective is presented throughout, is established early on as introspective, a 'habitual observer of his own moods', and the use of the intimate third person leads us into his introspections. Very early on, he thinks back over the previous day and the surgical procedures he performed. But as I read I found myself instantly wondering, What neurosurgeon describes to himself the procedures he conducted in quite this wide-eyed, detailed and instructive way? The overall perspective, however, seems very intimately Perowne's: going over one patient's medical history, he remembers, 'The tumour was remote from the frontal lobes. It was deep in the cerebellar vermis' which seems to me accurate doctor-speak. But then the next sentence follows thus: 'She'd already suffered early-morning headaches, blind spots and ataxia - unsteadiness,' and one is tempted to ask: what neurosurgeon needs to explain to himself what ataxia is? In other words, rather than the free-flowing effect of a double viewpoint (of both author and character) for which McEwan is aiming, we get one (unconvincing) viewpoint disrupted by a clumsy authorial intervention, a direct address to the reader. Throughout I often found myself wondering, Whose viewpoint is this supposed to be? Whose musings, at any moment, are these really, Perowne's or the author's? I also found a clumsy clash of fiction and fact, and a consequent disruption of suspension of disbelief, in the way that John Grammaticus, a fictional character, is meant to have publicly competed with our real-life well-known poets for their prizes and professorships. This section, in which real-life poets such as Heaney are name-checked, and which seemed while I was reading it to be Perowne's introspective memories of Grammaticus' career, ends with a statement that none of the names mean anything to Perowne - which of course makes it unlikely that he would remember them in such detail, and once again there's a skewing of perspective, and a suggestion that we had not been quite as intimate with Perownes' consciousness as had seemed. And what about this use of the protagonist's surname, Perowne? Who ever thinks of himself by his surname? (Or indeed thinks of his father-in-law by his surname, as Perowne does?) It's a distancing which signals the viewpoint of the author rather than the character. But then what novelist getting inside the mind of a character thinks of that character by his surname? Perhaps McEwan moves in a different world from mine where people do still think of themselves and their close friends and colleagues by their surnames, but to me it struck a psychologically false and possibly pretentious note.

Now other group members exclaimed that they found smugness in the fact that everything about Perowne is so perfect: his house, his car, his perfect marriage - his wife so beautiful and dynamic that he has never once had a moment's thought of being unfaithful and with whom he still has such an active love life that they make love twice in the day - the second time after Baxter's traumatic intrusion! - his so, so talented children and of course his famous father-in-law. People said they couldn't stand any of the characters, John (to cries of agreement) said that in any case the women were just fragrant objects - Rosalind, Perowne's wife, is freqently referred to as 'childlike' - and Trevor said he couldn't stand the unrealistically benign Theo. I said that Theo was a character I liked (I didn't find him unrealistic, but then I know some really nice young men!), but I did find that the novel carried a certain self-congratulatory note about the fact of his benignity. People found a lot of things - beside the risible denouement - highly unbelievable. Why, John said, would you bother to get out your car just to go a few streets in London to play a squash game (it's a crunch in the car that begins the trouble with Baxter)? Ann, who had actually been on the demonstration, said, And especially on that day: all the roads were closed and no one would have tried to drive! And what about Perowne managing to play a really hard game of squash after the thumping and immensely bruised chest he's received from Baxter? And as for the fact that in the end, after throwing Baxter down a concrete stair, from which Baxter incurs a broken skull, Perowne (full of wine!) would have either wanted to or been allowed to operate on the man who had just broken into his house, threatened his daughter with rape and held a knife to his wife's throat...!

Mark said, Come on, you're all being far too pedantic - it's fiction! And Trevor joined in and said Yes, you can do anything in fiction! Ann said, Yes, you can as long as you make it believable, but none of the rest of us had found these things believable. I said, it's particularly problematic because of all the very minute realistic details: it's a novel that seems dedicated to realism, so you need to have psychological realism too. Mark said, But these aren't mistakes, McEwan knows what he's doing, he's very controlled. Doug and I replied, Yes, he's very controlled, but that's the problem: everything is manipulated (for the sake of both ideas and plot), over-controlled; it's not organic and it doesn't work. I said that I had felt that the hold-up scene was particularly manipulated: the dialogue seemed ridiculously, even embarrassingly unrealistic and I could feel McEwan straining to decide who would do or say what next in this scene that he had decided (intellectually) to set up. As a result, I found obscene the moment when Baxter makes Daisy take off her clothes, manipulated as I felt this moment was by the author. Doug referred back to the stair-throwing scene, and the unrealistic fact - in view of recent real-life events - that there was no question of Perowne and Theo being in any trouble with the police for their actions in so seriously injuring their intruder: the hat-tipping air of 'Don't worry, guv, there'll be no problem' which, in spite Perowne's self-questioning, adds to the general air of unquestioned privilege hanging over the novel. I also noted that while Baxter is actually tumbling down the stairs Perowne takes the leisure not only to compare the man's bad fortune with his own privileged life, but to actually itemise his own blessings: 'the work, money, status, the home, above all, the family - the handsome healthy son with the strong guitarist's hands come to rescue him, the beautiful poet for a daughter, unattainable even in her nakedness, the famous father-in-law, the gifted, loving wife'. Early on in the novel McEwan tries to prepare for this by saying that 'a second is a long time in introspection' and in the New Yorker article Martin Amis is quoted as commenting on McEwan's brilliance in slowing the action down in moments of crisis and noticing things that others wouldn't. This is a classic technique, but it needs to be the author's viewpoint slowing things down. This is one passage that strongly primes us to believe we are firmly in the mind of Perowne - as Baxter first tumbles away 'Henry thinks he sees in the wide brown eyes a sorrowful accusation' - and as Doug and I said, it's psychologically unconvincing that the character would be so introspective in a moment of such crisis.

John and I were also made uncomfortable by the fact that, although Perowne struggles with his own prejudice against the thuggish Baxter and displays a certain sympathy with him for the fact that he's suffering from Huntington's disease, the prose refers to Baxter twice, without any apparent authorial irony, as 'simian' and once as 'monkeyish'. One of the biggest flaws, people noted, was the fact that Perowne could be so very introspective and yet care so little for and have so little understanding of literature - and someone noted that, since Daisy had spent her childhood learning poetry by heart, including the Arnold poem, it was unlikely that Perowne should fail to recognise it, and indeed not even have heard of Arnold - unless, that is, he had been a pretty distant and/or absent dad, which would rather give the lie to his supposed loving relationship with her, and maybe explain its air of somewhat sentimental artificiality. Someone now said that it was pretty unlikely anyway that a surgeon should be so introspective, that in fact they tend as a profession towards the opposite, and indeed although some of us in the room had known many doctors we had never yet come across an introspective one, leave alone one of such depth of introspection, which leads one to suspect the conflation of author and character that McEwan so strongly denies. Even Mark agreed with this, and by the end of the discussion, although he still thought the book good, I think he had shifted a little in his view.

Jenny said, to general agreement, that the one bit of the novel she liked was Perowne's afternoon visit to his mother in the nursing home, in particular her dementia-induced speech with its fragmentation and blurring of past and present. Her speech contrasts sharply with the dogged realism of the rest of the prose, and in fact has the unexpected poetic associations and perceptual disruptions which are very often the chief pleasures of fiction.

Clare, who had been unable to attend the meeting, and was later told that many of the group had hated the book, responded that she certainly hadn't hated it, but 'on the whole enjoyed reading it and wanted to finish it'. She said though that she had liked others of McEwan's novels better and thought this one was uneven. She hadn't really had time to formulate her thoughts, but off the top of her head she said she thought that in many places McEwan was working very hard to fill in enough detail to conform to the structure he’d given himself, ie all action in a single day, and that the detail was at times tediously obsessive, for example in the squash game.

EDITED IN: John has wondered since the meeting if the book is intended as more concretely symbolic than it has been taken. I remember now that he did start to try to say this in the meeting, but it's interesting that no one seemed to get what he was saying or took it up. Baxter, John suggests, stands for Iraq, which/who must be taken in line however much immediate damage this causes, but must be healed up afterwards by the agent doing so. Perowne stands for the liberal, cushioned West which is forced into an act of aggression for the sake of a greater safety. In this scenario, John suggests, the squash game between medical colleagues, conducted under the banner of friendship but expressing some real antagonism and aggression, is symbolic of the pre-war position-jostling between Bush and Blair. This interpretation also gives a symbolic meaning to the fact that the crunch in the car is caused indirectly by the peace march and its traffic-flow alterations: a symbol of the notion that peace moves would only facilitate the violence in Iraq. Contrasted with this is the plane Perowne sees on fire from his window: a counterpointing symbol of the notion that those arguing for the war are overestimating the terrorist threat to the West.
This does seem like the kind of thing the highly intellectual McEwan would do, but as John says, It's not very good if it isn't clear (or people find scenes too tedious to bother to read), and the whole message is undermined if on the human/character level the novel isn't psychologically convincing.


April 2013
Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Trevor suggested this book, the satirical depiction of life in Hungary towards the end of the war and under Soviet rule up to the 1956 revolution, seen through the exploits of the randy, skiving, joking and scamming members of a basketball team. Its title is a reference to the Hungarian phrase for a dire situation, 'Under a frog's arse down a coal mine'.

He had chosen it because he had read it when it was first published in 1992 and loved it. What he particularly liked was the language. Although the book was written in English, and although Tibor Fischer (the son of Hungarian parents) was indeed born and brought up in England, there was a certain feel of translation about it in the sometimes comical use of obscure and formal Latinate words alongside the demotic. One chapter begins formally, in reference to the anything but formal basketball team: They estivated [ie, spent the summer] outside Tatabanya. Other group members joined in exclaiming about this, some saying they'd had to look up some of the words in the dictionary, others saying they couldn't be bothered. Most people in the group felt that the book was most likely based on the experiences of Fischer's own father as told to him (indeed the central character, through whose eyes most of the events are seen, is called Gyuri Fischer), and that therefore the book is echoing Fischer's father's voice. What Trevor liked about the effect, I think, was that it lent the book an air of the characters being foreigners in their own country under Soviet rule, as well as straitened yet simultaneously inventive and intellectual in their articulation of their situation - which I too very much liked. However, having enthused about the book for five minutes, Trevor then said that he hadn't actually liked the book quite so much this time round, although he wasn't sure why, perhaps because when the book was first published its subject was more current than it is now.

It was very quickly clear though that the book was generally popular in the group for its satire and its depiction of humour as the only means of survival under a repressive regime. The only person not to have liked it at all was John, who found the tone too flippant and couldn't as a consequence read beyond 50 pages. Others were staggered by this, but I said that I too had had moments of not being sure that the humour always hit the right note. Last year John and I were conducted around the former Stasi prison in Berlin by a previous inmate who was intensely and fiercely passionate about the repressive regime he'd lived under, and although he often used irony - the classic tool of the oppressed - it was a grim and savage humour, in comparison with which the tone of this book did indeed seem potentially flippant. It's possible of course that differing national characteristics may lead to different ways of dealing emotionally with similar situations (and a native Hungarian has told me that this is her very favourite book). However, my feeling while reading was that the lightness of the humour was the effect of the author having been cushioned from experiencing first-hand the political circumstances depicted, and that thus it did not always truly portray the atmosphere and mood.

There was general strong disagreement with this. Most people felt entirely convinced by the tone and loved the humour. Mark said he laughed out loud, and Doug said he did too. I was going to ask Mark how he could laugh out loud at the following scene taking place in 1944 when the Russians take over the city from the Germans and Russian soldiers invade the Fischers' house:
Depending on how drunk they were, they either removed the women to some separate room or they did it on the spot. They were fair. They didn't just rape the young and attractive women but distributed the violations equally. It was a day when Gyuri was glad he didn't have a vagina.
Before I could mention it, Mark referred to the very same scene as the only one he could imagine being wrong in tone, but he didn't actually think it was. I said I thought it was. I think that out of context it's possible to read most of the passage as savage irony, but in the context of the tone of the whole book, it didn't seem to me so; in fact it seemed more of a narrative ironic posturing. In any case, that final sentence does seem to descend into flippancy, especially as one of the raped women is a young girl with whom the fourteen-year-old Gyuri is supposed to be in love. Mark said, But it's all flippant (which he didn't see as a fault but as a satirical mode). I didn't have an answer to that at the time, but thought later that that was precisely the trouble: incidents such as the one above are treated no differently from the schoolroom shenanigans when Gyuri and his schoolmates play up the unwitting chemistry teacher. However, when I said this to John, even he wasn't sure that that was a fault: isn't the point, he said, that all repressive systems - from repressive schools up to dictatorships - share similar characteristics? I said, But isn't there a difference of degree (requiring differences in degree or tone of humour)?, but John said he wasn't sure: once again, couldn't that be the point, that they're not that different, that the one is often the seed of the other? This does seem a persuasive argument, but I'm still not convinced.

In fact, I hadn't finished reading the book by the time of the meeting. I commented that another thing I found a little unsatisfying was the fact that it seemed to be simply a series of episodes, rather a purposeful narrative arc. Everyone agreed that this was so, and Trevor now said that was perhaps one reason he liked the book less this time, but it wasn't a problem for those others who relished the humour. The others told me that the book does take more shape, and very much changes tone, towards the end (with which, having now read the whole, I agree).

Mark said, But didn't we find it laugh-out-loud funny? still amazed that anyone couldn't. Clare and I said, No, at most it made us smile wryly. Mark said, But what about the camel jokes (which one of the characters makes)? John and I said that no, we didn't find them funny (John had read that far). What is funny, and more interesting, as Ann pointed out, is that it is the priest who makes these jokes, some of which are obscene (as psychological strategy for surviving a repressive regime).

As I hadn't then read the ending, I may be mistaken about others' comments on it, but I think Clare asked, almost as an afterthought, if there was a suggestion that one of the characters - a surprising one - turned out to be an informer. Some people nodded, but tentatively, seeming unsure, and it didn't seem to have occurred to others. I went away and read it with this in mind, and found that this was indeed so, and that it is in fact not only planted but we are possibly meant to assume, or at least suspect, it of this particular character from early on, and that this is one of the major jokes of the book - which in turn makes it less episodic and more holistic than we had all thought. But I and John, at least, had forgotten that the book begins with the very question: who on the basketball team is an informer? and an assumption that there is one. Something had primed all of us I think not to absorb its significance, and I would say that that is possibly too much levity of tone.


May 2013
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Ann suggested this 1958 novel because her interest had been aroused by Chinua Achebe's recent death, and she remembered that it had once been suggested previously but, in our system of voting between two suggested books, had been passed over for another.

The book charts the destruction of a traditional native West African community via the tale of Okonkwo, a great wrestler and warrior, who, through a combination of circumstance and his own proud, hot-headed and uncompromising personality, moves towards tragedy.

Ann said that she was very aware of the status of this book in postcolonial studies, and its political importance in depicting from the inside a society destroyed by Christian missionaries and colonial government. She said she had certainly found the portrayal of the pre-colonisation community interesting, and there was unanimous agreement from the rest of the group. However, Ann said she wasn't so sure about it as a novel. For the first three-quarters of the book that appeared to be all it was, a simple depiction of the society and the history of Onkonkwo's life, and it's only towards the end that it takes on more novelistic form. John and I agreed with this: it's not actually clear for a long time that Onkonkwo is moving towards tragedy, so there's no sense of forward motion apart from the episodic events of a life in progression. There's also a lot of repetition - not only are there recurring descriptions of the rituals of daily living, but events already related are referred to again as if they had not been so - although Ann wondered if that was a deliberate borrowing of traditional oral story-telling mode. She said that it was only when she got to the very end that she understood the true project of the book. It ends with the colonial District Commissioner considering including a chapter about Onkonkwo in the book he is intending to write, or:
'Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.'

It is at this point that it becomes clear that the book is specifically an answer to such colonial versions, and a redress of the editing of reality implied in that 'cutting out of details' and the unreasonable reduction to a so-called 'reasonable' paragraph. In political terms, this does justify the book's prolonged, sometimes anthropological but nevertheless intimate anatomisation of the life of Onkonkwo's clan. As Jenny pointed out, any society seems strange if viewed from the outside in anthropological terms (she referred to experiments that have subjected our own society to this treatment with telling results), and she thought that this was an implication of the book. Trevor pointed out that, although there was warring between the tribes, the number of people killed each time was a handful, as opposed to the masses killed by the colonising forces, making an irony of that 'Pacification'. This point is graphically illustrated in the novel by the wholesale colonial massacre of a village in revenge for the villagers' killing, out of fear, of a lone white man, an apparition they had never before encountered, arriving on a frightening 'mechanical horse' (a bicycle). Onkonkwo is indeed particularly warlike, which has made him a hero in his clan, but he is untypical, and, crucially to the plot, village elders counsel him to greater restraint. John pointed out the irony at the end of the novel whereby the District Commissioner is intrigued by the custom which prevents members of the tribe cutting down a man who has hanged himself, yet has his own reasons for not doing so, rooted in a just as much of a constructed convention: it would be 'undignified' and would 'give the natives a poor opinion of him'. Trevor would also later note that up to the point in the novel at which the missionaries arrive, the events could have taken place at any time in the preceding hundreds of years. The sense of stasis in the first three-quarters of the novel can thus be seen as a formal reflection of that historical fact, the long prior and undisturbed existence of the society before colonisation. Ann also noted that, as a formal illustration of colonisation, at the end of the novel the point of view and language change to that of the District Commissioner.

People noted here that, although clearly meant as a redress, the book is subtle in its assessment of both indigenous and missionary societies, making clear that it is the flaws or vulnerabilities in the culture of the indigenous tribes (most clearly personified in Onkonkwo) that caused certain of its members - the outcasts, those bereaved by traditional decree - to be open to the Christian message of the missionaries, with a consequent 'falling apart' of their society. And the dilution of the culture is presented as ambiguous: the elders and the first missionaries talk amicably to each other, teaching each other about their respective religions. By contrast, as John said, unlike them and unlike Onkonkwo's father whom he despises, Onkonkwo is no talker:
'He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists'
and it is this particular flaw of Onkonkwo's that leads most directly to his own downfall.

Ann pointed out that in fact, Achebe - as the grandson of a man of Onkonkwo's generation, and the son of a man who (like Onkonwo's own son Nwoye) had been converted by the missionaries - had been brought up in the Western tradition of the narrative arc, and she said she had read commentaries comparing this book to Greek tragedy. Once you get to the end of the novel it is indeed clear that, like a Greek tragedy, it pivots on the tragic flaw of one man (Onkonkwo), which leads him to defy the gods. However, the incidents which lead to his tragedy, and to the preceding defection of his son to the missionaries, are less pointed than is usual in the traditional Western narrative arc, with consequently less indication (before the end) that they are indeed steps towards tragedy.

As a result, Ann said, if she hadn't been reading the book for the book group, she probably wouldn't have carried on reading, and I thought that if I hadn't known the political importance of the book, I probably wouldn't have, either. However, Jenny and Trevor said that they liked the book unreservedly, and although Jenny hadn't even registered the (in Western narrative terms) crucial point that Onkonkwo defies the god, because of the political importance of the book's revelations she thought it very important indeed. Later, Mark, who hadn't made the meeting, emailed to say that he had loved the book, and took it for granted that our discussion had been entirely consensual.


June 2013
The End of Alice by A M Homes

I bought this book in the late nineties when it was first in paperback, but had somehow never got around to opening it, and when, due to the absence of others from the group, I was unexpectedly required to make a suggestion for the next meeting, I grabbed it off the shelf, aware not only that A M Homes was currently shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, but that like Emily Prager's Roger Fishbite (published around the same time and which we have previously discussed), this book was something of an answer to Nabokov's Lolita (which we have also discussed) and might make an interesting comparison.

The difference turned out to be stark. Unlike Emily Prager who seeks in Roger Fishbite to redress the balance by taking the viewpoint of the 'nymphet', Homes follows Nabokov in taking the viewpoint of the incarcerated male murderer-paedophile. Here, however, he has murdered not his rival for the young girl's attention (as in Nabokov) but the young girl herself (and possibly others), and this novel graphically exposes the mentality and fantasies of the paedophile as horrific and entirely lacking in moral centre, in a way that provokes revulsion in the reader (which led to attempts, some successful, to ban it) and makes the book a very unpleasant read.

As a result, I felt the need to begin my introduction with an apology: truly, if I had known the book's tenor beforehand I would have hesitated to impose it quite so unthinkingly on the group, but as I said to them I do think the book's unpleasantness, and its effect of horror in the reader - real horror, rather than the delicious chill of so-called 'horror' fiction - are entirely deliberate and strongly politically motivated. On finishing the book I felt that by comparison Lolita, with its fine writing and its redeeming or at least excusing insistence on the romantic yearning of Humbert Humbert for lost youth, wrongly ennobled the paedophilic impulse, and that this was the moral point that Homes was consciously making. There is nothing here of Humbert's occasional timidity and crippling shame: here there is simply a warped mind assured of its own rightness: indeed, narrator Chappy calls his preoccupation an 'art', an art in which he is instructing a correspondent, an unnamed nineteen-year-old girl apparently intent on seducing a twelve-year-old boy. The sexual attraction to childish bodies and the revulsion towards maturing physicality is seen here conversely and more starkly as a matter of power - Chappy simply wants power, and a violent power, over the unformed female body - and, via some moments recalling Hannibal Lecter, as a matter of cannibalistic greed. For much of the book, Chappy peddles the line that children are complicit in paedophilia (and thus bear some of the responsibility) - I have long suspected that youth knows more than the sugar-glazed gap between mind and body it allows to articulate - but finally admits that this is a dishonesty:
Although undoubtedly I've not said it before, I do firmly believe it is up to an adult to ignore the attempted flirtations of the young... it doesn't necessarily mean that she really wants it or even knows what it is. She is in fact compelled by the culture.
But the point is, he won't respect this, he doesn't care, he still goes ahead and seduces the child, and his moral corruption is entire.

Everyone in the group agreed with me that, contrary to the claims of its detractors, the book did thus have a deeply moral core, but felt that the fact that it was so very unpleasant was problematic. As Ann said, the true test of a book is whether you can actually read it, and she had been so drearily revolted that she gave up halfway through; Doug and John both said that if they hadn't been reading it for the group they would definitely have given up too, and I suspected that maybe I would have been the same. In fact, Ann said, Lolita is horrifying and yet because it's so beautifully written (and avoids the graphic) it carries you right on into the horrifying situation it depicts, and Doug strongly agreed. (Jenny said that it made her wonder about the mentality of writers who can sit down with such horrible material and then get up and do normal things like make cups of tea and go about their daily lives and then get up next morning and start typing away again....!)

A somewhat critical attitude to the book and its author now emerged. Someone said that the pompous style was awful. I pointed out that it was the voice of the paedophile narrator, not that of the author. Homes writes elsewhere with very different voices, and Chappy's narration contrasts strongly with the teen-speak of his correspondent's letters; in fact, at the start of the novel he reports that his correspondent comments on his 'peculiar' style - '...did you go to school in England?' - which identifies it as an aspect of his institutionalised decadence. I said I thought it was intended as a direct parody of Humbert Humbert's high literary style (there's an implied linking, I think, between such establishment-approved literary control and the establishment-excused desire for paedophilic sexual control). However, being such admirers of the narrative stye of Lolita, the others in the group weren't impressed by the stratagem, and Mark said that in any case he had read an interview with Homes in which she expressed surprise that people had seen so many parallels with Lolita in the book. I in turn expressed surprise at that, since there are several (to me) clear Nabokov references, such as a tennis game as seduction (as in Lolita) and the motif of dried butterflies.

There is a horrifying prison rape scene which someone now said they found gratuitous. I said, But doesn't the narrator (Chappy) comment precisely on its gratuitous nature: ...I wouldn't have even mentioned [it] except that I knew you were waiting for it, wanting it, had been wanting it all along. He then goes on to tackle the reader further, suggesting that however disturbing she or he has found the whole narration, he/she has been sexually titillated by it. In this way the book goes one step further and implicates the reader (and thus the whole of society) in the moral degeneracy of paedophilia. People cried that the book was just too successfully horrifying to be titillating, though, with which I had to agree.

I said that one aspect of the book I hadn't got to grips with was the nineteen-year-old female correspondent's seduction of the twelve-year-old boy. It didn't for me have the ring of truth that (horrifically) Chappy's paedophilic activities had, and I wondered if this was because we are not actually meant to take it on trust. As we have seen above, Chappy is an unreliable narrator, happy to spin himself false justifications. He rarely quotes directly from her letters, filling in the story of her seduction in his own far more literary style and eventually justifying it thus:
Pretentious though it may be, I remain convinced that my interpretation, my translation, is a more accurate reflection of her state of mind, far exceeding that which she is able to argue independently.
When he does finally quote her at length it becomes clear that her motives for writing to him - which he has represented as simply those of a shared obsession - are quite different: it is him, Chappy, she is obsessed with, because of the fear that dominated her childhood and that of all the girls in her neighbourhood after his murder of the girl-child Alice (and by extension that of all girls because of all the girl-child murders), and her sexual dalliance with the twelve-year-old has been adolescent experimentation rather than the sinister adult-child power game that Chappy has portrayed. An earlier clue perhaps is the fact that Chappy presents three different (alternative) sexual scenarios when relating the girl's first arrival at the boy's house. In other words, he has been injecting his own paedophilic fantasies into her situation, using her as titillation, and, rather than confronting the damage he has done to her life (and to that of all girls), he has desecrated her further.

Doug said though that he just couldn't understand why he should be attracted to her in this way, and want to correspond with her, since she was far too old for the narrator's paedophilic inclination. Doug wasn't convinced by the suggestion that she was the 'best' the incarcerated Chappy could get, and was anyway primarily a vehicle for a renewal of his fantasies and a parallel revisiting of the seduction and murder of Alice which (horrifically) he doesn't regret.

Mark now referred back to the horrifyingly graphic nature of the book. He pointed to the filmmaker Michael Haneke's concern with the desensitisation to violence in our culture, and his attempts to counter this by making films that bring back the true horror of violence. He said he thought that this book's project was the same with regard to paedophilia. Jenny agreed. What this book is about, she said, is that paedophilia is everywhere in our culture, and that actually it's really horrible - a summing-up with which I thoroughly agreed.

Someone asked, 'But is it really everywhere, this kind of really horrible thing?' Sometimes, while discussing this issue in the group (so many novels seem to touch on it), we women have laughed about the harmless flashers we encountered in our childhood. But this book reminded me of a darker side that it is sometimes more comfortable to forget: of the neighbouring child of my own age, five, who was abducted and then abandoned at the side of the road, after which she was quite mute; of my ten-year-old childhood friend who was raped and murdered (which tainted the whole of the rest of my childhood with grief and dismay and fear and lost innocence); of the time that my twelve-year-old sister was dragged into a lonely public toilet and only escaped by stabbing her assailant with her umbrella. Most of all, the horrors of this book, and Chappy's warped mentality, ring so true for me because they are the horrors which, aged six, eight, eleven, I sensed in the expressions of those men - and yes, it kept happening - who sidled up to me with clear intent on the prom and outside the school gates and in the lanes, sending me running pell-mell...


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