Monday, August 29, 2011

25/8/2011 “NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF” by Julian Barnes

Edinburgh, August, Festival crowds going everywhere, trams going nowhere… but the hottest tickets in town were for the Monthly Book Group’s annual discussion by the seaside. And – yes! - your indefatigable correspondent is back from the dead for a guest re-appearance.

Some things had changed from my last visit 6 months ago. Most members looked rather older, though two were youthfully displaying Kindles.… And some things had not changed, as two compared their fine Pinot Noirs while disdaining a swallae of your correspondent’s cheapissimo red, “Selected by Tesco”….

The youthful proposer had found Barnes’ book in Oxfam (better not tell the author) and bought it as he had good memories of “Arthur and George”. He liked it very much, partly because he found he had so much in common with our Julian. This started with being brought up initially in Leicester, having as parents a dominant mother and quiet father, and going on to study French literature. Like Barnes he was concerned by not having proper knowledge of his parents’ lives, he feared flying, and was troubled by memory becoming more unreliable as time passed. There was even in his family a photo of a female relation with the face scratched out, similar to the mystery Barnes writes about (but in this case the solution was known: the lady disliked the photo and had scratched it out herself, which was unfortunate as no other photo of her survived). A veritable Julian Barnes doppelganger.

Therefore he could relate very easily to the book – but could others? It was difficult to define the genre of the book – it was not a novel, a history or even an essay. It was a rambling on the theme of mortality. Barnes knew it rambled, and admitted it. Barnes’ brother, the philosopher, was the logical thinker; Julian by contrast was not a sequential writer and moved from anecdote to anecdote, pulling in much that seemed irrelevant. There was a sort of sequence – looking at all the things that might prove a consolation to the fact of death. And he failed to find any that helped.

There was a large spread of opinion about the book. One member (who indeed had first introduced the Book Group to Barnes) did not attend, reporting that he found the book both difficult and boring, and had not finished it.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was one who very much enjoyed it, and who also found he had a large amount in common with Barnes, especially through having a similar family background. (Another Julian Barnes doppelganger, indeed – a trippelganger, one might say?) He had been sufficiently enthused to start reading the book for a second time, make copious notes, and hunt down on the internet paintings eulogised by Barnes.

But the majority opinion was that of admiration – some grudging, some less so – for the cleverness of the book, mingled with substantial reservations about it. More specifically, there was admiration for the precision and concision of his language, in tandem with a chatty style. We liked the wealth of anecdotes and the breadth of ideas (from the latest scientific thinking about the nature of the brain, to quirky facts such as that your nails do not actually continue to grow after death). We liked the nimbleness of his mind, and the range of literary, artistic, and biographical reference. Some found the book funny (as in the anecdote of the man who hailed a passing hearse asking if it were free), while others found more irony, some of it rather bitter, than laugh-out-loud humour.

One major reservation for many was the length of the book, padded out with irrelevant anecdotes and repetition. “If a student gave me this,” one opined in professorial tones, “I’d tell him to cut the length by at least half ”. Related to this was the chapterless lack of structure and proper conclusion. “If you cut the book up and threw it on the floor, you couldn’t put it back in order. Nor indeed would it matter what order you read it in.” (At this point the speaker fessed up to having not bothered to read forty pages, but doubted if he had missed anything). “Barnes records” observed another, coldly putting the boot in, “that Oxford told him he did not have the right kind of mind to study philosophy. They were right. There’s enough that’s good in this to encourage me to read another Barnes’ novel, but not another rambling quasi-philosophical book like this. ”

“But”, chimed in the doppelgangers, “a sort of structure begins to emerge if you read it for the second time…”.

“And” suggested a doppelganger ally “if Barnes were here” (what did he mean? There were already two of them here) “he would say that one of his central points is that life does not follow the shapely narrative of a novel – it is random and rambling, and that’s why he is writing the book in the same way…” “???!!!” “Well, ok, maybe that is sophistry…

“So another reason is that he felt death is a big subject requiring a big book”… “yes, you often get the feeling he’s sitting at his desk wondering what on earth to write about today”… “but other writers have managed to sum up life and death in a sentence!”

Another reservation was that, in the process of resolutely knocking down every possible means of consoling himself about death, you felt that Barnes did not actually value anything in his godless world. He contrived to sound unenthusiastic about life in general, his interest in football (oh well, Leicester were doing badly then), about novel-writing, about relationships, about beauty, about the natural world, and even about his daily bottle of wine ( “sure you won’t try this cheapissimo red?” I asked a doppelganger. No, oh well…). Not for him the spiritual dimension that many still find in a godless world. It was not that we found the book depressing; it was that Barnes seemed depressed. And his endless, abstract cleverness served finally to muffle the real horror of death.

The oddest thing about the book, the most energetic, and the one that had attracted most public attention, was the autobiographical material included about his family. It had an emotional charge which suggested unresolved conflicts. You could admire the novelist’s skill he brought to the descriptions of his family, and to imagining what might be the story of his grandfather’s war. You could also admire his honesty in examining and recording his own feelings. But – really – did he have to write so bitterly about his mother? Did he need to unburden himself in this way? What was the relevance to a book about death? And why so much jocularly jealous material about his brother? It was surely significant that those of the Group most attracted to the book were those who could relate most easily to the autobiographical material.

And where was the novelist’s capacity for empathy when he thought about his family? He seemed to lack empathy at other points too – for example in the sneering account of the approach to death of the “A-type” American businessman…. Even the doppelgangers found him arrogant in referring to famous French writers as his “non-blood relations”. He excoriated his mother for a solipsistic view of the world, and then devoted reams to his own solipsistic worries about when readers would finally stop reading his books.

The discussion then moved from the book to the issues raised by it, though without provoking self-revelation on the Barnesian scale. All maintained they had no fear of death but perhaps did have of dying (but were they being honest?). First intimations of mortality (the “reveil mortel” of the book) were recorded. We noted the difference that having children made (Barnes did not have them) as fear of your death was replaced by fear that your children would pre-decease you. And perhaps the way in which people slowly lost their faculties and interests in their medically-supported old age, until their identity was the last thing they could let go of, offered a sort of consolation, a way of coming to terms with death.

So who had suffered from what Barnes records as the Stendhal Syndrome (breathlessness, overwhelmed by the power of art)? Several: overwhelmed by Verdi’s Requiem, by Michelangelo’s David, by the Iguazo Falls, ………and indeed, your indefatigable correspondent ventured, by Rooney’s overhead kick to defeat City …

(Why were they all glaring? Had the philosopher Shankly not observed that football was not a matter of life and death, but more important than that?)

The ever more youthful proposer (had he been reading Dorian Gray again?) had shifted from Oxfam to Kindle to source Barnes’ new novel “The Sense of an Ending”. He reported that, contrary to some reports, it was only loosely related to the current work – through exploring the theme that memory was identity. This was a strand of thought we had liked in the current book.

So now we had three Kindlers in the room. One had deployed the Kindle to particularly good effect in producing telling quotations at the key moment while others were struggling with folded-down corners of pages. “Ah, yes” said the Kindler “this is the ‘my clippings' feature.”

“So do they continue to grow after your death?”

Finally, the young proposer, in a first for this or surely any other Book Group, asked that his last words should be recorded now for posterity. This was just in case they were somehow missed on his deathbed. (Apparently the words are based on something a young lady had once said to him).

Reader, they are:


Monday, August 22, 2011

28/7/11 “THE GINGER TREE” by Oswald Wynd

Ginger Tree Oswald Wynd
B.U.S 16, off Dalhousie
July 28th, 2011, 8pm

Having travelled from town, we made landfall at Dalhousie at 8pm with a full complement of passengers, untroubled by storms or traffic diversions. A number of natives of strange demeanour were assembled to greet us, and so the discussion began.

This month's novel told the story of Mary MacKenzie, taken from her genteel and strict upbringing in Edinburgh to no less strict societies in Japan and China, and how the life changing event of an extra-marital liaison led to her eventual, partial integration and development in her chosen land. We learnt about Eastern attitudes, ambitions and the foretold expansionism of Japan through her personal and diplomatic relationships with a number of strong and diverse characters in the diplomatic and social sphere. Written in 1977, it was possible that some of the early 20th century foresight of Mary about Eastern progress may have been coloured by the hindsight of the author!

The host introduced the author, a fascinating character, and drew comparisons between Wynd’s life and the subject of the book. He wrote this book on the basis of his understanding of Japanese language and culture, his experiences as a child of missionary parents, and his subsequent experience as a prisoner of war. After the war, he vowed never to return, and it is interesting that his apparent antipathy to the Japanese people is not obvious in the book. Indeed, one big attraction of the book for the host was the contrast drawn between the two rigid cultural attitudes in Japan and Scotland. Given that the author was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and he vowed never to go back to Japan, why was the book so sympathetic to Japanese culture? Possibly, the passage of time had mellowed his opinion, and he recalled his happy childhood rather than his war experience.

The host suggested that, technically, the use of letters and diaries to draw out the plot was very effective. In the journals and letters, Mary was able to introduce the characters quite naturally, and develop them through the story. The author was able to get inside the female character very effectively, writing consistently and honestly. Was the style too consistent? Do we tend to alter our writing style to suit the recipient? Probably we do not. The interest was maintained by the use of these letters and journals, sometimes with significant gaps.

The character of Mary herself was very well realised: as her experience grew so her character developed maturity and confidence, from a naive young girl abroad to a confident young businesswoman. Some commented on her Scottish attitude to developing a business through solid foundations, her hard-nosed dealing with Bob in connection with the initial funding and the maintenance of her own control. Before it became fashionable, she developed a business plan. She invested in property, and she did not take the easy path. She also resisted the attempt of Peter to buy her house, recognising the value of bricks and mortar.

The group all thought the author wrote very convincingly as a woman, both in her comments on her own life, and in her observations on those around her, e.g. in describing the clothes of those she met, (Is this sexist? ed.) and of how this developed into a successful business. For example, the author described the consul's wife on page 19, and how her clothes did not bring out her best features.

The book was praised for its portrayal of Japanese society. For example, the description of Aiko emphasised the societal rigidity through the contrast of her revolt, possibly arising from long periods of isolation. Again, portraying the society in which she finds herself, she described how the housing was built to suit the conditions. She described the social strata well, and interacted successfully with the servant class. One of us maintained that although she made reference to people living in poor conditions, she did not really develop this as well. There was a section, 7.4.1910, in which she gives a vivid description of the sanctity of poverty: 'how a frugal diet be recorded in your favour in a big ledger.' However, these were philosophical and political arguments rather than a true emotional description of the impoverished state, as for example in a previous club book 'Hunger'.

There was discussion about the relationship of Mary to her two children, each separated early from their mother. In particular, it was suggested that the description of Mary's feelings at the loss of Jane was weak; should she have stronger expression of loss? Perhaps the author had not really understood the female psyche in this instance? On the other hand was this a manifestation of the practical and pragmatic Scottish heritage of Mary? Likewise, the speaker thought the affair was under-explained. Mary did not discuss the birth either. Was this due to the lack of mother-daughter relationship? Was it due to the shame of the act? Were the similarities between the two societies stronger than the differences?

Returning to the societal portrayal, the Japanese were presented as ruthless and expansionist in their dealings with both China and Russia. One suggested that the Japanese expansionism came from the divinity of the emperor, or earlier from the all powerful Shoguns. Alternatively, the expansionism was driven primarily by the need for natural resources. When talking of the Japanese and their discipline of the Chinese, Mary suggested that the Japanese were not the correct people to administer this, being too hard-hearted. It was clever how Tomo was portrayed as an airman, and we wondered what fate befell him, attacking Pearl Harbour, becoming a Kamikaze pilot? However, it was pertinent to note how, in the reunion, Kentaro's attitude changes, in asking Mary, rather than commanding Mary, if he can come to Yokohama.

The descriptions of the earthquakes, tsunamis and fire were very relevant to 2011. The frequency of natural disaster led to the stoicism of the population. Mary also anticipated the growth of the Japanese economy through imitation. One of our number had direct and possibly painful experience of this as he talked of the rise of the Japanese electronics industry on borrowed expertise. The author had hit a nerve!

The discussion turned to the plausibility of the plot. Generally we were comfortable with the idea of Mary developing from her arranged marriage, through her affair and banishment, to become a successful exile and businesswoman. Was the plot plausible? Yes! So, although, to a large extent, it was a portrayal of Japanese society through the eyes of an outsider, it was also a tale of one woman's emancipation. Japan was also portrayed as a land of opportunity. One drew parallels between Mary's establishment of a business and the career of Thomas Glover who helped found the Mitsubishi empire.

Thus far, our discussion had been more than usually focussed but we now started to digress. There was a passage of the book, p31, in which Mary transports her thoughts back to Morningside, and recalls a Sunday when all the church bells were heralding morning service. The scepticism of our camponologist was raised. Surely most churches didn't have bells then? Oh, yes they did! Oh, no they didn't! Oh yes they did! On balance we were happy to confirm the accuracy of the description.

We had concentrated on the source text, but a mini series was filmed in 1989. Not many remembered it, but those who did believed it to be rather poor. For some reason, the initial ‘contact' between Mary and her diplomat husband stuck in the mind. "Richard crept in, it was all over in 5 seconds, and he rolled over", said one. On the other hand, Kentaro was 'there for ever', according to our resident Barry Norman. Actually, your scribe thought the descriptions in the book of the first sexual contacts between Mary and Kentaro in the Western Hills were very effective. The sudden terse nature of her journal statements, "God forgive me. I went to him", "I stayed too long today", "I think Armand knows", showed vividly the conflict between her upbringing, the societal conventions and her sexual desire. This was a defining moment in the book, as it led inevitably to her final emancipation. The contrast in style between these and the other journal entries was very telling.

What about the title? What was the symbolism of the Ginger Tree? We talked of survival and an attempt to take root in a harsh, initially alien environment. Taking off her stays symbolised what: the coming liberation, her future fallen state, the 'fur coat and nae knickers' policy of the Morningside lady?

One hour and fifteen minutes in, there is a digression towards Ian McEwan's book, “Solar”; not sure why. Apparently McEwan writes slowly, satisfied with 500 words a day. An unkind critic suggested you could see the joins. I don't think this relates to The Ginger Tree; can we get back on message, as our former leader, Tony B., might have said?

There were some slightly less believable sections on prediction, e.g. on the stock exchange, the future of automobiles and flying machines. Two Americans were rumoured to have flown 20 miles. Gosh! This is post rationalising, after the event, said one. In a true diary there would be much more discussion of now unknown events. Others argued that she was entirely consistent in her knowledge of important contemporary advances.

Given the disagreement about the prescience of the significance of external events, the discussion turned to who had editorial control of the final content of the book. Was this the original text of the author, or could it have benefited from further revision? The question was not resolved.

To conclude the book was very readable. Everyone enjoyed it. One of the key properties was the writing style, in particular the very direct and factual structure and the relatively short sentences. It was not indulgent, with no flowery phrases and page- long sentences, and where descriptions were made these were short and to the point. We thanked the host for his choice.