Saturday, June 09, 2012

Book Review : The Game by A.S. Byatt (Vintage 1999, first published 1967)

It is the winter of 1963, and when sisters Julia and Cassandra return to Northumberland on the death of their father, they are snowed in. Living once again in such close company, they are forced to re-examine aspects of their childhood, and the causes of the rivalry that has blighted their relationship. Foremost is their relationship with their neighbour, Simon, who is now a leading herpetologist and TV personality. Julia is married to Thor, who retains the Quaker religion that they all once shared, and is an author, whilst Cassandra is an Oxford don of Medieval literature.

This is a book as stifling and claustrophobic as Julia and Cassandra's relationship. Cassandra's jealousy of Julia is triggered when she won a writing competition as a girl. It was compounded by the attention that Simon showed to her. Julia is prettier, more easy-going, more successful, lacking the introversion and obsessiveness of Cassandra, but just as vulnerable.

It is a finely-written book, showing deep insight into the sisters' relationships, yet was never an enjoyable book to read. Partly there is a sense that everything is overdetermined, all the relationships in the book are too intense. All the characters are infuriating without exception. There is also a sense that parts of it just don't quite ring true. The Baker family, for example, who add to the sense of claustrophobia by being invited by Thor to live at their flat, never make it beyond a caricature of the indigent poor, whilst the fate of Simon's camaraman is supposed to be shocking but is almost amusing.

Much symbolism arrives with a clunk. It is very convenient that Simon is a herpetologist, introducing discord into the garden. Cassandra, meanwhile, studies dessicated medieval documents, and keeps a statuette of Morgan Le Fay. Thor's religion is seen as an oppressive force, forcing him to try to be good. In the end, its all a bit much. As Ivan comments on Julia's novel "it has a lifelessness books have when they're overwrought." It would be ten years before A.S. Byatt published another novel, but within a couple of pages one would be able to sense a lightness which this novel and its predecessor lacked.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Book Review : Capital by John Lanchester (Faber & Faber 2012)

The residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are incomers. Roger and Arabella Yount bought their upmarket property from the proceeds of Roger's job as an Investment Banker. Freddy Kamo is a Premiership footballer. Ahmed Kamal runs the corner shop with his wife and two brothers. Meanwhile, Zbigniew the Polish builder is putting up Arabella's shelves, whilst Quentina Mkfesi, a political refugee from Zimbabwe, is walking Pepys Road in search of parking infringements.

When the residents begin to receive postcards of their houses with the sinister message "We want what you have", the relationship between them and their material possessions are placed under the microscope. The appalling Arabella Yount has completely objectified herself in material terms. Roger needs a £1million bonus to meet his family's extravagant requirements. Freddy's father Patrick wishes that he was back in Senegal where life was poorer but simpler. Petunia's grandson Smitty is a Banksy-style artist whose anonymity is a commodity. Zbigniew monitors his share portfolio so that he can return to Poland to set up in business with his father.

Overlying the material relations are typically modern physical threats. The postcards turn nasty. The Kamal's brother is arrested as a terrorist. Freddy is injured playing football. Quentina is interned. Petunia has cancer. Roger is caught up in the banking crisis.

Yet despite these pitfalls, this is a surprisingly warm-hearted book. These tribulations are generally redemptive, underscoring the importance of family, love, friendship and respect. Only Arabella Yount is too far-gone in her materialistic cocoon to be able to contemplate the opportunities that Roger's change in lifestyle may offer, and whilst the fate of the admirable Quentina gives little to be optimistic about, she knows that Zimbabwe will not be ruled by a tyrant forever.

John Lanchester has succeeded in writing an immensely enjoyable State-of-the-Nation novel. The way in which each set of characters' lives impinge on each other only very tangentially is exactly how a modern street works. Admittedly most characters are not sketched in much depth and the novel lacks complexity - yet it is this lightness which captures the superficial freneticness and interconnectivity of modern life so well.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Book Review : Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan 2001)

Is greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York City in 1931, the injuries had proved fatal, then he would be remembered no more than as a colourful actor on the British political stage, whose positive contributions, such as the introduction of Labour Exchanges and Employment insurance in 1909, were more than overwhelmed by his political disasters - such as his advocacy of Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard (against his better judgement and on the advice of John Maynard Keynes, no less) and his emerging opposition to the end of British rule in India.

He was a controversial politician, crossing the house twice and apparently disliked on both sides as a result. Yet, like Gladstone and Lloyd George but probably no others, he could speak. Members filled the chamber to hear his meticulously prepared speeches, his rhetoric usually soaring even if they disagreed with his content.

Yet, Churchill's time came in 1940. He had been consistent in opposing Naziism throughout the 1930s, and the fall of Chamberlain and Churchill's ascent to power is meticulously detailed in this fine autobiography. Chamberlain wanted to hand the Premiership over to Halifax, who, as a peer, demurred. Power passed to Churchill. As Halifax favoured peace with Hitler, who knows what the world would look like today if Halifax had not declined the chance of power.

As Premier, Churchill reinvigorated the faltering war effort, brought in some talented ministers from all sides of the House and from Industry, and galvanised the population with his keynote speeches.Yet for long periods he was absent. Amazingly, in the year from 12 January 1943, he was out of the country for 172 days, plus a further 35 days absent from Parliament due to pneumonia contracted whilst travelling. No-one can doubt the importance of his meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin, nor the bravery of travelling huge distances by air and sea at great risk to himself, yet to be away for half the year displays inordinate confidence in his deputy, Attlee.

Yet the War coalition was surprisingly unpopular. Bye-elections were lost with a surprising frequency, which was a foretaste of the upheaval of 1945. But by this time, Churchill's star had stated to decline. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and his second premiership, marred as it was by ill-health, was undistinguished. His much-delayed departure was anxiously awaited by more than just Eden.

Roy Jenkins' biography is exemplary. Based on copious secondary sources rather than original research, it is an admirable and compendious work of synthesis. Jenkins can turn a phrase almost as well as Churchill himself, though with less extravagance, and the result is a compellingly readable account which presents Churchill as gifted, wildly ambitious, egotistical, infuriating but always touched with greatness. In the final analysis he may be too kind to Churchill's final administration which in my opinion led Britain to a damaging period of stasis, yet overall he is admirably balanced throughout. He is respectful and admiring, yet this is no hagiography. And that is how it should be. Churchill was a flawed character in many ways - a drinker, a gambler, an egotist of frequently flawed judgement, yet when Britain faced its darkest hour, he was the one who to whom we turned, and he delivered.