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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain (2016)








After finishing the first section of The Gustav Sonata I found myself wondering about just how many novels have been inspired by WWII. The war had such an impact on humanity that there is perhaps no end to the events, themes and existential issues that can be explored by novelists. The Gustav Sonata approaches the impact of the war in an unconventional manner, exploring the effects the war had on characters living in the neutral country of Switzerland. Although it is certainly not particularly innovative, The Gustav Sonata is quality literature and exactly the kind of novel that book club members love to read, so much so I also took some time to wonder whether there is a particular formula that novelists adhere to in order to attract the attention of the book club hoards that mill about in lounge rooms, cafes, pubs and libraries throughout the world.

The novel begins in post war Switzerland, a period of particular austerity for young Gustav and his mother, Emilie, who only just makes ends meet by working at a local cheese factory (accordingly she often smells strongly of cheese). Emilie tells Gustav that his father died because he helped to save Jews during the war. Emilie also tells young Gustav to be more like Switzerland itself: neutral, separate and strong. Gustav’s rather grey world improves when he befriends Anton, a child prodigy pianist and the son of Jewish parents who were sheltered from the horrors of the war by being Swiss citizens. Gustav and Anton initially share a fragile friendship, which then deepens across their shared childhoods. During the second part of the novel Tremain explores the lives of Gustav’s parents both before he was born and before the war. This section deftly provides a significant backstory and also further explores the novel’s major themes, in particular family dysfunction and how it often shapes the psychology of the individual. Gustav’s father, Erich, is a particularly well drawn and sympathetic character whose moralistic outlook is not shared by Emilie. Their marriage is blighted by differing perspectives and circumstances, providing ample narrative fodder for exploring the human psyche under pressure.

The third section explores Anton and Gustav’s lives as adults' right up to the early twenty-first century. Here the disappointments, tragedies and bitterness of the past haunt their lives. Gustav owns and runs a hotel in the town of his birth and still works hard to earn the love of his mother, which is often contingent and therefore rarely forthcoming. Anton lives a dissatisfied life as a piano teacher, having never had the nerve to succeed on stage. After an opportunity too good to be true takes Anton away from Gustav and their backwater town Gustav faces a life even more bereft of meaning. In other hands such existential bleakness could be over-bearing and exhausting, but Tremain’s classy, erudite style carries the narrative beautifully, allowing the reader to connect emotionally with the characters. When the final denouement comes it packs quite an emotional punch and it is here where the darker themes explored throughout the novel resolve into something like catharsis.

Tremain is certainly a skilled writer, exploring human temperament, morality, familial dysfunction and the complex nature of love, with subtlety and class. In an interview Tremain gave the following advice to writers: rather than writing about you know, try writing about what you don’t know. The same could be said about what you choose to read. The Gustav Sonata is a great example of the value of belonging to a book club; I simply would never have read the novel of my own volition, instead I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the splendid little world of a Rose Tremain novel. Although the novel will not go down as one of the most memorable books I have ever read, it was certainly worthy of my valuable reading time, and perhaps yours too.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Decline and Fall?



College girl Clinton


In 1776 Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his six volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the great achievements in historical literature. Just what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been one of the most contentious subjects within the discipline of history. Gibbon cited a decline in civic will coupled the pacifism of Christianity as prime contributors to the Roman Empire being susceptible to successive waves of barbarian invasions. More generally there were also many specific events and particular individuals whose abuse of power contributed to Rome’s eventual fate. There certainly would have been many occasions when the Roman Empire was at the crossroads of history.

How will future historians view this point in history in which the closest we have to a modern day analogue of the Roman Empire, the United State of America, stands at its own crossroads? Will it be the point when the decline becomes the fall if Donald Trump is elected president? Trump should be a very recognisable figure to anyone familiar with history - a true demagogue taking advantage of the fall-out from nearly forty years of neo-liberalism. Capitalism is itself also at the crossroads, but that is another story. The difference now is that rather than an empire’s future being at stake, the very future of humanity is on the line. The fact that Trump is a climate change denier (therefore a climate change criminal) is of much more concern than his racism, his misogyny, his unbridled narcissism, his anti-intellectualism and his blatant disregard for the facts. As hopeless as much of humanity’s attempts at addressing climate change has been there is still some hope, but the time to act is now and if Trump is elected then future generations world-wide will be the hapless victims of America’s poor judgement (or to take kinder point of view - the victims of the vicissitudes of history).

Hopefully the coming days will be viewed by future historians as an unprecedented time when America followed the election of its first black American president with the election of its first female president. It will be viewed as a time when action on climate change took its next crucial step and millions of Americans continued to enjoy some hard won freedoms. Perhaps never before in world history has one woman had such responsibility, and perhaps never before have the stakes been so high. So Hillary Clinton, for all your flaws and all your past and future mistakes I desperately hope that you are the next President of the United States of America and not Donald Trump, the greatest, and perhaps most dangerous, narcissistic fool of our age.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Name of the Wind - The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One - Patrick Rothfuss (2007)



Rothfuss attempts to stop stroking his beard


The Name of the Wind is the very first fantasy novel I have ever read. I thought that I would never actually read fantasy until a good friend recommended the novel to me just as I was desiring something different to read. During my childhood and teenage years I tried to read some fantasy novels (only getting a few pages in...), but they just never appealed as much as science fiction, and lets face it, the Stainless Steel Rat is hard to beat right?  As with many novels in the fantasy and science fiction genres it is merely the first part of a trilogy, the second being The Wise Man’s Fear (2011). The third part is yet to be published and from what I can gather fans of these books are getting a little impatient with Mr Rothfuss. On Goodreads there is an entry for the third book, Doors of Stone, and somehow there are five star ratings, one star ratings coupled with complaints and also some entries professing disappointment in Rothfuss for taking so long and wasting everyone’s time. There are even some pretend reviews of the novel and Rothfuss himself makes an entry and hilariously concludes that it all must mean that “Time travelers love my books.” Passions, high expectations and narrative greed seem to run very high regarding this series, but after reading The Name of the Wind I can understand just why.

Perhaps the principle reason why The Name of the Wind is such a brilliant novel is that it is character driven, rather than relying on regular action scenes or a tense narrative pace, although the narrative certainly does have its moments. Essentially the novel is a coming of age story and the protagonist, Kvothe, is an engaging character who both possesses great talents and personality flaws such as hubris and impulsiveness, both of which cause him many problems. At the beginning of the novel Kvothe tends to his tavern somewhere in the backwoods of the lands that are mapped out in the front of the book (yes, of course there’s a map!), which immediately hooks the reader into wondering just how such a set of circumstances came about. Subsequently the arrival of a legendary scribe called ‘Chronicler’ ultimately causes Kvothe to agree to narrate his life story, recounting his experiences from childhood through to his attendance at a place known simply as ‘The University’, all of which takes one day. Kvothe’s storytelling is certainly engaging, but more importantly it raises many more questions than answers, which entices the reader ever onward through the narrative, which is never in a particular hurry. Fortunately Rothfuss possesses an admirably disciplined, yet poetic writing style and his descriptive powers are something to be admired. The Name of the Wind is a fine example of genre writing that is literary in both style and quality.

The Name of the Wind is infused with both magic and myth, but is also recognizably very human. This realism brings an added depth to the fantasy elements, creating a believable world, which makes for a powerful and intriguing narrative. Magic, which has its roots in physics, is taught at the University Kvothe attends, however any similarities to Hogwarts and Harry Potter end there. The long University section is brilliantly realized, filled with scenes rich with the adventure and drama of youth. Kvothe’s search for information and the whereabouts of mythical characters called 'The Chandrian' drives his studies and also provides a narrative arc that will no doubt cover all three books. Rothfuss is undoubtedly an author in love with storytelling, resulting in a novel that is richly layered with narratives. The sections in which Kvothe is telling his story, set in the present and told in the third person, act as a counterpoint to the main narrative. Much of the novel is told through the first person voice of Kvothe, but throughout there are many story songs sung by traveling performers (including Kvothe, whom is skilled with the lute and comes from the Edema Ruh, a troupe of traveling performers) and also storytellers spinning yarns in taverns about a past that may or may not be real.

After reading The Name of the Wind I can understand the impatience for the arrival of the third novel. Despite the fact I have nothing to really compare the novel to in terms of the fantasy genre, its attributes are such that it is undoubtedly an excellent novel. Rothfuss does almost nothing wrong and the novel is seriously addictive, drawing the reader into its world slowly and surely. There are a multitude of intriguing characters inhabiting its pages, but non more so than Kvothe, who stands as one of the great protagonists in speculative fiction. Fortunately I still have the second book sitting on my desk waiting patiently to be read (if books can be patient, then why can’t readers?). After I’ve completed that book then perhaps I’ll become one of the frustrated hoards waiting for Rothfuss to stop stroking his beard and do what all good fantasy writers should be doing, producing another epic 600 page plus tome to complete Kvothe’s story, and then everybody can be happy.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)








Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.

Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.

My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.


Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Age of Reinvention - Karine Tuil (2013, 2015 English translation)








With the publication of The Age of Reinvention French author Karine Tuil has added to the vast pile of literature that has been directly influenced by 911 and the West’s endless war on terror. The attack on the twin towers, the wars and the terrorism that have followed have had such a profound impact on culture that perhaps it is finally time to view this period as being apart from the Post-Modern era that developed since WWII. Coupled with the absolute reach of the World Wide Web and a myriad of other technological innovations surely cultural theorists can be inspired to come up with something, or are the stylistic tropes of Post Modernism really the last word in examining the current predicaments humanity finds itself in? (actually, the way forward lies in science fiction, but that’s just my opinion...) The Age of Reinvention does not offer anything new stylistically, but it does, depending on what you want from a novel, offer a relatively compelling exploration of human identity within the context of the current cultural and political climate.

At the centre of The Age of Reinvention is a love triangle between three university friends: Nina, the downtrodden goddess, the complex and brooding Samuel Baron and the French -Tunisian charmer Samir Tahar. The bulk of the narrative takes place twenty years after Nina and Samir have had an inevitable affair, which was subsequently curtailed by Samuel, who then proceeded to bind Nina to him with the worst kind of emotional blackmail. After twenty years Samuel is a failed novelist and Nina is a fashion catalogue model. In contrast Samir is now a successful lawyer living in New York and is married to the daughter of one of the richest Jews in the USA. The crucial plot device is that Samir has stolen Samuel’s life backstory, remodelling himself as a Sephardic Jew and in the process has disowned his mother and his much younger half-brother, who are both still living in poverty in the ethnic slums of Paris. When Samuel and Nina discover Tamir’s subterfuge (via the internet, of course...) they are drawn back into his life, with huge consequences for all concerned.
 

In an interview from last year Tuil states that “...there are novels which exist to entertain and novels which exist to ‘disturb’...” The Age of Reinvention can certainly be placed in the latter category. The curious thing about the novel is that its strengths are also its weaknesses, depending on the readers’ perspective. Tuil’s narrative style is intense and much of the action takes place in the present tense, which gives the novel an edginess that successfully conveys the desperation inherent in the protagonists' lives. Tuil delivers some fantastic lines, particularly in the first third of the novel, with some sentences covering almost half a page. These stylistic attributes drew me into the novel’s world and I felt a compulsion to read on to find out what would happen, but by the middle of the narrative Tuil’s style grew wearisome and I began to find certain aspects of the novel, such as the dialogue, to be jarring and melodramatic. Despite these flaws my enthusiasm remained undiminished; however other readers may find Tuil’s style to be overwrought and heavy-handed. There are also some quirks, such as footnotes that are used frequently to elaborate briefly on a minor character’s background, a technique I personally enjoyed, but others may find irritating. The wild swings in the fortunes of the protagonists may seem unrealistic and characterizations cliched and shallow, in particular that of Nina, who could be seen as a mere cipher for the submissive kept female, although, like the male protagonists, she does find a way to reinvent herself late in the novel.

The Age of Reinvention is a political novel, but is ultimately focused on the politics of the self rather than that of nations and the war on terror. The demands placed on an individual’s identity, ethnicity, sex and status by the forces of culture and history are Tuil’s chief obsessions here. Although the novel’s overall tone is bleak, in the end Tuil offers a glimmer of hope that the individual can ultimately be the master of their own destiny. The novel resonated with me, despite its flaws, and it provided an appropriate counterpoint to Michel Houellebeque’s controversial novel Submission (2015). I’m certain that The Age of Reinvention will not be the last word on this era’s discontents, but will it be remembered as one of its defining texts? We’ll see...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (2014)








I first became aware of Michel Faber when the movie adaptation of his novel Under the Skin (2000) emerged in 2013, starring the mesmerizing Scarlett Johansson as an alien lure for hapless humans. I saw the film, which was creepy and beautifully shot, and made a mental note to read the novel. Instead I bought The Book of Strange New Things, lured by its fascinating premise and beautiful cover art (yes, I have a total fetish for book covers - don’t you?). Typically however, it took me two years to get around to reading it, but I’m grateful I finally did. It turned out not to be the book I initially envisioned it to be, but in the end that turned out to not be such a bad (or strange) thing.

The Book of Strange New Things
is a curious novel. Initially the novel appears to be set up for an exploration of a weird alien culture that will react to humanity’s presence and religion in unpredictable ways. Set on the alien world of Oasis that has been relatively newly settled by a small population of humans attempting to prepare for eventual colonization in what appears to be the near future (within the next 100 years?). The unhurried narrative centres around Peter Leigh, a Christian pastor who is sent by a faceless corporation called USIC to undertake missionary work, as demanded by the Oasian natives. The aliens are quite taken by Christianity and Peter leaves behind his devoted wife, Bea, to dutifully spread the word of God. The aliens are outre enough, with faces described as looking like two human fetuses side by side, and with no discernible sensory organs to speak of. Their speech (“like fruit being thumbed into two halves”), habits and culture are inscrutable and suitably alien, as is the planet itself, which is mostly featureless except for swirling torrents of rain driven by an atmosphere that drives the humans crazy by delving into every nook and cranny. Faber certainly succeeded in creating a profound alien sense of place, however despite some beautiful descriptions of the alien world and a satisfyingly bizarre alien birth scene, the novel is essentially about humanity itself.

The Book of Strange New Things pays mere lip service to the usual science fiction tropes, instead concerning itself predominantly with relationships. Various plot arcs subtly explore interpersonal relationships, the relationship with the self, and the individuals’ relationship with God. Faber’s exploration of these relationships creates both an investment in the characters story arcs and an appropriately strange compulsion to find out how the novel will unfold. As usual I kept on trying to guess what twists could emerge as the novel progressed, but I was wrong on all counts, but in the end it didn’t matter - the very human heart of the novel was enough. Despite nothing much happening, seemingly most of the time, the novel is absorbing; managing to transcend an often sedate narrative. Undoubtedly this is due to the novel’s great psychological depth, including the aliens themselves, who struggle with the very nature of their existence.

After reading The Book of Strange New Things I happened upon an interview that crystallized just why a novel in which nothing much really happens in terms of drama, action or weird plot twists was ultimately just so absorbing. The novel that Faber initially intended turned out differently because as he began the task of writing his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The novel was profoundly influenced by his relationship with his wife as he cared for her and faced the reality of her passing. At the beginning of the interview he states that he “...wanted this to be saddest thing I’d ever written.” Faber also made clear his intention of retiring from writing, citing the passing of his wife as the demarcation point in his career and life. If it is his last novel then it a worthy farewell, representing a unique take on what it is to be human in what is, essentially, a tragic universe of inevitable loss and irreversible change. If you want a science fiction novel full of the usual tricks then this isn’t the book for you, but if you appreciate the kind of literature that explores profound themes in a subtle manner then you will be well rewarded.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa (1977, English translation 1982)








The imperiously named Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, is a Peruvian writer of some renown, with a prolific career both in literature and in politics. Now eighty years of age, his latest novel has recently been published - The Discreet Hero (2013, 2015) as has a collection of essays, aptly named Notes on the Death of Culture (2015). Llosa also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, among many other prizes throughout his career. I’m quite an admirer of South American writing in general, so I was looking forward to reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which had been selected by my library book club group. The novel did not disappoint, proving to be a humorous farce that also featured some deft post-modern experimentation with narrative form.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Peruvian city of Lima in the 1950’s and is based on the author’s early life, in particular his marriage to Julia Urquidi at the age of 19 (Julia was 29). The principle protagonist, just one character among multitudes, is Marito (or Mario, as he is referred to later in the novel), an 18 year old aspiring writer who works as part of a news team at a local radio station. The much older Aunt Julia, a recent divorcee, unwittingly stirs the youthful passions of Marito and soon they are innocently romancing in secret away from the unforgiving gaze of the extended family (or so they think, of course...). The brilliantly eccentric character of Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian renowned for his ability to churn out brilliant scripts for radio serials, is employed by the radio station to improve ratings. This amazing character was actually based on a coworker of Llosa’s when he worked at a radio station, which makes me wonder just how much of Camacho’s unique idiosyncrasies are based on reality, such as asking the radio soap actors to masturbate so their voices are suitably relaxed for romantic scenes.

Like many South American writers Llosa’s style is intense, detailed and highly descriptive; there’s kind of fever-dream quality about it, although it is not as surreal as his former close friend’s writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Llosa famously gifted Garcia Marquez a black eye in their final encounter). The novel’s style is influenced by post-modernism, experimenting with form and meta fiction, whilst also providing entertaining light comical farce. Not only is Llosa writing about his own relationship, but also what it is like to be an aspirational writer who sees both situations and the people he meets as potential fodder for stories; essentially Llosa is writing about writing. Camacho’s role in the novel is both as an eccentric mentor for Marito and as a writer of increasingly surreal radio serials. The radio serials provide the material for every third or forth chapter, acting a counterpoint to the chapters involving Marito and Julia as they desperately attempt to be together in the face of family resistance. Toward the novel’s end their story becomes as dramatic and surreal as the serials, of which Camacho has lost control, mixing up the characters and events so much so that these chapters become like parodies of avant-garde writing. Despite Llosa’s experimentation the novel is engaging, funny and features a poignant ending. The novel is also crammed full of arcane and unusual words, so much so that I advise having a large dictionary on hand (or, yes, the internet...).

A film adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, called Tune in Tomorrow, was released in 1990, starring a young Keanu Reeves as Mario and Barbara Hershey as Aunt Julia. The actor who undoubtedly steals the movie is the late and undeniably great Peter Falk, who plays Camacho with a brilliance that does the novel justice. I actually saw it at the time and I have to say that it makes for a great first date movie. It is worth both reading the novel and watching the film, as there is enough difference between the two to make it worthwhile and both are, in their own particular way, funny, farcical and ultimately touching in a manner that causes you to fondly recall your first love, and that is not such a bad thing.