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.