Thursday, 15 March 2018

Reading the 80s - 1981

Ruth Rendell - Put on by Cunning

The first thing I want to say about this book is that although it was originally published in 1981 the version Kensington Libraries have is a 2010 copy by Arrow books, and up to page 117 (when I stopped counting) there were 11 typing or scanning errors. Some relatively minor (‘I’ for ‘in’ ‘on’ for ‘one’) and some larger ('gugs' for 'rugs'), which pulled me out of the narrative as I stopped to work out what the word was meant to be – and that was a shame because it damaged the readability of what is a very competent story. So avoid this edition if possible. It will drive you mad. 

I don’t think I’ve read any of Rendell's Wexford books before, but although we’re clearly well into the series here and the Chief Inspector has a grown up soap star daughter about to get married and an inspector recently married and so on I never felt lost – the characters are sketched in neatly, Wexford thinks about them just enough to be believable – noticing the slight differences from before (Burden is happier, for example, and slightly smarter as a result) and giving us a little info without it becoming contrived. (I’m thinking of another author I read recently as I write this, where the sister of the main character was thinking extensively and intently about him; his marital prospects, his emotional state, his history, in a way that no-one would really do unless said brother had recently topped himself and you were trying to work out what you’d missed. Clunk went the exposition.)

Anyway Cunning starts with the banns being read in church – 80 something year old flautist (sadly arthritic and no longer able to play) is marrying 20 something year old, for companionship rather than anything else. He also intends to change his will, partly because he is remarrying, but also to disinherit the daughter who he hadn’t seen for about 15 years until she read about the engagement in the paper.

If she is his daughter. What begins as the assumed death by misadventure of the flautist at the edge of an icy pond begins to look increasingly like murder as it seems the daughter might, just might, be an imposter. The rest of the book is Wexford increasingly convinced of this, even though the solicitors are moving in the other direction, equally convinced that she is who she says she is and releasing her father's money to her under the terms of the will he never had a chance to change. 

Finally, still sure he's on to something, Wexford books a holiday in America to find out more about where she was for those 15  years. But he's not going to be in time to prevent another death.. 

Bliss - Peter Carey 

I did briefly mention this on the Guardian TLS when I started it (as always please excuse the cut and paste):

'Cheerily oblivious 'Top Bloke' Harry Joy goes in for surgery convinced he's going to die, and comes out convinced he's in Hell, when all that's really happened is that he's started seeing the world and his family as they really are, not as he thought (or assumed) back when he was being cheery and oblivious.'

At that point I was clear in my own mind that Harry wasn't in Hell. By the end, although there was nothing in the book not within the bounds of possibility, I wasn't so sure.

In fact I felt ambivalent about this book and it's characters on quite a few levels. I wondered, for example, about Harry's relationship with his kids. It felt like he loved them, but didn't feel he had to look out for them or offer guidance or be responsible for them or stay and look after them in their mother's absence.

Instead he tells them stories, and that adds another layer, another pattern, to the book. Because Bliss is not only a narrative and a comedy, but also a book about story-telling itself. About it's power to let the storyteller get away with things and put a good spin on things. Harry is also a seller of advertising, and his sales pitch is another form of fiction. From which we see that Harry is misusing his ability, just as all the stories he tells to his family are really his father's stories, and he's using them wrong because he doesn't understand the meaning of them himself.

And Carey does the same thing - perhaps intentionally. There's some lovely writing, and some deliberately no-punches-pulled writing. It's a fantastically ambitious narrative which dazzles and makes you identify with Harry, who actually is a very self indulgent man, and puts you in the head of some really quite horrible people but gives you their story too, the story of why they're like that, and makes you empathise.

And then when you step back and think a little later, when you've put the book down, and especially when you come to review it, you start to wonder why. Have you just been dazzled by Carey's way with words. Are you imagining it or is Harry really just the same very self indulgent, self delusive (albeit in a different and more useful way) and luckier than he deserves man he was at the start? And is that effect deliberate too?

Working with Structuralism - David Lodge.

I think it's fair to say that the first couple of essays in this book were a bit sticky. There were definitely paragraphs of the sort of stuff that makes the lay person despair of ever understanding what literary critics are going on about.

But Lodge, thankfully, addresses this early on, asking:

'Is it possible, or useful, to bring the whole battery of modern formalism and structuralism to bear upon a single text, and what is gained by so doing? Does it enrich our reading by uncovering depths and nuances of reading we might not otherwise have brought to consciousness, help up to solve problems of interpretation and to correct misreadings? Or does it merely encourage a pointless and self-indulgent academicism, in  which the same information is shuffled from one set of categories to another, from one jargon to another, without any real advance in appreciation or understanding?'

Whether or not you agree with his reasons for believing the first answer to be true, or care for the 'jargon' he uses to explain them, I'm just reassured to see that someone, anyone has asked and answered the question. It's a question I think everyone who has studied English above a certain level must have asked themselves, and it's nice to see it acknowledged in print.

In fact this book isn't all - in fact isn't mostly - literary criticism of that sort. There are reviews, a section on ambiguous endings, a discussion of modernism and postmodernism (the last of which appears to have been a new thing in 81). Lodge has a real skill for not assuming his audience knows things but not making heavy weather of telling you. He writes with humour, although not the slightly slapstick comedy found in his fiction, and he is generally, with the exception of the first two essays, clear as crystal and not sticky at all.

So - what did these books have to teach me about 1981? Actually not a lot. They were datable - the restaurant Wexford goes to is run by a Asian refugee from the Ugandan expulsion, Lodge tells us that postmodernism is new, there is a little paranoia about communists in Bliss, but they are only datable, not dated. There's no particular thread or theme that struck me.

Next stop 1982.  

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