Category Archives: Lit Crit

Lit Crit: Catch-22

Finding out that Joseph Heller was strongly influenced by Franz Kafka in writing Catch-22 caused me one of those ‘oh yeh.’ moments, similar to finding out that Woody Allen based his early screen persona on Bob Hope. But there is something so unique about the later versions that I hadn’t noticed. Obviously, the lesson is: if you’re going to steal, steal big. No one will suspect.

Lord knows how many times I’ve read Catch-22 (about three) but I can tell you the last time, because I had book-marked it with a rail ticket to Burnt Oak dated Dec 2000. All the set pieces are present and correct: the old Italian brothel keeper preaching cowardice, Orr continually building and taking apart his stove, Aarfy jabbing his pipe stem into Yossarian’s stomach as the flak explodes around them. When four obscure characters from the novel came up on a recent episode of Only Connect I was proudly able to identify each, and make scathing noises as the actual contestants failed to spot them. Snowden, a photographer? Pah!

Yossarian suffers a little from being the author’s voice, but manages to keep himself distinct by initiating many of the novel’s anti-establishment actions. But it’s Milo who shines. The capitalist making hay while all around him falls apart: promoted and promoted.

You never know what is going to date. Richard Attenborough’s films probably started to age a few years after they were out of the can: the pacing is wrong, the character treatment sentimental, the camera work weird. Ghandi was made in the 80s but looks older than If…. from 1968. But then Malcolm McDowall’s pugnacious face may never grow old.

Catch-22 is still vital. Every irony bang-up-to-date. If there’s a misstep it’s the 1950s US macho: If the assault on Nurse Duckett had been written today, it would have been with a different intention.
And I’m looking for answers to my current novel problems. If there is one lesson it’s the constant exasperating, frustrating, infuriating energy of the thing. If such things could be bottled and poured down the book spine it would certainly rescue me from my disjointed backstories and aimless wanderings.

Still, deep breath. Back into battle.

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Lit Crit: The Trip to Echo Spring – Writers and Drinking

I like an unexpected recommendation for a book. This one came from Vanity Fair. I always get the Hollywood issue, but frankly this year’s fell flat. In part because they decided to give prominence to the cast of The Butler rather than 12 Years a Slave, thus missing a trick. So I was flicking through it and came across a side panel in which people I’d never heard of named a book they were reading. Kelly Marcel (screenwriter of Saving Mr Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey) picked The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, a description of six alcoholic writers of the twentieth century. And I thought, ooh, that’ll do.

I’m glad I did. Not only do you get huge chunks of biography and gossip about literary figures like Tennessee Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway (yup, it’s all blokes) but details of their wretched descent into alcohol hell.

There was a fashion in the 70s for seeing alcohol as the necessary counterpart of any true artist: Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski etc. This book says maybe for some, but look at the damage.

It starts with the car journeys that Raymond Carver and John Cheever used to take when they lectured at the same university. Always ending up in a hotel room where they would sit opposite one another and down pints of whiskey. No talking, just drinking. It gets your attention.

Laing can write. This is from a description of the coast near where Carver found solace later in his life.

The beach was sandy and scattered with ninepins of driftwood.

And:

I knelt and dipped my hand [in the stream], wincing. It had come straight off the mountain snowmelt, old ice, clear and astringent as gin.

It enables her to hit you with this:

You could get back on your feet in place like this, after a lifetime of messing up, of being torn apart by the overwhelming incompatibility of your needs. All those bad things you’d done, back in another life: they might rinse away out here, given time, given a landscape so explicitly devoted to the display of time’s long reach. Watching water work through rock, you might come to a kind of accommodation with the fact that you’d once smashed your wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man; that you’d hit her with a wine bottle, severing an artery and causing her to lose almost sixty percent of her blood. Other things too. Stupid slippery things: drink-driving, bouncing cheques, running out on bills, committing fraud, letting people down, making up dumb and pointless lies. Hardly any wonder Carver’s nickname was Running Dog, or that he said, a long time later, ‘I made a wasteland out of everything I touched.’

It’s not just muck-raking; she loves his writing and finishes the book by recounting her favourite of his short stories.

So, what’s the point? Why detail humiliation after humiliation? In part, so that she can talk about the genius. But also, she is clearly looking for an answer. Though she never openly discusses her own relationship with alcohol, her biography – her mother’s female partner who was a violent alcoholic, Laing’s attendance at meetings, the drinks she has in the course of the book – all suggest someone trying to come to her own accommodation. The whole thing is written as a journey, as she visits the US to see the places where the writers lived. Early on she describes:

The startling co-existence of good and evil, the shocking duality of the single heart.

It’s about alcoholism and the pain it is supposed to alleviate. But also, and most powerfully about writing itself. Having found the visitors’ book kept in a metal box near Carver’s grave, she says:

It struck me then that driving out to a writer’s grave, all these anonymous suffering strangers were putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness.

I recommend it. If only for the unflinching biographies of great writers and their terrifying shadows.

Lit Crit: The Beginning of Spring

I have two types of fantasy when I’m writing.  The first is that my writing is so unusable that the book will go nowhere, and the one I plan to write next is no better so I’ll end up on the writing scrapheap.  The second is that my book is published and sells well in all territories.  I win the Booker Prize, and go on to receive the Oscar for best adapted screenplay from my own novel (Jennifer Lawrence waves, I wave back).

There is a middle ground in which I am proud of what I write but occasionally I get glimpses of how it could be so much better.

A couple of years ago, a friend suggested that I read Penelope Fitzgerald.  I read a Penelope Lively and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.  Fortunately, every Christmas my godson (via his mother) sends me two books.  And this year one was The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow, 1913, the story of an English printer, whose wife leaves him taking their three children with her.  Set over a few weeks, during which he meets the quiet and unresponsive Lisa Ivanovna. 

There are literary books which are worthy but plodding (step forward Pereira Maintains), but others, like this, that are a joy to read from the start.

Two pages in I was thinking, oh my goodness, it’s a real writer.  Everything is fluent: the observations, the characters, the dialogue.  The humour:

‘Why don’t you send for your wife to keep you company?’

The driver replied that women were only company for each other.  They were created for each other, and talked to each other all day.  At night they were too tired to be of any use.

Or:

Miss Kinsman was like his second cousin Amy in Nottingham, younger, but like cousin Amy, who crossed the road rather than go past a public house, because she believed that if she did, the doors would open and men would stumble out to piss, and inside she would glimpse women stabbing each other with hat pins.

There are extraordinary scenes, like the casual torture of a bear cub by children:

They tried throwing cold water over it.  The bear sneezed and shook itself, then tried to lick up the sparkling drops on the surface of its fur.

And the details.  She knows enough to able to tell you that playing cards would be confiscated at the border because their production was a government monopoly; that the production of roubles in certain years were useless; that a printer’s shop would be blessed by the local clergy.  But the point is not just rehashing research.  They are observations of an Englishman born in Russia, who speaks the language, understands the culture, but still does not really understand the country.

Finally, the characters: an angry student revolutionary, precocious children, pedantic printers.  And, the magnificent Selwyn, possibly the most annoying character in literature: a confirmed Tolstoyan with a gift for interfering.   

I finished it at Baker St on the Hammersmith and Piccadilly line and remained, somewhat stunned, thinking about it until I got off nine stops later at Whitechapel.  The ending I had hoped for was replaced by one which was altogether deeper and more moving. 

There are some books that make you despair of ever being able to write so well.  There are others, like The Beginning of Spring that inspire you to write better.

Lit Crit: Tale of Two Cities – The Women

One of my favourite stories in the Bible was the Tower of Babel.  The human race builds a tower that threatens to reach heaven, so God divides them, first by language, then by nation.  It is that very division that, figuratively, prevents them from reaching the higher states.  For language and nation read any division between individuals: race, gender, sexuality, age, etc.  We look at each other as if through a glass wall, sometimes forgetting it is there.  When a writer attempts to create a character that is beyond their own experience, you can sometimes hear the sound of them knocking up against it.

By the way, I should say that there are spoilers in this, but given the famous last line, the experience of reading TTC is a little like Owen Meany.  You know what is going to happen and when, the only mystery is how.  As soon as the dissolute Sydney Carton hoves in to view, you just think, right then.

Sydney Carton is also a clue to the first type of woman.  He is much given to speech making and you can’t help thinking that if it were a stage play then this was the part Dickens would have cast himself in.  Lucy Manette is a classic stage heroine.  An embodiment of duty who stays by her father’s side for a considerable part of the novel, before standing by her husband’s side for the rest.  She acts as a moral compass for other characters, as well as the novel itself.  She is quite explicit in this:

‘…can I not save you, Mr Carton?  Can I not recall you – forgive me again! – to a better course?’

You can imagine the two of them: her seated, him clapping the back of his hand to his forehead as he strides back and forth.

It’s the sort of Dickens character that to a modern audience most often sticks in the throat:

‘She had been true to her duties.  She was truest to them in the season of trial, as all the quietly loyal and good will always be.’

But, and I’ll come back to this, she is incredibly determined.  Even at their most saintly, his characters cannot help having great vitality.

Her opposite is the Monster.  I don’t think (and I’m happy to be corrected on this) that I can think of another of his novels where the women are so clearly the villains.  There are two in particular.  Madame Defarge is a woman with far greater energy for the revolution than her husband, who becomes no more than one of the many anonymous ‘Jacques’.

‘”To me, women!” cried madame the wife.  “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!”  And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

And check this out:

‘Suddenly animated, she put her foot upon his neck, and with her cruel knife – long ready – hewed off his head.’

Hoorah!  Dickens has a go at trying to explain her motivation, but it doesn’t quite come off:

There were many women at that time upon whom the time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand, but, there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets.

The second villain is the woman known only as The Vengeance.

‘One of the sisterhood knitted beside her.  The short, rather plump wife of a starved grocer, and the mother of two withal, this lieutenant had already earned the complimentary name of The Vengeance.’

Note the implication, in her comparative size, that she puts herself before her husband.  Also, the mention of ‘the sisterhood.’  As if such a thing is anathema.

Clearly, both these characters are set up as a contrast to the saintly Lucy Manette.

There is also the image of the knitting.  Rather like Mrs Haversham’s wedding dress, Dickens takes a supposed symbol of femininity and presents it out of context to produce an image of horror.  Madame Defarge, The Vengeance, and several other women sit in a line and knit in front of the guillotine as the hundreds of heads roll.  And, whatever you may think of the politics, it works as well as any Stephen King vampire floating outside the window.

There is one more villainous woman, of course:

The “sharp female newly born, and called La Guillotine,”

Perhaps this explains the prominence of the villainous women.  Everything is inverted and ‘wrong’ in this new society.  From the sexual politics to the method of execution.

The next type of character is the worthy-but-weird one.  In this case, Miss Pross.  Like Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, she is a single woman who acts as a support for the lead character.  It is she who finally defeats Madam Defarge, after a fantastic bit of stagey dialogue:

“You might, from your appearance, be the wife of Lucifer,” said Miss Pross, in her breathing.  “Nevertheless, you shall not get the better of me.  I am an Englishwoman.”

Hoorah again.

Then there is Mrs Cruncher, another sort of character that is difficult for modern audiences to read: the passive victim of abuse.  There’s a great story quoted at the start of Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography of how the young Dickens went out of his way, when on a jury, to defend a woman who was a clear victim of injustice.  He knew what was going on around him, and did what he could to stop it (though perhaps not so effectively in his personal life).  His depiction of Mr Cruncher’s abuse is unflinching:

…holding Mrs Cruncher by the ears, and knocking the back of her head against the head board of the bed

The problem is that he can’t help making her into a comedy character.  She is always described as ‘flopping about’.  The effect is somewhere between a Gillray cartoon and a Punch and Judy show, and the suspicion is that he’s trying to get a laugh.

Finally, there is the surprise female character.  Someone who doesn’t quite fit the writer-from-another-age image that he sometimes gets.  Lady Dedlock in Bleak House is one: an apparently compassionless woman with a hidden past.  In TTC it comes right at the end.  As Sydney Carton is facing his fate, he is approached by a small girl who asks to hold his hand.  She is convinced of the rightness of the revolution for the benefit of the poor and is just confused why it should be necessary to cut off her head.  It should be a one-line joke, but instead she comes across as very real.  It’s a character that predicts Boxer in Animal Farm.

Oddly, Dickens succeeds in his depiction of women where many modern dramatists fail.  To adopt the famous Bechdel questions:  is there more than one named (major) female character?  Yes.  Do they talk to one another?  Yes.  Do they talk about something other than men?  Yes.  And, as far as I know, even the lauded Nordic TV dramas have not finished with a hand-to-hand fight to the death between two women.

Having said that, Dickens is one of those writers who very clearly bangs up against the glass wall in creating his female characters.  He observes them but only on rare occasions do they get a believable sense of inner life.  What they do have, however, is energy and distinctiveness – even Lucy Manette has to fight for her own identity, and each character in the novel is distinct from the others.  Good or bad, weird or innocent, they move around the world in a way that holds the attention.

Lit Crit: Vile Bodies

The trouble with Evelyn Waugh was he could write.  It’s like finding out that Richard Littlejohn wrote Shakespeare.  Because for the rest of the time he seems to have made a point of being unpleasant: openly celebrating his son’s return to boarding school each term; and, in that classic John Freeman interview, answering questions in such a condescending way that once you had started punching his face it would have been hard to know when to stop.

But he wrote this:  Under a great chandelier which scattered with stars of light like stones from a broken necklace.

And:  There was a thin fog drifting in belts before a damp wind.

Not to mention:  (Describing the deaths of colonial ancestors) One had been picked white by fishes as the tides rolled him among the tree-tops of a submarine forest; some had grown black and unfit for consideration under tropical suns; while many of them lay in marble tombs of extravagant design).

I read Vile Bodies after seeing a documentary about the ‘Bright Young Things’ on BBC4.  There, in the photos, was Evelyn Waugh hanging around looking pasty.  I had suffered through Decline and Fall for O level, but enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, so I thought I’d try again.

At the start of VB, a writer-to-be loses his manuscript and the money he would need to marry his fiancé.  Everything is written in a slightly Noel Coward way:

‘Oh, I say, Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’

‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore.  Why not?’

‘They burnt my book.’

‘Beasts.  Who did?’

‘I’ll tell you about it to-night.’

‘Yes, do.  Good-bye, darling.’

‘Goodbye, my sweet.’

Tum-te-tum.  He then wins a £1000 and gives it to a major who promises to place it on a horse with very high odds and little chance of winning.  The horse wins but the major disappears.  Happy-ending-wise you can pretty much see where this is going.  There’s a laboured bit of stuff about children dressed as angels with names like Fortitude and Chastity; and later some political satire that passed me by. 

But halfway through writing the book EW found out that his wife, on whom the fiancé was based, had been having an affair, and suddenly the story becomes a lot more unpredictable.  The hero goes all fatalistic, and there’s even a bleak pre-vision of the Second World War.

It would sound like a platitude to say that EW was better when he was vulnerable, but perhaps it did him good to be knocked off his perch.  And of course, there’s the writing.  All of the quotes above are from the book.  The novel suggests the archetypal satirist-as-injured-romantic.  But I suspect, if you’d told him this, he’d have raised that big cigar to his mouth and eyed you with disdain.

Toward the end of the Social Network, a lawyer says to the owner of Facebook, ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark.  You’re just trying so hard to be.’  And thinking of Evelyn Waugh, I couldn’t have put it better.

By the way, if you want to see the Freeman interview, it’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvtjUt0GzKg  This programme includes a clip of John Freeman talking about the interview, and he’s a lot more gracious than I would have been. If you start watching and think how charming Evelyn Waugh is being, just hang in there.

 

Lit Crit: Kate Tym

Having read a couple of my posts on punctuation, a friend asked me about the exclamation mark.  This is easy.  In fiction it is pretty much only used to indicate a raised voice (‘Bob!’).  The only exception is in fiction for teenage girls.  Here there are many exclamation marks, together with rows of hearts to indicate the end of sections.  The only real question is, how do I know that?

I met Kate Tym on a comedy course.  At the time, she had a sideline in doing the sort of group tours of London advertised in Time Out, based on a combination of historical fact and the juicy bits from the Horrible Histories.  But she also wrote novellas for Just17.  Intrigued, I asked her to send me one.  She sent two.  My favourite was Too Cool to Care, and for those who want to avoid spoilers, stop now.  I’m about to recount the plot.

The heroine (possibly Jess) goes to stay with her Gran in Yorkshire with two friends.  It is snowing.  Gran is away for much of the time, I can’t remember why.  One day her friends look out of the window and see a boy clearing snow.  This is Jeremy Archer.  Jess tells her friends she hates him (of course) as he used to tease her at school.  But when she does come to the window, she sees that he has grown up.  Thus occasioning the best line of erotic fiction I have ever read: ‘His thighs strained against his jeans, as he pushed his shovel ever forward.’

Eventually, of course, obstacles are overcome.  The three girls end up in the cottage with their respective beaus, snogging.  Gran finally bursts in.  (Where’s she been?)  She turns on the light and says, ‘It’s an orgy!  And Jeremy Archer, I thought you were a nice boy.’  To which our heroine replies, ‘He is Gran, he is.’

Writers could learn a lot from this.  It’s short, funny, and to the point.

As for the exclamation marks, my impression is that many of the readers go on using them for the rest of their lives.  Mainly in texts and emails.

Lit Crit: Blakely St James

The amazing thing about Blakely St James is there are many copies of his books on Amazon, but no one has yet written a review.  I think I’ve read three of them.  I say ‘his’, I’m referring to a group of writers.  I am hoping they came up with the name because one of them had a Barclay James Harvest album on the shelf.  The name has an air of improbable 1970s cosmopolitan international man-about-town about it.  White suits, silk scarves, an Aston Martin in the driveway.

And I say read.  Actually, it was more calling out passages to a friend who I went on a cheap holiday to Spain with.  Fishing around the local supermarket amongst the orange netting bags of beach balls and the tins of Heinz Baked Beans, we found the paperback carousel.  And there were many examples of the BSJ canon: Christina’s Touch, Christina’s Quest, Christina’s Need, Christina’s Passion.  Well, you get the idea.

The great thing about the BSJ novels is that they were written to a pretty consistent formula.  Young innocent girl encounters men and women of various professions and has sex.  Though how she kept that air of innocence into Book Three, I’ll never know.  Also – and this is the important thing – the similes used in the descriptions always related to the profession of the person she’d encountered.  The one I can remember was when she had sex with a vicar (brace yourselves): ‘His sperm bounced like clouds around the cathedral walls of my vagina.’

I can’t help thinking it was a hoot writing them.  Dreaming up double-entendres and profession-related puns.  The Good Reads website (I’m not kidding) lists one of the authors as William E. Butterworth III, which has got to be another pseudonym, and suggests an infinite regression of such identities finally arriving at a bloke called Bob operating out of King’s Cross Station.

I once had a friend whose job was to write the letters for Mayfair.  Pretending to be a female reader who could recount in detail a sexual encounter on a British Rail carriage, at a supermarket, or in a library.  And that, of course, is all it ever was: men writing fantasies for men.