Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The sense of a thin book

I am always taken aback when I hear a fellow reader declare that he/she doesn't like thick books. Isn't that as silly as saying you don't like fat friends? Just imagine how boring your life would be if all your books and all your friends were perfectly slim!

My books are my friends and, like my real living friends, I like them in all shapes and shades: thin and fat and in-between, old and young, sad and serious and funny, easy-going and difficult-to-understand... Variety really is the spice of reading and of friendship.

Different books, like different friends, correspond to different moods and needs. At home, especially in winter, I love to relax next to the fireplace with a glass of red wine and a big, fat, swirling, overwhelming novel. In summer, especially when I travel, I tend to go for small, slight books, often volumes of poetry or short stories, for obvious practical reasons. I'm not talking of e-books, of course, I'm talking of real paper books with which I can travel lightly, books I can read on a deserted beach, in a foamy bath, on the deck of a yacht, in a tent by the light of a torch or next to a ridiculously crowded swimming pool. To name but a few of the places I've found myself reading during recent summer holidays.

And sometimes I stumble upon a really thin, practically perfect little novel that turns ordinary summer reading into an extraordinary experience. The Vintage paperback copy of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I read outside during a heat wave last weekend, has only 150 pages - but oh, what wonders await the reader on almost every page! 'Barnes squeezes into it not just a sense of the infinite complexity of the human heart but the damage the wrong permutations can cause when combined' - this was the praise bestowed upon him by the venerable Financial Times - to which I can only say amen.

It is a deceptively simple tale, told in an irresistibly informal style by a wistful, often ironic first-person narrator. This is the way the divorced and retired civil servant Tony Webster, calmly and quietly living out his last years, describes his relationship with his only child, Suzie:

She's thirty-three, maybe thirty-four. Yes, thirty-four. We haven't had any sort of falling-out since I sat in the front row of an oak-panelled municipal room and then did my job as a witness. I remember thinking at the time that I was signing off on her - or, more exactly, signing myself off. Duty done, one child safely seen to the temporary harbour of marriage. Now all you have to do is not get Alzheimer's and remember to leave her such money as you have. And you could try to do better than your parents by dying when the money will actually be of use to her. That'd be a start.

And further down on the same page (102) he treats us to his ironic view of his role as a grandfather:

'You can take Lucas to watch football when he's older,' she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch (...) How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you've even understood what life's about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football. 

But an unexpected lawyer's letter shatters his peaceable existence and forces him to recall an almost forgotten episode from his youth. As an insecure university student, he lost his clever girlfriend to one of his best friends, the brilliant philosophy student Adrian Finn - who shortly thereafter slashed his wrists in a bath,  justifying this dramatic last act in an intricate 'suicide note' (which read more like a moral treaty) 'about the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you'.

Tony Webster, seeing himself as a prime example of a passive person merely letting life happen to him, has always regarded Adrian Finn as some sort of philosophical hero, but the surprising letter from the lawyer of the long-lost former girlfriend's family raises many more questions than it answers. The most important questions are about memory and morality, about the fallibility and subjectivity of both, and Webster has to start investigating - or re-investigating - his own past:

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves. (Page 95)

At this point the story Webster tells us - but, mainly, himself - becomes as gripping as a thriller, 'a whodunnit of memory and morality', as the Independent newspaper aptly called it. The concluding scenes deliver one shock after another, right up to the stunning last sentence: There is great unrest.

Hats off to Julian Barnes, who deservedly won the previous Man Booker Prize with this thin little book dealing with all the Big Themes of literature: love and hate, family and friendship, life and death. Truly a master's class in concise yet entertaining storytelling.

And now I'm off to read another small masterpiece perfectly suitable for summer: Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Maintains, set in the sweltering heat of Lisbon in the summer of 1938 ...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I love Paris...

Henry James is certainly not what I'd call light summer reading. But after enjoying Michiel Heyns's latest novel, Invisible Furies, I've been tempted to wade against my usual summer laziness and dip into The Ambassadors again.

As anyone who has followed Heyns's late-blooming literary career should know, he is quite the master when it comes to the work of The Master. He published his debut novel, The Children's Day, in 2002, shortly before retiring as a professor of literature at the University of Stellenbosch, and has since been making up for lost time, as it were, publishing no less than six acclaimed novels in the past decade and 'fast becoming one of South Africa's most respected novelists', according to The Sunday Independent. This year he has already received two important local literary prizes for his previous novel, Lost Ground, and seems to be finally gaining the recognition he deserves.

But to get back to James: Michiel Heyns's second novel, The Typewriter's Tale (2005), is a fictionalised biography of a period in James's life, seen through the eyes of a typist to whom The Master dictates the long, winding, complicated and often ironic sentences that make his novels rather difficult to read - not ideal for 'beach reading' - a hundred years later. But Heyns's own highly developed sense of irony turns this subject with the potential weight of a chainball into something light enough to float, never too serious or inaccessible. Henry James made, well, not exactly easy - no one would want to do that to James - but delightfuly digestible.

And now Heyns has done it again, although this time he returns to James in a more oblique way, by using The Ambasssadors - which was apparently James's favourite among his own novels - as the frame on which he weaves his modern-day take on 'dear old Paris', where 'everything, everybody shows'. (Quoting James, not Heyns.)

'You've all of you here so much visual sense,' remarks Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors (a mild and middle-aged American who is sent to Paris to lure his wealthy fiancĂ©e's prodigal son back home), before adding: 'There are moments when it strikes one that you haven't any other.'      

This same 'visual sense' almost overwhelms Heyns's protagonist, Christopher Turner (a mild and middle-aged South African sent to Paris to lure his wealthy best friend's prodigal son back home), who is enchanted by the Beautiful People he meets and starts questioning his own staid life and tired loyalties. Heyns cleverly places most of his Parisian characters in the fashion world - models, designers, make-up artists, agents and claqueurs (young men who are paid to look good and applaud at fashion shows) - an environment ruled by appearances even more, if that seems possible, than the rest of Paris.

You don't have to have read The Ambassadors to appreciate Heyns's  novel, but it does add to the pleasure if you can connect the dots between the story lines and the characters of the two novels. Some even share the same name, like Gloriani who is an admired artist in The Ambassadors and an admired fashion designer in Invisible Furies, and who rather reminded me of the real-life designer Armani - although of course the author might have had someone completely different in mind. As for the outrageously brash Alessandra Giovanelli with the dead designer brother, well, you don't have to be a fashion slave to remark the resemblance with a certain Donatella Versace...

But if all these fashion references make you fear a concoction as light and fluffily French as choux pastry, then you obviously haven't seen Master Heyns work his magic yet. Au contraire, Invisible Furies is actually quite a serious meditation on  beauty, superficiality and the way the eye can deceive, as well as an exploration of a theme dear to the author's heart: the tension between the homeland and the wide world out there. In Lost Ground the protagonist returns to the small Karoo dorp of his youth after living abroad for most of his life, while in Invisible Furies Christopher Turner returns to the great city of Paris for the first time in thirty years after spending all of his life in South Africa. Heyns manages all this while retaining his light and ironic touch, so that the book never becomes too heavy to read on the beach - or better still, on a park bench in Paris, if you're lucky enough to visit Paris this summer.

Because, maybe above all else, the book is an ode of love to an eternally beautiful city. If you love Paris - and who doesn't, come on, honestly? - you'll probably find the book as hard to resist as the city. Bon voyage, if you're travelling in that way. And happy reading, even if you're not.