Friday, 23 August 2019

Back, not necessarily by public demand

You find me much refreshed by my sojourn on the west coast of Ireland - goats were crowned on towers, the Black Atlantic was swum, sun burned, rain fell, photographs were taken and many books were read.

Duelling birds

At the horse fair


Mandatory annual shot of a horse queuing for a burger

King Puck himself

A reveller in the rain

Darkness falls over Puck Fair

The banner is accurate, but cruelly unnecessary

Theresa and Boris, winners of the Fancy Dress

One of the more elaborate roadside shrines - Dingle

An fear marbh - the dead man (Blaskets)

Old and new ways - cross glimpsed through an ogham stone
 As for books, I read two Carol Ann Duffy collections (Sincerity and The Bees) which I found moving in some places and bland in others. Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? was a funny read: the writing is wonderful but the underlying premise (one woman has too much sensibility to marry wisely, one is too crudely sexual; they both have to learn to love the right men, who have few virtues beyond patience and Being Right) really hasn't aged well. I read at least one Trollope every year and will carry on, but some of them really try one's patience. Tom Hillenbrand's Drone State is a German near-future surveillance thriller set in the darker corners of the EU. Good fun and some sharp commentary on any state's tendency to do whatever technology allows without moral qualms, but doesn't really bear up to close scrutiny. David Nicholls' Sweet Sorrow was a bit of a disappointment. I know that his books are always sensitive, funny stories of people learning to find their roles in life and love as they grow up, but this one felt even more formulaic than usual. The Romeo and Juliet-performance setting was mechanical but he does have some good insights into the play, and the teenage lads' dialogue is spot on. Worth reading, but I think the formula is played-out rather. I struggled a bit with A L Kennedy's Serious Sweet. Interesting structure (two troubled, traumatised people find their way towards each other through the course of an awful day, during which their pasts are excavated via flashbacks) but I clearly lack the imagined reader's sympathy for the characters required to fully appreciate it. Gavin Corbett's Green Glowing Skull was a blast. Its protagonist is also rather unsympathetic (a 40-something, aimless Irish emigré to New York) but the absurdist plot, picaresque adventures and Milligan/O'Brien-style events just worked brilliantly.

Finally, I read two big novels: Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins and AS Byatt's The Whistling Woman. Reading them consecutively was an interesting experience. Sort-of consecutively, I should say: I read the first 250 pages of A Whistling Woman before my holiday, and decided there wasn't enough left to justify packing it. I finished the Atkinson on the way back, then dived back into the Byatt. Both novels are lengthy examinations of social and cultural change throughout the 20th century, focussed on individuals and their families who had a ringside seat. In Atkinson's novel, it's Teddy, an upper-middle class man for whom WW2 provided meaning and existential enrichment otherwise denied him. HIs experiences as a bomber pilot make him a node in a series of philosophical and moral questions which shape his life (or not, without wishing to ruin the twist): the ripples of his experiences are traced through the generations that follow him. The structure is ingenious without being particularly experimental, and the underlying assumption that ordinary people's behaviours are informed by moral depth and even the worst people's behaviour should be understood as the product of complex pressures is a good one even if it isn't innovative. It's a long book which entirely justifies its length, even for someone like me who has very little interest in the seemingly endless British fascination with WW2 (you managed to be on the right side once in a couple of millennia. Well done). So then I went back to A Whistling Woman. I like Byatt, and say that having read several books of hers that aren't the wonderful Possession. AWW is another family-saga-over-the-20th-century, the latest in a series of novels following the Potter family. They're harder to empathise with than Atkinson's characters: they're even posher, they're always at the forefront of whatever Byatt thinks is historically significant, and they all seem to excel at whatever they do. They're basically the family who always asks to see the manager.

AWW meets the 60s: Frederica is becoming a media star despite her suspicion that both she and TV are bright but superficial. Her mathematician boyfriend is losing his faith (something I thought the intellectual wing of the British middle classes did in the 1880s); an idealistic northern university is being wracked by hopelessly confused student unrest, while a nearby hippy commune is becoming a cult. Essentially, it's a novel about clashing grand narratives, with examinations of patriarchs and fatherless figures thrown in. I enjoyed it, but despite being on similar territory to the Atkinson (whose title is a bit of a give-away), it felt a little indulgent. The Atkinson was about fairly ordinary people in a society being remodelled by war and the horrors (and opportunities) offered by upheaval; the Byatt is much more self-consciously intellectual, but also much more interested in the individual than it is in social structures. Both authors are also very self-consciously literary: writers abound in both (a very funny Richmal Crompton parody and lots of Milton and Oxford English curriculum references in A God in Ruins, while writing is a recurrent theme in AWW: Lewis Carroll, Milton again and Shakespeare loom large).

It's fun spotting the literary parallels and references, and both novels are satisfying reads in that old-fashioned sense, but I found the Byatt a bit too like Iris Murdoch's most self-absorbed novels: posh people in intellectual and moral quandaries while the rude mechanicals follow their brutish instincts. It's very funny though - Byatt's suspicion of the counterculture manifests in wicked parodies of Tolkien, Tolkien fans, teenage Maoists and opportunistic Swinging Sixties types. Where it gets much more serious is its examination of the gap between the possibilities opened up for and by women in the 60s and the underlying misogyny of even supportive men. Motherhood – and its refusal – is a key issue, though ASB plumps for motherhood on the whole. The other compelling aspect is Byatt's constant battle for meaning: the Church mirrors the self-help group that becomes a cult; the University (troubled by the -ologies and by the dubious histories of its most rigorous thinkers) has an anti-University which specialises in woolly nonsense; humanities people pair up with scientists; learning and TV dance around each other. Byatt draws clear lines between Reality and Nonsense, without quite adopting entirely reactionary positions: Atkinson sees the dissolution of rules as an opportunity for both selfishness and altruism, in which kindness is the principal virtue. Byatt needs her world to make sense; Atkinson is much more open to the random stuff that constitutes life.

I suppose the power of these two novels is that I'm still thinking about them, despite Green Glowing Skull for instance being more formally experimental. Byatt and Atkinson use interesting structures and pour everything they know into these texts, sometimes too much, but this leads to a partial abandonment of realism - deliberate or not I'm not sure.

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