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.