Chekhov, comfort reads and the crouching monster

A long overdue update on some books I’ve read and a play I’ve seen (yay! I’ve actually been to the theatre!)

  • I saw Benedict Andrews’ adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Young Vic. I’ve seen this play once before – a version by theatre company Filter which featured as part of its soundtrack Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Andrews’ was an equally modern interpretation – there was a rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit before the interval, for example. I loved the inventive weirdness of the first half. I was impressed by the resourceful and imaginative use of small tables. I really liked that the essence of Chekhov was very much present in the characters’ yearnings to be elsewhere, and their poignant, existential musings. But when Andrey appeared in the second half dressed in a tracksuit, pushing his baby in a pram and singing a snippet of All By Myself, it was a step too far from the traditional, for me.
  • I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment. I was doing well this year: I discovered several new favourite authors. But now I seem to be stuck in the middle of several books that I like, but don’t feel compelled to dedicate a lot of time to. One of these is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, lent to me by a friend who loved it. I do like it. But it is so long, at over 900 pages, and at the moment it feels like I’ll never finish it.
  • One book I did whiz through was Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. It’s incredibly funny, honest, and refreshing. I laughed heartily; I was moved by her personal experiences of childbirth and abortion; and I felt reassured by her opinions on weddings, having children, and fashion. Reading it was an intense and rewarding chunk of a weekend.
  • I went through a phase of only wanting to read funny, light, comforting things. I had some trouble finding books that met those requirements. I read a Wodehouse book, Right Ho, Jeeves. It was great, of course. But I’m not sure it was quite what I needed. Wodehouse is so accomplished. The dynamic between Jeeves and Wooster is perfect. This might sound odd, but I think it was too perfect. And perhaps too light. I’m beginning to think that a comfort read for me might be something completely different that I haven’t figured out, yet.
  • At the moment I’m reading another Patrick Hamilton book, The Slaves of Solitude. Hamilton is very interested in and skilled at describing the psychological states of his characters. That’s why I love him. One of the best things about Hangover Square was his exploration of the power of the mind to distort, and the consequences of it. I’m finding Slaves a bit slow-going, though. I think this might be because it cuts too close to the bone, despite it being set in 1943; and I’m not sure I can handle too much of it in one go. This is how the novel begins:

London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.

The men and women imagine they are going into London and coming out again more or less of their own free will, but the crouching monster sees all and knows better.

It’s a marvellous opening, but being a current victim of the crouching monster myself also makes it a little bit painful to read.

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Catching up

I didn’t really mean to let this blog go silent for so long. I’ve been desperate to write a post about the fantastic Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton for ages, but despite telling myself several times that I would sit down and bloody well write it, it never materialised. I’m not sure what’s been stopping me from writing posts, but if I had to guess, I’d say that it was my job situation, which now, for the time being at least, has finally settled down. It seems that I need a certain degree of stability in my daily life in order to be able to write at all. When I don’t have this, I carry all the unwritten blog posts and things around with me, as if I’m protecting them until I can let them out safely.

A few thoughts on bookish things. As I’ve mentioned, Hangover Square was fantastic. It surprised me, because I thought it was going to be a relentlessly bleak, sordid sort of read; but it wasn’t. There were many aspects – the flashes of dark humour; the psychological depth; the simultaneous naive hope and self-awareness of George Harvey Bone; the clever structure – that made it a much more satisfying and emotionally affecting book than that, so that when I put it down I wanted to grab people and tell them how good it was.

This year I’ve been on a vague mission to read authors that I’ve previously avoided because I thought they weren’t my cup of tea. After Hangover Square I was firmly in the mood to read something else that was sort of dark and crime-based, so I chose Brighton Rock. It was the first Graham Greene novel I’ve read. I definitely liked it, and was surprised again, but this time by the simplicity of his style: how compelling it was to read. One of the strongest impressions I was left with was Greene’s total commitment to a vision. And whilst Brighton Rock wasn’t emotion-provoking in a showy way, I still find myself thinking about it a lot. It subtly wove its way into my head.

Yesterday I finished reading my second Greene novel – The End of the Affair. I liked it more than Brighton Rock – I especially liked the humour and irony in it, which mostly derives from the fact that Maurice Bendrix is a novelist, and makes many observations on the writing life. Although, once again, it didn’t get to me the way that, say, Hangover Square did, there was still that deceptively simple, quietly but confidently clever, slightly distancing style, that seems to only ‘get’ you a while afterwards, when the words are in your head and you ponder their significance.

And then there was another surprise: John Updike. I knew little about him and his work before reading Rabbit, Run. Oddly, the idea I had, mostly from reading synopses of the Rabbit books, was that they’d be a bit, well, lacking in depth. I should really try and stop building up strange impressions of well-known authors I’ve never read. Rabbit, Run was a slow read for me because the writing was so generous: Updike gives every person, every object and every scene his full attention and treats them with rich, abundant language. This makes for an intense reading experience, especially as the lives he zooms in on are not the happiest. It left me feeling a bit emotionally battered, as all books do that go right into people’s heads and strive to present life as it really is. I’m glad that my strange impressions have been proved wrong, anyway. Reading outside of my comfort zone has been a success so far.

Finally, I was already aware of the fantastic Paris Review archives of author interviews, but I recently started following them on Twitter and have been enjoying the author quotes they post.  They linked to a great interview with Alice Munro today (“Interviewer: Do you ever revise a story after it’s been published? Apparently, before he died, Proust rewrote the first volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Munro: Yes, and Henry James rewrote simple, understandable stuff so it was obscure and difficult”).

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Bingeing on Barnes (and other recent reading)

A new post! In which I attempt to sum up, in as few words as possible, some of the books I’ve read in the last few months.

Barnes binge

Julian Barnes, that is. I’d never read him before, but had been keen to since hearing about Nothing to be Frightened of, in which Barnes writes about death, his family, and authors such as Jules Renard (but mostly about death). That was the first of his books that I read, and liked very much. It even (positively, and fundamentally, at the time) changed the way that I had previously thought about death.

I then read his Booker prizewinner The Sense of an Ending. I really liked it for its precision and brevity, which it achieved without sacrificing any substance; and for its successful use of the unreliable narrator. I then moved onto his first novel, Metroland, which I enjoyed; and then Flaubert’s Parrot; which was less accessible and engaging but which I admired, in parts, for its cleverness.

I think the reason that I’m apparently keen on racing through Barnes’s entire back catalogue is simply that he has a strong voice which I happened to click with immediately: erudite and ironic but down-to-earth, sensitive and funny. I read somewhere that he tries to write as if the reader were a close friend sitting alongside him, and that really comes across in his books.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

This book made me realise how much I like novels in which the author speaks to the reader as if to a close friend. Gillespie and I (possibly don’t read the rest of this if you haven’t read the book and plan to) is one big deception. One gradually comes to realise that the narrator, Harriet, is probably not telling the truth; in fact, she seems determined not to succumb to doing so to a terrifying extent. As a piece of psychological horror it is an effective and compelling read; but I found myself becoming frustrated by Harriet. Rather than feeling included in the story, I felt more and more like a powerless observer. I’m not sure I liked that feeling. I also think that the pacing could have been better. I did appreciate Harriet’s vivacity and the acuteness of her observations. The Victorian Glasgow setting was well-drawn. The characterisation felt a little sketchy at times, but I did come to feel affection for Harriet’s victims, and eventually heartbroken for them. Harris definitely succeeded in stirring up emotions, but the balance of them eventually fell too much on the bitter side for me.

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively

This was a good read. The main character is a London architect, although London is painted as a character in itself. There is an emphasis on the idea that the city is in a state of flux, but that its history is never too far from the surface: that it is a sort of palimpsest – which I loved. She illustrates this with scenes from the Blitz intercut with the contemporary action. The two occasionally blur together. Lively’s descriptive writing of London, and her vision of it as a many-layered city, was extremely perceptive and well-executed. There were parts, however, that didn’t work so well. A lot of the dialogue didn’t ring true for me and I felt as if the story and characterisation weren’t developed enough – perhaps because the descriptive writing was so good by contrast. Saying that, there was something about the book – a warm heart, perhaps, and a sort of intelligent optimism – that made me sure I will read another of her books.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A pretty much perfect read. Adichie seems to sense exactly what the reader might be thinking at any given point, and develops the story accordingly. Not that this makes the book boringly predictable; on the contrary. The narrator, Kambili, is very sensitively drawn, and the supporting characters memorable and instrumental in giving her the courage to speak her mind. Set in an unstable postcolonial Nigeria, there are acts of inhumane horror both within Kambili’s family, ruled by her tyrannical father; and within the wider environment; but it is also a very human, visceral and complex story. Kambili still loves her father despite his violent and oppressive behaviour, something that is conveyed through small but intense physical gestures. Adichie always uses exactly the right tone and the right words: never excessive, but never too sparse. Perfect. I can’t wait to read Half of a Yellow Sun.

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Recent reading and other bits of waffle

Two months is a long blogging holiday to take, even by my standards. In theory I should have had lots of time to do things like blogging because I’ve only been working part-time, but this hasn’t been the case. The time has been sucked away by very important things like job applications, preparing for job interviews, going to job interviews, and watching countless episodes of Pointless.

I have read several books too, although perhaps not as many as I’d have liked. Here are my brief (and possibly distorted by the passage of time) thoughts on some of them.

Ali Smith – There but for the

I really liked this. The use of language was extremely clever. Some of the characters’ expressions have stuck firmly in my head. My other lasting impression, though, is that although it was a stunning book in many ways, it was primarily ideas-driven, and so I felt a detached admiration rather than any real engagement. I also remember feeling confused when I finished it, so perhaps the detachment came from having found it too cryptic.

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills

Another elliptical novel. A very slight book in which the last few pages threw doubt over everything I had just read, in a delicious and disturbing way (it reminded me of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger in that sense). I’m not sure if Ishiguro quite nailed it with this novel, in the way that he did with The Remains of the Day and the The Unconsoled (which I must re-read soon). Saying that, the mood that Pale View created and left me with was strong and unique.

Hilary Mantel – Giving Up The Ghost: a memoir

An unusual, visceral, sharp and insightful book, written with inventive use of language and imagery. Mantel’s story begins as she and her husband are selling their house, Owl Cottage, and in the process will be saying goodbye to its resident ghost. She looks back to infanthood and childhood, remembering herself as a young girl and using the present tense; and then moves through her often painful and challenging experiences of adulthood. It concludes with an especially moving exploration of the ghosts of unborn children. I liked the book very much, but I think it suffered a little from what Mantel explains as ‘learned secrecy’ (“Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up.”) She recalls events such as her battle with illness with candour and fullness; but other things are consciously skipped over, creating a sense of unevenness.

Haruki Murakami – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

In a sporadic diary form, Murakami writes about the build-ups to marathons and triathlons he is going to be taking part in; about his reasons for running; and about how it relates to the process of writing novels. It’s not a memoir, but there are bits about his life connected to running (he gave up running a bar to concentrate on writing, and took up running at around the same time). I devoured it in a few days, but I downloaded the book because I recently started running, and was very interested in what he had to say about being a writer who runs. I’m not sure what anyone who isn’t interested in running would get out of reading it, as I’m not sure it is a remarkable piece of writing in itself. There were moments when I struggled to relate to it, whilst being impressed/concerned by his capacity for self-discipline and perseverance. For example, he once ran an ultramarathon of 62 miles in one day, and a marathon in the blazing heat of Greece.

At the moment I’m reading My Antonia by Willa Cather, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve never read anything by her before. My resolution not to buy new books has been forgotten, but I blame the Kindle for this. I’ve grown to love it. It’s just too easy to buy new ebooks for it, though. One of them is a new short story called I’m Starved for You by Margaret Atwood, which I’m looking forward to.

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Reading notes

I can see this being a stuttery sort of post, as I haven’t blogged since December and so I’m out of practice. But I have finished reading a few books since then, and I know that thoughts about them will keep nagging me until I write them down.

One of them was a novella I read on the Kindle, Anita Brookner’s At the Hairdresser’s. It’s part of a series called Penguin Shorts, which consists of short works published exclusively in digital format. It breaks this year’s resolution to only read books I already have, as I downloaded it a few weeks ago. But part of my brain seemed to think it didn’t count, because it was an ebook, it was cheap, and because at that particular moment I really, really needed to read Anita Brookner.

I read two of Brookner’s books, Leaving Home and The Rules of Engagement, some years ago. I found her style relentlessly intense and focused, and her analysis of the minds and lives of lonely, reserved women piercingly accurate and resonant. I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone else like her. At the Hairdresser’s satisfied my Brookner craving. It’s narrated by Elizabeth Warner, an older woman living alone in a basement flat in London, who, stuck at the hairdresser’s one day when it is raining heavily outside, is driven home by a young man who runs a car service, Chris. Her experiences from then onwards cause her to decide to make some changes to her life. The plot is very predictable, but Elizabeth’s musings on her past, and the ways it has influenced her present, are sharp, frank and often sad. It’s been said of Brookner that she writes the same book over and over again, with the same protagonists. This might be true, but because she is an expert at what she does, and because I am fascinated by her subject matter, I don’t mind, and will gladly return to reading her again and again.

Another book I finished was (a library copy of) another recently published book, The Coward’s Tale by Vanessa Gebbie. It took me quite a long time to read, and not for any negative reasons. It is a rich book, precisely written, and full of poetic and apt description. Its presentation of characters is warm and completely without judgement. It never once flags or loses its way, and so deserves to be read with care. It is set in a former mining town in Wales, and explores the tragic legacy of an accident that happened in the Kindly Light pit. The stories of the town’s surviving inhabitants, idiosyncratic, semi-mythical and shot through with almost unbearable sadness, are related by Ianto Passchendaele Jenkins, a beggar who sleeps on the steps of the town chapel. His stories are gobbled up by Laddy Merridew, a young boy who has been sent to live in the town with his gran while his parents are having problems.

The novel is (perfectly) structured around these stories, which Ianto will tell to Laddy and any other curious bystanders if they provide him with food (mainly toffees) and drink (coffee with two sugars). At the beginning of each story, I felt I needed to settle down in a comfy place with a big cup of tea and give it my full attention, because I was going to be in for a cracking (but heartbreaking) journey each time. In the interludes between stories, we find out some of what goes on in the present-day town, and learn Ianto Jenkins’s own sad story. Essentially, The Coward’s Tale is, like the feathers that one of characters keeps trying to make out of wood shavings (for his own important reasons), beautifully crafted, fragile and special.

So, two very good reads to start the year. I’m now currently reading and enjoying Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving up the Ghost (on the Kindle), and Ali Smith’s There but for the (I only got it for Christmas, but couldn’t resist diving in.)

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