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My love of the novel.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) - Elena Ferrante

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.” So said Virginia Woolf and this, the forging of identity in relationship, is very much the theme of Elena Ferrante’s compelling novel. Elena, the narrator of the novel, is in first grade when we first meet her. She lives in a violent and impoverished working class district of Naples where kindred spirits or role models are hard to find. Certainly not her mother – “My mother did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. I found her body repulsive.” Then she meets Lila. Lila is a wild child with exalted sensibility and intelligence for her age. In Lila Elena finally identifies an ideal she can aspire to. The portrait of Elena and Lila’s bond is the novel’s masterstroke. As all around them the somewhat coarse uneducated boys of the neighbourhood seek to distort and shape the girls to suit their own masculine vanity – “dissolve the margins” of separation - the two girls forge an independence of spirit that is nurtured by the inspiration they find in each other. They create a compelling and exciting inner world together, a stage on which they both are able to dramatise themselves as the heroines of their own fate. The novel is the story of their friendship and Elena’s attempts to transcend her background of thrift and mean spirited bullying.

It’s an unusual and highly distinctive novel (visually reminiscent of de Sica’s early brilliant films). Essentially because of the intensity and lucidity of Ferrante’s prose. She manages to write about the most prosaic detail with a kind of hallucinatory urgency and as such her voice hits exactly the right notes in expressing the joys and torments of adolescence when every day seems to hold moments of both pivotal humiliation and triumph, moments few adults are capable of perceiving. Thus the narrative is a constant high tension wire where the mundane relentlessly spills over into epiphany or violence. There’s a passage when Elena is writing about Lila’s prose style which would serve as the perfect eulogy of Ferrante’s prose style – “She expressed herself in sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face; it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, the confusion of the oral.”

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Their Finest Hour is about the making of a movie during the blitz. Initially I was struck by the lovely subtle wit of the voice of this. Such a smooth gliding surface to her prose like a layer of freshly fallen snow. Evans did a fine job of setting up the novel, evoking the atmosphere and telling little details of the times really well. The research seamlessly stitched into the fabric and adding a great deal of vitality of colour. However it began to become apparent that this novel is too long. At least 100 pages too long. And the subject and characters just didn’t have enough vitality to sustain a 400 pg. novel. The characters, not the most inspired cast to begin with, began to become tiresome. Ambrose, the ageing narcissistic actor whose vanity is repeatedly punctured, got away with being a cliché for a while but he kept repeating the same routine to the point where you could predict his every self-important and misanthropic response. The rather dowdy and unassuming Edith (scenes when she worked at Madame Taussaud’s were however brilliant) and the shell-shocked and anaemically formal Albert were touching for a while but hardly original or inspired as characters. The best character Catlin, the young female who finds a greater sense of autonomy and self-assurance during and because of the war, though again clichéd, begin to disappear from the novel just when she’s needed to support it. The vaudeville humour too began to become a bit too slapstick. Even the research began to become overwhelming. A kind of blitzkrieg of period detail as if Evans was determined to shoehorn in every little piece of fascinating data she had picked up while researching. There’s some really good comic writing. But unfortunately the long dragged out nature of this novel and its clichéd characters ended up diminishing this book from a four star affair to a barely three star one.

A fabulous retelling of King Lear

A Thousand Acres - Jane Smiley

Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for this novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. And as you’re reading you’re often wondering to what extent Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. The plot of King Lear would be melodramatic vaudeville in the hands of a heavy handed author so Smiley is setting herself a huge challenge here.

The novel is narrated by Ginny, the eldest of the daughters.  In other words Goneril, the most treacherous, spiteful and amoral of Lear’s daughters. Ginny though only shares these flaws in the most subtle of ways and it takes a while before they begin to emerge. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city. Two events throw the quiet stable long-preserved continuity of life on the farms into disarray. The father hands over the farms to his three daughters – except Caroline expresses doubts as to the wisdom of this decision and he rages and cuts her off; and the return of a neighbouring farmer’s vagabond handsome son and his championing of organic farming. (I had been watching Jess all evening. I had a third eye for Jess alone, a telescopic lens that detected every expression that crossed his face.) These events are portrayed like a calamity of sudden violent weather conditions, bringing to the surface poisons in the soil capable of destroying the most scrupulously observed methods of tilling the land. The connection between the soil and human emotion is a constant factor in the unfolding of this novel.  

First thing that strikes is the poise and control of the narrative voice. There’s an awful lot of drama in this novel and with a less measured voice it might easily degenerate into soap opera-ish melodrama. But the poise and the control of the narrative voice is superb throughout. As a result what might occasionally be hard to swallow is easily digested. Then there’s Smiley’s soothsaying insight into human emotion and motive. Her greatest gift as a writer is her ability to expose the secrets of the heart, the pivotal subtleties of feeling on which lives spin. The excavating nuances of her observations were relentlessly thrilling. (“I always feel a little guilty when I break bad news to someone, because that energy, of knowing something others don’t, sort of puffs you up.”) Smiley’s also a master at creating and sustaining dramatic tension. She even writes sex well – an almost unheard of talent in my experience – “I thought about having sex with Jess Clark and I could feel my flesh turn electric at these thoughts, cold feel sensation gather at my nipples, could feel my vagina relax and open, could feel my lips and fingertips grow sensitive enough to know their own shapes.”

So why not five stars? The drama is lavished on very thickly.  You get caught up in one drama – adultery - but then before any kind of resolution arrives a bigger drama is introduced – child abuse - and then an even bigger one – a plotted murder. Now and again I have to admit I wondered if it might not have been a more comprehensively thrilling and satisfying novel had Smiley kept the King Lear blueprint more of a subliminal refrain. The literally murderous nature of some emotions seemed a bit forced to me. Also I thought she overloaded the father with culpability. He was a fabulously compelling male tyrant already without tarring and feathering him with a new and truly horrendous crime. (“Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction.”) But these are small misgivings in what was a fabulously

exciting reading experience.

Loved it!

The Way Back to Florence - Glenn Haybittle

This is a beautifully written and moving WW2 novel set predominantly in Florence, Italy. It focuses on three characters all of whom are forced by the dictates of fascism to forge identity in different ways. One of the novel’s themes is the struggle to preserve identity – as bombs drop and the outward world changes its shape it becomes increasingly difficult for the characters to keep their inner shape. Memory, of course, is the medium of identity and the precarious nature of memory plays a big part in the narrative. “Florence exists to educate our memory,” says one character. War, in this novel, constantly threatens to erase memory. Isabella, a painter and the novel’s central female character, observes while looking at bomb damage – “The ripped open houses with their exposed arrangements, their laid bare secrets, are like portraits. Each one has its own individual facial expression. More identity is on display in the midst of the destruction. More intimacy. It makes her realise how vulnerable these achievements are. Identity. Intimacy.” 

 

Her husband Freddie’s sense of self is represented by a portrait of him painted by Isabella and the fate of this painting will mirror in many ways the fate of Freddie himself. Freddie and Isabella meet at a Florentine art school where they study together. They forge their romantic bond during breaks when they go and sit in the nearby English cemetery – not the most auspicious place to put down roots. By 1943 they have become memories to each other. “She steps out of the silver dress and takes a simple black dress from the wardrobe where some of Freddie’s clothes still hang. She tries to remember if Freddie began buttoning his shirt from the top or the bottom. She tries to remember him tying his shoelaces. The images she sees of her husband nowadays are washed out and ghostly as if consisting predominantly of reflected light.”

 

 It’s also a novel about displacement and the concurrent yearning for homecoming. War, while ostensibly defending the concept of home, also of course threatens its very existence. The measure of war’s ability to remove all the securities of home is a constant feature of this novel, most chillingly when the narrative takes us to the death camps of Mauthausen and Auschwitz.

 

It begins with Freddie Hartson, a Lancaster bomber pilot, who is told in the briefing hut that tonight’s mission is Florence. Florence, we learn, is where his wife, a painter, lives. The target is not far from the art school where he met Isabella and where his former teacher still works. He has to drop bombs on his own home. Before every operation he has to write a farewell letter to Isabella, his wife, in case he doesn’t return. “When he thinks of his wife now it is like walking barefoot down steps to the sea at night. A secretive act. A moment of wonder he treats with caution as though shielding a buffeted flame.”

 

Life at the station and especially on board the aircraft is vividly and poignantly evoked. Provides a moving insight into what those men went through – the dangers of ops over Germany, the fears, but also the moving nature of the fellowship shared by these airmen. And Freddie has a shaming secret…

Isabella is painting when the bombs fall. Later, an SS officer takes a fancy to Isabella at a party and confides that it is his job at present to find two famous paintings that Mussolini has promised to Hitler but that have gone missing. Isabella’s teacher will later persuade her to forge one of these paintings, Pontormo’s portrait of St Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Meanwhile Isabella has had a brief guilty fling with a member of the resistance and has to rely on the SS officer when she is arrested by the sinister Fascist secret police. The tension mounts as she plays a dangerous game.  

The third central character is Oskar, a friend of Freddie and Isabella’s from their pre-war time together at a Florence art school. He’s a German Jew whose sense of self is bound up in protecting his young daughter. When his wife is caught in the Paris round-up of Jews Oskar manages to escape with his daughter. He makes his way south to Italy but his arrival coincides with the Nazi occupation of Italy.  Needless to say, the Gestapo is never far away.  The author does a great job of making you fearful for Oskar and Esme. 

 

Florence, the city, is the novel’s other major character. We get a beautifully visual portrait of this stunning city. “The sky is a virginal blue translucence as though bereft for a fleeting moment of the effects of both light and darkness. A crimson streak smoulders over the outline of the hills, a simmering bloodline. There is a solitary canoe on the water. A cold white sheen rises from the water. She holds her breath. As if to stop any more time from passing, to stop the future happening. The peacefulness of the morning is almost heartbreaking in its fragility.”

 

There’s both warmth and wit in this novel, momentum and vitality. It’s written with a big heart and an imagination at high tide. And we encounter both the kindness and cruelty of strangers in the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that exists in an occupied country. One scene particularly when a woman makes her young son cajole a young Jewish girl into church to see if she crosses herself. The woman has her eye on the reward offered for information on fugitive Jews.

A fabulous thoroughly engaging novel pulsing with moments of high tension, poignant sadness and life affirming beauty.  It’d make a terrific film.    

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan

This novel has as its heart and soul a male character called Dorrigo Evans who becomes the surgeon and commanding officer at a Japanese POW camp of Australian soldiers. Dorrigo is not a particularly likeable chap. He reminded me of the protagonist of Salter’s All That Is. A male from the old school, egotistically incapable of love who self-servingly dramatises feeling rather than succumbs to it. Feeling for him is a kind of armour he employs to protect himself from his burrowed sense of his own shortcomings – most notably his inability to love his wife and children. He is haunted (though not sustained) by his love for his uncle’s young wife, Amy. To my mind the relentlessly overwritten character of Dorrigo was what let this novel down. Apparently this was Flanagan telling his own father’s story so maybe put all the overwriting down to the admirable attempt of a son to do his father justice – though, ironically, for me it had the opposite effect. 

Okay. It started off really well and I was sure I was going to love this novel until Flanagan started writing about sexual passion. All of a sudden, he began to read like a frustrated older man working up into a firework frenzy the lost passions of his youth - his rather self-consciously epic tone suddenly striking a galore of false notes. And from then on I was continually tripped by the constant wheezing and straining for high epic grandeur which repeatedly threw Flanagan’s voice out of tune. The Narrow Road does not have the effortless control of say previous Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s two Cromwell novels. He’s trying way too hard to write an epic (the awful film Australia sprang to mind for which Flanagan wrote the script). But I think this also comes down to Flanagan’s shortcomings as a dramatist. More often than not highly charged language replaces characterisation and as a result empathy with characters is surrendered. Take this for example - “To hold a gesture, a smell, a smile was to cast it as one fixed thing, a plaster death mask, which as soon as it was touched crumbled in his fingers back into dust.” What the hell does that mean? Flanagan won the worst sex award; I’d nominate him here for the most overblown and absurd account of the act of memory.

His insistence on the epic sweep of his novel is also evident in the relentless cataloguing of horrors. The problem is the horrors take precedence over the individuals they’re happening to. The beating of one man, already on his last legs, lasts four pages and becomes boring before it becomes preposterous. Later we’re told how Japanese surgeons performed autopsies on living American prisoners though this is an historical detail that feels shovelled gratuitously into the narrative for more shock horror. Just as he strains in his love scenes so too does Flanagan strain when trying to evoke the horror. As I said, Flanagan isn’t a great dramatist. He’s much better at analysis. The author’s dispassionate insights are often the most memorable passages of the book, the philosophical insights of preceding drama. Like this - “He grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror… the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. Violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created."

 

And the best characters, oddly, were the Japanese officers and guards.

Flanagan shows us how the “Japanese spirit”, the Emperor’s will takes hold of the psyche of these men and replaces the circuitry of personal morality. A brilliant scene is when Colonel Koto learns how to cut off heads with his sword. The alienation from his humanity brilliantly evoked. Another memorable passage is the last night of the Korean guard before his execution for class B war crimes when he does a brilliant job of taking us inside the heart and soul of a condemned simple man who was doing nothing but obeying orders. This is a novel about ordinary men given experience they have no way of understanding or coming to terms with.

Flanagan is cleverer at showing the gifts to be had from war than the horror. Captures brilliantly the sense that the war experience remains pivotal to the life of these men and in many ways the most redeeming feature of their lives. The horror of war has been done many times; the redemptive humanising gifts of war less so and this, for me, is where Flanagan excels.

 

The women in this novel are insipid. Outside of the war, the novel’s most important character is Amy. “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything, even when – and sometimes most particularly when – he wasn’t thinking of her.” But here we have another problem. This isn’t about Amy; it’s a man seeking to convince himself his feeling is grandiose. Amy is unbelievable as a living breathing woman. She’s a man’s wet dream, even – especially - when Flanagan takes us inside her feeling. Flanagan even replicates some of Dorrigo’s feelings in her. So when Dorrigo can’t stand the physical proximity of Amy, Amy later can’t stand the physical proximity of Dorrigo. Amy is male wish fulfilment. Made clear when we later find out she has supposedly spent her life pining away for Dorrigo – a stance completely at odds with her pragmatic character (initially she married a much older man she didn’t love for the physical comforts he could provide so how idealistic is Amy really?). I never believed in Amy as anything but a male projection.   

 

 

This isn’t by any means a bad novel but I find it hard to believe there weren’t half a dozen more deserving novels for the Booker prize. I’m soon to read The Bone Clocks, All the Light We Cannot See and Zone of Interest and I’ll be amazed if all three aren’t more worthy winners.   

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) - Elena Ferrante

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.” So said Virginia Woolf and this, the forging of identity in relationship, is very much the theme of Elena Ferrante’s compelling novel. Elena, the narrator of the novel, is in first grade when we first meet her. She lives in a violent and impoverished working class district of Naples where kindred spirits or role models are hard to find. Certainly not her mother – “My mother did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. I found her body repulsive.” Then she meets Lila. Lila is a wild child with exalted sensibility and intelligence for her age. In Lila Elena finally identifies an ideal she can aspire to. The portrait of Elena and Lila’s bond is the novel’s masterstroke. As all around them the somewhat coarse uneducated boys of the neighbourhood seek to distort and shape the girls to suit their own masculine vanity – “dissolve the margins” of separation - the two girls forge an independence of spirit that is nurtured by the inspiration they find in each other. They create a compelling and exciting inner world together, a stage on which they both are able to dramatise themselves as the heroines of their own fate.  The novel is the story of their friendship and Elena’s attempts to transcend her background of thrift and mean spirited bullying.

 

It’s an unusual and highly distinctive novel (visually reminiscent of de Sica’s early brilliant films). Essentially because of the intensity and lucidity of Ferrante’s prose. She manages to write about the most prosaic detail with a kind of hallucinatory urgency and as such her voice hits exactly the right notes in expressing the joys and torments of adolescence when every day seems to hold moments of both pivotal humiliation and triumph, moments few adults are capable of perceiving. Thus the narrative is a constant high tension wire where the mundane relentlessly spills over into epiphany or violence.

 

There’s a passage when Elena is writing about Lila’s prose style which would serve as the perfect eulogy of Ferrante’s prose style – “She expressed herselfin sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face; it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, the confusion of the oral.” 

The History of Love by Nichole Krauss

The History of Love - Nicole Krauss

The great tragedy of life is this then, our friends are not allowed to finish their stories.

 

My second reading of this book bore out my feeling the first time I read it. The first two hundred pages are a stunningly beautiful and moving account of love and loss and the stories hidden within stories and then, of a sudden, it’s as if Krauss handed the novel over to her distinctly less talented husband to finish off the book. She ruins it with the fourth of her narrators, the entirely preposterous whimsy of Bird who is a kind of identikit of Foer’s equally irritating cutesy cutesy little boy narrator in Extremely Loud. Bird is a mistake and the attempt to add still more madcap tomfoolery and another search for a missing person, a person who doesn’t exist, is just daft. Bird as a character is a joke that simply isn’t funny. And to make another mystery of a mystery, to create another story with the honeycomb of stories, backfires horribly so late in the novel. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that punctures so catastrophically towards the end and has left me feeling so angry and cheated.

 

I'd forgotten how beautiful most of this novel is. How poignantly and succinctly Krauss conveys the childhood love of two Jewish children before the Nazis arrive. How magically she recreates Leo’s memory. And how alive and full of the heart is the old man recollecting himself as a boy in the narrative. Leo is a brilliant and heartwarming depiction of old age just as Alma is a fabulous evocation of adolescence.

Krauss writes brilliantly about love, in all of its forms. She’s got a marvellous eye for epiphanies and evokes them with searing poetic simplicity. And the multi-layered form of the novel where three narrators are each telling missing parts of each other’s stories is brilliantly achieved. It also works great as a literary detective story. Almost you have to keep a list of the clues as you’re reading.

 

So, absolutely brilliant until Krauss’ ultimate recourse to whimsy, as if she and her husband were sharing some private joke, and which comes very close to spoiling the poignant moving emotional fabric of this novel. Conclusion? The Great House is the better novel.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

For the unprepared reader the first hundred pages can be as baffling as an unknown code. But once the code is cracked, the whole experiment has a brilliant simplicity. 
Imagine this: a biography of you and your five best friends. From early childhood to death. Told not within the usual matrix of bald accountable facts, social landmarks of achievement and failure. But through a linguistic transposition of the ebb and flow, the forging and eroding, of the waves of our inner life. Those secret and unspoken moments known only to ourselves when we feel at our most isolated or connected, our most transfigured, lost or unknowable. The narrative a fluid continuum where all six of you are continually merging and separating in a fellowship and divorce of feeling. The six of you ultimately becoming one voice endeavouring to give shape to this one shared life.

So The Waves is the biography of six characters, all of whom speak for the other five as much as for themselves. But it's a new kind of biography. A biography of sensibility. A kind of archaeology excavating identity entirely from what’s buried and sacrosanct. Epiphanies, private moments of triumph and failure - or what Virginia Woolf called "moments of being". 

Virginia Woolf speaks somewhere of her earliest childhood memory – of being in bed as a very young child and listening to the sound of the waves distantly breaking on the beach out in the night. She believed the experience remained at the very heart of her inner life, a kind of oracle. The native ground from where all her shoots would spring forth. Authenticity, for her, was to be found in the secret and unspoken experiences of life, her “moments of being”. All six characters in The Waves experience a similar crucible childhood moment. A haunting moment of sensibility which will subsequently act as a motif in the quest to know intimacy and achieve identity. The opening section of The Waves, a depiction of the dawning of day, calls to mind the act of creation itself. For she is questioning the origins and nature of consciousness in this novel. Except no god appears. Instead we see nature as a dispassionate encompassing force locked into its relentless merciless rhythms. The first section introduces us to the six children and their first impressions of the world around them. Baptism comes here, not in church, but when the nurse squeezes a sponge and sends rivulets of sensation down the spines of the six children. An early indication of how Woolf will concentrate on private rather than public events to build the biographies of her six characters. By the end of the first part all six are identifying themselves in relation to each other, all six are struggling with fears and insecurities, all six jarred and flailing in their attempts to achieve identity – as for example Rhoda: “Let me pull myself out of these waters. But they heap themselves on me; they sweep me between their great shoulders; I am turned; I am tumbled; I am stretched among these long lights, these long waves, these endless paths, with people pursuing, pursuing.”

 

Each section depicts the next phase in the lifespan of the characters. And in each section prevails the endless repetition of the sound and rhythm of the waves. Ultimately the suggestion is that it’s only through sensibility, our creative inner life, that we are able to achieve love, forge abiding worth and find the fellowship that are the principle sources of light and warmth in life.

 

It’s left to Bernard, the writer, to draw some sort of conclusion: “And in me too the wave rises.it swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death.”

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

It’s like some accident befell Martin Amis half way through his career. Without ever quite writing the masterpiece expected of him he did write a series of brilliant and very funny novels. Then, all of a sudden, he collapsed. He lost his mojo. Yellow Dog is probably the worst novel in history written by a first rate novelist. Since then we’ve had House of Meetings, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, all lacking the vitality and high wire virtuosity of his earlier work. Now he’s chosen to write about the Holocaust for the second time. In his afterword he tells us how difficult it has always been for him to gain entrance into the Holocaust, to secure any kind of understanding of its “wild fantastic disgrace”, the electric severity with which it repels our contact and our grip”, until he stumbled upon an interview with Primo Levi in which Levi said the actions of the Nazis should always remain beyond comprehension because the act of comprehension is, in some way, to find justification. So Amis makes no effort in his novel to comprehend what happened at Auschwitz – here named Kat Zet; rather, he focuses predominantly on the banality and ethical undertow of its evil, distils the evil into workplace and social tensions at the camp, most notably, sexual rivalry. The insane industrial slaughter takes place offstage (we draw on our own stock of brutal images to provide the pathos), its stink the most pervasive toxin of the reeling barbarity of the camp.

 

The novel has three rotating narrators. Doll, the camp commandant is psychotic, deluded, vain, self-pitying, pulsing with self-righteous bluster and as such a familiar Amis creation. Thomsen, the protected playboy nephew of Martin Bormann, is some kind of middle manager responsible for the camp’s workforce and the production of synthetic rubber. He is more morally ambivalent. To begin with he sees Doll’s wife, the most vocal conscientious objector in the novel, as the latest challenge for his sexual vanity but his blossoming feeling for her begins to humanise him.  The third narrator is Szmul, head of the Sonderkommando, the workforce of prisoners detailed to dispose of the bodies - "nearly all our work is done among the dead, with the heavy scissors, the pliers and mallets, the buckets of petrol refuse, the ladles, the grinders".

In a nutshell, Doll is the perpetrator of the horror, Thomsen the bystander and Szmul the victim. Without question the most difficult character for Amis to imagine is Szmul, the electric insanity of the work he’s forced to do every day beggaring belief. Somewhere in the novel Amis states that the Third Reich forced people to see who they were, made it impossible to hide from themselves. Szmul though and the ethical and physical horror he undergoes every day, not surprisingly, eludes Amis. But you feel this is intentional. Szmul is a ghost, remains a ghost throughout the novel and as such, conversely, works better than the other two narrators because he is what haunts everyone.

 

What we have is a novel set in Auschwitz that is almost bereft of dramatic tension. It’s engaging and highly intelligent without ever being truly enthralling or disturbing. The writing is consistently good without ever being thrillingly brilliant. As you’d expect with a writer of Amis’ exalted comic gifts he does a great job of mocking the Nazis. But all in all I found it an oddly unemotional experience. The aftermath, when after the war Thomsen seeks out Hanna, is genuinely moving but overall this novel is not a moving experience. Ultimately I’m not sure why Amis wrote this novel. Time’s Arrow was a brilliant dramatization of the monumental insanity of the Holocaust – to understand which will always be like trying to decode the speaking in tongues of the mentally deranged. Why, when you’ve succeeded once, attempt the same subject again?

Incidentally, Hannah will do nothing to change the widespread conviction that Amis can’t write women.

 

I’d recommend it but add a note of caution about getting your hopes up.

 

 

 

 

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Reblogged from memory trees:
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel - Anthony Doerr

“What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models... None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes.” 

 

I’m a sucker for beautiful writing and this is a very beautifully written novel. Doerr always has full imaginative command of his detail and, even if occasionally he feeds too much protein into his sentences, is thus able to evoke his images searingly and poignantly. The novel is a visual delight which is an especially brilliant achievement when you consider he’s often writing about blindness. Doerr’s poetic sentence writing often transfigures the familiar, allowing us to see the natural world afresh. His prose strips us of our own blindness to the beauty in the commonplace. The natural world pervades this novel like a kind of scripture. The goodies are aligned to the natural world; the baddies see it as little more than resources for furthering ambition. This being one of the many fairy tale motifs the novel dramatises. Because it can be read as a fairy tale. There’s a magical stone in the custodianship of Marie Laure’s father, a kind of Wizard (Etienne’s brother who transmits stories over the radio which Werner and his sister listen to as children) and a very clear unwavering distinction between the good guys and the baddies with few grey areas. The innocents are pure. The corrupted are beyond help.

 

All the Light tells the story of Marie Laure who is blind (To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air) and lives in Paris with her father (an idealised character in keeping with the fairy tale subtext of this novel), a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. There, hidden in its vaults for the past 200 years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its centre: the Sea of Flame. When war comes Marie Laure and her father will become guardians of this stone. The other central character is Werner. Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mining town of Zollverein, near Essen in the Ruhr valley, heartland of the Nazi war industry. Werner has a gift of mending things and is especially attracted to radios. At night he and Jutta listen to an enigmatic French man telling stories for children over the radio – “a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams.”

 

As straightforward storytelling this novel is ravishing. I liked the short chapters and the flashing back and forwards in time. It reminded me of David Mitchell in its disregard for the perimeters between literary and commercial fiction. Doerr, like Mitchell, romps back and forth between the two camps with great poise and ease.

 

I’m not quite sure what Dave Eggers means when he says Doerr “sets a new standard for what storytelling can do” because there’s nothing groundbreaking about this novel. Like I said it’s straightforward brilliant storytelling. On one occasion Doerr uses a cheap trick, introducing a new POV to crank up tension (an informer who lives near Marie Laure) and then discarding the POV for the rest of the novel but on the whole the artistry of this novel was spellbinding.  One of the novel’s themes is guardianship, executed especially well with Werner’s protective but ultimately impotent feelings towards the dreamy Frederick at the bullyboy Nazi college, but shown as a constant facet of the novel’s every relationship. Everyone is guarding some precinct, some stone or calling of the heart. How, above all else, we are all guardians of our own flame which, in the novel, is often seen as our relation to how we use our time and best dramatised through Marie Laure’s great-uncle, the shellshocked Etienne who after WW1 became agoraphobic and never leaves his house until circumstances force him out. This idea is also expressed by Werner – “He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” 

 

Transmitters/transmission is another constant theme. The diamond transmits a curse, coal transmits energy, light transmits codes and of course the radio transmits a channel through which Marie Laure and Werner first connect and establish their elective affinity. Doerr creates a world we’re all blind to, a world pulsing with invisible transmitting circuitry. So what began as a clever stroke of emotional manipulation – the positing of a blind girl at the heart of the novel – becomes a tour de force of thematic choreography.

 

Map-making is another theme. Etienne’s broadcasts create a map that unites Werner and Marie Laure. Marie’s father builds her a miniature scaled model of her Paris neighbourhood and then, when they move, a miniature model of Saint-Malo in order that she may feel her way through a perfect replica of her surroundings. Werner is mapping out enemy transmitters during the war. Once again Doerr is exploring the invisible grid that maps out our lives, the light we cannot see.  

 

The bitchiness of Carmen Callil’s review in the Guardian was astonishing. Rarely do fellow writers publically ridicule each other in public. Just the opposite. There seems to be a you-pat-my-back-and-I’ll-pat-yours attitude to reviewing so you have to wonder why her review seemed so personally malicious. Often the reviews seemed to have this novel down as a brilliant page-turner but not great literature. I’ve been wondering about this. I adored reading this novel and then perhaps, a day after finishing it, felt maybe I had been somehow tricked into liking it better than it deserves. Does Doerr lack a little subtlety in his emotional manipulation of the reader? If you write a novel about a blind girl with an adoring ideal father and an orphan boy who protects his younger sister you’re obviously going to almost immediately command a great deal of sympathy for your characters. These are the innocents of fairy stories. Also the stalker von Rompel who Doerr makes no attempt to portray as anything but pantomime villain. But all these motifs belong to the fairy story aspect of this novel and within that context are managed well I think. It’s also been said Doerr doesn’t deal with Nazism very convincingly. Is that a valid criticism? The English patient is a WW2 novel and it could be said that doesn’t deal with Nazism very well either. Doesn’t prevent it from being a brilliant thought-provoking novel.

 

 “Impossibly, the static coalesces into music. Volkheimer's eyes open as wide as they can. Straining the blackness for every stray photon. A single piano runs up scales. Then back down. He listens to the notes and the silences between them, and then finds himself leading horses through a forest at dawn, trudging through snow behind his great-grandfather, who walks with a saw draped over his huge shoulders, the snow squeaking beneath boots and hooves, all the trees above them whispering and creaking. They reach the edge of a frozen pond, where a pine grows as tall as a cathedral. His great-grandfather goes to his knees like a penitent, fits the saw into a groove in the bark, and begins to cut.” 

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

“What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father recreated in his models... None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes.” 

 

I’m a sucker for beautiful writing and this is a very beautifully written novel. Doerr always has full imaginative command of his detail and, even if occasionally he feeds too much protein into his sentences, is thus able to evoke his images searingly and poignantly. The novel is a visual delight which is an especially brilliant achievement when you consider he’s often writing about blindness. Doerr’s poetic sentence writing often transfigures the familiar, allowing us to see the natural world afresh. His prose strips us of our own blindness to the beauty in the commonplace. The natural world pervades this novel like a kind of scripture. The goodies are aligned to the natural world; the baddies see it as little more than resources for furthering ambition. This being one of the many fairy tale motifs the novel dramatises. Because it can be read as a fairy tale. There’s a magical stone in the custodianship of Marie Laure’s father, a kind of Wizard (Etienne’s brother who transmits stories over the radio which Werner and his sister listen to as children) and a very clear unwavering distinction between the good guys and the baddies with few grey areas. The innocents are pure. The corrupted are beyond help.

 

All the Light tells the story of Marie Laure who is blind (To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air) and lives in Paris with her father (an idealised character in keeping with the fairy tale subtext of this novel), a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. There, hidden in its vaults for the past 200 years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its centre: the Sea of Flame. When war comes Marie Laure and her father will become guardians of this stone. The other central character is Werner. Werner and his sister Jutta are orphans in the German mining town of Zollverein, near Essen in the Ruhr valley, heartland of the Nazi war industry. Werner has a gift of mending things and is especially attracted to radios. At night he and Jutta listen to an enigmatic French man telling stories for children over the radio – “a voice on the radio offering a loom on which to spin his dreams.”

 

As straightforward storytelling this novel is ravishing. I liked the short chapters and the flashing back and forwards in time. It reminded me of David Mitchell in its disregard for the perimeters between literary and commercial fiction. Doerr, like Mitchell, romps back and forth between the two camps with great poise and ease.

 

I’m not quite sure what Dave Eggers means when he says Doerr “sets a new standard for what storytelling can do” because there’s nothing groundbreaking about this novel. Like I said it’s straightforward brilliant storytelling. On one occasion Doerr uses a cheap trick, introducing a new POV to crank up tension (an informer who lives near Marie Laure) and then discarding the POV for the rest of the novel but on the whole the artistry of this novel was spellbinding.  One of the novel’s themes is guardianship, executed especially well with Werner’s protective but ultimately impotent feelings towards the dreamy Frederick at the bullyboy Nazi college, but shown as a constant facet of the novel’s every relationship. Everyone is guarding some precinct, some stone or calling of the heart. How, above all else, we are all guardians of our own flame which, in the novel, is often seen as our relation to how we use our time and best dramatised through Marie Laure’s great-uncle, the shellshocked Etienne who after WW1 became agoraphobic and never leaves his house until circumstances force him out. This idea is also expressed by Werner – “He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” 

 

Transmitters/transmission is another constant theme. The diamond transmits a curse, coal transmits energy, light transmits codes and of course the radio transmits a channel through which Marie Laure and Werner first connect and establish their elective affinity. Doerr creates a world we’re all blind to, a world pulsing with invisible transmitting circuitry. So what began as a clever stroke of emotional manipulation – the positing of a blind girl at the heart of the novel – becomes a tour de force of thematic choreography.

 

Map-making is another theme. Etienne’s broadcasts create a map that unites Werner and Marie Laure. Marie’s father builds her a miniature scaled model of her Paris neighbourhood and then, when they move, a miniature model of Saint-Malo in order that she may feel her way through a perfect replica of her surroundings. Werner is mapping out enemy transmitters during the war. Once again Doerr is exploring the invisible grid that maps out our lives, the light we cannot see.  

 

The bitchiness of Carmen Callil’s review in the Guardian was astonishing. Rarely do fellow writers publically ridicule each other in public. Just the opposite. There seems to be a you-pat-my-back-and-I’ll-pat-yours attitude to reviewing so you have to wonder why her review seemed so personally malicious. Often the reviews seemed to have this novel down as a brilliant page-turner but not great literature. I’ve been wondering about this. I adored reading this novel and then perhaps, a day after finishing it, felt maybe I had been somehow tricked into liking it better than it deserves. Does Doerr lack a little subtlety in his emotional manipulation of the reader? If you write a novel about a blind girl with an adoring ideal father and an orphan boy who protects his younger sister you’re obviously going to almost immediately command a great deal of sympathy for your characters. These are the innocents of fairy stories. Also the stalker von Rompel who Doerr makes no attempt to portray as anything but pantomime villain. But all these motifs belong to the fairy story aspect of this novel and within that context are managed well I think. It’s also been said Doerr doesn’t deal with Nazism very convincingly. Is that a valid criticism? The English patient is a WW2 novel and it could be said that doesn’t deal with Nazism very well either. Doesn’t prevent it from being a brilliant thought-provoking novel.

 

 “Impossibly, the static coalesces into music. Volkheimer's eyes open as wide as they can. Straining the blackness for every stray photon. A single piano runs up scales. Then back down. He listens to the notes and the silences between them, and then finds himself leading horses through a forest at dawn, trudging through snow behind his great-grandfather, who walks with a saw draped over his huge shoulders, the snow squeaking beneath boots and hooves, all the trees above them whispering and creaking. They reach the edge of a frozen pond, where a pine grows as tall as a cathedral. His great-grandfather goes to his knees like a penitent, fits the saw into a groove in the bark, and begins to cut.”