Monday, February 18, 2019

a news service

1981

Fall in Canada is prize season. In 2009, The Writers’ Trust of Canada changed its pattern to be part of the parade (previously the Trust awards were announced in the spring). So let’s do some comparison-shopping.

The Writers’ Trust fiction prize short-list:
Nicole Brossard (Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood, translator) Fences in Breathing

Douglas CouplandGeneration A

Annabel Lyon The Golden Mean

Alice Munro Too Much Happiness

Andrew Steinmetz Eva’s Threepenny Theatre

 

No Atwood and no Anne Michaels for her much-hyped second novel.

 

Giller short-list

(Remember that Munro pulled her book from the Giller competition)

 

Kim Echlin The Disappeared

Annabel Lyon The Golden Mean

Linden MacIntyre The Bishop’s Man

Colin McAdam Fall

Anne Michaels The Winter Vault

 

Wow! Just one overlap, and with a first novel, Annabel Lyon’s. Atwood was on the long-list. Are you wondering how many of these will show up on the Booker long-list? I would also point out that all five novels are from the big publishers, two for Penguin (under the imprint of Hamish Hamilton), two from Random House and one from M & S.

GG short-list

 

Michael Crummey Galore

Annabel Lyon The Golden Mean

Alice Munro Too Much Happiness

Kate PullingerThe Mistress of Nothing

Deborah WillisVanishing and Other Stories

 

That makes 3 votes for Lyon and 2 for Munro..

 

We got a hint of scandal, British style, this year through Giller juror Victoria Glendinning. In a regular column she writes for The Financial Times, Glendinning says,

Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for “gutter” is “eavestrough”, which is picturesque . Everyone is wearing a “tuque”, or “toque”, which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)

There is a convention in Canada of appending to your novel a list of people who are fulsomely thanked for their support, starting with the book’s editor – unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient – plus family, friends and first readers. These last are generally fellow members of a writing group, who have contributed insightful modifications.

But has any major work of art ever been produced by committee? Readers may wonder whether a writer’s vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input, and indeed there is a striking homogeneity in the muddy middle range of novels, often about families down the generations with multiple points of view and flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.

The US, too, is a nation of immigrants, but American novelists do not bang on so about their heritage and antecedents. Brits do, but differently, less personally. As it happens, all the Man Booker shortlisted novels are set back in time.

Apart from brilliant Giller contestants, there are – as Naughtie boldly said about the Man Booker entries – “unbelievably dreadful” ones. It seems in Canada that you only have to write a novel to get grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from your provincial Arts Council, who are also thanked. Complaints were once voiced that most shortlisted Giller novels emanated from just three big-name publishers, all owned by Bertelsmann, and that virtually every winner lived in the Toronto area. Now, many of the submitted authors, and their rugged subject matter, hail from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland. That’s maybe because small publishers too are now subsidized, and they proliferate. If you want to get your novel published, be Canadian.

Interesting. Think back on previous Giller winners. Doesn’t this statement suggest that Glendinning would not have backed Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House? And doesn’t it also indicate that she does not admire the kind of writing of her fellow judge Alistair McLeod—substitute Granny’s youth in Ireland/Cape Breton for Ukraine.

 

And, of course, everyone jumps in with an opinion. Noah Richler’s response in the Globe and Mail:

Jack Rabinovitch, founder of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, cannot be pleased.

Back in March, he appointed English biographer Victoria Glendinning to his 2009 jury alongside American novelist Russell Banks and our very own Alistair MacLeod, declaring that Canadians “are in the major leagues of writing, and we can be judged internationally by major-league people.”

Now international judgment has been passed – by none other than Ms. Glendinning, who, in the Financial Times, wrote of Canada’s superfluity of “dreadful” novels and their “flashbacks to Granny’s youth in the Ukraine or wherever.”

Here he quotes the Muskoka chair paragraph.

Let me rise from my Muskoka chair and dip into the eavestrough of my own cliché-ridden mind.

You see, I’d thought, for a moment, of sending Ms. Glendinning a copy of my portrait of Canada, This is My Country, What’s Yours?, a book that may or may not be any good but that certainly displays our literary diversity. But I decided against it because I’d have set myself back 20 bucks and after living in England for half my adult life I’ve become fed up with just how tight are the English upper middle classes, reaching into their pockets to pay for the 50-cent cup of tea you put before them only because they are worried about having to pay for some more expensive round later.

None of this would be germane, of course, except that thriftiness characterizes English literature, too.

To the extent that there is any truth in generalizations, after 15 years of making programs with writers at the BBC, I can say this with some authority: The bulk of English novels, even the good ones (Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes come to mind), are written by authors parcelling out their ideas frugally, a couple for the book at hand and others reserved for the next. This is the same sad way the English make fish pie: one piece of cod mixed in with many, many potatoes.

You want fireworks? You want literature that is invested with energy because every page is written as if it was the writer’s last chance? Well, don’t turn to English novels but to the political and cultural margins of a collapsed empire that started becoming parochial more than half a century ago – and is today to the point that the word “tuque” provides Ms. Glendinning such supercilious amusement. Canadian writers, along with Indian and Australian and Irish and African and Asian ones, have been writing the most exciting and original novels in, umm – oh, whatever kind of English it is, give the woman a lexicon – for decades. In these literatures, you will find a fervour and a generosity of spirit that is sorely lacking in the English, the dearth of which explains why most do not get North Americans even when they like us.

But in truth, what really concerns me is just how bad Victoria Glendinning’s manners are – she’s Jack Rabinovitch’s guest, after all – and, no surprise, how mortified she is as a writer at the prospect of having to say thank you for that unsolicited cup of tea. Ridiculously, she argues that Canadian writers’ largesse, their habit of fulsome acknowledgments “starting with the book’s editor – unfailingly sensitive, creative and patient – plus family, friends and first readers,” attests to too much help, interference in the book, explaining the apparent homogeneity of our fiction.

“Has any major work of art ever been produced by committee?” asks Ms. Glendinning. “Readers may wonder whether a writer’s vision and voice may not get ironed out by such proactive input.”

Poor Jack. Now he has learned that international jurors, and not just Canadian ones, can be minor league. (That would be “second division,” Victoria.)

 

He may have a point about the comments being impolite to Jack, except the following day Elana Rabinvitch (Jack’s daughter and the head of publicity for the Gillers, she also works for the Griffin) responded, replete with British colloquialisms.

 

Dish it out and take it

 

I’m sure Noah Richler meant well decrying Giller juror Victoria Glendinning’s remarks about grants to Canadian writers creating some “dreadful” books (I’ll Take My Tuque, Victoria – You Keep Your Fish Pie – Sept. 24).

 

I thought her piece in the Financial Times was cheeky, funny and, dare I say, spot on. If Canadian literature wants to be recognized on the world stage, we should be able to take criticism – and, it must be said, criticism we’ve levelled at ourselves – from international writers, too. Instead of crying foul, let’s thicken this Canadian skin, shall we?

But the more interesting letter is the one that follows Elana’s:

…………

Victoria Glendinning’s broad-brush dismissal of Canadian novels as “dreadful” betrays a systemic snobbery in Britain against “colonial” writing – and against Welsh, Scottish and Irish writing, come to that.

 

But the fact that she finds CanLit homogeneous – not to mention predictably elegiac in the pastoral vein, as though Shelley had been reincarnated in Muskoka as a third McKenzie brother – makes an important point, one some of us here have been afraid to state publicly for too long.

 

CanLit suffers from homogeneity of tone, at least. This derives largely from a fondness here for rigid editorial (versus authorial) control and, more particularly, from the fact that the past four decades of Canadian fiction have been dominated by often parochial taste. Whether a changing of the editorial guard will make our fiction braver and more vibrant, or even less “safe” and intellectually correct, remains to be seen.

 

Jeffrey Miller, adjunct professor of law and literature, UWO

First, can any country publish/produce more than 100 fiction books a year and really expect them all to be top-notch award winning caliber? Not likely. And are the prizes themselves a prime contributor to the “homogeneity of tone”? You’ve got to wonder when the editors are convinced they’ve got an award winner on their hands and market it as such.

But at the heart of the Glendinning kerfluffle is a simple distinction—such comments about prizes and by jurors are common in the British press while in Canada jurors are sworn to secrecy and seem to take that oath very seriously, particularly with the press. One of the national papers tried to do a similar piece to the Guardian articles that I include at the end of each year’s report. The article never ran because Canadian jurors would not talk.

If prizes are viewed an industrial events and necessary evils can we at least have some diversity? Do we really need three major prizes all focused on conventional novels? Okay, unfair. The Booker is novels only while the three above do accept short stories. But Canadians excel at short stories (or so we’re told, over and over) and too often in prize season short story collections are overlooked for the easier-to-market novels. Why not convert one of the fiction prizes to a prize for the best short story collection?

I made that suggestion a few nights ago to one of my favourite writers. He’s young but has published several books to great acclaim. He told me he has stopped writing short stories? Why? Because his publisher has made it clear there is little interest in publishing short stories collections. “They as much as said, don’t bother.” So, it seems, unless you are Alice Munro, forget it. This situation seems to support Miller’s suggestion that editorial rather than authorial control runs much of our fiction production.

I’ve been discussing prizes with Michael Turner. Like many writers, he despises the effects prizes have had on the publishing industry:

 

Literary awards are nodes in the literary culture, a way to celebrate the culture, organize our time, bring things to a point, like a couplet does a Shakespearean sonnet. Awards are about closure, a way of being done with something, the last word, an end. Of course I don’t like it, my philosophical disposition being that things are forever unfolding. Nature’s example is the fern: it is always there, yet beneath it, its past lives.

 

Consider the Giller narrative. If it were a book, it might look like one of the Globe’s “In Paper” reviews: a wealthy man in love with his dying wife (a book reviewer with a better-than-average critical range who understood what Marian Engel was doing, not just with Bear but more formally ambitious works like Monodromos) institutes an award in her honour. Her achievement? A remaking of the Montreal Gazette Books Section. So where does he begin this award? Not in Montreal, where his wife was firmly rooted, but in hype-over-critique Toronto. It is an unfortunate disservice to this man’s wife (did he ever really know her?) that the award ends up looking like a size-6 foot in a size-9 shoe.

I appreciate the huge financial commitment of the Giller but I do wonder what Jack’s wife would think about the prize being called the Scotiabank Giller—commerce over art?

Does the reading Canadian public favour books that warm our hearts over quality writing? Ultimately, have prizes become events for publishers and the media, not for writers? What would be the alternative to the present prize structure?

Ken McGoogan believes the alternative would make everyone invisible. He sees our current condition almost a backslide to the 1960s. It is extremely hard to get any visibility for a book, unless you are an Atwood or Ondaatje. Independent bookstores are a dying breed, a place where booksellers did hand sell books. There is less review space, and McGoogan made this comment before the demise of the Globe Review of Books. And to top it off, there are a lot more writers and less grant money. The publishing industry has shifted, and now models itself on the star system. It’s ambitious and may break the tedium of a book tour, but Atwood’s fall tour promoting her book does look more like a rock tour than a book tour.

 

1981 Booker Judges: Professor Malcolm Bradbury was a novelist and also the Professor of American Studies at University of East Anglia, where he launched the World-renowned M.A. in Creative Writing course, which Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro both attended (you will notice below that McEwan is on the 1981 short list, championed by Bradbury). Brian Aldiss is primarily known as a science fiction writer—he is the vice president of the international H G Wells Society. Joan Bakewell, journalist and television presenter. According to Penguin, Samuel Hynes “has had both military and academic careers. He was a Marine Pilot from 1943-1946 and 1952-1953, and is Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature Emeritus at Princeton University. His many books include his bestselling war memoir Flights of Passage.” Hermoine Lee, critic and biographer.

Muriel Spark—Loitering with IntentVPL

The appearance of this novel on the short-list, in my opinion, must be based on the reputation of Spark established by her best books in the 60s. This novel is experimental and challenges the line between real life and art, as do many of Spark’s best novels. And it has the coldness and distance I associate with Spark.

The first person narrator Fleur, now a successful writer, is remembering how her first novel came to be written. Spark spells out some of her own approaches:

“I knew I wasn’t helping the readers to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think.”

That’s certainly Spark’s approach. For readers who are interested in the process of writing this book would make an interesting read, but it’s not Spark’s best. Not by a long shot.

Ann Schlee—Rhine Journey UBC

Dust jacket: “On the surface she was the unmarried Victorian aunt, whose sparse, unfulfilled life echoed the expectations of those she drudged for. But, happily boating down the Rhine with her brother and his wife, the sight of a fellow traveler, Edward Newman, releases the hissing floodwaters of her subconscious. Dark and dangerous, they sweep Charlotte onward towards the watershed of her life.”

Category: Victorian melodrama. Suitable for a Hallmark special. Why bother?

 

D. M. Thomas The White Hotel VPL

I first started reading this novel in 1982. I made it about half way through and stopped because I was having unbearable nightmares, sexual and violent. Night after night. Twenty-five years later I can see why. Category: Sex death and Freud

The novel begins with a series of fictional letters between Freud and various others about a patient he is treating named Anna (later we learn her real name is Lisa). The next two sections are Anna’s writings of her dreams, first in poetry then in prose, the same story but much elaborated. It is sexual imagination gone wild.

Then follows the largest section of the novel, Freud’s clinical writing about Anna. In my final year of university teaching I was a member of the team teaching Language and Thought. The course had been designed for non-humanity students—in this instance co-op accounting students—to heighten their awareness of language, metaphor, etc., that exists in all written language. So we did some D. H. Lawrence short stories and a few other literary texts but the heart of the course was writing of prominence from other disciples. While the idea behind the course was sound, in practice it was a slog to teach. Facts, these students would argue, are just facts and language has nothing to do with it. But that’s another story.

One of the texts used was a case study by Freud. I’d have to do a bit of digging to get the right patient name, but it is one of Freud’s better-known studies. I remember thinking, she’s having him on. She is making up dreams to yank his chain, and she knows how to do it. The long section of The White Hotel creates the same impression as Freud explores Anna’s “sexual hysteria”, and when in the following section by Anna/Lisa she confesses that she has made things up and withheld them it acts to undermine what Thomas calls “the modern myth of psychoanalysis.” By the end of this section Anna/Lisa has married and finds herself a loved wife and happy step-mother of a young boy.

In the penultimate section everything blows up. The husband has been whisked away. Anna/Lisa (an opera singer) has been forced into poverty and is living in the slums. She and her son die with many other thousands at Babi Yar. The description of the events at Babi Yar (taken in large part from Anatoli Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar) make the sex and violence of the earlier dreams seem tame. The best that Apollinaire gives to sex and death in his erotic writings pales beside this real life event.

In the final section—and this is where I really have serious problems with the book—Anna is an immigrant at The Camp. It’s some version of the Christian heaven. But why? Why have a sentimental Christian ending, extolling the healing virtues of love at the end of such a novel. It’s a cop out.

I do think the novel is worth reading for all sorts of reasons—the sweep of writing styles, the deft handling of erotic scenes, the atmosphere created around the white hotel—but it has big problems. Startling in its day, it hasn’t held up well over time.

Molly Keane Good Behaviour VPL

In the first few pages of the brief first chapter Aroon prepares and serves her mother a lunch of quenelles in a cream sauce with a foundation of rabbit despite the insistence of the servant Rose that rabbit sickens Mummie. One bite, Mummie vomits and dies. By the end of the chapter we learn, mostly through the screaming and accusing Rose, that the household has been financially ruined, forced to leave the palatial Temple Alice for the gothic slum of Gull’s Cry. The rest of the novel examines the growing up of Aroon in an attempt to show the why of the murder.

Category: Dysfunctional family. In this instance the rotting world of the Anglo-Irish elite told through the eyes of Aroon, an unreliable narrator. Daily life revolves around hunting, fishing, and horses. Young children are punished for reading poetry when they should be training their ponies. Servants and governesses come and go. Aroon’s father manfully keeps up the illusion of his privileged position despite growing debt, while diddling everything in sight including the cook and both spinster sisters in the village. But the most important thing in this decaying world is appearance and complete suppression of emotion, the good behaviour of the title.

Two significant events alter the rhythm. The father goes to war and returns with most of one leg missing. Aroon’s beloved brother Hubert and his best friend Richard, who Aroon loves desperately, are in a car accident and Hubert dies. Richard goes to Africa to mourn. Aroon waits patiently for her beloved to return.

Aroon is too daft to recognize that Hubert is gay and that Richard is his lover. Hubert and Richard have deliberately drawn Aroon into their circle to act as a cover for their affair. Aroon is not an attractive or likeable character, either to the other characters or to the reader. The end forces you to go back to the first chapter and reread it—the whole effect is to emphasize the horror of familial power struggles. The chilling part is the more than 30 years between where the novel ends and the first chapter.

Ian McEwan The Comfort of Strangers VPL

Another chilling read, but for very different reasons. A compact book at 134 pages, full of tension. Category: Sex and death.

The city of Venice, unnamed, is an important element of the atmosphere of this novel—the maze-like streets where it’s so easy to get lost, tightly populated area that is almost claustrophobic, and the lack of cars, a throw back to another time. Colin and Mary are spending a month on holiday. Mary is divorced with two children. Colin, who is the only character described in details, is a modern Adonis. They have settled into a comfortable malaise. One night, lost enroute to a café, they run into Robert, a local with a somewhat sinister edge who takes them to a bar and after some drinking, tells them the story of his childhood, a time when obedience was essential and men where always in charge and deferred to. Robert believes that women “Whatever they might say they believe…love aggression and strength and power in men.” Later Colin and Mary meet Robert’s wife, a crippled woman confined to her second floor apartment.

The encounter with Robert and his wife reignites the sexual dynamism of Colin and Mary’s relationship. Ennui has changed to lust:

“They took to muttering in each other’s ear as they made love, stories that came from nowhere, out of the dark, stories that produced moans and giggles of hopeless abandon, that won from the spell-bound listener consent to a lifetime of subjection and humiliation. Mary muttered her intention of hiring a surgeon to amputate Colin’s arms and legs. She would keep him in a room in her house, and use him exclusively for sex, sometimes lending him out to friends. Colin invented for Mary a large, intricate machine, made of steel, painted bright red and powered by electricity; it had pistons and controls, straps and dials, and made a low hum when it switched on…Once Mary was strapped in, fitted to tubes that fed and evacuated her body, the machine would fuck her, not just for hours or weeks, but for years, on and on, for the rest of her life, till she was dead and on even after that, till Colin, or his solicitor, switched it off.”

Unlike The White Hotel, this novel isn’t mired in analysis. There is some sense of the larger context of the times through Mary’s brief mention of her involvement with the women’s lib movement. And in the end Mary is “in the mood for explanation, she was going to speak to Colin. She was going to recount Caroline’s story, as closely as she could remember it, and then she was going to explain it all to him, tell him her theory, tentative at this stage, of course, which explained how the imagination, the sexual imagination, men’s ancient dreams of hurting, and women’s of being hurt, embodied and declared a powerful single organizing principle, which distorted all relations, all truth.” But the moment passes.

It is the tight writing that makes this book—it draws you in with fine, painful details in the same way Colin and Mary are drawn in by Robert and Caroline. McEwan seems after something primal, like our grimace when we flip over a flattened toad but our keen desire to do so. But there is nothing more than the assertion that men like violence and domination and that women want to be hurt and controlled. Huh?

I was impressed by the writing, the story telling, the suffocating prose. Like a Faulkner novel you have to accept the atmosphere rather than question the details, “why would they go back to that house if they didn’t trust Robert, the dopes.” But it’showoffy, as if McEwen is exercising writing talents which he clearly has, without much worth saying.

A movie was made starring Rupert Brooke (not nearly handsome enough for the part), Natasha Richardson (of the startled doe look, as George says), Whalken (still scary, before he started doing comedy) and Helen Mirren as Caroline. Some important bits are cut. Caroline is not submissive to Robert. Colin and Mary do not smoke pot all the time. Some speeches are edited, eliminating important information about the characters. What Harold Pinter gets is an atmospheric movie that makes even less sense, in you are interested in sense, than the novel. Or as GB said after watching, “a stupid waste of time.”

Doris Lessing, The Sirian Experiments. VPL

 

Guest report from George Stanley:

 

This is the third novel in Lessing’s sci-fi pentalogy, Canopus in Argos: Archives.  It takes the form of a bureaucratic report, or memoir (which we eventually learn has been published), written by Ambien II, an administrator in the Colonial Service of the Sirian Empire (and also, a pale, skinny, blonde female being about eight feet tall and virtually immortal). There is also an Ambien I who turns up now and then, a male being of whom II states, “In our long distant early youth we had been aligned for the purpose of producing our allotted four progeny.”

 

The Sirian Empire is afflicted with boredom: “Our technological development had reached a peak and had been established long enough for us to understand the problems it must bring.  The chief one was this: there was nothing for billions upon billions of individuals to do.”  As a partial solution to this problem, Sirius engages in the colonization of other planets (in other star-systems) inhabited by less developed races.  Ambien II’s report has to do with “bio-social” experiments the Empire has run, involving “spacelifting” large numbers of inferior beings from planet to planet, to see, for example, if one group, after being placed on a very cold planet, can be acclimatized to living on another cold planet where they will be employed building agricultural stations to provide food for still another planet to feed some other transferred race. By about p. 100 the number of planets, races, projects, etc., in play has reached ten or fifteen, and the reader’s ability to keep all these balls in play begins to falter.

 

(Sirian philosophers ask themselves, “What did we need all these new colonies for?  What was their purpose?”  This becomes known as the “existential question” which the Sirian bureaucracy needs in every way to suppress.)

 

In time the action begins to focus on one planet, Rohanda (you guessed it, our own Earth).  The “bio-social” experiments Ambien II has been running here have had untoward effects, and these are worsened by interference by agents from a rival, “evil” star-system, Puttiora (as with Tolken’s Mordor, evil forces get evil-sounding names – putrid?).

 

It’s the old gnostic story, as in C. S. Lewis’s Christian sci-fi trilogy, where the earth has been invaded by an evil force against which the good gods (or star-empires) can make little headway.  The question of the nature of evil is broached, as Ambien II wonders: “Was I then to understand , , , that the beginnings of an immersion in evil must always start with something easy, paltry, seemingly unimportant.”

The races on Rohanda now develop into nations that conduct their own cruel experiments on small groups and individuals, which they record with scientific instruments.  These are described in bloody detail; they resemble actual experiments that were done on humans by the Nazis.  Ambien II is duly horrified, but she doesn’t get the point, that Sirius’s own “bio-social” experiments, despite their vast scale, and the approval they receive from Sirian society, are just as evil.

 

The gist of the novel is that Ambien II has to be brought to realize this contradiction in her thinking.  She is helped in this respect by beings from another, even more advanced star-system, Canopus (also virtually immortal – this novel covers hundreds of thousands of years, mostly before human life on earth).  The Canopeans have a kind of Buddhist or Taoist or maybe pre-Socratic philosophy: they understand that all things are governed by “Need” or “Necessity.”   They want Ambien II to come to enlightenment on her own, so every so often she meets with one of the Canopeans and they have a mostly silent conversation (which lasts just a few pages in the novel but may in the novel’s time last a hundred years, during most of which time she and the Canopean gaze into each other’s eyes, the Canopean sympathetically and Ambien II in resentful confusion.)

(The races on the subject planets are fairly long-lived too.  “What would it be like,” Ambien II muses, “to live, as these unfortunates did, not more than four hundred to eight hundred years . . . no sooner born than ready to die.”  And as well, they age: “By halfway through their lives, and sometimes even earlier, they start to show signs of decay.  This is a process that accelerates generation by generation.  They have even forgotten that this is a recent thing with them.”)

 

Soon enough the pace speeds up, and events on Rohanda become familiar.  “Here, in the Northwest fringes, in these islands, in this little space (is this an echo of John of Gaunt in Richard II?), a race is being formed even now.  It will overrun the whole world . . . The creed of this white race will be: if it is there, it belongs to us.  If I want it I must have it.  If what I see is different from myself then it must be punished or wiped out.  Anything that is not me, is primitive and bad . . .”  Ambien II takes brief notice of two world wars, the second of which “weakened, finally, the position of the white races.”

Despite its complex plotting, this novel is a real page-turner, not least because it is a rollicking space opera with grand descriptive writing, but mainly because Lessing has created in Ambien II a character whose moral sensibility, as it changes, is deeply etched in her personality.  Ambien II’s efforts in the conclusion to persuade her fellow administrators on Sirius of her reformed understanding of colonialism, and their obduracy, give the novel a Swiftian edge.  As a kicker, Lessing gives us a plot twist to this vast political struggle in the very last sentence of the novel.

 

(And Lessing is always stylish.  What could be more charming than this glimpse of Ambien II preparing to land on one of the colonized planets:  “I made as impressive a descent from the aircraft as could be devised.  Unfortunately I had no formal wear with me on this working trip, but I devised a long cloak out of some white insulation material . . . I floated to earth from the spacecraft, and saw a multitude of the poor beasts fall on their faces before me with a deep and sorrowful groan, which did touch me, I confess, accustomed as I am to the awe so easily evoked in uncivilized races.”)

 

George was really smitten by the novel. Shortly after sending me this report he emailed: I’m reading Shikasta (1979).  I suspect the 1981 nomination owed as much to this novel as to The Sirian Experiments.  There was some strong criticism made of Shikasta (I don’t want to read the criticism until after I’ve finished the novel, but I get the sense that there was a kind of moral disapproval of her (for having descended to the sci-fi genre).

The day of this message I was finding the reading very tedious. It could have, I complained to George Stanley, been 50 pages shorter. Ambien II is not very bright. George said she was a comic heroine.

Now that I’ve finished the novel I see that Lessing was after that huge expanse. And in that sense it all works, though I still think it’s long-winded. Ah, then George, again: I finished Shikasta.  This novel is a mess.  Pages and pages of boring generalized “case histories” of victims of western civ.  Pages and pages of sometimes amusing fake socialist rant and then Lessing’s own boring anticivilization rant.  And no character to bear the brunt of it like A-II.  I think Sirian Ex is a far better novel, because we have this character whose character (if not her personality) is continually engaging – it’s not only an epistolary novel but a bildungsroman – she learns!

 

Salmon Rusdie Midnight’s Children UBC

Note: I got this novel from UBC because of a long waiting list for copies at VPL.

So, here I am. The novel that won Best of Booker 25 years and also Best of Booker 40th anniversary. Can it live up to so much hype?

Kind of. Initially I got swept into the novel. Narrated by Saleem Sinai, the first section describes his heritage, though “describes” is inadequate to the sweep and language of the novel. It a verbal romp, though at times is tough going.

Saleem Sinai is born a second after midnight on the day of India’s Partition. He has demonic qualities that allow him to enter into the minds of other people. Around the age of 10 he discovers there are hundreds more like him, also born in that first hour past midnight.

It’s magic realism and is reminiscent of Sterne’s Tristam Shandy. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and particularly Grass’s The Tin Drum. What I don’t remember when reading any of those other novels is frustration with the author’s showing off, trying hard to impress the reader, and that’s the sense I got with this book. I was often lost, mostly by convoluted language that at times becomes a frenetic almost hysterical torrent.

Category: Written to bedazzle graduate students.

How, I wondered, do other people respond to this novel, so I asked.

David McFadden’s response was typical of many: I read Midnight’s Children when it first came out (1981) and loved it immensely, to distraction as they say. But now I don’t remember it at all. Some people also said, though they liked it, they were also “baffled.”

Many who liked it had reservations of varying degrees. Steven Heighton: Read it in 1988 or 89. Loved the opening hundred pp or so, in Kashmir. Felt it got a bit bloated and diffuse in the god-knows-how-many-pp that followed. Still, I could see that Rushdie was a writer of rare vitality and intelligence. I’ve also read The Satanic Verses, about which I have a similar opinion. His books fail–they’re centrifugal and ultimately fly apart at the seams, a victim of their own ambition–but they fail in fascinating & exciting ways. And, since all novels fail at some level, one could do far worse than to fail spectacularly. Another thing I’ll mention: I remember very little about his narratives and characters. What I recall are colours, moods, surging energies, & polemical riffs (like the one in Midnight’s Children about Indira Ghandi’s forced sterilization program). This is not a complaint, per se. Better a compelling polemical riff than another dull, plausible narrative arc . . .

 

Then there is a whole crew of people, for various reasons who didn’t like it, hated it, didn’t finish it…

Tony Power: Read first 100 pp or so then petered out. It has been 30 years and memory is hazy – thought it impressive and ‘major’ but kind of derivative of 100 Years of Solitude – didn’t finish – unsure why – probably not caught up by narrative (also: new baby at time, no attention span). Browsed Satanic Verses, couldn’t get any traction

Peter Quartermain: No I have not read Midnight’s Children. I couldn’t finish it, I got tired of the overwriting. I have never been able to finish a Rushdie book, but not for want of trying. The prose is so, um, smug and self-serving, Mr R loves his own mind  just a little too much, and whatever might be interesting in and about it gets, um, shall we say swamped?

Colin Browne: I regret to say I haven’t read the Rushdie. I’m told this is his “best” and when I looked into later novels by him I was sorely disappointed; well, shocked by the ghastly writing would be more like it. It reminded me a child staying on doing tricks in the living room for his parents’ friends well past bedtime. I could be grumpier about the man, but won’t.

 

Jim Ison: I’m not a Rushdie fan. Impenetrable, uninteresting. Self-consciously clever. I’ve tried about three and given up. Didn’t finish any of them.

Inability to finish the novel applies not just to Midnight’s Children but was a common comment about The Satanic Verses.

Renee Rodin: I read Midnight’s Children because my friend Barbara gave it to me because it’s all about August 15, the time of partition between India and Pakistan (a terrible mistake for some) and because August 15 is also my birthday. I loved it but that was a while ago. I also read Shame which I thought was his best novel. But can’t remember others I read. Tried but couldn’t read Satanic Verses.

George Bowering did finish The Satanic Verses but that might have more to do with his similar insistence of cleaning up his plate—basic depression mentality I call it. Oh, it was all right for about the first 250 pages, but then on and on and on it went. With your Borges, for example, you get the gift of succinctness. It’s not that I wanted to declare a Fatwah. In fact, I could not see why all those bearded men wanted the author killed. I mean, come on. But I wish that Rushdie’s editor would put a page limit on him. He’s interesting, but not as interesting as he thinks he is.

There’s a fence-sitter category of response—those who liked it, see the influence of the novel but…

Timothy Taylor:

I thought it was a gorgeous novel. I mean that as opposed to beautiful. It’s a big shaggy thing, undisciplined and gaudy, sprawling, rioting. I read reviews afterwards that thought it was overwritten and could have been half as long. I think those reviews are probably right. But it was an awe-inspiring thing to read for me at the time. Having said all that, it’s not a book I’d read again.

 

I thought it would be interesting to get an opinion of the novel from a fellow Booker winner so I asked Michael Ondaatje. “Changed English,” he replied. Hmm. A fence sitter, I sighed. So I gave Mike a little poke, quibbled, said his response might be accurate but that it applied to the influence of the novel and wasn’t an opinion—does he think the novel is a masterpiece, derivative or somewhere in between. “Don’t know,” replied that sly trout.

The Great Writer/Great Book category.

Robert Priest:

I have read midnight’s children. It’s my favorite Salman Rushdie book and I’ve read about six. Even so it’s a bit long.  But it’s gorgeously written, and his portrait of India and its people and the politics disturb and stay with the reader like good art should. The other Rushdie books I’ve read vary in quality. Shame is deeply flawed but memorable anyway. Shalaminsar is probably the best structured of all novels but still not as good as MC — not close. There is one excellent story in East West. Satanic Verses like all his books is highly readable. One section is more than usually influenced by Marquez. But it is a very good read, probably my second favorite. I haven’t read the Moore’s last sigh. Overall I do think he is A wonderful writer– I mean wonderful in the sense of the imagination at work throughout.

 

Finally, and for those who don’t remember the Rusdie novels they have read, the thorough and erudite Aaron Peck:

I think Midnight’s Children is one of his more successful novels.

 

I have read most of his work, and of the novels except the most recent, which I couldn’t get through, and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which I never got around to. His novels have been consistently bad-to-mediocre, with some exceptions (the first chapter of Fury, for example), since The Moor’s Last Sigh.

 

Grimus — an interesting, somewhat odd, science fiction story.

 

Midnight’s Children — historically inaccurate, wildly entertaining, brilliant prose.

 

Shame — ultimately unsuccessful for the way it deals with the theme of shame. I wonder, too, he isn’t guilty of a bit of self-Orientalizing here. That said, again, a very well told story with brilliant prose.

 

Jaguar Smile — his nonfiction book about Ecuador, one of his best. Nonfiction suits him well. There is less artifice, less style trumping honesty, more directness.

 

Satanic Verses — another of my favourites. I think this book only makes sense to apostates (I was raised a Baha’i, so I really don’t know how well it could resonate, with people coming from Christian backgrounds — the meat of the book is so particular to understanding what is not supposed to be said, and how it is not supposed to be said, within certain cultures and religions — for him, specifically, Islam; for me it also resonated). I found the way the book blasphemed to be riveting. Also, I think for a book written in the mid-to-late eighties the way it explored the links between fundamentalism and terrorism is way ahead of its time, or rather of its time. It just took most of the world — and the WTC atrocity — to recognize this. The Blakean themes were of interest to me as well. And, finally, I think, it is his most successful example of Rushdie’s use of magical realism. I read the whole book in under two days; I couldn’t put it down.

 

The Moor’s Last Sigh — Another well-plotted, highly stylized book. I couldn’t put it down. This book marks the end of a phase in his work when he is writing books that feel a part of their moment.

 

Fury — the first chapter of this book is among my favourite moments in his oeuvre. Pitch perfect. After that, the book falls apart. It feels as if he is writing about New York with only the help of a Fodor’s guide. Profoundly unbelievable depiction of the city, profoundly unbelievable premise and plot. The theme — fury or irascibility — drops off. The book is unfocused and resolves terribly — no inexcusably. A moment when the unbelievability of his magical realism is applied to a story without the magic. This continues through the next few books.

 

Shamlimar the Clown — very readable. Again had some good moments, but ultimately was unbelievable. Fury was the first example of trend — it feels like Rushdie from now on is trying to make statements about the contemporary world but has lost touch with it. So they come off as hackneyed.

 

Enchantress. Couldn’t finish it. Found it preposterous. Unreadable. Should give it another try.

 

I did find an edge to some of the writing that made me uncomfortable—“Oh, look what I can do.” Showing off. I’ve never felt that way reading Marquez. So I was particularly intrigued by Timothy Taylor’s comments about the many other Rushie novels he has read: None of them come anywhere close to Midnight’s Children in concept or delivery. And I was embarrassed for Rushdie by both Fury and Shalimar. Fury is a very bad book, acutely self-aware: vain and insecure, lacking insight.

Insecure?

Yes, says Timothy: What needs to be said about Rushdie is that he’s incredibly insecure for a man his age. Midnight’s Children might be the one book where this DOESN’T come through, because it is young and full of itself and bold. But the insecurity swamps the later writing. The presence of Padma Lakshmi in Fury was just unbelievable: painful, wince-inducing.

 

If I ruled the world and also got to hand out Best of Bookers awards I would not give the award to this novel.

 

1981 Hermione Lee

Salman Rushdie has won the Booker of Bookers and the Best of all Bookers, with his lastingly dazzling, deep and splendid novel, now a classic of world literature, Midnight’s Children. But over a quarter of a century ago, when I was one of the judges who gave him the prize, his book was by no means an easy winner. Not many people had heard of Rushdie, unless they’d read a weird piece of science fiction called Grimus or seen the stunning extracts from the new novel in Granta. Our panel of judges (Samuel Hynes, Joan Bakewell, Brian Aldiss and me, with Malcolm Bradbury as chair) were pulling in different ways. We were reading many writers with more established reputations, and much more experience, than Rushdie – such as Muriel Spark. (To my lasting regret, we overlooked one of Nadine Gordimer’s best novels, July’s People.) Brian Aldiss was especially keen on Doris Lessing’s “space fiction” The Sirian Experiments, Malcolm on Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

We all jumped at the late arrival of the almost forgotten Anglo-Irish writer Molly Keane, the short-listing of whose wicked and eccentric novel Good Behaviour gained her a devoted new following. But our final discussion was painfully split between Midnight’s Children and The White Hotel, DM Thomas’s psychoanalytical erotic novel, centring on the massacre at Babi Yar, which made a strong impression on me at the time but now, looking back, seems to me sensationalist and exploitative. Sam Hynes, Joan Bakewell and I were firmly on the side of Rushdie; Brian Aldiss was passionately keen on Thomas, and so was Malcolm Bradbury, who tried at the very end of the discussion to argue that the chair should have a casting, and over-ruling vote. This was not allowed, Rushdie won by 3 votes to 2, and Brian Aldiss (whose intensity impressed me) left the room with tears in his eyes. When the 1981 prize was announced, a mighty career was launched. It would have taken off anyway, but it was helped by the prize. Chairing the prize 25 years on, I felt happy to be helping on Kiran Desai, a literary descendant of Rushdie’s.

 

7981 words, October 18, 2010

Jean Baird

Jean Baird

Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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