On Missing the Beat: Naivety in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. Penguin Canada, 2016.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth remains, I think, my favourite of Smith’s novels. At least, I find it the most comic, and Autograph Man perhaps her most clever. Swing Time, despite its title, I found subtly muted, and it’s this restraint that gives the novel its power. The story of two girls who attend the same dancing class in working class north London spans decades and continents. One, the narrator, grows up to be fired after nearly ten years as the Personal Assistant of an Australian superstar; the other, Tracey, to be a chorus dancer and single mother.

The narrator’s experiences in the entourage of the entertainer Aimee take her into the world of the super-rich, globe-trotting, glitterati but deny her the chance to find the place where she truly belongs, and the novel ends on an almost Joycean note of melancholy epiphany as unemployed, childless, un-partnered, and unseen, the narrator watches from below as Tracey dances with her children on the balcony of their council flat. The narrator is looking up to the old friend on whom, if truth be told, she had rather looked down or, perhaps worse, pitied, for much of her life. Tracey has found her place, even if it is the place where she began. Her life as an adult is not that different from her own mother’s life. The narrator’s life has also brought her back to where she started, and it is from this place that she will have to begin again, to move into a new figure in the dance of life.

My use of the dance metaphor echoes Smith’s own, since she includes as an epigraph to the work the Hausa proverb: “When the music changes, so does the dance.” Dance requires specific movements, choreography. Traditional dances, whether defined as folk or ballroom dances, follow a recognised, accepted pattern, each dance having its own particular steps, shapes and so on. The dancer moves through that pattern, stepping forwards and back, side to side. Smith structures her novel into a pattern of seven parts each with several chapters. Within these sections of the work, the narrator moves backwards and forwards between her childhood and more recent past, rather as a dancer moves through the phases of a dance, progressing, regressing, changing partners, her progress interweaving with that of the other dancers. A misstep by one of the dancers disrupts the fluency of the movement, sometimes to the point that the dance must end. A dancer, too, can improvise only so far without breaking up the dance. There are expectations, defined roles.

Defining oneself and finding one’s place are usually challenging for all young people; the situation becomes more so for Tracey and the narrator when they are young because both girls are mixed-race. In outlining the difficulties of navigating the associations with and expectations of race, location, and history, Smith revisits familiar ground in Swing Time, and this novel continues her examination of living in our perhaps not so post-colonial world, especially when the results of past colonizations are indelibly ingrained within one’s skin. It is too easy for us to say the past is done with. Is it? Just how do we define colonialism? When does aid become intrusion and condescension? All these questions are raised in the novel as are questions of class and gender. Just what is sacrificed, if anything, by those who attempt to transcend the apparent limitations of both?

At heart, Swing Time is a novel about movement, change, and empowerment. The characters around the narrator move, change, reach for dreams. Some fail; some succeed. The narrator moves and observes but doesn’t always see except perhaps at the very end when she realises that despite everything her old friend Tracey has something that is lacking in her own life. While she had thought she was empowered, her dismissal by Aimee makes the narrator’s position very clear. She has stepped out of line, forgotten her place in the hierarchy of Aimee’s entourage. Her naivety allows the reader to see what the narrator herself appears to miss and allows Smith not unsympathetically to critique the various milieux in which the narrator finds herself.

I found this novel sensitive, serious, subtle. I sensed critique but no stridency, just a kind of melancholy world weariness, a kind of resigned sympathy for those of us who like the narrator observe but do not see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Not So Quiet Life: Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Chatto, 2013.

I have always thought that the changing tone of Punch in the fifties and sixties and its demise in 1992 serves as a kind of metaphor for the disappearance of the England that appreciated and gave rise to its particular kind of satire. From Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, I learnt Fitzgerald was a product of that world. Her father E. V. Knox edited the magazine in the forties, and she herself did a stint there before working for the BBC during the war. All I knew about her life previously had been the fact that she was in her sixties before she achieved the success she did with her novels.

While I own The Blue Flower, The Bookshop, and Offshore, I have yet to read The Knox Brothers or her biographies of poet Charlotte Mew or of the painter Edward Burne-Jones. At some point, I would like to read them, especially The Knox Brothers, a work about her father and uncles, one of whom was instrumental with breaking the Enigma codes and  another Monsignor Ronald Knox who was such an influence on a certain generation of Roman Catholics, especially Evelyn Waugh. The novels I have read reveal Fitzgerald to be a brilliant minimalist. Not one word is wasted. She distils atmosphere and character into a perfect vintage. Her worlds are never saccharine; her wit, sharp-edged, her judgement, highly moral. Lee’s biography reveals Fitzgerald’s work to be the result of rigorous, detailed research and complete dedication to craft.

Born Penelope Knox in 1916, Fitzgerald grew up in Hampstead, the daughter of Evoe Knox and Christina Hicks, both the children of Anglican bishops. After boarding school came Somerville College, Oxford, from which she graduated with a first-class degree. Her mother Christina died in 1935, and, while Penelope was still up at Oxford, in 1937 her widowed father married the daughter of the Ernest Shepherd, illustrator of among others A. A. Milne’s Pooh books and of The Wind in the Willows.

Given this establishment background, together with her own intelligence and wit, her wartime experience working at the BBC, her work with World Review, one might have expected a somewhat different trajectory for her life, something different from living in a south London council house, struggling to make ends meet, teaching at two different institutions, Queen’s Gate School and Westminster Tutors, marking A level scripts, and coming to terms with life with an alcoholic barrister husband who had been disbarred from Gray’s Inn. She had probably expected something slightly different herself, but one of the characteristics that Hermione Lee emphasizes about Fitzgerald is her “reticence, quietness and self-obliteration” (xvii). Lee quotes Julian Barnes description of Fitzgerald’s resemblance to “some harmless jam-making grandmother who scarcely knew her way in the world” (qtd. 415). The photographs included in the biography show Fitzgerald looking a little rumpled, a little tweedy, her hair in need of a comb, uncomfortable in the long dress required for a formal Booker prize dinner, wearing a woolly hat and duffle coat in Russia; little sign remains in these pictures of the girl described in the May 1937 issue of the Cherwell as “Our Penny from Heaven” (52). I suspect that rumpled appearance has its roots in a desire for a certain kind of camouflage.

Lee’s biography is a highly successful attempt to see beyond that camouflage and to put her subject’s writing into the context of Fitzgerald’s personal life. This is no easy task given Fitzgerald’s own inclinations towards privacy. Lee introduces a woman who could be somewhat charmingly evasive in interviews, plying prospective interviewers with tea and cake but providing little information. Nevertheless, particularly when discussing the earlier novels, Lee makes a convincing case for her claims that Fitzgerald was drawing upon her own experiences. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life is very much a literary biography; it also offers insights into the period covered by Fitzgerald’s life, a time of increasing social change, even upheaval, in England.

The book left me feeling somewhat melancholic. This is always a risk with biography, I suppose, because so often the subject of the work is dead, and if the biography covers the whole life of its subject it must also of necessity cover its subject’s ultimate physical decline and death. The work also touched me a little more personally than it might as I recognized in some of Fitzgerald’s experiences situations somewhat similar to those experienced within my own family circle. For us, too, the response was silence in the face of adversity, the hiding of severe shame in the face of scandal, the determination to carry on. I couldn’t help finding Lee’s relation of Fitzgerald’s life during the fifties and sixties not a little disturbing. I also recognised the attitude that values the pursuit of excellence and of truth for their own sake, that has little patience for pretension and distrusts glamour.

Despite the personal discomfort evoked by the work, I found Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life well worth reading, even inspiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Promethean Legacy: Harari’s Sapiens

Harari. Yuval Noah. Sapiens. A Brief History of Human Kind. [Kinneret 2011] Trans. Yuval Noah Harari. Toronto: Signal-McClelland & Stewart, 2014.

Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the planet and of the survival of humankind upon it, you will find some of this book disturbing. You may also find some solace. In a lively, even entertaining, style unencumbered by some of the verbiage we might normally associate with discourse in the social sciences, Harari traces the development of our species and our associated cultures from the emergence of “animals much like modern humans . . . about 2.5 million years ago” (4) to “a world in which culture is releasing itself from the shackles of biology” (409).

Many of us, I suspect, have absorbed an attitude towards humans that places our species at the top of a hierarchy. Then we remember that should we be stalked by a cougar or harassed by a shark, we are actually prey, no longer beings at the top of the food chain. Sapiens challenges many of our notions about ourselves, suggesting how “time and again . . . a dramatic increase in the collective power and ostensible success of our species went hand in hand with much individual suffering” (97).  It’s hard to disagree with him. Just consider for a moment how much more leisure time hunter gatherers have than we do. Just how free from our labours are we, tied as we are to our screens? Would we all be better off psychologically if we still lived in small self-sufficient communities untouched by the outside world? Exactly what does it mean to be human? Just how do we live with ourselves? These are the kinds of questions that Harari’s work raises. He reminds us “the dynamics of history are not directed towards enhancing human well-being . . . . history disregards the happiness of individual organisms (244).

If you are uncomfortable thinking of humans simply as organisms not as something greater and different from other species, then you will probably be even more uncomfortable with Harari’s understanding of what constitutes a religion: “a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order” (228). He emphasises his use of the term “superhuman” rather than “supernatural” and suggests that distinguishing between what is religion and what is ideology is “just a semantic exercise” (228). You may be made even more uneasy with his recognition of capitalism as a “new religion” (314), one side of the coin of which the other side is consumerism (349).

As you can see, Harari takes his readers into disconcerting territory holding up a mirror to our sense of history, a mirror that is not particularly flattering. He asks us to reconsider our ideas of progress. From a certain perspective, we may actually have regressed. While we are freer from disease than our ancestors, are we any happier? We can shop more, but does retail therapy actually offer us any sense of permanent satisfaction? Whether he’s discussing religion or the nation state, Harari challenges many of the “givens” in our world. He’s certainly not the first to do so, and I’m sure that his views will resonate with many readers. Perhaps what is so impressive about this book is its scope, the whole of human history. But then, of course, one of the points the book emphasises is that within the history of our planet, homo sapiens has actually not been around for that long.

Sapiens is an intensely readable, compassionate look at our history. The conclusion Harari draws from his assessment of the past is that the future of humans may well be precarious, if the species has a future at all. He describes us as “self-made gods” (415) who “are constantly wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction,” and he ends his work by asking, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” (416).

Earlier, I remarked that there may well be some solace in this book. I found it in the fact that in some ways the moral, ethical, and cosmic questions that Harari raises are not actually new questions. We are faced with the same questions about what is the meaning of our lives and how to live the good life that we have been asking perhaps for ever. A pessimist might say that if we still need to ask the questions then something is wrong. The optimist might reply that because we still strive to consider what is right and good means there is hope.

Suffice it to say, I was so engaged by this book that I have already ordered Harari’s subsequenet work Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Plumbing the Mystery of Stephanie: A Brief Encounter With Janet Evanovitch’s Bounty Hunter

Evanovitch, Janet. One For the Money. New York, Scribners, 1994. ebook

—. Eleven On Top. New York: St. Martins, 2005. ebook.

From time to time, often towards the end of a semester, my reading group eschews “literary” fiction and takes a look at what is often called genre fiction. In preparation for our next meeting, I have just read two Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovitch, a writer with whom I was unfamiliar. Evanovitch has just published her twenty-third book featuring Stephanie Plum. Our group decided on her eleventh, but not wanting to begin my acquaintance with Ms. Plum in medias res so to speak I decided to read the first book in the series before beginning our chosen volume.

I am looking forward to hearing what other members of my group have to say about the book. What struck me most about the two novels I’ve just finished was their cinematic quality, and I was unsurprised to discover that One For the Money was made into a movie in 2012. The IMDb website shows the movie as having garnered a 5.3 star rating.

Stephanie Plum is a bounty hunter based in her home town of Trenton, New Jersey. She apparently has a voracious appetite for cake, for sex, and for inadvertently trashing her cars. The books are peopled with characters for whom the description “quirky” would be extreme meiosis. As a bounty hunter, Stephanie does not always get her man. In her social (?) life, the situation is somewhat different.

What to make of these two novels? I’m awaiting the meeting of my reading group with some interest. Some of the slapstick action of the novels made me laugh but also left me wondering what it is that is so attractive about female characters like Stephanie: chaotic, disorganized, and frantic. Take the Bridget Jones books, for instance.  I remember thinking when I first read Bridget Jones’s Diary, “Do I know anybody in their early thirties who is actually still this chaotic in her life?” Stephanie Plum evokes much the same reaction. Yes, I know thirty is the new nineteen or so, but really .  .  .  .  Am I supposed to sympathise with Stephanie or laugh at her?

I can’t help but feel that characters such as Stephanie Plum actually perpetuate a lot of rather negative stereotypes about women. The same cannot be said about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs or Lindsey Davies’ Flavia Alba, for example. Yes, those two series are set in the past, but they are written now, and their female detectives are lively and independent but certainly don’t verge on being tawdry. Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins is not tawdry and successfully navigates the still rather male centric waters of the Church of England. What is it in the air at the moment that validates a kind of squalid behaviour, whether that squalor takes the form of men behaving boorishly with beer or of women engaging in cake fights or misplacing their underwear? Where are the Cary Grants and Audrey Hepburns for today’s popular culture? Too middle class for you? Where are today’s Bogey and Bacall? I know; I sound like somebody’s grandmother, but certainly not Stephanie Plum’s Grandmother Mazur, who is probably as whacky and vulgar as Stephanie.

No doubt, I’m out of step with contemporary taste. So be it. After all, I didn’t like the movie Bridesmaids either, and it gained a ninety percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I shall indulge myself with revisiting Miss Marple and Miss Silver1 and drink my tea from a bone china cup.

 

1Patricia Wentworth’s detective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Confronting The Down Climb: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life

Seethaler, Robert. Trans. Charlotte Collins. A Whole Life. [Munich: Hanser Berlin, 2014] Toronto: Anansi, 2015.

At only 149 pages, A Whole Life can hardly be classified as a novel. It is, however, a somewhat disturbing work covering as it does the entire life of its main character Andreas Egger.

Set in the Austrian Alps, the novel spans Egger’s life from when as an orphaned child he is housed by his uncle, who beats him so regularly and so severely that Egger is permanently crippled, to his death as an old man. Apart from years in a Russian Prisoner of War camp during and after the Second World War, Egger spends his whole life in one village, first selling his strength and labour to any who will hire him and then spending much of his life as an employee of the cable car company. For a brief time, Egger is married, but he is widowed when an avalanche sweeps his cottage away, kills his pregnant wife, and leaves him so further crippled he is unable to work on the cable cars. However, the building of the cable car has ended the village’s isolation, and a thriving tourism industry develops allowing Egger to become a mountain guide until he feels too old to continue: “On the mountain his foothold was still firm, and not even the strong autumn downwinds could make him lose his balance, but he stood like a tree that was already rotten inside” (131).

So what is it about this little work that draws the reader in? The diction is not particularly exciting, and while it is always a little difficult to know for sure when dealing with a translation, I feel it safe to say, given that good translations capture the tone of the original, that the somewhat flat, simple sentenced prose captures a sense of not exactly dreariness but of endurance. Moreover, Seethaler’s third person narration does not venture very far into Andreas Egger’s own consciousness even though his life appears to have been, narrow, defined by injury, and by loss.

However, in his stoic endurance, he survives. He accepts. He accepts the mystery of life—“he  had barely understood Marie, [his wife] and all other women were far more of a mystery to him” (116)—and its brutalities:  “The corpses in the Russian ice were the most dreadful thing he had seen in his life” (130), but he values life.

The novel begins with Egger’s attempt to save the life of dying Johannes Kalishka, known as Horned Hannes. He fails but only because Horned Hannes flees back up the mountain into the snow. His body does not appear for many more years being discovered only decades later when Egger is himself an old man. This beginning of the novel in medias res suggests that Seethaler wants us to consider the conventions of epic. The novel begins with a death and ends with Egger’s own death. Egger remembers that “Horned Hannes . . . seemed strangely happy. In his final hour he had laughed up at Heaven” (130) even though as Egger had struggled to get the dying goatherd down the mountain Hannes had told him, “The cold lady comes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole” (5).

The novel begins, then, by asserting that all we have to look forward to is the end of life and oblivion, but it spends the rest of the novel showing how even the ordinary life, no matter how deprived, is heroic, how even the most humble person can survive both change and personal loss with dignity. Therefore, to answer the question I asked earlier about what is it that draws the reader into this novel, I would say it’s the fact that we cannot avoid comparing ourselves with Egger. In doing so, we are forced to confront our own possible insignificance and the fear we might not be as strong as he is to withstand the wounds of changing times and fortunes.

All in all, a very disturbing book.

 

In the interests of complete accuracy, I should note that the picture is not the Austrian Alps but the Canadian Rockies in Canmore, Alberta. It is more decades than I care to recall since I was in Austria.

 

 

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Another Year. International Women’s Day 2017

 

 

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A Gentle Illumination: The Stories of Jane Gardam

DSCN1357 - Version 2Gardam, Jane. The Stories of Jane Gardam. New York: Europa 2014.

As you know from earlier posts, I do have a certain fondness for Jane Gardam, so when a friend lent me her copy of The Stories of Jane Gardam, I certainly didn’t refuse the offer. I was more familiar with her novels, and I have to admit here that I tend to prefer novels to short stories. The short story is somehow just too short. I also suspect that in a way reading several short stories one sitting becomes more emotionally exercising than immersing oneself in the development of the novel.

DSCN1357 - Version 2One of the reasons why the good short story works, even in its limited scope, time frame, and cast of characters, results from the emotional journey the reader makes within the very concentrated span of the tale; however, such an experience can be a little daunting. I’m thinking particularly here of the stories of writers such as Alice Munro, whose stories are perfectly crafted and multi-layered, but whose intensity and somewhat bleak world view leave me exhausted. The stories I return to again and again are Joyce’s Dubliners and many of those written by Katherine Mansfield. It seems from what Gardam reveals in her introduction to the collection that she and I share this enjoyment of these two writers.

DSCN1357 - Version 2This introduction also tells us that The Stories of Jane Gardam was undertaken in response to a request from her publisher Richard Beswick of Little, Brown, who had “asked for ‘a big, chunky anthology of all . . . [her] favourite short stories’”(16). These “favourite” twenty-eight stories (thirty if you count the three sections of Telegony (341-381) as individual stories) span thirty years from 1977 to 2007. In some of them we meet characters such as Edward Feathers, Old Filth, whom we’ve met before in the novels. For the most part, I found the stories took me into familiar Gardam territory, a particularly English place, a middle-class place, a place of people who know the “passwords” (“Rode By All With Pride” Stories 155).

DSCN1357 - Version 2However, despite their sense of not quite superiority but of confidence they are right, the people in Gardam’s stories are often exiled from the world around them. They are returned ex-patriots who served a Britain that no longer exists; they are “dotty little” (“Easter Lilies”Stories 159) women with nothing left in their lives but the church, people who find that after being “out East thirty years there’s limits to Welwyn” (“the First Adam” Stories 177).  They live in Putney, Wimbledon, and Barnes. They are not as well off as they used to be. Often, they are growing old, cut off from the security of their pasts. As I reconsider these stories and try to find connections between them, I realise that what pervades much of the collection is a sense of loss: a loss of a time long passed, loss of youth, loss of love. Gardam’s characters are separated from their pasts, from their children, from their lovers. While the stories are pervaded by a sense of wistfulness at times, even nostalgia, it’s a delicious reminiscence, delicious as the memories evoked by the smell of lavendered sheets, say, or by the sound of a blackbird in an English summer evening garden that recalls other evenings, other times.

DSCN1357 - Version 2What prevents Gardam’s stories from evoking deep melancholia is her compassionate, gentle humour. As often happens in some of the best short stories, there is always a twist at the end, an epiphany or situational irony that turns the story around. Some of these twists are intensely satisfying: the really snobby and selfish tend to get their comeuppance as in “The Tribute,” (101-117) and “The Easter Lilies” (159-173); young lovers are reunited in “Lunch with Ruth Sykes” (41-56). For the most part, the stories suggest that good can ultimately come even from disappointment, and even when a story ends on a minor note as is the case in “An Unknown Child” (211-225) or “Rode By All With Pride,” (139-157) for instanc,” Gardam’s treatment of her characters’ despairing realisation of their own blindness is gentle and sympathetic.

DSCN1357 - Version 2Most of the reversals in her stories are not completely devastating to her characters. In “Hetty Sleeping” (22-40), for example, Hetty discovers her old lover and her tutor in art school Heneker has run off with the pub barmaid even though only the night before he had protested, “‘there was never anyone but you, Het’” (37). We are not distressed by Hetty’s loss of Heneker; we’re actually rather glad, for we understand Hetty’s situation only too well. What Hetty is actually mourning is not Heneker, but the dream of her lost past self. This is not a story about a woman trapped by societal and patriarchal expectations; it’s a story about how she has grown into the choices she has herself made. Heneker reminds Hetty that it was she who left him all those years ago, reminds her of her own tidiness, her desire for order, of the fact that even then she had already given up painting. She made the choice not to have a life with Heneker. It isn’t in her nature to live the sort of life she would have lived with him. It is in her nature to live the sort of life she has with her husband, Charles. The story ends with Charles bringing her tea. Gentle and understanding, he asks her to “‘wake up soon’” (40).

DSCN1357 - Version 2How well Gardam understands that feeling of nostalgia for what might have been and reveals how we know we don’t truly regret it. She knows how love is not always passion but often compromise, how people learn to accommodate each other. Even in her more gothic stories such as “The Boy who Turned into a Bike” (383-391), “The Green Man” (423-450), and “A Spot of Gothic” (89-100), for example, there is still that note of wistfulness. But that yearning is acknowledged with a kind of relief, with what I might call the optimism of acceptance, that sense of accepting and carrying on and making the best of things. There are some who would say that this is a very English trait, but then, as I said earlier, Gardam’s milieu is very English.

IDSCN1357 - Version 2n her introduction, Gardam asserts that writing short stories teaches you when to stop (16). I wouldn’t argue with that. Her tone in that introduction is valedictory. She ends by saying, “The luck in the writer’s life always is to have been able to use the sweets of fiction to get near the truth” (17). If the luck in a reader’s life is to meet a writer whose creation is “near the truth,” then the readers of Jane Gardam are very lucky indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

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