It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Reading diary 2021, #4

8 Comments

I had a week off work, and spent most of it stretched out on the sofa, reading. Which is not that much different, these days, to a working day – with me stretched out on the sofa, doing $dayjob on the MacBook. I’d hoped to read more during my holiday, but got bogged down in the Márquez, which I appreciated more than I liked. Having said that, on the whole not a bad selection of books…

Highland Fling, Nancy Mitford (1931, UK). Once upon a time, I had an idea to focus my reading on British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century – I even wrote a blog post about it, here. I was already a fan of the novels of Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), so it wasn’t much of a stretch. In the event, I only read a dozen or so qualifying novels, but it did introduce me to writers whose oeuvres I wanted to further explore – such as Pamela Frankau, Storm Jameson and Susan Ertz. I later read novels by Hilda Vaughn and Rosamund Lehmann. Nancy Mitford, however, was not on my list, possibly because she was best-known for her 1930s novels, which was a little earlier than I was interested in. But then I started reading Evelyn Waugh, and Mitford’s novels are often compared to his, and – which is probably the most important factor – The Penguin Complete Novels of Nancy Mitford on Kindle was on offer for £2.99 (that’s eight novels, btw). Comparisons with Waugh are inevitable – both wrote satirically about “Bright Young Things” during the inter-war years. Waugh’s prose is sharper, but his satire is meaner; Mitford plainly doesn’t hold her subjects in contempt, and her set-pieces are slightly more absurd than Waugh’s. In this, her first novel, her characters are put in charge of Highland castle for a shoot, despite being complete upper class twits. And destitute. Because, like Waugh, Mitford is keen to stress how poor most of the upper classes are. It doesn’t wash. Poor working class person asks bank for loan, bank says fuck off. Poor upper class person asks for bank loan, bank throws bundles of cash at them. The upper classes have always been the UK’s worst enemy, and that’s as true now as it was in the 1930s. Or even the 1130s. Highland Fling is mildly amusing – not as cutting as Waugh, but not as racist either – but, you know, if everyone wiped out the entire English upper classes I would not shed a single tear. I might fucking celebrate, though.

Love in the Time of Cholera*, Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Colombia). The title of the book and the name of the author were known to me – and are no doubt known to many people – but I had absolutely no idea about the story. And while I’ve read and enjoyed some South American literature, it’s not a tradition that figures highly in my chosen reading. The book was, of course, on offer, and it’s also on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so I thought it worth a punt. And after a diet of far too much bad high fantasy, it was surprisingly refreshing to read prose by someone who could actually put a sentence together. An old man in a South American country dies. The novel then flashes back fifty years to a fifteen-year-old girl, who is being wooed by a young man of middling means. Her father takes her on a road trip to stay with relatives inland in order to block the relationship. When she returns a couple of years later, she finds herself suddenly no longer in love with her suitor. He, however, continues to love her. She marries an urbane and wealthy doctor who studied in France. The story then follows both her paramour, and the years – decades – he spends trying to get on with his life, while loving her from afar, and her own life. She is seemingly content in a marriage that gives her everything but love. Her husband is widely admired, which is all he ever wanted. And the old suitor has a string of jobs and affairs, none of which change him in any meaningful way. It gets distinctly dodgy some three-quarters of the way in, when the suitor takes charge of a thirteen-year-old cousin, and then makes her his lover. That’s straight up paedophilia. I don’t care when and where the book was set, and whether it was even considered acceptable in that time and place – and surely it wasn’t? – but writers choose what they write about, and García Márquez chose to write about a relationship between a man in his fifties and a girl not yet fifteen years old. As for the rest… the story jumps around a little, and I got a bit lost in the internal chronology – suitor works for the telegraph office, then he lives in a brothel, then he gets a job with a telegraph office, and somewhere in there he unsuccessfully tries to retrieve some sunken treasure… The novel revels in the filth and squalor of its setting – obviously the cause of the frequent cholera outbreaks which lend the book its title – and though ostensibly about love and romance, its female characters often feel like walking plot-points. The novel has its moments, but its blithe treatment of paedophilia, not to mention honour killings. or just plain indifference to the preventable squalor and deaths of the poor, make it a hard book to read in the twenty-first century. García Márquez’s other really famous novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude. I suspect I’ll give it a miss.

Master of Paxwax, Phillip Mann (1986, New Zealand). I’ve been a fan of Mann’s fiction for many years, and even reviewed several of his books – positively, of course – for the BSFA’s critical journal, Vector, back in the day. I liked that Mann was considerably more literate than most of his peers, and exhibited a somewhat sideways approach to common science fiction tropes. I’d forgotten that Master of Paxwax, followed by The Fall of the Families, was Mann’s second novel, but I’d remember the broad shape of the story. What had not occurred to me at the time, and struck me quite strongly on this decades-later reread, was how much Master of Paxwax is a pastiche of Frank Herbert’s Dune. More than that – and the timing is tight, so perhaps I’m reaching – but quite a bit of the imagery in Master of Paxwax evokes David Lynch’s movie adaptation of Dune, released in late 1984. After discovering an alien Way Gate, humanity spread out into the galaxy and wiped out all (alien) competitors. This was the Great Push. Centuries later, human society has ossified into an imperium ruled by eleven Great Families, and countless other ones. The Paxwax are the Fifth Family, and Pawl, the third son, finds himself head of the family when his father and elder brother die. The second brother had joined the Inner Circle, ostensibly a semi-religious order of diplomats and advisors, but secretly the last refuge of the alien races subjugated, or even destroyed, by humanity. The Inner Circle has determined that Pawl Paxwax will return the galaxy to the aliens; Pawl Paxwax just wants to break with tradition and marry someone he loves, who is not of the Eleven Families. On the surface, this is a space opera that makes free use of the subgenre’s tropes. But there are many similarities with Dune, while not mapping directly onto its story – no white saviour narrative, no appropriation… And there’s all those aliens, of course. It is, perhaps, a more sensitively-written Dune… but it never manages Herbert’s book’s weight of background, one of Dune‘s chief appeals, because Master of Paxwax relies overmuch on space opera tropes. It’s a good book, perhaps even a forgotten space opera masterpiece, although I suspect that’s a label that applies to a great many books given the low bar most fans seem to apply to space opera…

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2008, USA). I had the title of this book written down on a list of books I wanted to read, and for the life of me I can’t remember why I’d listed it. But it popped up for 99p on Kindle, I remembered the title, and my finger went straight to the “buy now” button. And having now read it, I still can’t remember why it was on that list. It won the Pulitzer Prize, but I’ve never read a book simply because it won that prize – although I’ve read books that have won it. Olive Kitteridge reminds me a great deal of Marilynne Robinson’s fiction – and I’m a huge fan of her novels; signed first editions only sort of fan – but it doesn’t have the warmth and easy domesticity of her prose. It’s set in small town USA, a foreign country of not much interest to me, north or south, and any familiarity I might have with that world, in broad stroke, is down to a shared language only and the vigorously exported parts of a culture that has pretty much inundated the rest of the Anglophone sphere. The novel is about the eponymous woman. It’s part of a fictional universe built up over several works – in this case, all contained in this “novel”, and a later novel published in 2019. Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of linked stories, in which the title character appears, either as the PoV character or in a supporting role. She was a maths teacher at the local school, but is retired at the time the novel opens. The comparison to Robinson is not entirely unfair – both writers detail a small community in their fiction, telling the stories of several interlinked families. The Wikipedia page for Olive Kitteridge boasts a complete cast of characters from the book – that’s eight families, and half a dozen assorted other groups. Strout manages to make her characters believable – although one or two seem to be defined solely by a couple of traits – despite the fact most of them only appear for a handful of pages. Much as I enjoyed the Olive Kitteridge, I doubt I’ll bother with the sequel.

Dune: The Graphic Novel, Book 1, (Frank Herbert), Brian Herbert, Kevin J Anderson, Raúl Allén & Patricia Martín (2020, USA). Despite repeated attempts to find further means of cashing in on the Dune corpus, by 2010 interest had clearly begun to wane and two planned Dune books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson were quietly cancelled (although another trilogy was completed and published). With, it must be said, good reason: their additions to the Dune universe have been uniformly shit. But then the Dune film – its second movie adaptation – was greenlighted, with no less than semi-auteur box-office darling Denis Villeneuve at the helm, and the Dune universe suddenly got a shot in the arm. I’d thought this graphic novel adaptation was, like the earlier Marvel one, tied in to the new movie adaptation. But now I’m not so sure. The artwork in the graphic novel doesn’t appear to match the production design from the Dune movie trailer. Which suggests it’s yet another cash-in. On the one hand, the graphic novel is faithful to the novel. But it fluffs some scenes – the banquet scene especially – and puts too much emphasis on others, such as the gom jabbar scene. But, worse than that, everything looks disappointingly generic. Lynch’s film had its problems, but it looked absolutely gorgeous. It had exactly that level of over-elaborate design you’d expect of Frank Herbert’s universe. I doubt Villeneuve’s production design will match it. The graphic novel art looks, well, boring. The characters appear far too ordinary and similar and, disappointingly, there’s no intricate detail in the backgrounds. This is the blandest version of Dune that has been produced yet. I will, of course, be buying books two and three.

8 thoughts on “Reading diary 2021, #4

  1. I am suddenly intrigued by Mann’s Master of Paxwax — especially as you see it as a pastiche of Dune….

    I’ve only read Mann’s Wulfsyarn (1990) which I enjoyed but never reviewed.

  2. Ian, I’m sorry you didn’t like Love in the Time of Cholera more. I found it quite enchanting. Not because of the pedophilia, but despite it. I don’t actually think Marquez is choosing what to write about completely. If he chooses a place and time, maybe he feels duty bound to cover it warts and all. You’ve written about all kinds of awful stuff – arrogant class structures, misogyny not because you were a supportive or even voyeuristic, it just seemed necessary, I’m sure. Anyway, 100 years of Solitude and Chronicle of a Death Foretold are great.

    • In the book, Florentino’s lovers are all widows and most are older than him. But then he suddenly goes and fetches a 13-year-old cousin and grooms her to be his lover. If that was common practice in Colombia in the 1930s, García Márquez makes no mention of it. If I remember right, they present as “uncle” and “niece” when in public, suggesting it wasn’t considered acceptable. I can only conclude it was a deliberate artistic choice on his part, and unrelated to the milieu. Certainly, the time and place – “warts and all” – explains the focus on the filth and squalor.

      As for my own writing… well, yes, I’ve written about embedded class structures, but only to comment on it and then rip it down. And yes, there is sexism in the Apollo Quartet, but those books were written to be true to the attitudes of their time, and they’re about sexism (among other things).

  3. In part I agree with you, Ian but I always feel that it can be too easy to attribute to the author the failings/depravities of his or her characters. Ought authors shy away from depicting the unacceptable activities that can be found in any society?

    But then again, Marquez did write Memories of My Melancholy Whores ………

    (Btw, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is very good.)

    • But everything in a novel is there for a reason. Or, at least, it should be. I can’t see what purpose the paedophilia in Love in the Time of Cholera served.

    • Ah, Ian. You can’t see the purpose. Now I get it. It’s been several years since I read the novel, so I can’t offer a close interpretation to the conversation. I can say, in general, I defer to the artist. Maybe he wanted to accentuate Florentino’s flaws, his unworthiness. Maybe he also wanted to highlight some men’s longing to set the clock back on their lives by proximity. Regardless, I’m pretty sure Marquez would smile simply because we’re having this exchange. There is an unease in all of his books. It’s there for a reason, even if we aren’t entirely sure why.

  4. I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera, but have laid it aside temporarily, halfway through, so only read half of your review of it before thinking better of it. Rashly, I did read the comments. I have definitely been enjoying the writing and some of the vivid details, particularly the menagerie at the doctor’s house, though not their demise. The novel seems to have a deep vein of darkness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.