Monday, February 19, 2018

Booker Book #5: G. by John Berger: It's a Keeper

Finally, a book that meets my personal requirements for a prizewinner! G., by John Berger, is original and thought-provoking. It weaves together the personal and political, seamlessly zooming in to sensual moments, then zooming out to international crises and national overviews. It is a meta-fictional tour de force, and I am keeping this one.

You see, I wasn’t planning on keeping all the Booker books that I took such pains to accumulate. For the first four, I marked passages with sticky notes, so that I could resell the books later. But I gave up on sticky notes on page 74 of G.

G. is the unnamed protagonist, a boy who grows up in limbo as the child of an affair, not knowing his father, rarely seeing his mother. This state, Berger argues, is what primes him for falling in love precociously and repeatedly. He becomes a sort of Don Juan; his first sexual experience is with his mother’s female cousin who raised him. (This is not her first incest: she lives like a wife with her male cousin, G.’s sole paternal figure until he is reunited with his absentee father.)   

I love the close-up scenes of a boy discovering his body and others’ bodies, pondering what is inside and what is outside. I am reminded of the sensuality of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and David Foster Wallace’s “Backbone,” about a lonely boy who sets himself the goal of kissing every inch of his own flesh.

I love how the story oscillates in a series of luminous vignettes from concrete to abstract, with meta-fictional author’s asides that don’t seem contrived. Berger makes observations on the role of hunting in the evolution of British socio-economic class, then writes gorgeously about one evening’s hunt as lived by G. and his male cousin.

I may not agree with all his abstract generalizations, but I am fascinated with them. His view of women, for example: that we are always surveying ourselves, seeing ourselves through others’ eyes. I think Berger explains this better than certain French feminists I studied, though I am not convinced that all women feel this way, or that no men do.

The episodes of seduction become more and more political until they spiral tightly into one evening at a ball in Trieste, with not one but two women, just days before World War I is declared. I did not feel the need to look up as much historical information as I did in the previous Booker prize winners about politics and colonization, and yet I did not feel lectured to, either. 

Like I said, G. is a keeper. I’ll be looking up other books by John Berger when this project is complete.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #5

Booker Book #4: In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul

I thought V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State would be a quick read. It consists of two short stories and a novella, bookended by two travel anecdotes.  I loved the first story. I puzzled over the second. And I struggled through the third.

The first story, “One out of Many,” is about an Indian domestic, Santosh, who accompanies his employer, a government official, from Bombay to Washington, D.C. His debacle of an airplane trip seems to include every possible thing that could go wrong for a poor and naïve traveler on his first long voyage. Once in the U.S., Santosh progresses through several stages: brave exploration, frightened sequestration, fleeing his employer, finding a new one. He is “in a free state,” but this freedom is more frightening than exhilarating, a leap into the void without a safety net. I sympathized with the character’s adjustments and felt that this story did an excellent job distilling the immigrant experience into just forty pages.

The second story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” sums up one facet of the immigrant experience this way: “ambition is like shame,” that is, trying to rise “above” your origins implies that you are ashamed of them. The title expresses the main character’s frustration with being an island immigrant in London, and the lack of target for his feelings. “Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life?” This story left me scratching my head: is the main character’s companion just a friend, or are they gay? And what about the repeated murder sequence: is it a memory, a dream, or a scene from a movie? No way to know for sure.

Finally, the title novella. In a Free State is the fourth Booker Prize winner, and the third to explicitly address British colonialism. Two white government employees travel through an unnamed African nation in turmoil: the president’s tribe is out to kill the former king.  Similar to J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, the main character, Bobby, vacillates between sympathy for the natives and frustration with them, while confronting another character, Linda, who seems primarily scornful of them. Both Farrell and Naipaul seem to agree that the role of the British is to let the natives figure out their path for themselves. However, I felt the story dragged on and went over my head in places. It seemed like a series of “in jokes” that maybe only readers of the time or expats in Africa could understand. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Booker Book #3: Welcome to the Hotel Majestic. Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Welcome to the Hotel Majestic, English-owned luxury hotel in Ireland, once grand, now crumbling. Welcome to the sun setting on the British Empire.

Major Brendan Archer, English WWI veteran, has come to the Hotel Majestic in 1919 to make good on a hasty engagement entered into during a brief R&R. Sadly, the young lady has fallen fatally ill, but by the time she passes on, the Major has become as much as fixture in the place as its statue of Venus and can’t tear himself away.

The hotel teems with metaphor: green-eyed ginger (Irish) cats multiply and lord it over hapless (English) dogs, who are fed steak while locals starve. A Sinn Feiner tries to bomb a statue of Queen Victoria. Tropical trees (African and Asian colonies) grow out of control in the Palm Room, tearing down the Empire -- I mean, the Majestic.

The Major, however, stubbornly walks a fine line, trying to maintain the peace and see everyone’s side. Alternately naïve and noble, he counters the reactionary Tory hotel owner with a voice of reason. He’s a likable character, except for his inertia. If he were a real person, I’d be fed up with him after fifty pages, but he is a necessary witness to the quickly declining situation.

Finally, the Major has an epiphany about the owner’s belligerence, and the belligerence of colonists everywhere: they are afraid. Britain is terrified, and lashes out in revenge for all it has lost, blindly overlooking all it has taken from the Irish and the rest of the world.

The tale, as labyrinthine as the old hotel, is punctuated with news items, usually one about “the troubles” in Ireland coupled with one from another hot spot in the soon-to-be-former British Empire, such as India or South Africa.

Much like the first Booker Prize winner, Something to Answer For, which is set in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, Troubles shows that British authors of the 1960s and 70s were preoccupied with post-colonial issues. I prefer Farrell’s take. Though both their protagonists seem to be aimless drifters, unlucky in love, the Major has backbone, the “ramrod posture” that one Irish lass teases him about. He knows right from wrong and speaks his mind, always urging peace.

EDIT: It might appear that J. G. Farrell was the first writer to win two Booker Prizes. He won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, and his novel Troubles holds that honor for 1970. However, the 1970 prize was retroactive. Due to changes in the rules, no prize was awarded for a book published in 1970, until a public vote rectified the situation in 2010.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Now Reading Booker Book #3 (of 52)

Booker Book #2: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens’ novel The Elected Member is a touching and sad exploration of drug abuse. Norman Zweck (who was ironically never “normal”) was a precocious child and successful adult, the pride of his Jewish immigrant parents. But several things happened along the way – which ones led to him becoming a drug addict? Each surviving family member, his father and two sisters, thinks they know. Is one of them right, or all of them, or none? Regardless, Norman feels he has been “elected” as the family scapegoat. He is committed to a mental institution, where he should have a better chance of recovering from his addiction than in prison – except that he finds a supplier inside.

Despite the gloomy material and minimal action (except for the obligatory institutional incidents), this is a page turner. The flashbacks to Norman’s father’s immigration from Lithuania to London, the sisters’ remorseful recollections about their own childhoods, all meld together seamlessly. The Zwecks make up a miserable family full of secrets, “unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy said. Rubens examines the full gamut of psychological reactions to family issues: the father’s denial, sister Bella’s combined guilt and superiority, sister Esther’s refusal to admit error, Norman’s own rationalizing and bargaining. I ached for this family, winced at their flawed coping skills, but kept hoping for the best.

Though the institutional setting reminded me superficially of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the deliberate pace and thoughtfulness are more reminiscent of the less-widely-known novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest. I recommend both Guest and Rubens if you or someone you know struggles with addiction or depression.

PS By the way, I was *thrilled* to see that the second Booker Prize winner was a woman. You go, Bernice!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Reading the Booker Books: P.H. Newby's Something to answer for

I have completed the first Booker book, P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For (1969)!

It is the story of Jack Townrow, of somewhere in the U.K., who returns to Port Said just before the Suez Canal crisis. Townrow has been getting letters from the widow of an old friend from his Army days in Egypt, Mrs. Khoury. Seems Mr. Elie Khoury is dead -- and his wife suspects murder. Townrow thinks he can persuade Mrs. K to return to England, where she is from, and gain some of her wealth in the bargain. Perhaps Mrs. K’s personal crisis is meant to parallel the political one: the marriage of an English cockney woman to a Lebanese merchant could represent the uneasy collaboration between Europe and the Middle East over the Suez Canal, into which is added a greedy, meddling Brit.

Shortly after Townrow's return, he is hit on the head and wakes up naked in the desert. After this point, he becomes a completely unreliable narrator: he can't remember his nationality, and at times he’s not exactly sure who he is. He even commits the Orion Error.1 He then falls in love with a Jewish woman, and is accused of being a spy for Israel.

Townrow (whose name I kept misreading as Tomorrow throughout the book – symbolic? or just me?) seems to stand for the naïve Brit who assumes his country always does the right thing. This motif is introduced early, when Townrow meets a Jew in the airport on his way to Egypt. They debate whether the British did or could have warned Jews not to get on the trains to the death camps. Finally, the Jew says, “Just because you’re a nice guy yourself, it doesn’t mean you’ve got a nice government.” Later, Townrow, whose mother is Irish and whose father (who abandoned them) is English, says, “What was an Irishman but a sort of Jew?” 

The comparison reminds me of the scene from the excellent film “The Commitments,” when the band leader tries to persuade the white Irish musicians that they have every right to play the blues, telling them that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe,” and to repeat after him: “I’m black and I’m proud.” The latter comparison makes more sense to me; sadly, the Jews have been feared for their supposed power and wealth, while the Irish and blacks have been despised for their lack of both. (Oh, and if you click on "The Commitments" link, that's a young Glen Hansard of "Once" sitting in the center!)

However, the trope of the amnesic, confused, unreliable protagonist in a “vertiginous” situation only takes you so far. It doesn’t appeal to me as a plot device; it seems cliched. Perhaps it wasn’t yet in 1969? I am reminded of the unsolved mysteries and general paranoia of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, or Patrick Modiano’s Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person, in English). I guess I like my mysteries Goldilocks-medium. I don’t enjoy the nice, neat packages of mystery novels, tied up neatly with a bow of motive and opportunity. I am a Post-Modernist gal, so I can take a certain dose of ambiguity; but this type of novel, which seems so incomplete, grates on my nerves as well.

Finally, Townrow realizes “[y]ou couldn’t answer for anything outside your own personal experience. And if you remembered your own experiences wrongly, you didn’t count at all. You weren’t human.” I remember, therefore I am. He comes to cherish his conscience and honor, but just as I was starting to like him, he makes the ridiculous statement that women don’t understand honor. Sigh. What do you think? Can you like a book that dismisses women so sweepingly?

1The Orion Error is one of my biggest literary pet peeves. The constellation Orion is a favorite among writers, perhaps because it is so recognizable. The problem is that in the Northern hemisphere (where Egypt is), Orion is only visible in winter – while the scene where Townrow sees Orion directly overhead takes place in summer. Trust me, I’ve researched this thoroughly. My husband even used this site to look up what the sky looked like during July 1956 in Egypt. But I’ve read at least three other works in which characters in the Northern hemisphere see Orion in summer. It’s jarring, and makes me wonder what other details the author has gotten wrong. At least in this case, Townrow doesn’t even know exactly who he is, so we can dismiss the error as faulty memory.