comedy

HILL BY JEAN GIONO

It wasn’t often that I went to school, but, during my irregular appearances, I somehow managed – perhaps by virtue of having a big mouth and an even bigger chip on my shoulder – to develop a friendship with the tough kid. He was stocky and ginger, like a red brick wall, and lived out of town, on a run down farm. His attendance record was almost as sketchy as mine, only he went hunting when he skipped school and I went to the local library. Yet sometimes we would both be in lessons on the same day and we would sit together and talk about whatever young men talk about when they have nothing in common except their poverty and their anger.

Looking back, it seems strange that his interest in hunting didn’t immediately lead to hostility between us. It was almost as though I didn’t really know what hunting was. I lived on a council estate; nature was unreal to me; it floated nebulously on the periphery of my consciousness, far from my conception of the world. Then one day he brought something into school for me, a present. It was a squirrel’s tail. Only it was not a squirrel’s tail, no more than a severed hand belongs to the man from whom it was removed. It was dead matter; and it nauseated and disorientated me. For years I had witnessed human beings fighting each other, beating and abusing each other, but it hadn’t before occurred to me that this was how we treated the earth too.

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals? Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder? It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill. And when he scythes, he slays. So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic, runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

Hill was Jean Giono’s first novel, of something like fifty, and was published in 1929. It begins with an almost edenic description of the Bastides Blanches, where ‘bees dance around birches sticky with sap’ and ‘a fountain murmurs and overflows in two streams that plunge from a ledge and scatter into the wind.’ It is, he writes, ‘the land of the untamed’, of wild and flourishing nature. And it is the land of people also. There are white houses ‘perched like doves on the hill’s shoulder.’ In them live an isolated agricultural community, so isolated, and distant from others, that even the postman rarely visits and a doctor makes excuses not to return as the journey takes too long.

The men and women of the Bastides Blanches are often described in natural terms, giving the impression that, at least for the author, the two – humanity and the natural world – are not, or should not be, separate entities. One man has the ‘movement of a growing branch,’ another dances ‘the way marmots do’, still another is said to pant rapidly like a bird. Indeed, one of the principle characters, Gagou, is essentially an animal. He is mentally impaired, his sole form of communication being the grunting of his name. His needs are animalistic too, in that he appears only to require shelter, water and sex. Moreover, the way that he dies is, one might say, by sacrificing himself to nature, or in an attempt to become one with it, by walking into a fire.

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Yet while this united kingdom, this trinity, of people, animals, and earth is for Giono clearly the ideal, he was too smart to suggest that it is a reality. Indeed, in a significant, if perhaps somewhat heavy-handed, move the idyllic opening I touched upon earlier is violently disturbed by the introduction of a human presence, when Jaume fires a round of buckshot at a boar bathing in a spring. The truth of the matter is that the community at the Bastides Blanches are reliant upon the natural world, take from it, use it, but do not give anything back; they are, in the phoney war between the three forms of life, the aggressors, the tyrants, the exploiters.

It is Janet, the bed-bound quasi-mystic, who gives voice to this truth and others like it. He is, you might say, the community’s bad conscience. ‘The world isn’t made for you alone’, he admonishes Jaume when he seeks the old man’s advice. As the conversation unfolds, which is in fact more of a cosmic monologue, he talks about the suffering of animals, of trees, of ‘hundreds of holes in the flesh of living creatures and in living wood’ out of which ‘the blood and the sap flow over the world like a gigantic river.’ Janet is a truly memorable creation, so captivating and believable that, even in his most theatrical moments, his sermons unnerve the reader as much as the characters.

Much is made in reviews of the environmental aspect of the narrative, and yet, while the above shows that it is quite clearly there in the text, I believe that it is overplayed, or overemphasised, to the exclusion of its other noteworthy themes or qualities. I used the word ‘war’ before to describe the relationship between humanity and other forms of life, and I think there is something fascinating, and grimly amusing, about the way that we – for I don’t exclude myself from this – view inanimate objects or unconscious creatures as our enemies, as being in opposition to us. Consider for a moment the scene with the boar: Jaume, after firing at it, calls it a ‘son of a whore’ as though it had personally wronged him, as though it could understand this taunt, this insult, when of course it had not and it could not.

As the novel progresses, the characters, rattled by Janet’s ramblings and a run of bad luck, come to believe that the earth is out to get them, is bent on revenge; not figuratively, literally. If this sounds like the clever set-up of a comedy, that is because it is. There is no doubt in my mind that Giono plays for laughs, that he deliberately ramps up the absurdity. At one point, the men gather together in order to discuss their options, to make a plan, and what they decide is to go down to the woods…with their guns. Seriously. Their plan is to shoot nature, to pistol-whip the wind. They also bolt their doors; and one of them moves his bed into his mother’s room. What we see here is an exaggerated, satirical, form of the mindset outlined in the previous paragraph, which is that of imbuing the natural world with human, or even supernatural, qualities, and then pitching ourselves against it.

I would also argue, and I have already hinted at this, that Hill is a horror story. It is often said, when discussing the horror film genre, that the scariest examples are those where the ‘evil’, where the malevolent entity, remains off screen or hidden, where it is implied rather than proven by sight; and that is exactly how Giono’s novel plays out. Bad things start to happen – people fall ill, the water supply dries up, and so on – and no one can explain how or why; these events are, for the men, inexplicable, their causes unseeable, and therefore frightening. Out of this fear, a paranoia develops, and they begin to place significance in ordinary events, such as the appearance of a harmless black cat and the ‘foreign’ silence. It is telling, in this regard, that when a forest fire breaks out Jaume is relieved, because, he himself admits, he now knows what he is dealing with; this terrible something is better than a terrible nothing. Indeed, the men aren’t oppressed by a spook, they spook themselves, and Giono’s novel is, in this way, something like a Gallic, superior version of The Blair Witch Project.

TOO LOUD A SOLITUDE BY BOHUMIL HRABAL

This is not a love story. It was once, but my relationship with books has soured. Reading is, these days, like swallowing a cheap broth, one that contains the occasional scrap of meat, but which is, for the most part, thin, watery and bitter. Yet as a child I would avoid school and every day take myself to the local library. I would stand before the shelves in awe, almost afraid to touch, as I was so unused to things offering themselves to me. The rows seemed endless, unconquerable; and yet I perhaps now own more books than that library ever contained. I own so many; too many. But really they own me, and they oppress me. What was once my passion has become my prison. In my room I am surrounded on all sides by shaky towers of books. It is as though I am trying to wall myself in, when in fact I want to break out. I fantasise about giving them all away or creating a huge pyre and setting fire to it. Yet books, I’m told, do not burn. So picking up Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude seems, at best, like a form of masochism. Not only is it a book, but it is a book about the value of books and the pleasures of reading. The value of books and the pleasure of reading? I am convinced that one day my towers will fall and crush me. They are crushing me already, slowly but surely. Too Loud A Solitude is narrated by Haňt’a, a man who for thirty-five years has been compacting wastepaper, smearing himself with letters until, he says, he has come to resemble an encyclopaedia. As a character, he is the Hrabalian archetype, which is to say that he seems naive, perhaps at times even something of an idiot, but is, simultaneously, unassumingly, capable of great insight or displays of great intelligence. He is a man, a drunk you might say, who, for example, will sit dreaming at a bar and when he moves to open his wallet will fling upon the counter a mouse or let fall one from his trouser-leg. Yet he also quotes Nietzsche, Hegel, Rimbaud and Kant. Although lacking in formal education, Haňt’a is well read, having received an ‘unwitting education’ from the books he saves from destruction, from the jaws of his press, and takes home. In this way, I am reminded again of that child, myself as a child, standing before the seemingly endless rows of books, timidly reaching out my hand. Where would I be without the activity that I now so disparage, which gave me my own unwitting education? At least Haňt’a has the good grace to feel gratitude. He writes, lovingly, lovely lines about popping a sentence into his mouth and sucking it like a fruit drop, lines about thoughts that dissolve within him, infusing his brain and heart. Am I so bitter these days that I cannot acknowledge how beautiful that is? For Haňt’a education allows, or gives birth to, thought; without access to profound ideas, one cannot have profound ideas of one’s own; one’s brain remains foetal. Yet, for me, education was a means of escape from a situation I found intolerable, from an environment that was harmful. My mother, bless her, cried at the station as I boarded the train that was taking me away to university. She cried, I’m sure, because she understood that I had dug my way out, which is something she had once hoped for herself but never achieved; and books had been my tools, books it was that had broken the earth; without them I would have exhausted myself frantically clawing at the hard surface without making an impression. Haňt’a, however, is much less demanding of life than I was. One does not get the impression that he has ambitions to be elevated above his current station; and yet books allow him to escape too. He is so good-natured that it would be easy to take lightly how heavy-hearted a man might feel deep in a mouse-infested cellar, compacting wastepaper, day in and day out, for thirty-five years; all while living in a police-state; a police-state that doesn’t look too kindly upon books, to boot. It is no surprise, therefore, that he drinks; and it is no surprise that this underground man values, and takes pleasure in, the printed words that transport him to another, better world. Our world, Haňt’a repeatedly informs us, is not humane; and he, furthermore, provides the reader with numerous examples of this inhumanity, such as the working girls who draw the insides from still living chickens and his gypsy lover who is murdered in a concentration camp. Yes, there is a cellar-deep strain of melancholy running through the book, although it is easy to miss it, to be seduced into missing it by the soothingly good-natured, and unassuming, voice of the narrator. Indeed, Too Loud a Solitude is a book of contrasts of this sort: Haňt’a, the wise fool, the intellectual simpleton, who decorates his bails of wastepaper with art and rare books, like flowers in the barrels of guns; Haňt’a, the ‘refined butcher’, the cultured artist and the destroyer of culture. Doesn’t this topsy-turviness, this two-facedness, sum up human existence? The supreme and the inhumane, the good and the bad, love and hate, creation and destruction, suffering and joy, etc. Just look at Manka, poor Manka, the pretty girl who, when at her most divine, her most winning, twice falls foul of faeces. And Haňt’a too, who takes pride in his work – which is itself a kind of shitting, what with paper going in one end and lumpy bails coming out the other – to such an extent that he wishes to purchase his press for his retirement; Haňt’a, poor Haňt’a, who falls foul, not of faeces, but progress, inhumane progress. Ah, how beautiful the world’s hands are, but how dirty its fingernails. Bohumil Hrabal, as much as any writer, understood this; and I can’t help but love him for it, even now. So I guess that this is a love story, in the end. Yet it is the worst kind of love, the kind that flickers with life, that occasionally reminds you of what you once had, that tricks you, for a short time, into thinking that you will have it again.

JACQUES THE FATALIST BY DENIS DIDEROT

It is interesting to me how, as we become increasingly, almost aggressively, secular, many people still believe in fate and…

– What is this?

Excuse me?

– You’re meant to be reviewing Jacques the Fatalist.

Are you telling me how to review, Reader? I’m getting to Jacques. I’m doing what is known as ‘setting the scene’ and interruptions are only going to prolong it and therefore exacerbate your impatience. 

– Do hurry. I don’t have time for this.

I will take my own sweet time, and arrive at my destination when I am good and ready. You are free to leave, if you have more important things to do. What was I saying? Yada yada yada, believe in fate and, ah yes, destiny. I find this perplexing, because if the world is ordered in such a way, if your life is fated to follow a course from which it cannot be…

– God, this is boring.

Please be quiet! I can’t write the review in any other way; it is written up above that I will write the review the way I am writing it. It is fated that the review will be as it is, and your constant interruptions will do nothing to change that!

– But aren’t my interruptions also fated to be, then? Aren’t they also written up above?

That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that. But then it is also written up above that I will tell you to shut up and let me get on with my review and that you will accede.

– You wish!  

If the world is fated, if your life is meant to unfold along pre-determined lines, it suggests that something or someone is responsible, that someone made these decisions, that there is an ultimate controller. You hear all the time things such as ‘it was meant to be be!’ or ‘it was fate!’ and yet a large proportion of the people making these declarations would laugh in your face if you asked them if they believed in a divine force, a divine controller, a God.

– Shouldn’t you be telling me about your childhood or something equally personal? 

Eh? You want to hear the story of my childhood?

– God, no. I’ve had quite enough of that. Tell the readers about how the novel, you know the one you’re meant to be reviewing, is a baby Tristram Shandy, that it is similarly anecdotal and digressive. Or how the central relationship, the master and Jacques, is part of a lineage of literary double acts, such as Sancho Panza and Don Quixote. Or…

Ack, who is boring who now?

– Am I wrong?

No, you’re not wrong. It’s worth mentioning, I guess. And I suppose I ought to tell them about how the reader is a character in Diderot’s novel, and how the reader interrupts the author [who maintains, by the way, that Jacques the Fatalist isn’t a novel] with questions and opinions?

– Just like me!

Yes, but perhaps not as frequently as you are doing. In any case, maybe I should also tell the readers how Diderot appears to ‘compose’ or plot the novel, or the not-novel, as he goes, as you are reading it, that he openly demonstrates his authorial eminence by admitting that he can make his characters do whatever he likes?

– That’d be a start, yes. 

Jacques the Fatalist is, in this way, a clear precursor to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night and O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. This displays…

– I rate both of those books. 

Gah, listen, have you heard the story, Reader, about the man who couldn’t stop interrupting?

– No, is it funny?

Probably not. I once knew a man and he couldn’t stop interrupting…

– That makes sense, what with you saying that this is going to be a story about a man who could not stop interrupting.

Quite. Anyway, he could not help himself. He would ‘butt in’ whenever he could, in any circumstances; not only during conversations that he was a part of himself, but the conversations of total strangers; and not only that, but he would interrupt anyone who was engaged in any kind of business at all.

– When they were on the toilet?

What?

– You said when engaged in any kind of business. I thought that was a euphemism.

Christ, man, do give it a rest! But, yes, goddamn it, when one was on the toilet, even then he would burst in and interrupt you as you went about your business. This man couldn’t help himself, as I said; he had to interrupt, to involve himself in some way in everything. Only one day he found himself in trouble, his house caught on fire, in fact, and naturally he needed help in order to put it out. So, he called first the fire brigade, but once too often he had interrupted the fire department as they were trying to put out fires and so they wouldn’t listen to him.

– They ignored him?

Next, he tramped the streets crying pitifully and looking for aid; he tapped men on the shoulder, grabbed them, pulled them towards him, and every one of these people ignored him.

– Are you trying to tell me something?

No. Yes. What do you think?

– I think this story sounds suspiciously like The Boy Who Cried Wolf! Tell me another.

Have you heard The Booklover?

– No, what’s it about?

It’s about a boy who gets trapped in a library one evening. The library has closed, the door is locked, the light has gone out, and from behind the bookcases a troll emerges. The troll peruses the bookshelves, picking up the novels of only the very finest writers – Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, George RR Martin – and placing them in his satchel, before returning to his hiding place, the world of the trolls, behind the shelves…

– That’s pish. I’ve got a better one. You know how certain couples fantasise and engage in role play? Well, I once heard about a man who had arranged with his wife, who liked the idea of being kidnapped [as she was a thrill-seeking kinky sort], to drive along a stretch of road beside which she would be walking at a certain time, and bundle her into his car. Not my idea of fun, but it was all legit; they were both into the idea. Anyway, so the man keeps his end up and drives along the road at the appointed time, which is late so as to avoid being seen, and spies his wife, as arranged, walking by without a care in the world, and bundles her into his car. The problem was that his wife had unexpectedly been delayed! So the woman he kidnapped wasn’t his wife at all, she just looked like her in the dark!

Reader, that’s awful!

– Oh, I know that, I’m just trying to enliven this review of yours. No one’s going to read this shit, you know, certainly not this far down anyway. Jacques the Fatalist, then?

You know what, Reader, I’ve quite forgotten everything I ever knew about the book.

DEAD SOULS BY NIKOLAI GOGOL

Imagine that someone has promised to give you a beautiful old watch. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because you’re worth it, of course; look at you. There is, however, a kind of catch, or a drawback, for the watch, you are told, does not work; there is some essential part of the mechanism missing. Sadly, you’re no expert on watches and their workings; in fact, you have no knowledge whatsoever on this subject; moreover, the missing part is no longer even available. Fixing it, then, is out of the question. Do you, in this situation, feel aggrieved, because the watch is not all that it could have been? Or are you happy to have it as it is, being of the opinion that you have gained, rather than been denied, because you cannot lose something that never existed and could never be?

The answer to this question would, I’d say, not only tell you about your approach to watches but also reflect how you would feel about unfinished novels. I often see, as I meander around the internet, reviews and articles bemoaning the incomplete, the not-fully-unrealised. Books like The Castle, for example, or The Man Without Qualities, or The Good Soldier Svejk, or Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. For a certain type of reader, these books are frustrating, unacceptably flawed; some even claim that they ought to be avoided altogether. Obviously, this is not an opinion I share. To return to my watch analogy, I am of the latter sort; I am happy to have these novels in their imperfect state, to take them on face value. A beautiful watch is still a beautiful watch even if it cannot tell the time. Indeed, I tend to find these incomplete, sometimes unedited, narratives charming, like a beautiful girl with a lisp.

In terms of Dead Souls, what we have available to us is one complete volume and some bits and pieces of volume two. It is said that Gogol intended to write three volumes in all, but burned much of what he wrote after the publication of the first and then upped and died before he could put anything together that he was satisfied with. However, what is unusual about the book under review here is that volume one was finished, and is able to stand alone, so that if you were to read it without any knowledge of the intention to compose further volumes you would not feel as though you had been short-changed. In fact, I am not sure why publishers have taken to including volume two at all. It has, in my opinion, done much to compromise the reputation of the book, not because it is bad per se, in fact I like it rather more than most do, but because it feels tacked on. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the author had become a pious, ascetic man, and, as a result, his work was increasingly dogmatic and didactic; and so much of the zany playfulness and charm [which Gogol thought sinful] had been sucked out of the narrative. I should point out, then, before we continue, that this review is, in the main, only concerned with volume one.

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[Gogol Burning the Manuscript of the Second Part of Dead Souls by Ilya Repin]

As the book begins, a britzka rolls into town, carrying within it a stranger, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, and his two lackeys. Gogol is keen to stress Chichikov’s ordinariness; he is, he writes, neither fat nor thin, neither attractive nor ugly. He is, then, on the surface, a middling sort, who, moreover, appears to have no discernible personality of his own. For example, when he has dinner with the landowner Manilov, who is emotional and over-friendly, Chichikov attempts to fall in with him, to mimic his behaviour and attitudes. One could, of course, interpret this ingratiating approach as a desire to be liked, but it quickly becomes apparent that our hero has a different aim in mind. This aim, this plan, is what gives the novel that evocative title [and what a title it is, by the way], for Chichikov is intent on buying up, or being made a gift of, all the town’s dead souls or serfs.

It is not until the end of volume one that it is revealed why he wants, or what he intends to do with the rights to the deceased serfs. He tells Nozdryov, another landowner, that he desires them in order to give the impression of wealth, and so to elevate his status in society, but he indicates, in his thoughts, that this was a lie. In any case, there is no doubt that he is up to no good [variations on the exclamation ‘what the Devil’ are frequently uttered throughout the text, which is clearly significant, for only the Devil ought to trade in souls] and that, far from being an ordinary man, Chichikov is actually an arch manipulator, who disdains the people who he is attempting to deal with. In light of this, it might be tempting to view Dead Souls as a kind of morality tale, wherein a bunch of unfortunate citizens are duped out of their property, or as a warning along the lines of: Be careful, good people, of strangers! Yet this would be a rather simplistic, or superficial, interpretation, because none of the landowners or townspeople are particularly sympathetic figures [except perhaps Manilov]; indeed, they are far less sympathetic than Chichikov himself.

The more characters that are introduced the clearer it becomes that Gogol is poking fun at various Russian types and sections of society. Each of the people Chichikov encounters on his quest to buy up dead souls is a one-dimensional satirical portrait; for example, Plyushkin is a miser, Manilov a sentimental fool, Nozdryov a hedonist and bounder, the women are gossips, and so on. However, if this is all the book had to offer it would be funny, certainly, but would not be the great masterpiece that I believe it to be. What gives Dead Souls its depth, and the satire more of a sting, is how it engages with questions and issues concerning masters and slaves, poverty and wealth, power and corruption. To get to the heart of all this one must return to Chichikov’s scam: he is buying up souls from wealthy landowners; they are dead, of course, but, still, the two parties are engaged in a kind of slave trade. In Russia at the time, muzhiks were available for purchase and resettlement; souls or serfs were, therefore, in bondage, they were not free. If you are not free, you have, in a way, ceased to be human, or you are at least not being treated as such.

I cannot say myself whether is was the case, but I have read that Gogol was not necessarily against serfdom, and certainly volume two [which speaks about responsibility towards one’s serfs] appears to back that up; and so one must be careful not to proclaim Dead Souls as being a total condemnation, but it is unarguable that its author was in sympathy with the poor. For example, there is a important, almost moving, passage in the novel when Chichikov is studying the names of the people he has acquired, and for the first time he starts to wonder who they were, how they lived and how they died; they are in this moment humanised.

“When he looked at those sheets of paper, at the muzhiks who had in fact once been muzhiks, who had worked, ploughed, got drunk, driven wagons, deceived their masters, or maybe had simply been good muzhiks, he was possessed by a strange feeling that he himself did not understand.”

Furthermore, there is the story of Captain Kopeykin, a wounded military man who seeks a pension from the government, but is repeatedly turned away despite his dire straits and the services he rendered to his country. We are also told stories, or anecdotes, about cover-ups, and references are made to bribes amongst officials. The poor, it is only fair to point out, aren’t left completely alone, do not totally escape the author’s critical eye, for they drink and are sometimes violent, but all that is dealt with almost in passing; most of the novel is concerned with the greed and idiocy of landowners, officials and, in general, those with money and in powerful positions.

You may also want to consider what Chichikov’s negotiations say about capitalism, specifically the principle that everything has a price, that something is worth what a certain person is prepared to pay for it. More than once the hero finds himself haggling, even arguing, with landowners who do not want to part with their dead souls [even though they are costing them money] because they believe that if he wants them, then they must be worth something. For instance, when Chichikov says to Sobakevich that a dead soul is something that is not needed by anyone, he replies that, au contraire, you need them! And so attempts to squeeze as much money out of him as possible. Depending on your sense of humour, you will find the negotiations either hilarious or repetitive and tedious. I am one of the former. There is something, for me, extremely amusing about a man trying to buy an apparently useless object, something that doesn’t even truly exist [or exists only on paper]; his frustration when faced with the seller’s inability to grasp that he is not only giving them money, but relieving them of a financial burden [tax must be paid on the souls until the next census is completed], is particularly entertaining.

“Manilov was pleased by these final words, but he still couldn’t make sense of the deal itself, and for want of an answer, he began sucking his clay pipe so hard that it started to wheeze like a bassoon. He seemed to be trying to extract from it an opinion about this unprecedented business; but the clay pipe only wheezed and said nothing.”

While the idea behind the work is clever and satisfying, and one can make much of the social-political elements, the most appealing aspect of Dead Souls is the style with which Gogol pulls the whole thing off. It has become a kind of cliché that Russian novels are all narrated by idiotic, slightly mad, almost feverish, men. It is not true of course, but there are notable examples of this sort in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky [Notes from Underground, Demons], Andrei Bely [Petersburg], and others. In any case, Nikolai Gogol could be said to have invented this archetype, or, even if he didn’t, he was certainly one of the first and most famous to make use of it; and one could argue that he did it better than anyone else.

His authorial voice is giddy, highly strung, unpredictable, and frequently absurd. He often speaks to his reader, winks at him, plays up to him, resembling a kind of circus ringmaster who has had one or two vodkas too many. Like a runaway britzka, Gogol’s narrative is constantly veering off in unexpected directions. He will be discussing, say, Chichikov’s attempts to buy souls from Nozdryov, will compare the stance of Nozdryov to a certain kind of military man, and then spend a good few paragraphs describing the personality and behaviour of this imaginary military man, well beyond the original point of comparison; or Gogol will describe a certain type of face and then give a kind of backstory to the people who have this type of face. It really is magical the way that he does this; it gives the book an even more impressive depth, makes it feel as though it is teeming with personalities. Furthermore, his imagery, his metaphors are some of the finest in all literature, even in translation. Cockroaches are described as being like prunes; a row of cups are like a line of birds along a shore; and, one of my favourites, some people are said to be not objects themselves, but like the specks on objects.

“If you ask them about something directly, they will never remember anything, they wont take it all in, they will flatly answer that they don’t know, but if you ask them about something else, they’ll proceed to drag everything in, and will relate it in more detail than you could possibly want to know.”

It is worth noting that the novel is subtitled A Poem, and this might seem like false advertising at first, for it is certainly written in prose. However, there are undeniably poetic elements, so much so, in fact, that the book reminded me most of all of Homer or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. There are […]

[Here the review breaks off]

CORRECTION BY THOMAS BERNHARD

In 2013, after a period of unhappiness, of so-called depression, a period during which [P], as a member of the website goodreads, was stalked by numerous female members, hacked by who knows, and plagiarised by one who will remain nameless, a period that included the death of Margaret Thatcher, who [P] despised, [P] died, just like the despised Margaret Thatcher, although the despised Margaret Thatcher didn’t take her own life, unlike [P], who covered his body with his goodreads reviews using a biro and then jumped naked from the top of a high rise council estate; before his death [P] was working on a review of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard, much-loved by [P], who had read nearly all his novels, and so it was no surprise that he was working on a review of one of Thomas Bernhard’s much-loved novels before he took his own life, the much-loved Thomas Bernhard had also taken his own life but long before [P], or the despised Margaret Thatcher, had died. Thomas Bernhard had taken his own life in 1989, whereas [P] took his own life in 2013 after a period of unhappiness and so-called depression, [P]’s writings, including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, were left to me by [P], probably because [P] knew that I would appreciate them more than anyone else he knew, and he was right that I would appreciate them probably more than anyone else he knew as it was the case that at one time I even thought like [P], that his thoughts were my thoughts or that I was so influenced by [P]’s thoughts that I stopped having my own and could only think like [P], so of course I was going to appreciate [P]’s writings, probably more than anyone else he knew, including the review of Correction by the much-loved Thomas Bernhard; he did not leave his writings to his brother because he knew that his brother would not appreciate them, his brother was and still is Sheffield-to-the-core, he is still and always was and always will be the most Sheffield of Sheffielders, and this being Sheffield-to-the-core would have prevented him from appreciating [P]’s writings including the review of Correction by the much loved Thomas Bernhard, [P] despised this Sheffield-to-the-core way of being and way of seeing things, this Sheffield-to-the-core way of not appreciating anything that wasn’t an example of the most Sheffield of attitudes, and this is one of the reasons he so loved the work of Thomas Bernhard and why he spoke in his writings about how he would have given Correction five stars, those writings which were bequeathed to me and which include the review of Correction; in Correction, the much loved Thomas Bernhard writes about a man, Roithamer, whose own brothers did not appreciate his genius, in the same way that [P]’s brother did not appreciate [P]’s genius, Roithamer spent an inheritance amounting to millions on building a cone in the centre of the Kobernausser forest for his sister who he loved more than anyone else, this spending of millions in order to build a cone in the forest for the sister who was loved more than anyone else convinced Roithamer’s brothers that Roithamer was crazy, Roithamer’s brothers were Altensam through-and-through and would always be Altensam through-and-through, as far as Roithamer was concerned, just like [P]’s brother is and always will be Sheffield through-and-through, and so they would never be able to appreciate Roithamer’s desire to build a cone in the Kobernausser forest for the sister he loved more than anyone else, [P] did not have a sister and he did not have millions of pounds that could have been spent on building a cone in the centre of a forest for a sister he did not have but he did spend a lot of money on a pedigree cat which hated [P] probably more than [P] hated people who are Sheffield-to-the-core; Roithamer’s sister, although loved by Roithamer more than anyone else, did not appreciate the cone either, the cone that Roithamer built for his sister in the Kobernausser forest, even though Roithamer spent millions on building it, a task that many thought impossible, but which Roithamer accomplished, a cone that was unique, the like of which had never been built before nor even designed before, a cone that was habitable, which is important if you’re going to build a cone-shaped building for a sister that you love more than anyone else. According to [P]’s notes Thomas Bernhard, who was much-loved by [P], wrote Correction in 1975, which is some time before he took his own life in 1989, and before [P] took his in 2013, and that it can be considered as possibly the fullest expression of his genius, Thomas Bernhard’s genius, in that it displays, unlike some of his earliest novels, a fully mature style and, unlike some of the much-loved Thomas Bernhard’s later works, is less ranting, more measured, than the books that came after it, although it should be noted that [P] loved these too, that he believed that these later books were funnier and easier to relate to, while the much loved Correction is stranger and darker and more intensely insular than anything else he wrote, if that is possible, yet is does still feature many of the standard and beloved Bernhardian themes such as suicide, sister-obsession, Austria-hating, and the mental processes of a damaged genius, in fact it is possible, as many have pointed out, to draw parallels between Thomas Bernhard’s damaged genius Roithamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian, like Roithamer, and like Bernhard, who was equally damaged and possessed of genius, but in his notes and his review [P] glosses over these parallels or similarities as he believed that unless one had an interest in the damaged genius Ludwig Wittgenstein a discussion of these similarities or parallels may bore or isolate the readers of his review and ultimately dissuade these readers from checking out the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, in any case, [P] believed, one does not need to be aware of these similarities and parallels in order to enjoy the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s book, that perhaps the most interesting aspect of Thomas Bernhard’s book is alluded to in the title, Correction, which is the exploration of an obsession with the refining of practice, ideas, and perception, of Roithamer’s obsession with refining his practices, his ideas and his perceptions, this perhaps uniquely human ability to refine our practices, ideas and perceptions, to seek to improve, or correct, our practices, ideas, and perceptions, that an obsession with these things is a characteristic of genius, for it was certainly a characteristic of [P]’s genius, as it was Roithamer’s, that, as [P] said in his notes, he couldn’t stop thinking, that his every waking moment was taken up with intense thinking, that this thinking or introspection involved a process of refinement, a need to get to the root of something, to understand something from every possible angle, to improve and correct his intellectual mistakes, to the extent that he often put himself in danger because he was too taken up with this process and was known to have crossed roads without checking for traffic, and so this process could have led to his death, although ultimately it didn’t, because [P], like Roithamer, took his own life, and left behind only his notes, including his review of the much loved Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.

EMMA BY JANE AUSTEN

I don’t feel the need to justify my appreciation of Jane Austen to others, but I do sometimes feel the need to justify it to myself. One of the chief complaints about her work is that each novel is essentially just a bunch of hoity toity Tories making bon mots and arranging marriages. Of course, that is not all her work is, but it is hard to completely dispute that claim and, bearing in mind that that description sounds like the worst kind of story in the world to me, that I enjoy Austen appears baffling. Furthermore, her works are undeniably romantic comedies, a genre that I have generally found, despite being a sentimental soul, pretty unbearable. So, what gives? I have heard Austen referred to as a writer’s writer, but that is simply absurd; her books are so hugely popular that she cannot be a writer’s writer; she’s a lot of people’s writer, many of whom have no interest at all in the writing process.

If I had to make a comparison I would say that she is like classic Disney; by which I mean that her books are undeniably crowd-pleasing, even obvious, or predictable, and yet she was so impeccable at her craft that it is impossible not to be impressed by it. For me, Austen lacked imagination, but was, in other ways, incredibly talented. Her genius is in her sentences, her execution, and pacing, not in her plots or people. This is not to say that her characters and plots are entirely artless; Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is a fine creation, but she isn’t burned into my consciousness like, say, Pierre Bezukhov or Harold Skimpole or Bjartur of Summerhouses. Austen’s characters are, to use Nabokov’s term, blonde; I feel neither one way nor the other about them; I don’t hate them or love them. Yet her books are so much fun to read; indeed, they make me happy in the same way that listening to an accomplished public speaker, someone who is able to effortlessly and elegantly express themselves, does.

So there you have it, my cards are on the table. I very much expected, as the above will attest, to have a lovely time reading Emma, without it ever making my pulse race. What is interesting about my experience of the book is that I did not particularly enjoy it, at least partly because Austen moved away from the formula she was so adept at. Emma herself, for example, is not blonde; I mean, I don’t think she is complex, that is a different thing altogether, but she certainly does provoke a reaction. She is spoiled, arrogant, pettish; she is also kind and charming. She has some depth, in a way that none of Austen’s other characters do [who are all easy to pinpoint, or judge]. She is, in fact, a lot like a genuine teenager [although she is 21 in the book], by which i mean that she isn’t bad, she merely thinks that all her ideas and opinions are completely worthwhile. Austen gives over a significant proportion of the text to her thoughts, preceding Modernism’s obsession with internal dialogue and introspection by about a century.

However, all that is well and good, but the secondary characters, which are never rounded creations anyway, suffer so much in her presence. Mr Knightly, for example, is an absolute void; I mean, can any of you describe him in detail? I challenge you to write an entire paragraph about him. His function in the novel, it seems to me, is to contradict Emma, is to provide cautionary advice. He’s like the good Angel on her shoulder; literally that is how I imagined him: perched on her shoulder in white garb; he is so lacking in substance that I often missed him entering a room. I’d be reading, fairly contentedly, and then Bam! There’s Knightly…saying the same kind of shit, in the same kind of tone every single time. What about Emma’s father? He’s a walking catchphrase. No one apart from Emma does anything in the book. The spotlight is entirely on her; she may as well have been alone on an island. Honestly, I have never come across a supporting cast with less meat on their bones. This is particularly a problem with Knightly, as he is meant to be the romantic hero. Darcy might be predictable but at least he’s there in the text, at least he has moods.

In terms of Austen’s craft, her prose, well, it is fine, but it feels flatter than usual. The jokes aren’t as sharp, the sentences not quite as elegant as I expected. Perhaps that is simply a consequence of trying to make Emma a character study, a more imposing artistic achievement; her energies, it seems, were elsewhere. That wouldn’t be a problem if she had pulled it off, if Emma was a serious, believable character study. It isn’t though. While she is, at stated, more rounded, more interesting than Austen’s usual fare, her journey is kinda ludicrous. One would imagine that if you present this flawed heroine, this silly but essentially kind young girl, that you would want to show her flowering, her march towards maturity. Yet the conclusion of the book is Emma marrying the guy who was telling her throughout the book that she is a brat. What kind of journey of self-discovery is that?! I preferred her when she vowed never to marry, at least that was original thinking. But, no, she falls into the arms of the guy who thinks she is often an arse, thereby indicating that, y’know, he’ll sort her out. The pacing of the book, I should also add, is poor; Emma is too long, with too little action, or too much repetitive action. None of this is meant to give the impression that I think the novel is rubbish; it isn’t at all. It is just well below the standard I have come to expect from her work. Indeed, I did not think it possible I would ever put one of her books down without finishing it – so easily, so effortlessly, I glided through the others – but I nearly gave up on this one. That’s a bad, bad sign, yo.

HUMBOLDT’S GIFT BY SAUL BELLOW

I keep getting drawn back to Saul Bellow’s novels like a crazy-ass bee to a barren flower. I must love the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration. I’m a literature masochist. Bellow sees my eagerness, my dog-like enthusiasm, beckons me in closer…and then smacks me on the nose. His novels are never truly satisfying; they almost enrage me. How could a man be so talented, such a great writer, and yet churn out such flawed books? In truth, I don’t know how to review Humbodt’s Gift. It defeats me. Yet to live these days you have to be ok with defeat, I guess, so I am going to give it a go.

My mother taught me that if you’re going to say something critical about someone or something you always ought to say something nice first. Well, I am not going to do that. I’m going to jump right in with the things I don’t like about the book, which, I am sure she would agree, is more my style. There is a hell of a lot wrong with Humboldt’s Gift. Fatally wrong. These things kill the book, if your expectation is that it will be a masterpiece [and why shouldn’t that be your expectation, bearing in mind its reputation?] Some of them are predictable Bellovian problems, some of them new, unexpected, flaws. Bellow goes all out here to fuck up his novel; he doesn’t hold back.

Typically, it starts well. We are introduced, via Charlie Citrine, the first-person narrator, to Humboldt Fleisher, who appears to be a gargantuan personality, a potentially classic tragicomic character. Yet twenty or thirty pages into the book and you start to realise that he has no depth whatsoever, that Bellow is just listing things in lieu of developing him in a substantial manner. For example:

“We were off: we discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mannon, Orpheus, and poetry.”

And:

“He moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot/and this rained down on me/the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas…”

Bore off, Saul! This tells us nothing. It feels, in fact, as though the author was simply showing off. And it’s not even good showing off, because anyone can do it:

[P] was a great reviewer; a great mind; he would bring in Joyce on the English language, the Cuban missile crisis, Beckett in French, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu. He’d be off, riffing on Rilke’s stay at Duino castle, Proust’s mother fixation, the Son of Sam serial killer and the Summer of Love.

And Bellow doesn’t do this kind of listing once or twice, he does it frequently. As a result, Humboldt is reduced to a kind of Uni reading list, a series of topics or themes. We’re meant to believe that he is an intellectual, someone with an encyclopaedic mind, but it’s a classic case of an author telling us rather than showing us. Bellow’s approach is akin to a poet trying to convince someone he’s great by counting off his influences, rather than by reciting some poems.

Of course, Citrine is narrating sometime after the events he is describing. Therefore, that he can only remember topics, rather than content is understandable, I guess. But, still, you can excuse anything if you try hard enough. I don’t buy that Bellow was trying to make a point about how we remember people, because Citrine’s memory works fine in other parts or passages of the book. Besides, Humboldt is meant to be charismatic and there is no sense of that in the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much unfathomable as to why Citrine loves or admires the man.

Humboldt isn’t the only one lacking substance either. Demmie is little more than a pill-popping hot chick who suffers from night terrors, and Kathleen, Humboldt’s wife, is pretty much a total void. The only characters with any personality are Citrine himself and small-time hood Rinaldo Cantabile. In all fairness, Cantabile is fantastic. He’s the right amount of tough guy and the right amount of sensitive/vulnerable schmo. I enjoyed all his bits very much. As for Citrine, he is mostly charming and endearing. However, the tone of the novel is sometimes too patronising; Bellow, much like the searingly average Javier Marias, appears to believe that he is blowing our minds with his philosophical, cultural, societal musings, but, really, he isn’t at all; there’s no great insights to be found in the book. Indeed, I studied philosophy and English and the narration, at times, reminded me of having to listen to first-year students gabbing on, without any sense of their own pretension or middle-of-the-road opinions, in seminars.

As with many novels-of-ideas the plot is pretty thin on the ground. That’s not really a problem for me, if the ideas are top-notch. But, as noted in the previous paragraph, Bellow does not bring a new or even fresh perspective to the issues he tackles in the book. This is not to say, however, that what he does tackle isn’t at all interesting. It is. Humboldt’s Gift is about many things – the changing face of Chicago, money, alienation, ennui – but, at heart, it is a book about art and commercialisation, about how increasingly difficult it is to be an artist, how undervalued they are, etc. Coming from an artist himself, in the broadest sense of the word, there is a chance that one could view Bellow’s concerns as well-to-do, self-interested whining. I can’t argue against that, I’m afraid.

I said earlier that you can excuse anything if you try hard enough, and that is true of what, for me, was the biggest issue, which are the passages of Anthroposophical guff that turn up intermittently in the text. I know next to nothing about Anthroposophy, other than it is attributed to a Rudolf Steiner, and having read Humboldt’s Gift I am none the wiser. It appears to be some kind of mystical claptrap about soul and the afterlife. Now, if you were being kind you would perhaps want to explain away all the cringy mystical crap as satire. Citrine is a celebrity, a celebrity under pressure and, in need of some form of salvation, is wanting to engage with the big questions in life. From the celebrities around us these days one can see how these people often turn to some weird form of spiritualism for their answers; look at Madonna with Kabbalah, or Tom Cruise with Scientology. So, as a genuine satire, I would be impressed and amused by the Anthroposophy passages. However, that stuff is clearly not satire, because it is well documented that Bellow was, around the time of writing the novel, actually studying, and well-disposed towards, Steiner’s work. Furthermore, he is clearly, to some extent, Citrine, just as Humboldt is his friend Delmore Schwartz. If you draw this conclusion, then the book kind of feels like a joke played, unintentionally, upon himself.

So, what, then, did I like about it? Why did I read all 500 pages? It always comes back to the same thing with me and Bellow: on a sentence by sentence basis he is terrific, almost without peer. Yes, there’s a lot of hair-tearing stuff to endure, but I still enjoy myself because at least once on each page he will deliver a paragraph or a line that floors me. Things like:

“She’s very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox, if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread.”

And this:

“Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones.”

Reading Bellow is a kind of archeological exercise for me. One that is, just about, worth it.