Pompeii by Robert Harris

I got this book from the library when I went to reserve Enigma by the same author — a fictional biography of Alan Turing, the genius who led the team that cracked the Nazi naval code. I want to find out more about this enigmatic man and his life which ended in tragedy, after seeing the powerful film, The Imitation Game, with that flavour-of-the year actor, Benedict Cumberbatch,  in it.

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I don’t read much historical fiction, though I was so impressed by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and Wolf Hall that I read them twice, almost without stopping. They are very literary in their construction, in that the narrative voice and the characters are finely tuned and vividly imagined.

Pompeii is fiction of a different order. It is plot driven, and the characters are sketched in with light strokes, rather black and white. The hero, Attilius, is the water engineer or Aquarius who sets out to solve the mystery of the failure of fresh water springs in nine towns around the bay of Naples. The chief villain is the wealthy and corrupt ex-slave Ampliatus, who runs Pompeii and owns most of the property. Most of the minor characters are either venal and corrupt or weak, apart from the lower classes, slaves and workmen, who are undefined outside of their labour. There is a love theme, but it is in a minor chord, though it becomes Attilius’s main motivation once he has accepted the inevitability of the eruption of Vesuvius and destruction of the towns and most of the population. Corelia is the good, brave and beautiful daughter of Ampliatus, and we are left uncertain whether she and Attilius escape the cataclysmic destruction of raining ash, pumice, rocks and fire that engulfs most of the populace and the buildings.

The ending, of course, apart from this nuance, is inevitable, so the action plot’s main tension is in wondering when the eruption will happen, and whether the central characters will escape against all odds. For those with a curiosity about the destruction of this part of Roman civilisation in 79 AD, and an interest in the science of vulcanology, there is much to enjoy in this book. Harris is able to weave factual details and physical action into his story while keeping up the momentum and the suspense. It kept me turning the pages, though I had little interest in the epigraphs from vulcanological treatises at the beginning of each chapter. It was certainly good enough to sustain my motivation to read Enigma.

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Revisiting classics: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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I confess I haven’t read this book till a couple of weeks ago, even though it was published in 1989 and awarded the Booker Prize, and made into a highly acclaimed Merchant Ivory film in 1993 (which I did see).

When I started to read it, I wondered if I would persist. I was bored and felt stifled by the monologue of Steven the butler, the narrowness of his outlook, the snobbery of his perception of self and the wealthy and privileged men he worked for, his emotional repression and self-denial, the self-importance of his definition of himself through his position, his aspiration to be “a great butler”, undermined by his fear that he is not one; though one wonders if this is false modesty. The one focal point of tension and irony is this very narrowness and fragility of his identity, as he worries about the series of small errors he has made in the last few months, ”all without exception quite trivial in themselves,” and his inability to rise to the banter that his current American employer, Mr Farraday, tries to engage him in. Not only is he lacking in emotional intelligence and empathy, he has no sense of humour. It’s not just a clash of cultures — the English class system with the American brash, practical outlook — it’s Stevens’ lifelong training in self-abnegation and reverence for tradition and “the professional standards” of his position as a butler in a “great house”.

He embarks on an “expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days”, suggested to him by Mr Farraday who is returning to America for a few weeks. Stevens’  purpose is to visit Miss Kenton, who had served as housekeeper in grander days when Lord Darlington was the owner, and who has recently written to him hinting that her marriage is over, and that she is considering returning to the Great House. His ostensible plan is to invite Miss Kenton to return to the much reduced household and help run it. As his trip unfolds, and he ruminates on the past, on his previous master, Lord Darlington’s ambiguous dealings with the Nazi movement prior to World War II, and his own relationship with his father and with Miss Kenton, it becomes clear that this is a voyage of the heart. Clear to the reader, but not to Stevens.

There are a few moments of truth for him, when he is forced to acknowledge his heartbreak on discovering that after all, Miss Kenton has decided to stay in her marriage.

… these implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.

But of course, he does not tell her this. Instead, he turns to her with a smile and agrees one cannot turn back the clock, and utters soothing words as they part and her eyes fill with tears.

Another moment of truth is when he acknowledges to a retired butler he falls into conversation with on his return journey, that Lord Darlington

made his own mistakes. … He chose a certain path, it proved to be a mistaken one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?

Yet, he remains trapped in his own constructed identity as servant:

After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

Such was his world, and such it remained at the end of the day. Hence his resolve to practice bantering, to please his master. “It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform.” He hopes to be able to pleasantly surprise him on his return.

So little change happens. He gives up his constricted dream of a constrained relationship with his ex-housekeeper, returned to her servant position, and resigns himself to learning new ways of performing to please his master.

Why do I resist this book? It’s not just the stifling class and privilege system and the lack of redemption in the ending. Yes, it has irony, it allows us to see, through clever insertions of conversations with others, how limited and starved Stevens’ worldview is. It’s the severe monotony of the narrative, the lengthy disquisitions in stilted prose on the class system et al., the lack of humour, life, passion.

I have read many reviews on Goodreads which rave about this book. Me, I’d rather read Jane Austen any day, if I want an ironic portrayal of privilege, class, romance, heartbreak and pride — and prejudice.

 

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Revisiting classics: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

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I read this book soon after it was published, and loved it. For years I remembered it as a classic, a quintessential Australian family saga. I think I read it once more a couple of years later. Now, 16 years after it was published, I’ve re-read it. Some books, for me, hold their magic; I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twelve times, and I”m sure I’ll read it again in a couple of years’ time. I enjoyed re-reading Cloudstreet, but my attention faded towards the end, and I began to flick pages over to refresh my memory of what happens. I made myself go back and read it word for word. But yes, I did get bored. I think I’ve outgrown it.

First, let me say I’m not going to refrain from revealing the plot, as the book is widely read, often set as a school text,  and many reviewers have discussed it in detail; there are 787 reviews on Goodreads.

Perhaps I felt a little distanced from it because my own life has changed so much since the first read; I have moved away from Perth in Western Australia, where most of the story is set, and I have moved out of the framework of the bourgeois family, finally. Also, a couple of years ago, I edited a PhD thesis critiquing Winton’s fictional representation of women as sexist, patriarchal, and generally belittling. I am simplifying a complex argument. But when I read this book again, I could see this was true, while recognising that the roles of the main women in the story — Oriel, Rose and Dolly — are true to the period, 1940s to 1960s. I’m still not sure if Winton has a view of women which transcends this stifling domestication and reduction of women; I’d have to read or re-read his other books to decide. Certainly there is not a female character in this book who steps outside the frame. As for the men, they are all, in different ways, lost; only Fish finds himself, and that only by leaving the human world.

The Lamb family come to live in the rambling old haunted house, Cloudstreet, and the rent they pay keeps  the Pickles family going. Oriel Lamb is short, boxy woman, a matriarch, who rules her family and is a control freak. But she has a heart of gold, and is the rock of the family. Rose is Dolly Pickles’ daughter; she has her childhood stolen from her by her mother, who uses alcohol and casual sex to escape the frustrations of married life with Sam, a chronic gambler, who loses four fingers on one hand in a boating accident, and gambles away everything he earns. Rose stoically takes on the mothering role in the family, and hates her mother for it; she becomes anorexic in her teens, but comes good (except for a relapse after a miscarriage) when she gets a job and marries Quick, the oldest son of Oriel and Lester Lamb. Marriage, for Rose, though she eventually eschews the little nuclear family house in the suburbs and returns to the family fold in Cloudstreet, is her salvation from a life of despair and loneliness.

Despite having to share amenities in Cloudstreet, the two families are like oil and water; the Pickles are messy and dysfunctional, rattling around and outside the casing of the bourgeois family like dried peas, living separate lives from each other. The Lambs are close knit, hard working, with old-fashioned values; though the children are rather a mixed bunch, and the minor children in both families are little more than names; they are not embodied or developed, as are Rose, Quick and Fish. Quick’s childhood is blighted by his younger brother’s near drowning, which he feels responsible for. Fish, who had been the life of the family, the handsome, funny one whom everyone loves, becomes a perpetual child, with the sound of the river in his ears, and the longing to return to it. The book opens with a preview of the penultimate scene, a joint family picnic by the river, narrated in a voice which we come to recognise as that of Fish, not as a child or the simple man he becomes, but as a whole person-to-be, with wisdom and insight, a kind of prevailing spirit about to be freed from the limitations of space and time, worrying for and loving ‘those who go down the close, foetid galleries of space and time without you’. Fish the man is reunited with his lost spirit at the end. He can only ‘truly be a man’ by drowning again. In the last-but-one scene, he is in ecstasy as he enters the water:

And a hesitation, a pause for a few moments, I’m a man for that long, I feel my manhood, I recognize myself whole and human, know my story for just that long, long enough to see how we’ve come, how we’ve all battled in the same corridor that time makes for us, and I”m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you all this, and then my walls are tipping and I burst into the moon, sun and stars of who I really am. Being Fish Lamb. Perfectly. Always. Everyplace. Me.

This passage whips out the rug from under my critic’s feet. It is a breathtaking concept, that Fish, that perhaps all of us, only become fully human and perfect as we die. It is the opposite argument to that of Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.

There is no hint in Beckett’s world that death brings liberation for the spirit. Time and life are abominable, and death is night. The difference between an instant and a lifetime is only a perspective. Perhaps the perspective of the gravedigger is the truer perspective. Whereas, for Fish, immersion in the river is his escape from time, but the echo of his voice sounds throughout the book, and at the end, we realise that he is the narrator, the voiceover. It wasn’t until I finished the book the first time that I fully realised this, and I had to go back over it to grasp it. The passages in his own voice are fleeting and infrequent, but there is no doubt he is there, behind the scenes, watching it unfold, the game of life, his endgame.

I think, on reflection, I like this aspect of the story best, and it is this that I will carry with me and that may, one day, bring me back to revisit.

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After the Last Ship, by Audrey Fernandes-Satar

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This book, published in 2014, is a poetic and highly polemical autobiography of the journey of the writer’s family from Goa in India to Mozambique, and ultimately, to Australia. It is not straight memoir, not is it pure theory. It combines personal, poetic reflections with history, theory of diaspora and identity, and art. The fact that it weaves theory with the personal story in words and pictures and that it is published by an academic publisher puts it in that hybrid category of auto-ethnography, and may mean that its audience is limited to those interested in a theoretical approach to the personal. Yet, if you just read the personal passages and look at the wonderful images of the author’s art work, it is a moving and original narrative that allows the reader into the very heart of the experience of displacement, dispossession, loss, alienation, and also of hope, survival and healing. All are mediated by a strong, courageous celebration of identity born out of loss of identity, and protest against the fascist, patriarchal values and actions of the Portuguese government and their colonial policies.

I have written a couple of posts about this book; see https://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/tag/audrey-fernandes-satar/. I will not review it, as I was its editor. I am close enough to the story to know the pain and labour of the author in producing it. I celebrate its publication, and hope it will get the readership it deserves.

A recurring theme is the grief of separation from the writer’s grandmother, who remained  behind in India. Here is a short poetic passage that takes us into the visceral, sensual moments of love and belonging, refracted through the mirror of separation and loss:

The Kala Pani

She turned to me

I knew that look in her eyes

Resolute, full of wisdom

You must go

She said

You must go

This is the last ship…

I never touched her again

Embraced her again

Or saw her again

Or laid my head on her lap again

On her sari

Or smelt her again

Or laid my head on her sari

Her lap

The smoke of fresh chapatis on her clothes…

But the smell of coffee lingers

Sem retorno

Repetition and sensual imagery of food, smells, textures, tastes, and the recurring motif of Kala Pani, the black ocean that forever separated the little girl and her family from their origins and history, bind this loosely constructed narrative together. Living in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, was not easy, especially after India reclaimed Goa from Portuguese control. Audrey’s family, like many other Goans living in Mozambique, still under Portuguese rule, were vilified as being apatrida, stateless,  employed in menial jobs, and condemned to live in houses on the outer fringes of town, infested with rats, without standard amenities. Despite everything, she did well in school; but getting there and back required all her courage. There were streets she and her sisters were not allowed to go, as people of colour:

The shouting of abuse went on most days. The rantings of their abuse insinuated that they knew who we were, and that we were in some way inferior to them and as such, they could enact their power and drive us off the street. They were entitled to this. This was a war raging against us. We were children on our way to school. White Men, Women and Children enacted this senseless war against us. We were powerless, thrown into it by the way we looked, the colour of our bodies.

Strong images in her art work are hands and feet; worn by hard work and by endless walking:

I look at the soil on my feet black red many grains

Between lands

There is a place it’s not the same I grasp my stick of charred charcoal

The one I am used to draw with

Between lands

There is a place where I am still not ready to say goodbye to her my grandmother and walk past the gangplank

There is a place soil on my feet black red many grains

We could stay here between lands there is a place

Between lands

We could stay.

Audrey and her family now live in Australia, have done so for many years; she is an accomplished artist, has a PhD (this book is developed from her thesis) and researches questions of colour, race, diaspora, identity.  This book is her achievement, testimony to her survival and triumph, living between lands, in a place where she can stay. These are issues we need to reflect on, as our country’s policy makers talk of border protection and utter warlike words against the desperate people who seek a place of refuge.

 

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2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,900 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Atonement by Ian McEwen II

I wrote this review on Goodreads this morning, and since it gives a different perspective on the book than my first review does, I’m posting it here. I’ve just started using Goodreads, under my daughter’s persuasion; not sure if I’ll keep it up, but I want to try it. It might encourage me to widen my reading a bit, rather than re-reading classics all the time! Since it assumes knowledge of the story, you might like to read my earlier post, Atonement I first, if you haven’t already.

I read this book when it first hit the news, short-listed for the Booker, in 2001. Then, a few years later, I saw the movie. Both have haunted me ever since, and this is my third reading of the book. I didn’t find it stale, and I found much in it that felt new. It is a complex, many layered story, and at one level, is meta-fiction, about how and why fiction is written, and about the tension between fiction and reality, truth and imagination. At this level, I find the narrative unsettling, and want to argue with it. Why do we have to know that the whole story is written by the main character, Bryony Tallis, whom we first meet as a discontented, frustrated storyteller who wants to create the real world as she sees it, then as a more realistic, disenchanted young woman, confronting the realities of pain, suffering, loss and damage, as she trains as a nurse during World War II, and finally, as a successful novelist, aged 77 and on the brink of dementia.

In the middle phase, she has an awakening, realising how much damage she did as a young girl, when she insisted on the truth of her biased, ignorant reading of the adult world, and she tries to atone. In the end, the reader sees that writing this novel is her atonement, for in it, she constructs a happy ending for the two characters whose youth and promise and love she has destroyed. Yet, of course, we know that she is a fictional novelist, a persona for Ian McEwan himself, so we are left wondering what, if any, is the final truth of this tale, since Briony has proven herself to be an unreliable narrator.

On another level, that of the story, I have no arguments. I am enchanted by the poetic, understated prose, the way that a simple act opens out; like that of Briony’s elder sister, Cecilia, deciding to fill her vase of freshly picked wildflowers from the the fountain, where she encounters Robbie, son of the family’s cleaning lady, her lover-to-be, at this stage unrevealed to her, for they are both trapped by their childhood habit of relating, and the class barriers. A tussle develops between them over the vase (an heirloom) and a piece of its lip breaks and falls to the bottom of the water.

Cecilia and Robbie froze in the attitude of their struggle. Their eyes met, and what she saw in the bilious melange of green and orange was not shock, or guilt, but a form of challenge, or even triumph.

From here, their challenge to each other unfolds. And as another chapter reveals, Briony witnesses this scene from an upstairs window, and it sows the seed of her jealous misunderstanding and betrayal of them.

I can’t think of another writer so skilled at sustaining the pace of the narrative whilst opening up microcosms of desire, of discontent, of misinterpretation, of suffering and loss, all embodied in sensual detail and the minutiae of gestures, thoughts and actions.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan I

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This book has become a modern classic; published in 2001, when it was shortlisted for the Booker, and made into a film in 2007. I have just re-read it for the third time, and now resolve to watch again the movie, which I also loved. It is a complex, highly structured novel, very difficult to summarise without revealing plot, and I make no apology for spoilers, since it is already famous and much read. I do feel very inadequate trying to review it; to do it justice would take several posts.

The girl depicted on the cover of my edition is Briony Tallis, sitting on the steps of her family’s ugly orange brick mansion, built 40 years earlier as a replacement for an Adam style house which had been destroyed in the late 1880s. The year is 1935, four years before the beginning of Word War II. The novel opens and closes in Briony’s voice, first as a child becoming a teenage, later as a trainee nurse during the war, and finally as an old woman on her 77th birthday. The opening days are set in a summer of intense heat and rumours of war. Briony has written a play, and awaits with eager anticipation the arrival of her cousins from the north, and of her beloved older brother Leon; she plans to produce the play for his benefit that night, using her cousins as actors. The play is a tragic romance, in which

The reckless passion of the heroine, Arabella, for a wicked foreign count is punished by ill fortune when she contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended.

There is a happy ending, though not with the ‘intended’, and the moral is that love “which does not build a foundation on good sense is doomed”. A curious moral, one would think, for a romantic teenager to dream. But Briony is “possessed by a desire to have the world just so”, in contrast to her older sister, Cecilia, who is in limbo after graduating from Cambridge with a third, wanting to spread her wings in the outside world, but locked into

homebound boredom… wasting her days in the stews of her untidy room, lying on her bed in a haze of smoke, chin propped on her hand, pins and needles spreading up through her arm as she read her way through Richardon’s Clarissa.

A would-be romantic, protected by her privileged background, on the verge of entering the adult world and discovering the harshness of reality. What unfolds is a drama in which Briony is confronted with the reality of lust and love, and misinterprets her sister’s newfound passion for Robbie Turner, son of the family’s cleaning lady, and protege of the girls’ father who has paid for him to go to Cambridge. After graduating with a first in Literature, he now plans to qualify as a doctor. So he is crossing the barriers of class, which were rigid at that time.

Briony misinterprets the exchanges between Cecilia and Robbie, beginning with an enigmatic, sensual scene by the fountain, and culminating in a passionate encounter in the library, witnessed by Briony, who sees it as rape by Robbie. The library scene is narrated first from Briony’s point of view, and then from Robbie’s. This is an example of the masterly way that McEwan shifts point of view between characters in the novel, and also of how he uses sensual detail to bring a scene to life. Sex scenes are always difficult to make real, vivid and not cliched, as you will know if you’ve tried to write one. This is one of the best examples I’ve read. At first, they are constrained by their knowledge of each other by childhood, by the framework of class, and after some preliminary kissing and exploration of each other,

At last they were strangers, their pasts were forgotten. They were also strangers to themselves who had forgotten who or where they were. The library door was thick and none of the sounds that might have reminded them, might have held them back, could reach them.They were beyond the present, outside time, with no memories and no future. There was nothing but obliterating sensation, thrilling and swelling, and the sound of fabric on fabric and skin on fabric, as their limbs spread across each other in this restless, sensuous wrestling.

After more kissing and fumbling, both inexperienced,

They were clumsy, but too selfless now to be embarrassed. When he lifted the clinging, silky dress again he thought her look of uncertainty mirrored his own. But there was only one inevitable end, and there was nothing they could do but go towards it.

After the moment of penetration,

Robbie stared at the woman, the girl he had always known, thinking the change was entirely in himself, and was as fundamental, as fundamentally biological, as birth…. She returned his gaze, struck by the sense of her own transformation, and overwhelmed by the beauty in a face which a lifetime’s habit had taught her to ignore.

This momentous, life-changing scene is sustained for over four pages, and then they become aware that they are being watched.

Henceforward, the idyll is broken — not by their act, but by Briony’s reaction to it, and her later intervention in an unrelated event, when her twin cousins go missing, and a search party goes out into the grounds, and the older cousin, Lola, is sexually assaulted by an unknown person. Briony finds Lola the moment afterwards, convinces herself that the rapist is Robbie, and testifies to this. From here, the tragedy unfolds. The plot and narrative structure are too complex here to summarise. Briefly, the middle section of the book is narrated from Robbie’s point of view, when he is released from prison to fight in France, and is caught up in the Dunkirk evacuation. For me, this is as powerful, in a very different way, as the opening section. His suffering, his desperate clinging to life so he can be reunited with Cecilia, the carnage and chaos of the retreat across the fields of France are told in savage and heart-breaking detail.

The last two sections of the book switch to Briony’s point of view, as outlined above. Briony copes with the martial regime of training in a large hospital and the suffering and damage of the wounded soldiers she nurses; she is obsessed with the realisation that she wronged Robbie and Cecilia and destroyed the fragile  promise of their young lives and love, and is determined to make atonement.

The final section has her as an ageing, successful author on the verge of dementia, revisiting her childhood home. There is a twist to the multiple narrative when we realise that in fact the whole story is written by Briony as an older woman, the apparent happy ending in the middle section is a fiction,  and we are left wondering what is truth and what is fiction in this fictional tale. So the novel has many layers, not least, as Frank Kermode points out, in a review in the London Review of Books, about the mismatch between fantasy and reality, truth and imagination, and how novels are written. But one can read the book on a more superficial level, for the unfolding drama and interweaving of that classic theme, love and war.

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