Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “novels”

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.

Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

Sex and Stravinsky

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky by Barbara Trapido
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library I recalled reading another one by the same author, Frankie and Stankie, with its vivid evocation of a Durban childhood. I didn’t review that one on Good Reads, so I don’t know how many stars I would have given it, but I did write about it on my blog Growing up in Durban | Notes from underground.

But I found this one rather disappointing. The descriptions were not as vivid, and seemed somehow less authentic. When Barbara Trapido describes scenes from the 1940s to the 1970s she is usually spot on, but in Sex and Stravinsky the main action takes place in 1995, and the descriptions seem anachronistic. Perhaps the most jarring was the use of “the uni” to refer to universities. I don’t know if South African students use that term now, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t use it in 1995 (when I was still working at a university). In my own student days we spoke of “varsity”, never of “uni”, and I think I first encountered “uni” on the internet, and only in this century. I believe it started in Australia and was adopted in the UK, but does not seem to be used much elsewhere.

Another anachronism was the description of cell phones. In 1995 they were a novelty in South Africa, and were about the size of bricks. Very few people had them, and those that did would ostentatiously show that they had them. There was a story of a man walking into a restaurant talking on his cell phone when, to his embarrassment, it rang.

Apart from the anachronisms, there are serious plot holes. The story is about characters whose lives are linked by an amazing series of coincidences, which stretch credulity too far, and keep on happening. One of the characters, Josh, who lectures in theatre, perhaps explains this, when his mother-in-law takes him and his wife to see Rigoletto, which he did not enjoy:

-He likes early opera, for heavens sake; chamber opera, tightly-plotted comedies in which everyone is in love with somebody else’s betrothed, and sundry marriage contracts are called into question by a range of incompetent stage lawyers. Foppish drunken halfwits or scheming rogues. He likes it when the entire dramatis personae is cheating, spying, playing dead and dressing up in other people’s clothes.

Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are like that, and indeed A midsummer night’s dream makes an appearance in the book. In some ways it looks as though Barbara Trapido is trying to write the whole book along the lines of one of those early operas, but though it may have worked for 17th-century stage productions, it doesn’t come off too well in a 21st-century novel.

I quite enjoyed reading it, and wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end, but it was disappointing. There were too many dei ex machina, and some of the characters were too inconsistent.

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Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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The Red Queen

The Red QueenThe Red Queen by Margaret Drabble
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

The first part of this book is the memoir of an 18th-century Korean princess, describingn the cloisered but eventful life of the Korean royal family, incorporating a modern and postmodern commentary on it..

The second part describes, in minute detail, how Dr Babs Halliwell travels to and attends a run-or-the-mill academic conference in Seoul, Korea. On her journey she reads the account of the Korean princess, and in breaks in the conference she visits some of the scenes of her life. Until the events that cause the far-reaching effect, however, one might think Margaret Drabble‘s main purpose in writing was to record the early-21st century academic conference experience for posterity, perhaps as raw material for a furtire historian of academic conferences.

I’ve attended enough academic courses and conferences to find it familiar territory, very familiar territory, even though most of the ones I’ve attended have not been held in such posh hotels. As I read, I kept having flashbacks to this or that incident at this or that conference.

“One does not expect a run-of-the-mill academic conference to have such a far-reaching effect.”

And most of the academic conferences I’ve attended have had no effect at all.The participants exchange e-mail addresses, and promise to keep in touch, but almost never do. Some of the papers may be published, and may appear on the Internet in one form or another, and probably have more effect there than being read at the conference, as the book notes.

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The Whistler: corruption unmasked

The WhistlerThe Whistler by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of John Grisham‘s better novels, dealing with an investigation into allegations that a judge is corrupt, which uncovers a major crime syndicate.

It isn’t really a detective novel, since the investigators are not detectives, and their breakthroughs in the case mainly come from informers or lucky accidents, with activities and suspects being caught on video, or careless slips by the criminals.

While I have linked this post to my review on Good Reads, I’m adding more here because it has less to do with the book itself than my reaction to it.

Central to the story is the building of a casino in an Indian reservation in Florida, USA, and the way in which the corrupt judge smooths the way for a crime syndicate to profit from it in various ways. And it seems that many Indian reservations in the USA built casinos, which were to some extent, at least, not subject to the local state or federal laws of the United States.

I found this part of the book very interesting, since something very similar happened in South Africa before 1994, where there were “Bantu Homelands” that were the equivalent of the Indian reservations of the the US, and they also had a penchant for building casinos. I can quite easily picture the process of planning and building the casinos in such places being very similar to that described in this book. Many of the casinos built back then still exist, and in some cases the descriptions fit remarkably well.

One of the visions of the National Party regime in South Africa was of a “constellation of states”, which resulted in newspaper cartoons about “Star Flaws”, and snide comments about the “Constellation of Casinos”.

Nowadays we hear a lot about corruption, but much less is heard of corruption before 1994. That is largely because we now have a free press, and press freedom guaranteed by the constitution, whereas before 1994 the corruption was much easier to cover up.

In addition, a lot of the civil servants who were around at the time of the building of the casinos, and who cut their teeth on corruption in the “homeland” governments, were simply absorbed into the civil service of the new South Africa.  So South Africans might find this book an interesting read simply for the insight it gives into how the system worked back then, and even, to some extent, how it works now.

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The Anatomy School (book review)

The Anatomy SchoolThe Anatomy School by Bernard MacLaverty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m in two minds about this book. At one level it is a Bildungsroman, and at another it is a picture of a period. Martin Brennan is a teenager in his last year of high school. He attends a Catholic school in Protestant Belfast, where being Catholic is a badge of identity. Martin has two friends, Kavanagh, who is an athlete, and a new boy at the school, Blaise Foley, who rejects everything that the school stands for.

At home his pious mother regularly entertains three friends of her age, oen of them a priest, and Martin helps to serve them, hears their conversations, and is sometimes himself the subject of their conversations.

The book opens with Martin at a silent retreat with his contemporaries from the school, where the expectation is that he and the others will consider a possible vocation to the priesthood. Martin’s conscience is troubled by moral and venial sins of thought word and deed, throughout the retreat, and when he gets back to school, after deciding that the priesthood is not for him, he is severely tempted to mortal sins by his new friend Blaise Foley.

After leaving school he works as a technician in the anatomy school of the university, where his friend Kavanagh is a medical student.

It was a bit difficult to work out the period in which the book is set. One clue was a reference to the blowing up of Nelson’s statue in Dublin in earl;y 1966. It was clearly after that event, but close enough for it still to be a talking point, so as far as I could determine from such clues in the story, it took place in 1966-68. It was a time when I was in the UK as a student, though I was never in Belfast.

One feature of the book is the very detailed descriptions of everyday life — the composition and making of sandwiches for tea, noises and sounds like lift doors clanging. In that it reminded me of A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood. That book was set somewhere in north-west England, and gave a very vivd picture of the place and period, and the foibles of the people, though with considerably more humour than The Anatomy School. But A Touch of Daniel was published closer to the time, and The Anatomy School was published in 2001, which makes some of the close detail suspect, and one of the anachronisms that stood out for me was when Martin tells someone that he had a job “at the Uni”. I never heard anyone call a university a uni during my time in the UK, and only learnt of it much later, via the internet. It may be that it was a peculiarly Irish term, that started in Belfast before reaching other parts of the UK, but for me it made much of the fine detail throughout the book rather suspect.

On the other hand, there were some things that reminded be very strongly of when I myself was Martin Brennan’s age. I went to a Methodist School, not a Catholic one, and in Johannesburg, not Belfast. But I hung out a lot with two or three friends, as Martin did, and our conversations were not all that dissimilar. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it might have been better if some of the superfluous (and suspect) detail had been dropped — it would have made the characters and their intreractions stand out better.

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The Grand Sophy

The Grand SophyThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the last couple of years I seem to have read a number of romance novels set in the period 1795-1820. First it was Jane Austen, who wrote about the landed gentry. Then it was George Eliot, who wrote about the yeoman class. And now it is Georgette Heyer, who writes about the aristocracy. Austen was contemporary, Eliot wrote 50 years after the time in which her novel Adam Bede was set, and Heyer wrote more than 130 years afterwards.

The Grand Sophy was one of those recommended in The Modern Library and was indeed worthy of the recommendation. A good read, in fact. More about The Modern Library here.

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Adam Bede

Adam BedeAdam Bede by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a love story.

It’s set in the fictional English county of Loamshire at the end of the 18th century, which is some kind of rustic paradise until things start going wrong about halfway through the book. Unlike Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, whose romance novels are peopled with the landed gentry and their urban equivalents, this one is set among the yeoman class.

The book has been on our shelves forever, and I’ve been meaning to read it some day but kept putting it off, partly because of things I’d read about George Eliot, and partly because of plot summaries I’d read. Reading plot summaries can be a bad idea. It made it sound too simple, and a 600-page novel with such a simple plot must be boring, mustn’t it, with all that padding?

But Eliot’s descriptions of country life, though perhaps too idyllic, are part of the interest of the book, and she makes the characters sound interesting. I don’t know how accurate her description of early Methodists is, but she probably knew several of them personally and perhaps some of her description is based on their recollections.

It’s when the action starts that the plot holes appear. The reader is kept ignorant of some things, which is a common device in fiction, but when the characters themselves appear to be ignorant, the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. At one point there is a rather improbable Deus ex Machina, but it’s still a good read.

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