Archive | December, 2014

Van has finished reading…Making An Elephant by Graham Swift

31 Dec

I’ve been a fan of Graham Swift’s writing for a while now. Though it was Last Orders that won the Booker the novel that really blew me away was Tomorrow. I can remember sitting on the train almost open-mouthed as I read, feeling thoroughly caught up in the world he’d created. It’s one of my favourite books. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I’d come across his work quite a few years earlier when I bought a copy of The Magic Wheel at the airport for holiday reading. This was an Anthology of Fishing in Literature, compiled with David Profumo.
Making An Elephant covers a great deal more than just fishing, but of all the chapters in this book on Graham Swift’s life and writing, one spoke to me more than any other: Local History and an Interview. The local history in question follows a river called the Wandle. Graham Swift grew up not far from its course, as it happens did I. Apparently Lord Nelson did fish it, and John Donne possibly fished it, though I’m not sure Mr Swift did. I doubt he fished it as a boy. Even at the start of the period of this Local History (1851) the river was going into decline. I remember the nadir of this process in the 1980’s when the water was sometimes orange in colour and always repugnant. I can’t remember wasting any time dipping a net for sticklebacks there. I can say that it’s possible I have stood and fished where Donne or Nelson had though because the river is in recovery. I can even claim to have hooked one of the plucky trout that Swift mentions (though I can’t claim to have landed it – it was far too quick for me). The Chub and the Barbel have been more obliging.
The interview mentioned in the chapter’s title is one in which Swift talks about his writing day, his practices and the things that interest him. The interview took place in a pub local to him that has an interesting history in itself (also laid out in this chapter). One of the things that chimed with me is the fact that Thomas Hardy lived locally at one point; Swift talks about feeling closer to him somehow, knowing he had likely trod similar paths and it struck me that this was exactly what I was experiencing in reading this chapter. I know the places Swift talked about growing up in. I know the places he talked about now living in. But more than that I too know that he understands that electric surprise and possibility at the pull of a line. Like him, rivers get to me, too. We can get quite obsessive sometimes about our writing heroes (I wonder what Swift would think of being called a writing hero?): what their regime is; what interests them in the stories they tell; who they like as writers; who influences them as writers. This chapter particularly was a gift. Not because it opened up some magical insight into how exactly he does what he does (if anything it was more terrifying to discover that Last Orders wasn’t written separately and then pieced together but done pretty much as it appears) because it made me feel closer to someone whose work I greatly admire. It made me feel closer to a person. And not just a person, but a person who understands the particular joys of fishing that I know too.

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Van has finished reading…Stoner by John Williams

17 Dec

Sorry, John.

Van has finished reading…The Key by Junichiro Tanizaki

15 Dec

The story is presented through the words of two diaries – those of a fifty-five year old husband and his forty-four year old wife. The thing that attracted me to this book was the cover (the Vintage Blue edition) which carries a simple stylised drawing of a woman removing her kimono. Its simplicity works perfectly, in no way diminishing the beauty of the portrait for want of detail. And it reflects quite perfectly the story you meet between the covers.
Here are two people bound together by marriage, bound by convention, bound by the nature of upbringing, attempting to communicate through the illicit reading of each other’s diaries. What is truth is opaque throughout the story, with both characters claiming awareness of the other’s diary, and claiming they will not read it, always within the pages of their diaries in full expectation the other is going to read it.
Set in Japan in 1947 in a respectable neighbourhood, there is a fine balance, a tension set between old and new, traditional and modern, east and west that could only result in the passing into the shadows of the traditional eastern values under the bright glare of the new west.
There is something deeply sad about this tale. The sense of alienation between the members of the family gives the reader the feeling of being an unwitting voyeur not of the physical but of the emotional life being played out for us. For me that made it hard to like as a reader, though from a craft point of view it’s well worth taking the time.

Van has finished reading…Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

15 Dec

I scarcely know where to begin with this book. It’s a tome indeed, running to a thousand pages, but there was surely some powerful magic going on; it didn’t once feel a burden to read. There must have been some loose time pressed between the pages, so quickly they appeared to pass. And as for the manner of my speech – well, one wonders that some mischievous sprite hasn’t spent his time since dandling on the end of my tongue!

It’s the commonplaceness of this world’s otherworldliness that makes it so strong. To have had those wonders presented as the marvels they really are would have centred them in our focus. Instead they are merely ‘reported’ so that our interest can linger on those things that are more fundamental to the story – the friendships, the rivalries, the mores that make the characters who they are. I couldn’t help thinking too that there was a distinct laughing-up-the-sleeve at the academic versus practitioner contention. Of course we see so very clearly as a result how very much the one cannot breathe without the other (and so feel better about our own wisdom at not stooping so low! Ahem).
As to the characters that populate this world, they could almost make quite a literary gathering. I’m no broad reader of 18th and 19th century literature, but I had the distinct impression that a fair few of Susanna Clarke’s cast in the story could be caricatures crafted about the bones of favourites from that period.

It’s a real joy, this book. I could almost wish it were shorter so I could read it again quickly, but that would be to do it an injustice. Then again, maybe there’s something in Ormskirk’s Revelations that can effect some elasticity in the timeline.

PS: And I’ve just seen the cast list for the BBC series due out in the New Year: Paul Kaye as Vinculus; John Heffernan as Henry Lascelles; Eddie Marsan as Mr Norrell; Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. I. Can’t. Wait!

Van has finished reading…Small Island by Andrea Levy

4 Dec

It’s Queenie’s voice more than any other that makes this book for me. It would have been so easy to have given us an all-accepting loveable face against which Andrea Levy could mirror the ignorance and stupidity that levelled such indignity against those who are different. But it would ring hollow. Instead, we have a character who feels like a person, shaped by her circumstance and bound by her choices. There’s nothing saintly about Queenie, even as a child prepared to taunt starving miner’s children in the playground with the tasty pork pie she has for her lunch.

It’s unsurprising that it’s only Bernard, Queenie’s husband – a marriage of necessity on her part – who’s not looking for something else, something new or better. With the surname Bligh (for Blighty, perhaps?) he stands, after all, as representative of a nation that saw itself a pinnacle among its subject colonies. Rather Bernard is looking for the past, a sweeping away of all the madness brought by war, a chance to go back to how it was. I could believe that it’s that closing scene, that last confrontation between the four protagonists that was the fuel for the whole tale, those stories spiralling into the past and the future from that point of impact. On the other side there is Hortense with her belief in the general rightness of things and her affected manners; Gilbert and his happy-go-lucky nature – so tested to the limits – and his sheer determination to thrive. It’s in this very scene that Hortense sees him, almost for the first time, as something other than a common man. How ironic that his impassioned logic goes unrecognised by Bernard. After a colony’s commitment and sacrifice, never was their expectation and disillusionment so succinctly summarised. Even in the depths of his prejudice, Bernard cannot understand the impediment in claiming what he sees as his by association. And what he sees, what they all see wrapped up there between them is the future Perhaps that’s Queenie’s one selfless act, that letting go despite every instinct that tells her not to.