‘The poet of the prosaic': Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton, Holiday (title quotation from the Guardian obituary, 2009)

What governs your choice of what to read next? The last two novels I opted for weren’t on my TBR pile (still teetering); I was inspired by two other bloggers – Susan Osborne at A Life in Books for the subject of my previous post, Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light, and Ali at the Heavenali blog for today’s, the (now rather neglected) 1974 co-winner of the Booker Prize that year: Stanley Middleton, Holiday. As she and others have summarised the plot and Middleton’s life admirably (1919-2009; wrote 44 novels – links at the end), I’ll commend to you her review for details on such matters. Here I’d like to examine a few key literary features in some extracts that demonstrate his scrupulous style and technique .

It’s the meticulous consideration of acutely observed details in the quiet lives of ordinary people that Middleton excels at; nothing wrong with writing about unexceptional provincial, middling people – George Eliot showed this in Middlemarch, while the blurb on one edition of the novel describes him as ‘the Chekhov of suburbia’ (a phrase also used of John Cheever). His debt to D.H. Lawrence is apparent, and he shares much of his fellow Nottinghamshire artist’s ability to relate ostensibly mundane subject matter in beautifully crafted literary prose.

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

My copy of the novel; my local library over-zealously covered it, cutting off a little at the edge

The novel consists mostly of flashbacks in which, through the focusing filter of protagonist Edwin’s cultured mind (he’s a thirty-two-year-old university lecturer in the philosophy of education), we are given access to his every intimate thought – especially how he came to find his wife Meg’s tempestuous nature increasingly unbearable, especially when her moody outbursts became more hurtful after a family tragedy devastated them both.

Much of the narrative consists of accounts of the people, sights and sounds Fisher encounters as he wanders aimlessly around a shabby Lincolnshire seaside resort, processing these experiences as a starting point for his forensic dissection of his painful relationships, first with his unimaginative, undemonstrative parents, and then with his wife.

For example, early in chapter 1 he recalls his father’s behaviour on holiday at that same working-class holiday resort when Edwin was a child:

 Edwin hated his parents then, for the shopkeepers they were. Obsequious, joking, uneducated, the finger-ends greasy from copper in the till, they drew attention to themselves. When the retainer ushered his rabble round the stately home, Father Fisher asked the first fool question, chirped the witless crack, was rebuffed in all eyes but his own…Yet the old idiot had brains; he made his shops pay; he’d left his children tidy sums. And he’d read, though with a mind bent, young Edwin had decided, on trivialising.

 So much is packed into those few lines. The time-frames are suggestively telescoped, in a manner best exemplified by Dickens’ treatment of Pip’s adult recollections of his selfish younger self in Great Expectations. This is seen in the unobtrusive but crucial temporal adverbial ‘then’; does this signify that the narrating, adult Edwin no longer hates his parents? Is he recalling that hypersensitive boy’s bittersweet love/hatred with the more enlightened, forgiving insight of the adult? It’s a raw, painfully honest portrayal of father-son relations that resonates with me – also a grammar-school boy with working-class parents who’d left school at 12, who embarrassed their children as they grew up in a world their generation and class couldn’t fathom.

The relationship with Meg is portrayed with equal flaying precision. Here’s a passage from early in chapter 2; it’s Sunday evening in Edwin’s seedy ‘digs’:

Outside it was bright still, and calmer. On the dressing table he’d put his writing case, which lay open. Perhaps, not this day, he’d write to his wife, a mild letter of description, with no mention of himself, no recriminating, merely a message so that she knew where he was, and in her anger at him could learn what this house, this street, this seaside was like. He’d not apologize or sulk or shout, but put down physical facts about rooms and holiday artisans and lilos until she screamed.

Here Middleton’s technique shows in all its acerbically witty ambiguity. The narrator reveals his own deficiencies by highlighting his self-image as a mild-mannered, put-upon victim of a vengefully spiteful, shrewish, selfish wife, while unwittingly conveying the simultaneous impression to the reader that he’s far from blameless in this imploding marriage. He’s calculating and provocative, knowing exactly how to drive his volatile Meg to distraction. He’s also apparently unaware of his insouciant snobbery as he describes the hapless fellow holidaymakers with whom he spends the rest of the novel drinking, ‘chaffing’ and flirting (and while often patronising them – here with ‘artisans and lilos’). He frequently replicates many of the aspects of his father’s character that he hypocritically recalls finding so crass and limited.

In chapter 7 we see the first of these tepid flirtations: he’s chatting on the beach with two bikini-clad sisters, Patricia and Carol, and he pictures them innocently singing in a choir (music is an important feature in the narrative):

No such simplicities existed in real life. When these girls married, and they were the sort to become excellent housewives, their husbands would be plagued with their moods, and fears, and boredom, because this was universal; nobody was exempt. But at present he felt no qualms.

See what I mean about the patronising tone. Here again is the ironically indirect self-revelation of Edwin: he’s content to generalise about these two harmlessly simple, friendly girls in a manner that shows them to be limited, predictable, while he’s plainly, unknown to himself, projecting on to them his and Meg’s roles (note the telling metaphor ‘plagued’ and the tripled list of nouns signifying his idea of a wife’s typical shortcomings) in his own closely examined but fitfully understood married life.

The penultimate sentence there is cold and unbecoming, culminating in its pseudo-existential, intellectually sterile aphorism. The callousness of the last sentence is breathtaking: intelligent and cruelly humorous on several levels.

Another such aphoristic generalisation follows a chance encounter in the fens with a young man frustrated with having to care for his ailing father:

Fisher drove off, disconsolate, down in the mouth…He was in no mind to fault the young man, who spoke out of his own depression, perhaps, talked thus sullenly against a society that promised, proffered him nothing…Everybody judges from the point of view of his own inadequacy.

At the very moment of seeming to gain an epiphanic insight, Edwin simultaneously shows once again that he reads the world and its people in terms only of his own partially understood experience. He feels that society (Meg?) proffers him nothing; he too is depressed, and he surely does fault the young man for his cynicism in his family relationships, while failing to perceive his own. – there’s that characteristic use again of ‘perhaps’, suggesting an unconvincing attempt to seem tentatively fair in his mental assessments.

The truism that last extract ends on reveals Edwin’s tendency to turn an impressive-sounding phrase in his stream of thought, indirectly disclosed to us through the narrative voice, but its ironic aptness for his own condition isn’t honestly confronted or acknowledged here in his thoughts. I can’t help reading an unstated ‘else’ after ‘everybody’. This intimation is gently, wittily pointed up a few sentences later when Edwin snaps out of this reverie to conclude ‘He ought to go back to Meg. A prodigal.’

And here I’d better stop, though there is much else to say about Middleton’s achievement in Holiday. But I can’t resist one last quotation. This comes near the end of the novel, after breakfast on the final Saturday of his week’s stay in the boarding house:

They’d paid their dues, and the staff prepared to forget them. New faces that afternoon when the rush of bundling sheets had been scrambled through. Last corn-flakes, bacon, for the zombies, final jokes as if the holiday were still on, still provided pleasure. Fisher felt a stiffness as he braced himself against parting. It seemed entirely bodily, a matter of nerves, not reasoned, not even imagined.

Even as Fisher fleetingly seems to empathise with the staff, the free indirect discourse unerringly shows up his ambivalent, ultimately dyspeptic view of them. He’s both sharing their unkind view of his anti-intellectual fellow guests (‘zombies’) while also including the same staff in that generalisation. His genuine sense of Prufrockian stiffness and regret, so often presented in the narrative with apparent self-deprecating uncertainty, also indicates a conflicting desire to appear superior, more sensitive than others, more knowing. I find that sequence at the quotation’s end — ‘bodily’, ‘nerves’, and the pair of negatives — a brilliantly realised and nuanced demonstration of Edwin’s complex, not entirely endearing intelligence, ruthlessly skewered by Middleton’s clinically exact but never judgemental narrative technique.

I must read more of him. Thanks, Ali, for the recommendation.

 

Links:

Heavenali review here

Nicholas Lezard’s 2014 Guardian review here of the newly reissued paperback (with handsome covers) by Windmill Books: interesting parallels drawn with TS Eliot, the Fisher King, etc.

Sam Jordison’s Guardian 2008 review in his series on past Booker winners here.

 

 

The Mrs Jellyby of Manchester: Sarah Moss, ‘Bodies of Light’

I don’t often write here about new or recently published books; mostly I read from the teetering TBR pile of older works – as regular readers will no doubt have noticed. Modern English fiction I find uneven in quality (Americans like Denis Johnson seem to me superior to what the UK can offer at present). All the fuss in the media and blogosphere about what’s on or should have been on the Man Booker long list published yesterday doesn’t pique my interest too much.

Sarah Moss

Image of Sarah Moss taken from Granta books website

Earlier this month, however, I read a review on Susan Osborne’s site A Life in Books of Sarah Moss’s new novel, Signs for Lost Children, a sequel to Bodies of Light, which was published by Granta last year; Susan put this sequel on her own list of Booker predictions. She mentioned that the central character of the first book, Ally, becomes a doctor in an asylum in Truro, Cornwall. As that’s where I live, and I find literature to do with mental health fascinating – one of my earliest posts was about Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye, and I’ve long admired the seminal work on women, mental health and literature The Madwoman in the Attic, and Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors From 1800 to the Present (the link is to Viv Groskop’s 2008 Guardian review) is excellent – I decided to give Ally’s story a try.

Susan did a fine job reviewing Bodies of Light, so I won’t summarise the plot in detail. It’s an account of a family’s ordeal at the hands of a fiercely idealistic and evangelical Victorian mother who, like Mrs Jellyby, the ‘telescopic philanthropist’ in Bleak House, who also neglects her own children while obsessing about an obscure African tribe’s plight, devotes all her attention to the care and welfare of the poor and ‘fallen women’ while neglecting and abusing (physically and emotionally) her own two daughters – as her own mother had with her and her sister. Her husband, Alfred, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite type who builds a successful career as painter and interior designer, is also excluded by his wife, and he finds solace elsewhere.

The epigraph from RD Laing and A. Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family is salutary and apt: ‘We have clinical terms for disturbed, but not disturbing persons’.

The novel is mostly very well written. The theme of parental neglect and cruelty passing on through the generations is Dickensian in its seriousness and emotional clout. I found the novel a little slow, however. Despite the often beautiful prose (Susan gives some fine examples) the relentless narration of the mother’s cruel, deluded treatment of her girls is just too long and repetitive.

There is interesting use of catalogue-type descriptions of artworks by Alfred and his friend Aubrey West at the head of each of the ten chapters, which poetically and symbolically foreshadow the sexually ambiguous, hypocritical treatment of the growing sisters by parents and by West – but these are brief points of light in a gloomy plot.

I also found the latter part of the novel, in which Ally struggles against social prejudice and general misogyny to become one of the first women doctors, rather contrived and predictable. The author’s research (the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act and its disastrous consequences for Victorian women is a central feature, for example) is a little too evident and becomes intrusive. The (justifiably) angry message dominates the narrative. Ally is ultimately a credibly damaged but insubstantially realised character.

S Moss Bodies coverI feel Sarah Moss missed the opportunity to introduce a little contrast into the depiction of this deeply unhappy family’s life. The father, Alfred, doesn’t share his wife’s tormented, demented obsessions; why couldn’t he have stood up to her more, defended his suffering children – and himself? His acquiescence seemed to me unlikely, and his character fades quietly into the background as the novel proceeds, and his wife’s tyrannical domestic regime is unchallenged.

At the end, though, Ally has developed an interest in mental illness, and has moved at last to Truro. I hope to find the sequel (I shall certainly read it) less predictable and a bit more varied in tone. Sarah Moss can write, but she needs to preach a little less and let her characters breathe.

Postscript: in her Acknowledgements at the end of the book Sarah Moss points out that she wrote much of it in cafes in Penryn and Falmouth; is this JK Rowling type activity coming into vogue? She also states that she wrote and read a lot on the Cornish Riviera trains from Paddington to Truro, and expresses gratitude for their provision of Quiet Coaches. I would have thought that tapping away on her laptop would not have endeared Ms Moss to her fellow quiet-seeking passengers…

‘It’s good enough for the market!’ George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’

‘Ed Reardon’s Week’ is a cleverly funny comedy series on BBC Radio 4. Its protagonist is a grumpy, disillusioned writer whose highest achievement was the scripting an episode of the cheesy early-80s BBC TV series ‘Tenko’ – an achievement on which he still dines out. Since then he’s scratched a living as a writer of hack pieces, while teaching a desultory evening class in creative writing to a group of jaded, equally cynical pensioners.

When I discovered that this opinionated failure was based on the central character of George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. It’s deeply moving, and a scathing portrait of the lives of struggling writers in Victorian London, striving to make a living in a literary world, like Ed Reardon’s, which seems to be run by ignorant plutocrats supplying crass product for an undiscerning, low-brow public of equally ignorant consumers.

New grub street Penguin C editionIt relates two parallel, intertwining stories: we first meet Jasper Milvain (Jaz in the radio show), a cynically ambitious, moderately talented and clever writer whose lazy selfishness is matched by his ruthless determination to study what the literary ‘market’ wants and provide it, dismissing anyone with literary pretensions as hopeless romantics; this is revealed in many of his discussions with his family and friends. Here he’s pontificating to his long-suffering sisters, whose meagre allowance he sponges from their mother:

People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business… There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare… I don’t advocate the propagation of vicious literature; I speak only of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar… I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes.

His plan is to milk his family’s small financial resources – his sisters will have to fend for themselves by becoming hack writers also (for the children’s market, naturally, as they are mere ignorant girls!) – in order to network with important literary and journalistic contacts, flattering and flirting with the rich and influential. Authorial merit has little to do with commercial success; ‘modesty helps a man in no department of modern life’, he declares.

His polar opposite is Edwin Reardon. After some modest success with his first few novels (traditional three-deckers) his star is waning. He receives less money for each successive book; if it weren’t for the small fees he earns for earnestly academic articles he publishes in literary journals he’d already be penniless. He’s headed for penury. As his plight worsens, his wife’s support declines. Amy, a beauty, had married him mostly because she relished the prospect of being feted as the wife of a successful author – and of being rich.

Eventually they separate; she can bear his blocked, sullen artistic sterility and refusal to compromise no longer. He meanwhile is rendered unable to work because of her hostility, and the pressing urgency to produce fiction just to pay the bills. Inspiration has deserted him, as poverty has dried up his source of stories.

The main interest in the novel rests in the painful decline of poor idealist Reardon. As it reaches its climax this plot pitilessly traces his tortured inner struggle: should he compromise his artistic soul and sell out, as Milvain, Amy and others repeatedly urge him to do? The answer has tragic consequences for him.

This desperately heart-rending story is counterpointed by the career of Milvain, whose tactics work so well that his success is as stellar as Reardon’s downfall is crushing. After a brief dalliance with Marian, who briefly becomes an heiress, he’s forced to make a critical decision. As with Reardon, the outcome is cruelly exposed in Gissing’s unstinting prose.

This is so much more than a critical attack on the petty squabbles and liaisons of the moderately talented literary figures of the time; it’s more a serious examination of what it is that drives people to become authors, to expose their most intimate and sensitive selves to public scrutiny, often to meet with derision, dismissal, or, worst of all, indifference.

As a portrayal of that part of late Victorian London it’s fascinating, emotionally draining (in a good way) and powerful. As a three-decker itself it’s probably 200 pages too long (it has 551 pages in my Penguin Classics paperback, bought at the Oxfam shop near Chiswick Park underground station when I was visiting friends last month). There are longueurs; Milvain and Reardon are given far too many speeches in which they reiterate their philosophies at wearying length; there are some colourful minor characters, but they fail to enrich the narrative as inventively as Dickens’, for example, in whose shadow this novel inevitably falls. It is perhaps a little too relentlessly dour; the talented few are dashed down, fail, while the greedily talentless thrive. The romantic/sensational elements of the plots descend into the cartoonish and clichéd at times.

New Grub Street is, nevertheless, a classic, and worth persevering with. I urge you to read it, and would love to hear what you think. Let me finish with one of the most evocative, moving descriptions of a blocked author struggling to write that I’ve ever encountered:

 For two or three hours Reardon had been seated in much the same attitude. Occasionally he dipped his pen into the ink, and seemed about to write: but each time the effort was abortive. At the head of the paper was inscribed ‘Chapter III’, but that was all. And now the sky was dusking over; darkness would soon fall…[O]n his face was the pallor of mental suffering. Often he fell into a fit of absence, and gazed at vacancy with wide, miserable eyes. Returning to consciousness, he fidgeted nervously on his chair, dipped his pen for the hundredth time, bent forward in feverish determination to work. Useless; he scarcely knew what he wished to put into words, and his brain refused to construct the simplest sentence.  The colours faded from the sky, and night came quickly. Reardon threw his arms upon the desk, let his head fall forward, and remained so, as if asleep.

 Familiar plight!

 

Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.

 

 

 

 

 

Book podasts again

Over the last few weeks, among my posts about Julia Harvey’s two novels about the family drama set in the Greek diaspora community of Smyrna and then Thessaloniki, I’ve been recommending some of my favourite book podcasts. Today I’d like to round this sequence off with a brief summary of a final few.

I’ve already mentioned some BBC Radio 4 programmes with podcast versions available free online; here I’d like to add the Radio 4 Bookclub. It’s hosted engagingly by the astute James Naughtie (about to leave the prestigious Radio 4 morning news programme Today after some twenty years to take up the post of books editor, among other things, with the BBC). It’s very like book clubs in the real world, except that here the author of a book is invited to the studio to be interviewed by Naughtie, then the audience is free to pose questions of their own. It’s more than an opportunity to market a new book: often the work chosen was published some time ago, so there’s genuine reader engagement with a rare opportunity to hear what the author was striving to achieve. Recent guests include Jon McGregor, Lorrie Moore, Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel. Although the names tend to come from the more popular end of the literary spectrum, there’s usually plenty of interest.

Also broadcast by the BBC, the World Service this time, is the general arts programme Strand. Although no longer on air – it finished in 2013 – its archive is still freely available online, and has many features of merit in it. For example there’s an obituary/tribute to Chinua Achebe, and an interview with Javier Marías on his novel The Infatuations (which I reviewed here). Being a World Service production, though, Strand has a far wider remit; other pieces include profiles of Romanian cinema, Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, the Indian film director Anurag Kashyap, and Michael Haneke’s production of Cosí fan Tutte in Madrid. Pretty eclectic, then.

I have to declare an interest about this next choice of general literary website, but with a cool podcast attached: The Mookse and the Gripes — I’m an occasional contributor, with pieces on Joyce’s Dubliners and an ongoing series on the stories of Henry James. But this is one of the best podcasts out there for its mix of conversations (mainly) about NYRB Classics titles, and in particular of literature in translation. Apart from well-known names that the irrepressible Trevor Berrett and his brother consider, such as Kingsley Amis, Theodor Fontane and John Williams, there are (to me) less prominent figures like Lydia Millet and the Russian writer of short stories Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (b. Kiev 1887).

Another site that specialises in critical discussions on modern world literature is Three Per Cent, produced by the University of Rochester. It takes its title from the sad fact that only that percentage of books published in the USA are works of  literature in translation. All kinds of new names have been brought to my attention here (and on the related website).

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.

Drawing by Max Neumann from Animalinside, his 2010 collaboration with Krasznahorkai.Image from the Sylph Editions website

Next choice for world literature in translation (description taken from its website): ‘That Other Word is a collaborative podcast between the Center for Writers and Translators at The American University of Paris [which also publishes the ‘Cahiers Series’ of texts in association with Sylph Editions – this illustration is taken from one I bought and enjoyed] and the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. The podcast offers discussions on classic and contemporary literature in translation, along with engaging interviews with writers, translators, and publishers. Hosts: Daniel Medin and Scott Esposito.’ Although this podcast also has in-depth discussions on writers from across the world, there’s also professional consideration of the translator’s role and art.

Finally, to turn attention to podcasts which feature readings of fiction, I’d recommend the New Yorker‘s offering. The format is intriguing: a prominent contemporary writer chooses a favourite story published in the New Yorker magazine, reads it and then discusses it with the fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. A random selection of some recent gems includes Joshua Ferris reading Robert Coover’s ‘Going for a Beer’, Etgar Keret – Donald Barthelme’s ‘Chablis’, and Joseph O’Neill – Muriel Spark’s ‘The Ormolu Clock’.

Most of these podcasts last between 30 and 45 minutes — ideal listening when walking (or in my case, cycling) to work or driving down Desolation Row.

I’d love to hear what book podcasts you’d recommend – and maybe where and how you listen to them.

 

The King Lear of Thessaloniki: Julietta Harvey, ‘One Third of Paradise’

Earlier this month I posted about Julietta Harvey’s first novel, Familiar Wars, first published in 1987, now reissued with its sequel, One Third of Paradise; both are published by Polar Books on June 25th.

It resumes the story of Eleni, youngest of Gregoris Gregoriou’s three daughters. At the end of Familiar Wars she was about to leave Greece to go to university abroad; her escape was likened to the betrayal of her father by Medea. This novel opens years later with her flying back from England, where she had married an Englishman and had a child, to attend her mother Anastasia’s funeral:

In mid-air…she hovered naked and exposed, lingering over the threshold of home: pulled and pushed by currents of longing and loss.

The author’s style has become richer, more textured than it was 28 years ago: on first reading, those images seem mixed, but on closer inspection they entwine successfully. As the aircraft which transports her home to Greece is buffeted by atmospheric currents, Eleni is herself emotionally turbulent, torn between the conflicting pulls of duty and repulsion; the alliterative plosives in the adjectives tumble in the sinuous syntax, verbally enacting her inner turmoil concisely and with precision.

The central themes reappear: like her father, Eleni has fled her homeland to seek refuge, but she isn’t at home in her life of exile. Back in Greece she rekindles an adulterous, doomed affair.

As she flies back to Greece, she anticipates what awaits her in the family home in Thessaloniki:

The gathered beneficiaries. Her sisters and their husbands appropriating, blaming. She wanted to turn back, before she became entangled yet again in old, disfigured resentments.

That closing metaphor vividly conveys Eleni’s dilemma – she’s being drawn back into the family tragedy that she’d tried to escape; the noun phrase at the end of the quotation turns the abstract concept of her sisters’ resentful greed into a living, corrosive nightmare. And this is partly because Eleni herself acknowledges an impulse to appropriate, while feeling repelled by her family’s dysfunctional selfishness.

Once again the narrative is filtered through the protagonist’s consciousness – this time it’s Eleni’s which dominates, as her father fades away. As in the earlier novel, the sisters I likened to ‘harpies’ last time have become more venomous in their eagerness to acquire what remains of their father’s estate: this section continues with Eleni, a modern Cordelia, her father’s favourite, contemplating the ‘family map’ –

The sisters blindly occupied their allotted territory. Sophia, the eldest, was in control; Kaliopi, in the middle, coaxed, bullied; Eleni herself, late and last, was the expatriate, the pariah. And those responsible for this angry geography were no longer responsible.

 

These metaphors recur through the narrative. In chapter 21, when Eleni has been trying to persuade her declining father to take the pension he’s entitled to but has so far refused, she endures a bureaucratic scene in the pensions office that is straight out of ‘the world of Kafka, but without the nightmare, of Dickens, without the exuberance’ –

But in her travels within that melancholy geography, through the city of dead ends, the meaning of family became indistinct. She tried to re-draw its clear lines, its natural geometry. Words like father and mother and sisters must have a meaning. They must belong to a natural order and must follow laws of love, loyalty, and obedience; they must dictate duties. But that syntax of feeling, which had once been unquestioned, with her mother’s death lost coherence. What are the duties to the dead, what to the living?

 

Another time, pulled back into the jealous internecine scheming of her terrifying, overbearing sisters, with their ‘infernal, futile anger’, as they convene to plan their father’s commitment to a ‘home’, Eleni perceives with horror ‘the sight of her sister [Sophia] coiling like a snake, preparing – to suddenly dart her poison’ at their father; but Eleni, along with Kaliopi, is brought together here because of their ‘shared avarice, for money, property, things’ – she’s furtively stashed away for herself their mother’s jewels that her sisters sought:

Eleni stayed apart, but knew she was with them, one of them. She could not compete, but shared this passion of acquisition. It could unite them in love, but only brought war. Perhaps the cause was a common loss. Perhaps their greed was for a more remote, mystical unnamed prey.

 

That ‘melancholy geography’ has morphed into another kind of awful symmetrical geometry and syntactical, semantic frigidity:

All three of them were caught in a triangle, that stretched its lines and angles to them at whatever distance. But now the remnant of home and family kept them pinned in one place locked in a vicious geometry. Until, when home and family finally went, the three sides might drift apart in peace and forgetfulness.

 

IMG_2798It’s not necessary to have read Familiar Wars to appreciate this novel. We’re given from the start a clear sense of what happened in the past, and how it precipitated the events that take place here in a new domestic war.

The novel goes on to show this tragedy develop as history repeats itself and the themes of love, loss, exile and refugees’ yearning for a home are portrayed in all their bruising, heartbreaking inevitability. The Aristotelian concepts of ‘eros’ and ‘amartia’ are invoked in the narrative early on: they drive the central characters towards their fate and I felt the process with a mixture of pity, fear and revulsion. In other writers this device might seem pretentious, but Greek-born Julietta Harvey is able to enrich our experience of this modern drama with a natural, compelling sense of an ancient tragedy that ‘enacted itself’, narrated in language that’s rich and sensuous, as I hope the extracts I provide here illustrate.

There’s the sad spectacle of the father Gregoris, the eternal survivor of the first novel, descending into powerless senility like a ‘remote brother’ of King Lear, that other ‘old king’, still full of hare-brained, deluded speculative schemes, like the one third portion of the ‘paradise’ island plot he’d bought (the other third was his deceased wife’s)  that he wants Eleni/Cordelia to return to him so that he can develop a luxury hotel on it – without the capital such a venture would need. When he appears to sign the deeds back to Eleni for tax reasons, father and daughter are mutually deceptive, as the symmetrical syntax demonstrates:

He consented to give, in order to take, probably scheming escapes and petty deceptions. She consented to give in order to take, knowing this was an unnatural reversal.

 

He is aware that his daughters (‘dogs’ he calls them at one point; ‘I have no children. May your children do to you as you do to me’) are conspiring to rip him apart for his estate:

It was not fate, it was his own daughters who were killing him.

He’s also like an Ionian Willie Loman, a dying salesman to whom the attention he craves is not being paid, the distrusted, despised (even by his own children) outsider in his own land. When Gregoris’ wife dies her family also revert to type; at the pre-funeral gathering, for example –

He surveyed the relatives with superior indifference, native Macedonians all of them, landowners. Now she was dead, he was a foreigner to them, the travelling merchant, the refugee.

 As in all classical tragic figures, he is not a particularly good man, and his misfortune is a consequence of his flawed nature, his frailty of judgement. This is subtly shown in many ways in the narrative, but principally in his cruelty towards his wife and tyrannical treatment of his daughters. In chapter 2 we are reminded how Anastasia was told by her own mother, made spiteful by patriarchal convention:

‘You had better become a good housewife if you want a husband – because you are not beautiful.’

 Now that she is dead her daughters ‘grieved for the harshness of those words’; Eleni, the clever one, shares her ‘longing for learning’. But she also recalls Gregoris’ impatience, unpredictable temper and habitual humiliation of his daughters and wife. She remembers how he’d shouted at the teenage Sophia, in a voice that ‘stopped and muffled’ her, because she’d been discovered to have a secret boyfriend,

‘You think he wants you for your beauty? He wants you for your dowry!’

But what tyranny merited this! Eleni knew, they all knew, the pain he could inflict. Her own mind was bruised by his sudden violence, appearing and vanishing for no reason…

 Despite this chilling echo of her mother’s thwarted ambition, evoked in the carefully recycled language, Eleni never fully shares her sisters’ capacity to exact revenge on him: ‘But no father, even a tyrant, merited this. And from a daughter.’

As in Familiar Wars she finds herself assigned the role of the witch Medea, obliged to betray and desert her own father, exiled from him and her homeland. Her fate is beautifully, painfully, but not humourlessly, revealed to us in this intriguing replay of an ancient family drama. It’s less event-filled than Familiar Wars, more brooding, internal and intense – and probably stronger as a consequence.

My preview copy of the novel was kindly provided by the publisher.

Book podcasts, Part 4: KCRW’s Bookworm

In three previous posts I recommended some podcasts about books. Today I’d like to urge you to subscribe to KCRW radio station’s literary podcast, Bookworm – for links to an extensive archive of episodes click here. It is a NPR radio broadcast out of Santa Monica College, California.

 

Its website describes Bookworm as a purveyor of ‘intellectual, accessible, and provocative literary conversations’; it showcases writers of fiction and poetry and the works they’ve recently published, mostly from North America, but with a wide range from across the world as well, as I’ll indicate shortly.

 

Michael Silverblatt

Michael Silverblatt (photo from KCRW Bookworm website)

The genial host, Michael Silverblatt, is a rarity in literary broadcasting: before going on air  he reads (it seems all) that his interviewee has written, and clearly reads sensitively, attentively and with insight and intelligence. All of these qualities shine through in his conversations with the writers. He has a slow, pensive delivery in his interviewing style, and like Eleanor Wachtel of the CBC podcast Writers and Company, which I profiled recently, imbues his shows with a compelling blend of warmth, wit and perceptive, gently probing questioning that brings out intriguing responses from his guests, who clearly treat him with affection and respect. He has hosted this nationally syndicated radio programme since it started in 1989.

 

For an interesting interview with Mr Silverblatt earlier this month on the LA Review of Books broadcast, Radio Hour, in which he talked about how he developed his deceptively relaxed but rigorous interviewing style, some of his favourite guests, etc., there’s a link here.

A random selection from podcasts in recent months:

 

Maggie Nelson on her work of ‘auto-theory’, The Argonauts

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

Luis Alberto Urrea, Tijuana Book of the Dead (a collection of his poetry) and The Water Museum (short stories); back in Feb.-Mar. 2013 there was a two-part piece with him shortly after completing the second of his novels about a Mexican woman in America at the turn of the 20C: The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America

Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers of fiction; he was interviewed in Jan. this year on his fourth volume of Frank Buscombe novels, Let Me Be Frank With You (which I wrote about here). In June 2012 he was the subject of two brilliant episodes on his novel Canada.

Others that I’ve particularly enjoyed on the show include Colm Tóibín, Martin Amis, Ben Lerner, Sarah Waters, David Mitchell, and Kevin Birmingham (two excellent pieces on The Most Dangerous Book – his profile of the publication history of Joyce’s Ulysses).

László Krasznahorkai has appeared twice – the first interview was in July 2012, when he spoke about Satantango, the second in June 2014, on Seibo There Below.

I could go on: Margaret Attwood, George Saunders, Oliver Sacks, Cees Nooteboom (talking about his poetry), David Foster Wallace – just about every writer you’ve ever heard of has appeared – and several who were new to me, which is always good: I need to look out for Lydia Millet, Sjon and Yiyun Li, to name but a few who sounded intriguing on air.

I recommend this podcast wholeheartedly.

Mother Greece’s scattered, persecuted children: Julietta Harvey, ‘Familiar War’

My first school was a British Army primary in Cyprus. My father, a soldier, was stationed there during the Eoka uprising in the fifties, when Greek nationalists sought union – enosis – with the mother country. This was the Megali – the Great Idea – the irredentist dream of a Greater Greece, the ‘union of Karaman and Ionia, the Black Sea and the Aegean’, as one Turkish character expresses it in this novel. From an early age, then, I was aware of the complex political history of Greece, and its troubled relationship with Turkey – which resulted in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition of the island – and the deep sense of nostalgia (a Greek word that dominates the novel) for its lost ancient imperial power and warrior heroes and guileful heroines.

It’s helpful to have a sense of the historical background to this novel – which I lacked, so had to do a bit of digging; not essential, though, so ignore the next two paragraphs if you feel like skipping this contextual information.

 

It’s set against the double diaspora of the Greek community of Ionia on the western coast of Turkey; this largely mercantile group (they were particularly famous as manufacturers and dealers in textiles) had settled there originally a century after the Trojan War. The Smyrna merchant cited by TS Eliot was an iconic representative of the culturally diverse but barely tolerated immigrant civilisation of Anatolia; for centuries the Greek Orthodox Christians had lived in uneasy harmony with the Turkish Muslim majority.

Familiar Wars begins as a bildungsroman, following the development of Gregoris Gregoriou from his childhood just before the First World War as a merchant’s son in Mouryes, Ionia. But he is also representative of the fate of the doomed Greek Ionian community, from its apparent rise when Greece entered the war on the Allied side as a ploy to regain Constantinople and what it saw as its lost lands in Anatolia, its apparent victory with the Treaty of Sèvres which assigned Smyrna to Greece in 1919, through to the ‘Katastrophe’ or ‘world-large loss’ during and after the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which ended with the reconquest of the city by Kemal Atatürk and the slaughter of thousands of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants.

Against this violent backdrop we follow Gregoris as he first loses his entire family then manages to escape into remorseful exile, on ‘the day of exodus’ for his Greek compatriots, on a ship to mainland Greece, where he sets about fulfilling his dream: to become an even more successful merchant than his beloved father had been. There are frequent references to the alluring appeal of America as a refuge for the ‘scattered, persecuted children’ of Ionia.

Julietta Harvey, Familiar WarsPart 1 of the novel relates how Gregoris has to flee Smyrna as a refugee, alone, and finds himself in Macedonia, adrift, penniless. Part 2 shifts focus to his youngest daughter, Eleni, from the age of about five, to the novel’s end when she’s about to embark on a new life of university study. This part is essentially a second bildungsroman as she matures into womanhood and ‘war moved into the home’ – literally and metaphorically. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; in brief, Gregoris builds a thriving business, becoming so obsessive about his shop and his quest to acquire ever more wealth that his family suffers, and hardship returns. The descriptions of his unctuous, flirtatious manner with his female clientele (he ‘pleased and obliged them all’) is offset by his selfishly emotional detachment from his family. He’s a beguiling, conflicted figure.

In some respects then it’s a classic family saga, with a huge cast of subtly drawn minor characters. The central drama is the Gregoriou family’s experiences of love, loss, exile and yearning for a home -its own, personal enosis. Hence the narrative increasingly equates the family’s turbulent trajectory through history with key figures in Greek legend: Jason and his capture of the Golden Fleece aided by Medea is at times likened to the rapaciously ambitious Gregoris’ cunning greed.

Helen of Troy is another recurring figure: ‘I named you after our ancestor and compatriot!’, her father tells Eleni triumphantly, ancient history and present drama intertwining:

‘Troy was down the valley from us, the Trojan War was fought just outside our village, only for her beautiful face. Just like yours. My land was full of Elenis.’ …Eleni drank his words telling her who she was, where her true home was, to what terrible stories she owed her name and life. She thought of those lost homelands, but as she thought and yearned for them, the pain of their loss brought, almost, the sweet finding of them…she was filled with the bitter-sweet music of nostalgia.

Then there is Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who is sacrificed by her father to propitiate the gods into supplying a favourable wind to enable his fleet to sail off to the Trojan war.

Eleni, from whose viewpoint most of Part 2 is narrated, comes to identify herself with these two daughters: Medea, ‘the traitor, the witch’, who betrayed her father and country by aiding Jason to escape with the Fleece by ‘cut[ting] her little brother into small pieces and scatter[ing] them in the Aegean Sea. Just like Turks do to the Greeks’, as the Ionian Greeks sometimes interpret the legend.

The parallels illustrate the complexity of parent-child relationships – children’s fierce love for their fathers, first Gregoris for his, then Eleni for Gregoris. When Eleni is a young woman she develops a passion for the theatre, stealing out secretly to watch plays performed:

Iphigenia in Aulis was hers. The father’s sea-voyage, and the sacking of Troy, and thousands of years later the burning of another Troy and another father’s sea-voyage from the fatal shores back to Greece, made up for her one story, beginning and ending with the prayer for good wind and the killing of a young girl. She shivered again at the sharp edge of the knife and of the parental mystery, and felt its flames consume her.

 A little later in the performance ‘the massacred shores of Ionia appeared to her again’,

as she watched with fear Medea, the witch, the foreigner and exile, the beautiful refugee from the Asiatic coast, the woman of nightmares, the daughter who betrayed her father, the sister who cut her brother into pieces, the mother who now holds the knife over her own children, consumed by the flames of jealousy.

This scene transports Eleni to the painful moment when she woke as a child in her parents’ bed and became aware ‘that a terrible event had exiled her.’ But

Medea the beautiful witch took Eleni into the exhilarating rages of womanhood, without shame. Without shame, with secret love, she thought of Olga, the other woman now in exile, accused of betraying sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters and brothers and parents. Medea’s words washed off the shame of love.

 Here we see Dr Harvey’s skill in portraying the interpenetrating themes and narratives of past and present, the shockingly familiar animosities and passions and the sometimes unfamiliar obsessions and profound dark mysteries of this east-Mediterranean people.

Her mother Anastasia watches with growing consternation as Eleni becomes ever more like her restless, obsessive father, ‘her eternal admirer’; he ‘ brings out the worst in her’, she frets; ‘[i]t’s the Orient in her! The Asiatic blood! Her father’s daughter!’ He calls Eleni his ‘bride of Smyrna’, his ‘daughter and bride’, when she dresses up in his stock of fabrics and lace for him. She in turn, as the previous quotation showed, is jealous of her father’s love for her difficult mother, as Gregoris himself was when as a child he saw his father and mother together.

When Eleni’s harpy sisters catch her, as a little girl, watching a group of occupying German soldiers in the building opposite her own, they betray her: middle sister Kaliopi shrieks:

‘Mother, she’s looking at the Germans! I caught her looking at the enemy – smiling and waving at them.’

Eleni’s soul is stirred by the soldiers’ music; she cannot hate them with the blind xenophobia of her family or compatriots – she is a loving spirit, unconstrained by convention or prejudice. She looks at the officer with the recognition of one deracinated, isolated human being of another. The contrast with her selfish, preening, scheming sisters is beautifully drawn.

As these children grow up this filial passion develops, in some of them, into a destructive force. The adjective in the novel’s title has a double meaning: wars with which we are familiar from history’s cyclical repetitions (there were four Greco-Turkish wars after Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821), and the internecine wars within the Gregoriou family.

As we see Eleni growing into a spirited, intelligent young woman her siblings become openly, viciously greedy; by the end, as their father’s empire crumbles, the two elder ‘cruel, ungrateful daughters’ as he describes them, likening them to ‘snakes…Vipers’, resemble that other mythical, dysfunctional family: King Lear’s. Their venomous spite is doled out equally on each other and on Eleni: ‘They would get her: they would crush her’, she thinks at one point in her later childhood; they become ‘her enemies’.

I’ve lingered too long on the family dynamics and socio-political historical-mythical aspects of this novel; I’d like to finish by commenting on Julietta Harvey’s prose style. She has a way of combining clear, unadorned description with lyrical, transcendent moments conveyed in poetic language that never clogs the narrative. There are numerous memorable set pieces like a community picnic, a marriage broker’s dealings with a suspicious family, or the formal opening of Gregoris’ new shop, that are Dickensian in their vivacity, wit and power.

Here’s just one example of any number I could quote to show what seems to me to be this luminous narrative voice and thematic range. When he’s released from captivity by Communist guerrillas, Gregoris appears reassuringly familiar yet ominously transformed for Eleni, in a passage of extraordinary free indirect thought from her perspective as a child, filtered through the poetic, adult sensibility of its author-narrator:

[Gregoris was] a migrant bird looking for refuge, a bird of bad omen perched, hungry, over her fate. His long blade-like beak and eyes red and tearful concentrated their aim. She lay quiet with fear of this man looking like her father: the woman’s motherly round silent shape gave her no refuge. Unwillingly she recognised her father – witness and reminder of atrocities, and refugee messenger from lands of pain and sorrow. He carried them in his visage, the black stubble on his hollowed cheeks remnant of fires, his worn clothes hanging on him hiding damage!

 The novel traces with rare honesty and insight the ambivalent, passionate intensity that’s to be found in many father-daughter relationships. There’s much more I’d like to say about this richly satisfying novel, but I’ve already gone on too long. It has many illuminating passages, for example, about the casual misogyny and swaggeringly patronising attitude towards their womenfolk that Greek boys and men were brought up to assume, and the submissive role allotted to girls and women; both Anastasia and her daughter Eleni are denied access to the education they yearn for by their dowry-obsessed parents, while Gregoris contemptuously, treacherously ignores his intelligent wife’s attempts to curb his more excessive business speculations or to check his impulsive, tasteless greed.

I recommend this novel to you.

Julietta Harvey’s first novel Familiar Wars, originally published in 1987, is re-released on June 25 in paperback by the independent Cheltenham publisher Polar Books, along with its sequel, One Third of Paradise, which I intend writing about as soon as I’ve finished it. My thanks to the publisher for providing copies of both novels.

 

 

 

Book Podcasts Part 3: BBC Radio 4

In my two previous posts I’ve recommended some book podcasts. Today I’d like to recommend some offerings by the BBC.

BBC Radio 4 is one of the best there is for factual and cultural material, surely, in any country; for a list of all of their podcasts, click here. They broadcast some interesting and stimulating programmes about literary matters. Here’s my pick of them.

The Books and Authors podcast includes episodes from two programmes:

Open Book is presented every Sunday by Mariella Frostrup. The main item each week is an in-depth interview with a writer, usually one who’s recently published a new book. A few random examples from recent weeks:

Julian Barnes

Ann Enright

Mexican literature: Valeria Luiselli and Jorge Volpi

Ben Lerner (on 10:04)

Each show contains additional material. A random example – on 21 May 2013 Louise Erdrich was the main interviewee, on her novel The Round House, but there was another item on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the Baz Luhrman film of it that had recently been released. Also featured was a discussion of the Independent Bookshops award.

 

A Good Read presented by Hariett Gilbert often throws up some gems; she has two guests each week, each of whom presents a favourite book for discussion. Ms Gilbert also recommends a good read of her own: she makes some great choices; she has good taste, and a pleasing broadcasting style. A random choice (from 29 October, 2013) – Richard Ford’s Canada; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty Some Day. One of the most recent programmes included discussion of The Wilder Shores of Love, by Lesley Blanch; How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid; and The Islanders, by Pascal Garnier.

As you can see, the choices are pretty eclectic, and range across authors from different countries and historical periods. It’s worth subscribing to this joint podcast: I’ve encountered many new works or writers I’d otherwise have missed, and enjoyed hearing other readers’ intelligent insights into works I’m familiar with. Recommended.

I’d love to hear of any other podcasts you recommend, or comments on the ones I’ve selected so far…

Podcasts Part 2: The Guardian Books & Short Story Podcasts

Podcasts Part 2

After my previous post on the excellent CBC podcast ‘Writers and Company’, I thought I’d recommend a few more that I regularly listen to. First:

The Guardian Books Podcast (the link is to the homepage, where further links to previous episodes can be found; also shows how to subscribe, download or stream from the site). Ably presented by the paper’s books editor Claire Armitstead. The quality of ‘author interviews, readings and discussions’ is generally very high.

Nora WebsterThe most recent download available from 5 June was an interview with Colm Tóibín on the subject of women protagonists in his work, from his last novel Nora Webster (which I reviewed here) to his book about the poet Elizabeth Bishop. As always he’s on fine form (at one point he mistakes the name of one of his characters; his interviewer tactfully corrects him, but his riposte is wittily inventive). It was recently pointed out that only two Booker Prize winners since 2000 have featured female protagonists; Tóibín bucks that trend with aplomb.

Other notable prose fiction covered recently includes an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro on the subject of his latest novel, The Buried Giant (from 26 March this year), and Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North (from 14 Oct. last year).

Non-fiction is also covered. Most recently, on 16 April this year, there was an interview with John Lewis-Stempel, ‘peasant farmer’ author of Meadowland, winner of the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize (links there to various related items, including his acceptance speech) awarded for the best writing of the year on the outdoors and nature.

This item was paired with an interview with Sarah Hall on her novel The Wolf Border (Guardian review from 1 April here), which concerns a bizarre attempt by a northern landowner to reintroduce wolves on his remote borderland estate.

Such themed items are regular; for example on 17 February 2012 the subject was historical fiction, with Kate Grenville and Hilary Mantel in the interview seats.

Hungarian writer ­László Krasznahorkai

Photo of Krasznahorkai from the Guardian website

The Guardian podcast regularly covers literature in translation. Some recent items include an interview (22 April) with this year’s Man Booker International prize winner, the Hungarian Lásló Krasznahorkai (whose novels Seibo Down Below and Satantango have languished on my TBR pile for far too long). Then on 11 April there was a feature on European fiction, including interviews with Peirene Press’s Meike Ziervogel, the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq, whose debut Pig Tales came out in the UK in English translation in 1996 (her latest is All the Way), and Dutch writer Peter Buwalda, whose first novel Bonita Avenue was published last year.

On 10 May the literature of Africa featured, then Mexico (17 May); on 4 April 2014 New Indian Literature was the subject, and on 28 March, Korean –  Hwang Sok-Yong, Hwang Sun-Mi and Yi Mun-Yol were profiled.

Other work by non-English writers to be discussed on the podcast: from 13 February this year an item on South Korean poet and novelist Han Kang and the South African S.J. Naudé (currently published by And Other Stories). More well-known names to feature include Haruki Murakami (1 Jan. this year, on his latest, from 2014, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage).

It’s not all prose; poets to feature recently include Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, T.S. Eliot (a piece on the fourth volume of his collected letters, a podcast of 27 December 2013) and John Burnside.

Also recommended: the Guardian’s Short Story podcast, which ran from 2010-2013, but the archive is still available here. Authors read a favourite item, and then talk about their choice in highly enlightening interviews. A random sample:

Julian Barnes reads and discusses ‘Homage to Switzerland’ by Ernest Hemingway

Will Self: ‘Exactitude in Science’ by Jorge Luis Borges

James Salter: ‘Break it Down’ by Lydia Davis (released May 2013, shortly after she won the Man Booker International prize)

Sebastian Barry: James Joyce’s ‘Eveline’ – which I reviewed over at the Mookse and Gripes site here.

Hanif Kureishi: Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’, which he describes as ‘absurd, moving and timely’

Richard Ford: ‘The Student’s Wife’ – an early Raymond Carver story

I think you’ll agree that’s a pretty impressive list – and there are many more. Highly recommended.

I intend adding profiles of more of my favourite podcasts soon. Have you any comments, recommendations or suggestions?