The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-August 2017
Elizabeth Baines
 

July 2017
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

There's never a long discussion to report when we unanimously love a book - there's no disagreement and no criticism of the book itself - and this choice of Doug's was a prime example. Spufford is known to have wanted to write an 'eighteenth-century novel' set in New York, and we felt that in Golden Hill he has succeeded magnificently.

It opens in 1746 as Smith, a likeable and hapless young Englishman cast in the mould of the male protagonists of eighteenth-century picaresque novels, disembarks in New York, then a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, and makes without delay for the house of a merchant, with an order for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. Needless to say, this causes a huge stir. Can he be trusted? And what does he intend to do such a great sum (which in fact isn't that readily available as cash, causing the banker problems)? - a question that for most of the book both the inhabitants of the town and the reader are kept asking. In true eighteenth-century picaresque fashion, we follow his adventures as he is variously wooed by the inhabitants and punished for his lack of verification - at one point ending up, in a highly vivid episode, in jail - and becoming romantically entangled with the headstrong spinster daughter of the merchant.

The whole novel is entirely vivid, packed with the physical and social details of the town, colonised at the time by the Dutch and English. Spufford is a historian, and it is therefore no surprise that he should be armed with such knowledge, but what we found remarkable was the way that there is absolutely no sense of research - the novel simply lives and breathes the time and place in which it is set. We are never explicitly told, for instance, that smallpox took a while to be brought from Europe to the New World; instead we are shown the fact briefly but vividly through Smith's amazement, on first seeing the Lovell daughters, that their faces are completely unpocked. We felt delighted by such things. The novel is full of energy and extremely humane, touching and funny in its depiction of Smith and his antagonists, and we all agreed that we had found it great fun.

Someone, I think Clare, did say that she tired a little of the eighteenth-century locutions, but Doug and I thought that Spufford had created a remarkably successful hybrid register for his narrator, which is both drenched in eighteenth-century flavour yet reads with complete ease to modern eyes and ears.

But why, one might ask - and I did ask before I started reading - write a pastiche of an eighteenth-century novel? Spufford's agenda is in fact modern, and indeed political. It would give the game away to say in precisely what way, but suffice it to say that the injection of the issues of homosexuality and race into the template of the eighteenth-century novel makes for searing historical and literary comment. Following indeed in the mode of eighteenth-century novels, there is in fact explicit - and funny - comment on the novel form, other novelists of the eighteenth century, and novelistic modes. At the commencement of a card game of piquet, the narrator says - tongue firmly in cheek and clearly mocking those contemporary writers who wear their research on their sleeves: 'Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet,' but in trying to provide it bursts out: 'Wait - wait - alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.' Similarly, while relating the progress of a sword fight: 'But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader's mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.'

There is a final twist at the end of this book worthy of any contemporary postmodern novel (I won't give it away) which tickled us all. We could see holes in it, but we didn't mind; like the impossible way that Smith, writing to his father in prison, manages somehow - presumably with an inkwell and feather! - to take down a verbatim record of the raving speech of a fellow inmate even as it's happening - it felt like part of the joke that this whole book is - a joke, however, with a serious and deeply humane message.


August 2017
The Men's Club by Leonard Michaels

I was waiting for a train on Dalkey station when I opened this 1981 novel now reissued by Daunt Books, and was so bowled over by the prose that then and there I was fired to start a new publishing company in order to publish such prose myself. (Next day I saw the folly of such a thought: last time I was a publisher I ended up having no time or headspace to write, so I won't quickly be making that mistake again.)

However, the book struck fewer sparks for our reading group back in England.

In a spare, ironic prose, the unnamed narrator, a Berkeley academic, recounts an evening meeting in the late 1970s to which he was invited and reluctantly attended, a male answer to the proliferating women's consciousness-raising groups of the time.
But I was thinking about good company. Some of my married colleagues had love affairs, usually with students. You could call it a regular social possibility. It included emotional chaos. Gonorrhoea. Even guilt. They would have been better off in a men's club.
Present at the meeting are his academic colleague and ex-basketball player Cavanaugh, a psychotherapist, a doctor, a real-estate executive, a lawyer and a businessman. Nervous at first of each other and the situation, and of the apparent requirement to discuss their lives, the men eventually loosen up over marijuana and a whole case of Zinfandel and more, and in a Canterbury-Tales type scenario (one of the men is significantly called Canterbury) they unwittingly reveal their own lack of emotional intelligence by telling tales of their encounters with women, several of them adulterous. Finally, in a desecration of the women's ritual they are aping, they raid the fridge of the huge spread prepared by the host's wife for her meeting the following evening, wreck the room, engage in occasional and vaguely homoerotic bouts of aggression towards each other, throw knives at a door and end up as one band beating their chests and howling like wolves.

Although everyone in our group agreed, I think, that the prose was stunning, there were some criticisms from, interestingly, the men among us, and also some differences in the ways they had read the book. John was perturbed by the fact that the book, dealing with such a serious subject - the lack of maturity and responsibility of apparently professional men - failed to engage him emotionally, a point with which everyone agreed: the ironic prose and objective stance of the narrator leaves one feeling distanced. For Doug this was not a problem, as he had read the whole thing as a broad comedy which had made him laugh out loud: it was the only way he could read it, he said, because otherwise it would have been just too horrific. Mark hadn't read it like that at all. He too found it horrific but, from the perspective of the present day, unbelievable: any group of professional men beginning to behave like that in this day and age would have immediately been shown the door, and would never do so in the first place, and he took John to task for choosing what he considered an old-fashioned and irrelevant book. He did think that the stories the men told had worked very well, but he had no time for the overall narrative context in which they were placed. I felt a little baffled by this last, as the meanings of the stories are opaque to their narrators and they are often unfinished: the whole point therefore is the context of the stories, and what they reveal about their narrators. Ann went so far as to wonder if Michaels had had a series of stories up his sleeve that were all too similar - there are similarities: all of the men are similarly dense about and baffled by women - and simply found this way of stringing them together.

There is indeed perhaps a difficulty in knowing how this book should be read. Because of the distanced and ironic stance of the narrator, it is hard to see much separation between narrator and author, yet at the end the narrator joins in wholeheartedly with the behaviour of the other men. (John said that the other book of Michaels' that he had read, Sylvia, had the same effect: he wasn't sure that the author of Sylvia didn't identify with the self-centred and sexist protagonist). Consequently it's possible to interpret The Men's Club not as a criticism of the primitive and immature character of men, but, for instance, as Kirkus Reviews decided, as a sly sendup of 'women's lib' novels.

 

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