Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
chose this book because she wanted a laugh. One of Graham Greene's
'entertainments' (as opposed to his more serious novels), it's the
first-person narration of middle-aged bachelor Henry Pulling, newly
retired from his position as a bank manager and committed to his
safe suburban life of tending his dahlias - until, that is, the
day of his mother's funeral when he meets an aunt he hardly knows.
From this point on, his life is overturned: he is hurtled into an
itinerant world of hippies, smugglers and war criminals which he
has hardly guessed exists.
said she had been richly rewarded: the character of Aunt Augusta
is a wonderfully eccentric one, although she said with a giggle
that she thought she would be a real pain to be related to in real
everyone else agreed that the book had been fabulously entertaining
and also brilliantly written. Well, I couldn't disagree with the
latter: as usual with Greene there's a clarity to the prose - a
sense of everything clearly visualized - which involves you
from the first sentence. But then I said that actually I had a problem
with the book because it was so rightwing. People seemed surprised
at my making such a serious and political objection to a piece of
such light entertainment, but I said that it was precisely because
the book was so light, and treated with such urbanity subjects which
are actually very serious, that I found it rightwing. It's not that
I think you can't treat such subjects with humour, and I certainly
wouldn't have minded a savage satire - indeed, I'd have loved one
- but I found the urbanity hard to take (the apparent cosy stance
that this murky underworld was just a good laugh), especially when
you take into account the ending, which I won't reveal here, and
the treatment of the fate of one of the characters, Wordsworth.
said that actually, he agreed with me, he'd had similar thoughts
himself: to what end was this brilliant writing being employed?
but that hadn't stopped him enjoying the book as it had me.
then people couldn't think of anything much more to say about it,
and we hadn't even been discussing it for half an hour. There was
a bit of a silence and then John said, well perhaps we should consider
if Greene did in fact have a more serious purpose. Maybe the book,
published in 1969, was a comment on the changes in society at the
end of the sixties - and indeed Henry says at one point near the
end that he had been brought up unprepared for the modern world.
But then someone else pointed out that the world he encounters after
leaving his old-fashioned suburb is in fact even older, with its
roots in the war and thirties Bohemia and back further (indeed Aunt
Augusta is described as dressing somewhat in the style of 'the late
Queen Mary' and thus identified with an older world). Or,
said John, maybe it's about the way people exist unthinkingly, and
that Henry who has unthinkingly obeyed the tame suburban rules can
also, ironically, succumb unthinkingly to a quite opposite mode
Clare said that maybe we were seeing too much serious purpose in
the book, and I said well, in any case I still didn't find the humour
savage enough, and somehow began to feel grumpy, quite the po-faced
lefty, and not very sociable either, and sat and demolished a bowl
of carrots instead, and Clare accused me of eating all the hummus.
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
seems to be generally agreed that Lolita
is the best novel we have discussed, so when John suggested another
Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, everyone jumped on it.
book, written some twenty-three years earlier, follows the same
Nabokovian scenario, with differences: that of a middle-aged man
caught in a doomed passion for a childlike young woman.
written in Russian with the title Kamera Obskura and soon
after translated into English as Camera Obscura, it was eventually
retranslated by Nabokov himself - and, I understand, to some extent
revised - and republished as Laughter in the Dark. The bones
of the story are set out at the beginning of Laughter in the
upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus.
He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for
the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his
life ended in disaster.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that
had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and though
there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss,
the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.
it is established that what will be of interest is not the what
of this story but the how, and what follows is an omniscient-author
view (not unlike the encapsulated panoramic view through a camera
obscura) of the circumstances, coincidences and manipulations -
all masterfully handled - through which Albert Albinus is ruined
at the hands of the gold-digging prostitute Margot and her diabolical
lover, Axel Rex.
theme of the novel is clearly that of insight, conveyed through
images of darkness and brilliant light. Albinus is sadly lacking
in moral insight and, symbolically, falls in love with the unsuitable
Margot in the dark of a cinema and eventually is physically blinded.
people had enjoyed the book immensely, but Doug surprised us all
by disagreeing. He said he found it impossible to care about the
fate of any of the characters, and found it quite unconvincing that
Albinus should leave his wife for Margot. There followed a long
discussion about this last: people said, Well it was passion, irrational
passion! But Doug said that was precisely what he didn't get any
sense of with the stuffy Albinus.
is true that most people had been surprised, after the psychological
complexity of Lolita, that the characters in this book are indeed
stereotypes. The book has a cartoon quality, as colourfully vivid
indeed as a camera obscura image, and to a great extent relies on
farce. It is therefore only by accepting these terms, and indeed
entering into Nabokov's contract and taking pleasure in the process
of narrative (rather than expecting psychological complexity
or expecting to identify with the characters) that one can fully
enjoy this book.
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
suggested this novel which concerns a young married but sexually
estranged couple, Port and Kit Morseby, who escape the aftermath
of the Second World War by travelling to North Africa and later
into the Sahara, only to find themselves divided further.
said he thought the novel would raise some really interesting issues,
but as it happened no one else was fired enough by it to discuss
it with much passion. Two people said that they couldn't even finish
it, Jenny because she simply found it boring and Ann because, having
lived in that area of the world, she found it unrealistic.
found this hard to believe. He said he thought it was great: didn't
we all think it was dead exciting and vivid, for instance, when
Port went off on his dangerous sexual adventure at the beginning
of the novel? And weren't the larger-than-life mother and son, the
Lyles, whom they meet along the way - with the hint of their incest
- fascinating? And what about that amazing scene when the dogs are
running around in one of the towns with pieces of the body of an
seemed a bit nonplussed by Trevor's reaction to the novel. Sure,
these things were vivid, they said, as were the striking descriptions
of the North African towns and the Sahara, but what about the central
characters? They just weren't at all likeable and you couldn't care
about their story.
said that you don't need to like the characters to like a novel
- though Jenny said she did need to like at least one - but I did
agree that you do need to have some emotional investment in their
fate. I wondered if the reason we didn't is that although we are
treated by the omniscient narrator to very detailed accounts of
their feelings and motives, those accounts are very clinical and
so those feelings and motives remain at a distance to us.
book is in three parts and, for reasons I won't reveal here, in
part three Kit has an adventure alone, joining a merchant camel
train in the desert, and in this part the book undergoes a pretty
radical change of style. John said he said he found this third part
the best, in fact he really only liked this part, at least things
start happening and the pace of the prose hots up - and Trevor quickly
agreed. Doug and I cried that we much preferred the first two parts,
in fact we hated the last part, not finding it believable in the
slightest. Trevor said, But Kit had no choice but to join the caravan,
and she had no choice but to succumb to whatever the merchants then
demanded of her. I said, that's not the point: I can well imagine
in theory that this would be the case, but the novel doesn't convince
me, ie the way it's told, and Clare said, You mean the writing,
and Trevor said sardonically, Oh, the writing!
insisted. I said it is the prose in part three which is unconvincing
- rushed and staccato. Clare said, but rushed and staccato prose
can be appropriate, after all Kit's in a state of turmoil. I said,
Yes, it can - for instance I thought the rushed (though fluid) prose
replicating Port's typhoid delirium is beautifully done and this
is one of the points in the book I find psychologically and emotionally
involving - but in part three the prose rhythms and the sentence
constructions seem rushed to me in the sense of being unconsidered,
said that what he liked about this last part was that in focussing
on Kit it made the book about women and the condition of women,
and most of the men agreed. I said that I didn't actually think
that this was a specific intention on Bowles' part, as not only
are parts one and two more about Port than Kit, I had read in Michael
Hofmann's introduction to the new Penguin Classic that when Bowles
had got to the end of part two he had decided to use a different
writing method for the rest of the book: automatic writing (which
eschews thought or conscious 'art') - which would also explain not
only the change in style but the nature of the prose here. In other
words, I felt that by loosening the reins of his artistic consciousness,
Bowles had merely reproduced here an unconvincing male fantasy about
a woman, a fact which showed up in the prose.
which Trevor insisted once more that this was how Kit would have
said that she wasn't even convinced by Kit's behaviour in the first
two parts, which was why she had stopped reading before then. Also,
she had found the book unremittingly colonial in its perspective,
and that it colluded too far with Port's racist view of Arabs as
'monkeys'. (How on earth could they have made a film out of it at
that rate? I asked, and Clare, who had seen the film, said that
they had excised all the racism and romanticised it all, especially
part three, and indeed bleached it of the real theme - the emotional
and existential barrenness of the characters - so that in fact it
had been like watching paint dry.) Some people quibbled with Ann's
point, saying that there were some sympathetic Arabs in the book,
that the author is not necessarily to be identified with Port, and
that even Port despises the anti-semitism of the Lyles. But as Ann
said, the perspective of no Arab is ever represented (although she
guessed that was par for the course at the time of the novel's writing),
and it's all relative.
then Trevor said how much he'd enjoyed the exciting bit towards
the end and Kit's imprisonment and escape, and explained to us doubters
why she would have acted exactly as she did.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
parallel narratives, featuring respectively Virginia Woolf struggling
with her demons, a young woman, Laura Brown, trapped in suburban
motherhood in the nineteen-forties and longing to escape and read
Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, and a middle-aged woman Clarissa
arranging a party in the nineteen-nineties for an old lover who
is dying of Aids and who once nicknamed her Mrs Dalloway after that
who had suggested this novel, said that in the event she wasn't
sure what she thought of it, as she didn't feel that the perspectives
of the three women were sufficiently differentiated and in particular
she couldn't get to grips with the Laura Brown character: she understood
the trap Laura was in but couldn't see how such a strong-willed
character could have got into such a trap in the first place.
caused some surprise: others felt on the contrary that the characters
were very well differentiated, and those who had grown up in sixties
suburbia in Britain had found Laura Brown and her position entirely
recognizable. Indeed, everyone else thought this book was wonderful
- even Jenny. Initially Jenny had resisted the idea of this book
as she didn't like parallel narratives, but even though the connections
between the different strands had seemed superficial she had found
it absorbing, and in any case at the end it is revealed that they
are not separate stories at all.
had quite some discussion about this last. Trevor said that when
he suddenly realized the connections so near the end he wondered
if he had been really thick in not guessing them before. I said
I didn't think so: I thought it had been deliberate structural strategy
on Cunningham's part to spring a surprise. I thought that there
was nothing so moving as to discover that an old woman you were
despising along with one character was in fact the same person as
a young woman you'd been identifying with, and Hans strongly agreed.
the other hand, I couldn't help questioning this strategy, since
had we known the connections as we were reading there would have
been resonances which inevitably we missed - though as Jenny said,
the thing about great literaure is that it makes you want to read
it again, and on a second reading we would experience them.
think we were in no doubt that this was great literature. John had
been seriously ill while I had been reading it, and the book's overriding
theme of death had at times made it quite difficult for me to read,
yet I had always gone back to it: it had seeped into my consciousness
the way great literature does. The only other quibble was Doug's:
he wondered about the occasional breaches of the novel's convention
when we are given the viewpoint of minor characters; yet Doug was
perhaps one of the greatest admirers of this book.
wasn't overall a long discussion. It was the kind of occasion, I
think, where a book hits you in the gut, and intellectual discussion
seems not quite the point.
The Gathering by Anne Enright
looked pretty intent as we gathered in her living room, and when
we were all seated she asked in some disgust, 'Who chose this?'
I think she thought it was me, since when Clare had offered it as
one of her two alternative suggestions I'd persuaded everyone to
choose it over the other possible book.
looked a bit non-plussed, but went ahead with her admiring introduction.
She thought it was wonderfully written, she said. It was a very
bleak book in many ways: the first-person narration of 39-year-old
Veronica Hegarty who is grieving her brother Liam's suicide and
coming to terms with it by imagining the events at the heart of
a family secret which may or may not have led to it. But the writing
transcended the bleakness of the subject matter, Clare said: lively,
witty and full of the most stunning phrases. She was most struck
by the scene which Veronica first imagines early on, that of the
first meeting between her grandmother Ada as a young woman and Lamb
Nugent, a man she could have married but didn't, marrying his best
friend instead. However, Clare had one criticism: these scenes were
so beautifully imagined and written that she didn't feel that they
were realistically Veronica's (as we are meant to take them), but
were too much those of the author. I said that this too been Adam
Mars-Jones's only criticism, just about, in his review for the Independent,
and (although I loved this book so much I was loathe to criticize
it) I supposed I had to agree that the register wasn't exactly Veronica's,
although it hadn't struck me as I was reading it.
which point everyone else began laying into this book. Ann said
that she had liked the beginning too, but she felt it went nowhere;
as she went on reading it she was thinking, 'Come on!' 'Come
on what?' asked Clare, but if Ann gave an explanation it was overridden
by the criticisms of the others so I don't remember it. John said
he too found the book disappointing: he had thought it was going
to be about unravelling the mystery of how Liam died, but it turned
out to be something far more amorphous. Trevor and Doug said that
they liked the Ada stuff but not the rest, or maybe they said the
opposite, or maybe one expressed one view and the other the other,
but Jenny came in most memorably with the firm view that the book
was terrible and she had no idea how it could have won the Booker.
None of it was consistent or made sense, she said: nothing happened,
it was all conjecture.
said, but that's the point: it's a book about not knowing and how
we deal with that. Jenny countered that none of the characters were
realized: you were expected to take for granted the close relationship
between Veronica and her dead bother Liam: it was never shown except
for perhaps one childhood scene when they stole into a bus garage;
and Veronica's estrangement from her husband over the loss of Liam
is never made understandable. And look at Veronica's other brother
Mozzie: he's supposed to have been a psychopath, as Veronica calls
him, and then he's supposed to have this miraculous change at the
end and be some kind of nice family man: you're just expected to
take that on trust, and it's just not believable.
said, But isn't that all about Veronica's perception of him, which
changes? Isn't this a book about that very thing, perception, and
how we make up stories about other people and give them characters
in order to cope? Jenny looked even more disgusted and said that
I was putting a spin on the book it didn't deserve: these things
just weren't there.
have to say I had had one niggle about the book and now someone
honed in on it: the connections that we are indeed meant to take
on trust between the circumstances which led to the sexual abuse
of Liam as a child and Liam's adult emotional problems and suicide.
Would Liam really have been that affected by it? people asked. Clare
said, Well, it depends what the abuse means to the child,
and it usually means something and is damaging if the child is emotionally
involved with the abuser. We all agreed that this must be so. But
people pointed out that Liam could not have been emotionally involved
with his abuser and cited examples of others they knew, including
spouses, who had similarly experienced abuse by a family friend
and yet had grown up not be emotionally disturbed by it. But then
Clare pointed out a moment in the book which even I, its great champion,
had missed (and which I won't give away here), and everything fell
into place. This moment is fleeting, though vivid. Once you catch
it it is devastating, and in retrospect justifies the whole structure
of the book and Veronica's speculations. At this point in the discussion
even I began to wonder if the glancing, allusive prose which I love
in Anne Enright's work does sometimes militate against her.
now asked us what we thought about the sex, which he had found so
graphic it was somehow disturbing. People agreed and wondered about
it without coming to any conclusions, and the discussion turned,
with some relief it seemed, to a general consideration of sex. In
fact, said Doug, getting back to the book, he had found the whole
book disturbing. He had certainly admired the prose, and he was
glad he had read the book but he had found it extremely painful
and I were stunned, insisting that it was witty, even funny
- only to be met with sceptical stares, and Jenny reiterated that
she thought it was awful.
days later Hans called round at our house to find out about the
next meeting, and we discovered why Jenny had informed us so meaningfully
yet cryptically that he wasn't coming to the last one. He hated
the book, he told me. He had travelled back from Glasgow that day
and he couldn't face sitting talking about a book with which he
had utterly failed to engage, and which he had found frankly pretentious.
wife Jan had liked it, though...
Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje's The English Patient is one of the few books I
have loved so much that I have read it three times in spite of all
the other books out there waiting to be squeezed into the time and,
more importantly, the headspace left over from my own writing. Once
I told him so, at one of those legendary Waterstone's Deansgate
readings, and I'm not sure what he thought - whether he was embarrassed
or amused or believed me, but anyway I had to say it. It's the structure
I find most beautiful - a structure so resonant with aching meanings
- so I'm not a huge a fan of the film which alters it so radically.
anyway, when Doug suggested this, Ondaatje's next novel, I had mixed
feelings. Surely this too, would be great, but then surely no writer
could ever come up with something so thrillingly resonant twice?
In any case, I read it through the filter of the first.
novel is set in the late eighties and early nineties in Sri Lanka,
when government squads were hunting down and murdering antigovernment
insurgents and separatist guerillas, and concerns the events which
ensue when Anil, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka
but having lived abroad for most of her adult life, returns to uncover
on behalf of a human rights group the source of the organized campaigns
book takes further Ondaatje's use of unusual structure to embody
the themes, and this time the rationale is more overtly political.
It is essentially episodic, moving from character to character and
back and forth in time in a way which can seem baffling, but which
people in the group quickly noted mimics both the processes of civil
war in which people and meanings are scattered and the procedure
of forensic archeology which must piece together seemingly disparate
elements. Introducing the book, Doug began by saying that it is
about Anil, although he said this rather uncertainly and we quickly
agreed that it's not possible to talk about this book in such conventional
terms, or appropriate to bring to it conventional expectations.
While the beginning appears to focus on Anil - arriving in Sri Lanka,
remembering a doomed love affair, and meeting Sarath, the Sri Lankan
anthropolgist with whom she will work - by the end of the book the
focus has shifted to Sarath. Indeed, it is significant that the
first section is titled 'Sarath' and the title of the book does
not refer to Anil herself but to her 'ghost'. Most people in the
group took this last reference - the 'ghost' - to refer to the skeleton
on which Anil and Sarath work, but I thought it meant something
much more significant: it is revealed some way into the novel that
a 'ghost' is a Sri Lankan informer, and Anil does indeed have her
'informer' on the deepest level: someone who points out to her that
she with her outsider's perspective is not only useless but potentially
dangerous to those she purports to be working to help. As people
noted, Anil has dropped out of the book's focus altogether by the
end, and by creating such a major shift in perspective the structure
of the book thus makes a deeply political statement. I had intended
to ask the group why they thought certain sections of the book were
in italics, notably Anil's memories of her work life, but I forgot
and it wasn't discussed. I think now that it's another authorial
device to distance and parenthesize Anil's perspective and illustrate
everyone thought this was an immensely clever book, and nearly everyone
seemed to agree that it was moving (although it struck me that they
said it without seeming particularly moved). Doug said he had found
it very vivid - both in terms of the depiction of the scenery and
atmosphere and in terms of the character depiction, although there
were some things he couldn't quite get to grips with, like the point
of Anil's memories of her affair and of her friendship with another,
female colleague with whom she has now also lost touch. Clare said
she thought that the point of these last were that they illustrated
that people never really made lasting connections because they never
really knew each other, another instance of Anil's impotence and
of this praise had rendered John completely silent, as he had been
unable to engage with the novel at all, and I now said that in spite
of everything I admired about the book, my experience had been rather
similar: unlike others I hadn't been moved by the book since I hadn't
found the characters ever came to emotional life. Jenny suggested
that that was deliberate authorial strategy, a replication of the
repression of people living under such regimes - which is probably
true, but sadly means for me that the novel's devices were too successful,
and deprived it of the resonance I'd found in The English Patient.