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One trend I haven’t really kept abrest of is that of the glut of fantasy series written for kids in the aftermath of the Potter phenomenon. I like a good adventure story with some inventive magic thrown in as much as, and perhaps even more, than the next person (I still adore Edith Nesbit, one childhood favourite I’ll never grow out of), but walking into the children’s section in book shops and seeing very little other than the fantasy authors du jour is a little tiresome. 13-year-old Cousin Kimmy had, however, suggested Jonathan Stroud, so he was on a to-read list — and the trip we took last week to Goa seemed like a great excuse to pick up the first in his Bartimaeus Trilogy. Nothing like a fat, exciting, low-stress beach read, eh?

And Stroud did deliver, with a novel that was great fun to read and has me wanting to get hold of the next in the trilogy as soon as possible. The basic premise might sound very similar to that of the Potter books — young boy, no family, being trained in magic in a world where magic coexists with ordinary life. But that’s where any semblance of similarity ends. While Harry had a definite renegade villain in the shape of Lord Voldemort, Stroud gives us a world more complex, where everyone seems to exist in a grey moral area. The magical government of Stroud’s Britain isn’t necessarily streamlined; there seem to be a variety of factions and power struggles within its hierarchies. The so-called “enemy” in fact, isn’t actually outside the system. This throws, as you can imagine, all sorts of codes of behaviour into uncertainty; and you can never tell where the next “villain” is going to come from. Perhaps, in fact, the villain is actually the one from whose eyes we peer out at this world…

We do all of this peering from two perspectives — that of Nathaniel, a young apprentice magician, and that of Bartimaeus, the djinni he summons to do his will. Ah, you’d say, he probably wants to rid his magical world of some dark menace and needs a djinni to do the work for him (in Stroud’s magical world, most magical tasks are carried out by magical beings; humans only give the orders). This is where I was first startled and intrigued; Nathaniel isn’t intent on dispelling some evil, not at all. What he’s after is revenge — he wants to get back at Simon Lovelace, a powerful senior magician, at whose hands he has suffered humiliation. It’s true that Lovelace is ruthless and attempting to wrest power for himself… but this isn’t Nathaniel’s primary concern and he only realizes it later. Something very interesting is happening here, because it really is impossible to tell what sort of magician Nathaniel is going to grow up into. There is a humanity, a capacity for caring in him, but it seems circumstantial, evident only in certain contexts, and there’s no telling what adverse circumstances could do to him and what sort of moral centre he will develop.

This dark vision of youthful magical initiative is conveyed most effectively by the use of two voices — an omnicient third-person narrative telling us the story as Nathaniel experiences it and a first-person one that is the voice of the djinni Bartimaeus. Nathaniel is a complex and enigmatic character, but it is Bartimaeus who really carries the book, with his sharp-tongued, jaded commentary and his breadth of knowledge of Nathaniel’s magical world, coming from his great age of 5000 years. The third-person parts of the story are usually full of adventure and Stroud’s own brand of highly vivid description that draws you in, but it’s Bartimaeus who is always funny and readable; I found myself perking up every time I turned a page and found him speaking on the other side.

My one serious quibble with The Amulet of Samarkand is just that it lacks a certain philosophical balance. Bartimaeus, like every other magical servant, is aware that he can’t escape human orders, even while he might have an opinion on them, and hence, tends to be detached from the moral dilemmas of the tale. This gives us only a view of an approach that is largely opportunistic, aggressive, intent on self-preservation, and even somewhat petty; there is no denying that Nathaniel lacks (in this first part of the trilogy at least) a certain morality. This is interesting, up to a point, but there is also a further point at which having some sort of contrasting vision embodied in some way and drawing Nathaniel into inner conflict would really propel this book far out of the ordinary; there’s only so much that physical chases and confrontations can do. I have my hopes that Stroud might do this in the second and third installments. For now, well, I enjoyed this; and no, it wasn’t just because I was reading it in the shade of palm trees at the beach.

Sometime last year, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a non-fiction reconstruction of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, a young man who chose to drop out of life as most of us know it and lose his identity and background in a new sort of life, one more “authentic” and “closer to nature,” wandering through the USA until his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

I put those quotation marks there quite deliberately and maybe even rather sardonically. Initially, I found the premise of the book fascinating, but somewhere along the way, McCandless lost any possibility of seeming heroic. He was ill-prepared for what he was trying to do and apparently lacking in the most basic common sense — who walks into the wilderness with no maps and no compass?  Krakauer, I’ve read, defended McCandless, saying that he just wanted to explore “a blank spot on the map” and therefore did not acknowledge any existence of a map. That’s one view; but I found McCandless supremely lacking in respect for either the wilderness or those who have struggled over the centuries to live in it and have accumulated knowledge to pass on, and Krakauer’s argument seemed equally so. Either which way, whatever your opinion on McCandless, it seems as if Into the Wild had a certain compelling quality, a resonance that came from McCandless’ aim, whether sensible or not, to transcend the ordinary life he was living at the point when he dropped off the radar and started on his wanderings. For is it not human to fear, in our hearts, that we are ordinary, mortal, forgettable, incapable of achieving anything more than the most mundane of drudgeries in our existences?

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (I have not seen the 2009 film) takes this fear of mediocrity and transplants it most skilfully into a suburban American front yard in the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two children, who suffer from one of the ills of our time — they have the luxury of space and time to move beyond mere seeking after food, clothing, and shelter but without knowing quite what to do with it, the capacity to see that their lives could be extraordinary but not the capacity to actually be extraordinary.  “Between the conception / and the creation,” as T. S. Eliot said, “falls the shadow…” April is beautiful and once was hopeful of being an actress before smart, smooth-talking Frank fell for her and they got married. When the novel opens, April is performing a lead role in a local amateur theatrical production that, unfortunately, falls flat. It is telling that it’s not a disaster or open to broad mocking — it simply fails, not spectacularly so. And her discontentment and restlessness come to a head, so that she and Frank persuade themselves and each other that they have to move beyond this ordinariness, beyond April’s housewifely and motherly duties and Frank’s dull, plodding, paper-pushing office job and live the dream — they decide that to truly make the most of their lives, they have to move beyond the sameness of suburban America and go to Europe.

What follows is told quietly, with a hint of wry, ironic humor and a good deal of attention to the detail of negotiation in the communication that comprises a marriage, but is bleak and uncompromising all the same, with a blunted edge of dead hopelessness to it. Just when their plans are laid, April finds that she is pregnant; and Frank finds that he is finally getting somewhere at work and begins to be unexpectedly comfortable with what is.  Yates isn’t going to give us an easy ending; the novel descends into a place of muted horror when April Wheeler takes a drastic decision that ends in tragedy.

Yates’ writing is, as I said, quiet. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here and his style is purely realistic, in a story told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of Frank Wheeler; April, thus, is always something of an enigma and this makes the trajectory of events all the more shocking when it is finally completely revealed. That descriptive style, verging on blandness, and the ordinary rhythms of conversation pinned down so accurately by Yates seem faintly nightmarish, as if all the potential for newness had been sucked out of them, leaving an infinite hollowness. It is a writing that underlines the sheer futility of the Wheelers’ dreams and plans for being extraordinary and brings a deeper psychological dimension to the reading of the novel, with a capacity to silently discomfit.

1950s suburban America is, to some extent, a staple of texts that mock conservative values and point to inauthenticity and the idea of there being better ways to live. But the Wheelers, with their desperate attempts to reject banality of existence, surely do not belong to that oft-damned milieu. Theirs is a story that has continuing relevance and can still wreak a certain inward havoc on a reader because the Wheelers are the seekers after a life less ordinary that all of us are or might have been, to some extent or another. They believe that they are different from the commonplace people around them, but we, all-knowing readers, can see that they are not, and it puts an uncomfortable mirror up to our own ideas about ourselves. Yates grants them no redemption and us no comfort.

But this book, oddly enough, considering how disturbing it is, has a certain spiritual and philosophical value that is hard to pin down but is somewhat akin to that of suffering. It can’t be defined because it is bound to be different for every reader that sees himself looking out of the eyes of Frank and April and for some, it won’t even be there at all. But it is Yates’ truly remarkable achievement that this book is not a facsimile of depression or a sentimental, romanticised banging against the sky; it never manipulates, it constructs a recognizable reality around its reading and becomes a true experience of despair. And why would anyone want to read a true experience of despair? Perhaps because it is so delicately crafted. Perhaps because it resonates anywhere where there is the dread of banality. Perhaps because it is part of the nature of life itself.

Cover of 'The History Boys'Sometime in the 1980s, in a middle-of-the-road state school in England, a group of boys take their O Levels and achieve such good results that the inevitable beckons — they could apply to any university in the land, but it is deemed desirable that they try for Oxford and Cambridge. Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, evokes this betwixt-and-between period in their lives, when, flush with success, they must prepare for their futures — but what are we to see as the most important aspect of their futures? To Hector, a teacher of studied eccentricity, whose classes embrace everything from French lessons (situation: visit to a brothel), to memorising scenes from movies, to having poetry off “by heart”, the future is something that will make poetry valuable to the boys. To Mrs Lintott, a woman with a solidly academic approach, the future is when the depth of their knowledge of history and their ability to discuss historical events coherently will be tested. But to Irwin, a new teacher, recruited by the headmaster to add a bit of “polish” to his boys before they make the grand attempt at entering Oxbridge, the future will be dependent on presentation — on how much dash and verve and originality they can show, never mind solidity or anything that might be thought of, by common consensus, as reasonable.

So this is a play about the boys and their teachers, but it is no Dead Poets’ Society or Mr Holland’s Opus or any of those tales that are about teachers that inspire and students that learn. Yes, there are teachers here that inspire, but the beauty of Bennett’s play is that he isn’t content to stick to this accepted power relation between teacher and taught; what he gives us instead is a play rich with ambiguity, with students who are far from being children and are sometimes more powerful as adults than their teachers, and teachers who aren’t sacred idols but flawed instead, human beings seeking out some sort of affirmation and only sometimes getting it. These are students old enough to pass judgement on their teachers, as if they were their peers — and also old enough to sometimes refrain from passing judgement.

The key point of the play is the process of preparation for the Oxbridge entrance and the different views to this taken by each of the teachers, but it is their discussion of how to write history that imprints itself on the mind, fraught as it is with various ideas of ethics, philosophy, story-telling, logic, and understanding why human beings do what they do. Mrs Lintott is conservative, reasonable; Hector empathetic and poetic; Irwin ruthless in the pursuit of detachment and originality. In their discussion of writing history, each is exactly as in their classrooms otherwise. Bennett never really favours one over the others; what we get is a sense of how these approaches clash and combine in the boys’ listening and their own attempts at writing history and making connections between what has happened in the past — connections that sometimes match up to and even surpass those their teachers are capable of making.

Because these are intelligent boys and their teachers are not always more intelligent. Crucial to the play is the fact that Hector, beloved by the boys and deeply opposed to the sort of instrumentality of education that Irwin assumes, has a penchant for giving the boys lifts on his motorbike and feeling them up while he does so. This is tolerated by the boys, who seem completely aware of how to handle it, exasperating and intrusive as it may be, but when the headmaster finds out about it, he immediately takes on the role of protector, asking Hector to resign. It is another matter that for him, this is an excuse, something he can grasp at, for getting rid of Hector, whose teaching style he finds problematic.

And then there is  handsome, sharp-witted, arrogant Dakin, who the shy, gay, Jewish boy Posner is in love with, who carries on an affair with the headmaster’s secretary and is fascinated with Irwin. But Irwin himself is seeking a sort of affirmation — he isn’t telling the truth about being at Cambridge, and shies away from Dakin’s pointed focus on him, until at last, Dakin is not only using Irwin’s argumentative tricks better than Irwin himself, but also managing to fascinate the new teacher in return.

I’ve read reviews of the film version that took issue with the variety of homosexual attractions allowed to thread through the play. Big deal. If they were heterosexual relationships, nobody would complain about their existence; they’d become perhaps a ‘natural expression of burgeoning sexuality’. I think they’re gently handled, and if the boys are a trifle more accepting that we might expect from a bunch of unsophisticated teenagers, that is only a problem for a text that takes itself very literally, that aims at reproducing reality. I doubt that such reproduction is Bennett’s motive at all and looking at the play as such is taking a reductionist view of a fine piece of writing.

This isn’t, in other words, simply a play about learning lessons for life, though it actually takes the accepted structure of such a tale and manages to subvert it most thoroughly. By the end, we know what shape the future of each of the boys has taken. And here, again, Bennett gives us the unexpected, with more questions about what the boys’ education really did for them. The last lines of the play are “Pass it on boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on” — almost the closing of a play about learning from the previous generation and passing on this edification to the next. But this play isn’t that, and it is up to the reader or the audience to decide how much irony this conclusion has been steeped in.

Bennett’s playscript is prefaced with an essay on the background of the British schools system portrayed in the play; it makes much of the sociological context very clear and highlights some of the important questions the play brings up, about education and its forms, purposes and relationship with the life of the mind in the wider world. It’s an essay that is both informative and surprisingly moving, as Bennett recalls his own time as a boy trying out for Oxford and Cambridge and what these two universities meant to the state school boys of his generation.

And then, the play begins. Comparisons with the film version, made with a screenplay adapted from the play, are inevitable, not least because the stage cast as an ensemble reprised their roles on film. It is a good enough film, but it actually ends up being more upbeat and certain of itself than the play is, which is a problem, for the strength of Bennett’s play lies in its comfort with its own ambiguity, its willingness to desist from giving us all the answers. Reading the play, some understanding of what the literality of the filmic experience robs becomes evident; there is obviously much more room for interpretation in a playscript without clear scene changes or stage directions. The dialogue becomes as symbolic as it is realistic, the boys in my mind’s eye sitting on chairs in the darkness as a spotlight roves among them. Scenes that in the film seemed to lead nowhere, to be a lot of conversation, take on the weight of philosophical discourse on the imagined stage — and miraculously manage to carry it, while still being scenes in a classroom. This is absolutely a play to read for its dialogue. It’s keenly heard, wryly funny, and full of the echoes of classrooms we’ve all been in, writing we’ve all loved, people we’ve all known. His History boys are clever and unruly, full to different extents of the mixture of smugness and seeking that is youth.

I watched the film version well before I read the play, and I have to admit that I loved the film because I thought it was talking about the things I cherish — literature, poetry, learning what isn’t obviously useful — and because it affirmed what I thought about them. Then I read this play and found that it was about so much more. What Bennett is interested in here is the very concepts of youth and experience and education. And what he gives us at the end of the play is not clarity, not transparent, fixed understanding, but, much more fruitfully, a spur to thought.

Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

Cover of 'after the quake' A few pages into this slim book of short stories by Japanese writer Murakami, I was uneasy. It was Murakami’s style that was puzzling–it was just too easy to read. Verging on boring. Very simple sentences, very little dialogue, none of the visual detailing that can draw me into a book. This was a realistic telling of a fairly ordinary story. Almost a sketchy treatment for a screenplay. I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything to say about it–all I could see in front of me was a blank.

I read on.

As I went on through the extreme simplicity of Murakami’s writing, I began to see what I couldn’t before. In this book, his is a style that is stripped down completely, made bare, with starkly contoured outlines suddenly visible. Like a line drawing, a very basic line drawing. It was simply a language so restrained, so minimal that it was conserving everything, telling more in what it wasn’t telling, in its silence than in its words. You have to read very slowly, taking in the slightness of each sentence, understanding it and then moving on, to actually grasp at the almost untellable emotional weight they convey; there is much more in suggestion than in description. There are no short-cuts to reading and comprehending these stories.

And they are a curious set of stories, all hearkening back to the quake of the title (the Kobe earthquake) in some way or another, though without their characters being directly affected by that event. A man whose wife has just left him ferries a mysterious parcel to another city. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl spend time with each other lighting bonfires on the beach. A young man who has been constantly told that he is the Son of God follows a stranger who he thinks might be his father. A woman bitter after a divorce takes a vacation in Thailand and comes to a recognition of her mortality. A collection agent is visited at night by a giant frog who insists that the two of them together have to go into battle to save the city of Tokyo from an earthquake. And the last story traces the topography of a novelist’s long-term friendship with a married couple and their baby, and how they are his family.

If I were to liken this sequence of storytelling to anything, it would be to a piece of music. The first four stories make up one part for me, each of them dealing, in some way, with the aloneness of the human being, and all written realistically. They are abrupt, almost interludes in the lives of their characters, and allow for one or two scenes in which the action takes place in an unfolded present. The background is told quickly, years of the past condensed into a line or paragraph. The characters are separate from each other, vast spaces between them. In these stories’ sudden ceasing, their ambiguity at the end, they are unnerving, very disquieting.

The fifth story, with the surreal element of the giant frog, manifests a drastic shift. Now, suddenly, superimposed on the style of the first four stories, there is this creature out of a nightmare, something leaning out of the subconscious mind and imposing itself on the story’s reality. It seems to jar, odd for the sake of oddness, and nothing really comes of it in any sense that can be easily understood or related in terms of human relationships, though it can be said to achieve a sort of dream-like closure for its protagonist.

And then, there is the final story, ‘honey pie’, perhaps the only one that can be called beautiful, the only one that carries in that strongest of emotions, love, and its sometimes-corollary, loyalty. ‘honey pie’ follows three friends, two men and a woman, through university and youth, through the marriage of two of them and the birth of a child, and then through a divorce. Junpei, one of the two men, finds himself on the verge of erotic fulfillment with Sayoko, the woman, who is no longer with Takatsuki, the father of her child and Junpei’s friend since university. But at this climactic moment, the sexual impulse sublimates into another kind of love–that for a family, a tight unit to cleave to and to protect. And yet, it is a story that ends with Junpei as another human being alone–only he is a human being courageous enough and strong enough to be both alone and one with those he loves.

As I read that last story, I could not help but feel that I had finally read a story that was complete. Not neat, or tidy, or stilted, or overly-symmetrical, but complete. That is what Murakami achieves as he closes out the sequence of intensity, of intense humanity, that is after the quake. He wrote this, I gather, after the Kobe earthquake as part of an effort to consider the reality of Japanese society more deeply. Whether it speaks to the Japanese I do not know;  nor whether it speaks to most readers; but it  has the capacity to speak to that place inside each of us that makes us fundamentally, individually, bravely human.

Noel Stretfeild

Noel Streatfeild (from the Lewisham Heritage collection)

One of my favourite books as a child was Noel Streatfeild’s Party Frock, inherited from my mother via my aunt, in an old hardcover edition, the pages brown with dust and age.  It was a book to ease gently into and wallow in, a book full of odd little characters trying to do something distinctly strange. It is wartime in England and a family of children is trying to put up a village pageant to give a 14-year-old cousin the chance to wear a lovely party frock sent over from America by a godmother who has no idea that such party frocks no longer have any uses in an England under rationing, where parties no longer happen on a grand style. The book is all about the details of how such a production comes to pass, no more. But it is charming and completely delightful, in an uneventful, calming sort of way, as a group of perfectly ordinary people start coming together in an effort to achieve a small success.

When I read Streatfeild’s most famous book, Ballet Shoes, I was a little older but not too young to realise that it was very different from Party Frock. The children of Ballet Shoes were also interested in the stage, but they were complete professionals, driven by ambition. To dance; to act; to sing;  to be the best at this and to earn money for doing it—that was what they wanted and it was a world very far from the slow village setting in which the pageant is attempted. I liked it but never loved it the way I loved Party Frock.

Streatfeild has never been easy to find, and I’ve read only a couple of her other books, also about highly ambitious little dancers and actresses. They are human, all right, but they’re all incredibly talented. And frankly, their earnestness  and drive was mildly alarming, almost an admonishment to the laidback child I was. I forgot about Streatfeild for years. Then, quite recently, I found The Painted Garden in a pile of used books being sold on the street and bought it on a whim. And this one, as stilted as it is in parts, finally takes me back in some sense to the ordinary children of Party Frock.

The Painted Garden is about Rachel, Jane, and Time Winter, who live in London but are just leaving for a trip to America; their father has been depressed after being involved in an accident that killed a child and the doctors believe that if he goes off to sunny California for the winter, he might get much better. The family is out of money, but the children’s governess (also their mother’s school chum) decides to spend all of an inheritance she has just received on their tickets. The children are reluctant to go at first; Rachel, a gifted dancer, has just got a part in a professional show, Tim, a prodigiously talented pianist, is going to be given lessons by a sought-after teacher, and Jane doesn’t want to leave her precious pet dog Chewing-gum behind. But they go, eventually. Rachel and Tim both manage to practice and learn, in some form or another, even so far away from home. But it’s Jane who is the surprise; the ordinary, untalented Jane, by a random chance, lands a leading role in a film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. She’s delighted to finally be the important one, the one who can do something as well as the other two.

But acting  isn’t easy, and nor is being good-natured enough to work with lots of other people, even those you hate.  Suffice it to say that Streatfeild, with great insight, gives us a child character who is deeply flawed and yet lovable. Jane responds as a child would to the pressures of being a professional. She has a hard time at the studio and is child enough to throw a few tantrums and sulk considerably herself. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it is entirely uncertain whether Jane will finish her film. She isn’t like a lot of Streatfeild’s other child characters–for her the pressure is not what comes in the way of her career on the stage but rather the career itself, something she may have thought would bring her to an equal footing with her brother and sister, but which actually turns out to be something she doesn’t enjoy. For once, Streatfeild’s protagonist is an ordinary child. I enjoyed this and sympathised with her. And was surprised and pleased to find that Streatfeild, even when she writes about children in show business, knows better than to think that all of them ought to be there.