I’ve read some good books, and some not so good books in the last few weeks. On the principle of keeping the best to last I’ll start with the not so good books.
Two of these books I picked up on the back of some pretty favourable reviews: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, and The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee.
Life After Life has a well used, but always interesting premise we might call the Groundhog Day paradox, except on a larger scale. It’s about a woman, born in 1910 England, who lives her life again and again. That’s putting it simply. She lives her first life and dies young in an accident. Time reverts and she is born again and, unconsciously learning from her previous mistake, survives beyond the critical point only to perish some time later again.
This goes on, she lives a dozen lives or more, each of them taking slightly different paths, and all of them ending prematurely or unhappily. A dozen scenarios are played out, but each time she gets another chance to find the right path and avoid the mistakes she made before.
I have to say reading it I wish I had that opportunity – but then, perhaps I do (in which case this lifetime has provided some fertile learning experiences). I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel also, especially life in the blitz. Overall it was a disappointing experience.
I finished it, and it wasn’t a huge chore, but gee whiz, it was tough going in parts. Atkinson is an acclaimed author. This is the first time I’ve read anything by her, and I found the writing in general very lumpy and pedestrian. This might have been a great book in the hands of someone with a bit more finesse.
Ultimately there’s no explanation in the book for the second, third, fourth, etc chances at life, and no real meaning attributed to it.
The Undertaking is the sort of book I should like. A German soldier marries a woman he’s never met by arrangement in order to get leave. They fall in love, and both undergo the travails of war, etc, blah, blah, blah.
If Life After Life is overwritten, this is underwritten. There is no sense of place or time, very little descriptive at all. It’s unsubtle, the themes painted in broad, unsophisticated strokes.
I’m a sucker for a good war book, but consequently I know them pretty well to. The best of them have an innate poignancy that emerges from the pathos of the times. They’ve got grit and grime, they go deep beneath the skin, and deep into the the times they describe. There is little of that here.
The author has good intentions, but her craft is not up to it. The nearest comparison is A Time To Live, A Time To Die, by Erich Maria Remarque, which covers similar themes, but so much better – the difference between a really good writer and one no better than so-so.
And is it me, or is it the critics who have got this wrong? – both these books were greatly lauded, and in fact both won prizes. Maybe it is me. Both appear pretty thin books to me.
Another book I was disappointed with was The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Marchette. Have a feeling I’d read this before, and had the same response then – starts out very well, then degenerates into a silly mess.
So, the books I liked.
Currently reading The Beauty and the Sorrow, by Peter Englund. In basic terms this is an personal history of WW1, composed of the memoirs of about 15 people who lived through it. There are dozens of books out there like that, but this is so much better.
For a start England is a historian. That means he’s not just printing out these diary entries and letters for effect. He gives them a historian context. Secondly, and this is what makes it more real, he puts a narrative around the excerpts. You get the first person perspectives bracketed by a skilfully written third person narrative.
I love this stuff anyway, but this is very good.
The Strangler Vine was an entertaining diversion, a novel set in 1830’s India full of intrigue and adventure. It’s got a bit of boy’s own about it, but once more the writer is an historian by trade and so it feels authentic, and for the most part the detail is fascinating. In terms of pure writing, a mile ahead of the books I referred to before. This was lots of fun.
Writing ability counts a lot to me, and there’s a good reason for that. If you assume you pick up a book to escape into an alternate reality then it needs to feel true. A good writer does that. A good writer invests in the characters and makes them well rounded and true. For the best writers it’s a pleasure just to read them.
I would include John Crowley in that group. He’s a beautifully intelligent writer of stylish prose. I came across him earlier this year or last when I came across one of his stories. It was an immensely impressive story – The Snow – that, whilst a pleasure to read, also roused feeling and provoked thought. It’s a very fine story.
On the back of that I noted his name down. A couple of months back when I found a few shekels I could spare I bought a book of his stories (Novelties & Souvenirs) from the Book Depository.
There are some great stories in this, and throughout excellent writing. I tend to his earlier stuff myself, but regardless you can’t accuse Crowley of lacking ambition.
That’s what I think literature is about – ideas. There’s the big idea the novel itself puts forward, as well as the little ideas and expressions of them articulated throughout the novel. This is real life. We’re always pondering things and wondering at others. A novel has a beginning and an end, and everything is shaped towards that, unlike in life, where it just goes on. But good literature proposes a reality, or at least reveals one, that when we encounter we instinctively recognise the truth of. Good writing captures those things that are universal, but mostly invisible. They become visible with the craft of writing.
This is what the books I criticised lacked. They’re about things. They have a story, a plot. But what do they mean? And what do they reveal? What makes them intimate? I tend to think the best literary writing requires an insight of a superior intellect; but then I recall writing that is simply visceral, but very true.
I guess writers write from different places, the stomach, the head, and other places south. Wherever it comes from it must be wrestled out to be real; and only when it’s real is it good.