Williams, Mantel, Bulgakov: buffalo, sad cases and chimeras

More recent reading.

John Williams, Butcher’s Crossing (Vintage, 2014; 19601) A very different, more brutal and elemental novel from the author of Stoner. Young Will Andrews travels west to Kansas, to the prairie buffalo-hunters’ town (aptly) named in the title, after three years at Harvard, to escape the urbane conformity of eastern civilisation in search of his ‘unalterable self’ in the wilderness. His Ahab-like quest also becomes a sort of Heart of Darkness trip: Miller, a seasoned, gritty hunter-trapper who knows this wild territory better than anyone, takes him and two other troubled men deep into the unmapped country in search of a legendary secret valley in the Colorado Rockies where, ten years earlier, he’d stumbled upon a huge herd of buffalo.

These animals had been hunted almost to extinction everywhere else. The railroad is rumoured to be coming to Butcher’s Crossing, and the old ways of life are doomed. What follows is a harrowing account of hardship and bloodshed. The group of hunters is pushed to the limits of endurance by the land and the elements. Will’s life, he realises, has been changed irrevocably. As in reading Moby-Dick, it’s apparent something allegorical is going on. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s perhaps something to do with our species pretensions, humanity’s obsession with cynical, destructive domination of the eco-system, and the thinness of our veneer of sophistication compared with the wild things we exterminate. We are, after all, poor, bare, forked animals ourselves.

It’s a beautifully written novel, but the hunting scenes are not for the squeamish.

Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate (Penguin, 1995; 19941) The settings in placid, rural Norfolk and violent apartheid-era South Africa and Bechuanaland underpin this moving family drama. Ralph Eldred runs a charitable homeless refuge in London, and his family take social outcasts (‘sad cases’ or ‘good souls’) into their own home. But an oppressive paternal back story and a tragic event when he and his wife when first married were missionaries in Africa haunts him and, indirectly, his growing family back in East Anglia in 1980. Beneath the benign surface of this loving, caring ménage there is hopelessness, betrayal, passion and suffering. The novel is a bit short on events in the English-set sections, but it’s a gripping, sensitively constructed portrait of a damaged family who try to do good, to find fulfilment, perhaps love, but the dark secrets keep obtruding.

I’ve posted on two other Mantel novels here at the Days: Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love, both with modern settings (link HERE) – very different from her now more famous historical trilogy. Her range and artistry are impressive. She’ll be much missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov, A Dog’s Heart (Alma Classics) I’m slowly working my way through this bargain set from Alma books of the Ukrainian doctor and author (1891-1940). This novella was first published in 1925, but was confiscated by the Soviet government and banned for its anti-revolutionary satire (like most of his other writings). A cultured scientist-surgeon coaxes a stray street mutt, Sharik (= Fido) back to his home, an apartment larger than most of his fellow Muscovites’, using tasty sausage as the bait. His motives are not entirely charitable. What follows is a kind of spin on the Frankenstein story. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that he’s experimenting with human-animal chimera surgery. Poor, streetwise Sharik becomes a wisecracking, boorish man-monster. Although he displays some of the traits of a civilised person, his dog nature can’t be suppressed, and he behaves very badly. Local cats and the professor’s maid are particularly vulnerable. When he starts spouting anti-bourgeois clichés it’s easy to see why the regime banned this novella. (This was the turbulent period of the ‘new economic policy’, instigated by Lenin and continued in 1924 by Stalin to try to revive the failing post-revolution economy by relaxing laws forbidding private enterprise, and promoting a kind of diluted state-sanctioned capitalism. Maybe our recent and not lamented disaster of a Prime Minister, Liz Truss, was inspired by this book…)

My brief summary perhaps indicates that it’s not the most subtle of satires – but it still has some bite.

I posted on Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, HERE, and The White Guard HERE.

In another of these recent reading roundups I posted briefly on A Young Doctor’s Notebook (link HERE).

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love, Picador 1996; first published 1995. This is another novel I heard good things about recently, in this case on the BBC Radio 4 book podcast, A Good Read (link HERE: the item comes after about nine minutes). I was attracted by the main setting: a hall of residence for women at the LSE (part of the University of London) in the early 70s – the very time when friends of mine were there.

Hilary Mantel An Experiment in Love cover

This is the edition I borrowed from the library; it was published in America.

I found these university/London scenes compelling and realistic – I felt I was reliving my own youth. The class differences are particularly well brought out: the privileged ‘Sophies’ and their boyfriends, the ‘Rogers’, are well off, privately educated, with a veneer of sophistication and casual generosity blended with condescension. Then there are the poor, working-class (northern) girls like Carmel, whose unfulfilled and angry mother is a cleaner, and who struggles to make her meagre grant stretch to keep her alive. At least students got a grant in those days (I was one of these lucky ones); now they’re left with huge debts when they graduate.

The women at the heart of the narrative are also well done: Carmel is a self-confessed mouse, timid and nerdy, but also sensitive and perceptive. Oddly enough she has a (doomed) sex life with a dull man who fails to see her true self and dumps her when she reveals her inner truth.

In fact it’s the sexual element of these young women’s lives that’s a key feature in the novel. In 1970 the liberation of women was beginning to take shape – but within patriarchal limits. Abortion was available, after a fashion, but the women who went through the procedure were viewed with a mix of pity, scorn and awe by the likes of Carmel. She believes, perversely, that it’s the nice girls who are foolish enough to get pregnant. I remember well this weirdly perverse and ambiguous attitude at the time.

Despite the early stirrings of feminism and the continuing quest for equality for women, girls from Carmel’s background could only hope to gain a good education as a way out of their otherwise inevitable fate: the drudgery of unequal marriage, motherhood and housework. Even this hope turns out not to be all it seems. She starts out well, winning a scholarship to a smart but repressive Catholic convent school, and then a place at London University. The price of being a swot is high: social life is limited by her poverty already, and she’s no competition for the glamour-pusses like the Sophies.

There was something amiss with this novel too, though. There was something a little too contrived about the plot, and the ending (which I didn’t see coming) was a dramatic shock. As the podcast participants point out, however, there are clues strung through the narrative, and it’s probably a good idea to re-read, to see how skilfully Mantel builds the tension and the inevitable outcome that shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me after all.

The depiction of anorexia – I suppose these were days when it wasn’t much understood or acknowledged – is interesting. The descriptions of the institutional meals are stomach-turning – but I realised eventually that of course they are seen from Carmel’s food-averse point of view. My own recollection of hall of residence food was that it wasn’t great, but not as disgusting as Carmel makes out.

Karina, who has a love-hate relationship with Carmel from their early childhood, is another complex character. Her family were east European immigrants, seemingly having escaped persecution decades earlier, although this is never made explicit. Carmel dislikes her mostly because her mother, taking pity on Karina’s family’s poverty (they’re even poorer than hers) and history, insists that Carmel walk to primary school with her every morning. This reaction quietly points to the kind of initially unperceived, insidious bigotry that caused Karina’s family to be persecuted in the first place. It also explains why Karina becomes so bitter and angry.

At the novel’s end, though I was less irritated than I was with the Nymph (see my previous post), I wasn’t enthused. I’m not sure about the novel’s uninspiring title, either. There was little I could see in the way of experimentation, in love or anything else.

 

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black. Harper Perennial paperback, 2005.

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling in Potter’s Bar.

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black coverThe opening paragraph of this curious novel sounds like Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical descriptions of the grubby margins of urban life. Not just because of the subject matter – the orbital motorway with its seedy squalor alongside – but the hallucinatory style and tone. The bizarre imagery resembles his, too – or maybe it strays into Angela Carter territory, especially in the sections of seedy occult showmanship.

Neither of these tendencies is a bad thing. But I found that 451 pages of grand guignol was a bit hard to stomach. The team at the Backlisted podcast on their Halloween show called this the longest ghost story in English literature . Maybe it is – but it’s too long.

The plot, however, is minimal. Alison is an obese medium whose spirit ‘guide’ Morris is a hideous, malevolent ex-circus dwarf. He’s often accompanied by a sickening group of lascivious, vicious thugs who seem to have haunted Alison since her childhood. They slip between the world ‘beyond black’, referred to as ‘spirit world’ by the ‘sensitives’ like Alison, and squat like cut-price demons in the back yards and under the carpets of the living.

Much of the narrative consists of nauseous flashbacks to the squalid house she lived in as a child with her mother. Emmie was a prostitute who had tried to abort Alison, and neglected her when her crude attempts failed and the girl starts to grow up. She makes no attempt to care for the child, and sells her on to these vile, vicious creatures without compunction.

Alison has constant nightmarish flashbacks to the violence and degradation she was subjected to by this troupe of horrors. These are heightened by being contrasted with the humdrum suburban tedium she inhabits in the ‘real’ world.

She acquires a manager/live-in companion. Colette is skinny and spiritually sparse – the reverse of Alison in every way. Their relationship deteriorates as Colette finally has enough of Alison’s bizarrely horrible conversations with people she can’t see.

There are flashes of dark humour, and Mantel has great fun sending up the boringly conventional suburbanites who are the two women’s neighbours.

In the PS section of material at the end of the book Hilary Mantel says that she researched the world of stagey mediums and found their ‘demonstrations’ ‘threatening, unlikely, and slightly repulsive’ – and it shows in this novel.

I think what prevented me from giving up on this rather nasty story was the conviction with which the author portrays Alison’s haunted world. Alison never seriously tries to convince the sceptical Colette that she really does see dead people, and is no charlatan. Her stage act could easily be a mix of shrewd psychology and suggestion – the punters are mostly credulous and naïve. But the narrative suggests that the nightmare Alison appears to live in is real to her, and her attempts to find out who she is, who her father was, what her true history is (not contaminated memories) is strangely gripping.