James Lasdun's new novel is less eccentric than his first, The Horned Man, but all the more seductive for it. Stefan Vogel, immigrant from the former East Germany to the USA, begins his diary with an account of how a woman threw a glass of wine over him at a party. (Yes, that's not blood on the front cover...) The event is recounted, or recalled, several times by him over the following pages, sometimes briefly
"Are you Stefan Vogel? Yes. Splash!"
and sometimes with all his poet's tools to the fore
"And out of the points of light gleaming about her, the goblet of red wine, which I have not previously noticed, detaches itself, coming perplexingly towards me, in a perplexingly violent manner, its ruby hemisphere exploding from the glass into elongated fingers like those of some ghastly accusatory hand hurtling through the air at my body until with a great crimson splatter I am suddenly standing there soaking and reeking, blazoned in the livery of shame."
Eventually the book settles down to recount the seemingly unrelated tale of how Stefan came to go West. This makes up most of the book, and it turns out that this is inextricably linked to why he had his clothes ruined with wine, though it's not until near the end that we find out the connection. In the meantime the book has some of the very finest writing I have read in ages, which made me mentally note the book down early on as a possible Best New Book of the Year. For example the following, which comes at the end of a series of petty lies-upon-lies that young Stefan tells which causes upset among his family ("Every lie," the epigraph by Martin Luther reminds us, "must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth"), and finds Stefan in an impossibly confused mixture of feelings brought on by his lies:
"A few years later, when I was making a private study of the career of Joseph Stalin, I came across descriptions of his seventieth birthday: the enormous portrait of him suspended over Moscow from a balloon, lit up at night by searchlights; the special meeting of the Soviet Academy of Sciences honouring 'the greatest genius of the human race' ... The festivities culminated in a gala at the Bolshoi Theatre where the leaders of all the world's communist parties stood up one by one to make elaborately flattering speeches to Stalin, and to lavish him with gifts. One can imagine his state of mind as he sat on the stage receiving these tributes - the absolute disbelief in the sincerity of a single word being uttered; the compulsive need to hear them none the less; the antennae bristlingly attuned to the slightest lapse in the effort to portray conviction...
It seems to me that at the age of thirteen, I had already developed the cynicism of a seventy-year-old dictator."
This to me felt quite brilliant - the real thing - and it was only because the book seemed to tail off a little toward the middle (as did The Horned Man) that I ended up marking it down mentally as a four-star job rather than a full flowering five. Having said that, the end of the book recasts it all in such a light, that I think there must be some truth in this comment from the review in the Independent:
"This is a novel to be read twice. Some pleasures, such as the compelling prose, will be savoured with as much relish on a second reading, while the tension will be replaced by an appreciation of James Lasdun's cunning."
So: five it is after all. I do feel a need to re-read, almost immediately, in fact; and the last book I did that with was Patrick McGrath's Dr Haggard's Disease, which must be a good sign. [Warning: extremely bad closing pun even by my standards approaching] I'll be sure to let you know if the next read turns out to be even better than the Lasdun.