Booker Prize: 2010

28 September 2010

Tom McCarthy’s C may be the critic’s darling, but after 100 pages (that’s a long time to stick with a novel) I was thinking of doing what I never do – give it up. It didn’t get to that point because along about that time (towards the end of “C part one: Caul”), it picked up somewhat. It never roared away, but I stuck with it.  The caul has some tradition in literature (most famously in David Copperfield) and the main character is McCarthy’s novel (Serge Carrefax) is born with one. Those born with a caul are supposed to be protected from drowning (along with other perks or curses). Ironically, Serge’s older sister dies by drowning.

The time is June 1911 and Serge, now a young man is sent (Magic Mountain style), to spend the war years in a sanitorium. His parents, who run a school for the deaf, have been worried about his health. He seems somehow restricted, bound up. Turns out he just needed to get layed, one would presume, because after his first sexual encounter (unless you believe the undertone of incest) he seems miraculously recpvered. So much so that he joins the war effort and spends the war as a ‘spotter’ in an aeroplane squadron.

Part Two (Chute) recounts his war years. After an unusually long streak of good luck, it finally runs out: he’s shot down and captured. About to be placed before a firing squad after an escape and subsequent capture, the announcement comes (in the nick) that the war has ended.

Part Three (Crash) finds Serge living the bohemian life-style in Bloomsbury. Having brought with him several addictions from the war, he knocks around doing up coke and heroin. He befriends an actress and goes to see her play (The Amazonians) – she has a bit part in the chorus. McCarthy owes a debt to Pynchon’s V, not  only in the title, but in the feel of the scatter shot narrative. What McCarthy is lacking though, is Pynchon’s sense of humor. He sure could have used it. Unless it flew right over my head. Which this almost did. As Serge is sitting reading the program before the lights dim, an historical note about Amazons…

His reading’s interrupted by the dimming of the theater’s lights. The band starts playing; the curtains draw back to reveal a magnificent court in which all tasks – guarding the ruler, fanning the ruler, being the ruler – are carried out by women. The court burst into song, lauding their queen, Penthesilia, warning putative male English suitors that she’s not much of a one for Anglophilia, and would-be pretenders to her throne that a single blow from can killya. Penthesilia introduces her sisters Antiope and Hyppolite, who sing a short, plaintive duet about every man they ever thought was half-alright turning out to be a dope.

Well, not exactly Pynchon.

Serge, his actress friend Audrey having invited him to a séance, becomes engaged in cracking the “mystery”. ingeniously, he does. But as a result he is involved in a serious car crash, he’s so wracked with guilt at having betrayed Audrey.

Call, the last section of the book finds Serge in Egypt after his recovery tagging along with an archaeological expedition, while he’s involved in some clandestine activity or another. The real archaeologists though, are involved in “scraping and scratching” – uncovering the secrese of antiquity.

“And what have you found?” asks Serge.

“Gypsum, limestone, manganese, copper, calcite, the garnet, amethyst, red jasper – or, to state it in a mode more scientifique: Mn, Si02, Ca, CaC03, CaS04. Surtout, the C. the C is everywhere.”

“The sea?” asks Serge.

“The letter: C.”

“What’s C?”

“Carbon: basic element of life.”

In the end, Serge’s short life ends. Born under a caul, he’s called to the afterlife. If there is one.

More of the deadwood eliminated. But to what end?

19 September 2010

Let me say I went out immediately and picked up Emma Donoghue‘s earlier novel, Slammerkin. After I finish my Booker thing, that’s the very next book I’ll read. I remember some good buzz about that  one from some reader friends, but it never got on my list. Donoghue’s Room takes a page out of the news (unfortunately all too familiar), and constructs a wildly inventive story out of headline horror. And constructs is the right word, because every detail is meticulously drawn, every word selected for maximum effect. She takes the world and shrinks it down so that it reasonably fits in what is essentially, a small tool shed, an 11 x 11 foot backyard structure. She puts two people in there (Ma and Jack) and follows them through their daily lives. Jack is nearing five years old (his favorite number – he has five fingers on each hand and 5 toes on each foot after all).

The two of them cope by adhering to a routine (although there are options – which of the five books to read, for instance). Or what exercises to do today. They eat at the same time from groceries brought by the mysterious Old Nick. It’s slowly, very slowly revealed who Old Nick is, and how Ma and Jack came to be in Room.

The language is inventive, and the way of speaking original. The narrative is sprung from the precocious mind of Jack, who loves Room. His is one of the most unique and believable voices I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Room is the only environment he’s ever known. All things in it are named by him, and not only named but they have personalities as well. These, after all, are his friends. In the morning, Ma gets out of bed and “goes to Thermostat to hot the air”.  Jack can already tell time. He “jump(s) onto Rocker to look at Watch, he says 07:14.”  When Jack observes both himself and Ma “in Mirror” he notices that “our sleep T-shirts are different as well and our underwear, hers has no bears.”

The only contact with the outside world is through a few snowy tv channels. But that world is make-believe, Jack is told. It’s not in Room, so it’s not real. There is a skylight in the ceiling so they can see the sun sometimes.

God’s yellow face isn’t coming in today. Ma says he’s having trouble squeezing through the snow.

They had a plant, but it’s seems to have died: “Plant used to live on Table but God’s face burned a leaf of her off.”

It’s amazing how well-adjusted, and learned Jack is. She’s devoted her whole life to him, and has focused on her son always. She imparts both knowledge and practical wisdom. Not having had dental work in some time, her teeth are not in good shape. She frequently has to take aspirin in order to dull the toothaches. She tells Jack that

“My teeth feel a bit better if I stop thinking about them,” she tells me.

“How come?”

“It’s called mind over matter. If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

They take vitamin’s to try and keep as healthy as they can, because their diet is not the greatest. Jack thinks

My pee’s yellow from the vitamins. I sit to poo, I tell it, “Bye-bye, off to the sea.”

When they are rescued from Room, in an inventive plan to escape, they are successful and spend time in a rehab facility, where the health care professionals are caring and brilliant. Ma now finds it harder to cope in the wider world than Jack does (though he expresses several times that he misses Room.) Jack is still young and resilient enough that he learns the new boundaries rather quickly..

When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m in Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.

Everything here is plausible. After seven years of being strong for Jack, after they escape Ma falls apart. She attempts suicide. Jack, whose mind is still pliable, learns new things every day – the simple things. His Grandmother and her second husband (Steppa) feel real. The first husband (who lives in Australia) comes after she escapes, but quickly leaves. He just cannot cope with the thought of what his daughter had endured.

If anyone can find a false note in this surprising novel, let me know. If anyone has read a more inventive novel in the past ten years, I want to read it too.

I read an earlier work by Damon Galgut in May of last year (The Impostor) and found it quite readable, so I looked forward to this one when it made its way onto the 2010 Booker Long list. It’s made its way onto the short list, and it’s quite different from the other one I read. It’s a travelogue-meditation narrative that is divided into three parts, each of them having a common thread of restlessness, searching, moving around in some quest or another.

One: The Follower starts out with “It happens like this” which is not a bad opening at all for this type of book. It sets the tone, as “he” (a South African) starts off along a road that dips and falls, opening up or constricting his vision with each dip in the road. He meets a “man in black”, a German. They hold a brief conversation as two people passing on a road might, and go their separate wasys, in opposite directions. He visits some ruins and attempts to imagine how it was before the ruins were “ruins”, but “history resists imagining.” The He is the author, yet he is not. It is the other self observed. His name is Damon.

Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.

When He gets back to the room at the hostel where he is staying, the German is waiting (Reiner) – and so their adventure together begins. They return to the Mycenaean ruins (Damon has already seen them, Reiner has not). Damon is more interested in the mythology of the ruins, rather than just the bare facts (which seems to be the focus of Reiner). Cycles of grief and revenge in a never ending story. That is the mythology

nothing fuels revenge as grief does, a lesson history teaches over and over.

Damon meditates on the human emotions of violence and tenderness. One so easy to imagine, and one so difficult.

why is violence always so easy to imagine but tenderness stays locked in words for me.

The wandering and travelling have consequences and work to heighten the senses, for a certain kind of sensibility at least.

Too much travelling and placelessness have put him outside everything, so that history happens elsewhere, it has nothing to do with him. He is only passing through.

Like many of the books in the Booker field this year (and several of the films I’ve just seen at TIFF), history and memory bear heavily (“What you don’t remember never happened”). Galgut describes the act of traveling and observing in some wonderful passages:

A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb.

[in travel] the outcome is unknown, travel and love have this much in common

Their trip together ends, but once back home Reiner contacts Damon and comes to visit. Although there was a certain tension between them when last they were together, they plan a walking trip, with an aggressive itinerary , to Lesotho.

There is an incisiveness in Galgut’s writing here, that sometimes touches raw nerves in me. As here, speaking of Reiner, Damon observes that

he offers a thought that’s interesting or profound and perhaps not his own, and on the other side of it you sense a blankness that he can’t fill up, there are no further thoughts to follow on.

I often have these feelings about my own thoughts. The struggle for expression. Or half-expression. An incomplete awareness. Then there is the connection between sleep  and travel which have nothing to do with dreams. Spending time in strange rooms (which I’ve just done) always has that disembodied, placeless feel about it.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

The second trip with Reiner ends badly.

Maybe when two people meet for the first time all the possible variations on destiny are contained in their separate natures. These two will be drawn together, those two will be repulsed, most will pass politely with averted gaze and hurry on alone.

Two: The Lover finds (a few years later) Damon still wandering. But somehow changed.

…he can’t seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this not as a failure of the world but as a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how. In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.

Although called “the lover”, this section is about a lover (a young Scandanavian man) who never really connects up with him. It seems that social constructions make it impossible for Jerome to break through to him. There is always a reserve that cannot be overcome.

He and a group of Scandinavians (including Jerome)  travel in Malawi. Travel seems to slow down time to a crawl – or less.

the idea of travelling, of going away, is an attempt to escape time, mostly the attempt is futile, but not here, the little waves lap at the shores just as they always have done, the rhythms of daily life are dictated by the larger ones of nature, the sun or moon for example, something has lasted here from the mythical place before history set itself in motion, ticking like a bomb. It would be easy to just stop and not start again, and indeed a lot of people have done that, you can see them if you take a little walk…

It’s strange and odd how much an astounding film I recently saw at TIFF reminds me of the feel of this book, and its meditations on time and memory.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Three: The Guardian is a heartbreaking story of a journey of a different kind – one into madness. Damon meets up with his friend Anna, whom he has volunteered to take with him for rest in Goa. Anna’s descent is sad and unstinting, and relentlessly describes the toll of schizophrenia on both the sufferer and those around them. This passage, though ostensibly unrelated to Anna’s journey to her end, perfectly captures her struggle against the backdrop of an idyllic setting.

and if the air is disturbed every now and then by the death-screams of a pig, well, there is slaughter even in paradise.

This novel/meditation brought to mind W.G. Sebald in its pace, tone and substance. I’m not sure that this one can win the Booker, but I would not have a problem if it did. For me, it was a profound reading experience.

10 September 2010

Skippy Dies is by far the most uneven of the Booker books I’ve read thus far, and while it has long stretches that border on plain silly, there are pages and pages that perfectly capture those painful and delightful years when adolescence comes calling. And of course it has that British class-boarding school twist with which we’ve all become familiar. Here Irish style.

It’s nerds and jocks and toughs and the vapid beautiful people. They’re all here. Murray has an eye (and ear) for them all. Placed in an area of Dublin that has seen its glory days come  and go, Seabrook College, a Catholic school for boys (there’s an adjacent St. Brigid’s school for girls of course) is the school home of Skippy. I give nothing away to say that Skippy dies. That’s the title of the book after all. No spoiler alert here. And in case there was any doubt, Skippy keels over in the first sentence of the book. Case close. But wait. There’s a story to tell.

The story as I’ve said is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes too precious for its own good. Daniel Juster (Skippy) is one of the nerds, and along with his roommate Ruprecht, they form the little band at the bottom of the social ladder. Ruprecht is a goofy genius who has all kinds of scientific ideas and experiments with them. These are the socially inept, the shy and timid. The main story is Skippy’s infatuation with the beautiful and unobtainable Lorelei. Yes, Skippy died, but the story of how he got to that point is the stuff of the novel.

Paralleling the Skippy-Lorelei thread is the story of history teacher Howard Fallon. For me, this was by far the most engaging character in the book. Howard is in many ways a grown up version of Skippy. His story is more interesting (at least to me) than that of the coming-of-age tale of Skippy. Howard was once a student at the college, and he has come home, after an aborted stint as an investment analyst, to teach. The parallels between Howard’s love-life and Skippy’s halting attempts at a love life are striving. Such that one wonders if Skippy had grown into maturity, would he have followed in the steps of Howard? (At one juncture Howard realizes that Skippy is occupying the seat that he had as a student). Of course, maturity is a relative concept. Skippy died young, but the question can be asked: Better to have died young than to have drifted into a meaningless life, ridden with regret and compromise?

Is this all it’s ever going to be? A grey tapestry of okayness? Frozen in a moment he drifted into?

When Howard thinks of his life as it has become, he wonders what, exactly, he expected?

‘I suppose – this sounds stupid, but I suppose I thought there’d be more of a narrative arc.’

This is a touch sad, but certainly poignant. And what of love, companionship, marriage, children? Howard has often wondered “if he has not spent forty-four years toiling after a myth”.

If he could just be certain that this was the life he wanted, and not just the life he’d ended up with because he was afraid to go after the one he wanted.

The bitter struggles between Howard and the aggressive and upwardly mobile acting/temporary school principal are savage satire. Murray must have been there, done that. He really gets into trouble when he goes beyond the curriculum to give his students a real lesson in history.

‘It’s a good example of how history works,’ Howard says. ‘We tend to think of it as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.

7 September, 2010

And the short list is:

  1. Tom McCarthy for his novel “C”
  2. Emma Donoghue for “Room”
  3. Peter Carey for “Parrot and Olivier in America”
  4. Damon Galgut for “In a Strange Room”
  5. Howard Jacobson for “The Finkler Question”
  6. Andrea Levy for “The Long Song”

OK. I have three more to read then. Surprised that David Mitchell did not make it.

6 September, 2010

Tomorrow, The Booker Long List will be pared down to five (the shortlist). I’m about to finish my ninth book (of the 13 on the long list). Here’s  my top five with the earlier betting odds.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet ~ David Mitchell 9-2
  2. Parrot & Olivier in America ~ Peter Carey 7-1
  3. The Long Song ~ Andrea Levy 4-1
  4. February ~ Lisa Moore 16-1
  5. The Slap ~ Christos Tsiolkas 16-1

I’m second guessing myself on Dunmore’s The Betrayal. But I’m not changing my position on it now. It’s like chess. I took my hand off the move. Rose Tremain’s Trespass is listed by the book at 6-1. But it may be the one book I don’t read, unless it makes it to the short list. Why? Because it doesn’t come out until 18th October – a week after the Prize is announced. The early favorite seems to be Andrea Levy.

2 September, 2010

In Warner’s novel, a sequel to his The Sopranos, the same group of slightly older girls gather for a last-minute budget vacation. It’s four years or so on from when the wee lasses were seventeen. Now it’s 2001, and plan and try as they might, they never quite get it together. Something (large or small) always comes up to alter their plans. One thing and another, dontcha’ know. Warner’s version of the buddy book, features as much drink and (talking about) sex as any male bonding novel. And these women could no doubt drink any six of youse guys under the table.

Warner has a deft and non-judgemental eye for the personalities of these women. All are different, and it is apparent that they have a history together. All except one, a friend of Finn’s at university whom she has invited along to join the group. Ava is the rich one, the upper class French-English friend of Finn who really shouldn’t fit in. But she does, eventually. All it takes is to be the butt of Manda’s acerbic ragging. Everyone is, and in that sense she’s the bigger than life center of the novel. All except Ava are from a small town in Scotland and they’know each other’s secrets in that small town sort of way. Manda is a force of nature who must be dealt with. She’s in your face, non-stop.

One of the group’s most constant activities, is drinking. And Warner uses drinking – the drinks – to illuminate the personalities of all the young women. And it works, from Manda’s pint of Guinness to Kay’s glass of red wine. The reader is aware of each of the six as individuals. And we become increasingly aware of their self-awareness. It’s here, I think, that Warner overplays his hand. Everyone, at one time or another, seems all too aware of their flaws. Warner makes the mistake of having his characters look within themselves and admit to their failings.  This easy introspection rings false to me. Really, most people have not a clue as to why they do the things they do, what went in to making them who they are. Warner, though he has top-notch instincts about the human female animal (pretty astounding for a male author) should have found a better way.

The title comes from a touching interlude between bouts of drinking and carousing, when Kylah does an a capella version of Away In A Manger (…”the stars in the bright sky…”). The Sopranos (which I did not read) featured a trip to a singing competition as I understand it. Certainly a well “observed” novel of manners (or lack thereof), class and social strata, it’s funny and fascinating. Yet, if I’m to read a novel where nothing of substance happens, I need more than this, thank you very much

Can I say something about reading formats? These days I do a mix of purchased books, library books, and kindle downloads. There’s a lot of starry-eyed fondness for the look-and-feel book experience, as opposed to the antiseptic experience of kindle reading. But when the book binding (this was a paperback) comes apart almost immediately, do you know what a pain in the arse that is?

23 August, 2010

Helen Dunmore’s Stalin era (1952) The Betrayal is a bleak look at life under the thumb of what we’ve come to know as Stalinism. The state is all-powerful and everyone is living in a house of cards which can come tumbling down at any moment. Suspicion, spitefulness, vigilance: these are the cornerstones of this repressive society. A society that is stilted and bleak. Not surprising then that the novel itself is somewhat stilted and cardboard, though there are exceptions.

Anna, a teacher of small children and her husband Andrei, are living what is, all things considered, a good life in Leningrad. Although the memories of poverty and the fate of her parents continue to color Anna’s outlook on life.

When her life is turned upside down, from a tram window Anna observes

A few people plod along, huddled against the sharpness of the wind. They’re going home, to their own homes. They’ll close their doors and feel safe. They don’t know how quickly home can be cracked open, like an egg.

Andrei is a pediatrician at a Leningrad hospital, and when a potentially sensitive case comes in, he has to deal with it. The political implications of failure has most of the staff treating the case as a hot potato.

The child of the Security Chief for the Soviet Union, is diagnosed with an aggressive form of bone cancer. This is not Andrei’s speciality, so he seeks the expertise, advice and help of a Jewish Doctor. Her diagnoses is that amputation is the only chance of saving the child’s life. When the child’s prognosis worsens even after the amputation, an outcome that had been forewarned, an investigation ensues. The full acts if life of this post-war Soviet era are brought to bear on the Doctor, Jewish and female, Brodskaya.

There are only a few characters that truly seen to have been given some depth – and mostly these are female. Even Andrei seems less than fleshed out. His wife Anna, however, displays the full depth of her psyche: up from poverty, and just a short slip away from it again. That’s just the way it is. Her Aunt Galya, a retired doctor herself, is also a delightful sketch. Anna has her younger brother as part of her family as well, although he seems almost like her son. Sixteen year old Kolya likes to play the piano (a source of stress between the family and the skulking neighbors). Dunmore has some keen observations in her. She should have used them more. When Kolya offers to play Anna a Chopin Nocturne (a favorite of hers – Kolya’s tastes lie elsewhere), she asks him

‘Why don’t you like Chopin, Kolya?’

‘I don’t know. He just annoys me. He tries to get you to feel the things he’s already decided you’re going to feel. It’s like being grabbed by a fat lady and pressed to her bosom while she sobs in you ear.’

I could take a cheap shot here….

The surprise is that the powerful and dangerous Volkov, who could have easily been written as a black-hat character, is given several layers of complexity. He’s vicious, and he’s perverted, as are most men of his stripe, but Dunmore seems to have found a balance between a monster and a human being.

In the end, there are hopeful signs. A baby is born. Signs of spring.

There’s no snow on the twigs outside her window. . Already, Anna sees signs of the coming spring, still locked inside winter. The sun grows stronger every day. By noon yesterday the temperature was up to two degrees, and there was a steady tick-tick-tick as water dripped from the icicles on the sunny side of the verandah.

She loves the way the seasons follow one another. No one can take that away. Newspaper faces and radio voices can rant as much as they like, but they can’t make a single bud open, or a bird build its nest.

19 August, 2010

Jacobson’s novel is one that seems more erudite and wise than it ultimately ends up being. It just skims the surface of brilliance, and remains uncomfortably forgettable. I wish I could say that the “Jewish question” kept my attention, but this was a mind wanderer of a book. The only thing that kept me reading on (aside from my near unshakeable compulsion to always do so to avoid missing something) was the irreverent humor. Jacobson is funny. Yes, I’ll give him that.

Samuel (Sam) Finkler is the anti-Zionist jew of the title. Finkler is instrumental in the formation of a group known as ASHamed Jews – Jews ashamed of the state of Israel and their usurpation of the land of Palestine. His friend and contemporary (Julian Treslow) in his interior monologues with himself, uses the word Finkler and Jewish interchangeably. Treslow is a Gentile who wants ever so much to be a suffering jew. Making his living as a celebrity look-alike, with two sons by previous relationships (not marriages), Treslow is drifting through his life. He’s without purpose, without committment and without a clue. Enter the ancient tribe of Jews where he believes he can join something, and be subsumed by something bigger than himself. The third member of the little triumvirate that make up the main characters of Jacobson’s novel, is Libor Sevcik, a Zionist and foil to Finkler. Libor is the older of the three, and was once their teacher. He’s also recently lost his long time and adored wife, whom he misses terribly.

The melodrama which is Palestine/Israel, and the skeletal framework of the novel, is man reduced to his lowest, self-serving level (not that we’re immune as you can see from the latest poll on Obama below).

But let me highlight some of the more humorous asides – and asides is really what they are.

Treslow sees a woman lighting candles in a church and immediately falls in love. This happens with every woman he meets. After several nights of intense lovemaking, he tells her he fell for her when he saw her lighting candles.

‘I like candles. They’re pretty.”

He ran his hands through her hair. ‘You like their flicker. You like their transience. I understand.’

“There’s something you should know about me,” she said. ‘I’m a bit of an arsonist. Not serious. I wasn’t going to burn down the church. But I am turned on by flame.”

He laughed and kissed her face. ‘Hush,’ he said. ‘Hush, my love.”

In the morning he woke to twin realisations. The first was that she had left him. The second was that his sheets were on fire.

Even Hitler and Mussolini are not immune from Jacobson’s wit. Well, of course. In unspeakable ways, their ripe for it. Treslow and Libor get into a discussion about loving music and ‘jewishness’. When Treslow professes that he must be a little bit Jewish because as a boy he loved to listen to opera and wanted to lean the violin, Libor responds

‘That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to operas and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. When Mussolini visited Hitler in the Alps they played the Bach double violin concerto together. “And now let’s kill some Jews,” Hitler said when they were finished. You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.’

And later, Treslow makes this observation about opera.

Everything they sing is either a hello or a goodbye. That’s opera for you.

Sometimes the humor is just a turn of phrase. While discussing the tendency to see anti-Semitism around every corner, Treslow’s girlfriend calls it “crying Wolfowitz”.

At a Passover meal (his first) Treslow marvels that all the food symbolizes something – except for the chicken and potatoes, which as far as he could tell, symbolized nothing.

He was pleased about that. Food that symbolised nothing was easier to digest.

Beyond the Finkler (Jewish) Questions, there are other serious meditations here as well. Libor, meeting up with a woman he had known 5o-years ago, waxes rhapsodic on beauty and how illusory it can be. Then there’s the long rap on circumcision, which is serious (Maimonides) and a riot at the same time. Reading Maimonides is part of Treslow’s education into becoming Jewish, and he’s finding it somewhat of a slog.

‘As regards circumcision,’ Maimonides had written, ‘I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse.’

He read it again.

‘As regards circumcision,’ Maimonides had written, ‘I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse.’

And then again.

‘As regards circumcision,’ Maimonides had written, ‘I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse.’

But we don’t have to follow him through every reading.

That cracked me up good!

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16 August, 2010

Levy’s historical fiction recounts the story of the 1831-32 Baptist Rebellion and slave revolt in Jamaica. The best historical fiction yields up surprising and memorable characters. Otherwise why read historical fiction at all? The human story within the larger historical context often illuminates the history in a way that academic history is really unable to. This one yields up a particularly memorable one: July, daughter of Kitty  – both of them slaves on a Jamaican sugar plantation. As a child, July is separated from her mother and brought up to the big house to cater to the whims of the Massa’s sister, recently widowed and arrived from England.

So July is separated from her mother who rarely sees her again, even though they work on the same plantation, called ironically “Amity.” There is a great social gap between field slaves and house slaves which is made clear. Nevertheless, slaves are slaves. Caroline even rechristens July as Marguerite because the name conjures up for Caroline Mortimer a richness and class that she fears is lacking on her brother plantation. The name Marguerite, unlike the name July,  sounds  more like a Lady’s maid should sound.

Caroline Mortimer is an odd duck. Having arrived in Jamaica after a rough passage, she soon is eager to experience the life of Jamaica and Jamaicans – at least the white version of that life. A stout woman, her appetite soon returns

And fresh and adventurous it was too. Why, she thought the mango the loveliest of fruit—juicy and sweet. True, it did have the taste of a peach dipped in turpentine, and a texture so stringy that she was required to pull at the little threads caught in her teeth for many an hour after, but she was not a timid person, too scared to try these new experiences.

The novel begins with a forward by a Jamaican publisher, Thomas Kinsman, dated 1898. Kinsman has encouraged his mother (July) to write her memoirs, and her life story as she lived it through the slave revolt way back in 1831. July is the offspring of a rape by the savagely brutal plantation overseer, Tam Dewar. As July looks back, she is a canny and unreliable narrator. She mostly speaks of herself (July) in the third person and there are episodic asides to the reader of the “dear reader” variety. The former mechanism is just odd – I never could figure out the point of that. But the latter, which can be off-putting in some novels seems to work here, especially when July points out how her son (Thomas) is on her case about finishing the book and telling the truth. There are several times when July tells us the tale is finished, only to have Thomas, disagree with her, and insist on her redoing or completing the story, encouraging her not to gloss over the facts, nor leave the brutal parts out. He particularly wants his story appended on as well.

July is matter of fact and vulnerable at the same time. She’s been down and out, having given up  two of her children for adoption and had a third stolen from her. Thus she has had all three of her children lost to her, as she was lost to her own Mother. Nevertheless, she retains a sense of humor and a good heart throughout it all. Jane, Thomas’ wife asks July about the origins of her son,

‘Was your son born in wedlock?’ Jane Kinsman then states that this guileless, naïve and simple negro (these are her words, reader, and not my own) did then reply, ‘No, missus, him was born in de wood—where be wedlock?’

When the uprising occurs, things quickly become chaotic, everything is turned upside down and inside out. Left alone in the big house, July and Nimrod (a freeman), pounce on the Massa’s bed and frolic. Then they play their own macabre version of Master and Slave.

His few-few-tooth-grin tried to muster some sort of charm, but was hindered – for while his one eye looked firm upon her face, the other roamed up and down her body and everywhere it pleased. But still, it was a freeman who stood over her, seeming ready to gobble her up. July put dow the cup and, looking firmly upon the eye that needed to be taught to stare, said, ‘Bring me some tea and be quick.’ Nimrod, scratching his head, frowned for the briefest second before those lonely teeth once more set out to enchant. Then he bowed low.

The knife, fork, spoon and blue and white plate that Nimrod laid at the end of the dining table for July were placed well enough, but still she had to punish him. For he was too slow. He was a dull and indolent nigger.

‘You are a very stupid nigger and I will see you whipped,’ July cried.

And Nimrod cringed, ‘Sorry, missus,’ before her

She sees her mother for the last time as she is hung for the murder (unjustly accused) of the plantation owner. The scene reads like a line from the song “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holliday.

Her mama struggled. Her mama choked. Until, at last stilled, her mama hung small and black as a ripened pod upon a tree.

Levy writes a compelling history, fiction though it may be. She focuses her razor sharp eyes and subtle wit on the deadly tango between class and race within the British Empire. Herself the daughter of Jamaican immigrants to England knows whereof she speaks. And it’s a story well worth listening to.

11 August, 2010

Although this novel from Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas (his fourth) may be a cut below some of the Booker listed novels I’ve already read, it may just have caught the wave of multiculturalism. Winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, it’s a book that is drenched in the perils of a multicultural society as we live it today (although this is a novel of Australia, we can transfer similar attitudes to our own society). The fear of the other, race consciousness, class attitudes, the intolerance of different cultures and their subtleties, the prejudice of other colors, gender bias, other ways of worship, other ways to rear children, other ways to love. These are the real concerns of the novel.

The hook of the novel is a slap (“The” slap) of a child at a family barbecue and the repercussions of that act. The story is told in 8 chapters named after eight of the main characters. I thought going in that the eight voices would be narrators from different perspectives, but although they all have their opinions of the slapper, the child slapped and the justification (or non justification) for something like that, each chapter is not necessarily primarily focused on the event. Some more than others.

The novel begins with a party at Hector and Aisha’s house. Hector is Greek and Aisha is of mixed parentage – European and Indian. Hector is a greek God and Aisha is an Indian Goddess. They make a beautiful couple. In fact, most of the people presented here are beautiful beyond the norm. No plain Jane’s here. Both are hard working and driven – she a successful vet and he a well placed government bureaucrat. Rosie (one of Aisha’s best friends) is married to Gary, an Aussie alcoholic. Their child Hugo is somewhat of a spoiled brat – at four still suckling from the breast of his mother. When Hector’s cousin feels that Hugo is threatening his (older than Hugo) son, Rocco, he intervenes and slaps Hugo. All hell breaks loose.

Rosie is the kind of mother who is devoted to her son to the diminishment of all else. To her Hugo can do no wrong. She admits to herself that

You’re my life Hugo. She did not want to give voice to this thought, and he definitely did not need to hear it. But it was true. He was her life, her whole life.

Anouk is French and Jewish, a writer on a highly successful soap. She and the star of the show are lovers. Both are beautiful (that makes two beautiful couples). Anouk has put her life on hold, does not want children, wants to write something real and lasting so she finally quits her job. Along with Rosie and Aisha, they make a trio who often get together to talk about their lives, hopes and dreams. The slap of Rosie’s son puts a strain on their relationship. Since Rosie insists on pursuing assault charges against Harry, naturally Hector (reluctantly) sides with his cousin. Aisha sides with Rosie, and although Anouk sides with Rosie as well, she’s not sure that she shouldn’t just let it go, as it becomes an obesssion.

Connie (a teen who has had an unclear relationship with Hector, Aisha’s husband) works for Aisha. Her best friend Richie is a young gay teen the same age as her. Both of them are in the Rosie-Hugo camp, and do a lot of babysitting for them. Then there is Manolis, Hector’s father. Manolis is old school: spare the rod and spoil the child, so you know where he comes down. Besides, Harry is blood

One realizes that The Slap is not about the abuse of this child, or even child abuse in general. Seems to me, most novels have a set of characters and a story that frame the themes. Here, the opposite is true, the themes are set out so that the characters can be explored in depth. And the characters are meant to be a cross section of modern Australia – and modern Australian attitudes and proclivities. Song titles are peppered throughout the novel to show what people are listening to. Drug references are many to show what people are getting juiced up on.

What Tsiolkas does best in his individual chapters, is explore the core of these eight people. Some of them we like a lot, some of them we are irritated with, but Tsiolkas is adept at giving us an understanding of each of them, so that we ultimately have to feel for them is some way – except perhaps for Harry who is pretty much of an all-around asshole, a woman hater whom we almost (but not quite) have sympathy for (until he reveals himself to us). Only a jerk like Harry could make us grudgingly dredge up sympathy for little Hugo. Rosie is irritating and fatuous, but it’s easy to understand how she got that way.

It’s Manolis (the Greek patriarch) who I really was impressed with. He’s coping with the changing world as best he can, which is about all any of us can do.

Regrets, some shame, a little guilt. But they had all done the best they could, they had raised their children well, educated them, housed them, made them safe and secure. They had all been good people. Death was never welcome but He always came. It was only to be truly lamented when He took the young, those neither prepared nor deserving of it. Then death was cruel.

There’s a certain amount of determinism in Tsiolkas’ novel. Like father like son. Like mother, like daughter. Or else the rebellious opposite. Manolis can see it in his own grandchildren

Manolis received no comfort in realising the patterns would be repeated.

Reflective after attending the funeral of a great friend he’d lost touch with, he visits another old friend who is dying of Cancer. His friend tells him, that

‘Life went too fast and fucking death goes too slow.’

Ain’t that the truth.

7 August, 2010

“Request assistance a.s.a.p. … We are an offshore drilling platform … Winds at this time are approx…. 75 knots.. . Rig is of semisubmersible build … is listing severely 12° to 14°portside.”

These were the last words to come from the oil rig Ocean Ranger. The largest offshore oil rig in operation at the time, investigators found poor design, poor maintenance and inspections, and poor training all contributed to the disaster. In the wake of the recent BP/Transocean Gulf explosion and spill, does this all sound familiar? Eleven lives were lost on the Deepwater Horizon explosion earlier this year, but the oil spill will have implications for years to come.

Helen O’Mara is pregnant with their fourth child, when her husband Cal is lost at sea along with all 84 crew members of the oil rig Ocean Ranger. In February 1982, the rig sank off the coast of Newfoundland in rough seas, and Moore’s novel tells the story of Helen and her family as they struggle to survive. Beginning in the present, twenty-five years on, the novel moves back and forth in an impressionistic mode as Helen obsesses on the memory of her husband: his last thoughts, what were they? What was he doing just before he dies? Where was he when he heard the news that the rig he was on was sinking? Moore explores survivor guilt and loneliness. She dreams of Cal constantly and is unable to “move on”. Her children, it is clear, would have been very different people had not this tragedy struck their lives.

Helen and Cal’s oldest son John is, ironically, in the business of “risk assessment.” Ironic in the sense that he takes little risk in his life, dis-engaged as he is. At his job interview, John is told that the “culture of safety” on the oil rigs is “detrimental to efficiency.” The company he interviews with (and begins working for) is called Shoreline Group (substitute TransOcean, though remember this book was published before the Gulf explosion all happened). Shoreline Group

offered a cost-benefit analysis of the safety procedures in place and drafted modification plans, Mr. McPherson said, that impacted directly on waste and redundancy, and the general good for communities at large, and profit margins, and there were stakeholders to consider. There were safety procedures that did nothing but tie the hands of people looking to make things run smoothly out there.

So the irony is also there in terms of the spin-speak of the oil companies, then and now:

There would follow, after the rig sank, a lot of talk about risk assessment. The oil companies held a symposium.

The oil companies were all about acceptable levels of risk and they always had been. They spoke of possible faults in the system and how to avoid them. Here, here. They advised strongly against intuition when assessing risk. If you were scared shitless, they said, that was only intuition, and you should ignore it. They asked the public to consider the overall good to be achieved when we do take risks. They spoke in that back-assed way and what they meant was: If you don’t do the job, we’ll give it to someone who will.

They meant: There’s money to be made.

They meant: We will develop the economy.

They meant there isn’t any risk, so shut the fuck up about it. Except they didn’t say fuck, they said: Consider the overall public good.

Memories float in and out in the middle of domestic chores, in the middle of carrying on, in the middle of living, many of which are written as short chapters, like “The Dog, 1975” (“a swatch of memory”). Helen and Cal are walking along a foggy beach with their dog, when Cal bends down, puts his hand in the water, and three fingers in his mouth to taste the salt.

Is this what a life is? Someone, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, remembers you tasting the ocean on your fingers long after you’re gone. Someone draws that out of the fog, draws out that memory, detached from circumstance, not locatable on a timeline.

In many ways, this is a ‘domestic’ novel: Family life, loss and love, growing up, growing old, coping. Moore tells this family story through snatches of Helen’s memory, all surrounded by everyday details: shopping, cooking, renovating the house, sisterhood, motherhood. Initially, the novel seemed without a defined story, plot movement – all that traditional novelistic stuff. Until one realizes that we have really come to understand Helen (a wonderfully drawn sketch), her sister Louise, and her son John through the novel’s portrait of them. These are not static figures.

Four years before the loss of Cal, the family is taking part in a kindergarten activity with John. It’s turned into a beautiful day despite earlier warnings of inclement weather, but it’s as if she has a premonition.

the scent of the lilacs had been strong and she had felt the wind change. The leaves on the maple trees had suddenly brightened. Things change instantly, she thought. Things can change for no apparent reason.

On the morning she gets the news of the disaster (and she gets it not from a phone call from the company, but from the radio), and knows that Cal is dead, she is struck by the beauty of life as she looks out her window. And the panic of looming loneliness,

Helen will never forget how beautiful the snow was, and the sky, and how it flooded her and she couldn’t tell the beauty apart from the panic. She decided then, and still believes, that beauty and panic are one and the same.

Panic and beauty are inside each other, all the time, copulating in an effort to create more beauty and panic, and everybody gets down on his or her knees in the face of it. It is a demonic, angelic coupling.

What Helen cannot fathom or forgive: We are alone in death. Of course we are alone. It is a solitude so refined we cannot experience it while we are alive; it is too rarefied, too potent. It is a drug, that solitude, an immediate addiction. A profound selfishness, so full of self it is an immolation of all that came before. Cal was alone in that cold. Utterly alone, and that was death. That, finally, was death.

Lisa Moore has written an impressionistic novel that’s grounded in the mundane. Poetic, with a memorable character, yet oddly relevant in ways one might not have considered a few months ago.

Lisa Moore is a Canadian writer. This is her fourth novel.

27 July, 2010
It’s that time of year again. Booker time (sounds like a rare Scotch). Last year I blogged the Booker here. This years long list is out (that’s the Booker dozen – 13 – get it?). Sure you do. I’ve already got two in the hole, and two good ones they were. First I read Peter Carey’s wonderfully re-imagined tale of de Tocqueville: Parrot & Oliver in America (commentary here).  Then the always brilliantly inventive David Mitchell with his The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (commentary here).  Of the 34 books I’ve read this year, these two are in my top six at the moment.

So, bring it on. Seems to me that the Booker list this year is much more readily available than last year’s.

I’ve got four already queued up on my Kindle:

• Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic – Atlantic Books). I read – and enjoyed his The Imposter last year (commentary here), a novel of the changing landscape in South Africa.

• Andrea Levy The Long Song (Headline Publishing Group – Headline Review)

• Lisa Moore February (Random House – Chatto & Windus)

• Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic – Tuskar Rock)

These three I have coming from Book Depository:

• Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan – Picador)

• Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin – Fig Tree)

• Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

I have this one on hold at the library, awaiting only it’s release in early September: Tom McCarthy C (Random House – Jonathan Cape). McCarthy (and his Remainders) was brought to my attention by Zadie Smith in her book, Changing My Mind. I look forward to this one.

And the last three (of the thirteen)?:

• Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin – Hamish Hamilton), I have pre-ordered to my kindle for it’s 8-31 release.

• Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House – Chatto & Windus), I have on “notification” at Book Depository

• Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky (Random House – Jonathan Cape), I have not ordered yet. So if I get to it, it will be the last one of the bunch I’ll read.

Happy Booker-ing!

10 responses to “Booker Prize: 2010

  1. Pingback: New Page « Chazz W

  2. All right! I’ll be reading along, seeing as I’ve yet to get to a single one (although the Mitchell is sitting on my desk very near the top of the tilting pile).

  3. PatD

    The Galgut, Warner, Murray and Jacobson are the only ones that appeal to me. Seems like a very weak year. But I’ll let Charlie be the judge of that. I’m up for any surprises he encounters.

  4. Pingback: The Long Song ~ Andrea Levy « Chazz W

  5. Pingback: The Finkler Question ~ Howard Jacobson « Chazz W

  6. Pingback: The Betrayal ~ Helen Dunmore « Chazz W

  7. Pingback: The Stars in the Bright Sky ~ Alan Warner « Chazz W

  8. Pingback: Paring down the Long List « Chazz W

  9. Pingback: Skippy Dies ~ Paul Murray « Chazz W

  10. Pingback: In A Strange Room ~ Damon Galgut « Chazz W

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