Monday, 25 March 2013

A Swedish critique

Reading my way through the crime decalogue of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the famous Swedish writers, creators of police detective Martin Beck. This latest reading spree was triggered by finding the first volume in a bookshops' discount bin on a pavement in Picton. (Fortunately, Wellington's central library has most of the others, recently republished by Harper Perennial).

Many emotions are swirling around us here at the moment as people we care about suddenly lose their jobs and are in financial trouble. So I escape briefly into this other world. I have read five books so far, without analysing very much. It is a relief that they are both intelligent and light.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were a wife and husband team. Their aim was to provide an accurate description of police at work (what is called 'police procedural') while also depicting Swedish society and its problems: they were communists and readers may often themselves siding with the common man, the worker struggling to makes ends meet whereas rich insensitive folk live it up.

Given what is happening in the world economically, their point of view seems pretty accurate to me: destruction of the middle classes, while a vast proletariat is created which exists purely as a market for the goods and services churned out by the wealthy one percenters. A return to the social structure of the Victorian era.

The Occupy movement had a point, even though their efforts were disjointed and lacked clear goals.

Added some days later : Read their last book in the Martin Beck series, The Terrorists. Some parts of it read like a political tract, but it is still a page-turner. And their last word is 'Marx'.

Monday, 18 March 2013

A poor review

A stupendously inane review of James Wood ‘s latest book The Fun Stuff and Other Essays (Jonathan Cape, 2013) appeared in the Dominion Post’s your weekend supplement  of March 16th, by someone called Chris Humphreys whom I was unable to track down online.

A truly embarrassing performance, particularly as NZ has so many people who are able to do better:  the staff and many of the students at Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters and those at English Lit departments in universities across the country.

Humphreys writes:
 “One gets the impression that not only has he [Wood] read a novel several times over…”
Note to Chris: many people with an interest in literature may read the books they admire several times.

 “…but that he has read everything written about that particular novel" - Wood is an eminent literary critic and it goes without saying that he will have read widely.  
Chris, you might yourself benefit from looking up what others have written about this book. 

“…the entire absence of an agenda…” So naive, Chris, like a schoolgirl with a crush.  It is unlikely that Wood sees himself 'without an agenda'. We all have a point of view and tend to have an agenda derived from it. 

There is more - worse? - including the title of the review. It is appalling. Ignorant, uneducated, presumptuous.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

An extraordinary book

I've spent the last two months lying limp on the sofa for most of the days and the nights, and was able to read as much as I wanted to, all meals brought to me on a tray.  I have not had the licence to read this much before and by a stroke of great luck, the right book presented itself. An extraordinary book: Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane.

I have no links to Ireland. My background includes a similarly complex political situation, which descends periodically into mayhem and violence. I am aware of the dangers of over-simplification and lacked the patience to learn about the intricacies of the Irish conflict. I was unsure I'd be a good reader of this book.

My friend LS was visiting and she picked it up and read the first page. I saw her disappear into the book, right in front of me, from the first sentence onwards:  "On the stairs, there was a clear, plain silence". Very encouraging.

The novel has three parts, each divided into two chapters and each chapter subdivided into short vignettes which have brief sharp titles, mostly single words, like the crack of a whip: Stairs, Feet, Mother. Sometimes the title was longer and I wondered why.

The narrative was enthralling - both the story on the surface and the constant feeling that something else was happening underneath. I wanted to dig, to discover what was hidden, tantalising. The narrator in the book is himself 'enthralled'. The reading of this book was almost a parallel experience - powerful and a bit scary. Sometimes I could hardly breathe.

I read the book over and over, analysing and dissecting what I was reading, and I found that as I became more aware of the meaning of the words, it became almost like a reading of the Bible, the Torah - though not in a religious sense. I have been trained in Biblical exegesis and this text seemed to require and reward a similar approach. The words are fluent and gripping, and when you look again, a second or third time, you come to realise how intentional they are, how purposeful the structure of the sentences. Everything is crafted, down to the minutiae. For instance, things happen in twos in this book: two chapters for each part, people moving in twos - not couples as such - words such as the word labyrinth and others, occurring twice. A sentence repeated in the form of a mirror image. I am not sure why.

Seamus Deane is the general editor for James Joyce's work at Penguin, and wrote the introduction to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The trajectory of the Portrait  is similar to the one in Reading: a gifted young man growing up and gradually distancing himself from the important figures of his childhood, until he leaves home altogether. The labyrinth appears in Portait as well, in the family name of the main character Daedalus. In the introduction to Portrait, Deane explains that in Greek Daedalus means 'cunningly wrought'. This is one of my favourite quotes from Reading (p. 43):
"...I felt as if we lived in an empty space with a long cry from him ramifying through it. At other times, it appeared to be as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it."
Finally, here is how the Wikipedia entry for this book introduces it:
...The book won the 1996 Guardian Fiction Prize and the 1996 South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, is a New York Times Notable Book, won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Irish Literature Prize in 1997, besides being shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1996. It has been translated into 20 languages.