Mood and intent but not much action

It is a brave writer who gives the title of his book to a scandal that affects its central characters but never actually gives us the nuts and bolts of what happened in The Sparsholt Affair.
But then this allusion to rather than description of events is a thread that runs all the way through the book.
It’s as if Alan Hollinghurst was more interested in the way he wrote it rather than the characters and the plot. Perhaps this why I lost track of the people in his story during the middle section and it felt that I was trudging through the waist-high snow of a Russian classic like War and Peace or Dr Zhivago.
Click on this link to read my (short) Goodreads review.

15

05 2019

When parallels converge

My reading follows parallel paths. On one side is my normal reading for pleasure that I keep track of through posting reviews on Goodreads. Thanks to a clever gizmo these reviews appear over there ––––> on the right.

The other reading path is the one where I read the first 53 pages of ‘classic’ literature and make a decision as to whether life is too short or not to add the book to my reading pile. This occasional project has stuttered because I have found it crowded out by my other enthusiasms for family, narrow boating and writing film fiction. Nevertheless, I intend picking it up when I can.

The paths converged recently when I read Sebastian Barry’s 2016 Costa Book of the Year Days Without End. Here is my review:

If I didn’t finish this book – and I didn’t – how could I give it any stars, let alone the two that signify “it was ok”? Well, I enjoyed the start. The introduction of Thomas McNulty and John Cole in their pubescent guises as saloon dancers baited the hook well and I had taken the bait by the time the boys joined up and had their first taste of ‘injun fighting’.
But something about the next episode and the flood that followed combined with the discrepancy between Thomas’s lack of education and the language of his narration made my enthusiasm flag. ‘Life’s too short’ to carry on reading when the pleasure has drained away.
Even without reading the reviews here I know I’m going to be in a very small minority who feel negative about this highly-acclaimed book. I can see that the writing is of a very high standard. I even have the feeling that if I could have pushed on for a few more pages I would care more about what is going to happen to the protagonists.
But (and this is coincidence, I assure you) I reached page 53, put the book down and just couldn’t be bothered enough to pick it up again.

Days Without End is a highly acclaimed novel. Time will tell whether it is ever regarded as a ‘classic’. In the meantime, and by happy coincidence, it can serve as one in order to keep the ’53 pages’ pot boiling. You can tell from the review that I won’t return to the 248 pages as yet unread.

14

04 2019

Boating break

The theme of Nudging 70 is ‘Life’s Too Short’. In practice, as I’ve discovered this week, this can apply to reading. Towards the end of last week we saw that the weather forecasters were predicting an unseasonably warm few days. We own a narrowboat* and as we are both retired we are able to drop everything and set off for a cruise.

When you are on a narrowboat life goes along at four miles an hour. Even at this speed, and slower when you’re approaching obstacles like bridges and locks, the controls* need the crew’s total attention so there is no time to bury one’s head in a book.

After two full days cruising we reached Wightwick* where we turned round and enjoyed two days of uninterrupted sunshine on the way home.

Life’s never too short to spend a few days having fun. Even books, reading and writing, can wait.

  • She’s a modest craft 34 feet long, called Moonflower.
  • Calling them ‘controls’ is over complicating things. They consist of a tiller to steer and a throttle lever to make the boat go faster or slower in forward or reverse.
  • Wightwick (pronounced ‘Wittick’) is two days away from our Stourport base by boat but only three-quarters of an hour by car.

18

02 2019

Signed up for the Nantucket Sleigh-ride

The Leviathan

Verdict first: yes, I shall read Moby Dick. Based on the first 53 pages I’m happy to be press-ganged by Herman Melville into joining his narrator on his maritime peregrinations in pursuit of the Leviathan. Having taken against the diversionary second chapter in The Master and Margarita, I could be accused of inconsistency for loving the first 20 pages of this book that were extracts from other writings about whales. I revelled in them though because, far from being diversionary, they established from the beginning the mystique and terrible might of Ishmael’s chosen adversary on the High Seas.

I have chosen the word ‘chosen’ carefully, for Ishmael tells us early on that he is over qualified to be a sailor before the yardarm. He chooses to go to sea. We join him as he sets out for Nantucket Island,* where the whalers are, breaking his journey with an overnight stop in New Bedford.

Melville’s writing here is spellbinding as he describes Ishmael’s first evening when he is searching for cheap lodging. I loved the casually inserted aphorism that ‘A purse is but a rag unless you have something in it’. This leads into riff on money: ‘… considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven, Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition’*.

Ishmael secures a shared bed for the night in The Spouter Inn, and in a scene written alternately with humour and terror he introduces the perturbing figure of Queequeg the harpooner, whose tomahawk lay in the bed ‘as if it were a hatchet-faced baby.’

Next morning, after watching Queequeg wash and shake himself ‘all over like a Newfoundland dog fresh from the water’ Ishmael walks through the town in the ‘murky light of that darkened doleful day’ and visits a church. Melville reproduces on the page examples of the marble tablets that commemorate whalers lost at sea*.  Thus, we are persuaded by the powerful ebb tide of Melville’s prose to drop everything and follow Ishmael on his perilous adventure*.

  1. Surely “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most well-known first sentences in literature. It is also an instructive lesson in the use of the vocative comma. “Call me, Ishmael” would have started a completely different book.
  2. Coincidence 1: I have recently finished reading the draft of a non-fiction book for a friend. It’s an ambitious project structured around his return journey from Kidderminster to Kazakhstan as a truck driver. Chris graduated from university with a first-class degree in French. Despite his over-qualification he followed his childhood dream to be an international truck driver.
  3. Ishmael is already well-travelled when we meet him. Melville reinforces this economically when Ishmael describes June 21st as, ‘The longest day of the year in our hemisphere.’ I can’t think of many better examples of the creative writing teacher’s exhortation to “show, don’t tell”.
  4. Coincidence 2: Chris’s book concludes with a proposition that humankind’s survival will only be possible in a money-free society.
  5. Coincidence 3: Another writer friend, Bruce, is currently working on a project inspired by a marble tablet on the wall of a church. Something eerie is happening here.
  6. I was asked in a quiz recently, “In which occupation was a Nantucket Sleigh-ride a danger of the work.” It happens when, having harpooned your whale from a flimsy boat, you are towed behind it at unimaginable speeds until its injuries cause it to tire. One of the marble tablets depicted on page 52 of my copy of Moby Dick is dedicated to, ‘One of the boats’ crews of The Ship Eliza who were towed out of sight by a whale, on the off-shore ground in the Pacific, December 31st, 1839.’

11

02 2019

Head Rolling in Moscow

Patriarch’s Ponds, Moscow

It’s my third attempt to read The Master and Margarita. The first sentence: ‘At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds’ gives me the feeling of déjà vu all over again. Coincidentally, UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has recently had her own succession of Groundhog Days, never more so than when she approached the despatch box this week to sell Parliament her version of Brexit for third time*.

The PM addressed the house on Tuesday*. Without any show of shame or remorse, she urged the House to vote for an amendment that junked the deal that she herself negotiated. It was carried and now she goes back to Brussels to plead to re-open a contract that she had agreed was non-negotiable.

As I understand it The Master and Margarita was banned in the USSR because it parodied a country in which the government held The Party’s interest above those of the country’s citizens. The situation in the UK where the Tory government has been blatantly acting solely in the interests of the Tory Party is beyond parody.

The ‘foreigner’ arrives

Back in Mikhail Bulgakov’s world, this time I reached the contractual page 53 without too much strain. In the first chapter, two Muscovites sitting on a park bench are visited, in turn, by a wreathly ghost and then a ‘foreigner’ wearing a jockey’s cap who, it seems, foretells the future. They discuss God. The second chapter is a retelling of the Pontius Pilate Bible story. Does this grab you? No, me neither. 

I understand that, later, there will be cat. This, unlike the death of one of the Muscovites, is not foretold by the foreigner. This prefiguring of Berlioz’s death is deftly done: ‘… the glass dazzlingly reflected the broken-up sun which was forever departing from Mikhail Alexandrovich …’ but you have to know that he is going to die for it not to slip by unremarked.

Has what I have read so far persuaded me to carry on? I consider the other projects competing for my attention*. No, not enough has happened. As a reader I crave action. The opening chapter establishes atmosphere which you can get away with if the next one starts with a bang*. 

Had Bulgakov skipped the Pilate story (which added nothing at this early stage in the novel other than to highlight that the novel is unconventional) and led straight into chapter three where (thanks to Andy Miller) I know that a Berlioz’s head does literally roll perhaps this would have persuaded me. But the intrusion of the Bible story – what was that about? No, sorry, life’s too short.

Moby Dick next.

  • Now dubbed ‘Brexshit’ in this house.
  • The previous Monday, THA and I had joined a mass-leafleting of a nearby estate on behalf of the People’s Vote campaign. It’s too little, too late.
  • Writing my WIP, codename Lydia; reading the final draft of my next novel Chinatown; reading a friend’s WIP final draft; and reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act for our community cinema’s Film of the Book Night. Not to mention time ‘wasted’ on Facebook and Twitter.
  • A head rolling for instance.

05

02 2019