Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review : The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape 2011)

2011 has been topped and tailed by two very similar short novels, both by experienced master-craftsmen, both looking back on events of the protagonist's youth which weren't fully understood at the time, both written with a taut, spare economy and barely a word out of place.

Philip Roth's Nemesis was a simpler piece of story-telling; Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is an altogether more ambitious work. Within its slight frame it dissects the unstable nature of history. As Adrian Finn says, quoting Lagrange, "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." Barnes' book is an exploration of this thesis.

Tony Webster and his friends Colin and Alex are ordinary schoolboys in the sixties, intellectually curious and hung-up on girls. They are joined at school by Adrian Finn, whose intellectual fire-power immediately marks him out as Scholarship material. Tony looks up to Adrian, as do both his friends and the Masters at his school. 

When Tony goes to Bristol University he starts to go out with Veronica, his first girlfriend, He is taken to meet her parents and their solid middle-class self-confidence immediately makes him feel inferior. It turns out that Veronica's brother is at Cambridge with Adrian, and after Tony and Veronica split up he gets a letter from Adrian requesting his permission to go out with Veronica.Tony's reply has unexpected consequences.

Fast-forward to today, and Tony is surprised to receive a bequest from Veronica's mother on her death. Veronica has some documents which have been left to him but which she is reluctant to release, so he tries to track her down in order to understand what happened when she split from him - yet his memory is unreliable and he is shocked to discover the picture of his younger self which emerges.

Barnes' characterisation has the precision of a stiletto. Tony is not naturally reflective, he is selfish, complacent, stolid and insensitive, yet cannot see it. He has caused damage that he cannot start to contemplate, but despite everything thinks he is an inoffensive nonentity. Veronica tries to penetrate his shell, but her pain is too great. The mystery is Adrian - to what extent does his theory of individual responsibility mean that he is unable to ascribe blame where it is due?

This is not a large book - only 150 pages - but its themes are massive. It does not feel slight, but rather it is as fully satisfying a read as many much larger novels - in fact, any further development would only detract from its key themes. Just as in Philip Roth's Nemesis, the sparsity engenders an emotional intensity and focus on a theme that would be lost in a bigger book. Both these master-craftsmen have the experience to know exactly when less is more. 

Book Review : The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury 2011)

I hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried middle-aged man working as a celebrity look-alike whose two best friends are both Jewish, and both have recently lost their wives. Samuel Finkler, a friend of Treslove since school, is a successful philosopher, academic and TV pundit, writer of "The Existentialist in the Kitchen". The elderly Libor Sevcik was their teacher. Both may be Jewish, but they have conflicting attitudes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Libor supporting the Israeli government's position, whereas Finkler takes the lead of the ASHamed Jews who are opposed to Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Julian has always had an ambiguous relationship with the confident, successful Finkler, defining his attitude to Jewishness through him (to Treslove, all Jews are "Finklers"). However, after being the victim of an possibly antisemitic attack in London, he starts to learn more about the religion before striking up a relationship with Hephzibah, Libor's niece. Nevertheless, despite trying to learn Yiddish, contemplating circumcision and recognising rising antisemitism on London's streets, Treslove never quite manages to fully reconcile himself to his nascent Judaism.

This is such an intimate, affectionate portrait of the varieties of Judaic experience, that, like Treslove, the gentile reader feels as if they are an onlooker, peering in to lives that are similar yet different to our own, trying to understand yet always conscious that there is a gap - religious, political, cultural, historical - that is impossible to transcend. In Treslove's case this is partly because he seems emotionally deficient at times, but a non-Jewish reader can only imagine the complexity of feelings and responses generated in Jews by the Palestinian conflict.

This is also a book about families and of death. Finkler and his wife Tyler coexisted up until her death in what was basically mutual enmity driven by Finkler's numerous infidelities (Treslove is surprised to learn that she  wasn't originally Jewish, but converted on her marriage). Libor, on the other hand - and despite being intimate with Hollywood's most beautiful actresses - was always loyal in his heart to his beloved Malkie. Both find it difficult to come to terms with their loss. Treslove, meanwhile, fantasizes about a beautiful woman dying in his arms.

It is not easy to summarise all the themes of such a sensitive, intelligent novel. Jacobson eschews easy solutions and trite answers. Themes are argued back and forwards but none of the characters find easy resolutions and neither does the reader - questions are simply raised and left hanging. All this is done is the most beautiful prose by a master of the well-turned sentence and ironic juxtaposition. This is not laugh-out-loud funny like previous works by Jacobson, but it demonstrates a wry humour throughout.

However, this is not meant to be a funny book - it's a deadly serious one. In Treslove's terms The Finkler Question is nothing less than the Jewish Question, a fundamental set of issues for a Jewish writer such as Jacobson. With its subsidiary reflections on life, love and death, this is as serious as it gets.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review : The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvard Secker 2011)

I remember receiving The Name of the Rose as a Christmas present back in the 1980s and finishing it around 5am on Boxing Day, captivated by the cleverness of it all, so allusive, playful, dark and learned. After Foucault's Pendulum was released, a fellow Eco-afficianado and I rushed to the Musée des Arts et Métiers at lunchtime whilst on a training course in Paris in order to gaze at the Pendulum itself, and the site of the novel's dénouement.

Since then, Eco's works have frustrated as much as entertained. All have displayed his vast erudition, yet none has captured the energy and inventiveness of his earlier narratives. His last book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, even sought to recapture this lost elan through discarding medieval texts in favour of the cartoon storybooks of Eco's childhood, with only partial success.

The Prague Cemetery, however, promised to be a return to familiar territory, the conspiracy theories and secret societies so effectively spiked in Foucault's Pendulum. It is the tale of a spy and master-forger, who is responsible in part for all the most important conspiracies of the late nineteenth century from the reunification of Italy to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Being Eco, all the characters except for Simonini, the antisemitic protagonist, really existed. Being Eco, though, one needs a fair knowledge of 19th century history in order to separate fact from fiction from conjecture and invention.

The historical parts of the novel are great: they race along engagingly, and, as Dan Brown knows, there is a ready appetite for even the most bizarre conspiracies, factually based or not. Simonini plots with the Carbonari, follows Garibaldi's troops through Italy, is the mastermind behind Leo Taxil's antimasonic Satanic fantasies and writes both Dreyfuss's incriminating letter and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whilst introducing us to several of the most unsavoury peripheral characters in France and Italy in this period. In actual fact, Eco carefully charts the links between Freemasonry and the movement for Italian reunification, and how it  subsequently become linked with anti-jewish propaganda through the works of Maurice Joly via novelists Dumas and Sue, and Taxil's wilder fantasies, culminating in the Protocols. Even allowing for some flights of fancy, notably some murders and a racy black mass, this is heady stuff.

The problem, though, is with the novel's superstructure. It is supposedly the recollections of Simonini, interspersed with the diary of a Jesuit priest by the name of Dalla Piccola with whom Simonini shares a flat but who may only be an alter-ego or a figment of Simonini's imagination. You know that there is an issue here when Eco presents us with a table in an appendix to try to tie together the diaries, recollections and actual events. It simply doesn't work, and detracts, especially in the first part of the book, from the otherwise engaging narrative. There is a sense that Eco actually has several themes he wants to write about - il Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, Freemasonry and the anti-Jewish conspiracies, and this is the only way that he can shoe-horn them together, when in fact it is unnecessary. Eco doesn't generally do character much and this is no exception, and ultimately the endless successions of names becomes overwhelming. Which is a pity as the material unearthed by Eco is fascinating, and with better organisation it could even give Dan Brown a run for his money, perish the thought...

Theatre Review : Hamlet - Young Vic (dir Ian Rickson 19/12/12)

My earliest serious theatregoing was to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the 1980s when it was led by magnificent trio of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse, to which I wholly attribute my love of adventurous, iconoclastic productions and a good working knowledge of Brecht. I remember back around 1983 going to see a production of Hamlet, directed by Havergal and Prowse, set in a lunatic asylum, with the play being acted as group therapy. It may even have been the first time I had seen Hamlet live, but we had studied it at school so I was familiar with the text; however, I was disappointed with the production. As everyone was acting out the play as therapy, then the key question of how and when and to what extent Hamlet was mad was blurred as he was - by definintion - mad to start off with. Having saddled itself with the concept, the play itself then struggled to break free of it

So it was with a sense of trepidation that I made my way to the Young Vic, ready to experience the new route into the supposed Psychiatric Unit in which the play had once again been set (although to be honest I thought this was more a cheap gambit to get everyone into their seats on time in the tight Young Vic auditorium). The stage is bare apart from a coffin, and backed by glass panelling leading into an office, NHS chic. The lights drop and in the dark the ghost stalks Elsinore's battlements. However, when the lights are raised again, and even after Hamlet took the stage, one couldn't help being influenced by the sterile, aseptic hospital environment. Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet and Polonius sit around as in group therapy, the King and Polonius doubling as hospital figures of authority. But the play wasn't catching fire and the audience was flat despite strong performances, especially from Michael Sheen as an angry, threatening Hamlet.

But suddenly the Players took the stage and everything changed. They were led by a bearded, bewildered Player King (Pip Donaghy), and a leaping, bawdy Lucianus, lubriciously rubbing a vacuum-cleaner head between his legs. As Hamlet provides an increasingly deranged commentary with megaphone and flashlight, the murder of Gonzago is enacted, Claudius (James Clyde) and Gertrude (Sally Dexter) fled from the stage, the audience suddenly engaged and the play came alive. It seemed to take this scene to break the production from its anchors in the mental hospital and gave it the imaginative freedom it needed.

The second half was superb. Hamlet overhears Claudius’ praying for forgiveness in the office through the intercom. Ophelia (Vinette Robinson)  sings to the music of PJ Harvey, unbearably affecting. The heart of the stage is raised to show the gravedigger in a sandpit, which effectively split the stage and prevented Claudius from reaching Gertrude as she sipped from the poisoned chalice.

Michael Sheen captivated throughout. His Hamlet was not some ineffective dreamer but hot-blooded and impulsive -  in fact, he was grounded in an angry reality, and couldn’t be further from the psychiatric case predicated by the production’s superstructure. His verse was spoken with lightness and clarity, wringing all the natural rhythms from Shakespeare’s words, and brought freshness and vitality to the great soliloquies.

But whilst Sheen dazzled, the production itself frustrated. There were lots of good ideas (the female Horatio (Hayley Carmichael) and Rozencrantz (Eileen Walsh) added some tender nuances), but the whole lacked coherence. Why, for example, in a production which had generally been trimmed intelligently and focussed on the intimate, had traces of Fortinbras been allowed to remain in order to facilitate a minor coup de théatre at the end? Was this a final confirmation that the play itself had been an outworking of the prince’s damaged phyche? If so, then Rickson might have had the courage of his convictions throughout. As it was, we had a great performance from Sheen, some interesting ideas and a production that held its audience throughout the second half. But as a coherent whole it missed its mark in the end.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review : The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador 2011)

Five celebrations, five portraits of a family, five windows on the passing of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is his most ambitious yet, a dissection of the impact of the passing of time on a family as their reputations rise and fall, but also on the nature of biography as family secrets are withheld or revealed - or could they even be fabricated? - as the past is picked over.

Cecil Valance is a poet, beautiful, carefree, charismatic, who just prior to the First World War visits the suburban house of his friend and lover George Sawle and kisses his young sister, Daphne. He celebrates the visit by writing a poem to Daphne, “Two Acres”,  which later becomes much anthologised. Like Rupert Brooke, on whom Valance is clearly based, his poetic reputation is enhanced by his heroic early death in the trenches. Churchill quotes “Two Acres” in his obituary. His body is brought back and entombed in the Valance’s private chapel in their house at Corley Court, whilst cabinet minister Sebastien Stokes reaches out for the memories of his friends and family in order to write his memoir.

Yet time is a harsh critic, and as it passes Valance’s poetic reputation is re-evalated and his Georgics, seemingly so elegant before the War, seem insipid beside the masters of his age. He is remembered as a dashing romantic figure, a breaker of hearts and for his tragic early death,  not for what he wrote. Ironically, his unattractive brother Dudley, whose insensitive alterations have ruined the interior of Corley Court, emerges initially with the stronger literary reputation on account of his acerbic memoirs. Meanwhile shy, suburban George has the sad fate of being known to a generation of schoolchildren thanks to a history textbook he wrote with his wife.

A generation later, and biographer Paul Bryant is trying to uncover the truth about the Valances. He pieces together information from his own boyhood, from a reticent Daphne, from an increasingly senile George. But what information is to be trusted, and can Paul be trusted himself? “And year by year our memory fades”...

Hollinghurst plays with the reader as with a powerful fish – successively letting out line collusively, then reeling in sharply. He writes so carefully with subtle phrases, little hints, that one feels complicit when a character reveals his weakness, shocked but not surprised at the manner in which it is made manifest. Yet, as one moves to each new period, characters from the past are revealed only reluctantly, from their hiding place behind married names and titles, as the reader has to reconstruct their backstories from sparse hints and snippets of information, though at the same time the reader is knowingly aware of information that the new characters are not privy to, such as when the schoolboys reveal Sir Dudley’s sword for their museum, one recalls what use Sir Dudley put his sword forty years before. It is a style at once both subtle and explicit, one cannot escape the sense that one is being playfully manipulated.

The truth is never quite as simple as it appears on the printed page - all the memoirs of the family are unreliable in some way, everyone has an angle. Much is hinted at but little is explicit - not even Hollinghurst's trademark gay sex. But there is an unmistakable sense of sadness and decline that pervades the whole book. It is only latterly that you learn that the mighty Vallances, with such a Norman sounding name, have only received their baronetcy as a result of the fortune created by the first baronet in grass seed. Within three generations the family heir is living in a ramshackle cottage, but apparently not without means.  

But their is also a counterpoint - the book is also a celebration of the liberation of gay men over the course of the twentieth century. The hints and occlusions in the early memoirs are an attempt to hide the illicit secret of Cecil Vallance's bisexuality. Harry's love for Hubert is never fully understood until many years later and the George's marriage of convenience to the unappealing Madeleine contrasts with the apparent satisfaction of later relationships such as Peter and his civil partner Desmond.

Hollinghurst never gives his readers the satisfaction of an easy resolution. The trajectory of the family, of their reputations, their properties and the instability of the means of their evaluation all remain elusive right to the end, and you are immediately wanting to go back and reread, to search for further clues. To reread would be a fitting reward for an exceptional book.