About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019 and I am now properly retired and trying to write a novel. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 15 September 2019

"Tono-Bungay" by H G Wells

H G Wells made his name with science fiction classics such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine but he also wrote a number of 'normal' novels such as Kipps (on which the musical Half a Sixpence is based), Love and Mr Lewishman, and The History of Mr Polly. Tono-Bungay attempts to straddle these genres. The title refers to a patent medicine which the narrator's uncle invents and which makes his fortune, but it is made clear that the scientific justification for this medicine is nil, it has no curative powers. However, the narrator spends some considerable time developing flying machines (the book was written in 1909 just six years after the Wright Brothers and in the same year as Louis Bleriot crossed the channel so flight was very much in the scientific headlines of the day) and he also makes an expedition to Africa to collect a radioactive material (radioactivity was discovered in 1896 and the first intimations of its dangers date to about 1906). However, despite these scientific overlayings which may have been included for the sake of selling the book, the main thrust of the novel is an autobiographical account of Wells's early days, fictionalised and adapted, and the great success of Tono-Bungay may be seen to equate with the great success of Wells's fiction.

There is a structure:

  • The fist part of the first chapter contains a classic hook: "And once (though it is the most incidental thing in my life) I murdered a man …"The first section describes a number of things which are to come. 
  • The first mention of the patent medicine Tono-Bungay occurs almost exactly at the 25% mark.
  • There is foreshadowing: "‘He's always wanting something to happen,’ said my aunt Susan. ‘Some day he'll get a shower of things and they'll be too much for him.’" (1.2.4) 
However, to a large extent, the autobiographical details distort the plot. Wells as the first-person narrator states: "I suppose what I'm really trying to render is nothing more nor less than Life – as one man has found it. I want to tell – myself, and my impressions of the thing as a whole, to say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels." (1.2). He also makes much of the fact that his desk is strewn with untidy notes an one might agree; there are times when the book seems to ramble.

It moves from his childhood as the son of the housekeeper living in a big house to his apprenticeship with his uncle, a village chemist. He then travels to London to study science but gets distracted by wanting to marry. He is enabled to marry by taking a job with his uncle managing the distribution of the patent medicine; his marriage is a loveless and more or less sexless disaster. These follow, more or less closely, the facts of H G Wells's life as recounted in his biography for example that written by Lovat Dickson.

The last part of the book contains a dreadfully overwritten melodramatic love scene and some passages of purple description.

His early life also provide ammunition for Wells to rail against:

  • The class system of his time:
    • "The great house, the church, the village and the labourers and the servants in their stations and degrees, seemed to me, I say, to be a closed and complete social system." (1.1.2)
    • "In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny." (1.1.3)
    • "The public schools that had come into existence in the brief glow of the Renascence had been taken possession of by the ruling class; the lower classes were not supposed to stand in need of schools, and our middle stratum got the schools it deserved, private schools, schools any unqualified pretender was free to establish." (1.1.6)
    • I wandered up through Rochester once, and had a glimpse of the Stour valley above the town, all horrible with cement works and foully smoking chimneys and rows of workmen's cottages, minute, ugly, uncomfortable and grimy. So I had my first intimation of how industrialism must live in a landlord's land. (1.2.1)
  • Capitalism:
    • "The whole trend of modern money-making is to foresee something that will presently be needed and put it out of reach, and then to haggle yourself wealthy. You buy up land upon which people will presently want to build houses, you secure rights that will bar vitally important developments, and so on, and so on." (1.3.1)
    • "See what the world pays teachers and discoverers and what it pays businessmen! That shows the ones it really wants." (2.2.2)
    • "the quickest way to get wealth is to sell the cheapest thing possible in the dearest bottle." (2.2.3)
    • "Advertisement has revolutionized trade and industry; it is going to revolutionize the world. The old merchant used to tote about commodities; the new one creates values. Doesn't need to tote. He takes something that isn't worth anything – or something that isn't particularly worth anything, and he makes it worth something." (2.3.2)
    • "The whole of this modern mercantile investing civilization is indeed such stuff as dreams are made of. A mass of people swelters and toils, great railway systems grow, cities arise to the skies and spread wide and far, mines are opened, factories hum, foundries roar, ships plough the seas, countries are settled; about this busy striving world the rich owners go, controlling all, enjoying all, confident and creating the confidence that draws us all together into a reluctant, nearly unconscious brotherhood." (3.1.3)
    • "for this the millions toiled and perished in suffering, in order that a few of us should build palaces"(4.1.2)
  • Church goers:
    • "He made no fight against the world at all, he was floundering in small debts that were not so small but that finally they overwhelmed him; whenever there was occasion for any exertion his wife fell back upon pains and her ‘condition’, and God sent them many children, most of whom died, and so, by their coming and going, gave a double exercise in the virtues of submission. Resignation to God's will was the common device of these people in the face of every duty and every emergency." (1.2.1)
    • "They were the self-appointed confidants of God's mockery of His own creation."(1.2.1)
  • Mrs Grundy:
    • "For all that is cardinal in this essential business of life she had one inseparable epithet – ‘horrid’." (2.4.1)
    • "She had an idea of love as a state of worship and service on the part of the man and of condescension on the part of the woman." (2.4.1)
    • "The man gave presents, did services, sought to be in every way delightful. The woman ‘went out' with him, smiled at him, was kissed by him in decorous secrecy, and if he chanced to offend, denied her countenance and presence. Usually she did something ‘for his good' to him, made him go to church, made him give up smoking or gambling, smartened him up. Quite at the end of the story came a marriage, and after that the interest ceased." (2.4.1)
    • "One side of the road for men, and the other for women, and a hoarding without posters between them. Every boy and girl to be sewn up in a sack and sealed, just the head and hands and feet out until twenty-one. Music abolished, calico garments for the lower animals!" (2.4.2)
    • "Anyone who knows about these things, knows there's just as much mystery and deliciousness about Grundy's forbidden things as there is about eating ham. Jolly nice if it's a bright morning and you're well and hungry and having breakfast in the open air. Jolly unattractive if you're off colour." (2.4.3)
    • "It's easy to make allowances now; but to be young and ardent and to make allowances, to see one's married life open before one, the life that seemed in its dawn a glory, a garden of roses, a place of deep sweet mysteries and heart throbs and wonderful silences, and to see it a vista of tolerations and baby-talk! A compromise. The least effectual thing in all one's life. "(2.4.5)
    • "Desire which fills the universe before its satisfaction, vanishes utterly – like the going of daylight – with achievement." (2.4.10)

Other quotes

  • "Most people in this world seem to live ‘in character’; they have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the three are congruous one with another and true to the rules of their type." (1.1.1)
  • "When she told you it was a fine morning, she seemed also to be telling you you were a fool." (1.1.4)
  • "She was that strange product of the old time, a devoted, trusted servant; she had, as it were, banked all her pride and will with the greater, more powerful people who employed her, in return for a lifelong security of servitude – the bargain was none the less binding for being implicit. Finally they were to pension her, and she would die the hated treasure of a boardinghouse. She had built up in herself an enormous habit of reference to these upstairs people, she had curbed down all discordant murmurings of her soul, her very instincts were perverted or surrendered. She was sexless, her personal pride was all transferred, she mothered another woman's child with a hard, joyless devotion that was at last entirely compatible with a stoical separation." (1.1.7)
  • "the son of a servant counts as a servant." (1.1.9)
  • "The body betrayed an equatorial laxity, an incipient ‘bow window'." (1.2)
  • "They seemed to be adrift in a limitless crowd of dingy people, wearing shabby clothes, living uncomfortably in shabby secondhand houses, going to and fro on pavements that had always a thin veneer of greasy, slippery mud, under grey skies that showed no gleam of hope of anything for them but dinginess until they died." (1.3.7)
  • "I had thought of London as a large, free, welcoming, adventurous place, and I saw it slovenly and harsh and irresponsive." (1.3.7)
  • "I did not want simply to live or simply to live happily or well, I wanted to serve and do and make – with some nobility. It was in me. It is in half the youth of the world." (2.1.1)
  • "It was a relationship so alien to my orderly conceptions of honour, to what I could imagine any friend of mine doing, that I really hardly saw it with it there under my nose." (2.1.3)
  • "I have no advice to give anyone, none, – except to avoid regrets. Be yourself, – seek after such beautiful things as your own sense determines to be beautiful. And don't mind the headache in the morning…. "(2.2.4)
  • "The real trouble of life, Ponderevo, isn't that we exist – that's a vulgar error; the real trouble is that we don't really exist and we want to. That's what this – in the highest sense – muck stands for! The hunger to be – for once – really alive – to the fingertips!…" (2.3.2)
  • "None of us want to be what we are, or to do what we do. Except as a sort of basis. What do we want? You know. I know. Nobody confesses. What we all want to be is something perpetually young and beautiful – young Joves, young Joves, Ponderevo' – his voice became loud, harsh and declamatory – ‘pursuing coy half-willing nymphs through everlasting forests…’" (2.3.2)
  • "There's all these patent grain foods, – what Americans call cereals. I believe I'm right, sir, in saying they're sawdust.’" (2.3.2)
  • "the way in which the young people of this generation pair off determines the fate of the nation; all the other affairs of the state are subsidiary to that. And we leave it to flushed and blundering youth to stumble on its own significance," (2.4.1)
  • "Though Marion ‘liked' music, she didn't like ‘too much of it‘," (2.4.2)
  • "I became an inordinate cigar smoker; it gave me moods of profound depression, but I treated these usually by the homoeopathic method, by lighting another cigar." (3.3.1)
  • "the intellectual level of palmistry and genteel fiction, pink" (3.3.2)
  • "‘You want to make a flying-machine,’ she pursued. ‘And when you fly? What then? Would it be for fighting?’…" (3.3.3)
  • "This way in which men and women make audiences for one another is a curiously influential force in their lives. For some it seems an audience is a vital necessity, they seek audiences as creatures seek food; others again, my uncle among them, can play to an imaginary audience. I, I think, have lived and can live without one. " (3.3.5)
  • "Radioactivity is a real disease of matter. Moreover it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence." (3.4.5)

Rweflecting on the story, Wells as narrator says it is "The immense inconsequence of my experiences. It is, I see now that I have it all before me, a story of activity and urgency and sterility." (4.3.1) Not the best blurb.

September 2019

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

This is a big book. There were times when I flagged. There were times when I skim-read. There were times when I wondered what the point of certain scenes was. But having reached the end I believe that this might be a great book, the sort of book that haunts you.

I have only recently finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book about a disaffected boy at college and the terrible secret he becomes involved with and the guilt and death it brings. Except that the disaffected boy starts younger and ends older, a man, in The Goldfinch, it has all the same elements.

It starts with a bang. Tartt started The Secret History with a Prologue that described a murder in which the narrator was involved; this provided a compelling hook. She does much the same in this book; in the first part of the first chapter the narrator is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel and it becomes instantly clear that he has been involved in a crime. In the fourth part of the first chapter the narrator, Theodore Decker, visits a New York art gallery with his mother only to become the victims of a terrorist bomb.

His mother dies; he is physically unscathed. In the rubble an old man gives him a ring and urges him to save a painting from possible flames; concussed and dazed he somehow escapes from the building unnoticed by rescue workers with ring and painting. The ring he returns to a charming furniture restorer in Greenwich Village but he hides and keeps the painting (The Goldfinch, truly a key painting in the history of art being painted by Fabritius who is supposed to have been the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer thus providing the link between these two masters) until he realises that it is too late to return it; other paintings stolen during the bomb attack have brought their thieves long prison sentences and whopping fines. So through the remainder of his childhood and into his early manhood he is pursued by guilt over the death of his mother, PTSD from the bombing, and fear of being discovered as a thief.

Soon he is shipped out to Las Vegas to live with his gambler father and father's bar hostess girlfriend; with new friend Boris, son of a mining engineer, he has a perfectly feral adolescence, drinking heavily and smoking weed, stealing food from supermarkets, and, sometimes, going to school. Boris, the fast-talking Ukranian who has already lived a full lifetime including living on the streets in the Ukraine (one wonders about what his father was doing at that time) is the most brilliant character and the book is most fun when Boris is around.

The Goldfinch has been criticised for having stereotypical characters: the gangsters from Eastern Europe, the unstable gambler/ ex-actor, the bullied geek, the dodgy antique dealer, the kindly old furniture restorer, the whole cast of posh old ladies and bright young things that make up New York's upper class. Yes, these are stereotypes but I certainly came to believe in Boris and Hobie and Theo. There are flesh on these bones.

I believed for a while that there was some sort of supernatural theme. When the mother goes into the museum she describes the neighbourhood as a time warp (later in the book Theo describes a time warp as “a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.”; 6.iv) and after the explosion the old man talks some nonsense which seems to refer to the painting's previous escape from a warehouse fire. Disaster seems to follow the Goldfinch; Theodore certainly experiences an unusual amount of death.

One might see The Secret History as contrasting an Apollonian and a Dionysian perspective. In the same way I think that The Goldfinch contrasts Life and Death. Theo sees life from the gloomiest of perspectives: “It was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dog walkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.” (9.v) On the other hand Boris is the personification of vitality. He is a Jack Kerouac character, full of life and enthusiasm, utterly without fear or (conventional) morality. He brought the book alive.

And I loved the moments when the prose became mesmerisingly intense, as when Theodore has a vision of New Yorkers as dead men walking.
  • The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn't he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital ...It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.” (9.v)

I suppose that Theo, the narrator, the protagonist, the central character, has seen in the painting of the Goldfinch something of himself. About half way through he reflects on the painting:

  • The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” (6.iv)

This, I suppose, is the message: that Theo is, as we all are, chained to his perch; that this is "a cruel life for a little living creature". At the end Theo reflects: “In this staunch little portrait, it's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.” (12.vii)

As a consequence, Theo has what Boris calls a "mist of sadness, sort of, around your head" (6.xiii) (and isn't it clever how the 'sort of' turns what might otherwise be a potentially pretentious authorial interjection into a line of dialogue). Of course Theodore means 'gift from god' but, as Boris says: “God has tortured Theo plenty. If suffering makes noble, then he is a prince.” (10.vii)

Boris is perhaps the very opposite of Theo. Whereas Theo is all gloom and nihilism, Boris is Life. Theo worries. Boris doesn't. “With Boris, the future had never appeared to enter his head any further than his next meal ... And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full of great, ridiculous possibilities.” (8.ii)

And in the end Theo asks why we should assume that everyone will want to do the good, the sensible things? “Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer ... ‘Follow your heart.’ ... What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? ... If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? ... Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing in the holy rage calling your name?” (12.vii)

Other great lines:

  • They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters - ripeness sliding into rot.” (1.iv)
  • Part of her was there, but it was invisible. The invisible part was the important part. This was something I had never understood before. ... Both parts had to be together. You couldn't have one part without the other.” (1.v)
  • Her voice ... was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she were relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.” (3.iii)
  • His conversation sometimes made me feel as though I was talking to one of those computer programs that mimic human response.” (4.ix)
  • Many of my classmates disliked Thoreau, railed against him even, as if he (who claimed never to have learned anything of value from an old person) was an enemy and not a friend.” (5.x)
  • None of us ever find enough kindness in the world do we?” (5.xxv)
  • You could study the connections for years and never work it out - it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp ... the strange chance that might, or might not, change everything.” (6.iv)
  • The money’s not important. ... All money represents is the energy of the thing, you know? It’s how you track it. The flow of chance.” (6.iv)
  • This was how you went wrong: this fast.” (6.xix)
  • The secret is, is always fix their attention away from where the slippery stuff’s going on. That's the first law of magic ... Misdirection. Never forget it.” (6.xx)
  • My endless cramming felt a lot more like self-destruction than any glue sniffing I'd ever done; and at some bleary point, the work itself became a kind of drug.” (7.vii)
  • As I moved about through the stagnant silences, the pools of shadow and deep sun, the old floors creaked underfoot like the deck of a ship, the wash of traffic out on Sixth Avenue breaking just audibly against the ear.” (7.vii) 
  • Depression wasn't the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavour from the dawn of time.” (9.xi)
  • A more practical or less scrupulous man would have worked this skill to calculated ends and made a fortune with it ... fucked it harder than a five-grand prostitute.” (9.v)
  • Sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.” (10.iii) 
  • First question ... does God have sense of humour? sSecond question: does God have cruel sense of humour? Such as: does God toy with us and torture us for His own amusement, like vicious child with garden insect?” (10.vii)
  • The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that has held the whole cathedral up.” (10. x) 
  • Great technical skill, but overly refined. Obsessive exactitude. There's a death-like quality.” (10.xvi)
  • To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it.” (10.xxiii)
  • I had the queasy sense of my own life ... as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.” (11.x) 
  • Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly ‘worry’ was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person. ... People had been raging and weeping and destroying things for centuries and wailing about their puny individual lives, when - what was the point? All this useless sorrow? Consider the lilies of the field. Why did anyone ever worry about anything? Weren’t we, as sentient beings, put upon the earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us us?” (11.xvi)
  • The world is much stranger than we know or can say ... Maybe this is the one instance where you can't boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ ... Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple.” (12.v)
  • If bad can sometimes come from good actions ... where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes - the wrong way is the right way? yYou can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?” (12.v)
  • The reason why why anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway.Pss you yout, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” (12.vii)
  • Who was it said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous?” (12.vii) 
  • Why am I made the way that I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? ... How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet - for me, anyway - all that's worth living for lies in that charm?” (12.vii)
  • It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see it's dignity: symbol of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.” (12.vii)
  • No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe.” (12.vii)
  • Better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal ... no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.” (12.vii) 
  • If disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time - so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.” (last words)
I think that it is a great book, a very important book, for all its flaws. Dickens has flaws. Trollope has many flaws. Does this mean they are not great? Tartt is a great writer.

Does this book conform to the Hero's Journey arc? (Spoiler alert)

The Goldfinch closely follows the 'Hero's Journey' story arc:

Ordinary World: “what the life of the protagonist is like prior to the primary event ... the status quo of the hero.”Theo lives with his Mum in NY
Call to AdventureA terrorist bomb in an art gallery kills Theo's mum and almost literally blasts him out of his ordinary world. A dying old man gives him a ring and urges him to take the painting of a Goldfinch.
Refuse the Call: “the hero's initial unwillingness to become involved in the unfolding situation requires the intersection of another character”Theo hides the painting in his mother's flat while living with respectable people in NY. It is only after some time, and reluctantly, that he returns the ring to Hobie and meets Pippa again.
Crossing the first threshold: “the story gets rolling, sometimes in actuality and sometimes metaphorically.”
Theo's father takes him to Las Vegas where he meets Boris. He takes the painting with him.
Enemies: the hero “begins to understand the nature and identity of his enemies.”The authorities: who will seek to have him imprisoned if they know what he has done.
Lucius Reece
Approach to the inmost cave: “a place of fear (can be psychological or metaphorical) as well as danger”His descent into drug-fuelled nihilism
His increasingly crooked antique dealing

The visit to Horst's apartment is an almost literal visit to a cave.
OrdealHis confession to Hobie followed immediately by the engagement party?
The road back: “things are not going to be the same in that world because the hero is not the same person who left it in the first place. So the road back has his own dangers”His journey with Boris and other gangsters to Amsterdam to recapture 
Resurrection: “One last moment in which something occurs to test the solidity of what's the hero has learnt on his journey. ... Surviving this final ordeal leads to the transformation [rebirth] of the protagonist.”Theo tries to kill himself
Returns with the elixir: “the lesson he learnt”The Goldfinch has been given to the authorities; Theo can return to NY.

Having said this, I found the pace of the book uneven. On eof the difficulties of the structure is that Boris, the helper in the magic desert world of Las Vegas, has to come to help Theo in New York and this helping has to be at a very grown-up level; therefore time has to pass while Boris gers older. This accounts for the eight year gap in the narrative but the need to reestablish an older Theo (with adult problems for Boris to come and solve) needs to take time and at this point the pace, for me, began to flag. But I understand the need for Tartt to have created the structure as she did.

In the end it is the prose and the character of Boris that, for me, transcend any other problems about the book and nudge into the premiership of greatness.

September 2019; 772 pages

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

"Clouds of Witness" by Dorothy L Sayers

The second murder mystery featuring aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey; a sequel to Whose Body.

Wimsey returns from holidaying in Corsica to discover that his brother the Duke of Denver has been arrested on suspicion of murdering a house guest who had been engaged to Wimsey's sister Lady Mary. Wimsey is assisted in his investigation by Mr Parker from Scotland Yard who becomes increasingly infatuated with Lady Mary.

A classic murder mystery full of excitement (Wimsey gets shot at one stage ; the trial of the Duke is in the House of Lords).

It was written and set in 1926 and contains some delightful pointers to those far-off days:

  • Wimsey undertakes a dangerous flight across the Atlantic in chapter 15 only seven years after Alcock and Brown's first non-stop transatlantic flight and one year before Lindbergh's solo triumph
  • There is a radio forecast broadcast on '2LO' the earliest callsign of the BBC (C 15)
  • There is a reference to the "exhilarating properties" of "Indian hemp": cannabis was banned in the UK in 1928 (C 4)
  • The phrase "broad awake" is used; it is nowadays more normally 'wide awake' (C 1)

One of the difficulties with DLS is that she was so very clever and tended to expect knowledge in others:

  • One of the keys which helps Lord Peter solve the crime is that the victim had, amongst his bedroom reading, a copy of Manon Lescaut, a book I had not read at the time of reading this. 
  • There are lots of words in French, without translation, which regular readers of my blog know is one of my pet hates. The three page letter written in French is  translated, fortunately!
  • Even Mr Parker, educated at Barrow-in-Furness grammar school, knows theology. He tells Lord |Peter at one point: "There are many difficulties inherent in a teleological view of creation." (C 3)

Key moments:

  • The first chapter, which sets out the initiating murder, takes up the first 10% of the book. Jane Smiley in 13 ways of looking at a novel states that a novel's thesis must be set out in the first 10%.
  • Lord Peter is shot at almost exactly the 50% part; this is the key turning point of the book.
  • Another key moment, a key alibi, arrives almost exactly at the 75% mark. At this point we are left with no suspects. But in another few pages Lord Peter has solved the mystery.
  • Jane Smiley in 13 ways of looking at a novel says that the climax should come at the 90% mark. This is more or less the moment when the key piece of evidence is read out at Denver's trial.

Other good lines:
"When you flatly deny everything a person says it does sound like contradiction to the uninitiated." (C 9)

September 2019; 299 pages

Monday, 2 September 2019

"Homegrown Hero" by Khurrum Rahman

This is a gritty thriller set principally in Hounslow, West London. Javid Qasim ('Jay') is the son of an Afghan terrorist leader in hiding who has become an MI5 agent and has foiled a terrorist plot to machine gun Oxford Street shoppers; as a result a fatwa has been issued against him. The fatwa is to be carried out by a 'sleeper' terrorist, Imran Siddiqi (Imy), who has fallen in love with white girl Stephanie and her young son Jack and so doesn't want to be reactivated; he and his new family are being threatened by the terrorist organisation is he does not kill Jay. Throw in a side plot involving young boys being recruited by a white supremacist organisation and including suicide by hanging, acid bombs and throat slitting (that's the hook in the prologue) and we have the ingredients for an action-packed thriller.

I enjoyed the humdrum setting of this story which involved double-decker buses, an IT call centre, community centres and a chase through Debenhams department store. I enjoyed the humorous start in which Imy is unable to extract information from Jack. I found the level of violence disturbing and even more disturbing was the bleak outlook: it seemed that everyone had to take sides in an endless vendetta of revenge attack provoking revenge attack.

Told in multiple voices, principally those of Jay and Imy but also that of Daniel, each chapter introduced with the name of the narrator.

Some good lines:
  • "'I've told you.' Jack glanced outside the window at the buses lit up within Hounslow Bus Garage. 'I'm not telling you'." (C 1) Cheerfully oxymoronic.
  • "I zombied in there five days a week and spent my time sitting on a chair that stopped twirling around the same time as Fred and Ginger." (C 2)
  • "Nobody goes to Slough; it makes Hounslow look like Venice." (C 20)
My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
  • Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
  • The Devil's Dice by Roz Watkins: a whodunnit set in the English Peak District
  • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.
  • Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
  • Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic: a murder mystery set in Australia in which the PI is deaf
  • The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal: classic Chandleresque Mexican noir
  • The Closer I Get, a thriller in which an author is stalked by an obsessive fan.

August 2019; 390 pages

Friday, 30 August 2019

"Morvern Callar" by Alan Warner

One day, Morvern, a 21 year old girl in a Scottish port town, finds her boyfriend dead. Suicided, it would seem, wrist half hacked off by a meat cleaver, throat cut, note on the computer. She ought to report him dead but somehow instead she goes to work and then, it being Christmas Eve, to a wild party where she has sex with two boys and her best girl friend, and then ...

It is written in Scottish dialect (it took me a while to remember that 'greeting' means wailing). It is powerful and bleak. It reminded me of Eros Island by Tony Hanania in the wonderful use of language and the nihilistic and sybaritic lifestyle of the young people, although it is told in linear chronology and is therefore rather easier to understand.

It is one of those books that, as I read it, seemed to skim off me but I think that there will be aspects of Morvern's desperate seeking after pleasure in the face of brutal reality that I will remember time and time again. This is definitely a book to revisit.

Great lines included:

  • The hidden fact of our world is that theres no point in having desire unless youve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams. You get told if you work hard you get money but most work hard and end up with nothing. ... Theres no freedom, no liberty; theres just money. That's the world we've made ... We live off each other's necessities and fancy names for bare faced robbery.” (Punctuation as in the book.)
  • "I'd forgot to get something for diluting the voddy and of course the fridge was bare so I opened this bottle of sweet wine and used that to dilute it.”
  • There was a strip of this queer volcanic rock, small pools of water and roundish nodules of stone. It was like the coast had melted then gone hard again.”

August 2019; 229 pages

Written in 1995. Morvern also appears in These Demented Lands (1997) and The Sopranos (1998), also by Alan Warner.

Made into a movie in 2002

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

"Religion for atheists" by Alain de Botton

This wonderful book ends with the statement that: “The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” (10.iii.3) It proposes that the secular world learns how religions pass on their message, which is, after all, a message intended to support the fragile human psyche through its many times of troubles, in order to enable such support without the use of the supernatural. He asserts that religions are fundamentally false (“No one intent on starting a new religion from scratch in the modern era would dream of proposing anything as hoary and improbable as the rituals and precepts bequeathed to us by our ancestors.”; 10.ii.1), that they were invented, but he then suggests that: “We invented religions to serve two central needs ... first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and too our decay and demise.” (1.2) Given that these needs still exist, we need to develop secular systems which will promote social harmony and support vulnerable individuals without the mumbo-jumbo.

Then, in eloquent writing which sometimes reaches the heights of lyrical beauty, he proposes how this can be done.
One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity.” (2.i.1) He recognises that this is partly due to overcrowding: “Whereas the Bedouin whose tent surveys a hundred kilometres of desolate sand has the psychological wherewithal to offer each stranger a warm welcome, his urban contemporaries, though at heart no less well meaning or generous, must - in order to preserve a modicum of inner serenity - give no sign of even noticing the millions of humans eating, sleeping, arguing, copulating and dying only centimetres away from them all sides.” (2.i.2)  But churches are places where strangers from all walks of life meet. Often they are beautiful places. People are instructed to move together: when to kneel, when to stand or sit, when to sing together, when to listen. Importantly, the weakest are welcomed as well as the strongest. And he points out that the Christian mass began as a meal: “Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and off benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However the proximity required by a meal ... disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.” (2.i.6) 

AdB suggests that we institutionalize apologies, as with the Jewish Day of Atonement or the Catholic Confession. He suggests that we are all nasty in some ways to other people and this causes two lots of suffering:
  • As victims of hurt, we frequently don't bring up what ails us, because so many wounds look absurd in the light of day. It appals our reason to face up to how much we suffer from the missing invitation or the unanswered letter, how many hours of torment we've given to the unkind remark.” (2.ii.2)
  • If we have offended we may “feel intolerably guilty” so that we “run away from our victims and act with strange rudeness towards them” so making them suffer twice. (2.ii.2)
One problem is that we don't like being told we are naughty by someone else. It provokes the 'who do you think you are' response and one of the flaws of religions is that often the priest is promoted as Mr Perfect Pants. “Among religions’ more unpalatable features is the tendency of their clergies to speak to people as if they, and they alone, were in possession of maturity and moral authority.” (3.i.7) AdB argues that the concept of Original Sin is that we are all flawed. “The doctrine of original sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day. The doctrine knows that shame is not a helpful emotion for us to be weighed down with as we work towards having a little less to be ashamed about.”. (3.i.7)

He then proposes that in order to get the message across we need to institutionalize the secular church. He shows how institutions have vastly more wealth, and power, and influence than even the greatest individual thinker. He contrasts the cottage industry of wellness gurus with the brand recognition of the church. He suggests we advertise our secular beliefs by beautiful paintings, for example, and by beautiful architecture. (I take issue with his idea that beauty somehow equates with goodness: there is sufficient cult today of beautiful people and the downside of beauty = goodness is to suggest that the ugly should be shunned; besides, his two pictures contrasting a protestant chapel with a Roman Catholic chapel are presumably intended to suggested that the lush ornamentation of the RC ceiling is preferable whereas I personally prefer the elegance of the protestant building; beauty is even more individual perhaps than ethics.)

He considers the universities should have the duty to teach courses in eg How to have a successful marriage, and How to Die, and that these courses should be illustrated with extracts from great literature but he sees that the present universities have missed their way by considering literature as texts to be studied rather than improving moral works: “We are by no means lacking in material which we might call into service to replace the holy texts; we are simply treating that material in the wrong way. We are unwilling to consider secular culture ... as a source of guidance.” (4.i.4) “The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts ... but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students lives ... Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would that be assigned in a course on understanding the tensions of marriage ... Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a syllabus for a course about dying.” (4.i.7)

He also suggests that universities, by relying on a single method of transmission, the (often boring) lecture, have missed the goal. 
  • Christianity pictures the mind as a sluggish and fickle organ ... the central issue for education is not so much how to counteract ignorance as how we can combat our reluctance to act upon ideas which we have already fully understood at a theoretical level. It follows the Greek sophists in insisting that all lessons should appeal to both reason (logos) and emotion (pathos)” (4.ii.1) 
  • Ever since Plato attacked the Greek sophists for being more concerned with speaking well than thinking honestly, Western intellectuals have been intransigently suspicious of eloquence.” (4.ii.2)
  • Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.” (4.ii.3)
Finally he proposes that we lack perspective, being insufficiently pessimistic about our powerlessness in the face of the cosmos. This is interesting given that others suggest that it was the Coperbnican revolution that displaced mankind and the earth from its position of centrality in the Universe. But de Botton states:
  •  “Our secular world ... surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history” (7.2)
  • Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.” (7.3) 

Other important ideas
  • In the past, we got to know others because we have no option but to ask them for help” because there were no social safety nets. “We are from a purely financial point of view greatly more generous than our ancestors ever were, surrendering up to half of that income for the common good” but this is through taxation which tends to leave us resentful imagining that “our money is being used to support unnecessary bureaucracies” rather than considering “those less fortunate members of the policy for whom our taxes also buy clean sheets, soup, shelter or a daily dose of insulin.” (2.i.2)
  • We get our ideas of strangers from the media so we think “that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers or paedophiles” although when disasters strike and we are actually vulnerable “we tend to marvel that our fellow citizens have shown surprisingly little interest in slicing us in half or molesting our children and may even be surprisingly good-natured and ready to help.” (2.i.2)
  • The flaws whose exposure we so dread, the indiscretions we know we would be mocked for, the secrets that keep our conversations with our so-called friends superficial and inert - all of these emerge as simply part of the human condition.” (2.i.3)
  • It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realising that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.” (2.iii.3)
  • Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together.” 
  • Freedom has become our supreme political virtue ...the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members.” (3.i.1)
  • Heady romantic longings are fragile materials with which to construct a relationship. We grow thoughtless and mendacious towards each other. We surprise ourselves with our rudeness. We become deceitful and vindictive.” (3.i.5)
  • It seems clear that the origins of religious ethics lay in the pragmatic need of the earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms ... But if we can now own up to spiritualising our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. ... We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves ... who want to live the sort of life which we want imagine supernatural beings demanded of us.” (3.i.6)
  • We will never discover cast-iron rules of good conduct which will answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together.” (3.1.8)
  • We would be advised to focus our attention on relatively small scale, undramatic kinds of misconduct. ... Rudeness and emotional humiliation maybe just as corrosive to a well-functioning society as robbery and murder.” (3.1.8)
  • Consider ... how belatedly and how bluntly the modern state enters into our lives ... It intervenes when it is already far too late, after we have picked up the gun.” (3.i.8)
  • Literature, previously dismissed as being worthy of study only by adolescent girls and convalescents, was recognised as a serious subject ... The newfound prestige of novels and poems was based on the realization that these forms, much like the Gospels, could deliver complex moral messages embedded within emotionally charged narratives, and therefore prompt affective identification and self-examination.” (4.i.4)
  • There is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a grown-up who does not regularly yearn to be comforted like a child.” (5.3)
  • If there is a problem with Christianity’s approach, it is that ... the need for comfort has come to be overly identified with a need for Mary herself, instead of being seen for what it really is: an eternal appetite which began long before the Gospels, originating at the very moment when the first child was picked up by his or her mother and soothed amid the darkness and cold of the first underground cave.” (5.4)
  • The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings ... are at risk of taking psychological centre stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honouring all that slips through their grasp, until at last they must collide catastrophically with the sharp edges of reality.” (7.2)
  • Tourists making their way around some of the world's great museums ... appear to want to be transformed by art, but the lightning bolts they are waiting for seem never to strike. They resemble the disappointed participants in a failed seance.” (8.2)
  • Art ...is a medium to remind us about what matters. It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls.” (8.3)
  • The unsympathetic assessments we make of others are usually the result of nothing more sinister than our habit of looking at them in the wrong way, through lenses clouded by distraction, exhaustion and fear, which blind us to the fact that they are really, despite a thousand differences, just altered versions of ourselves: fellow fragile, uncertain, flawed beings likewise craving love and in urgent need of forgiveness.” (8.5)
  • If our bodies were immune to pain or decay, we would be monsters.” (8.5)
  • There are places which by virtue of their remoteness, solitude, beauty or cultural richness retain an ability to salve the wounded parts of us.” (9.3)
  • Romanticism has taught us to mock the ponderousness and strictures of institutions, their tendencies to corruption and the tolerance of mediocrity. The ideal of the intellectual has been that of a free spirit living beyond the confines of any system, disdainful of money, and cut off from practical affairs.” (10.i.1)
  • Why should only phones and shampoos benefit from coherent retail identities?” (10.i.3)
  • Because we are embodied creatures - sensory animals as well as rational beings - we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels ... in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.” (10.i.4)

An incredibly thought-provoking (and timely) book. Beautifully written, both easy to read and lyrical, and with many illustrations who, together with their captions, add a considerable amount to the text,

Alain de Botton has also written How Proust can change your life

August 2019; 312

Sunday, 25 August 2019

"The Spinning Heart" by Donal Ryan

This book was longlisted for the Booker and the Guardian First Book Award in 2013; it won Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012.

Eire following the financial crisis. One moment houses were being built all over the place, the next no one wants to buy them. Pokey Burke's building firm has gone bust, leaving a whole community full of unemployed men who hadn't realised Pokey wasn't paying their stamps or their tax and a ghost estate with just two inhabited houses.

This is a tale told by many different people. It starts with Bobby Mahon, Pokey's foreman and all round good guy except that he hates his father. It encompasses Pokey's father, who gave the building firm to his son when he retired, and Pokey's lesbian sister. It includes the town whore who sent her son to law school. It includes Realtin, the young girl living in one of the two houses with her son, Dylan, and Dylan's father, local lothario Seanie Shaper. It includes the corner and cost-cutting owner of the day care nursery which Dylan attends, and the male Montessori-qualified teacher who gets a job at the nursery, and his computer-game addicted friend. It ends with Bobby's wife.

Almost half way through Bobby's father is murdered and Dylan is kidnapped. Of course we want to know whodunnit, and is the kid OK? But these plot-chasing urges are secondary to the joy of listening to these tangled testimonies from a close-knit town whose ideas of what is right and what is wrong are being challenged by the shock of the recession.

Beautiful writing.

Some of my favourite moments:
  • My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead. Every day he lets me down. He hasn't yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I'm coming to check is he dead.” (Bobby)
  • There are many ways, you know, to kill a man, especially an old, frail man, which wouldn't look like murder. It wouldn't be murder anyway, just putting the skids under nature.” (Bobby)
  • They loved him, or loved the thought of him, what they thought he was: a man who could easily have had a good life who chose instead their life: spite and bitterness and age-fogged glasses of watery whiskey in dark, cobwebbed country bars, shit-smeared toilets, blood-streaked piss, and early death. He could have helped it but didn't. They couldn't help it and loved him for being worse than them. He was the king of the wasters. He bought drink for men he didn't like and listen to their yarns and their sodden stories.” (Bobby)
  • Sober, he was a watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything.” (Bobby)
  • "Here am I, like an orphaned child, bereft, filling up with the fear like a boat filling with water.” (Bobby)
  • Isn't it a secret duty, to rear your children? I got that all turned around in my head, of course. I confused providing for them with rearing them. I got a fixation on work and having enough money that waxed and waned for my whole adult life, but was always there.” (Josie)
  • Pokey ...had a ledger inside his head in which every single move I made was entered, and it never, ever balanced in his favour.” (Josie)
  • She thought I couldn't understand. She was right and wrong: I didn't know the words, just their meaning.” (Vasya)
  • The Irish men would look at me in mock astonishment and then look at each other and roar with laughter ... I would feel happy, and then remember to be ashamed of myself for being a clown to please other men.” (Vasya)
  • It kills Daddy not to be able to talk to him about hurling and cars and machinery and whatever men do be fascinated by when they're not ruining women's lives.” (Realtin)
  • We're all afraid of our lives of upsetting our parents. Why is it at all? Why have we to be bound by this fear of the feelings of others?” (Brian)
  • Schizophrenia is splitting in two and then falling to pieces.” (Trevor)
  • I know I shouldn't think these things over and over again but you may as well ask a bee to leave the flowers alone.” (Bridie)
  • “I still believe I did good work at the convent with those unfortunate young ladies. I made them feel good about themselves and showed them how to give a handjob without rupturing a man's helmet.That's a valuable lifeskill.” (Seanie)
  • I'd say your man just wanted a job where he wouldn't have to be near manly men, spitting and farting talking about their balls and making each other feel like shit about themselves. Why do fellas do that? They’re always slagging each other and calling each other queer and trying to outdo each other like fools.” (Kate)
  • Sweat is fine when it's fresh, on lovely hard muscle, but when it's dripping off a big flabby man-boob or dried into a filthy T-shirt it's a different thing altogether.” (Kate)
  • “What would Jesus have done? ... How would I know what Jesus would have done?That fella was a mass of contradictions as far as I can see. One minute he says to turn the other cheek, the next minute he's having a big strop and kicking over lads’ market stalls. He says blessed are the meek and he goes round shouting and roaring the odds to everyone. He rises from the dead and then shags off a few weeks later and leaves his buddies in the shit.” (Rory)
  • Leaving the herd isn’t safe. You’re the loose gazelle that the lion will chase.” (Mags)
  • There’s no man on this earth can even be assured he'll have a next day.” (Frank)
  • He spent a whole day with his bony arse in the air as he chipped and hacked and sanded, an acute angle of unnatural adolescent concentration.” (Triona)
  • Some people, like Bobby, take on the troubles of others and others can't see anything past their own.” (Triona)
  • "Jesus, the sweet scandal, it must have been almost too rich for their pill-thinned blood." (Triona)
August 2019; 156 pages

Other Irish fiction recently reviewed: