The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-March 2017
Elizabeth Baines
 

January 2017
The Sellout by Paul Beatty

A horrible cold prevented me from attending the meeting to discuss this recent Booker-winning novel. It features a narrator who, having spent his childhood in the 'Agrarian black ghetto' of Dickens as the subject of his sociologist single father's psychological-racial studies, decides to put Dickens back on the map by reintroducing slavery and segregation in a hugely ironic challenge to contemporary assumptions of racial diversity. Tackling such an urgent subject, and told in a wisecracking, immensely erudite and intelligent prose, the book fully justifies its Booker win. I didn't however find it an easy ride/read, and the following report of the discussion written by John shows that others in our group felt the same. I am grateful to John for stepping in:

REPORT BY JOHN:

Mark chose The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and gave a brief account of his view of it. He said he thought the book was 'absolutely terrific', particularly mentioning the author's grasp of popular culture. Mark clearly regards it as an important book and in his opinion it was on occasion 'laugh out loud'. Trevor agreed and said the book is extremely clever. (Readers may be interested to contrast The Outsider [or The Stranger] by Camus; a sharp contrast on the theme of racism, which now seems a far more traditional approach. See our discussion of that book.)

There was some disagreement about how funny this book is, though a number of people picked out one or two funny passages. Clare said she 'didn't get it', presumably in reference to whether it was funny or not, and I agreed. I mentioned the group's response to Pynchon's the Crying of Lot 49; Doug had tried many times to introduce Pynchon to the group and had finally succeeded with that one. He found The Crying hilariously funny but (most of?) the rest of us had no idea what he was talking about. I put forward the opinion that humour is a very personal thing.

There was general agreement that this in an important book and deserving of the Booker prize. This was because it tackled head-on the difficult topic of the idea that what is usually known as the human race (allowing reproduction between members of tht race) is in fact a group of races: 'whites', 'Negroes'... Our discussion took place before the recent developments in America underlining the book's message, and there was a variety of strength of feeling among us about the extent of racism in our current society, the strongest being expressed by the member of the group who is what is sometimes referred to as 'mixed race' and the member who had made an academic study of postcolonial literature. After some discussion, when asked directly, the mixed-race member of the group stated that he had been racially abused as a boy, in particular on one ocasion being attacked by three youths, presumably of about the same age. It was clear that the attack was racist due to the voculabulary the boys used. Some people expressed surprise, presumably because in their view this member of the group is apparently fully integrated into British society, and in most circumstances (at least locally) 'passes as white'. He was in a non-heavy sort of way, I think, raised as a Christian. I said that it was clear that the group could openly discuss the issues raised in his presence within the security of the group, but that some groups of people would be either too embarrassed to do this, or there would be conflict on some of the issues. I expressed the view that it is important that if society is to progress, issues such as this, relations between the sexes, sexual abuse and paedophilia must be openly discussed. (However, I have noted in meetings with other groups that care is needed: I have had a little contact with witchcraft scares in Nottingham, which were eventually shown not to have any foundation in reality.)

There was fairly general agreement that the book is not an easy read. At least two of the five people present had not managed to complete it in the allotted month, though to some extent this was because some were very committed to family over Christmas, and also illness. There was fairly general agreement that the style of the book was dense and intense, a style perhaps more usual to short stories. There was an agreement that Beatty is clearly a very clever guy. Jenny said that about two-thirds of the way through she began to feel that the book was getting tiresome and she had to force herself to go on. I agreed it was hard work but went on to say that that was about the point when the book benefited from a more traditional storyline. I also compared it to James Joyce's Ulysses, saying it was similar in the use of digressions, and also in subject matter as the protagonist of Ulysses is a Jew in Ireland, and to some extent an outsider to the society he lives in.*

Doug was unable to attend and briefly summarised his opinion (as he has usefully done a number of times before), stating:

'I've not quite finished the book but I haven't enjoyed it as much as I thought I was going to after the opening few pages. I've found the heavy dialect of the main protagonist made it hard to get into the rhythm of the book, and the cultural references had me resorting to Google on a regular basis, so I just found it quite hard going, more so than, say A Brief History of 7 Killings, which had its own challenges in the language.
But it was wildly funny in places and definitely worth the read.

I and at least one other member of the group expressed surprise as we had felt Doug would like the book with what (to me at least) is a similar use of throw-away, rather jocular humour to the Pynchon. I said I felt that at times Beatty's digressions served little more purpose than to introduce a joke that did not strike as as particularly funny.

The discussion of the book concluded, but as so often happens in the group, much discussion of the issues raised continued for a couple of hours. Again it can be concluded that whether or not one likes the book, the issues are important. One member said that the book contained some fabulous writing. Famously she likes food, and compared reading the book to tackling a rich box of chocolates, with initial enjoyment leading to eventual satiation. Perhaps the lesson learned is that this book should be taken in small doses. Certainly it is advisable to allot more time to this book than would usually be the case with a book of this length, about 250 pages.

Report written by John.

*Ed (EB): There is a reference to Joyce's Ulysses at one point in the book, which I took as a self-conscious acknowledgement and tribute.


February 2017
The Midnight Bell by Patrick Hamilton

Trevor suggested this short 1929 novel, Hamilton's first, and the first in a trilogy now published in one volume, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. It concerns the infatuation of twenty-five-year-old London pub waiter Bob for a young prostitute, Jenny, and tracks the course of his downfall as she manipulates him and milks him of the savings he has put aside for his future, a future vaguely conceived but in which he imagines becoming a famous writer.

Trevor said he thought the book superb. He especially thought the dialogue - of which there is a great deal - wonderful, and he was utterly taken with the way the author leads you through Bob's mental justifications as, time and time again, Jenny gets him to give her money (usually affecting protest) and then, after promising not to, stands him up, and Bob, disarmed by her exceptional physical beauty, wavers between seeing through her and convincing himself of her excuses.

Group member Jenny agreed. She said she had been utterly fascinated by those mental acrobatics, and to intensely interested in finding out how they would play out and end up. Mark and Clare, too, seemed very positive about the book.

However, Ann, John and I had reservations, and Doug was outright negative. The book begins with an evocative description of the pub off the Euston Road in which Bob works, and its atmosphere and clientele and comings and goings, and Doug said he had loved this - it so conjured up those London pubs - but that once it had got onto the relationship he had lost all patience with the book: he didn't find the relationship believable at all.

There was a lot of counter justification: the point was, Bob was infatuated, and surely it's the case that under that circumstance you can see someone double, as Bob does; you can, as Clare put it, know that someone is bad for you but still be besotted with them.

Although I agreed absolutely that this was the case (in life), I had said early on that I was afraid that I found the constant dealings between the two antagonists repetitive, and Ann and John now strongly agreed, Ann going so far as to say she found them tedious. People would go on to object that such situations are repetitive, but it is of course a novelist's job to write about repetition without creating a tediously repetitive read. I completely acknowledged that for someone in Bob's situation none of it would seem tedious, it would all be high emotional drama, but I never actually felt emotionally involved in his drama, never actually shared it and felt it myself: never in those moments that Bob convinced himself that she wasn't cheating him and did love him did I believe so too, or at least hope he was right. I was too easily able to judge the situation objectively and foresee how it would end, which made me impatient with the repetitive journey towards it - all of which Ann and John and Doug very much concurred with. People said, But what about the time Bob goes to buy a new suit (squandering his savings on it as a way of wooing Jenny)? Ann and I (and pretty much everyone) agreed that this was indeed a masterful depiction of class diffidence, and Ann and I said that that was the point: as soon as something different happens - different from the endless meetings between the two, always following the same pattern, and the word-for-word identical and spurned phone calls Bob makes to Jenny's lodgings - the novel perked up for us. We felt the same about the time that Jenny breaks her own protocol and takes Bob up to the room she moves into to share with two other prostitutes (having absconded her lodgings without paying the rent).

I thought it was a function of the somewhat patrician, ironic, and thus ultimately distancing prose. The early description of The Midnight Bell pub begins in this somewhat old-fashioned patrician mode:

Those entering the Saloon Bar of 'The Midnight Bell' from the street came through a large door with a fancifully frosted glass pane, a handle like a dumb-bell, a brass inscription 'Saloon Bar and Lounge', and a brass adjuration to Push. Anyone temperamentally so wilful, careless, or incredulous as to ignore this friendly admonition was instantly snubbed, for this door actually would only succumb to Pushing. Nevertheless hundreds of temperamental people nightly argued with this door and got the worst of it.

Engaging as this is for its verbal wit, it ultimately wraps the clientele of the pub - and by extension the people of the novel - in an urbanely amused narrative consciousness, ultimately belittling them. The individual pub habitues are, as people in our group (including Doug) said, beautifully observed, but the mode employed to observe them makes them merely quaint. The early section in which we are given a full account of Bob's character is cast very much in an ironic tone:

...[he] took to dreaming again - dreaming about a great novel that he would one day write. This would take the form mostly employed by young novelists who have never written any novels. That is to say, it would hardly be a novel at all, but all novels in one, life itself - its mystery, its beauty, its grotesquerie, its humour, its sadness, its terror. And it would take, possibly, years and years to write, and it would put you in a class with Hugo, Tolstoy, and Dreiser.

Often the prose ascends to lofty near-sarcasm, employing, indeed, a patronisingly and mockingly repetitive mode, as in this scene in the room that Jenny shares with the other two prostitutes:

'Well, said Sammy, 'I been havin' my soul saved. You know that corner where Lisle Street joins Wardour Street?'
The company [ie, Jenny and Bob] did.
'Well, there was a boy standin' there - see?'
The company did.
'He couldn't've been more than seventeen or eighteen - it's just about three o' clock, an' e' was sort of standin' about. See?'
The company did.
'Well, so I goes up to him, like, you see, an' I says, "Where do you come from," I says, "Eton or 'Arrow?" See?'
The company did, and tittered.

And so on (and it does go on...)

That depiction of 'common' speech which is shared by Jenny, (and common is a term that both the socially aspirant Bob and the narrator would use) is of course inherently patronising. It is perhaps significant that in the second book of the trilogy, which deals with Jenny's story and in which the author thus has to enter Jenny's consciousness, her speech is markedly less caricatured.

Similarly patronising, I found, was the constant use of what J B Priestley called Komic Capitals, a heavy way of ironising, indeed mocking, both the speech and attitudes of the characters, as seen in Sammy's next speech in the scene above:

'So he don't say nothing. 'E just sort of Tugs at 'is collar...'

I said that I felt that the use of such a distanced prose was perhaps a function of author Hamilton's youth when he wrote the book (he wrote it in his early twenties). It is well known that the book is closely autobiographical, and Ann added the insightful comment that it would be a way for Hamilton to distance the experience for himself.

Jenny and Trevor had not been troubled by any of this, however, and for them the book had been an extremely satisfying read.

It was noted that this book is essentially the same story as that of Hamilton's Hangover Square, which we discussed last March - there are even references in both to Maidenhead as a kind of Shangri-la to escape to, and both George in Hangover Square and Bob are cheated over a trip to Brighton. Hangover Square was considered the more mature novel by those who had doubts about this one: less facetious in tone and setting the relationship in a wider social and, importantly, political context in the run-up to war. Mark said also that Hangover Square was the more psychological novel, which I thought was perhaps another way of saying what I had been trying to say about The Midnight Bell.

Clare asked if anyone else had cringed as much as she had at the depiction of Jews - as dirty thieves. We all had - and I had balked at the view of the narrator and Bob of prostitutes (clearly Bob makes an exception for Jenny): they are often objectified as 'they' or 'them' or 'their kind'. Everyone agreed, however, that in 1925 such attitudes were part of the social fabric. Ann said that she had really loved the vivid details of London demi-monde life in the 1920s, with which we all thoroughly agreed, and while Trevor had been right to say that the story was still relevant and that the relationship and its trajectory could take place today, we felt that the book was best read as a historical document.


March 2017
Utz by Bruce Chatwin

Warning: some plot spoils.

Once again much time has passed between a reading group discussion and my finally getting around to writing about it (it took place at the beginning of March, and I'm writing this in mid-April), and I'm afraid my account of our meeting may be a little sketchy.

Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death, this book concerns the story of Utz, a minor Saxon baron (he claims), a half-Jew and a lifelong collector of Meissen porcelain. Beginning with Utz's funeral in 1974, the story is narrated in the 1980s - in Chatwin's famously lapidary prose and with much erudition - by a male art specialist who as a young man encountered Utz in Communist Prague in 1967 (the year before the Prague Spring and the consequent Soviet crackdown) - his one and only meeting with him. Throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century, Utz had amassed and guarded his priceless collection which he now took the narrator to view, crammed into his small flat beside the Jewish cemetery. Earlier he had hidden it from the Nazis on his Sudetenland estate, and now, having pragmatically given up his estate to the Communists and retreated with his porcelain to Prague, he was protecting it from appropriation for the museum through one of his many 'deals'.

Most people in the group were fascinated by the book's theme (though John was a notable exception): that of the pathology of obsessive collecting, and the tension between an obsession with collecting material things that bind you to one place and the need to be footloose and free of possessions - a tension known to have been that of Chatwin himself, a former Sotheby's expert addicted to bohemian travel.

According to the story that Utz told the narrator, hassled in 1952 by the Communists over his collection, he had the urge to 'get out', away from Prague, and he 'escaped' to Vichy, tearing himself away from his collection and leaving it in the charge of his devoted housekeeper Martha (a former servant on his Saxon estate). But after failing to enjoy anything in Vichy, from the views to the food, and after failed attempts at sexual liaisons, he was soon drawn back. During the meeting the narrator concludes: 'The collection held him prisoner.'

The narrator also reports that early in his life Utz had written, in an article denouncing the 'suffocation' of museum collections in which things cannot be touched: '...the passionate [private] collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker.' Utz explains to the narrator the source of this fetishisation, tracing the connections between the Biblical notion of clay as the source of human life, the Jewish notion of the golem (central to the history of Prague Jewry) in which a gifted and learned Rabbi could create a golem as God created Adam, and the medieval notion of the Holy Grail and historical events linking it with the special clay required to make Meissen porcelain. 'Are you suggesting your porcelains are alive?' the narrator asks him, and Utz replies, 'I am and I am not.'

This ambiguity characterises not only Utz: it characterises the whole story, and indeed the book itself. It was pointed out in the group that on the occasion of Utz's first Vichy adventure it is not after all the porcelain, exactly, that draws him back:
He was desperately homesick, yet hadn't given a thought for the porcelains. He could only think of Martha, alone in the apartment.
The narrator, too, comes to doubt Utz's claim to have needed simply to get away - even entertaining briefly the idea that he was a spy - since it soon becomes clear that the trip to the formerly Nazi-collaborating Vichy became a yearly occurrence, and a yearly chance for Utz to deal in porcelain - as Utz says, when others were smuggling precious private possessions out of Prague and the hands of the Communist authorities, he was smuggling them in.

Ten years after the death of Utz in 1974, the narrator is passing once again through Prague. He visits the museum, knowing that part of the deal that Utz had made with the Communists was that it should go there after his death, only to find that the collection has in fact disappeared. He meets up with the professor who first introduced him to Utz, who now reveals information that undercuts the story we have learned so far, and the impressions the narrator has so far received. Utz, it turns out, was by no means the ineffectual lover that he was presented as being at Vichy, and the strangely sumptuous bedroom the narrator had witnessed when visiting his flat in 1967 had been frequented - much to Martha's heartache - by a series of 'Merry Widows' and operatic divas. And Martha, who slept on the landing, had not been simply his servant, it turns out. In 1952 he had married her as a matter of convenience, in order not to be evicted from his flat. Sometime in the sixties, finally rejected by a young opera singer as a ridiculous old man, he accepted Martha fully as his wife and into his bed, marrying her again, this time in church, in 1968, the year after the narrator's encounter with him.

The novel ends with uncertainty. What actually happened to the porcelain? (I won't give it away here.) Did it really happen this way, and why? What were the motives? The narrator comes to his own conclusion, but it's one that he wants to believe, rather than one he can be certain of: that in the end material objects are nothing in the face of human love. The overriding effect is an evocative sense of the unfathomable mysteriousness of human motive and life.

Early on in the novel the author strongly signals this underpinning uncertainty by stating that Utz was of nondescript appearance, and that he cannot even remember whether Utz had a moustache. It will turn out later that he did have one - the professor, Orlick, will tell the narrator that tickling women's throats with it was Utz's particularly idiosyncratic seduction technique. In the early section the narrator addresses the reader in a confidential manner: 'Supposing, then, we add a moustache? ... On reflection, I think I'd better withdraw the moustache', thus not only leading us to read the whole story up to Orlick's revelation with a picture of Utz without a moustache before having our preconceptions overturned, but also explicitly highlighting the authorial choices, and consequent contingency and unreliability, of storytelling.

I have to say however that the way this is handled strikes me as not entirely successful. The book, which is very short, is related from a single time level - one year on from Orlick's revelations - and, since all of the events of the novel are over before the story is narrated, and the narrator clearly therefore knows the whole story before beginning, his uncertainty about Utz's moustache in the earlier part of the narration is inconsistent with his eventually evident prior knowledge of its existence. It may be that Chatwin is thus slyly conveying the unreliability of his narrator, and indeed of his own novel, but it seems to me, rather, a structural error in a book that on the level of prose style is a masterpiece of polish.

The treatment of Utz's funeral compounds for me this view. In the light of the end of the book we can see that the evocative tenor of the opening funeral scene, with 'jackdaws with twigs in their beaks ... wheeling above the lindens' - is the product of the narrator's imagination and surmise. The narrator is quite open about this: at the end, after recounting the revelation by Orlick of the fate of the porcelain, he states: 'I am now in a position to add to my account of Utz's funeral.' Since the narrator has in fact known the whole truth behind the funeral scene before beginning his narration - ie, his position with regard to knowledge of events hasn't in fact changed - this again seems a structural error.

We didn't address this in our discussion, though comment was (fairly belatedly) made on the unreliability of the narrator. It was Ann who had suggested the book, since, working in museums herself, she had been particularly interested in the subject matter. She had jotted down her thoughts as she reacted to the book, noting the elegance of the prose, but also wondering if the book was somehow patronising. If I remember rightly, she had wondered at the end if it amounted to very much. We all agreed on the elegance of the prose, but I said, in line with Ann's sense of patronisation, that I found it perhaps rather conventional and patriarchal. In spite of the thematic obsession with uncertainty, there seemed to me a patrician air of certainty in the manipulation of language, and I wondered too if there was a kind of cultural autocracy in the unexplained references to arcane knowledge and phenomena. Clare said she had wondered that too.

And that, I'm afraid, apart from the inevitable and lengthy dissection of the plot and themes and characters' motives, is all that I can remember of our actual discussion.

 

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