Monday, 17 September 2012

Books that Disappointed: Solar (Ian McEwan)

Ian McEwan is one of the leading British novelists of our times. He has been active for well over three decades, since he published a collection of short stories (First Love, Last Rites) in 1978.

McEwan is A-list novelist, who is popular with hoi polloi—a new McEwan novel invariably lands at the top of the bestsellers’ list—and also enjoys critical acclaim. Over the decades McEwan has pocketed a number of prestigious awards. His 1987 novel, Child in Time, won the Whitbread (now Costa) award and Amsterdam, which came out in 1998, bagged that year’s Booker. On either side of Amsterdam McEwan published two hugely popular novels: Enduring Love and Atonement (both made into films). Atonement was widely tipped by the Bookies to win the Booker but lost out to Yan Martel’s hugely entertaining Life of Pie.

I do not count myself as an Ian McEwan fan, but that is not for want of trying. Starting with Enduring Love, I have read all of his novels, and have been less than thrilled. Enduring Love and Amsterdam were clever novels, the literary equivalents of set-pieces. They promised spectacular denouements, which somehow were not as spectacular (or in case of Amsterdam) convincing as you hoped, and left you with the feeling of being cheated. Atonement is considered by many to be McEwan’s finest. It was an ambitious novel, too ambitious for its own good; the different sections of the novel, some of them riveting, did not quite coalesce into a substantive whole. Reading Atonement was like dining out in an obnoxiously hoity-toity restaurant that delivered elaborately orchestrated food on elaborately decorated plates but failed to live up to the expectations because—there isn’t a kinder way of saying this—it was not very tasty. Saturday was a disaster from the beginning to end. All of McEwan’s erudition and wonderful gift for pithy observations failed to conceal the fact that the raw material of Saturday—which described an eventful day in the life of a neurosurgeon—wasn’t quite enough to be stretched into a full length fiction. McEwan’s last novel—perhaps better described as a novella—On the Chesil Beach was, like Enduring Love and Amsterdam, a prolonged set-piece that, despite some passages of acute and subtle observations on the nature of human relationship, lacked the wow factor.

It was therefore with a feeling of inevitability—that I was going to be ultimately disappointed—that I began reading Solar, McEwan’s most recent novel. And I was not disappointed; because I was disappointed.

In three sections, placed linearly in time, Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a physicist of international repute. The reader is invited to believe that Beard in his younger days, when his creative powers were at peak, developed something called Einstein-Beard conflation for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

When the reader first meets Beard, in 2000, the glory days are a thing of past. He is a fifty something, bald, corpulent has-been, who has been dining out on his early triumphs for years, but has not produced, for decades, work that would make the world sit up and take notice. His personal life is in shambles. He is on to his fifth marriage, childless like the previous four, and his much younger wife, upon finding out about Beard’s numerous affairs in their five-year marriage, has, in retaliation, been sleeping with a thuggish builder by the name Rodney Tarpin, who worked for them in the past. Professionally things are looking scarcely better.  Beard is appointed as head of the new National Centre for Renewable Energy. The job is a sinecure and Beard has no real passion for the global warming. At the centre Beard meets Tom Aldous, a pony-tailed graduate student from Norfolk whose head is full of innovative ideas about solar energy with which he sees fit to deluge Beard. Then Beard is invited to an expedition to Arctic with a bunch of worried tree-huggers. When he returns home from the expedition (which is an adventure in more than one sense, not least because his penis freezes when he unwisely tries to pee in sub-zero temperature) Beard finds Aldous in the sitting room wearing his dressing gown and an expression that suggest that he has emerged from an invigorating session of bedroom calisthenics with Beard’s wife, to whom Beard had unwisely introduced him a few weeks earlier. Then Aldous gets killed in one of those freak unexpected accidents you have come to expect in a McEwan novel. Beard successfully manages to implicate Tarpin in Aldous’s death.

Fast forward five years, to 2005, and we meet Beard again, now nearing sixty. His fifth marriage has ended. He is living in a squalid bachelor’s flat in Dorset Square and is seeing Melissa who runs a string (if three can be called a string) of shops in London, which barely make profit and which sell dresses for young girls whose parents think they are talented ballet dancers. Melissa thinks, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Beard is a good husband and father material. Professionally, Beard has jumped on the bandwagon of global warming and has come up with some original ideas he hopes would get the attention of institutional investors and hedge fund managers who would agree to invest in his project. Except that they are not his ideas; Beard has, without acknowledgement, lifted the material Tom Aldous had prepared for Beard to have a look at when he (Aldous) met his unexpected end. The second section ends as Beard is informed by the ‘generously buttocked’ Melissa, over a lovingly prepared meal, that she is expecting his child.

The last section of the novel is set in 2009. Beard is under the scorching sun of New Mexico, hoping to give a spectacular demonstration of solar energy to a gaggle of media journalist, investment bankers and venture capitalists. Beard has formed a partnership with a charlatan named Toby Hammer and has every reason to hope that he will be, in the fullness of time, a very rich man. What can possibly go wrong? As it turns out, everything possible. As the novel hurtles towards it apocalyptic (for the protagonist) and surprisingly moving end, the ghosts from the past, which Beard thinks he has buried successfully, resurface and claim their victim.

Solar has all the elements that one has come to associate with McEwan. Like many of the protagonists of his earlier novels, Beard is not a character to whom one can warm up easily. (Balding and overweight, he is also an unlikely seducer of women). There is the usual splattering of the grotesque and macabre—McEwan’s speciality. The sudden appearance of Aldous as Beard’s wife’s most recent lover followed by his (equally sudden) death propels the novel into another gear, adding, into the bargain, a degree of suspense. At times, though, McEwan overdoes it. A large part of the first section, devoted to Beard’s Arctic expedition with artists and scientists, seems like an unnecessary add on. It is too long, laborious, does not really add anything to the novel’s theme and, despite, McEwan’s attempts at the slapstick, not very funny.

The trouble with Solar is its protagonist: for the most part Beard, despite reams of pages devoted to his activities and thinking and despite the story being told—in all three sections—entirely from his point of view, remains a disappointingly wooden, two-dimensional character. The reader does not really know what makes Beard tick. It may be that we have stereotypes of professions and award winners in our minds; but I for one would have found Beard’s opportunistic shenanigans in the second and third section of the novel more believable—perhaps palatable is the correct word—if he were not a Nobel Laureate. McEwan is adept at—in the novels I have read—describing moral ambiguity behind many of our actions, without falling into the trap of offering a neat explanation. Here, though, it does not work. Michael Beard, McEwan’s greedy, post-modern uber-consumer, whose policy towards the cake is pro having it and pro eating it, lacks credibility.

McEwan has a certain style of writing. I must say that I don’t like it much. It has the outward appearance of being exact and deliberate, but it is in fact long-winded and ponderous; at times tedious. The circumlocution weighs you down. 

Solar attempts, like some of its predecessors, at attaining a shimmering, illusory quality, but the narrative is not particularly gripping and the thematic focus is not sharp. Four out of ten.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Book-Groups: What is it All About?

I spotted him last week, mincing his way through the corridor towards the cafeteria, holding Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum close to his bosom, as if cradling an infant.

I followed him, marvelling the wide sway of his broad hips, and wondering: what anatomical freakishness allowed him to swing his hips in such a womanly manner despite taking very short steps (with exaggerated primness, as though he were walking down-town Baghdad, taking care not to step on bombs; or was it just the fat wobbling beneath his trousers that snugly enveloped his haunches), and why was he holding a book in his hand (did the man have a claim to possessing an intellectual life?) and whether he was gay.

Look at the evidence: the man is always nattily dressed; he walks in the manner described above; he has a controlled, precise way of talking and uses words like ideographic and maquette, which you would be hard pressed to find anywhere outside of a Nabokov novel; and reads novels; ergo he must be gay.  This is the theory of another colleague of mine who is gay and who admitted to fancying the fat book-reader for a few months before deciding that he (the fat book-reader) was not his type (he goes for the muscular type, the gay guy, not for blokes who waddle about, fundaments jigging (as a Nabokov character might say) and guts flopping over their waist-belts (I say)).

I stood behind the book-reader (although, strictly speaking, he was a book-holder; I could not be absolutely sure that he was a book-reader.) As he turned back, balancing a mountain of beans and salad on his plate (how did he get to this size?) I said, ‘Are you enjoying the book?’

‘It’s a bit heavy going,’ the fat bloke replied. ‘But I have got to finish it. We have our book-group meeting tonight.’ (Jesus! He finds Behind the Scenes at the Museum heavy going! What could be a lighter reading than it? Case Histories?)

‘Oh! You belong to a book group, do you?’ I asked.

The fat man looked around conspiratorially. Then said (in an exaggerated whisper), ‘I promise you officer. It’s a clean group. We are just a bunch of friends who gather to discuss a book over a pizza. Hope I am not breaking any law.’ (A funny guy; I was speaking to a guy who thought he was funny.)

‘Ha! Ha! That's very funny. Anyway, enjoy your book-group meeting. Hope you finish the book before it. You can always cheat by reading the summery on WikiPedia.’

The fat man looked stern. ‘That would be cheating.’

‘Yeah! That's what I said: you could cheat.'

‘Why would I want to do that?’ The man looked at me as if I had offered to inject his mother with HIV virus.

‘In case you can’t finish the book. Which you may not. Seeing as you are finding it heavy going.’ I drew quotation marks in air with my fingers.

The man gave a deep sigh, managing to pack in that long exhalation his frustration at having to deal, on a daily basis, with morons like me. Then he said, ‘Thanks for your advice, not that I remember asking for it. I will consider it. Can I have my lunch now? Is that permitted?’

‘Of course you can,’ I said. ‘But are you sure (giving a long look at his fat gut and the plate of salad) that would be enough? Don’t forget you are reading a heavy book (quotation marks in the air again, in the hope that it would annoy the fat man further). Kate Atkinson is not an easy author to read. You should read her only on a full stomach. And this’—another long look at the plate—‘would fill at most a corner.’ I walked away quickly, thinking that it was a rather lame riposte, as ripostes go; but I am not good at thinking on my feet. I think of a witty, stinging riposte half an hour after I have been insulted (or think I have been insulted).

The fat man sat near one of the bay windows in the room and, holding Behind the Scenes at the Museum in one hand, began shovelling large spoonfuls of salad down his throat. (So he was a book-reader as well as a book holder).

The encounter (that’s what it felt like) with the fat man got me thinking (I do that sometimes). Should I join a reading group? I have never given the matter a serious thought. The idea does not immediately appeal to me, for several reasons. Firstly, I do not feel comfortable in groups, especially when they include people whom I have never met before. OK, you might say, the apprehension might get less with time, as you get to know your group members. But what if it doesn’t? What, if, after a few meetings you realise that you in fact can’t stand some or more  (or all) of them, and the loathing is only going to increase exponentially with future contacts? 

Years ago Channel 4 aired a sitcom titled The Book-Group (I think that was the title). It was about, well, a book-group situated in a city in Scotland. The sitcom ran, if I remember correctly, for two series before it was taken off, presumably because of dwindling viewership. It was a surreal sitcom, swarming with oddball characters that seem to have everything on their minds except discussing books. I would have been put off the idea of joining a book-group after watching that sitcom, if I had been seriously considering it, which I hadn't been.

In the usual book-groups,where the ostensible purpose is to discuss the merits of books, books are chosen, and, later, discussed. How do the group-members decide which book to read and discuss? This is important. It is not something that can be taken lightly. Do they decide to discuss, say, a work of fiction one month, and non-fiction the next, and poetry the month after? Within each category, how is the short-listing carried out? May be every member nominates a book of his choice every month. That sounds fair: everyone in the group gets the chance to nominate a book every few months. But, would that be ideal? Let’s not pussyfoot around this. The world is full of dunderheads. That’s OK; it is not a crime to be a dunderhead (I understand—it is an unfortunate handicap). But it would be fair to assume that some or more of these dunderheads consider themselves avid readers, and it is not inconceivable that the dunderheads may want to belong to a book-reading community, and may stealthily find their way into book-groups. And once they become members of book-groups which operate in a laissez faire fashion, they will be called upon to nominate books; and they will exert their right to make daft choices. It will be like exporting democracy to a country where the majority are illiterate; it would have the right to vote and elect daft candidates. And you can do nothing about it. Which means, depending on the number of dunderheads in your book-group, you will end up reading crap books once every two or three months. That would be disastrous to the peace of your mind. I shall not read, even on pain of death, painstakingly researched accounts of the Nazi space programme in the Second World War. In addition, I am incapable of understanding, therefore appreciating, poetry (unless it is a haiku). Combine a poetry-loving eccentric with a few dunderheads, and I will be ready to launch an agitation to make euthanasia legal. 

Another potential trouble with book-groups, I suspect, is that they attract people who fancy themselves as writers or poets, and use these groups to torture their victims with their literary offerings. It is not beyond the realms of imagination that some or more of these unpublished (and unpublishable) writers (and poets) will start a book-group with the cunning plan of springing the latest chapter of their memoirs (which they have been writing for fifteen years) on their ‘captive’ audience. These men are usually called Gladwyne; they have straggly beards which have entangled in the hair food morsels from ancient times. Their standards of personal hygiene are not high, and their dental hygiene is worse. They fancy themselves as intellectuals and have been keeping a journal, which they tell you, with significant pauses, is modelled on the journals of Jules Renard; and are terribly put out when you burst out laughing. In addition, there is always an octogenarian or a nonagenarian, usually a female named Doris or May, who is disconcertingly alert for her age. She writes poems, usually on a cat called Bo, which she had as a pet when she was growing up in Norfolk. The poems are atrocious with silly rhyming such as ‘park’ and ‘dark’, and ‘bike’ and ‘dike’ (Doris is a spinster). However no one has the heart to tell her this in deference to her great age. (It is funny how we are expected to be deferential to those who have achieved little except that they have not died in time.) The group (frequently) has another  woman (fifty, blonde (peroxide), divorced) with exaggerated self-presence, enhanced by imposing and what you take to be (surprisingly) firm breasts for her age. She has forceful opinions ('Hemingway? Uh! Can't stand him!' 'Faulkner? Grossly overrated. 'Bellow? The last good book he wrote was The Adventures of Augie March; the rest is unreadable'; 'I can't read more than three pages of Philip Roth without wanting to set it on fire') which she airs in a forceful voice with a vaguely menacing look, as if challenging anyone with a different point of view to a fist-fight. Finally, to make your misery complete, there is a bloke—usually called Bernard (‘Call me Bern’)— who has the knack of using any conversational piece as a pretext to launch into an interminable personal anecdote which no one except him thinks is funny.

Attending such groups would be more torturous than attending Parish County meetings in North Wales. You would be compelled to think of an excuse to cry off, and of course, you can’t tell the truth because you do not want to be rude. Also, past experience has taught you that on the whole it is not a good policy to piss people off, unless you absolutely have to. So you have to think of a lie that will not ruffle feathers. I guess the easiest one would be to spin a yarn about how you are finding it increasingly difficult to find time to prepare yourself for the meeting on which you put a high premium—you would not want to give anything less than your best, as you are only too aware of the efforts put in by the other members—because of increasing pressure on your time, having to put in extra hours at work and so on and so forth. But what if you do not have a job? What if you do not work? What are you going to tell them, then? ‘I am sorry, but I park my bum all day in front of the box watching old episodes of Seinfeld. Watching Seinfeld has become an all-consuming passion, and I simply do not have time to read books and come prepared for the intellectually invigorating discussions that take place in Gladwyne’s front room?’ I do not think that would be very convincing. Anyway, I am not very good at telling lies. I have never got away with them in my memory. Indeed, I am not believed even when I am telling the truth. The other option is to default. Simply stop going to the book-group meetings. But that would be a cop out. Also, people might ring you if you do not attend (although you could get round that by screening your calls and not answer if it is Gladwyne or Doris who is calling you). There is also the risk that you might bump into them and it would be awkward, although in my case it is not very likely to happen. Another way is to phone at the last minute and express your inability to attend. You would have to cook up an excuse, but in theory it should be easier to tell a lie on phone than to face. After a few such excuses, just stop going, and hope that Gladwyne has taken the hint. This strategy, while it has the advantage of being easier and effective, does not solve the problem of how to react were you to meet Gladwyne in a supermarket (or Doris if you frequent bingo halls). You would then have to appear as if you have not seen him (not always possible, and what if he corners you?), or, invent a lie on the spot should he comment on your continuing absence from the meetings of the group, and informs you that you missed out on a lively discussion on the Desert Campaign of General Montgomery in the Second World War. You could always prepare in advance and keep a mental list of lies ready for such unexpected encounters; however, if you had the confidence of telling such lies without breaking into a fountain of sweat or wearing the ingratiating smile of a shop-lifter, who is viewing the approach of the shop-security with increasing dread, you would not avoid the groups in the first place.

The more I think about this the more I feel pleased that I have made the wise decision of not joining a book-group. Better to stay with the solitude you are accustomed to than flirt with fellowship that may be inimical to the peace of your mind.

(Declaration: I have joined a book-group).

Monday, 3 September 2012

Book of the Month: The Passport (Herta Muller)

When Herta Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009 the reaction in Romania, the country of Muller’s birth, was one of hostility (and in the English-speaking world was probably: Herta who?).

As has become customary over the past few years, when a European writer no one outside of the author’s borough has heard of, wins the Nobel, a slew of the author’s novels get unleashed on the English speaking world. Since Muller’s Nobel triumph, a number of her novels have appeared in translated form in English.

The first of the novels—although, at just over ninety pages, it is more like a novella—to appear in English was The Passport, originally published in 1986.

The Passport tells the story of Windisch, an ethnic German in the Banat region of Romania, who is more desperate to immigrate to West Germany than Michael Douglas for sex.

Banat, originally a Hungarian province of the Hapsburg Empire, was divided, after the First World War, between Romania and Yugoslavia. It has a sizeable German population, which came to view itself as trapped after the Second World War. The Ceausescu's Communist regime in Romania was said to be particularly vicious because, unlike other Eastern Block Communist dictatorships (for example the GDR), there was no guarantee in Ceausescu’s Romania that you would be left alone even if you behaved. The Germans and the Hungarians, both ethnic minorities in Romania, were said to have suffered disproportionately under Ceausescu. The regime made it so unpleasant for the ethnic Hungarians that many crossed the border and went to Hungary. As for the Germans, the regime allowed them passports and exit visas only after hefty sums were paid.

It is necessary that you know all of the above beforehand if you are to make any sense of what goes on in this strange little novel.

Windisch, a German, is a miller in a dirt-poor Romanian village. He lives with his wife, another ethnic German, who, the reader is informed on more than one occasion, was deported to Russia during the Second World War (along with almost 100,000 Germans), where she survived five harsh Russian winters by (in the words of her daughter) whoring. Windisch and his wife (whose name is Katherine) have a grown up daughter named Amalia, who lives in a nearby town and is a Kindergarten teacher. The village in which Windisch lives seems to be inhabited by other spectral figures, none of whom happy. Windisch’s wife refuses to have sex with him and instead pleasures herself, pulling a ‘slimy finger’ out of her ‘hair’, as Windisch witnesses when he returns home early one day. A joiner in the village grabs his wife between her legs as she bends over a table and her big breasts tremble. The night-watchman of the mill, where Windisch works, talks in his dreams in which he sees an earth-frog that has the flabby thighs of his wife. A skinner in the village has a son, Rudi, who is mentally imbalanced and spends the best part of the year in a sanatorium at the top of the mountains. The truckers in the village give money to a gypsy girl and ask her to lift up her skirt. Not a bunch of people you’d want as your next door neighbour. An apple tree in the church yard sprouts lips and begins eating its own apple. The village seems straight out of a medieval horror story where strange things happen and superstition reigns.

The Germans lead an uneasy co-existence with the Romanians, and there is little love lost between the two communities, which have derogatory epithets for each other. 

Windisch does not want to live in Romania. He wants to immigrate to West Germany. However, he knows that obtaining passports for his family won’t be easy. The palms of the militiaman will need to be greased. The desires of the priest (who issues baptism certificates) will need to be satisfied. Windisch bribes the militiaman over several months with sacs of flour, but gets nowhere. The reason, which the night-watchman helpfully explains to Windisch (although he must have known it at some level), is that the militiaman and priest will not do anything until their lusts are satisfied. ‘Your wife is too old for them,’ the night-watchman tells Windisch. ‘But then,’ he adds gleefully, ‘it will be your daughter’s turn. The priest will make her Catholic and the militiaman will make her stateless.’ Windisch tries to delay it, but eventually bows down to the inevitable. Amalia (who also wants to immigrate) allows herself to be had by the two men and the family gets its passport.

Reading The Passport is akin to watching a surreal film by David Lynch; the whole novel has a dreamlike, unreal quality. It is a curious and often unsettling mixture of the literal and abstract; and the two often intrude in such a way that at times it is not easy to make sense of that which is being conveyed. The narrative lurches from detailed descriptions of, say, a fly flying in a room and settling on hands and faces of various people in the room (including a corpse) to a man walking through a field turning into a black thread (in the mind of Windisch). In-between there are cocks that go blind and young owls that fly into the village. It is all a bit bizarre.

The prose of The Passport is excessively elliptical, which contributes substantially to the opaqueness of the narrative. It is always difficult to get a feel of the style of the prose in a translated piece of work, but, based on what is on display in The Passport, you get the impression that Muller is a writer who writes with minimum of stylistic fuss. The prose is pared down to the bare bones, with several sentences no more than a few words. Some chapters (probably unwittingly) resemble an essay by a precocious primary school pupil.

None of the characters in the novel is particularly noteworthy and stays in your mind, with the possible exception of Amalia, Windisch’s daughter. The hallucinatory quality of the novel makes it difficult for the reader to empathize with them. It is as if you are looking at their lives through an opaque glass.

The novel does not really explain why Windisch (along with some other Germans in the village) is so desperate to immigrate. The village is described in stark terms and the bleakness of the villagers’ existence is conveyed in a manner that forces itself bluntly on the reader’s senses. However, as you read the novel, you also get a sense that Windisch is not an economic migrant; that there is something sinister lurking under the surface that is blighting his existence. To the reader’s irritation, the menace is never fully explained. That’s why, as I have mentioned earlier, unless one is fully cognizant of the political and social situation in Romania under Ceausescu, with specific reference to the German problem, it is impossible to make any sense of what is happening in the novel. The novel was published when Muller still lived in Romania under Ceausescu’s regime, and one wonders whether the censorship to which novels of rebel novelists must have been inevitably subjected to has anything to do with the obliqueness of prose.

Herta Muller, according to the entry on her in WikiPedia, was born in Romania in 1953, and lived there till she was in her mid-thirties. She published her first book in Romania in1982. She attempted to immigrate to West Germany in the mid-eighties, but was denied visa. She eventually managed to immigrate in 1987, and has lived in Berlin since. She believes that she was harassed and persecuted not only by the Ceausescu regime, but also subsequently by the Romanian secret service (when she was living in Germany). A former agent in the Ceausescu regime (who spied on Muller) described her (following her Nobel win) as suffering from psychosis and out of touch with reality. He claimed that Muller’s account of persecution at the hands of the Ceausescu regime was grossly exaggerated. The truth, according to this spy (who admitted to bugging Muller’s house) is that she in fact got away lightly compared with many others. This, the agent claimed, was because Muller was always surrounded by the West German secret service and the regime decided, in the interest of keeping cordial diplomatic relationship with West Germany, to leave her alone.

Be that as it may, if you champion a virtue in literature that seems to have fallen out of fashion these days, namely, clarity; or if you hold the view that the writer should work harder writing a book than the reader does reading it, The Passport is not a novel that will linger in your mind.