Monday, 30 August 2010

Review Post 44 - Pain and Suffering in the Eastern Suburbs

For those considering reading a book by Christos Tsiolkas, whose most recent novel, The Slap, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, a few friendly words of advice.  Do not read any of his novels if you:
- Are homophobic
- Are easily offended by frequent sex, drugs and bad language
- Feel faint at the mention of blood, let alone the sight of it
- Are eating your dinner
- Believe Neighbours is a realistic depiction of life in Melbourne's Eastern suburbs

Still with me?  Then let's get to it...

The Jesus Man is Tsiolkas' follow up to his debut novel Loaded, and it again takes us into the heart of Melbourne and its multicultural, ethnically and sexually diverse inhabitants.  The story is related through the voices of several characters, central among them the three Stefano brothers.  Dom, Tommy and Lou are half-Italian, half-Greek Australians growing up against a background of social deterioration and global history, struggling to find a suitable identity, each falling in turn into a world of cheap, sordid sex, pornography and drug abuse.  As we hear from each of the brothers, we see the similarities in the choices they make, but also the differences: for one of the brothers, these differences have tragic consequences.

Tommy is the cursed one of the family (although, if you believe the stories about the crow, said to follow the males of the family around, all of them are cursed), a middle child who struggles to cope with reality.  Unable to get on properly with his elder brother, on the verge of unemployment because of a downturn in the economy (and working in an obsolete profession) and with severe body-image issues, he begins a long, slow spiral down into self-abuse, addiction to pornography and an inability to cope with daily life.

World news, filtered through the flickering television screen in his apartment, combines with the events of his personal life, leading up to an unavoidable culmination of events.  Stretched so far, it is clear that, sooner or later, Tommy will crack.  The final catalyst for his ruin comes when Tommy meets a crazed, born-again Christian, who tells him that the Apocalypse is coming.  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela's release from prison, the war in the Gulf (and Collingwood winning a Premiership!), it's no wonder Tommy starts believing in the End of Days...

While Tommy's story is the centre of the book, the section narrated by Lou, his little brother, is equally fascinating.  Through the first few parts of the novel, Lou is occasionally mentioned as a minor character, a kid in the background of his brothers' stories.  However, it is only when we get to hear his version of events that we begin to realise the full extent of the effect Tommy's behaviour has had.  By the time the story has reached its end, you start to wonder whether the Stefano men really are cursed.

As mentioned above (and in my other reviews of Tsiolkas' novels), this is not a writer who shies away from graphic descriptions of sex and violence - one of which forms the pivotal moment of the book, a scene that you will not forget in a hurry.  He manages to get under the reader's skin, and into his characters' minds, leaving you breathless at times as you try to keep up with Tommy's head-long descent into hell.  The constant random sex and masturbation does pall after a while; however, that is probably the point.  Tommy's attempts to solve his problems with pornographic videos end, like everything else, in failure.

One of the reasons I like Tsiolkas' books is the insight they give into Australian life and the goings-on in my adopted home town of Melbourne.  It's no coincidence that the story begins with one notorious political event, the sacking of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975, and ends with another, the rise of extreme right-wing politician Pauline Hanson at the 1996 Federal Election.  The juxtaposition of one of the giants of Australian politics with one of its most reviled and ridiculed figures is surely no coincidence, the decline in the nation's political life mirroring Tommy's own fall.  The growth of Melbourne itself is also evident, with Tommy's horror at moving to the Eastern suburbs (Blackburn, about twenty minutes from the city), compared to Dom's later purchase of a house in Ringwood (about twice as far away).  I, coincidentally, live even further out, proof that the shift to the suburbs continues today...

The Jesus Man is a good example of Tsiolkas' style and themes, containing ideas reflected in his other three novels.  The depiction of a hedonistic lifestyle is, as mentioned, reminiscent of his debut novel Loaded while the use of multiple voices to narrate the novel foreshadows the way The Slap is constructed.  However, the most interesting link to another book is the relevance of religion and superstition, a subject covered in even more depth in his following work, Dead Europe.  The comparison of the all-seeing eye of God (and the icon of the Virgin Mary watching over Tommy) with the sinister crow, a sign of retribution from Aboriginal mythology, perfectly reflects the awkward mix of influences the ethnically-blended family consists of.  When you add the third element of the influential trinity, the hissing, ever-present television in Tommy's room, you have three ambivalent guardians watching over the poor, confused soul.

The Jesus Man is a wonderful book (even if it will make you watch Neighbours with a slightly more critical eye in future), and Tsiolkas is a very talented writer.  Even though I don't think The Slap was quite as good as it could have been, I'll be eagerly awaiting whatever he produces next.  There's just one thing I'm worried about though.  While there is obviously a lot of Tsiolkas in his books, I just hope that it's not all autobiographical - I wouldn't wish some of the things Tommy and his family go through on anyone...

Thanks to Golda from Random House (Vintage) Australia for the review copy :)

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Review Post 43 - All Pointless on the Eastern Front

Another short book by one of my favourite German authors and yet another tale of the pointlessness of armed conflict.  I am afraid that if you read any amount of twentieth-century German literature, you'll see that Basil Fawlty's classic advice is (understandably) rarely heeded.  Sorry - I will be mentioning the war...

Wo warst du, Adam? is an early work by Nobel-Prize-Winning author Heinrich Böll and is a cross between a novel and a loosely-connected collection of short stories, held together by the figure of Feinhals, a German soldier on the eastern European front in the Second World War.  Although Feinhals is the central point for all the tales, the reader occasionally loses sight of him and follows other characters, usually tangentially connected to the main protagonist.  Throughout the book, the viewpoint shifts, sometime several times within a single story as one character encounters another, who then becomes the focal point.

This apparent whimsical nature of the book fits in nicely with the subject matter.  The people here are subject to the vagaries of war, living life on an hourly basis (whether they are soldiers, civilians or prisoners) and rarely having control of their own destinties.  At times, it seems as if Feinhals is a sort of Angel of Death, with his presence closely followed by destruction and slaughter.  Of course, in war, you can only cheat death so many times...

The beauty of this book is the way Böll describes the futility of war without needing to run the risk of glamourising the conflict by portraying the actual fighting.  The stories circle skilfully around the main theatre of conflict, instead concentrating on the peripheral, but still tragic events.  From a wounded officer who may or may not be feigning madness, to a misguided tank attack on a defenceless (and almost completely deserted) hospital barracks; from an aborted offensive where the major casualties are laid low by exploding wine bottles and chronic stomach trouble, to a blossoming love story cut short by a sudden order to move on to the frontline: war affects many more people than those forced to participate in the actual fighting.

However, two of the stories particularly bring home the horror and pointlessness of it all.  In the first, a lorryload of Jews are brought to what they are told is a 'transition camp'; in reality, a concentration camp in the end stages of the war, where the officers are beginning to wind up proceedings.  In the hands of a racist, mentally unstable commandant, the prisoners have only one chance to escape from their fate.  You see, the one weakness of the commanding officer is music...

The second, the penultimate and, perhaps, central chapter of the book, is set on the Slovak-Polish border, where a bridge central to German troop movements (and blown up by partisans earlier in the war) is to be reconstructed.  The story is told partly through the eyes of Feinhals and partly through those of a Slovakian innkeeper, a woman who finds it hard to believe that the men loafing around in her establishment are being paid so much for doing so little.  Just as the bridge has been rebuilt, news suddenly comes of a Soviet advance not far to the East.  Suddenly, the decision to put the bridge back up doesn't seem to be such a good one.

This is my sixth Böll book in the last two years, and I'm sure there'll be many more.  His style is subtle and understated, and while there is a preoccupation with certain twentieth-century occurrences, this is understandable.  Even in his later books, where there is less of a focus on the (now distant) wars, echoes of the time remain in the presence in public life of people who managed to overcome their wartime behaviour to make it back into the political ranks of German society.  War, as horrifying and pointless as it is, does seem to be good for one thing - outstanding literature.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Review Post 42 - A little bit of love, a whole lot of soul(s)

Russian writing, rightly or wrongly, is synonymous with huge, bookshelf-threatening novels, but for those wishing to tackle the epic works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, it's a good idea to start elsewhere - and this is elsewhere.  Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls is where the Russian (literary) revolution started, the first important novel in the Russian language. 

The story follows Chichikov, a fallen civil servant turned confidence trickster, as he roams the expansive Russian countryside, pursuing the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme - the purchase of deceased serfs who are still on the tax rolls of the landed gentry.  By accumulating a paper army of peasants, our hero hopes to be able to borrow money against their names, which will allow him to buy an estate of his own to settle on (and where, hopefully, his dead souls will be permitted to rest in peace...).

Dead Souls is inimitably Russian, perfectly dissecting the foibles, faults and fortes of the national character.  Gogol beautifully depicts the natural generous hospitality flowing from Russian households, the mounds of food and rivers of vodka liberally dispensed whenever a friend - or stranger - appears at one's doorstep, and the complicated, symbiotic relationship between master and servant in pre-revolutionary Russia, one in which the master does not always get the upper hand.

As Russian as it is, however, any reader with more than a passing interest in classic literature will notice influences from, or similarities to, other famous writers.  Chichikov's rambling visits bear comparison with Pickwick's fact-finding missions through the English countryside, and the different landowners he meets lead one to remember the wildly differing lands Gulliver passes through in Jonathan Swift's classic tale.  Even the benevolent, omniscient and, at times, jovial narrator is reminiscent of Trollope and Thackeray at their best.

In terms of the attention to detail, it is to Dickens again that the mind turns when reading the many lengthy digressions Gogol intersperses throughout Dead Souls. Pages are given over to descriptions of the vast, seemingly never-ending, Russian countryside, mental images of golden fields, rustic villages and majestic forests leaping from the page.  Yet just as much effort can be devoted to tangential discussions, with the writer quite capable of leaving his hero to get on as well as he may by himself, while the author expounds upon matters philosophical or literary.  Sparse prose is not Gogol's forte, and that is a very good thing indeed.  Christopher English, the translator of my Oxford World's Classics version, has done an excellent job of transferring Gogols' florid prose into English, ensuring that the force of the language is not lost on those unable to read the book in its original form.

Of course, as many of you may already know, there is an elephant in the room (blog), and sadly it can be ignored no longer.  Dead Souls was intended to be a three-part epic, charting Chichikov's rise, fall and moral redemption, but the writer was plagued with moral and religious doubt and, shortly before his death, burned the manuscript of the second part.  As a result, all we are left with is the fully-published first part, and the remains of the second, cobbled together from some old exercise books found amongst the author's belongings.  As good as the work is, it's frustrating to know that it could, no would, have been much better.

Nevertheless, I heartily recommend it, and, no doubt, I'll be hunting after more of Gogol's works before too long, especially his short stories (which everyone in the blogosphere appears to have been reading recently).  Before I go though, I'd like to touch on one last point, being the title: who, or what, are the Dead Souls?  On one level, of course, this refers to the deceased peasants who Chichikov acquires on his travels.  However, I believe that Gogol had another meaning in mind, namely the Russian gentry who strove to live in the great cities, slaving away as civil servants and fawning over high-ranked officials, all the time going through their money like water.  Who would do this when they had a God-given duty and privilege to work on the land and be responsible for the well-being of a whole district and the livelihood of thousands of people?  Only someone whose soul was indeed extremely dead...

Thanks to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for sending me this review copy :)

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Review Post 41 - Hey, teacher - leave those kids a... No, actually, give them a kicking, they deserve it.

Although I do little teaching in my current job, I am, by trade, a teacher, and I well remember my first experience of this trade. It occurred when I was a language assistant at a technical college in the north-east of France, spending part of my time abroad for my bachelor's degree in modern languages.  One particular class sticks in the memory, mainly because it was excruciatingly embarrassing.  Having failed to organise my notes adequately, I turned up to take a class of fourteen-year olds with two activities prepared, both of which I had previously subjected the poor, suffering adolescents to.  As the class hurried off to freedom (half an hour before the end of the lesson), a couple of girls attempted to comfort me - which somehow made things much, much worse.  The reason for this thoroughly uncomfortable bout of catharsis?  Natsume Soseki's classic novel Botchan...

Botchan is a true classic of Japanese literature, one of those books which everybody seems to have read (most at some point during their own school days).  Closer in style to I am a Cat than to Sanshiro, it is short, funny, lively and a wonderful way to while away a few lazy hours.  It is centred on Botchan himself (a nickname meaning 'little master' - we never learn his full name), a young Tokyoite who, on completing his diploma, accepts a job as a Maths teacher at a small-town middle school on Shikoku.  We follow the angry young man through his arrival in this alien landscape, where adults speak with forked (sometimes incomprehensible) tongues and the kids are country boys twice his size (one of the many reasons I have never been tempted to take the plunge into the state education sector).

Despite his gruff demeanour and a refusal to bend an inch to satisfy other people's expectations, Botchan is actually a very conscientious, honest and hard-working soul, which makes the conniving, manipulative behaviour of some of the other teachers at his school even harder to take.  He instantly gives them all nicknames reflecting his view of their external appearance or internal qualities.  The Badger, Redshirt, the Hanger-On, the Porcupine and the Pale Squash all become an integral part of Botchan's life: the only question is which of them he can actually trust... The teachers though are initially the least of his worries as he struggles to cope with a mischievous group of teenage boys, resorting to tactics which, while effective, would see him hauled before a disciplinary committee (or a judge) in our modern, more enlightened times.  Rest assured, this is a happy tale, and the forces of good will (to some extent at least) prevail by the end of the story.

Of course, like Natsume's other early work, Botchan contains many autobiographical elements; the author spent a year in the Shikoku town of Matsuyama at the start of his career, teaching the same kind of muscle-bound yokels Botchan does in the book.  Interestingly though, he identified himself more with the character Redshirt, a symbol of superficial adoption of western ideology, than with the hero (who, along with the very spiky Porcupine, represents traditional Japanese norms).  The work can be seen on one level as a rejection of the increasing westernisation of early-twentieth-century Japan, where the Land of the Rising Sun took on the fripperies of European culture without acquiring the morals underpinning them.  Then again, you can just read it as a fun book (I did).

My version was translated into English by the intriguingly-named J. Cohn, and the dust cover blurb promises "a lively new translation much better suited to Western tastes than any of its forebears".  Not having read any other versions, I'm in no position to evaluate this claim, but I do have one quibble with this.  You see, the translator mentions Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn in his introduction, and I can definitely see the resemblance, especially with the infamous anti-hero of The Catcher in the Rye (thankfully, where Salinger's character is annoying and whiny, Botchan gets on with it and takes no rubbish from the world).  However, this just proves the very long and laboured point which I will eventually make (please bear with me...), namely that the translation is not better suited to Western tastes, but rather to American ones - or, at the very least, North American ones.

It's probably an issue which American readers would have thought little about, but the American domination of Japanese literature translation is a little annoying for those of us born on the other side of the Atlantic (or the South Pacific, for that matter).  In effect, we are reading a translation from a foreign language into another one, related, but not identical, to our own.  An over-reaction?  Perhaps, but Botchan's slang wasn't translated into American teen vernacular for my benefit, that's for sure.

Digression over :)  Botchan is, despite its Americanised dialogue, another example of wonderful Japanese literature and Natsume Soseki's enjoyable writing, and my next book of his, Kusamakura, is winging its way over from the UK as we speak (or blog).  Just a word of warning: if there are any budding teachers out there, please do NOT take Botchan's antics as a guide for your own classroom behaviour.  While things end up well for him, I doubt that your future employers will take this kind of behaviour so lightly...

Friday, 13 August 2010

Review Post 40 - Toot Toot, Chugga Chugga, Big Red Train

I'd never read a book by Tom Keneally before, but I soon discovered one important fact about the well-known Australian writer; namely that he was the author of Schindler's Ark, the book which Steven Spielberg turned into Schindler's List.  Now, as albatrosses around the neck go, that's right up there with OK Computer and England's 1966 World Cup win - matching that kind of success would be a challenge for anyone.  So, Tom; no pressure...

The People's Train is, apparently typically for Keneally, a gentle blending and blurring of fact and fiction based on a man whose story the author found in an old biography.  It's the story of a Russian immigrant, Artem (pronounced AR-tyom) Samsurov, an escaped political prisoner, who has managed to make his way out of Russia, through Asia and down to pre-World War One Brisbane.  Once in Queensland, he finds old habits die hard and becomes involved in union activity, finding time for an affair with a married leftist lawyer, founding a Russian-language workers' newspaper and a brief stint in an Australian jail.  Eventually, news comes of a shift in fortunes back in the (future) USSR, and Artem, along with Australian journalist Paddy Dykes, decides that it's time to move back to where the action is (and believe me, when the intrepid duo get to Russia, there's plenty of action).

The book is split into two parts: both are told in the first-person, but where the first section, set in Brisbane, is narrated by Samsurov, the second, following the events in Russia, is seen through Dykes' eyes.  It's a clever ploy to allow the story to be told by the foreigner in each case, although the strategy probably works better in the second part than in the first, fascinating as it is to see my adopted home country a century ago.  Recently, I discussed the idea of ex-pat literature, and this novel fits nicely into that genre, having the narrator (and the reader) examine familiar objects through new eyes.  A further parallel between the two sections is the relationships the two men find themselves in, being led into them by women unwilling to wait to be asked (a fascinating study in intercultural communication!).

The novel deals with the idea of communism or socialism, ideologies which appear slightly discredited in these post-Cold War times, but which were new, exciting and (for many people) somewhat frightening at the start of the twentieth century.  Artem and his like weren't just fighting for an abstract theoretical ideal but for the emancipation of their people after centuries of absolute rule by the royal family, and the question posed in this book is how far you should go: is there a danger, in starting a revolution, that your behaviour becomes worse than that of the people you claim are oppressing you?

Another theme addressed is charisma and the way individuals can sway great crowds and even, at times, influence the course of history.  We are briefly introduced to Lenin, the man who would cause millions of Russians to rise up and take over their country (and to his eventual successor, who would do a whole lot more...), and he obviously has a certain aura for Artem and his brothers (and sisters) in arms.  However, when we switch to seeing events through Paddy's eyes in the second part, it's clear that Artem himself is far from lacking in charisma, persuading the Australian to follow him to Russia and managing to rise to a lofty position in the revolutionary ranks by virtue not only of his connections, but also of his oratory and physical presence.

The People's Train is a fascinating insight into an unquestionably important time, but it does take its time getting into full swing.  Like a real locomotive, the start of the journey is slow, and the first-person viewpoint, while useful in some ways, takes away from the descriptive power of the author.  However, the pace picks up as the book progresses, and the second half, with the switch from bourgeois Queensland to revolutionary Russia, cranks up the tension, slowly but perceptibly, culminating in a surprising, but fitting, climax.

Keneally hints at the end that the story is far from over, raising the possibility of another book of Artem and Paddy's adventures.  While the ride did have a few bumpy moments, I'll be very happy to jump on board again when the next leg of the journey comes around - even if it involves another trans-Siberian trek.  Tickets please...

Thanks again to Alysha from Random House (Vintage) Australia for the review copy :)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Review Post 39 - Injustice and Unfairness in an Unbalanced World

It's understandable that after occupying India for centuries, the British Empire left behind a wide-ranging and remarkable legacy (by no means all good, of course).   Some of the more visible reminders include a passion for trains, a blazer-clad school system more suited to Manchester than Mumbai, and (if my reading experience is anything to go by) a love for Victorian literature.  How else could you explain the plethora of long, winding, lovingly-crafted classics written by English-speaking writers from the subcontinent?  Last year, I read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Vikram Seth's bookshelf-busting tome A Suitable Boy; my latest read, Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, is every bit as enjoyable, brilliant... and long. 

A Fine Balance is mostly set in 1975, a year of particular significance in Indian history.  Against the backdrop of the Emergency, a period of virtual martial law declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a desperate attempt to retain power (and avoid punishment after being found guilty of election fraud), four strangers meet in the doorway of a Mumbai house, unaware that the next year will see them bond into a group which will help replace their absent families.  Dina, a proud young widow seeking tailors to help with her sewing work; Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash, poor, low-caste tailors who have travelled to the big city to make their fortunes; Maneck, the son of one of Dina's old school friends, abandoning the mountains and his parents' shop to study for the future.  What follows is beautiful and heart-rending, touching but sickening, enjoyable yet despicable: it's a very emotional book.

Despite Dina's initial reluctance to get too close to her employees, through Maneck's persuasion she eventually softens her attitude, and the four start to create their own family-type unit, passing the lonely evening hours together and helping to fill the gap left by the dead, the absent or (in the case of Dina's brother) the unpleasant.  However, every time life appears to be looking up, it turns around and bites them, leaving them with literal and metaphorical scars to lick.  I won't say what they are.

Mistry's book is an epic work, condemning Gandhi's selfishness, exposing the cruel practices and horrific retribution of the higher of India's castes against the lower strata of society and revealing the chaos prevailing in the world's largest democracy.  It's not just the more brutal, violent events which stay in the memory; Mistry paints a picture of dilapidated slums, streets filled at night with crowds of homeless people and deliberately-crippled beggars hoping to stand out and make the relatively well-off passersby reach into their pockets for a small coin or two.  In its depiction of the urban poor, A Fine Balance is positively Dickensian - and that's a very good thing.

There is also a sharp focus on those at the top of the tree, who are divided into three, intertwining groups: the rich, those with high office or status, and the high-caste Brahmins who treat the lower caste Chamaars more like animals than people.  These lucky few are protected from the prevalent misery by virtue of their fortune, and they make the most of it by ensuring that anyone outside their group is trodden down mercilessly into the dirt of the Mumbai slums.  Anyone who has managed to scramble a little way up the ladder is even more fervently in favour of 'cleansing' the scum from the streets than the corrupt politicians who think up the ideas, happy to avert their gaze while the poor are mutilated, sterilised and left to rot in the streets.

There is a strong connection between A Fine Balance and Midnight's Children, particularly in the treatment of the events of the emergency.  In both novels, the blatant misuse of the government's policy of birth control by sterilisation is woven into the texture of the fictional tale, and in both the infamous Indira Gandhi casts a long shadow over events.  Mistry calls her the Prime Minister, Rushdie 'the Widow': like a certain fictional wizard, it appears that she is not to be named...

However, where Rushdie's story, despite the occasional unfortunate event, has an underlying cheery tone, A Fine Balance can be negative and depressing (in a good way, of course).  There is no progress here, just a series of cycles which sees people built up only to be brutally knocked down again.  This corresponds to the Hindu idea of chronological cycles, with time having no beginning or end, just a cycle of eras which repeat endlessly.  As mentioned in the text, we are currently in Kali-Yuga, an era of vice and ignorance lasting 432,000 years, where no virtue can flourish.  The good news?  Only about 427,000 years to go...

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, I can give you the tiny ray of optimism that Kali-Yuga would not allow.  This is a wonderfully-written book, one which I am sure to read again and again in the future, even if, at times, it makes for painful reading.  The parallels to the work of Dickens are not limited purely to the idea of writing about the plight of poor people; the way in which Mistry's eye notices every little detail, his nose every pungent odour, his ear every conflicting note of the cacophony permeating Mumbai street life, is reminiscent of his Victorian forebear's description of life in nineteenth-century London.

However (sadly), I must leave you on a another depressing note.  At the weekend, I read an article in The Weekend Australian about the rather haphazard progress India is making in preparation for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi later this year.  On top of the expected accusations of incompetence, ineptitude and outright swindling, came a familiar, yet saddening, tale: in order to ensure that the eyes of the world only see what the authorities want them to see, 300,000 slum dwellers have been removed from the outskirts of the capital so far, and a further 40,000 or so will be forced on before the games begin.  Plus ca change...

P.S. Jackie of Farm Lane Books has created a wonderful array of supplementary information on this novel at Book Drum, a site where passionate readers help others get the most out of their favourite novels: please drop by to get even more information about A Fine Balance!

Friday, 6 August 2010

Review Post 38 - The more you struggle, the deeper you sink

Earlier this year, I read Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's Kansai classic The Makioka Sisters after recommendations from several bloggers, and while it was an interesting read (especially for someone like me who lived in that region), I found it hard to see what the big deal about Tanizaki was.  It turns out that first impressions can be seriously misleading; I finished reading Quicksand (translated by Howard Hibbett) a few days ago, and it's still buzzing around in my head.  This is a very, very good book.  Before I continue though, I have something to say: while I am not one who shies away from discussing the plot in order to write a review, today's post will discuss more aspects of the plot than is good for people who are planning to read the book soon.  Therefore, if you are one of those people, I would advise you to go away and come back when you've read the book yourself.  Alright?  If you're still here, let's continue.

Quicksand is written in the form of a narration of a chain of events by one of the people involved, young widow Sonoko Kakiuchi, to an author friend (presumably Tanizaki himself).  It begins with a description of how Sonoko becomes friends with a beautiful young woman, Mitsuko Tokumitsu, before going on to relate how Sonoko gradually falls under Mitsuko's spell, falling madly in love with her and plunging into a passionate affair.  Almost before she realises, she is lying to her husband, sneaking off to clandestine rendez-vous and spending hours drinking in Mitsuko's body.  And from there, things get even more complicated.

You see, Mitsuko is the hunter, not the hunted, a cruel Goddess of beauty, and she's not content with just the one prey.  Anyone who gets too close to her becomes fatally attracted to her, moths to a flame, unable (and unwilling) to break free from her spell, to the extent that they are willing to give up their time, their bodies and, eventually, even their free will.  Sonoko gets sucked deeper and deeper into the quicksand of adultery, deception and lust, eventually dragging her poor husband down with her.  In her desperation to cling to Mitsuko's affections, she is prepared to degrade herself, to seek alliances with people she despises, to betray her husband, to prove, beyond doubt, her passion and commitment...

The overriding sensation one has when reading this book is of a highly-charged atmosphere of suspense and sexual tension, a stifling, suffocating, lust-filled embrace, which satisfies while slowly squeezing the air from your lungs.  The more innocent scenes take place in the open air, giving them a sense of freedom and fun; however, many of the more sexually-charged episodes take place indoors, heightening the claustrophobic feeling and slowly turning up the pressure cooker on the characters, forcing them to act in ways they would not normally behave.

It's astounding writing, and although there is nothing in the book which is at all graphic (in fact, very little which is explicitly, not implicitly, stated), Tanizaki pours more eroticism into it than a whole bookshelf of pornographic literature.  There is really only one scene where the reader is allowed a glimpse of the uncontrollable passion which has gripped Sonoko, one in which she tears a sheet away from Mitsuko, unwilling to allow her lover to deny her a view of her naked body.  Another, later, skilfully-drawn scene of seduction, involving a sensual massage, would remind anyone who has read Murakami's Norwegian Wood of a certain bedroom section, where a younger woman seduces her older teacher - I would hazard a guess that Murakami had Tanizaki's novel in mind when writing this scene.

Quicksand was serialised in a magazine from 1928 to 1930, a time when (just to put things into perspective) Virginia Woolf had just written Orlando, a fabulous fictional biography which secretly paid homage to her lesbian lover, and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover had been completed - and banned.  Of course, Tanizaki's work does not compare to Lawrence's in terms of graphic detail, but it must still have been shocking for people to read at the time.

For me though, the genius of this book lies in the way it is constructed around a tangled web of hearsay and reported opinions.  Sonoko is relating the tale to the author, and she quite often reports what other people told her (or what other people told other people who told her).  At the very start of the book, we are made aware that Sonoko lied to her husband, keeping the secret of an affair from her hapless partner, and this, along with the way the story is constructed, gradually led me to an idea, unsupported by anything I've read about about this book elsewhere.

Is it just me, or is there a sense of The Usual Suspects here: is the whole thing a fabrication?  While conventional wisdom states that Mitsuko is a classic femme fatale, and that she was really in love with Sonoko's husband Kotaro, Sonoko is the only one who survives, so why should we trust her?  Is it not possible that she is the one who has been manipulating the lives of the four main characters and that she poisoned Mitsuko and Kotaro?  I realise that I'm really going out on a limb here, but as we are basically told at the start of the novel that Sonoko is a liar, is it stretching the imagination too far to think that the whole novel may be a fabrication of Sonoko's making?

Probably :)

Whether my hare-brained ideas are right or not, one thing is certain: this is a fantastic book.  I can tell you all right now that Quicksand will be there or there abouts when I choose my favourite book at my end-of-year awards post, and there's a fair chance that it may even claim the number one spot.  It is a seriously good book.  Read it.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Review Post 37 - On the Money

One book by the redoubtable VW would be enough for most people for one year, but the review copy I received from OUP contained not only A Room of One's Own, but also Three Guineas, a sequel of sorts which seeks to explain the role women can play in preventing war.  Yes, I am a glutton for punishment...

Three Guineas was published in 1938 as the clouds grew ever darker over mainland Europe and the two dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, began to exert more of a negative, and patriarchal, influence over their neighbours.  It is written in the form of a reply to a letter, which, before it can answer the original letter fully, must deal with connected issues arising from the receipt of a further two letters (bear with me here...).  The original letter is sent by a barrister leading a public organisation to prevent the outbreak of war, in which he asks for Woolf's support, both financial and moral.  In response, she takes over two hundred pages, leading the reader through a tangled maze of arguments about a woman's role in public life, outlining some of the recent progress made in the push towards equality as well as the many obstacles still standing in the way.

The first letter she polishes off is from a women's college, similar to the ones she lectured at in A Room of One's Own.  Their plea for pecuniary assistance is mulled over by Woolf for fifty pages or so while she discusses whether educating women is actually a step towards eradicating war or a move towards perpetuating the system under criticism.  The second letter is from a society for the promotion of working women, and Woolf again takes their plea for financial help very seriously, wondering if encouraging women to conform to masculine norms while receiving feminine standards of pay is a good idea at all.  Once these preliminary matters have been addressed, she returns to the original letter and, while promising a small donation, she decides that the best way women can further this cause is not to join the society, but rather to work from the outside and bring about change by non-conformism.  Yes, that does seem like one extremely long letter...

It's actually made even longer by the existence of two sets of notes for the book.  The first, added by the editor, contains short notes about classical allusions or contemporary name-dropping and is fairly straight-forward.  The second, however, added by Woolf herself, switches between simple references to her reading and anecdotal digressions lasting for a few pages, leading the poor reader to be torn between the desire to understand the background and a wish to just read more than a couple of paragraphs without turning to the back of the book again.  Now, when one word points you to both sets of notes, it really is time to reach for the paracetamol.  Where A Room of One's Own was a light skip through the daisies, Three Guineas is bog-snorkelling wearing concrete flippers.

Before you run away and look for a Harry Potter book instead though, it's not as bad as it sounds.  There are still flashes of the dry humour evident in the companion piece, and Woolf's frequent comments reminding herself that she mustn't waste her reader's time with details (before then embarking on a ten-page digression) show a writer fully aware of the demands she is making on the reader and determined to make the medicine she administers as palatable as possible.

After almost 250 pages then, what is the gist of Woolf's lengthy epistle?  Namely, that for women to assist in stopping war, they require a good education, equal pay and a decent career (but with the common sense to only work as much as they need to), and the freedom to stay out of structured societies in order to attack the system from the outside.  Easy.  And that's really all that needs to be said (even if Virginia needed slightly more space than me to get to that point).

Before I go though, it would be remiss of me to leave the title unexplained.  A Guinea was an imperial amount of money, one pound and one shilling, which never actually existed in coin or note form.  However, it had upper-class connotations, being the standard consulting fee in the professions, and it is this amount which Woolf decides to donate to each of the writers of the three letters (as symbolically shown in the photograph above).  As pointed out by critics (and comments I have received), Woolf comes from this privileged class: while she may preach attacking the system from the outside, is she really just inside the glass house throwing stones?

Thanks again to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for this review copy!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

A little bit of recognition goes a long way :)

I just noticed (on the award page for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week) that I have been longlisted for the Best Written Blog Award (along with 22 others, but I'll take any recognition I can get!).  If any of you voted for me at the pre-voting stage - thank you very much :)

I won't be writing a speech just yet though ;)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Review Post 36 - Give me my space, man...

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Well, a lot of people, especially those who know her only by reputation and haven't read any of her works.  I read my first Woolf novel last year (To the Lighthouse), and since then I've also read Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.  While there can be some mind-bendingly difficult passages, and while stream-of-consciousness can take some getting used to, Woolf's work can also be light, playful, elegant and easy to read (which definitely isn't the impression I had before).  Despite being best known for her fiction, Woolf also wrote some important essays and biographies, and today's post will look at one of these works and hopefully explain what the photo above has to do with the lovely Mrs. (Ms.?) W.  Shall we?

A Room of One's Own is a written version of lectures given by Woolf to Newnham and Girton Colleges (all-female colleges at Cambridge University) in October 1928.  Over 150 brisk, breezy pages, slightly digressing when the fancy takes her, the writer (who has been asked to lecture on women and literature) attempts to explain why so few women have been able to gain entrance to the pantheon of literature, and what relevance her title has.  This, of course, relates to the conclusion of her musings where she claims for a woman to become a serious writer, there are many requirements; the major ones, however, are a steady income of 500 pounds a year and a room - with a lock.

To explain why this is so, Woolf takes the reader (and the listeners) back to the sixteenth century, where she first speculates on the fate of the poor, brilliant (fictional) sister of the Bard of Avon, Judith Shakespeare, doomed to obscurity through being denied the advantages her famous brother enjoys in terms of education and support, before moving forward through the centuries to explore the lives and works of some famous and not-so-famous female writers.  In attempting to bring these women to life, the male world having largely ignored them, Woolf shows the obstacles female writers faced in attempting to create their art.

Even some of the more famous authors in the canon, when put under the Woolfian microscope, show signs of patriarchal oppression.  Charlotte Bronte is described as an angry apologist, excusing her unwomanly emotions in Jane Eyre; George Eliot's writing of novels, when non-fiction may have been a more suitable later occupation, is questioned by the writer (who hints that writing novels is easier than poetry or non-fiction for women who are constantly in danger of being disturbed and who thus must write in infrequent short bursts); Jane Austen is praised for being able to stay true to herself and unmoved by external frustrations in a way Bronte could not.  In all of these cases, Woolf believes that having a room of their own would have been a Godsend.

As well as the practical difficulties of creating a masterpiece while shackled to a shared desk in a common living area, female writers faced outright hostility from a society which preferred them to stay at home and look after the children.  Woolf touches on the difficulty for women of writing when the topics and language are the domain of men, forcing women to create their own words and style - something Woolf herself is obviously famous for.  However, she goes further, saying that the true artist should be neither masculine or feminine, that the perfect writer should be androgynous, a third sex, able to write clearly without being caught up in gender politics (apparently, Shakespeare was a good example of this...).

It's all fascinating stuff, and written in such a light, likable manner that it's very easy to cheer her on as she demolishes patriarchy, even from the male viewpoint.  However, women aren't the only undertrodden; Woolf touches on socio-economic issues (an issue closer to my heart) briefly, but there isn't really enough attention paid to this.  Another fault commented on by American writer Alice Walker is the absence of any mention of race (perhaps unsurprising in 1920s England?), leading to accusations that the room Woolf talks of is actually fairly limited in its availability.  Nevertheless, this short essay is generally considered an important feminist work and (more importantly) is great to read ;)

So, let's return to the picture above, which will lead me in to two closing points.  Firstly, as you can see from the bib in the photo, I am a proud father, and my wife now no longer works, staying instead at home to look after the girls.  By choice?  Yes and no.  You see, she was thinking about going back to work part-time but was put off after learning that she would only be able to go back to the work she was doing before if she returned full time.  The only work available for a part-time employee was not interesting enough to entice her to return to long hours and the hell of commuting: in short, even today, real equality is far from being achieved.

The second point is more personal and goes back to the art of writing and who can practice it.  Woolf is right to say that women require a fixed income and a private space to develop their writing, but the reality is that this is true for everyone.  In fact, anyone who is contemplating becoming a writer needs time, space and money to enable them to give it their best shot...

...which means that if you're paying off a mortgage, working full time, commuting for two hours each day and trying your best to help out with screaming babies, blog posts like this are the best you're likely to produce ;)


Thanks are due to Betty from Oxford University Press (Australia & New Zealand) for sending me this review copy - merci beaucoup :)