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.


8 January 2008

Arto Paasilinna - The Howling Miller

I don't have that much Finnish literature - the nearest I have, apart from this, is Mikael Niemi's Popular Music, written originally in Swedish, a funny tale of growing up on the Swedish/Finnish border. Paasilinna is apparently one of Finland's most popular authors, and his books have sold in many languages, although it appears that there aren't enough translators from Finnish, as this book was translated from French.

Gunnar Huttunen moves into a mill in a Finnish village in the 1950s. A veteran of the Winter War, he's a huge man of strange habits - he has a talent for imitating people and animals, and likes to howl when excited or depressed. These habits, while initially amusing, irritate the locals, especially the howling which tends to arouse the dogs and wolves of the neighbourhood.

Huttunen is soon unpopular with many in the village, and his responses, often impulsive, lead him into trouble with the law, arrest and committal in a mental hospital, and escape to live off the land.

This is a very funny novel about the intolerance of society for noncomformity, and is an enjoyable romp with a sensitive touch. I look forward to reading his few other works available in English, out of the twenty he's written.


7 January 2008

Guy de Maupassant - A Parisian Affair and Other Stories

Maupassant wrote over 300 stories in a very fertile 10 years, in addition to 6 novels and travel writing, but as there aren't any modern complete editions in English, today's monoglot reader has to buy as many selected works as possible to get the full range of his oeuvre. I have 9 collections, containing over 120 different stories.

This one, a recent Penguin Classics edition, very consciously focuses on some of the lesser-known stories, although it does also have some classics such as Boule de Suif and Le Horla. Boule de Suif was the first Maupassant story I read, which is usual as it's his most famous, and often the first in a collection as it was the first he published. Rereading it, now with some understanding of Maupassant's themes and techniques, I found it extraordinarily accomplished. It could be said that he didn't surpass this in 300 subsequent stories, although he experimented with different forms of the story.

Not all the stories in this collection are excellent. Some are quite average, and many very slight. Moonlight, for example, is an ironic tale about a devout parish priest, who is scandalised to hear that his niece has a lover. Walking under a moonlit sky and considering the matter, he undergoes a 'conversion' stimulated by the conclusion that God must have designed such charm for the purpose of desire. It's a witty inversion of a moral instruction, and very short, but a little too neat.

Femme Fatale (or La Femme de Paul) on the other hand is rather more overt - a man loses the girl he's obsessed with to a lesbian. Maupassant doesn't bother with euphemisms, it's quite plain what he's discussing, and it's for stories such as this that he became notorious in Victorian England. He gained a reputation for being very risqué, although few of his stories are as challenging in their treatment of sex, as this one is. But it's all relative - Maupassant's open discussion of desires and affairs was far from what publishers in England would allow.

The best of this collection are the well-known ones - in addition to those mentioned above there are The Jewels and The Necklace, which are sort of counterpoints, both hinging on the veracity of some jewelry, and concerned with how fundamental deception is to society. Regret is one of his archetypical stories, Maupassant's imitation of an impressionist painting, perfectly capturing one emotion in a single scene.