TagLeo Benedictus

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989)

I’ve been thinking back to that Leo Benedictus article on ‘hindered narrators’ which crossed my mind whilst reading The Quiddity of Will Self. In it, Benedictus refers to the previous generation’s idea of ‘a literary novelist: a titan of the typewriter [whose] own voice was all you ever got from them, even when they swathed it in a made-up “I.”’ I’ve often had trouble with that sort of writing myself; I tend to think that a first-person voice should be tailored to the narrator’s character. That was one of the problems I had with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novella collection, Nocturnes – each of its narrators had the same voice, and it was one which didn’t suit all of them.

It was time to try Ishiguro’s work again, and I went for his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day. I found that same first-person voice here, but its slightly stuffy formality works perfectly for this narrator: Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, whom we join in July 1956, as he’s preparing to take a drive to the West Country. He’s planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), a former housekeeper of the Hall, who has written to Stevens after many years, describing how her marriage has foundered and hinting (so Stevens reads into the letter) that she may wish to return to Darlington; Stevens’ pretext for the journey is to discuss the latter with Miss Kenton, because he’s struggling to manage the Hall with the few staff he has left; but there are hints from the beginning (and growing throughout) that there may be a more personal dimension to their relationship than Stevens is willing to admit.

Something else that didn’t sit right with me in Nocturnes was a character who was effectively dismissed completely as a person by a supposed friend, and just accepted it – I simply couldn’t imagine someone in the present day being so yielding about that. Again, I find similar character traits in The Remains of the Day; and, again, they make more sense in this context. Stevens’ life and outlook are defined by service: his job, as he sees it, is to facilitate the work of the gentlemen he serves; the man Stevens might otherwise be himself is subsumed under that notion of duty. To his mind, the most fundamental quality of a great butler (not that he would be so bold as to consider himself ‘great’, you understand) is ‘dignity’ – the capacity to retain one’s composure whatever the situation; not to let one’s inner life become apparent to the outside world. There’s no doubt Stevens has this capacity: the most extreme example is probably when Stevens’ father (who at the time was working under him at Darlington Hall) has a stroke and dies below stairs whilst his son is attending to a conference of dignitaries; Stevens carries on performing his duties, keeps his emotions largely in check, and still feels a small sense of ‘triumph’ thirty years on at being able to maintain his dignity on that occasion.

Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton is similarly characterised by such ‘dignity’. Their conversations, as he recalls them, are stiff and rather cold; when she tries to inject some warmth into them, Stevens doesn’t respond to it, and Miss Kenton in her turn becomes barbed and distant in how she deals with Stevens’ professional requests – but, crucially, he can’t now recall whether some criticisms came from Miss Kenton or his old employer, Lord Darlington; this both underlines how Stevens’ work and ‘personal’ life are as one to him, and emphasises the mental filter through which we’re viewing events.

The theme of conflict between private and public life is reflected not just in the person of Stevens, but also in wider life at the Hall. Stevens remarks at one point that important political decisions may influenced at private gatherings in country houses – and it’s such a diplomatic conference that Lord Darlington organises in the 1930s in an attempt to avert war; one delegate warns another in secret that he may be the target of manipulation – and, in an illustration of the social forces at work, this is brought sharply into the public sphere.

But it’s Stevens who is ultimately the focus of Ishiguro’s novel, and we see a man who lacks vital self-awareness. He may be at pains to stress – may believe ardently – that he’s a servant; but his bearing makes it easy enough for some of those he meets on the road to mistake Stevens for a gentleman. He acts well enough like a lord in his own domain; is quite unaware of the effect that can have on others; and takes the view that ‘ordinary people [cannot] be expected to have “strong opinions” on all manner of things’ (p. 204). It’s only gradually that Stevens comes to realise some of his negative qualities, and something of what he may have missed out on in life – and, even then, it’s clear he’s only just beginning. At the start of the novel, Stevens is unsure how to feel about and respond to his new American employer’s banter; by the end, he’s coming to think that banter ‘is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth’ (p. 258). It’s the first step on a new road for him.

After I’d read the prologue of The Remains of the Day, I was concerned that the novel might be too unsubtle in its depiction of Stevens. Now I see I was approaching the book in the wrong way: what Ishiguro does is take a character who might border on caricature and make a fully-fledged individual of him. So I’ve come to appreciate Ishiguro’s work that bit more with The Remains of the Day; it’ll be Never Let Me Go when I read him next, I think.

Sam Mills, The Quiddity of Will Self (2012)

The quiddity of something is its ‘whatness’, the essential aspects which it shares with other things. This contrasts (we learn in Sam Mills’s first novel for adults) with haecceity, which is a thing’s ‘thisness’, the essential characteristics which make it particular. With that in mind, I’d say that the world could do with more novels which have the quiddity of The Quiddity of Will Self; not to mention more novels with equivalent haecceity to The Quiddity of Will Self.

Still with me? Excellent – let’s go!

We start in 2006: a young middle-class layabout named Richatd Smith strikes up a conversation with Sylvie Pettersson, his downstairs neighbour; afterwards, he finds a card which has fallen from her pocket. A week later, Richard decides to return the card – and discovers a man’s body in Sylvie’s flat. It turns out, though, that the body was Sylvie’s – she had been undergoing plastic surgery to change her appearance to that of Will Self. Following a lead on the card he found, Richard finds himself becoming drawn into the strange world of the WSC, a clique of writers with a Will Self fixation, and a penchant for bizarre masked gatherings.

In the subsequent four sections of the novel, we meet Sylvie’s ghost, frustratedly searching for her killer; Richard Smith a year later, when he’s won the opportunity to follow in Will Self’s footsteps by writing in public in a tower block (though more sinister forces are at work than he realises); Mia, a journalist in 2049, who wonders whether the octogenarian Self’s recent death was as straightforward as it appeared; and a present-day writer named Sam Mills working on a novel called The Quiddity of Will Self – but it’s a different Sam Mills…

I won’t pretend to have understood everything Mills is trying to achieve in her novel, nor all the ways in which it’s in dialogue with Will Self’s work – but I found Quiddity a rewarding and intriguing read nonetheless. Themes of identity and obsession reverberate through the book, and the shape of the narrative is especially interesting: each section brings into question the integrity of the previous one, and the story collapses in on itself repeatedly – so, whenever you think you have a handle on it, something will soon be along to change that.

Reading The Quiddity of Will Self made me think of Leo Benedictus’s Prospect article on ‘hindered narrators’ from a couple of months ago. To my mind, Benedictus conflates a few ideas which don’t quite sit together comfortably; but what particularly interests me here is the contrast between narrators ‘with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it’ (which concept shades into narrators with idiosyncratic voices); and those who speak with the Voice of the Author, whatever the character’s name happens to be. It seems to me that the narrators in Mills’s novel (though not necessarily powerless or inarticulate) are all hindered narrators (in that there are fundamental aspects of their world about which they don’t know – but which we, as readers, do); and that Will Self represents the Great Literary Author with the all-encompassing voice – so the characters’ interest in Self may be read as a search for understanding and mastery of the world (in whatever sense).

It’s perhaps difficult to describe The Quiddity of Will Self in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a curio which will only be of interest to lovers of Self’s work – but I do think the book is more than that. It reminds me a little of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, in the sense that the shape of the novel is important for its own sake; but there’s so much going on, and the energy of the narrative so great, that one can’t help being swept along.

There should be more books like The Quiddity of Will Self. There should also be more books which are nothing like The Quiddity of Will Self – preferably the same ones.

Elsewhere
Sam Mills’s website
Some other reviews of The Quiddity of Will Self: Alan Ashton-Smith for PopMatters; Workshy Fop; Nicholas Royle for the Guardian.

Giveaway: The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

The Afterparty is a playfully self-referential novel about the events of one night, during a celebrity’s birthday celebrations; it spends enough time on the right side of the line between charming and annoying to be a very good read. The publishers ran several competitions in connection with the book, including one that would see two reader reviews quoted in the jacket of the mass-market paperback edition — and, as it turns out, one of those reviews is mine.

The first I knew of this was when a parcel arrived yesterday containing five signed copies of the new edition. One of them is personally inscribed to me, so of course I’ll be keeping that; but I want to give the other four away to readers of my blog. If you’d like the chance to win one, just leave a comment on this post.

A few notes:

  • Owing to postage costs, this giveaway is UK only.
  • Closing date for entries is 11.59pm (UK time) on Wednesday 29 February. I will select four winners at random shortly after.

Good luck!

 

Book notes: Benedictus, Ward, Medvei

Leo Benedictus, The Afterparty (2011)

Here’s a good example of a book which didn’t sound instinctively like something I would enjoy, but which turned out to be well worth a read. The Afterparty tells the overlapping stories of four people over the course of one night: Hugo Marks, an actor whose birthday celebrations provide the backdrop to events; Mellody, his supermodel wife; Calvin Vance, the young pop star to whom Mellody takes a shine; and Michael Knight, a journalist who’s attending the party reluctantly after being given a colleague’s invitation. The actual text of the novel is framed as the work of one William Mendez, whose emails to a prospective agent, Valerie Morrell, alternate with the chapters. Mendez has plenty of ideas for aspects of his novel’s marketing (all of which have made it to the finished version), but is reluctant to reveal his identity; so Morrell calls on a columnist named Leo Benedictus to stand in for him…

A novel as self-referential as The Afterparty risks getting lost in its own cleverness; but there’s such charm (and a certain audacity) in the way Benedictus lays bare the workings of his book that it won this reader over. It also adds another layer to what seems to me the novel’s main theme: the gap between reality and perception. That theme is reflected in the main text by the subtly different glosses which each viewpoint character places on events (the use of a different font for each viewpoint emphasises that, in a way, we’re reading four different stories). It’s also echoed in the novel’s treatment of modern celebrity culture: Calvin is shown not really to understand the world he’s entered (a world exemplified by Mellody, who has been through it all and bears the scars); Hugo is frustrated at the way celebrity has caused him to be perceived to an extent as ‘public property’; Michael is about to find out what it’s like to be in the limelight, when he gets caught up in a tragedy in which perceptions of reality will be all-important.

Add to this some skilful prose (Benedictus is particularly good at creating striking images of rather mundane phenomena), and you have a fine debut in The Afterparty.

Leo Benedictus’s website; Booktrust interview.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

Turning now to another fine debut, though one rather different in subject matter and approach. In Girl Reading, Katie Ward imagines the stories behind a number of portraits of girls and women reading; the portraits range in past time from Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333) to a photograph on Flickr in 2008, and a concluding chapter set in 2060 provides context for the previous six. Ward has a distinctive writing style that creates a strong atmosphere for each of the time periods, and allows her to weave in details very subtly. I’ll single out her portrayal of Gwen –  a girl in love with an artist in 1916, and who sees a rival for her affections in a visiting woman – as one of my favourite moments, but there are plenty more from which I could choose.

The chapters of Girl Reading are not linked overtly (though some of the portraits do appear in later chapters, and it can be nicely disconcerting to see the gap between what later characters think of the subjects and what we’ve seen of them previously); it’s more that there are contrasts and connections in theme and content. For example, Ward shows the variety of functions which the portraits might fulfil – an expression of a political alliance, say, or a tangible reminder of what has been lost. Similarly, literacy represents different things to different characters; the act of creating each portrait has varying significance; and so on. Girl Reading is an intricate tapestry of a book, and one that leaves me with little notion of what Katie Ward may write next, though I do know that I’ll want to read it.

Katie Ward’s website; East Anglian Daily Times interview.

Cornelius Medvei, Caroline: a Mystery (2011)

A journalist is contacted by an old school friend named Shaw, who wants to tell the story of Caroline. This Caroline is the donkey Shaw’s father first encountered on a family holiday and who soon filled a void in his life that he didn’t know existed. The father became devoted to Caroline: took her home, looked after her, taught her to play chess (she turned out to be rather good at it). It was a wonderful period in his life; but, of course, there was always the danger that it wouldn’t last.

Cornelius Medvei’s second novel has a folktale quality about its telling; the city in which it’s set is never named (neither, for that matter, are most of the characters), and there’s a timelessness to its depiction (it’s probably set in the 1980s or thereabouts, but there are few specific details). Nobody bats an eyelid at the outlandish events that take place, which is just as it should be; the novel depends on our ability to take its absurd premise seriously, and it is imagined so solidly that we do.

But where Shaw’s narration pushes the tale one step out of reality, the journalist’s voice which frames the account brings it back in. There’s not much of that voice, but it is subtly different enough to provide a real jolt when we step from one to the other and begin to doubt what we have read. Caroline the donkey may fruitfully be interpreted as a metaphor for an all-consuming interest, under which light Medvei observantly illuminates his protagonist’s situation.

Then again, Caroline may just be a donkey; as the journalist concedes, ‘in this city, private and public life, the ordinary and the fantastic, are mingled everywhere you look.’ Strange things happen, so why not this? In Caroline, Medvei leaves the question open in a small but finely wrought – and very enjoyable – read.

This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.

Cornelius Medvei’s top 10 talking animals in literature (Guardian).

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five…

This is a little questionnaire with which Simon from Stuck in a Book came up last week, to provide a little snapshot of one’s reading. So let’s see what my books are…

1) The book I’m currently reading

Cornelius Medvei, Caroline (2011)

The story of a man who becomes smitten with a donkey. I’m not yet far enough in to be able to form a useful opinion, but it has started off well. I’ll be reviewing this for Fiction Uncovered in due course.

2) The last book I finished

Leo Benedictus, The Afterparty (2011)

A tale of tragic happenings at a film star’s birthday celebration, wrapped in the email correspondence  between a fictional author and his prospective agent, discussing the very book in one’s hands. This is probably the most self-referential book I’ve ever read, and to be honest I wasn’t sure whether I’d get along with it. The Afterparty turned out to be a delight, though: nicely written, and a smart commentary on celebrity culture and the gap between public perception and private reality.

3) The next book I want to read

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

So I’m reading a lot of 2011 work at the moment. Girl Reading is structured as a series of novellas on the painting portraits of girls and women reading. It seems an unusual subject for a debut novel, and I am intrigued.

4) The last book I bought


Colin Greenland, Seasons of Plenty (1995)

Strictly speaking, the last book I bought was The Afterparty, but I want to list five different books here; so we’ll go for this — which was on the book-swap shelf at work, instead. I loved Take Back Plenty when I read it last year; now I’ll get a chance to see what the sequel is like.

5) The last book I was given


Ian McDonald, River of Gods (2004)

This was a birthday present, which I was very grateful to receive. My introduction to McDonald, The Dervish House, was one of the very best books I read last year. River of Gods comes with a very high reputation, and I look forward to seeing if it lives up to that; I am confident that it will.

***

There we go. That was quite interesting to put together, and actually it’s not a bad encapsulation of the kinds of books I most like to read. Speaking of which, I have at least two books to be getting on with, and plenty more to follow after that…

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