Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kate Atkinson's Cascade of Echoes

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

You set off for a destination to find the way blocked so you return to your starting point and start out once more, following another route, to find that blocked too, leaving you no option but to begin again -- but hardly have you gone some distance than you’re forced to return and start over again until you get it right. This sounds like a recipe for frustration, yet it’s the bare-bones structure that Kate Atkinson uses with considerable success in her new novel, Life after Life. As a character says, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right?” Her earlier novels have unusual structures too; this one is the most daring of the lot.

How one chooses to start a story and the order in which events unfold has always been of importance. As Graham Greene writes in The End of the Affair, to signal that novel’s unconventional structure:  “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Many novels start in medias res: as close to the action as possible, shading in background as they go along. This creates the satisfying feeling of plunging into the heart of things and filling in the blanks as one reads.

It’s a tricky business: a structure that calls attention to itself should do so because it's a natural fit for the subject, and not as a gimmick. For the Modernists, playing with structure was a way of depicting what was for them a new and fractured reality.  Joyce, in an obvious example, tried to impart a mythic dimension to the events of a dreary Dublin day by mapping them on to the incidents of the Odyssey. More recently, in Time’s Arrow Martin Amis explored predestination and culpability in the life of his Nazi war criminal protagonist by telling the story of his life in reverse order.

In film, Christopher Nolan’s Memento famously also presented events backwards as a way of depicting the experience of short-term amnesia; another obvious example would be Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with its alternative versions exploring the nature of truth and subjectivity. It’s the fit between structure and subject that makes these examples spring to mind.

The film that Atkinson’s Life after Life has inevitably been compared to is Groundhog Day, in which the character played by Bill Murray repeats the events of a single day over and over until he learns his lessons and gets it right. Life after Life, however, treads its own path. It deals with the continuing saga of Ursula Todd, born in England in 1910, who lives several lives in order for her to fulfill her purpose. To begin with, an errant umbilical cord prevents her from being born. In other versions, she lives longer, but dies young nevertheless, of influenza and then by drowning. In yet other versions, she lives on but her life is cut short by events such as the London Blitz or a battering by a brutish husband. “Her memories seemed like a cascade of echoes,” we’re told at one point, an apt way of putting it. Finally, Ursula leads a life in which she – slightly implausibly -- moves to Germany and, after befriending Eva Braun, shoots none other than Adolf Hitler. History hinges on such vagaries, the author suggests.

If all this makes the novel sound depressing and relentless, I’m doing it a disservice. Atkinson’s prose is wry and delightful throughout, and her eye for period detail and manners during and between the two world wars is acute. She may be accused of over-egging the pudding with many references to what she's doing -- "Practice makes perfect" characters keep repeating -- but the result is undeniably gratifying. Like If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino’s novel of first chapters, Life after Life is testimony to how a novel can be made memorable when structure and content fuse together.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

His Son, The Fanatic

This week's Sunday Guardian column

When a heralded young writer claims that the first time he read a novel was at the age of 18, one has to wonder whether – as the British so elegantly put it – he’s taking the piss.  The 31-year-old Sunjeev Sahota, anointed this week as one of Granta’s best young British novelists, says that it was only after picking up a copy of Midnight’s Children at Heathrow that he awakened to the possibilities of fiction. His debut and so far only novel, Ours Are the Streets, shows that one of the lessons he learned was to create for a reader a “vivid and continuous dream”, as John Gardener put it.

Ours Are the Streets deals with the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield; Sahota has said that the idea of the novel came to him after watching a YouTube video of Mohamed Sidique Khan, one of those responsible for the 7/7 London bombings.  As such, it belongs to the burgeoning genre of Terrorism Lit – which contains plenty of well-intentioned but clunky novels, such as Updike’s Terrorist.

As an aside, Ayad Akhtar, another writer who has dealt with Muslim identity, was also in the spotlight this week, receiving a Pulitzer for his play, Disgraced. This, the New York Times said, accented “the incendiary topic of how radical Islam and the terrorism it inspires have affected the public discourse”. Akhtar's own debut novel, American Dervish, was a coming-of-age tale of an American Muslim in Milwaukee, very different from Sahota's work, but also shining a light on Islamic faith in a secular time.

Sahota’s Ours Are the Streets takes the form of a confession: Imtiaz Raina collectively writes to his estranged wife, daughter, and other members of his family about the events that have led him to consider donning a vest packed with explosives that he plans to set off soon.  The character’s voice, distinct and compelling, is one of the more appealing features of the novel. “Knowing you’re going to die makes you want to talk,” he says, and talk he does, in a manner that artfully fuses his past, present and immediate future: “I know you’re all probably at some point going to say that you didn’t say that or that never happened or how that bit’s the wrong way round, but this is how I remember things. This is how it feels to me.”

We learn of Imtiaz’s father, a taxi driver, and his mother, trying to make the best of the life she’s leading away from their homeland. (Come to think of it, Imtiaz could well be a version of the son in Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic.) Imtiaz courts and then marries fellow-student Rebekah, and there is much cross-cultural comedy in his initial meeting with her parents. Such light-heartedness is, of course, undercut by our knowledge of Imtiaz’s violent plans, chillingly expressed during moments such as when he looks out of his window at night: “So quiet the city is. Everyone sleeping contentedly. So indifferent to the crimes of their land.”

It’s during a visit to Pakistan, interspersed by journeys to Kashmir and Afghanistan, that Imtiaz starts to change. This is largely put down to a sense of belonging: “You’re not a valetiya any more, you understand? You’re an apna. You’re ours”. He’s indoctrinated by radicals, and a deadly plan involving him and his cousin is hatched.

As with so many other books, the set-up is more interesting than the resolution. The first half of Sahota’s book is the strongest, with the later section lacking the quality of lived experience. Imtiaz is increasingly beset by paranoia as the book progresses, and this, too, is disappointing if not haphazard in its effects.

It’s a measure of the author’s skill that despite this, Ours Are the Streets largely succeeds in its sympathetic portrayal of Imtiaz’s tortuous journey, one that seeks to understand and not condemn. Sahota may not have read a novel till he was 18, but he’s written one worth reading.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Down The Rabbit Hole Of Language

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

If the novel is indeed dying, someone forgot to inform today’s writers. The amount of new fiction published grows daily: take the recent reports of huge advances being paid to Indian writers for mythological sagas and stories of love in management institutes. For them, it’s always scribble, scribble, scribble, as the Duke of Cumberland once unkindly remarked to Edward Gibbon.

Just over a hundred years ago, however, a well-known writer composed a letter in which he confessed his inability to go on scribbling. The problem wasn’t lack of inspiration or time: it was an inability to connect with words. A chasm had opened between the word and what it referred to, and such was the writer’s eloquence that the letter is, till today, seen as a key text of literary modernism.

The Lord Chandos Letter was written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal who, from the time he was a teenager, was the toast of fin-de-siecle Vienna for his lyric poetry.  His letter, composed when he was 28, is fictional on the face of it, but with elements of lived experience -- Hofmannsthal was never again to return to poetry or prose, and worked instead as a librettist with Richard Strauss.

In the letter, one Lord Philipp Chandos apologises to Francis Bacon for his abandonment of literary activity. “I have completely lost the ability to think or speak coherently about anything at all,” he writes. “Abstract words which the tongue must enlist as a matter of course in order to bring out an opinion disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms…Isolated words swam about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around and led into the void.” He tries to heal himself by reading Seneca and Cicero, but to no avail. His trance-like, mystical state prevails, “a kind of continuous inebriation” when he sees “all of existence as one great unity”.

Finally, there’s some succour to be found in the aura of the object-as-itself: “A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse—any of these can become the vessel of my revelation.” (Which reminds one of William Carlos Williams pointing out how much depended on a red wheelbarrow.)

Wittgenstein was an admirer, as was Kafka who, in an earlier letter of his own to Max Brod wrote: “My whole body puts me on guard against each word; each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands.” Hofmannsthal’s missive resonated with many of the Modernists who were his contemporaries, and still does so with those who struggle to capture reality in the net of man-made words.

In Enrique Vila Matas’s Bartleby & Co, for example, the narrator, a former writer and clerk in a Barcelona office, attempts to compose a work of footnotes to an unwritten, invisible text. He calls this “the literature of the No”, with Hofmannsthal’s letter being an emblem of the enterprise. At one point, he dreams of meeting J.D. Salinger on a New York City bus and asking him his opinion of “the day Lord Chandos perceived that the endless cosmic whole of which we are part could not be described in words.”

Then again, in the last section of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, there’s a letter written by Lady Elizabeth Chandos, a sequel to the original, which asks Bacon to empathise with her husband’s plight as well as help him snap out of it.  “We are not made for revelation,” she cries. “Nor me nor you, my Philip, revelation that sears the eye like staring into the sun.”

Without revelation, such writers have fallen down a rabbit hole of language to discover – in the words of Beckett – “no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” They can’t go on, they’ll go on.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jeeves And The Impending Novel

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster

Sebastian Faulks to write novel featuring Jeeves and Wooster  – News report.

The morning newspaper dropped from my nerveless fingers. I let out a sharp cry, the sort a pig would emit if it had suddenly been prodded in the hindquarters by the business end of a sharp stick. “Jeeves!” I yelled, which just shows the depth of my feelings, because we Woosters have not yelled out loud before our morning tea since the Battle of Thingummy, or do I mean Whatsit?

Jeeves shimmered in, bearing the restorative fluid on a tray. Taking a life-giving sip, I continued. “I say, Jeeves. Have you seen this?”

Jeeves scanned the paper and I saw his eyebrows lift a fraction of an inch, which is as close as he comes to expressing strong emotion. “What do we do, Jeeves?” I said. “This blighter Faulks plans to take over our lives. Faulks with a single F. Sounds rummy.”

“Sebastian Faulks, sir. An author of some note, I believe. I see he intends to carry on where our Master Wodehouse left off.”

“But Jeeves, dash it, he can’t do that, can he?”

“The necessary permissions seem to have been obtained, sir. In fact a few years ago the same Mr Faulks wrote a novel about James Bond.”

“Bond?” The name was unfamiliar, unless he was referring to Bingo Little’s nephew, Septimus Bond, who had done very little to be written about except eat eight bread rolls in two minutes when he was four.

“An agent on his Majesty’s Secret Service, sir. Known for his style of martinis.”

I started, almost spilling my tea. “Martinis be damned, Jeeves. Does one want to be written about in the same manner as one who travels hither and thither spying on blokes and blowing things up? What would the chaps at the Drones think?”

“I understand the problem, sir.”

“Well, Jeeves, do something! If anyone can get us out of this sticky situation, it’s you.”

“I shall give the matter my utmost attention, Sir,” said Jeeves, wafting out.

Hardly had I got into my trousers than Jeeves materialised again, bearing a silver salver on which there was an unopened envelope. “The postman just delivered this missive, sir,” he said. “Well, tell me what it says, Jeeves” I said, sliding into my dove-grey socks, the ones with the pink pinstripes.

“It is from your Aunt Agatha, sir,” said Jeeves. I leapt again, like the aforementioned pig. “What the deuce does she want, Jeeves?” I said, recovering my sang-froid.

“She would like you to spend the weekend at her residence, sir,” said Jeeves. “There is a young lady staying there and she is especially desirous that you become affianced to her.”

I drew a deep breath. Once again, this aunt who chews broken bottles and bays at the full moon had come across some efficient young woman with flashing spectacles and had reached the conclusion that my life would change for the better if I was to make her my bosom companion.

“Dash it, Jeeves, I’m not going,” I spluttered.

Jeeves coughed softly, like a sheep clearing his throat on a distant hillside.  “If I may, sir. You could tell her that you have an appointment with Mr Faulks, and therefore are not available. Further, you could mention that the author intends to spill the beans about the Wooster family.”

Light dawned. “So Jeeves, not only will I escape a weekend in ghastly company, Aunt Agatha will meet this Faulks chappie forthwith and warn him off this writing scheme of his?”

“Precisely, sir.”

I looked at him in awe. “I don’t know how you do it Jeeves. Two birds with one stone, as the expression has it.”

“I endeavour to provide satisfaction, sir.”

“Oh you do, Jeeves,” I said. “And speaking of birds, I rather fancy a spot of chicken sandwiches. Don’t hold the mayonnaise.”

“Certainly, sir.”