Some plot spoilers.
Clare suggested this historical novel about a rural English community that has been peaceably conducting subsistence farming under the benign supervision of a manorial landlord but is suddenly threatened with a new owner and enclosure for sheep farming managed for his own profit. It is told from the first-person viewpoint of Walter Thirsk, a relative newcomer who arrived in the village with the current landlord, Master Kent, when the land fell to Master Kent's now deceased wife, but who, on falling in love with a village girl (also now deceased), left his master's service to embed himself in the community.
Thus Crace creates a narrator with a two-fold perspective - a keen, somatic insight into the lives and perspectives of the villagers and an objectivity and insight that they in their rural innocence cannot have into the seismic historical changes about to engulf them.
It's an atmospheric novel, opening with what seem like smoke signals of doom: smoke from a newly-erected hut just outside the boundary of the village - which, ironically, will turn out to have been erected by a family ejected themselves from land newly enclosed - and from Master Kent's stables, a fire for which the newcomers will be blamed. Thus begins a series of tragic events that will end in the total destruction and evacuation of the village.
Clare said she found it an engrossing read, and most people agreed with her. There are vivid descriptions of the village and countryside that make the place almost tangibly real, and at the same time a down-to earth linguistic pithiness. What John and I found most impressive was the rhythm of the prose: there was a fluidity binding together all the elements - events and themes - and a propulsion that not only kept you reading but also created a sense of the unstoppable, formally enacting the theme of inevitable change.
People were struck by the novel's theme of contrasting and relative perspectives. The first sign of the coming change is the appearance during the harvest of a man dressed in town clothes, watching and writing things down with a quill - he will turn out to have been sent by the cousin of Master Kent's dead wife, who is now claiming the land. Walter Thirsk, having burned his hand in helping to put out the fire in Master Kent's stables and being therefore temporarily unable to do farm work, is assigned as his assistant as he surveys and maps the land. Thirsk is shocked and taken by the new perspective on the village afforded by 'Mr Quill's' map - a completely new way of looking at it and experiencing it. He is also shocked by Quill's desire to name its parts - its fields etc - in descriptive or romantic ways rather than simply according to their use, and more generally by his romantic-aesthetic view of the landscape, which is divorced from its gritty realities. However, Thirsk remembers that this is how he too once viewed it as a newcomer from the town himself, and towards the end, when it becomes clear he is going have to leave the village, he is able to see it in that light again.
The group were a little puzzled by what seemed like some moral ambiguity. Master Kent spends most of the novel as a sympathetic character: he has been a benign landlord; he is impotent against his wife's cousin's claim on the land and is cowed by him; he appears to be crucified by the cousin's horrific effects on the villagers. (It is true that he keeps doves that steal the harvest gleanings, but the impression is that he does so in innocence, and he does have the two strangers blamed for the fire put in the stocks although their crime hasn't been proved, but then this seems naive adherence to custom). Yet when he rides away with the cousin, village women and a child accused by the cousin of witchcraft following on foot and tethered to horses, Thirsk, watching from a hilltop, sees Master Kent and the cousin amiably chatting and laughing as they ride. And Thirsk himself, too, seems morally ambiguous: after all, he has looked to his own safety above all else - understandably, perhaps, because, once the villagers are inflamed and incited to violence, his outsider status comes back to haunt him and is a danger to him. On reflection, it seems to me that these things are intended as sad but inevitable morally ambiguous consequences in a situation where people find themselves at the mercy of unstoppable and capitalistic historical forces.
People wondered in which century the story was meant to take place (the English countryside underwent enclosure from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries) and where in England. Neither of these things is stated. Some assumed it to be the earlier period, as the village was so very primitive and isolated. Others thought later, since isolated pre-enclosure rural communities stayed the same for centuries, and felt that some of the hints about town life smacked of the eighteenth century. The descriptions for me very much conjured southern England, but then some of the characters' names sounded Northern to me, in particular of course Thirsk. I think the uncertainty is the point: Jim Crace is famous for creating mythic places and situations that exist outside real-life geography and time (and although people in the group marvelled at the seeming accuracy of his research here, is also famous for saying that he doesn't rely on research but makes things up for his own fictive ends). What he does is create a dream into which one can interpolate oneself, and his novels are nearly always allegories of trends in our own time. Master Kent stands with Walter Thirsk surveying the land:
'This land,' he says, gesturing, 'has always been much older than ourselves.' ... this ancient place would soon be new, he wants to say. We're used to looking out and seeing what's preceded us, and what will outlive us. Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both ... we'll look across these fields and say, 'This land is so much younger than ourselves.'
A situation in which people are exiled by capitalist forces from homes they thought would last forever is both historically universal and crucially characteristic of our own global world.
John pointed out that much of the action takes place off-stage, due in the main to Walter Thirsk's removal from things because of his burnt hand. An interesting effect of this is that Thirsk, having to imagine scenes and fill in the blanks, keeps attributing better motives to people than they turn out to have, which creates dramatic irony and which I found poignant. John, however, said it made the novel rather dull for him. Pulled on by the rhythm, he was engrossed as he read, but he said he admired the book (finding it in fact very clever) rather than enjoyed it. He also said that, vivid as the details of the countryside were, he felt that they were rather coolly and even academically presented, in comparison to, say, those of Jon McGregor's (discussed here) where they carried a strong emotive charge. Ann, who had not said anything so far, now said that she was afraid that she hadn't like the book at all. She had found Walter Thirsk's 'eighteenth-century' register entirely fake and frequently interspersed with anachronistic modernisms - quite unlike the unique register devised by Francis Spufford for Golden Hill (discussed here) which felt entirely eighteenth-century-authentic and accessible at the same time. (I had noticed one or two modernisms in Harvest, which had brought me up short.) And because she had been very busy with other things, Ann had lost patience and given up on the book.
Clare now said something with which everyone else who had read the book agreed: that, engrossing as it had been as you read, in the end it trails away. The action reaches a climax which is then followed by a long hiatus in which Thirsk gets high and then ill on mushrooms, which not only seems out of character but holds up the action, dispelling the narrative tension, and which we suspected was merely an authorial stratagem to keep him out of the way while the final events, which he would otherwise have prevented, play out.
And that was the note on which we ended: a good read (for most of us) that disappointingly 'fizzles out'.
Some plot spoilers.
Doug suggested this book - all 400-and-something packed and small-print pages of it - since we were having a long summer break, and because he had really loved it.
It's a book that plays excitingly with the concepts of reality and fiction, told in the mode of a memoir in which the narrator shares the name of the author, and with very much the feel of authentic autobiography, but prefaced right from the start with this statement:
In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.
The book consists of the story of the narrator's grandfather's life, as told to him from his deathbed. It's a story of a somewhat wild urban Jewish childhood in thirties Philadelphia, post-war marriage to the narrator's grandmother, a French Jewess and single mother rescued by nuns from a fate under the Nazis, his lifetime project to cushion her from her consequent bouts of depression, and a engineering career founded in an early-planted obsession with travel to the moon and the V-2 rocket designed by Germany during the war.
The story emerges piecemeal, in a non-linear fashion, as it is related over days to the narrator, and is interspersed with the narrator's own non-linear childhood memories of his grandparents. There is, however, a grounding linearity in the narrative frame, that of Chabon being told the story and sitting listening.
Everyone loved this book - except for John, who had basically been unable to read it, which flabbergasted Doug. The book begins with an episode in 1957, when Chabon's grandfather has been working as a travelling salesman of 'fancy barrettes' in a break from his engineering career which we will later discover has been made necessary by the need to pay for his wife's psychiatric treatment. He has however been pushed out at Feathercombs by nepotism and, in blind fury, bursts into the president's office brandishing a broken-off telephone cord which he will pull around his neck. Like the whole of this book, the incident is related in a cool, wry and almost urbane tone:
For his part, the president of Feathercombs was astonished to discover that he had approved the firing of a maniac. 'What's this about?' he said.
It was a pointless question, and my grandfather disdained to answer it; he was opposed to stating the obvious.
John said that he found the tone too light and objective for the situation and the obvious distress of the protagonist; the wit and urbanity of the narrator was foregrounded over the emotional state of the protagonist. It put him off the rest of the book and he stopped reading. None of the rest of us, however, had this reaction - we felt there was deep empathy behind the measured and witty tone, and something that Ann would later say was that the book had great humanity: all of the characters were flawed, yet all were treated with understanding and made sympathetic - in this way she found a similarity with Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13, which we discussed here.
Everyone was very impressed by the way the story of the grandfather's engineering career unravelled the Nazi link with the American postwar space programme, and the moral ambiguities involved. Ann pointed out the contrast with McEwan, who tends to insert research-based lectures into his narratives; here everything was organically embedded in the story and the psyche of the protagonist.
Jenny said she had really liked the book but it was 'too long'. However, she compared it to Dickens and said that she had looked forward to reading it in bed each night. I got the impression that she had read it over time and rather as an episodic picaresque, and there were comments that implied that this was how others saw the book. Someone said that they couldn't really see the point of a very early episode in which the pre-pubescent grandfather comes upon an intersex woman seemingly imprisoned in a shack, and people also found a little strange the fact that as a child he threw a cat out of a high window, which seemed out of character. Unlike the rest, I had been remiss enough to leave reading the book until the last minute, and so was forced to read it much more as a single whole. As a result, for me the book had a clearer overall narrative arc than I guess might seem from episodic reading. The episode with the intersex woman was highly symbolic, totemic of the trajectory of the rest of the grandfather's life. Steeped in a comic-book fantasy of rescuing a young woman by taking her to the far side of the moon, his impulse is to rescue the 'hermaphrodite', and when she won't be rescued, he is left with this impulse unfulfilled, later to be fed by his obsession with gravity-escaping rockets and the rescue of first his wife, the narrator's grandmother, and then, in widowed old age, another woman. The way he tries, even in a retirement home, to be this last woman's hero, is to save her cat which has run off into a python-infested wasteland, which brings his life full circle back to the cat-throwing incident in an act of redemption.
I said I had one problem with the book. Years after his grandfather's death, narrator Chabon conducts some research and uncovers a very different story about his grandmother's origins, which, if true, she kept hidden from her husband, Chabon's grandfather, and her daughter, Chabon's mother, and of course Chabon himself, for the whole of their lives with her. In the light of this new (and fairly shocking) information, narrator Chabon tells us, he needed to reassess everything his grandfather had told him on his deathbed. He had been trying to turn it all into a novel, but he now decided he needed to write it as a memoir in order to 'get my story straight'. I wished that once he had done so he had gone one step further and shared with us that reassessment by actually revisiting and reassessing episodes for the reader (a form that is more usual in novels), since what had gone before was so lengthy and meandering that I found it impossible to do this for myself. One revelation is that before his grandmother met his grandfather she had adopted someone else's name, and it occurred to me at this point that I did not know by which name she was known in the family - whether it had been her adopted name or her own; I had no recollection of her having been given any name at all. However, I felt unable to sift back through the wealth of material to find out. Ann said something similar. It turned out that the deceptiveness exposed by the revelation had been missed by one or two people in our group, which perhaps adds weight to the notion that the book could have done with a more pared down and novelistically elliptical structure.
Someone, I think Jenny, added that the explicit sex scenes between the grandfather and grandmother made her feel uncomfortable, and others agreed - it always seems something of an intrusion to envisage one's parents' or grandparents' sexuality in graphic detail - which is another problem that could have been overcome by a more wholeheartedly fictive presentation.
Nevertheless, we very much enjoyed and admired the book, and all Doug could do was shake his head at John.
Warning: some plot spoilers.
I suggested this French novella which all of us apart from John had not read but were glad to do so, understanding it as a classic and knowing that on its publication in the fifties it had been considered scandalous for its apparently explicit sex scenes - excised for the British translation of the time - and the amoral way of life it depicted. It had also been a sensation for the youth of its author, only eighteen when it was published, and the contrast of her apparently bourgeois background.
After such expectations, in the event I wasn't quite sure what to make of the book, and it turned out that everyone present for the meeting felt the same. It's the first-person narration of Cecile, looking back on the previous summer when she was seventeen. Cecile has been living a sophisticated but shallow Parisian life (involving fast cars and lavish dances and dinners and drink) with her somewhat philandering father - she writes of 'our fondness for entertainment and frivolity'. Now they have rented a villa for the summer on the Mediterranean, accompanied by her father's current, and young, girlfriend Elsa whose presence does not trouble Cecile since she is 'very sweet, rather dim and quite unpretentious', while Cecile, untroubled also by the fact that she has failed her exams at the Sorbonne, begins exploring her own sexuality with a student she meets on the beach, Cyril. However, very near the start of the book this sensual idyll is disrupted for Cecile by her father's announcement that he has invited to join them Anne Larson, a fashion designer and old friend of Cecile's dead mother, to whom Cecile's father 'packed her off' 'having no idea what to do with me' when she left boarding school two years earlier. Cecile's attitude to Anne is conflicted: she admires yet resents Anne's more serious, intellectual outlook and is pleased but, more, unsettled by her arrival. It is not long before Cecile - and Elsa - realise that Cecile's father is attracted to Anne, and, once Elsa has fled the household, they announce that they want to get married. After a brief moment of relief - 'it would be a life suddenly brought into balance by Anne's intelligence and refinement' - Cecile's resentment comes to the fore, especially when, challenging the popular interpretation of Existentialism Cecile espouses - basically that one should please oneself and give in to one's desires - Anne decides to take her in hand and make her study and stop seeing Cyril. Cecile then formulates a plot to get rid of Anne, a plot involving Elsa and Cyril intended to provoke her father's sexual pride and jealousy, and which will end in tragedy.
Narrator Cecile never remarks on her own motherlessness except briefly from her father's point of view: she writes that he had been a widower for fifteen years. It is easy from a contemporary perspective to see that the seventeen-year-old Cecile's conflicted feelings towards Anne are rooted in a need for the mothering she offers (a need of which Cecile herself is unaware, or denies) and sexual jealousy. Early on in the book, in considering Cyril (for whom she is making an exception), she muses: 'I did not like young people. I much preferred my father's friends, men of forty, who spoke to me with courtesy and affection and treated me with the gentleness of a father or lover'. This equation of 'father' and 'lover' underpins her whole relationship with her father with whom it is clear she often takes the role of companion on social occasions. Elsa, as a passing fling, is no threat - his feelings for such women, Cecile says, 'were transient' - but Anne is something else.
What was unclear to me was how conscious Cecile, as narrator, is of these issues. I felt for a lot of the time that she had to be, as protagonist Cecile herself is amazingly aware for a seventeen-year-old of her own torn emotional state, and articulate about it, delineating clearly her switches of attitude, her moments of not knowing what to feel, and even summing up cleverly at one point: 'that was what I held against Anne: she prevented me from liking myself'. However, the lack of any overt signalling of the Freudian psychological implications of those emotional convolutions made me wonder, and I wasn't clear how ironically the narration was intended. There is an admirable objectivity about the life Cecile and her father have been leading - 'the people we spent time with were noisy and insatiable - all that my father asked of them was that they be good-looking or amusing' - and there were sentences that I felt must surely be read as ironical: 'For, after all, what was our aim in life, if not to be attractive to others?'; 'A cynical idea ... occurred to me, and I was pleased by it, as I was by all my cynical ideas. Bolstered by a sort of confidence and a sense of colluding with myself that was quite intoxicating...' This last is surely self-irony. On the other hand, the narrator tells us, apparently without irony: 'I am still not ashamed of enjoying those shallow pleasures, and anyway I only call them shallow because I've heard people say they are.'
Others in the reading group hadn't seen irony at all in the prose. I said, Well, what about this sentence, near the beginning, describing Cecile's father on the beach: 'My father worked through various complicated leg exercises with the aim of getting rid of a small paunch that did not suit his image as a lady-killer.' ? The slightly ridiculous picture of the father conjured here - the paunch, the complicated leg exercises - juxtaposed with his glamorous aspirations and the word 'lady-killer', must surely be ironic. However, Jenny didn't see that sentence as ironic, and no one else backed me up.
Basically, people were all a little baffled by the book's reputation and success. John said that as well as being amazingly insightful about Cecile's emotions, it was brilliant on the level of prose - economical, getting right on with the story straight away, and vivid - someone, Jenny or Clare, commented that the descriptions of the Mediterranean setting made her feel hot - and everyone agreed. (Though someone said that it was hard to read the book without the acute consciousness that it had been written by someone of only seventeen or eighteen and feel amazed at the achievement for someone so young and then afterwards wonder if you were giving it special allowance). However, all also agreed that they couldn't engage with the characters - they seemed stereotypes - and therefore with their emotional dilemmas, and that the plot did seem a little forced and even silly - John said, something of a soap plot cliche. The ending, too, which I won't give away here, seemed melodramatic, with someone acting quite out of character, and Cecile's interpretation of what actually happened both unrealistic and self-dramatising. Clare noted that there is no explanation for Cecile's departure from her boarding school at fifteen into the care of a father who at the time she hardly knew and who 'didn't know what to do with her'. She had read that Sagan herself had been expelled from her boarding school for bad behaviour, which makes this an autobiographical detail that remains unaddressed in the novel, leaving a gap, and which perhaps reinforces the notion that Sagan was also unable to address the Freudian implications of what she was writing.
On the whole, in view of our discussion, I felt that yes, the book was very clever for its author's age, and that there was indeed a level of irony but, because of the author's age, it was not sustained throughout the book. We had all read a modern edition in which all of the text is restored, and people noted with amusement that the so-called sex scenes were extremely modest and implicit by present-day standards, but we did appreciate that in its depiction of an amoral, hedonistic lifestyle the book must have seemed pretty shocking in the fifties.
Convenience Store Woman
Jenny's suggestion, this very short novel has been a runaway hit in its author's native Japan, and in translation worldwide. It's the first-person narration of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old single woman who failed to fit into society as either a child or an adult, but then at the age of eighteen found her metier in the brightly-lit, regimented and sterile world of a convenience store, where, to the dismay of her family, she still works and which is her whole life. 'Even when I'm far away,' she tells us, 'the convenience store and I are connected', and 'When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel I'm as much part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine'.
Keiko's existence is disrupted however by the advent of a new young male recruit Shiraha who feels no such allegiance to the store, constantly found to be slacking and openly and repeatedly questioning its world and the conventional structures of Japanese society to which Keiko's family and friends keep trying to get her to conform. Very soon he is sacked, and Keiko comes up with a solution for them both: if he comes and lives in her flat and is kept by her, he will not need to work and will be able to hide away from the world he so despises, and her family will assume a sexual relationship and will finally leave her alone.
Everyone present said that they had found the book a fascinating, even compelling read, with its light but deadpan and repetitive prose (codifying the world of the store and its workings), but were left unmoved. Clare said she had found it slight, and others agreed, and most people ended up not knowing quite what to make of it. Mainly, people didn't know what to make of Keiko herself. Jenny said she assumed she was autistic. She lacks the moral and emotional sense of most other people: as a child she stopped an argument between two boys by hitting one over the head with a spade and was then puzzled by people's horrified reactions; while all the other children peered with empathy and sorrow at a pretty dead bird, she suggested taking it home and cooking it. Later, she turned to her younger sister for instructions on how to behave, and still does so, and consciously mimics the behaviour, speech patterns and clothes of others - 'My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me' - which John, a psychologist, said is a recently acknowledged stratagem in female autism. When Shiraha treats her badly, demanding and then despising the food she provides and taking to sitting all day in her bath so that she has to go out and use a public one, her only reaction is fascination. Clare, also a psychologist, said that she didn't find it particularly useful to try to pin a specific label on Keiko: it was more satisfying just to accept her as odd.
I said, But isn't part of the point of the book that it's not just Keiko who is odd, and possibly autistic, but the society around her? Surely the convenience store itself into which she fits so snugly - 'a cog in society' as she puts it, 'the only way I can be a normal person' - and which, apparently is such a huge aspect of Japanese society, is also autistically odd, with its dehumanising automatic regimes? And isn't there a kind of autism in the 'normal' societal attitudes of her friends and family, who it seems would prefer her to have any sort of relationship, even an unhappy one, than to be single and happy? Mark had expressed amazement that this book could have become such an international bestseller, but some of us had read that the reason it had become such a success in Japan (and in consequence elsewhere) was that it had hit a particular nerve there, homing in on a development in Japanese society whereby young people are rejecting relationships and turning to singledom and celibacy, and young men like Shiraha turning their backs on the world and incarcerating themselves in their homes.
For most of us, however, there seemed something of a conundrum. Is Keiko at odds with society, or is she one of its 'cogs'? The book seemed to want it both ways. I suppose you could draw the conclusion that an autistic social system creates autistic individuals, but it did seem hard to get your head around what seemed like a lack of thematic logic. Some reviewers seem to have taken the book as a satire, but it seemed in this way to lack the logic of satire, and no one in our group found the book funny in the ways reviewers have suggested it is.
Our discussion didn't last very long - there didn't seem a great deal to say - and we soon dissolved into discussions about supermarkets, forgetting the book altogether.
Doug had failed to turn up, having forgotten the meeting, and wrote afterwards that it was perhaps something to do with the fact that he hadn't liked the book at all.