I have never read anything by AS Byatt. I have heard of her… but I think I always assumed she was a bit too “literary” for my tastes, which in my head means snobby and convoluted kinda-real-life and not that interesting. I saw this book in a second hand book shop and thought – maybe I should give it a go; biography is an interesting topic and the blurb sounded a bit intriguing.
Plus, cool cover.
Up to about the halfway point, I was utterly charmed. Besotted, even. Phineas Nanson (I was a bit disappointed when I discovered the narrator was a man; I’d forgotten that from the blurb) has decided to give up his study in postmodern literary theory, because it doesn’t mean anything to him anymore. But that means he needs something new to study. A supervisor gives him three volumes of biography by Scholes Destry-Scholes; Nanson has an arrogant literary theorist aversion to biography. However, he is hooked by the charm of Destry-Scholes’ writing, and proceeds to attempt a biography of the biographer.
At this point, I thought there were going to be intriguing and possibly convoluted layers upon layers of biography. And there were: Nanson finds excerpts of other, possible, biographies written by Destry-Scholes but unpublished, and there are extended (and I mean a few dozen pages) included in the novel. These excerpts are a bit weird, and their subjects not immediately identified; there are certainly some themes that recur.
Nanson goes on to research the subjects of these incomplete biographies, and of course finds himself in increasing levels of abstraction from his purported subject, the biographer. All of which is quite wonderful to read – including his finding a part-time job at a travel agency who specialise in odd, literary- or art- or otherwise abstrusely-themed holidays for discerning characters.
It was all going so well.
(Spoilers from here, I guess? If you really want to give it a go yourself?)
And then it became a story of a man who ends up having a relationship with two different women at the same time.
I mean, yes, there was discussion about how this attempt at a biography had actually become an autobiography and he has angst about that as a literary form, and then discusses how he surprisingly likes writing for its own sake, and he gives up on Destry-Scholes… but yes, this became a not-yet-middle-aged (I assume) man and his sexual relationships and there was no musing on whether it was right to have two partners simultaneously and did his partners deserve to know about the other or… anything of that sort of moral relationship nature. No. It was just all about him and his experience.
And so I got really quite disappointed. More than I probably would have been if I hadn’t been so delighted by the first half.
TL;DR: the fine print says that one of the classifications for this book is ‘psychologically abused women’. Yup. If that’s not your thing, do not read this book.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Penguin Random House, at no cost (RRP $32.99, out 27 June).
This is definitely not the sort of book I generally read. Partly because it’s mainstream ‘literature’ – I have nothing against it but there’s so much speculative fiction to get to! – and partly because the whole point of the story is about a woman whose life has been appalling. And I just don’t enjoy reading those sorts of stories.
My main take-away from this novel is: I am so glad that my husband is loving and encouraging. The most annoying thing he does is encourage me too much (ok, slight exaggeration there, but I’m still feeling intensely grateful). Continue reading →
You know that thing where because you read so much of one genre, you keep expecting non-genre books to follow the same conventions?
I know the Durrell family from having read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell at school, and then reading several more of his memoirs off my own bat. It’s quite funny to realise that the moody older brother Gerald remembers turned into, apparently, quite a well-known author.
I think I took this off my parents’ bookshelves many years ago and I’ve never got around to reading it. I have finally done so as part of a concerted effort to get through my to-be-read pile, which I started… last week.
This was published in 1947 (my copy is from 1969). I kind of feel like I need to better understand post-war Britain before making claims about this novel… but actually that’s not the case. Certainly I think Durrell is making some pretty specific comments on British society of the time; but he’s also making comments about humanity more generally that are still applicable today.
The story: a bunch of random people, some with tenuous connections and other not, come together to go explore a labyrinth on Crete as a day-trip from their Mediterranean cruise. The first chapter is written in the aftermath, so we know right from the start that there’s been an accident and some people haven’t survived – I was surprised to see this narrative technique in a box written 70 years ago, to be honest, and was quite confused initially (it’s one of the aspects I now love about it). The rest of the novel gives some background to most of the characters, and then details their experiences within the labyrinth.
I should stop here and say I really loved this book. Occasionally the style made me impatient – some sentences were a bit too opaque for my tastes, and I couldn’t quite figure out whether Durrell is being serious in his misogyny or whether he’s being ironic, since I think both options are equally plausible. But this book is staying on my bookshelf, since I can well imagine rereading it (also my mum might be sad if I ditched it).
Durrell himself said the novel was
really an extended morality but written artlessly in the style of a detective story. Guilt, superstition, The Good Life, all appear as ordinary people; a soldier on leave, a medium, an elderly married couple (Trueman), a young unfledged pair, a missionary…
(in a letter to Henry Miller). The variety of characters – yes, many of them tropes – is of course what allows him to explore different attitudes and ideas and problems. The main character, or at least one of two who gets the most airtime, is a mediocre poet-cum-wannabe-critic who has just been drifting for years. Born to some money, never really had the inclination to hold down a job or be properly the starving artist in the garret; not great to his wife; and so on. In contrast, the other character with the most time is Baird, who has come to Crete to try and lay some demons to rest – the difference between the two men is stark. The other single men of the group – the medium mentioned above and an arrogant artist – provide some colour. There are two women: the missionary, who is severe and generally angry and disapproving, and an uneducated young woman trying to better herself. The “elderly” married couple – and it hadn’t even occurred to me that their name is Truman! – are really a package deal throughout the novel and may be my favourite part of the whole story. Certainly their eventual story is the most captivating. They are generally looked down upon by the artists and “better bred” members of the group (they won the opportunity to go first-class on the cruise) but there are simply wonderful moments that make them incredibly real. Like someone walking past their room one night and hearing her crying, and him saying “There, Elsie… I know things would have been different if it hadn’t died.” And then there’s no further explanation.
For all its universality, this is a novel of its times. People are still deeply affected by the impact of World War 2. The medium, Fearmax, has had a basically reputable career as such. Notions of class, while beginning to unravel, are still very prominent (and perhaps they are still in Britain but I think it’s more pronounced here). Psychotherapy is an intriguing notion and people can’t quite figure out whether to view it as science or quackery. That doesn’t mean you need to understand 1940s Britain to get the novel; it just means that understanding these people live in a basically recognisable but actually very different world is an important thing to keep in mind. The past: they did things differently. Even in novels.
As to my earlier comment: there is no fantasy element to this story, even though it really felt like there should be, at times.