Slade House, by David Mitchell, 2015

“A board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

‘Slade House’ is an unexpectedly old-fashioned ghost story. Mitchell has previously written novels in a variety of styles: ’Cloud Atlas’ was a highly successful experiment in form; ‘The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ was a more traditional historical novel, albeit with a twist, and his 2014 ‘The Bone Clocks’ was a supernatural thriller. Perhaps Mitchell Sladehas still to settle on a preferred form, but a ghost story is a fitting addition to his ‘uber’ novel’, even if its origins in a short story are all too apparent. The theme he returns to time and again is the one in the foreground here, the paranormal. Slade House’ is a ‘sort-of’ sequel to ‘The Bone Clocks’, in that it continues the story of a psychic war of good against evil.

Ghost stories are comforting fare. They scare us just a little, but we always know who is levitating the table, and that the creepy janitor is going to be behind the mask when it is removed in the final scene. I half expected to see Shaggy and Scooby skitter down Slade House’s long hallways at one point, so heavily does Mitchell lay on the shtick. The premise is that ‘Slade House’ destroyed in the Second World War, was preserved in time using some astral hocus pocus. Brigadoon-like it re-appears every nine years for its inhabitants, spooky vampire twins Norah and Jonah Grayer, to feast on the souls of their latest prey. We see each group of victims wander haplessly into their trap, taking the literal bait, and slowly realising they are latest in a long list of psychic entrees. The penny usually drops when they see their portrait as in a series of missing person’s pictures. (At least Mitchell avoided having the portrait’s eyes follow them around the room!) The twins are pretty incompetent evil masterminds, and are easily tracked down and despatched by the universe’s spiritual detectives, Marvel-like superheroes dedicated to balancing the force, or something along those lines.

The narrative point of view is that of the victims, which leads to several clumsy “the last thing I saw before my soul was feasted upon by the twins was…” type conclusions. If you can work your way past all this nonsense, the novel is harmless enough, not in the least disturbing; the Guardian’s review called it “The Bone Clocks’ naughty little sister in a fright wig”, which will give you a good idea of the playful tone of the text. This might have made a half decent chapter of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ or the outline for a ‘Doctor Who’ episode, but as a novel the concept is stretched too thin.

I recall objecting to the exploitative nature of some of the content of ‘The Bone Clocks’. Looking back I can see I said that “well researched historical romances are fine, but they are not normally my preferred choice of reading. Rape/murder/infanticide/torture/time travelling thrillers also have a specialised audience. Mashing the two together, as this novel does, goes beyond bizarre.” The same concerns persist with this novel. It’s a timely reminder that while ‘Slade House’ doesn’t take itself seriously, it does nevertheless deal with serious themes, and that the grief of the relatives of people who go missing and are presumed dead is not to be treated light-heartedly. Mitchell recognises this, but it doesn’t allow it to constrain him.

“We’ll never give up, never stop looking. Always I wonder. Sometimes I envy the weeping parents of the definitely dead you see on TV. Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.”

 

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Finishing the list

I’m not going to make a big fuss about completing my read through the 100 best novels written in English as chosen by the Guardian, but I did want to mark the moment with a few thoughts:

  1. It was harder than I expected. 100 novels in two years, or one a week, sounds straightforward. But of course life gets in the way, and for every 150 pager than can be read in an afternoon, there was a Victorian three volume 800 pager to be navigated.
  2. The quality of the novels on the list was varied, to say the least. But I was pushed firmly out of my comfort zone, particularly in tackling some American authors I was aware of but had not read before, and of course having to go back to the 18th Century and the beginning of the novel as a narrative form.
  3. Was the list a fair roundup of the best 100 novels written in English? The definition of novel was stretched to breaking – I don’t think Pilgrim’s Progress belonged there, for example – and there were other choices such as Hadrian 7th which were tosh. My main concern was the strange constraint of only allowing one novel per author, which meant having to make the impossible choice between Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

So what next? I have decided to avoid any major reading challenges for the time being. They place a lot of constraints on one’s choices. I am looking forward to being able to choose anything I fancy to read. I have a dozen or so books from previous holidays and birthdays that I am planning to read, but after that….?

Ulysses, by James Joyce, 1922

“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.”

‘Ulysses’ was a hard read, 933 pages of Ulyssescomplex,allusive text, full of echoes, references, challenges and puzzles. Reading this novel passively, without paying full attention, is pretty pointless, and even with three weeks of concentrated reading, most readers, myself included, working without the benefit of one of the many guides available, will probably only scratch the surface of this novel’s complexity.

The novel’s reputation as being unreadable, on the other hand, is unjustified. A parallel with Shakespeare’s prose might help – Shakespeare is often described as being hard to follow, but if you take care and pay attention there is little in the canon that can’t be understood by a native speaker. ‘Ulysses’ is the same. (Incidentally, Shakespeare, and specifically Hamlet, echoes repeatedly throughout the novel)

Take Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness chapter at the end of the novel. Joyce attempts to capture Molly’s thoughts as she drifts back off to sleep after being woken by Leopold, returning worse for wear from his adventures. Her thoughts range widely from her childhood memories to the events of the day. We all know that as we fall asleep our thoughts become incoherent and even bizarre. But the thread of Molly’s thoughts can almost always be followed, if one takes the time to do so.

“and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Remove some of the conjunctions, add in a full stop or two, and this is a simple memory of her first kiss and more. It is a lovely memory to close the novel, life affirming and positive.

I first read ‘Ulysses’ several decades ago, and had inevitably forgotten large chunks of it – although I was surprised at how much still remained familiar, most strikingly the chapter Nausicaa. Here Leopold watches poor lame Gerty MacDowell, on the rocks and on the shelf. This is a wonderful, tender portrait of a delusional young woman, affecting to feel superior to her friends, but sadly unable to wish away of her lameness, which is likely to make it difficult for her to marry and have children. Equally I little realised how much Stephen Dedalus’s thoughts on Shakespeare in chapter 9, Scylla and Charybdis had influenced much of my own thoughts (not really mine, Stephen’s/Joyce’s) on the subject.

Other chapters are less accessible. Chapter 12, Cyclops, includes streams of legal jargon, biblical passages, and elements of Irish mythology, and Chapter 14, Oxen of the Sun, is bravura attempt to capture the entire history of the English language, from latinate prose to Anglo-Saxon alliteration. It ends in a long paragraphs gibberish, which I will be kind and avoid quoting. I think Joyce is predicting the decline of the language into a yahooish form of slang, but I could be missing the point?

The character of Leopold Bloom is at the heart of the novel. He doesn’t appear until chapter 4, and often slips out of view, but is a likeable, easy going chap. His wife is being unfaithful to him, but he doesn’t seem to mind very much. His thoughts touchingly often wander back to the death of his baby son Rudy. He is subjected to anti-semitic abuse, but doesn’t let it get him down, and pursues his narrow life and interests with an amiable persistence. The drawer of memories and effects that he reflects on at the end of the novel is a little pathetic, but Poldy is an everyman who bounces back and survives, a humanist but puts up with being christened three times, a pacifist prepared to stick up for himself, and a bit of a dirty old man. He makes the novel ultimately worthwhile.

The Siege of Krishnapur, by J G Farrell, 1973

I found myself becoming increasingly troubled by J G Farrell’s Booker prize winning ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’. It is not a bad novel, but it has some serious flaws. It is based on the Indian Mutiny of 1857/8. In India this conflict is known as the Indian rebellion, but Siegeyou would not know that from reading this novel. The narrative perspective is entirely from the point of view of the ‘plucky’ British settlers. The Indian people who appear in the novel are either cannon fodder, mown down in their thousands by the plucky British defenders, or ridiculous caricatures, such as the entirely dumb ‘Prime Minister’. Even the Sikhs who loyally refuse to join the rebellion are given non-speaking parts and diminutive nicknames.

I wonder – did it ever occur to Farrell that the Indian people might have had a different perspective on events from the British characters, and that giving a voice to one of them might have been an interesting counterpoint to the stubbornly imperialist perspective otherwise offered? I am sure that anyone wanting to defend the novel will say that Farrell is comically pointing out the absurdities of Empire. Quite why this was necessary in the 1970’s is a moot point, but the fact that the British behaved ridiccarry onulously in the Raj, keeping up the croquet on the lawn, tea parties, and cucumber sandwiches while the natives rebelled isn’t particularly original funny – Carry on Up the Khyber made the same point far more succinctly five years earlier.

Let’s call this what it is – racism.  A novel set in the time of the British Empire in which all the non-British characters are marginalised and ridiculed wouldn’t find a publisher these days, would it? The novel made me wonder whether you can actually write a novel in which all of the predominant characters share a colonialist mindset, and use these attitudes and situations to challenge and undermine that perspective? In other words, how do you write a novel about racism without being racist? That’s a very broad question, but I would expect to see racist attitudes challenged robustly – which doesn’t really happen here – and some progression in the characters’ attitudes on the issues, which again is missing. In the novel’s final chapter set several years after the siege, there is no indication that the protagonists have come to realise they bore some responsibility for the uprising and the deaths that followed.

I am sure Farrell tried to make the novel a serious discussion about Empire. Many of the British characters are sympathetic and well-meaning, but misguided. There are some heavy-handed points made about the Great Exhibition of 1851, a few years before the novel’s setting. The senior British official organising the defence of the besieged community is known as ‘The Collector’, and while this title refers to the collection of taxes, it also refers to his hobby of collecting small technical devices from the Exhibition. These all eventually end up forming part of the barricades or are broken down to be remade into ammunition – so much for the value of civilisation in such a backward country.

There were a number of other features of the novel that caused me concern. The women characters are mainly there for decorative purposes, to provide wives and babies. There is a regular and rather uncomfortable series of references to the women’s sexual attractiveness, their smell, and even the effect the siege has on the plumpness of their bodies. In one bizarre scene a woman strips naked to escape a plague of insects that has descended on her, covering her head to toe, and two of the officers scrape the insects off her body using the hard-back covers torn from a Bible. They are bemused by her pubic hair, not knowing whether to scrape that off as well! This scene was I am sure intended to be funny, but my sense of humour failed me. Not only was it distasteful, but the clubbingly heavy-handed point being made – she is a “fallen” woman being redeemed of her sexual misconduct by the literal application of the Bible – made me groan.

And….the plot is slight – the siege becomes a game of survival, but there is never any doubt that it will eventually be relieved. Several characters are set up with potentially interesting story lines, which are not followed up. A lengthy debate about the causes of cholera is obviously well-researched, but utterly pointless given we now know who was right and who was wrong. But despite all these reservations, I didn’t hate this novel. It was well constructed and skips along with just enough pace to sustain the otherwise static narrative.

I know I am in a small minority in this one – novel’s don’t win the Booker without any merit, let alone be shortlisted for the Booker of Bookers.  So the question is, what am I missing?

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, 2015

I turned to Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’ as some light relief after the torture that was ‘The Golden Bowl’. You can tell how bad things have got when a Booker Prize winner constitutes light relief. But it was. ‘The Sellout’ works best as an extended stand up routine – at times angry, often lyrical, usually very funny, challenging, and fast paced enough to ensure that the jokes that don’t work are quickly left behind and you are onto to the next. The Sellout

The narrator, “Me”, opens the narrative in the United States Supreme Court, where a case against him is being heard. The majority of the novel explains how the case occurred (i.e. in flashback). The narrator comes from and lives in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens, a suburb or ghetto of Los Angeles.  He is raised by his sociologist father, who uses him as the subject of some bizarre social and racial experiments, which are hard to distinguish from child abuse (“I wasn’t fed; I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes. I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment“). After his father is casually gunned down by the police and he inherits the family small holding, and his father’s taste for outrageous racial experiments.

The central conceit of the novel is launched when the narrator re-introduces slavery and segregation to Dickens. The segregation of bus passengers along racial lines is widely welcomed by the passengers, who are almost exclusively black in any event. Emboldened by the unlikely success of this initial experiment the narrator segregates the local all-black school, by renting a vacant lot opposite and advertising a soon-to-be-opened all-white college. Attendance and grades at the existing school quickly begin to improve. Further inventive ways of segregating an all-black community continue until the law intervenes.

This rather bald summary may make it look as if Beatty’s satire is unsubtle, if not reactionary. Is he suggesting that the position of some black people in America have not improved since the end of slavery and the struggles of the civil rights movement? The narrator is very clear that is not the point being made, however much it may appear to be the case. The Republican argument that more black children grew up with two parents during the days of slavery than they do today is comprehensively destroyed. But equally the advances in civil rights and representation since those days, such as the election of a black President, are not something that the angry voice of the novel takes for granted, or considers enough.

I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!”

The election of the most reactionary President since I have no idea has underlined the novel’s argument that we are not yet living in a post-racial world.

While being a complex and nuanced discussion of race in America today, the novel is not for the lily-livered. The language is full-on, as above, and the n-word is used throughout the text. Some of the jokes miss their mark, such as

“Foy was no Tree of Knowledge, at most he was a Bush of Opinion”

or are predictable
“If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out on the Couch.
But these are exceptions, and virtually every page has one or more great lines, such as this description of a character “listing hard to the right like a drunken seaman with an inner ear infection” or this joke about the meaning of the word bi-monthly: “The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly “bimonthly” means.”
I enjoyed ‘The Sellout’. I can’t say whether it was a worthy winner of the Booker, because I haven’t read all the other short-listed novels, and I wasn’t on the jury anyway, but this is a book that will make you think, and I can’t praise it more highly than that.

“A cartload of apes and ivory” – Rebecca West on ‘The Golden Bowl’

‘The Golden Bowl’ certainly divides opinion. Reading some online reviews I came across a wonderful demolition of the novel by the awesome Rebecca West. I make no apologies for quoting at length from her analysis – West never pulls her punches and has a magnificent turn of phrase.rebecca west

She opens by calling the novel “an ugly and incompletely invented story about some people who are sexually mad.” (“Completely invented” may harm her argument, as inventiveness is usually seen as a strength in a novelist, but this is passionate rhetoric, not measured argument) This gets straight to the point – sex drives the behaviour of the novel’s central characters, (however obliquely James may disguise his sexual references), and leads them to behave out of character. West knew all about how this could happen to even the most aristocratic people.

Her plot summary savages the novel’s central characters;

“Adam Verver, an American millionaire, buys an Italian prince for his daughter Maggie, and in her turn she arranges a marriage between her father and Charlotte, her school friend, because she thinks he may be lonely without her.

This is fair comment – at its heart, the marriage between Amerigo and Maggie is based upon Maggie’s ability, through her father, to pay off the Prince’s many debts. James is clear (or as clear as anything is in this novel) that the marriage is a contractual and commercial agreement.

West’s critique of James’s writing style is equally robust. She writes of his

“sentences which sprawl over the pages of ‘The Golden Bowl’ with such an effect of rank vegetable growth that one feels that if one took cuttings of them one could raise a library in the garden.”

But this is not simply a question of name-calling – West has a serious critique to present. Her point is that the plot of the novel, and the behaviour of the primary characters, is utterly unrealistic. The characters

are presented … as vibrating exquisitely to every fine chord of life, as thinking about each other with the anxious subtlety of lovers, as so steeped in a sense of one another that they invent a sea of poetic phrases, beautiful images, discerning metaphors that break on the reader’s mind like the unceasing surf.

But

when one tries to discover from the recorded speeches of these people whether there was no palliation of their ugly circumstances one finds that the dialogue, usually so compact a raft for the conveyance of the meaning of Mr James’ novels, has been smashed up on this sea of phrases and drifts in, a plank at a time, on the copious flood….

To cap it all these people are not even human, for their thoughts concerning their relationships are so impassioned and so elaborate that they can never have had either energy or time for the consideration of anything else in the world. A race of creatures so inveterately specialist as Maggie Verver could never have attained man’s mastery over environment, but would still be specialising on the cocoa-nut or some such simple form of diet.”

I can’t argue with this, nor express it better – I doubt anyone could.

West goes on to claim to have identified why James’s writing style at the end of his life become so ornate and complex; the explanation she offers certainly has a ring of plausibility to it:

“in these later days, Mr James … began by dictating a short draft which, even in the case of such a cartload of apes and ivory as The Golden Bowl, might be no longer than thirty thousand words. Then he would take this draft in his hand and would dictate it all over again with what he intended to be enlightening additions, but which, since the mere act of talking set all his family on to something quite different from the art of letters, made it less and less of a novel. …

Always it was good, rambling talk, although fissured now and then with an old man’s lapses into tiresomeness, when he split hairs until there were no longer any hairs to split and his mental gesture became merely the making of agitated passes over a complete baldness…

Here and there the prose achieves a beauty of its own; but it is no longer the beauty of a living thing, but rather the “made” beauty which bases its claims to admiration chiefly on its ingenuity, like those crystal clocks with jewelled works and figures moving as the hours chimed, which were the glory of mediæval palaces.”

“A cartload of apes and ivory” has instantly become my all-time favourite phrase for a good bad novel!

 

Unreadable novels, with specific reference to ‘The Golden Bowl’ by Henry James, 1904

What makes a novel unreadable? We all have our own breaking points – I may have just have found mine. This post explores the features of ‘The Golden Bowl’ that are making it, for me, almost unreadable.

  1. Sentence structure

He found it convenient, oddly, even for his relation with himself—though not unmindful that there might still, as time went on, be others, including a more intimate degree of that one, that would seek, possibly with violence, the larger or the finer issue—which was it?—of the vernacular.James

Here’s another example from the same novel:

‘The things, or many of them, that had made Mr. Verver what he was seemed practically to bring a charge of waste against the other things that, with the other people known to the young man, had failed of such a result.”

I am sure it is possible to parse these sentences, particularly with the benefit of the surrounding context, but this level of complexity made reading chapter after chapter of such prose exhausting.

2. Paragraphs

What makes some novels harder to read than others is often a matter of personal taste. For me, paragraphs are one such feature. Paragraphs are like decent broadband or clean tap water – something we usually take for granted, but boy we don’t half miss them when they aren’t there. ‘The Golden Bowl’ has some paragraphs, but far fewer than it needs. Reading page after page of text uninterrupted by a paragraph break, indeed uninterrupted by a change of thought or pause for breath, can be tiring and tiresome.

3. Subordinate clauses and qualifiers

Another question of personal taste involves the use of subordinate clauses and qualifiers. There’s nothing wrong with these in the right place, but James seems unable to write a single sentence without, as it were, a subordinate clause. In most cases they serve little purpose, as in the previous sentence. Take it out and the meaning is unchanged. Was this just a habit, a feature of his literary style that he found it hard to shake off, or was something more complex going on? I am usually keen to give authors the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will have noticed when they are doing something that might annoy the reader, and that they have good reason to do so. I assumed on that basis that James was using this style to tell us something about the equivocating, ambivalent character of Prince Amerigo:

“His own estimate, he saw ways, at one time or another of dealing with; but theirs, sooner or later, say what they might, would put him to the practical proof.”

Granted, each of the subordinate clauses here change the sense of the sentence subtly, qualifying the meaning in various ways. But wouldn’t the sense be just as clear written as:

“He saw ways of dealing with his own estimate, but theirs would put him to the practical proof.”

Here’s another example:

“But his actual situation under the head in question positively so little mattered to them that, having by that time lived deep into the sense of his advantage, he had kept no impression of the girl’s rejoinder”

You will either find sentences like this (from Chapter 2)  elegant and sophisticated, or clumsy and obscure:

“The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion—or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.”

Undoubtedly writing like this has an impact – in my case the impact was to make me pause and reread the sentence to try to work out what was being said. But this is not a question of characterisation: James adopts this style throughout the novel – it is the only narrative voice.

These aspects of James’s prose have thus far made ‘The Golden Bowl’ one of the hardest novels I have tried to read since starting this blog.

That’s the case for the prosecution. The defence is that modernist novels aren’t supposed to be easy reads. In describing a situation or a statement of fact in a roundabout way, so that it takes time for the reader to grasp the meaning of what is being said, and in exploring the unspoken and half-conscious thought processes behind speech, James was inventing the distinguishing characteristics of modernism. Certainly there is much in this novel that ticks these boxes, and it is these more positive features of ‘The Golden Bowl’ that I will return to in my next post.

Finally, for the avoidance of any doubt, I am not giving up on this novel. I may not read it with the care and attention James seems to expect, but that is not the same as not reading it altogether.

1919, by John Dos Passos, 1932

‘1919’ is the second book in Dos Passos’s ‘USA’ trilogy. Which immediately begs the question, why read only the middle book in a trilogy? You wouldn’t read only ‘The Two Towers’, would you? I think there are several reasons why I am going to resist the temptation to read the rest of ‘USA’. Firstly, ‘1919’ (and only ‘1919’) was recommended by the Guardian’s list of 100 best novels written in English; second, having now read this novel, to go back to the first volume seems a bit pointless; third1919, I just don’t have the appetite for another 800 pages of this trilogy. The novels are intended to stand alone and I am going to take the author at his word on this (even though many online reviews argue that reading the whole trilogy is the only way to properly appreciate its constituent parts).

At one time Dos Passos was ranked with the greats of American post-war literature – Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. While their novels have stood the test of time, I don’t think the same can be said for Dos Passos. ‘1919’ has only two reviews on Amazon’s UK site, compared to over 2,000 for Gatsby, and 1,500 for The Grapes of Wrath (Faulkner, by comparison, is little reviewed – go figure). ‘1919’ uses many innovative techniques, and these are some of the most successful aspects of the novel. Chapters are introduced with short scraps of text from newspaper and magazine headlines, followed by stream of consciousness, camera-reel impressions of the events of the following chapter. Interspersed elsewhere are short pen pictures of a series of American political and military figures who played a part in the First World War, and the industrial struggles in the United States at about the same time. (The Los Angeles Review of Books described these sections of the novels as “disruptive bumps in the reader’s way (which) have no bearing on the story, but add Americana-flavored flamboyance to the proceedings”. (It’s worth reading the whole of this review which is a pretty magisterial take down of the trilogy, describing it as “The Great American Novel That Wasn’t”!)

The body of the novel is a more traditional narrative telling the stories of five principal characters. Although these characters are Americans, the war takes them all to Europe, when the bulk of the novel’s events occur. Despite America’s extensive involvement in the war, none of the characters are involved directly in the conflict, serving as merchant seamen, ambulance drivers, or working with the Red Cross. There is a relentlessness about these stories – things happen, then something else happens, then yet more events; with troubled love affairs acting as the inevitable punctuation to another round of meetings, dinners, drinks, journeys back and forth between Rome and Paris, and so on. Because I didn’t care about these characters – possibly because I had not read about them in the first volume – I found these parts of the novel tiresome.

As an invocation of what it was like to be an American in Europe in 1917-1919 – privileged, largely immune from the conflict, endlessly bumping into one another – I am sure this is a faithful portrait. But apart from the tediousness of the primary narrative, there were other aspects of the novel which jarred. The condescending attitude towards Europeans often found in American popular culture crops up here far too often. Also prevalent is a racist (the n-word is used freely), anti-semitic, misogynist bundle of nasty prejudices which are given full rein and go completely unchallenged, despite Dos Passos’s apparent left wing ideals. As a small concession to this reactionary tide the novel closes with a historically arguable portrait of an attack on American Trade Unionists (the Centralia massacre) which is very sympathetic to the IWW (the international Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies).

As an attempt to describe how a better world could have emerged from the ashes of the First World War ‘1919’ fails completely – it is desperately pessimistic. All strikes are defeated, all socialists are isolated and the Red Scare (which swept post-War America and is in many ways still underway) looks unstoppable. From 1932 Dos Passos’s defeatism is understandable, and probably explains his subsequent steady drift to the Republican right.

‘1919’ was the third from last novel in my current reading challenge. Next up is Henry James’s ‘The Golden Bowl’, leaving’ Ulysses’ to last.

‘Glory’, by Vladimir Nabokov, 1932

This semi-autobiographical early novel was written in the early 1930’s, but only translated into English in 1971, when Nabokov’s reputation as an author was secure. It did little to enhance it.

‘Glory’ follows the childhood and early life of Nabokov’s romantic protagonist, Martin Edelweiss, who escapes from the bloodshed of Nabokov Gloryrevolutionary Russia.to Switzerland and thence to England. In London he meets the Zilanov family, expatriate Russians like himself, and falls for their teenage daughter, Sonia. At Cambridge University he becomes friends with Darwin, a war hero and published author, now a fellow student. Cambridge is a period of restlessness for Martin – he finds it hard to settle on a field of academic study, or an occupation thereafter. His family is sufficiently wealthy for this to not be too much of a problem. A summer working as a farmhand in France does not quieten this restiveness. Slowly a plan forms in his mind – to return undercover to Soviet Russia. A search for glory will quieten his dissatisfaction with life. The precise purpose of this perilous journey is never articulated, and remains a mystery to Darwin even when Martin reveals his intended journey.

The novel closes on a consciously downbeat almost offhand tone – Martin leaves Darwin with some postcards for his mother to explain his absence, and sets off for Russia via Latvia. Darwin, although he argues with him, finds his plans ridiculous. Martin’s eventual fate is hinted at but never revealed, and the narrator even turns away from portraying the scene when Darwin explains what has happened to Martin’s mother.

‘Glory’ is an unsatisfying novel. If you come to this book having read the pyrotechnics of ‘Pale Fire’ or ‘Lolita’ you will be disappointed. As a stylist Nabokov is extraordinary, and in this respect ‘Glory’ can stand comparison with anything he wrote. He takes sentence construction and extended metaphor to the very limits of sustainability:

“Human thought, flying on the trapezes of the star-filled universe, with mathematics stretched beneath, was like an acrobat working with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net.”

Any further and this would read like parody. As it is the slight clumsiness at the end – “with a net but suddenly noticing that in reality there is no net” is the character’s, not the author’s awkwardness, and captures perfectly the gap between Martin’s perception of himself, as someone significant, and the reader’s understanding that he is something of a fantasist.

In his introduction to the English edition, written decades after the novel itself, Nabokov typically misleads and challenges the reader. He offers an interpretation of the novel in which:

 “(the fun of Glory) is to be sought in the echoing and linking of minor events in back-and-forth switches, which produce an illusion of impetus”.

This invites us to read the novel looking for intricacies of construction which are undoubtedly present, but which nevertheless fail to add much to the novel. Just because an author introduces a motif at the opening of a novel – here for example a path leading through a wood – and returns to it in a subsequent scene at the close, that in itself does little to enhance our appreciation, particularly if we have already had the author point out the device. There are undoubted traces in ‘Glory’ of the elusive genius that was to emerge in ‘Pale Fire’ (for example) but for all its skill and technique the former suffers from comparison with the later work.

One last point – apologies for the book cover illustration. I suspect the publishers were trying to cash in on Nabokov’s reputation as the author of ‘racy’ novels.