youth

THE BLUE FLOWER BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD

I grew up in a home in which a washing machine, for example, was an extravagance we could not afford. However, we did own a large selection of hardback books, which my father – perhaps in an effort to convince my mother that he was a sensitive and high-minded man – had purchased during the early stages of his marriage. Yet most of these books – including the complete works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and some hefty poetry anthologies – remained untouched until I was old enough to understand that they were not simply a decorative feature. Of course, I could not make sense of the greater part of what I read, but I found comfort in emotions and situations that were alien to me and beyond my personal experience, in being able to transport myself away from my dreary surroundings. When I read, say, a poem by Dylan Thomas I felt as though he was trying to tell me something, was reaching out to me, but, at the same time, had endeavoured to make that message as beautiful or interesting as possible, like a woman putting on her best underwear before jumping into bed with her partner.

By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was writing my own poetry and short stories. I wrote terribly, of course, but it was something that I felt compelled to do. It didn’t seem strange to me then, although it does now, that I chose to express myself in words rather than with violence. My parents did not encourage me to be creative; I don’t think they even knew that I spent most of my time reading and writing. They had no expectations for me, wanted nothing for me, as far as I could tell, except that perhaps I would not ‘get into trouble’ like the majority of my contemporaries. I was fifteen when my English teacher entered a story I had written in a competition, and I won. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t attend the prize-giving. I was awkward, insular and unambitious. My father was a bed maker, my mother, when she could find work, was a cleaner or barmaid. I wasn’t ashamed of them, I was ashamed of myself. I subsequently went to college, then to university, to study English literature and Philosophy; and at each stage I felt unfit for purpose.

“But even more heavenly than the flashing stars are those infinite eyes which the night opens within us, and which see further even than the palest of those innumerable hosts.” – Novalis

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald concentrates on a few years in the life of young Fritz von Hardenberg, who later made his name as the romantic poet and philosopher Novalis. Approaching the novel, one might expect that the aim would be to show his development as an artist, and there is some of that, but what came through most clearly, and movingly, for me was a portrait of a man who is unsuited to a practical existence, and who is at odds with his most practical parents. Indeed, the Hardenbergs are said to not invite neighbours to their home, and not accept invitations, as this ‘might lead to worldliness.’ When the French revolution is reported in the newspaper the Freiherr believes the people to have gone ‘mad’ and bans the paper from the home. He is strict man who does not like new ideas, and will not tolerate frivolity in his children. Fritz’s mother, on the other hand, is described as having a ‘narrowness of mind’; she sees the disturbances in France as being ‘no more than a device to infuriate her husband.’

Yet it would be wrong to give the impression that Fritz’s parents are hard and unloving. The Freifrau is simple, yes, but she is a good, affectionate woman. She, for example, offers Fritz her bracelet – the only one she considers truly her own – from which he might fashion his engagement rings. Even his tough old father breaks down in tears after visiting his son’s sick wife-to-be and proposes to give her some of his property. The Hardenberg’s are, in fact, a happy family, who would, says Fritz, give their lives for each other. It is simply that there is a generational clash, between the parents and all their children, but which is most keenly felt in their relationship with Fritz. So while the Freiherr wants his eldest son to be educated ‘in the German manner’, to take a year of Law so as to be able to protect the family’s property, Fritz instead enrols in courses for philosophy and history. The old man expects him to begin a career as an inspector of salt mines, while the ‘dreamy, seemingly backward’ son is only really fit for being a poet and writer. The novel, therefore, is not really concerned with the creative process, but rather with how an artist responds to being raised in an environment that doesn’t nurture, or even acknowledge, his creativity.

1-fFpNas4IQnxJVHjFbEBYAA.png

The Blue Flower is often described, or sold, as a love story, and yet for me his relationship with Sophie von Kuhn is simply further evidence of Fritz’s impractical, romantic nature. First of all, she is only twelve years old when they meet and so is not, and could not be, his intellectual equal; in fact, she can barely write. Moreover, she is portrayed as being somewhat uncouth, which is of course not unusual in a child. One of the central questions in the novel is, then, why does Fritz love Sophie? Certainly, it is not due to her supreme physical attractiveness, for we are given to believe that the ‘decent good-hearted saxon girl’ is very ordinary looking. Nor is the answer simply that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, as some have tritely argued. It is the case that Fritz sees in her childish ways something natural, free and easy. She represents for him, as women do for a number of men, nature, innocence, etc. She is uninhibited. The most significant moment in the book in terms of understanding her appeal is when Erasmus asks her for a lock of her hair, and she laughs at him because, unknown to the boy, she has lost her hair due to illness. Her lack of embarrassment and ego is charming. In this way, there is a subtle change in the way that one reacts to the novel, for the real issue is not can Sophie make Fritz happy, but can he do the same for her, for she has no romantic ideals on which to build her love.

“A word of advice. If, as a young man, student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to get out into the fresh air as much as possible.”

There is one other, perhaps more interesting and tragic, love story in The Blue Flower, which involves Karoline Just’s unrequited feelings for Fritz. Sophie von Kuhn dies, and this is upsetting, of course, but, as noted above, at no point did I believe that her marriage to Fritz would be a successful one. Karoline, on the other hand, is, at least on the surface, perfect for him. She is mature, intelligent, warm-hearted, and, most crucially, believes in him and looks up to him. With her Fritz would have been happy, and yet he fails to see it. In a novel that is full of wonderful character portraits, she is, if not my favourite, then certainly the most emotionally affecting, for her cross is that she is not exciting enough. She is not poetry, she is not philosophy; she does not encourage romantic ideas; she is too practical, too conventional a choice for a man of genius.

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS BY VÍTĚZSLAV NEZVAL

Maturation is, of course, an ongoing process; a process that, you might argue, ends only with your death. It is, therefore, difficult, perhaps even absurd, to attempt to pinpoint a moment in your life when you became aware of yourself as a adult. Yet, when I cast into the pool of my memories, I am able to dredge up a number of incidents or experiences, which at the time struck me as pivotal in my development towards becoming a man. My first ejaculation, for example. My seed has adorned the faces, the bellies, the breasts, the backs, and backsides, of various women; it has been swallowed and spat out; it has dried slowly into bedsheets and t-shirts; but none were as significant, as world-shaping, for you are the world, as the afternoon it made its debut, dribbling down my own hand.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vítězslav Nezval is not, you may be relieved to hear, about masturbation, or not explicitly anyway. It could, however, be described as a sexual coming-of-age story, if you’ll permit me that trite phrase. The girl of the title is seventeen years old, and very early in the novel, on the first day in fact, she feels ‘a thin stream of blood trickling down her ankle.’ She has, of course, started her period, her first period we’re led to believe, an event that, at least for society at large, indicates that she is now no longer a little girl, but a woman. Not everything that follows is as easy to decipher, nor as directly related to menstruation, but it is telling that the action takes place over seven days, which is [the upper end of] the length of time a period can last.

1782174-fresh-ripe-pomegranate-and-glass-of-red-wine-on-black-background (1).jpg

Also telling is that Valerie is said to feel ‘great dismay’ when she notices the blood, suggesting that she isn’t happy about leaving her childhood behind. It is interesting, in this regard, that the novel’s action is so fantastical, so reminiscent of a certain kind of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland immediately springs to mind, of course – and of the games and fantasies of children themselves, what with the strange creatures, hidden rooms, magic phials, and so on. These peculiar, often frightening, situations, characters, and objects represent Valerie’s inner turmoil, the sturm and drang of her emotions and the changes occurring in her body. Yet one might also regard them as a product of her imagination, as the girl fighting against the onset of adulthood by retreating into a childish fantasy world, which is, one ought to note, scary, yes, but never genuinely harmful.

In any case, there is much in the novel about the importance of age, and this is often linked to sexual desire or appeal. For example, one of Valerie’s friends, Hedviga, agrees to wed a much older, and richer, man. When Valerie asks her grandmother why he would want to marry a poor girl, her grandmother replies that ‘she’s young. That explains everything.’ The idea is that youth equals sex appeal, that the old man wants her because she is firm and virginal; and so he uses his money to snare, and in turn fuck, this local beauty, who otherwise he would have no chance with. Later, the grandmother bargains away her house in order to be made young again for a week. What Elsa – who, by the way, is only given a christian name once the transformation has taken place – does with this gift is endeavor to seduce, and at times succeeds in seducing, people younger than her real age.

In addition, there are repeated references to Valerie’s own sexual awakening, such as when she attends the instruction of virgins at church. During the service the minister speaks lustily of buds that ‘will burst when the time is ripe’ and ‘uncleft pomegranates’, and his words are said to touch ‘the girl’s very body.’ There is also more than one occasion when she witnesses people copulating, and makes no move to depart, being, in one instance, ‘unable to stop her eyes from feasting on the strange looking crab writhing on the bed.’ Furthermore, there is the suggestion that others can sense her ripeness, her newfound sexual potency. Indeed, one of the people Elsa attempts to seduce is her granddaughter. The Polecat, who at times is said to be Valerie’s father, does likewise. It struck me that the incestuous element of the narrative is a way of indicating how powerful the sexual urge is, in that it can transcend moral boundaries. This is backed up when the minister intends to rape Valerie.

“Valerie had lost her way. For the third time, without knowing how, she had entered a deserted square that seemed to be enchanted.”

It is said that, both in style and content, Nezval was paying homage to old gothic serials [and the marvellously silly Pulp genre]. I don’t have much to say on that, in the way of insightful criticism, beyond what I wrote earlier regarding Valerie’s turmoil/retreat into childish fantasy. Yet, even if you dismiss those theories, it is certainly the case that the ‘wonders’ element of the novel is its most immediately appealing feature. Indeed, were I attempting to convince someone to read the book I would, without question, mention the vampire polecat; the plot to steal a boy’s heart and transplant it into another; the hanging, the accusations of witchery, the despairing crowing of a cock, the burial ground, the ghost. In relation to this, Nezval himself wrote in his foreword that his work is ‘bordering on the ridiculous’, and there is, as far as I am concerned, no greater selling point than that.

FIRST LOVE BY IVAN TURGENEV

Recently I have found myself drawn to novels about looking back to the past, about nostalgia and youth. I guess it is a sign that I am getting older or perhaps it is a consequence of the tough time I have been having in my personal life, where, without going into too many details, death has been on the agenda quite a lot. I find myself currently feeling highly emotional, over sensitive, and sentimental. Just yesterday, in fact, I was flicking through Alain-Fournier’s beautiful French novel Le Grand Meaulnes, and almost burst into tears [which is certainly very unusual for me] when I came across this passage:

“Weeks went by, then months. I am speaking of a far-away time – a vanished happiness. It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence.”

The fairy, the love-dream of our adolescence, is Yvonne, a young girl who, in short, comes to signify, both for the central characters and the reader, the magic of youth and the impossibility of recapturing the period of your life when everything was new and an adventure. So, anyway, bearing all that in mind, it seems as though this is both the perfect and the worst time to read Ivan Turgenev’s First Love [Первая любовь, Pervaya ljubov], which deals with very similar ideas and themes.

The novella begins with a group of men, ‘not old, but no longer young,’ sharing the stories of their own first loves. However, only one of the party has an interesting tale to tell, which took place one summer when he, Vladimir Petrovich, was sixteen. That it was summer is, I believe, significant, because it is of course generally thought to be a season of sunshine and gaiety and positivity, when everything is alive, when the days are longer, the blood is warm, and anything seems possible. Moreover, the age of sixteen is one of the pivotal years of one’s life. One is [to paraphrase that wise old bird, Britney Spears] not a child, not yet an adult; one is open-minded, willing to experience, but may not [certainly at the time the novel was written, if not these days] have any real life experience of your own. Indeed, Vladimir describes himself as ‘expectant and shy’; and while he wanted to give the impression of maturity admits that he was not yet allowed to wear a frock coat. He also points out that his father was ‘indifferent’ to him and his mother neglectful, which meant that he had the necessary freedom to chase those new experiences, and all the more reason to look for love and attention from someone else.

“O youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you, even sorrow sits well upon your brow. You are self-confident and insolent and you say, ‘I alone am alive – behold!’ even while your own days fly past and vanish without trace and without number, and everything within you melts away like wax in the sun .. like snow ..”

The object of this love is Zinaida, a 21 one year old, impoverished princess who has just moved to the area with her boorish mother. In Benito Perez Galdos’ towering novel Fortunata and Jacinta, Juanito first meets the woman who comes to be his lover on a stairway, while she eats a raw egg, the juice running down her fingers. This is not only a fabulous way to introduce a character, but is clearly meant to say something important about the character herself, and Turgenev does something similar here. When Vladimir first spots Zinaida she is in her garden surrounded by a group of men, and so one knows instantly that she is popular with the opposite sex. Moreover, she is, in turn, tapping each of her suitors on the forehead with a flower. What this suggests, and what the rest of the text backs up, is that she is a lively, free-spirited, young girl. In fact, it comes as no surprise in this regard that she was, apparently, much admired by Gustave Flaubert.

hqdefault (1)

[From the German film Erste Liebe, which is based on Turgenev’s novella]

Vladimir later describes the girl’s personality as a mixture of ‘cunning and carelessness, artificiality and simplicity, calmness and vivacity’ and I think this does a fine job of summing her up. She is not wholly one thing or the other; she is mysterious, enigmatic, never transparent, seemingly cruel at times, and yet somehow always charming. For example, she instantly gives the boy a nickname, Voldemar, and deliberately plays on his intensifying feelings, while at the same time showing him tenderness and favouring him over the other men in her life. She is, in short, the kind of girl I have myself lost my fucking mind over more than once. And that is strangely comforting in a way, that, even over one hundred years ago, men were giving their hearts to these beautiful, maddening young women. [First Love was, so it is said, based on Turgenev’s own experiences].

“She tore herself away, and went out. And I went away. I cannot describe the emotion with which I went away. I should not wish it ever to come again; but I should think myself unfortunate had I never experienced such an emotion.”

Interestingly, the situation in the garden does not only tell us about Zinaida. It also reveals something about the men in her life and hints at the reasons for her betrayal of Vladimir [yeah, she does him wrong]. Her admirers all fawn over her, they are all servile, eager to please. This is made clear by the fact that they allow her to hit them on the head with a flower. Later, one buys her a kitten, when she asks for one, and looks to get her a horse. Vladimir is no different. When Zinaida, not expecting him to comply, asks him to prove his love by jumping off a wall, with a 14 foot drop, he does just that. And yet the girl herself says that she can only love a man who would ‘break her in two’ i.e. who would not be her lapdog. This is one thing that I have never understood about men, or a certain type of man. Take my own brother as an example. He hangs around the women he likes, doing their bidding, buying them presents, in the hope that this will somehow show him to be a lovely, sensitive guy, and yet it never works. He never gets the girl because he comes across as weak and pathetic. And this is exactly what happens in First Love. In this way, you have to credit Turgenev with nailing a still-relevant, seemingly universal aspect of human relationships and psychology.

“There is a sweetness in being the sole source, the autocratic and irresponsible cause of the greatest joy and profoundest pain to another, and I was like wax in Zinaïda’s hands; though, indeed, I was not the only one in love with her. All the men who visited the house were crazy over her, and she kept them all in leading-strings at her feet. It amused her to arouse their hopes and then their fears, to turn them round her finger (she used to call it knocking their heads together), while they never dreamed of offering resistance and eagerly submitted to her.”

While First Love is increasingly packaged as a single, stand-alone book, and is, more often than not, described as a novella [by me in this review, no less], it is, in fact, not much more than an obese short story. Yet for such a short work, it is admirably sophisticated. For example, in terms of the structure, there is a lot of very satisfying mirroring going on. Both Zinaida and Vladimir are young, both are in a sense abandoned to themselves by their parents, and, more importantly, both experience their first loves during the course of the narrative. I think it is easy to overlook that Zinaida is not only an object of affection, that she too is going through one of the most tumultuous, defining moments of a person’s life, and it is this that gives the text a greater depth and makes her a more rounded and sympathetic character, because, let’s face it, young love is a bitch, and no one ever really handles it very well or emerges from it spotless. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful too; I wholeheartedly recommend it, but, even so, I couldn’t wish it on anyone with an entirely clear conscience.

I KNEW YOU WOULD BE A GOOD KISSER

Jemmia emerged out of the tube station and turned right. She was wearing red shoes, which, as she stepped, looked like dripping drops of blood. A young man was waiting for her. She had first met the young man three years earlier. She was nineteen then, twenty-two now. They had become friends, in a way. The first day they had kissed strange kisses. Jemmia kissed in short bursts, like a small child. The young man had found that both frustrating and very sad. It was as though no one had ever kissed her properly, with feeling, and so she pecked at his face like a cautious bird. ‘I knew you would be a good kisser,’ is what she had told him, after. That had made him sad too.

In the second or third pub a woman had leaned over the back of the seat in front, and said ‘your girlfriend is pretty,’ and then asked him for a cigarette. Everything made him sad that day. The woman had looked like the kind of person who would force a flier into your hand out on the street, and the walls of the pub had been a dull yellow, like urine-stained bathroom tiles.

Between pubs they had walked awkwardly, not quite in step, so that the young man had to almost turn around to talk to her. They had not held hands. It had not occurred to either of them. In the wind his conversation had streamed past her shoulders, like her hair. She seemed content, he had thought, and that had made him sadder still. In pub after pub he had placed his hand high up her thigh. She had expected this, or something like it. In fact, she had braced herself for more, but that had not materialised. He had come so far and then retreated, like a housecat nosing a gap in a window only to be scared off by the cold. She had braced herself, but wanted more. It was expected, and therefore necessary. Her disappointment made her stare. Her eyes were like polished snooker balls; the only thing he could see in them was his own reflection.

Somehow night had fallen, not with the giddiness of a drunken fool, but with the solemn slowness of a weary working man getting into bed at the end of a long shift. In the last pub, music blared and the lights flashed like cat claws. ‘You’ve never flirted with me,’ Jemmia had said. That had been her invitation. ‘I have,’ he had lied, ‘but maybe I haven’t been obvious enough about it.’ They had reached an understanding, and so she had smiled, and reapplied her buttery lipstick.

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow,’ she had said when he had asked her to spend the night with him. ‘My dad will be upset if I don’t come home.’ Neither remembered suggesting a hotel, although the young man would take credit for it whenever he shared the story. That story, his story, bore little similarity with the actual events. Over time, he had replaced and reimagined so much that his memory of the night with Jemmia was no more real to him than a dream.

Jemmia slowed as she approached the young man. He took a step forward, and then stopped. She hugged him loosely and, because she was wearing her hair up, he felt the small stray hairs at the back of her neck. Six months ago Jemmia had called him and told him that she was in an institution. He had never asked how or why. On the street, she kissed him on the mouth, a real kiss, not like before, and he was aware that this would have made him sad too, at one time, but he could no longer conjure up those feelings. They were like something he had bought rashly at auction, and which he had now locked away somewhere in order to not be reminded of his foolishness.

PORNOGRAFIA BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

One of my blogging friends {I don’t have many for perhaps obvious reasons] described my reviews a while ago as caustic. Aye, maybe they are. It’s a description, or opinion, that I encounter a lot, and it’s funny to me because I feel myself as though I’m just, y’know, kidding around and yet I appear to offend people quite often, without much effort. Maybe my sense of humour, my sense of fun is, um, pretty niche. Indeed, I once had a record 10 friends unfriend me on my [now deleted] facebook account on the back of a joke about kids. Here is the joke:

Did anyone hear about the kids that were given cocaine in their trick or treat bags this Halloween? The police are saying that it was an accident, which is true, as I meant to give them cyanide.

DISCLAIMER: I do not advocate giving children drugs, or even cyanide.

I wouldn’t like to say whether my offending these people was because I am an arsehole or because they are touchy and humourless [and I wouldn’t like you to spam the comments of this review with your opinion on the matter either], but it doesn’t bode well when reviewing a book that is a macabre tale of murder and mayhem instigated by two men with an erotic fixation with youth. Oh well.

In an effort to give you an idea of what to expect from Gombrowicz’s deadly duo let me utilise a few visual resources. First of all, does anyone remember this guy?

tumblr_mb729ssxyF1rawb5do1_500

Well, imagine two of him. Now imagine them older, less energetic, but even more devious. Perhaps, for good measure, add some of this lady to the mix:

 _1395752928

Hell, why not throw in a soupçon of this man while you’re at it:

images

And, well, if you can imagine such a thing, such a pair, you might have some idea of what to expect.

Now, I can sense some of you might be feeling uneasy already, your arses might be starting to shift uncomfortably in your seats, so let’s, just for shit and giggles, crank it up a notch, and consider some of what these two men get up to. In short, Pornografia involves a couple of old geezers visiting a friend and developing an unhealthy interest in his young daughter and a young male acquaintance. Before long they are encouraging them to fondle each other [not quite what you’re thinking], to become closer, to perform for them, for their own enjoyment and titillation. We call this kind of thing grooming, these days, and at the heart of such behaviour is a desire for power over the [apparently] powerless, and, one could also say, a need to simultaneously posses and sully something more beautiful and purer than yourself. This being a novel featuring five-star weirdos these manipulations result in murder, as I mentioned earlier, but maybe not in the way one would expect.

The author claimed that Pornografia is a refinement of, a more sophisticated version of, his debut work Ferdydurke and the themes explored within it. Now, it’s not for me to contradict a genius [well, actually, it probably is], but I disagree. Ferdydurke is concerned with the nature of immaturity, and our obsession with being seen to be mature. This novel, however, turns the tables slightly, with the focus being more on the older generation and their obsession with, and admiration for, youth. There is an interesting, subtle, difference between the two ideas, and yet both seem to have some validity, are attitudes that are simultaneously prevalent in our society. One only needs to switch on a TV to be assaulted by images of nubile youngsters, be it Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, who embody, or encapsulate both of Gombrowicz’s ideas: the young performer eager to appear mature beyond their years, and the erotic interest in them from people old enough to be their parents [don’t believe me? Those leaked Cyrus pictures weren’t blogged, and viewed, solely by 16 year olds], not to mention the way that these stars are manipulated by adults within the record industry etc.

In any case, I’ve rambled enough. In conclusion, Pornografia is impish, funny, intelligent, absurd, but suffused with an almost suffocating, bewildering, intensity. It is, let’s not kid ourselves, most certainly not a book for everyone. A little like my reviews then, I guess.

WISE BLOOD BY FLANNERY O’CONNOR

I read this again over the last two days partly because I hoped it would help me to figure it out. I needn’t have bothered. Not because the book is bad, or because it isn’t worth reading numerous times for sheer enjoyment of the characters, the plot and the prose, but because I will never completely figure this thing out. Wise Blood, for me, is like Sci-fi; Hazel Motes and Enoch Emery, the two boys at the heart of the novel, might as well be from another planet, so alien to me are their thought processes and preoccupations. Perhaps that is part of why I love the Southern Gothic genre, because the motivations and the ideas behind the best works are so outside of my experience that it is like a holiday from myself. You’ve probably noticed from my reviews that a lot of my reading leads back to me; I’m completely self-obsessed, I guess, but then I don’t know how to work with texts other than to try and link them to my experience of the world. That isn’t something I could ever, with complete success, do here.

This is not to say, of course, that the book is unintelligible, even re: Motes, the stupendously odd central character. On one level Hazel is your archetypal mixed-up kid, railing against the world. He’s a brooding anti-hero; a Brando, a Dean. At the beginning of the novel, with the suggestion that he is returning from the army – a regimented, brutal occupation – I felt as though I was on familiar, comfortable ground. Kid comes out of the army, takes out his resentment and despair on the world. Gotcha, Flannery. But then we’re told about the grandfather who had Jesus in him like a stinger and one starts to connect that with Motes telling one woman that he wouldn’t believe in Jesus even if He existed. Is Wise Blood a novel about upbringing, about how one might try, and yet cannot, so to speak, throw off the shawl placed upon your shoulders by your family? Is this a novel about how, to paraphrase Larkin, they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad [and your religion]? Yeah, to a certain extent. You could call Motes A Rebel Without A Faith, but, truly, it isn’t that straightforward. Motes has faith, it seems to me, otherwise he wouldn’t be so obsessed with the shyster preacher he meets and he wouldn’t talk of Jesus as though he accepts his existence. Wise Blood may be then about the battle for the soul; the pull of atheism, or sin, but the need for Christ. I dunno.

So, um, religion, huh? There’s probably little more likely to turn people away from a book than religion. I see in my personal life, that as soon as anyone speaks about faith or belief in God or whatever that people immediately start to shift uncomfortably in their seat, and sometimes even become quite aggressive. Now, I am not religious at all, nor are any members of my family. But I do find religious belief fascinating, so perhaps I was still primed to get a kick out of this book; on that basis, me recommending Wise Blood will not convince those who squirm at the mention of anything holy, those, and there are plenty of them, for whom Christianity, Catholicism etc are anathema.

I have tried to explain what I think are the universal aspects of the novel – the way that your upbringing affects you throughout your life, how what you are taught, what you see in childhood still lingers into adulthood – but there simply is no getting away from the fact that Wise Blood is a religiously-focussed novel, and O’Connor a Catholic writer. I spoke about getting the book at the start of my review, and it is that stuff, redemption and sin and so on, that eludes me; all that just cannot fully resonate with me. Motes’ and Enoch’s journeys are spiritual ones, they are searching for something, although it isn’t always clear what. Motes is surrounded by conmen, hypocrites, crims, and jezebels. That, that questing for truth and place, is a universal idea. Most people, young people, can relate to that. In a way Wise Blood is a darker, more intense version of Catcher in the Rye. One crucial difference between the books, however, is that I wasn’t ever sure whose side O’Connor was on, if anyone’s.

However, if you can get over all that stuff there’s so much to appreciate, to love. Most people seem to believe that O’Connor’s stories are the highpoint of her output, and while I do rate them [I’d place Wise Blood on par with the Everything That Rises collection as the best things she published], I think that her prose is at its best here. Her imagery, in particular, is almost peerless. I’ve already mentioned the stinger line, which is a brilliant simile, but my favourite is the description of Jesus as moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. That’s one of my favourite pieces of writing in anything, ever.

Wise Blood is funny too. I’m not saying you’ll piss your pants, but you might chuckle like a dickhead. I did. O’Conner’s humour is sardonic and cutting and deadpan and satirical; she’s like Jane Austen with PMS.There are plenty of lines that amuse, like when Mrs Hitchcock tells Motes that times goes so fast you can’t tell if you’re young or old and Flannery writes he [Motes] could tell her she was old if she asked him, but I particularly enjoyed Motes’ church, the Church Without Christ. I dunno about you, but the idea of someone setting up a church to preach against Christ is pretty fucking funny to me. The book is, also, thrillingly bonkers. I mean, seriously, it’s completely bats. I find craziness in art funny, and I think you’re meant to a lot of the time, but even if you don’t I’m guessing most of you enjoy a bit of grotesque mind-fuckery; if so, there is plenty of super-weird stuff to goose you in Wise Blood. Such as? Oh, random murder, self-mutilation, stealing a mummy from a museum…that kind of shit. And that ending? Boy. An eye for an eye, indeed.

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE BY J.D. SALINGER

catcher-in-the-ryeGee, people do seem to get their knickers in a twist over this little book. I like knickers, y’know, on a desirable woman. Twisted knickers? Meh, not so much. The first and only time I read The Catcher in the Rye was when I was sixteen. Let me take you back to that time…

Teenage P. was in many ways like adult P., just less hairy and less laid back and with a million hormones buzzing around inside him like some kind of potent cocktail of class A drugs. I read the book during my first year of college as part of an English Literature A-level class. Now, prior to starting college I had lived in circumstances that I will politely refer to as difficult. Yeah, difficult, or fucking horrible, take your pick. Most of you, I imagine, don’t know anything about Yorkshire council estates, so think Nil by Mouth or Requiem for a Dream, but with less optimism, fewer laughs. It is fair to say, then, that I was nervous about starting college. I had felt, from a very young age, unable to relate to my peers [to be fair to me, the ones I had met up to this point had all been thuggish wankers] and I was expecting to find myself in a similar position once again.

Anyway, on my first day of college I was given my timetable for the year: I had English Lit first lesson. I conscientiously turned up for the class early. Standing outside the classrooom when I arrived was a skinny dark-haired boy. Ah fuck, I think to myself, now I’ve got to talk to this weirdo. After a few minutes of uncomfortable stilted conversation the teacher arrived, followed by the rest of the class, and we entered the room and took our seats. The weirdo sat next to me. After some pleasantries and introductions the teacher handed out a book. The book was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it turned out that I loved college, that for the first time in my life I felt a part of something that made sense to me. Indeed, the weirdo is still my closest friend [I was best man at his wedding last year]. So, The Catcher in the Rye is a vital part of my adolescence; reading it is a lovely, cheering, memory. I cannot, then, review it with a complete lack of bias. As a profound stepping-stone in my life this book deserves all my love and admiration. Not only that, but Teenage P. genuinely adored it, he and the weirdo bonded over it.

What do I have to say about The Catcher in the Rye as a sometimes mature adult? First of all, I’m suspicious of those who claim to despise Caulfield or find him excessively annoying. Weren’t you people ever teenagers? Can’t you relate, just a little bit…just a tiny bit…just a smidgen? Because if you can’t then I pity you, I do truly. He’s just an average, over-sensitive, wide-eyed, uber-emotive, bundle of teenage lameness. Just like I was; just like most kids. I put it to you that if you haven’t ever laid on your bed listening to How Soon is Now, feeling slightly choked up, while pondering the inability of the rest of the world to, y’know, get you then you’re no member of the human race. You’re an alien. Go back to your home planet.

Holden is not Hitler. He’s a good kid, you know, that Holden. He just wants people to care for each other; and yeah he thinks he invented the concept, but teenagers think that all their emotions and ideas are original, so cut him some slack. The reaction from some readers and reviewers would have you think he spends the entire novel stamping on kittens [spoiler: no kittens are harmed during this novel].

Salinger, it ought to be said, had a fine prose style. Even now, if I open up the book, I find it impressive. It’s expressive, memorable, uniquely his own. That’s no mean feat and it’s not an accident. As a stylist he was a bit of a craftsman.

My final thought is that I probably wouldn’t find this book satisfying as a reading experience these days. I’ve moved on, but there’s no shame in that [either for me or the book or those who still hold it in high esteem].