Recent fiction reading

After two posts on recent non-fiction, here’s a quick summary of recent fiction reading.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair Picador pb. (2018; first published 2017) I read The Line of Beauty years ago and enjoyed it, but this one I struggled with. David Sparsholt is first seen as a 17-year-old ‘new man’ at an Oxford college in 1939, lusted after by a group of Evelyn Waugh types. Years later he’s involved in a homosexual scandal which haunts his son, whose life is the subject of the rest of the novel. Louche socialites and some explicit sex should add up to a more engaging narrative, but it didn’t gel for me. I found them to be a self-indulgent bunch of shallow narcissists.

Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire Bloomsbury pb. (2018, first published 2017) This was far better. A timely plot involves Muslim ‘fighters’, jihadi brides, and the families they’ve left behind in Britain; there’s also a Muslim home secretary whose role is compromised in this plot. In a nail-biting finale the family ties of the characters we’ve been introduced to with such compelling narrative skill are tested to the limit. It’s a retelling of the Antigone story.

Eley Williams, The Liar’s Dictionary Windmill pb. (2020) I’d read and heard good things about this, but was disappointed. Alternating narratives thread together two linked narratives: in the present day, Mallory is engaged in work on digitising the (unfinished) Swansby New Encyclopaedic Dictionary – a pale rival of the OED, and culling the ‘mountweazels’ or ghost/invented words included as a sort of linguistic-existential act of guerrilla lexicography by one of its original (deadly bored) clerical contributors. This is the subject of the second narrative thread: in 1899 Peter Winceworth is one of a huge staff working on the original version of the dictionary in the same building in which Mallory now toils half-heartedly as a low-paid intern. There’s a complicated, rather silly plot that’s entertainingly put together, and it’s all quite good fun – but insubstantial. The narrative voice is the best thing: Williams playfully savours the intricacies and textures of the English language.

William Trevor, The Children of Dynmouth Penguin pb. (2014; first published 1976) This also came highly recommended – JacquiWine’s blog in particular praised it. I’m afraid this one disappointed me as well. As always with William Trevor, it’s superbly well crafted, but I found the plot rather tacky and nasty. There’s a creepy central character, an obviously disturbed teenage boy who blackmails inhabitants of his small seaside town into helping him fulfil a bizarre plan to stage a macabre act he thinks of as comedy for the forthcoming church fête’s talent competition. That his routine is about a serial murderer of women indicates the depths of this lad’s depravity. As a portrayal of the murky depths beneath the bland surface of an apparently sleepy town it’s quite effective, but, oh dear, it’s not uplifting. I need a bit of a lift these days.

Benjamin Myers, The Offing cover Benjamin Myers, The Offing Bloomsbury pb. (2020, first published 2019) A coming of age novel that also failed to intrigue me. There’s some fine (sometimes over-written) nature writing, but the plot is clunky and the characterisation unconvincing. Another teenage lad undergoes a sort of extended epiphany when he meets a bohemian, artistic woman called Dulcie, who lives a kind of hermit’s life with her fine German shepherd dog in a cottage overlooking a bay on the coast of N. Yorkshire. It’s 1946, and the country is trying to heal itself after the war – and the boy is trying to find a direction in life that’s preferable to toiling down ‘the pit’ like his coal-mining forebears. Unfortunately I didn’t really care if things worked out for him, and Dulcie’s story, gradually revealed, invites us to believe she was in a circle that included every major artist and writer of the pre-war decades. The name-dropping becomes slightly ludicrous, and the dialogue Myers attributes to her is implausibly literary and polished.

 

 

Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’

 

How to become a good doctor

It’s been a busy month, and I have a backlog of books to post about. I’ll start with the first of a couple of non-fiction titles from recent reading: one about the process of becoming a doctor, the other about failing to protect the British people during the pandemic.

 Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions: A doctor’s story, Fleet hardback, 2021. 248 pp.

Sophie Harrison, The Cure for Good Intentions front coverThe author graduated in 1995 with a degree in English, then, after a few jobs, became an editor at Grantamagazine. On an exotic beach she had an epiphany and decided at the age of 28 to become a doctor. A junior doctor she met gave her a tip for her medical school interview: when asked why she wanted to become a doctor, not to say ‘Because I want to help people’ – everyone says that. But that was the answer she gave.

Her training began in 2003. This book is her entertaining and illuminating account of that process, from F1 through to qualification, rotating through different specialties. When she decided to become a GP, her colleagues were incredulous: that was for those not good enough to become specialist surgeons or whatever.

I was alerted to this book by hearing Harrison interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 language programme ‘Word of Mouth’, in which she told Michael Rosen about those sections of the book dealing with the language used by clinicians. These were the most interesting parts of the book for me – though there are many fascinating sections about her other experiences.

Medical students were advised to talk to patients

in what we believed to be everyday speech, although it was in fact another language again: infantile, nursery-inflected. We called abdomens ‘tummies’ and warned ‘this might feel a little chilly’. We used soothing, neutered verbs. I learnt to ask patients to ‘pop’ off their clothes before ‘hopping’ up onto the bed, where I would just ‘slip’ this nameless thing I was holding up their noses or down their throats or up their ‘tail end’.

There was also the slangy practitioners’ jargon that often veered into dark humour (a kind of coping mechanism). And the specialised, obscure technical language of medical science, as Harrison shows from her anatomy classes:

 Once I had known that the thigh bone connected to the hip bone. Now I discovered that the iliofemoral ligament arises from the anterior inferior iliac spine and then bifurcates before inserting into the intertrochanteric line of the femur.

 Other chapters deal with Harrison’s learning about our bodies’ internal organs, end of life, observations, the heart, surgery and medicines (especially opiate addiction), women and babies (and her own experience of an emergency caesarean), and pain and how to describe and assess it meaningfully (you can’t).

The final chapter deals briefly with the Covid pandemic. Doctors, like the rest of us, had to learn quickly a whole new way of speaking and acting, with attendant acronyms: PPE, WFH. When a new consignment of boxes of protective aprons arrived at her GP surgery, a nurse exclaimed: ‘These are bin liners!’ Another practice had scrubs donated by patients, who had sewn together old sheets and duvet covers. In my next post I’ll discuss a highly critical account of the British government’s hopelessly inept response to this crisis, and its continuous stream of boastful misinformation about the horrific reality on what they liked to call ‘the front line’.

Ultimately in The Cure for Good Intentions it’s the author’s stories about people and the ailing, imperfect bodies we’re all born with that provide the energy and hope in this engaging account. We’re all going to get sick and decline at some stage – as we all know only too well during this pandemic – and we all fear this inevitable process. Thank goodness we have caring, humane doctors like Sophie Harrison to look after us when we do.

The final paragraph sums up what she learnt going through medical training and acquiring the new idiolects of the doctor’s world:

I had learnt, at least, that medicine was not about finding new ways to express yourself, or how nicely you could put together a sentence. It was about trying to understand what others meant, not just the words they said.

 

 

Dorset days: sculptures, sand, sea, a castle and a church

I haven’t posted here for a while because of work commitments, a week’s holiday in Dorset with Mrs TD and two old friends, then more work.

Poole harbour at sunset

The shallow waters of Poole harbour

We rented a house on Sandbanks, the weird spit of land, originally a string of sand dunes – just a few hundred metres wide and maybe a couple of kilometres long, sticking out into the huge natural harbour of Poole, on the south coast of England. Sandbanks is said to have some of the most expensive real estate in England: there are huge glass and steel architectural fantasies, mock-Spanish colonial mansions, art deco ship-houses, and a scattering of the original pre-WWII houses of more humble proportions. It’s a cross between Beverley Hills and Bournemouth (just a mile or two up the coast, and much more down-market). How they managed to build massive houses on foundations of sand defeats me.

Our house was one of the originals, built in the mid-30s: art and crafts, with terracotta tiles and attractive angles and details. It was right by the terminal of the chain car-ferry that plies across the narrow entrance to the harbour, linking Sandbanks with the mainland promontory on the far side of the harbour at Studland. Gin palaces, yachts, jet skis and pleasure boats constantly sailed or buzzed past, playthings of the wealthy holiday-home owners who were our temporary neighbours.

There was an air fair at Bournemouth the first weekend. We were aghast to hear that a biplane with a wing-walker that we’d seen fly over our garden had crashed into the harbour near the ferry terminal just minutes after we’d been sitting on a bench admiring the view there. Fortunately, the pilot and passenger survived with just minor injuries.

Grandees scupture by lake

These striking figures are called ‘Grandees’. They look a cross between Egyptian gods and revellers at a Venice carnival

The highlight of the week was a visit to Sculpture by the Lakes. Simon Gudgeon gave up his city job to buy a former lake fishery to concentrate on his sculpting – especially his beautifully graceful images of birds and aquatic animals. He positioned some around the picturesque pools, where they fit beautifully, and finally decided, as the collection grew, to include sculptures by other artists, and to open the place to the public. My favourites are included here.

Falcon sculpture

This falcon is one of the many birds and animal sculptures that blend so naturally into the lovely lakeside setting

 

Another day we took the ferry across to Studland and on to Swanage on the local bus (to avoid the massive queues of cars; buses have priority). After lunch on the promenade, we caught the vintage steam train for the short trip to Corfe Castle.

Corfe CastleThis is a dramatic ruin on top of an implausibly high, steep hill. Its construction started under William I a few years after his victory at Hastings in 1066. Subsequent monarchs extended and modified it until it passed into private aristocratic family ownership. During the Civil War in the mid-17C the family supported the Royalist cause of King Charles I. They were besieged and defeated by the Parliamentarians, who destroyed the castle to prevent it being used for military purposes again. Handsome grey sheep graze the rich undergrowth on the hillsides beneath the walls.

For most of the week we had beautiful sunny weather, and were able to spend time on the beach and swimming in the (not so cold) sea. With a bit of imagination the miles-long sandy beach could have been mistaken for South Beach, Miami (without the pastel lifeguard posts).

Towards the end of the week the weather changed: cloud and mist. The queues of cars for the ferry dwindled, so we were able to take the car across to Studland and do the coastal walk to Old Harry rocks – huge pillars of chalk at the end of a headland. A group of coastguards was preparing to do a cliff rescue exercise, with abseil ropes and crash helmets. I would not want to launch myself off those cliffs, even with a harness and rope.

Studland church After lunch in the garden at the famous Pig on the Beach (pizzas called rather grandly ‘flatbreads’ – delicious, and a pint of local ale) we walked to Studland church. This is one of the oldest surviving churches in England, almost unchanged since it was modified from its Saxon original form by the Normans in the 11C (around the time Corfe Castle was being built). The tower was never finished (the masons were worried about the soggy, sandy foundations – something that the builders of mansions on Sandbanks don’t seem perturbed by), so the building looks more like a fortress. The windows are mostly tiny and plain glass – no fancy gothic arches, buttresses or stained glass windows (apart from a couple of gaudy Victorian ones).

Studland corbels One of its most curious features is the sequence of carved corbels under the eaves of the roof. Many of these would have been familiar to early Saxons and Celts: animal heads and human faces with bulging eyes, looping amorphous creatures. But also some that could only be described as downright rude: naked exhibitionist figures – ithyphallic males and the notorious female sheela na gig. These may well have served as apotropaic figures (to ward off evil; I did a post on this in the early months of this blog – link HERE.) Others believe that they were survivals from the days of pagan fertility deities, or more austere warnings against the sins of the flesh (strange way to do it).

Now, back home, our case numbers of Covid are frighteningly high, the government repeats its ‘don’t worry, we know what we’re doing, let’s get back to normal’ mantras of the past (disastrous) 18 months, and drops all public health restrictions – even as scientists yet again plead for caution, unheeded. A week in Dorset was therapeutic, but its benefits quickly evaporated as we brace ourselves for yet more unnecessary pandemic suffering as a consequence of our leaders’ obduracy: economy, selfish notions of ‘individual liberty’, and free market capitalism taking priority over lives and people’s health and safety.

Smiley, Oates, Hannah, Dandicat: the last four Granta American long stories

Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverMy fifth and final post about Richard Ford’s collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story will be a quick note on the remaining four stories. Very quick, in one case.

Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.

Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.

The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.

Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?

This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.

At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.

George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.

There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.

Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.

Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.

The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.

Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.

The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.

Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.

After the worst there’s still more: Cynthia Ozick, Rosa

Cynthia Ozick, Rosa (1983)

Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store – she smashed it up herself – and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. In Florida she became a dependent. Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel’.

This is the opening to Cynthia Ozick’s story Rosa. It’s the fourth in my sequence of posts on some of the stories selected by Richard Ford for his collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Not much happens, because Rosa’s awful experiences in the Nazi death camps have left her haunted and ‘mad’, we’d probably call it PTSD, incapable of functioning in the world thirty-five years later. She hates the climate, the jaded, complacent elderly people around her, and her pain shuts out all capacity for human interaction. She feels ‘the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret.’ Real life had been left behind by these ‘scarecrow’ old folk. Does she realise she’s one of them?

Her only solace is found in writing long, lyrical letters to her dead daughter, Magda, ‘in the most excellent literary Polish.’ To the niece, Stella, in Queens, NYC, she writes in jerkier, alien English:

‘Golden and beautiful Stella…Where I put myself is in hell. Once I thought the worst was the worst, after that nothing could be the worst. But now I see, even after the worst there’s still more…a devil climbs into you and ties up your soul and you don’t even know it.’

But Stella is part of that hell she’s not out of. She calls her Angel ‘for the sake of peace’, but ‘Stella was cold. She had no heart. Stella, already nearly fifty years old, the Angel of Death.’

This vitriol we discover is largely justified. A terrible event in the camps led to the death of baby Magda, and Rosa blames Stella for it. Yet the niece accuses her aunt of refusing to accept that Magda is dead, of making the baby’s shawl, which Rosa has asked her to post to her, into a ‘fetish’, an ‘idol’: ‘you’ll kiss it like a crazy person.’ It’s time, Stella says harshly, ‘to have a life.’

When Rosa meets a flirty old man, another Warsaw Jewish survivor ‘refugee’ of the Nazis’ murderous camps, in a laundromat – he cheerfully admits he’s there to meet women – she tries to shut him out, rather than to have some kind of life as Stella urged (guilt?). ‘My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,’ she snaps at him repeatedly as he tries to break down her barriers.

Further confirmation that, as Rosa believes, the world is ‘diseased’ comes in the form of a jargon-filled letter from a professor of ‘clinical social pathology’ at Iowa University. His ‘specialty’ is to analyse what he calls ‘survivor data’ with which to test the theory of ‘Repressed Animation’ in the ‘Humanitarian Context’ (he uses the pompous upper case initials). Rosa rejects this insensitive pseudo-academic nonsense with justified rage. He’s reduced her to the status of ‘survivor’, and doesn’t want to say ‘human being.’ Her hellish memories are just ‘data’ to him.

Stella is also part of the ‘disease’. ‘Stella Columbus’ Rosa calls her in another long letter to Magda. ‘She thinks there’s such a thing as the New World.’ Ozick is a very different writer from Roth, but here there’s an element of congruence in their view of America; but Neil Klugman’s response to the ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ song he hears in the story of that title is less intensely felt, more ironic, less visceral than Rosa’s, and reveals Roth’s critical authorial stance to be more like immature intellectual snobbery. Ozick, on the other hand, is probing into what Conrad calls the heart of darkness.

This might all sound a little bleak and depressing, and it is, but there’s a flickering light of humanity and hope deep inside this beautifully written story (it’s only forty pages long, but packs in a lifetime of Ozick’s central character’s tragic experience). There’s no neat epiphany or conversion for Rosa, but there is a sense that out of her crazy sadness can come some kind of redemption.

Like Philip Roth, whose story I wrote about last time, Ozick is a Jewish American writer, born five years before him, in 1928 – and, I’m pleased to say, still alive (Roth died in 2018). Her stories are also said (this is the first of hers I’ve read) often to feature Jewish American characters and communities, but as I’ve already noted she openly confronts and exposes their memories and scars of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It seems that Rosa is a partner story to the more famous ‘The Shawl’, published three years earlier in The New Yorker. From what I’ve read online the terrible events that are hinted at in Rosa are described there explicitly.

 

 

 

Aversions and aspirations: Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus. Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, pp. 129-234

Among the comments to my previous post on this collection of stories was a query about the authors included in it. Here’s a list (apart from Eudora Welty and William Styron, posted about already, and the subject of today’s post, Philip Roth):

Ernest N. Gaines, A Long Day in November (1963). I couldn’t finish this: too depressing. A feckless husband treats his wife badly; the narration from his young son was too painful for me to read during these already distressing times.

Stanley Elkin, The Making of Ashenden (1973). A surreal story in the vein of Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, but without the wit or charm. It ends with a graphic, four-letter-word account of the protagonist having messy sex with a she-bear…

Peter Taylor, The Old Forest (1979). This was better. A young man, engaged to be marry, is involved in a car crash. His passenger flees the scene – she’s not the fiancée. Will the wedding be called off when the news hits the papers? An interesting, low-key story set in Memphis, 1937 explores themes of class, sex and the struggles of women then to exert any kind of power in a man’s world.

Cynthia Ozick’s and Jane Smiley’s stories will be the subjects of later posts. I haven’t yet read the remaining three, by Joyce Carol Oates, Barry Hannah and Edwidge Dandicat. If I like them I’ll post about them, too.

Now on with today’s story.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1933-2018) is one of those ‘long stories’ discussed by Richard Ford in his introduction (see my post about this HERE) that was originally described as a novella when it appeared in the Paris Review in 1959. One of several in this collection to deal with the lives of Jewish people in America, it was written when Roth was only 26 – and this is reflected in the story’s central character: an intelligent young man who doesn’t yet know what to do with his life.

Neil Klugman lives in an unfashionable part of Newark, NJ (Roth’s native city), favoured by Jewish families of his social class, with his aunt and uncle. After graduating from Rutgers and serving in the military he’s drifted into a tedious job in the city’s public library. He falls for Brenda, a girl from the posh suburbs; her family are nouveau riche – they too lived once in Newark, but her father’s plumbing business is thriving and they now live a very different life from Neil’s. It’s all swimming at the country club, tennis and sports. Only a vestige of their humble origins survives in the shabby furniture and detritus hidden in an obscure attic of their present swanky home.

The narrative is driven by Neil’s conflicting emotions about Brenda. She’s about to return to prestigious Radcliffe in Boston (formerly a separate women’s college, now fully integrated with Harvard). He finds himself in love with her, and they have a lot of sex, but he can’t suppress feelings of irritation with her lifestyle and capricious, complacent manner.

Things reach a crisis point when she returns to Radcliffe and invites him to stay with her in a hotel nearby during the Jewish holiday. She makes a disclosure that causes him to question her love and commitment to him. She’s a spoilt young woman and he maybe realises her defects aren’t just his class prejudice or inverted snobbery.

The prose is remarkably assured for such a young writer at the start of his career. There are some lively exchanges written with verve, seen especially in the contorted syntax and (maybe a little too stereotypically ‘middle-aged Jewish woman’) world view of his aunt Gladys.

Some of Neil’s dialogue with Brenda is also witty and sharp, but also reveals character and tensions. When she asks him if he intends making a career at the library – trying to goad him into taking a more socially acceptable, stimulating (and lucrative) direction – he retorts that he’s ‘not planning anything’, and hasn’t done for the three years since he left the army. He’s ‘not a planner’:

After all the truth I’d suddenly given her, I shouldn’t have ruined it for myself with that final lie. I added, ‘I’m a liver.’

‘I’m a pancreas,’ she said.

‘I’m a –’

And she kissed the absurd game away; she wanted to be serious.

These signs early in the relationship that they aren’t entirely compatible are signified with some subtlety throughout. For example, Brenda’s attempts to control Neil reappear when she insists they go to a school sports track so she can run – and wants Neil to run as well. When they arrive, she points out that he looks like her – ‘only bigger’ – because they’re dressed in similar preppy sports clothes:

…but I had the feeling that Brenda was not talking about the accidents of our dress – if they were accidents. She meant, I was sure, that I was somehow beginning to look the way she wanted me to. Like herself.

In a preface to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus wrote that it was about:

…the rites and taboos of his clan…their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success.

The title refers to the graduation song played on a record by Brenda’s brother, who’d just left Ohio University at Columbus, but also less directly to the Columbus who was the first European to discover America. Neil lives as an insider in his community, but is also an outsider in the world inhabited by the likes of Brenda and her family. He’s slowly accreting experience and maturity through abrasive contacts like those with this precocious, selfish young woman, coming to realise which world he wants to belong to and what role he could play in it.

A final note about language. In an early flirtatious meeting with Brenda at the country club she’s ‘treading’ water with him in the swimming pool. ‘I treaded unobtrusively as I could’, the narrator says. ‘Treaded’ as past tense of ‘tread’ (water)? I suppose ‘trod’ sounds odd in this context. (What’s the plural of computer mouse?!)

 

 

Cornish ramblings again

I was intending a post on Philip Roth today, but have postponed this in order to write about a visit I made with Mrs TD yesterday to the Japanese garden in the pretty village of St Mawgan.

St Mawgan bridge

The bridge over the Menalhyl beside the church

It is situated in and around the valley (the Vale of Lanherne) of the river Menalhyl. Wikipedia suggests that this name is from the Cornish ‘melyn’, mill, and ‘heyl’, estuary, but I’m not convinced by this.

The full name of the village is St Mawgan-in-Pydar. ‘Pydar’ is one of the ten hundreds of Cornwall, but I’ve been unable to find out what the name might signify in Cornish.

St Mawgan is one of those obscure early medieval saints who are celebrated in all kinds of place names, church dedications and so on throughout Cornwall. All I’ve been able to determine online and in my hagiographical books is that he may have been a 5-6C Welsh missionary bishop who established a monastery and church in the area. There’s another village with this name, St Mawgan-in-Meneage, on the Lizard peninsula. ‘Meneage’ is from the Cornish for ‘monastic land’, with connotations of ‘place of rest or sanctuary’.

AcerWe last visited the Japanese gardens in St Mawgan soon after they opened over 20 years ago. Not surprisingly it looks very different today. It’s a serene and peaceful place, shaded by hundreds of lichen-coated trees, many of them that Japanese stalwart, the maple or acer. Most are very old, and have become contorted in shape as a result presumably of what was once soft, swampy soil, causing their trunks to veer at sharp angles. As a result they now resemble huge equivalents of the miniature bonsai trees on sale in the garden shop.

Meditating figure

The gardens inspire a meditative mood, reflected in the sculptures posing in nooks beside pools and groves

There are waterfalls and natural ‘sculptures’ formed by tree stumps and moss-covered rocks. There are also a couple of pretty ponds, one patrolled by beautifully marked koi carp, and shaded by acers that seem to be just starting to turn colour as autumn approaches.

Zen garden St Mawgan

The zen garden; leaves had blown over it in the wind

Statues of the Buddha and various meditative monks are sited strategically in every zone, along with pagodas, dragons, lions and other traditional Japanese designs.

There’s an austere Zen garden, with the characteristic raked pattern in the gravel, and several moss-covered boulders to soothe the observer’s spirit.

The attractive parish church that stands in the village centre nearby is dedicated to Sts Mauganus (the Latin equivalent of Mawgan) and Nicholas. The current building dates at least partly from 13-15C. There are some fine 15C carved pew-bench ends. The church guide says there’s a holy well beside the lychgate. If so, it’s now just a sort of overgrown hole.

St Mawgan convent

St Mawgan convent

Next to the church is Lanherne House, once a Carmelite convent (Historic England gives detailed architectural description and history HERE). The structure is mostly 16C, with 17C and later additions and restoration. It’s said to have been resurfaced at the back by Sir Christopher Wren.

This was one of the grand houses of the Arundell family, lords of the manor here since the early 13C. By 1501 John Arundell had become the wealthiest man in Cornwall.

Convent cross

This ornate cross stands in front of the convent

The family’s fortunes dwindled after the Reformation and establishment by Henry VIII of the church of England; as a staunch Catholic family they were persecuted as ‘recusants’ – some were imprisoned, fined or had lands confiscated. Most of the family land had been sold by the late 1700s, and the line had died out, continuing by marriage in a ‘cadet’ branch in Wiltshire.

(There’s an interesting account by the local scholar Bernard Deacon: ‘The fall of the Arundells of Lanherne’, at his blog Cornish Studies Resources, 2020, link HERE.)

Lanherne House was given in 1794 to a group of Carmelite emigrée nuns from Belgium. Their order left the site around 2001, and the convent became home to the Franciscan sisters of the Immaculate. As far as I can tell from online sources, this is a small ‘first order’ of nuns founded in the late 20C in Italy.

It’s an attractive building, but we weren’t able to go inside, where there are said to be some interesting features. There’s a modern shrine to the BVM in the courtyard in front of the 19C chapel section, and a collection of what look like former farm buildings behind. There’s a fine view into the valley from its elevated position above the river.

Cornwall-Newquay airport is nearby (Newquay town is four miles away). At the mouth of the Menalhyl river is the fine sandy beach and resort of Mawgan Porth. There were 69 shipwrecks in just a six-mile stretch of coast here 1754-1920. One of the most famous is that of the schooner Hodbarrow Miner in 1908. Three of its crew are buried in the churchyard, where there’s also a wooden memorial to others who lost their lives at sea nearby. A photograph of the wreck hangs on one of the church’s walls near the main entrance.

I’ve posted previously about the dangerous, unpleasant underground conditions in which Cornish miners worked until recently; the same could be said for the people who sailed in the treacherous seas around the peninsula’s rocky coast.

 

Futile gestures: William Styron, The Long March

William Styron, The Long March. The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (1999), pp. 71-128. First published 1952

William Styron (1925-2006) is probably best known for his controversial 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness (1990), about his descent into clinical depression, and subsequent recovery. Like Eudora Welty, whose story June Recital opens this anthology of stories (I posted on it here yesterday), Styron was born in the south, and is said to have favoured a ‘southern Gothic’ style in his fiction. There’s certainly an element of it in The Long March.

Granta Book of the American Long Story coverThe Long March is the second story in Ford’s anthology of ‘long stories’ (I also discussed his choice of that term in yesterday’s post), and one of the shorter ones at just over fifty pages. I had mixed feelings about it. I wonder if the title is intended to echo the name usually given to the series of strategic retreats undertaken by the Chinese communist forces (under the rising influence of Mao) to escape the pursuit of the then dominant forces of their enemy nationalist army.

It’s a grim story about a martinet colonel who subjects his unit of marine reservists, most of them unfit and untrained, to a brutal thirty-mile overnight march in the swampy countryside of Carolina. Far from strategic and, as with the Red Army, militarily justifiable and ultimately successful, it’s what Peter Cook described in his famous, darkly satirical sketch with Jonathan Miller about posh, ‘stiff upper lip’ WWII officers (YouTube clip HERE) from the seminal ‘Beyond the Fringe’ comedy review, as a ‘futile gesture’.

The story opens with an account of an accidental ‘friendly fire’ incident in which a group of young reservists has been shelled by their own artillery as they queued for dinner. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lieutenant Culver, a veteran of WWII called back into service because he never removed himself from the reserve list – a decision he now bitterly regrets as he witnesses the pointless cruelty, stupidity and ineptitude (like the friendly fire incident) of the military regime he finds himself back in. He misses his wife and post-war peacetime life, and despairs as the world lurches back into yet more wars and conflicts in distant lands.

His fellow officers are appalled by the colonel’s gung-ho, macho manner and uncompromising orders. Most notably rebellious is Captain Mannix: he hates the strutting colonel, and his behaviour with him borders on open insubordination. When he begins leading his group of physically unfit men on the pointlessly barbaric, horribly long march, however, he’s determined that they – and he – will complete it, depriving the colonel of the satisfaction of confirming that they’re ‘soft’. It’s a matter of honour for him.

What follows is sometimes almost unbearably grim, but there’s a kind of redemption and softening at the very end in a scene when the march has ended. As the men try to recover from the ordeal, ‘one of the Negro maids employed in the unit’ shows human kindness when she sees the half-crippled Mannix swaying giddily as he limps towards the showers:

Culver would remember this: the two of them communicating across that chasm one unspoken moment of sympathy and understanding…

It’s a moment that almost makes the previous fifty gruelling pages worth enduring.

 

 

Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (paperback, Granta Books, 1999; first published 1998). Post 1

Why this unwieldy title? Ford’s introduction ‘Why not a novella?’ explains why he’s preferred the generic term ‘long story’. After discussing some of the genre conventions and theories in fiction (novel, novella, short story), he gives a historical account of the novella form, tracing it back to Boccaccio through to Goethe and later (Henry James, for example). He points out that novellas were particularly popular in Germany through the 19C, and they generated a great deal of earnest theoretical-generic analysis, much of it providing inconclusive or contradictory definitions of what exactly a novella was.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Ford canvassed fellow American writers to assess what they, as ‘practitioners’, believed a novella to be. No consensus emerged, but there was a great deal of disagreement when Ford compiled this anthology in 1998.

He finally opted to go with ‘long story’ as a ‘possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression’. His purpose was to ‘address readers and writers who relish long stories…free[ing] its audience to write and relish as suits its wishes, undistracted by offstage wranglings over nomenclature.’

Despite his best efforts to come up with a ‘spanking’ definition himself, he could ascertain nothing to ‘discern anything other than length to distinguish these stories as a uniform genre, or to distinguish them consistently from their seemingly better-defined narrative cousins’.

So that’s sorted that out.

The stories Ford selected for this anthology were all written between the end of WWII and the time when he was compiling it. They vary in length – which, as he’d argued, ‘is just another arbitrarily chosen attribute’. Some were called ‘novellas’ when first published, but he’s decided he just doesn’t know what that term means – and neither is there any agreement generally – so why not consign ‘a worn out literary term into retirement.’

His main criterion for selection was subjective: he chose stories that he considered ‘excellent’, but concedes that some readers will disagree with his choices (I’m one of those: more in a later post.)

American writers since the end of the war haven’t tended to write long stories compared with their output of novels and short stories; perhaps this is because of the exigencies of ‘magazine space and publishing economies’. Maybe that’s the reason ‘novellas’ proliferated: it was expedient for the outlets in which they were published, and the contemporary taste and reading habits of their intended audience.

I’ll finish with a note about the first story in the collection (pp. 1–70); I hope to post about some of the others later on:

Eudora Welty (1909-2001), June Recital (from the collection The Golden Apples, 1949)

 This is a strange, hallucinatory story set in the fictional Morgana, Mississippi, told initially from the point of view of Loch Morrison, a small boy of about ten, in bed with a fever. He spies, ‘Rear Window’ style, through his bedroom window, and later from a tree outside it, on the goings-on in the house next door.

It’s now unoccupied. Loch observes a young couple sneaking into the house and disappear upstairs – it’s obviously a place where they can have sex, but of course the boy is too young to realise this.

His big sister Cassie’s voice then takes over. Some years earlier she used to have piano lessons in the house; her teacher was an old woman called Miss Eckhart, the impoverished lodger there. She was very stern with her pupils, except for a flighty girl called Virgie – the same girl Loch saw sneaking into the house with her sailor boyfriend. Only Virgie could get away with challenging the teacher, because she had a genuine gift for music, and wasn’t frightened by her strictness. On the contrary, she bullied the old lady.

The story ends with a bizarre sequence of events (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to summarise them here). An old lady enters the former teacher’s room and starts setting fire to the dilapidated piano, still standing there, and to the rest of the room. It’s the room where Miss Eckhart used to host an annual June recital. Two neighbours spot the smoke, alert the house’s watchman, and confront the ‘fire bug’. The half-dressed lovers walk flagrantly out of the house while this altercation is going on, Virgie with a characteristic swagger.

In a poetic, elegiac coda, Loch reflects on these developments, and so does his sister. It’s a story full of steamy, sultry atmosphere, a sort of muted southern Gothic (Welty lived much of her life in Jackson, Mississippi). Miss Eckhart is sympathetically portrayed: a sad German emigrée, she longs to be accepted in the local community and to find love, but is always treated as a person with an alien, outsider’s culture. Her passion for music isn’t appreciated (or even wanted) – even the talented pianist Virgie is unimpressed by her, and treats her contemptuously and cruelly.

People like the spirited, rebellious Virgie and lonely, despised Miss Eckhart have no connection – with each other, or anyone else. They’re ‘deliberately terrible’:

…roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them – human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.