Posts from August 2011
August 10th, 2011
Our book today is Mary Webb’s 1924 novel Precious Bane, one of the most beautifully-written books of the 20th century. It was highly praised after its first publication (including, most famously and a bit pathetically, by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin), it’s been reprinted many times, and it’s been adapted for stage and screen many times as well – and yet it doesn’t often appear on lists of great novels, and no major publisher currently as it in print (as far as I can tell, the only in-print edition is a hideous self-published version that couldn’t possibly entice a single uncommitted reader to give it a chance). I fear it’s being forgotten, perhaps reduced in academic courses to a ‘regional’ novel of correspondingly limited appeal.
I’d hate to think that. I might accept that fate for the rest of Mary Webb’s life’s work, but this, her last completed novel (she died in 1927, and I think one book came out posthumously), is a masterpiece that should live forever.
The story is told by its main character, Prudence Sarn, who’s intelligent and quite attractive – except for her harelip, a troubling sign and distinction in her rural north Shropshire setting. The simple crofters and farmers of the Ellesmere district mistrust and fear Prue Sarn’s twisted lip, and she’s been hearing their superstitious comments her entire life, whispered behind her when she all she’s trying to do is warm herself at the village pub. The loneliness of it hasn’t curdled her loving spirit, but it does make her dream of a different life:
The folk inside looked each at other, and I wished I could die. For all the bitter cold and my thin gown and us being far from the fire, I was all in a swelter. For indeed I loved my kind and would lief they had loved me, and I felt a friendliness for the drovers and for the gentry, and the host and his missus. For they were part of my outing and part of Lullingford and of the world, that ever seized my heart in its hands, as a child will hold a small bird, which is both affrighted and comforted to be so held. I would lief have ridden forth and seen new folk, new roads, new hamlets, children playing on strange village greens, unknown to me as if they were fairies, come there I knew not whence nor how, singing their songs and running away into the dusk; old folk wending their way along paths in the meadow of which I knew not so much as the name of the owner, to churches deep in trees, with all the bells a-ringing, pulled by men I never saw afore.
The key to that different life is the strapping young village weaver Kester Woodseaves. Prue loves him desperately and – she believes – hopelessly, until the day he beholds her shapely young body (but not her face) and is obviously interested. Webb revels in her characters’ raw, trumpeted emotions (her portrayal of Prue’s corrosively self-destructive brother is painful to read or even to re-read), and the most emotional of those characters is Prue herself, who transports with ecstasy when Kester first regards her with favor:
I wondered if aught would have happened me in my outward life by the time the water-lilies came again, lying along the edges of the mere like great gouts of pale wax. There was but a mockery of them now, for amid the frozen leaves lay lilies of ice. Yet as I thought of Kester Woodseaves and what he had come to mean, I seemed to hear and see, on this side and on that, in the dark woods, a sound and a gleam of the gathering spring. There was a piping call in the oak wood, a bursting of purple in the tree-tops, a soft yellowing of celandine in the rookery. When I was come into the attic, spring was there afore me, though it was so cold that my hands could scarce write. None the less, I put down in my book the words, ‘The first day of spring.’ And I wrote it in the best tall script, flourished. So I should ever call to mind the second time of seeing him I loved, and the first time of his seeing me. Not only had he looked at me, but he had looked with favour and longing, and though I knew it was only because the truth was hidden from him, yet I was glad of what I had, as a winter bird is, that will come to your hand for a little crumb, though in plenteous times she would but mock you from the topmost boughs.
I took my crumb, and behold! it was the Lord’s Supper.
The character of Kester is something of a masterpiece as well – he’s proud and fierce like a Gothic hero, but he’s also open and kind … we never doubt that he’ll look past Prue’s disfigurement if given half a chance, and when he finally does (and saves her life in the bargain), readers will be strongly tempted to weep and cheer. Webb’s prose style soars and dips according to the mood of each scene, but readers who have followed poor valiant Prue’s trials from the beginning will shiver at the significance of the book’s magnificent, plainly-worded final line, as Prue and Kester ride off to their life together:
“No more sad talk! I’ve chosen my bit of Paradise. ‘Tis on your breast, my dear acquaintance!”
And when he’d said those words, he bent his comely head and kissed me full upon the mouth.
A very nice new Penguin Classics edition of the book would begin to address the problem of its comparative neglect (hint, hint). And in the meantime, you’re all strongly urged to go out and find a copy and soak up its lyricism to the last line. I strongly suspect that all novels are ‘regional’ novels, but even if I’m wrong, there’s no denying brilliance, regardless of its home address.
July 12th, 2011
Our book today is Anthony Trollope’s 1880 autumnal masterpiece, The Duke’s Children, and unless I’m mistaken, it marks Trollope’s first appearance here on Stevereads. This is decidedly strange, since a) reading Trollope has brought me so much enjoyment over the years, and b) virtually all of my friends and acquaintances reflexively assume that Trollope is the only fiction I ever read. A) isn’t really all that strange, however, since there are ever so many books I love that haven’t yet made their appearance here (one by a certain Dutchman comes to mind…), but B) is flat-out aliens-from-hyperspace strange in every way, and it’s always been so. It mystifies me: to the best of my knowledge, I read more contemporary fiction than anybody else I know, and more to the point, I’ve been reading contemporary fiction longer than anybody I know – dutifully keeping up with the ‘masters’ of the day, industriously searching out the new tyros and sifting through their effulgences for gems that sparkle, remembering their worth long after they and their heirs have lapsed out of print and out of life. How many of those same friends and acquaintances have received arm-loads of such forgotten gems, or else enthusiastic recommendations from the in-print shelves of bookstores? I’ve lost count, and yet every one of them, after reading and enjoying their Vance Bourjaily or their Jeremy Leven or their William Gaddis or their Pete Dexter, would then confidently assert, over port on a blustery evening, “Oh, Steve never reads anything new unless it’s some new history of Prussia or something like that; when it comes to fiction, he stopped in his tracks with Kipling and Trollope. Harrumph.” Strange.
Maybe it’s that I seem like a quintessential Trollope reader. I’d certainly hope I do. After he enumerated the machine-like quality of the process in his autobiography (which all fans of horror fiction should rush right out and buy), Trollope became to a certain degree synonymous with his novel-writing work ethic. Even in a generally harder-working age, his prolixity was astounding, and the level of his work stayed remarkably even and remarkably high. If asked to take on Trollope’s writing schedule for even one year, virtually every novelist working today would faint dead flat on the floor – and even if one or two of them could manage to run the faucet at that rate for a single year, they could only manage it by not regulating the quality of what poured out (a couple of romance authors come to mind here, and perhaps one young novelist recently dead by his own hand). But to gush at full flood and exercise craft – that seems impossible. And to do it, as Trollope did, for twenty years and more? Veritably superhuman.
He did it by eliminating agony from the process, and that’s where I’d hope I seem like a natural Trollope reader, since my hatred of all writerly affect is well-documented down at the courthouse. I scorn agony in composition – it’s a dodge, a stupid bit of mummery. Lazy writers (and oh, so many writers are lazy) affect it because immemorial use has imbued it with the semblance of legitimacy. But it isn’t legitimate. Thoughts bubble constantly, opinions and aesthetic decisions form constantly, words give shape to opinions and aesthetic decisions, words can be written at typing speed – and lo, prose. Anybody who imports agony into that process is stalling for time, probably under the delusion that posterity will be hanging on their every word. I can and often do disabuse that delusion: I am posterity, and if you waste your time hemming and hawing, I’ll move on to the next likely candidate. There is no art without product. There is no worth without work.
And Trollope demonstrates the fallacy! He wrote at top speed all morning, worked at his job all day, ate, entertained, and socialized all evening (we’re not even talking about all the travels), and then quite often wrote some more at top speed before bed – he did all that without hemming and hawing, and despite his own facile protestations to the contrary, what he produced wasn’t just an assembly-line of cobbled shoes – his novels are shot through with gold, pure immortal gold. They beguile. And the best of them are among the best the 19th century has to show for itself.
Probably most Trollope readers wouldn’t rank The Duke’s Children among the best of them. Indeed, the Victorian reading public was so cool on the book’s predecessor, The Prime Minister (which has the minor distinction of being my favorite of all Trollope’s novels), that when Trollope finished writing The Duke’s Children, he put it away for a couple of years and turned his hand to other work. The book concludes the so-called “Palliser novels,” which come to focus on a small group of figures at the apex of London social and political circles. There’s Phineas Finn, the very form of a professional politician, and there’s Mrs. Finn, the politician’s wife. And eventually there comes into his own the monolithic central figure, Plantagenet Palliser, the fabulously wealthy Duke of Omnium (the ‘Duke’ of this book’s title, obviously) – and his Duchess, Glencora Palliser. Through book after vaguely-related book (the entire 700-page contents of one volume often puckishly summarized in one sentence in the next), we follow the vicissitudes of these characters, and in The Prime Minister the Duke finally rises to the leadership of the nation, and the Duchess briefly tries to outdo all of history as a glittering society madam. By the end of that book (if, indeed, it hadn’t happened long before), we stand a little in awe of the Duke, who in his unbending, slightly dim-witted way seems to embody all the tradition of the English aristocracy going back to Edward the Confessor. And we are madly, hopelessly in love with Lady Glen, who towers over every other female character Trollope ever created (even Mrs. Proudie must retreat before her into the sheltering shallows of caricature).
So when the first chapters of The Duke’s Children began appearing in 1879, readers were thunderstruck:
No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died … It was not only that his heart was torn to pieces, but that he did not know how to look out into the world. It was as though a man should be suddenly called upon to live without hands or even arms. He was helpless, and knew himself to be helpless.
The Duchess … dead? It seemed inconceivable, and Trollope is entirely right to shock us so (in the realm of television much later, after “All in the Family” had ended, an oddly similar shock was delivered to viewing audiences when the show’s sequel, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” featured the funeral of Archie’s ‘dingbat’ wife Edith – as one stunned critic aptly put it, “Oh Edith, how could you up and die on us?”). The main action of the first half of The Duke’s Children, at least for those in the Duke’s personal orbit, is one of shocked spasm at the sudden vacuum where once so much life had been. The Duke is all but destroyed by the loss, as Trollope writes with exceptional sensitivity:
In spite of all her faults her name was so holy to him that it had never once passed his lips since her death, except in low whispers to himself, – low whispers made in the perfect, double-guarded seclusion of his own chamber. ‘Cora, Cora’ he had murmured, so that the sense of the sound and not the sound itself had come to him from his own lips.
And his troubles are only beginning. His eldest son and heir, Lord Silverbridge (at one point Trollope drolly remarks that everybody had been calling the young oaf ‘Silverbridge’ so long they’d almost forgotten his actual name), in addition to racking up astronomical racing debts, has also fallen under the amorous sway of Isabel Boncasson, a high-spirted and wealthy young American heiress. His younger son Gerald is in trouble with his school. And his daughter Mary is in love with a nearly penniless young man named Frank Tregear – and had been encouraged in the match by her mother before her death, much to the Duke’s confused mortification (readers of the earlier Palliser novels noted that the family appeared to have mislaid a daughter, since a second girl is mentioned in The Prime Minister; I have my theories as to what became of her). The workings of the novel center on these inroads being blasted into the Duke’s privileged world – he fights both encroachments with a desperate, incremental determination.Trollope’s audience can’t for an instant entertain any serious doubt as to how either plot will eventually resolve – times are changing, after all, and it would be merely perverse for a novelist like Trollope to stand in their way.
Re-reading The Duke’s Children always draws a certain sharp attention away from the trials of the Pallisers themselves and turns it toward one of the most interesting and tragic of all Trollope’s secondary characters, Lady Mabel Grex, daughter of a fading line of Yorkshire nobility and once upon a time the object of Frank Tregear’s affections. After she loses him to Mary Palliser, she becomes a similar object to Silverbridge – and she hesitates just long enough to lose him to Isabel. But the summary doesn’t do her justice: she’s a strong, intelligent, uncompromising character who’s portrayed by Trollope, with remorseless clarity, as the one left standing when the novel’s game of musical chairs is over. Her fiery exchanges with Frank Tregear are mercilessly readable:
‘It is all unmanly,’ she said, rising from her stone [at Grex, her run-down estate]; ‘you know that it is so. Friends! Do you mean to say that it would make no difference whether you were here with me or with [her elderly companion] Miss Cass?’
‘The greatest difference in the world.’
‘Because she is an old woman and I am a young one, and because in intercourse between young men and young women there is something dangerous to the women and therefore pleasant to the men.’
‘I never heard anything more unjust. You cannot think I desire anything injurious to you.’
‘I do think so.’ She was still standing and spoke now with great vehemence. ‘I do think so. You force me to throw aside the reticence I ought to keep. Would it help me in my prospects if your friend Lord Silverbridge knew that I was here?’
‘How should he know?’
‘But if he did? Do you suppose that I want to have visits paid to me of which I am afraid to speak? Would you dare to tell Lady Mary that you had been sitting alone with me on the rocks at Grex?’
‘Certainly I would.’
‘Then it would be because you have not dared to tell her certain other things which have gone before. You have sworn to her no doubt that you love her better than all the world.’
‘And you have taken the trouble to come here and tell me that, – to wound me to the core by saying so; to show me that, though I may still be sick, you have recovered, – that is if you ever suffered! Go your way and let me go mine. I do not want you.’
‘I do not want you. I know you will not help me, but you need not destroy me.’
A reader less familiar with Trollope’s methods might read the sub-plot of Mabel Grex in The Duke’s Children with the constant expectation that the author is at some point going to step in and save this noble, deserving woman from the crush of loneliness and isolation that seems to await her. But it doesn’t happen – her fate (surely one of the saddest in all of Trollope this side of Lady Mason’s in Orley Farm) is the one shadow in the blazing, happy sunlight of the novel’s double happy ending.
By the end of The Duke’s Children, the modern world with all its trappings is firmly in the ascendant, and the Duke has made what peace he can with it (indeed, it wants him – he’s recalled to power at the close of the book). The dramas of the novel derive their strength from their immediacy, and even in Trollope’s lifetime, that immediacy was thinning into sentiment and farce. The problematic vitality of the Victorian era would spawn a great deal of canned nostalgia in brief Edwardian twilight – and that nostalgia would receive its most beautiful elaboration decades later in Brideshead Revisited. A young friend of mine has brilliantly remarked that Waugh’s novel is really the last and greatest Edwardian novel – it’s the story of The Duke’s Children, only narrated by a Frank Tregear grown bitter and world-weary.
But Waugh is for another day. Today, I can’t urge you strongly enough to borrow that dusty copy of The Duke’s Children from your local library and read it. Don’t worry about it being the last in an alleged series – when its original readers first saw it, they no more remembered the specific details of The Prime Minister than you do, and they didn’t need to: say what you want about him, but Trollope knew to the last detail how to serve his readers, and sending them fetching for five previous novels would have been poor service indeed.
October 11th, 2010
Our book today is 2007’s Resistance by cutie-patootie young Welsh author Owen Sheers, and it raises long-standing questions that have no bearing on the book itself and yet have never been more pressing in publishing circles – foremost of which is: to what extent is a young author’s career aided by being a cutie-patootie, and is that extent growing, as the world slips deeper and deeper into a fin-de-siecle obsession with all things pretty (a descent led by America, of course)? Owen Sheers was a published poet and nonfiction writer before he wrote Resistance, but when the question is looks, it’s almost infinitely regressive – has he always been aided by the fact that he’s easy on the eyes?
It’s actually a question I ponder (big surprise there – I ponder lots of things!), and usually when I’m pondering it, I’m angry; usually, I’m reminded to ponder it by the appearance in bookstores of yet another wan, preening autobiography by some blow-dried pretty young thing with all the depth of an 8 by 10 glossy headshot. When societies are in decline, they focus on trivialities – and what could be more trivial than how a person looks? – and I seem to see more and more books whose existence wouldn’t have been contemplated for a second if their figureheads weren’t attractive (our latest Open Letters Bestseller autopsy is heavily populated by examples of this).
I’ll go right on pondering, and in the meantime, it’s lucky that the issue can be easily dismissed in the case of Owen Sheers. His looks might have made some of his initial judges more forgiving, but his talent, happily, is real. And his debut novel is well worth your time.
It’s most daring aspect is its premise, and it’s such a shopworn premise it could easily have scuppered the whole project, if it had been handled poorly: the Nazis, victorious in the East, have successfully repulsed the D-Day attack and launched an invasion of their own – they’ve overrun England’s coastal defenses and conquered the country. To say the least, it’s a scenario that’s been proposed before, by many, many writers less attractive than young Sheers.
The best part of the premise is its believability. The triumphalism of time has largely obscured the fact that the world very nearly saw such a premise, as reality. The Eastern problems the Nazis faced in invading Russia weren’t half as intractable as they’re made out to be by most historians – and if the Nazis had fully mobilized the forces they already had waiting in Normandy, D-Day would have been an Allied bloodbath. And Hitler’s failure to attack England when it stood alone against his Fortress Europe remains a mystery – had he made the attempt, England would have fallen with exactly the speed and muddled heroism Sheers portrays in his book.
The key to Resistance‘s success is the through-a-keyhole way he portrays that conquest. He sets his story in the Olchon, a remote valley in Wales, and he very nearly keeps the focus there throughout. One morning young Sarah wakes in her cold bedroom and instinctively reaches for the indentation her husband Tom leaves in their horsehair mattress – she isn’t reaching for him, because she expects he’s already up and about, working on their farm. But she likes to run her fingers over the still-warm indentation, tracing his presence by his absence, feeling the warmth he’s left behind. It’s a wonderfully intimate way to start the book – most young writers, eager to impress, would have started with the Luftwaffe and Winston Churchill in chains, that sort of thing.
Sarah quickly realizes what all the other women in the valley realize: their men are gone. They’ve left in the middle of the night, taken coats and meager supplies, left no notes whatsoever. The reader is told they’ve gone to join the resistance and left no word because they knew their women’s ignorance would be their best defense, but the women themselves hardly suspect this, and some of the book’s most heartbreaking passages deal with the anger and resentment that mass abandonment causes. These are hardy women, not prone to complaining, and it works on them, that they have no idea whether or not their men-folk are dead, or imprisoned – nearby or far away. Sheers does a confident job of keeping us mostly in the dark about these things too – his book is at its strongest when it’s signaling what’s missing:
The hill fort itself was now no more than a series of faint concentric rings buried beneath centuries of soil and grass. It was as subtle a feature on the ridge as the banks and dips of Tom’s body had been in the horsehair mattress of Sarah’s bed. Like Tom’s outline, the missing physical presence of the fort, its ramparts and defences, could be traced only by someone who knew the place intimately, who could still see what was no longer there in the earth echoes underfoot. A careful eye, sensitive to the landscape, could make out where a gate once stood or the foundations of huts where men had once slept and fought and loved and cooked. To the casual observer, however, there was nothing there, just a toothless gap in a long grassy jawbone of earth and a few faint humps beneath a tangled mass of bracken and gorse.
Sheers himself possesses that careful eye – one of the most rewarding things about Resistance is how undemonstratively adult it all is. The women have only one real choice: to carry on, to help each other get through the coming winter, to wait for the return of their men. Before their one radio goes silent, they get reports of the epic events happening in the rest of Britain, but at first they’re confident they themselves won’t be involved, as their matriarch, Maggie, says:
“But we’re not going to see any Germans here anyway, are we? I mean, what would they want here? The tractor? Some eggs? We’ve hardly got anything ourselves, and for once that’s a good thing, because it means we haven’t got anything for them either. They’re not going to bother coming all the way up here. Not in winter they won’t.”
But of course the Nazis do come – a small detachment led by quiet, introspective Captain Albrecht Wolfram (in a conceit only a poet would conceive, he’s descended from Wolfram von Eschenbach), who’s under orders, and personally inclined, to impose no strict martial law on the Olchon but rather to help the women keep their farms operating. Despite how well he’s delineated (Sheers is very good at setting up his characters), Captain Albrecht is the book’s only real weak spot: the tortured Nazi is too easy a staple of WWII fiction (just as the brutal thug Nazi is – simple working-stiff Nazis seem to be a thing undreamt of in most writers’ philosophies). Every note of that old refrain is struck here – he’s war-weary, he’s lonely, he’s sensitive, and he’s awestruck by the beauty of the Welsh countryside:
It was nature in all its massive certainty, from the crowds of trees running along the valley floor to the barren challenge of its hilltops. He’d never seen anywhere like it before … he’d never seen somewhere quite like the Olchon before. Somewhere so still, so bluntly beautiful and yet possessed, within that same beauty, of such a simple, threatening bareness, too.
All of this combines with the fact that he finds Sarah attractive and works a kind of change in him – the change confuses him, but that’s only because he’s presumably never read any WWII fiction:
He’d already begun to feel the faintest of turnings within himself this past week. He knew it was the valley that had engaged this turning and he wanted it to continue, this slow rotation inside him like the tumblers of a lock edging into place. If it went on for long enough, until the end of the war, then who knows? It might just unlock him altogether.
That unlocking – and its after-effects – is the most predictable thing about Resistance, but it matters oddly little: the story is so deftly presented, the characters so well-drawn, that readers won’t mind a little predictability here and there. The subtlety of this novel would do credit to a writer twice young Owen’s age – one wonders at the sheer amount of poetic compression it must have required (and one notes, rather ominously, the lack of subsequent published fiction). The natural comparison to make here is with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which deals similarly with a bit of Nazi-occupied Britain (only in that case, there’s nothing hypothetical about that occupation) and a cast of strong-willed women. That book became a gazillion best-seller beloved by all, whereas Resistance commands a smaller fan-base – despite the aforementioned Sheers rugged good looks. So the pondering continues …
October 6th, 2010
Our book today is The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi’s hugely successful 1990 debut novel about caustic, dreaming young Karim Amir, going crazy in the suburbs of 1970s London, worshiping at the altar of David Bowie and weaving through the hazards of his offbeat family life as he yearns for the mysteries of the metropolis. Karim is Indian (he’s called “nigger” and “darkie” and “wog” and all manner of other names by his less enlightened neighbors), articulate, and vaguely bisexual, and the reader is clearly meant to sympathize with him entirely as a kind of cuddly Holden Caufield.
Hanif Kureishi is almost sixty, and his craft has been steadily maturing during his whole writing life, from the meteoric gimmickry of his My Beautiful Laundrette screenplay to 2008’s rather lovely novel Something To Tell You, and it’s pretty clear from the first page of The Buddha of Suburbia that it’s going to be the one requisite coming-of-age novel every talented young author gets out of his system, usually at the start of his career. I’ve midwived many and many such novels – I know their topography like the back of my basset hound. I’ve long since learned not to count them as marks against their authors.
And yet. And yet.
Hanif Kureishi is almost sixty, but like Martin Amis and Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie and half a dozen other Thatcher-brats, he remains situated in my imagination as a young writer, all spit and no polish, all coke and no revision, ever. I don’t come by this characterization lightly; I search every new novel I find for the telltale thrum of genuine talent (and even the occasional thrill of genius, as electrifying to discover as a five dollar bill on the sidewalk). I value the exhilaration of that feeling far more than I do the comfort of my own predispositions; I haven’t disparaged Amis and Barnes and Rushdie so much in these last thirty years because they were once young (we all were, rumor has it) – I’ve disparaged them because time after time, chance after chance, they kept writing crappy novels.
(Those of you who maintain that art is subjective and novels can’t be crappy but only read that way to some readers but not others, I have almost nothing to say – novel-writing is a learned skill, like tennis or cooking, so the only way I’ll ever believe that you believe such nonsense will be for you to let a first-year med student perform your next heart bypass)(And those of you who maintain that I might think a novel crappy when it is, in fact, a work of genius, I have almost nothing to say – after the age of two, you can tell a window from a rock on the ground, and so can I)(Not that any of this rules out liking – we’re all free to like anything we please, with very little carping from me, especially considering some of the things I like)(one thing I know the parenthesis-police don’t like: parentheses! We’d better rejoin the party now!)
It was on the strength of his stagework and screenplays that Kureishi gained the groundswell that helped to make The Buddha of Suburbia such an international hit. I read it when it first came out and thought it was moderately accomplished but far too fond of its own cute self, far too willing to lunge and dive for cheap effect at the expense of form or even simple believability. In the subsequent years I always tended to like Kureishi’s work more than that of his extended peer group, and it’s hard not to feel affection for the author who gave us the screenplay to Venus, that heartbreaking late-period Peter O’Toole vehicle. So I periodically return to books like his, in the hopes (as one wag put it) that they’ll have improved in the interim.
I wish I could say I found it a radically better novel, but it’s still the same – hokey, jokey, almost entirely unconvincing where it most wants to convince. Time and again, Kureishi seems to want applause merely for showing up, a quality I signally detest in young writers (unfortunately, since it’s their signal quality). On every page, you can see words, turns of phrase, and even whole passages that are designed not to provide good reading or even to be the convincing utterances of a South London teenager but rather to produce a shiver of collusional delight in the camp-following audience who will attend the reading at which these passages will be performed:
My father, the great sage, from whose lips instructions fell like rain in Seattle, had never spoken to me about sex. When, to test his liberalism, I demanded he tell me the facts of life (which the school had already informed me of, though I continued to get the words uterus, scrotum and vulva mixed up), he murmured only, ‘You can always tell when a woman is ready for sex. Oh yes. Her ears get warm.’
I looked keenly at Helen’s ears. I even reached out and pinched one of them lightly, for scientific confirmation. Warmish!
Oh, Charlie. My heart yearned for his hot ears against my chest. But he had neither phoned since our last love-making nor bothered to turn up here. He’d been away from school, too, cutting a demo tape with his band. The pain of being without the bastard, the cold turkey I was enduring, was alleviated only by the thought that he would seek more wisdom from my father tonight. But so far there was no sign of him.
But I noticed this time some strands running through the book that hadn’t seemed so pronounced to me the last time – I’d noticed them, thirty years ago, but they’d mostly annoyed me because they’re pitched in a completely adult register, just carelessly slapped into the narrative of a boy. They still annoyed me this time through, but since I was prepared to be annoyed, I had the luxury to notice that some of these insertions are deftly done and quite funny:
But that day I was leaving the school gates with a group of boys when I saw Helen. It was a surprise because I’d barely thought of her since I was fucked by her dog, an incident with which she had become associated in my mind: Helen and dog-cock went together. Now she was standing outside my school in a black floppy hat and long green coat, waiting for another boy. Spotting me, she ran over and kissed me. I was being kissed a lot lately: I needed the affection, I can tell you. Anybody could have kissed me and I’d have kissed them right back with interest.
The heedless profusion and riffing is still here in all its misplaced glory, and reading it reminds me of all the bright young people I once knew who considered Flaubert’s Parrot to be the greatest novel ever written. Whenever I would ask those bright young people if they’d ever read any other novels, their invariable answer was ‘no,’ and whenever I pointed that this fatally handicapped them from being able to award a top spot in the genre, they called me a snob. It was a wearying circle, and re-reading Kureishi’s slangy, supersmart prose brings it all back to me:
What a confused boy he was. But from the start Eva had insisted he was talent itself, that he was beautiful and God had blown into his cock. He was Orson Welles – at least. Naturally, long knowledge of this divinity now pervaded his personality. He was proud, dismissive, elusive and selectively generous. He led others to assume that soon world-dazzling poetry would catapult from his head as it had from those of other English boys: Lennon, Jagger, Bowie. Like Andre Gide, who when young expected people to admire him for the books he would write in the future, Charlie came to love being appreciated in several high streets for his potential. But he earned this appreciation with his charm, which was often mistaken for ability. He could even charm himself, I reckon.
(Ten points to the first reader who can tell me who ‘Charlie’ was in Kureishi’s life)
I finished The Buddha of Suburbia with no sense of satisfaction one way or another – it was neither better than I expected nor quite as bad as I remembered. A promising debut – that’s what it was called endlessly in the press upon its first publication, and reading it this time around, I realized what a small phrase that is, taken all-in-all. Although it most decidedly isn’t, it seems like something just about anybody could do: pick a louche subject matter, adopt a vivid, slangy argot, forgo most of the rude mechanics of plot (you’ll say you’re doing it because those mechanics are worn out, but really you’re doing it because you know you haven’t come close to mastering them), and boom! There you are in the middle of your promising debut. It’s what follows after that really matters, and that struck me this time too: the next time I read The Buddha of Suburbia will almost certainly be the day I read Kureishi’s obituary and set about assessing his life’s work. I doubt there’ll be a need before then, but I’ve been surprised before.