Shirley Hazzard’s final novel, ‘The Great Fire’, (U.S. National Book Award, Miles Franklin Award, 2004), took twenty years for her to write, so perhaps unsurprisingly, for what is an average sized book, it is packed with incident, character and detail; this reader lost his way from time to time, not that I would venture this as a criticism, more of a sign of the author’s ambition to leave no stone unturned. Hazard here is consciously, almost publicly, creating her testament, the ‘War and Peace’ for her times: the tumultuous ruinous mid-twentieth century.
In a passage from Hazzard’s 1970 novel, ‘The Bay of Noon’, Italian film-maker, Gianni, describes marble workers in the Carrara quarries that Michelangelo sourced: ‘those men… have an existence that has nothing to do with ours. It’s as if they’re at work on the mountains of the moon’. Historical novels seem to me to fall broadly into two camps: escapist indulgence, or the past as a revealing cipher for the present. Hazzard gives us here, in a way, both types. The background, post-second-world-war Asia and England, with flashbacks to the War, is vivid, real and gripping, and we think but for a roll of time’s dice, this could have been us. But the main story, the foreground tale loosely binding it all, is little more than a girlish adolescent fantasy romance, completely out of place in such sophisticated and adult surrounds.
Jane Austen’s novels also present female fantasy in a realist setting, but the grown-up humour and satire mostly offset the disjunction. Hazzard is not ironic and her ‘Great Fire’, I assume, refers equally to love and war. The girlish romance is as real, as significant, in its own way, as Hiroshima. Can Hazzard really mean this? Her preceding novel, the acclaimed ‘The Transit of Venus’, was basically an exploration of the agony of sexual love, and remembering some of the intense passages of that book, I saw that Hazzard does indeed take love very seriously. If you don’t have it, life is not worth living.
So, to the fantasy object, with the distinctive name of Aldred Leith, who has been funded by a dying French officer to wander at will around East Asia gathering material for a book. Whilst in Japan, he becomes besotted with the fifteen-year-old daughter of an Australian medical officer, variously described as a ‘changeling’ and a ‘mermaid’. She, Helen, is besotted in turn with the battle-hardened warrior with his scars and medals, twenty plus years her senior. You get the picture. She is an intellectual and cultural paragon who reads Chateaubriand and Gibbon with her dying invalid brother described by a former tutor as ‘a literary man at the age of ten’! The rationale connect is the ‘high culture’. Like Henry James, Hazzard openly thinks people of ‘high culture’ are special and belong together in their special world, a prejudice that constantly grates throughout this book.
Which brings me, as a little aside, to Helen’s parents, the brutish and uncultured Driscolls (the father is particularly nasty). Here, and elsewhere, Hazzard fully unloads on what she refers to as ‘the antipodean male’ and Australian middle-class suburban life generally. Now I’m sure there were plenty of brutes in the Australian army and the fifties in a land so far away from European culture no doubt seemed in many ways restrictive for a young ambitious blue-stocking. But living and publishing in the same city as the young Hazzard were poets such as Kenneth Slessor, and post-war, novelists such as Patrick White. Australia in fact had a rich mid-century literary culture. Hazzard was only a schoolgirl but still, by 2004 she might have updated her perspective.
Then there’s the locale. I grew up in the same area as Hazzard, the lower North Shore of Sydney which she remembers as a benighted wasteland and I remember as a kind of childhood paradise. I didn’t read books because I was out in the bushland and the sun and the sea. Despite development (middle-class long gone), much of Mosman, where Hazzard went to school, remains spectacularly beautiful, but she seems blind to it all. Although curiously, I believe, in her descriptions of the Bay of Naples in ‘The Bay of Noon’, Hazzard unconsciously transfers her memories of Sydney Harbour.
Although her snobbery is intrusive, she is aware of it (sometimes proud of it) and does a little rear-guard: one of Leith’s close confidants is both Australian and cultured (although he also disdains Australia), Peter Exley. Exley (a character similar to Leith), is the centre of a very well fleshed-out sub-plot set largely in Hong Kong which is almost like a separate novel, and a good one. Here is a post-war world of dislocation, peoples, cities, nations, adrift, the necessity and impossibility of action and decision against the various ways the historical cards might play out, which we, with hindsight, know and back-project. Much of this is powerful and moving, and while I find it difficult to swallow the characters of Leith and Helen, all the minor figures here and elsewhere are wonderfully sharp. The shifting colonial scenes also give ample opportunity for Hazzard to exercise a waspish wit.
Back to that ambition. As Thomas Hardy stands behind ‘The Transit of Venus’; in ‘The Great Fire’, probably partly because of the setting, the tutelary God is Joseph Conrad. Like Conrad, Hazzard is very aware of her language, and so are we. The writing from beginning to end is dense and high-toned, every sentence must pull its weight, and I found myself having to ‘unpack’ the odd one. This density, at times, as with Conrad, can impede narrative flow. Although Hazzard has exciting stories to tell, at times so concerned is she with literary ‘excellence’, she forgets about pace and tone. On the upside, there are many superb and incisive descriptions that I’m sure will remain with me. Dialogue is a further problem; people speak as Hazzard writes, the conversations are far too aphoristic and lyrical to be credible. Symbolism too, is often overdone, for example the antipodean cringe becomes the ‘great south wound’.
But after all the wonderful writing on war and war’s turmoil, at the end we must return to the lavender romance. What is between these lovers seems insubstantial and undefined, partly because consummation occurs after the novel’s close, but also because we never see a real relationship develop. For what one would imagine to be a very awkward coming together, everything is solemn and sententious, and all is immediately understood in this meeting of true souls. The sustained seriousness spills over into melodrama: the demure young virgin in the tower, the noble warrior brushed with tragedy. For a moment Mills and Boon seems as close as Conrad.
Readers might disagree with this judgement, but for me, here is a very fine novel marred by mawkishness and snobbery. But, still, don’t be put off. There are great things in ‘The Great Fire’ and it is definitely worth your time and attention.
In ‘The Known World’, Edward P. Jones creates, as per his title, a complete little world, Manchester County (fictional), in pre-Civil War Virginia, but also occasionally projecting, with his wide cast, right up into the present day. The achievement of this―the back-stories, interaction and balancing of the many characters―bolstered by accomplished prose, is no doubt part of what won Jones the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, Publisher and Books Critics Circle Award, and 2005 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I’m supposing the other part had to do with the ethical heft of his subject matter: an examination of how slavery distorts and degrades a society beyond moral repair. In a situation where men can own other men wholly, good men end up doing bad things, and bad men the unspeakable.
Not that slavery is anything unusual in human affairs, presently thriving as ever in the Middle East and North Africa (which established networks serviced the American South), and elsewhere throughout the world. Mid nineteenth century, when the novel is largely set, Russia was also a slave economy, although skin colour was not a factor and emancipation eventually meant integration, which has not occurred in the United States, still bedevilled by racism.
It’s a pleasure to read a modern novel that has a compelling purpose; in so much contemporary literature, skill and erudition seem disproportionate to any impact or lasting effect. Of course this work is historical, but because of the persistence of racism, the resonances carry through and present hatreds are given cause and shape. Have a good look at how it all started, says Jones, little wonder we have these big problems today. And it’s salutary to have one’s eyes opened, to be jolted from comfortable middle-class complacencies and observe in close detail a ‘functioning’ society, comprised of people like you and me, so utterly cruel and inhumane.
The first big moral shock in the book, cannoning through to the end, is of a black man, a former slave, owning other blacks as slaves. As a non-American reader, I had no idea that this happened or could happen―I remember being astonished years back that native Indians kept black slaves when I read William Faulkner’s story ‘Red Leaves’―and what this shows is that this particular form of human degradation was regarded as completely normal throughout the ante-bellum South. Anyone who could, should own a slave. Why not? This slave owner dies at the opening unleashing a gradual breakdown of all kinds of order, culminating, in a sense, with the (spoiler alert) upright Christian sheriff of the area gratuitously shot dead by his own deputy and cousin. This is really the end, Jones seems to be saying, with any possibility of justice completely blown away. Between these two bookends we are witness to all types of appalling abominations, par-for-the-course then and there, presumably.
So, an admirable achievement, this novel, and highly praised and prized all round, still I would like to take issue with Jones’s overall approach. Some of the critics naturally compare ‘The Known Word’, given its length and scope and general realism (there are a few discordant ‘magic realist’ touches), to the great nineteenth century novelists, Tolstoy, Hardy, Elliot etc. where moral purpose is conjoined to a broad and detailed portrait of a society. And in one specific Jones uses the same device as Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’, giving most characters a single personal trait, gesture or act or marking, so that we can recognise them when they re-appear in the canvass.
But Tolstoy’s huge novel, with its cast of hundreds, is actually a story of a handful of people, two linked families with Pierre as the go-between. Intimately drawn figures set in a broad landscape. Jones takes a more ‘Brechtian’ approach, giving almost equal weight to his large number of protagonists. The effect, which I’m sure is intentional, is, like Brecht’s ‘alienation’, a distancing one. Jones is more concerned to show us the ‘scene’, rather focus too much on any personal drama. The whole picture is what the book is about, the society of slavery, rather than the personal turmoil of any Pierre or Dorothea or Tess.
This works for a while, but what I found as I progressed was that I started to lose interest; the ‘alienation’ was working all too well. I struggled against this, with such worthy material, but still had to push myself to finish. And this was simply because it wasn’t anyone’s particular story, but everyone’s. I wanted someone, or a couple of souls, closely known and felt, to carry me through this hellish journey with them. A human failing maybe, but there I was at the close suitably shocked and enlightened, but not moved. Jones had engaged me morally and intellectually, but not vitally. Consider: if, say, Tess’s own plight moves me deeply, I then become personally enraged considering the wider injustices that as a working-class woman she is forced to suffer because of the society in which she lives. The old Aristotelian identification. And surely, one assumes, this is the sort of response Jones is seeking.
A common critical failing to fault something for what it lacks, but with such a big complicated work, I think that perhaps Jones, in his earnestness and ambition, has not taken into sufficient account his readers and their natural desires. After all, you’d really prefer they’d be reading ‘The Known World’ than ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Ninety-per-cent of William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ is told from a Neanderthal point of view, that is a literal not a figurative Neanderthal, as imagined by the author, but this novel is really about us, Homo Sapiens. Golding’s general estimation of ‘Wise Guy’ in this follow-up to his first publication, the hugely successful ‘Lord of the Flies’, seems not to have improved. His little band, who are not like Neanderthals actually would have been―hardly behind us with their own tools and culture, and of course now we know that ancestral Europeans even enjoyed some Neanderthal nookie―are a sort of sub-human ape, with basic communication skills and limited sense of a past tense. But the qualities Golding has endowed on this tribe, presumably the last of its kind, are a sort of inverse to the things he doesn’t like about us, and maybe himself.
Golding served throughout World War Two so his ‘vision’ in ‘Lord of the Flies’, of a group of ‘civilised’ boys degenerating into savagery in a post-atomic-holocaust world, seems an unsurprising formulation from what he had suffered and witnessed: culturally and technically sophisticated nation states indulging in a barbaric blood-bath, the second within a few decades. And he, by necessity, an active agent in that.
Whereas his Neanderthals are peaceful and caring, largely vegetarian―they only eat meat killed by others―communicating in telepathic ‘pictures’, with few words, as though the development of language itself might be a curse, a slightly odd view for a writer. Family bonding is the most important thing in their lives, therefore they worship a female God, ‘Oa’, as the original source of family. They respect and learn from their elders, they revere their dead. They’re far too nice, and so you know, as a consequence, doomed to be wiped out, by us.
Without any spoilers I can confidently leave readers to imagine what inevitably occurs when a tribe of Homo Sapiens wanders into their territory. And here Golding provides some brilliant observations of just how strange we, as a race, might appear to others. Notably, it is our decadence, our sense of sin, that most sets us apart from the primal innocents spying through the foliage. We drink and fight and kill and fornicate without really giving a damn, all quite beyond Neanderthal comprehension. Look through these eyes and see what evolution has finally produced, says Golding, this plague on the natural earth. Probably just as well he himself died before being party to the present accelerating outrages to our planet and its denizens.
I increasingly found this book hard going. Golding is not a ‘kill your darlings’ writer, certainly not here anyway, with his endlessly languid descriptions of the natural landscape that have little connection to plot and motive and unnecessarily clog up the narrative. Also point-of-view is mostly through the alpha male, Lok, who is not very bright, even for a monkey. Lok spends a lot of page time describing the goings-on of the new men in detached observations that are difficult for the reader to piece together. He doesn’t understand much of what they’re doing, so neither can we, and this quickly becomes boring.
Also, in some defence of our kind, the ceremonial bacchanals/orgies observed by Lok and his consort Fa perversely show the beginnings of religion and culture. There is a somewhat wayward but nevertheless continuous line from a hopped-up shaman prancing around in a deer-hide to, say, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or even the great tradition of English prose which includes a small distinguished niche for Mr. William Golding. It hasn’t been all bad.
Jeremiahs, even powerful ones, sour quickly. Say your piece and leave your audience reeling. This is not a long book, but still, I feel the important messages are dulled by Golding’s writerly ambitions. A fascinating overall concept, and brilliant and powerful in parts, ‘The Inheritors’ turns into one of those ‘worthy’ novels, definitely worth reading, but you’ll be hanging out for the end. The end, admittedly, is very good.
The title, ‘Winter Journal’, for American novelist Paul Auster’s recent memoir made me think of ‘Winter Journey/Winterreise’, Franz Schubert’s great monodrama of mortal resignation. But as it turned out, Auster is a hale and hearty sixty-four and ‘Winter’, metaphoric or otherwise, seems very much in abeyance in this offbeat examination of his life to date. The book serves as a sort of long-awaited sequel to ‘The Invention of Solitude’, Auster’s fine and moving memoir of his father, which kick-started his writing career back in his thirties.
‘Winter Journal’ is dilatory and circuitous in form, and unusually, written entirely in the second person―Auster addresses himself throughout―which I expected to get on my nerves, but in fact lent the telling an unusual intimacy, as though one was listening to a rambling fireside chat. I think, also, it allows Auster a certain objectivity, enabling candor and honesty. One of the strengths of this Journal is its frankness, Auster reveals all, not that he has a great many sins to confess, just the standard ones, which prompted a reader like myself, male, a similar generation to Auster, to reflect on my own similar failings and misgivings, no doubt one of the aims of the book.
The larger aim, I believe, is an attempt to establish identity. Who am I? Am I anything more than a reactive bunch of electromagnetic waves? How can I find out? The same motive for Proust, who finding himself desperately at the prey of certain obsessions, clawed back his personal self by isolating significant experiences throughout his life that, grouped together, helped tell him who he was, by what they were. Auster adopts a similar approach but focuses on the physical rather than the spiritual. He seeks to know himself through how the world has impacted on his body, and how he has responded, trusting the outer will provide clues to the inner.
The sins might be standard, but Auster has led an interesting life. This has nothing to do with him being a famous writer―all that part of his life is hardly touched on―except that time and again he has gone out and chanced his arm, in pursuit of his art, in pursuit of love, leading to all kinds of vicissitudes. The book spends much time on his relationship with his mother, probably to balance out the earlier work on the father, and his personal sketch of her, plus the brilliant thumbnail portraits of other relatives and associates prove one of the highlights.
The book is also full of lists, sexual adventures, sporting adventures; most notably there is a long section describing in sequence all the residences Auster has lived in. These potentially dull devices, in Auster’s hands, are wonderfully entertaining and revealing. He has always been a great story teller.
There are some clichés, lapses, bald patches, indulgences, much of the writing seems overly sketchy, but then often the rawness becomes a strength. All up, I found ‘Winter Journal’ invigorating and inspirational. By book’s end Auster had, along with his essential humanity, managed to convey to me something of the unique individual that he is, and by extension that we all are, and I felt a little the richer for it. And grateful too.
The mise en scène for James Salter’s ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is as follows: we’re in Paris with a bunch of youngish, good looking, rich, well educated, well connected, hard partying, jaded Americans. Sound familiar? Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is a springboard and an inspiration for Salter’s famously notorious erotic ‘classic’ of American Lit. Gertrude Stein said that Hemingway’s book described ‘the lost generation’, that is the generation that had the stuffing kicked out of it by World War One, collective P.T.S.D. if you like. Everyone’s partying and fighting and fucking so hard in the forlorn hope that sheer sensation might deflect the general loss in life of meaning and purpose. It can’t, not for long anyhow, and that reckoning gives the heft to Hemingway’s book.
Salter’s novel is set in the sixties, no-one’s fought and killed (or is aware of Vietnam), and the collective ennui seems a rich kid’s privilege. Still, it’s sufficient to propel our unnamed protagonist far from the madding crowd to a village, Autun, in the heart of France, ‘the real France’. He is living in the big empty house of American friends back in Paris and trying to be a photographer. Soon he is joined by a twentyish Phillip Dean, a brilliant Yale drop-out son-of-a-rich-man who shortly begins an affair with a pretty local French girl, Anne-Marie. Our protagonist, who remains celibate and generally unattached throughout the book, imagines this affair, conducted in various towns throughout regional France, in explicit physical detail.
The sexual set pieces are presented as reveries. Our narrator knows nothing and is imagining everything. He is a voyeur of his own wild fantasies, his own grand erotic visions, and at this point, as the novel takes off, another famous twenties American classic is intentionally evoked: The Great Gatsby. We have one man (older here) trying to cast another man, whom he thinks greater than himself in every way, into the realms of myth, and also tragedy. I should mention a third American writer, Henry Miller, who wrote scandalously (for the time) erotic novels set in Paris in the thirties. I have read little Miller, but I’ve no doubt he’s party to all this as well.
Despite the above literary references, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is one of the most original novels I have read, or more to the point, I have never read anything else quite like it. The initial impression is that of pornography rendered as art (Nabokov would have loved it), but what therefore is the purpose? There is plenty of sex in good literature, but not, to my knowledge, as an end in itself. Salter is virtually consecrating the sexual act, in all its varieties. We can blather on about the artist (photographer) necessarily living a vicarious existence in order to create, that essential distance, and so on, but we still come back the protagonist’s obsessional focus on the sex, again and again.
My take is that Salter is providing a sharp update on Mr. Joseph Conrad and writing about ‘Youth’, with all the sexual scenes combining as a sort of extended radical metaphor. Because the type of sex described in the novel can really only happen when one is young, in that it is revelatory and experimental. These two youths have suddenly unexpectedly found a brave new physical world with one another, and they are exploring it and experiencing it to the absolute maximum. There is no love or depth, just extraordinary sensation, and so obviously, it cannot last in that form. While they sport, life is knocking on the bedroom door. In due course they will move on.
The most shopworn metaphor for Youth is that of the accomplished athlete, with their moment of divine grace and greatness inevitably passing as the body ages. For Conrad’s sailor, his first voyage is a wonder and revelation, although in reality it is boring catastrophe. Youth for Conrad is a chimera, a dangerous blindness. Salter’s not so cynical; unsustainable though it may be, the experience of his lovers holds a unique value for him.
And with these lovers come all the natural corollaries of youth: freedom, lack of responsibility, life’s unfolding sensations. What deflects it from pornography (aside from the writing) is that this really is about our narrator, this is the life he has not lived (I’m assuming), and can never live, because its possibility has passed him by (only mid-thirties, but still). So here we have the pathos, the depth, and readers may or may not respond to this, see the whole exercise as a kind of extended ‘artistic’ pose, and certainly this is one novel that could easily lend itself to parody.
But I fell under its spell. The sex scenes are baldly realistic; any actual eroticism arises from the beautifully wrought set-ups, the powerful moods that Salter creates prefacing and engendering each encounter. And Salter consistently writes superbly; it’s essential that he does for this book to succeed on the level that he wants. He loves and knows his France intimately, its cities and countryside, all rendered from a new world perspective toward an exhausted beautiful rich and inevitably melancholy old world in which Americans like him are adrift and do not belong. Neither does Youth.
Back to the sex. It is evoked pretty much entirely from a male fantasy perspective―Anne-Marie is a willing participant in Phillip’s erotic desires―also there is a power differential (rich boy, poor girl), but of course relationships like this do exist (not that I’ve had any), and the acute observations and vividly detailed descriptions bring it all to credible life. Female readers may demur. But if it is seen as metaphor, the sexism is not so important.
So yes, for me, all up, ‘A Sport and a Pastime’ is not a novel about sex, but about a sense of life, a sense of engagement with life, and belief what life might deliver, that passes from us all too rapidly.