home again...

... after a week in a porta-cabin in Hampton Court Palace. Things learned this week: the RHS Rose of the Year is called Absolutely Fabulous, but bears no resemblance to Joanna Lumley; high-vis jackets are effective replacements for access-all-areas tickets, but Kingston-Upon-Thames doesn't have many places worth the effort of sporting said jacket all day; there are people out there bearing the noble surname 'Pustygina.' For serious.

Anyway, I got much reading done during the week, and much drinking, ate many a Kit-Kat and triangular sandwich, and wrote not a word. Today I've mostly eaten cake and ice-cream and popcorn, and weather-dependent, might head to the pub soon. It does feel like a well-deserved Saturday.

On the other hand, I just finished reading a book (The Right Hand of Sleep, by John Wray) that I picked up following some sort of online review, but I can't recall where the review was posted, and that's irritating, because I found the book very disappointing, and I'd like to reread that review. The novel is about the rise of Nazism in Austria, and it follows the experiences of an Austrian man who had deserted from WW1 and, hearing about the Bolsheviks, went to live in the Ukraine, spent years in a Soviet work-camp, and eventually returns to his hometown (near Villach) in 1938, following the death of his Ukrainian partner - his return coinciding with the annexation of Austria to Hitler's Germany. I've only just put it down, but it annoyed me, so here are my thoughts on the matter:

It's compelling material, and the book is certainly well-written, well-composed - each sentence is beautifully formed, the imagery is fantastic, the sense of place is powerfully evoked. The author's attention to detail is admirable, and he's got a great tactile sense. In many ways it's a resonant book, but only in so far as I can lift out sentences from the narrative and admire them in isolation. The problem I had was with the characters. It's not that they're one-dimensional stereotypes, they're all complex and laden with conflicts and guilt and confusions, but they're still essentially wooden. They read as if the writer was using them as vehicles to explore the nooks and crannies of political ambiguities and nuances, and while at one level there's nothing wrong with that (fiction can deconstruct politics til the cows come home), the characters need to be more than puppets for a critique of society. We have to believe in them as real people first and foremost before we can believe in or care about their politics. This is where the whole thing came crashing down for me. The entire book felt like an exercise on writing, on creating the perfectly formed scene and the admirable sentence, and what it lacked was life, energy, blood. The narration toggles between a third person voice and two different first person points of view, and not of the three came alive for me - the two first person accounts didn't even sound especially distinct, so why bother? Despite the horrible things that happened to these people, they just didn't seem like real individuals that I'd cry about or wonder about. So I found it a very sterile read.

On the back cover, the Literary Review says that 'the clarity of Wray's prose style both belies and reveals the depth and scope of his concerns.' Okay. But the 'clarity' of the prose also acted as a distancing mechanism for me. Form over function, I'd say; if you're hoping to highlight the horror of the personal experience in a time of political persecution, you want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the personal. You want to make me care about these people; not about your ability to perfectly describe a butterfly or the ripple of of light on the bed of a stream - however beautiful those images may be. Or, on the other hand, you maybe want to push the horror of the depersonalisation of the individual by showing the vast repetition and scale of the crimes, like I think Bolano was doing in the murders section of 2666, or Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago and others. But Wray's book is about a small group of individuals in a small town, so I've got to care about those individuals, or the message is lost. The war, the Holocaust was reprehensible for many reasons, but a huge one is the way that people were ripped of their individuality, their humanity, and objectified - so, for me, if you are to write about it, the humanity, the life of your characters is the most important element, the one that ought to be the focus of the work, the heart of it.

Anyone else read it? Agree or disagree? Regardless, though the man can surely write, I'm not very inclined to look up his other two books.

End rant. Dinner, I think.

No comments: