Good old Millions

Matt Seidel being very clever about book reviewing:


“I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

In One Person, John Irving


John Irving has many excellent qualities as a writer. He manages to combine pathos with incredibly funny, almost absurdist, humour (The Hotel New Hampshire). He can make unlikely, borderline unlikeable characters break your heart (A Prayer for Own Meany). He tackles the crippling effects of grief with compassion, while still making it compulsively readable (Widow for One Year). He is not afraid to deal with difficult topics in a humane and tolerant fashion (The Cider House Rules). And of course, the man is an inspired writer of plot, making tiny character details seem like an entirely natural, and inevitable, trigger for the working of his narrative (Last Night in Twisted River).

It is not that these elements are not present in In One Person, his most recent novel dealing with the life and loves of William Abbot, a bi-sexual man learning to be himself in Sixties and Seventies America, it is just that they are drowned out by a fussy and overworked style, and the whole work is desperately in need of a good edit.

When one reads an Irving, you do expect a certain amount of going over standard material: the New England setting, the wrestling, the bears (here, of course, a reference to burly homosexuals), the fascination with sex, the novelist protagonist. And this is not a bad thing – in my teenage years I devoured Dick Francis’ horse racing novels for the very reason that it always had the same basically-decent-chap as the protagonist, and usually the same setting either directly or tangentially related to horse racing. But so much depends on the handling of the material, if you’ve read it all before, and in this particular Irving, the handling leaves much to be desired.

The title is derived from a line in Shakespeare’s Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people, / And none contented“, and the story is framed as Abbot’s memories of his youth and later life, as he first becomes aware of his bi-sexuality and learns to live his life authentically, despite the narrow and conformist expectations of society. The book details his early obsession with Miss Frost (the isolated town librarian), his hunger for a father figure as a stable anchor to balance out his mother’s neuroticism, his search for information about his biological father, all against the (none too subtle) backdrop of small town am-dram societies. It intends to be an honest exploration of the heartache and complexity of anyone’s coming of age, made more so by the hesitant blooming of what society deems a socially incongruous approach to sexuality. But in the end it is just too heavy-handed in the way it portrays William’s sexual ambivalence, from the overt foreshadowing represented by his wise old Grandpa Harry (preternaturally suited to playing female characters) to William’s own casting as Ariel, a character who is also sexually indeterminate, as we are told, again and again.

Elsewhere reviewers have described the ceaselessly repetitive style as deeply affecting; personally, I don’t need quite as much hammering over the head to get the subtext, or to be reminded of a person’s words three pages after they first uttered it. And don’t get me started on the constant quotations. Reams of Shakespeare aside, I felt like I was reading a book by Randall Napier, the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s short story Oblivion, where DFW successfully uses Napier’s constant air quotations to mark the short story’s investigation of reality, and to characterise Napier as a bit of an idiot. About halfway through In One Person I was desperate for Abbot to just have his own train of thought, without constantly quoting his social circle. In a kind of cringing self-reference too far, Irving has Miss Frost intone early on that if one starts repeating everything other people say, one finds oneself in real trouble. No points for guessing which character then endlessly repeats this statement.

It is a book I really wanted to like, both because of my fondness for Irving’s story-telling skills, and because I respected his intention to advocate for tolerance and acceptance of sexuality in all its shapes. In One Person tries too hard to combine storytelling with moral outrage, and fails to do either well.

Picture credit: Oleg Denysenko


The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

—-Ann Patchett

“I remember once walking out hand in hand with a boy I knew, and it was summer, and suddenly before us was a field of gold. Gold as far as you could see. We knew we’d be rich forever. We filled our pockets and our hair. We were rolled in gold. We ran through the field laughing and our legs and feet were coated in yellow dust, so that we were like golden statues or golden gods. He kissed my feet, the boy I was with, and when he smiled, he had a gold tooth.

It was only a field of buttercups, but we were young.”
― Jeanette Winterson, The Powerbook

What did James Wood ever do for you?

Excellent article by Charles Finch on how James Wood indirectly drove him to improve his novel.  Like Finch, I wasn’t blown away by How Fiction Works, however much I rate Wood’s deep diving literary analysis skills.  Finch ponders both Wood’s weaknesses and his contribution to literature, the latter of which he identifies as a acute engagement with language as an marker for thought, expressed in the novel.  Heady stuff.

Is that a Fish in your Ear? David Bellos

Eerily well-timed, I discovered David Bellos’ book on translation while reading the English version of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. The latter proved hard work; the former, rather more rewarding. I am willing to accept that my failure to warm towards Mann no doubt says more about me than it says about either Mann or his translator, but Bellos perfectly articulates one of the main problems I had with the Mann novel. Buddenbrooks, dealing with the decline of a wealthy Hanseatic family over the course of four generations, depends for much of its portrayal of the family’s status on the distinction between them and members of different classes, using dialect as an instantly recognised marker for class. At least, I assume that’s what the original does. The translation has all sorts of anachronistic markers thrown in, with servants speaking in a sort of a Wessex brogue (unfortunately channelling more Stella Gibbons than Thomas Hardy), and painfully fussy ruminations on the verb choices of other characters (such as an ill-mannered Bavarian suitor). Bellos makes me feel much better about my frustration with Buddenbrooks when he identifies exactly this function of language (to flag social identity) as one of the few things that cannot be translated:

Most people currently think it is just silly to make a Bavarian dairy farmer use Texas cowboy slang, or to have a woman on the St Petersburg tram express herself in Mancunian in order to suggest her geographic and linguistic distance both from the capital and the standard language.

Make of Mann in translation what you will, but don’t you dare quote the old adage of “translation being no substitute for the original”. What else is it, asks Bellos, but a substitute for the original? By its very definition a translation is not the original. It’s a clever point, neatly made, and a good indication of what you can expect from Bellos (the title, with its reference to the ‘babel fish’, last seen in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, will also give you a clue to Bellos’ lightness of tone).

A renowned translator himself, having won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize for his translations of works by Albanian author Ismail Kadare, he is currently a professor at Princeton University, and Bellos writes knowledgeably and entertainingly about his subject, with only occasional lapses into denser academic discourse.

For the most part, the short, punchy chapters are easy to digest, and the scope of his investigation is fascinating. He deals with the enormously complex translation practices required to execute the European Union’s egalitarian approach to language parity, the challenges of simultaneous translation, the ratio in which languages get translated (no surprise that English is far and away the most dominant language in these statistics). A discussion on translation machines goes on to explains the machinations of Google’s “translation” service, which turns out, unsurprisingly, as the mere pilfering of other people’s translations. Google assumes that everything you could possibly read or write online has been said before, and, probably, translated. So it searches through its vast databanks and pulls out word and sentence pairs, and offers this up as quite serviceable translations. It’s not exactly evil, but it’s also not translation, one would have to agree.

He ends the book with a description of the role of language in human society, noting that it is not merely a means of communicating, but rather similar to the grooming primates carry out – a way of connecting and establishing our identities together and apart from other humans. It is an enthralling book, both highly intelligent and passionate. Bellos’ indefatigable enthusiasm for the craft (or rather, the art) of translation is evident, and the reader cannot but share in it. When he closes the final chapter by saying that translation is “another name for the human condition”, I all but clapped in agreement.

Linkage:The inevitable Amazon link, Other reviews


Gerda Buddenbrooks berates her husband’s facile taste in music, and also snipes at easy reads.

“A sort of insipid optimism, which, if you met with it in literature, would make you throw down the book with an angry or sarcastic comment. Easy gratification of each unformed wish, prompt satisfaction before the will is even roused – that is what pretty music is like – and it is like nothing else in the world. It is mere flabby idealism.”

—-Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks

Vacuum.  Chew coughdrops. Keep a folder full of fragments.

An eyelid darkening sideways

World as conspiracy.

Possible plot?  A woman gets on a bus.

Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came?

—–Lorrie Moore, How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?

The Cleft, Doris Lessing

The CleftPicture credit: Elaine Myburgh, c2014

And then Doris died.  I saw a TV programme on her, and liked her prickly, off-beat response to the Pulitzer fame, and her general air of hyper intelligence mixed with whimsy.  Not long before she died, I had picked up The Cleft during my lunch-time bookstore browse, and now, finding myself strangely melancholic about a rumpled old lady that I didn’t even know, I decided to acquaint myself with her work.  I had read The Golden Notebook a while back, found it fragmented, often impenetrable, at times breathtakingly direct, and mostly intimidating, both in physical size and breadth of is pre-occupations.

The Cleft, by contrast, is a slender volume. Manageable, I thought.  It has an intriguing concept, inevitably met with raised eye-brows: what if women existed first, in a peaceful matriarchal society?  How would the birth of a male child affect that society, and how would the increasing prevalence of males go on to change the power balance?

Dealing with the dawn of humanity, it is of course an origin story*, as much as it is an exploration of gender politics, and by framing it as the musings of an ageing Roman historian recording ancient oral histories, it’s also a story about stories, about what gets remembered, and what gets refashioned in the retelling (chiming nicely with recent revelations about the lack of biological veracity in the Bible).

The story opens with an all-female Eden where woman loll like seals in the surf, floating passively through their days, with the occasional human sacrifice to The Cleft, a sleeping volcano and tribal holy place.  Birth happens spontaneously, and the women are content in their unisex world. The first male babies are seen as aberrations, monsters, and placed on a giant rock where eagles grab them away.  It turns out that these eagles do not kill the male babies, but carry them to safety in a forest.  Soon enough the two “tribes” encounter each other, to their mutual fascination and horror. This part of the story is fascinating, an exploration of the deep distrust we feel for the Other, regardless of whether the gaze is male or female.

The writing is quiet, with a rhythm that recalls firelight retelling of myths and folk tales, and it is almost biblical in its sparseness of character. But while the story, which spans many generations, largely compels one to continue reading, ultimately it fails to satisfy.  Perhaps it is the meagre characterisation, which results in a number of named characters having nearly no distinctive trait.  The Roman narrator fails entirely to come to life, and his interjections just seem unnecessary.  And there seems to be a disappointing inevitability about the nature of gender relationships that reneges on the early promise of the book. It does not take long before the female characters resort to neurotic pleading and the male characters to boyish games and adventures.

I still think the concept is as good an example of Lessing’s superb imagination as anything, but in this instance her execution of it is too slight an affair.

*interesting aside: another name for original stories is pourquoi stories.  I don’t know why I like it so much, but I do.