Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review : The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago Press 2009)

It may be an exaggeration to say that British novelists write of little else but class, but it is certainly the case that a number of significant recent novels have examined  class-incompatibility and the decline of the English gentry over the course of the 20th Century.  Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child” charts the decline of one part of a wealthy family through the rise and fall of its poet-son’s reputation. The crux of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”  arises essentially out of a sense of class-based inferiority. Meanwhile, Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” charts another gentry-class family’s decline in the immediate aftermath of the second world war through the unusual medium of a ghost story.

As a child, Faraday had visited the Ayres family at Hundreds Hall where his mother was in service. Now that he is a doctor in the local town, he is called to examine Betty, a young servant, and strikes up a friendship with the members of the family. Mrs Ayres is now widowed, and has two surviving children, her eldest daughter having died from diphtheria. Her surviving children are now in their twenties. Roderick was badly burned during the war, whilst Caroline is rather plain and unmarried. Hundreds Hall itself is badly in need of repair – the income from the estate has diminished, and financial anxieties are crowding in on Roderick who has taken over the running of the Estate since the death of his father.

Betty has claimed that the Hall frightens her, but there is no evidence of any malign force until a dinner party where Gyp, Caroline’s docile Labrador, suddenly savages a neighbour’s child. After this, strange occurrences take place with increasing frequency. Roderick is convinced there is an evil spirit in the house – but could this just be the strain of his injuries and the family finances taking their toll? Mrs Ayres agrees there may be a spirit – could this be her beloved daughter trying to reach her?

Meanwhile, Faraday has struck up a tentative relationship with an uncertain Caroline, and is becoming more involved in the problems of the house. His medical experience is invaluable as he deals with the consequences of the strange manifestations in the house. As an educated man, he is sure there is a rational explanation for what is occurring. Could it be psychoneurosis, or has Roddy's subliminal self somehow broken loose from his conscious personality and returned to the house, as his colleague Seeley suggests?

The narrative is told from Faraday's perspective, but could he be more implicated more than he reveals in the narrative? Before each major crisis, he has been in the vicinity of the house, sometimes drinking, always upset and on the morning afterwards has suffered bad night’s sleep? Who is the “you” to whom Caroline refers? He is not entirely a pleasant character, having a temper and a suspicious nature, and has clearly not got over the perceived disadvantages of his poor upbringing. He is getting more frustrated with the barriers to his relationship with Caroline. Has he fully resolved his feelings towards the family for whom his mother spent time in service?  A mischievous spirit or a rational explanation? - Sarah Waters leaves conclusions to the reader.

Coming from the doctor’s perspective, the book is written in flat, businesslike prose. Description  is kept to a minimum, yet the time and place are brilliantly evoked. The sparseness means that when the crises occur, the description of them is all the more shocking – and I can guarantee that once you get into the book it is so gripping that it almost impossible to put down. Yet the class-based ambiguities at the heart of it mean that this is no mere page-turner but an extremely sensitive, thought-provoking and intriguing story.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film Review - The Artist (dir Michel Hazanavicius)

Let's be honest. This film is a predictable piece of romantic schmaltz filled with a compendium of some of the biggest movie clichés of all time, complete with a cutesy dog. It's a rehack of the well-worn tale of the fading star being eclipsed by his pretty young protegé, who belatedly comes to appreciate what he had done for her. Not only that, but it's silent and shot in black and white - did anyone mention that? And d'know what - despite the silent movie gimmick being hyped beyond belief, despite every scene being telegraphed beforehand and despite anthropomorphic animals in cinema making me cringe - despite all that it's absolutely wonderful and well worth all the noise.

Part of the reason for its success is the sheer élan of the film-making. This is a labour of love and it shows. As soon as one sees the distinctive art-deco credits  faded at the edges, one is reminded of so many films of the late twenties and early thirties. And this continues throughout. Almost every scene elicits a thrill of recognition, even if it is for recognition of a well-worn cliché. 

Being primarily a silent movie gives it great scope for sound-related coups de théatre which Hazanavicius exploits to great effect. After the opening dance number the music ends and we expect to be engulfed by the audience's applause, but instead we are envelopped by silence. I note that the Alliance of Woman Film Journalists have voted "The sound of glass clinking on the table" from this film as their unforgettable movie moment of the year, and without giving the game away I quite agree.

Jean Dujardin as fading star George Valentin is superb, a hint of vulnerability always at the corner of his twinkling eye, and Bérénice Bejo radiates exactly the charisma that one would expect of up-and-coming movie icon Peppy Miller. Both are nearly eclipsed by a pitch-perfect John Goodman hamming it up for all he is worth as the producer Al Zimmer, but the star of the show is undoubtedly Uggie as Jack, a dog of acuity, insight and undeniable attractiveness. A lot of nonsense has been written about his eligibility for Best Supporting Actor awards. Of course he is simply fortunate that he has been trained well and looks cute - just like many of his human counterparts.

There are so many allusions, references and in-jokes that this is probably a film best appreciated by dedicated cinéastes, but its sheer ebullience makes it a pleasure for all who enjoy romances, films for film's sake and who don't need a raft of flashes, guns and special effects. Forget 3-D, silent films might be the future.

Book Review : A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes (Picador 1990)

On first sight, this is not so much a novel as a collection of disparate short stories linked by recurring motifs but not linked by any big idea or common themes. But Julian Barnes has insisted that the book was conceived as a whole, and in actual fact you need to stand quite far back to appreciate the architecture of the whole.

This is a history of the world from Noah until the end of time. In the first chapter we encounter a cynical, all-knowing woodworm which has stowed away on the Ark, decrying Noah and his drunken exploits. In the final chapter, we discover an afterlife in which all desires are satiated to such an extent that the dead eventually tire of the state of bliss that they exist in, and opt for nothingness instead. In the intervening 8 1/2 chapters, we encounter the woodworm gnawing through the legs of the throne of the Bishop of Besançon,  trying to eat the letters sent by an actor in the South American jungle and possibly destroying the remains of the Ark on Mount Ararat. Reindeer which on the Ark had a sense of foreboding are buried in the fallout from a nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, the Ark recurs in the guise of an Achille Lauro-type liner stormed by Arab terrorists, who execute the prisoners of the unclean nations two by two, Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, some logs tied together in the South American jungle and a possibly delusionary craft in the Pacific.

The overarching theme is similar to that of his recent Booker-prize winning novel A Sense of an Ending. It is the fragility and unreliability of the historical narrative and how it is framed by the perspective of the narrator. The woodworm, who, as a destroyer of narratives par excellence exemplifies Barnes' theme, relates his worm's eye view of a biblical narrative that is unreliable per se. The deaths of the terrorists deprive Franklin Hughes of the justification of his behaviour and his girlfriend never talks to him again. Kath Ferris's journey across the Torres Strait could have been a fantasy or delusion - or the consequence of sunstroke. The story of the Medusa is the story of the survivors.

There are two significant exceptions to these stories about the fragility of history. The first is the tragic story of the ship St Louis, which sailed to the United States carrying 937 Jewish refugees but was denied access at numerous ports in the Americas, finally returning to Antwerp. This is a shocking fact: only the ultimate fate of its passengers as they are dispersed once again throughout Europe is unknown. 

And then in the half-chapter, Parenthesis, Barnes finally confronts the reader directly and brings everything together. In the midst of a disquisition on the nature of love, he states that "History isn't what happened - history is just what historians tell us." They impose a pattern, plan, connections. 
   "The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn   for a few centuries then fade; stories, old stories that seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections... We bury our victims in secrecy (strangled princelings, irradiated reindeer), but history discovers what we did to them."

As short stories, each Chapter would stand up well by itself. Written in a variety of styles, voices and tones, they are exemplars of the short-storyteller's art. Yet don't let the engaging nature of many of these tales and the accessibility of Barnes' style deceive you - this is a deadly serious and hugely ambitious book.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review : Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre 2011)

1785, and the French state is rotten, putrefying. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is summoned to a decaying Versailles to be given a task by a government minister, the clearance of the cemetery of les Innocents by Les Halles in Paris, which is full to overflowing and filling its surrounds with stench and disease. Apparently there is an elephant somewhere in Versailles.

The elephant is the impending French Revolution, whose presence looms over this book whilst only ever being acknowledged in the prophetic street graffiti of the mysterious Bêche. And, as wide-awake readers will note Jean-Baptiste is preparing the way for the upheaval, and that "Baratter" means to agitate vigorously, they will realise that we are in the realm of complex extended historical metaphor. However, don't let that put you off - this is page-turning book, cleverly written, engaging and entertaining, and one can enjoy immensely it without all the cleverness. But dig away at the surface like Baratter's men from Valenciennes, and so much more opens up...

The title announces the theme: purification - of the graveyard, of the district, of the state, of la pute autrichiènne with whom Baratte will live. A day is coming when the last trompette-stop of the organ will sound and the innocents shall rise up from their graves. Jean-Baptiste travels to Valenciennes via Amiens (incidentally home to relics of John the Baptist) to employ Flemish miners, working men, simple but loyal, to excavate the bones of les Innocents and transport them to the catacombs below Rue d'Enfer. Miller captures the sights and smells of this unpleasant task in brisk, tight elegant sentences whilst continuing to toy with us.

Salome-like, the naked daughter of Jean-Baptiste's hosts tries to sever his head. Fortunately he is rescued by all-seeing Marie before he has shed too much blood. Call on Dr Guillotin who has expertise in such cases. It can be possible to over-interpret. As fire rages all around them, Jean-Baptiste finds Flemish miner Block (=stone = pierre =Peter??), gives him a key and tells him to take his followers to the river.

As a novel, it is not without its flaws. Structurally it is unkempt, events occur for little apparent reason, Jean-Baptiste is the only character of interest.Yet as an entertainment, an exciting read, historically astute, well-written and playful, it excels. Since finishing it, I've found myself musing on the theme and the apocalyptic parallels it develops, which is worthy tribute. And the elephant? - it was lying dead in Versailles, rotting away.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Review : Staring at the Sun by Julian Barnes (Picador 1987)

In his recent Booker Prizewinning The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes' middle-aged character tries to make sense of a pivotal event in his life many years ago. Barnes had written about an elderly character looking back on a life once before in Staring at the Sun, one of his earlier works written in 1985, and the difference between the two books is instructive. Both are massively ambitious. Whereas The Sense of an Ending explores the nature of history, Staring at the Sun tries to tell whether you can "tell a good life from a bad life, a wasted life."

Jean Sargent did not lead an exciting life. Brought up before the second world war, she drifted into a loveless marriage. It was only the prospect of her son's birth that made her leave her husband and drift around various poorly paid jobs and rented flats. Looking back on her long life from a vantage point in 2020, she reflects on her dodgy Uncle Leslie, who fled to America during the war, and fighter-pilot Tommy Prosser, who was grounded when he lost his bottle.

She looks back on bringing up her son, Gregory, whose existential crisis causes him to interrogate the General Purposes Computer's Absolute Truth module why he is afraid of death. And she reflects on travelling in her middle age, when she went to China. There someone asks how you can tell good jade from bad and is told "you look at it and by looking you can tell its qualities."

There are two main problems with this book. The first is that it is over-determined, a bit too writerly. Significant metaphors recur with a clunk. As a child, Jean sees a print of a mink with the caption that "the mink is excessively tenacious of life," and the phrase returns to Jean at all of life's major junctures. Similarly aeroplanes - Uncle Leslie takes her on an aeroplane to cure her whooping cough; Tommy Prosser gives the book its title by flying into the sun; Gregory makes model aircraft that cannot fly.

The second is a problem of tone in the final section of the book. After two largely realist parts which follow Jean in her youth and as a mother, we suddenly fast-forward to 2020. The General Purposes Computer is a fine example of why writers must always take care when writing about the future, since Barnes obviously hadn't envisaged as all-encompassing a vehicle for the sum of human knowledge as the Internet. Gregory's interrogation of the GPC makes for interesting intellectual cut and thrust, but it is out of tune with the rest of the  book.

By the end, as Gregory and his mother embark on an aeroplane and all the metaphors come together, one feels as if one has completed a particularly complex intellectual jigsaw and not a work of literature. This is a shame, as the book is beautifully written, as is always the case with Julian Barnes, and genuinely thought-provoking. However, when compared with The Sense of an Ending one can see how the mature Barnes has dealt with equally weighty issues with so much more subtlety yet directness.