I’d almost forgotten I’d read Oliver Harris‘s The hollow man (Cape, 2011) until I found it at the bottom of a pile of other stuff, but to be fair I did read it at a pace, which does says something about its efficiency as an “urban thriller,” as it calls itself on the cover. The plot is pretty hollow, actually. Corruption in the City of London (fair enough), new Russian wealth in London (ditto), a mega-con involving Hong Kong gaming organisations and putting a casino on Hampstead Heath; oh, and Nick Belsey, a washed up anti-hero of a police detective (gambling debts, bucket-loads of booze) who can see a way out of his problems by hijacking the con (which is an interesting twist) but who can also seemingly run halfway to Stansted Airport when the time comes. Nonsense really, but delivered with a certain pizzazz, a lot of which comes from Harris’s treatment of an easily recognisable London itself (yup, I’ve had a few pints there myself etc) as the action moves all over the City and the city, and especially the N and NW postal districts.
Speaking of which, there was a brief period when I used to buy the New York Review of Books from a bookshop on the Finchley Road when I was working in Swiss Cottage. There was one long essay by Gore Vidal that has stayed with me over the years. He was analysing the top 10 bestselling fiction titles one week and came to the conclusion that they were all written at one remove, as if they were describing movies rather addressing life as she is lived; The hollow man reads like a pretty good edgy television series.
That said, Harris can write a bit – he is published by Cape, after all – and he can turn a decent phrase (“Belsey saw, momentarily, how he would remember it from his own exile, when memory had done its filleting and hung up its bloodstained apron“) and there’s a nice mordant wit at play throughout (“Belsey sat for a moment and enjoyed being back in the Wishing Well [a pub]. He did not like to think what wishes were made here. People threw small change into the urinal with an irony he found hard to gauge.”) and the dialogue is fine, a frisson never far away. Indeed, I wouldn’t necessarily say no to spending more time in the company of Nick Belsey so long as he cuts down on the drinking; I get a hangover just thinking about it.
I wrote the above a couple of days ago and,as it happens, I’m feeling a certain nostalgia for Oliver’s novel since I started struggling with this month’s book group book, George Eliot‘s Silas Marner: the weaver of Raveloe (1861). Huge paragraphs, a frankly forced character of a main man, and one of the most tedious sessions of bar-room banter to be ploughed through anywhere, I am sure, in all of literature – the sort that make Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals actually seem kings of comedy.
Further on in (this is more log than blog) I’m finding saving graces. Silas Marner is an incredibly frustrating book, a real curate’s egg of Victorian melodrama and sentimentality – never mind the big secret of how on earth (or why) the young Squire managed to get secretly married to the opium addict in the first place – of vibrant thought and radical observation (that’s the George Eliot I thought I knew from Middlemarch) somewhat at times obscurely phrased though they be.
And Silas, the absurd title character out of Grimm’s tales? Disillusioned by his loss of faith after being found guilty of a crime he was the fall guy for by the casting of lots in a Calvinist community in a northern industrial town, the weaver exiles himself to this rural outpost in the Midlands (another ‘country’) and leads a miserable hermit-like existence wherein his only solace is literally, of an evening, worshipping the gold coins his labours bring in. For 15 years his regular contact with the people he buys his raw materials from and the people he weaves the linen for impinge on his miserable existence not one iota. His life is changed by the lottery of a baby chancing upon and managing to crawl its way in the snow through his open door.
In the end I’m not going to say I was blubbing like a baby at Silas’s mellowing (though, eat your heart out, Charles Dickens) but I did cheer when Eppie, said babe, now a teenager (not that they existed then) rejects the offer to be adopted by aforementioned young (though now older) Squire and second wife because she’s not interested in mixing with their posh friends, eating their rich food etc; she’s happy with her gardener, her garden and good ol’ Silas. A warm glow, then, despite first impressions that still stand.
Which weren’t helped initially by the cover of the Penguin edition (2010) I read, featuring – out of context – the quote, “Kindness fell on him as sunshine on the wretched.” This had me wondering – surely sunshine is a good thing, a compensation available to all, and should we be including the deserving wretched in all this? Can’t blame George for that, though. In context it would appear that they are wretched because they are untouched, unmoved, by said cheering sunshine. Nor was I aided by the presumption of the rhetorical question embedded in the opening (and over a page long) paragraph that asked, “The shepherd’s dog barked fiercely […] for what dog likes a figure bent under a heavy bag?“
But as I say, things progressed. Indeed, later on in that same tedious pub conversation mentioned earlier, and read after I picked the book up again the next day, there’s a brilliantly comic depiction of how hearsay and prejudice can sway an interpretation of events, concerning “men of that sort, with rings in their ears” and there’s a very modern discussion on the arguments used by parties for and against the perception of ghosts, in metaphorical parallel with discussion of the narrative’s pivotal crime. Similarly the treatment of religion, from the extreme sectarian to the cosy C of E (“There had been no bells in Lantern Yard“) and the separation of morality from sacred texts (“In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white winged angels now. But yet …“), of chance and contingency from divine intervention.
George Eliot brings a charm and a radicalism, a practical sensibility, to her writing that is a revelation to me, raised as I was on (schooled in) Dickens and Charlotte Bronte; where was she in the syllabus? Enjoy:
“… but we must remember that many of the impressions that Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means …”
“The Squire’s life was quite as idle as his sons’, but it was a fiction kept up by himself and his contemporaries in Raveloe that youth was exclusively the period of folly, and that their aged wisdom was constantly in a state of endurance mitigated by sarcasm.”
Not forgetting GE, the music critic, with, “The magic scream of his fiddle.”