Monday, 31 August 2020

Kate Atkinson, Ralph Ellison & William Goldman

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.

This was no.20 on the Guardian’s list of the best books of the 21st century (so far).  It’s rather large (this book, not the list) and I was rather dubious but actually, like Wolf Hall, it’s an absorbing, even an easy, read and I really enjoyed it.

Recently, when reading novels, I’ve been making notes.  It seems a weird thing to do; surely you only make notes from factual books(?); but having started posting pictures of the books I read on Instagram, I was then stuck with what to say about them, and invariably I forget any original thought I have about the book hours after closing it for the last time.  Also, Virginia Woolf used to take notes on the books she read.  (I took up eating omelettes after reading Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine too.)

Anyway, I made very few notes about this book – which I suppose must be a good thing: it’s a book you can get lost in and forget everything else.  Of the notes I have made, a few of them are pendantic queries about the language.  For example, ‘I’m a problem, Ursula thought?’  (p.194) Is the question mark in the right place, I wrote?  And aren’t brackets in speech rather strange? (Also p.194.)  Surely they’re too visual a device for speech?  Then, p.335, what is the difference between being ‘under the apprehension’ (mistakenly), and ‘being under the misapprehension’?  (Atkinson uses the former.)  And on p.496, ‘For ever?’  Why for ever, rather than forever?

The story is about a British family through the two World Wars.  It has a defining structural ‘peculiarity’ (for want of a better word), which is that it imagines that when someone dies prematurely, time might revert back to some turning point – where the fatal course of action was set in motion – allowing them to choose a different route.  The protagonist has some notion of previous ‘routes’ – not a memory exactly, but she has inexplicable fears, a sense of threat which follows her at key moments.  At one point, she dies after the housemaid goes to London to celebrate the Armistice, and comes home with flu.  There follows an almost comical series of reenactments, where she gets to do it all again, repeatedy, and tries everything to prevent the spread of the infection.  The thing that pays off is where she shoves the housemaid down the stairs, after which she is sent to see a psychiatrist.  At any rate, although I’m not exaclty sure what this structure achieves, it’s certainly never boring or repetitive.  I think it’s main effect for me was in the building of the detail, and in the deepening of the sense of nostalgia.

Kate Atkinson herself looks and sounds a bit like Joanna Lumley (I can never quite resist the urge to look at the author’s picture mid-novel), which is no bad thing.  The book is very funny.  I suppose my slight question mark would be over privilege.  It’s a book about well-off people (the upper middle class?).  A lot of the books I’ve read about the war seem to be so (I suppose I’m thinking of Atonement by Ian McEwan, and The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford, and even The Diary of an Edwardian Lady by E. M. Delafield).  In these books, the war is desperate and violent and exhausting, but always in the background there’s the family pile in the countryside to return to. I guess this could be a problem with my reading choices, rather than anything else.  Further, although, being about the Second World War, there is a place for Jewishness in the book (and there are Poles, and Americans, and an Irish maid) I can’t recall any variation in skin colour - apart from in the music Izzie listens to.

On a slightly different note, is there something a little ahistorical about a book that can be stepped into so easily, without any jarring notes?  Ursula’s mother, Sylvie seems like a woman leading her best life (so to speak), and Ursula herself does not seem terribly restricted – although surely life was more restrictive for women in the first half the century.  Even that iteration of Ursula’s life where she is raped as a young teenager, has an abortion, then goes on to marry an unsuitable man who terrorizes and beats her, didn’t sound like something that doesn’t happen today.

On the subject of Sylvie though, I just wanted to say that - historical or not - she was a wonderful character!  It’s funny that I’ve just finished reading Maya Angelou’s book about her mother, where she says that she was a terrible mother to young children, but a wonderful mother to young adults.  Almost exactly the opposite could be said of Sylvie.  When Ursula is young, she seems like a wonderful mother (perhaps slightly negligent, but five children would be difficult for anyone to keep track of).  The older her children get, the more problematic she becomes.  The turning point, probably, is the iteration where Ursula is raped and becomes pregnant, and her mother seems to blame her for it.  Of course, in that version of events, Ursula dies, so the novel reverts to a different version – where she is not assaulted, and her mother’s good opinion of her is not challenged – but by then, you know Sylvie’s limitations.  Perhaps this ability to provide insight is one of the advantages of the structural device used here.

One last thing, again on the subject of Sylvie, why did Ursula see her in London with a strange man when she was visiting Izzie?  Was she having an affair, and how on earth did she manage it with five children?

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

I thought this was an amazing book!  On the back it says ‘one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century’, which makes it sound turgid, but actually I was surprised.

It's about a black guy, born in the American south who, after being expelled from college, goes up to New York to try to get a job.  He is quickly disillusioned, and flounders for a while, then gets picked up by a leftwing political group for his public speaking skills.  For a good part of the book, he rides high with them as a speaker and organizer in Harlem, but eventually he begins to see that all is not right, and to turn against them.

The book has a horrible humdinger of an opening where the protagonist, invited to make his highly-praised graduation speech at a ‘gathering of the town’s leading white citizens’, gets there and finds he’s expected to participate in a ‘battle royal’ first, which turns out to mean that he and a whole bunch of his classmates are blind-folded and made to fight all together in the ring.  But first they have to stand around and watch a white stripper, whilst been shouted at and threatened by white men.  The whole thing is quite traumatic.  Chapter 2 involves a man’s account of how he came to commit incest, and in chapter 3, the attendant of a mental hospital gets pummeled into unconsciousness at a local bar.  Chapter 11: lobotomy without the patient’s consent.  So it’s quite blunt and hard-hitting.  At one point, it reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn; at another, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  But the protagonist faces all of that with incredulity and horror – it’s not a macho kind of book where violence is taken for granted - and eventually, the violent, bumpy start to the book does settle. 

The protagonist himself is terrifically honest and unaffected, even naïve, at the beginning.  On his first subway ride in New York, he finds himself shoved in a carriage ‘so crowded that everyone seemed to stand with his head back and his eyes bulging, like chickens frozen at the sound of danger.’ (p.153)  He is crushed up against a white woman, who he stares at, at point blank range, in horror, expecting her to scream at any moment.  In his pocket, he proudly carries his ‘letters of introduction’, given by the college to help him find a job in New York.  He day-dreams about how people will respond to him when he returns.  ‘I had to be careful though, not to speak to much like a northern Negro; they wouldn’t like that.  The thing to do, I thought with a smile, was to give them hints that whatever you did or said was weighted with broad and mysterious meanings that lay just beneath the surface.  They’d love that.’ (p.172)  On p.260, he starts to get emotionally involved whilst watching an eviction: ‘I turned away, feeling myself being drawn to the old couple by a warm, dark, rising whirlpool of emotion which I feared.  I was wary of what the sight of them crying there on the sidewalk was making me begin to feel.  I wanted to leave, but was too ashamed to leave, was rapidly becoming too much a part of it to leave.’  As things get heated and the crowd surges forward, he dashes in and begins to speechify.  He gets everyone’s attention, but it’s one of his early speeches (in a book full of them); it veers about somewhat, and he isn’t quite sure where he’s going with it.  At one point it seems to backfire: ‘Oh God, this wasn’t it at all.  Poor technique and not at all what I intended.’ (p.266)  He manages to hold the crowd for a bit longer, then they push him out of the way and rush the building.  The point is though that he’s fallible – fallible and hopeful and dedicated to trying his absolute best.

The bluntness of the book, and the genuineness of the protagonist, were two of the best things about it.  A third was the humour.  It is very funny throughout.  After joining the political group and becoming their big shot spokesperson in Harlem, someone on the committee accuses him of malpractice (speaking to a journalist).  The committee’s response is to send him downtown to lecture on ‘the Woman Question’.
‘”The what!”…. I stood there, hearing the rapping of his gavel echoing in my ears, thinking the woman question and searching their faces for signs of amusement’.  He does eventually carry out these lectures – all the while bemoaning the fact that ‘between us and everything we wanted to change in the world they placed a woman… Why, goddamit, why did they insist upon confusing the class struggle with the ass struggle’. (p.403)

Near the end of the book, he determines to seduce the wife of one of the leaders of the group, to find out what’s really going on, although ‘I had neither itch nor etchings’. (p.498)  It rapidly descends into farce: ‘I was expected either to sing ‘Old Man River’ and just keep rolling along, or to do fancy tricks with my muscles.  I was confounded and amused and it became quite a contest, with me trying to keep the two of us in touch with reality and with her casting me in fantasies in which I was Brother Taboo-with-whom-all-things-are-possible.’ (p.498)

A lot of the reason I liked the book had to do with the protagonist, and with the beautiful writing – but clearly it is a book of ideas.  I managed to avoid these in the first place by accidentally missing the prologue, but even when I went back to read it afterwards, I wasn’t sure I grasped it completely – this idea of invisibility.  Ellison seemed to suggest in the introduction that when a man migrated from the south, and tried to insert himself into another culture like that of New York, he ended up not quite belonging to either, not being sure of his own identity – and hence being invisible even to himself (xxxi-xxxii), but that is far from being the whole of it.

He also has a point to make about ‘men out of time’ (p.423-4), by which he seems to mean men (and women presumably) who don’t subscribe to the major political movements, and don’t leave any published account of themselves – what does history make of them?  And what if those men out of time were actually ‘the true leaders, the bearers of something precious?  The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it.’

And of course, there is the point made right at the beginning where his grandfather, on his death bed, declares himself ‘a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country’.  ‘I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’ (16)  Initially, the protagonist follows this advice – although it does not go down very well when he tries to proffer it in his speech at the eviction.

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood, by William Goldman.

I bought this book thinking it was about writing, but although it certainly includes information about writing screenplays, I would have said it is rather a book about the film industry in general… from the perspective of a screenwriter.

Anyway, I still enjoyed reading it.  Goldman is personable and funny and quite serious about what he does.  The book is full of anecdotes about famous film stars, and I think I learned a lot about the film industry.  I’ve never seen a screenplay before – I don’t think I actually realized that the writer has to specify, not just the dialogue, but each camera shot.  In fact, in many cases, the dialogue was a minor part of the exercise.  I also found it weird how, in his screenwriting, Goldman’s writing was almost novelistic.  I suppose I was assuming it would be like the directions in a play – ‘exits left, pursued by bear’.  But to give a random example, on p.132, Goldman writes, ‘CHALK stands silent, but he doesn’t ever have to say much; the man has presence.  He’s long since been a kid, but he moves with the grace of a young athlete.  And he sure isn’t old, but there’s not a lot he hasn’t seen.’  I suppose it’s a combination of novel-writing and play-direction.  You wouldn’t say ‘he sure isn’t old’ in a novel – that sounds like Goldman’s own voice – but still, he takes a lot more care with his description than I would have expected.

The book was published in 1984 and – as I said – I know nothing about the film industry, but some bits of it sounded a little out of date; or maybe that’s just naïve.  Goldman suggests, very strongly (p.135-136) that the star will insist on having the zinger lines.  It sounds rather pathetic, but Goldman goes further to say that it is as it should be that the star has the good lines – because the film must get the audience on board, which requires an unambiguous hero(ine).  Dividing the clever lines between too many people risks losing your audience.  I suppose this may still be true – although it seems rather cynical – but is it true (p.37) that stars will not play weak or blemished characters?  Surely most of the interesting films are about weak or blemished characters?  He points out though that there’s blemished and then there’s blemished: the Mafia chieftains in The Godfather are 'cute' in comparison to the real thing: ‘try asking a major star to play a real Mafia head, a man who makes his living off whores and child pornography, heroin and blood’.  I’m pretty sure the others have been done, but he may have a point about the child pornography.

In a similar vein, I loved his description of ‘comic book movies’ (p.152-154) by which he means, not animation, but those films which deal in well-worn idealistic tropes and fail to challenge the viewer’s ideas.  Under this definition, The Deer Hunter (which I’ve never seen) a comic book movie and Bambi is not.  ‘If the shower scene in Psycho was the shocker of the sixties, and for me, it sure was, then its equivalent in the entire decade of the forties was when Bambi’s mother dies.
‘And what about that line of dialog: “Man has entered the forest”?
‘And the fire and the incredibly strong antiviolence implications.  (The National Rifle Association would probably picket the movie today.)’ (p.154)

In the last section of the book, he does something quite interesting.  He reprints one of his own short stories, talks about the problems of turning it into a screen play, then writes the screenplay and goes on to discuss it with a production designer, a cinematographer, an editor, a composer and finally, a director.  The different perspectives (and the problems brought to light) are illuminating.  The funniest bit was reading the comments of George Roy Hill (who directed, obviously among other things, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).  His bugbear with the screenplay was what he called the hype: he singles out as an example, Goldman’s phrase ‘pull back to reveal a schoolyard on an agonizingly beautiful spring day’, and he is very sarcastic about how one is supposed to come up with the aforementioned agonizingly beautiful spring day. (p.396)

Finally, I am really not a film buff, but there are a few films I would like to see, having read this.  I’m even considering giving Bambi another go, although I think the urge will wear off pretty quickly.  I would like to see Burt Lancaster in something (‘the man exudes physical power’ apparently – p.14).  I would like to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (one of Goldman’s best films – that he wrote the screenplay for, that is), and Gunga Din (Goldman’s favourite movie), and All About Eve (with Bette Davis: a beautiful film about the fear of aging, he says).  Possibly even The Great Waldo Pepper – which wasn’t a hit, and which Goldman reckons may have been scuppered when Robert Redford failed to rescue Susan Sarandon, and her character fell off a plane wing and died.

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