Books I had to read and mostly didn’t like, Part 2

Klaus and other stories by Allan Massie

Klaus is a novella and collection of stories that span the entirety of Massie’s writing life. Though the stories are solidly composed, none are thematically or formally challenging, and for the most part feel slight- the kind of story one might write in response to a commission. The onus thus falls on the novella (which gives the volume its title) to impress. The ambition of Klaus is certainly praiseworthy- an attempt to relate the last days of Thomas Mann’s son Klaus, a novelist and political activist who ends up committing suicide after the war. The mode of narration slips between free-indirect and straight third person, in the course of which much of Klaus’s life is presented- his relations with his father, his sexual life, his opposition to the Nazis. Given the richness of this subject matter, it is all the more disappointing that the novel fails to provide a compelling portrait of the author. This can be attributed to two main failings. The first stems from Massie’s preface to the collection, which sketches the biographical details of Klaus Mann’s life and how Massie came to be interested in him. There are several cogent reasons why few novelists write prefaces to their own novels (the exceptions being when the novel is being re-issued some time after its initial publication). Firstly, it suggests that the novel cannot speak for itself (which is almost a vote of no-confidence in the novel, or perhaps, its reader). The second, perhaps more serious reason, is that it can easily diminish the reader’s curiosity about the forthcoming narrative. With a narrative in which the reader knows virtually everything that is going to happen, the burden borne by the prose, and the ideas it contains, is bound to be far greater.

Unfortunately, the second great failing of ‘Klaus’ is that it is poorly written. Despite the promises on the back cover regarding Massie’s ‘subtle prose’ and ‘dense and highly effective style’, the writing is leaden and possess a number of  stylistic tics, such as as the overuse of points of ellipsis and the continued recourse to rhetorical questions (the prose is also not helped by the obvious lack of care with which the book was proofed and typeset- there are numerous errors of punctuation throughout). The imagery for the most part lacks subtlety and fails to resonate.

What would he say now? What advice would he give?

(Klaus ordered a pastis and wondered as he poured water in and watched the liquid turn cloudy…) (p.29)

The novel’s frequent attempts at pathos are similarly unsuccessful.

Klaus thought he was looking into that cupboard under the stairs where unwanted memories are hidden away, but can’t be forgotten (p.55)

Why it should be a cupboard under the stairs- a place where brooms and vacuum cleaners are kept -that is equated with painful recollections is unclear (perhaps Massie felt that a basement or attic was too obvious).

The reader is seldom allowed to draw their own conclusions about Klaus’s mental state in his last days- instead Massie resorts to frequent passages of heavy exposition, where we are continually told (either by the omniscient narrator, or by Klaus) about some aspect of his character. On page 11 alone we are informed that, ‘Humiliation, he had known that for a long time… the humiliation of lovelessness, the knowledge that he could never find what he sought because those to whom he was most attracted could not respond in kind’. A few paragraphs later we are told that ‘Klaus had known the temptation of that abyss too well for too long not to tell it truly’. In addition to the heavy-handed way in which this information is imparted, there is also the fact that the preface has rendered the majority of such information redundant. Though Massie tells us a lot about the life of Klaus Mann, he rarely manages to show us anything vital.

The Island by R.J. Price

The Island is a novella that describes the journey of a father and daughter to the zoo, one which becomes increasingly fraught as it becomes apparent that some kind of disaster has occurred. During the trip we are shown the childhood and marriage of the father in flashback, the latter of which seems unsatisfactory, probably doomed. However, it is the portrayal of the relationship between father and daughter, their insistently private world of shared references, in-jokes, and affectionate point-scoring that the novella is at its most successful. Unfortunately, their well-rendered relationship is embedded in a narrative that lacks any real urgency- the catastrophe is so vague and sporadic a presence that father and daughter never feel endangered, not even emotionally. It is also difficult to understand the father’s determination to reach the zoo- it is not presented as a place of safety, or hope, and given the father’s feeling for his daughter, there is no apparent reason for him to take her there. As a result, the climax of the book feels melodramatic, too eager for significance.

The same flaw inhabits much of the book’s language. There is always a compromise between what a character might plausibly think or say, and what an actual person would, but Price has the father say to his wife, who has just had a serious operation, in explanation of why he wrote verse in her get-well card,

‘It’s so much easier to say it in poetry, because poetry has silences you can fill, if you want to.’

This portentous tone occurs throughout the novella. When the father is filling in a lottery slip, he sees it as

a burlesque of a chained book in a cathedral library. Certainly, the flimsy plastic pen was likely to be worth more than the religious text of the lottery slip.

Having strained this metaphor, Price immediately has the father overcome by moral reservations about using his daughter’s birth date as a source of lottery numbers.

But he hated the thought of using numbers that had a human resonance- his own daughter, for heaven’s sake. The lottery was a dehumaniser, and people-as-numbers only colluded with its statistical hopelessness.

Even if the reader is able to believe that a character thinks like this, it is likely to be injurious to their interest in them.

Though many novels by poets (R.J. Price is better known as Richard Price, a poet) suffer from over-wrought sentences, which though sometimes elegant, cumulatively make for 0verly-effortful reading, there are some remarkably awkward sentences in what is a very short book.

His precognitive senses registered disquiet without his intelligence being able to articulate just what the problem was.

The strength of her vulnerability- the tiny intricate bonds of their life together, multitudinous, delicate each in themselves, the singe chord that kept a structure like the Erskine Bridge suspended gracefully in air!

In conclusion, this is a slight, oddly insubstantial novella, despite the many potential sources of emotion and interest that it contains.

One More Stop by Lois Walden

I am unsure what genre this novel belongs in- probably inspirational chick-lit, if such a category exists. I am far more certain that I do not fall into the intended readership of this novel, which I found baffling, foolish, trite and banal. The novel focuses on the consideraby-larger-than-life character of of Loli Greene, a drama teacher, who is search of closure/resolution/coming to turns with the demons of her past (insert your own talk show cliche), who meets a variety of obstacles which she naturally overcomes. This is one of the major flaws in the narrative: many seemingly insoluble problems are easily resolved. Her troubled relationship with her father is one such example- though she has been wishing him dead, when he calls her, she phones him back, then immediately forgives him because he sounds terrrible. Loli’s involvement in a cult in the wake of her mother’s death also ends with no real conclusion. In some kinds of novels this wouldn’t matter- but given the simple models of psychological causation that books like these are supposed to offer (X is a bully because his father beat him, Y takes drugs because her husband doesn’t love her) Walden isn’t even offering her readers a plausible series of emotional transformations, just a set of platitudes e.g. ‘When you change your life, some who love you will fall to their knees, begging you to reconsider their plans’; ‘There are times in your life when you must let the dearest parts of yourself slip through your fingers like sand’.

As for the prose, it swerves from sentimental (‘She lived inside her tears. My heart still swims in her sorrow’) to grandiloquent  (‘I prefer the slow dance. This is not completely true. Depends… Age, place time. History… It is always about history.’).

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light is a fictionalised version of the relationship between the playwright John Synge and his leading lady, Molly Allgood. The novel begins in 1952, long after Synge is dead, when Molly is living in London in virtual destitution. The novel always stays focussed on her, whether it is following her through London, or through various episodes during her time with Synge. Though this is doubtless supposed to increase our attatchment to her, the problem is that in both the past and the novel’s present there is not enough narrative tension to sustain interest in her thoughts and memories. After the first chapter, all the novel does is put meat on the bones of what we already know. There is also an issue with voice- the perspective shifts between second and third for no obvious reason, and even her internal monologue moves between high and low registers.

The aurora borealis is their national anthem, for they are able to hear colours, touch sounds. Their flicker-lit eyes sees no blitzes, no firestorms. Their language needs no word for torture. (37-38)

Now look at that man and he gawping at me strernish, like the seam of his bollocks is hand stitched (61)

What might explain these shifts of person and register is the ghost of Synge that seems to literally haunt her present. He is present in a derelict flat opposite hers, and later in a cinema. If more were made of this in the narrative, one might be able to argue that the narration of the book is shared, perhaps contested, between Molly and Synge (hence the shifts between second person and a sort of free indirect third person), or alternately, that these different registers reflect Molly’s affectations of gentility whilst being obviously destitute. If it seems that I am working hard to excuse what are most likely failings of the novel, it is because the novel is so well-written. One wants this to count for something, whilst knowing it is not sufficient.

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer

This collection of stories covers the entirety of Gordimer’s writing life, and as such cannot help but raise the question of why these particular stories were selected. Should we take these to be the ‘best’ stories, or at least the most representative, of her ouevre? The former arguably places more pressure on the work to impress; the latter perhaps allows for the inclusion of the occassional good, but not excellent, story in the name of variety. In terms of the range of the stories, most of the early work takes place in South Africa or surrounding countries, and primarily deals with the complexities and moral ambiguities of people living under apartheid, whilst the latter stories, written in the 1980s and after, are more geographically (and thematically) diffuse.  At their best, the early stories go beyond the simple oppositions of black and white, and show how even tolerance and apparent open-mindedness can be problematic. In ‘Which New Era Would That Be?”, Jake bemoans ‘the white women… who persisted in regarding themselves as your equal’ (52)

There was no escaping their understanding. They even insisted on feeling the resentment you must feel at their identifying themselves with your feelings… (53)

‘Six Feet of the Country’ and ‘The Smell of Death and Flowers’ contain similar moments where the veener of white characters’ sympathies are betrayed, often with an offhand expression. There is a merciless quality to Gordimer’s writing, one that often denies the characters a rich, inner life, and instead focuses on what follows from their actions. There are few, if any, white characters in the stories set in South Africa who are not shown to be complicit in the workings of apartheid, at least to some degree. In ‘A Soldier’s Embrace’ a lawyer who has represented black clients in cases against the state is shown to be motivated as much by self-interest and vanity. Though he and his wife are ‘rather proud of their friendship’ with a dissident, and claim to have been against the regime, neither have a problem with retaining a servant. After the old regime falls, they claim to have no intentions of leaving, but in the end all it takes the offer of another job elsewhere- in a different repressive regime in which they will again have both an affluent lifestyle whilst feeling themselves morally superior. But there also stories, like ‘The Bridegroom’ and ‘Town and Country Lovers’ that explore more intimate territory. Though these display the same alertness to the inequalities present in people’s relationshhips under apartheid, they also offer occassional moments of personal respite from that system. Even the abolition of apartheid is shown to be problematic. In ‘At the Rendevous of Victory’, the leader of the guerilla forces that made the overthrow of the regime possible becomes a marginalised figure the new leaders are embarassed of.

The later stories are more uneven- ‘Why haven’t you written?’ is a compelling story of a man stuck in snow-bound Mid-Western town during the winter, who drunkenly writes to his distant wife to tell her about an affair he’s having. Gordimer impressively shows him vacillating between wanting it to arrive, and wishing that it would not. On the other hand, ‘Letter from his Father’, a fictional evocation of Franz Kafka’s father, who writes reproachfully to his son from heaven, is a cliched, cringeworthy effort.

Of all the books I reviewed for the prize, this is the only one I can recommend. Though some of the other novels contained good writing, or effective scenes, what all of them lacked was the sense that they mattered, or even had much to say. Ultimately, however, it is not the undoubted gravity of Gordimer’s themes that impresses, but the precision, and subtlety with which she shows how such issues are realised in daily life.

2 responses

  1. About your comment on where Klaus keeps his unwanted memories:

    Klaus thought he was looking into that cupboard under the stairs where unwanted memories are hidden away, but can’t be forgotten

    Different parts of the house have different connotations – attics are for mad people, basements for dangerous people. Maybe the cupboard under the stairs is for more domestic or childish issues.

    • Maybe. It just sounds very banal. I also think the metaphor is getting convoluted- An unwanted memory that also can’t be forgotten and yet gets hidden- if a memory is not forgotten, what does it mean for it to be hidden?

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