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Monday, 20 March 2006

Review: Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden (1999)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 967.73053 2

Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, is a dusty, terrifying place filled with guns and discontent. U.S attempts to impose order following an aid programme included elements of the U.S. Army. The Army Rangers and Delta Force, both elite groups of soldiers, were stationed in the country to prevent looting of aid. Local warlords, heavily armed with Russian weapons, are beyond the law and take whatever they can, causing pain to the population.

But the Americans are even more hated than the warlords. So when an attempt is made by the U.S. Army to extract factional heavyweights from a building in downtown Mogadishu on 3 October, 1993, the reaction is fierce. Everyone seems to have a weapon.

Mark Bowden has exhaustively researched this gripping book, talking to hundreds of Rangers and Delta Force commandos to piece together, fraction by fraction, this story of hardship and death. The most significant gun battle the U.S. had engaged in since the Vietnam War is portrayed in stark and uncompromising colours.

The book is engrossing, which is no doubt why my tutor recommended it to us last Tuesday.

  ‘Where the hell is Strous?’
  ‘He blew up, Sergeant.’
  ‘He blew up? What the hell do you mean he blew up?’
  ‘He blew up.’
  Floyd pointed to where the medic had been running. Strous stepped from a tangle of weeds, brushing himself off, his helmet askew. He looked down at Floyd and just took off running. A round had hit a flashbang grenade on Strous’ vest and exploded, knocking him off his feet and into the weeds. He was unhurt.
  ‘Move out, Floyd,’ Watson screamed.
  They all kept running, running and shooting through the brightening dawn, through the crackle of gunfire, the spray of loose mortar off a wall where a round hit, the sudden gust of hot wind from a blast that sometimes knocked them down and sucked the air out of their lungs, the sound of the helicopters rumbling overhead, and the crisp rasp of their guns like the tearing of heavy cloth. They ran through the oily smell of the city and of their own bodies, the taste of dust in their dry mouths, with the crisp brown bloodstains on their fatigues and the fresh memory of friends dead or unspeakably mangled, with the whole nightmare now grown unbearably long, with disbelief that the mighty and terrible army of the United States of America had plunged them into this mess and stranded them there and now left them to run through the same deadly gauntlet to get out. How could this happen?

It only took less than two days to end the fight, but the men had expected to be in and out of the city within two hours of take-off. The delay caused by the downing of two helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades led to a staggering number of Somalis killed and injured and unexpected casualties among the U.S. soldiers.

Worth a look and an afternoon on the couch.

Sunday, 12 March 2006

Review: Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1988)

Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s city is a sad, strange place of old customs and older habits, a petri dish of barely consummated desires and occasional filth. Marquez’ long, fluid sentences and perfect timing serve to render the city in a quiet somnolence punctured by violent outbursts of passion. He gives back to words their original meanings by using them with a specific gravity that is as difficult for a novelist to achieve as for an athlete to win a tournament.

Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.

Florentino Ariza’s unrequited love for Fermina Daza — now bereaved of her husband Dr. Juvenal Urbino — has been fortified by half a century of longing and pain. It’s the story of how a young telegraph operator wooed the daughter of a rogue trader, but it’s also much more. Florentino waits for her on the route to the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, where she is at school. He also stalks her at Midnight Mass:

Her doubts were still unresolved on Christmas Eve, when she was shaken by the presentiment that he was in the crowd at Midnight Mass, looking at her, and this uneasiness flooded her heart. She did not dare to turn her head, because she was sitting between her father and her aunt, and she had to control herself so that they would not notice her agitation. But in the crowd leaving the church she felt him so close, so clearly, that an irresistible power forced her to look over her shoulder as she walked along the central nave and then, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, she saw those icy eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified by the terror of love. Dismayed by her own audacity, she seized Aunt Escolástica’s arm so she would not fall, and her aunt felt the icy perspiration on her hand through the lace mitt, and she comforted her with an imperceptible sign of unconditional complicity.

In Marquez everyone is given their due. That’s why there’s no fear, until the end of the novel, only hope, because nobody has been cast out of the infernal radiance of the author’s regard, to offer the reader a sight of the meaning of damnation. Even the girl who collects used condoms at the transient hotel owned by Lothario Thugut has an assigned character:

One afternoon at six o’clock, when the girls were dressing to receive that evening’s clients, the woman who cleaned the rooms on his floor in the hotel came into his cubicle. She was young, but haggard and old before her time, like a fully dressed penitent surrounded by glorious nakedness. He saw her every day without feeling himself observed: she walked through the rooms with her brooms, a bucket for the trash, and a special rag for picking up used condoms from the floor. She came into the room where Florentino Ariza lay reading, and as always she cleaned with great care so as not to disturb him. Then she passed close to the bed, and he felt a warm and tender hand low on his belly, he felt it searching, he felt it finding, he felt it unbuttoning his trousers while her breathing filled the room. He pretended to read until he could not bear it any longer and had to move his body out of the way.

It is almost impossible to select quotations from this book because every paragraph contains some new pearl of perfect composition that deserves to be included because of the simple fact that as you read it you discover that there are tears running down your cheeks, or you find your arms tingling with goose bumps.

The characters become so iconized by the prose that when they do something, such as expressing a wish to search for a sunken galleon, their gestures become solidified, as if you are seeing them rendered on a canvas, in paint, as in a historical painting such as Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West or The Declaration of Independence by John Trunbull. Their slightest gestures become heroic and unprecedented, as if they were historical events. This effect, I believe, is unique among modern novelists — no one else has this ability to make the mundane soar into the empyrean of existence, like Marquez does. And when Fermina Daza walks through the city’s markets followed by Florentino Ariza it is as if we are seeing a painting of Dante watching Beatrice emerge from a cathedral, painted by some eminent nineteenth-century artist. The drama is palpable, superreal, compelling. It is this quality, I believe, that sets Marquez apart. The prose has a concrete feel about it, as if we are witnessing momentous events rather than following a simple love story. Every event makes its own claim on our attention; we are riveted to the particular in such a way that our imagination sees these things happening. A wonderful gift.

The image even of Gala Placidia shrieking at the tradesmen from the balcony of Lorenzo Daza’s house is apocalyptic in its fervour and ferocity:

That was true: from the time she awoke at six in the morning until she turned out the light in the bedroom, Fermina Daza devoted herself to killing time. Life was imposed on her from outside. First, at the final rooster crow, the milkman woke her with his rapping on the door knocker. Then came the knock of the fishwife with her box of red snappers dying on a bed of algae, the sumptuous fruit sellers with vegetables from María la Baja and fruit from San Jacinto. And then, for the rest of the day, everyone knocked at the door: beggars, girls with lottery tickets, the Sisters of Charity, the knife grinder with the gossip, the man who bought bottles, the man who bought old gold, the man who bought newspapers, the fake gypsies who offered to read one’s destiny in cards, in the lines of one’s palm, in coffee grounds, in the water in washbasins. Gala Placidia spent the week opening and closing the street door to say no, another day, or shouting from the balcony in a foul humor to stop bothering us, damn it, we already bought everything we need. She had replaced Aunt Escolástica with so much fervor and so much grace that Fermina confused them to the point of loving her.

The Widow Nazareth’s fucking of Florentino Ariza is another apocalyptic moment, this time fervid with plush and desire. She returns to her house after the fighting has ceased, only to continue to dispense love like it is a seasonal specialty — and the season goes on all year round. Her laughter is catching.

That night she stopped wearing mourning once and for all, without passing through the useless intermediate stage of blouses with little gray flowers, and her life was filled with love songs and provocative dresses decorated with macaws and spotted butterflies, and she began to share her body with anyone who cared to ask for it. When the troops of General Gaitán Obeso were defeated after a sixty-three-day siege, she rebuilt the house that had been damaged by cannon fire, adding a beautiful sea terrace that overlooked the breakwater where the surf would vent its fury during the stormy season. That was her love nest, as she called it without irony, where she would receive only men she liked, how she liked, and without charging one red cent, because in her opinion it was the men who were doing her the favor. In a very few cases she would accept a gift, as long as it was not made of gold, and she managed everything with so much skill that no one could have presented conclusive evidence of improper conduct. On only one occasion did she hover on the edge of public scandal, when the rumor circulated that Archbishop Dante de Luna had not died by accident after eating a plate of poisonous mushrooms but had eaten them intentionally because she threatened to expose him if he persisted in his sacrilegious solicitations. As she used to say between peals of laughter, she was the only free woman in the province.

The guiding spirit of this book is faithfulness — to a single cause: the love of one woman. Because he cannot have her, however, paradoxically it is by being faithless (in the commonly-understood sense) that Florentino Ariza assuages his passion, and remains sane. His affair with Sara Noriega is typical. He breaks it off, desiring to keep that right for himself rather than relinquish his freedom to another. Because he must remain free: to choose, to leave, at any time, if Fermina Daza becomes available again. He never wavers, and always expects that, one day, Dr. Juvenal Urbino will die:

The relationship with Sara Noriega was one of Florentino Ariza’s longest and most stable affairs, although it was not his only one during those five years. When he realized that he felt happy with her, above all in bed, but that she would never replace Fermina Daza, he had another outbreak of his nights as a solitary hunter, and he arranged matters so that he could portion out his time and strength as far as they would go. Sara Noriega, however, achieved the miracle of curing him for a time. At least now he could live without seeing Fermina Daza, instead of interrupting whatever he was doing at any hour of the day to search for her along the uncertain pathways of his presentiments, on the most unlikely streets, in unreal places where she could not possibly be, wandering without reason, with a longing in his breast that gave him no rest until he saw her, even for an instant. The break with Sara Noriega, however, revived his dormant grief, and once again he felt as he did on those afternoons of endless reading in the little park, but this time it was exacerbated by his urgent need for Dr. Juvenal Urbino to die.

Marquez maps out the human psyche, or soul. He knows what obsession is and how it operates. Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s love-affair with Miss Barbara Lynch is a case in point:

The world became a hell for him. For once the initial madness was sated, they both became aware of the risks involved, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino never had the resolve to face a scandal. In the deliriums of passion he promised everything, but when it was over, everything was left for later. On the other hand, as his desire to be with her grew, so did his fear of losing her, so that their meetings became more and more hurried and problematic. He thought about nothing else. He waited for the afternoons with unbearable longing, he forgot his other commitments, he forgot everything but her, but as his carriage approached the Mala Crianza salt marsh he prayed to God that an unforseen obstacle would force him to drive past. He went to her in a state of such anguish that at times as he turned the corner he was glad to catch a glimpse of the woolly head of the Reverend Lynch, who read on the terrace while his daughter catechized neighborhood children in the living room with recited passages of scripture. Then he would go home relieved that he was not defying fate again, but later he would feel himself going mad with the desire for it to be five o’clock in the afternoon all day, every day.

América Vicuña’s death echoes that of that other death in a love story: Lucette in Nabokov’s Ada. Another regretted suicide. Both stories also portray a long-unrequited love. Ada was published in 1969, the Spanish original of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985. It’s very likely that Marquez was aware of Nabokov’s novel. Although their styles are radically different, one can’t help but speculate on the likelihood of influence. Why do both books find it necessary to sacrifice a victim to the other, more consuming love? Perhaps to balance the joy of reunion with a sharp alternative. Or perhaps because in the all-consuming fire of a great love there are always casualties — collateral damage, as it were. Certainly, both Florentino Ariza and Van Veen struggle against great odds to obtain what they believe is theirs.

Saturday, 11 March 2006

Review: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970)

Frieda and Claudia MacTeer, 10 and 9 years’ old, are joined in the house of indifferent adults by Pecola Breedlove, whose father has gone into gaol. The adults are not so much indifferent, as overbearing and dismissive:

Adults do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them. Our illness is treated with contempt, foul Black Draught, and castor oil that blunts our minds.

In this unprepossessing environment the children can enjoy as much as they’re able to, which isn’t much. They can’t enjoy their mothers’ complaints, occasional illness, or even Christmas presents.

I did not know why I destroyed those dolls. But I did know that nobody ever asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Had any adult with the power to fulfill my desires taken me seriously and asked me what I wanted, they would have known that I did not want to have anything to own, or to possess any object. I wanted rather to feel something on Christmas day. The real question would have been, “Dear Claudia, what experience would you like on Christmas?” I would have spoken up, “I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward.

Once upon a time the Breedloves lived in a store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio:

There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference. The furniture had aged without ever having become familiar. People had owned it, but never known it. No one had lost a penny or a brooch under the cushions of wither sofa and remembered the place and time of the loss or the finding. No one had clucked and said, “But I had it just a minute ago. I was sitting right there talking to . . .” or “Here it is. It must have slipped down while I was feeding the baby!” No one had given birth on one of the beds—or remembered with fondness the peeled paint places, because that’s what the baby, when he learned to pull himself up, used to pick loose. No thrifty child had tucked a wad of gum under the table. No happy drunk—a friend of the family, with a fat neck, unmarried, you know, but God how he eats!—had sat at the piano and played “You Are My Sunshine.” No young girl had stared at the tiny Christmas tree and remembered when she had decorated it, or wondered if that blue ball was going to hold, or if HE would ever come back to see it.

Morrison’s prose is mesmerising. You can easily be tempted to reread a passage two or three times — it remains as fresh as the first time. While the lives of the Breedloves are unsatisfying and degrading, you take great pleasure in reading about their unhappiness, their ugliness, as each passage segues effortlessly into the next. Her writing seems to make no effort, to describe in the most natural way possible those things that set the Breedloves apart from the other people in the town: their poverty and ugliness. You can even see their faces in your mind’s eye, the prose is so enticing.

There’s an undying poetry in Morrison’s prose. The book is short, she sticks to her themes: the distaste that Mr. Yacobowski the general-store owner feels when confronted by a little black girl is balanced by Pecola's acceptance of the three whores: Miss Marie, Miss Poland and Miss China, who live above the Breedloves’ storefront. Claudia encounters them with similar acceptance: “'How come you got so many boyfriends, Miss Marie?'”

After the mayhem of the scene of the girls' fight with Maureen Peal and the subsequent discovery of their lodger Mr. Henry with two prostitutes, the chapter on proper black women balances the human drama with some satire. Geraldine is such a ‘colored person’ and not a ‘nigger’:

Geraldine, Louis, Junior, and the cat lived next to the playground of Washington Irving School. Junior considered the playground his own, and the schoolchildren coveted his freedom to sleep late, go home for lunch, and dominate the playground after school. He hated to see the swings, slides, monkey bars, and seesaws empty and tried to get kids to stick around as long as possible. White kids; his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group: he wore white shirts and blue trousers; his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part etched into his hair by the barber. In winter his mother put Jergens Lotion on his face to keep the skin from becoming ashen. Even though he was light-skinned, it was possible to ash. The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

Violence is everywhere, the violence of people who know hatred and despair intimately. Even those who also know comfort seem to thrive on violence.

The story is perpetually dark, black-and-white, like Indonesian dancing figures. The darkness is perpetuated by characterising the history of Pauline Williams, and Cholly Breedlove, who she marries. This stick-figure, dark history is echoed by the children’s story that opens the novel and is used to open each chapter.

When Cholly was four days old, his mother wrapped him in two blankets and one newspaper and placed him on a junk heap by the railroad. His Great Aunt Jimmy, who had seen her niece carrying a bundle out of the back door, rescued him. She beat his mother with a razor strap and wouldn’t let her near the baby after that. Aunt Jimmy raised Cholly herself, but took delight sometimes in telling him of how she had saved him. He gathered from her that his mother wasn’t right in the head. But he never had a chance to find out, because she ran away shortly after the razor strap, and no one had heard of her since.

Cholly’s Aunt Jimmy dies from eating peach cobbler and during the wake he makes it with a young girl named Darlene. But he feels like a stick figure and reacts badly to all the mourners:

The next day was cleaning-out day, settling accounts, distributing Aunt Jimmy’s goods. Mouths were set in downward crescents, eyes veiled, feet tentative.
  Cholly floated about aimlessly, doing chores as he was told. All the glamour and warmth the adults had given him on the previous day were replaced by a sharpness that agreed with his mood. He could think only of the flashlight, the muscadines, and Darlene’s hands. And when he was not thinking of them, the vacancy in his head was like the space left by a newly pulled tooth still conscious of the rottenness that had once filled it. Afraid of running into Darlene, he would not go far from the house, but neither could he endure the atmosphere of his dead Aunt’s house. The picking through her things, the comments on the “condition” of her goods. Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene.

The story of how Elihue Micah Whitcomb became Soaphead Church is another cartoon of dark humour from Morrison’s pen. It’s not certain how his story fits in with that of the Breedloves but that understanding will no doubt arrive. We have faith in Morrison’s dialect and her choice of lives to strand into a compelling, single narrative.

He began to sink into a rapidly fraying gentility, punctuated with a few of the white-collar occupations available to black people, regardless of their noble bloodlines, in America: desk clerk at a colored hotel in Chicago, insurance agent, travelling salesman for a cosmetics firm catering to blacks. He finally settled in Lorain, Ohio, in 1936, palming himself off as a minister, and inspiring awe with the way he spoke English. The women of the town early discovered his celibacy, and not being able to comprehend his rejection of them, decided that he was supernatural rather than unnatural.

Friday, 10 March 2006

Review: Surfacing, Margaret Atwood (1972)

A few men work on railway maintenance, one freight train a day; a couple of families run the stores, the small one where they used to speak English, the other where they wouldn’t. The rest process the tourists, businessmen in plaid shirts still creased from the cellophane packages, and wives, if they come, who sit in two’s on the screened blackfly-proof porches of the single-room cabins and complain to each other while the men play at fishing.

The character’s ennui plays itself out in the narrative. She is the sole point of focalisation and the narrative visits her past frequently, adding its disappointments to those of the present. In chapter 2 we learn that she’s come up to find her father, who has disappeared. Her mother died earlier of a brain illness. She came up with Anna and David because she has no car of her own. Joe seems to be her boyfriend. The four of them get along, and that’s about it. They eventually get on each others' nerves so thoroughly that it precipitates a rapid change in the main character’s state of mind, leading to the finale. We never learn her name, a fact which strengthens her ties to the narrative.

Atwood doesn’t push the story too fast, but the pace is brisk. She has a novel way of using commas to extend the sentence, give it a twist in its tail. These commas are almost equivalent to full-stops, but because they’re not they increase the velocity of the delivery.

Evans starts the motor and we churn out slowly. Summer cottages beginning to sprout here, they spread like measles, it must be the paved road.

And again:

The feeling I expected before but failed to have comes now, homesickness, for a place where I never lived, I’m far enough away; then the village shrinks, optical illusion, and we’re around a point of land, it’s behind us.

She employs this figure compulsively, to turn another trick out of a train of thought, and to add new insights without breaking stride. Atwood likes a fast pace.

They’re on an island in a lake in Canada. They extend their stay from two days to a week. Small events tend to build the tension. You’re not sure, at a certain point, what will happen. It’s a waiting game. And while they wait the memories return. There’s a lot of emotional back-and-forth:

  “What’s wrong?” I said to him finally, putting down my brush, giving up.
  “Nothing,” he said. He took the cover off the butter dish and started carving holes in the butter with his forefinger.
  I should have realized much earlier what was happening. I should have got out of it when we were still in the city. It was unfair of me to stay with him, he’d become used to it, hooked on it, but I didn’t realize that and neither did he. When you can’t tell the difference between your own pleasure and your pain then you’re an addict. I did that, I fed him unlimited supplies of nothing, he wasn’t ready for it, it was too strong for him, he had to fill it up, like people isolated in a blank room who see patterns.

The past comes alive and the present is filled with anxiety and fear, infected by the past. No one seems able to be happy: there’s a veneer of contentment and then the discovery of a chasm just beyond it, like the rock where the ancient paintings cannot be found. Disappointment lurks like a debt that cannot ever be paid.

It was the sixth day, I had to find out; it would be my last chance, tomorrow Evans was coming to take us back. My brain was rushing, covering over the bad things and filling the empty spaces with an embroidery of calculations and numbers, I needed to finish, I had never finished anything. To be exact, to condense myself to a pinpoint, impaling a fact, a certainty.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Review: The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer (1979)

Gary Gilmore - image from Getty Images
The fictitious account of the downfall and execution of Gary Mark Gilmore — “the first judicial homicide in the United States for ten years”, according to Simon Petch of Sydney University — is highly detailed and very entertaining. The 10-year delay between executions is presumably why these murders were singled out for this kind of treatment by Mailer, rather than any other. The Gilmore trial must have attracted a lot of publicity in its time, and drawn Mailer because of its topicality and the pathos of the First-Degree Murder charge. A killer with no defence who deliberately courts death. But he’s a killer none the less.

The book’s 1056 pages add significantly to the debate that apparently emerged during and after his execution. They contain exhaustive details about all those who were associated with the convicted thief and murderer, from such characters as Val J. Conlin, the man he bought his cars — a Mustang and a white truck — from, and all the past boyfriends and the two husbands of his girlfriend Nicole Baker — including Jim Hampton, Jim Barrett, Kip Eberhardt, Steve Hudson, Joe Bob Sears and Tom Fong — who meets Gary when she is twenty years old. In fact, Nicole’s story is given almost as much attention as Gary’s. The Afterword states that Nicole’s cooperation was critical in fictionalising the story. Anyone whose life touches Gary’s is included at some point, providing a more than satisfactory rendition of the intricacies of his slow deterioration from a hopeful ex-con to repeat criminal.

But Gary Gilmore is certainly not a pleasant person to know. We can feel from the beginning how the flaws in his character precipitate his decline into criminality once more. At the beginning we know nothing about his past crimes or his time in gaol, but we know more than enough about his tastes, his drinking, his petty thievery, his way of dealing with people, his violence. By page 168 he’s already been in two fights. He likes to arm-wrestle, he likes to test himself in masculine ways against the world. He is vain and proud, and holds grudges. To some extent, he tries to apply the brakes to his redescent into crime, but there’s no way to stop an avalanche, and we get to see it’s progress in slow-motion, step by step, argument by argument, folly by folly, by tiny degrees as he slips into old habits and down the slippery slope.

This is more than just a cliché, it’s an observable process that we, the readers, participate in, in graphic detail. It may be fiction, but it is well-researched and the consequences of the actions taken by Gary and others, significantly those of young Nicole, ring true to life. Nicole is no saint, and her antics have almost as unhappy consequences as those of her boyfriend.

The method Mailer uses to convey his story is interesting. Instead of an uninterrupted narrative, he has chosen to write short, discrete passages — you can hardly call them sections — that cumulatively provide the story with its substance. This allows Mailer to give the facts in the order in which they happened without concerning himself too much with intra-narrative consistency. He can whip out a passage to portray a scene and then switch rapidly to the next without worrying about tying the passages together organically. It is a method that serves him very well, and admirably suits this type of semi-fictitious narrative.

While it seems that Nicole is Gary’s girl, there’s a lot of goings-on in her life. Her ex-lover Barrett gives his view of Gilmore:

Barrett’s impression was that here was one more old scroungy dude. He didn’t look right. More bad taste! He was wearing cutoffs and his legs were too white. Gilmore looked a lot older than her. Barrett didn’t feel hurt or anything, just kind of disgust, you know, like I don’t believe this.

This kind of sharp delivery is typical of the book. Short, telling phrases in dry, matter-of-fact sentences or in the contemporary demotic of the characters. The attention to detail conveys a rich experience, with a journalistic quality that is quite gripping. The arrest, for example, is conveyed via multiple focalisations — through the eyes of multiple characters — so that you have a complete picture of all the salient people and their roles in the arrest. Brenda, Gary’s cousin, is actively involved in guiding the police to Gary, leading to his arrest on the road. Brenda had been the first person to meet him at the airport after his release from gaol, having corresponded with him for a time, and she feels doubly responsible for the situation:

Toby Bath called Brenda. “We’ve got him,” he told her. “Is he okay?” asked Brenda. “Yes,” said Toby, “he’s fine.” “Anybody else get hurt?” asked Brenda. “Nope, nobody got hurt. Did a good clean job.” “Thank God,” said Brenda. She had never been in a more shattered state. She couldn’t even cry. “Oh,” she said. “Gary’s going to hate me. He’s not too happy with me anyways. But now he’s going to hate me.” She was more worried about that than anything.

After the arrest we are introduced to his mother. We now learn more about Gary’s past. We learn of the hopeless attempts by the defence attorneys to find mitigating circumstances. He won’t allow them to call Nicole as a defence witness, saying that he doesn’t want her to testify. They had broken up in the week before he went on his two-day rampage, and that may have contributed toward a disordered state of mind. But was he disordered? No psychiatrist the defence attorneys talk with thinks so. Meanwhile, Gary writes pathetic letters to Nicole trying to tell her how he is being hurt by her infidelity. The pathos of his situation is balanced against the real fact that he is incorrigible, and this perceived balance causes us to be curious, not as to how he would behave if he were let off with life imprisonment, but to know exactly what he will say when the final punch arrives, as we know it does.

The build up to the dénouement is painstaking, and includes all the court proceedings. This time through Nicole’s eyes:

She thought the first day of the trial would be the whole trial, but instead, the first day was spent picking a jury. There weren’t any witnesses called. It was just one long dull stretch and she didn’t even get to speak to Gary until the second recess when they let her sit on the other side of the railing from him. All of a sudden, he brought up the letter she had written a week before, the one where she told him she would rather be dead than cause him pain by being with other men. Now, out of nowhere, he was nasty about it. “You talk about dying, but it’s just words, baby,” he said, and gave her a look as if to say she was safe on her side of the fence.

Gary’s insistence on this point, not wanting to think about Nicole with other men, is particularly distasteful and becomes obscene as events unfold. This type of thinking is typical of Gary — small-minded and paternalistic. The eulogies given by those who knew him, at the end of the book, just don’t stand up to the reality of Gary as we come to know him. Mailer is very successful in portraying this imbalance because of the level of detail adhered to throughout. We see most of what Gary thinks, and it’s not pleasant. He’s a narrow-minded, vindictive, possessive person who picks fights rather than thinks things through simply because he doesn’t know how to control himself.

But Nicole does continue to sleep around:

She never would let herself get into anything again that would make her feel this uneasy personally. One of these days, on one of her visits, Gary might look her in the eye and ask if she had made it with anybody. She did not know if she could tell him the truth. She didn’t want to think of the damage it would do inside to him and to her if she actually lied point-blank while looking right into his face. She had enough worms right now.

The book, so long and detailed, stands up under scrutiny. Even after putting this massive tome down for a week and then picking it up again, it’s still a gripping read. A full-blown thriller and a drama with a life of its own.

Doctor Woods disgusted [Nicole]. She would ask him innocent things, like, “Do I have to eat all you give me, every meal?” and he would look at her like you could lose your ass giving a solid reply. She thought he was a great pussy. This big, good-looking guy who would never commit himself.

The drama is underplayed, and this adds to the book’s appeal:

Whereas when Gary would be brought out into the visiting room to meet his lawyer or uncle, they would take him down the long main corridor of maximum from which shorter corridors led off at right angles to the one-story cell blocks. At such times, as a precaution against escape, no other inmate would be in the main corridor. While Gary walked along, passing the barred gate to each cell block, the prisoners would see him coming, and call out, “Hey, Gary,” or “Hang in there.”
  “Stay with it,” they would yell.

Mailer’s style changes depending on the subject-matter. Here he is in novelistic mode, showing that he can write long sentences when it’s necessary. Farrell is the writer Schiller — Gary’s publicist — has hired to do his pieces:

Farrell had to be glad the eyes had been kept for him. He needed something nourishing in the marrow, for he had been discovering an awful lot about Gilmore that was not so good. Rereading the interviews and letters, Farrell began to mark the transcripts with different-colored inks to underline each separate motif in Gilmore’s replies, and before he was done, he got twenty-seven poses. Barry had begun to spot racist Gary and Country-and-Western Gary, poetic Gary, artist-manqué Gary, macho Gary, self-destructive Gary, Karma County Gary, Texas Gary, and Gary the killer Irishman. Awfully prevalent lately was Gilmore the movie star, awfully shit-kicking large-minded aw-shucks.

One irritation the book produces, however: throughout the book Mailer has referred to the American Civil Liberties Union by the acronym ACLU. Finally, on page 965, he spells it out. It is a great relief to finally discover what ACLU means. But this is typical. Throughout, Mailer refers to people, refers to them often by their first names only, and even if the full name is used, you’ve forgotten who they are, so the forces at play are often disguised by this shorthand. The novel is speedy and precise, but frequently too precise.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Review: Shame, Salman Rushdie (1983)

‘Nishapur’ is the name of the house where Omar Khayyam Shakil is born and grows up exclusively to the age of 12 in. It is a sprawling ancestral home with hundreds of rooms, many unused for a long time. His mothers, the three sisters, have locked themselves away in there forever and at the age of 12 he wants out. This novel recounts the fortunes of three families in a fairy-tale country called Pakistan. It is not a heart-warming book, but one filled with recriminations and blood and despair. It is also a satire on political life in a fairy-tale country called Pakistan, the coups and thuggery, the senseless violence of the mob and the fearful middle classes.

The child Omar Khayyam Shakil is a victim of his surroundings, a refugee in a palatial internment camp, a ghost of a personage not yet dead. That will come later. The book’s title — Shame — conveys the outlaw-like nature of the entire situation. These sisters — Chhunni, Munnee and Bunny — have created a world that should not exist, and their collective son is made an outlaw at birth.

Through an old telescope, from the upper-storey windows of the house, the child Omar Khayyam surveyed the emptiness of the landscape around Q., which convinced him that he must be near the very Rim of Things, and that beyond the Impossible Mountains on the horizon must lie the great nothing into which, in his nightmares, he had begun to tumble with monotonous regularity. The most alarming aspect of these dreams was the sleep-sense that his plunges into the void were somehow appropriate, that he deserved no better … he awoke amidst mosquito-netting, sweating freely and even shrieking at the realization that his dreams were informing him of his worthlessness. He did not relish the news.

The sisters have banned shame in ‘Nishapur’, nevertheless he wants to leave it. In book 3 the scene shifts to the story of Bilquìs Kemal and the bomb that drove her into the arms of her husband at the time of partition.

  ‘What things won’t you do there, Raz!’ she cried. ‘What greatness, no? What fame!’ Raza’s ears went red under the eyes (hot with amusement) of his companions in the bumping, rackety Dakota; but he looked pleased all the same. And Bilquìs’s prophecy came true, after all. She, whose life had blown up, emptying her of history and leaving in its place only that dark dream of majesty, the illusion so powerful that it demanded to enter the sphere of what-was-real — she, rootless Bilquìs, who now longed for stability, for no-more-explosions, had discerned in Raza a boulder-like quality on which she would build her life. He was a man rooted solidly in an indeflectible sense of himself, and that made him seem invincible, ‘A giant absolutely,’ she flattered him, whispering in his ear so as not to set off the giggles of the other officers in the cabin, ‘shining, like the actors on the screen.’

Although Rushdie says that this book is a fairy-tale, he spends much time and effort describing the migrant experience in Pakistan. As if shame were a concomitant of immigration. The conflation is not totally unexpected: already Bilquìs has been banished for the shame of not conceiving, linked to her newbie status in the house of her husband’s family.

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Baluchistan. (No mention of the East Wing, you notice: Bangladesh never got its name in the title, and so, eventually, it took the hint and seceded from the secessionists. Imagine what such a double secession does to people!) — So it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done.

Elsewhere, Rani Harappa is waiting for her husband, Iskandar:

Later, she sits in shalwar and kurta of Italian crëpe-de-chine on the coolest porch, embroidering a shawl, watching a little dust cloud on the horizon. No, how can it be Isky, he is in town with his bosom pal Shakil; I knew trouble, knew it the moment I saw him, the fat pigmeat tub. Probably just one of those little whirlwinds that skip across the scrub.

Sufiya Zinobia, the daughter of Raza Hyder and Bilquìs Hyder, contracts brain fever at 2 years of age and is cured by a potent potion that has the side-effect of slowing down the ageing process. Ten years pass. Raza Hyder returns to Karachi from Q. Shame is yet to strike again. We have not heard about Omar Khayyam Shakil for a while.

Sufiya Zinobia’s blushes burn and scald. Why does she blush so much?

To speak plainly: Sufiya Zinobia Hyder blushed uncontrollably whenever her presence in the world was noticed by others. But she also, I believe, blushed for the world.
  Let me voice my suspicion: the brain fever that made Sufiya Zinobia preternaturally receptive to all sorts of things that float around in the ether enabled her to absorb, like a sponge, a host of unfelt feelings.

After Omar’s brother Babar is killed as a separatist, Omar tries to contact Iskander, who brushes him off. Omar is made physically ill by this snub (a new-age Falstaff) but proceeds to fall in love with Sufiya Zinobia Hyder.

The elemental gusto with which Rushdie goes about constructing his great plots of human happiness and distress are fuelled by comradeship — by the desire to communicate at all costs the bizarre and frankly unbelievable stories that rise up in the frontier state of Pakistan: the country of immigrants.

I have one last, and most damning, accusation. Men who deny their pasts become incapable of thinking them real. Absorbed into the great whore-city, having left the frontier universe of Q. far behind him once again, Omar Khayyam Shakil’s home-town now seems to him like a sort of bad dream, a fantasy, a ghost. The city and the frontier are incompatible worlds; choosing Karachi, Shakil rejects the other.

Every character provides Rushdie with an opportunity to communicate furiously. Iskander Harappa’s daughter is an unwilling virgin, spurning all comers, but the more she tries to douse her budding charms the more desirable she becomes.

By the age of sixteen she had been obliged to become expert in the arts of self-defence. Iskander Harappa had never tried to keep her away from men. She accompanied him on his diplomatic rounds, and at many embassy receptions elderly ambassadors were found clutching their groins and throwing up in the toilet after their groping hands had been answered by a well-aimed knee.

Behind the plots of love, madness, betrayal, shame and happiness there rumbles the immense engine of a whole culture, a gasping, ectoplasmic machine with fifty million eyes and ten billion desires.

It occurs to me that the women knew precisely what they were up to — that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men’s. Repression is a seamless garment; a society which is authoritarian in its social and sexual codes, which crushes its women beneath the intolerable burdens of honour and propriety, breeds repressions of other kinds as well. Contrariwise: dictators are always — or at least in public, on other people’s behalf — puritanical. So it turns out that my ‘male’ and ‘female’ plots are the same story, after all.
  I hope that it goes without saying that not all women are crushed by any system, no matter how oppressive. It is commonly and, I believe, accurately said of Pakistan that her women are much more impressive than her men … their chains, nevertheless, are no fictions. They exist. And they are getting heavier.

When Sufiya Zinobia is finally possessed, Shakil and Hyder take to carrying her up to the attic at night — to protect the 27 children of the dead Good News. Rushdie uses an appealing trick to make us think the narrator is not omniscient:

There was an attic room. (It was a house designed by Angrez architects.) At night, when the servants were asleep, Raza Hyder and Omar Khayyam carried the drugged form of Sufiya Zinobia up attic stairs. It is even possible (difficult to see in the dark) that they wrapped her in a carpet.

That “difficult to see in the dark” is precious, a point of humour in the blackening weave of the narrative. It presupposes a narrator who cannot see everything, because of course Rushdie uses a first-person narrator in this novel to tell the story. He is some sort of middle-class person, a native of Pakistan who lives in the U.K. Is it Rushdie himself? No doubt. But he’s not going to spoil the suspense by telling us.

This excellent novel is full of charm, full of stories about people who take on definite characteristics as the narrative progresses. We are impressed especially by Rushdie’s need to communicate these things. To make us understand what it is like living in a civilised country like Pakistan where there remain elemental forces of evil as well as a plethora of lived life that pushes through the boundaries to make it’s way into the future. The future looms large, and the past is never absent. How people overcome their pasts without accumulating too much shame seems to be the major theme of this novel. Because shame is claustrophobic, but it is also necessary to prevent people from committing acts that might be labelled base.

Rushdie is a great communicator, like Marquez, a man of his times who has so much material to present to his readers that it’s difficult to keep the narrative on one track. He’s forever breaking off to resume another strand, because there are so many stories. I can’t wait to read his next novel, Shalimar the Clown.

Sunday, 5 March 2006

Review: Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal (1968)

Myra’s diary is in the first person, naturally. Only Saddam Hussein could use the third person for such an undertaking. Myra’s narrative allows for all sorts of fun and games as she describes tinsel town from her unique perspective. It is a view from the heights of her superb ego, a view through the trees of her self-regard and with the hills of her desires visible in the distance.

In the Posture class I was particularly struck by one of the students, a boy with a Polish name. He is tall with a great deal of sand-colored curly hair and sideburns; he has pale blue eyes with long black lashes and a curving mouth on the order of the late Richard Cromwell, so satisfyingly tortured in Lives of a Bengal Lancer. From a certain unevenly rounded thickness at the crotch of his blue jeans, it is safe to assume that he is marvellously hung. Unfortunately he is hot for an extremely pretty girl with long straight blonde hair (dyed), beautiful legs and breasts, reminiscent of Lupe Velez. She is mentally retarded. When I asked her to rise she did not recognize the word ‘rise’ and so I had to ask her ‘to get up’ which she did understand. He is probably just as stupid but fortunately has the good sense not to talk too much. When he does, however, he puts on a hillbilly accent that is so authentic that I almost melt in my drawers.

Is Myra Myron after a sex-change operation? She thinks like a woman, but that’s no guarantee of authenticity. Is she different from other people? Certainly her obsessions are confronting. But this is the Sixties, the age of unreason, when people thought they could outsmart destiny. She seems to fit right into the culture of boredom at the Academy of Drama and Modeling, even to the point of attending student parties:

I did find the party interesting, at least in its early stages. Of those present, I was one of the oldest, which did nothing for my sense of security so laboriously achieved in those long sessions with Dr Montag. But I was a good sport, laughing and chatting and, all in all, behaving not as a teacher but as just plain Myra Breckinridge, a beautiful woman not yet thirty. As a result, several of the young men showed a sexual interest in me but though I teased them and played the flirt, I did not allow any intimacies to occur or even indicate that they might be welcomed at some future time. I preferred to be Greer Garson, a gracious lady whose compassionate breasts were more suited to be last pillow for a dying youth than as baubles for the coarse hands of some horny boy.

Is Myra Myron? Her desire to dominate Rusty is quite masculine:

  ‘You’ve missed two Posture classes in a row. That’s very serious, Rusty. Very, very serious. You know how Uncle Buck dislikes that, and how it is bound to count against your final grade.’
  ‘But I been real busy, Miss Myra. Working, see…’
  ‘The garage?’
  ‘No, with these friends, helping to start this business. Anyway, next week I’ll be back in class and that for sure, Miss Myra.’ he looked at me with such frightened sincerity that it was all I could do to keep my hands of him right then and there. Gone was the easy masculine arrogance that had characterized him in our early relations. Now he was jittery and profoundly hostile, and all because of me! Though the corridor was airconditioned to a polar temperature (like so many fat men Buck suffers from heat), a bead of sweat appearing at the tip of one sideburn reminded me to say, ‘I still have the T-shirt you left in my office.’

Myra believes that the age of men has ended, as has the great age of movies (1935-1945). Because there is no longer any way for men to express their masculinity in an overt sense, they are only able to express a facsimile of it — through costumes: cowboys etc. Now, says Myra, it is the age of women. Just as, artistically, it is the age of the TV commercial.

In a sense, Rusty is a throwback to the stars of the Forties, who themselves were simply shadows cast in the bright morning of the nation. Yet in the age of the television commercial he is sadly superfluous, an anachronism, acting out a masculine charade that has lost all meaning. That is why, to save him (and the world from his sort), I must change entirely his sense of himself.

Myra’s exploration of sexuality takes her to the limits of the known world, filtered by Vidal’s historical imagination. They plumb the entrails of time and map out passages through the maze of sex.

Ecstatically, I fingered the lovely shape whose secret I must know or die, whose maze I must thread as best I can or go mad for if I am to prevail I must soon come face to face with the Minotaur of dreams and confound him in his charneled lair, and in our hectic coupling know the last mystery: total power achieved not over man, not over woman but over the heraldic beast, the devouring monster, the maw of creation itself that spews us forth and sucks us back into the black oblivion where stars are made and energy waits to be born in order to begin once more the cycle of destruction and creation at whose apex now I stand, once man, now woman, and soon to be privy to what lies beyond the uterine door, the mystery of creation that I mean to shatter with the fierce thrust of a will that alone separates me from the nothing of eternity; and as I have conquered the male, absorbed and been absorbed by the female, I am at last outside the human scale, and so may render impotent even familiar banal ubiquitous death whose mouth I see smiling at me with moist coral lips between the legs of my beloved girl who is the unwitting instrument of victory, and the beautiful fact of my life’s vision made all too perfect flesh.

The ending of this novel is a surprise, another twist in the journey from base material to shining light that may be seen to typify the American experience: where everyone can improve their lot, change themselves by an act of will, force change upon the universe through effort and hard work. Myra Breckinridge is a novel of its time.
Review: Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1992)

In Jelinek’s world the industrialist is a ravenous beast whose every whim must be met by someone, by his employees or by his wife. He demands a surfeit of control over his destiny and, by extension, over theirs as well. It is a cold, brutal world of haves and have-nots. A world of capricious desires and jealousy.

The Direktor expects to be able to phone home at any time at all, including office hours, to check that he is being thought of. He is as inevitable as death. Always to be at the ready. To tear her heart out. To lay her heart on her tongue like the host, and to show that the rest of her body is in readiness for the Lord, as he expects of his wife. To this end he keeps the bridle on his bride. He keeps her under his watchful eye. He sees everything, he has a right to examine whatever he wishes. For his prick it bloomed in its prickly bed, and on his lips the kisses bud and blow. But first he has to take a good look at everything, to work up an appetite. For you eat with your eyes too. And nothing remains concealed, excepting heaven unto the eyes of the dead, who placed their hope in it at the last.

Jelinek’s narrator moves in and out of the plotline, casting asides that serve to illustrate the capricious nature of lived existence. The plot is quite thin: in this 207-page novel there are only two days covered, but the action occurs more in the weft and weave of the prose than in the gyrations of the characters, who are caught up in the straightjacket of their own desires. Freedom comes in the form of rhythmic and comedic tonalities of prose, interlacing the plot and fleshing it out. The monologue spasmodically turns into a dialog between the narrator and the world that surrounds Gerti and Hermann and their son, not to forget Michael the young lover. The world impinges on the plot like in a dream.

Eyes wide open, Jelinek dissects the entrails of society and shows what she’s uncovered: consume or be consumed:

The women examine the shopping bags which they used to get rid of the dole money. Consumers are well advised in the stores, where special offers are announced over the public address. Special offers are what they themselves were, once! And their men were chosen according to their means. But now they are treated as the meanest of creatures at the labour exchange. Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking beer and playing cards, a dog’s life. But not even a dog would be so patient, kept on its lead outside the wonderful stores filled with fine wares that mock us.

The struggle between the sexes is a reality for Jelinek. She practices the scales for a command performance: the concert of a lifetime. Her dry and bright delivery is equal to whatever theme requires elucidating.

So many requirements, all of them pressing, pressed into the service of hygiene and filth alike, simply to possess each other. As the phrase inaptly goes. The dusty junk shop’s where we end up. Two household objects. Of simple geometrical design. Wanting to fit together and be good as new again! Now! Suddenly there’s a woman in combinations in the corridor, a jug of water in her hand; has she been casting spells, calling forth a storm, or is she only going to make some tea? In no time at all a woman can make a home of the plainest, barest, most spartan of places. That is to say, even the plainest of women can make a man feel at home by baring all, in no time he places his spar.

There’s something circular about Jelinek’s prose — always returning, like music, to the same themes, but with infinite variations.

We are so orderly and so spendthrift, spending ourselves, casting our seed upon stony ground and then keeping it to ourselves so that the pleasure’s ours alone. His wife’s thighs are for him only, the Direktor, the terrible visitant. They roast in the hot oil of his lust. He deep-fries. Busily he unloads on her ramp, palpitating, and some time he’ll bring her a present of a brooch or a steel bracelet. And it’s over. We’re free again. Home. Where we belong. But richer than before, when we laughed at the neighbour. You have an open invitation to come and take a look! Don’t worry, nothing will happen when the gentleman with the fizz and bezazz comes knocking at your door to jazz you up and pop your cork! Quite the contrary: a woman’s expected to be delighted!

There’s also something ad-hoc and contingent about the prose, as if Jelinek doesn’t know how each sentence will end. Like in Henry Miller. Like Joyce. Like a stream-of-consciousness rap.

There’s a slight dispute over her mink coat, which a skier has trodden on, but it’s soon settled. This breed of people beneath the farmhouse-style lamp: how they do contrive to show off their shapes within the colourful plastic limits they’ve set themselves so that their forms and norms won’t run over and out (and certainly not the models from which they were constructed). They decorate themselves wall-to-wall like their flats and take themselves out.

Saturday, 4 March 2006

Review: Ludmila’s Broken English, DBC Pierre (2006)

  ‘Mama!’ Irina shouted. ‘You’re making the day too hard! Kindly collect your senses. Because we revere Aleksandr, we have kept him outside where he is best preserved. It was only one night, wolves won’t cross the fence. And to leave the body there until the examiner comes is pure intelligence — because he will imagine the death is just after happening.’
  ‘Hoh! His own death will probably be long after happening if it’s Nadezhda you’ve sent to fetch him.’
  ‘Mama!’
  ‘Well, at least bring those sacks off his face!’
  ‘Those aren’t sacks, it’s Milochka’s coat that she has kindly assigned to serve her grandpa’s dignity. Listen to me: when his death is properly written, he’ll come inside for a bit. Now please don’t steal everyone’s ears away from the day’s important business. The front is nearly here, let’s get Ludmila away.’

Pierre’s prose demonstrates a Shakespearian verve that includes the sonorous rant and the uncompromising emphasis. And the dramatics don’t cease with the dialog. Descriptions also rise to each occasion on wings of pure invention. And this is an ambitious novel, where invention takes the back row to no minor key. All stops are open, as in Martin Amis, but the music rides the air effortlessly, distributing humour and compassion from on high.

Bunny rubbed his hair into a more hopeless tangle, retied his outermost dressing gown, and trotted upstairs like a travelling nativity. A stain grew in watery pixels behind the door’s frosted-glass panel. He opened it, and peered out into a dull, petrol-scented cold that lacquered his skin like milk scum. In the middle of his field of vision, close but down somewhat, stood a slight man in middle age. Grey slacks flapped around his bones, a twisted school tie threw blobs of shadow between the lapels of a blazer.

A new character enters the force-field of irritation and pathos that surrounds separated twins Blair Albert Heath and Gordon-Marie “Bunny” Heath. His entrance is awaited with trepidation by both, although they try not to show it: at least to each other. Is it the assessor? In Ludmila’s world they are also waiting for an important emissary from the powers that be — the examiner. While Ludmila’s people wait for this dread arrival, Bunny and Blair try to come to grips with the conundrum of what face to present to theirs.

Blair and Bunny are opposites. This balance of forces in their strand of the novel causes infinite opportunity for friction, and with it comedy, as in Laurel and Hardy, just without the kicks and slaps of the act. The two feed off each other mercilessly as they chart their courses through life: Blair looking out for the main chance and Bunny reminiscing fondly over the saccharine pleasures of the nursing home they have recently left behind. These Siamese twins are off on independent tangents, but seem to need each other despite their differences. It’s quite pathetic — as it’s meant to be.

While Bunny is consumed by the promise of doom, Blair is alive to infinite possibility. Their selfish gyrations are fraught with pathos and yearning. They set one another off ideally, as Ludmila’s self-possession sets off the desultory oblivion of her surroundings. Nobody dies. Yet.

Blair devoured the texture of that family at the beer-washed table. His dreams lashed the crannies of their lives, composed the awkward confidences her brother would share with him, practised the wisdoms he would expound while the mother looked dotingly on in bright acrylic sportswear too snug for her, cheeks flushed from deep-frying their tea. Blair would banish the aitches from his speech, toss saucy fibs at the mum with a crooked smile and a raffish jerk of his head.

The possibilities for unhappiness, however, are multiple, when Blair has eyes to see the truth. The whip-smart wordplay is astonishing:

Throbbing music no longer beat time to a young life ascending. Now it hammered boards over future’s window.

The title of book 2, ‘Arguments in the New world’ is like a threat, or, it appears to be. A threat of further violence, with a promise of more chuckle-inducing comedy. In this book, Blair and Bunny meet Truman, an American entrepreneur with interests in healthcare, munitions and a new type of cocktail mix that you add to water and which is also an aphrodisiac:

  ‘I’m telling you, Bobby, it’s a skyrocket — and it’s my brainchild, don’t even ask me where the ideas come from. One day, eating lunch, I just thought: why get mayo on my fingers? Kaboom. The sandwich applicator: bite-size access without the mess. Between that, and the entertainment business, and the oil franchise —’
  ‘And the British healthcare system,’ said Bunny helpfully.
  ‘And the British healthcare system, and the cocktail mix —’ Truman paused. ‘Now there’s a skyrocket for you: Howitzer, the most uplifting drink in the world, ready-mixed, comes in a packet. It’s the way forward, boys — it’s going to permanently refocus the way people leisurise, probably the whole way they live.’
  ‘Crikey,’ said Bunny, ‘do you just mix it with alcohol?’
  ‘No, everything’s right there, freeze-dried, in the packet. What kind of host would I be if I didn’t rustle one up for my boys?’ He stepped away to press a button on his desk.

Now, during his talk at the 2004 Sydney Writer’s Festival, Pierre illustrated what he thought was good about Americans. He described the type of inventiveness they displayed — in that case a new mechanism for pouring cocktails. Pierre has trumped himself with Truman’s new invention: freeze-dried cocktails. Pierre evidently remembered that night and the hundreds of people he was able to pull to the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. This new kind of consumer rort is his answer to his own enthusiasm.

Ludmila’s Broken English is a tour-de-force of comedy, a fine follow-up to Vernon God Little, although different in every way. It cements his reputation as one of the most inventive and seductive writers in the English language today.

Friday, 3 March 2006

Event: Look at Me, Robert Dessaix

The blurb for this talk at the Art Gallery of New South Wales went like this:

In a talk about what it is that self-portraits and autobiographies try to capture and both why and how they do it, Robert Dessaix draws on his own experience of autobiographical writing to touch on a wide range of subjects, from obituaries and the nature of the self in modern times to transfiguration, redemption and what we mean by 'beauty'.

This was in the e-mail announcement of his talk that I received in my Netscape account. Of course I planned immediately to get there in time to hear him. The talk was designed to complement an exhibition currently on at the gallery: Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary.

Dessaix’s half-hour talk was very interesting. It wasn’t boring, in fact. I took along a tape recorder to attempt to catch the talk. Here’s a transcript of the talk, inasmuch as the recorder‘s quality allows me to reproduce it. Elipses below indicate poor reception. Reception at the end gets so poor that I’ve simply left off in the middle of a — no doubt — brilliant trope. Apologies to Dessaix for these impertinences.

He talks, basically, about artistic license.

I want to be remembered as a poem. Just hold that thought and let me explain.

The French writer, André Gide — nobody much reads him any more, I know, but you may have when you were younger — André Gide, at the age of twenty-two, having done nothing of note, except meet Oscar Wilde, wrote in his journal: “a man’s life is his image” (“la vie de l’homme c’est l’image”). “At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past, and leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognise what we are. Our whole life is spent in sketching an ineradicable portrait of ourselves. We recount our lives, lying to ourselves, but our life will not lie. It will tell the story of our soul.” And then he says a very interesting thing. He says, “rather than recounting his life as he has lived it, the artist must live his life as he will recount it.”

Sartre, by the way, said something similar in the portrait of his own childhood called Words (Les Mots). He talked about becoming his own obituary: already, as a child, he said he was "completely posthumous". I didn’t start writing autobiography until I was fifty, so became posthumous, as it were, a little later. Gide may have been just twenty-two years old, with little experience of life … when he wrote those lines, but he put his finger, it seems to me, with astonishing perception, on what makes self-portraiture such a ‘fraught’ art. You paint what it is. The energy, the eros, the flash of intimate electricity that thrills us in any self-portrait worth its salt. At its source I think Gide was right. In the French, the contradiction between …; what we know to be true about what we are: the image of our actual life that conceals a mirror — in almost all the portraits in this exhibition, on the one hand — and how, on the other, now, at this moment, as we recount or paint ourselves, we would like to be remembered, even by ourselves, at the hour of our death. So I think he was right to mention mortality, in talking about self-portraiture, and I think he was right to talk about his soul, even if, over a century later, we tend to shy away from this awkward word, preferring ‘self’ or ‘psyche’, or perhaps the ‘ego’. You might not agree with me, but I think the electricity crackles loudest when the eros is strongest, so to speak, when the mirror’s presence is strongly hinted at, played with, but not openly acknowledged.

Take a look at the Derain self-portrait, for example, in the exhibition, the André Derain. He is obviously looking in a mirror … and what he sees in the mirror is obviously not what we see in the self-portrait: the zig-zagging face, the slashes and blocks of brilliant colour. And this excites us. All the great portraits, and all the great autobiographies, I think, play games with the mirror. Various games. Alessandro Allori … did in 1555. Joshua Reynolds did in the mid-eighteenth century. As did Jacques-Louis David in 1794. Cézanne. Van Gogh. Sydney Nolan, for that matter. And Francis Bacon. All did, as well, with more concealment. While Pierre Bonnard … popped the mirror into the painting, although it’s not doing what you would expect of the mirror in your bathroom at home.

So, you see, some of them acknowledge the mirror, some pretended it wasn’t there at all, although it was. Some painted in the mirror itself, or at least a mirror. In Las Meninas Velasquez, as you know, went right over the top, acknowledging a mirror and then pretending that a second mirror, on the back wall of the room … and that he wasn’t painting himself painting what he was actually painting, but the king and queen of Spain. No wonder we love Las Meninas.

Well, autobiographies do this all the time. Some sharp-tongued critics suggested it was what I did in A Mother’s Disgrace. While pretending to be looking into the mirror of my mother’s life all I was really doing was looking at my own image, with my mother sketched in hazily in another mirror on the back wall. It is their candour, even brazenness at times, about distorting the mirror image, distorting their life, as it were, that is exciting in these portraits. There, artists are telling you not so much what they look like — who cares? — but who they are. About their soul, in Gide’s terms. They are performing a ‘self’, as I am, at this very moment. The ‘self’, or ‘soul’, being an action, it seems to me, not a thing. A verb, not a noun. So Derain is boiling, Bacon is being violently wrenched … dispassion. And Francis Newton Souza is, well, clearly feeling very tense indeed, very stretched … about a lot of things. Oddly enough it’s actually a pretty good likeness, as well. If you’ve seen a photograph of Francis Newton Souza you’ll know what I mean. It’s almost like a wild illustration of Sargent’s famous bon mot about a portrait being just a likeness with something more about the mouth. No artist, writer, painter or, even, photographer, simply records life. A CCTV camera records life, plenty of home videos and bloggers record life. The mirror, we know, is just outside the frame in these portraits, records life. But that’s not art. That’s life on film, in a mirror, or it’s typing.

The poet Paul Valéry, who was no mere typist, said he could never bring himself to write the sentence “The marchioness went out at five o’clock” (“La marchise sorti à cinq heures”). I sympathise. In English, at least, in a literary text we need another ‘m’ in that sentence. Regardless of when she actually went out, in art a marchioness would be well advised to go out mid-morning for instance. A marchioness and numerals like ‘five’ simply can’t exist in the same artistic space. Marchionesses, aesthetically speaking, are above numerals. Their punctuality is to be taken for granted. There are no marchionesses in my books. But long ago I noticed my own Valéry-like reluctance to mention specific numerals. What I like is ‘dozens’, ‘hundreds’, ‘half a century’, ‘straight after the war’, ‘after breakfast’, ‘a couple of weeks later’. Because otherwise it sounds like a police report. Police reports are also often fiction, of course, but rarely art. Gide himself, or at least the narrator of his Marshlands … also a writer, naturally, at one point early in his career decided to describe life. He looks out the window and sees a bus, three vegetable hawkers going past, a doorkeeper sweeping in front of his door, a cook going to market, some men buying newspapers. He breaks down and weeps. What he sees lacks composition. What he sees won’t do at all. Later on, in a train, he tells his travelling companion about the big, greenish beetles he’s just seen munching caterpillars in the forest they’re passing. The caterpillars march down the tree trunks and when they reach the ground hoards of beetles devour them, one by one. “I didn’t see any beetles,” she says, “Mr Can.” “Nor did I, Angela,” he says. “Or any caterpillars, either. Besides, it’s not the right season. But what I said, don’t you think, gives an excellent impression of our journey.” Exactly. The caterpillars and beetles are true but not factual.

I admit to finding myself in the same quandary when I came to write my own autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace, some years ago. And in my autobiographical fiction and letters, for that matter, things that have been red simply have to be blue, like some of Van Gogh’s eyelashes. Because I needed an ‘eu’. Things that had happened on a Wednesday were shifted to Sunday because I had an interesting point to make about Sundays. Evenings became mornings, months became weeks, dogs became cats. Well not really, but this talk is also a composition, not a mirror held up to life. I did what Cézanne did to the wallpaper, if you can remember: altered its pattern to suit my compositional purposes. I could say, and I have said — and I notice the writer embroiled in the latest literary scandal in the United States, the author of A Million Little Pieces (it’s an autobiography but not the author’s), has also said of himself that he “remained true to a higher truth” but really, I don’t know about James Frey — I just needed structure and poetry and composition. I needed the rhythmic articulation of space and ideas. It was art, you see. Who on earth would be interested in looking into the mirror of my actual life? I’m not even interested myself. I may be interesting, but my life isn’t.

Not all the painters in the exhibition have used distortion to reveal their souls. The ‘who’ rather than the ‘what’ of their lives. Distortion is not the best word to use to describe what some, like Van Eyck, for example, or Rembrandt … did in their self-portraits. Or, to be fair, André Gide, in his autobiography … one of the finest ever written. This is a short talk so you must allow this kind of … generalisation. Just five seconds with self-portraits like these and you’d pick these men out of any police line-up in a flash. Something you might do with less confidence with Derain, Bacon or Nolan, after the invention of the camera. What Van Eyck, Rembrandt and others seem intent on doing is what art photography, as opposed to snapshots, does in the modern era. While presenting exact likenesses of themselves, they still contrive, as artist-photographers do — Helmut Newton for example — to hint at an interior life, at having become who they are. Rubens’ self-portrait, for instance, is no doubt a fine likeness, but it also has what I would call ‘sweep’: my word for ‘soul’. It implies movement, action, rather than a thing. Yes, there is refinement, aloofness, self-importance, self-esteem, not just virtue but vanity. Yes, there is, as the catalogue suggests, a claim to masterfulness here. But it’s not just a matter of character. There’s a sense here of the self as a becoming, uniquely experienced. And it is not just the record of a moment, as family snapshots, generally, are. The moment is stretched to encompass this becoming, this once-only swirl of multiple moments: we have been. And it’s the multiplicity which makes a self-portrait so engrossing, I think. There’s a shard of éclat in a good portrait, if you have the eyes to see it. I think that ‘sweep’ is a more useful word in some ways than words which you write to contrast between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, ‘soul’ and ‘body’. It’s not so much a matter of inner and outer for me, as of experience, of the living out of who we think we are. One of the reasons that Pissaro’s Woman Washing Dishes, for instance (you may have seen it recently in the Pissaro exhibition here), is not a portrait, in my opinion, is that it lacks ‘sweep’. Fabulous painting. Not unevocative of this woman’s character. But not evocative enough of a lived life to be a portrait. There’s not enough self being performed here. Of course, intriguingly, some theories would say that unless you have a name to go with the body no painting can really be a portrait. Without a name the image can’t quite make the leap into a lived life. If the painting were called Marie Dubon Washing Dishes we might have to consider it a portrait, strangely enough, although I would say not a particularly good one. That is just a measure of how reliant we are on other information for the sense of ‘sweep’ … For the writer, naturally, ‘sweep’ is much easier to capture than it is for painters. We have time and hundreds of pages at our disposal, if we need them. We can show change, development, movement, motivation, the unfolding of experience, without much trouble at all. In fact the writer A.S. Byatt — much beloved, I’m sure, of many of you — considered that portraits in paint and writing are opposites. Paintings being too much the depiction of the moment while biographies have, well, ‘sweep’. I see it differently. To me, paint and words simply make different demands on the viewers’ and readers’ imaginations. It’s true, of course, that it’s harder for a writer to strike the reader with that sense of wonder, of being suddenly impaled on a shaft of beauty, which a painter can sometimes achieve. All the same, I think we writers have a lot to learn from painters who paint self-portraits. The main lesson is this: in the end, it’s not just the recounting of adventures or incidents or things that were said, that create the illusion of a living self and composition. It’s such a temptation to think that it’s the accumulation of bric-a-brac that makes a life seem real. The equivalent of the dogs and … hats, minutely observed tableware, in some portraits. But it’s not. It’s all in the brushstrokes. The lengths of them, the colour, the thickness, the way they complement other brushstrokes. It’s in the posture, the shape, the balance, the architecture. That’s what transforms the banal into the extraordinary. That’s what creates a living voice. … And that, ultimately, is why I think we do it, why we create self-portraits. You might, after all, perhaps wonder. Ultimately, I think it’s all about redemption … if you’ll excuse a religious word. Ludmila Jordanova in her catalogue essay for this exhibition mentions all sorts of motives for painting a self-portrait — vanity, of course, … self advertisement, a statement of ambition, an assertion of virtue, a demand for a place in the cultural terrain, an indication of tradition, even national identity. But I’ve already said that I think an important motive is the desire to write one’s own obituary, as it were … Indeed many artists, and writers, for that matter, probably create self-portraits because one Monday morning they can’t think of what else to do. Certainly writers — everyone from Tolstoy to V.S. Naipaul to the woman next door, and André Gide as a matter of fact — frequently start the autobiography in some form or other, what I like to call ‘home’, that nest of experiences and feelings we think of as embodying who we are. Indeed, sometimes they even begin with something cruder than a home, they begin with ‘house’. I have a picture of my childhood house written in my first book. But eventually, you have to get out of the house, out of biography, because its walls are so smooth with constant use that they become mirrors. So, we’re left just being us: ironing, shopping, falling in and out of love, going up and down escalators, feeding the canary. We’re not beautiful, you see. I don’t mean as Nicole Kidman or — who shall I choose? — Alain Delon, perhaps or, at a pinch, Johnny Depp are beautiful. But beautiful to behold because of a transfigured wholeness. I’m resorting here, as you can hear, to transfiguration, another religious term, of course, rather than redemption. … But I mean much the same thing. We start with the mirror, we writers, then, drifting, move out of what was to what might have been possible or, even, impossible. We are transfigured. … What we seek to transfigure or redeem is our biography — true autobiography.

I panicked when, some years ago, quite a well-known writer asked me how I’d feel about his writing my autobiography. I immediately felt dead. No, I said, I want to keep writing my own life for as long as I can. I’ve got such a lot to say. What I meant was: I’ve got a picture to paint here before anyone holds up a mirror to my actual… Before I turn into an obituary I want to create more art, I want to redeem myself. My actual everydayness, all those cups of tea and walks with the dog, evenings spent watching television, the plotlessness of my life, my amateur’s mind — always haring off on the scent of something it hasn’t really understood — and my precarious hold on real life (about the existence of which I’m still shocked to read every morning…). Curiously, by the way, what happens when I write autobiographically, is this: my body disappears. … What happens is closer to Derain’s self-portrait, of those we have looked at today. Obviously I have … the usual bits and pieces that get you through the day. But actually, in amongst the … for a particular reason we needn’t go into here, I mention my calves … But, basically, the body dissolves and we’re left with just a voice. I don’t do it on purpose. It just happens. In the novel Corfu it’s even more obvious because — in A Mother’s Disgrace there are actually photographs of me being me at different points in my life — but in Corfu the partly autobiographical narrator reaches the point of complete disembodiment. Whether he’s short or tall, fair or dark, fat or thin, young or old, handsome or plain, green-eyed, brown-eyes, or so unremarkably-eyed you can’t tell is nowhere made plain. He doesn’t even have a name. He’s pure voice.