Muriel Spark – The Public Image

Muriel Spark is, was, one of the finest writers of the last century. I would like to say one of the most important but, as the majority of writers today still think that novels should use either Henry James or Ernest Hemingway (or terrifyingly both) as a model, that is more difficult to argue. Spark was a master of technique; her novels flit through time and space in incredibly complicated shapes yet are often seen as being light, easy reads. She also had one of the darkest senses of humour of any British novelist and an all too rare ability to write novels consisting of less than 180 pages. The phrase ‘short, sharp shock’ could have been coined for her work. It wasn’t, but it could have been. It is very possible that if she were born a man she would be more widely acknowledged as one of the great twentieth century writers.

So it is something of a disappointment to have to report that The Public Image didn’t blow me away. If only the Booker judges had waited a year for The Driver’s Seat, or four for The Hothouse by the East River, or had been around in 1963 for The Girls of Slender Means, or paid as much attention to Spark as they did Murdoch over the years. If they had I wouldn’t be so desperately praising Spark now, knowing that this is my only chance. The Public Image was her only novel to be shortlisted for the prize. Pity. Because…

The Public Image has its good points; the dialogue is very good, it is tightly written, but…

The novel is about a young film star, Annabel Christopher, who is on the brink of real success and her husband, Frederick, a failure as an actor and a middling writer of scripts who becomes increasingly obsessed with Annabel’s public image. He sees her, and in particular her public image, as something to despise and eventually this hatred spills into action. Sadly the book is not much less flat than that summary suggests. It lacks the spikiness of most Spark novels. It lacks…

In a nutshell, Spark is easily one of the best writers to have been shortlisted for the Booker but The Public Image is not her finest moment. Now can we move on? I’m all upset from having to say not nice things about Muriel Spark.

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PH Newby – Something to Answer For

Set in Port Said during the period of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Something to Answer For shows the events through the eyes of Townrow, who is a… well…I’m not sure.

Let me explain.

The novel opens with an exchange between Townrow and two men he meets in an airport. One of them accuses the British government of not warning Jews in Europe about Hitler’s final solution, specifically the trains that were used to carry people to the camps. Townrow defends the British government, saying that if they had known what the trains were for they would have warned people. The man replies:

“In Greece, we have a corrupt government. I say this openly, here in Rome. I would say it in Athens. […] The Englishman is not like this. He believes he is good and sincere himself and he believes he has a government that is good and sincere too. I don’t care whether it is a Labour Government or a Conservative Government. He may disagree with it but he does not think it is corrupt.”

At this early stage of the novel I was hooked. I do love an end-of-Empire novel. Unfortunately, for me at least, the novel takes a huge detour halfway through the first chapter. Townrow goes drinking with an old acquaintance and wakes up, naked and beaten, in the desert. From then on the book is different. His head injury means that he never quite knows what is happening throughout the rest of the narrative. He starts to question who he is. People remember him from the past but by other names and he cannot recall whether or not he shares a past with them.

In a way, Townrow becomes a metaphor for Britain or the British or Empire; dazed and confused as history progresses through and around it. On one level this an interesting narrative device, but Townrow’s unreliable memory ensures that anything can happen; any event that takes place in the book can be remembered differently. As a consequence any real sense of tension is lost. The further I progressed into the novel the less I cared.

My other issue with Something to Answer For was that the characters seem a little stereotypical. This is due in part to our viewing them through Townrow’s damaged viewpoint (he is half blind after his beating) and may well be part of the larger metaphor of Empire, but it still felt un-subtle. I didn’t believe them as people. As with the problem of memory, this lessens the reading. If the characters are not real, or don’t feel real, there is nothing at stake. Their actions are unimportant.

Which is not to say that Something to Answer For is not a good novel, just one that I found hard to embrace. It is clever, and funny, and has something to say. And of course, a postmodernist reading would scoff at the notion of characters feeling ‘real’ as all characters are constructs of the author (and technically the reader, I guess). However, I still remain unconvinced that novels/novelists can get away with not making you believe in their characters. Or, perhaps more accurately, I think those novels that do convince you their characters are real are ultimately more rewarding for it. The ending of Figures in a Landscape would not have affected me so strongly had I not been drawn in by the characters. The ending affected me because it happened to them. The end of Something to Answer For was just an ending.

Iris Murdoch – The Nice and the Good

Let’s be honest from the start shall we.

If you are going to put exchanges in your novel such as:

‘”Where’s Barb?” Kate called to Pierce.
“Riding her pony,” he said’

You are going to lose me sooner rather than later. I do not own a pony. My friends do not own ponies. I do not move in pony owning circles, nor do I aspire to. I have never had need to say, or think things like:

‘Pierce and Uncle Theo and Mingo were down on the beach together.’

Granted, Mingo is a dog, but somehow that just makes it worse. I can hear the home counties bray over the roar of the incoming tide – Min-go, Miiin-go.

Ghastly.

Of course, my class prejudices are immaterial if a book is well written. And The Nice and the Good is well written. Murdoch understood prose. She understood that prose doesn’t need to be entirely fluffed up or completely pared down but can be allowed to flow both cleanly and interestingly. At times her writing is breath-taking:

‘A cuckoo called nearby in the wood above, clear, cool, precise, hollow, mad.’

But too often the novel strays into philosophical argument propped up as dialogue or lengthy descriptions of things that sound nice but can’t quite hold onto the import Murdoch imbues them with:

‘The pebbles gave a general impression of being either white or mauve, but looked at closely they exhibited almost every intermediate colour and also varied considerably in size and shape.’

The pebbles are on the same beach that they walk Mingo on by the way, though if you could not bring yourself to give a shit about that I completely understand.  Trust me though, the descriptions are far more fun than the conversations. The endless philosophical conversations, the endless varieties of love affair, the endless, endless characters. The Nice and the Good must have nearly thirty of them, and many exist only to offer counter proposal or argument to others. The characters are constantly discussing and pontificating; they cannot even have sex without noting that they committed ‘sacrilege’ and that this is a ‘very important human activity’. Worst of all is how the characters are not really as different as Murdoch might like us to believe. Like those pebbles on the beach, they run the gamut from white to mauve. Bar a few terrible caricatures they do not step far out of class boundaries. They are all Oxbridge-esque.

It is also surprising that a writer so clearly concerned with intellectual powers and prowess would write a novel with such a ragged plot. My mother has a saying – very clever but no common sense. The Nice and the Good is very clever. It has no common sense. What reader, faced with a scene in which two characters discuss how they were surprised that the gun of a suicide was resting on a desk by his prone hand, would not question why the police had not already brought that up? Presumably Iris, as the policemen didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge they lack the basic fundamental brain processing power to posit this introspection. Being plebs, they are forced to just assume it was definitely a suicide guv’nor.

Most annoying of all is the adventure of two characters stuck in a cave by the tide. The novel has put forward the question of whether or not it is possible to survive in this cave. Whether the tide fills it or not. But at no point do John or Pierce think to touch the walls of the corridors they explore to see if they are wet or dry; to see if they are covered in limpets and the like or not. Or at least not until the very end. No common sense you see. No common sense at all. Or rather, they are not allowed common sense because Murdoch wants the limpets arrival in the chapter as a final flurry of drama, as panache, and fuck you dear reader, if you happened to think of it five pages ago

The Nice and the Good is by no means a bad novel, but neither is it a great one. I’m not sorry I read it but neither do I feel compelled to read any more books by Murdoch.

What’s that you say? Shortlisted six times. Oh, fine. Oh jolly fine.

Iris Murdoch – The Nice and the Good.

Nicholas Mosley – Impossible Object

I thought I would do a bit of research for you. Give you a little snippet of Nicholas Mosley’s life. Unfortunately his Wikipedia entry (What do you want? Blood?) limits itself largely to descriptions of his dad (naughty, naughty Oswald Mosley) and his half-brother (kinky, kinky Max Mosley). This is a shame as, a) If I wanted to know more about those two I would have looked at their own pages and, b) Nicholas Mosley deserves much more attention than the rest of his family do.

It seems we literary types have been less interested in putting things on Wikipedia than other people. This is why, for example, if you search for nanorobotics you get an article with sixty-two sources and various essays within essays, but if you search for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country you get a did-you-mean list of options headed by a Paul and Linda McCartney effort and the 1992 worldwide smash Achy Breaky Heart.

Incidentally, Achy Breaky Heart was the first song to ever go triple platinum in Australia. Wow, Australia, what were you thinking? One in every eighty Australians bought a copy of Achy Breaky Heart. May the world remind you of that fact the next time you are trying to claim cultural superiority over New Zealand. One in eighty, dudes. One in eighty.

Anyway, Impossible Object. It’s rather good actually. What at first appears to be a series of short stories starts to weld (do I mean weld?) into a larger, stranger whole. (Do I mean meld?) (Is meld a word?) (Is weld a word?) (Is word a word?) (Shall I start again?) (OK)

Impossible Object appears, at first, to be a short story collection, and in one sense, it is. At least some of the sections are stories written by characters in other sections of the novel. Or about themselves at different parts of the book. Some of the writers use ridiculously over-the-top similes. Others don’t. For example, toward the end of the book we find out that the first chapter is a short story written by one of the characters of the last chapter in which he exagerated the seriousness of an incident that happened during his previous marriage. That sounds more confusing than it is. The stories slowly start to carry echoes and whispers of each other until they become a larger whole. Ultimately though, these interlocking stories don’t quite fit together. In Impossible Object, Mosley created an Escher drawing in text; an impossible object. It is a bloody good trick.

It makes you wonder what all that death-of-the-novel nonsense was in the Seventies (and in every decade since, obviously). This novel is vital, in both senses of the word. It is experimental, but experimental for a reason: Mosley was attempting to capture the essence of what it means to write about love.

Parts of Impossible Object do appear slightly dated (today’s novelists tend to hide their university educations behind a wall of dirt or irony) but is actually all the better for this. The novel is a much more noble project than the showy pyrotechnics of, say, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Here the narrative is pulled apart and twisted to imitate the workings of the heart, not to disguise the fact it hasn’t got one. I guess the word noble is dated. I guess I’m dated. I’ll shut up now.

This is definitely one for your to-read piles.

Out of print: Widely available second-hand.

Barry England – Figures in a Landscape

This book typifies so much I don’t like in fiction. It is set during a war. It is about soldiers. It is almost a thriller. It is written in spare, straight prose. It is obviously influenced by the work of Ernest Hemmingway…

And bloody hell is it good.

Figures in a Landscape is the story of two prisoners of war trying to escape across the tropical landscape of an unknown, presumably Asian country. It is very hard to talk about the plot except in the most general terms without spoiling the novel, and I don’t want to spoil the novel, because you really should read it. Must read it. The end of the book affected me more than almost any book I have ever read. As a reader, and as a writer, I was blown away by what England did with the last page. I am still reeling.

This is storytelling in its purest form, the narrative moves, literally, across the landscape; but it is also deceptively sophisticated. The narration is largely third person but has no qualms about passing into the thoughts of either of the two soldiers without warning or marker. Speech is rarely attributed. This method works because the characters of MacConnachie (older, senior, brutal, animal) and Ansell (younger, junior, smarter, resourceful) are so neatly and clearly drawn that the reader is never confused.

MacConnachie and Ansell are chased by a helicopter, the pilot of which takes on an almost mystical status in the minds of the soldiers. Hidden behind glass, he is the eyes, and the brain of their pursuers, who follow behind in increasing numbers, running the two escapees to ground. The helicopter is the edge the enemy has that makes MacConnachie and Ansell underdogs and that makes their journey one of unbearable tedium interspersed by horrible, panicked tension.

There is a film of this book that I hope never to see. The book is part of me and I don’t want that ruined by someone else’s vision of it. When I read the blurb for this book, I’ll admit, I didn’t hope for much but Figures in a Landscape blew me, and some of my misconceptions, away. It is a brilliant novel.

Out of print – available widely second hand.

1969

The 1960’s.

The Beatles were reinventing pop music every six months or so, Mary Quant gave the world the mini-skirt, people started to be able to afford televisions and cars (changing the way we saw the world forever), and my mom and dad did most of their courting at a coffee shop in West Bromwich called The Casa Bamboo. Oh yes, and right at the decade’s close, in October 1969, the very first Booker winner was announced: PH Newby’s Something to Answer For.

This was the full shortlist in 1969

  • Barry England – Figures in a Landscape
  • Nicholas Moseley – The Impossible Object
  • Iris Murdoch – The Nice & The Good
  • PH Newby – Something to Answer For
  • Muriel Spark – The Public Image
  • GM Williams – From Scenes Like These

Over the next six weeks I will be reading the shortlist. In alphabetical order. (for neatness). (lovely neatness).

Of the six writers, four are completely new to me and only one (Spark) is someone whose work I am particularly familiar with. I thought I had read The Public Image, but it isn’t on my bookshelves, so I probably haven’t. Which means six new books to read. (and six new opinions to have).

Perhaps the nicest part of this project will be discovering new (to me) books and authors. Hopefully I won’t be doing this alone for long. Join me. Pick a book or two off the shortlist and let’s go find a tree to lean up against. We’ll take a picnic.

Maybe you have already read some of them. If you have any opinions on any of them, stick your thoughts in the comments box.

Those of you who know me, will probably be assuming that the result of this one is a foregone conclusion. Muriel Spark is one of my favourite and best writers. But anything can happen.

Book one, page one, read…

Welcome… to Man vs Words

I should have called this Man vs Man, or Man vs Man Booker, but Man vs Words was as close as I could get to Man vs Food which is my main inspiration for this blog.

For those of you not familiar with the television phenomenon that is Man vs Food, it is, in a nutshell, a man eating a lot of food. It seems that most towns in America have a café or a restaurant with an eating challenge. The thirty gallon milkshake. The seven-foot po’ boy sandwich. The chip as big as a dog. That sort of thing. You get the idea. He eats them. That’s basically all you need to know.

The one thing the Man vs Food lacks, is highbrow culture. So I thought, what about, instead of eating food, I read the shortlisted novels of the Man Booker Prize from 1969 to the present day? Obvious really. When you think about it.

The concept is simple: every Thursday, Man vs Words will bring you new words.  (yes, I know today is a Wednesday, from now on it will be Thursday [except tomorrow, there is no post tomorrow]) The post on Thursday the 24th May will introduce 1969 as a year (and a concept, if you like). Then, over the next six weeks I will read and review all the books shortlisted for that year’ prize. (One review a week, always on a Thursday [YES I KNOW TODAY IS A WEDNESDAY]).

Then, of course, I write a post in which I spout on about what I think should have won it. And guess what? You get to spout too. And not just in the comments box (though you can do that too, I want you to do that) but in a super-duper poll which will decide the ultimate Man vs Words winner of the 1969 Man Booker Prize!

Then we do 1970, then we do 1971, then we do 1972, then…

In preparation for this blog I had a browse through all the Booker shortlists. There are a surprising number of new authors, let alone new books to explore. I am quite excited. I’m going to read them all. If I have read them before I will re-read them. Maybe we will discover some new favourites together. Won’t that be nice? I’ll probably chuck some knob jokes in too. Keep things lively and that. Won’t that be fun?

Right. Let’s do this!!!

Man vs Words is go. Get out your reading spoons.