Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six. Hutchinson, 2018

A bit of a departure in today’s post.

Mrs TD and I heard this novel recommended on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read last month (always worth catching the podcast). She read it and urged me to. I hated it – and quite enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure. I’m old enough to remember the seventies era in which it’s set, and secretly quite liked ‘Rumours’ (though I claimed at the time in public to prefer Dylan, Cohen and The Grateful Dead).

Daisy Jones cover

Daisy Jones goes her own way…

I found the last quarter quite moving. It was the most interesting aspect of it that was least interesting: the structure. It’s written as a sort of transcript from a mockumentary about a seventies American rock band, mostly in oral interviews. It veers horribly close to Spinal Tap, without the laughs or irony. Pop and rock music novels generally fail to match the music behind them, or non-fiction accounts, as this Guardian review by Neil Spencer of The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor suggests.

The band is initially The Six; the name is expanded when solo artist Daisy joins them. It seems to be based on a soft-rock outfit like Fleetwood Mac (I believe this genre of music is now known as Yacht Rock). It has the usual rock cliché pairs of rival siblings, struggles for artistic and dynamic control, sexual tensions, and so on. The lead singer and guitarist, Billy, is an autocrat, and makes his bandmates seethe with resentment and frustration as he hogs the limelight and dictates the direction of their career.

It’s got all the usual tropes of such stories of the era: sex, drugs and alcohol addiction, manipulative chancers, mayhem, hedonism and excesses on the road. Their desperation to make hit records and become famous means compromising on their musical values (yes, it’s super pretentious). Inevitably band members fall in and out of love.

Because everything is told in fragments by members of the band, engineers, managers, rock journalists and a few others, the style is highly colloquial and largely monotonous, predictable, and laden with the slang of the era: young women are ‘cool chicks’, as the musicians get rich they buy ‘a pad’ in Laurel Canyon, that kind of thing.

The prose is generally flat and tediously repetitious. Rock stars talking about the ‘rush’ of making a crowd go crazy is interesting mostly for themselves. Hearing it repeated every few pages becomes, like, a drag, man.

The plot development is as predictable as their world tour: the trajectory of such bands has been traced countless times, as in the recent film about Queen. There’s the usual rise from obscure origins to superstardom to disintegration when the band splits.

The lengthy exposition of song lyrics and ‘laying down of tracks’ is laboured and sometimes laughable. Let’s face it, most rock lyrics don’t stand up to much close scrutiny, except for Dylan’s. The lyrics for the band’s breakthrough album ‘Aurora’ (that’s a ringer for ‘Rumours’) – the making of which forms the heart of the novel – are given in full at the end; they’re passable pastiche, but like most lyrics of the time (as Christopher Ricks concedes about Dylan’s), they work best when performed. Seeing them in print exposes their banality.

There are some neat touches, as when a character tells us their version of an event, then the next speaker gives an account that contradicts it completely. An example: Daisy says Billy wrote the song ‘Impossible Woman’ about her. She quotes: “She’s blues dressed up like rock ‘n’ roll/untouchable, she’ll never fold”. (That’s fairly typical of the prosody.)

Then Billy says: ‘I absolutely never told Daisy the song was about her. I wouldn’t have done that because the song wasn’t about her.’

His denial shows his evasion of the truth about his suppressed feelings for her, but that’s about as emotionally deep as the story gets.

In fact most of the band members reveal themselves (unsurprisingly) to be shallow and egotistical – though some of their annoyance with Billy is understandable.

There’s a twist near the end that I hadn’t seen coming, and as I said at the start, the final part of the novel is quite poignant. The love-hate relationship in the triangle involving Daisy, Billy and his faithful, trusting wife Camila is handled pretty well. I also liked the feminist critique of the music industry at that time (probably not much changed, even in the era of #MeToo). Daisy is far more radical and in-your-face than the Stevie Nicks (or Janis Joplin?) types she’s vaguely modelled on.

This aspect is spoilt for me as Daisy is increasingly shown as the stereotypical little-girl-lost, searching-for-love character: the rock chick wildness is all a veneer to cover her, gulp, vulnerability. Not such a feminist after all.

More convincing and rounded is the character of Karen, the band’s keyboard player (Christine McVie? I remember her as a gritty blues singer, Christine Perfect): she deliberately plays down her sexuality, while Daisy flaunts it. I’m not convinced by Daisy’s claims that her skimpy, revealing clothes are a reflection of her feminist confidence. She says of the see-through top she wore for the album cover shoot of their hit album ‘Aurora’:

I dress how I want to dress. I wear what I feel comfortable in. How other people feel about it is not my problem.

Protesting a little too much? Revealing in a different way, she goes on to say that she and Karen disagreed on this. Karen knows the game Daisy plays, and perhaps envies her attitude, while also disapproving of her methods; Karen’s found that relying on her talent as a keyboard player doesn’t get her the recognition she craves. A woman has to compromise her sexuality to do so, and Daisy knows that.

But there’s still that annoying prose and over-familiar storyline.

PS Harriet Gilbert on that radio programme I started with likens Daisy Jones to David Keenan’s 2017 novel This Is Memorial Device, also written in the form of interviews and the like, about a post-punk rock band from a windswept part of Scotland that couldn’t be more different from the sunkissed swimming pools and baked deserts in which Reid’s novel is set. I just looked it up; there’s a link HERE to a Guardian review by Toby Litt. It sounds rather more original and interesting.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children. PMC 1970. First published 1941

It’s strange to think of Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB for short) turning out these exquisitely fashioned country-house-of-the-gentry novels set in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period (families drive to the train station in carriages) in the middle of the twentieth century. They seem a throwback to Trollope’s world, not that of the Battle of Britain.

As always with ICB, most of the text takes the form of long set-piece conversations, most of them in dining or drawing rooms. The speakers reveal through their dialogue the ties and fissures, the tensions, frustrations, oppressions and cruelties lying not far below the surface of the family’s apparent gentility – for ICB is always exposing with unwavering precision the dynamics of families that are more or less dysfunctional.

Ivy Compton-Burnett Parents and Children cover

The painting on the cover of my battered old paperback is from ‘Interior’ by L. Campbell Taylor

Parents and Children is particularly concerned – as the title suggests – with the impact on offspring of their parents’ upbringing, their capacity for showing, sharing or withholding love, their tendency to keep important secrets, or to impose upon their children constraints that develop or deform them emotionally.

The central location is the huge country house inhabited by middle-aged Eleanor Sullivan, her barrister husband Fulbert and their family of nine children (ICB came from a large family herself, and knew how they formed mini alliances and animosities). The house is owned by his elderly parents, Sir Jesse and Lady Regan, which creates another level of tensions.

Eleanor is made to feel keenly that she is not the mistress of the house, while Fulbert is also uncomfortably aware that he is only the heir because of the death of his elder brother. This is conveyed early on in a typically acerbic character appraisal usually provided when a character first appears (when she allows them, ICB’s taciturn narrator makes these portraits stingers):

The two women lived in a formal accord, which had never come to dependence; and while each saw the other as a fellow and an equal, neither would have grieved at the other’s death.

Fulbert strives for recognition and affection from a father whose attitude is distant, high-handed and judgemental – not just towards his only surviving son, but of his grandchildren and their mother and other dependents on the estate.

There are numerous scenes in which these children (ages range from three to brothers in their final year at Cambridge; as ever they are all impossibly precocious and articulate) are seen with their governesses. Neville, the baby of the house, is meant to be charming, I think, with his habit of speaking of himself in the third person. I found there was a little too much of him.

In another of those narrative portraits of newly arrived characters, here’s when the two oldest sons appear; Graham, 21:

He had a deep, jerky voice and a laugh that was without mirth, as was perhaps natural, as he was continually called upon to exercise it at his own expense.

Daniel, 22, constantly snipes spitefully at his languid, maligned brother, who (as younger brothers do in this situation: I know, I am one) bites back with knobs on. Daniel’s antagonism arises from his being more conventional and assiduous in his attitude to filial responsibility (at the novel’s end we learn he gets a first, while Graham scrapes a low third class degree – both seem unsurprised by and content with this outcome). Most telling at this point in the narrative about the parental view of this corrosive sibling rivalry is this insight into their mother’s gaze upon them when they first enter the room to join their parents:

Eleanor surveyed her sons with affection, sympathy and interest, but with singularly little pride.

There’s a dark secret at the heart of the family, and several revelations and reversals emerge unexpectedly. Rather as in a detective mystery, details only make complete sense when the narrative is read a second time; clues and hints then take on a deeper significance.

The novel’s familial theme is clear – though it’s difficult to quote illuminating extracts from ICB’s fiction, because every detail is connected like a thread in a web to what goes before and after it in the narrative. Here’s one passage that’s particularly pertinent.

The family have been more than usually strained by the imminent departure of the father, Fulbert, on a six-month business trip to South America (at the orders of his exigent father). The children have been more than usually unsettled and testy. Their mother, Eleanor, has upbraided them for openly showing their honest, ‘natural selves’, when the released emotions would be better kept ‘disguised’. The ensuing emotional explosion causes her own attitude to be criticised by the older children, who see her as having ignited this ‘inflammable material.’ Luce, the perceptive, intelligent eldest daughter (she’s 24), sighs:

“Dear, dear, the miniature world of a family! All the emotions of mankind seem to find a place in it.”

“It was those emotions that originally gave rise to it,” said Daniel. “No doubt they would still be there.”

It’s the brilliance of the author’s depiction of characters interacting with each other, with disgruntlement, venom and spite barely concealed beneath the veneer of sophistication, that makes an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel such a rewarding read. Look out for moments when the narrator tells us something about a character’s expression or gaze: who they turn their eyes on, in what manner, what response they get.

An example of this shortly before the final crisis: a shocking piece of news has been delivered that’s upset the equilibrium of the whole family, and historic secrets are in danger of being revealed.

“We have our memories,” said [grandfather Sir Jesse].

“Yes, you can add to them a stock of those.” [This is said by his wife, Regan]

[Eleanor enters, and a frisson is felt in the room’s emotional temperature:]

Regan met Sir Jesse’s eyes, but the latter’s face told nothing.

In a similar way, there’s a deeper significance than the narrative reveals on a first reading in the messages conveyed by a photograph of a loved one: what is shown, what concealed or not perceived by those who look at it.

Adult characters are usually less than transparent in what they disclose about themselves and their true feelings; this means the reader has to slow down and consider the implications of every speech. It’s worth making this effort.

It would be easy to dismiss or dislike this technique as being too contrived: people “don’t speak like that in real life”. But the witticisms and epigrams serve multiple purposes. I’ll finish with one example.

Eleanor wonders if the governess Miss Mitford has noticed it’s stopped raining, and the fractious children could be sent with her outside to let off steam more harmlessly:

“She [Miss Mitford] does not notice anything when she is reading,” said Venice [aged 13].

“Does she do nothing but read? I hope she will not teach you to be always poring over books. There are other things in life.” [this is Eleanor, their mother]

“Not in every life,” said Graham…[In the next exchange he’s sarcastic about her rose-tinted view of her children’s happiness, especially considering his complex, timid little brother James – even more put-upon than he is; Eleanor is affronted at the suggestion that James is ‘a pathetic character’]

“Graham dear,” said Luce, in a low tone, “things can only be done by us according to our nature and our understanding. It is useless to expect more. We can none of us give it.”

“That does not take from the pathos. Indeed it is the reason of it.”

“It is partly the ordinary pathos of childhood, Graham.”

“Of childhood in the later stage, when it is worked and confined and exhorted. For its weakness the burden is great.”

“James has his own power of throwing things off,” said Luce.

“Of course all my children are tragic figures,” said Eleanor.

I said it’s hard to quote briefly to convey the richly textured subtlety of ICB’s prose. She’s a master of the suppressed.

There’s a link HERE to other ICB novels I’ve posted on.

 

John Harvey, Pax: painting monarchs into peace

John Harvey, Pax. Holland House Books, England. 2019. 354 pp.

In his last novel, Subject of a Portrait (2014: my post on it is HERE; Mike Flay’s guest post HERE; Harvey’s own guest post HERE; see below for links to related posts), about the love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and her lover Millais, John Harvey’s interest in artists’ love lives and the paintings arising from them, was manifest. In his new novel, Pax, he takes ekphrasis to a new level of complexity and subtlety.

Harvey Pax hb cover

Front cover of the novel, showing a detail from Rubens’ painting ‘Pax’

Against the backdrop of conflict in the West around 2003, an artist and art teacher, Stephen Bloodsmith (an aptly sanguinary name for an artificer), is creating a suite of etchings portraying the visit to London in 1629 of the renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Each scene in this artistic sequence is vividly realised through the narrative evocation of the modern artist’s reimagining of Rubens’ story as a means of creating his own artwork. It sounds over-elaborate, but it works. Bloodsmith’s personal life, manifested symbolically in his artwork, is increasingly informed by Rubens’.

Rubens’ English visit was ostensibly to broaden his market at the court of Charles I, but he had secretly been commissioned by the Spanish court to attempt to broker a peace between these two warring nations. It was the time of the slaughter and misery of the Thirty Years War (1618-48); this is the subject of one of Bloodsmith’s prints. Bloodsmith explains to his dealer the parallels between the horrors of the two historical periods, graphically represented in his print:

…people fight wars for various reasons, but what’s common to wars is that they hurt and damage each other much more than victory in war requires…I wanted it a bit like old engravings, but also a bit like black-and-white news-photos. So it touches modern atrocities.

Pax is therefore, at one level, a gripping wartime/espionage thriller: Rubens is spied on by shadowy, threatening figures, agents for the various factions in the European wars, from the sinister machinations of carmine-robed Cardinal Richelieu for the French, to the black-clad Puritan zealots plotting shortly before the English Civil War – the outcome of which of course was regicide (Charles’s beheading scene is evoked in this novel with chilling force). As always, Harvey has a perceptive eye for colour and clothes.

Secrecy, betrayal, and hypocrisy are also central themes at the level of personal and domestic, intimate emotional life – especially seen in the many adulterous affairs and the mysteries, doubts, evasions and lacerating suspicions arising from them, mirroring the broader, political-historical themes. These are narrated largely through various forms of ekphrasis: a visual representation is interpreted and reimagined in words.

 What’s so interesting and original about Harvey’s inventive use of this literary device is that his 21C protagonist and the narrator don’t just interpret and expatiate upon the significance of artworks created by others: Bloodsmith relives in his imagination and hence in his art (based on his reading of texts about Rubens, filtered through his aesthetic sensibility) the scenes he imagines:

“I’ve soaked myself in the history so much, I feel I’ve got a theatre in my head. It plays the scenes, then I pick the shot.”

The photographic/artistic image is pertinent: he creates his prints or paintings, in acts of imaginative synergy, inspired by his historical detective work and artist’s response to Rubens’ own work. Bloodsmith’s artworks drive the narrative, a ‘story in pictures’, and their recreation in Harvey’s engaging language is a key feature in the novel’s success.

The opening scene at Thameside sets the tone: it ‘recalls an event’ that ‘plays in [Bloodsmith’s] head’ – the meeting at the riverside of Rubens, an English diplomat and the brilliant but eccentric Dutch inventor-engineer, Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633), who was demonstrating one of his more bizarre and prophetic creations: a wooden submarine, a ‘descending engine’ as he calls it . He optimistically predicts this will be a military device that, used in combination with his version of a limpet mine, will render war obsolete – the dubious argument of the nuclear deterrent.

Later we glimpse another area of his expertise: glass grinding, enabling him to produce telescopes and microscopes. This is surely not an accidental aside; these are means for seeing more clearly what might otherwise be veiled, unclear: visual clarity and significance is crucial in Pax.

The ‘veiled disclosure’ that Bloodsmith recreates and interprets in this first print sets the tone for all those that follow, from Rubens at the Madrid ‘court macabre’ of King Philip, where he was given his secret, perilous ambassadorial mission, to his stay in the London house of a fellow artist, Gerbier, and his various encounters with the wily King Charles. One of the main pleasures for the reader of this intriguing novel is the ways that Harvey intertwines these visual (re)interpretations with his own verbally dextrous narrative in words; as Drebbel cynically says to Rubens, exasperated at the deviousness of court politics, in what could serve as Pax’s motif:

Nation cheats nation as men cheat women, women men.

There are multiple, intertwining ekphrastic and historical narrative threads in this intricately structured novel.

Isabella Brant by Van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641), Isabella Brant, 1621, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Open access

There’s the painting of Rubens’ late wife, Isabella Brant, by the man who’d worked as an assistant in his Antwerp studio, Anthony Van Dyck – a portrait gifted to his mentor by the younger artist on his departure for Italy in 1621. It’s usually seen as a token of the mutual esteem of the two men; Rubens begins to read a more insidious message in its iconography. Was his former protégé secretly signalling the illicit sexual relationship he was engaging in with his master’s wife? That suspicion explains Rubens’ outburst as early as p. 6, in that Thameside scene: ‘”Damn Van Dyck! God rot his bones!”’ Harvey/Bloodsmith speculates that Rubens was instrumental in dispatching Van Dyck to Italy to remove him from his household and attempt to end the adulterous affair.

The central painting in the novel, as depicted on the front cover, is Rubens’ ‘Peace and War’, or ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’. The evolving symbolism and dynamics of this painting’s creation are carefully delineated in the novel, not as a dry academic exercise, but arising from Rubens’ experiences on his London visit, especially his relationships and various love intrigues, and the unfolding of his clandestine peace mission. It’s his artist’s attempt to ‘paint these monarchs [Charles and Philip] into Peace’ – just as Bloodsmith tries to create his keynote Peace painting for exhibition in Brussels; the print sequence is a ‘pendant’ or ‘portal’ to that projected work, he hopes.

In addition to the global themes noted above – war, treachery, deception and so on – the personal equivalent is multiplied and duplicated several times over: Bloodsmith’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair is replicated in his own affair with his model, Mae, who’d featured in an earlier suite of his prints: ‘the Fire Girl’. This parallels on several levels Rubens’ racking fears about Isabella and Van Dyck, while he too is hypocritically contemplating an affair with his London host Gerbier’s pretty wife, visiting brothels, and falling passionately for an ‘Indian Maid’ at court, a ‘native to a tribe of the Americas’.

These parallels in multiple adultery across the two time periods become perhaps a little too prominent and schematic; for example, like Rubens’ ‘Indian’ beauty, Mae has dark skin, and is married.

Rubens, The Four Continents

The Four Continents by Rubens; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Munich. Public Domain

Another important Rubens painting is deployed to illuminate such parallels: ‘The Four Continents [or Rivers]’ (c. 1610), depicting the four major rivers and known continents of the world personified. It was inspired by the temporary peace (Rubens is consistent in his peace-making, if not his love life) between the Dutch Republic and Spain. A detail appears on the novel’s back cover: the black woman (Mae’s precedent?) symbolising Africa or the Nile gazes pensively (or is she timorous? amused? It’s enigmatic, defying definitive interpretation) out of the picture at us, the arm of her burly white male companion possessively round her waist. Read into that what you will, Bloodsmith…

Harvey Pax back cover

Back cover detail from The Four Continents

Harvey’s sensually pungent, multiple-strand narrative shows how Bloodsmith’s imaginative immersion in the historical Caroline London transforms his 21C lived experience; the characters and events of Rubens’ world merge into, penetrate and inhabit his own, so that he sees and feels their presences as vividly as ‘real life’, and the boundaries between the two worlds dissolve: the various characters take flight together in his mind’s eye. His final print symbolically integrates the multiple elements of this lived and imagined experience, making it new, culminating in ‘The Impossible Feast’ – a vision of ‘lust and war’ transformed into peace. Imagine.

This isn’t all just an extended exercise in modish postmodernism or magical realism: it dramatizes Bloodsmith’s intuition – that his story and Rubens’ ‘would converge’, in a process parallel with the struggle to reconcile ‘contradictions’ in his emotional life and his marriage – the desire for loyalty in his wife, while being incapable of such loyalty himself. Hence his conclusion near the end:

Maybe Rubens knew this, that you can love different people who are the opposite of each other…

This convenient resolution seems to me one of the least convincing aspects of this otherwise intriguing novel: Bloodsmith is let off his hypocritical hook just a little too generously for my liking.

If I’d had more time, I’d have made this post shorter…

Some links to my posts on John Harvey’s non-fiction works:

The Poetics of Sight

Clothes

 Works on the colour black discussed HERE

ARC courtesy of the publisher

 

 

 

 

 

Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me

Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spanish, 1994; in English, 1996

Javier Marías is the novelist I’ve written about more than any other at this blog. I’ve argued in previous posts that he’s one of the most exciting and rewarding writers alive today. This novel is another I’d recommend highly.

Marías Tomorrow in the  Battle Think coverAs in every other novel of his that I’ve read, the plot is simple, and it’s impossible to say much about it without spoilers. Despite the labyrinthine, digressive style, with sentences that spool out over pages, loosely linked by subordinate ‘or else’ clauses, speculations and modalities (‘perhaps…’), there’s a powerful central mystery in the plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, but finding the satisfaction of (dis)closure increasingly deferred, elided or sleighted away into yet another fictive possibility.

It’s this cerebral, philosophical narrative discursiveness that’s what gives Tomorrow in the Battle the distinctive Marías tone. Also present are many of his usual tropes and motifs: old movies and actors; the plot involving a dead spouse, whose demise may or may not be ‘silently longed for’ (from Thus Bad Begins); this in turn leads to plot developments and doublings, involving trust and deception, betrayal and secrecy, surveillance and spying; a female figure named Luisa for the narrator to be infatuated by; the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ anything; stories and storytelling.

Here’s the protagonist-narrator, Víctor (his name isn’t revealed until late on – a typical act of playful withholding by Marías), anticipating the telling of his extraordinary story of the unexpected death of a woman he was sexually involved with (the plot I withheld earlier) to his friend Ruibérriz – another of those louche and lewd, disreputable sidekick characters he’s so fond of; this indiscreet friend would have ‘proclaimed it [this story] to the four winds’, embroidering and distorting it to suit his whim and ego –

the world depends on its storytellers as it does on those who hear the story and occasionally influence it…

Just as our narrator lulls us into feeling how superior to his crass friend’s is Víctor’s sensibility, we’re told that he does tell that story to Ruibérriz at a racecourse, between races, in tones alternately ‘sinister and jocular’, interrupting his narrative now and then ‘to watch the final straights through our binoculars’, to go to the paddock, to the bar or to the place where they place their bets. This is classic Marías: meditating on abstract concepts, narratology and metaphysics then splicing the moral high seriousness with low humour and self-referential, bawdy wit. Shakespearean, perhaps.

As usual this moment leads to another riff developing on the initial theme:

Nothing is ever told twice in exactly the same way or using exactly the same words, not even if the storyteller is the same each time, even if it’s the same person.

This could be an account of the novelist’s technique in all his fiction. Plots, motifs and characters recur, are reworked. A ladder in a young woman’s tights leads to lascivious thoughts and sexual tension, as in Your Face Tomorrow (YFT); the Old English term ‘ge-bryd-guma’ is contemplated by a man who’s slept with a woman who has other sexual partners (YFT again), and so on. [Btw: the phrase ‘your face tomorrow’ is used several times, even though this novel was published several years before the first volume of that trilogy.]

As with music, a Marías novel’s slowly accreting development and iterations, cadences, echoes, resonances and recurring motifs are what’s consequential (this can be across books, too). People endlessly tell stories, and sooner or later, ‘everything is told’ (YFT again).

Incidents and observations of the moment in the plot lead to larger abstractions and universal considerations (‘we all do this’ is the type of reflection on one such moment). We are thus invited to comply with the attempts of the protagonist to make sense of or interpret the moments experienced, to find some epistemic ‘reality’ or certainty among the endlessly forestalled cues and clues life throws in his way.

The other key theme in Tomorrow in the Battle is another favourite of Marías’: memory and forgetting. He’s been criticised in the past for not castigating the Franco era of Spain’s recent history. I find that criticism strange, for the ‘pact of forgetting’ that Spain indulged as a means of erasing its memory of that shameful period is central to much of what he’s written. It is here, too, especially in the superb final pages, where the truth of what the bereaved spouse was up to while his wife was dying is finally, unbearably revealed (‘everything is forgotten or invalidated’, no matter how compelling the storyteller).

A final thought on the ‘male gaze’ in a Marías narrator’s repertoire. Almost any young woman Víctor encounters is seen and appraised with varying degrees of lechery – like the way he notices the ladder in that young woman’s tights; his imagination leads him higher – and I don’t mean metaphysics this time. That racecourse scene becomes highly farcical as Víctor and his friend flirt half-heartedly with two young women they assume to be on the prowl. They can’t be bothered in the end to consummate their plans: the betting takes precedence. But not before some brazen scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bond movie.

I quoted Margaret Drabble on this tendency in Marías in an early post on YFT; she’s alarmed by the ‘sexual tension’ that ‘verges on pornography’ in his fiction. I found Víctor’s casual lechery disturbing throughout. There’s a particularly sordid section where he picks up a sex worker in the street, thinking she’s his estranged wife, Celia (another recurring character type). He seems throughout this graphically detailed sexual sequence simultaneously to believe she is and isn’t Celia; either possibility excites him; neither does him much credit.

When he later breaks into her apartment and finds her naked and asleep in bed with her new partner, the creepiness is even more disturbing.

No doubt this is all part of the author’s intention: even his narrators are culpable, flawed and unreliable, in a universe that’s haunted by the ghosts or revenants of our own past history and that of our countrymen (the dead are ‘quite wrong to come back’, he wrote in The Infatuations, another novel of spousal hauntings).

A Marías protagonist’s occupation is always significant; here, Víctor is a ghostwriter, a man of shadows, (linguistic) deceptions and pretence, whose identity is evanescent. The recurring Shakespearean theme (there’s always one of those in a Marías novel: he’s a great admirer – and translator – of English lit) is the nightmares endured by guilty Richard III on the eve of his fateful battle at Bosworth Field, when the ghosts of those he’d murdered return to haunt and threaten him with the words of this novel’s title: ‘think on me’ tomorrow and despair.

 

#1930Club: William Faulkner, Helen Zenna Smith

#1930Club logoKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook are hosting this week’s #1930 Club: do go and take a look at what they’ve been posting, and join in with comments or thoughts of your own on anything from that year that you’ve read and want to share, here, and/or on their blog sites.

I’m just past p.1000 of Uwe Johnson’s massive Anniversaries, so don’t have plans to start a new book from 1930 while immersed in that, but didn’t want to let this week pass without some sort of contribution, so here we go, with two posts from the archive.

As I Lay Dying Penguin cover

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner As I Lay Dying cover with Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

My ex-library hardback edition is rather battered but has an appropriately abstract cover design; Vile Bodies (also been bashed around when in a library, rescued by me from a bin) I read pre-blog, so although it’s another 1930 publication I can’t link to it here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (link HERE), first posted in 2013. This was Faulkner’s fifth novel, and is a high modernist, fragmented narrative account (fifteen different narrators, each with a distinctive voice and idiolect) of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm. Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

Faulkner himself called it a ‘tour de force’: it’s maybe not a modest claim, but well justified.

Others have posted this week on my second #1930Club HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverchoice from the archive: Helen Zenna Smith’s novel Not So Quiet… My post was from the summer of this year.

It’s her riposte to Remarque’s similarly titled All Quiet On the Western Front, and deliberately foregrounds the experience of a female ambulance driver in the horror and carnage of WWI near the front lines. It’s one of the most compelling, unflinching accounts of that terrible war that I’ve read.

 

Namiki maki-e crane and turtle pen

I was made redundant from my teaching job this summer, and was given a small payoff. I put some of this, plus a generous birthday contribution from Mrs TD, to buy myself a special fountain pen – a Namiki with a maki-e design of a crane and turtle. (Namiki is the high-end brand name of its parent company, the better-known Pilot corporation).

I started my collection of pens a few years ago when the always thoughtful Mrs TD gave me a Mont Blanc for a significant birthday. Since then I’ve acquired about one a year: a green Pelikan, an Onoto special Cambridge University edition (see my homepage banner photo of these two pens), and a few others.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fountain pen geek, but I do love writing with a handsome instrument that glides over the paper leaving a glistening ink trail. I like the heft of a well-made pen in my fingers. It’s inspiring.

I have several beautiful Japanese pens, including a red Nakaya ‘Aka Tamenuri’ (the ‘tame’ element means ‘pool’, and ‘nuri’ refers to the lacquer-layering process: one sees the colour as it were through a pool of water) and a black Platinum ‘Kuro Tamenuri’, both made with the urushi lacquer technique – a process that dates back centuries in Japan. The lacquer is drawn from the sap of the sumac tree. The underlying ebonite base tends to discolour and wear over time, so the craftsmen of Japan applied the ancient art of lacquering to create a more durable, beautiful finish.

Highly skilled artisans painstakingly coat the barrel and cap with layer after layer of lacquer, carefully and repeatedly polishing the clear finish, a process that takes months, creating a rich, deep colour and texture through which a contrasting lighter shade is faintly seen. With use this underlying hue gradually emerges more clearly.

Namiki pen boxThis was my first pen made with the hira maki-e decoration. This involves an intricate design of gold powder and pigment being applied by a skilled artist with a variety of delicate brushes to the deep black urushi undercoat layer of lacquer (while still wet) applied to the body of the pen. This production takes place at the Kokkokai artisan workshop in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa province (midway between Tokyo and Mt Fuji).

The workshop was founded in 1931 around the master craftsman Gonroku Matsuda. It was named from the statement by the co-founder, Ryosuke Namiki: as sumo is Japan’s national sport, maki-e is the nation’s light (‘kokko’ in Japanese). With his fellow founder he travelled to the west in 1925 and began marketing this distinctive type of product; a London Pilot office was set up in 1926, and a contract made with Alfred Dunhill in 1930. The ‘Dunhill-Namiki’ pens were established.

The golden crane on my new pen is depicted with its distinctive red cap, wings Namiki craneoutstretched, as it flies over the turtle below, looking up at it. They make eye contact, showing rapport and unity. They are ancient Japanese symbols of long life and good fortune. There’s an old saying in Japan: As the crane one thousand years, the turtle ten thousand years.

namiki turtleThe water from the turtle’s pond is shown as stylised swirling waves curling around the barrel.

The 14K nib in inscribed with the outline of the sacred Mt Fuji. There’s a lovely short film about the pen-making process at the Namiki website HERE

Namiki water signature

The swirling water design with the artist’s signature underneath

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo. Vintage paperback,2019. First published in hardback by Hutchinson, 2018

A central theme in this novel is the way the past seeps, as through a ‘semi-permeable membrane’, into the present. The Paris of 2006, where the main action is set, is haunted by the past: in the canonised historical figures and places whose names are commemorated in the names of Métro stations, squares, streets and so on; and more poignantly in the ordinary people who walk those modern streets and squares in the footsteps, as it were, of their antecedents.

Faulks Paris Echo coverThis is most movingly apparent in the audio files accessed from an archive by one of the two central characters (their voices narrate the chapters in a kind of counterpoint). Hannah is an American scholar in her early thirties, researching the part played during the Occupation of WWII by Parisian women. We are given full versions of the transcripts of two of these women, one from the seedier side of the city familiar to the young Édith Piaf, struggling to maintain moral and physical integrity when faced by the sexual importuning of German soldiers with money to burn, and the other from a different world.

The choices they make and shocking, terrible dilemmas they face are sensitively handled by Faulks. One plot twist left me gasping.

I’m less impressed by his choice of the two voices I mentioned. One is of a nineteen-year-old Moroccan lad called Tariq, who’s smuggled himself illegally into the capital of the former colonial ruler of his homeland with the vague aim of finding out something about his half-French mother, who spent her earlier years there. This enables Faulks to indulge in some important, sometimes heavy-handed consideration of France’s often oppressive and brutal colonialist history, and of the plight of immigrants in the 21C city – marginalised and mostly scratching a living, as Tariq ends up doing, in sleazy dead-end jobs like fast-food joints. Two cities, two nations.

At least Tariq’s voice enables Faulks to inject some much needed humour into this dark, disturbing story of historically layered or textured narratives of oppression and hardship, both during the Nazi occupation, and in the modern incarnation of the city. His narcissism, sexual urgency and being constantly hungry are often hilariously apparent; his callow disingenuousness, lack of common sense but basic integrity and decency – with some lapses – also ring true.

Hannah is a less convincing narrator. She’s emotionally scarred and numbed by an ill-advised love affair some years earlier, and Faulks’s providing her with the possibility of romantic redemption is handled, to my mind, rather too conveniently and clunkily.

The author clearly knows Paris intimately, and he brings it sensually to life – especially that dark underbelly noted above that tourists and the fashionable rich rarely see. Tariq serves as a kind of Candide figure, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the names of his beloved metro stations. This causes me to re-examine received notions of such names as Monet or Stalingrad and what they could signify to someone not from a western European culture – and what they say about that culture.

I liked the magical-realist way in which Faulks has figures from the past seem to appear in the flesh in modern Paris. Some embody Tariq’s desperate wish to establish an identity for himself in the living archive of the city, and more pertinently to know and see his late mother in the city, providing him with a personal connection to this alien city which has so far in his young life been only obliquely experienced through its political-historical impact on his homeland.

Others fulfil Hannah’s more academic longing (partly a response also to her emotionally empty life) to animate the past more immediately than historiography allows. The electronic voices she listens to in the archive take on flesh and blood, in a way: this is how history could look, if we had eyes to see, Faulks seems to be saying. Mostly this works.

The puppeteer/beggar on the metro, Victor Hugo, is a more playful example of the ghostly presences that populate this novel as vividly as the supposedly living ones. An epigraph on the first page is a quotation from Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit (never heard of it), which gives the book its title. It translates as:

What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow (or reflection) of the future on the past.

There’s a lively interview with Faulks by Sam Leith at the Spectator books podcast from September last year, where I learned that the dedication to ‘Hector’ is to his dog. Why not?!

 

 

Only women grow up: Kay Boyle, My Next Bride

Kay Boyle, My Next Bride. Virago Modern Classics, 1986. First published in America, 1934

If ever I see the faces of Brancusi, or Duchamp, or Gertrude Stein, I shall look the other way because of the history of courage they made for you. “If you can’t live hard, die holy like a piece of cheese, Victoria.”

Kay Boyle My Next Bride cover

The cover of this handsome VMC paperback shows ‘Mrs Douglas Illingworth’ by Meredith Frampton

This cryptic thought and strange aphorism appears in parentheses early in Kay Boyle’s künstlerroman My Next Bride. It thus contrasts bracingly with the Modernist narrative account of the early scene in which nineteen-year-old, virginal Victoria John unpacks her few treasures in a decrepit, crumbling boarding house at which she’s just arrived in Neuilly, Paris.

It’s the early thirties, and Paris is the city of that Lost Generation of American expats like Victoria (and Kay Boyle). She’s an aspiring artist (who favours, significantly, portraits from the lives of the saints) whose much-loved woman friend, an older Australian vaudeville singer called Lacey, with whom she’d hoboed across the States and Canada, had recently committed suicide. Lacey had challenged and inspired her, ‘a stricken thin madonna’ who’d said to the ingénue Victoria, in addition to the startling words quoted above, that ‘life was an obligation in arrogance, talk an experiment in insult.’

What I’ve quoted so far indicates that Boyle’s narrative voice is typical of its period and her coterie: experimental, unconventional, fragmented and poetic. Perspectives shift abruptly, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence: the Modernist verbal equivalent of the artistic developments favoured by the avant-garde of Montparnasse in which she moved. Dos Passos, Pound and Hemingway had been there – some of the few names Boyle doesn’t let drop. Archibald MacLeish is name-checked, DH Lawrence, Picasso. No wonder Victoria gravitated there to develop as an artist, to find herself as an artist and person.

It’s a thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Victoria, like Boyle, joins a commune run by a shady American proto-hippy named Sorrel. He’s clearly based on Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. A charlatan scoundrel, who preys upon lost souls like Victoria and lures them into his squalid community to exploit. She’s put to work as a salesgirl in his shop in fashionable central Paris; the stock is the hand-crafted tat churned out by his doting disciples. He meanwhile swans around in classical Greek robes and sandals, striking poses and extolling the virtues of the simple life, dance, art, vegetarianism, and free love. Entering this group, where washing up is rarely done and the food is vile, is like ‘taking the veil’, another member breathlessly tells Victoria, unaware of the hypocrisy of her despicable phoney guru, who pockets a wealthy American patroness’s cash at the end and takes off for the Riviera with his mistress. “They don’t know what they want,” he confides to wide-eyed Victoria at one point, gleefully.

Victoria is attracted to the charismatic Anthony Lister, who seems to be based on a combination of Harry Crosby, the wealthy, sexually promiscuous playboy who with his wife Caresse was part of the bohemian expat artistic scene in Paris, and Laurence Vail, modernist sculptor and writer who was became Boyle’s second husband in 1932. He’d previously been married to Peggy Guggenheim, the heiress, who appears in the novel as Fontana (also resembling Caresse C.), destined to become Victoria’s most true friend – if not her next bride.

He quickly singles out Victoria as his next bride, chatting her up with the most bizarre line in garbled stream-of-consciousness monologues, that read like an Imagist poet on opium (pretty much like Crosby, then). Here’s a sample from their first meeting:

“It’s the first time I’ve walked up this side of the street. I always take the other. I believe in embassies, and always in the emissary of the soul. The patterns on these walls take the sight right out of the eye like an operation. My name’s Anthony,” he said, his eyes escaping. “I believe in bone.”

Right. Not sure what escaping eyes look like, but this is impressive hokum.

After numerous late-night debauches with him Victoria comes to see his darker, troubled side. When she’d told him of the problematic issue of the poor (herself included), he replied:

Rich or poor, every one was stabbing every one else with hate, stabbing in envy and in terror. “It isn’t a great deal to ask, only that every one put down their weapons…I ask that people give up their brides. The whole universe on a honeymoon of horror, wedded to their daggers, stabbing their way from one betrayal to the next…”

Poor Anthony. He knows there’s more to life than partying, being ‘the eternal bridegroom’, despite his best efforts to prove otherwise.

Some of the best scenes in this uneven novel (brilliant at its best, which is most of the time; dire in places) involve the two starving, genteel Russian sisters living in the grim Neuilly boarding house. Aristocrats from before the Revolution, they’re reduced to applying to an agency for domestic staff where, in a scene of comic genius, they’re mistaken as employers in search of maids, when in fact they’re looking for work themselves, but can’t quite articulate this evidence of how low they’ve sunk.

Fontana’s dog is excellent, too:

The Russian dog came after them into the car and slouched down beside them, incredibly bored, incredibly clean, with his hair curled smooth as a caracal and his loose, tapering limbs bent under his pointed breast.

In later life Boyle became a fervent social activist, fingered by the McCarthyists for her left-wing tendencies. In this novel there are signs of this tendency, as in a stirring speech towards the end from Victoria to privileged but angst-ridden Anthony. She’s begun to grow up, to see through fakes like Sorrel, and to discern the self-indulgence of Anthony’s atrophied poeticisms:

Only women grow up, Victoria was thinking; men go on remembering the time when their families stood on guard about them, or the books on the table, or the silver, and there was no need for explanation. Haven’t you learned that once cut out of the family’s life you are a single thing given to yourself and other people, carved out separate to stand alone or not to stand at all?

Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado is a weaker, more frivolous version of My Next Bride‘s more ambitious, satisfying account of a young American woman’s painful growth into selfhood and discovery of love’s unexpected springs.

 

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville. QC Fiction, Québec, 2019. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. ARC

My whole childhood was nothing but dread, drifting, and disappointment. And yet I wanted to be happy.

Éric Mathieu, The Little Fox of Mayerville front coverThese opening words of Éric Mathieu’s novel The Little Fox of Mayerville give an indication of most of what follows. Émile Claudel is born in 1945 into an ‘austere, joyless family home’ in the small, gossip-ridden village of the title, a rural place in Lorraine near where, significantly, Joan of Arc had lived. He too is born to suffer France’s pains.

It’s a magical realist bildungsroman; for example, the boy is able to speak from the moment he’s born, and he babbles competently in several languages, quoting from an early age from canonical literature he can’t possibly have read. From the outset this precocity – and everything else about him – arouses only hatred in the rest of his family.

With his red hair and vulpine features he quickly acquires the eponymous nickname. It’s not a token of affection. His slyness, tricks and (often cruel) pranks, usually perpetrated with his only friend Max, don’t endear him to his community.

As the narrative proceeds we learn that he suspects the man he calls father isn’t his biological father (he’d returned from the war, having been a POW, too late for the dates to fit). Much of the time Émile desperately searches for clues about the identity of who his father could be.

His supposed father is a shadowy, barely-present figure. His mother is moody, volatile and unloving towards the boy – he presumes out of guilt about his illegitimacy. She also seems to be promiscuous, especially with a sinister neighbour, Ducal. Could this demonic man be the one? Or was it an American GI who’d been quartered at the Claudel house during the war?

Aged about eight, before he can find the answers to these questions, he’s abandoned by his family and sent to an orphanage, euphemistically called ‘boarding school’. This place makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood seem like heaven. After suffering and growing up there he absconds and has a number of picaresque adventures. Falls in love. The sixties arrive: rock and roll, Bardot, liberation. Kennedy is shot. Maybe what’s coming isn’t liberation.

The novel never flags – in fact at times it’s almost too packed with incident, so the scenes blur. The protagonist is protean: at times feral, a kind of werewolf (werefox?), at others a scared, lonely child. It’s often unclear if what’s narrated is his fantasy. Dreams are interwoven with the narrative without distinction from ‘real life’, adding to this magical quality. Most of the people he meets are monstrous, distortions, like nightmare figures.

The poignancy of Émile’s childhood is the most affecting aspect of the novel: he’s lost, searching for some kind of identity – he assumes finding out about his father will solve this problem. Like most of us, he discovers that the truth isn’t always what you really want to find – or expect. The epigraph to Part III highlights this ambivalence: a quotation from The Brothers Karamazov – ‘who doesn’t desire his father’s death?’

He craves love and affection, and when it’s withheld not surprisingly his dark side exerts itself. I suppose The Little Fox is best summed up as a kind of postmodern fairytale. There are elements resembling Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. But I was most reminded of Truffaut’s seminal film ‘Les Quatre cents coups’– Émile, like Truffaut’s alter ego, barely copes with his abrasive contact with mid-20C French conservatism and duplicity. Its society is scarred by memories of war.  It attempts to gloss over its dubious record under German occupation. Maybe Émile’s quest represents in microcosm that of modern France.

Although the narrative seemed (for me) to lose its way a little towards the end, I was always engaged in Émile’s troubled, delinquent quest. The short chapters, some just a sentence or two, and the nimble, restless narrative voice, create a breathless, other-worldly effect that accords well with the theme.

The translation by this innovative Québec imprint’s fiction editor, Peter McCambridge, is lively and fluent. My thanks to the publisher for the ARC, and a welcome addition to its growing, impressive catalogue.

 

 

 

 

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. Viking, 2018

Mrs TD bought me this stimulating collection of four essays (she also got me a lovely Japanese Namiki fountain pen – maybe more on that another time). In an interview with Colm Tóibín by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Book in August (it begins around 8 mins 20 secs, link HERE) the author explains its origins and his intentions. I draw upon that interview in my general comments here.

Toibin Mad Bad coverInvited to deliver a series of lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Richard Ellmann, who’d written biographies of Wilde and Joyce and ‘a very good book on Yeats’, Colm Tóibín concluded that there was no point in expounding directly on these Irish authors, because Ellman had done that. The mothers, he goes on, were ‘a problem’ in two of the instances, because they ‘left no record’. But the fathers, in all three cases, were ‘very lively, interesting characters’ who’d left a legacy, in letters or other forms, and in the various other influences they’d had on the writings of their famous sons.

While I was reading this book during my Norway trip a couple of weeks ago I was troubled by the scarcity of reference to the three mothers. The author explains in this interview that not only, as stated above, was there a paucity of documentation about them, but also he’d already written a book (published in 2006) on Mothers and Sons; the explanation seems a little flimsy, but I suppose it’ll do.

It’s a lively and entertaining book, as you would expect from such a fine writer. The opening chapter is an impressionistic essay in which Tóibín recreates a walk through the familiar streets of Dublin, some of which are filled with a ‘peculiar intensity’ of ‘memories and associations’. He reflects on the buildings and places, including the General Post Office, HQ for the 1916 rebellion, Finn’s Hotel, or St Stephen’s Green, ‘the heart of the city’, full of ‘a secret energy’, and ‘Yeats territory’ – though it features importantly of course in Joyce’s work; Stephen Dedalus refers to it as ‘my Green’. His walk takes him past sites redolent of Dublin’s and Ireland’s turbulent history and rich culture, and their key personalities, from Cuchulain to Hopkins and Newman, to these three writers. He’s drawn particularly to those buildings that housed the families of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce. It’s the close proximity of all these places that’s so apparent in this essay: Dublin is in that sense a small city. Tóibín’s narrator is haunted by these presences.

All three ‘prodigal fathers’ were deeply flawed. Sir William Wilde was a polymath: travel writer, historian, biographer, antiquarian and statistician with an expert knowledge of the history and language of Ireland. He was also an internationally renowned eye and ear doctor. The most interesting aspect of the essay about him and his son is the way that Tóibín brings out the strange congruence between the notorious libel case about a sex scandal Sir William was involved in (he had an inappropriate relationship with a vulnerable young woman he’d treated: Mary Travers) and the libel trial which was the ruin of his son decades later involving the Marquess of Queensbury.

Despite his caveat mentioned above, I’d have liked to hear Tóibín’s views on Wilde’s extraordinary, dramatic mother, ‘Speranza’. He quotes Yeats as saying that any understanding of who Oscar Wilde became had to take into account

the mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness exuded by his parents.

Unlike poor Oscar, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, which ruined his health, shortened his life and destroyed his reputation, Sir William wasn’t ostracised from society and the scandal didn’t have too detrimental an effect on his family’s life. On the contrary, Tóibín speculates that the glittering soirées in the Wilde’s house in Merrion Square where he was raised exposed him to the brilliant conversation and unconventional morality that flourished there. This may well have ‘nourished’ his later dramatical work —

but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence.

The essay on John B. Yeats, the one who Tóibín says he probably admires most out of the three fathers, reveals a feckless man who showed scant interest in providing for his family materially, and spent many of his later years alone in New York. Tóibín makes a powerful case, however, for the profound influence he exerted on his children, especially the sons Jack, one of the most gifted Irish artists of his generation, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet William. Through his talk when he lived with them, and later when he wrote them scintillating letters, he instilled in them his views on the salience of the spiritual, non-material world, and of the perils of beliefs that are too dogmatically, inflexibly held. Interesting parallels are drawn in this essay with the relationship between Henry James and his brother William with their father.

The deficiencies of John Stanislaus Joyce are too well known to repeat here. Tóibín is most interested in the literary representations James made of him throughout his fiction. He traces with enthusiastic precision, especially in Ulysses, the generosity of forgiveness with which the son portrays his indigent, drunken, violent, volatile father. I’m not entirely convinced that his being a fine tenor and bar-room raconteur altogether redeems him (he was, after all, ‘a bully and a monster’), but that’s not the point. We learn a great deal about the making of James Joyce as an artist and how he used this unpromising upbringing to fertilise his prose fiction. Tóibín concludes, in characteristically elegant style:

Because Joyce found the space between what he knew about John Stanislaus and what he felt about him so haunting and captivating, he forged a style that was capable of evoking its shivering ambiguities, combining the need to be generous with the need to be true to what it had been like in all its variety and fullness, and indeed its pain and misery.