tragedy

THE BIRDS BY TARJEI VESAAS

The other day I was talking to a man who, impolitely, one might call ‘slow,’ and I felt myself getting annoyed and losing patience. He was easily confused; often repeated himself; and stuttered terribly. ‘I’ve had three strokes,’ he said, and I nodded, thinking this was merely an example of the strange compulsion people have to inform others of their problems or ailments. But then, a moment or two later, I realised that he was offering me this information as an excuse, as an explanation. He had obviously picked up on my irritation, and I felt ashamed, as, I suspected, he did too, but for different reasons. There are, of course, a lot of horrible things that can happen to a human being, but it strikes me that the loss of mental agility, and being aware of this loss, at least some of the time, must be a particularly potent kind of misery.

In The Birds, acclaimed Norwegian author, and one time Nobel candidate, Tarjei Vesaas tells the story of Mattis and his long-suffering sister Hege. While Mattis is an adult [he is thirty-seven], he appears to have the mental age, and physical capacity, of someone much younger. Certainly, Hege treats him like a child, looking after him, telling him what to do, and often humouring him in his strange preoccupations and mental flights of fancy. As far as the locals are concerned Mattis is ‘simple’ [his nickname is Simple Simon], and yet that strikes me as short-sighted. Mattis is not simple at all; he has a complex inner life, it just isn’t like most other people’s. For example, he says to Hege that she is ‘like lightning,’ referring to her flashing knitting needles, an association that is unusual, but imaginative, countering accusations of idiocy. Likewise, his experience with the woodcock, which plays such a central role in the early stages of the book, is full of intense, sophisticated and conflicting emotions.

John-James-Audubon-Woodcock

Crucially, and movingly, as with the man I mentioned in my introduction, Mattis does have self-awareness. He knows that people think him stupid and incapable; moreover, he regards himself that way too. This leads to him feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and worthless. Indeed, there are two subjects that are particularly painful, which are ‘thinking’ and ‘work,’ two things at which he considers himself a failure. Yet, in spite of these ‘failures’ there are aspects of his character that I found admirable, and that, in fact, I could relate to myself. First of all, Mattis’ cosmic sense of wonder, his relationship with the woodcock, with which he attempts to communicate by leaving it messages, is really quite beautiful. Secondly, his honesty, his inability to be diplomatic, is refreshing. I dislike lying, even so-called kind lies; I am, in fact, incapable of them; I lack tact, frequently upsetting people by not telling them what they want to hear. Mattis does this too, for example, when he points out that Hege, who is three years his senior, is going grey.

It is probably clear by now that Mattis dominates the novel. The Birds is not written in the first person, but it is largely concerned with one man’s thoughts and feelings, his fears and desires, with Vesaas making use of a free indirect style. However, Hege, of course, still plays an important role, although one only really sees her through her brother’s eyes. For Mattis, Hege is wise and strong. Yet one must not lose sight, and to be fair to Mattis he doesn’t, of how hard life is for her. Not only is there a certain stigma attached to having a ‘simple’ brother, but he also cannot work, and so earns no money. He is no real company for her either, because she finds it impossible to communicate with him in any meaningful way, what with his peculiar concerns. To be in her situation must, at times, be like trying to interact with an alien species; it must be, and is, a lonely state of affairs. This is why she gets so upset about the grey hairs. Hege feels, understandably, as though life is passing her by, that, specifically, she has no life, that, as she says herself, she ‘gets nothing out of it.’

As I, or more specifically my parents, get older I have begun to think increasingly about old age, mental health, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones. My mother has been seriously ill recently, and so I have had to ask myself ‘If it came to it, would I be prepared to be her carer?’ Am I selfless enough to make the necessary sacrifices? One of the cruel things about life is that it forces you to confront these uncomfortable questions; you cannot lie to yourself, you have to be honest. What kind of person am I? The truth is, I’d rather not know. I am not saying that this is always the case, but there is a real sense in the book that Hege has spent much of her time in bondage to Mattis, that she has missed out on her youth, or her best years, in order to keep him. Mattis himself acknowledges that without her he would die; she is all that he has, their mother and father having passed away.

“This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp.”

Before concluding I want to return to something I have briefly touched upon earlier in this review, which is communication, because this is, for me, one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout, Mattis fails to make himself understood to people, including his sister. The importance of the woodcock is a fine example of this. Numerous times he tries to articulate what the bird means to him, but he never manages it. This inability to express himself clearly, and Hege’s reluctance to engage her brother – perhaps due to weariness or fear – ultimately has tragic consequences. As the novel moves towards its climax, Mattis worries that he is losing Hege. To prevent the crisis that envelops the siblings all Hege need do is treat Mattis like an adult, or even a mature child, one who deserves a frank and in-depth discussion relating to the future; Mattis, on the other hand, ought to explain his concerns, but simply cannot bring himself to say what is on his mind, and so acts out instead. This is the saddest thing of all: that two people can love and care for one another so much, and yet be so blind to the needs of the other.

I want to finish with some discussion as to Vesaas’ skill as a writer. He was, I believe, a poet as well as a novelist, and, well, it shows. I don’t like to throw the word poetic around when discussing prose, because I think that often it is used to denote flowery, overcooked sentences, but I find it apt here. The Birds is tight, evocative, beautiful. Vesaas displays wonderful control; his style is one of economy, whereby each word seems to matter. Moreover, there are at least three scenes – the fate of the woodcock, Anna and Inger, and the mushroom – that will stay with me for a very long time. If I had to compare the Norwegian’s work to that of another author, I would say that it is like a less curmudgeonly Patrick White, and that is a big compliment, because that pissy old goat could write like a motherfucker.

Advertisements

SPRING SNOW [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.1] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Has there ever been a stranger novelist than Yukio Mishima? On the one hand, he was a body-building Nationalist, who advocated bushido, the samurai code; he also, as many know, committed seppuku, which is a ritual form of suicide involving disembowelling and beheading. You don’t, it is fair to say, get that kind of thing with Julian Barnes and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

mishima

Yet, on the other hand, Mishima was undeniably a cultured man, who spoke English and dressed in the English fashion; he was a bisexual who acted in films and wrote plays as well as novels and short stories. It is almost as though he embodied the conflict – that of the traditional and reserved vs. the modern and progressive – that until very recently so dominated most of the great Japanese literature, and about which his own work, especially Spring Snow, is also concerned.

In what is perhaps a nod to Murasaki Shikibu’s monumental Tale of Genji, Spring Snow is primarily focussed on a preternaturally beautiful young man. As with the shining prince, everyone who meets the central character, Kiyoaki Matsugae, is struck by his attractiveness; and the awareness of his good-looks and the effect it has on other people makes him somewhat spoiled and conceited. Furthermore, although he is the son of a nouveau riche couple, who dress in Western clothes, he was actually raised by a once-prosperous aristocratic family, in order to ensure that he is well versed in traditional Japanese ways and has an elegant bearing. This upbringing means that Kiyoaki is, in a sense, caught between two different eras; he isn’t fully a traditionalist [he doesn’t revere the Emperor, for example], nor is he entirely modern; he is elegant, as his parents desired, but his elegance, and decadence, means that he is unfit for the modern world [for instance, out of indolence he neglects his schooling].

I imagine that it is clear already that my opinion of Kiyoaki is not especially positive. He is not bad per se, but he is tremendously arrogant and self-obsessed. Of course, you could excuse some of his flaws on the basis of his age; Kiyoaki is a teenager and so arrogance and self-obsession are pretty much part of the deal, but even so the behaviour of most teenagers does not lead to the ruin of numerous people. I should point out, however, that I do not think that the reader is meant to like him; I believe that, as a product of two conflicting eras, or ways of life, the effete and ineffectual Kiyoaki is, for Mishima, a necessary failure as a human being. For me, it is telling that his servant Iinuma, the one character whose attitude would have, I think, most closely resembled Mishima’s own [in terms of his feelings about loyalty, duty, etc], is disappointed in him, and even, at times, disgusted by him.

“Iinuma looked down at his face, at the sensitive darting eyes with their long lashes – the eyes of an otter – and he knew that it was hopeless to expect him to swear the enthusiastic oaths of loyalty to the Emperor that a night like this would have invoked in any normal young Japanese boy.”

“Kiyoaki’s eyes were now wide open as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, and they were filled with tears. And when this glistening gaze turned on him, Iinuma’s distaste deepened.”

As I read the novel for the second time, I was baffled by the popular opinion that it is a moving love story, or even the greatest of all love stories. Yes, it details a troubled relationship between two young people – the aforementioned Kiyoaki and the equally beautiful Satoko, the daughter of the noble family who raised the boy – but it is a strange kind of love that continually rejects someone and then suddenly wants that person at the point at which it has become impossible to have them. Perhaps Satoko does love Kiyoaki, but there is abundant evidence that the same is not true for the young man. For example, the first thing he says to his friend Honda, when an ill-looking Satoko is unresponsive towards him, is “I don’t think Satoko will sleep with me anymore”. Does that sound like love to you? No, it sounds like someone who is a bit of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not always been a nice guy where girls are concerned, so you could say I’m in no position to judge. But on the basis of the principle of it takes one to know one I’m calling Kiyoaki out.

Moreover, although there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their relationship, I don’t necessarily buy the star-crossed lovers interpretation of the story because the couple, Kiyoaki in particular, cause their own problems and create those obstacles themselves. Having said that, I guess you could argue that fate or destiny is also an obstacle to the couple’s love, and this is certainly not something that Kiyoaki and Satoko can control. As you may know, Spring Snow is part of a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility. Each book in the series deals with reincarnation and predestination. In Spring Snow, the first volume, there are numerous hints and suggestions that what is happening, specifically to Kiyoaki, is, in a sense, meant to be. For example, he keeps a dream journal, and one of his dreams involves Satoko clinging to his coffin; there are repeated references to his demise, and a general sense of foreboding hangs over the novel.

“There’s no doubt that he’s heading straight for tragedy…I’ve got to use every ounce of my strength to stop him fulfilling his destiny.”

In this way, Satoko and Kiyoaki’s relationship is tragic, because they never had a chance. However, if you want to appeal to predestination then you can’t really talk about Kiyoaki at all, because without free will he becomes a non-entity. As a reviewer, in order for discussion to be possible, I want to take him on face value.

One may ask then, if Kiyoaki is so unpleasant, and Spring Snow is not the tragic or tear-jerking tale of adolescent love it is billed as, why should you read the book? Well, first of all, it is always engrossing; whether one sympathises with Satoko and Kiyoaki or not, one is, crucially, still interested in their fate. Furthermore, although the narrative isn’t exactly full of high-octane action, Mishima, unlike many of the other historically important Japanese novelists, does serve up a steady amount of excitement and surprise and tension. In contrast, something like Tanizaki’s acclaimed novel The Makioka Sisters may be wonderful, but it is at times interminably slow and uneventful; I can’t imagine that, when reading that book, there are people that have stayed up late into the night, desperate to reach the end of a chapter, so as to find out what happens next, but I can certainly see that being the case with Spring Snow.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that Mishima to some extent embodied the conflict that he wrote about, that of the traditional and the modern ways of life; what is most interesting about Spring Snow is that this conflict, this tension, is not only apparent thematically, it is in the style too. So, while the prose is undeniably graceful, as you would expect from a great Japanese novel, it lacks simplicity; indeed, Mishima’s style, with its extended metaphors, extreme emoting, and psychological depth, is, I would say, closer to Western writers, like Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, than Kawabata or Tanizaki. I would also argue that Mishima’s characters are easier to understand and relate to for a Western audience; again, one may not like their behaviour, or admire their motivations, but they are more familiar to us; Kiyoaki is a brat, for example, but we all have known brats. Satoko is perhaps more a mystery, more like the enigmatic women you find in Kawabata, but even her actions can be viewed in terms of a young girl having the hots for a great-looking guy.

Yet for all that, the biggest selling point is just how beautiful Spring Snow is; it really is breathtaking at times. As with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the prose is actually so beautiful that it is, in a sense, diverting, so that, like when in the company of a beautiful woman one becomes incapable of judging her behaviour, readers tend not to pick up on how unsavoury the behaviour of the characters actually is. Also like Flaubert, Mishima’s prose is sensual, and highly detailed; in my review of Madame Bovary I called the Frenchman a hyperrealist, by which I mean he makes the real or ordinary seem extraordinary, and I would apply the same term to Mishima. There are numerous passages in the text that one could highlight as evidence, but one that particularly struck me was Kiyoaki holding the train of the princess’ dress:

“Beautiful, elegant, imposing, she was like a flower at the moment of its perfection…Princess Kasuga’s hair had the blackness and sheen of fine lacquer. Seen from behind her elaborate coiffure seemed to dissolve into the rich white skin-textures of the nape of her neck, leaving single strands against her bare shoulders whose faint sheen was set off by her décolleté…she held herself erect and walked ahead with a firm step, betraying no tremor to her trainbearers, but in Kiyoaki’s eyes that great fan of white fur seemed to glow and fade to the sound of music, like the snow covered peak first hidden, then exposed by a fluid pattern of clouds.”

I love that. It isn’t a one-off either, Mishima throws this kind of stuff out by the page. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know he may have been, but he was a wonderful, sensitive writer.

ROMEO AND JULIET BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Juliet: Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Rome…

Romeo: YO!

Juliet: Eh?

Romeo: I said, Yo!

Juliet: Who on earth are you?

Romeo: I’m Romeo, sweetcheeks, and [with a sweeping gesture] this is Juliet’s garden; only there’s no bouncy castle and you’re not Lyndsey Lohan. What have you done with Lohan? And, more importantly, where’s the fucking bouncy castle?

Juliet: Me thinks thou art out of thy mind, sir!

Romeo: I’m calling my agent. [Romeo takes out his cell phone, dials and speaks] Yo, Bruce? It’s me…I’m at the shoot…No, it’s not going well…It’s Lohan…What? No, no I haven’t…Because she’s not here, dude…I went up to the window…and there’s some flat-chested English chick…and I was promised tits, Bruce…we’re not making this movie without tits, Bruce…that’s the whole movie: chicks in low-cut tops…it’s what the public want…’Kay…’Kay…Fine. [To Juliet] Bruce says I signed the contract and even if I was high I can’t back out, so, uh, let’s get on with it…do your bit again…your line.

Juliet: Good lord…Er…Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Rome…

Romeo: YO!

Juliet: Er…Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. 

Romeo: Huh?

Juliet: What man…um…art thou that thus bescreen’d in night so stumblest on my counsel?

Romeo: I can’t understand a word you’re saying, sugartits.

Juliet: Good heavens! Thou art a fool, an imbecile!

Romeo: Look, I’ve got the script right here. [Takes out the script. Reads] Romeo and Juliet: Zombie Apocalypse by William Shakespeare…[flicks through the pages] Window scene…Juliet at window, in LOW-CUT TOP…she has been grounded by her mom for skipping class, which is lucky for her because the school was overrun by zombies…yada, yada, yada…she sighs…her chest heaves…and she says: I wish Romeo were here…which is my cue…me, Romeo…Romeo says: Yo!

Juliet: Zombies? Verily, I know not what this word means, but I do know there are none in Romeo and Juliet! ‘Tis a play about young love…doomed love, for the families of the lovers are at odds with each other…this is the balcony scene where Juliet and Romeo agree to marry. The play is hundreds of years old.

Romeo: Yeah, well, that was the problem! It needed bringing into the 21st century, so we zombied up that bitch.

Juliet: You what the what now?

Romeo: Nevermind. Look, my script says nothing about marriage. We kiss…there’s tongues…your chest heaves…

Juliet: I assure you my breast doth not heave!

Romeo: Don’t I know it! And this aint L.A., so clearly someone fucked up.

Juliet: The play is set in Verona, you idiot. It begins with a brawl…

Romeo: [Looking through script] Yeah, we kept the brawl…and added guns and, uh, some big explosions. BIG.

Juliet: The Montagues and Capulets are sworn enemies; thou art a Montague and I a Capulet.

Romeo: I’m a what now?

Juliet: Montague!

Romeo: The script says I’m a young college student, but not like a geek, although partly geek…like, geek chic…but with an edge. Part James Dean, part sissy brooding Vampire dude from Twilight. A bit feminine…but also unpredictable…looks 35, though meant to be 18…likes Hip Hop…or Grunge…or whatever the fuck is popular just before the movie hits the screens. Now, you, you’re meant to be feisty…

Juliet: ‘Tis one thing thou hast got right! Juliet, like many of Shakespeare’s female characters, is strong! She defies! She does not what she is told! She will not marry Paris and become his joyful bride, for she doth love sweet Romeo!

Romeo: Feisty chicks are the best. Ok, so, like, we might be able to make this work, since I signed that contract and all and there’s no getting out of this clusterfuck of a movie. Look, I’ll give up the zombies, because they’ll probably be out of fashion by the time this goes out anyway. But I’m keeping my motorbike. And you gotta unbutton the top button of your dress there, because, like, we gotta sell this thing. What you say?

Juliet: [undoing the top button of her dress and sighing] Fine. Could you please excuse me a moment? [Aside; Juliet removes a cell phone from her cleavage, dials and speaks] Gary? It’s me. Who is this moron you sent me? I was promised Jay Baruchel!

EFFI BRIEST BY THEODOR FONTANE

Throughout my life, the one constant, vis-à-vis relationships, has been that I have always seemed to end up with crazy women. That has both its drawbacks, of course, and its benefits. I say crazy but maybe it would be better to say high-spirited or eccentric; in any case, I absolutely have a type. For a long time I thought that it was simply a coincidence that every person I dated was a little cuckoo, but then I realised that the things that I like, the things I am most drawn to – the spontaneity, the large personality, the artistic impulse, etc – are the consequence of a mind that does not move along the same tracks that most people’s minds do. That was an important epiphany for me, because I knew, then, that if I had to have those things of which I am so fond, those unusual qualities, I had to accept the other side too, the less stable side.

This does not mean, of course, that all eccentric women will be attractive to me, nor does it mean that all of them will possess the kind of qualities I have so often fallen for. There can and will be exceptions to all theories or ideas about humanity. One such exception was an ex of mine; she was crazy, oh absolutely, but she was also dour and lazy and unaffectionate. It’s a relationship that continues to baffle me, long after it has ceased to exist. Whatever did I see in…not her, but us [for relationships are not, of course, about individuals, but the complex interplay of two people]? We were chronically ill-suited. Was I really so attracted to her that I compromised on everything else? Perhaps. It’s a really strange situation, being with someone who you want to like, but whose entire approach is anathema to you. I was in a constant state of frustration. She must have felt the same way, I am sure. It’s like trying to waltz with someone who wants to do the mazurka.

In any case, although the two personality types involved are not the same, I was put in mind of this old relationship of mine recently when reading Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. Even more than those found in Anna Karenina [Anna and Karenin] and Madame Bovary [Emma and Charles], the central relationship in the novel, between Effi and Innstetten, is, from the very beginning, so obviously, so absolutely wrong for both parties. First of all, there is, of course, the age difference; I have never been with someone decades my junior, because, well, it would be illegal; but, setting that aside, although I can understand a man of forty or fifty being attracted to a girl of, say, twenty it has always struck me as weird that a man of such advanced age could believe that he has anything in common with someone from a completely different generation, that they could have anything to say to each other; I don’t know how, in this situation, these men could not feel a little bit ashamed, and more than a little bit ridiculous. Fontane does not at all indicate that Innstetten does feel ridiculous, but the couple do have so little in common. This is made abundantly clear when, for the Honeymoon, he takes Effi around lots of art galleries and churches, things that she has no idea about, nor real interest in. However, a lack of shared interests is not the only problem, the differences between the couple play out in many ways; for example, the first day after the honeymoon he rises early and she sleeps in. It may seem mundane, and it is, but it is part of showing that they are simply not right for each other.

Effi appears to be frequently disliked by readers, certainly based on the reviews that I have encountered. However, I loved her. It perhaps comes back to my type, for she is, well, a little unconventional. She is seventeen at the beginning of the novel, and we first meet her playing outside with her friends, while dressed in some kind of a sailor suit. One could see this opening scene as the author accentuating her youth, her childishness, and that is undeniably the case, but I feel as though there is more to it than that; Fontane, in my opinion, wanted to say something about Effi’s personality, not merely her age. Later, her mother calls her something like a child of nature and that description gives depth to one’s understanding of the opening of the novel; Effi is, to use a popular phrase, a free-spirit; she has peculiar ideas, and her emotional and intellectual responses are frequently contradictory, often within the space of a single paragraph. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the kind of characters you come across in Russian literature, especially Dostoevsky. I have, in my reviews of his work, called Dostoevsky’s characters, his women in particular, profoundly bipolar, and while that phrase is maybe too strong for Effi she is certainly prone to mood swings.

While the youthful and highly-strung Effi is not like the mature and passionate Anna Karenina, Innstetten is much like her husband Karenin, in that he doesn’t appear to be equipped to deal with what he has got. Like Karenin, Innstetten may love his wife, but he is a failure as a lover. He is too conventional, too reserved to romance or court Effi in a way that would lead to a genuine intimacy between them. Indeed, he tends to treat her as a child, as someone who ought to be given the opportunity to make decisions, and exhibit maturity, where possible, but who ought not to be indulged when showing her immaturity. So, for example, he asks Effi’s opinion about which of the local resident families and households they ought to patronise, and yet when she has a turbulent night’s sleep because she thinks she hears strange, unnerving noises, which she is told is the wind sweeping the bottom of the curtains across the floor, he is resistant to do the small thing it would take to ease her anxiety [i.e. taking up the hem of the curtains].

Those strange, unnerving noises are particularly significant because they are the first suggestion of something sinister in a novel that becomes progressively eerie and odd. As already mentioned, Effi, who hears these noises soon after moving into her new home, is initially told that it is the wind and the curtains. However, they are subsequently attributed to a ghost. Effi, in fact, sees the ghost more than once; the first time it rushes past her bed and out the bedroom door and the second time it looks over her shoulder. Add to this, the story of the severed head, the frequent allusions to death, the old lady and the black hen, and Effi repeatedly, almost randomly on occasions, declaring that he feels afraid, and Effi Briest starts to resemble a Gothic novel. What is most fascinating about all this is how Fontane uses the Gothic to reveal aspects of his character’s personalities. For example, when Effi tells Innstetten about the ghost he does not deny its presence in the house, but rather gives the impression of wanting to convince her of its existence.

It is at this point that one starts to doubt one’s initial impressions of the husband. At first he seemed nice but dull, yet eventually his behaviour struck me as troubling and I came to regard him as a cold manipulator. It becomes clear that he uses the idea of the ghost to unsettle Effi, to keep her on her toes, so to speak. This is actually a torture technique, although I doubt Fontane was aware of this; the idea is that if you can prevent someone from thinking rationally, if you disturb their sleep and their peace of mind, then they will become more pliant. More than once Innstetten reminds Effi of the ghost, but he does so in very clever ways, so that it seems, on the surface, as though he is being supportive. For example, at one point he says, ‘don’t be afraid, it won’t come back,’ when Effi herself had not even mentioned the subject. Here, it seems Innstetten is bringing up the subject, is trying to keep Effi afraid, as a way of controlling her. He says it won’t come back, but is really suggesting that it will, is actually bringing it back by mentioning it. He engages in this kind of passive-aggressive bullying frequently. he makes apparently innocuous remarks, little sly digs, that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. And yet, and yet, just when I was convinced of his villainy, I began, towards the very end of the book, to feel sympathy for him. Ultimately, Innstetten is a man lacking imagination and ambition, not in the way that one would ordinarily understand those words, but in terms of appreciating and getting the most out of his life and making himself truly happy.

If the critical essays, and the introduction to this edition, are anything to go by, much is made of Fontane’s subtlety as a writer. Deservedly so. There are times when the author holds back almost to the point of baffling the reader, or this one anyway, in a way I have only come across elsewhere in the work of Henry James. Before I read the book I was aware of Effi’s reputation as an adulteress, and yet it does not, until it actually happens, seem inevitable that she will play her husband false. Indeed, unlike most novels of this sort, I had no inkling at all as to who she would do the dirty with. Not only that, but the cheating, the cheating that we have access to at least, is so minor in form that you wonder whether it can be called cheating at all. It was only with the revelation of the letters, something like seven years after the events, that I became of the opinion that it went beyond a bit of flirting and hand-kissing. I really liked how Fontane dealt with all that. The way that he treats Effi’s ‘affair’ is to allow the reader to imagine all kinds of things by revealing only a little.

However, despite providing plenty of evidence of Fontane’s subtle touch, my one [relatively small] gripe with the novel is that it is, at times, also woefully heavy-handed. The characters are, mostly in the first half, constantly psychologically sizing each other up, and engaging in conversations about each other’s motivations and behaviours. You are seductive, Innstetten tells Effi, while she goes on to explain how he is ashamed of husbandly affection, that he deems it unrespectable. Likewise, the scene where Crampas calls Innstetten a pedagogue, and Effi replies with something along the lines of, do you think he is trying to teach me? Like, duh. The thing is, this is the opposite of what I wrote about in the previous paragraph, in that this kind of stuff gives the reader nothing to do, allows us no opportunity for thinking for ourselves. In fact, it was often the case that I would already have come to the same conclusion as the characters before they voice it, so them doing so seems like overkill. The Japanese writer Kenaburo Oe does the same thing in his work, and I find it maddening.

Having said that, it wasn’t enough to ruin my experience of the book. I found Effi Briest an engaging and moving read; I could, in fact, keep writing about it, but I have just noticed the word count. 2000. Oh dear, no one will read all this. And what about Rollo? I haven’t even mentioned him. Fucking hell. Rollo. That dog broke my heart.

KING LEAR BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Scene: Lear and his wife. In bed. Both somewhat drunk.

King Lear: [tapping his wife on the shoulder] Good woman, tis the case that I feel frisky this night.

Mrs Lear: [turning to face her husband] Ah, tis so? Do not tarry, husband; make my womb thy castle and storm the gate!

King Lear: Thou, wench, thou! Good wench! The moon half turns its back on us, to look over its shoulder while pretending to look not!

Mrs Lear: A fie on the moon and on thy speech which puts off when ye ought to be putting on!

King Lear: But I have no coat to put on.

Mrs Lear: Tis a warm night, proceed with bare arms, my lord.

King Lear: Just to be clear, wife: we’re talking about birth control aren’t we?

Mrs Lear: [sighing] This preamble is not to your benefit. Desist, or you may find the moat hath run dry.

King Lear: Noted.

Lear and wife commence erotic fumbling. Then, a burst of light and smoke. Before the bed: [P], a time traveller, sent back from the future, Marty McFly style, to issue a warning. 

[P]: [to Lear] Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Here [tossing him a packet of three] sheaf your sword. You do not want children, believe me.

Exeunt [P].

GIOVANNI’S ROOM BY JAMES BALDWIN

I remember Stephen Fry [who is gay, if that has somehow escaped you] once describing his perfect woman. Amusingly, this imaginary woman bore [almost] entirely male characteristics, like small breasts, short hair etc. Likewise, if I was asked to describe my ideal man he would be pretty and petite, with long hair, long eyelashes, shapely hips; a woman, in short, with a penis. And that penis? Well, if I could get rid of that he would be even better.

There are lots of things about myself that confuse me, that I am unsure of, but my sexuality is not one of them. I have never been in two minds about that. I find that some people, these days, scoff at that idea. There is the expectation that girls and boys [more so girls] will go through a confused phase, usually in their teens. I didn’t. Men, or typical men, have many admirable qualities but their bodies, their sex, have never appealed to me. You might anticipate, then, that there are aspects of the book under review here that cannot speak to me. And, yes, I think that is the case. I would accept that a narrative that prominently features homosexuality and bisexuality, that is, at least partly, about the pain caused by repression, will not resonate with me to the same extent that it might someone who has had similar experiences. However, I would also say that good literature is able to draw you in, to make you believe in, identify with, the most alien [a term I use literally, rather than negatively] ideas or concepts or ways of life.

It may seem like a strange thing to say about a novel that is often described as moving, harrowing, and brave, but, for me, Giovanni’s Room is, more than anything, really very clever. There are lots of stories about young people lost [existentially speaking] in a foreign country, many dealing with the torment of being torn between two lovers, but Baldwin manages to bring a freshness and greater intensity to these subjects, actually ratchets up the sense of tragedy, by having his narrator torn between a man and a woman, which, in its turn, gives extra significance to the fact of his being far from home. There is a suggestion, and it is mentioned in the text, that perhaps David [the central character and narrator] is doing what a lot of people do on holiday, or when away from home, i.e. indulging a part of himself he would not otherwise acknowledge. Giovanni’s Room is, in this way, much like Henry James’ The Ambassadors. In The Ambassadors the errant son, Chad, has a choice to make between returning home and settling down to a comfortable, financially stable life or remaining in Paris to continue his exciting existence there. In Giovanni’s Room the choice is almost identical, except that while in James’ novel it is Paris that represents freedom, and America that represents conventionality, in Baldwin’s novel it is Giovanni and Hella [David’s two lovers] who take on those roles.

I have read elsewhere that Giovanni’s Room upsets or enrages or disappoints many gay people. And I can see why that would be the case, because David is not accepting of who he is [or part of who he is, anyway]. Indeed, he is almost disgusted by it and at various points in his testimony quite viciously lambasts and lampoons certain kinds of homosexuals. Yet had he been comfortable with his inclinations the novel would not be as absorbing as it is, it would be reduced to a question of how does one choose between a man and a woman, between femininity and masculinity, both of which attract you? Now, that might seem like an intriguing question, but David’s situation is more complicated, more interesting, because he knows, one senses, which of the two he wants to be with, which one he loves, but doesn’t know which will be better for him, in the long run. David’s dilemma isn’t about genitals, but about how he sees himself, who he can picture himself as being. He can’t, much of the time, see himself, accept himself, as someone who will be, openly and happily, in a relationship with a man. Crucially, it is not pressure from outside, from friends and family, which makes him shy away from committing to Giovanni, but pressure from within himself. I found that fascinating.

In terms of Baldwin’s prose, it has the Hemmingway-like quality that so often characterises American literature, while being, at times, also lyrical. As one would expect of this kind of thing there are some nice insights and snappy lines and aphorisms. There are, too, one or two memorable scenes, my favourite being David’s first homosexual experience. What is so impressive about this scene is that it perfectly captures the fear, the nervousness, the tension involved in early sexual experiences, and simultaneously manages to be erotic; it struck me this way despite me not being able to directly relate to the situation of being with someone of the same sex for the first time. However, while I loved the opening of the novel – including this scene, David’s subsequent rejection of the boy, and his relationship with his father – I feel that it sets a standard that is not maintained; the book remains enjoyable and engrossing, as I outlined previously, but it does not, for me, fulfil the promise of its first third.

Before explaining why Giovanni’s Room falls down somewhat, why it cannot be called a consistently great novel, I ought to point out, because it is a criticism levelled at the book, that there is a great deal of bombast and melodrama in it. Yet I don’t, myself, find that too much of an issue; I am, largely, ok with melodrama. I mean, sure, there are times when I have been reading Balzac and I’ve got very tired of characters bursting into tears and wringing their hands every two pages, but it has never bothered me to the extent that it appears to do with some readers. Yes, Giovanni’s Room is ridiculous, is overwrought, but novels, in my opinion, are meant to, at least some of the time, deal with higher [or extreme] emotions, with the stuff that makes us cringe. Besides, people, from my experience anyway, are melodramatic, especially when things go wrong or they find themselves in a tight or tough situation.

My biggest criticism of the book, its most fatal flaw, is that I found Giovanni insufferable. I’m not entirely sure why that is, why he aggravated me so much. I guess I couldn’t understand David’s attachment to him. He is described as beautiful, certainly, and we’re all suckers for a beautiful face, but we’re meant to believe that the bond between the two men runs deeper than lust; and yet Giovanni comes across as pretentious and pettish and infantile. I dreaded him opening his mouth, although thankfully he doesn’t do so very often. Furthermore, I didn’t understand his character, I could not get a handle on his reactions, his motivations. This is in contrast to David, regardless of how unsympathetic many find him, and Jacques, both of whom are psychologically sound. Giovanni, despite being so central to the story, feels entirely one-dimensional. Indeed, while David claims to find queenish, theatrical gay people distasteful, it’s odd that he falls for the one character in the book who is closest to that description.

NATIVE SON BY RICHARD WRIGHT

So far in my life I have dated girls from a variety of racial backgrounds, including black, asian and oriental. For someone who is almost oppressively cynical it is perhaps surprising that I entered each relationship with a certain level of naivety. Despite being well aware that racism still exists, I didn’t expect the amount of negative attention these relationships received. One incident always comes to my mind, which is the time I and my black girlfriend were accosted by a group of black teenagers one afternoon; the kids seemed to be incredibly upset by this coupling, which they perceived as an affront, and so they started to follow us and shout insults [racist insults, no less!]. I’m not entirely certain how we managed to get out of it without the incident turning violent and still now, some time later, I feel uneasy when passing a group of similar kids on my own.

Yet, it wasn’t only overt racism that was the problem. More pertinently, in terms of what I found most interesting about the book under review here, there was the endlessly in[s]ane behaviour and comments from people who were well-intentioned. People were so petrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, of being politically incorrect, or were trying too hard not to be politically correct [because they felt this was also insulting], that they made themselves and everyone around them uncomfortable. Having had these experiences my reading of Native Son has retrospectively been enriched. Obviously, I am not saying my experiences are comparable to the brutal and systematic racism that, historically, people of certain races have been subjected to, nor are they similar to what happens in Wright’s novel, which is itself extreme, but that they are, for someone who cares nothing for all this will-to-power bullshit, a reminder of just how much tension and weirdness still surrounds this issue.

I read the book a couple of years ago, but, as I remember it, the central character, Bigger Thomas, is a touchy, listless, youth who is given a job with an affluent white family. The head of the family is well-known for his benevolent attitude towards the black population, and so Bigger appears to have got himself a good gig. Of course, from our perspective the idea that the white man is to be applauded for giving a black young man some menial work makes us wriggle a bit in our skin, and Bigger’s lack of gratitude is telling. In any case, things go well enough for Bigger until the man’s daughter takes an interest in him. She makes an effort to talk to him, to be his friend, despite Bigger’s desire to be left alone to do his job as he is employed to do it. And it was this, this exploration of woolly-headed, well meaning, liberal white attitudes, and how at odds their desires are with what Bigger wants, that really made the novel for me.

There is such complex psychology involved in these exchanges, in terms of the girl who thinks she is helping Bigger but who is really jeopardising his job, who believes she cares about the plight of black people in America, and Bigger in particular, but who really is exacerbating the problem, and treating him with an arrogant lack of consideration, by not respecting his wishes; her behaviour, as with a lot of so-styled well-meaning liberals, is really directed at herself not at the person or group she purports to want to help; her actions are born out of self-obsession, out of a desire to make herself feel good. As for Bigger, he doesn’t want to be anyone’s dogsbody, of course, no one does, and so he is not reticent to respond to her friendly advances because he loves his job, but because he is aware that a friendship, a true friendship, with the girl is impossible even if he desired it. There is a powerful scene in a cafe or restaurant when Bigger is all but forced to eat with the girl and her boyfriend; his discomfort, and his shame, is palpable; the couple, however, are having a whale of time and think themselves to be wonderfully open-minded. Elegant slumming, I think you call this kind of thing. And race is not the only issue on the menu here, either; I feel that Native Son has interesting and important things to say about how the poor, the underclass, in general are treated and perceived by the more privileged people squatting on their shoulders.

Not wishing to spoil it for first-time readers I won’t say too much about the tragic, violent heart of the novel, except to say that as a consequence of the girl’s attention Bigger does a terrible thing. It takes quite a lot to shock me, but what Bigger does, and his attempts to cover it up, really did make me gasp. It is an act that, in some way, is motivated by fear; Wright seems to be suggesting that the oppressive atmosphere that surrounds Bigger, not just in the house but society as a whole, breeds violence, paranoia, and insanity, and, I think, he’s largely correct in that. As for the novel as a whole, there is, in the second half, some polemical guff that’s a bit dry and bit too in your face for my taste, and the writing throughout is only adequate. Wright’s style isn’t poetic, or particularly controlled or eye-catching. It just is. The matter-of-fact prose prevents Native Son, for me anyway, from being a masterpiece, but perhaps enhances the page-turner quality of the work. Native Son is an easy and quick read, but is also tight and thrilling and well worth investing the [not extensive] time in.