May Reading

May Reading

Territorial Rights – Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark is one of my favourite writers. She writes with such humour and  razor-sharp wit, and her books are full of delights. But Spark’s novels are more than just delightfully witty social comedies in the vein of Nancy Mitford or Barbra Pym, there is an unsettling darkness at the core of many of her novels. In Memento Mori (which is a good place to start, incidentally) one character says of another, who has just died “She always was a bitch,” as though, the narrator adds, “her death were the ultimate proof of it”. She can be a difficult writer too, as there is a certain iciness to her attitude towards her characters – I’ve read her style described as being like a scathingly witty judge summing up a case – which I can see being a little off-putting.  At her very best, she is a genius who does things in her fiction that nobody else can do. Territorial Rights is unfortunately not her best.

The story of Robert, an art history student, studying in Venice who quickly becomes involved in all manner of plots and intrigues. As ever with Muriel Spark, the cast of characters are vividly and humorously drawn. We have Lina, the Bulgarian refugee with a habit of keeping a small stove hidden in her skirts (her landlord doesn’t allow cooking); Robert’s father, a retired Headteacher in Venice with his mistress; Countess de Winter, the English widow with a sideline in private investigating; and a pair of sinisterly eccentric twins who own the pensione which is central to the plot.  There are also the usual Spark one-liners (‘It may sound farfetched to you, Anthea, but here everything is stark realism. This is Italy.’) and the plot is as odd as you would expect. However it didn’t quite come together to achieve a satisfying novel. One for existing fans of her work, but for those new to her, I’d recommend The Driver’s Seat, Memento Mori and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. 

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth

I’ve avoided Philip Roth out of a vague sense that I wouldn’t enjoy his writing – the allegations of misogyny, the idea that he was writing about the human condition through a straight, male lens (which of course is true of his work, but I thought that it had nothing to say to me as a gay men. This is of course really stupid and a complete failure of ‘Being a good reader 101‘ – since when do I need to relate directly to the characters in a book to get something from it?). I also thought for a long time that I didn’t like American writers, which is one of those deeply held beliefs you have which you can’t for the life of you trace back to anything specific.  I read American Pastoral a few months ago and realized that I was being silly and he was as brilliant as you all said. 

I’m thinking of writing a full-length review of the Zuckerman Trilogy + Epilogue so I won’t go into much detail here, but suffice to say this is a great novel. It’s funny, has a compelling narrative, and not a word is out of place. 

Madame de – Louise de Vilmorin (trans. Duff Cooper)

This is a slim little novella (or a long-ish short story – only 69 pages in the diminutive Pushkin Collection) from the ever-excellent Pushkin Press. Madame de sells a treasured pair of diamond earrings to satisfy a debt, and the earrings change hands a number of times (the family jeweler sells them back to Monsieur de three times, which I think makes him the most sensible character in the book) and leave exposed a trial of deceit and heartbreak. This is a psychological melodrama which reminded me at times of an insubstantial version of Stefan Zweig. An elegantly written story, but ultimately fairly inconsequential.

Love – Angela Carter

Angela Carter is another of my favourites. As with Spark, there is humour and darkness but Angela Carter’s writing is worlds apart; it has a raw sensuality to it that you don’t find in Muriel Spark’s icy prose.

I remember loving this after I finished, but looking back at it now, I find I don’t have much to say about it (almost definitely my own fault for reading too fast and not taking notes). Despite being short (just over 100 pages) this seems like the sort of book that would benefit from a closer reading to pick out some of the subtleties. 

Love explores the strange, destructive relationship between Annabel, her husband husband, Lee, and his brother, Buzz. As with all of her writing, this has a touch of the dark twisted fairy tale to it. In the opening scene, for instance, Annabel, is confronted by both the sun and the moon appearing in the sky at the same time and finding this duality unbearable, flings herself under a bush until night falls completely. The central trio only get stranger and more destructive as the story progresses, and the usual Angela Carter stalwarts of sex and death are present. Not the best introduction to her work, but throughly recommended for fans (it seems to be one of her lesser read novels)

Sworn Virgin – Elvira Dones (trans. Clarissa Botsford)

The ‘sworn virgins’ are an Albanian cultural practice wherein women take a vow of chastity and live as men, gaining all of the rights men enjoy in the deeply ingrained patriarchy of the northern Albanian society under the Kanun They can wear men’s clothes, smoke and drink, vote, inherit property, and generally act as the head of a household.  Elvira Dones made a documentary about the sworn virgins in 2007 and  published her novel in Italian in the same year, but it has only now been published in English by the brilliant & Other Stories.

I’ve been looking forward to this since & Other Stories announced they were publishing it , and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting and I came away slightly disappointed. 

Sworn Virgin follows Hana/Mark, a sworn virgin who leaves her village for America, where her cousin now lives, as she struggles to adjust to life in America and life as a woman. She faces all of the expected struggles of a new immigrant – finding a job, learning the language – along with the specific  challenges of adjusting to her womanhood after a decade living as a man. Interspersed with the American sections are flashbacks to Hana/Mark in Albania both before and during her time as a sworn virgin. In these sections, Dones creates a convincing portrait of a young woman struggling against the confines of a deeply patriarchal society, and finding herself torn between her duties to her family and the desire to break free and get an education. The America sections lack colour in contrast to the flashbacks and at times veer into a fairly standard ‘immigrant adjusting to America’ narrative.

 The book falls short is in how it explores Hana’s feelings towards her time as Mark. We see very little of Hana/Mark during her time as Mark and we are not given insight into Hana’s feeling towards her own gender identity in any real depth. While there are signs that Hana/Mark is uneasy with the male persona (‘that man was only a carapace’),the narration switches between ‘he’ and ‘she’, suggesting there is a degree of complexity to Hana/Mark’s gender. Despite tantalising mentions of a diary Hana kept during her time as Mark, we never get to see into these pages and much of her inner life remains hidden to us. This is compounded by Hana being a very reserved character and the narrative not delving deeply into her thoughts. I was expecting more about Hana’s attitude to her own gender identity, and while it’s perhaps wrong to criticise a book for not doing something it was never trying to do, it seems like a missed opportunity not to explore these issues.

Despite those misgivings, this is a compelling, well-written (and translated) novel. Ultimately it is a more an interesting chronicle of a obscure cultural practice than it is an exploration of gender identity. 

Ripley Under Ground – Patricia Highsmith

I don’t have much to say about this one, honestly. it lacks the magic of the first Ripley book in some imperceptible way. As a thriller, technically very proficient, but I wasn’t gripped as I was with the first Ripley novel. Nevertheless, The Talented Mr Ripley and Carol have given me enough faith in Patricia Highsmith’s talents to keep working through the Ripley novels. 

Lost for Words – Edward St Aubyn

Such a disappointment. The author of the Melrose novels (which you should absolutely read, by the way) writing a biting satire of the literary establishment seemed like a perfect combination, but this was just not very good. 

Its root problem is that the satire just does not work. Satire needs to keep some link of plausibility  with its subject, and here the satire is much too broadly drawn to be effective. One of the novels shortlisted for the Elysian Prize is ‘wot u starin at‘, an Irvine Welsh pastiche of Glasgow drug users (‘Death Boy’s troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was in his cock’), is such an obviously absurd book that it would never possibly be even longlisted for the Booker, let alone be a serious contender to win. This sort of straw man satire pervades the book and it results in something that just is not funny. There are moments of humour certainly  but the cumulative effect is cruel and bitter, like the sad, loud drunk at a party you try your best to ignore.

Another issue is that the narrative voice veers wildly. At times it seems that in  the sections dealing with each of the judges are almost written in their voice, or in a style befitting their ‘literariness’. So the Penny Feathers (works for the Foreign Office, writes terrible spy novels, obvious stand-in for Stella ‘readability’ Rimmington) sections are simplistic, while the Vanessa sections have some of the best sentences in the book. It’s a kind of free indirect speech designed to mock certain characters, which is hardly a new trick, but it is used so erratically that it makes the book feel half-finished. 

Ultimately this feels like a book that was dashed off quickly in anger which should have stayed safely tucked away in a drawer. 

Adam Mars-Jones review in the LRB is excellent and sets out the problems with Lost for Words far more eloquently than I can manage. 

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves – Stephen Grosz

I picked this up after a lot of buzz on twitter and a recommendation from the reliable John Self, who included it in his books of the year in 2013. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Maybe i’m just too cynical but I found it awfully trite and formulaic. Reading it in one big chunk was perhaps a mistake, as that only emphasised the similarities between the stores. 



Filed under & Other Stories, Angela Carter, Books, Edward St Aubyn, Elvira Dones, Monthly Round-ups, Muriel Spark, Patricia Highsmith, Philip Roth, Pushkin Press, Stephen Grosz

3 responses to “May Reading

  1. I have been wanting to read Roth’s American Pastoral. It was recommended to me by someone I do not respect. What makes the book brilliant? The writing itself or the story/characters? Thanks!!

    • Well, the writing is wonderful, it’s generally regarded Roth at the height of his powers, i think. It’s certainly not one of those Great Novels with no plot, indeed there’s quite a lot of plot, but it tends very discursive in its style, which may not be to everyone’s tastes.

  2. Thanks! I plan to buy it this weekend!

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