Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Don't. Just don't.
The first bad thing I might say about Engleby is that for some reason, it put me in a foul mood; as if by some sort of literary osmosis I had absorbed Michael Engleby’s uniformly critical point of view and had turned it on the world and my unsuspecting wife particularly. She was not a happy bunny. The first good thing I might say is that this didn’t last long, especially as the next book I picked up was a Charles Portis novel which quickly dispelled the gloom.
Is this a triumph of the suspension of disbelief, of verisimilitude, of getting the reader to buy into the character? Or is it simply because the only point of view we get for 350 pages is that of “Toilet” Engleby himself? It’s hard not to warm to him even if you don’t like him or his fairly stiff opinions, and that must be a victory for Faulks. His protagonist protests that his memory is spotty – spotty enough that the major crisis in the novel is not really uncovered (officially – the twist was so obvious I guessed it from readingA the dust jacket, but more on back covers and dust jackets later) until some moments of lucidity in the last quarter of the book. What we’re told, by reviewers and the back cover (easy now, don’t get sidetracked yet) is that the reader can’t trust Engleby to tell it straight. And yet you can almost forgive him his lapses such is the prowess of Faulks’ narrative. His insight into class and education in the 50s, 60s and 70s is quite amusing, and the meander of his journalistic career, with cameos from Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Thatcher, is enlightening as well as droll.
But, and here is the big bum note from the old sacred cow slayer, I would never have read this book if I had the choice. I say that like I didn’t have a choice, as though it were life or death, but the truth is having read the Bond novel that Faulks chucked out a few years back, and having seen the types of flaccid liberals who bought his so-called historical novels, I had chalked Faulks off as another of the mainstream literary giants who would be studiously ignored by me from here on in. The fact I owned this (and a recurring theme it is if ever I heard one) is down to the hoarding instinct of the bookseller, hungrily grabbing any old tat that the publishers send you just in case it turns out to be a signed proof edition of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. My “special slip-sleeved edition” was just such a capture, and would have slowly gone fluffy and discoloured with mildew had it not been subject to random chance (I should stop letting my wife pick what I read by lottery). “And why is that?”I hear you ask (in my imagination). I’ll tell you why: the synopsis on the back cover is truly terrible. It makes it sound like a Cambridge coming of age novel, a Brideshead pastiche or another book by Jonathan Coe (after What a Carve Up! he lost me). What I may have preferred to see, and I understand that this isn’t pandering to the lowest common denominator, would be a five-point reference system, with two self- and external-references (i.e. “better than Charlotte Gray by a mile!” and “not as gory as American Psycho”) and three further recommendations about style, tone and themes – for example; monologue, blackly humorous and socio-pathology etc. That’s still quite a brief précis, but it’s one that may (I stress may) have got me interested even if it’s not entirely representative. Nonetheless, it would still be better than the tripe on the back of this edition. There’s one guy on there that quite clearly didn’t get past chapter 5 before vomiting up his review. There could even be a multi-level reference, with a lowest common denominator factored in – if you’ve got five GCSEs or less, read this bit etc. But I’m off on one again, so I’ll wind my neck back in and return to the point, which one of my chums reminded me was the book, not my special set of social and moral prejudices.
I liked it, and was surprised by it, but only because I was not expecting something intelligent and engaging. The fact that despite it being 350 pages long it’s a deceptively quick read is not necessarily a good thing, considering that I can read the entire Metro in two and a half minutes, but it does help to navigate the rather torpid diary entries. However, the concluding section, and I shan’t offer a spoiler for you, is reminiscent in nature of the last half hour of A.I., the overly long and curiously disappointing Kubrick / Spielberg collaboration. And have I mentioned the cover reviews?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Invention of Dr Cake by Andrew Motion

Once again the fickle hand of fortune has placed before me a book I had absolutely no intention to read before I was safely pensioned and with nothing better to do. Having asked my wife to pick two random numbers I counted off those unread piles and plucked The Invention of Dr Cake from the mess with something akin to distaste.  It’s not the only work by Motion that I possess, but so far it has the unenviable status of being the only work by Motion I have read. However, as someone who has a history of ruining things via an unrelenting prejudice, liberally applied to everything of which I have an ignorant or ill-informed disgust and/ or hatred, I would like to take a step back and for once be objective. I hate people who aren’t objective in their reviews.
Someone recently mentioned that in a former life, they had met erstwhile poet laureate Andrew Motion and found him a little stiff. Having had to pull him off stage at the Cheltenham Festival due to unnecessary waffling I might well have concurred. However, The Invention of Dr Cake is a whimsical novel, playful and suggestive, with a veritable Romantic feel and a satisfying completeness. It’s brevity provides counter-point to the lavish purple prose and pseudo-Romantic style of Dr William Tabor, and the premise, if left to the reader to uncover, is amusing and subtly diverting.
The problem is that it is book-ended by what I can only suggest are two passages to instruct the reader how to infer that the key conceit of the novel is exactly that which Dr Tabor and Mr Motion suspect and suggest respectively. No plot spoilers here (I know, I know, but if I did spoil it, there would be absolutely no point in reading it), but the joy is sucked out by two dry and brittle passages which could have served as an introduction and / or been left out completely in favour of a quick and potted history of Dr William Tabor and possibly the Romantic poets, for those of us who couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for the struggling artist. Grandmothers, eggs and sucking the yolks out thereof springs unbidden to mind.
Motion once said of his own art that, “My wish to write a poem is inseparable from my wish to explain something to myself.” It seems he has extended this wish to the readers of his prose, and unfortunately it is most unwelcome.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
I sat down several times after finishing Ravelstein to attempt a review of sorts. In my lunch hour at work, I couldn’t resist the lure of CTRL+TAB to see if any interesting flotsam had washed up amid the tide of mediocrity in my Outlook in-box. The open-plan office, too, serves up many tasty distractions and diversions to upset the clean palate of concentrated thought. I think I got the title down on a blank Word document before remembering I’d not washed my cafetière and had only ten minutes left to eat a banana and make another coffee before my one thirty meeting.

At home, I grabbed an old but as yet unfulfilled notebook and a cheap pink biro with the imperative to “Use Your Vote” only to be frustrated by necessary tidying, dusting and vacuuming and, by then, the lateness of the hour and the requirement to get at least 4 hours of sleep in before my next working day.

I suspect were I to attempt to throw my hands up and declaim the pathos of my existence I would be firmly rebuked from the pages of this fine novel.

Ravelstein, for all the glowing literary hyperbole gold-embossed on the back cover is a profoundly affecting and yet accessible novel, and Bellow’s perspicacity has furnished old Abe with such a powerful charisma that even viewed thrice removed (via Chick, his biographer, through the veil of death and by virtue of being a work of fiction – although loosely based on Bellow’s erstwhile colleague Allan Bloom) I could imagine him barking at me that my inability to find time to write is a manifestation of my fear that to accept such a challenge would be the beating of me and as such procrastination is a defensive mechanism that renders me dull and predictable.  Plus, no doubt, I would be treated to an impromptu but nonetheless well-rehearsed-sounding lecture on the true nature of pathos with many, many references to the literature of Ancient Greece – in Greek no less. If, that is, in the improbable likelihood that I made it into his circle of influence in the first place.
Bellow creates a multi-faceted and vivid portrait of a man that, even filtered through the eyes and reminiscences of friend Chick, has the power to infect and inhabit the memory long after the book is closed.  If it is possible to imagine a friendship with a character from literature I might just push Ravelstein into the room with old pals Kilgore Trout and Ignatius J Reilly and serve them with café serrés as they fill my ears, heart and mind with voluminous and bitter argument.