Friday, 20 April 2012

No 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize board has decided, for the first time in 35 years, not to award the prize in the fiction category.

The awarding of the prize is a two-stage process. A panel of juries nominates either its unanimous choice as a winner or a short-list of novels to the Pulitzer board. The board has the sole discretion for awarding the prize.

The 2012 panel of juries, which included the former Pulitzer winner Michael Cunningham (The Hours, 1999), nominated three novels to the board: Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Train Dreams by Denise Johnson, and Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. 

The official reason given for not awarding the prize this year is that the board members could not reach a unanimous verdict on any of the short-listed novels. Some may wonder whether the board decided not to award the prize because it thought none of the short-listed novels was worthy of the prize.

Maureen Corrigan, a Georgetown professor of English and one of the three jurors, was ‘angry’ on behalf of the short-listed novels (probably not as angry, one assumes, as the short-listed authors themselves; well, at least two of them, as David Foster Wallace died in 2008).

Corrigan probably had a reason to be angry, not just on behalf of the short-listed novels, but also on her own behalf.  Over six ‘sometimes exhilarating sometimes anxious’ months she and the other two jurors had trawled through 300 novels and whittled them down to 3, only to learn that the Pulitzer board decided to piss on their short-list.

Sig Gissler, administrator for Pulitzer, offered an explanation. The decision of the Pulitzer board is not, Gissler explained helpfully (in case the point was lost) a statement about fiction in general. It is just a statement that none was able to receive a majority.

Thank f**k for Sig Gissler. And there I was, agitating that the American fiction was in terminal decline.

This is not the first time the Pulitzer board has pulled such a caper. In the 1970s the board did not award the prize in the fiction category in three years: 1971, 1974 and 1977. In 1974 Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was the unanimous choice of the juries, but the board members felt that the novel was amoral, and decided not to award the prize that year. (Note: the board did award the prize to Gravity’s Rainbow because it thought the novel was unreadable. This means there is hope for me, yet. Some years ago I started reading Gravity’s Rainbow and threw in the towel after twenty odd pages. When feel strong enough in future I will attempt to read this novel again.)

According to New York Times, the short-list was unusual. Train Dreams, Denise Johnson’s novella was first published in 2002 in The Paris Review (with a circulation of 16,000—1595 more than the Granta, then) before it was repackaged, while Pale King was unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s (untimely) death.

I am not sure what the New York Times is trying to say, here, but the word bunkum comes to mind.

After doing a modicum Internet search I discovered that controversy is not new to Pulitzer. Edith Wharton who became the first woman to win the Pulitzer, in 1921, for her novel The Age of Innocence, was not the choice of the juries. The juries were unanimous that the prize should go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street. The novel was not acceptable to the conservative head of the Pulitzer board who, in order to make Main Street ineligible, changed the small print of the award’s wording from the prize going to the best example of ‘whole atmosphere of American life’ to ‘wholesome American life’, and awarded it to Wharton. Wharton was said to be disgusted with the behind-the scene shenanigans (but not disgusted enough to reject the award). Lewis was awarded the prize five years later for Arrowsmith. One can imagine the pleasure Lewis must have taken in composing his letter which told the Pulitzer board to f**k off. ‘All prizes, like titles, are dangerous,’ wrote Lewis in his letter of rejection (somewhat pompously, I have to say). It was all bollocks, of course. When, in 1930, Lewis became the first American novelist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he had no hesitation in accepting the award.

In his Guardian column Robert McCrum had an inexplicable lapse of memory while commenting on the 2012 Pulitzer controversy. According to McCrum, the 2012 Pulitzer short-list was very strange, which I think is a mealy-mouthed way of saying he thought it was crap. Fair enough; people are entitled to their views. McCrum then gave the 2011 Booker short-list as an example of ‘dud shortlist’ . According to McCrum, the eventual winner, Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending was the only novel among the short-listed ones that was ‘remotely credible as a winner’.  McCrum went on to ‘respectfully’ suggest (the quintessential British way of sugercoating insults ) that the Pulitzer should learn from ‘the people who run’ the Orange Prize’ (a sexist literary award for which only women novelists are eligible), who take ‘great deal of care’ in selecting their short-list. (Poor professor Corrigan, professor of English at Georgetown University! The poor woman spent six months of emotional roller-coaster, as she read more than 300 novels, only to be told by some t**t in the UK that she did not take enough care in selecting her short-list). McCrum then went on to suggest that this year’s Orange short-list can be used as a model. The Orange short-list, McCrum enthused, included ‘six fiction of distinction, by writers who are likely to show form over many years’.  If you look at the 2012 Orange short-list, you will see that it includes a novel by the Canadian writer Esi Edugyan, entitled Half Blood Blues. This novel was also amongst the short-listed novels for the Booker Prize in 2011. So the novel that was not even relotely credible as a (potential) Booker winner in 2011 becomes a novel of distinction for the 2012 Orange Prize. Surely McCrum does not mean that Half Blood Blues was not good enough to have been even shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but is good enough to win the Orange Prize (now that is sexist). (I read Half Blood Blues last month and thought it was outstanding. It is by far the best novel I have read so far this year. I haven’t read A Sense of an Ending, yet, but I can’t believe Half Blood Blues wouldn’t have been a worthy Booker winner.)

Controversy is not new to Booker either. In 1971, one of the judges, one Malcolm Muggeridge, found himself ‘out of sympathy’ with the novels he read, and withdrew as a judge ‘nauseated and appalled.’  The winner that year was V.S. Naipaul (In A Free State). The WikiPedia entry on Muggeridge shows that he popped is clogs in 1990. Which was just as well; Muggeridge would probably have suffered a severe bout of projectile vomiting when Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. (As an aside, In A Free State is one of the most underrated Naipaul novels, despite its Booker triumph. Agreed, it is not a proper novel—it comprises a novella and two short stories. It may not be in my top five Naipaul novels, but that is because he has authored so many superlative novels; it is still a very good read. It will easily be in my top ten Booker winners.)

Back to Pulitzer 2012. The two snubbed authors (David Foster Wallace is sadly beyond all this) need not feel too downhearted. In 1971, the juries nominated a short-list of three novels, but the board decided that none of it was worthy of the Pulitzer. The nominated authors were Saul Bellow (Mr Sammler’s Planet), Joyce Carol Oates (The Wheel of Love), and Eudora Welty (Losing Battles).

Monday, 16 April 2012

Books that Disappointed: Tinkers (Paul Harding)

Tinkers, Paul Harding’s debut novel, won the 2010 Pulitzer Award for fiction, arguably  America’s most prestigious literary award. It opens with a scene in which one of its protagonist, George Washington Crosby, is lying on his death bed and hallucinating. What is George hallucinating? Is he hearing voices inside his head, the voice of God, say, informing him that his time has come? Is he feeling insects crawling under his skin, perhaps? Or a painful sensation in his teeth?

The answer is none of the above. George Washington Crosby is experiencing visual hallucinations. He is imagining, perhaps ‘experiencing’ is the correct word, that the room in which he is lying on a bed, indeed the house around him is collapsing and he is being transported (at a speed more than he would care for) vertically downwards, in the direction of the basement of his house.

This bravura opening is one of the few, scattered moments of brilliance in this novel by an author who was virtually unknown before his Pulitzer triumph.

Tinkers purports to tell the stories of two men: George Crosby, and his father Howard Crosby. Howard’s father, whose name I forget, makes a brief appearance in a section that relates to Howard’s childhood. Howard Crosby is an epileptic. Why is he an epileptic? Why not a syphilitic (which one would assume was far more common in Howard Crosby’s time)? Who knows? Perhaps Howard Crosby is an epileptic because his malady presents the author with an opportunity to describe, in gruesome three-pages -long details, a particularly violent seizure Howard Crosby experiences and bites his son’s finger when the son inserts it between his teeth (a silly thing to do if you ask me). As for Howard’s Crosby’s father, he is not quite right in the head, either. He is a reverend; but, as his grip over his mind and reality around him becomes tenuous, he begins delivering increasingly vague and abstruse sermons to the initial puzzlement, followed by consternation, of the parishioners—who, being the hicks they are, in the backwaters of America, would, in any case, have had difficulty in following straightforward English, let alone the reverend’s thought disordered musings. Eventually the reverend, in the interest of his own health, is carted off to the loony bin. It is then that Howard suffers his first seizure. Co-incidence? Very probably. If you hold the view that epilepsy is triggered by erratic firing of your neurones, then any external triggers are extraneous. Howard Crosby almost meets the same fate as his father in adulthood, as his epileptic attacks become more frequent and intractable, and his increasingly exasperated wife, in the interest of his own health (and safety of others’ fingers) plans to cart him off to a loony bin. Howard, when he gets wind of his wife’s intentions, scarpers. He goes to another part of America where he assumes another name, marries a woman who does not pause to breathe while talking. The woman takes him to another doctor who prescribes him bromide (instead of loony bin) and his epilepsy is controlled. Howard however keeps track of the movements of his old family, in particular his eldest son, George, and, one Christmas, turns up uninvited at George’s house. Howard’s son George Crosby is an amateur clock repairer, probably for the same reason why his father is made an epileptic. It gives the author a chance to show off the minutiae of his knowledge about the workings of the clocks by inserting faux-historical (and unreadable) excerpts of an eighteenth century horologist, giving otiose information such as the working of the escapement on a clock.

At just under two hundred pages Tinkers is not a long book, but it is a slog. It is a slog because of many reasons. The narrative is not linear and moves back and forth in time Would that it were the only peculiarity of this peculiar novel, one could cope with it. There are many novels with non-linear mode of narration (Slaughterhouse 5 and The Good Soldier are two examples which immediately come to mind) which are good reads. What makes Tinkers a struggle to get through is the combining of non-linear narrative with other unappetising elements. It is like you going to a dinner party and being served with a rare beef steak, and you hate beef. You may not like beef but may just be able to swallow it if well-done; but when a raw chunk of red meet oozing blood is placed in front of you, your appetite disappears. The novel is excessively impressionistic. There are pages after pages of descriptions of nature. Howard Crosby is a tinker and travels at the turn of the twentieth century through the New England woods and sells his wares to the housewives living at the edges of the wood. Far too often Howard is prone to get lost in reveries of the beauty of the nature surrounding him. While you admire the writer’s ability to think of several different ways in which sunlight gets refracted off the leaves of various trees, or his extensive knowledge of wildflowers, or his attention to detail while describing different barns, it is not immediately clear to you what his intentions are behind deluging readers with all this information that adds nothing to the story (unless it is to tire out the reader). Tinkers is a novel full of nature; there is so much nature in it, it will give you nature fatigue. Be warned: reading Tinkers runs the serious risk of turning you into a nature-hater. 

Harding speaks in several narrative voices (none of which particularly engaging) and sometimes the shifts in the narrative voice are not smooth. Howard Crosby, while recounting his childhood experiences always speaks in the first person, while George’s story is told in the third person. At one point, when the narrative voice shifts from third person to first person, it strikes you only after you are half way through the narration that it is not Howard but Charlie, George Crosby’s grandson (and a peripheral character in the story), who is speaking.

The made-up entries of the eighteenth century Horologist which Harding sprinkles throughout the novel serve no purpose other than to interrupt such flow as it is of the narrative. Also scattered throughout the novel, apropos de rien, are entries made under headings such as ‘cosmos borealis’, ‘crepuscule borealis’, ‘tempest borealis’ etcetera. These entries, usually descriptions of some pond or a birch tree or fireflies are distractions, and are not, in themselves, particularly riveting either.

Harding is not interested in developing characters. That by itself need not be a handicap. The reader can draw his own inferences about the protagonists, from the information provided by the writer, of the way the protagonists relate and respond to the worlds they inhabit. The problem here is: the two protagonists—Howard and George—despite reams of pages devoted to them remain shadowy; they do not come alive for the reader; you simply do not care what happens to them. They have about as much depth as cardboard cut-outs.

The prose of Tinkers is laboured and overwritten. When you are repeatedly assaulted with sentences such as:

‘Early man sought always methods of capturing time more precisely than casting the shadows of Apollo’s chariot upon graded iron disc (for when the sun sank beneath the hills in the west, what then?), or burning oil in a glass lamp marked at intervals so that crude hours might be gleaned from the disappearing fuel’;


‘The reasonable sensitive soul who perhaps one day while taking his rest along the banks of bubbling brook came to hear, in that half-dream, half-wakeful state during which so many men seem most receptive to perceiving the pulleys and winches that hoist the clouds, the heavenly bellows that push the winds, the cogs, and wheels that turn the globe, came to hear a regularity in the silvery song of water over pebbles , that soul is unknown to us’

all but the most determined (or masochistic) would be tempted to throw in the towel. (These two sentences incidentally come one after another.) There are several passages in the novel which I found myself reading again and again, not because I found the prose particularly praiseworthy, but because I didn’t have a clue what the writer was talking when I read it the first time round.

Tinkers is in many ways a Cinderella story. Its author, Paul Harding, a former musician (he was a drummer with a band called Cold Water Flat before he decided to turn his hand at writing) and a graduate of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, was an unknown entity. The novel was apparently rejected by several mainstream publishing houses before it was accepted by a small new press (Bellevue Literary Press), with a laudatory blurb from Merilynne Robinson, whose student Paul Haring was. (That should have served as a warning for me; Robinson’s Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, was the most tedious novel I have read in the last ten years, until I read Tinkers). It was ignored by the literary establishment (New York Times, for example, did not bother to review it) and was promoted by the independent book sellers. The novel sold a few thousand copies through these book shops. Then it won the Pulitzer; and now all the literary critics are queuing up to tell the world what a masterpiece the novel is. 

Tinkers is not a literary masterpiece; it is a literary curio; and since it has won a big literary award, I have little hopes of Harding’s second novel.

Monday, 9 April 2012

H.G. Wells, David Lodge and Elizabeth von Arnim

H.G. Wells is one of those writers I have great admiration for even though I have not read many of his novels.

Wells’s reputation rests on the science fiction classics he wrote at the beginning of his career. Most of us have read either in abridged or unabridged versions Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau, all of which have been made into blockbuster films over the decades.

Wells, however, was not just a science fiction writer. In the first 20 years of the last century Wells turned his attention to social themes, and published many novels which were very popular in their times. Wells was also an outspoken socialist and a feminist, although, with respect to the latter, he would appear to have been more interested in free love and the women’s right to sleep with anyone (preferably him) of their choice than in their right to vote. Indeed in a 1905 novel entitled In the Days of the Comet he depicted a ménage a quatre, which must have been a very bold thing to do (unsurprisingly it incurred wrath of the traditionalists).

Wells was also an outspoken socialist and an early member of Fabian society (many of whose members went on to form the Labour Party). Indeed he suggested several changes to modernize Fabian Society, which, in his view, was more of a talk shop than an instrument for change. He eventually resigned from the society in frustration because all of his attempts were frustrated by other members of the society, George Bernard Shaw amongst them. The members of Fabian Society probably heaved a collective sigh of relief when he left. He was screwing daughters of his fellow members, and the concept of free love he advocated in his novels around this time was equated by his political (Tory) opponents with his socialistic views, who indulged in considerably scaremongering by telling the apparently gullible public that power to the socialists would mean end of moral order. (‘Don’t believe us? Just read the novels of H.G. Wells.’)

An initial admirer and sympathizer of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Wells visited the Soviet Union on 2-3 occasions, and interviewed Stalin (and Roosevelt) in the 1930s during a visit. He was dismayed by what he viewed as Stalin’s refusal to see anything good in the Capitalist system and his (Stalin’s) obdurate insistence on not deviating at all from the Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

Wells was a writer of astonishing output (and longevity). He began his writing career in the Victorian era and, when the last of his books (the relentlessly bleak A Mind at the End of its Tether) was published a few months before his death, Victoria’s great-grandson was the monarch.

Wells published more than 100 works of fiction and non-fiction in a career spanning 5 decades (which means he published on average 2 books every year).

In the middle of writing and publishing books at a furious pace and agitating for political reforms, Wells also found time to bed more than 100 women. At 5’ 5”, Wells was not very tall. He was also tubby and had a squeaky voice. Yet he seemed to have no difficulty in sleeping with women half his age. He was married twice. His first marriage was to his cousin Isabel, but he found that they were ‘sexually incompatible’. He divorced her after 2 years and married Catherine whom he ‘renamed’ ‘Jane’ (with her permission). The marriage lasted for 32 years, produced 2 sons, and ended in 1927 with Jane’s death from cancer. Throughout the 30 odd years of their marriage Wells, with Jane’s knowledge and ‘permission’, slept with other women (including but not limited to the daughters of his friends) and carried out passionate affairs. Jane would appear to have resigned to the knowledge that her husband was a highly sexed man who needed to look elsewhere for the satiation of his sexual appetite. When Wells, at the age 42, fell madly in love with Amber Reeves, the daughter of the feminists and fellow Fabians Pember and Maud Reeves, and eloped with her to France, Jane forwarded to him every day his correspondence. (The lovers returned to England within 3 weeks after Wells made the discovery that irresistible as Reeve’s charms were in bed, he could not live with her.)

I found out all of the above, plus much more (interesting) information about Wells after reading David Lodge’s biographical novel, entitled A Man of Parts

Lodge is one of my favourite novelists, and this is his second foray into writing biographical novels. In 2005 Lodge published Author Author which focused on that period in the life of the American novelist Henry James in which James made (a disastrous) attempt at becoming a playwright. Author Author is the least favourite of the David Lodge novels I have read (and I have read all of his published novels except a couple of early novels). I had wondered whether the biographical Author Author was suggestive of a hiatus (or worse, a decline) in the powers of creative imagination. Lodge belied these fears in his next novel, entitled Deaf Sentence. In Deaf Sentence, Lodge was back at doing what (I think) he does best. Writing witty and funny novel set in academia.  With A Man of Parts Lodge has returned (for the second time) to the territory of biographical novels. The result is a mixed bag. At the beginning of the novel Lodge feels obliged to warn his readers that ‘nearly everything that happens in this novel is based on factual sources’. There is tons of biographical information in the novel, as Lodge quotes liberally (and repeatedly) from Wells’s novels, correspondence, and what others said to him, about him and about his novels.  Indeed at times the novel reads less like a novel and more like a biography.  It wasn’t a problem for me, as I have an interest in H.G. Wells, but I lack the patience (and intellectual rigour) to trawl through several weighty biographies of Wells published over the years (not counting his 2-volumes autobiography entitled An Experiment in Autobiography). But it does beg the question as to whether the novel adds anything useful in the way of information about one of the most remarkable men of 20th century. I assume that Lodge does not cover any grounds that are not covered in dozens of published biographies. And as a novel it is (curiously) not a very well imagined novel. Not a bad novel, mind (Lodge is incapable of writing a bad novel). I shall review it in detail some other time.

                              David Lodge (Doesn't he look a bit like David Irving?)

A Man of Parts focuses on what is generally considered to be the period when Wells was at the peak of his powers—between 1895 (when he published his first novel) and 1920 (when he published The Outline of History). As I read about Lodge’s accounts of the several novels Wells published during this period, I felt I ought to read one of the novels during this period. 

I then remembered that a few years ago I had bought a set of a dozen hard-bound H.G. Wells novels, which were collecting dust on my shelf.  

So I picked up The History of Mr. Polly

This novel, first published in 1910, was a commercial success, and (according to A Man of Parts) was never out of print over the next 40 years. It is a comic account of the life of a mediocre man (named Mr Polly) and how he escapes a life of drudgery and finds happiness. There are themes in the novel which will strike a chord more than a hundred years after it was first published—feeling trapped by your circumstances (unhappy marriage, dreadful job), and a yearning to escape and find a utopia. A very enjoyable read.

My plan is to read a few more novels of Wells published during this period. The next on my list is Tono-Bungay, Wells’s satire on Edwardian advertising. Apparently Wells considered Tono-Bungay to be his best novel, although it failed to sell well. (A Man of Parts informs us that Wells wrote Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr. Polly simultaneously. Tono-Bungay was the more serious novel and (compared with his other novels) was in the gestation for a long time. The History of Mr. Polly was his commercial novel.)

Back to Wells's bedroom antics. There were quite a few women novelists amongst the more than 100 women Wells had sex with. (A Man of Parts focuses on the more famous of these, and would have you believe that in almost all the cases it was the women who pursued—in some cases stalked—Wells, who, being the red-blooded man that he was, had no option but to sleep with them. Most of these women admired Wells greatly as a writer—were almost in awe of him. He was also exceptionally well endowed and was quite a performer in bed, according to A Man of Parts—don’t know whether this is a ‘biographical detail’ or a figment of Lodge’s imagination.) The most famous of these novelists was of course Rebecca West with whom Wells had a son, the novelist Anthony West. (West published an autobiographical novel entitled Heritage in 1955, in America, in which the mother of the protagonist, who resembled Rebecca West, was shown in a less than flattering light. So stung was Rebecca West by her portrayal that she threatened to sue any publisher who published the novel in the UK. The novel was eventually published in 1984, a year after Rebecca West died. The ‘new introduction’ Anthony West wrote to mark the (belated) UK publication of the novel confirmed that the mother and son had continued with their feud to the end. Anthony West idolised H.G. Wells—the more or less absent father— all his life and was, in contrast, highly critical of his mother.)

One of the novelists Wells had an affair with was Elizabeth von Arnim. I had never heard of this novelist before; however, she was apparently a popular novelist of her generation. According to WikiPedia, she was Australian born and a cousin of (the more famous) novelist Katherine Mansfield. Born Mary Beauchamp, she became von Arnim by her marriage to a Prussian aristocrat. Count von Arnim Schlagenthin ran into severe financial problems (he even served a prison sentence for fraud) and Elizabeth von Arnim began writing partly to find an escape from an unhappy marriage (which nevertheless produced 5 children) and partly to generate income. Her debut novel was published anonymously and was intriguingly titled Elizabeth and her German Garden. It was published in 1898, the same year H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds came out. The novel (I think it is a novel, although it can also be viewed as a memoir) was an instant success upon its publication; it had more than 10 reprints in the first 2 years of its publication, and made Mary Beauchamp a very rich woman. (H.G. Wells had taken note of the book, which had sold more copies than his War of the Worlds.) When, 12 years later, von Arnim—a comfortable widow, the Prussian count, referred to, somewhat dismissively in Elizabeth and her German Garden as the ‘Man of Wrath’, having kicked the bucket a year earlier—indicated that she was willing to be his mistress, Wells was only too willing to oblige. Wells and von Arnim carried their affair—with full knowledge of Wells’s wife—over the next three years. von Arnim lived in a villa in Switzerland during this period. Wells had made it clear that he would not leave his wife, which was acceptable to von Arnim. On her part she had one condition: Wells had to be faithful to her. (She had presumably no pangs of conscience that Wells, in carrying out the affair, would not be faithful to his legal wife.) Wells agreed to this condition, one assumes, in light of what happened subsequently, reluctantly. Expecting this randy old goat to remain faithful to one woman was like asking Sherlock Holmes to give up cocaine. The inevitable happened. When the more vivacious (and much younger) Rebecca West came along, Wells ended up in her bed faster than you can say Mary Beauchamp. von Arnim ended the relationship when she learnt of Wells’s ‘infidelity’. One assumes Wells did not shed many tears, as, according to A Man of Parts, by that time she was beginning to get on his nerves by her snobbish comments about his accent (which she thought was common) and humble origins. 

                                                          Elizabeth von Arnim

I thought I should read Elizabeth and her German Garden to see what was in it that so captivated the later Victorian readers. The novel is in the form of a diary kept by the writer about (as the title suggests) her garden on the estate of her Prussian husband. It is a pleasant, light-hearted, occasionally wry, sometimes piquant (and most of the time twee and schmaltzy) account of a year in the life of its narrator, which she spends in her garden. The narrator is an idle, somewhat snobbish, housewife, who doesn't lift a finger to do anything useful in the way of work, and has tons of opinion about everything and everyone. She considers herself a woman of sly and wicked wit, and is eccentric in a carefully planned manner ('Look at me; I am so different; people consider me eccentric, but I don't care; I will sit in my garden in winter at subzero temperatures to show everyone how eccentric I am'). She passes bitchy comments about her house-guests, her husband, her gardener, her cook (this is a partial list) and her relatives. She also has a disconcerting habit of going into raptures at the sight of roses and acacias. (In short a woman you'd have no hesitation in slipping prussic acid into her tea if you were her  husband.) 

Elizabeth and her German Garden is like an amuse bouche. Not much substance, but it brings an occasional smile to your face. An undemanding read. I might read a few more novels of von Arnim, but I won't be in a mighty rush.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Book of the Month: The Box (Gunter Grass)

Last month I reviewed Summertime, J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalized memoir or autobiographical fiction (it was described as fiction by its publishers).

The Box—Tales from A Dark Room, will fall in the same category. It is the second autobiographical work of Germany’s most celebrated writer, Gunter Grass. It follows his 2006 Peeling the Onion, in which Grass, whose political views have always been left of the centre—he is a long-time supporter of the Social Democratic Party—, revealed, for the first time, that in his teenage years he was a member of Waffen-SS. The revelation dented Grass’s moral authority as a conscientious opponent of the relics of National Socialism. Critics wondered (with some justification) why Grass waited until he entered the eighth decade of his life to announce his ‘guilty past’. Accusations of hypocrisy were levelled.

The Box (marked in the US as a novel, and in Europe as  a memoir, although Daily Telegraph described it as a novel in its review) does not have any revelations that match the sensationalism of those in Peeling the Onion. (It alludes to his membership of Waffen-Ss in passing, but does not dwell on it.) It covers the three decades in Grass’s life from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The premise of the book is as follows: Grass’s children—six of his own plus two from his second wife’s earlier relationship—gather and discuss their childhoods and their parents, in particular their father. Grass makes it clear in the first few pages that he has changed the names of all the children.

At the centre of the book is the eponymous box, which is an Agfa camera, number 54, a German analogue of Eastman Kodak’s Brownie, that belongs to a family friend named Mariechen (based upon a close family friend Maria Rama to whom the book is dedicated). Mariechen’s camera is no ordinary camera. It captures images and events from the past, and also conjures up future. At one stage one of the children describes it as a wish box. It is suggested that Mariechen’s camera was the inspiration behind many of Grass’s novels. The photographs also showed the children how things would turn out for them. Mariechen, witchlike (she remarks at one stage that in the medieval times she would have been burned at the stake) yet a wish-fulfiller, is devoted to Grass. He may or may not have had an affair with her (he tells one of his children that it was a love that did not involve physical relationship), but she was most probably his muse. Alternatively, the Agfa camera might symbolize Grass’s fervid imagination that transcends epochs, geography (and species).  The book is replete with fantastical stories of what Mariechen’s camera captures; it does tend to get a tad repetitive (and irritating) after a while. Grass tops it off by making one of his sons describe Mariechen’s death as ascension into heaven!

The children, all adult with children of his own, take turns in hosting meals—either in their houses or in restaurants in the cities they live in—and reminisce about their childhoods, and, by extension, their famous father. We learn that the four eldest children are from Grass’s first marriage. He then fathers two daughters from two different relationships. One of the daughters, called Nana in the book, seems to have been the outcome of a clandestine liaison and other children were not aware of her existence until she reached adolescence. Finally there are two boys—not Grass’s own, but the children of his second wife with whom he—all the children agree—finally settled. The children, while talking about their childhoods, also talk about the novels—starting with Cat and Mouse and ending with Headbirths—that Grass published during these years.

The children, supposedly adult, seem frozen in time; they talk like young children who believe in magic. One of the daughters—Lena, I think; or it could be Lara?; or Nana?—describes the break-up of Grass’s relationship with her mother thusly: ‘Their love suffered more and more, so one day my papa took off, with his unfinished manuscript, and never found his way back.’  Make of it what you will.
Reading The Box is a curious experience. Unless you are a Gunter Grass fan and have read all his novels after Tin Drum, you’d find it near impossible to figure out what the hell he is on about when he describes the process of their creation cloaked in magic realism. The family life of the Grass household does not really come alive and none of the children stays in your mind after you finish reading the book. It might be argued that children merely serve the purpose of revealing for the reader Gunter Grass; but Grass, too, remains a distant, hazy, mostly enigmatic (and occasionally creepy) figure.  You don’t really get to learn a lot about him (other than that he is a serial monogamer who fathered lots of children, and, at one stage in his life, lived—Kingsley Amis style— in the house of his first wife and her new (younger) lover whom, the reader is informed, Grass smuggled out of then East Germany). The children are very forgiving even though Grass was at best a distant and at worst an absent father when they grew up. In fact they don’t appear that bothered that their father did not visit them for weeks, and, when living in the same house, locked himself for hours writing his books in his office. We shall never know whether the book reflects the views of the real-life Grass children; as one of his daughters remarks at one stage they (the children) sitting round the table and talking about him could be figment of Grass’s imagination. Neither are the children particularly admiring (or even curious) of Grass’s novels, all of which are dismissed in banal, trivial terms. Thus Peeling the Onion is about the ‘Nazi stuff’; The Flounder is about ‘talking fish’; Cat and Mouse is ‘the short book that followed the long one [Tin Drum]’. But they are also proud—or Grass makes them proud—of his works all of which were bestsellers despite unfavourable reviews of some or more of them. (The Nobel Laureate has taken a dig at his critics who, he obviously believes, unfairly compared his works to the seminal Tin Drum.)

The Box, despite its brevity, is not an easy book to read not least because at any given time at least four children are talking across each other about their experiences. Reading The Box at times is like listening to snippets of conversation from a party on the nearby table in a restaurant. By the time I was about one third of the way into the book I gave up trying to figure out whether a particular comment was made by Jorsch or Pat or Lara or one of the remaining 5 children.  

The Box does not really captivate you—it offers little to no insight into Grass the writer, or Grass the (imperfect) family man. For the best part of the book he remains an enigmatic figure, like a slightly-out-of-focus, blurred image of someone at the periphery of a group photograph. Only occasionally does he say something that touches your heart, as when he talks about his early period of extraordinary creativity (‘In those days all he had to do was whistle and the words came rushing . . .’)

It seems to me that there comes a time in the lives of renowned authors of weighty novels when they begin to wonder what the world might think of them. In Summertime J.M. Coetzee fantasized that he was dead; in The Box Grass is fantasizing an image of his through the eyes of his children. And, while The Box is nowhere as self-lacerating as Summertime, the picture of Grass that emerges from its pages is not flattering.

The Box, upon its publication in 2008, in Germany, was not well received critically. One can understand why. The supposedly autobiographical work hides more than it tells.

The Box is a curious little book, charming in parts, the charm hinging almost totally on the reader having read Grass’s earlier works of fiction. Is it a novel or a memoir? I am going to call it a novel.  If you are familiar with Grass’s literary oeuvre, you will enjoy it. If you haven’t, I’d suggest give The Box a miss; it is not a great introduction to this great writer. There is no better introduction to Grass than Tin Drum, Grass’s colossal debut novel, to which most of his subsequent novels were unfavourably and unfairly compared), and which influenced writers like Salman Rushdie and John Irving.