Saturday, April 21, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #14

Booker Book #13: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Alas, this is the first Booker prize winner at which I shake my head and say, wow, must have been a dry year.

Offshore is about a motley crew of folks who live in barges on the Thames. The novelette begins with a meeting on the boat of the most disciplined of these river rats, at which he calls all the boatowners by their vessels’ names:

“Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?” Richard asked.
Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

After that bit of surreal humor, it’s pretty much downhill from there. There’s a gigolo whose boat is being used as a sort of Ali Baba’s cavern. A single mom and her two daughters. An unhappy couple. An elderly artist trying to sell his leaky tub (the Dreadnought). And the most domestic couple, who end up taking in most of the others, including the pregnant cat, but whom we hardly get to know at all.

The best part of this bewilderingly short narrative is the girls, who know their bit of river and its tidal tables like the backs of their grimy hands. But the lovely vignette about their discovery of some antique tiles peters out into nothing, like Offshore’s narrative. It’s all wet.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Booker Book #12: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch

My copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea features this blurb on the cover: “A rich, crowded, magical love story.” At first glance, the aptest word here is “crowded.”

Theatre professional Charles Arrowby has retired to a tiny village on an obscure northern coast of the U.K. He starts keeping a diary in his newly-purchased home, recounting his explorations of his little corner of rock and sea. But in no time at all, his secluded house is as crowded as the London he left behind: with old lovers, their jealous husbands, one runaway son, and mysterious cousin James.

I shouldn’t even begin to attempt to untangle the romantic mess Arrowby is in, but here’s the quick and dirty: it just so happens that his one childhood love is in the same village – with her bully of a husband. Arrowby’s plan to spirit her away turns into a three-ring circus fueled by obsession and wine. The only fully sane and serene person seems to be cousin James, who remains, unfortunately, on the periphery until the end.

All the different flavors of love found here, straight and gay, December and May, seem to dissolve like the sunset over the sea when faced with the unfaded brilliance of Arrowby’s childhood ties – to his first sweetheart, but also to his cousin.

It’s a compelling romp, and Murdoch writes Arrowby with tongue firmly in cheek. He’s the sort of fussy fellow who makes fun of his friends for their overblown ideas about love, then spouts his own a few pages later. But as the story careens like a drunken driver between comedy and tragedy, it actually does become rich, and yes, even magical.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Booker Book #11: Staying On, by Paul Scott

Paul Scott's Staying On is the bittersweet story of Tusker and Lucy Smalley, the third Booker winner about British India. Tusker is an army career man, moving from post to post in India, until the transition of power to native authorities (one of the most touching scenes in the novel). This changing of the guard seems to provoke his own personal “debacle,” whose details Lucy hints at, but does not reveal, until the end.

This novel is all about endings. It begins with an end: “When Tusker Smalley died of a massive coronary…” and spends the rest of the novel setting up the intricate ballet that leads to this climax in a crescendo of circumstances. Through the flashbacks, we get to know Lucy (née, ironically, Little, of a mother née, even more ironically, Large), her sweet patience, and her iron-solid core. We explore the relationships between Ownership and Management (and employees) of the hotel where the Smalleys have been living for decades. And we laugh.

The Indian hotel manager is my favorite character, his observations always spot on:

“Mr. Bhoolabhoy had often heard it said that one of the troubles with the British in the days of the raj was that they had taken themselves too seriously…if it was true about the British in those days it was equally true of the Indians now; which would mean that it was being responsible for running things that shortened the temper and destroyed the sense of humour.”

This is the funniest Booker winner so far, but the humor is gradually replaced by a sobering sympathy for a couple growing old abroad, with little hope of – or desire for – returning to the U.K. They have chosen to “stay on,” at first for financial reasons, but also because they have little to return to. They become almost a tourist attraction, a museum exhibit of the old regime.