Posts Tagged Sinclair Lewis
As disconsolate as I was at the end of 2016 (and I was, deeply so), 2017 has managed, in some respects, to shock and depress me beyond expectations.
Shocked and depressed by the sight of giant swastika banners, and the sound of anti-semitic chants, on the streets of an American city, and the inability of the leader of the USA to unequivocally condemn fascist violence. Since Charlottesville, of course, that has been compounded by that leader acting as a publicist for the vile Britain First in their attempts to spread fear and hatred.
I know, of course, that fascism never went away, that there have always been cliques and cadres of unapologetic Nazis, but they used to deny what they were, to hide from publicity, not to court it. They used to put on their uniforms and get out their flags in private, amongst those of a like mind, not to parade them on the streets.
Not only are Nazis now out and proud, but the very notion of truth seems to be up for grabs. If you are caught out in an untruth, you simply claim it as an alternative fact.
Robert Spencer, a leading American Islamophobe who was banned from entering the UK in 2013 for his anti-Muslim history, posted on his website Jihad Watch that doubts about the veracity of the retweeted videos were beside the point. “The real question is not whether this or that video is accurate, but whether there is a problem with jihad terror and Islamic supremacism in Britain and elsewhere.”
“Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “‘That is what the president is talking about, that is what the president is focused on dealing with, those real threats and those are real no matter how you look at it. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
We were warned about this. Warned a long time ago.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (Hannah Arendt – The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958)
Orwell, in his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, described his fear at the feeling that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’.
Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. … The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” – well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs. (George Orwell – ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, 1942)
Just over a year ago I was musing about Godwin’s law.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
What strikes me now, reading those words, is that we’re no longer just hearing echoes. Fascist rhetoric is being normalised. It’s perceived as being endorsed, even, when the President of the US refers to far-right protestors as ‘very fine people’, or retweets Britain First’s vile anti-Muslim videos. The wretched Farage is endorsing ‘concerns’ about the Jews, with a smooth segue from ‘the Israeli lobby’ to the ‘six million Jewish people living in America’, and the suggestion of disproportionate influence. Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Whether it’s a real document, the threat is real…
I’ve just finished reading Sinclair Lewis’s remarkable 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.
As many have pointed out over the years, it’s not the greatest work of literature. And, of course, it’s not actually supernaturally prescient – Buzz Windrip resembles Trump in some ways, but there are many more differences. We are not now in the 1930s. Because we know what happened then, and what happened after, we cannot walk blindly into the kind of totalitarianism that Windrip delivers so easily, with so little resistance. We know – a diminishing few of us from first-hand experience, and many more from having read and learned from history – and we cannot unknow.
We can’t afford to be complacent though – few of us would have expected that we would be where we are today, that we would see and hear this normalisation of fascism. We have to draw upon what we know about what happened then, to ensure that it really, really can’t happen here, and now.
One criticism of the Lewis’s novel which jars with me, however, is the notion that Doremus Jessup, its hero, is hard to root for.
Jessup, as his name suggests, was a deliberate throwback to the 19th century. He thinks and talks in very flowery stream-of-consciousness prose, stuffed with references to writers and concepts long forgotten. …. While Orwell’s hero Winston Smith attempts his doomed act of thoughtcrime rebellion against Big Brother from the very first page, Jessup takes an age to really stand up to his dictator. …
Doremus Jessup’s one act of rebellion, months after the dictatorship has been established, is to write a fiery front-page editorial. He is jailed for this, but they let him out when he promises to help his successor write pro-Windrip articles. Some hero.
By the end of the book, Jessup is an agent of the resistance based in Canada; his job is to skip across the border and stir up rebellion. But to achieve this, he spreads propaganda himself, telling each man the rumors he needs to hear.
This kind of behavior doesn’t make for a likable character. Indeed, Jessup’s constant wittering about his self-doubt and compromises make it surprisingly hard to root for him even when he’s in a concentration camp, being forced to drink castor oil and taking 20 lashes. (Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when Winston is tortured, we’re right there on the table with him.)
Clearly I am invested in Doremus Jessup because I found myself getting rather cross about this, on his behalf. The comparison with 1984 is, I think, largely spurious. We are from the start of that novel in the dystopian future where Big Brother reigns supreme. In It Can’t Happen Here we are in a modern democracy, where Buzz Windrip seems at first to be a hopeless candidate, a joke. Where the idea that a President might set up and mobilise a private army to root out dissidents, and set up concentration camps where those dissidents can be tortured and murdered, seems so improbable that no one is prepared for it.
Doremus isn’t an action hero. Perhaps that’s why I root for him, contrary to the Dystopia Project’s somewhat simplistic view. He’s not the guy you want by your side if it comes to a scrap. But he uses the things he is good at in the service of the Resistance, and uses the opportunity of continuing to work at the newspaper offices to establish an underground newspaper and distribute it through clandestine channels. He is caught with the text of an editorial exposing murders committed by one of Windrip’s Military Judges, and is brutally punished.
I was reminded of Francois Mauriac, the great French novelist, and member of the French Resistance during the Occupation. He wasn’t an obvious candidate for the resistance movement – he was naturally conservative, and indeed he initially supported Petain’s Vichy government. But Mauriac was someone who listened, always, to his conscience, and when the Vichy government began implementing anti-Semitic legislation, his conscience told him he had to act.
He too was a pretty weedy chap, but he wrote, and contributed to the production of clandestine texts such as Le Cahier noir (written under the pseudonym Forez, in 1943), which was a passionate condemnation of the Vichy regime and of collaboration with the Nazis and an equally passionate statement of hope, and of faith in humanity, of the ideals of justice and liberty.
Mauriac was lucky, he managed to escape arrest by keeping on the move, but he knew what he was risking, and that he would have been unlikely to survive arrest, torture and a concentration camp. People like Mauriac, like Doremus, are as much heroes as those who take up arms.
I’m an utter physical coward. When I ask myself, as I have done so often when reading about the Nazi Occupation of France, what I would have done, I know I wouldn’t have been fighting in a partisan unit, blowing up railway lines or assassinating German officers in the Metro. But equally I believe I would not have been just keeping my head down and shutting up, and I know, absolutely without doubt that there are circumstances in which I would instinctively do the right thing even if it was dangerous, and absolutely without doubt that I would not betray or denounce. I like to think that I’d be with Mauriac and Jessup, writing the truth, getting it out there. That’s where our hopes must lie. That in Trump’s America and in Brexit Britain, in the European nations now flirting with fascism and infected with xenophobia, there will always be Mauriacs, always be Jessups, who just can’t sit still and do nothing.
We’re not facing those kind of decisions now, not yet at any rate. But smaller decisions may confront us at any time, even here, in a country where racist bigots have been emboldened by the decision to leave the EU and by the horrors inflicted by IS and their affiliates, to express their hatred in ways that we haven’t heard or seen for decades.
It can happen here. It’s on us to make sure it doesn’t.
So Doremus rode out, saluted by the meadow larks, and onward all day, to a hidden cabin in the Northern Woods, where quiet men awaited news of freedom.
And still Doremus goes on in the red sunrise, for Doremus Jessup can never die.
(Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here)
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Meridian Books, 1958
Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, 1935, Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2017
George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, in George Orwell: Essays, Penguin Books, 2000
These are the books that have made the most impression upon me, that have made me want to read everything by that author, tweet madly about how wonderful they are and press copies upon everyone I know, during 2017. Many, but not all, appeared during 2016/17.
Earlier this year I undertook a challenge, to read 60 books in 60 days. Reader, I nailed it. I also blogged extensively about the books I read and I don’t intend to duplicate those reviews here, though I will list the books that make my ‘best of’ list which were part of that project. Quite a few, actually.
One of the first books I read in 2017 was Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. I commented at the time that this was likely to end up being one of my books of the year, and nothing has displaced it. He made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid, rather, inspired to go away and read the stuff he was talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
As always, I found myself reading around various aspects of World War II.
Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s (2016) is a fascinating account, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between, drawing on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaving them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were. I thought often of Michel Butor’s comment, speaking of his own adolescence in the city, that it felt as though nothing was happening but that the nothing was bloody.
Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: in the ruins of the Reich (2016) again draws upon contemporary sources (with particular, but not exclusive, emphasis on some of the women writers, reporters and artists – Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Lee Miller, Erika Mann) to paint a vivid picture of the devastation of Berlin and other German cities after the end of the War, and during the Nuremberg trials. I followed this up with Rebecca West’s near-contemporary first-hand account, A Train of Powder (1955). Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016) covered this period too, but from the perspective of those who were developing the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. What makes his account particularly powerful is that he weaves his own family history into that of the architects of the legislation. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer. Adding to this coincidence, I found myself reading in quick succession two other family histories, that of Eva Hoffman, born in Cracow at the end of the war but whose parents survived the war in the Ukraine, near Lwów (aka L’viv or Lemberg), emigrating post-war from Poland to Vancouver (Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language), and then that of Lisa Appignanesi (Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir), an account of how her parents passed for Aryan in occupied Poland before relocating to Quebec.
Still in WWII but behind the Eastern Front, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) lets us hear the voices of the women who fought in the Red Army. Rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by Soviet propaganda or the opposing Western propaganda, we meet real women who did extraordinary things, who confronted not only opposing armies but prejudice from their comrades in arms and commanding officers, and from their families at home. And personal conflicts too – these often very young women fell in love, and mourned the loss of their femininity, and feared whether they would find husbands when the fighting was done. Alexievich’s book first came out in 1985 but has been expanded to bring in more recent interviews, and material from earlier interviews which could not be published previously.
And another remarkable and compelling history from David Olusoga – Black & British: a forgotten history (2016). Alongside bits of history that I was familiar with there’s so much that was new, and ran counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s How not to be a Boy, clearly a response to Caitlin Moran’s wonderful How to be a Woman/How to Build a Girl. It is extremely funny, and – as with Moran’s books – often very moving as well.
Other outstanding non-fiction titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003); Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012); David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017).
When it comes to fiction I resent categorisations by genre, which always somehow end up marking some things as ‘literature’ and others as ‘crime’ or whatever. However, given the sheer number of crime/thriller/detective novels that I read, it makes sense to group them together.
New discoveries this year include Ben Aaronovitch’s somewhat bonkers urban fantasy detective novel, Rivers of London (2011). This is the start of a series, which I have yet to follow up.
I came across Helen Cadbury’s Sean Denton police procedurals, To Catch a Rabbit (2013) and Bones in the Nest (2015) set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping. I’d only just read them when I heard that she’d died, an awful loss. There’s one more Sean Denton novel just out, which I haven’t read yet.
I’ve been binging on various series featuring women detectives and as a result I’ve run out of several of my current favourites: Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan (Let the Dead Speak, 2017), Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw (latest one is Persons Unknown, 2017), Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome (Quieter than Killing, 2017), and Valentina Giambanco’s Alice Madison (Sweet after Death, 2017). They all feature central women characters who are complicated and interesting, tight plotting, intriguing peripheral characters, and an overall plot arc which, whilst it doesn’t prevent each novel from being freestanding, gives a depth to the series if you read them consecutively.
Fortunately, whilst I wait for Casey, Steiner, Giambanco and Hilary to come up with new titles (no pressure, but do hurry up!), I’ve got lots to read by Elly Griffiths, whose The Crossing Places (2009) and The Janus Stone (2010) features not a woman cop but a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.
Noah Hawley was new to me as a novelist, but I’d loved his writing for three TV series of Fargo, full of wit and heart and surprises. His 2016 novel, Before the Fall lived up to the expectations that Fargo had raised. It’s a thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality.
And a writer new to me but channelling (very convincingly) one of my all-time favourite detective novelists, Dorothy L Sayers. Four new Lord Peter Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, a delightful chance to reacquaint myself with Peter and Harriet and Bunter and (oh joy!) the Dowager Duchess, and to see them in the context of world events and radical changes in society. (Thrones, Dominations (1998)/A Presumption of Death (2002)/The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)/The Late Scholar (2013))
And some fantastic 2017 titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Sam Bourne – To Kill the President, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze , Jane Harper – The Dry .
Another terribly sad loss this year was that of Helen Dunmore. I’ve read most of her work over the years, this year alone I read three (The Lie (2014)/Exposure (2016)/The Betrayal (2010)). I’m grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me, and that there are a few more for me to look forward to reading, including her final novel, Birdcage Walk.
This was the year I finally finished a ten-year project – to read all of Proust. In French. Le Temps retrouvé bit the dust in April, and I blogged about it here.
Prompted by my University of Sheffield Book Group, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015).
I suspect I’m not the only person with a deep fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tendency to idolise Atticus Finch, who’d kind of been putting this off, having read some of the reviews (and the controversy about whether Lee genuinely wanted this to be published and/or had the capacity to make that decision). I’m glad I did read it, but it’s complicated, and I will be pondering more about this separately, because reading it sent me off on so many different trains of thought.
And finally, after reading another alt. US history (Philip Roth’s The Plot against America) I got round to Sinclair Lewis’s account of a demagogue, ‘vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic’, who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and then the Presidency. He wins support despite the vulgarity and the lies and the lack of content in his speeches by addressing the people as if ‘he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.’ And he attacks the Press in very familiar terms:
I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.
It is impossible to read It Can’t Happen Here (1935) without seeing the current incumbent of the White House in the place of Buzz Windrip. In the run-up to his election, the Guardian analysed the similarities, and the Washington Post compared Trump not only to Windrip but to Philip Roth’s Charles Lindbergh. We are forewarned.
As part of the 60 books challenge, I read more from long-term favourite writers Stevie Davies (Awakening, 2013), Patrick Gale (The Whole Day Through, 2009), Rose Tremain (The Gustav Sonata, 2016) and Livi Michael (Succession, 2014). I’ve already followed up Livi Michael’s excellent Wars of the Roses historical novel with the rest of the trilogy (Rebellion, and Accession). I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Garden of the Finzi Continis. I discovered new writers: Sarah Moss, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Per Petterson, and Andrew Michael Hurley, amongst others.
This represents only a fraction of what I’ve read in 2017. The 60 books are fully documented, and outside of that project I’ve tried to keep a note as I go along, but I know I’ve forgotten some things (maybe justly, maybe not). And of course this list represents the best of what I’ve read, the stuff that, as I said earlier, I’ve been evangelical about getting other people to read, and have followed up or plan to follow up with more by the same writer. I have a policy of not mentioning the books I’ve read (completed or abandoned) which I’ve found tedious, or badly written, or just profoundly mediocre (although if I found something I was reading to be pernicious, dangerous, defamatory or whatever, I reserve the right to make a noise about that). Generally, though, let other pens dwell on clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and so forth – the world is full of books that give pleasure and enlightenment, that inform and move and delight, and I’d rather talk about them.
Meantime, my ‘to read’ pile never seems to diminish, no matter how much and how fast I read. Priorities include finishing Anthony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, which I put to one side during my 60 books challenge, and have not yet resumed, and others which I have still to acquire, Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I am, I am, I am (as well as any of her novels I haven’t read yet), and lots more Ali Smith. Right, better get back to the books…
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the penultimate instalment of my reading diary, with the final one to follow on 24 September. I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.
Rules? To summarise:
- No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
- Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition.
- Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
- I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author. That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge. So, sixty books, by sixty writers.
11 September. Day 43 Finished Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. Brilliant, fascinating, moving. The narrative was labyrinthine, moving around from Before (before her father was arrested) to After (what happened to the rest of the family after his arrest) but only towards the final pages coming to that terrible truth at the heart of it all – what happened to him and ultimately how and why he died. Extraordinary.
On to Livi Michael’s Succession. I have read most of her adult novels (Inheritance, All the Dark Air, Their Angel Reach) and read to my daughter at least one of her stories about an intrepid and resourceful hamster called Frank. This one is historical fiction, the first in a trilogy set during the Wars of the Roses.
As a child and a teenager I devoured historical novels. Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Leon Garfield – each of them in my memory evokes a particular period of history. Later on I read Margaret Irwin, Edith Sitwell’s books on Elizabeth I (Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive), and Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s We Speak no Treason.
This last is particularly relevant to the Livi Michael trilogy, and I’m quite excited about reawakening my earlier fascination with this period of history, and rediscovering a writer who I know through novels with a very contemporary setting.
I’m also about to start on Philip Roth’s The Plot against America. From fictionalised real history to an ‘alternative’ history, in which Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 and Lindbergh becomes President. Intriguingly, it’s an alternative personal history too – the history of the Roth family had events turned out in this way. I think my first encounter with alternative history was in Joan Aiken’s terrific, gothic children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, set in the reign of James III, when a channel tunnel has been built, via which wolves have migrated into Britain in large numbers. Probably the majority of works in this genre, however, have taken World War II as their setting, positing some crucial moment at which everything changed, allowing a Nazi victory in Europe (and beyond). The more one knows of the ‘real’ history, the more fascinating (and potentially contentious) this is.
Also on my reading pile (though probably not as part of this project) is Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, and positing the rise of a far-right demagogue to the Presidency… That title was echoed in a film I dimly recall watching, and being horribly chilled by, It Happened Here, subtitled ‘the story of Hitler’s England’.
The Plot… will also, as it happens, be my first Roth.
Caitlin Moran’s piece ‘Reading is Fierce‘ seems especially pertinent in light of this project.* I allowed myself an unseemly moment of hubris when she mentioned the ‘challenge’ of reading fifty-nine books in five months as a judge on the Baileys Prize (ha! Try sixty books in under three months, you lightweight!). But then, there’s this.
And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation. That old lady on the bus with her Orwell; the businessman on the Tube with Patricia Cornwell; the teenager roaring through Capote – they are not engaged in idle pleasure. Their heads are on fire. Their hearts are flooding. With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. And when your guts fail and your bones break, Narnia, or Jamaica Inn, or Gormenghast will still be there: as pin-sharp and bright as the day you first imagined them – hiding under the bedclothes, sitting on a bus.
That’s my life she’s writing about, my life with my head in a book, from a four-year-old just graduating from Janet & John to real stories (never ‘just a story’, stories matter, stories can make you fly), to a sixty-year-old powering through novels and memoirs and poems for some daft challenge, reading on buses, in waiting rooms, last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Singing that ‘unseen, life-changing duet’ with each writer I encounter. Glorious.
Oh, and I can’t ever ever read Moran’s piece ‘To Teenage Girls on the Edge’ without having quite a big cry. It’s everything I wanted to, tried to, meant to say to my own teenage girl when she was in that place, but said so much better than I ever could.
Ooh, this Livi Michael is good.
12 September. Day 44
A difficult day but in what free time there was, I progressed mightily with Succession. Once one has got one’s head round the Dukes of This and Earls of That (another disadvantage with a Kindle, BTW – Livi Michael kindly provides a cast list at the front of the book, but it’s far more faff to refer to it in an electronic book than in a real one) the narrative is compelling, the characters fascinating (especially the two Margarets) and the writing beautiful.
I’ve always taken the view that any hierarchy of literary merit must ignore the notion of ‘genre fiction’. There’s good writing, and there’s bad. There are literary prize winners that are unreadable, ‘classics’ that are turgid and dull, and crime or horror or historical novels that are written with such power and depth that they stay in the mind and the heart long after the last page is turned. Of course many novels refuse to be categorised, but there are fine writers who are not only unashamed to be part of a genre, but also exploit and transcend the constraints of that genre. Historical fiction as a genre includes plenty of dross, some of which I read (and quickly tired of) in my teens – but there’s plenty of excellent writing too, and this is a great example.
13 September. Day 45 – Finished Succession. Obviously given my self-imposed rule about not reading more than one book by the same writer, I can’t go straight on to the next title in the trilogy, but I will look forward to it immensely once this challenge is complete. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, those of major players in the events and those of very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us.
The Plot against America is splendid. And chilling. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We’ve seen that very recently on the streets of the USA.
On now to another writer who I’ve loved for many years, and who very sadly died only a few months ago, far far too young, Helen Dunmore. It’s another historical novel, but much more recent history. The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege, set in Leningrad after the Second World War, and I’m looking forward to it, and glad that there are still a few of her novels – and all of her poetry – for me to enjoy.
14 September. Day 46 – The Betrayal takes us into the world of Stalin’s oppressive dictatorship, where everyone has learned to speak quietly because there’s always someone listening, where everyone lives in fear of a denunciation or just of coming to the notice of the powers that be, for good or bad reasons. It reminds me in that respect of another recent read, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter which evokes this atmosphere very powerfully.
15 September. Day 47 – Finished The Betrayal. Brilliant, beautiful and sad. It really does evoke that world where ‘they’ can do whatever they want, regardless of truth, regardless of sense, regardless even of self-interest, and you – the ordinary citizen, even the Party official, should the wind change direction – can do nothing to prevent it. The central characters (who carry over from The Siege) are (as one of the reviews pointed out) perhaps unrealistically beyond reproach. However, they are vividly and sympathetically drawn, and what Dunmore shows is how their integrity, their courage, their dignity is of so little use to them in the face of paranoid tyranny. It shows also how hope survives, just. They told themselves after the siege was over that things would get better. And despite the betrayal of that hope, there is still a glimmer at the end of the novel.
Next up, from Stalin’s USSR to present-day Turkey, for Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.
Also finished The Plot against America. A couple of the reviews give a spoiler-free flavour of the book:
I called the book ‘astonishing’, but what astonishes is not this wild counter-history – it is presented too plausibly for that – or any fireworks in the prose, which is uncommonly sober, though always elegant. What’s astonishing is the way Roth puts together the stories of the shaken Jewish family and an America that can’t see what’s happening to it, that isn’t shaken enough. ‘They live in a dream,’ Philip’s father says, ‘and we live in a nightmare.’ (Michael Wood, London Review of Books)
Roth … dramatizes two vast and contradictory principles simultaneously: on the one hand, the susceptibility of American individualism to the cult of celebrity, and of American faith in democracy to a tyranny of the majority, leading to a particular vulnerability to unscrupulous politicians who win widespread popular support and gain a grip on the three branches of government; and, on the other, the distinctively American sense of freedom, stiffening the will to resist such political depravities, a will that’s integral to the country’s values, heritage, and history. The novel’s great tragic power lies precisely in the clash between the two. (Richard Brody, The New Yorker)
The New Yorker piece, notably, is recent (February 2017, whilst the book was actually published in 2004). It valiantly avoids spelling out the all-too-evident contemporary parallels (particularly given that the current incumbent of the White House drew explicitly on America First rhetoric in his campaign and in his inaugural speech).
16 September. Day 48 – Started two new books. Three Daughters of Eve has already captivated me. Its protagonist, Peri, is engaging and fascinating. We meet her first in the present day, a woman in middle age, attempting to hang on to her self-confidence in the face of an eye-rolling teenage daughter. Yes, I think we can identify… But the narrative gets very dark, very quickly. The setting is not familiar to me – of course I know a little of Turkey’s history and recent events, but not enough, and I look forward to deepening my understanding.
The second new one is The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley. That’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages, and I’m still not 100% convinced it’s ideal bedtime reading, so if it gives me nightmares I might have to swap. So far, so undefinably creepy. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. Not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from Stephen King who is the master of unease (he also does full-on gross-out grue, of course, but it’s the unease, the uncanny, the sense of a place being just a bit wrong, that I think he does best).
17 September. Day 49 – Finished Three Daughters of Eve. Whilst it’s not short on action, it is preoccupied with questions of spirituality and faith (not only religious conviction but feminism), exploring them through Peri’s ill-matched parents, and through her encounters as a student at Oxford, where she becomes one of the eponymous ‘three daughters’. Peri is introspective and constantly questioning – she characterises herself as ‘confused’ because she cannot resolve the contradictions she has either inherited or acquired. Shafak weaves the philosophical debates into personal and political crises as she moves between the different time frames – the present day, unfolding almost real time at a posh Istanbul dinner party, childhood, and student days. Fascinating.
Treating myself to the new Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze. Another writer who I’ve enjoyed enormously over the years (along with Livi Michael, Glaister was involved with the MA Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, during the period when I worked there).
18 September. Day 50 – Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets.
Glaister’s territory is suburban Gothic, but unlike Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood, she’s not interested in folkloric excursions into fairy tale forests or the thornier thickets of feminist irony. Her stories, couched in humour and social observation, are firmly rooted in the domestic and mundane. Babies are dropped on floors, young women locked in attics and fathers murdered in their beds, but they are usually polishing off a Pot Noodle in between last breaths.
This novel is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Excellent as always, and makes me want to revisit her earlier novels.
Off to Ghana now, where I spent some of my childhood. Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. So this one ticks two boxes, one for genre and one for setting.
And it’s a delight. The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
19 September. Day 51 – Finished The Loney. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative:
“you knew something had happened, but quite what it was or why, you weren’t entirely sure.”
Hurley suspends the story in a limbo between the supernatural and the merely strange: it is not clear whether the fantastic has occurred, or whether characters are mad, or which of these would be worse.
Now reading The Silent Wife, by A S A Harrison. This is a psychological thriller, and it’s both Harrison’s debut and her final novel as she died before completing her second. It was greeted by the inevitable, tiresome cries of ‘this year’s Gone Girl/Girl on the Train‘ – I enjoyed both of those enormously but it’s irritating that we need to pigeonhole everything so that Amazon can tell us that, if we liked x, we will like y. Not necessarily so. Anyway, so far it has drawn me in very neatly, so that although I don’t exactly like either of the main characters, I do very much want to know how (as we’re told from the start will happen) Jodi becomes a killer.
Also reading Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints. The origins of this collection of short dialogues are interesting, as all of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book. Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’
20 September. Day 52 – Finished The Silent Wife. I didn’t end up liking either Joni or Todd any more by the end of the book than I had at the beginning but contrary to popular wisdom that isn’t essential (did anyone like either of the protagonists in Gone Girl? Really?), though I was certainly rooting for her rather than him. Unlike Gone Girl, this isn’t a narrative that depends upon twists – rather it builds its characters and its plot little by little, and whilst both narrators are unreliable, they’re only unreliable in the way that anyone is in recounting their own life. It’s a very clever, subtle portrayal – we see, little by little, below the beautifully arranged surface of their lives, see the fault lines in their relationship, and in their own pasts, fault lines which open up and engulf them. Susan Harrison only ventured into fiction in her 60s. She died of cancer, aged 65, just before her debut novel was published.
Just started another debut novel, Caryl Phillips’ The Final Passage. Published in 1985, it’s set in the late 50s, and tells the story of one family who made the journey from the West Indies to the UK in the hope of a better life. It’s similar territory to that explored by Andrea Levy in Small Island, published twenty years later, though her immigrants arrived here in the immediate postwar period, rather than the late 50s.
Finished Two Pints. Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…). The two drinkers talk about all the things that two blokes in a pub might talk about. The missis, the kids, the football, politics, religion, sex – and they mark the passing of various notable people who’ve just died, in ways that manage to be funny, rude and sweary, and often very poignant. I’ve read lots of his more recent ‘obits’, and I particularly remember the Two Pints tribute to Bowie…
-I remember once, I was havin’ me breakfast. An’ I saw me da starin’ at me. So, I said, ‘Wha’?’ An’ he says, ‘Are yeh goin’ to work lookin’ like tha’?’ I still servin’ me time and, like, I was wearin’ me work clothes. An’ me overalls were in me bag. So I didn’t know what he was on abou’. ‘Get up an’ look at yourself in the fuckin’ mirror,’ he says. I was still wearin’ me Aladdin Sane paint. Across me face, like.
-You were ou’ the night before.
-Not really. Only down the road. Sittin’ on the wall beside the chipper, with the lads. Sneerin’ at the fuckin’ world. But that was what it was like. Bowie was our God.
Off to Italy now for a spot of crime and detection, with Inspector Montalbano. Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat will be my first Montalbano (and I haven’t seen the TV series either), so I’m looking forward to discovering another new crime writer.
21 September. Day 53 – Enjoying The Final Passage. I keep having to remind myself how young Leila is, when I get frustrated with her for getting entangled with Michael who is so so obviously a wrong ‘un, feckless, faithless and by and large useless. But she’s hardly more than a child herself, and girls and even grown women who should be old enough to know better do fall for feckless, faithless and useless men. I dare say the reverse is true but surely to a lesser extent – there’s a whole culture of women standing by their men, when the sensible thing would clearly be to kick him out or walk away. It’s rarely that simple and in many situations – particularly where there’s a child involved – neither of those options may seem possible. Of course the relationship between Leila and Michael is only one aspect of the novel – the passage from Jamaica to England is what drives it, and that’s powerfully done. The contrasts are both obvious – from heat and humidity that saps the energy to cold that gets into the bones – and less so. Even though they come from what we would see as poverty, the squalor of living conditions in London horrifies them, the dirt and the broken things that no-one bothers to mend. It’s a desperately sad account, and hard to see much hope for the future, given where the narrative leaves Leila, so profoundly alone in a strange land.
22 September. Day 54 – Montalbano is delightful. Despite the heinous nature of the crime being investigated, there’s a great deal of humour in the characterisation and the dialogue. But there’s another thread running through it, of political commentary:
How had Papa Dante put it?
Ah, servile Italy, you are sorrow’s hostel,
a ship without helmsman in terrible storms,
lady not of the provinces, but of a brothel!
Italy was still servile, obeying at least two masters, America and the Church, and the storms had become a daily occurrence, thanks to a helmsman whom she would have been better off without.
Montalbano cares about justice. And meantime he spends much of this particular novel stripped to his underwear in the office, with only a small hand-held fan to keep him cool as he navigates witness testimonies, police bureaucracy, corruption and protection rackets.
Two new books to start now: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Ali Smith’s Hotel World.
23 September. Day 55 – Neither O’Connor nor Smith is totally new to me. I’ve read A Good Man is Hard to Find, and The Whole Story and other Stories – strangely both collections of short stories, which I tend not to favour. O’Connor is fascinating – Southern Gothic if one has to pigeonhole her, but she herself responded to those who called her writing cynical or brutal that:
The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. …When I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
Smith’s short story collection was terrific, and I’ve wanted to read one of her novels for some time (especially since hearing and falling rather in love with her on Desert Island Discs a while back). And Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. She reminds me in a way of Jon McGregor, whose work I love. Note to self: read more Smith, and read McGregor’s latest, Reservoir 13.
24 September. Day 56 – Just finished Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow. I’ve taken my time over it – each poem needs to be savoured, not just consumed and then on to the next. There are some astonishing moments here:
then we rouse in it
a thing with breath to rage against dim,
to syncopate our undertones, rid the roomscape
of straight edge and flickered repeat.
Or this from ‘Last night’:
mist rolled in –
a settlement of pale net layered itself
on the hillside opposite, and sagged
into gardens and lanes, bleared terraces
of gable-ends, nestling in to stifle all
but its own rumour, letting only the pin-glow
of street and window lights poke through.
It flattened valleys, lagged farm and woodland,
swallowed Dark Peak and Bradfield’s mound
into a sky white with it, tasted our tongues
as we talked of it, beaded our hair and lashes
Finished Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Billed as ‘A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption’, it’s also a comic novel, as O’Connor herself insisted, adding ‘and as such, very serious, for all comic novels must be about matters of life and death’ … It is certainly very dark comedy, violent and bizarre. I’m not sure that I would want to immerse myself too often in that world view but it’s brilliant, strange and fascinating.
Just starting two new books, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, a collection of pieces he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, described in a Guardian review as ‘a minor masterpiece of death and delusion in a Nordic land’. Hmmm, neither would seem to offer much prospect of cheeriness. Will have to ensure that my final tranche of reading includes some lighter fare.
My final reading challenge blog will probably appear a week today, to allow me to reflect on the project, and on what I’ve read (and to catch up on sleep/eating/other activities which may have to be postponed whilst I read the last few books…).
I can’t believe the end is quite so nigh. I read 15 books this fortnight, which would obviously be fine if I’d done that well in the previous few weeks, but I fell behind and haven’t fully caught up. My total now stands at 52, so in the next four days I need to read 8 books. Of course I can do that. No worries. Piece of cake.
* See also this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/02/mary-oliver-upstream-staying-alive-reading/ and this: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/13/rebecca-solnit-faraway-nearby-reading-writing/)