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Posts Tagged ‘Sally Rooney’

November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?

Transcription

More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …

 

 

 

 

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So much going on in Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with friends (Faber, 2017), where to begin?  How about with the brilliant piece of book design that is the endpapers of the hardback edition (click on the pic for an enlargement)?  They give a colourful taste, a decent aperitif, of what lurks inside:

I only had access to a library copy, so here’s what’s hidden under the label: I just don’t think I would enjoy being someone’s second choice / You can love more than one person / That’s arguable.  And the Yeats thing (top right), to remove any ambiguity, it finishes with: No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.  As someone who this holiday season just past revisited a home video recorded on the occasion of his 40th birthday which included a section of himself reading to camera Yeats’ The second coming, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.  After all, Frances, our narrator, and her mate Bobbi are not your average third year Dublin university students.  Conversations with friends fizzes with stuff like that.  Here she is at the start of that bad date, trying to be ‘real’ and ‘normal’:

 I’ve never worked hard at anything, I said.
That must be why you study English.
Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.
Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.
He didn’t have anything else to say about poetry after that.

(I’ll admit I did not know W.B. had briefly flirted with fascism, though I do now that I’ve looked it up: the Irish fascists had blueshirts.)

One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of Conversations with friends invokes Salinger’s Catcher in the rye and I can see that, except that Holden Caulfield was only 16 going on 17, and these are very different rites of passage for very different times; for starters, sharp as he was, he was in no position to namedrop French postmodern cultural theorists.  In this passage Frances has been to the theatre but has not been able to believe in the performance, regardless of the quality of the acting:

I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, although I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

At this point I’d also like to introduce Adrian Mole into the conversation.  This is something of a long shot, some will say – though consider “I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive” – but what fuels these pages is the mismatch between an aspiration to live one’s life in accordance with a theoretical critique of modern life and your actual daily existence, especially when the possibility of love is involved.  Contradictions, compromises, ironies and ambiguities inevitably follow, and entertainingly so. This, after all, is a novel that can get away with a line of self-examination like:

… have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement … ?

Serious stuff (the paragraph also acknowledges self-harming), but am I wrong to also spot humour in the employment of that phrase?

Here’s the disappointing cover of the soon to be published paperback. Ok, there is a significant sojourn on a French coast, but this really undersells what’s going on between the covers.

Frances and Bobbi – the odd girls out at school – had been lovers, but are now besties; they are performance poets – a double act even – though we get no flavour of the material.  Frances is the writer, while Bobbi has the confidence and charisma.  They meet up with a pair of older established culture vultures, a married couple – Melissa a successful writer, Mark a sometime semi-successful actor.  Their lives become entangled and we run a gamut of adultery, infidelity, jealousy, feeling worthless and having fun, not to mention frustration, vulnerability, exhilaration, reconciliation, and student survival, all punctuated with some fascinating conversations, variously full of intelligence, belligerence, caring and wit.  There is no definitive reading to be had from the ending (was that an echo of Ulysses’ Molly I felt there?) but our narrator has survived; passages have been rited (I’m just not going to say ‘rites of passage’).  It’s a tremendous bit of writing, wise beyond its years.

The thought occurred: am I too old for this sort of thing?  Thankfully not. “I felt like I was playing a video game without knowing any of the controls” is not a simile that I’d employ, but I certainly remember with a degree of nostalgia these phases:

Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  (p23)

 That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.  (p203)

Sally Rooney had me worried when Frances, in her vulnerability, started reading the Bible, but I should have had faith:

 My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your neighbours, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.

Good old  (young) Bobbi: “I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing“; but, still,   Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”  Doesn’t stop her interjecting into a discussion about commitment, of the possibility of loving more than one person:

Well, it depends whether you believe in some kind of transhistorical concept of romantic love consistent across diverse cultures, said Bobbi. But I guess we all believe silly things, don’t we?

For what it’s worth, the title of my piece is a skewed take from the paragraph below.  ‘Operant discursive practices’ is Foucault, I think, or one of those post-structuralist or whatever theorists whose notions overtook large parts of academe in the ’70s.  I’m glad I escaped it … just.  And of course we just had thick A4 exercise books and a biro:

Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I like to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’.

If I could have made anything out of ‘epistemic rearticulation’ I would have.

Worth saying too that in the quotations of conversations I’ve used it’s not me that discarded the conventional inverted commas speech mark punctuation; Rooney doesn’t use them.  Three out of the last four books I’ve read have used alternative conventions – something I’m in favour of, and shall probably ponder here in the near future.

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