Saturday, August 16, 2014

Everyday Life

What possessed me? Why did I want to read volume one of a six volume autobigraphical novel, translated from Norwegian, short on plot, frequently described in reviews as boring and banal? But My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard has also generated a firestorm of interest, both in Europe and the US, generating lavish praise from literary figures and bitter criticism from a few unimpressed critics, as well as from family members who objected to Knausgaard's frank depictions.

So, what's it like? It's like being inside someone's head. You're a witness to everything Karl Ove is thinking, from his deeply felt views on art, death, parenthood to his adolescent plotting to obtain beer for a New Year's Eve party. His style is straightforward and reportorial, but not without lyricism. Most of the second half of the book revolves around Knausgaard and his older brother dealing with the aftermath of their father's death. Karl Ove's relationship with his father was difficult, so as he cleans up the mess (literally) that his father has left behind he speaks frankly of his self-doubt and his attempts to come to terms with the loss of this cold, judgmental man.

What makes this book so unusual is Knausgaard's willingness to risk being boring by talking about ordinary, everyday events – a haircut, a cleaning chore, a train ride – without losing the reader's interest, and to examine his life with unsparing honesty. Somehow, it worked for me.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Act Three

How would the story of “Pride and Prejudice” look through Mr. Darcy's eyes? In fiction we're always locked into the view that the narrator chooses. But Jane Gardam, God bless her, has broadened the vista. In Old Filth she gives us Edward Feathers - Raj orphan, QC and judge in Hong Kong, husband of Betty, sworn enemy of fellow QC Terry Veneering – looking back on his life from old age. In "The Man in the Wooden Hat" it's Betty's turn, and unsurprisingly much looks different from her perspective, and secrets unknown (or maybe not?) to Edward are revealed. Now the third leg of the triangle is put into place, as Gardem's tells Terry's story in Last Friends.

The novel begins with Old Filth's memorial service, but quickly jumps back to Veneering's humble beginnings in the fishing village Herringfleet, his improbable escape from death during the war, his later success in law, his lifelong passion for Betty. Unfortunately Gardam also spends time with some less interesting characters, but even then her lucid, flowing prose keeps things interesting.

If you've ever been annoyed that the last 50 pages of a novel seem flabby or uninteresting, fear not – Jane Gardam must share your annoyance. She manages to reveal powerful secrets near the end of each of these books, without in any way seeming gimmicky. These novels make great summertime books, since they are best read in quick succession, and they are almost impossible to put down.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stages of Life

Late in Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl, main character Stella muses that “the highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you”. She is certainly talking about herself. Each of the book's ten chapters describes what 'befell' Stella in a period of her life, from her childhood with a single mother in postwar Bristol England in the early 1960's, to her own single motherhood and commune life in the 70's, to her married middle age. (If you are a New Yorker reader you may recognize some of the early chapters, which appeared there as short stories). Although Stella can be clever, she is often the victim rather than the driver of her fate. She somehow manages to be impulsive and passive at the same time, and the result is a life that lurches forward with plenty of wrong turns.

I am often annoyed with passive characters (I had that problem with “The Flamethrowers”), but Stella is so clear-eyed and honest about her mistakes that I grew to admire her. Hadley's prose has a lot to do with that. It is crisp and concise, not at all showy, but sharply observant, and by the end incidents that seemed isolated and unconnected form a cohesive portrait.


Stella is not always clever, but she does have the good sense to read great literature to keep her sanity when her life is chaotic. You've got to like a girl for that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Act II

What if the most exciting part of your life occurs before you're old enough to appreciate it? In some ways that's what happened to Jules Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer's “The Interestings” (See my blog). For Joan Joyce in Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me it comes when, after she has slavishly devoted her childhood and adolescence to ballet, she is accepted into a company and moves to New York. There she confronts what must be the case for many talented young people – she is very good but she will never be great. And she meets someone who is great – the charismatic Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov. Improbably, he chooses Joan to help him defect, and for a time they are lovers and she can bask in his reflected glory.

But when the relationship inevitably fails, she chooses a very different Act II – marriage to her high school sweetheart, a child, and a new life in a Southern California suburb. As Joan struggles to let go of her perfectionism her husband Jacob struggles to make her content in this new life. When their son displays unusual talent as a dancer, Joan is drawn back into the dance world.

OK, I think I'm making this sound like a soap opera. But it's much more nuanced than that. Shipstead examines some universal themes – hopes and disappointments, ambition and envy. She shows the dangers when parents attempt to live through their children's lives. In addition, although I know only a modest amount about ballet, I thought Shipstead did a terrific job of describing the ballet world – the tedium and physical pain of the endless practice, the subtle but powerful differences between a competent dancer and an electrifying one. She captures the joy and pain of short-lived success at a young age and its long term effects on the life that follows.