Thursday 31 July 2014

Book review: An Echo of Heaven, Kenzaburo Oe (1996)

This is another of Oe's explorations of faith, belief and the transcendent, along the lines of the more recent Somersault - his book about a religious cult that came out in English in 2003. In a way this novel functions within his opus as a prefiguring of that book. Here, Oe even elucidates his ideas about the novel as a 'incarnation' in the same way that Christ was an 'incarnation' of God, thus roughing out the lineaments of an aesthetic formula to follow. I had to ask my local independent bookseller to get this for me but they found it online; this copy once belonged to some library in New Jersey. It has travelled far, like its author, who has a number of novels as yet untranslated.

The book uses a number of familiar - to readers of Oe - tropes, such as the disabled child, the religious leader, and the search for transcendence. In it Marie is the main character, although we most closely follow the person and reactions of K, the author who eventually writes the book we read. Her name is pronounced Mari-Eh, in the Japanese way, but in English it also works well enough. A woman weighed down by a terrible domestic tragedy, Marie is a seeker whose quest takes her to America and eventually to Mexico, where she is involved in an agrarian commune. The last five years of her story - on the farm in rural Mexico - are the least satisfying for the reader. Presumably, Oe, who didn't know the place very well, kept a discrete distance.

There are other things about Marie however that serve to make her attractive. Her attraction in a sexual sense to K is evident, and she also has relationships with other men in the story. Beyond the purely physical attraction however there is also her appeal as a symbol of grief, and it is something like this that makes her attractive to the Mexican commune leadership. I doubt that Oe would appreciate having his characters so readily labelled in this way but there are indicators in the text that he himself is prone to this kind of habit of glossing. Oe is a slightly odd figure in Japanese letters, as he tends to refer most commonly to Western precedents - in this book there is a section where K introduces Marie to Frieda Kahlo, for example, and in other books we see Oe struggling with the mystic William Blake. With one foot in Japan and the other placed firmly in Europe, Oe has some kind of ability to appeal to readers in both places, and this is something that I regard as a kind of strength in his writing.

For Oe enthusiasts, An Echo of Heaven is certainly something that should be read. As usual with Oe, the sinuous and complex sentences always find their fitting end, and function to bring to life a set of compelling characters whose stories mesh into a satisfying whole. As always with Oe there is a quiet kind of energy that takes time to germinate into striking images, but once you see them, you will never forget them.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Book review: A French Novel, Frederic Beigbeder (2013)

This funny and epigrammatic novel - sort of like the best of Jane Austen - by French author Frederic Beigbeder (pronounced 'beg-bed-air') is a novel like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was a "non fiction novel", as the author self-consciously once dubbed it. In fact it's a memoir but it's written in the novelistic style we call 'creative non fiction'.

The premis is simple. Arrested by the Paris police for consuming drugs in a public place, Beigbeder is forced into confinement. Long lost memories bubble up in this pressure-cooker environment. The author likens the dependency and subjection of childhood to imprisonment. So he writes a history not only of himself (we seem to spend a lot of time between 1972 and 1974) but also of his family, starting with WWI, as so much of French national history, you imagine, must also do. In the kind of scientific and imaginative way we expect with the French, Biegbeder seeks as well to locate himself within French history - hence the book's title. It's a very compelling journey during which apart from learning you also tend to empathise, to shift the centre of your own soul's gravity so that it is located somewhere closer to that of the book's protagonist.

The young Frederic's parents were divorced, for example, so you compare his experience with your own (the author was born in 1965, I was born in 1962) and you enjoy the passages in which the narrator digests his experience and uses it to make general observations on the world. Complex and worldly, tender and intricate, the narrative carries the reader along with its flow like some broad estuary situated near a warm ocean. We spill out into the sea and swim for the horizon. With this kind of talent nothing is impossible, you think.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Book review: Point to Point Navigation, Gore Vidal (2006)

Having read through Edmund White's books about Paris (you can see the reviews on this blog) it occurred to me how American expatriates sooner or later return to their homeland, and because I knew about Gore Vidal - another lettered, gay American living in Europe out of preference to his native country - it behooved me to visit this memoir.

It was published three years after Vidal's partner of many decades, Howard Auster, died as a result of a lifetime of smoking. Those chapters are devastating for someone, like me, who recently gave up the habit. Vidal never wrote another memoir; he himself died six years after this book came out. It's clear that one of the main reasons for Vidal's moving back Stateside was in order to access the superior health system that country offers. (Although this depends; when White returned to teach at a US university with his lover, the lover, who had AIDS, had a health crisis; the two had to return to France because the lover was not American and did not have health cover.) Like Vidal, White moved back to the US eventually - after 16 years in Paris , in his case, far less than Vidal clocked up in Italy - and he now teaches there.

Vidal's memoir was supposed to start in the mid-sixties and go on from there; there had been a previous memoir, Palimpsest, which was published in the 90s. But it doesn't. It starts with his childhood, so people curious about what the author got up to in, say, the 90s might be disappointed with this book. There is a part of the memoir where Vidal matches his movements to his publishing of novels - having just arrived in Rome, he spends a month writing Myra Breckinridge, one of the novels he is most famous for - but this case is the exception rather than the rule. If there was a determined pattern for the author to follow it eludes me. The memoir is episodic and surprising. So what can it offer the reader who is not the sort of person who reads absolutely everything by and about Gore Vidal?

There's the amusing voice, full of laughter and the wisdom of age, for a start. Vidal saw a lot of American history in the 20th century first-hand due to his family connections, his politicking, and his work for TV, cinema and in publishing books. He was a regular on TV shows in his heyday (say, in the 60s and 70s) and his almost permanent absence overseas seems not to have dimmed his appeal for the public. In short, Vidal was a player, but also a liberal and an ambitious, talented man. So I think he's worth listening to, if you can find a couple of days to read through his final memoir.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Book review: Inside A Pearl, Edmund White (2014)

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed here another White book about Paris, one published 13 years prior to this one, but they are not similar even though some material from The Flaneur makes its way, changed to fit the setting, into this one. Inside A Pearl is a gossipy memoir that demonstrates the empirical tradition within which Anglosphere authors operate. There are generalisations - some are catty, others are sweet - but they all devolve out of reminiscences of people White met during his 16 years living in the French capital. Rather than being a book merely about people, as opposed to a book about pure ideas, Inside A Pearl is a book in which ideas evolve out of discussions of people.

I felt like I was standing in front of someone with a machine gun that only shot bullets made from Turkish delight.

There is however a structure in this very literary memoir, and as the pages wind down there is another lover - White must have been a very sweet man to have attracted so many men into his life. He divulges attitudes toward other objects too, of course, not the least of which being the leading lights of literary London, the social lights of Paris, the lights of Berlin's movie industry, the lights of New York's gay community. White's life is a life lit by candles held by posterity for its better scrutiny of what transpired. Through all of this, however, is White's friendship for MC, a woman who befriended him when he moved to Paris and who remained a friend throughout his sojourn.

The book also has a soft landing but there are plenty of passages where the treatment meted out to others is rather candid. An author well-known to many but ignored by probably more in his homeland might have more need to find a resort in a foreign country, even if he was a stringer for several magazines back home. Such a writer may even attempt to become an expert on France, or at least on Paris, thus curtailing debate. In my mind, having read White in my youth, he hardly has to prove his worth, but I'm glad that he has taken the time required to turn out this rather long book. We are all richer for the observations that have been captured in this format.

Monday 14 July 2014

Book review: To Begin To Know, David Leser (2014)

Australian literary journalism has its lights but ever since I studied journalism at uni, beginning in '06, when this blog was established, David Leser has been one of the leading ones. For me this book stands as a turning point in that history: a thrilling and insightful, and deeply human, portrayal of a man's life. Because while it's ostensibly about David's father the book is more correctly a memoir. It might be that there was just so much to tell - David clearly loves his father very much, and the feeling is reciprocated - that the only way to do it justice was to include the whole shebang.

For me particularly there were furthermore many points of commonality. The executive father, the private school, the housewife mother, the help in first jobs, the exclusive postcode, the interest in journalism. For others there will be similarities in the late-30s stumble, the broken marriage, the striving for success - these are probably almost universal things that we all share. But for me there was so much I could identify with that I actually started to be both moved and enthralled at each point of turning.

David Leser's sophisticated style also made this an easy book to read. Unlike so many boring biographies, David does not just start with birth and go on from there. Things are introduced when they're needed. There are radical shifts in perspective and large jumps in time and space. These things are needed if you want to make sense of something as complex as a life - in a sense, two lives, those of both David and his father, the publishing magnate Bernard Leser. And there are certain times in life when certain things are accomplished: marriage for example. For David the puzzle became more complex when he started to have trouble sleeping. His life took a new tangent and the family relocated from Sydney to Byron Bay where he would live for the following 12 years. The place allowed David to explore the growth and flourishing of the counterculture within himself - the seeds that had been planted during his childhood through American popular culture. And then the decision to write the book - the seeds that had been planted during his sojourn in New Orleans when he had first read the works of Truman Capote.

I loved this book and would like to recommend it highly but I feel a certain hesitancy in doing so because the story feels to sit so close beside my own. But maybe this is the secret David Leser has uncovered. Whatever the case of the matter, I read through to the end hardly able to restrain myself from skipping ahead to the next paragraph, the next page. Which is hardly ever something you see used to describe one's reading of a memoir.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Book review: The Flaneur, Edmund White (2001)

I'm not sure what I envisaged when I purchased this book but having finished it the title seems slightly dishonest. White lived in France, he says, between the ages of 43 and 60 (I lived in Japan between the ages of 30 and 39, so he has some advantage over me were I ever to write about flanant in Tokyo), and so has a claim to understand Paris but his choice of topics - the book is divided into six chapters that each covers a specific area of interest - suggests an American rather than a French mentality. He describes why himself. In his chapter on gay (as in, homosexual) Paris, for example, White concludes that the specific tone of French egalitarianism precludes natives from identifying as, say, gay writers. Identifying with a minority is, somehow, illegitimate for the French, he tells us. But nevertheless there's a chapter on American blacks in Paris and one on the Jews. But he points right near the end of the book to "those little forgotten places that appeal to the flaneur, the traces left by people living in the margins" and it's hard to know if this was added as an afterthought to justify the author's idiosyncratic subject choices, or chapter themes, or if it had been a deliberate organising principle from the very beginning of the work.

I admit I was expecting a bit more footing around. The only places White actually describes walking are when he talks about Baudelaire's curious way of walking the pavements, and when he describes hunting for rough trade on the Ile de la Citee on nights that passed during his sojourn in Paris. Apart from that we are given more historical information than details about the actual appearance of the Parisian streets.

So the subtitle of the book is not quite accurate. More accurate would have been 'An American progressive's version of Paris' or some such. Which does not mean the book is not worth reading. It is. Just do not expect a tour guide or a dolorous account of slipping among the raindrops down dim cobbled streets around dinner time. (Which would have been preferable from my point of view.) This is a cultured American gentleman's version of Paris and it's worth a look even though the word "flaneur" tends to appear only occasionally, as the beginning of sections, being soon eclipsed by something of more pressing interest to the writer, such as Jazz Age performers and the current claimant for the Bourbon throne.