The last two months have felt like hibernation, although a flick through the calendar reminds me that I’ve been to Oxford Literary Festival (where the preview of Jonathan Meades’ next TV programme was a witty and typical insightful take of Mussolini’s fascism), cheered my brother-in-law on through the London Marathon, stood in Pisa and Florence in the rain and still enjoyed it, read more stories at MK Gallery’s excellent Open Mic Night, and discovered that I will have a short story published in a sci-fi anthology. In my case, a sci-fi pastiche, which is perhaps why I didn’t see this strange turn of events coming. And in the meantime, I’ve been reading too…
David Szalay – All That Man Is
Pitched as a novel, this is in truth either a composite novel or a short story sequence, depending on which you prefer: given the lack of character continuity, my preference is the latter. I was attracted to the underlying notion of showing ‘man’ through his ages although, as I read on, my quibbles began to multiply. Not only are these different men at different ages, in locations across contemporary Europe, but their pan-European selection appears to choose to neglect cultural difference (of the men particularly, but the settings to a lesser degree) to underline a presumed point of shared psychological existence. The book also, I suspect, suffered from being read in parallel with watching Grayson Perry’s All Man TV series, which similarly explored masculinity and emotional reticence, and how even the toughest nuts may have emotional wisdom that appearance belies.
Whereas Perry found emotional intelligence in unexpected places and left the viewer with a form of optimism for at least one human gender, Szalay’s world reads more like an ironic celebration of the male loser. Maybe redemption isn’t his thing, but there is more sad-eyed masturbation in dingy bathrooms here than you can shake a… I also couldn’t help but notice that it never really occurs as ‘self-pleasuring’, something that these men seem incapable of conceiving, even metaphorically. (These men are also all straight: unexpectedly, this was a book that made me gladder to be gay than Gregory Wood’s Homintern – an encyclopaedic account of the social history of gay men (and lesbians) in the arts in the 19th and 20th centuries.)
In individual stories, the emotional greyness and the general atmosphere of ‘meh’ might work better: that sense of ‘meh’ also accumulates with the word count, however, and if ‘everything is meh’ is the final authorial meta-point than a more arresting style might perhaps have helped. While there were glimmers of optimism in the backpackers of his first story, the sense in reading on is not so much of big dreams that eternally shrink or retreat, but of eternal greed – for sex or money – that is rarely fulfilled. These are universal themes, of course, but mining them demands more freshness than I felt was delivered. Some of the author’s targets – it feels like an apt word – also had an air of fish-and-barrel about them too: randy estate agents, failing oligarchs and amoral doorstepping journalists seemed a little too clearly drawn from the stock character library. And in adding to the general atmosphere of downbeat hopeless, making one character wear black nylon underpants felt like over-doing it. Does anyone wear those in 2016, even a (not that) poor Hungarian immigrant?
The poor sap in question was, however, the one story that really moved me. Balasz, the Hungarian hooker’s minder with the presumably sweaty testicles, bore real feelings for Emma that came through all the more poignantly for both their genuine nature and his – and the reader’s – awareness of their obvious futility, undermined by his lack of status and his surfeit of shyness – and knowledge of a love in vain. If there is a real difficulty for the reader in this book – beyond the humdrum lives, and a line a prose whose sometime flatness amplifies the mundane more than illustrating it – it is the difficulty of empathy. More than just literally, most of these men really are wankers.
Fred Uhlman – Reunion
Much younger men: boys, in fact. Teenagers in 1930s Germany, lightly drawn in a novella whose near weightlessness is negated by a hefty velvet punch. If a story that marries an awkward teenage friendship and the rise of Nazism sounds like one story will swamp the other, then it’s a mark of Ulhman’s skill that it doesn’t: indeed, the difficulty of Hans’ friendship with Konradin is initially born both of the former’s shyness and the social gulf between his Jewish family and the latter’s aristocratic stock.
Published when Ulhman was 70, his ability to capture the gauche awkwardness of teenage emotions and relationships is startling. It’s delicate too: thought it’s tempting to add a homoerotic gloss that the book at best only very lightly implies, this is essentially a story about friendship, its potential intensity and its ability to occur in unlikely or unpromising combinations of people. (Indeed, to read more into it than is there misses the point – this is story about what can happen to innocence and good intentions.)
The political backdrop is only lightly sketched, making its main entrance when we realize that Konradin’s reluctance to acknowledge their friendship to his family is born not of shame but of a desire to protect Hans from his anti-Semitic parents. Eventually separated, as much by Hans’ parents decision to send him to America as Hitler comes to power as by any action of the boys themselves, at the very end of the novella we witness discovering what was to become of his friend. The final sentence is breathtaking.
Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift
, I’m a Swift fanboy. England and Other Stories was terrific, and I’m an admirer of most of his novels too. This – another novella – is, as other reviewers have commented, almost a case of ‘how Downton Abbey might have turned out if someone rather better had written it’.
Mostly (but, somewhat sneakily, not entirely) taking place on a single day, Swift shows us 1924 as both simultaneously the past and somewhere strangely similar: yes, Dolores, housemaids in 1924 did know what a semen stain looked like. And a cock, for that matter. First hand, as it were. They said ‘cock’, too – or at least when they were out of uniform. If the affair between maid and scion of neighbouring big house seems far-fetched, I suspect it’s the shock of realising that its appears genuine, despite his waiting fiancée. And in Jane, the maid, we have a terrific narrator: sharp-witted, inquisitive and keenly observing. In a clever inversion of a traditional sense of fortune, she gets her unspoiled – or so it seems – morning with her lover because she is an orphan: it is Mothering Sunday, and all the other staff have a day’s leave, fulfilling family duties. She’s aware of the tide of history too: the big houses are homes to families whose status is in decline, and many of whose sons were killed in the preceding war: they are, quite literally, dying out. Her orphanhood, by contrast, is almost an opportunity, a platform from which she can turn herself in whoever she wishes to be.
When – no spoilers – tragedy strikes, it is the start of Jane’s real self-discovery, a turning point. As the novella unfolds, we see how her fascination with narrative and with what can or should be withheld evolves, and the novella gains a meta-narrative touch that – for once – almost entirely absolves the ‘novels about writers talking about writing’ nightmare (a personal hate that had me wincing here, but Swift just about pulls it off).
Like Reunion – although much tricksier in its approach – this is a slim text that packs more punch than expected. I’m going to call this ‘lovely’, but I wouldn’t want to imply that it’s pretty or nice: it’s much better than that.
Lisboa String Trio: Materia – a recent discovery, the line up (portuguese guitar, classical guitar and double bass) and location would suggest instrumental fado, possibly with a classical/chamber twist. The reality – as the sleeve notes rather over-poetically explain – is contemporary jazz that weaves distinctively Portuguese flavours through its textures. Beautiful, fresh music (and, disappointingly, more compelling than their second CD, fine listening that this is).
Ricardo Rocha: Voluptuaria – more Portuguese guitar (it must be the excitement of knowing mine will soon by back from the repairers), although we are definitely much more in the fado realm here. But this is the Coimra rather than the Lisbon school: solo guitar, clattery and spiky in places, and very much building on the traditions of Carlos Paredes and Pedro Caldeira Cabral, both of whom Rocha covers amongst a set of mostly original compositions. Virtuous playing, but this will be challenging if you are expected soft melodies and aching female vocals.