Book review: Last Orders, by Graham Swift, 1996

Four men take the ashes of a friend, Jack Dodds, to Margate, to scatter them off the end of the pier. Last Orders is the story of their journey. Along the way all four are given time to tell their stories as internal monologues and through their conversations, as are some of the women in their lives. It’s a strikingly simple story where little happens, but where we warm to the frailty and vulnerability of these flawed, human characters as we learn more about them.

Ray, the character who is given the most space to develop his narrative, works in an insurance office, but always wanted to be a jockey. His friends know him as Lucky; he is a very successful gambler. However the nickname was originally given to him during his years in the African desert during the Second World War, when luck was needed to survive in one piece. Together with his friends Lenny, a greengrocer, Vince, Jack’s adopted son, and Vic, a funeral director, they stop at various points along the way from Bermondsey to Margate as a way of saying farewell to their late friend. We learn that all the men served in the army, have careers they would have preferred to have pursued, and troubled relationships, especially with their daughters who they have all in one way or another lost. All have secrets that will remain unspoken. Their shared experiences bond them together. Their pilgrimage, underlined by a brief stop in Canterbury, ends with them casting their friend’s ashes to the turbulent April winds.

I enjoyed Last Orders. Its structure meant I had to invest time in working out who was who, the various family relationships etc, but once those were clear the short chapters and the alternating perspectives meant the narrative had a lot of pace, despite the relative lack of incident. I did have one quibble with the text, which will take some time to describe but shouldn’t be given too much emphasis despite that. My concern was with the use of the vernacular. Each character ‘speaks’ – including in internal monologue – in a form of South London Cockney. There’s thankfully no real attempt to transcribe the accent – no dropped h’s and glottal stops – but Swift tries to catch the cadences and slang of working class Bermondsey.

The reviews quoted in the edition I read were full of praise for the success of this attempt and the authenticity of the language:

“He has succeeded in elevating the demotic to an elegiac level of which Wordsworth could only dream; here is language such as men do use” (This quote is cited as coming from The Guardian, although it is not to be found in the paper’s original review of the novel).

The novel’s hero is the English language as spoken by ordinary people. ” Sunday Times.

And several others along similar lines. It’s ironic that the Guardian reviewer apparently used the awkward phrase “such as men do use” to describe authentic everyday speech. I’ve ranted here before about authenticity in novels – if an author is aiming to represent something as authentic then they need to get it right. When the Guardian revisited the novel in 2012 the reviewer shared my concern:

“I did have a problem though, right from the very first sentence, which reads: “It aint like your regular sort of day.” It’s a striking enough opening and, viewed retrospectively, a witty summary of the rest of the book, which takes place over the course of one fraught day. Yet, for me, that sentence didn’t ring true. Graham Swift grew up in south London, and presumably knows the local habits and speech patterns better than – say – Martin Amis knows Lionel Asbo’s. But there’s something that doesn’t quite click. His colloquialisms and slang and deliberately simplistic language all seem a bit cor-blimey-guvnor. I’ll be amazed if I ever read a novel with more “aints” per page. (I just turned to page 63, for instance, and found: “June aint my sister. I aint got no sister … I aint going to be a butcher never, it aint what I’m trying to be.”)

As John Mullan delicately put it: “In Last Orders, there is sometimes the danger of hearing the TV demotic of Only Fools and Horses or EastEnders.” Or as AN Wilson noted more bluntly in the same letter to the Independent quoted above: “The ersatz Bermondsey ‘characters’ had as much plausibility as Kipling’s Cockney rhymes. One began to imagine the embarrassment of reading this stuff to a real Bermondsey butcher.” This time, Wilson has a point. The novel’s voice is flawed.” 

Graham Swift grew up in South London” – well yes and no. He was hardly a Bermondsey boy! He went to school at Dulwich College, a so-called ‘independent’ i.e. private school, and from there to Cambridge. Which of itself doesn’t mean he is unable to capture the way working class people speak, it just makes it harder. Generally speaking Swift carries this act of impersonation off quite well, but at times he tries too hard (“it aint never gone nowhere”) and at others Swift the author takes over the voice of the character in the course of their internal monologue, so they start speaking in elegant imagery – Ray at one point describes the aroma of the seaside at Margate as “It smells like memory itself, or the inside of a lobster pot”. To be fair, capturing the precise language and cadences of former soldiers from Bermondsey, with its very specific slang informed by the years in the desert, would have been incredibly difficult. I thought the flawed nature of the novel’s voice would be an issue for me, would possibly even spoil the novel, and I know I have made the point at some length, but once I tuned in to the language I came to terms with it and was able to pass over the moments when it all went a bit Eastenders.

The title of the novel is a play on the phrase “last orders”, called out by publicans just before closing, and the instructions given by Jack about the disposal of his ashes. In other words closing time in the pub comes to represent the end of life. This is not a new insight of course – Eliot used this image much earlier – ‘hurry up please it’s time’. But the theme of death pervades the novel, with the final journey to Margate to scatter Jack’s ashes allowing the characters time to reflect on their own mortality and lives. The narrative point shifts constantly although Ray’s is the dominant voice – when chapters are given place name headings his is the narrative voice.

“What might have been?” is a question we all ask ourselves as we get older. Jack dreamed of being a doctor; Ray a jockey. Amy, Jack’s wife, had an affair with Ray but never wavered in her devotion to June, her profoundly disabled daughter. (Incidentally I noticed that the 1996 Guardian review called June a ‘moron’. Such insensitive language would of course not be acceptable now. Things do change.) But they are bound by the expectations of their families and society. Vince, coming from the following generation, is able to break the bonds of family expectation – he refuses to follow his adoptive father into the butchery trade and sets up as an independent car salesman.

The second world war is another important theme in the novel. It is easy for us to forget in the twenty-first century that even in the 1990’s most old men would have served in the conflict in one way or another. The friendship between Jack and Ray started when they met in the North African desert, where Lenny served as well – he still half-jokingly refers to himself as “Gunner Tate.” Vic was in the navy, and while Vince is of the next generation he also spent five years in the army in Aden. The trip to Margate includes a stop for Vic to pay his respects at the Naval Monument at Chatham. The army shaped a whole generation of men, creating strong bonds between them, and this novel acknowledges the passing of that generation, another variation on the last orders theme

I try and avoid playing the ‘did the Booker jury get it right in (year)?’ game, because it’s fairly futile. Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace), Rohinton Mistry and the perennial Booker bridesmaid Beryl Bainbridge were all shortlisted the year Last Orders won, but I think it can hold its ground amongst that competition. It’s a finely crafted novel, slight on incident and plot development, as modern novels so often are, its structure is quite predictable, and I am not sure how long it will dwell in the memory (especially if I hadn’t written this post) but the characters were strong, believable and well-defined, and the mournful meditations on life, death and the road not taken weren’t overly depressing as they could have been. There was a five-minute kerfuffle about the novel’s debt to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying shortly after Last Orders was first published. While my instinct is to ignore such nonsense I mention it only because the much more powerful Faulkner novel works as an illustration of how a story about a final journey can have such an impact.

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Book review: The Conservationist, by Nadine Gordimer, 1974

The Conservationist is set during the period in which the racist apartheid regime governed South Africa. This deceptively simple but immensely powerful novel is a devastating portrait of a South African businessman who is unable to ‘conserve’ his position in society, and which foreshadows the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. Not for nothing was the novel banned in South Africa at the time of its publication.

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The novel’s protagonist and principal narrator, Mehring, is a successful industrialist who has bought a farm a few miles outside the city where he lives. He drives out to the farm most weekends, past the ‘location’, the blandly neutral term for the township where most local black South Africans are forced to live. The farm is looked after for him by Jacobus, an obsequious black farm-manager, and a largely anonymous population of farm-hands and their families. Mehring has no interest in farming – he sets any losses he makes against his tax liabilities – and has no real links to the land. His farmhouse is a sterile empty sleeping place, luxurious compared to the damp quarters where the farmhands and their families are forced to sleep.

Gordimer narrates the events of the novel through Mehring’s stream of consciousness. This creates a dense narrative jumping freely between topics and time periods. This gives the text a dense, layered complexity. Mehring’s history including his divorce and his detached relationship with his teenage son, slowly emerges. As most readers will identify with the narrator, who presents all events from the most sympathetic point of view possible, it takes time for us to see Mehring as the unpleasant and unstable character he really is. His casual relationships with women for example are portrayed as adventurism rather than exploitative, and it is not until we are shown him assaulting a teenage girl during an aeroplane flight (he convinces himself the ‘encounter’ is consensual) that his predatory nature is fully exposed.

Similarly his racism is revealed slowly. He mainly avoid overtly racist language but is completely dismissive of the concerns of his workers, and accepts the status quo of apartheid without question. Progressive challenges to his ideas from his son and ex-wife are casually dismissed. (It was such a pleasure to read about the struggle to liberate Namibia as an independent country – Mehring dismisses even the name – knowing that a few years later it was to become a reality.) As well as being a lonely racist predator, Mehring is also a shell of a man devoid of any particular interests. The choice of him to carry the narrative weight of the novel almost completely on his own was a bold one. He’s not a nice man to spend a great deal of time with.

What elevates the novel from a simple portrait of an unpleasant, unthinking South African businessman is the incident which sparks the events of the narrative. One day a dead body is found on the farm. The death is clearly murder, but the police refuse to investigate – it’s just another dead black man – and bury the body where it was found, on Mehring’s farm. Although outraged by this – his farm isn’t a morgue! – Mehring does nothing to resolve the situation, and the body remains where it was buried in a shallow grave with no marker or memorial. As the novel progresses the body haunts Mehring, even though he is not apparently aware of the impression it has had on him. He returns obsessively to the field where it is buried, and the language of burial, death and decay starts to take over his thoughts and speech. At one point he even sleeps near the body, seeming to start to identify with the corpse. One night while walking in the field his foot gets caught in some mud, and he imagines the dead man is grabbing his leg, refusing to let him go, in a fairly literal playing out of his nightmares.

At the novel’s climax, as Mehring’s personal life continues to deteriorate and his state of mind crumbles, a biblical flood forces the remains of the body back to the surface, as was always going to happen one way or another. The metaphor is plain – the bodies of black South Africans will haunt the white supremacists until they are forced to confront their crimes and responsibilities. Without consulting Mehring Jacobus decides that the man deserves a proper burial this time and he is finally laid to rest.

This novel is a dramatic contrast to its fellow 1974 Booker prize winner, Holiday. Although there are superficial similarities – both are fairly thin in terms of events, both use a first person narrative structure – The Conservationist is dramatically more ambitious and bold in its scope and execution. It would be fascinating to contrast this novel with that of Gordimer’s fellow Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee, Disgrace. One is set years before the end of apartheid, where the way forward in terms of the dismantling of the racist South African regime was hard to navigate; the latter is set after the end of apartheid where people like Mehring are having to face the damage they have wrought on the country.

Book review: Holiday by Stanley Middleton, 1974

Recent reviews of Stanley Middleton’s novel Holiday all mention the same handful of things – his prodigious output of work (over 40 novels published in his life), the journalistic stunt when the first few chapters of the novel were sent to publishers and comprehensively rejected, and of course the joint award of the 1974 Booker Prize.

Holiday is worth more consideration than these easy references. It is a portrait of a man in the course of a mid-life crisis. Edwin Fisher, a lecturer in Educational Philosophy, has recently experienced the death of his two-year old son Donald. His wife has been unable to cope with the trauma of Donald’s death and their marriage has reached breaking point. Edwin responds bizarrely, as we often do when under great stress – he books a week at the seaside in a boarding house hotel.

His internal monologue gives few clues to his distress. Mundane activities fill his day – sitting on the beach, eating lunch, whiling away the hours until dinner, chatting to strangers, all the time avoiding the real reason for his presence in this depressing seaside town. Fisher is well educated and teaches at the local university, but he has no problem in mixing with the people he meets. He flirts with various women, at one point coming close to having a brief fling with one of the other residents of his boarding house.

Not much else happens. Seaside towns have rarely been more humdrum; whiling away the hours between meals seems the main challenge. Edwin’s parents-in-law arrive at one point to attempt to rescue his failing marriage, all the time insisting on the fact that they are not there to interfere. They engineer a reunion of sorts between Edwin and his wife, although without any attempt at resolving the issues that forced them to part there seems little prospect of the reconciliation being successful in the long term.

I am at a loss to explain why Holiday won the Booker Prize. As well as its fellow joint winner, Nadine Gordimer’s much more interesting The Conservationist, it was short-listed alongside novels by Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge and C.P. Snow. The cover of this edition quotes the Telegraph describing Middleton as “the Chekov of suburbia”, which is preposterous. Holiday is little more than an extended sketch showing how disappointing the English seaside can be, making this locked-down reader yearn all the more for a return to foreign holidays.

P.S. I don’t normally comment on the edition of the novel I am reviewing, which usually seems fairly irrelevant. But the quality of this Windmill edition was appalling. (Windmill appear to be an imprint of Penguin – why the need for the subsidiary I don’t know!) It was full of mistakes and littered with typos. I don’t faint at the site of an out of place apostrophe, but this was something else. It spoke of a carelessness and cheapness – did they employ a proof-reader or just use an automated transcription service of some kind to save costs? Either way it isn’t good enough.

Book review: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, 1996

Alias Grace is a fictionalised account of the mid-nineteenth century murder of Thomas Kinnear, a Canadian farmer, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the murder of Kinnear, and while McDermott was executed, Marks was sentenced to life in prison. This is Grace’s story.

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The novel opens several years after the date of the murders. Grace is being interviewed by Dr Simon Jordan, a researcher into mental illness who is investigating her case. Jordan has a vague idea of opening an asylum, and thinks that a breakthrough in Grace’s treatment will attract the investment he needs. He has been engaged by a group of local well-wishers who have been petitioning unsuccessfully for Grace’s release for some time. Grace has no clear memory of the murders and is unable to say clearly whether (as McDermott claimed) she helped strangle the housekeeper. There is some doubt as to her mental capacity – she has served some of her sentence in an asylum, although at the time the novel opens she works as a trusted servant in the home of the prison governor.

Jordan’s treatment consists of bringing an everyday item – a piece of fruit for example – to each interview, and encouraging Grace to tell her story. This is an effective approach for the purposes of the novel – these interviews are the heart of the narrative – but as treatment they have no effect whatsoever. Grace’s story remains consistent throughout, and there is no breakthrough of any kind. Her memories range back to her family’s migration to Canada from Ireland, her going into service (that is, getting her first job as a servant) and the time she became close friends with Mary Whitney, a slightly older and more experienced fellow servant. We know Mary is significant in Grace’s story because she used her name when briefly on the run following the murders. Mary is one of many women in the novel who suffer at the hands of men, in her case becoming pregnant outside of marriage and having to seek out a brutal illegal abortionist.

Grace enjoys her time with Jordan, and her inner monologue confirms she constructs her story to keep him engaged and interested. His story is very different from Grace’s, but it eventually shares a strange similarity when his landlady seduces him and then tries to persuade him to murder her drunken and abusive husband. Jordan has choices Grace did not, and he abruptly leaves both Toronto and the narrative. With him leaves any hope of a pardon for Grace. After almost thirty years she is however eventually released, begins a new life in the United States and marries in fulfilment of a prophesy made by Mary Whitney many years earlier.

This is not a mystery novel. There is no denouement, no final reveal of ‘what really happened’. The ambiguity as to Grace’s involvement in the murders is never clarified. I never really expected it to be but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a slight sense of disappointment – the urge to discover ‘the truth’ is a powerful one. Using a real-life incident as the skeleton of a narrative is not a new idea of course, and there was little overall about Alias Grace that felt particularly original. If you had asked me before reading the novel how I thought it might be constructed, given the premise, I would have anticipated multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, a combination of different forms – letters, diary entries etc – and an ambiguous ending. There are plenty of texts constructed on similar lines, such as A S Byatt’s 1990 Booker winner Possession and Graeme McRae Burnett’s much later (and shortlisted) His Bloody Project. There was an obvious sense of the novel’s artificiality. Sometimes that’s fine; here it was disappointing, as the immersive narrative, the story of the murders, was constantly interrupted by yet another reminder that this is all a construct.

If a novel is going to be self-consciously crafted, then the author has to be highly skilled at the craftwork to avoid the artificiality being off-putting. And of course Atwood is without a fine writer. While avoiding being overly didactic this novel has a lot to say about the role of women in nineteenth century society, where frequently the choice was between domestic servitude, an unhappy marriage, or the streets. (Jeremiah the peddler, (alias Geraldo Ponti, magician, alias Dr. Jerome DuPont, “Neuro-Hypnotist”,) represents a glimpse of an alternative life for Grace, an exotic life of adventure, but it is one she never seriously considers). At times she almost enjoys life as a household servant – it is better than starving with the rest of her family – but there don’t seem to be many positive choices elsewhere. Dr Jordan summarises the options as follows:

“In his student days, he used to argue that if a woman has no other course open to her but starvation, prostitution, or throwing herself from a bridge, then surely the prostitute, who has shown the most tenacious instinct for self-preservation, should be considered stronger and saner than her frailer and no longer living sisters. One couldn’t have it both ways, he’d pointed out: if women are seduced and abandoned they’re supposed to go mad, but if they survive, and seduce in their turn, then they were mad to begin with.”

We are led to believe that his views have not materially changed since this time, and this is presented as a progressive view compared to those who would dismiss ‘fallen women’ without compassion. But it is still not much of a choice for the women in the novel.

There is without question much fine poetic writing in Alias Grace.

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

At times Grace’s narrative voice comes close to overlapping with that of the omniscient narrator – she uses language and expressions that don’t seem authentic for a young Irish emigre:

“Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word – musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.”

But that is nit-picking – overall this is a strong exploration of the role of women in the nineteenth century. It’s not in any way sentimental – yes Grace is a victim but she is also quite possibly a murderer as well. (The supernatural explanation for the murders that we are given at one point towards the end of the novel is a red herring in my opinion – I don’t think we are intended to consider it the revelation that some readers/reviewers have treated it as.) I am not sure if I am being overly harsh in reflecting my disappointment with the lack of originality in Alias Grace, despite the many deft touches such as the use of the quilting motif through the novel. But I think The Handmaid’s Tale made many of the same points much more powerfully because of the originality of the novel’s premise.

Book review: The Constant Rabbit, by Jasper Fforde, 2020

Jasper Fforde is one of our most consistently inventive writers. In The Constant Rabbit he has once again shown this with a surreal allegory which at its heart is about difference. What could so easily have been a heavy-handed satire on Brexit and racism becomes a thoughtful discussion of how people cope with discrimination, both from the perspective of the discriminated against and that of the prejudiced. But I was left wondering whether Fforde at times overstepped the invisible line between dark humour and bad taste.

The central premise of the novel is that in 1965 an “anthropomorphising event” in the UK transformed a small number of rabbits into intelligent, talking, human-scale rabbits. By 2020 their population has grown to over a million. In response to concerns about their impact on the country, the United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party, originally a fringe protest group, has taken office in Westminster. Attacks on the rabbit community by hate groups such as TwoLegsGood (a nod to Orwell, of course) are frequent and the courts have decided that rabbits do not merit the protection of the law (any more so than any other animal). For their ‘protection’ the Government is planning to herd all rabbits into an isolated community ominously labelled the Mega-Warren. Society has subtly changed after the years of human/rabbit coexistence, with institutions such as RabCoT, the Rabbit Compliance Task Force, emerging to deal with the Event. Rabbits have developed their own culture of course, a blend of animal and human behaviours, which Fforde expounds on in detail – it’s a strangely recognisable version of our own society but adapted to cope with rabbit life-spans, libidos and compulsion for digging burrows.

Other animals were anthropomorphised as well, most notably foxes, who now murderously predate the human rabbit population without fear of consequences or reprisal. It must be pretty terrifying to be a rabbit in these circumstances, but (we are told) they are used to a life where sudden death is an every day possibility, so are not as bowed by the experience as one might expect. There’s a long and respected tradition of authors using animals as avatars for humanity, looking at our behaviour towards animals as a lens through which to see our behaviour towards one another. This tradition dates through Swift’s Houyhnhnms and beyond to Greek drama. Apart from Beatrix Potter and Watership Down rabbits have rarely been at the centre of this tradition – I suspect mainly because they aren’t very anthropomorphic.

The narrative is told from the point of view of Peter Knox, a rabbit “spotter”. As most humans are unable to distinguish one rabbit from another, spotters play a niche role in enforcing laws against the rabbit population. Knox is uncomfortable with his role within an oppressive state apparatus that spies on its population. He lives with his daughter in the village of Much Wenlock, a rural idyll full of small-mindedness and anti-rabbit bigotry. Into this dangerous and toxic environment comes Constance. Constance was Peter’s friend in university until she was expelled for the offense of being a rabbit. While at university Peter had a huge crush on her, and meeting her again caused all those feelings to come flooding back. Cross species relationships are frowned upon in this alternative reality, but not unheard of. We are invited to think of Connie as cross between Jessica Rabbit and the (inappropriately sexualised) Caramel Bunny. She is also several times smarter than Peter, and manipulates him very easily into supporting the rabbit resistance and leaking sensitive information from his work. Once Peter is sucked into this intrigue, forced to choose between his job and his sympathies for the oppressed rabbit-kind, the adventure rapidly accelerates towards a showdown between the apparatus of the state and the rabbit population.

This was at times a slightly awkward mix of political allegory and lowbrow humour. There are powerful echoes of different national and liberation struggles throughout the novel, from apartheid – the rabbits are prevented from going to university and forced to live in fenced-off communities; to Palestine, the civil rights movement in the USA – rabbits live in fear of sudden attacks from mobs in which they are ‘jugged’ (that is to say, murdered in a grotesque parody of lynching), and many others. Some of the targets are fairly explicit – the Anti-Rabbit Party, lead by Nigel Smethwick, is an obvious reference to UKIP/The Brexit party and Nigel Farage – indeed Rabxit is mentioned a few times.

I never thought I would say this of Fforde, who usually has a very deft touch with his humour, but some of this was in poor taste. Are lynchings, or ‘jugging’, the rabbit equivalent, really a source of humour? I must admit Fforde lost me here – to try to draw laughs out of the obvious parallels with the lynching of black Americans was tasteless (the term ‘jugging‘ comes from the traditional practice of cooking an animal inside a jug which is placed in a pan of hot water). I appreciate this is dark humour for the purposes of satire, and we will all have our own lines that should not be crossed, but this was for me inappropriate – the satire is dark enough as it is. In this world foxes are able to kill rabbits with impunity, and take pleasure in doing so – the main fox character Torquil Ffoxe (Peter’s menacing boss) is credited with killing several thousand rabbits before he meets his well deserved end, and at one point is shown with a bloodied corpse of a rabbit in a sack in his office. This is gruesome stuff, but the tone of the novel rarely acknowledges the bleakness of rabbits’ lives – they are shown as happy-go-lucky, sexually adventurous characters who make a significant contribution to society including serving in the military. They are the good guys from whom humanity could learn a lot.

Satire has no obligation to identify solutions – it points out what’s wrong with the world but doesn’t have to tell us how to sort it out. True to form there’s no call to action here other than to be nice to one another, the standard liberal response to racism and bigotry. The novel’s ending suggests that there is no solution other than escape, an option not available to most oppressed sections of society. If it makes us look afresh at the oppression of marginalised people across the world then it has done its job.

Book review: In a Free State by V S Naipaul, 1971

The version of In a Free State which won the 1971 Booker prize consists of a framing narrative and three short stories – “One out of Many,” “Tell Me Who to Kill,” and the title story, “In a Free State.” In his introduction to the edition of the novel that I have just read, Naipaul explains that he was originally advised by his editor to publish just the core narrative as a stand-alone novella, without the supporting stories and text, but how at the time he over-rode her advice, and obviously felt vindicated given the Booker award. However, he goes on to say that he eventually came to realise that her advice was correct. In a Free State is now published on its own without the supporting text, and that was the version I read for this review. Part of me thinks that might constitute taking a short cut, and that I ought to go back and read the longer, prize-winning version, but that would be sadistic. The stand-alone version works fine.

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In a Free State is set in an unnamed African country that has recently acquired independence from a colonial power. The king has been deposed in an ongoing coup, with the President about to take power. The king and the President are from different tribes, and the delicate balance of power introduced by the colonial government has started to collapse almost immediately after independence.

The narrative is told by Bobby, a Government official. We are never told his role or status, but we are led to understand that he is white and has decided for now to remain in the country. He has been attending a conference in the capital city in the north of the country, the President’s power-base, and he plans to drive back to the south where the King is based. He offers a lift to Linda, the wife of a colleague, who wants to make the same journey.

The night before the journey begins Bobby tries to pick up a young man in the hotel bar. The bartering over price goes badly, and the young man spits in his face. This is a disturbing scene: Bobby has obviously been comfortable paying for sex before now, when his role in Government gave him a position of authority, but now his status is beginning to slip:

“Bobby thought: this boy is a whore. Bobby was nervous of African whores in hotel bars. But he was prepared to bargain. He said

“You are a brave man. Going about with all that cash. I never carry more than sixty or eight shillings on me.”

“You need two hundred to do anything in this town”.

“A hundred at the outside is enough for me”.

The rest of the novella is a traditional road journey across the divided country, with strong echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While the Conrad novella is a portrait of a primitive Africa in the early stages of colonialisation, In a Free State is set at the end of Empire. The novel is dominated by images of the decay of the ‘civilisation’ that the white settlers have constructed. The landscape is reclaiming the towns and settlements built by the Europeans and reverting to a more ‘natural’ state, reversing the process of colonisation:

Many of the houses that looked abandoned were occupied, by Africans who had come in from the forest and had used the awkward, angular objects they had found, walls, doors, windows, furniture, to re-create the shelter of the round forest hut. Within drawing-rooms they had built shelters; they had raised roofs on verandah half-walls. Fires burned on pieces of corrugated iron; bricks were the cooking stones.. ..On the sidewalk grass had grown around rubbish from the houses, thigs that couldn’t be used and had been thrown out: cracked squares of picture glass, fragments of upholstered chairs, mattresses that had been disembowelled for their springs, books and magazines whose pages had stuck together in solid, crinkled pads.

The 2001 Nobel Committee described Naipaul as “Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings…His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished”. I’m struggling to relate this comment to In a Free State, which is dominated by the voices and perspectives of the white settlers, with the black characters often sullenly mute, or saying what they are ordered to say. The central characters’ attitudes towards the African people they meet are consistently negative; they are nameless, mostly fat, and there are persistent references to how they “stink,” and smell like “rotting vegetation.” That in itself doesn’t invalidate the novel – what Empire does to the imperialists is something worth exploring – but it doesn’t feel like a history of the vanquished.

Bobby is a unlikeable character. His recent experience of mental illness is mentioned but not explained – as a representative of the colonial power I read this as suggesting that colonialism itself is sick. It is possible that Naipaul intended the same suggestion by making Bobby gay (there is one bizarre episode where he is repulsed by the concept of a vaginal deodorant!). Midway through their increasingly difficult journey Bobby and Linda, (such bland European names) spend the night at a hotel run by a colonel who treats his African servants like slaves. The hotel was built to attract European tourists to the area, and is in an obvious and accelerating state of decay, with only muddy water coming out of the taps. (The echoes of these scenes with J G Farrell’s Troubles, another portrait of a military figure trapped in a decaying hotel at the end of Empire, are inescapable. Did this theme, also central to Something to Answer For, really dominate the English novel of the 1960s and 70’s, or is this a coincidence?) The Colonel fully expects to be murdered one day by the servants he abuses. Bobby has another unsuccessful attempt to pick up a young man for sex; he also seems trapped in a cycle of failure and frustration.

The road journey format of the novel works well, building the suspense as the military presence in the area increases and they approach their destination. Towards the end of the journey Bobby is beaten by some soldiers at an army checkpoint, a beating he accepts stoically as the price of his presence in this part of the world. Finally the compound is reached, and while the rest of the town and countryside is in flames, the area preserved for white settlers seems untouched. Perhaps this suggests that the real price of being in a Free State is paid by the freed rather than by the colonialists?

I didn’t enjoy In a Free State at first. The central characters are unappealing. The descriptions of the countryside are repetitive and a bit flat.

The verges widened; a few tarnished villas were set in large gardens. There was a roundabout, its garden still maintained, and the highway entered the town. Cross-streets, each with a new black-and-white board bearing the name of a minister in the capital, could be seen to end in mud after two or three hundred yards. The town had been built to grow. It hadn’t grown. It remained a collection of old tin-and-timber buildings, its flimsiness pointed by the small new bank building, the motor car and tractor showroom. The mud-splashed police barracks, low white concrete sheds flat to the ground, already looked like the hutments of the African quarter in the capital.

But while this is without doubt a book that is hard to warm to, my instinct is that it will grow on me.

Book review: Troubles, by J G Farrell, 1970

It’s really nice to now be able to give an early Booker prize-winning novel a positive review, after having severely panned John Berger’s G., followed by the indifferent Something to Answer for.

Because Troubles was wonderful. (OK, strictly speaking Troubles isn’t an ‘early’ Booker prize winner. It won the Lost Booker Prize in 2010, when the absence of a book published in 1970 in the series, caused by a change in the qualification rules, became too difficult for people who don’t like interrupted sequences to bear. But it was published in 1970, which in my book counts as early.)

Troubles tells the story of the final years of a once grand Irish hotel, the Majestic, during the years of the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921). It is the first instalment in what is sometimes described as Farrell’s ‘Empire Trilogy’, preceding The Siege of Krishnapur and The SIngapore Grip, although I am not sure the term ‘trilogy’ is appropriate for three novels that are only loosely connected. It was widely praised when first published, and rightly so.

The novel opens in 1919, when, after surviving the horrors of the First World War, although not without some psychological wounds, Major Brendan Archer travels to Ireland to try and discover whether he is engaged to Angela Spencer, a young woman who he met while on leave in England, and who wrote to him thereafter describing herself as his fiancé. (“He remembered declaring that he would come back to her, but not very much else.”) Angela’s Anglo-Irish family owns the ramshackle and ironically named Majestic Hotel. The hotel is enormous, with hundreds of rooms and just about every facility you can imagine, from swimming pools to squash courts and ballrooms, all of which are derelict and out-of-order. (One of the more surreal aspects of the novel is the way the hotel seems to expand in scale all the time, with new floors, cellars, grounds etc constantly being revealed.) The hotel is falling apart. It barely functions as a hotel with only a handful of guests. Herds of cats have taken over the upper stories. The term “herding cats” is used in this novel to describe the difficulty of getting a large group of cats to do what you want them to do – it is possibly the origin of the phrase, although all online references refer to later origins:

“It is impossible to control a herd of cats; each one makes up its own mind where it wants to go.”

The Majestic quickly becomes the dominant character of the novel, a symbol of both Empire and Ireland. While it is a hotel, it might be easier to think of it as a castle. That way the novel’s place in the tradition of gothic novels makes a lot more sense. What is unusual if not unique about Troubles is that there is no attempt to underplay or disguise the use of symbolism. The hotel may as well have been called ‘The Empire’ or ‘The Symbol’! Most novels which use symbolism as central features of the narrative are far less direct – the reader is left to do some of the work, and the symbol is more elusive than a shameless X = Y. Any close correlation between the symbol and the symbolised often leads to the narrative becoming a parable. (I am thinking for example of Animal Farm). Troubles is the only novel I can think of where there is no attempt to separate the symbol from its signifier. The novelist places the equation front and centre and constantly draws explicit parallels between the two components. A good example of this is the cats with orange fur and green eyes which breed in vast numbers, over-run the upper floors of the hotel and die violently at the hands of the Major and Edward Spencer, the hotel’s Anglo-Irish owner. A reader would have to be particularly dim-witted to not notice the (uncomplimentary) parallels between the cats and Ireland’s Catholic population. If any such reader were to be in need of further help interpreting the novel, Farrell intersperses the narrative with a series of increasingly dark news articles about the Troubles and the decay and breakdown of colonial order throughout the Empire.

I’ve already mentioned the slightly surreal nature of the narrative. This is a hotel where the Addams Family would have felt at home:

In the foyer at the foot of the vast flowing staircase there stood a statue of Venus; a dark shading of dust had collected on her head and shoulders and on the upper slopes of marble breasts and buttocks. The Major screwed up his eyes in a weary, nervous manner and looked round at the shabby magnificence of the foyer, at the dusty gilt cherubs, red plush sofas and grimy mirrors.
“Where can everyone be?” he wondered. Nobody appeared, so he sat down on one of the sofas with his suitcase between his knees. A fine cloud of dust rose around him.
After a while he got to his feet and found a bell … The sound echoed over the dusty tiled floor and down gloomy carpeted corridors and away through open double-leafed doors into lounges and bars and smoking rooms and upwards into spiral after spiral of the broad staircase (from which a number of brass stair-rods had disappeared, causing the carpet to bulge dangerously in places) until it reached the maids’ quarters and rang in the vault high above his head … from this vault there was suspended on an immensely long chain, back down the middle of the many spirals from one floor to another to within a few inches of his head, a great glass chandelier studded with dead electric bulbs … all was silent again except for the steady tick-tock of an ancient pendulum clock over the reception desk showing the wrong time.

The plants in the Palm Court begin to take on a life of their own and tear apart the hotel. Animal deaths abound – cats are shot and have their heads smashed against the wall, a peacock is throttled for its feathers, and the piglets are slaughtered by ‘Shinners’ (Sinn Fein supporters). Murphy, a sinister servant lurks in the darker corridors, muttering to himself, while the hotel’s owner, Edward Spenser, plans to conduct medical experiments on him. The old ladies who constitute the hotel’s few surviving guests play whist and act as a chorus to the action of the novel, while Edward’s elderly mother seems to live in a cupboard, emerging once a day for dinner clutching an unloaded revolver. It’s quite mad! I read that it has been filmed once, but I would love to see a series made of it, Downton Abbey on acid. There’s enough material for several series in fact.

There are a couple of scenes that over-step the mark. In one, a soldier tries to rape one of the teenage Spenser twins, who is unconscious having drunk too much. He fails because she is wearing multiple layers of under-garments:

“It’s not at all easy to undress someone who is unconscious – and Charity was wearing a great many layers of clothes. Fortunately Matthews was deft and experienced at removing ladies’ garments”

The scene is played as dark humour; in the neighbouring bedroom her twin is with another soldier who is desperate to avoid sex because of what appears to be his latent homosexuality, possibly scarred by an unpleasant experience in a brothel in France:

“He had only to close his eyes to see glittering-ringed fingers parting thick white curtains of fat to invite him into some appalling darkness”.

The other scene which has not aged well is in which Padraig, a friend of the family, is encouraged by the twins to dress up in women’s clothing, and thereafter habitually dresses a woman. His change in appearance is accepted and even welcomed by the hotel’s residents, but towards the end of the novel he is thrown into the hotel’s abandoned swimming pool (fortunately still filled) by some rowdy soldiers. Again this is written largely as a comic scene, but the homophobic/transphobic bullying is uncomfortable reading to a modern reader.

It is a coincidence that I read this novel immediately before Something to Answer for, which addresses the end of the next phase of colonialism. Troubles makes a great companion piece to the Newby novel, sharing a similar structure – a colonial possession seen through the eyes of an Englishman abroad as the period of English rule draws to an end. But while Something is unstructured and a mess, Troubles is a carefully controlled dark farce. It’s one of the best, most original novels I have read in a long time. it could so easily have descended into chaos but manages to balance all the elements with considerable skill. The romantic elements – the Major develops an unrequited love for a local woman who flirts with him but avoids any further attempts at intimacy – are probably the least successful, and the dramatic ending is revealed in the opening pages and are therefore devoid of any suspense. But the success of the novel is in the portrait of the decaying, mad hotel and its inhabitants, as the try to avoid the inevitable and almost succeed.

Book review: Something to Answer For, by P H Newby, 1969

Let’s be honest – this novel would be out of print and gathering dust if it wasn’t for it being the winner of the inaugural Booker prize in 1969. That’s really its only point of interest. Otherwise the plot is banal to the extent that it exists at all, the characterisation outside the handful of central characters is slim, and the commentary on the Suez Crisis (as it is euphemistically known in the UK) is worthy but dated.

Set in 1956 at the time of said ‘crisis’, the unappealing central character, Townrow has returned to Port Said in Egypt, a place he first visited when in the army in the Second World War. He now works for a charitable trust which he finds it much easier to embezzle than to administer. He has returned to Egypt at the request of Mrs Khoury, the widow of an Egyptian friend Townrow had made during the war. Mrs Khoury believes her husband was murdered and wants Townrow to investigate. Townrow has no intention of doing any investigating – instead he is interested in drinking, womanising (in a very disinterested, lazy way) and looking for opportunities to con Mrs Khoury out of her estate. On his first night back in Egypt he gets drunk, is attacked and suffers a head injury which leaves him dazed and disorientated for the remainder of the novel.

In parallel, Egypt nationalises the Suez Canal precipitating said crisis, which unfolds around Townrow as he stumbles through the various staged incidents which pass for a plot. Townrow is confused about his nationality, underlining the ambiguity of his status as a representative in the novel of the occupying powers. He recalls a conversation he had with a passenger he met on route to Egypt who accuses Britain of having been aware of the holocaust but doing nothing to warn European Jews of the threat to their lives, a claim he rejects forthrightly. It is not clear if we are intended to take this claim seriously – is British guilt by association for the holocaust linked with the creation of Israel? Decoding the politics of this novel is difficult given the distance of the decades, even if Newby’s overall point is relatively clear.

The humour of the novel, which relies mainly on farce, has faded badly since the late 1960’s. The imperial mindset in which one waved a British passport and shouted loudly at foreigners in obviously not completely a thing of the past, but it is no longer much of a target for satirists either. to the extent of incomprehensibility. Newby’s satirising of the British imperial mindset is simply ineffective – the fact that the Suez crisis marked the end of Empire was hardly much of an insight, even in 1969. The farcical elements of the novel are clumsy and unconvincing confusion, ostensibly the result of his knock on the head, muddles the narrative to the extent that not only can the reader not work out what is happening, whether what we are being told is one of his dreams, memories or ‘real’ events, to the extent that one quickly stops caring.

There probably is a novel to be written about the Suez Crisis and its impact on British attitudes to its colonial past. There are many examples of ‘an Englishman Abroad’ novels, the confused, well-meaning and mild-mannered ex-pat trying his best not to be racist (for example, this example from the inevitable Kingsley Amis) and inevitably being successful in his seduction efforts simply on the strength of his Englishness. But Newby’s decision to write a psychedelic novel in which the reader is constantly disorientated, however modern and experimental it may have been in the 1960’s, now falls flat. Yes, I get it that Townrow’s head injury, the resulting confusion and his loss of faith in British decency is an effective symbol of the changing nature of the national psyche following the post-war loss of Empire – but it doesn’t make it a good novel.

As a central character, Townrow is pretty unappealing. He’s a crook, has very dated views towards women, Jews and Egyptians, and has few redeeming features. Some novels with anti-hero’s at their centre are successful because the protagonist is charming, a rogue, etc – we like them despite their failings. But I’m afraid I can’t say the same of Townrow – there’s simply not enough substance to the character to like.

There are a lot of bloggers out there who start out with the intention of reading all of the Booker prize winners, but who don’t make it. Part of the reason for this might be because some of the early winners are duds, which haven’t stood the test of time. Something to Answer for falls into that category I’m afraid – I can imagine a lot of readers thinking “sixty more novels like that – no thanks!”. The good news is there are a lot more strong novels in the list of winners than duds, so the reward is there for the persistent. But outside the ranks of Booker completists or would-be completists I can’t imagine this novel will have retained much of a wider audience at all.

Review: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, 1853

Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street‘ tells the curious story of a scrivener – a copyist – who gives up on work and life, responding to all requests for him to do anything with the simple “I would prefer not to“. The narrator, his employer, knows almost nothing about Bartleby – he remains an enigma throughout the story. His reasons for declining specific tasks and then for stopping work altogether are let to the reader to decide.

The story opens with an introduction by the narrator, an elderly New York lawyer. He employs two clerks, Nippers and Turkey, to copy legal documents by hand. Nippers and Turkey are, as their names suggest, comic figures, both with substance abuse issues. The narrator, looking to expand his business, hires Bartleby, partly in the hope that he will moderate the extremes of temperaments of the other two. Initially Bartleby is an exemplary worker, but one day, when asked to help proofread a document, he answers with what soon becomes his catchphrase:

“I would prefer not to”.

Bartleby slowly shuts down, completing less and less work and spending long periods of time staring out one of the window at a brick wall. All attempts to persuade him to do some work or to leave fail, so eventually the narrator himself moves out. The new tenants come to him to ask for help in removing Bartleby, who now sits on the stairs all day and sleeps in the building’s doorway. Finally Bartleby is forcibly removed and imprisoned where he dies of starvation. The story closes with the narrator’s refrain, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”. (This phrase reminded me of the words of the newscaster at the explosion of the Hindenburg).

This is an enigmatic story, not what I was expecting at all from the author of Moby Dick. It’s an intense psychological piece reflecting on the pointlessness of the human condition that could easily have come from a French existentialist author. It is also a very personal piece – for an author to imagine a character who thinks writing – scrivening – is a pointless, empty activity is in some ways quite shocking. Melville is very much ahead of his time in other ways – Bartleby can be read as a warning of the industrialisation of office work in which people are hemmed into ever smaller cubicles without any personal life outside the office, eating meagre meals at their desk, performing menial repetitive tasks for little reward (Bartleby moves into the lawyers office and never seems to leave).

“Ah, Bartleby, Ah humanity”.

Bartleby is a short story but an immensely impactful and surprising piece that I am very glad to have read – it gives another dimension to one of America’s most significant authors who I had previously only known through Moby Dick.

Book review: G. by John Berger, 1972

The Bad Sex prize was set up in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, with the intention of “gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”. It’s such a pity that the award wasn’t around when John Berger published G., because he would have run away with it. Perhaps they should introduce a retrospective prize?

Set at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, G. is the story of a modern Don Juan, someone totally focussed on the pursuit of sex, to the exclusion of any other concerns or interests. Women fall out of their clothes and sleep with him at the first opportunity – he is irresistible to them. Strange how women only behave like that in novels written by men, isn’t it? Contemporary historical events, such as the outbreak of the First World War, are used as a backdrop to his sexual adventurism.

Trigger warning for very badly written sex:

“She opens her legs. He pushes his finger towards her. Warm mucus encloses his finger as closely as if it were a ninth skin. When he moves the finger, the surface of the enclosing liquid is stretched – sometimes to breaking point. Where the break occurs he has a sensation of coolness on that side of his finger – before the warm moist skin forms again over the break. She holds his penis with both hands, as though it were a bottle from which she were about to pour towards herself.” (109)

Berger was an art critic, and apparently developed the concept of the male gaze, (in feminist theory, the male gaze is usually defined as “the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer”) which makes it all the more remarkable that his writing about sex is completely from the male perspective, devoid of any empathy with women. Reddit has a forum called “Men writing about Women” which collects examples of men demonstrating their ignorance of female anatomy. Berger would fit right in there as well:

When he enters her, when this throbbing, cyclamen headed, silken, apoplectic fifth limb of his reaches as near to her centre as her pelvis will allow, he, in it, will be returning, she believes, to the origin of his desire.” (204)

If this cyclamen headed monstrosity wasn’t enough, the scene is illustrated by a childish sketch of a “fifth limb” that would not be out of place on a bathroom wall.

Later Berger pontificates on the differences between men and women:

If a woman threw a glass on the floor, this was an example of how she treated her emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man had done the same, his action would only have been an expression of his anger….This subjunctive world of the woman, this realm of her presence, guaranteed that no action undertaken within it could ever possess full integrity”. (150)

I’d like to think our understanding the differences between the sexes has matured somewhat since the early 1970’s!

I appreciate this all makes me sound very prudish, but to be clear, my concern isn’t with the fact that Berger describes sex, it is that he describes sex so very badly. But this isn’t just a bad sex novel. It’s a bad everything novel. The sex is as bad as the rest of the novel I am sorry to say. There are scenes of such intense embarrassment that I very nearly gave up –only the most stubborn completist streak in me kept me going. In a clumsy attempt at post-modernism, random fourth wall breaks are introduced into the text with irritatingly pompous asides by the author or narrator, such as

Some say of my writing that it is too overburdened with metaphor and simile: that nothing is ever what it is but is always like something else. This is true, but why is it so? Whatever I perceive or imagine amazes me by its particularity.” (136)

I know of course that this is intended, along with the fragmented narrative and various other ostentatious techniques to tell the reader that this is a post-modern novel where their expectations will be regularly confounded. It tries hard to be innovative and European, but underneath it all is a rewarmed version of a traditional sexual adventurer’s story.

I have written about this before, but one thing I can’t stand in realist novels is inauthenticity. Characters behaving in a mannered, unrealistic and obviously fictional way, not because the author wants to make it clear this is a non-realist text but because the author can’t write realistically. There is one scene in G. where this point was illustrated perfectly. G. is buying a woman, Camille (he endearingly calls her Camomile) a pair of Italian leather gloves, as part of his whole flawless, irresistible seduction technique:

“The Italian woman blew into the second glove before passing it to Camille. Filled with her breath, the glove took on the form of a hand which suddenly and deeply frightened Camille. It was a languid boneless hand, a hand without will, a hand floating in the air like a dead fish with its white stomach uppermost.” (172)

If you can persuade me that anyone, ever, was frightened by a glove, however fragile and nervous they might be, while buying a pair of gloves then I will give up reading this minute. It’s the second glove as well – it’s not like the gloves loomed up at her unexpectedly. This irritated me far more than it ought to have done, but for me it is the cardinal sin of the novelist. The characters become themselves mere puppets, tools of the novelist to display archetypal feelings or reactions, all to further the novel or avoid a plot complication. It’s not absurdist or experimental, it’s bad. Defenders of this novel will claim this alienation technique is deliberate, and that I am being far too literal in my reading. Which of course is quite possible. Is this a clumsy technique to ensure the reader pays attention to the construction of the novel as a cultural artefact? Or is it just bad writing? Some authors have earned the benefit of the doubt, and I will usually try to work out what really is going on when I am pulled up short by some apparently awful writing. But Berger, an English art critic, essayist, novelist, painter and author, hasn’t earned that degree of commitment from me as a reader.

Time can be cruel to a novel and novelists. G. was once deemed by a Booker prize jury to be the best novel written in 1972, albeit against a pretty forgettable shortlist (Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night, Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and David Storey’s Pasmore. Both Keneally and Storey were to go on and win the prize themselves. Susan Hill said of her The Bird of Night that it “was a book I have never rated. I don’t think it works, though there are a few good things in it. I don’t believe in the characters or the story.”) Now G. is largely forgotten, unread except by Booker winner completists, and sometimes not even then. It’s not all bad, there are moments of interest – the description of the battles of World War One are actually readable. But these are brief interludes in the otherwise stultifying descriptions of G.’s attempts to seduce yet another young woman interspersed with the author’s pontifications on whatever idea had briefly captured his attention.

P.S. Goodreads says of Berger that “One of the most common themes that appears on his books is the dialectics established between modernity and memory and loss”. (That should be in his books surely?) Anyway, does anyone know what “the dialectics established between modernity and memory and loss” means?