Archive for the ‘November’ Category

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In which Netty enters Knausgaard’s struggle on dual levels …

February 24, 2016

Definition of irony: reading and blogging about a book called A Death In The Family being delayed by, well, a death in the family.

knaus-coverTrue story, folks. You should have been reading this post in November 2015 rather than February 2016, but sometimes that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I’d been wanting to read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle books for a while now. A literary sensation in his native Norway – and not always for straight-forward reasons – translation has slowed down the six-volume series’ migration to an English-speaking (nay, reading) audience. Hence, book five is due to be released early this year – despite Knausgaard’s final instalment in the series having been completed and released years ago at home in Scandinavia.

In Norway, this autobiographical series is known as Min Kamp (even the title, with its similarities to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, caused problems with potential German publishers early on). A published author with a novel under his belt, Knausgaard, then 40, originally started writing his memoirs in the late noughties in an attempt to shake off a case of writer’s block and was not intending to publish them. He showed the finished product to family members, some of whom took umbrage with the contents and portrayal of the clan, forcing some revisions before the eventual final publication.

This is understandable as A Death In The Family is a deeply personal, no-holds-barred memoir. But as unflinchingly hard as Knausgaard is on his family, he reserves his harshest criticism for himself. Still, in a small-ish country of less than five million – and with the author’s family the only Knausgaards who reside there – there was plenty of fuel for the ensuing media fire. Indeed, the inner back sleeve of my 2014 Vintage edition features a quote from the author: “It never occurred to me that it might cause problems – I was just telling the truth, wasn’t I? But I was also being very naïve. I sent a copy to everyone involved before the first volume was published, and then I discovered how difficult this was going to be. It was like hell.”

Nevertheless the series has attracted wide acclaim, with Knausgaard having been dubbed “the Norwegian Proust” (note: never having read Proust, I cannot comment further). English author Zadie Smith – not a writer whose work I enjoy – is one of a slew of Knausgaard’s literary contemporaries who have fallen over themselves to praise his work, famously comparing the My Struggle books to being as addictive as crack. The man himself says they are a record of the “banalities and humilations” of his life.

Andy notes a few issues with the translation in his blog – something we touch on pretty much every time we review a translated work. But overall I reckon the tone – in all its unevenness and the jumping back and forth on the narrative timeline – can’t be too dissimilar to the original. I found the lack of chronology a little annoying – and that’s not something that usually bothers me. The abrupt shifts in the timeline – especially in the first part – particularly bugged me, and I found the long ruminations on the writing process (which admittedly are probably integral to the concept of the series as a whole) at times yawn-inducing. I wanted story and flow. I had to wait till the second part to get it.

Andy also notes a familiarity with the childhood and adolescent experiences of Knausgaard, who is not much older than both Andy and myself. It’s a growing-up-in-the-seventies-and-eighties thing that will particularly resonate with Gen X readers, regardless of their place of origin.

My partner-in-crime did a very good job of summing up the plot line in his post, so I shall be pointing you in that direction rather rehashing it here. I encourage you to read it. In short, the younger boy of two grows up in Norway, goes to school, goes through his oft-estranged parents’ break-up, falls in and out of adolescent-esque love, joins bands, starts writing, publishes a novel and tries to write another one, gets married once, then twice, has a few kids (OK, three), moves to Sweden.

And, of course, he experiences the death of his father with whom he has always had a difficult relationship, for reasons that are not always clear. But certainly the manner in which the death itself reveals a hornet’s nest of familial issues could not help but colour a memoir looking back on the author’s early life. Particularly by the book’s end I was wondering if the rancor and bitterness of Knausgaard’s feelings towards his father that were bubbling under the surface in part one were the result of what transpires in part two, rather than something that had always been present. It’s hard to tell – and whether that be the fault of an inexperienced writer or a clumsy translation, I could but guess. The reader will ultimately be the judge of that.

In summation, I was expecting to really, really love this book. Instead I merely liked it a lot. I will definitely be seeking out book two (A Man In Love) and will take it from there (I’m left wondering what fresh meat Knausgaard can bring to the table in book three – Boyhood Island – that he hasn’t already plundered in book one).

And who knows? One day I might even get around to reading Proust. I said, might …

PS: Stay tuned, faithful blog readers (all two of you) as Andy and I belatedly sum up our unexpectedly truncated reading year of 2015 and unveil what is to come this year. A couple of months late, admittedly, but yeah, bite me (oooh look! Two bites!) (Insert winking emoticon here.)

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The Country Girls Trilogy – Andy has a grand old time with Edna, to be sure, to be …

December 21, 2014

Although, to be honest, I’m not sure. Not sure why, anyway. Why I had such a grand old time with Edna.

I remember there being a Penguin edition of The Country Girls on display in the library at Maffra High School in the ’80s. So that’s how long Edna O’Brien has been on my radar. I didn’t read it, obviously, cos I was a boy and it was written by a chick and it had the word “girls” in the title. But for whatever reason I remember it.

ednaO’Brien published The Country Girls in 1960. The Lonely Girl was published in 1962 and Girls in their Married Bliss (yes, it’s ironic – actually no, it’s sarcastic) was published in 1964. The book’s Epilogue was published in 1986, presumably because O’Brien’s publishers decided to publish all three together and she wanted to wrap things up. Which she does, to devastating effect.

Oops. NOT A SPOILER.

O’Brien’s “heroines” – and they are only heroines in that technical sense in which “hero” or “heroine” has for some time come to denote “main character” – are Caithleen (or Kate) and Baba (which is presumably short for something, although I don’t think we ever find out, but apparently it’s not Barbara) are teens in rural County Clare, in the west of Ireland, in what I suspect is the mid- to late ’50s. I seem to remember suggestions in the third novel, set in London, that the girls – women, now, in their mid 20s – are living through the early years of the ’60s, which suggests that they are younger than their creator, who was born in 1932. Still, there’s plenty about these books that suggests they are autobiographical – including the fact that O’Brien published a memoir a couple of years ago (which obviously I haven’t read) called Country Girl.

Netty described this book as “Irish chick lit”, and she wasn’t being polite. And I have to admit, as I was reading it, the words “chick lit” did occur to me. But they occurred to me in an odd way, because I was reading it -voraciously – and thoroughly enjoying it, and at the same time asking myself what it was that I was enjoying. Because was it not, after all, chick lit?

Maybe, maybe not. Is Mansfield Park (the only Jane Austen I’ve read) chick lit? Is Wuthering Heights (the only Bronte novel I’ve read) chick lit? Is The Robber Bride (one of many, many Margaret Atwood novels I’ve read) chick lit?

O’Brien is a beautiful writer. She writes beautifully about the experience of women in a particular time, immediately preceding and amid a transformation that, tragically, would not achieve what was hoped. Some of this you read into the text, necessarily, because it was written literally then and O’Brien obviously could not have known where “women’s lib” was heading. Nevertheless, that element is present, and perhaps O’Brien imbued her characters’ experiences with touches of what was happening around her as she wrote. There is also a certain emotional distance – despite the fact that every word of this collection is written in the first person – that allows for a certain contempt, for withering wit, for commentary on her characters’ personalities and the choices they make.

It’s also beautiful in its depiction of country Ireland, and later Dublin, and later still London in the late ’50s/early ’60s. I lived in London twenty years ago, and twenty years before that I lived in Ireland – although the north, not the republic. While I lived in London as an adult I spent a couple of weeks travelling around the republic. This involved a few days in Dublin, which I liked but didn’t fall in love with, a few days on the Dingle Peninsula, which was awesome, quite a few days in Galway, which involved a few days on the Aran islands and also a visit to WB Yeats’s ruined Coole estate; and also a few days at the Cliffs of Moher, which are in County Clare. OK, so basically I’ve just realised this entire paragraph is me bragging about stuff I barely remember – although I do have the photos. County Clare in the ’50s is not somewhere I’d have wanted to live, but I loved reading about it.

Not everybody will  enjoy The Country Girls – Netty can attest to that. But I did, and that’s not just because I recommended it. It’s wonderful, and heartbreaking, and funny, and moving, and thought-provoking. I have downloaded Edna O’Brien’s collected stories, and hopefully I’ll get to some of them over my three-week break.

Yes. I have a three-week break. Read it and weep, bitches.

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The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Andy says SPOILERS

December 18, 2013

I was going to try to write this blog without spoilers, but come on. If you’ve read it and you’ve tried to write about it – how could you not? So.

If you haven’t read this book but you think you might like to, at some point, stop reading now.

Wait – did you hear me? I said now.

NOW.

I loved Agatha Christie as a teenager, possibly even earlier. I’m pretty sure Ten Little Niggers (NIGGERS!) was the first of her books I read, and I read plenty of others although I can’t remember many of them – The Man in the Brown Suit, Curtain, Murder in the Mews, Murder on the Orient Express, plenty of others. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has long been regarded as her masterpiece and yet it was one I never got around to. I bought it a few years ago for a couple of bucks (and later found a copy of Ten Little Niggers – NIGGERS! – that was still called Ten Little Niggers as opposed to And Then There Were None, or whatever it’s published as these days, and bought it immediately) and the past few weeks I finally got around to reading it.

ackroydAnd it is good. It’s not perfect, but on enough levels it’s good. Good enough to make me think I might need to revisit my Agatha addiction.

So it occurred to me very early on that the narrator, Dr James Sheppard, might be the killer. (If you’re still reading and you haven’t read it and now you’re annoyed because I’ve given away the ending YOU ARE A FUCKING MORON.) In hindsight, and of course we all love hindsight, it’s pretty obvious. But I can understand why it was so controverial and so revolutionary at the time. Unreliable narrators are all very well in literary fiction, but in popular fiction…. Whaaaat? And to be honest even now, almost a century after the book was written, as I toyed with the idea that the narrator might be the killer I thought “Nah, she wasn’t up for anytrhing that clever.”

This from the guy who loved Ten Little Niggers as a kid. Seriously, how clever can a piece of popular detective fiction get?

Although I have to admit that the writing in Niggers is a bit rougher, I think. I’ve flicked through it a few times and Roger seems much more polished. Perhaps, 13 years after the publication of her masterpiece, she didn’t feel the need to revise too much.

Anyhoo.

Christie’s decision to make the narrator – and Poirot’s stand-in sidekick – the killer has resulted in certain dills referring to this as metafictive and post-modern. Christie was educated and intelligent but I doubt, in 1926, she’d have been too familiar with the modernism of Woolf and Joyce, let alone the post-modernism that was the follow. Using the conventions of storytelling against a reader (or listener) does not make you post-modern, or meta, it just makes you – assuming you do it well – a good storyteller.

Christie was, allegedly, notoriously sexist and homophobic and elitist. Perhaps she was. But the few whiffs you get of such things reading Ackroyd seem deliberately ironic. There is a “Semitic” reference which to me seemed supedrfluois and probably nasty, but apart from that when prejudice is referenced it seems to be referenced pretty slightingly to me, certainly in terms of women and class. There are a few points at which she seems to be hinting at homoeroticism, but given I’m a poof that’s probably just me reading shit in.

I did a bit of research after finishing the book and one of the curious things I found is that apparently Caroline Sheppard – the narrator’s sister – is regarded by many readers as the most interesting character in the book. She’s hugely popular with readers. They love her. DA FUCK? Caroline annoyed the shit out of me. She was, according to some theories, the basis for Miss Marp[le. That might explain why Miss Marple annoys the shit out of me, too.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is not entirely convincing. There are one or two holes that doubtless fans will tell me would be plugged if I re-read. But even given what I suspect are discrepancies this was immensely enjoyable. Is it literature? What is literature? A lot of what passes for popular literature is rubbish. This isn’t rubbish. This is worth reading. Read it.

Or maybe Ten Little Niggers. NIGGERS!

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Beloved – Andy would like to be witty about slavery but, you know, it’s slavery…

December 19, 2012

We’ve said something like it before, Netty and I both, but Toni Morrison is the quintessential Challenge writer. The author of a book or books we’ve been meaning to get around to but for whatever reason …  Beloved, obviously,  is the book of Morrison’s we should’ve been getting around to.

And now we have.

belovedAnd it wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. I had this idea that Morrison would be a sublimely beautiful writer, and more often than not she is. Stupendously impressive? Yes. But not page after page, which perhaps unreasonably is what I expected. The supernatural elements of the novel didn’t wash with me entirely, although I consider myself to be the sort of psychopathically rational atheist who can on occasion suspend belief. Like, when I’m watching Lord of the Rings, maybe.

That said, I was pretty impressed.

I thought I knew a bit about slavery. And I did. But Morrison has given my understanding of slavery a depth I’m not entirely comfortable with. These days you can dismiss the Ku Klux Klan as a bunch of murderous psycho scum. Or you could, if you didn’t understand that their vicious, murderous sadism has roots in the racism that found slavery acceptable. I may be drawing a long bow here (although probably not, I’m sure it’s been said before), but in the Greco-Roman world, slavery was a more strictly financial arrangement: So yes, you were a slave, but the human being that owned you understood that you were a human being too. It’s just that it was OK to own humans. The enslavement of Africans was different. Africans weren’t human. Or at least they weren’t as human as white people. There’s a particularly odious scene in Beloved in which children are encouraged to differentiate between the “human” and “animal” attributes of particular slaves.  I remember seeing a doco in the 80s about South Africa, in which a defender of apartheid grabbed a black woman’s hand and pointed to the colour of her palm and said something like, See? Just like a monkey. I was 12 or 13 or something.

I thought I knew a bit about slavery and racism. But the savagery in Beloved left me reeling. Only slightly, I should say, if it’s possible to reel only slightly. I’m pretty well aware of what human beings are prepared to do to each other in extreme and sometimes not so extreme circumstances. It’s just that, rather naively, I guess,  I hadn’t realised the sadism descended to quite such appalling depths in the American South of the mid-1800s. And while I have no doubt there have been those who have said Morrison doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I have absolutely no doubt at all. She knows exactly what she’s talking about.

Anyway, enough of that bollocks. What about the book?

I loved the way Morrison tells her story. Throughout the novel there are things happening at five or more different points in time, between the story’s earliest moments and its last (and these moments do not correspond exactly with the book’s beginning and its end). Things are told, and they are not entirely explicable, and then other things will be told that will explain some though not all of the previously inexplicable things but perhaps reveal other not entirely explicable things, which may or may not be explained at a later point. Beloved is definitely a novel to be reread – one reading gets you to the end understanding, essentially, what has happened, but not comprehending things completely. It’s not linear and it’s not compartmentalised, and perspective within scenes sometimes flicks from character to character – something I’m rather opposed to, both as a writer and a reader, although Morrison pulls it off.

Curiously, while it is obviously a novel that explores racism, I’m not sure it’s a novel that explores sexism. Most of what the female characters endure they endure because they’re black slaves, not because they’re women. Both male and female slaves are subjected to sexual violence, although what the female slaves endure is far more horrific (heterosexual males might disagree with me on this one). So perhaps not a novel about sexism, but without doubt a feminist novel – in that it depicts women, strong women, battling and surviving and triumphing, at least a little bit, against the odds. Those odds are skewed against them mostly because of their ethnicity rather than their gender. Netty is probably going to disagree with me on this, and given that I’m a self-absorbed sodomite male, she’s probably right.

There are a handful of chapters/sections towards the end of the novel that are particularly impressive, breaking with what Morrison has done earlier to present things in first person from the perspectives of Sethe, Denver and Beloved. Beloved’s is quite haunting because, while it presumably describes her time in the afterlife, it reads like a description of the slave ship passage from Africa to the Americas.

I’m also curious about the house number. 124. 2 is 1 plus 1, and 4 is 2 plus 2. I don’t do numerology, obviously, rational atheist and all. But perhaps Morrison does. One plus one equals two, and two plus two equals four. 124. I’m not sure how many times you’d have to do this ’til you get to 60 million…

Finally, and perhaps least interestingly, the question I guess everybody asks themselves about this book: Did Sethe do the right thing by murdering her daughter? If you’re worried, I’m not giving anything away.This is on the back cover of my copy. My answer is yes. She did the right thing. A lifetime of slavery versus a knife in the throat at eighteen months? Give me the knife.

That said, apparently, Beloved disagreed.

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The Mosquito Coast – Andy goes feral with Theroux

December 2, 2012

“Oh god,” the owner of my favourite secondhand bookshop said when I told him I was looking for a novel by Paul Theroux. “A really boring travel writer and an even worse novelist!” He was no fan of Nadine Gordimer, either. Or Doris Lessing, although I didn’t ask about her,  he just threw her into the mix. I have no idea if he’s right about Lessing. I concur with him on Gordimer. But I disagree on Theroux.

I was supposed to read My Secret History, one of Netty’s favourite books, but finding a copy proved impossible. So I settled for The Mosquito Coast, another of Theroux’s novels Netty has read and one that another of my favourite secondhand bookshops had on its shelves, in a rather handsome year-of-publication hardback edition. Not a first edition though, sadly. (I do have a first edition of Gore Vidal’s Myron, his sequel to Myra Breckinridge, which Netty blogged on a few months back. Rather have a first edition of Myra, but there you go.)

theroux.mosquitoIf you haven’t seen the movie – and I hadn’t until last week, and I need to watch it again because I was a tad, err, under the weather at the time – The Mosquito Coast is narrated by Charlie Fox, eldest son of Allie Fox, an inventor and, err, eccentric. A man of arguably extreme and certainly muscular views. Tired of America, Fox relocates his family to a wild, unsettled area of Honduras. Things here are tough for a bit, but then they get better. Allie creates not just a functioning family compound but an ice machine, and is very proud of himself. Not everybody is quite so impressed, but Charlie and the other kids seem reasonably happy, and reasonably proud of their dad.

And then things go wrong.

And then they get worse.

And then things get really, really bad.

And then there’s the bit at the end, a piece of grotesque poetic justice that Peter Weir wimped out on in the movie. So you’d have lost your PG rating, Pete. Big deal. That scene – monstrous, and shocking, and monstrously, shockingly thrilling – should’ve been in the movie.

Anyway.

On the strength of this novel, and it’s all of his I’ve read, Theroux is not a great writer. He’s good, though. Seriously good. Unlike Cormac McCarthy, say, countless sentences do not jump out screaming I AM THE WORK OF A GENIUS.  Theroux’s style in understated, deceptively pedestrian. There’s wit, certainly, and there are occasional, wonderful moments of poetry. The Mosquito Coast was published in 1981, 14 years after Theroux’s first novel. It has the feel of an established, mid-career writer, comfortable with his limitations and prepared perhaps to nudge and explore those limitations, rather than overextend himself and produce a mess. It’s a really, really well-written yarn. And as a yarn it’s awesome.

There’s more going on here than a yarn, of course, and this counts towards Theroux’s skill as a writer and a storyteller. On one level it’s an exploration of the father-son dynamic – father as despot, son as traitor. Charlie is aware from the outset of his father’s shortcomings, which makes his attempts, late in the novel, to support and defend him quite poignant (if also infuriating). It’s also a perhaps reactionary look at the idea that all utopias must, by their nature, descend into totalitarianism. Allie Fox wants to believe he is an idealist; ultimately he’s a deluded bully. There are points that could be made about colonialism and the West’s cultural arrogance, as well, although Theroux cleverly muddies those waters by having Allie espouse ideas that sound like Western elitism, but then having him abandon them and berate himself for ever having held them. Making him look even more deluded than he was in the first place – and he looked deluded enough then.

The Mosquito Coast is not a great book. But then apparently The Sportswriter is. And if you were to ask me which of these books you should read, I’d tell you The Mosquito Coast. Without hesitation. And if you were then to say to me, But I should get around to The Sportswriter, yeah? I’d probably shrug and say something like, If you’ve got the time.

Make of that what you will.

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Love Poems – Andy doesn’t quite fall for the poetry of Dorothy Porter

December 11, 2011

I first encountered Dorothy Porter in the mid- to late-’90s, when my then best friend (who hasn’t spoken to me for longer than we knew each other in the first place, but then lesbians are like that sometimes) loaned me a copy of The Monkey’s Mask. I remember being impressed, rather than blown away.

The same could be said for this volume of love poetry. Impressive, but not explosively so.

Some poets – Thom Gunn springs to mind, especially in his early phase – are difficult. Possibly deliberately difficult, certainly noticeably so. Porter isn’t that kind of poet. She lurks at the other end of the spectrum, her words deceptively simple, easy in fact almost too easy to read, poems you feel you’ve devoured in a few seconds, sometimes a minute or two. Easy peasy.

Thom Gunn’s difficult poems don’t always unlock when you read them again. And even if you feel you’re making some headway into what’s going on often what you get doesn’t seem just reward for the effort you’ve invested. I’m talking about Gunn’s earlier stuff here, obviously; his later poetry is often much more accessible on first reading, and richly rewards revisitation.

Porter’s poems can seem slight. OK, so you went for a drive along the beach with some chick – oh yeah, you’re a lesbian, yeah we got that bit – and you smoked some cigarettes and then you did something in the back of the car or maybe you didn’t maybe you just had a quick snog on the doorstep of this flat she lives in or that maybe you live in or possibly someone else  anyway it’s got a great view of Sydney Harbour although that beach we were driving along before that beach was in Manly.

None of Porter’s poems contains all of these elements,  although I think you’ll find all of them if you read all of this volume. Still, you read a poem about two people in a car and you get to the end and it’s just a poem about a couple of people in a car. Rewind, re-read, and it’s still a poem about two people in a car – but there’s a delicious surreptitiousness to the imagery she employs, there’s almost a deception going on sometimes. Re-read her poetry and realise that what look like throwaway lines are carefully constructed and richly imagined. Almost invisibly poetic.

Some people will tell you – tell me – that’s what poetry is supposed to be, you fucking moron. And deliciously surreptitious sounds like something Matt Preston would say on fucking MasterChef. Dickhead. They’re probably right. It’s just that a lot of poetry isn’t remotely like that at all. Porter’s is, though.

An example – probably not the best, but a favourite from early in the collection and very short, so easily reproduced:

COMETS I

There’s a white-blue nerve burning

across my night sky

I wish it hurt to watch

because then

I might stop.

Not impressed? Read it again.

Still not impressed? Read it again.

Porter has some interesting obsessions. Birds. Minoan mythology (one of her books was called Crete). Astronomy. Oh, and flange, obviously. Her poetry is littered – though not heavily – with references to lesbian sex. It’s not often explicit, although lines three and four of the first poem in this collection – “you’re a wet socket/of white sea” made me upchuck in my mouth if only very slightly. Problematically for me, being a) gay, and therefore pathologically obsessed with sex; but also b) gay, and therefore not terribly interested in ladies’ bits, sometimes I read these poems and possibly placed an interpretation upon them that was not intended. As in, perhaps I’m  completely deluded, and references to white seas and wet sockets actually mean …

OK, let’s not go there.

This collection has a few weaknesses. For the most part the song lyrics don’t work. Netty wants to hear them in context, with Paul Grabowski’s music. Fine. Buy the CD. They shouldn’t be in a collection of poetry. I’m not sure that extracts from her lyric novels should be here either, although some of the poetry on display is blisteringly good. Akenhaten, in which she imagines a pharoah’s sexual obsession with his younger brother, is particularly impressive. And no, I don’t want to root my brothers. Either of them. Ever. Did you get that? EVER. Hopefully they won’t be too offended by that. There is good stuff in extracts from The Monkey’s Mask and Wild Surmise (the last two words of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, incidentally … Coincidence?) but if I am going to read a collection of Porter’s poetry I would prefer to read it as she intended it to be read.

Her songs should be available to listen to, and it is. Her verse novels should be available to read in their entirety, and they are. And her stand-alone poetry needs to be compiled as a collection. Presumably this is happening now and will be available in the next year or two. If it’s not happening it should be. She is significant enough an Aussie writer to be receive that honour.

And this collection, impressive as it is for the most part, does not quite do her the justice she deserves.

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The Book of Illusions – Andy still doesn’t know how to pronounce “Auster”

November 27, 2011

I like to think it’s Oster. But I guess it’s probably Ouster. Would prefer it to be the first, I have to say. Not sure why.

I was completely won over by Auster’s New York Trilogy, and I seem to remember that Netty quite liked it too. I can’t remember if I had to fight to get it on the Revisited List (or whatever we’re calling this bit) this year, but he was a monty for me. Any writer who can not only overcome my distaste for post-modernism and metafiction, but win me over so utterly, deserves a second look.

With The Book of Illusions, Auster does it again. Possibly even more convincingly.

Before we begin… This post may contain spoilers. Or it may not. I haven’t really decided yet. That’s helpful, isn’t it?

David Zimmer, an academic, has lost his wife and two children in a plane crash. He’s effectively become a moribund drunk. Late one night his alcohol-bleared TV surfing leads him to a documentary about silent film stars. One of them, one he’d never heard of before, lodges in his mind and his imagination. Hector Mann made a small number of short comedies at the end of the silent era – and then disappeared. Zimmer becomes obsessed, tracks down and watches all of the existing Mann comedies, takes copious notes, collates his research, writes a book … and then one day a letter arrives …

I’ll dispense with the quibbles I had with the book first. There are a couple of weird, awkward moments early in the book that I think Auster tries to use to convey Zimmer’s blighted state of mind. One involves some drunken unpleasantness at a party, the other a minor car accident. Neither seem terribly necessary and neither works terribly well. But this might be because a) I don’t go to parties much; b) I don’t drive; and c) like Zimmer I’m a solitary drunk, and for me the embarrassments you inflict upon yourself drunk, in your own company, are often far more devastating than those others witness. Or maybe I’m making that bit up. Anyway, those couple of episodes are well written but not particularly well executed – but then they didn’t form vital elements of the narrative.

Arguably more important is the central slab of the book in which Zimmer is given the story of Mann’s life after he disappeared (no, he wasn’t dead, but that’s not really a spoiler because you get that bit from the blurb on the back cover). This is brilliantly written – I’m told Auster has written some not terribly awesome words, although I am yet to encounter them – but this is almost a weakness. The writing is superb but it sometimes doesn’t really feel like something Zimmer is being told – by someone, incidentally, who hadn’t experienced it herself but who is conveying details she herself has been told. So we are getting this account of Mann’s life third-hand from Zimmer – and yet it zings off the page with a vibrancy and an intimacy that belies its emotional and temporal distance. So a little unbelievable, perhaps. And yet beautiful to read. And utterly compulsive. And, unlike the party scene and the accident, so well executed that the reader is prepared to gloss over its unlikely details.

Like the New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions is a mystery, although it’s as different to those three stories as they were to each other. For the most part here the mystery is solved – although given that everything Zimmer is told is essentially hearsay there’s a wee leap of faith involved in that assumption. There are mysteries for the first third of the book, which then seem to be cleared up, for the most part; but then towards the end other mysteries arise and these, again, are only unravelled through a third party. Zimmer has a few things to hang his hat on – a fleeting meeting with an ancient man he is convinced is Hector Mann; a viewing of a film, one of many Mann is supposed to have made after he disappeared from Hollywood in the 2os. But really he only has the word of others to rely on. I don’t know that this is what Auster means by calling his novel The Book of Illusions – is the novel itself a collections of illusions? Perhaps. Certainly the conclusion, for my money (OK I’ve decided not to be toooooo much of a spoiler) is quite delusional – which puts me at odds with many of the critics. Auster brings his story “safely to earth with a very human simplicity”, says one critic on the back cover. Um. OK then. “The reader comes away from the dark ending of The Book of Illusions with a sense of hope,” says another. Really? A sense of humour, hopefully, and a dark one at that, but I don’t know about a sense of hope. “An emotional puzzle of one man’s broken heart that the author mends, page by ingenious page.” Well perhaps, arguably, if by “mends” you mean brings him to the point where he has to fantasise about the circumstances he has found himself in to survive. But perhaps that is one of Auster’s postmodernisty, metafictivy, existentialisty, nihilisticy points – that we all delude ourselves to get from one day to the next. Which is bollocks, IMHO, but if that is his point then by fuck he’s made it spectacularly. If not terribly convincingly. For me, at least.

The Book of Illusions is a book about cinema. Film. About images. About stories. About making films, and making stories. Telling stories. Making the stories you’re telling seem like the truth. Deluding people. Deluding yourself. Creating illusions. There are weaknesses but they are minor. This is seriously impressive fiction.

As with Roth and Bukowski, I am left wanting to read more of Auster. Right now. I have other things to do, unfortunately, other things to read, other things to write (hopefully). But I’ve already managed to get another Bukowski under my belt this year, in addition to Ham on Rye (and I can also, thanks to a certain Scotsman, heartily recommend Factotum). Roth will get a guernsey soon enough. And so will Auster.