Andrea Levy’s “The Long Song”

 

 

I’m not sure how much I can fairly say about The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s first novel since the Orange-winning Small Island. Its presence on the Booker list – though I doubt another of this year’s inclusions – is evidence enough that many find it a fine book; good reviewers in the mainstream press have almost universally approved; bloggers like Dovegray Reader and Kevin From Canadav have also praised it. For my own part, I just did not get on with it. I’m rather outnumbered in this response, though, and can’t help but wonder what I’m missing.

The Long Song is a book about slavery which allows slaves joy as well as grave intelligence, and in this alone it deserves attention. Levy refuses to cast her narrator, the mother of a Jamaican printer asked to write about her life story as a way of recording the 1831 rebellion, as a victim or even an aggrieved individual. The injustice of the way in which she and her people are treated is a given, it is a part of the fabric of daily interaction in this novel. By placing her narrator in a role different to that of anti-slavery mouthpiece, Levy opens up new lines of interrogation, new imaginative routes into slavery and its associated concepts.

It is difficult, however, to see what she does with this, in part because her white characters are what one might expect from a novel of slavery: the cold master who sees slaves as a commodity; the cloistered woman, curious but unthinking about the ‘negroes’ who enable her life; the well-meaning Anglican with dreams of finding his Pygmalion-like noble savage. Admittedly, The Long Song is a novel about the experience of slavery, and this requires precisely the characterisation of the Jamiacan characters which Levy achieves: demotic, conflicted, proud. This is, however, all the novel ultimately does – and the question remains as to whether we really needed a novel this late in the day that merely set out to reeal that a character like the novel’s protagonist, July, may have existed.

If the novel thus lacks an incisive edge, all that is left for it is a consistency of voice. This it certainly has – the narrator’s character and diction becomes the novel’s central feature, her unreliability, vanity and wickedly wry humour its very grit and grain. Unfortunately, the element of the novel with which I had most issue was the voice – a sort of cod-18th century gumbo, which is most convincing in those moments when Jamaicans talk to each other, and least convincing when they talk to us. The whole novel is framed as a recovered manuscript, complete with foreword by the printer and exhortations to contemporaries on subjects as diverse as petticoats and novelistic style; but it never quite convinces on this level, feeling more like a pastiche of the form than a simulacrum of it. Here’s a section more or less at random:

Reader, those words slapped my face as fierce as any hand my son could have raised. What was he now demanding? Does he require to direct what I write within these pages? I am sure that within those publishing houses in England, the ones my son does speak of with such licky-licky praise, those white people do losten with a greedy ear upon what the storyteller has to tell. Them do not say, ‘Oh, let us know the devilment of this person here, or the nasty-nasty deed of that character there.’ No. Them is grateful for any story told. But not so my son. [pg. 142]

There’s no doubt that my dislike for this style is personal and idiosyncratic – so many others bought it wholly. It allows Levy some metafictional space: the narrator’s story practically finishes, indeed is declared over, on more than one occassion, but is urged onwards by one person or another; the relationship between the narrator and her story’s characters and events remains fluid and difficult; the role of her son, caught between the Jamaican and the British worlds and of course the agent giving the narrator her voice (or at least its megaphone) is intriguing. But much of this stuff has been done elsewhere and with more flair – again, the book doesn’t seem to push itself beyond its initial concepts.

Or maybe I’m missing something that for everyone else is in plain sight. I’ll be the one in the corner by the punchbowl.

Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”

The Finkler Question has been good to me. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in hospitals these last couple of days, and that enables long chunks of reading time. Thankfully, Howard Jacobson’s latest novel – short-listed for the Booker Prize, of course – has been intelligent, amusing, erudite company. It’s a beautifully composed piece of work, enquiring and fully whole in terms of character, vision and theme. If it is a quintessential Booker book – all bourgeois interiority and well-meant handwringing – it is also quite other – a comedy, for starters, but also an avowedly specialist book, one which on the surface entirely eschews universalist preaching for a tight and unyielding focus on a single small group.

For Julian Treslove, whose name is a fairly obvious pun on his habit of serial monogamy, a Finkler is a Jew. He has named them so after his schoolfriend Samuel Finkler, now know as Sam to the many readers of his hugely successful series of pop psychology books (Descartes and Dating, for instance, or The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life). What makes Treslove’s selection of Sam as the emblem of a whole ethno-religious grouping problematic is that, in his abandonment of ‘Samuel’, the philosopher has in turn symbolised a fierce frustration with – a broad distaste for – his fellow Jews, and in particular for Israeli Jews and Zionists. The pair’s old schoolteacher, the Czech ex-Hollywood journalist Libor Sevcik, argues with Finkler frequently about such topics – he survived the middle of the twentieth century, and this colours his view of the twenty-first.

Thus the stage is set for the novel proper, which begins in earnest when, on the way home from an evening at Libor’s during which the two Jewish widows and the Gentile singleton comiserate and dispute, Treslove is mugged. The complication of this mugging is two-fold: first, Treslove is convinced his assailant is a woman, and women are a source of considerable trouble for him; and, second, he comes to believe she accused him of being a Jew. Being “a man who did not function well on his own” [pg. 6], Treslove exhibits a terrible need for a tragic other, and this dual trauma exacerbates this need. The Finkler question comes to be, for Treslove at least, how to become one – how to be accepted into a group which offers a ready-made tragic history, an ersatz justification for “a man who ordinarily woke to a sense of loss.” [pg. 47]

For Finkler himself, the question is a much different one: how can one escape that weary self-awareness? For Libor, meanwhile, it is about living with it, about finding a way of managing an acute sense of all that has gone before you, all that has made you who you are – and whatever of you may be left when you go. This is why Jacobson is only superficially interested in the question of his title. In the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Freedland has suggested you might need to be a Jew fully to appreciate the novel; on one level, on a very important level, this might be true. On another, however, it is manifestly false: in the love affairs and museum openings, the dinner dates and holidays, of this novel of incident, Jacobson is on the trail of something broader – but also much narrower – than Jewishness alone.

The Finkler Question is certainly all about self-definition and self-absorption, about identity and the lack of it (Treslove works as a celebrity lookalike – he looks a bit like a lot of them, and therefore he’s in high demand), about how we choose whom we choose to blame for one thing or another (“say ‘Jew’ and it was like throwing a bomb” [pg. 186]), or to love for one reason or another (and in one way or another). Jacobson’s subtle and sympathetic characterisation provides ample and holistic scope in which to present a myriad iterations of his theme without repeating responses or dictating results. It’s a tour de force of literary imagination, a thorough examination of theme, but – crucially – also confoundingly inconclusive. In a word, it’s lovely.

Some, however, disagree: Kevin from Canada, in an excoriating post, wrote that the book “has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing.” I expect I missed an awful lot about the novel given the environment in which I read a lot of it, and yet I found infinitely more in it than Kevin believes there is. It is supply written, very often invisibly so, and the intellectualism which Kevin found so irksome I found both humane and gentle. Partly as a result of a conversation over at The Asylum, Kevin has formulated the theory that unless you find the opening of the novel funny, you will not like it. I do not disprove his hypothesis: I found parts of the first section, and indeed of the rest of the novel, laugh out loud funny. Jacobson includes everything from delightful dialogue to broad farce, and he carries it all off with prose which contains both the major and the minor voice. This is in my book writing very far from dreadful.

The Finkler Question has a line to remember on every other page, and I suspect a scene to stay with you in every chapter. Here is a small canvas with preternatural depth of field.