31 December 2008

Round up of 2008

In 2008 I read 78 books, of which:

27 were non fiction
51 were fiction, of which

17 were originally English
15 were from French
9 were from German
2 were from Finnish
2 were from Norwegian
2 were from Hungarian
1 was from Arabic
1 was from Chinese
1 was from Italian
1 was from Czech

The best fiction were:

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny
The Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Selected Short Fiction by Arthur Schnitzler
Illuminations by Eva Hoffman
The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon

The best non-fiction:

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart
Piano Notes by Charles Rosen
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Classic read: Middlemarch
Classic reread: I served the King of England

Discoveries of the year: Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, Daniel Kehlmann

I didn't do well on my previous year end's targets - no Proust, the Zola and Balzac started well but stuttered, but I did start exploring more German language literature, particularly the Viennese group of the late 19th/early 20th century (Zweig, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, etc) which was very fruitful.

Targets for this year:

Proust (as always)
Life and Fate
More German lit (Broch, Bernhard)

24 August 2008

Paul Torday - Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

At a festival this summer I heard Paul Torday speak about his most recent book, about a man who drinks himself to death exclusively on fine French wines. He was an odd chap - a businessman for most of his life, he wrote his first novel, at the age of 59, to great reviews and, presumably, healthy sales. He seemed a bit nervous in front of a larger crowd than he might have been expecting (I think Maureen Lipmann was on next), and his responses to softball questions weren't particularly illuminating.

Anyway, I picked up his first novel with few expectations, to see what the fuss was about. And my conclusion is that I can see why people are reading it, but it certainly doesn't deserve the praise it's received.

The book is a satire upon modern government, although a very slight one, and not very well written. It has been praised for its innovative structure - the book is told in a variety of forms - emails, diary entries, newspaper clippings, transcripts of interviews, and no 'straight' authorial narrative - but this isn't so original, and it's hard to do well, to distinguish between the tones of the different forms. Torday largely fails to do this - the central character, Alfred Jones, supposedly speaks in interviews in exactly the same way that he writes his diary, which is, implausibly, in the manner of a novelist. There's little consideration to who the audience of each piece might be, so how the style should be adjusted - people in interviews don't reproduce conversations verbatim, nor become lyrical for no reason; they're far more guarded. Torday uses the forms as a device for telling the story in much the same manner as he would in a straight narrative, rendering them redundant, and in fact irritating by their inconsistency.

There are also inaccuracies that grate - Torday creates extracts from Hansard, but fails to understand the structure of PMQs. He also has a character, Alfred's wife, who is an Oxford-educated economist who has worked in a big international bank for twenty years, supposedly on the fast track, who earns £75,000 pa, and is very proud of this, even though it's smaller than the amount a woman in her position might expect in the real world by a large factor. Does this matter? To an extent it does. An effective satire needs to be rooted in the world it's lampooning, and while deviations from it can serve a comic purpose, inaccuracies such as these just distract, and highlight the author's lack of awareness. The latter example wouldn't matter so much if the author didn't make such a big issue out of her earnings.

The plot itself is merely passable, as farces go. A government that wants to distract the public from an unpopular Middle Eastern war latches on to a mad plan by a Yemeni sheikh to introduce salmon fishing to his country, despite the obvious unsuitability of the country for such a project. Alfred Jones is the government scientist deputed to find a solution. The climax is worthy of Ben Elton, but could have been written up a little more. There's not much more to the book - the characters are mostly two dimensional, it's witty in parts but the targets are barn-door wide. Good for the beach, when your brain is mush already, but no more demanding than that.


15 August 2008

Clive James - Cultural Amnesia

Most people know Clive James as the host of a variety of TV programmes in the 1980's and early 90s, all irreverent and mostly concerned with television around the world - he introduced British audiences to Japanese endurance shows, and may have contributed to the raising of the bar, and lowering of standards, in British reality TV. Not something to be particularly proud of, although I've no doubt he is. His laconic drawl and tortuous style was easily recognisable, and much mocked.

Plenty will also know of him as a memoirist, and also as a TV reviewer of some note. Fewer will know of him as a literary critic, but that is what he originally was, and I remember a teacher in the 80s, himself a noted poet and critic, telling me that James's poetry criticism was of high quality. This book is James's attempt to renew his reputation, and it's working - most reviews now refer to him as an Australian polymath rather than an ex-tv presenter, which must be gratifying.

And the book is largely about gratifying Clive James. He never neglects to tell us that he's read the authors mentioned in the original, or that the easiest way to learn a language is by reading an obscure writer's essays. And of course the namedropping, not just of authors read but of personalities met and charmed by the ubiquitous James.

The book is a collection of essays, inspired by quotations from notable people, not all of them authors, ordered alphabetically. The essays aren't always about the people concerned, although they are all prefaced by a brief biographical sketch, which is often the best part of the piece. Mostly they are digressions using the quotation as a starting point and mostly, for me, they don't work.

His main obsession is with the Jewish experience in Europe in the twentieth century, and he has a particular fascination for the Viennese intellectuals of the early part of the century, who are largely neglected in Britain. I hadn't heard of many of these writers, such as Lichtenberg and Altenberg, so it was stimulating to have new recommendations. And a particular favourite of his, to whom he devotes one of the largest chapters, is Stefan Zweig, who I'm also fond of.

The trouble with the essays is that few of them say anything worthwhile, and they're not particularly well written. James has a discursive, rambling style, that he obviously sees as a virtue, perhaps in the manner of Alistair Cooke's broadcasts. But Cooke's essays were remarkable because the digressions were always logical, and always led, miraculously, back to the initial premise. James digresses because of a pun or a coincidence, or just a poor analogy to set up a poorer joke, just for the sake of it. He also employs his favourite construction, a punning chiasmus, which is so familiar from his tv programmes that it's hard not to read it in his accent. This would matter less if he wasn't so obsessed with the writing style of his chosen authors, and so proud of his own - he has said, in an interview about this collection, that he has never written better.

James is plainly well-read, and broadly cultured, although there are huge gaps in his knowledge - films, for example, he appears to know little about, nor science. An introduction to James might say that he stretches from high literature to low television, but he leaps over much in between. That may appear to be a small quibble, but he does present himself as such a know-all that it's inadvertently funny when his ignorance shows through. More than once, for example, he refers to 'the fifth page of x's Google entry', which shows a lack of understanding of what Google is, and how dynamic searches change from day to day, rendering his reference inaccurate before it's even hit the page. The main essay on films is about the hairstyles in Where Eagles Dare, a fine example of James focusing on a banal inconsistency and flogging it to death.

It's hard for me to judge James's views on writers I'm unfamiliar with, although many of them aren't particularly worthwhile - to say that a writer was bad because he collaborated with the Nazis doesn't add much to the sum of human knowledge. He includes Goebbels and Hitler, and Thatcher purely to ridicule her for saying 'Solzhenitskin'. This is one of James's worst essays - he assumes Thatcher got the Russian writer's name mixed up with 'Rumplestiltskin', although there's no reason to believe it was any other than a slip due to unfamiliarity. He then wonders why no journalist apart from himself picked up on it (because it had no significance, perhaps?), and then admits that in his haste to put her down, he got Rumplestiltskin mixed up with Rip van Winkle rendering his satire harmless. The piece is a mess, but you can be sure James is rather proud of it.

There are one or two occasions when he's just plain wrong. He writes a paean to Mario Vargas Llosa, assuming, as he does throughout, that Llosa's political views are imitative of those in his novels, that a humanist writer standing for public office is necessarily to be praised, and that because his victorious opponent turned out to be corrupt, Llosa was vindicated. None of these are true. Alberto Manguel, who knows significantly more about South American politics than Clive James, has written a very impassioned essay about Llosa, who he despises precisely because his political opinions contradict the philosophy of his writing. Llosa has spoken in support of dictatorial regimes in the region, particularly in Argentina, and Manguel wonders whether the contradiction is unintentional, so Llosa has a double personality, or intentional, in which case neither his writing nor his politics can be trusted. James omits to say, or perhaps is unaware, that Llosa was leading the presidential election polls by a long way against a relatively unknown opponent, until his arrogant, patrician air put voters off him. For James, the fact that Lloisa is a good writer is justification enough.

The worst aspect of the book is that James just doesn't know how to construct an argument. His points would be more graspable if they were clearer, but he's always distracted by the irresistible witticism that adds nothing to the case. In the end he comes across as a bit of a bore.


23 July 2008

Harold C Schonberg - The Lives of the Great Composers

I am a novice fan of classical music. I didn't grow up with it or learn an instrument, and I didn't appreciate more than the most obvious cliches until quite recently, and even now most of it is impenetrable to me. But since last year I've regularly attended concerts on the South Bank, starting with familiar pieces such as Mozart's Requiem and Beethoven Symphonies, trying to understand the appeal, or just to relax and appreciate the music for its own sake.

While, as with art appreciation, I was trying to divorce the emotional reaction to a piece from the intellectual knowledge of its creator, there comes a time when the most elemental knowledge, of chronology and influences, becomes useful for a better appreciation. This hefty overview of the history of classical music provides that.

Schonberg is an American music professor, and his approach is non-technical, aimed at the untrained amateur. There's far more about the lives of the composers, following the title, than the music. It's hardr for me to question the veracity of the contents, but there's an extensive bibliography which I may use to follow up on specific composers. Schonberg obviously has his biases, and he justifies a composers worth often on how much of his works survive in the modern repertory. This leads to contradictions - Rachmaninov, despite criticisms of his lack of rigour, is proven solely because he remains extremely popular, yet Charles Ives, plainly a particular interest to an American music professor, is a genius who is not yet fully appreciated. Schonberg is also a traditionalist - while he understands what modern music is trying to do, he doesn't necessarily agree that it's worthwhile or as profound as the composers and audiences claim.

This is a good introduction to the history of classical music, unpretentious and well-organised, although pretty huge - I read it two chapters at a time over about a month.


22 July 2008

Giles Bolton - Aid and other dirty business

There are many questions that arise when considering the state of foreign aid to the developing world. How is it that Africa is still so poor when the continent has received an estimated $300bn over the last 30 years? Can aid money actually be counterproductive to an economy? Is there any point in giving a country money if their government is so corrupt it won't reach those it's intended for? Giles Bolton addresses these questions and others in this highly readable introduction to the issues affecting foreign aid.

Bolton writes as a practitioner rather than an academic, although the book is adequately researched. He worked for DFID for a few years in Rwanda and Kenya, and draws on this experience, not least in his amusing anecdotes that occasionally help to illuminate the text. He's very good at showing the effect of aid policies on the ground in Africa, but is also capable of drawing back and showing the economic arguments and the political realities, having worked for the British government and been exposed to the debate at the highest level.

It was a particularly pertinent time to read this, as the latest World Economic Summit in the Doha round of the WTO was underway. This was a critical event - there are trade barriers and subsidies, including the infamous CAP in Europe, that are ruinous to the attempts by developing countries to access markets for their products. Bolton gives examples of specific markets that are rigged against developing countries - sugar is a notorious one - and shows how they have arisen - initially out of the post-war need for Europe to become self-sufficient in food - and how hard it is to remove the subsidies now. For the uninitiated, some of the facts of the debate will be startling - European taxpayers pay $2.5 per day for every cow in Europe, while there are 300 million Africans living on under $1 per day (Japanese cows are even more pampered, getting $7 per day)

Bolton deals with the various different sources of aid - individual donations to charities, which are mainly spent on small projects, direct aid from governments, which are mostly spent on larger projects, and assistance from the World Bank. He draws distinctions between the sources and applications of these funds, and their effectiveness on the ground. His tone is refreshingly unhysterical, despite the seriousness of the problem, and he has a talent for presenting complex issues in a simple way.

This is a very good primer to foreign aid. There wasn't a huge amount in it I didn't know from other sources (he cites in the bibliography a book I helped to edit), but it was useful to have all the major issues presented together in a straightforward manner. One drawback is that the book is exclusively about aid to Africa, because that's Bolton's prior experience, but the same arguments are relevant to developing countries elsewhere.


6 July 2008

Dinaw Mengestu - Children of the Revolution

Dinaw Mengestu is a 30 year old Ethiopian who immigrated to the United States at the age of two, following his father who was forced to flee the Red Terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam. His first novel is about an Ethiopian immigrant living in Washington DC, Sepha Stephanos, who came to the US at the age of nineteen, and after 17 years runs a small, unsuccessful general store. The novel is therefore a mixture of personal experience, of growing up as an immigrant, and a translation of observed and secondhand experiences of the Ethiopian diaspora.

Sepha has managed to extricate from the huddle of Ethiopians who have taken over a whole apartment block, and who have, to the best of their ability, replicated the village and family units they knew back in Addis. After a few menial jobs, he was encouraged to open a general store using a government business grant. But he doesn't have any entrepreneurial talent, nor any business ambition, and he struggles to break even. His closest friends are also African - Joseph, a Congolese waiter, and Kenneth, a Kenyan businessman - and their meetings are full of spurious nostalgia for Africa. Kenneth and Joseph encourage Sepha through his business troubles, and vicariously enjoy his romantic liaisons, fleeting as they are, but Joseph and Stephanos both regret the studies not pursued and the frustrations of lives not meeting expectations.

The liaison in the book is with his neighbour, Judith, a white academic single mother, whose daughter is the child of a Mauritanian academic, from whom Judith is separated. It emerges that she is looking for a father for her precocious daughter, but Sepha, in his well-meaning inexperience, eludes her obvious attempts at seduction and misses the chance he knows is there.

This is the most successful part of the book, Mengestu handles the relationship with sympathy and dexterity, such that the motivations of each character are clear and credible. He has a talent for emotional narrative, and this novel is engaging throughout. The main theme is of the illusion of the land of opportunity, but there are also currents of upheaval, integration and the volatile underclass of America. Mengestu's talent with this debut novel has already been recognised - it won the 2007 Guardian First Book Award.



3 June 2008

Guy de Maupassant - Afloat

Maupassant is known primarily for his numerous short stories, and also for his half dozen novels, but he also published non-fiction, including this short travel memoir, in 1888. It's a curiosity, being a mixture of anecdote, polemic, meditation and a small amount of travel writing.

After the success of Bel-Ami, and his increasing popularity as a short-story writer, Maupassant had money to indulge himself, and bought a yacht, which he named after the novel. This book was supposedly written on a Mediterranean trip on the yacht, over a period of 8 days in 1887, and is in a diary or memorandum format. Douglas Parmee, however, the venerable translator points out in his introduction that he'd used some of the anecdotes before, and it was in his nature to revise his works, so the illusion of spontaneity here is one of Maupassant's techniques.

It's an odd work, with no great coherence - there are rants against warmongers, amusing anecdotes, personal fears and reflections, it's both light and dark, shallow and deep. The title is obviously punning (even in French 'Sur l'eau') suggesting the drifting style of the narrative, putting into many ports as the captain's whim decides.

There are, as you might expect from Maupassant, passages of great lyrical beauty, and also of poignant observation, and it exposes aspects of his character in a direct way that the stories only hint at. He is, for example, nervous of crowds - he spend several pages explaining why he avoids them. This may well be a symptom of his incipient psychosis, caused by syphilis. Within three years of writing Afloat, he was considered insane, and he died a couple of years after that. As his mind deteriorated, he became obsessed in his fiction with supernatural elements, which were representation of the demons he was assailed by. The greatest poignancy of this book is that it is a late personal glimpse of Maupassant, cresting high on his fame, but with a dark storm on the horizon.



9 May 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Country Doctor

This is an odd and unsatisfying book. It's barely a novel at all - very little happens, and almost all of it is in dialogue, or more accurately a sequence of extended monologues. The doctor of the title embodies an ideal character for Balzac, an enlightened social reformer who changes the fortunes of a remote French village through the application of industrial techniques and elementary economic knowledge. The first third of the book is a monologue by the doctor explaining how he achieved this.

A long middle section is another monologue recounting much of Napoleon's rule. Balzac was an overt Bonapartist, and his belief in the virtues of strong leadership, as opposed to weak democracy, are voiced by an old soldier.

The book has the feel of a transcription of Balzac's own excited conversations - it's very readable in parts, but doesn't cohere into a narrative. It has many of his virtues - his energy and engagement - but it's too transparently a political lecture to have dramatic strength. An amusing diversion.


4 May 2008

Julian Barnes - Flaubert's Parrot

When I first read this, about 15 years ago, it bewildered me a little. I hadn't read any Flaubert yet, and I had only a vague idea of who he was, and no idea why he was significant. I had read one or two books by Barnes, and knew I liked his dry wit and control, but was a pretty unsophisticated reader (despite three years at Oxford studying English) I found Flaubert's Parrot a bit of a drag, and I can't recall noting the significance of the narrator, or anything else.

Now, though, having read all of Flaubert's significant works, I came to this better prepared, not that it's entirely necessary, although an appreciation of who Flaubert was does help. And I certainly enjoyed this far more the second time round.

This book was praised at the time for not being easily classifiable. It's sort of a biography, but not in a conventional way. It's also a fiction - the narrator is a character, Dr Geoffrey Braithwaite, who is an amateur Flaubert academic, diverting energy into his hobby in order to forget his wife's suicide. It's also a work of literary criticism, a discussion about the presence or abseence of the author, and of the role and responsibilities of critics and biographers.

Parrot is undoubtedly a clever novel. Barnes has an elusive narrator - we aren't aware that the narrator isn't Barnes himself until a few chapters in, and then the context of the narrative starts to move - at one point Braithwaite is on a Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, talking to an unidentified person, whereas previously it was assumed that it was the reader who was being addressed. So Barnes subtly moves the boundaries of narrator and reader, in a book that discusses the invisibility of the author, Flaubert's ideal, and the fallacy of the death of the author, the postmodern stance.

The main theme is the limitations of biography. An early chapter presents three chronologies of Flaubert's life - one detailing the happy moments, one the disasters, and one a selection of Flaubert quotations - his life as seen by himself. The point is that any biography is necessarily selective, and will choose from all three pots, and all will be incomplete. Who is to know what are the significant moments in a life, when often the subject himself isn't aware of them?

The parrot of the title is a slight macguffin, although the ending of the book does offer a resolution to a problem that only the narrator posed - which was the stuffed parrot that Flaubert had on his desk while he was creating Un Coeur Simple, which features a parrot which becomes a symbol? Braithwaite's frivolous search for the real parrot is a parody of the search for verifiable details in an author's life, or in his text, and the resolution - that the 'real' parrot might not be identifiable - is the punchline.

This was much more fun the second time round, now that I had an idea what Barnes was doing, but I think that the fact that Braithwaite is more a device than a character weakens the book. It's not a novel or a biography, more of a smart postmodern exercise.



3 May 2008

Marjane Satrapi - Persepolis

This has been highly rated for several years, and a film of it has just been released, so I decided to buy it and read it before watching the film. Previously I'd been put off by the high price of the two hardback volumes, but Vintage have published a combined edition in paperback.

Marjane Satrapi is a 38 year old Iranian woman, well-educated, of good middle-class upbringing, and an estimable heritage - a 19th century ancestor was the Shah of Persia. Persepolis is the story of her upbringing, during the Iranian revolution and the rule of the ayatollahs since, told as a graphic novel.

As Satrapi was about 10 at the time of the revolution, her memories of it are sparse, although she does recall witnessing demonstrations against the Shah, in which her parents participated. Then, after the Shah went into exile, life in Iran changed significantly. The most obvious change was in dress policy - women had to wear a headscarf, so that no hair was visible. As she was so young, Satrapi and her schoolfriends saw it as a bit of a joke, just a new school uniform to get used to. As she grew older, she became more aware of the restrictions - on make-up, and pop music, and any Western influences - and, as a spirited girl, was subtly resistant to them.

Her resistance became risky, in a country where dissent was no game - close relatives had been arrested and executed, but with the fearlessness of youth she was outspoken at college against clothing restrictions, and risked expulsion, or worse. Her parents decided she should go away for a while, so sent her to Vienna.

Up to this point her story could have been a general one, albeit in a, to us, extraordinary situation. Her experience stood in for those of many Iranians of her generation, and by telling it she was illuminating a little exposed part of the world. There are quibbles with that - she was relatively privileged in her family and income, and while her relatives might have been at risk from the regime because of their positions or activism, she was also slightly protected by that status. She was not from the masses, and she doesn't show a great inclination to identify with them - this is her story, and becomes indivdually so when she goes to Europe.

Her experience in Vienna isn't so happy. At first she's lonely, she knows no German, and not many people she studies with know French or Persian. She becomes part of an odd group, takes drugs, occasionally to excess, certainly for too long, and, after a failed relationship, has a breakdown which culminates in hospitalisation for pneumonia. She returns to Iran, to art college, gets married, but is restricted by life there, and in the end leaves for France.

The trouble I had with the book in parts is that large sections of it are about her adolescent problems, particularly the parts in Vienna. She indulges in her isolation, the fact that she's a foreigner and no one understands her. She doesn't show any recognition that she was lucky to have the facility to go to Europe to study when her parents didn't consider Iran to be safe for her, nor that she has the choice to go to France at the end, that many other don't have. But then, stories aren't written by including all possible alternative lives, so this is unapologetically Satrapi's own story.

And it's told very well - she's witty, occasionally poignant, and literate. The animation is spare, just black and white with few intermediate shades, which creates a simple style. It's hard to know whether the success of the book is down to the fact that it's a graphic novel aimed at a memoir audience, or to the unfamiliar and exotic origin of the story, or to the quality of the composition. I suppose a bit of each. I was a bit put off her personally when I read an interview in which she said she'd never met anyone smarter than herself - a precocious statement as a teenager, but insufferable at her age. But that doesn't affect the work, which despite my few misgivings, is definitely worthwhile.



24 April 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Quest of the Absolute

Balzac wrote this during a period of high activity in which he completed Eugenie Grandet and Pere Goriot. With such a volume of output, it's unsurprising that some will be of low quality, and this novel is far below the other two.

This is one of Balzac's contes philosophiques, alongside Peau de chagrin, and is about alchemy. The plot is threadbare and repetitive - a Flemish nobleman, Balthazar von Claesz, spends his family's fortune on his obsessive research into 'the Absolute', the force that underpins all chemical and electrical reactions. His wife dies of despair, his daughter attempts to ring-fence the remaining property for the children but he borrows against it, she builds the fortune up again, and he spends that. And that's it.

It's a very sloppy, irritating book, with unbelievable characters given overstated emotions. I can see that the story of Balthazar mirrors Balzac's own obsessiveness and compulsive spending, but that doesn't lend any merit to the novel.



23 April 2008

Andrew Crumey - Sputnik Caledonia

I enjoyed Andrew Crumey's last two books, Mr Mee and Mobius Dick, which involved, respectively, French literature and philosophy, and German literature, philosophy and music. They stimulated me to read Diderot and ETA Hoffmann, and to explore those cultures more deeply. His eclectic breadth of reference - he has a PhD in Physics, yet cites Schumann and Mann - is exciting, and he makes witty connections across centuries and genres.

So I was looking forward to his new novel, and I was disappointed when I read it. It's longer than his previous books, which were tightly plotted and packed with ideas. This is flabby, and, at 550 pages, twice as long as it should be. It's in three parts. The first is about a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the early 1970s. It's written in a plain style, reminiscent of David Mitchell's recent Black Swan Green, similarly mining pre-adolescence for familiar experiences, and similarly unsatisfying.

The second part is the largest chunk of the book - 300 pages - and is set in an imagined future in Scotland. Robbie, the boy from part one, is now a conscript in a Socialist state, and a volunteer for a space programme. The narrative is slow, and written in a very basic style, with many scenes reminiscent of the daydreams of Robbie from the first part, which is a hint to its purpose. It emerges, in the third part, that the middle section is imagined by Robbie as he's in a coma. By this point I'd deduced this, but also had grown weary of a narrative supposedly imagined by a 12 year old, with the limitations that entails.

So this was too long, and a pointless exercise. It was easy enough to read, and Crumey is both funny and intelligent when on form, but as an experiment in form it's not nearly ambitious enough to be worthwhile.


11 April 2008

Alberto Manguel - Into the Looking Glass Wood

This is a collection of essays on writers and literature, most of which were originally published elsewhere. That they form a neat ensemble is due to the consistency of Manguel's themes and the irrepressible spark of his writing.

Much of this collection is concerned with the moral necessity of literature, and its relation to prejudice, oppression and liberal thought. The central essay relates to Mario Vargas Llosa, whom Manguel despises not just for his conservative politics, but more because those are at odds with the humanity of his early novels. Manguel wonders how Llosa the politician and Llosa the novelist can have such contradictory views, and suggests that it's born either of cynicism, or a lack of self-knowledge. The particular views to which Manguel objects includes Llosa's support for an amnesty for the perpetrators of crimes under the Argentine junta in the 1970s, and his view that the culture of indigenous Indians in Peru may be sacrificed for the cause of progress (to which one critic responded, "This is of course the sacrifice that many white Peruvians have been willing to perform ever since the first of them leapt ashore with Pizarro.")

Manguel's moral indignation energises this essay, and another on Llosa in the book - the fact that there are two shows just how deeply felt this is. And another piece indicates why this might be so. Manguel left Argentina for Europe in the late 60s, just before the military regime clamped down on dissent. Many of his student colleagues were arrested and executed - the details he heard many years later of their fate are grisly and shocking, and no doubt he maintains complex feelings of outrage, mixed perhaps with some guilt at his absence while his colleagues were being persecuted.

There are other pieces on being Jewish, on gay literature and erotic literature (originally written as introductions to collections) and a strained and now dated piece on electronic modes of reading. There's also a piece about the disctinction between erotica and pornography that starts with an uncharacteristic rant against American Psycho, in which I feel his outrage and indignation have blinded him to the literary merits of the work. This is unusual for Manguel, he usually has a quite sure sense, and I would have expected him to pick up on the narrative tricks of the novel, which he seems to have missed completely.

Manguel is one of those writers who make you rush to find the writers he enthuses about, from Cynthia Ozick to Julio Cortazar. Borges is an ever-present shadow, being Manguel's mentor, and many of the old master's enthusiasms have become the pupil's, including the anglophilia that delights in Robert Louis Stevenson and GK Chesterton, recurrent in Manguel's writing. He's always entertaining, as I hope he will be when I go to see him talk on the South Bank tomorrow night.



8 April 2008

Emile Zola - The Belly of Paris

This is the third novel in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and is about the food market of Les Halles, in the centre of Paris. It was built in 1851, not long before the action of the novel, in 1858-9, and, like Covent Garden in London, it no longer exists on its original site, having relocated for similar reasons.

The plot of the book is quite thin - it involves Florent Quenu, recently returned to Paris after escaping his imprisonment overseas for alleged involvement in the coup of 1851. He finds and lodges with his younger brother, and becomes an inspector in the market. There are various rivalries amongst the stallholders for his affections, although he barely notices them being more wrapped up with planning an insurrection in revenge for his deportation. He is inept and indiscreet, however, and is arrested and deported once more.

The rest of the novel, probably half of it, is taken up with Zola's descriptions of the market and its operation. There are multiple page inventories of the stocks of food sold, which is all very nice but serves little purpose except as documentary. This is one of Zola's failings - he did lots of research for his books, and needed to display it, but that can inhibit a narrative, and does here.

There is a small amount of political philosophy - the theory of the Fat and the Thin, expounded by the painter Claude Lantier, who is the central characteer of the later L'Oeuvre. The Fat are the forces of conservatism and complacency, the Thin are the reformers. It's quite simple, and not greatly illuminating.



3 April 2008

Paul Broks - Into the Silent Land

Every now and then I read a book that demands to be pressed on to others. This is one of those, a rare work of non-fiction that is written with the style and grace of a novelist.

Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist, which means he tries to explain the structure and purpose of the brain with relation to the behaviour of the individual. His field is similar to that of Oliver Sacks, who popularised neuropsychology with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, made into a film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. Like Sacks, his stock is unusual and illuminating case history, but he has much more than that.

This book weaves case histories with personal anecdotes and philosophy, but that doesn't begin to explain its charm. It contains meditations on the nature of consciousness and identity, presented in an intimate fashion, relating Broks' own relationship to his science, and to himself. The chapters are short and varied - many of them could well be magazine articles, as they're witty and self-contained, but the book doesn't feel broken up, just pleasingly meandering.

It's occasionally very funny - in one chapter, after telling of people with body dysmorphia, and a need to mutilate or tattoo themselves, he goes home and says to his wife that he's thinking of tattooing his penis. 'With what? 'she says. 'Wolverhampton Wanderers,' he says. She looks at him. 'Maybe just Wolves,' she says.

He uses a variety of narrative styles - one chapter is science fiction, similar to Philip K Dick, exploring how memory is related to identity by positing a future where teleportation is possible, and considering the implications of creating a copy of oneself but not destroying the original. These sort of mental games are the staple of philosophy; Broks' advantage is that he can write so well that the reader is as engaged by the narrative as by the underlying ideas.

Although this is nominally a science book, it is occasionally startlingly moving. One case is of a subject who suffered from a bout of herpes that destroyed part of his brain, particularly the amygdala, which is often seen as the emotional core of the brain, which controls basic responses such as fear and anger. From such cases we can deduce its function - those with an impaired amygdala cannot recognise threatening situations for what they are, and conversely can interpret harmless situations, such as an argument on a TV show, with great alarm. This particular subject, unusually, had a high degree of awareness of his own behaviour, and some articulacy in describing it. One symptom is of an inability to read subtle signals, or to take any message other than literally, and also a need to explain things in detail less he be misunderstood - also recognised as symptoms of types of autism. He says that "I will tell anybody anything - what my parents don't know about my previous sex life isn't worth knowing!" and concludes: "The virus ate my shame." This is simultaneously hilarious and tragic, and very moving - his awareness of his condition brings home that the 'subjects' are also alive and can tell their own story.

This is certainly a book to value and reread. I've already bought two more copies for friends, and will doubtless buy more.



16 March 2008

Emile Zola - The Kill

This book, the second in Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, is so markedly different from the first that they could have been by different authors. Which is a very good thing, because the first was a bit of a struggle, and this was exceptionally good.

Zola intended to illustrate different aspects of French society with each novel - mining (Germinal), farming (La Terre), painting (The Masterpiece), courtesans (Nana), etc - and The Kill (La Curée) is about the reconstruction of Paris by Haussmann in the 1860s. While Paris is admired now for the straight boulevards and uninterrupted sightlines, which were designed by Haussmann, at the time they were controversial, and a source of corruption, speculation, great wealth created as ancient districts were destroyed to make way for the new roads. Zola saw all this as emblematic of the Second Empire, and depicted it in this novel.

It's a novel about transformation and transgression. France has recently changed from a Republic to an Empire, and now Paris is being transformed by these designs, imperiously ordered. To enable the building works, Paris sucks in workers from around France, further urbanising the country. And to finance the works, Haussmann engineers various smart enterprises, such as selling bonds to developers for the right to land alongside the new avenues. In doing so he creates a need for modern financial institutions, so France develops a more sophisticated banking system.

All this is the background to the novel, but essential to it. The main plot is sufficiently transgressive to sustain the book on its own. The main characters are Aristide Rougon, first encountered in The Fortune of the Rougons, his son Maxime by his first marriage, and Renée, his second wife, much younger than him, and whose dowry and marriage 'gift' enabled him to start his speculative enterprises.

Renée is highly sexually voracious, although not for her husband, who is mostly wrapped up in business and is unconcerned. Aristide and Renée's activities are placed in parallel - his financial transgressions, frauds and manipulations are comparable to her sexual affairs. She seeks an experience beyond the normal, and starts an affair with her stepson, who is only eight years younger and has been an intimate friend since her marriage to his father.

The affair itself is multiply transgressive. Not only the 'incest' (not technically as there's no blood relationship, but the term still applied), but Maxime is throughout described unequivocally as effeminate. Renée is boyish in appearance, with short hair, and very sexually assertive with Maxime, almost taking the man's role. Renée's closest female friends have an unhidden relationship - all this debauchery is, for Zola, one manifestation of the immorality of the Empire.

Apparently this book has long been one of the most popular of Zola's novels, for obvious reasons - a plot that involves incest, financial speculation and corruption that has regular and periodic topical relevance. On to the next volume.



8 March 2008

Michael Blake - A Thousand Faces

Lon Chaney was one of the pre-eminent stars of the silent film era, and one of its finest actors. Modern audiences, if they know the name, often confuse it with his son, Creighton, known as Lon Chaney Jr, who appeared in several horror films such as The Wolfman, and so conflate the two stars and consider the father also to have been a horror actor. The fact that his best known roles were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera adds to this misperception, although neither of those films were strictly "horror".

Chaney was known as 'The man of a thousand faces' (hence the title of this film biography) because of his remarkable ability to transform himself, using make-up and his own physical dexterity, into any sort of grotesque. Most of his roles exploited this facility - in addition to the deformed Hunchback and scarred Phantom he famously played characters with no arms or no legs, creating seemingly impossible effects that entranced audiences.

But his popularity wasn't based just on his make-up skills, he was an exceptional actor too. In the silent era, the success of an actor's performance depended entirely on his ability to express a range of emotions, and few could match Chaney in this. His talent arose out of his curious upbringing - both his parents were deaf, so he learnt how to communicate with them through facial and bodily expressions. As a child he would come home in the evening and reenact the events of the day for them. Could there possibly be better training for a silent film actor?

Sadly, most of Chaney's 160 odd films are lost- about 40 are known to exist, of which maybe half are available on DVD. The most famous, Hunchback and Phantom, get regular screenings as there's a new fashion and appreciation for silent film classics. The Unknown, a remarkable film directed by Tod Browning, who made 10 films with Chaney, is also available in a modern print and on DVD. The best I've seen, and one of the best silent films ever, is He Who Gets Slapped, directed by Victor Sjostrom, father of Swedish cinema and main influence on Ingmar Bergman, who cast him in the lead in Wild Strawberries. I saw it with a live score composed by Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, and performed by him and the BBC Concert orchestra. An extraordinary experience. It's not yet available on DVD, nor is it often broadcast, but it is available to watch here.

Michael Blake is a professional make-up artist, which is his initial interest in Lon Chaney, and is the leading historian of the actor. He has previously written a biography (called, unimaginatively, The man behind the thousand faces), and this is more of a filmography, detailing his major performances and the circumstances around the production. The trouble with this is that Blake has no special talent as a film critic, nor is he a particularly good writer. His enthusiasm for his subject is evident, but he is wont to resort to cliché, and many of his plot expositions serve no purpose. Chaney was a remarkable actor, who died aged 47 after making just one sound film, and he deserves a wider appreciation than he now has. At least the increasing provision of niche market DVDs means that his current fans can see his craft.


7 March 2008

Alberto Manguel - A History of Reading

Alberto Manguel is becoming a small publishing phenomenon, producing a couple of books a year on a variety of subjects, most of them connected with bibliophilia. His The Library at Night, out next month, is eagerly anticipated, and I wrote about A Reading Diary recently. This book, published in 1996 and now out of print in the UK (I got mine from amazon.com) has already achieved classic status, which is fully justified.

Manguel approaches his subject on a thematic basis.There are chapters on reading aloud and reading in private - apparently it was normal for books to be read aloud, even when in private contemplation, so the low murmuring of monks at study was common, and Alexander was noted with astonishment when he read a letter in front of his troop without moving his lips. Reading was thus originally about vocalising text, and it went through a transition to become internalised comprehension.

This book is full of fascinating information like this, and Manguel is a beguiling guide. His easy style makes this book more of a leisurely chat than an academic lecture, and he hops from one subject to another without effort. His historical anecdotes are not just entertaining but pertinent, and the illustrations within the text are neatly embedded so that they appear alongside the reference, enhancing the reading experience.

Manguel's mentor was Borges - as a sixteen year old he was employed as a reader to the blind writer - and his final chapter is deliberately Borgesian. He describes all the things he might have written about reading, an infinite book, like Borges's infinite library. It's a witty conclusion inkeeping with the tone of the book.

This is a book to be savoured rather than devoured - I read it in a couple of weeks, one short chapter per night. (Manguel also has things to say about eating metaphors for reading) It's highly appropriate that a book on the pleasures of reading should be such a pleasure to read.


5 March 2008

Emile Zola - The Fortune of the Rougons

I was warned that this, the first of Zola's huge 20 volume Rougon-Macquart cycle, wasn't one of the best, and that was by someone who read the whole cycle in French. I found it a slog - it took me two months to read, on and off, not helped by the dubious 110 year old translation, and the horrible typesetting in this edition.

Zola's ambition was to use the history of an extended family to illustrate the history of France from 1852 to 1870, the Second Empire under Louis-Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had particular ideas of hereditary traits, such as irascibility and drunkenness that afflict some of his most prominent characters, but that theme is mostly secondary to the broad narrative of French social life, inspired by Balzac's Comedie Humaine.

This novel deals with the coup d'etat in 1852 that begins the Second Empire - Louis Napoleon, the President of the Second Republic since the revolution of 1848, took absolute power, much as his uncle had done nearly fifty years before. This was relatively recent history for Zola's readers, twenty years after the event, although the writer himself was a mere 12 years old at the time. But for modern English readers, the events are a little confusing, and the narrative a bit hard to follow.

Zola sets the novel in a provincial town, divided between Republicans and Bonapartists, essentially conservatives. It opens with a Republican force marching by the town, joined by two young patriotic inhabitants, Silvere and Miette. Their relationship is a sentimental tragedy that forms the central episode of the book. Much of the rest is concerned with the manoeuverings of the Rougon family, predominantly Bonapartists, to attain influence despite their personal cowardice and the uncertain outcome of the coup.

Zola's intent is twofold in the book - to introduce the characters of his cycle, and to satirise the conservatives at the time of the coup. He takes an anti-Second Empire stance throughout his novels - as a political radical his opposition to despotism is fundamental. The trouble is that his ability isn't yet competent to fulfil his ambition - this novel feels rushed and uneven, there are too many authorial digressions, and the characters are shallow and unbelievable. There are elements which show Zola's budding talent, as evident in the previously published Therese Raquin, such as the action scenes involving Silvere, and the comical counter-revolution in the town. But as a whole the book doesn't work, and should be avoided, except by completists, of which I am currently one.


3 March 2008

Charles Rosen - Piano Notes

Charles Rosen is, apparently, a world-renowned concert pianist and music critic. The fact that I didn't know that before I read the introduction to this book establishes my minimal knowledge of classical music. I am an ingenu, but a willing learner who has been going regularly to concerts on the South Bank for the last six months, expanding my repertoire as a listener, and my appreciation. There's inevitably a limit to my participation - I can't play an instrument, in fact my musical experience is limited to grade one piano (theory only) aged nine, and a term of clarinet, so the technicalities of musical performance are beyond me. I may know that a piece is hard to perform, and admire the audacity of the performer, but I can't really appreciate the performer's experience.

This book attempts to convey a bit of that. It is a populist primer to 'the hidden world of the pianist', as it's subtitled, and uses anecdotes, history, written examples and his own experience to try to show why the concert pianist has such a special regard.

As well as being a very knowledgeable music historian, Rosen is a witty writer, and the book speeds along. Some of it was above my head, despite the unacademic approach - I couldn't appreciate the written music, and would have to play recordings of the pieces to get close to understanding his point. He moves easily from funny anecdote to the philosophy of music, of which here's a fine example:

"...performance in public seems like the natural goal of the aesthetic philosophy that has dominated Western art and music since the eighteenth century. A work of art is supposed to have a value independent of its social function, and even of its role in the artist's biography, and the public concert is at once a metaphor for this independence and its demonstration in the economy of modern life. This independence may be to some extent a fiction, but it is indispensable to our idea of artistic creation.The work of music may be the expression of an individual sensibility, and we may say the same of a performance: but once published, once played, they have become public property. That is why we can maintain that a composer does not always know how best to interpret his own work. His knowledge of the piece may be more intimate at first, but he cannot control future performances, and his opinion of how to play it may be interesting but not absolutely privileged. We may say that the performer ought to realise the composer's intentions, but we must also admit that very often the composer, the poet or the visual artist does not fully understand his own intentions - at least, this is a doctrine of artistic composition that is as old as Plato."

I learnt plenty from this book - I was amazed at first at how pianists could play several pieces, totalling perhaps two hours, without reference to the score, whereas an orchestra mostly sight-reads. The act of memorising seemed an extraordinary feat, for something as complex as a Beethoven piano concerto or sonata, for example. Rosen clarified this for me by saying that by the time he'd reached 18, he knew most of the classical piano canon, even if he hadn't played it in concert. A child's mind, especially one so musically precocious, and relentlessly inquisitive, can memorise an awful lot very quickly, and once it has done so it remains. He states that he can play far more easily pieces he first knew as a teenager than pieces he learnt within the past year. This partly explains the achievement of Daniel Barenboim's recent performance of the whole Beethoven Sonata cycle, of which I saw four out of eight concerts. This was the fourth time Barenboim had played the full cycle, over a period of 45 years, but the memorising had been done when he was a child; at this age the focus is on interpretation and delivery.

Rosen laments the culture of music conservatories and contests, which focus the student upon the one or two major performances he has to make in a year, and that they can leave music school only knowing well the three pieces they have to play in examination at the end of each year. This culture, for obvious reasons, creates a conservative and narrow canon amongst young performers, which limited repertoire will make it hard for them to distinguish themselves later.

I can't say I got the most out of this book, there was too much that required at least some musical knowledge, but it wasn't impenetrable, and it should help me a little to appreciate the pianists I watch in future.


25 February 2008

Mark Abley - Spoken Here

This book is subtitled Travels among threatened languages and is part travelogue and part linguistic study. Abley travels around the world - to Australia, America, Canada, Venezuela, the Isle of Man and Wales, to examine several of the hundreds of minority languages that will die out this century, and some that might not.

Abley is a Canadian journalist, and early on he apologises to academics for his lack of linguistic training, and inability to analyse languages. He only speaks English and French, although given the languages he's studying, it would have been little help if he knew ten more - few of them are related to the Indo-European family group with which English-speakers are most familiar. He has the virtues of a journalist over an academic - an empathy for the human stories behind the dry facts, and that means that he can bring out the sociological implications of the loss of these languages.

He starts in Australia, where perhaps one third of the world's endangered languages are. Partly this is because of the sparse and diverse communities of the indigenous aborigines - there are pockets of maybe a few hundred native speakers of some languages. Those that have not been urbanised are generally the old, and they find it hard to encourage their children to speak their ancestral tongue. This is a story heard around the world, it's similar amongst the native Indians of America and Canada that Abley visits.

The consequences of this loss of language are not trivial, according to Abley. A culture is identified by what separates it from other cultures, and few characteristics are more distinguishing than a language. As a language disappears, by oppression, assimilation, or domination by an external language, so does the identity of the culture. To that extent it's a political issue, and has been vociferously used as such even where the culture is thriving, such as Wales.

Abley treats all his subjects with equal dignity, although one is likely to have more sympathy for the desperate situation of Aborigines than the Welsh or Manx featured. Some of the worst abuses against the indigenous population in Australia are within living memory - the forced adoption for white education of aboriginal children, for example - and the gap in economic and social status between aboriginal and white populations is larger than almost anywhere else in the world. This makes the language debate even more complex in this situation. Economic progress for the young generation of aborigines cannot be achieved without English, and there's no incentive for them to maintain their ancestral languages. Furthermore, the elders are often timid to pass on the language to unwilling children, and they children unenthusiastic about learning it.

Abley doesn't try to impose strong themes in the book, they arise out of his travels. Language is a necessary component of political identity, economic success, cultural pride, but also of differentiation. Abley discusses throughout how different languages can express ideas and concepts that are inexpressible in other languages. There's dispute as to how much the use of language defines how the user thinks - if one language has different ways of articulating concepts of time and distance, does that mean that the speaker conceives of time and distance differently, or are this elemental concepts independent of the language used?

I went to an interesting lecture a few weeks after reading this, which was about the concept of numbers in humans. There's a scientific definition of 'numerosity', which is number sense (distinct from 'numeracy' which is an ability to count and manipulate numbers) Someone with basic numerosity can, for example, look at a group of three items and identify them as 'three' without counting them. They can also recognise four as being bigger than three, and match the same numbers of different items. This is independent of the language used, or any language at all. This is shown in cultures which are limited in the words they have for numbers. Many people are aware of tribes in Papua, or the Amazon, which have words for 'one', 'two', and then 'more than two'. Despite these limitations in vocabulary, these tribes can exhibit numerosity, which is fairly crucial as the allocation of resources depends upon it, so they know that if they have eight children they need eight meal servings, even if they don't have a word for 'eight'.

This suggests that some basic concepts are fundamental to human thought and are independent of language, but this surely doesn't apply to more sophisticated concepts, such as our relationship to the environment, or to each other. Abley is very persuasive about this value of minority languages, although it's harder to justify their preservation on that basis rather than the more essential one of tribal identity.

This is a fascinating and well-written book. Abley's early apology was unnecessary - his research is admirably presented, and pertinent throughout, and he has a good grasp of the academic background to his subject, as well as the wider political import.


VS Pritchett - Balzac

Honore de Balzac's life was nearly as extraordinary as one of his tales, and he has been almost as popular a subject for biographers as his early idol, Byron. I have four, three of them by notable writers - Andre Maurois, Stefan Zweig and VS Pritchett - and one by a professional biographer of French writers, Graham Robb. The Pritchett is the slimmest of the four, under 200 pages, so I started with that.

He gives credit to his predecessors, Zweig and Maurois, and has plainly leaned heavily on a few sources, but this is a good primer to Balzac. The material is rich and full - in addition to his numerous novels, Balzac wrote many letters. In fact, there seems to have been little time when he wasn't writing - he would get up at 3am and write for 12 hours, then eat, and sleep for only about four hours a night. He was addicted to working, and needed to be to keep up with his excessive expenditure.

Balzac's life is a tragic tale. For all his literary success, he was never out of debt from his first efforts, when his parents funded him to spend two years writing rather than training to be a lawyer. He was feted by nobility, and aspired to a lifestyle to imitate his admirers, but was hopelessly addicted to frivolity - he had dozens of elaborate and expensive canes, for example, and collected works of art that were sold for next to nothing on his death.

His love life was no more successful than his finances. He was frequently in love with unattainable women - Madame de Castries is one of the more notable, whom he depicted in The Wild Ass's Skin - and his longest liaison was with a married Polish Countess who he rarely met during the 18 years they were involved with each other. This didn't stop him having occasional affairs, and lying about them to his amours.

Despite his almost pure coffee diet when writing, Balzac had a huge appetite, and became extremely corpulent in middle age. This was manna for the satirists, as were his occasional public stumbles, hurrying into carriages. His appetites were his ruin in the end - he died at the age of 50, in a desperate physical state.

Pritchett gives enough detail of Balzac's life for a reader of his works to determine how much of his fiction was drawn from life, but he doesn't spend much time analysing the works themselves. That's not a great concern - in such a slim volume he couldn't possibly do justice to the 90 novels and stories that Balzac wrote, about four a year in an abbreviated career. With his prodigious output and energy, he lived four lives; it seems appropriate that I should read four biographies.


14 February 2008

Guy de Maupassant - Notre Coeur

Notre Coeur is one of Maupassant's lesser known novels - of the six he wrote, three are perpetually in print in English, and three are hard to find. I got this one (as a present) via abebooks, in a 1946 edition.

It's a simple love story - André Mariolle becomes obsessed with a widow, Madame de Burne, a hostess of some beauty who cultivates exclusively male friends of some talent for drawing room soirées, each of whom becomes slightly obsessed with her, encouraged by her flirtation, but never succeeds. Mariolle does, with an assault of attention in person and by letter, and they start an affair.

Their input into the relationship is uneven, however - he is jealous and demanding, and despairing of her seeming casual attitude to him; she is flattered by his attention, and enjoys the physical relationship (delicately alluded to), but cannot love him in the same way, as he demands. Maupassant describes their developing emotions in typical analytical detail, with great sympathy, immersing the reader in the relationship and alternating between the protagonists. He shows an understanding of both sides of an obsession, and of how relationships with unequal passions arise and play out, probably described from experience.

The novel suffers from being just about the one affair - it's quite short, and in a narrow world, although this is typical of his stories and novels. It ends with a nice irony - on the rebound from Mme de Burne, André starts an affair with a maid who he hires, and treats her in the same way that he has been treated, receiving her adoration, having encouraged it, but not reciprocating it. The novel has a satisfactory circularity, and explains the title, 'Our Heart' - love is like this for all of us.


11 February 2008

Rory Stewart - Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart's cv reads like the ultimate establishment man - Eton and Oxford, British Army and Foreign Office, a route that has supplied for centuries the administrators of the British representation overseas. But Stewart is more in the line of his compatriot Fitzroy Maclean, as an explorer and individual rather than a career diplomat. At the turn of the century he spent two years walking across Asia, from Iran to Nepal, learning the local languages and staying in villages.

In mid 2003, when this book opens, he arrived in Baghdad offering his services to the occupying forces. Although he doesn't speak Arabic, he has Persian and experience of living in Muslim countries, and the Coalition is desperate for capable hands. He's appointed provisional deputy governor of the eastern province of Maysan, bordering Iran, at the age of 30.

He enters a dangerous world, where his responsibility, until the (American) provisional governor arrives, and then a local governor is elected, is to oversee reconstruction and regeneration projects, create local political structures, and maintain security and order alongside the military forces, which are British in Maysan. There is, at least initially, plenty of funding - in fact more than they can spend, which fosters corruption.

Stewart has an awkward role in Maysan, being supposedly in authority, but not in a position to control the forces, who he nominally outranks, and undermined by his status as provisional, and merely British. When his successor arrives, the fact of her nationality as an American gives her borrowed authority. But Stewart's awareness of the limits of his influence is his strength. Most of his job is politics - negotiating power structures with the various leaders, which include the 'Prince of the Marshes' (the original title of the book), a regional tribal leader with a daunting record of resistance to Saddam, Islamists who'd spent decades in Iran, and Sadrists, the most threatening oppositional group across Iraq.

Stewart's assets are his knowledge of Islamic culture, down to how offence might be given or avoided when offering coffee at a meeting, his flexibility under pressure, and his ability to improvise solutions. He also shows acute judgement of character, and a boldness to assert his limited authority and establish the share of responsibility for the problems of the region.

He's also a very good writer. His previous book, on his travels across Asia, was very well received, as has this been, deservedly. He opens each chapter with an apt quote from Machiavelli, and you feel that Stewart is exploring the nature of leadership as he attempts to exercise it. He's well aware of the historical context - at one point, when trying to arrange for guards to protect the archaeological sites in his region, he notes that a 4,000 year old tablet recently discovered records a leader having similar problems to those he's facing. all the clichés about learning from history apply.

When Stewart is transferred to the neighbouring province of Nasiriyah, he finds conditions there very different. Few political contacts have been established, and he has to start from scratch what he'd already set up in Maysan. The military presence is provided by the Italians, who rarely leave their base and have a timidity encouraged by their Prime Minister, Berlusconi, wary of how casualties might be received in Italy. This leads to a crisis when the Coalition administration compound is besieged by Sadrists for several days, and the Italian 'Quick Reaction Force' is neither quick nor forceful. Stewart's military experience is critical - he's able to coordinate with the ex-soldier bodyguards who are the only force in the compound, and keep a clear head under mortar fire. This section is genuinely thrilling, as Stewart relates the adventure with wit and energy.

Stewart expresses no opinions on the morality of the war or occupation. This may be due to his respect and responsibilities to his erstwhile and possibly future employers, but his narrative is about the problems of being a foreign administrator in a chaotic environment, and his few complaints are aimed at the confused political messages from the Coalition.

There's a danger that a memoir, especially of recent high-profile activities, can be self-justifying, but this one appears to be honest. Stewart is candid about the mistakes he made - he recognises that his out of character brusqueness to one of many petitioners may have led to the riot that saw the governor's office ransacked, and defends the soldiers' unwillingness to intervene in this incident - should they risk their lives, or threaten those of the rioters, to protect an empty office building? But this incident led to a loss of respect for the Coalition, and increased boldness by the insurgents.

Stewart is currently working for a foundation in Kabul that is trying to restore the old commercial centre of the Afghan capital. He's plainly an administrator of uncommon ability, a good writer, and a man of independent mind, who wants to put his talents to the best humanitarian use. He'll have an interesting life, which no doubt we'll hear about.


6 February 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Wild Ass's Skin

This is a strange book. One of Balzac's Contes philosophiques, it supposedly contains elements of his rather opaque mystical beliefs, a mix of Swedenborg and Mesmerism and several other early 19th century theories. But those are subsumed beneath an odd tale about a magic talisman, that allows its owner unlimited fulfilment of his desires, at a price of reduced lifespan.

The book is in three parts. The first tells of how Raphael, the main character, intending to kill himself due to despair at a rejection, and at his gambling debts, is given the eponymous talisman by a strange ancient art shop owner on the banks of the Seine. He is told of the qualities of the skin, and the penalties, and immediately desires a huge banquet with his friends. Upon leaving the shop, he encounters his friends, who take him to a huge party, at which there are debates on recent politics - this was written, and is set, just after the 1830 July Revolution, and no doubt represents contemporary debates among Balzac's acquaintance.

The second part is a very long relation by Raphael of a doomed love affair, based in part upon Balzac's own failures with Madame de Castries. There are some good passages, and a notable scene in which Raphael hides in the lady's bedroom, about which many rumours arose, and denials by Balzac, of which woman in real life this incident was based on. But it is overlong and indulgent, which Balzac acknowledges in sardonic asides from the listeners in the book.

The third part is the tragic unravelling of the story - he continues to pursue Foedora, the woman from the second part, but becomes aware of her coldness, and also of the love of Pauline, his landlady's daughter, an archetypical Balzac heroine. This part has much of what Balzac became known for - fast-paced narrative, sharp dialogue and believable actors.

This was Balzac's second 'proper' novel, and his first critical success. It contains a lot of good writing, but is uneven, and doesn't compare to the careful plotting of Cousine Bette. There are typical touches of humour though - as Raphael is walking along the banks of the Seine considering suicide, he notices some booksellers, and is about to go and haggle for a book when he realises the pointlessness of it. All bibliophiles will recognise that with a chuckle. And the energy of Balzac's writing is infectious - supposedly he wrote as he spoke, irrepressibly. In this work you see the seeds of his later masterpieces, but I don't agree that this is included among them.


28 January 2008

Amelie Nothomb - Sulphuric Acid

Amelie Nothomb has achieved great success - 15 novels, and a reputation for being slyly mischievous - by mining her peculiar youth and writing spare, crafted novellas about beautiful girls with an excess of empathy. She was born to the Belgian ambassador in Japan, which she used in Metaphysique des Tubes (The Character of Rain), and returned there when older to work for a Japanese company, which is the basis for Fear and Trembling. She writes with wit and precision, and claims to write 3 novels a year and publish one, which is plausible given the slightness of the volumes, generally about 120 pages each.

Nine of Nothomb's novels have been translated into English, and this is the seventh published by Faber in well-designed, neat editions. It's the first of those I've read, however, to have a completely fantastic plot, as opposed to a realistic one based in some part on the author's background. The setting is in the near future, when reality TV shows have progressed, or regressed, to such an extent that the logical extreme has been reached - a reality death camp, with 'guards' from volunteers, and 'prisoners' plucked randomly from the streets.

This might have been a nice conceit around the idea of the Stanford prison experiment, in which volunteers were divided into guards and prisoners, and encouraged to act out their roles, which they did with such enthusiasm that the experiment had to be prematurely halted. Nothomb doesn't develop the story in that way - in this world the parts are played for real, prisoners are actually executed, and guards arbitrarily victimise their wards.

The plot caused predictable controversy in France (and Belgium), and it's easy to see why. While some may say it's a satire on the excesses of celebrity culture and reality TV, it's very blunt, and besides that isn't Nothomb's main concern. Her themes are of small intimate encounters and uneven power in relationships, in this case of the love by one female guard for Pannonique, a slight, beautiful prisoner who becomes the main focus for the TV producers.

The concentration camp setting becomes just a background to this relationship, and one has to question why it is used. As a metaphor it's crude, and the threat of execution doesn't carry any weight for the reader. It seems to be a lazy device, and deserving of the criticism it has drawn.

In addition, Nothomb's depiction of 'love' is actually more of a schoolgirl crush. This was appropriate in some of her earlier works, set during the pre-adolescence of a pretty girl, but one wonders whether Nothomb has anything profound to say about more adult emotions. If so, it isn't in this novella.


26 January 2008

Alberto Manguel - A Reading Diary

Alberto Manguel has had an interesting life. Born in Buenos Aires, he grew up for a time in Israel as his father was ambassador there. Aged 16 he was working part-time in a bookshop in the Argentine capital that Borges frequented. The great writer, by now going blind, employed Manguel as his reader, which no doubt inspired the young man to a career in literature. Having lived in England and Italy, he has since become a Canadian citizen, and writes in English.

Manguel is now something of an industry, publishing novels, art history and works of eclectic interest such as A History of Reading. This book is something of an indulgence - a year rereading favourite books, and writing generally about them, with no pressure to create a coherent theme. He calls it in the introduction a commonplace book of reading.

I'd read only three of the dozen books chosen - The Invention of Morel, The Sign of Four and Don Quixote - and given up on a couple more - Elective Affinities and Wind in the Willows (at the age of six - I still have the unread edition) The others include a couple I hadn't heard of - The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, for example, and The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati.

Manguel's intention is to allow the ideas which come from reading these books to be supplemented by the events of his life as he reads them, although the project is a little vague, and the book suffers from a lack of coherence. Familiarity with the books helps to follow his sometimes unconnected thoughts; I found some of the chapters on books I didn't know a little wearing. He is an intelligent and witty writer though, and I've since sought out some of his other works.


24 January 2008

Lawrence Wright - The Looming Tower

9/11 is undoubtedly the most significant event of the 21st Century so far. I was in the US when it happened, and was frustrated at the unwillingness of the US (television) media to question who might have done it and why. For this sort of analysis I had to come across, by chance, programmes on C-Span such as that evening's Newsnight, or NPR radio shows. This lack of rigour, at least by the most popular news media, arguably enabled the Bush administration to conflate the threat from al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, creating a non-existent link so that over half of Americans thought that Iraq was responsible, and so backed the invasion of that country.

Of course more know now that there was no link, and there have been many mea culpas in the media for buying the Bush line unquestioningly. But even people who consider themselves well-informed are quite hazy about the nature of al-Qaeda, its history, aims and activities. The major players are household names, thanks to the White House's need for demons - bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed - but they are known as symbols, as Saddam Hussein was, and latterly Ayatollah Khomeini and Colonel Gaddaffi.

Lawrence Wright makes these men human. He spent five years researching this book, a history of al-Qaeda from 1948, the year that Sayyid Qutb went to America to study, up to 2001. The culminating event itself is dealt with quite briefly - there's an assumption that the reader is well aware of the events of that day, and it is barely alluded to during the book, although it hangs over it in the way that the fall of Troy hangs over the Iliad.

The humanising of bin Laden is a little disconcerting, just as the knowledge that the operation to hijack 4 planes may have cost just $40,000 was. He isn't the evil genius of myth, nor did he have bottomless wealth from his father's construction millions. He actually spent much of what he had in Sudan, and arrived in Afghanistan broke; the training camps he subsequently organised there, plus fund-raising in Saudi Arabia, have provided him with his current resources.

Bin Laden's early experiences are comically incompetent. He raised a small Saudi force to assist the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, but the arabs were untrained and not battle-hardened, and had more embarrassing retreats than successful actions. He tried to claim credit for attacks in Africa that were almost certainly not organised by him, although he was part of the movement that inspired them. His anti-American speeches and interviews at the time are rambling and generalised. It wasn't until Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was introduced to bin Laden that the grand concept arose.

The story starts with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though. Sayyid Qutb, highly intelligent, partly educated in the United States, became a political martyr and the chief philosopher of the Brotherhood, executed in 1966 for his part in sedition against Nasser. Wright follows the line from there to the emergence of al Qaeda, via Saudi Arabia and the fascinating story of Mohammed bin Laden, the barely literate builder who became one of the biggest industrialists in the Middle East, responsible for the refurbishment of the holiest sites in Islam.

Wright's research for this book is admirable. He talked to people on all sides - from FBI agents who investigated the bombings of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to ex-AQ members and relatives of bin Laden - and travelled extensively, including a spell as a work shadow on a Saudi newspaper as a pretext in order to get access to the key information from the kingdom. But the research is the least impressive of his achievements. He presents the history of al Qaeda, astonishingly, with little moral judgement, although he does comment on the competence of some of the actors. This objective distance enables him to get close to his subjects, to the benefit of the reader. We see, because of witness interviews or memoirs, the home life of men considered the greatest threat to the United States, and the banality of it makes our vulnerability more chilling.

One criticism I have of the book is the focus on John O'Neill. He was a senior FBI officer who was responsible for counter-terrorism, and oversaw some of the investigations into the African embassy bombings. Flawed, adulterous, manipulative and short-tempered, he didn't get the appointment he deserved, to be Richard Clarke's successor as National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator. Wright believes that this was a missed opportunity, among many, as O'Neill was well aware of bin Laden's threat, but of greater relevance to the narrative is that the job O'Neill did accept, in August 2001, was as head of security for the World Trade Centre in New York. His death a month later was one of the ironies of that tragedy, but I think Wright makes too much of the personal side - his multiple mistresses, for example, have little relevance to the big picture with which he's concerned.

This is, however, an excellent work, probably the best non-fiction book I'll read this year, comparable to Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks, a similarly brilliantly researched and written book by a US journalist.


19 January 2008

Harry Matthews - The Journalist

Harry Matthews is the only American member of OuLiPo, the French experimental writing group that included Perec and Queneau amongst its most prominent members. Known for their playfulness and subversion, their works could sometimes be criticised for favouring form over substance, but such is the fate of modernists (and post-modernists)

The Journalist isn't a hack but a diarist. The narrator is keeping one as part of recovery from a breakdown. It isn't explained how this will help him - presumably by imposing order and rational reflection upon his daily activities - but it becomes a catalyst for a further breakdown. As an effort to organise the diary, he invents various classifications for his entries, dividing them into actions and thoughts, and then those involving other people and those just about himself, and so on until he has 25 categories. The keeping of the diary becomes an obsession, and also takes up most of his time, at work and at home, where he loses sleep in order to record his day.

This taking over of his life by journal writing reminds me of what has been observed about epistolary novels of the 18th Century, in particular Richardson's - it was estimated by one critic of Clarissa that she would have to have been writing letters for eight hours a day, and barely have had time to act the events she describes. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is far more realistic in this respect.

The journalist becomes increasingly bewildered and paranoid as lack of sleep, and avoiding his medication, leads him to lose perspective, thinking that his wife is having an affair and is conspiring with his own mistress to conceal secrets about his son from him.

The revelations in the end aren't so shocking, nor greatly different from his paranoid thoughts, but the novel isn't so much about the plot, which is slight, but the method. I thought it was successful in those terms, although the obsessive categorising doesn't distort the structure, and a diary is hardly a novel form. It's sufficiently witty and engaging though to override such gripes.

I bought this from the wonderful Calder bookshop on the Cut. Its eclectic stock includes a lot of French avant-garde, all of Beckett, as John Calder, who's in every day, was his publisher, and selections from small publishers such as Hesperus, Pushkin and Dalkey Archive, who specialise in translated fiction. They have several other works by Matthews, who I haven't seen elsewhere, as well as many other lesser-known authors, which makes browsing there an expensive delight.


14 January 2008

Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip

This booker-nominated work was highly recommended to me, and has a rare A+ rating from complete-review.com , so I was keen to read it as soon as it came out in paperback.

It's a slim novel, told by a young black girl, Matilda, resident of a village on an unnamed island in the Pacific between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. At the start of the novel she's 13, and the island is in the middle of a war at the beginning of the 1990s. There are no young adult males in the village as they have all either been killed by Papuan troops, which have blockaded the island, or joined rebels on the interior of the island.

The atrocities of the war, however, are kept in the background of the narrative as Matilda tells of her education by Mr Watts, the only white person on the island. Mr Watts is neither qualified nor experienced as a teacher, and has no teaching materials, so his lessons consist entirely of readings from Great Expectations. This is the first contact for his students with literature, and very soon they are engaged by one of the most enduringly popular stories.

As the pupils become engrossed in Dickens, the threat of the war diminishes, although there's conflict with their own families. The mothers, mostly very religious, are sceptical about the morality of this foreign work, so Mr Watts co-opts them into teaching, inviting them in to give a small speech to the class about anything they knew, whether it be how to fish or cook, or old legends.

The war returns, more than once, and Matilda, her mother and Mr Watts are unwillingly drawn into a prominent role. 'Mister Pip' is mistaken by an army commander of being a real rebel, rather than a fictional narrator of a 19th century novel, and this comical error has disastrous consequences.

This is a multi-layered book of more complex moral issues than at first appears. There are themes of wandering and emigration, paralleling Great Expectations with the stories of Mr Watts, and ultimately Matilda too, of post-colonial worlds, of black versus white, traditional versus modern education, religious myth and fiction, and the uses and purpose of literature. Yet all these themes are within a deceptively light narrative, so light that when the instances of brutality do occur they are truly shocking.

I had a small problem with the narrator's voice, which appeared to be that of a 13 year old girl, but with emotional observations of an older woman. It's later revealed that the narrator is the same girl aged about 23, which explains the latter, but not the simple style, especially as she has completed an English degree. That contradiction jarred only slightly, and ignores the achievement of a middle-aged New Zealand man impersonating a young female Pacific islander. I've already recommended this to one person (who, by chance, was reading GE), and may buy it for others.


11 January 2008

Honore de Balzac - The Black Sheep

The translator of this novel says in his introduction that "no story in the world is more exciting than The Black Sheep, combining as it does the compelling readability of the blood-and-thunder with the deeper insights of literary art." Well, he's wrong, and this isn't even the most exciting Balzac I've read, but it does have its moments, and the pace increases remarkably up to the climax.

As ever with Balzac, the plot is mainly concerned with money, in this case an inheritance. The book starts with a tortuous introduction of the dramatis personae, being: Jean-Jacques Rouget, who has inherited the bulk of his father's wealth, due to the latter not believing that Agathe, Rouget's sister, was his daughter. Agathe, a beautiful and pious woman, has two sons, Joseph, studious, kind, and a very talented painter, and Philippe, a swashbuckling soldier, and a scoundrel.

Agathe's husband was a chief civil servant of Napoleon's state, but once he dies, and the monarchy is restored, she loses that income, and is dependent upon the income from the modest investments she has. Philippe, who she adores, deceives her and gambles away her capital, so that she's forced to try to appeal to her brother, and ensure that she has a share of his legacy. Jean-Jacques, however, is weak-willed, and controlled by his mistress, Flore, with whom he's obsessed. She in her turn is in love with a local ex-soldier and leader of a gang of pranksters, Maxence Gilet.

So far, so complicated. Add to this a political conspiracy, for which Philippe is convicted, then a confrontation and duel between Philippe and Maxence, and the full intricate skill of Balzac's plotting is evident. The book is uneven though, with digressions in which Balzac seems keen to exhibit his research. You can feel the energy with which Balzac wrote it, fuelled on caffeine, but slightly undisciplined. There's also a little too much narratorial judgement on the characters, less than in, say, Hugo or Dumas, but far more than in one of his later masterpieces such as Cousine Bette.

The themes are of money and status, but also of legitimacy. There are several characters whose fortune depends upon their legitimacy being recognised - Agathe is denied her full inheritance as her own father denies his inheritance, Maxence is presumed by many to be Jean-Jacques' brother, and Flore is a mistress rather than a wife. The doubt about the status of these characters plainly parallels the political turmoil running behind the main plot - the legitimacy of the Bourbon throne, and the resistance to it of both Philippe and Max. Much of the political significance of the novel will pass modern, and particularly English, readers by, but it would have been at the forefront of contemporary readers' minds, during the Orleanist rule.

Further themes, of the corrupting power of money, are typical of Balzac, and the ending, in which the bad guy gets ruined and the good guy gets a fortune, is rushed and unconvincing. There's a sense that, once Balzac had passed the climax of the duel, which is dealt with briefly, he had little energy left to sustain the novel.