The Sea by John Banville
members couldn't make it to this meeting, so it was a small group
which gathered at Jenny's.
the form of a diary-cum-memoir written by an art historian who has
retired, after the death of his wife, to the seaside town where
he once holidayed as a child, one year becoming fascinated and entangled
with another holidaying family: Connie and Carlo Grace and their
twins Chloe and mute Myles, and an older girl Rose. It is in the
house once occupied by the Graces, now a boarding house, that he
has decided to settle.
had chosen the book because, he said, he thought it might provoke
some interesting controversy. For his own part, he had mixed feelings
about the book. There was much he admired about it, in particular
the prose with its poetic flow and vivid descriptions, although
he felt there were moments when the prose went over the top and
wasn't so good after all, and the book was in fact flawed.
then said with great contempt that she thought it a 'typical Booker
type novel'. What did she mean by that? Well, she said she had found
the prose really pretentious and there were at least fifteen words
she had never come across before in her life, the meaning of which
she couldn't tell from the context. I said yes, I had had to look
in the dictionary several times, often to discover that the unfamilar
words referred to obscure trades or professions, eg 'deckle' (papermaking)
and 'anabasis' (military). Usually these words were being used metaphorically
to describe something else. I said, to strong agreement from John,
that the point of a metaphor is to make things more vivid, but here
the opposite effect was created. Not only that, there were several
occasions when I came across words I thought I had known the meaning
of, only to be thrown into doubt by the context, then to discover
in the dictionary that they had been used in the book in an archaic
sense. More generally we found the language over-formal or inflated
(eg fingernails described as 'sanguineous red' rather than 'blood-red',
'refection' for 'meal', and the somewhat laughable 'At times the
image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus,
and a surge of yearning would engorge the very root of my being').
While we accepted in theory that these linguistic characteristics
are those of a narrator who has consciously and defensively created
for himself a formal persona, we nevertheless found them alienating,
and people said that as a result they found it very difficult to
care about the characters. Ann, who had been nodding away but had
been quiet up till now, said that she had given up on the book without
now grinned and said he knew that I in particular would have this
reaction to the language, and this was why he'd chosen the book.
As he'd said, he agreed, but there were also wonderfully vivid passages,
and the book was brilliantly crafted and the story was stunning.
rest of us agreed that the observations were often vivid and acute
- Clare had been pulled up in amazement by the accuracy of a description
of 'the way women used to smoke', and I by one of a woman leaning
on a till, among others. Jenny said that the portrayal of the narrator's
childhood yearning to better himself (and be like the Graces) reminded
her of her own similar childhood feelings. We all thought the memories
of the illness and death of the narrator's wife moving and the aspect
of the book which rang most true. However, we didn't at all agree
with Doug about the way the book was shaped.
said that she found really irritating and confusing, and lacking
in true connections, the shifts between the various time levels.
There were situations and characters - the narrator's relationship
with his daughter, a visit with her to a local farm, the shocking
photographs taken by the dying wife - which were made to seem significant
but their precise nature or significance either never became clear
to us or indeed fizzled away. As for the story, John said, there
is none for most of the book, but then the story is packed in towards
the end in a way which he found contrived. Most of us were dissatisfied
by the revelation of the identity of the narrator's present-day
landlady. Looking back through this at the earlier representation
of their relationship, we found that earlier representation both
tricksy and psychologically unconvincing. None of us (apart from
Doug) was convinced, in the final analysis, by the final denouement,
the tragedy at the novel's heart, although it is most emotively
described, and, as Jenny and Ann said, although we were clearly
meant to accept that this was the narrator's formative experience,
there was no real sense of how it had made him what he was or informed
his other relationships.
Jenny said that she found the narrator's sexual attraction as a
boy to the mother of the Grace family 'disgusting', which made us
all hoot with laughter.
Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
True History of the Kelly Gang
is the only book ever which has had a universal thumbs-down from
the group – no one had been able to engage with it - and when Clare
(who had not been a member then) suggested this book everyone groaned.
In the end, however, we decided not to be so prejudiced and to give
Peter Carey another chance.
was a freezing night, and Clare's fire was roaring, which was a
fitting setting for discussing this novel set in Victorian London
and featuring an eponymous protagonist not a million miles removed
from the character Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations
and antagonists with parallels in its hero Pip and in Dickens himself.
Like Magwitch in Dickens’ novel, Jack Maggs, a convict deported
to Australia, has made good there and now returns to find the young
man (in this case Henry Phipps) who once as a boy took pity on him,
and whose secret benefactor he has been all along. Unaware like
Pip of his true relationship to the ex-convict, Phipps absconds
on receiving news of Maggs’ imminent arrival, and Maggs becomes
involved as a ‘patient’ with the Dickens-like novelist and mesmerist
introduced the book briefly by saying she had really liked it because
it was a ripping good yarn. The recreation of the Dickensian story-telling
mode and atmosphere had really pleased her, she said, and Doug,
who – The Kelly Gang apart – is a big admirer of Carey, agreed.
Jenny then scowled and said she likes a good yarn as well as anyone,
but she didn’t think that this was one: she thought the story was
far too convoluted and meandering, with lots of extraneous elements
and ends which she failed to tie up. Trevor agreed with her on that
wholeheartedly and said that if Maggs and Oates hadn’t gone on that
wild-goose chase to Gloucester, spending 20 pages on the coach journey,
he might have finished the book in time, which he didn’t, and anyway
there was nothing in the book beside story, which might be enough
for others by not for him. Doug and Clare countered, But that’s
then said that I did think it stood up as a pretty good ripping
yarn, but that like Trevor I don't find mere story enough in novels,
and agreed that if you read the book on that level it’s unsatisfying.
I said I would wonder what the point is of simply writing a pastiche
of a Dickens novel in this day and age, if I had not read the book
as a postcolonial ‘writing-back’, and Ann, who is studying postcolonial
theory for her PhD strongly agreed.
of the others looked at us pretty suspiciously, and feeling therefore
somewhat like the school swots Ann and I talked about how Carey
switches the narrative/focal places of the Magwitch/Maggs and Pip/Phipps
characters, taking Magwitch from the periphery of Dickens’ Victorian-colonial
narrative to the centre of his own, and exiling Dickens’ hero to
the periphery. Australia in this novel, which in the Dickens novel
is ‘other’, is here ultimately anything but. By placing into the
narrative a Dickens-type novelist who mesmerises Maggs in order
to obtain his secrets and thus material for a novel (Maggs feels
that Oates has stolen his soul), Carey explores in a dramatic way
the process of colonial-novelistic cannibalisation. In the Dickens
novel, Pip, who at first, like Phipps, tries to avoid the convict
and is dismayed to discover he is his benefactor, comes to care
for him, but Carey allows no such colonial false-heroic sentimentality.
Neither does Carey give Maggs the narrative punishment of death
which Dickens metes out (in the Victorian-colonial universe the
only fate for an exile trying to return must be punishment). Instead,
in Carey’s narrative Maggs learns to divest himself of his own colonial
yearnings – his wish to ‘father’ the unpleasant Phipps - and to
value the life he has built elsewhere.
else said that none of this had occurred to them in the reading
of the book, and that they hadn’t even thought of the parallels
with the Dickens characters – and certainly not with Dickens himself
– even though they had read Dickens as children and even though
the Magwitch/Maggs parallel had been mentioned when the book was
then suggested that this novel is really nothing much unless read
through the filter of Great Expectations, though of course those
who had enjoyed it without doing so did not agree. I
said that I had never been very happy with ‘writing-back’ fiction,
as it seemed to me secondary rather than primary literature. I had
often felt the same about a lot of feminist literature in which
supposedly male texts were ‘recast’. Jenny eagerly agreed: she said
that that sort of feminist fiction ‘re-gendered’ texts but ultimately
retained their structures. At which point I got quite excited, as
I have always maintained that it is only in structure and form and
language that literature can be truly radical.
then Mark arrived on his bike, true to form and too late to take
part in the discussion, bringing in a bitter blast of air, and Clare
shut the door quickly and got out the boxes of chocolates she’d
had for her recent birthday, and the room disintegrated into several
conversations which were nothing whatever to do with the novel.
here to add your comments
Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury
chose this novel set in the late 1980s-early 1990s, the story of
a search by young journalist Francis Jay for a famous but elusive
'Mittel European' philosopher, firstly for a proposed TV programme
and later to satisfy his own fascination.
said she had chosen it because she taught in a university at that
time and witnessed for herself the conference bonanzas described
in the book, and the worship of starry academics - plus the fact
that she had also taught in Hungary for some of that time. She found
the book very true in its merciless satire of these matters as well
of British television and Thatcherite Britain and the East Europeans'
emulation of the last. She had therefore enjoyed the read, but found
that in spite of all the chasing about there wasn't much of a story
since at the end we never actually find out the truth about Doctor
Criminale. I said that, while the book makes a great deal of fun
of Postmodernism, isn't that a postmodern joke of the book? And
that the other joke is that while Postmodernism is considered a
flowering of Western intellectual thought, it is the Eastern Europeans,
supposedly innocent of it intellectually, who are its true practitioners
in that through political necessity their politics and indeed identity
are fluid in a way the Western characters don't understand.
this point we had a discussion about what Postmodernism was, and
whether or not you could define it and the notion that if you could
it wasn't Postmodernism anyway, after which nearly everything that
was said was followed by a joke about Postmodernism.
(apart from John who couldn't read beyond page 50) agreed that the
book was brilliantly written - Bradbury's choice of diction on every
occasion apt and urbanely sly - and for much of the time extremely
funny and always clever. However, everyone also agreed that it was
basically a one-trick book, and that it could have been much shorter,
and that the characters never amounted to much more than caricatures,
which though some pointed out was a postmodernist point, left the
I also said, to the agreement of others, that I found the tone uneven,
with situations presented as hilarious larks only to turn dark in
the light of later events in a way which made the earlier tone,
in retrospect, inappropriate - after which, the book would tip into
said: so what do we think, then, that Bradbury was for or against
Postmodernism? and Jenny said, 'Above it all', at which Trevor (I
think) said that he thought that was disgusting, for an author to
be above it all. I said that satires are always to some extent above
it all, but I did agree that they don't necessarily have to lack
soul. Clare said, Well, actually, Malcolm Bradbury was a show-off
with all that history and theory, and everyone nodded.
having thus despatched a giant of modern literature, we broke into
several conversations, about every other topic under the sun, which
seems to be our (somewhat postmodern?) habit of late, and Jenny,
Clare and I discussed the girls' weekend away in Paris we have planned.
here to add your comments
Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn
Hans's for the first time, where his huge window gave a view of
everyone looking tentative as they came down the road, scanning
the houses for the number.
Milk was my choice, Booker short-listed and the recipient of
rave reviews for its scintillating prose which I had pounced on
when I scanned the first page in the bookshop. The novel begins
with the perspective of five-year-old Robert, holidaying with his
parents and his newly-born brother Thomas in the Provencal family
house which his grandmother Eleanor has signed over to a New Age
cult. As Robert's father Patrick agonises, or with savage wit tries
not to agonise, over this disinheritance which symbolises the poor
mothering he has always suffered from Eleanor, the child Robert
observes the symbiotic attachment between his own mother Mary and
his baby brother, and through this 'remembers' and grieves his own
once-symbiotic attachment to her, and the traumatic separation of
said that I found this beginning absolutely brilliant, perhaps the
most stunning psychological fiction I had read. Unfortunately, however,
I did find that the rest of the novel failed to fulfil this promise.
This strikingly innovative narratorial approach is lost as the novel
moves into the adult Patrick's perspective (and later into Mary's).
The prose never fails to be both excoriating and limpid, the searing
observations and biting wit keep coming, and I never stopped relishing
them. On this level I had only one real criticism which was that
although I could take five-year-old Robert's verbal and intellectual
precociousness, I found it unrealistic in Thomas at two (and everyone
nodded). I could see that adult Patrick was potentially annoying
in his self-absorption, but his wit prevented me from being annoyed
with him, which I felt was a great authorial achievement. Finally,
however, the novel somehow felt to me strangely empty. There's no
real story, but I didn't think this was the problem (nothing much
happens, except that the old lady deteriorates over the four August
holidays examined in the book and the Provencal house moves into
the hands of the cult, and the book consists mainly of people sitting
talking or thinking about the situation). The real problem, I felt,
was that the novel had no subtext: there are no connections to be
made and no meanings to be had other than those spelled out by the
characters themselves, and the novel thus ultimately lacks resonance,
leaving the reader outside the loop in a very subtle but fundamental
way. (Although later Hans's wife Jan said she much prefers it when
things are spelled out.)
said that she more or less agreed: she liked the descriptions and,
like me, the beginning. There had been a strange atmosphere in the
room as I had been speaking, and now there was a silence. Then Hans
broke it by saying: 'I thought it was terrible.' He said he hated
the beginning, he didn't believe a word of it: how on earth could
a five-year-old mimic the Nanny with a page-long satirical replication
of her speech - for god's sake, you'd admire a twenty-year-old for
being able to do that! And what about the Nanny: she falls over
carrying the baby and breaks his fall and the others are simply
angry with her and walk off 'leaving her still talking on the ground!'
These were just horrible people! At
which point Trevor, renowned in our group for liking most books,
but who had been looking strangest of all, now jumped in. He said
he just HATED this book! He said he couldn't stand the people. He
said, what is this upper-class man doing whinging about his inheritance
- he's a barrister for god's sake, and he (Trevor) had worked for
enough barristers to know they were rolling in it!
was very worked up. Nothing any of us could say could change his
mind - that the loss of the house is a symbol of Eleanor's unconcern
with which Patrick has been battling emotionally all his life (as
Patrick indeed spells out in the way I find unsatisfying): Trevor
thought he should simply get a grip. He said he couldn't stand the
precocious children, or the way Patrick and Mary wanted in this
way to make them better than anybody else's children, and look what
a bad mother Mary was, wrapped up in Thomas to that extent and spoiling
him. But, we said, isn't it (once again) spelled out that this is
a tragic pattern: by consciously trying to avoid for their children
their own bad mothering, Mary and Patrick are, ironically, repeating
the patterns, Mary by overcompensation with Thomas, Patrick by hot-housing
Robert intellectually and thus denying him his true childhood.
would have none of it, and Jenny joined in with her own objections:
if Patrick was so resentful of his mother why did he keep going
along with her wishes, executing the handing over of the house etc
- and what was wrong with her, too, the way she let herself rot
away more or less wilfully? Why didn't they just get her sectioned?
Clare and I said, but the point is that people get locked into these
emotional patterns in which rationality has no play, as exemplified
by the almost final words of the novel shouted with tragic triumph
by the infant Thomas: 'Do nothing!'
this time Doug had been quiet, and John who knew that Doug had liked
the book unreservedly asked him to say why. He said that he just
LOVED it - its observations, its wit, which had made him laugh out
loud, and he had no problem whatever with the seemingly unrealistic
precociousness of the children, as he hadn't read it as naturalistic.
To strong agreement from John, he said that any novel which begins
with a description of birth from the baby's point of view has to
be taken on a non-realistic level, and once you do this the whole
novel takes off and you lose all those rational objections.
Trevor went on complaining, and when it emerged that St Aubyn's
series of novels about this family was autobiographical, he cried
in triumph: 'I knew it! That author is just having a self-centred
moan!' As we walked down the road afterwards he continued his theme.
We got to the corner where we had to part. 'Well, I do know the
house is only a symbol of his mother not loving him,' he said, conciliatory.
'But then when you think of all the problems in the world today:
people homeless, refugees wearing rags. I still hate that bloody
Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
round to ours to discuss this book translated from the Japanese.
of us had read Murakami before, and during the week beforehand John
and I had bumped into Doug and Ann separately, and each had told
us that they were having difficulty getting going with the book.
They would read a few pages, fail to get gripped and put it down,
and then when they picked it up again find they couldn't remember
it and had to start all over again. John and I told them that we
were having precisely the same experience.
said, 'I don't know where it's going', and I said, 'I don't know
where it's coming from.' We felt we couldn't grasp the tenor of
the opening chapters in which an unnamed thirty-year-old narrator
attends the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and reminisces about their
meeting and relationship before going back to his flat to find his
ex-wife briefly returned to collect her things. While the stunning
prose made all of this seem significant, there was also a sense
of structural inconsequentiality about it, and indeed the story
seems only to get going the next morning after the ex-wife has left
and the vacationing narrator is called to his office to discover
that he has been summoned by a mysterious stranger to engage on
a 'wild sheep chase'.
this point, however, a surreal and absurdist element had entered
the narration, which should have warned us that the conventional
expectations with which we were reading this book were inappropriate:
the narrator, it turns out, has a new girlfriend with ears so exquisite
(and which during one conversation she sits carefully cleaning)
that when they are on view and 'unblocked' in terms of channelling
their power, they promote super-sensational sex. She is also possessed
of a special sixth sense, which means she guesses that the phone
call will come summoning the narrator, and knows it will be all
about a sheep.
who had chosen the book, said he had found it very interesting but
strange. He had indeed become involved at this point, and wanted
to know what was going to happen, but the more that was revealed
to him the less he could take it, a tale about a sheep which may
or may not exist, with the power to possess a human and thereby
dominate the world. However, Doug and I had experienced an opposite
effect. Doug said that once he understood he needed to accept the
book as absurdist, he began to really enjoy its off-the-wall turns,
its humour and, like me, its memorable evocation of the spirit of
situations and things, landscape and the weather. By the end of
our journey with this chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking narrator prone
to bouts of philosophising which end with banalities ( 'I came to
the realisation ... that I am not a whale') or are abandoned for
a drink or a fag, whose Sherlock-Holmes-type reliance on clues turns
out to be beside the point, we had come to understand the reason
for the strangely inconsequential yet seemingly significant beginning.
book is indeed about inconsequentiality, and the strange paradox
that the seemingly inconsequential things, or the episodes which
on the rational level are no longer relevant, are nevertheless evocative
and important on the level of emotional experience, while the importance
of those things which seem significant in the grand, Western-hero
quest tradition, is unstable. Thus the girlfriend with the ears,
who seemed so central to the endeavour, turns out to be not so important
to the plot after all. Evidence too the absurd way, which had made
everyone laugh, that the narrator gets the sinister figure who sends
him on his quest to look after his ailing, farting cat while he
is gone. The narrator has never named this cat, and during his narration
never names any of the other characters: as Clare said, names fix
things artificially and thus deny the truth that importance is relative,
and reality fluid.
people, even Doug, thought that the ending, which I won't give away,
was disappointing, but to me it endorsed this view of the book and
was therefore fitting.
people got interested in the different covers of the book in the
different editions we had. A general conversation started up about
covers, and I asked everyone to help me think about ideas I might
suggest for the cover of my own forthcoming
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
god, no!' said Jenny when John suggested for our reading group A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers' first-person
account of bringing up his younger brother after the death of his
parents. Then: 'Oh, you mean that's the title!?' and everyone
an extended cod-Acknowledgements section at the start of the book,
the author addresses this very question of the effect of the title
on potential readers - The author wishes to acknowledge your
problems with the title. He too has reservations - and there
follows a tongue-in-cheek history of the title choice and a deconstruction
of all of its possible connotations and implications about the book,
the author and readers' expectations.
earlier, right from the verso page of the book we are alerted to
the fact that this is a book which calls into question the whole
nature and status of authors and books:
First published by Simon and Schuster, New York, a division of
a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc, which is wealthier
and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America,
and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled.
'So what is it, this book?' John asked the group when we met for
the discussion. 'Is it a novel, or is it a memoir?' Once again,
in the Acknowledgements and a preceding Preface, the author anticipates
the question, and while insisting the book is a memoir stresses
the fictive techniques he has used - the dialogue has been almost
entirely reconstructed - and throws into the air the notion
of distinguishing between memoir and fiction with this suggestion:
if you send in your copy of this book ... [the author] will send
you, in exchange, a 3.5" floppy disk, on which will be a complete
digital manuscript of this work, albeit with names and locations
changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is
who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised.
a writer I was very taken by this and by the way that the book itself
addresses this issue throughout as well as the moral implications
of writing openly about one's own life. I also found the book brilliantly
written: witty, energetic, yet utterly moving, the author masterfully
in control of his material.
everyone agreed. Most did agree that the prose was brilliant and
from her counsellor's viewpoint Clare found the narrator Eggers'
emotional dilemmas accurately as well as movingly depicted. However
she and most others were irritated by the Preface and Acknowledgements
and skipped them altogether (I had to admit that I had felt the
same before reading the rest of the book, but had gone back and
read them with relish afterwards). Madeleine (who wasn't present
but rang up beforehand) said that she had no problem with someone
writing about himself, but she was pretty irritated by him writing
about writing about himself. Most people got bored in the section
I really loved, in which the narrator undergoes a clearly non-naturalistic
and self-ironic interview for a Big-Brother-type reality TV programme,
which is the starkest comment on the theme of personal exposure
producer/casting person:] But what about privacy?
[Narrator Eggers:] Cheap, overabundant, easily gotten, lost, regained,
[TV producer/casting person:]... what about ...exhibitionism?
[Narrator Eggers:] ...Someone wants to celebrate their existence
and you call it exhibitionism. It's niggardly.
while I saw this as Eggers successfully deflating potential criticisms,
and Ann said she saw the whole book as a piss-take, others still
thought the book self-indulgent and Eggers as thus less in control
of his material than John, Doug, Ann and I thought. Hans said with
irritation that in any case he didn't see all this self-referential
stuff as excusing Eggers at all, it simply made matters worse.
those of us in most favour of the book, however, had to agree that
it suffered structurally from the memoir mode: a longeur recounting
the running of Eggers' alternative-lifestyle magazine, Might,
created a slackening of narrative tension which spoilt the arc of
the true story, that of Eggers' grief at the loss of his parents,
and we didn't feel that on this occasion Eggers managed to dispel
such criticism with his pre-emptive Acknowledgements warning that
this section of the book should be skipped by anyone not interested
in the doings of twenty-somethings.
people in the group seemed to share the feeling which Eggers challenges
or at least explores in the book, that writing a memoir is a more
self-indulgent activity than writing a novel. I said that, as Eggers
indicates, while memoirs inevitably fictionalise, many novels are
hardly any less autobiographical, and it can be thus the case that
writing a novel, in which the names and locations are changed, is
a safer, and therefore less brave thing to do.
about the problem of protecting others, though? said Clare. I agreed
that that was an important issue: once, I had written a very autobiographical
story and had fully intended to sell it as fiction, but then a chance
came up to publish it as memoir, which I did instead. As a result,
like Eggers I had then had to consult with the people I'd written
about in the story, and had had to make changes they'd asked for
- which created the paradox that, since the changes did not match
with my memory, the 'memoir' was to me less autobiographical than
the 'fiction' had been!
one of the great things about fiction, we decided: however autobiographical
a story really is, as long as it is presented as fiction, then the
author can always deny it with impunity.