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IMG_0150.JPGIn the first week of my undergraduate Old English, our German-born lecturer tested our facility with the language. Presenting us – I think – with the text of Ælfric’s Life of St Edmund, she asked us to read it aloud – no preparation, no previous exposure to the words, just read it. “Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe,” we stumbled, “on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde; and se munuc hatte Abbo.”

For reasons unrelated to anything, the phrase “se munuc hatte Abbo” remains my most solid, if not quite my most versatile, bit of Old English. But I recall our lecturer being surprised by how much of the language the class could get its collective tongue around. Perhaps the German in her had a suspicion of our Frenchified tongue – all that Latinate infecting our brains – but we placed the stresses on the right syllables, pronounced many of the words correctly, and even had a sense of rhythm as we read. We understood nary a word, but the sense we could grok. Ælfric’s was – perhaps! – not an entirely lost world.

This was an illusion: the slightest mutual intelligibility aside, much of Anglo-Saxon culture is now alien to us. Thus to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, self-published and now Booker-longlisted, but rather an unusual entry in either of those categories. It is the story of Buccmaster, a freemen of the Lincolnshire fens, who in 1066, like the rest of his countrymen, loses his entire way of life when, on the far-away fields of Hastings, William the Bastard defeats King Harold. The aftermath of what was a – for once no hype here – seismic event (not for nothing is the novel billed as post-apocalyptic) is conveyed in a pseudo-OE, a dialect which draws its grammar from modern English but its personality from Anglo-Saxon: those filthy Latinates are banished, foregrounding the extent to which Buccmaster rejects and resents the French interloper (or, in Kingsnorth’s vocab, the ingenga). Here’s a sample:

well this fyr has cum now it has cum and it has beorned high and strong and for many years and it has eten all angland in it and now angland is but a tale from a time what is gan. if thu can thinc on what it is lose efry thing thu is thinc on this and if thu belyfs thu would do sum thing other than what i done if thu thincs thu wolde be milde or glad to those who wolde heaw away thy lif from thu then thus is sum dumb esol who lifs may be in sum great hus with all warm fyrs and rugs and sum cymly wif and has nefer suffered naht

A few remarks about this, aside from the obvious fact that Kingsnorth has fairly successfully recreated the mouthfeel of OE whilst also writing prose that is comprehensible to the modern reader: his choice to eschew capital letters and much other punctuation, as well as his preference for run-on sentences and restricted diction, certainly promote the sense of archaism that he is after, but they also contribute to the reader’s impression of Buccmaster’s own stubborn, even slow, personality. In a first-person narrative the prose must necessarily take on some of the character of the narrator, but here the trick doesn’t quite serve to paint Anglo-Saxon culture in all its richness. This undermines one of Kingsnorth’s main projects, the revivification of a pre-Norman England.

Kingsnorth is an ecological activist, and a central element of The Wake is an enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxon world, which it imagines as a sort of libertarian pre-feudalism. At one point, Buccmaster boasts that “we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right”: that is, he who works the land earns the land, a sentiment quite at odds both with the Conqueror’s assumption that all of England must literally belong to him, and to our own late capitalist model in which the majority of wealth is located with those furthest from the labour which produces it. On the other hand, Buccmaster is referring to the “weac and uncept” land of the Briton – which the Angles, Jutes, Uncletomcobleighs and other Germanic invaders of the fifth and sixth centuries took for their own and farmed in a more settled, formalised fashion. Buccmaster’s society is not perfect, then, but it is different: his own position as a “socman”, a free tenant farmer, gives him a freedom and a stakeholding unfamiliar both to the Normans and to us; nevertheless, it places him, like Conqueror above Englishman, above many in the village (most especially the women); that this arrangement works for him, and that Kingsnorth leads us to see the value in social relations alternative to our own, does not rob his novel of complexity.

This is, then, no The Quickening Maze, that wonderful Adam Foulds novel in which enclosure is roundly and unambiguously demonised; it is, rather, an unreliable narrative in which we can nevertheless perceive how power is exchanged. When the Normans dismantle Buccmaster’s world, an indentured peasant “specs lic he too is a socman”; other villagers argue that “thy harald cyng he did not cepe us safe yet this frenc cyng does not what does thu … say to this”; Buccmaster’s scepticism about Christianity, meanwhile, is powered by his belief that “the biscop of the crist … tacs his orders from his cyng not from his heofon”. Regime change, we see, is primarily about who gives the orders, and how those orders parcel out the goodies: how, the novel asks with its authentically Anglo-Saxon focus on things, might we better divvy up the geld, so that “the fuccan preosts” don’t have the right to lecture every Sunday on the basis of salaries paid by tithe? “it is bocs that does yfel,” complains Buccmaster in one of his characteristically ignorant moments, “all bocs the boc of the crist the boc of the cyng all laws from abuf mor efry year”. This is the cry of the Tea Party, but Buccmaster’s refusal to give fealty to an overlord is the cry of Occupy.

If all this analogy, however pleasingly textured and complicated, doesn’t quite fit the Anglo-Saxon world as well as Kingsnorth believes (his novel is predicated on an acceptance of an older historiography of the Norman yoke), it is beautifully conveyed in the novel’s preternatural control both of its diction and its viewpoint character. The language never stumbles, and in this it contrasts wonderfully with Buccmaster, who begins his story as the central hero figure, a Beowulf or Byrtnoth; but who in the course of his ramblings reveals himself to be much less than that. He rails against the French and the slowness of his fellow villagers in understanding something is afoot, but insists his sons not go to war so they can bring in the harvest; he clings to his grandfather’s frowned-upon belief in the power of the “eald gods”, and in the magical power of the sword he holds to be forged by Welland, despite all evidence to the contrary; and at times Kingsnorth, with a wonderful facility for timing in his pseudo-OE, allows us even to laugh at him (“in triewth the ealu has slowed my tunge a lytel though of course i is still cwic”). As the novel proceeds, the gap between Buccmaster’s self-perception and his actions grows so wide as to be comparable to the chasm that separates Anglo-Saxon from Norman England.

The generic slippage that accompanies this rupture adds a pleasingly disorienting aspect to proceedings. There is in the aerial portents observed by the Anglo-Saxons an element of the alien invasion story (“this is no thing of the grene world”), and the Normans are akin in their alien and implacable nature to Wells’s tripods. Likewise, the “eald gods and eald wihts and free folcs” of Buccmaster’s imagined pantheon hang over events like fantasy creatures, the petrified forests under the waters of the fens gazing up like Tolkein’s Dead Marshes. Finally, of course, the post-apocalyptic echoes of Riddley Walker are obvious and pimped in the back cover copy. All this emphasises the destruction of Buccmaster’s world, but also the otherliness of this society which the Conqueror is replacing, and indeed the one he is in turn imposing. Systems, and those with their hands on its levers, change: if Buccmaster’s increasing cult of personality in the novel, with which charisma he attracts a band of murderous “grene men” to his banner in the style of one of Kingsnorths many wakes, Hereward, turns sour, there is in this vivid otherness still a sense of optimism about The Wake: leaders should not be trusted, but everything can still change.

A lot of this would be in no way as entertaining or as noteworthy without the language (which, in Kingsnorth’s defense, and as he emphasises in one of several author’s notes, was his primary focus). There are longeurs in the plot, during which Buccmaster doesn’t do much but wander around; there’s not a lot new to this particular iteration of the unreliable narrator; and we are not currently at a loss for novels which croon that it’s been a long time comin’ but change is gonna come. On the other hand, The Wake succeeds so triumphantly on its own terms that it seems miserly to poke holes. If it doesn’t end up on the final Booker shortlist, Buccmaster might have a word or two to say about the fuccan esols.

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriIn his 2007 history India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha wrote of the militant Indian Maoists who emerged from the conflagration at Naxalbari in 1967: “‘Naxalite’ became shorthand for ‘revolutionary’, a term evoking romance and enchantment at one end of the political spectrum, and distaste and derision at the other.” [pg. 423] In her new novel The Lowland, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri plays with precisely these reactions, positing a long tail of consequences whipping outwards from a single Naxalite’s decision to fuse ideological fervour with murderous deeds.

The novel begins with Subhash and Udayan, two brothers living in the Kolkata suburb of Tollygunge during the 1950s. Subhash, the elder by a scant fifteen months, is cautious and prone to hesitation; Udayan “was blind to self-constraints, like an animal incapable of perceiving certain colours” [pg. 11]. Despite their differences, the boys are as inseparable as the twin pools wallowing in the topographical hollow of the title: “After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.” [pg. 1] This governing metaphor emphasises not just the occasional indistinguishability of the brothers, but also how the consequences of events have a habit of squatting in our lives long after their initial happening: like water with nowhere to drain away, history lingers in the lives of each of Lahiri’s characters, turning brackish and stagnant.

The first section of The Lowand is consequently bulging with Cliff Notes history, context shoe-horned into a smaller story because without it the personal, soapy tragedies which proceed from Udayan’s inevitable radicalisation make no sense. “It was one of a string of villages in the Darjeeling district,” Lahiri writes of Naxalbari, “a narrow corridor at the northern tip of West Bengal. Tucked into the foothills of the Himalaya’s, nearly four hundred miles from Calcutta, closer to Tibet than Tollygunge.” [pg. 20] We get thumbnails of American history, too, since as Udayan becomes ever closer to his Communist friends, Subhash attends college in the USA. We read of India and of Udayan at arm’s length during this stretch of the novel (difficult because Indian news is not something one will “come across in any newspaper in Rhode Island” [pg. 87]), and Subhash returns to Tollygunge only on the news that his brother is dead, shot by soldiers who have homed in on his Naxalite activities.

Subhash’s life is transformed. Not only has he lost the brother who formed his other half; he feels obliged to marry Udayan’s pregnant wife, Gauri. Yet the only love affair Subhash has undertaken in the US has been desultory and practiced, involving “a woman whose company he was growing used to, but whom, perhaps due to his own ambivalence, he didn’t love” [pg. 77]. According to Subhash’s mother, meanwhile, Gauri has no material instinct or aptitude. We think at first this is spite, but learn as the novel proceeds in elliptic fashion that it is a judgement more or less fair. Indeed, Lahiri eschews the tumescent context of her first hundred pages once Gauri joins Subhash in the USA, dropping us into strings of vignettes separated by often large – and important – chunks of time. Gauri develops a love of academia and philosophy, attending lectures on the quiet; Subhash turns his studies into a career; and the daughter they pretend is his rather than Udayan’s develops a personality at a rapid clip (by the close of the novel she is in her forties).

Lahiri intends to write a family epic alert to the irony of unintended consequences – for her senior college thesis, Bela (long since abandoned by Gauri, now a college professor, and living an itinerant lifestyle with which Subhash is uncomfortable) chooses to study “the adverse effects of pesticide runoff in a local river” [pg. 221], encouraging the reader to recall those pools of water in which, we learn, Udayan attempted to hide before the soldiers found him. All of this has a certain piquancy, and the sad, stilted lives of the main characters do have the power to move: alone and adrift, for instance, Subhash feels “that this arbitrary place, where he’d landed and made his life, was not his” [pg. 253], and we feel for a man at sea in his own cast-off-course life, “linked”, like Gauri, “into a chain she could not see” [pg. 292]. But there’s also an obstinacy to The Lowland – all that insistent commentary, crystalline-but-crafted sentences, and punished protagonists (Gauri’s desolation, in particular, feels simply unfair) – which lends it an air of inflexibility. The Indian sections have a nice ambivalence – at one moment “the sour, septic smell” of Tollygunge [pg. 89], at another the “gestures of hospitality from shopkeepers” [pg. 113] – but, in the way of We Need New Names, the prism of America over-directs the novel’s light away from this valence of detail.

The Luminaries by Eleanor CattonDetail is not something lacking in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, however. At 832 pages, it is by far the largest book on this year’s shortlist – which might be the reason that I’ve left it last to review. More than any other of its competitors, Catton’s novel is interested in capturing the sense of a single place – not evoking a milieu we view from a more familiar one (Bulawayo, Lahiri, Ozeki), not abandoning specifity (Crace), and not being so fiercely concise that all but the most essential details are pruned away (Tóibín). Catton’s 1860s New Zealand goldrush town of Hokitika emerges as a pungent presence, mapped and – aha – mined thoroughly in the course of what becomes a compendious tour. But what is remarkable – and a little thrilling – about all this detail is that the novel conspires to make it entirely irrelevant.

At yesterday’s Booker Prize shortlist event in Cheltenham, Catton discussed the dual meaning of ‘fortune': the prospectors of Hokitiki are in search of riches, of course; but fortunes are told as well as found, and in this way The Luminaries – its title, too, offering a dual reference, to the novel’s cast of Hokitika’s leading lights but also to the celestial bodies around which Catton structures her action – considers determinism and destiny. Its first of twelve parts – we note the allusion to the Zodiac – is itself novel-length, introducing us to (again) a dozen characters who are each in some way implicated by circumstance in the death and possible murder of a rich prospector named Crosbie Wells. In the discursive style of the nineteenth-century novels which are read by the characters themselves, Catton introduces us to the most intimate aspects of each man’s self-image. New arrival Walter Moody “had studied his own reflection mutely, and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best” [pg. 4]; shipping magnate Thomas Balfour “liked very much to feel that he was at the vanguard of an era” [pg. 12]; cleric Cowell Devlin “spent the present moment in a state of constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become” [pg. 87]. We come to know these characters entirely, and often through the medium of gloriously witty pen portraits.

But Catton’s story lies elsewhere, in a string of coincidences involving none of the characters who feature in this hefty first part – and who consequently never develop from those initial thumbnails. Significantly given the centrality of the moon to the novel’s vision of ‘fortune’, it is two women who emerge in the book’s second half as the engines of the story: the Hokitika prostitute Anna Wetherell and the scheming villainess first introduced to us as Crosbie’s estranged wife, Lydia Wells. That the tart-with-the-heart and the scheming adulteress are both wearied and wearying types is part of Catton’s project. Individuals are not the drivers of this novel’s action. At one point, Balfour’s main client, and a man himself inextricably linked with the vengeful Lydia, opines that, “Only a weak mind puts faith in coincidence” [pg. 63], but in fact life in The Luminaries is governed by it. Characters act not in relation to their painstakingly-rationalised self-perceptions, but to their star signs or schematic roles in the narrative (the corrupted chemist, the tragic Chinaman); stories have less a beginning, a middle and an end, and more a series of intersections between random events which can build accidentally into denouements; and, as the novel’s twelve parts reduce in length by a mathematical ratio, and the chapter summaries which commence each segment grow ever more rococo in inverse proportion to the wordcount of the chapters themselves, Catton plays with narrative, subverting the certainties and assumptions of precisely the nineteenth-century realism she pretends to ape.

The Luminaries is interested in the way in which the sense of self which novels impose upon us, that bourgeois conception of the individual as an independent agent making choices which forge destinies in the way of Lahiri’s brothers, might not capture the way in which the world really works. Anna is in love with Emery Staines, the richest prospector in Hokitika, a young man who disappeared on the same night Crosbie Wells died and on which Anna herself collapsed in the street; they were born, she finds, on the same day at the same time of the same year, and this seems to give them an uncanny connection, in which one feels the emotions of the other, or can forge their signature without discernible discrepancy. In this context, Staines’s individuality is not important – indeed, the way he intersects with other people and events is the real root of his character, and self-presentation or -perception merely a gloss. “Emery Staines knew very well that he created a singular impression in the minds of all those whom he met. This knowledge had become, over time, an expectation, as a consequence of which, his singularity had become even more pronounced.” [pg. 732] That is, the self is simply self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether this radicalism is contained in a package effectively executed is a slightly different question; Catton is attempting to interrogate the novel using a novel, and this perhaps inevitably leads to a bagginess, at times even an awkwardness: all that detail, all those words, can come to feel recursive. There’s an extent to which Catton’s concept – perhaps fittingly – overtakes her material, and The Luminaries can feel stretched as a result. Indeed, I wonder if, at the other end of this shortlist’s spectrum, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary isn’t both just as radical and significantly more disciplined and artful. If The Luminaries is certainly extremely clever, the Tóibín might also be articulate. One of these two should certainly win the prize (I’d probably plump for The Testament of Mary myself), but I wonder if Jim Crace’s reputedly final novel, the elegiac-if-inexact Harvest, might not be awarded the Jacobson-Barnes Award for Life-Time Achievement. The stars will reveal their alignment on Tuesday.

I mentioned, in my first pair of reviews drawing from this year’s Booker shortlist, the sad omission by the judges of M John Harrison’s superb Empty Space. This was a novel, it seemed to me, with all the poignancy and pregnancy the Booker seeks to reward, replete with the subtle craft and canny artistry it likes to encourage. In the comments to a recent post on the blog of science fiction author Adam Roberts, himself a previous recipient of the shoulda-woulda-coulda SF Booker badge, the estimable Matt Cheney agrees:

By your criteria here, it would be hard to make a case for even, say, Harrison’s Empty Space to make it to the list — and I think it certainly deserved to be there. But it’s complex, difficult, allusive, elusive. Certainly not primitivist, unless “primitivist” is stripped of much meaning.

The comment is part of a discussion about the criteria Cheney mentions, a set of propositions Roberts establishes in an attempt to argue not just for the importance of Young Adult fiction but for its primacy in contemporary literary culture. There’s a lot in Roberts’s post to like – I’m particularly intrigued by his idea that education and school represents a dominant strand of post-modern experience – but his position on YA seems unusually wobbly. This has led Nina Allan, who shares my admiration for Roberts’s criticism, to wonder if he isn’t, gadflyishly, playing Devil’s advocate; Allan also pre-empts most of my quibbles with the original post, but I wonder if encoded within it – and implicit in Allan’s response – is a more compelling ‘great definer’ of our age. But more of that anon.

a-tale-forthe-time-beingFor the moment, it’s worth sticking with YA, not least because Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being reads a good deal like fiction aimed at teens for a good part of its length. Half of its pagecount is handed over to Nao, a Japanese adolescent whose diary is found by Ruth, an American writer living on a sparsely inhabited island in Desolation Sound. In reading Nao’s journal, Ruth comes to feel impossibly close to the teen’s stories first of dotcom bubble prosperity in Silicon Valley, then poverty back home in Japan when her depressive father loses his job and takes to placing ill-fated bets as a means of maintaining the family income. Nao’s narrative truly revolves, however, around Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who is also Nao’s improbably wise grandmother.

Into this tale therefore enters the concept of Oneness: Jiko’s philosophy is filtered through Nao’s naivety (“everything I write will be historically true and empowering to women, and not a lot of foolish geisha crap” [pg. 6]), resulting in a good deal of restatements of the gnomically obvious. “Being a Buddhist,” Nao tells us of Jiko, “she really understands impermanence and that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.” [pg. 27]   This Cliff Notes approach to Jiko’s beliefs infuses Nao’s half of the novel, in which we are treated to related wit and wisdom ranging across a number of contemporary hot topics: “Everybody in California has ADD, and they all take meds for it, and they’re constantly changing their prescriptions and tweaking their dosages” [pg. 161]; “September 11 is like a sharp knife slicing through time” [pg. 265]; “all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting” [pg. 26].

There’s a reductiveness to a lot of this which characterises the worst kind of YA, the type rolled out by lofty adults to help young people understand what it means to be proper people. (Not for the first time, m’learned friend Martin Lewis nails this problem with concision and vim.) Nao’s passages start off promisingly – the first chapter in particular reads freshly and cheekily, and made me genuinely excited for the novel – but it never really deepens or complicates itself. We might assume, then, that Ozeki simply suffers from the same malady which afflicts many such writers when slumming it by writing from a teen perspective: she simply doesn’t capture the sophistication of the voice. The difficulty is that this is true, too, of Ruth’s passages, albeit in a different way. They very often take the form of dialogues between her and another character – most often another improbably wise interlocutor, her husband Oliver.

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“She says she’s writing it for you. So do you feel special?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Ruth said.

“Speaking about garbage,” Oliver said, “I’ve been thinking about the Great Garbage Patches recently …”

“The what?”

“The Great Eastern and Great Western Garbage Patches? Enormous masses of garbage and debris floating in the oceans? You must have heard about them … “

“Yes,” she said. “No. I mean, sort of.” It didn’t matter, since he clearly wanted to tell her about them. [pg. 35]

This format is fitting for the book Ozeki has written – which is essentially a disputation, a didact’s philosophy primer – but it grinds wearyingly on over the space of a 400+ page volume that insists upon presenting as a novel. Of course, the diary-reading and letter-writing at the heart of this story – emails and blogs feature, too, but only as spruced-up accoutrements to what is a fairly traditional epistolary structure – are all a metaphor for the act of creation undertaken in collaboration by a reader and a writer. Ruth and Nao are in a mystical way the same person, forming (in the oneness of the – geddit? – now) their story together. This is gratingly obvious early on, and the digressions and multiplying frame narratives Ozeki employs to complicate this schematic endeavour don’t sufficiently distract from a core predictability. By the 400th page – when, of course, Oliver reveals all (“the superposed quantum system persists, only, when it is observed, it branches” [pg. 397]), it comes as both relief and let-down. Perhaps this is true primarily for readers of novels like M John Harrison’s; perhaps there are those for whom the Ozeki will come as a revelation; but one wonders why a novel in the footsteps of Jostein Gaarder trumps a more complex novel with the same quantum-philosophical base.

We-Need-New-NamesWhich might return us to Roberts’s thoughts: “No SF? No YA? No Crime? Insular, backward looking shortlist.” Except that Roberts does not consider SF’s science to be as vital as YA’s, well, youth. Indeed, in his trio of defining contemporary characteristics, Roberts places technology on the lowest rung. Above it but below youth, in the role of our age’s Ronnie Barker, he sites globalisation. With self-conscious finesse, then, I direct your attention to NoViolet Bulawayo’s tilt at the Booker, We Need New Names.

Darling is another young girl in unfortunate circumstances: in her case, she and her single mother (who operates, at the edge of Darling’s understanding, as an occasional sex worker) live in a Zimbabwean shanty town known drolly as Paradise. She and her friends spend their days causing trouble and playing Find Bin Laden (all these international children are so interested in the War on Terror, one finds), stealing intermittently into the better parts of town to grab fruit from trees and gaze, wide-eyed, at the privilege they cannot quite imagine, “the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on” [pg. 2]. Globalisation, then, touches their lives in a myriad ways: the well-heeled visitor from London who will “throw food away” as if it’s nothing [pg. 7], the charity workers who arrive at the village without the language, who dole out rations and are mocked by the children; the teachers who have “left to teach over in South Africa and Botswana and Namibia and them, where there’s better money” [pg. 31]; and, finally, the family members who have already escaped to America, to work as cleaners and orderlies in luxury quite alien to Darling’s contemporaries.

Indeed, Bulawayo spends a lot of time in the first half of her novel on the degradations which contrast so vividly with these glimpses of the West: the woman with AIDS who hangs herself, and whose corpse is found, dangling, by the young tearaways; the girl who is pregnant with her grandfather’s child, having been repeatedly raped; the sinister village preacher, the satisfyingly monikered Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, who accuses women of witchcraft and demonic possession in order to abuse them. “There is just no sense in being afraid when you live so near the graves,” Darling says [pg. 132], and there is certainly an air of resignation to Bulawayo’s work. When Darling flies to America to join a relative there, her life – and the prose style itself – changes utterly. We Need New Names proceeds from Bulawayo’s Caine-winning short story ‘Hitting Budapest‘, which is here the first chapter, but the book takes a huge swerve at its centrepoint, shifting from a demotic, almost innocent style, to a breathless, almost bitter one: “If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me going outside to live life.” [pg. 153]

This doesn’t lead very far, however: Darling watches pornography with her new group in America and grows into awkward adolescence; she dismisses the pain of a friend who is physically assaulted by her boyfriend (“I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis” [pg. 218]); and she returns to her village to be scolded and rejected by her former friends. All this, as in A Tale for the Time Being, is much as you’d expect, a sort of grand thematic tour. On the other hand, it is also written with more clarity and playfulness than Ozeki’s novel, and though it is in its own way just as insistent, it is much less didactic – because much more sprightly. Still, I find it hard not to agree, insofar as it is possible or reasonable for me to do so, with Helon Habila in the Guardian: “To perform Africa [...] is to inundate one’s writing with images and symbols and allusions that evoke, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, pity and fear, but not in a real tragic sense, more in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Bulawayo has one of Darling’s childhood friends counter this accusation – “You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on?” [pg. 285] – but in her clear and understandable desire to document the deprivations of a country often invisible to inhabitants of the one to which Darling emigrates, she does somewhat load her novel with precisely the negative resignation one assumes she wishes to eschew.

Bulawayo ends We Need New Names on an ugly image of a dog crushed by traffic on a Zimbabwean road; her final sentence, however, emphasises the “delicious, delicious smell of Lobells bread” which wafts across the scene, as if – aha – to leaven the darkness, to emphasise that all in Africa is not dead dogs in the road. In her second novel, one hopes she succeeds in better achieving that balance. One worries, however, that Philip Hensher is right: that the inclusion from 2014 of American novels in the Booker race will hollow out the prize, render ever more predictable its shortlist; already, in three of these six shortlisted novels (the two reviewed here and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland), America acts as a prism through which more particular struggles are viewed. Hensher, I think, over-eggs his pudding, but concern about a flattening-out is valid: in his own Booker post, after all, Roberts notes that the youth culture he sees as permeating and defining our particular moment was “invented to relieve young people of their pocket money in the 1950s”; in her response to the post, Nina Allan points out that YA is written not for young adults but for “the young adult market“. The characteristic of our age – as Darling, imprisoned in her shanty town and pining for “the TV, the large radio, the beautiful things we don’t know” – is not the youth Nao and Darling share, but the commodification which places intolerable pressures on the lives of all around them, the packaging and repackaging of stuff. Selling to markets is the sine qua non of our technological, globalised, youth-obsessed culture, one in which leisure time expands and is filled not by more time for reflection but by more product – not by what Roberts calls ‘clever clever’ art, but by accessible mass media.

The Booker, one hopes, won’t reward books which play to those pressures.

Harvest, by Jim CraceThis year’s Booker longlist has been greeted with enthusiasm principally because it seems to offer an escape route from the conservatism of the last few years: Mantel, Jacobson, Barnes, Mantel is a list of consecutive winners which skews towards the establishment. However deserving Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and however passed-over Jacobson and Barnes have been in the past, four years of middle-aged Brits winning the prize might not be a trend worth continuing into 2013.

Despite Robert McFarlane’s on-the-record praise for one of 2012’s most exciting novels, M John Harrison’s Empty Space, the longlist remains in style much as it has before (Richard House’s The Kills confirms crime fiction in its position is the ‘respectable genre’). But youth and internationalism characterises the selections, and this seems enough given what we have come to expect of the types of book the Booker chooses to recognise and reward.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm ToibinIf the establishment has its champions on this longlist, the mantle (a-ha-ha) must rest rather awkwardly on them. Both Jim Crace and Colm Tóibín have been previously shortlisted for the Prize (Tóibín, of course, won with The Master, his magisterial evocation of the life of Henry James); both are regular commentators in the national and international press; both are middle-aged and both are – dear reader, ineluctably – male. On the other hand, neither quite sits as neatly at the top of that tree as a Jacobson or a Barnes: Crace is based in Birmingham, not London, and though my suggestion that he had made a good living taking the mickey out of contemporary and classic fiction alike is obvious nonsense, he continues to sit to one side of contemporary literary culture. Tóibín, meanwhile, may well be one of the English language’s most important, dynamic and perceptive writers – and that makes him very difficult indeed to dumb down, reposition or, that dread word, ‘sell’. (His last novel, Brooklyn, was longlisted for the Booker but didn’t make the grade in the year Wolf Hall won.)

For those rooting for more of their same from their Booker winner, both writers offer a lot of encouragement. Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is slim, almost The Sense of an Ending-ish, and yet preponderantly well-turned. It is narrated by a woman in first-century Ephesus whose son, a man in his early 30s who is wanted by the authorities, has just been crucified. Tóibín is less coy than my précis – there is in The Testament of Mary no attempt to debunk or debase the story of Jesus, and though Mary is shuffled off gently from the wedding at Cana so that we never read her direct observations of the water and the wine, she does witness Lazarus walking around as if he had never been dressed for burial.

The pooh-poohing of miracles is too facile a pastime for Tóibín; rather, his Mary is a witness to their aftermath (“the hordes had moved on, she said, followed by an even larger caravan of hucksters, salesmen, water-carriers, fire-eaters and purveyors of cheap food” [pg. 37]). Mary’s is the female voice raised against the male transformation of Christ’s work into Christian cult. Mary is attended each day in her Ephesian exile by two of Jesus’s disciplines – they are never named – and Mary instinctively understands “the elaborate nature of their desires” [pg. 3], desires which are thrust upon her son, who is told “that he was not a mortal as we are mortal, but [...] that he he was the one we had been waiting for” [pg. 33]. These expectations, this worship, transforms her son: “There was nothing delicate about him now,” she observes as Jesus takes his place at the centre of the crowd, “he was all displayed manliness.” [pg. 49]

In part, this is a tender story of a mother letting go of her son – Jesus becomes “a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk” [pg. 54] – and Tóibín very much casts his Mary as a representative of a conflicted, everyday humanity distinct from the impossible perfection of the Gospels. Mary worships both at the temple of Artemis and of the one God; she begins her narrative improbably modern – “I disliked weddings [...] the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed” [pg. 27] – but ends it identifiably compromised (she chooses, despite the stories concocted after, to flee the site of the crucifixion rather than wait to bury her son, “to protect myself” [pg. 84]); and, ultimately, she stands for contingency over conviction (“Now I know how random it was and uncertain” (pg. 88). All of this makes for a quite astonishingly resonant novella, and a beautiful, poised piece of ventriloquism. It also speaks to the religious questions of our own age, in which women are again subjected, “within this group of men [... to] a set of hierarchies” [pg. 66], and their truths treated as inconvenient (“It will be as though what I saw did not happen” [pg. 99). The Testament of Mary is as exquisite, as slight, as a scalpel.

Crace’s Harvest is, in comparison, a doorstop – and yet is itself significantly shy of three hundred pages. Set in an indeterminately early modern decade, probably around the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, Harvest takes place entirely within the confines of a tiny hamlet, overseen by a manor house but more properly subject to the tender mercies of its land. Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, first came to the village some years earlier as the manservant of the new master of the manor, a man now in turn to be supplanted by the rightful heir – his dead wife’s wily cousin. At first, however, we like the villagers have no notion of the outside world, and the novel begins with two plumes of smoke – the first a fire at the manor house, the second a sign that interlopers have arrived at the edge of the village’s bounds.

It is remarkable how deftly Crace then spools outwards his plot from these two innocuous spots of grey on an otherwise vivid skyline. He writes about the natural world with spare, evocative economy: “There is a silent ripeness to the air, so mellow and sappy that we want to breathe it shallowly, to sip it richly like a cordial.” [pg. 60] Yet this is no Arcadia, or Romantic idyll: “The countryside is argumentative. It wants to pick a fight with you.” [pg. 63] The village is isolated, two days’ ride from the nearest market town by even the fastest horse, and this has led to inter-breeding – Walter stands out in his colouration and facial features, and observes that “we are too small, and getting smaller” (pg. 4) – but has also played host to a real, if exclusive, community and an umbilical connection with the jealous soil. Indeed, the villagers have yet to bother building even a church, so busy are they with survival, but also, like Mary, with the simple common-sense knowledge that God is not the active agent which sustains them.

Into this centuries-old lifestyle steps first the man the villagers come to name ‘Mr Quill’, a map-maker whose work “has reduced us to a web of lines” [pg. 39], and then the master’s cousin himself. In the stocks, meanwhile, are the itinerant countryfolk responsible for that second plume of smoke – themselves likely displaced by enclosing maps such as Mr Quill’s. Four or five outside individuals are enough thoroughly to destabilise the village’s ancient but precarious balance: by the close of the novel it has changed irrevocably as a consequence of the latest innovation being applied to unprofitable villages such as Walter’s: sheep. “I’ll only have to touch them with this candle flame,” Walter observes of his master’s brittle documents of ownership, “and they will leap with fire.” [pg. 269]

“These are sad and hasty times,” the master sighs at one point [pg. 189], and Harvest certainly twinges a little for what has been lost: as the sheep-farmer’s retinue marches across the nameless fields, Walter sees “Privilege in its high hat. Then comes Suffering [...] Malice follows [...] afterwards, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.” [pg. 202] On the other hand, Mr Quill is one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters, an artistic dupe for the cousin’s more brutal schemes, perhaps, but still a bringer of beauty and of culture: “His endeavours are tidier and more wildly colourful – they’re certainly more blue – than anything that nature can provide.” [pg. 133] Harvest offers a wise and inconclusive picture of what living more closely in harmony with the land means, and, conversely but simultaneously, what a more developed society can offer – Walter’s village, unchecked by the mores of the town, shaves women’s heads and charges them with witchcraft if they speak out of turn. There is little need to point out how this parable, too, is of urgent contemporary relevance.

In some years, both Crace and Tóibín would make the shortlist: The Testament of Mary, I think, pulls off the preternaturally difficult trick of being simultaneously the tauter and more supple work, but it is only a nose ahead. Given the inclinations of the longlist, however, it would seem odd if both men make it through. Crace has suggested Harvest is his last novel – in a press release, the Man Booker hopes its longlisting might change his mind – and so his might be the book to watch. Whatever. Both are superb, inspiring, important pieces of fiction, and though perhaps the Booker could do with some visibly fresh thinking, we could all do with more novels like these.

In considering this year’s Booker shortlist, we should get the obvious out of the way first: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies is head and shoulders above its competitors. Not only that: it is a better novel than Wolf Hall, which of course won the prize in 2009. These twin killer facts might suggest it is a shoe-in for the gong this evening, but it will surely be difficult for the panel to reward Mantel for two consecutive books when there is also a third on the way. It would risk turning Mantel into the China Miéville of the Booker, and this seems inimical to the prize’s vision of itself.

As one might intuit from this photo taken last night at the Booker’s event on the South Bank, many fancy Will Self to pip Mantel to the post. Umbrella, however, is a wrecking-ball of a novel, demolishing as it goes not just the cosy complacencies of the literary novel but also itself. Self’s suggestion that modernism retains currency feels confected and unconvincing, offering us in a weird kind of way the shock merely of the old. In the wake of Umbrella, I’ve been re-reading John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, since Self seems to reserve special ire for it (“a curiously patrician form of pro-populism”): Carey may well cherry-pick his case, but what he demonstrates beyond doubt is that modernism proceeded out of its own milieu, not some Romantic eternalised present. Umbrella reads like radical nostalgia.

My thesis is, then, that Self and Mantel will frame this afternoon’s discussion between the Booker judges – but act as alienating poles between which a compromise will need to be found. On one level, almost any of the four remaining books could fit that bill: with the possible exception of Swimming Home (which nevertheless John Mullan was inexplicably enthusiastic about on telly last week), each has something to recommend it. Narcopolis, if bloated and over-stylised, is regardless the closest this shortlist gets to a fresh kind of literary experiment, whilst The Garden of Evening Mists, though overly po-faced and in some need of an edit, in many ways comes closest to Mantel’s brand of narrative interest. It seems to me, however, that one book more than the others is best placed to slip through the Symplegades of Self and Mantel.

The Lighthouse is a small but perfectly formed novel without baggage and with a high level of literary accomplishment. If, as a first novel, it is not as ambitious as either of the shortlist’s big names, it is certainly more successful in its aims, and on its own terms, than any of the books except Mantel’s. If we assume, then, that Mantel cannot win – and that she and Self will divide the panel into warring houses – then the moment may be Alison Moore’s. Compromise candidate or no, The Lighthouse would be a deserving winner – and its victory an exciting prospect for small press publishers.

ETA: I am in the event really very pleased that the judges went for the best book, regardless of the politics. They should be commended, as should Mantel. Bravo!

20121014-185940.jpgI attended the Cheltenham Literary Festival’s annual Booker event yesterday lunchtime, attended by four of the six shortlisted authors, minus Hilary Mantel and Will Self. In the way of these sessions, opening to questions felt less useful than letting the authors keep talking: at one point, for example, Alison Moore was asked why she had chosen ‘Futh’ as the name of her protagonist in The Lighthouse, since it is a proper noun almost entirely without resonance. This, Moore was forced to answer, is precisely, er, the point. Futh is meant to elicit the same response in the reader as he does in his wife-to-be when they first meet again a decade or so after attending the same school: “I don’t remember you.” [pg. 52]

The question was doubly elementary because the novel is so open about Futh’s essential emptiness. On a German walking holiday following the breakdown of his marriage, Futh’s recollections churn around the things said about him first by his distant, philandering father and then his frustrated, disappointed spouse, Angela. “He was introspective, insufficiently aware, Angela often said, of other people and how they might see things.” [pg. 41] Moore can’t be more explicit than this, and if The Lighthouse has a principal weakness it is this reliance on a certain heaviness of interpretation.

Futh’s work is in manufacturing scents – including, for example, instant “coffee whose volatile aromas have been lost and then replaced during the manufacturing process; coffee to which the smell of coffee has been added” [pg. 159]. The Lighthouse makes great play of this idea of artificial recreations – for instance, Futh’s father spends the similar German walking holiday on which he took his young son, reminiscences of which pepper the novel, bringing women back to their shared hotel room as substitutes for the wife who has left him out of simple boredom. Likewise, the lighthouse of the title is in fact a novelty bottle of perfume which ends up in the hands of the landlady of Futh’s hotel, herself in the midst of a loveless marriage, and “is empty, the scent missing” [pg. 37].

On the other hand, Moore’s prose – as opposed to her treatment of theme – is as light and free-flowing as any writing on this year’s shortlist. Here she is conjuring a childhood picnic enjoyed by Futh and his parents:

Despite the incredible heat, up on the cliffs there was a breeze and one could burn unexpectedly. They had eaten a picnic. His mother had made sandwiches and he and his father had shared a savoury pasty in a paper bag. His father had opened a bottle of Pomagne but no one else wanted any. There were oranges but only his mother had bothered with one. Afterwards, she lay on her back on the grass and closed her eyes. Her port-wine stain was visible beneath the strap of her bikini top. She smelt of sun cream. [pg. 55]

There’s a lot happening in this little paragraph, but it goes down as easily as the Pomagne. It’s a pregnant-but-precise style which gives Moore the space to achieve something many of her rivals for the gong are also seeking to accomplish: The Lighthouse is essentially a novel about things withheld, about things unseen, and it weaves delicately through a series of misconceptions and misunderstandings with real economy. Witness, for instance, the delicious episode in which Futh is taken back home by a man he has only just met on a ferry, to meet a sceptical mother and entirely miss the significance of the tensions his presence has provoked. “My wife and I have just separated,” he prates. “And we didn’t have children. [...] I keep stick insects. [...] I wanted a dog.” [pg. 29] Carl absents himself and his mother suggests Futh leave.

This insensibility to the complicated lives of others – indeed, the complexities of his own – leads directly to a series of errors which further destabilise the marriage of his hosts. Ester and Bernard, the proprietors of the Hellhaus hotel (it translates as ‘bright house’, apparently), are trapped in a dead-end marriage – he fails to notice her, and she cheats on him. Even their memories of meeting differ: “She could have sworn that it happened for both of them at that same moment. When, much later, he said that it had not happened for him until after that, it was like having heard a fire engine or an ambulance going by as he stood there on the doorstep, and Bernard claiming to have heard it perhaps hours later when he and she and everyone else were outside on the patio.” [pg. 65] The economy with which Moore depicts the little ways we each misapprehend the other, her manner of capturing the explosions of “a moment, in which nothing was said and no one moved” [pg. 147], puts Levy’s clumsy efforts, and even Self’s over-stylised supposition that only high modernism can achieve the effect of separate lives, to simple shame.

Still, Futh’s habitual inertia tells a tad against the novel: “At the age of twelve, he wanted to go to New York as soon as he was old enough. In his twenties, when he could have travelled anywhere he wanted, he visited many cities and countries but he did not go to New York.” [pg. 78] It’s difficult to spend a whole book aching simply to shake a character into what are fairly modest actions. Futh, like his mother before him, “often fantasised about running away” [pg. 119], but is paralysed by an unspoken fear of the consequences (indeed, his unhappy holiday is proof enough that Futh is best advised to stay at home). Ester and Bernard, who do not begin the novel as a focal point but come to colonise alternating chapters with their own story, feel more dynamic presences – but orbit around Futh’s own non-narrative in a manner which keeps this first novel safely under control.

“Some people do not like the smell of camphor; for others it is addictive,” Moore writes. “It is used, amongst other things, as a moth repellent and as an aphrodisiac.” [pg. 130] That smells and items and relationships can mean different things to different people is not news – and perhaps the modesty of this novel’s aims are one reason it achieves them with so much more clarity than many of the other novels on the shortlist. In many ways, in fact, it reminds one most of The Sense of an Ending, and modest-but-perfectly-turned did Julian Barnes no harm at all.

I’m planning a piece in the not too distant future on Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose quintet, which I’ve been reading leisurely over the last five months. By way of a trailer, I will say that they are limited – indeed, explicitly self-limiting – novels, but within those confines are preternaturally supple and sensitive. The first of the books, Never Mind, is set in the south of France, at the villa of David Melrose, an embittered and violent man whose tantrums and tortures inspire livid fear in both wife and son. Never Mind chronicles a summer spent with the Melroses by a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, during which each in turn is viciously skewered by St Aubyn’s sour wit – and an awful event occurs without almost anyone noticing.

It was impossible not to think of Never Mind‘s potent and surprising mix of understated elegance and devilishly broad satire whilst reading Deborah Levy’s Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home. Alas, Levy did not come off well in the comparison: her book, set in the south of France at the holiday villa of a dysfunctional upper middle-class couple with a single child, features a small clutch of friends and hangers-on, and purports to skewer viciously the pretensions held by each of its characters (who do not notice the warning signs of an awful event which is about to occur). Unlike St Aubyn, however, Levy takes little time to flesh out her stereotypes – we have the priapic poet, the stony war reporter, the preposterous nouveau riche, the spiteful spinster – and so her shots present as rather cheap.

The bubble, such as it is, is burst, as in Ali Smith’s more allusive The Accidental, by the arrival of a Mysterious Young Woman, who is here named Kitty. What follows is a moment of biting social commentary in which Kitty cleverly undercuts the poses struck at a hotel she is taken to by the priapic – and now besotted – poet:

“See those oil paintings of noblemen in their palace?”

He looked up at the portraits of what appeared to be solemn pale aristocrats posing on chairs covered in tapestry in chilly marble rooms.

“Yeah, well, my mother cleans their silver and washes their underpants.” [pg. 128]

Quite apart from the ambiguity of whether the chair coverings resemble particularly the kinds of tapestry to be found in chilly marble rooms, or whether that is the location of the aristocrats on their chairs, this is of course a note so honkingly obvious as to sound painfully flat. It’s not the only one: “Kitty Finch’s eyes were grey,” we are told, “like the tinted windows of Mitchell’s hire car, a Mercedes, parked on the gravel at the front of the Villa.” [pg. 8]  HONK! “The blade was cool and sharp,” we read as the priapic poet recalls his youthful self-cutting. “His wrist was warm and soft. They were not supposed to be paired together but it was a teenage game of Snap.” [pg. 21]  HONK HONK! But the worst is yet to come: the stony war reporter, the priapic poet’s distant wife, “had not been posted to cover the genocide in Rwanda. [...] Yet even without witnessing first-hand the terrors of Rwanda, she had gone too far into the unhappiness of the world to start all over again.” [pg. 31]   Oh, woes. This honks very badly.

That is, Swimming Home reads like a novel which wallows in the self-absorption it pretends to satirise. The poet’s name is Joe, but he is no everyman – in fact, his real name is Jozef (only Isabel, the war-reporting wife, calls him this), and he was left in a Polish wood during the Second World War by parents who didn’t make it out of the Holocaust. He has Pain, you understand, and the novel posits that such Pain is inescapable – the policeman who agrees that “it was unfortunate the Germans occupied Poland in 1939 but he had to point out he was now engaged in a murder inquiry in Alpes-Maritimes in 1994″ [pg. 153] misses the point in the way of the lumpen prole: the privileged angst that suffuses this novel and its characters, you see, is Real and Difficult – much like the Holocaust, an event which Levy in this way employs rather than explores. It is the flattest – and worst chosen – of many such notes.

All of which is a feint shame, because the novel is not without some nice moments: in particular, the relationship between parents and daughter is sketched sympathetically, with the dysfunctional relationship of the adults – “he understood it made more sense of her life to be shot at in war zones than lied to him in the safety of her own home” [pg. 64] – at first unintelligible, but then dimly understood, by their pubescent offspring, shaking her understanding of the world. “What’s more,” she thinks, “if her parents were kissing yesterday (the sheets on their unmade bed looked a bit frantic), and if they seemed to understand each other in a way that left her out, the plot was going off track.” [pg. 117]  Kitty’s figurative role in all this (“She was not a poet. She was a poem” [pg. 88]) is dubious: ostensibly, she is a catalyst, possibly contrived by Isabel, designed finally to bring to a head the unspoken tensions in the Jacobs’s family life. But why the heavy symbolism – “they all had a place in the shade except Kitty Finch” [pg. 10] – and why the constant emphasis upon Kitty’s frequent nudity and fondness for the pool, as if Sandro Botticelli can add something to an under-cooked family saga.

In a novel ostensibly about discovery and self-revelation, this over-egged faux sincerity is fatal. Isabel is a mystery to herself (“all she could do to get through the day was to imitate someone she used to be” [pg. 27]); Joe in denial about the nature of his mental health (“I can’t stand THE DEPRESSED” [pg. 93]; and Nina will “never get a grip on when the past begins or where it ends” [pg. 157]. But each of these dilemmas, supposedly cast into relief by Kitty’s equally deluded, ‘naturalised’ self-knowledge, feel confected or superficial, like the Mercedes – all the angst feels in a very real way unearned. It’s hard to see how this slight book, which never overturns or subverts the established tropes it so consciously adopts, is one of the six best novels of the year – let alone the Booker’s ultimate winner.

 

 

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