nobel prize

THE TIN DRUM BY GÜNTER GRASS

When I was younger the only musical instrument we had in the house was an old acoustic guitar of my Dad’s. Despite an interest in music, I was never particularly drawn to that guitar, finding it a snivelling and cowardly instrument; an acoustic, I thought to myself, cowers and sighs and feels sorry for itself, and that wasn’t at all what I wanted to express. No, I wanted to hammer something, to make a noise. Quite evidently, at that age, and in those circumstances, what best suited my feelings was the drums, on which I imagined I could pound out the rhythm of my frustration and fear. Yet we couldn’t afford anything so extravagant, so I abused the old guitar instead, until it was fit for no purpose other than kindling.

Llittle Oskar Matzerath, the central character, and narrator, of Günter Wilhelm Grass’ renowned German novel, is, however, a little more fortunate. Upon his birth his mother promises him a drum by his third birthday, and, in accordance with that promise, one is duly given to him. As the title of the novel suggests, the instrument plays a pivotal role in the boy’s life and the work as a whole. Oskar quickly bonds with it, finding in it, much like I hoped I would, a way of expressing himself; indeed, it acts almost in place of speech as a means of communication, so that when he commences his tale on ‘virgin white paper’ he appears to be suggesting that the drum is telling it for him [something that is not unknown in certain African cultures, where the drum is used to communicate over long distances by mimicking patterns of speech], or that it at least allows him to tell it.

“If I didn’t have my drum, which, when handled adroitly and patiently, remembers all the incidentals that I need to get the essential down on paper, and if I didn’t have the permission of the management [of the mental institution] to drum on it three or four hours a day, I’d be a poor bastard with nothing to say…”

One must credit Grass, because Oskar’s drum is the most ingenious literary prop. Its versatility is astounding; it has so many functions in the text beyond being a child’s favourite toy. Most surprisingly, it acts as an accompaniment to the work, by which I mean that one cannot help but hear it throughout one’s reading, not only because the Oskar in the story is continually bashing it, but because we know that the Oskar in the asylum is also beating it while he narrates. So when the action speeds up one finds oneself assailed by a frantic pounding; in slower moments, the action is soundtracked with a soft patter. In this way, the drum not only mirrors Oskar’s moods, and the action of the novel, but your own moods and experience of the book as well, even though one cannot literally hear it! It’s a pretty extraordinary thing.

One might also want to consider why Grass chose a drum, for there are numerous instruments that can express feelings and set tempo. It is, first of all, the oldest known instrument; and is considered to be the root of music, perhaps also the sound of nature. There is, then, something primordial about it, it, in a sense, harks back to man’s earliest, least sophisticated state. One must remember that Oskar for much of the novel is pretending to be a simpleton, and yet considers himself superior to everyone else. In this way, the drum symbolises how other people see him, but also symbolises how he sees them and the world. Furthermore, the drum is, of course, associated with the military, specifically with parades, marches, and rallies. While The Tin Drum is not solely focused on World War 2, for the book spans a larger historical period than that conflict, it certainly plays a significant role in the text. So it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Oskar’s pounding heralds, so to speak, and could be said to mimic, the army’s jackbooted marching.

As one would perhaps expect of a novel at least partly concerned with World War 2, destruction is one of the major themes; indeed, it is in relation to this theme that one begins to understand the wider significance of this grotesque little drummer boy. His harsh, doomy-sounding and violent [to play it is, in most cases, to strike it] instrument of choice, his madness, as well as his ability to shatter glass with his voice, could be said to represent not only the collective insanity of the German people, but the literal destruction of Germany and the violence of Hitler’s ideology. Certainly, Oskar’s ‘singshattering’ foreshadows, and could even be said to be responsible for, Kristallnacht, which is invariably seen as the first co-ordinated step towards the Final Solution and the Holocaust.

There are, furthermore, repeated references to fire. In the very beginning, we are introduced to Oskar’s grandmother, Anna; she comes to marry a man called Joseph Koljaiczek, who was once a kind of Polish revolutionary and, specifically, an arsonist. Moreover, Oskar’s drum is said to have a pattern of red and white flames; in this way, one could say the drum itself, not only Oskar with his voice, promises destruction. The pattern on the tin drum is also evidence of one of the book’s other preoccupations, which is Poland. Red and white is, of course, the colour of their flag. I must admit that I am no expert on Polish history and the country’s relations with Germany, but I do know a little about Danzig, where part of the novel is set. Danzig [or Gdańsk as it is now known] is a Polish city on the Baltic coast that was once ruled by Germany. More pertinently, Hitler used the issue of the status of the city as a pretext for attacking Poland.

“I look for the land of the Poles that is lost to the Germans, for the moment at least. Nowadays the Germans have started searching for Poland with credits, Leicas, and compasses, with radar, divining rods, delegations, and moth-eaten provincial students’ associations in costume. Some carry Chopin in their hearts, others thoughts of revenge. Condemning the first four partitions of Poland, they are busily planning a fifth; in the meantime flying to Warsaw via Air France in order to deposit, with appropriate remorse, a wreath on the spot that was once the ghetto. One of these days they will go searching for Poland with rockets. I, meanwhile, conjure up Poland on my drum. And this is what I drum: Poland’s lost, but not forever, all’s lost, but not forever, Poland’s not lost forever.”

The Tin Drum, I imagine it is clear by now, is a complex work, one that is on the surface a kind of bildungsroman, but which engages with numerous political, philosophical issues, and is full of motifs and symbolism and allusions. Some of this is relatively easy to get your head around and some of it is slightly more slippery. For example, there is a lot of duality in the novel that I’m not sure I can fully explain – the city of Danzig, which is both Polish and German; Oskar having two fathers, etc – except in relation to each other. One such, that of good and evil or Jesus and Satan, strikes me as particularly interesting. Of course, that a novel concerned with World War 2 would be exploring good and evil isn’t surprising, but it is maybe more eyebrow-raising that the narrator seems to come down on the side of the horned-one. For example, during his baptism Oskar is asked to renounce the Devil and he refuses. In fact, if I was to compare Oskar to any other literary character it would be the charismatic Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. I don’t think this is a wild swing in the dark either. At one stage, Oskar takes to cutting holes in shop windows, not in order to steal himself but to try and tempt others into doing so.

tindrum

[From the film Die Blechtrommel, dir. by Volker Schlondorff]

It strikes me as odd that in the few reviews or articles that I’ve come across online not one of them has used the term unreliable narrator; it is almost as though Oskar’s voice [or drum!] is so persuasive that readers take what he says on face value, regardless of how strange it is, preferring instead to label the book magical realist. That really doesn’t make much sense to me. Oskar, in the very first line of the novel, reveals that he is currently in an insane asylum, so one has to doubt, for example, his claim that he made a conscious decision to stop growing, or that his voice can shatter glass, and so on. Moreover, even if he wasn’t apparently mad, one would still call into question what Oskar says, because he makes it clear that he has one eye on creating an interesting and dramatic narrative; and he certainly gives the impression of withholding and manipulating information. He also, for what it’s worth, very obviously has a high opinion of himself, despite his short-comings [boom, boom], or rather because of them; that someone might compensate for any physical defects with a show of supreme self-confidence, or that they may lie in order to appear more exciting and more interesting, or even that they may want to turn these defects into magical gifts, does not seem completely unbelievable. None of this puts me in mind of magical realism, where the idea is that the genuinely magical exists side-by-side, so to speak, with the ordinary.

Before wrapping this up, I want to mention Grass’ prose and, by extension, the translation. I have read The Tin Drum twice now; the first time was in Ralph Manheim’s translation, which I enjoyed and, not reading German myself, wouldn’t have criticised at all. However, I chose, in re-reading the book, to try Breon Mitchell’s newer version. Now, generally speaking I do not like modern translations. I think they are often egotistical, serving the translator, with their own odd quirks, more than the work itself, so that regardless of the work in question, or who authored it, one can always tell who translated it; I also think that modern translators very rarely have a great command of English, or even, in some cases, an adequate one [I’m looking at you Pevear & Volokhonsky]. Yet I was hugely impressed by Breon Mitchell’s rendering of The Tin Drum. It’s fresher, and funnier than Manheim’s; it’s more alive and poetic. I accept that it is possible that I simply do not remember Manheim’s translation in sufficient detail, but I can certainly recall my reaction it to. For example, I did not see anything of Joyce or Nabokov or Bely in it, but I did see echoes of all those writers in Mitchell’s version, which is playful and makes frequent use of alliteration, word play, and switches between third and first person narration, and so on. As a consequence of all this, his translation would be tougher to read, I’d imagine, but the rewards are far greater.

In any case, although this review in nearly 2000 words long I know I have barely disturbed the surface of the work. Oskar’s affairs, his stint as a Jazz musician and model, the role of the circus, outsiderism, the onion bar where people go to cry, the HORSE’S HEAD AND THE EELS [don’t ask – I could barely keep anything down for a week after reading that passage]: all of these things, and more, could be explored in greater detail, but I fear you have perhaps only been skim-reading since about the third paragraph. But, if, out a sense of politeness, I have your full attention once again I would strongly urge you to read The Tin Drum, to put yourselves in Oskar’s dainty hands for a week or two. And if you have read it before? Read it again.

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RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT BY PATRICK WHITE

It seems to me that the most glorious things are also often the most ridiculous, that there is something almost embarrassing about such flappable, insignificant creatures as ourselves striving for the profound, trying to touch, to commune with, to channel, the transcendent, the truly spiritual [which is, by the way, not the same as Godly]. Recently I was in Barcelona, and one of the things I most wanted to do there was to see the Sagrada Familia, the still incomplete church designed and undertaken by the architect Antoni Gaudi.

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If you have never been inside it, I hope the above picture gives you some idea of what an incredible, mind-boggling, thing it is. Apparently, the interior is meant to resemble a forest, with the pillars/columns acting as tree-trunks, etc. Despite the overly zealous staff and naff TV screens, and despite it being a church and having myself no religious feeling at all, I found being inside the Sagrada Familia a powerful experience. That Gaudi died without ever seeing the building completed goes to show what folly it was to attempt it; and, sure, from a purely functional, rational, economic perspective the church is ridiculous; in fact, it looks kind of ridiculous too, if you try and judge it objectively, because it’s all over the place; and, yet, it’s the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life; it is one of the most beautiful things I have seen, period. I love the folly; I love the daring, the ambition, the striving.

It is for these same reasons that I love the work of Patrick White. The Australian is a footnote these days, a writer who is so seldom read or written about. And I totally understand why that is the case. For some people, White’s novels are, like Gaudi’s church, always going to be just too much. White was, and I write this with a straight face, while simultaneously cringing, a mystic, his books are visionary, and that is not what you want in your life all that often. I was reading today [for the umpteenth time] the perfect first thirty or so pages of The Tree of Man and I came across this line:

‘…and there in the hollow afternoon swallows flew, the scythes of their wings mowing the light.’

And I genuinely had to catch my breath. How beautiful is that? How important, even? Is it just me? And it’s not as though there is only this one great mind-buggering image in the novel, there are thousands of them, rushing at you with great speed like you’ve walked head first into a cloud of flying ants. It is just too much. White wrung poetry out of the everyday, out of our world, with frightening regularity. And, sometimes, you might even want to laugh at what White wrote; his intensity, his exalted concerns, the strange beauty of his prose: it can seem silly when you consider that before picking up the book you were picking your toenails.

Riders in the Chariot is nearly seven hundred pages long; at some point in that journey you’ll probably yearn for something normal. Try and stick with it though. In the right mood and circumstances it is, like the Sagrada, a sublime experience. In fact, the Sagrada Familia is how I imagine Xanadu, the lavish, but crumbling, house in which the first part of the novel is set. The house is owned by Mary Hare, an eccentric spinster, who appears to be almost cosmically in love and in sympathy with nature. The relationship between man and nature is something that White was clearly preoccupied with, it playing a major role in his two other great novels, his masterpiece Voss and the aforementioned The Tree of Man. Indeed, it was when describing the natural world that White himself, who was, generally speaking, a caustic writer, displayed a genuine love and warmth; one never feels as though he quite saw humanity in the same way. Yet, having said that, the four characters who dominate this novel are by some distance the author’s most likeable and sympathetic. I wrote before that White was a mystic, and it is almost as though he saw himself in Mary Hare, Ruth Godbold, Himmelfarb and Dabbo, who are all, in some way, subject to visions.

All four of the book’s major stories are engaging and often lovely, but Hare’s narrative is particularly strong and beautiful. It focuses both on the present and her childhood past, where we are introduced to the mad father who built Xanadu. In the present Hare has engaged a housekeeper, the inappropriately named Mrs Jolley, and this relationship is a source of both comedy and tension. The two women couldn’t be any more opposed in terms of personality and interests; they are the archetypal odd couple; indeed, they [often hilariously] terrify each other. It would have been easy for the author to mishandle the animal-like Mary Hare, for her to become twee and irritating, but she never does; she is touching and fragile. Mrs Jolley is also a wonderful [albeit loathsome] creation.

The world’s small-minded, pompous, busy-bodies were frequently the target of White’s greatest ire; the opening of The Solid Mandala, for example, is dripping with disdain:

“Yairs,” said Mrs Dun. Then, because never let it be hinted that she did not make her contribution, she added: “Yairs.”

And there is this, my favourite line in the book under review here, about Mrs Jolley and her friend, the even more monstrous Mrs Flack [who is, in this Passion Play, perhaps the devil]:

‘…as they continued sitting, the two women would drench the room in the moth-colours of their one mind.’

And this, describing Mrs Flack’s encounter with the telephone!:

‘Because the telephone is the darkest most sepulchral oracle of all, Mrs Flack would stalk around the instrument for quite a while before she was persuaded to accept the summons. Although a considerable pythoness herself, it might have been that she felt the need for invocation before encounter with superior powers.’

Seriously, White could write like a motherfucker.

Of course, these close-minded women are, at least in part, used to contrast the spiritually or emotionally rich Mary, Himmelfarb etc; they are, in a way, classic villains, as they are there to judge and plot against and oppose and attempt to bring down the good guys; they are, indeed, almost Shakespearean or Dickensian in proportions, by which I mean there is very little in the way of subtle characterisation. They are both huge personalities, and obviously bad. There is no way that one could read Riders in the Chariot and be in any doubt as to how one ought to feel about Flack and Jolley: they are objects of hate and ridicule. It’s worth noting that although his work is, in many ways, obscure and ambiguous, White’s morals were anything but. Therefore, like Dickens, he could be accused of moral preachiness; yet, for me, this would only be a problem if I didn’t completely agree with his targets [I certainly do].

As you can tell, from what I have written so far, there is a lot going on in the book; but it isn’t nearly as daunting or as hard to follow as I have perhaps made it seem in this review. It is long and weighty, yes, but it is also strangely light and frothy at times, certainly very funny. The structure of the book also makes it easy to read, in that it, initially at least, is not particularly sophisticated. Mary Hare is the one who appears to tie together the main players: she finds Himmelfarb in her garden one day; Ruth Godbold is her friend; Jolley is her housekeeper, etc. Due to these tenuous connections Riders in the Chariot reads, at first, like a series of novellas with a framing narrative. However, the more the book progresses the more the relationships between the characters develop, become more satisfying, and as a result the structure seems less rigid. For example, I particularly liked the chance meeting between Ruth Godbold and Alf Dubbo, who come together in a brothel, with Alf’s presence there only explained some 100 pages later.

Each of these novellas or stories are singular and yet certain themes, symbols and ideas are present in them all. The four principle characters are very different in personality, but are united by their experiences; all four are outsiders, are down-trodden or have been in some way rejected by, or have dropped out of, conventional society. If I have any criticism to make of the work it is that once or twice White overstretched himself, particularly in relation to Himmelfarb, who is a holocaust survivor. Not only is his story at times generic, but it features one or two scenes that caused me genuine consternation. The first concerns a snotty, supercilious woman, with whom Himmelfarb travels to the camp. Once there, she is stripped and shaved and sent into the chamber. Himmbelfarb remains outside and as the door of the gas-chamber bursts open to reveal the grotesque, naked woman, he calls out to her something like they can take our skin but never take our name! And, well, that made me very uncomfortable. It would have made me laugh if it wasn’t dealing with something so horrific, because it sounds like a line from a cheesy Hollywood movie. In fact, doesn’t Gibson say something similar in Braveheart? And it’s a shame because, generally speaking, White deals with this material, which was obviously outside of his own personal experience, sensitively.

The other problem I had with the book is the mock-crucifixion towards the end. Could that really happen? Does it matter? I don’t know. But I know it felt as though he had gone too far. Furthermore, I did not buy that a bunch of adults, who had previously shown no psychopathic tendencies, would, in the middle of the day, take part in, or stand around and watch, a man being strung up and literally crucified. I don’t, either, buy White’s justification that it could happen as long as everyone believed it was a joke. But, as I said, does it matter? Does it have to be believable? The crucifixion is clearly symbolic; the scene is about betrayal, outsiderism, guilt, passivity, etc, rather than the possible or probable actions of certain people in certain kinds of conditions or circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t heavy-handed. It is, although that struck me as less of a problem one or two days after I finished the book. Again, perhaps we come back to the relationship between the sublime and the ridiculous; White was striving for, was dealing with serious, heavy stuff here, and, I guess, it’s not always easy to control this kind of material, to keep a firm grip on it. In essence, Riders in a Chariot is a fable; a big, beautiful, crazy, surreal, poetic, sublime and, yes, occasionally ridiculous one.

WORLD LIGHT BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

If I were ever to compose a list of my favourite books Independent People by Halldor Laxness would stroll into my top ten with a shit-eating grin on its face. So, I was sure that I was going to love the Icelandic author’s other work, especially the epic [in girth, at least] World Light. And yet I don’t know what to make of the book at all. Indeed, if I was inclined to use them I’d be scouring the internet for a head-scratching gif right about now. Without doubt, parts of it are great and parts of it are beautiful, and yet, equally, parts of it are poorly executed and large parts of it are simply baffling.

The book is split into three sections. All of them are concerned with the poet Olafur Karason. The first section is a Hardy-ish tale of a poor child who is mistreated by his foster family. We first meet Olafur by the shore, mournfully staring into the sea, and it is quickly established that he is a sensitive boy who, physically and emotionally, cannot meet the demands of working on a farm or even those of interacting with the boorish people who have taken him in; he is, rather, more drawn to nature, in which, he believes, God manifests himself. Indeed, he comes to experience visions that he takes to be signs from God; moreover, he believes himself to be, in some not especially clear way, in communication with God. I’ve read elsewhere that people often find this first section hard-going, and what with all the religious chatter, and brutality and bullying, I can understand that to an extent. I think people tend to find that kind of thing oppressive. I quite enjoy it though; and if you like the aforementioned Hardy or Patrick White or even Knut Hamsun then you’ll probably find much to like here too.

The second section is where it all goes a bit bats. In fact, the tone of the work changes so abruptly that it is jarring to read. For most of the first section Olafur is in bed with an apparently fatal illness. He is miraculously cured of this illness towards the end of that section by what he takes to be some kind of magic elf. Yeah, you read that right: magic elf. From the point at which Olafur can walk again the book becomes a kind of episodic tale reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide. In true episodic-novel fashion most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional, with one exaggerated personality trait or catchphrase or situation [for example, the man who Olafur sometimes finds dead drunk in the middle of the road], and seem to exist merely in order for the author to make satirical points about, or jabs at, society.

Of course none of that is particularly odd. What distinguishes World Light from other episodic novels, and indeed from its own first section, is just how baffling the behaviour of these characters is. So, while the characters in section one are hardly realistic in a Zola-like manner [they are, in fact, more like the kind of petty, stupid, evil bastards you’d find in a Roald Dahl novel], in section two they are utterly bewildering. Take, for example, the three most prominent female characters: one is the girl who summons or is a conduit for the magic elf; she periodically appears in order to make strange, nonsensical, declarations or demands; another girl falls in love with Olafur, gets pregnant, and yet one day suddenly ups and marries someone else; the third is an older woman, a poetess who burns all her poems, who, as far as I could understand it, is physically young on top but old on the bottom. And that’s only the tip of the, er, iceberg [so to speak].

Now, I like this kind of thing, generally speaking, so nothing I have written so far ought to be construed as major criticism. However, more of a problem is the sense I got that Laxness either wasn’t fully in control of his material or his attitude towards it was, um, lax. What I mean by that is there are numerous points across the two sections where things were mentioned or plot points were developed only for them to be forgotten or discarded without explanation. For example, whatever happened to Olafur’s visions? Not only does he stop communing with God in section two, he appears to almost completely lose his religious feeling. That would would be fine if it were at least justified in some way by the author but it isn’t; it is almost as though the Olafur of section two is a different character altogether from the one we met before. There were points at which I wondered whether I just wasn’t reading closely enough, or whether my concentration was poor, which happens sometimes, but these inconsistencies were too frequent for them all to be put down to that.

Despite being superficially a book about poetry and poets and the search for beauty, and so forth, World Light is, without a doubt, really a political novel. Yet, even in this there is a disconnect between sections one and two. In the beginning the politics are subtle; Olafur is, as mentioned previously, being fostered; the family are farmers and his upkeep is paid for by the parish [something that his family often mention and appear to resent]. So, whatever points Laxness was making about poverty or the working person were made in an organic fashion, as part of a story; Laxness’ message is shown to you, rather than told; and, in this way, you, as the reader, have to work a little bit to get at what he wants you to take away from the book. However, in section two characters often engage in conversation about politics, about corruption, the state of Iceland, and how the working person is maltreated; the message is so heavy-handed during section two that even Dickens would have clucked his tongue. However, it isn’t all bad news; some of the political satire is good fun, like when Petur, the manager [which appears to be like a mayor], rambles on about the importance of the soul while he oversees the displacement and exploitation of the locals. At these times the book reminded me of Platonov’s brilliant The Foundation Pit. Indeed, while I know nothing about the history of Iceland quite a lot of what occurs in World Light is reminiscent of a collectivist communist state.

I was tempted when I used the word episodic earlier in the review to call the novel picaresque instead; indeed, it boasts almost all of the hallmarks of a picaresque novel, except that Olafur is no rascal or picar. In truth, he isn’t, as a character, much of anything, and that is, perhaps, the book’s biggest flaw. Of course, he could be, and I would guess that he is, a satire on a certain kind of Icelandic personality. Yet, for a non-Icelandic reader, who isn’t in on any potential joke, he mostly comes across as dull and insipid. In fact, by part three I was really quite tired of him. On one level Olafur is easy to figure out; he was mistreated early in life and so seeks to avoid confrontation. That is fine, psychologically sound even. However, there came a point in my reading when I realised that he is pretty much entirely about negation: he has no opinions, no personality, no interests [outside of poetry or literature – and yet after section one he doesn’t read a single book]. The more I read the more convinced I became that Laxness didn’t like him very much either, that maybe he intended him to be an example of someone who appears to be selfless but is, in reality, emotionally entirely self-serving; furthermore, that while he is a good poet, on the surface, he could never be a great one because he refuses to fully engage in life or open his eyes to or, rather, be interested in the truth of the world. As the genuinely great John Keats once wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.

PALACE WALK [THE CAIRO TRILOGY PT. 1] BY NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

I do wonder sometimes why certain people bother to read foreign literature, as they seem intolerant of, or are at least irritated by, cultural differences. I was browsing some reviews of a Japanese novel the other day and I came across a couple which suggested that the book in question, and Japanese literature as a whole, is troubling, and ultimately unenjoyable, because the female characters are infantilised. Well, gee, really? First of all, I don’t agree; I think that Japanese literature of a certain age does often feature quiet, submissive female characters, but I’m not entirely sure how that equates to child-like. Nor do I believe that submissive women is specifically a Japanese issue [there are a shit-tonne in English literature, for example. Persuasion anyone?]. Furthermore, there are strong, active female characters in many Japanese novels, like Taeko in The Makioka Sisters. Thirdly, and more pertinently in terms of the book under review here, why are submissive female characters a problem? Do submissive women not exist? Perhaps Japanese women are or were at one time largely submissive, and these Japanese books are merely a reflection of their society. I mean, I dunno about you, but part of the reason I read, part of my enjoyment, is to learn about, to be immersed in, other cultures, rather than to [negatively] judge them against my own.

For me, some people bring a weird form of cultural arrogance to their reading; and this arrogance appears to result in a short-sighted, lazy kind of relationship with the texts in question. Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk focuses on a family which is dominated by its patriarch. The wife [Amina] is not allowed outdoors, the daughters are married off without having much of a say in the matter etc. Cue: lots of hand-wringing and overly PC criticism. Yet the people who criticise the work as sexist completely miss the point. Mahfouz clearly intended this family to show Egyptian, and Muslim, society at its most strict, or old-fashioned; it is a family out of step with the times. This is made abundantly clear on numerous occasions if you bother to pay attention. While the central family are ruled by a tyrant, other families, other patriarchs, are far more relaxed; indeed, many characters comment on al-Sayyid Ahmad’s unyielding behaviour; they even chide him for it. Not only that, but he is shown to be a man who is losing his grip on his family; his daughters and sons and, most shockingly for him, his wife all rebel against his iron rule at certain pivotal stages of the narrative. The new relationships formed by his daughters with their husbands show they have, in one case, more freedom and, in the other, absolute control. I really cannot fathom what some readers find to get upset about.

Palace Walk is only the first part of what is commonly known as The Cairo Trilogy. It is a domestic drama, with, as stated, an overriding theme of change. Like the aforementioned The Makioka Sisters, we are introduced to a society evolving, one on the cusp of a new identity, or way of living; some characters are happy or at least willing to go with the flow, and yet one is categorically not. I find this kind of thing fascinating; it’s like watching a dodo trying to drive a car. However, change is not Mahfouz’s only concern; he has a lot of interesting things to say about family dynamics, about hypocrisy, and politics and love. On hypocrisy: I think one of the things that so enrages some readers is that while al-Sayyid Ahmad demands exemplary behaviour, and compliance, from his wife and children, he seeks to please himself, is himself a boozer and a womaniser. I would again cite cultural, not to mention temporal, differences here as a reason not to criticise the work; and I would also point people to the fact, and it is mentioned in the text, that al-Sayyid Ahmad would be well within his rights to actually take more than one wife, and yet he doesn’t, believing, admirably, that one wife, one set of children, creates a better, more stable environment for his family.

Indeed, it would be a gross misrepresentation of the work to give the impression that the characters are all one-dimensional, that al-Sayyid Ahmad is merely the oppressor, and his wife and daughters the abused and oppressed. The length and the relatively slow pace of the novel actually allows Mahfouz to fully develop his characters, in a way that one doesn’t find in contemporary literature. al-Sayyid Ahmed is thrillingly complex, thrillingly human; so, while he has his ways, of course, it is clear that he loves his family, that he cares deeply about them. He does, however, also care about his image, about his reputation. He is inconsistent, yes, but so am I, so are most people. His wife, too, obviously loves her husband and, generally speaking, is happy to serve him. I guess some people might say that it is wrong for Mahfouz, as a man, to show a woman who is happy to serve her husband, but, again, I think they would misunderstand the book; at no point does the author judge any of his characters or ask you to judge them; this lack of judgement is, actually, one of its most pleasing features.

Yet my favourite aspect of the novel is how close Mahfouz allows you to get to his characters. Palace Walk is an engagingly, charmingly intimate portrayal of an average Muslim family. We are given access to their most mundane actions or rituals, such as how each member of the family eats their breakfast, how make-up is applied; we read about their good-natured piss-taking of each other, their petty squabbles, their most basic hopes and fears. The kind of intimate access you have to them ultimately makes you [or me, at least] care about them; it, in fact, creates a kind of relationship between you and the family, so that you almost feel part of it. Indeed, when Amina hurts herself late in the novel I found myself wishing she would get better. This is in contrast to my usual experiences where I generally hope for nothing but disaster to befall the people I’m reading about [it’s just more exciting, y’know].

One last thing: Mahfouz did, of course, win the Nobel Prize [it says so on the cover of the book, just in case you were in any doubt]. One would anticipate on that basis that his prose would be top drawer. However, while his novel is a fine achievement, and there are some aspects of his writing that are impressive, on the whole it didn’t give me a raging hard-on. I don’t speak or read Arabic, but apparently it is very difficult to translate into English. So, I’m inclined to believe, or am at least prepared to believe, that this is a translation issue rather than a true reflection of Mahfouz’s ability as a prose stylist.

THE VIVISECTOR BY PATRICK WHITE

What is in a name?

So said some dude with a beard. Well, the answer is quite a lot, as it happens. I once knew a man with the surname Dicker, and it nearly ruined his life. According to the man himself people mercilessly took the piss, girls were embarrassed to date him, he couldn’t get a job, etc, and as a result he became so ultra-sensitive about it that he lost all confidence in himself. I think it is fair to say, then, that a name can colour how one sees a particular person or thing. I mention this because Patrick White was a man who clearly had problems with naming his novels; indeed, his chosen titles seem almost designed to put you off, to make them seem as unappealing as possible. The Aunt’s Story? Gawd. Riders in the Chariot? Sounds like some made for TV film. Tree of Man? My favourite, that one. If there’s a title more suggestive of pretentious, worthy and dull I’ve yet to encounter it. No one wants to read a book called Tree of Man, just like no one wants to date a dude called Dicker. It is no surprise, in this regard, that White’s most popular, his most famous works, are Voss and The Vivisector. Great titles, those. On name alone, one anticipates that The Vivisector is either going to be great or fantastically ridiculous, or at least entertainingly bad. In reality, it is a little of all three.

Before I finished this book I was convinced that my reading days might be coming to an end. I mean, reading in meant to be fun, right? I wasn’t having fun, quite the opposite. I’ve always chosen books meticulously, but when you spend longer weighing up the pros and cons of reading a bunch of books than you would actually spend reading them from cover-to-cover you know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, mentally. So, as I come to write this review I guess I have to try to understand why I could finish this book and why I liked it, especially as it is not perfect, is not without its flaws. Patrick White could write like a motherfucker, and that helps of course. But my appreciation is based on more than that, because all of his novels are beautifully written and I’ve given up or abandoned a few over the last couple of weeks. In any case, of the White novels I’ve read or sampled, this one, on a stylistic basis, is the least sophisticated, least like it has come from an alien brain.

The problem with, say, something like Tree of Man, which houses prose to die for, is that it suffers from a lack of [essential] humanity, some deftness/lightness of touch. It is too foreboding, too suffocating, too intense. The Vivisector, however, despite its ominous title, boasts, at least in the opening section, a Dickensian charm. Indeed, the plot is straight out of Dickens’ world: Hurtle Duffield is an extraordinary boy born to ordinary [and poor] parents. His mother starts work as a laundress with a wealthy family to whom she eventually sells the boy; this boy grows up to be a famous, and self-absorbed, painter. It is to White’s great credit that The Vivisector transcends this fairy-tale scenario, that he breathes life into most of the [sometimes pretty rote] characters. Yet even when he doesn’t quite manage to do so, as is the case with Hurtle’s biological mother [who is entirely one-dimensional], they are treated with greater warmth and affection by the author than is usually the case. And this is a novel that needs it – that warmth, that twinkle in the eye – because it had the potential to be too scathing, too dour and in love with itself.

francis-bacon-two-studies-for-a-self-portrait

[Two Studies for Self Portrait by Francis Bacon, 1977]

My favourite character in the novel is not Hurtle, but Mrs Courtney, the boy’s adoptive parent. She’s a kind of Woolfian heroine: elegant, eccentric, and quietly losing her mind. She, one assumes, buys Hurtle as a kind of substitute for the hunchbacked daughter she herself produced [and there’s an interesting distinction here, the poor parents producing a genius and the well-to-do ones producing a kind of cripple]. This daughter, Rhoda, is a difficult, largely unaffectionate child and Hurtle is expected to better play the role of dutiful offspring, to be a son that his wealthy parents can be proud of. However, Hurtle’s and Mrs Courtney’s relationship has a more sinister or erotic fragrance. From the beginning there was a sense that they were perhaps too close, or liked each other in a way that wasn’t platonic, or simply parent-child. There is a complex dynamic here: Mrs Courtney, who suspects her husband of infidelity, chooses a boy to perhaps please him [as heir]. Yet from her own perspective, Hurtle isn’t only a substitute child but a substitute husband too. Hurtle, on the other hand, is drawn to Mrs Courtney not as a mother, but sees in her, well, art itself I guess, or something exotic and beautiful like art. All of this is brought together in one of the novel’s most memorable passages, the erotically charged scene when Hurtle is shoved by Mrs Courtney into her wardrobe full of dresses. As Hurtle’s senses are overwhelmed, as he has some sort of sensual reverie, Mrs Courtney likens the boy to a dog which must have its nose rubbed in your scent in order for it to know you as its master.

At least in the first part of the novel, it is the development of an artistic consciousness that is White’s greatest achievement. From a very young age Hurtle is different, precocious; he notices things that one would not expect, and comes to find some outlet for his feelings and observations, his acute interest in the world, in what he calls ‘droring.’ In the first 150 pages there are numerous clever and wonderful scenes involving his awakening as an artist, like when he covers the walls of his room with paint, or his fascination with the Courtney’s ‘shandeleer,’ itself a work of art. If you’re ever been artistically or creatively inclined, then these passages will likely touch or interest you a lot.

“They walked on rather aimlessly. He hoped she wouldn’t notice he was touched, because he wouldn’t have known how to explain why. Here lay the great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality.”

The second half of book, based on reviews I have read, is where many readers fall out of love with White’s work. Once Hurtle grows up and moves away from the Courtney’s the book is certainly less charming, less likeable [not necessarily less enjoyable]. I’ve used the word pretentious a couple of times, and it’s a word, an accusation, frequently levelled at the book. I don’t quite get that. I think it says more about the reader than White or his characters. Adult Hurtle takes his art seriously, of course, but pretentious he isn’t, quite the opposite: he struggles with his work, criticises it, and often believes that he fails to realise his vision. I think people throw the word pretentious around simply because Hurtle is an artist, and it makes a certain kind of person’s toes curl to read about the artistic process or to read discussion of art. My advice on that score would be for these people to, uh, avoid books about artists in the future.

“It was you who taught me how to see, to be, to know instinctively. When I used to come to your house in Flint Street, melting with excitement and terror, wondering whether I would dare go through it again, or whether I would turn to wood, or dough, or say something so stupid and tactless you would chuck me out into the street, it wasn’t simply thought of the delicious kisses and all the other lovely play which forced courage into me. It was the paintings I used to look at sideways whenever I got the chance. I wouldn’t have let on, because I was afraid you might have been amused, and made me talk about them, and even more amused when I couldn’t discuss them at your level. But I was drinking them in through the pors of my skin.”

I would say that Hurtle’s position as supersized bastard is overstated too. Nearly every review wants to make a point of what a See-You-Next-Tuesday he is, and I don’t really get that. Cantankerous? Maaaaybe, but, no, not really. I’d say he has a fairly healthy bullshit detector. His greatest character flaw, if it is indeed a flaw, is his inability to emotionally connect with other people. He abandons the Courtney’s without compunction, he fails to respond to his lovers in any way other than artistically, and never appears to be greatly touched or upset by their suffering [suffering they seem to cultivate, it is fair to suggest]. If you wanted to label him, then, I’d say you could possibly call him sociopathic, or even autistic, but I think evil, or horrible or detestable are too strong. I will confess, however, that I saw myself in him at times, so perhaps I’m sticking up for myself here.

Before concluding I’d like to come back to that title. What is its significance? It refers to Hurtle himself, of course, and how he approaches relationships with other people. The idea, voiced by many of the characters, is that Hurtle uses other people, particularly women, for his art. People are inspiration, they are there to be taken apart, understood, and used for your own ends; this is, I guess White is suggesting, what it means to be an artist, and he would have seen himself, as a writer, in the same way. However, I think that the title has a broader significance, certainly in relation to God, who is described as the divine vivisector. I don’t have the patience [and you don’t want to read it, I’m sure!] to explore that fully. It is worth noting that almost everyone in the novel uses other people, not just Hurtle [in fact Hurtle is perhaps the most honest person in the book]. Off the top of my head: there’s the Courtney’s who buy a son, and the parents who sell one; there is a couple who collect cats and a child, but who drown the moggies once they get bored of them and also give back the child to her mother; there is a woman who sets Hurtle up with her married friend in order to enjoy, I dunno, the composition [for her the union is something to look at, to experience, like a work of art], there is a husband who uses his wife as decoration and so on and so on.

To sum up then, The Vivisector isn’t easy to love [certainly beyond the first section], contains characters who are not especially likeable [if you want that sort of thing], and does meander towards a conclusion for the last two hundred pages. However, if you are patient, if you’re interested in art or artists, if you like big books with challenging ideas and themes, if you like serious and sometimes ridiculous literature, or if, like me, you’re often accused of being an irascible prick who is at odds with the rest of the human race then you’ll probably get a big kick out of this.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA BY GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

Despite annoying people on a fairly regular basis throughout my degree [and beyond!] the only time I was concerned about getting into bother was during the Feminism module. We were studying a lady whose name I can’t recall but I do remember the gist of her theory which was that all copulation between a man and a woman involves subjugation. She maintained that regardless of consent, position, and even if the woman in question is calling all the shots and being the aggressor, purely by virtue of being penetrated by a man she is being demeaned. She claimed this is the case because the man is actively giving his penis and the woman is passively receiving it. Well, my jaw hit the floor and my eyebrows shot to the roof. I was shocked, and disgusted, by how ready people were to accept this idea, to not want to challenge it. Now, if you’ve read a chunk of my reviews you’ll know I’m no sexist pig, that I don’t advocate the subjugation of women, and that, in fact, I feel like society still has a long long way to go before women are given the respect they deserve. I hate all violence, but particularly that towards women, especially sexually motivated violence, so much so that I refuse to watch or read anything with rape in it, and had my girlfriend turn off The Killer Inside Me because I had absolutely no desire to watch a woman being beaten half to death. So, I say from a standpoint of the greatest empathy that this woman is/was [I’ve no idea whether she’s still alive] absolutely bats and her theory utter bullshit.

First of all, she appeared to completely misunderstand, or conveniently disregard, human biology. What I mean by this is that when any couple has sex, regardless of the dynamic of their relationship, it is necessary that there will be giving and receiving; it’s just the way our bodies are made. That’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a fact. If you want to focus specifically on penetration, as she did, then how on earth is a man meant to have penetrative sex with a woman without actually, er, putting his penis in her? Ludicrous. She was basically saying that women should forsake sex, or, and this is where we get to the meat of the matter, all heterosexual sex. But, even though the woman herself is/was a lesbian, her own theory, when applied to lesbian sex, is still problematic-slash-ridiculous. In lesbian sex there is still giving and receiving, passive and active; there’s simply no other way of doing the business. Furthermore, I have known/know plenty of lesbians, and none of them, in my understanding, have forsaken all forms of penetration; and, well, to be penetrated by anyone and with anything – be that a penis, fingers or a can of coke – a woman [or a man!] is receiving that thing into themselves.

Secondly, it’s a strange form of feminism [for me] that wants to say I know you might enjoy this, and I know you’ve consented to it, and no one is being hurt, but actually you’re being abused without knowing it. Whatever happened to a woman knowing her own mind, making her own choices, and having autonomy over her own body? In my opinion, this lady’s theory is the opposite of feminism, because it is the opposite of empowering. Anyway, I raised these points and I wrote an essay accusing the feminist in question [whose conclusion was, indeed, that the only non-abusive sex is between two women] of lesbian propaganda [not that there’s anything wrong with lesbianism. Or lesbian propaganda. Just don’t try and dress it up as feminism].

You’re wondering, I’m sure, what any of this has to do with Love in the Time of Cholera. Well, in preparation for writing this I had a look at a big bunch of reviews all over the web. And a lot of them, written by women, objected to the central male character, finding him immoral and sexist, with particular reference to his amorous exploits. He sleeps with over 600 women, and, apparently, this makes him a bad man and Garcia Marquez’s book somewhat dubious and disgusting and, well, offensive to women. I can’t help but believe that the same kind of wrong-headed thinking is going on with this as I found with the feminist theory I spoke about earlier, by which I mean that it’s a kind of inverse-feminism masquerading as genuine feminism. Florentino does not abuse*, or force any of these women. In fact, the women are shown to be sexually liberated; if they are objectified by him, it is because they want to be; likewise, they are not having sex in order to snare a man, or because they want attention or because they have been tricked or cajoled. They are doing it because they enjoy it, because they want to. I really cannot fathom how that is objectionable. It seems to me that some people’s perceptions of sex are so skewed, so messed up, that they think that women are incapable of truly wanting sex only for its own sake, that sex as fun, or in some cases simply sex itself, is purely a male province. Thing is, some women just like cock, want cock [not all the time, I’m not saying that]; these reviewers [and our feminist friend] appear to be incapable of understanding that, or are unwilling to. So, yeah, Florentino has sex with a lot of women in this book. If that bothers you, you’re probably better off not reading it.

Of course, sex is only part of the narrative. Love, ageing, and death are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s other main themes. The author explores how all four of these things ‘play off’ each other, how they are connected to each other, and does so in such a fascinating and, ultimately, moving way. Love in the Time of Cholera is essentially the story of three people; it is, I guess, a kind of love triangle, although not a traditional one. The story begins with an old married couple, Juvenal and Fermina. Juvenal is a doctor and he has been called to preside over the body of his friend, who has committed suicide. This friend took his life because he didn’t want to get old; indeed, we’re told that it was always his aim to die at sixty. Juvenal is even older, and is deteriorating significantly. He can’t dress himself, his memory is impaired, and so on. Fermina is in better shape, and she has become a kind of surrogate mother to her husband. I found all this incredibly moving. Even more moving is how the couple are, yes, able to annoy and irritate each other, how they no longer possess anything like a passionate love, but instead enjoy a kind of comfortable affection for each other.

After the opening chapter we are transported back in time in order to follow the lives, and loves, of the major players. Here we are shown how Fermina, as a young girl, is courted by Florentino and then Juvenal. For a while I was reminded of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, in that it seems that she will have to chose between domesticity and affection [Juvenal] and a grand relentless intense passionate love [Florentino]. I’m not sure that is the case, however, because Fermina doesn’t overlook one for the other [there is no real overlap], she is simply a woman living her life, exercising her will, and making her choices on their own merits. In this way, her behaviour is much more like what you would expect from a male character in these kind of stories. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about the book is the subverting of what you may consider the traditional roles in love. Fermina is the steadfast one, the one who is more practical, more level-headed and down to earth; it is she who rejects Florentino [quite on a whim, it seems] and it is her choice to take up with Juvenal [his wooing has absolutely no effect]. While Fermina is strong and almost calculating, Florentino is giddy, romantic, and emotional. Is is the man who cannot get over the end of the affair, who pines and flings himself into encounters with other people in an effort to find there some consolation [it is especially interesting that it is the man who is, in this scenario, often used by the women he sleeps with. They, in most cases, want fun and good times, he is the one bringing an emotional neediness to the event].

Throughout the novel Garcia Marquez seems to be exploring the question of what is love? Is Florentino in love with Fermina? Possibly. Yet, they hardly spoke a word to each other during the courtship, and shared no physical encounters, so it would seem a superficial sort of love if that is what it is. Bearing this in mind, one could claim, and many do, that in reality Florentino is obsessed with Fermina, or infatuated. In my arrogance I believe one cannot love someone who doesn’t love you, so I am sympathetic to that idea. For those skeptical of Florentino’s feelings, it is interesting to note that Garcia Marquez presents him as someone with a predilection for crappy sentimental romantic poetry; so one could perhaps see him almost as a Don Quixote figure i.e. someone influenced by his reading to such an extent that he is more in love with the idea of an elaborate, all-consuming love than the actual woman herself. However, it is also true to say that Florentino’s love for Fermina is no more ridiculous, no more superficial than what one often encounters in novels.

In any case, I do not think, as some claim, that his seeking solace, or pure enjoyment even, in the arms of other women following Fermina’s rejection means that he can’t love her. Not only is that absurd, because it suggests that one should never have sex again after a loving relationship, but it shows that one has totally misunderstood not only Florentino [who hasn’t simply forgotten about his sweetheart but is said to be having all these affairs in an effort to fill the gap left by her, and to pass the time until she is available again] but humanity in general. Christ, I’ve been there myself; I’ve, in fact, had sex with someone hours after breaking up with a girl I loved. Why? Well, for lots of reasons, not limited to, but including: still having a penis and testicles that draw me to attractive women, being able to compartmentalise my feelings, and so on. But maybe I am a bad man too? You certainly wouldn’t be the first to say that.

One can also ask the question, do Juvenal and Fermina love each other? Their marriage was perhaps one of convenience, in the beginning at least. Certainly Juvenal admits to himself during the honeymoon that he doesn’t, at that stage, love his wife. Do they grow to love each other? It’s debatable. Juvenal cheats on Fermina and Fermina forgets her husband not long after his death. And yet both say they do/did love each other, and I’d be inclined to believe them, because love isn’t a straightforward feeling that adheres to strict criteria [I often need to remind myself of this too]. Indeed, I think the writer’s main point is that love is a messy, complex, maybe wholly subjective phenomena. That is what is so funny about all the reviewers trying to make definitive statements about the feelings and relationships of the main characters in the book. X does not love Y and here’s the evidence these reviewers say. And Garcia Marquez would maybe respond: how do you know? How can you possibly make that judgement? These reviewers are trying to force love to move along logical lines, and it doesn’t.

Garcia Marquez’s writing is, I’d like to point out before concluding this overly long review, entirely wonderful. He admitted, I think, to being influenced by the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, and you can see that influence most clearly in Cholera. Carpentier wrote in a baroque style, a sensual style engorged with colour and teeming with life. Cholera is like that too; it’s heady and breathtaking. Garcia Marquez also writes with affection and insight and has a fine sense of humour; Juvenal’s and Fermina’s argument over the soap being a good example of his wit [There was soap is the funniest line in the book. You’ll know what I mean by this when you read it]. Yet, perhaps his greatest gift is to be able to compose memorable, utterly charming, scenes, like Florentino writing love letters for the locals and, when approached by a boy and a girl, finding himself writing to and from himself! Then there is the parrot death scene. And Florentino’s search for sunken treasure. Make no mistake, Love in the time of Cholera is a beautiful, intelligent book. Oprah called it the finest love story ever told, and for challenging our ideas about what love is, for giving us love in so many of its forms, and for showing us love in all its incomprehensibility, its mind and soul fuckery, I’d say that’s about right.

♥♥♥

* Florentino does at one point have sex with a 14 year old girl. That’s certainly not something I want to defend or justify. You could say that the point of this affair is to showcase just how sad and desperate, how out of touch with reality, Florentino has become in his long and lustful wait for Fermina, but it isn’t presented in the text that way at all, although it does take place towards the end. You could, also, perhaps argue, and this is mentioned in the text, that the girl, much like with Humbert and Lolita, reminds him not only of his childhood sweetheart, but also of his own youth. Maybe, maybe. This paragraph isn’t included in my review as I don’t think this affair with the girl is the basis for most reviewer’s objections; of course some mention it, and deride it [rightly], but it is all of Florentino’s behaviour that is labelled immoral and evidence of Garcia Marquez’s unappealing attitudes towards women. And I don’t agree with that.

NB: It is worth pointing out that the two passages in the book that I did have a problem with are so seldom mentioned in reviews. One is the author’s attitude towards other races, particularly in a section when a Chinese boy wins a poetry competition. His description of Chinese people, and their behaviour, is pretty rum, pretty offensive. Fuck you for that, Gabito. The second passage I disliked [disliked being an understatement] involves a woman who was once raped. It is explained how she is in love with her attacker, even though she doesn’t know who he is or what he looks like. Is Garcia Marquez trying to make a point about how blind, how impossibly stupid love can be? Who knows. But I will say this: fuck off with that shit; fuck right off.

THE SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN BY YASUNARI KAWABATA

I’ve always thought the feelings of old people are not something to be taken lightly. Being a young man I can’t even imagine what it must be like to go to bed each night with a better than average chance that you won’t wake up. Of course, that could happen to any of us, but it’s not likely, that’s the key point. I often wonder how one copes with a world that is, essentially, no longer there for you; one that ignores you, isn’t trying to grab your attention. How do you cope when life is largely one of observation rather than participation? You just do, I guess; you endure. You endure the failures – your eyes getting worse, your hearing, your movements, your mental capabilities – because the alternative is to get out, to forsake life altogether. I’m not saying, by any means, that someone who has reached this point has to succumb to depression, to inertia [unless it is forced upon you], but that in the grand scheme of things, when so many of us appear to be lost or losing while in the prime of life and perfect health, old age must be a shitty gig a lot of the time, or is certainly no cake walk. In terms of myself, I hope, if I get that far, that I approach these failures with glee, like I’ve always approached failure or misfortune, that I’m a kind but crotchety old bastard who can still laugh at himself, someone who, while staring death in the face, is the first, in this Mexican stand-off, to break, to gurn and giggle. Who knows.

Samuel Beckett, whose best work is all about ageing and deterioration, found the idea of being nose to nose with death horrific, grotesque, absurd. Kawabata, on the other hand, finds in that situation sadness and confusion. For all the supposed gloominess of outlook Becket on death comforts me; Kawabata on the same subject, however, breaks me. I read this great mournful sigh of a book a couple of years ago, and yet I’m still picking up the pieces of my heart; indeed, every so often I spy some of it under a table or catch the cat dashing around my apartment with a ventricle or two between his teeth. The Sound of the Mountain is, then, the story of Shingo, who, even at the age of 62 is experiencing decline of the sort mentioned in my opening paragraph. As with Beckett’s protagonists his awareness of the nearness of death results in a kind of madness, but not a vaudeville madness, more a quiet, ruminative kind. He is haunted by the prospect of his passing, almost literally, for he starts to hear and experience things that other people do not.

One of the things Shingo hears is the sound of the title, which is first referred to in what is, for me, not only the novel’s finest scene but one of my favourite passages in literature. Shingo is suffering from insomnia, contemplating his sleeping wife, who, he ruefully notes, he now only touches in an attempt to stop her snoring [this he does by grabbing her by the neck and shaking her! You don’t need to be Freud to see something fishy in that]. Shingo goes to the window and looks out over the back of the house, at the trees and the mountain in the distance. He hears crickets making noise in the trees, and wonders why he never noticed this before [suggesting perhaps that this noise isn’t real]; one cricket flies into the protective netting over the window, Shingo picks it up and throws it as hard as he can back towards the tree.

from-met

[from a painted Japanese screen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Now, you might be furrowing your brow after reading the above description, you might be thinking what on earth is wrong with this guy? One of the best scenes in literature? He’s lost his fucking mind. Maybe I have, but the passage gave me goose bumps. Honestly, you have to read it, it’s so wonderful. Everything about it is delicate, subtle: the coarse snoring of the wife, which Shingo resents, contrasted with the sound of the crickets; the cricket – by which we mean the natural world – reaching out to Shingo, and Shingo’s rejection, his momentary defiance; the starry-eyed old man – confused, breaking down both physically and mentally -and the immense beauty and permanence of nature. Anyway, it is here that Shingo hears the sound of the mountain, the sound – a groan, a grumble – that he believes is a portent of death. I spoke of a quiet madness before, but really it’s a kind of cosmic madness, for, although Shingo feels divorced from contemporary, commercial life, he comes, as the novel progresses, to feel closer to nature, to the natural world, he comes almost to communicate with it.

Shingo doesn’t, however, only see [or hear] death in the sound of the mountain, he sees it everywhere and in everything. There’s another scene, towards the beginning of the novel, with Shingo buying seafood. As he enters the shop he notices that the lobster in the cooking pot should be alive, but, of course, it isn’t. And that might strike you as ridiculous too [dying man/dead lobster], and it would be if Kawabata, through Shingo, made a big deal of it, if he, like a lot of writers who can’t let their audience make their own discoveries, had his man engaging in introspective conversation with himself about how he is *sniff* just like that lobster. He doesn’t though; Kawabata’s touch is light, his ego non-existent. He was an incredible writer, an impressionistic writer of the highest calibre.

“It’s remarkable how we go on year after year, doing the same old things. We get tired and bored, and ask when they’ll come for us”

In terms of plot, well, there isn’t one. The bulk of the action is Shingo’s relationships, his interaction with his family, a family that he feels he may have consistently failed throughout his life. His son is a bit of a playboy, and Shingo sees in this his own mistakes. There’s some intriguing stuff about the daughter-in-law, whom Shingo is protective of, and ultimately finds himself inappropriately attracted to. I’d have to read the book again [as I plan to in the next month or so] to make more of that, to be able to discuss what I think all that means. There is, too, the spectre of his wife’s dead sister, who Shingo had the hots for; Shingo took his wife almost as a consolation prize, almost out of sympathy or duty. Now, as an old man, this woman, his wife’s sister, enters his dreams. A sign of regret? Of missed opportunity? The ghost of a greater love?

In conclusion, I want to note that, although I consider Snow Country to be Kawabata’s masterpiece, the fact that this book still touches me, still pummels me, still plays on my mind after all the time that has passed since i first read it, shows just how powerful it is. I will say, however, that it is perhaps too long, that it meanders from time to time [even for a book where meandering is almost the point] and could struggle to hold your attention over the full distance.