Spring Reading: A review of some of the book I have enjoyed so far this year.
The Opacity of Narrative by Peter Lamarque (Rowman & Littlefield)
We all like to tell stories but narrative is invested with meanings that make it more serious and questionable than we ever imagined. There is something called narratology –a term that Word 10 flags up as a spelling mistake – because a story isn’t simply a representation of a world that does or could exist. Fictional or not, a narrative is an artefact, not some entity in the natural world, and a postmodernist like Hayden White writes of historical narratives shaping the relationships that turn facts into a story with a particular significance. This isn’t saying historians constitute the actual facts but it does get close to saying the resulting narrative is not altogether different to a story that might emerge if they did. The historian shares something with the novelist: both recount and shape events within a temporal dimension, imposing a structure, and creating a narrative.
Herodotus is a historian but what he writes is also a work of literature and the first Penguin edition classified it as fiction; Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark was published as nonfiction in America but fiction in Britain; Hitler’s Diaries turned out to be fiction but this doesn’t make it literature. The Opacity of Narrative sets out with admirable lucidity the questions and queries and the tricky issues in the fields of epistemology, philosophy and aesthetics that arise when narrative loses any claim to transparency. It becomes important to work on identifying kinds of narrative practice, the different conventions they follow and the nature of the truth claims involved and this book succeeds in making you think about what is involved in doing so. A story is never just a story.
China Miéville critical essays edited by Caroline Edwards and Tony Venezia
Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville by Carl Freedman (Gylphi)
The form of fictional stories that monopolize the subject matter of newspapers’ book reviews and the display tables in bookshops is representative realism, filling in a story in reassuringly familiar ways as if there is a readily knowable world out there and a novel can capture it verbally just as a photograph shows us what it is a photograph of. A photograph or a realistic novel, we naively feel, stands in a causal, mimetic relation to their subject matter but, as the essays brought together by Edwards and Venezia and the critical study by Freeman show, there is a narrative complexity to China Miéville’s novels that rejects such a model of transparency In place of a fixed line leading to a determined destination, Iron Council describes a train line (and the journey along it) that is always in the making: ‘Miles of track, reused, reused, it is the train’s future and its present, and it emerges a fraction more scarred as history and is hauled up again and becomes another future.’
In The City & The City the ability of language to cement an ideology of seeing and unseeing is on show in a single city of two psychological halves, the inhabitants of one literally not seeing what is in front of their eyes. In Embassytown, a species incapable of understanding metaphor, for whom each word can mean one thing only since meaning does not depend on a system of differences, discovers what it means to use words non-literally. For Miéville, the issues raised by his imaginative stories are packed with political intent and this is what makes him the most interesting of all contemporary novelists.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Piacdor)
One way of dividing up people who read fiction is to separate those who think A Little Life is tremendous from those who find it excruciatingly self-indulgent. I’m in the second camp and am only slightly worried that it’s a numerically tiny group; most readers are falling over themselves in ecstatic praise: ‘fascinating’ (The Irish Times), ‘elemental’ (New Yorker), ‘a devastating read’ (Observer), ‘simply unforgettable’ (Independent on Sunday), ‘a major American novelist’ (Wall Street Journal). Unless someone can point out what I’m missing A Little Life remains emotionally slushy and gushy to the point of being unreadable, a book that wallows in its sense of compassion, repetitively fuelling readers who wants bucketfuls of unconvincing emotions without having to think very hard. The story begins with four college friends who move to New York and inhabit a classless and ahistorical world that is rendered with a mass of mundaneness that soon grows tedious.
The main character is Jude who we gradually learn was serially abused as a child and who self-harms as a consequence. He is a character I came to loathe and one of his friends has this to say of him: ‘You like always being the person who gets to learn everyone else’s secrets, without ever telling us a single fucking thing? … Well, it doesn’t fucking work like that, and we’re all fucking sick of you.’ Not surprisingly, the character who has this insight is gradually effaced from the story because this is a novel about Jude’s trauma and it gets laid on with a big spoon of sentimentality over and over again. Please, read this book and tell me why it is worth taking seriously as a work of literary fiction.
A Graphic Novel: Marcel Proust In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (Gallic Books)
The famous ladder metaphor at the end of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is employed to express the idea that something could usefully be used as steps but only because, having reached the top, one is then in a position to dispense with the tool and reach another point that offers a completely new perspective: ‘He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it’. This would seem appropriate for Gallic Books’ graphic version of the first part of Remembrance of Things Past because this is a book that will succeed when, having reached the end, you turn to the original novel and read that to reach new heights and a more authentic understanding of the novel. Not that you’d want to throw away this graphic edition of Swann’s Way because it’s a handsome volume in its own right and the adaptation and drawings by Stéphanie Heuet treat Proust’s text with considerable respect. There is the same division into three parts: the evocation of Combray and the narrator’s fondly remembered childhood there, the story of Charles Swann and Odette, the woman with whom he is wickedly infatuated and, thirdly, the storyteller’s juvenile love for Gilberte, the daughter of Swann.
The translator, Arthur Goldhammer, adds a short and intelligent introduction, pointing out that the clarity ‘of what might be likened to a piano reduction of an orchestral score’ actually helps the reader who already has some acquaintance with the original. The family trees at the back of the book enable you to associate characters with graphic faces and this is helpful when grappling with individuals who appear at different times and places in the course of the narrative. It also helps sometimes to have indirect speech from Proust’s text turned into direct speech, putting it into the mouths of the characters themselves by way of comic-strip balloons. What ultimately makes this graphic novel so successful is not the throwing away of a ladder but the opening of a door into the tone and pace of Proust’s prose. Not only is the translation remarkably sensitive to the French but there are also occasional extended passages of Proust’s highly distinctive way of expressing reflections on the passage of time and the elusive nature of memory.
Shoji Ueda (Close Commune)
One of Japan’s most singular photographers, Sh?ji Ueda, never felt the need to travel to faraway places with his camera. He found sufficient inspiration in and around the coastal town of Totorri where he lived and when he died in 2000 (he was born in 1913) a vast collection of prints were discovered. This finely produced book draws on that archive and confirms just how original and uncompromising a photographer Ueda always was. The shots are mostly ones of daily life at different times of the year and they render strange and puzzling what is ordinarily just very ordinary: a young girl sits back in a chair and gazes enigmatically into the camera; a young boy’s head in profile looking away to something that we will never get to know about. Many of the photographs feature children, perhaps because they make it easier to capture what is mysterious about being alive, and while they all give the impression of being spontaneous moments caught on camera this may not be the case. On reflection, after returning to turn the pages of this comfortingly tactile book, what we have is a set of meticulously carpentered scenes built around human figures and the space or landscape they momentarily inhabit. They feel very personal but transmit a sense of fragility that is impersonal.
Most of the photographs are black and white but two sets in colour add to the book’s richness. One set is composed of fruit – a row of tomatoes, peanut shells, cherries, a pomegranate – while the other is equally startling but in a different way: never quite in focus, washed colours that resemble faded watercolour paintings, numinous. The final component is a short story by Toshiyuki Horie which I couldn’t make any sense of but which suits the experience of looking at the photographs.