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John Self "www.theasylum.wordpress.com" (Belfast, NI)

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The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

12 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, 16 Mar. 2006
This review is from: The Remains of the Day (Paperback)
The Remains of the Day (1989) is still Kazuo Ishiguro's most famous book, partly because it won the Booker Prize (in a very strong year: masterful works like Amis's London Fields and Winterson's Sexing the Cherry weren't even shortlisted), and partly because it's his most accessible novel. And it is indeed a masterpiece and probably still his best work.

It inspires such admiration for many reasons. Every line and every page is essential and in its right place, and can be seen to serve its purpose. There is so much in it that when you think back on it you wonder how on earth he fitted it all into 250 pages: the war, the notion of servitude, the love story, the ever-present tragedy, all of which is fully worked out. And it is constructed like a clockwork toy or crossword puzzle, with tiny clues everywhere. Take the first and last sentences of the novel:

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."

"I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer's return, I should be in a position to pleasantly surprise him."

On the surface they share the same formal, almost pompous form and language we have come to expect from Ishiguro's narrators. But looking again at the last line we see that Stevens, the butler in Darlington Hall, has made an unthinkable slip - a split infinitive - which is Ishiguro's signal to us that he is on the brink of, as one of his characters would never say, "losing it big time." The only other hint we get of this in the book is one stark sentence near the end, where all the layers of Stevens's protective carapace are skinned away at once to enable him to say:

"Indeed - why should I not admit it? - at that moment, my heart was breaking."

Such is the force of this simple admission in the midst of Stevens's obfuscation and self-protection that it detonates like a nuclear bomb. Mix in with this the major themes of thwarted love, an employer with Nazi sympathies during the second world war, and a frustrated life of service, and the result is one of the greatest but least showy novels of the late 20th century. An essential masterpiece.


An Artist of the Floating World
An Artist of the Floating World
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art, but not for Art's sake, 16 Mar. 2006
An Artist of the Floating World (1986) was Kazuo Ishiguro's second novel and his first fully-fledged masterpiece, just as achieved as The Remains of the Day, if a little more opaque and less directly affecting emotionally. It features another of Ishiguro's unreliable narrators, Masuji Ono, who is an elderly man, the artist of the title, with a dark secret. For a time this was my favourite Ishiguro novel - not a controversial choice as it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Whitbread Book of the Year award - and in certain moods it may still be so. Because although all Ishiguro's novels have unifying qualities, they are also all distinct, each appealing in a different way to a different mood. An Artist of the Floating World is spare and short like his debut, but had diversions that also made it a pleasure to read over and above the more literary qualities. He seemed to me, for example, to have developed an exceptional ear for children's voices, in the character of Oji, Ono's grandson, who may or may not be authentic but is charming and pleasing and a distinct character in the way that many young children in novels are not. As with A Pale View of Hills, the key is in the unspoken - while Ono sounds confident and calm most of the time, we know he is stricken and paralysed by some horror connected with the rise of Japanese militarism in the early- to mid-20th century. So Ishiguro is a gift to those who want their fiction to be a dialogue between writer and reader, and not a spoon-fed monologue. It also explains why his books always reward re-reading.


A Pale View of Hills
A Pale View of Hills
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Beginnings of the Day, 16 Mar. 2006
This review is from: A Pale View of Hills (Paperback)
Ishiguro's first novel reads as though it sprang from the womb fully formed, at the tenderish age of 28. It sets the scene finely for Ishiguro's career: words like "enigma" and "elliptical" appear in the reviews and rightly so, because Ishiguro will never say what he means when he can hint at it and leave it for the reader to decide. It is also elegant and formal, like all his narrative prose, from the start:
"Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation: it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I - perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past - insisted on an English one."
And here is Ishiguro in miniature: the dwelling on the past, the sense of guilt or obligation ("some selfish desire"), the cool calm prose (always hiding a ruffle of turbulent emotions) and the combination of Japanese reticence and English, well, reticence. It's interesting that when Ishiguro has moved in his fiction away from the formal strictures of Japanese society to England (in The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans), he has placed his fiction firmly in the past, where society there was reliably restrained too. Ishiguro himself was born in Nagasaki but moved to England at the age of 5.
All of which background is intended neatly to conceal the fact that I can't remember much already about A Pale View of Hills, other than what the blurb tells us: a Japanese woman is now living alone in England and dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. The second world war features too, as a presence off the page, as it continued to do with Ishiguro's second and third novels. The blurb ends by warning us of "the memories tak[ing] on a disturbing cast." This too is par for the course with Ishiguro, where everyone has some hidden desire, shame, or other secret bubbling up from the past and polluting their present. We always have to work this out for ourselves though, as Ishiguro's other treat for those who prefer their fiction cryptic over quick is his mastery of the unreliable narrator.


The Third Policeman (Paladin Books)
The Third Policeman (Paladin Books)
by Flann O'Brien
Edition: Paperback

82 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't get Lost..., 16 Mar. 2006
If you're coming to this book after the hype about it appearing on Lost, then the first thing you need to know is that it's one of the strangest books you're ever likely to read - and if it's not, I'll have some of what you're having. The Third Policeman is a remarkable book by any standards, even if (like me, hem hem) you fail to grasp the ending until you read the publisher's footnote afterwards. In fact the second half generally is not as hot as the first, and O'Brien seems to tread water most of the time after positively squirming with creative energy for the first hundred-odd pages. The book was written in 1940 but not published until 1967, after his death. It is narrated by a man who has literally no name, who has murdered someone for money and sets about recovering the stash. In doing so he encounters mad policemen obsessed with bicycles (including the eponymous third one), the atomic physics, and scale and size.
One of the finest long passages in the book, which had me drumming my heels in pure visceral pleasure, is when the policeman MacCruiskeen shows the narrator a little wooden chest he has made, "perfect in its proportions and without fault in its workmanship." It turns out that he has made thirty more, each smaller than the last and contained inside its predecessor, of which series even the thirteenth one was so small it "took me three years to make and it took me another year to believe that I had made it." What I particularly delighted in was the off-kilter and yet just-so dialogue between the policeman and our man:
"There now," said MacCruiskeen.
"It is nearly too nice," I said at last, "to talk about it."
"I spent two years manufacturing it when I was a lad," said MacCruiskeen, "and it still takes me to the fair."
"It is unmentionable," I said.
"Very nearly," said MacCruiskeen.
Also the book has a running background featuring the works of mythical Irish philosopher de Selby (shades of Vonnegut here), who believed among other things that night was merely an accumulation of dark particles in the air caused by pollution, and that sleep was a series of fits brought on by exposure to the particles. Much of the stuff about his notions of the world and indeed his several commentators and biographers is richly inventive and comic.
"His theory as I understand it is as follows.
"If a man stands before a mirror and sees in it his reflection, what he sees is not a true reproduction of himself but a picture of himself when he was a younger man. De Selby's explanation of this phenomenon is quite simple. Light, as he points out truly enough, has an ascertained and finite rate of travel. Hence before the reflection of any object in a mirror can be said to be accomplished, it is necessary that rays of light should first strike the object and subsequently impinge on the glass, to be thrown back again to the object - to the eyes of the man, for instance. There is therefore an appreciable and calculable interval of time between the throwing by a man of a glance at his own face in a mirror and the registration of the reflected image in his eye.
"So far, one may say, so good. Whether this idea is right or wrong, the amount of time involved is so negligible that few reasonable people would argue the point. But de Selby ever loath to leave well enough alone, insists on reflecting the first reflection in a further mirror and professing to detect minute changes in this second image. Ultimately he constructed the familiar arrangement of parallel mirrors, each reflecting diminishing images of an interposed object indefinitely. The interposed object in this case was de Selby's own face and this he claims to have studied backwards through an infinity of reflections by means of "a powerful glass." What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them - too tiny to be visible to the naked eye - being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, "a countenance of singular beauty and nobility." He did not succeed in pursuing the matter back to the cradle "owing to the curvature of the earth and the limitations of the telescope.""
So in some ways The Third Policeman is just a framework for O'Brien to hang lots of silly ideas on, and as novels go it's not distinguished by a strong urge to discover what happens next. But the writing is intricate and beautifully judged throughout, making it the rarity of a comic novel which requires full brow-furrowed attention to read. At times it feels like the best book you have ever read and at times it can be a bit of a drag. Which, as I said earlier, makes it remarkable by any standards. Whether it will help you solve the mysteries of a certain TV serial, I don't know ... as far as that goes, I'm Lost.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 13, 2014 5:13 PM BST


Arthur and George
Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sign of Five (er... stars), 16 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Arthur and George (Paperback)
Arthur & George is Julian Barnes's most complete, well-rounded and fully achieved novel, and his most accessible since Talking It Over/Love Etc. And it's a book of many parts, though altogether seamless in the end. After the alternating introductions to the two real-life characters, it becomes a gripping account of second-generation immigrant solicitor George Edalji's persecution, prosecution and wrongful conviction for a series of 'horse-rippings' in Staffordshire. Then we have a detailed account of Arthur Conan Doyle and the three women in his life: 'the Mam,' who earned his everlasting (in this life and beyond, given his spiritualist leanings) love and respect for bringing up her family against the shifting seas of his drunkard father; Touie, his wife who becomes consumptive and sentences him to a life of celibacy; and Jean, his lover, who is prepared to wait for as long as it takes for the TB to take Touie...
Then Arthur and George come together, and apart, and the close of the novel is the spiritualist meeting in the Albert Hall in memory of Conan Doyle after his death. Or: his physical death... On its winding way the book takes in various aspects of the hall-of-mirrors of belief and proof; how people support one another, whether family, lovers, or merely those thrown together by chance; and the benefits of protest and the willingness to "make a noise." Barnes shows that it is lightness of touch, calm possession and lack of partial stridency which can set miscarriages of justice most blazingly alight. Edalji's case - fictionalised but true - resonates all the more movingly for its artful presentation.
And not least among Barnes's achievements is the sense, rare enough among the cleverer sort of literary fiction, that Arthur and George are brought to convincing, breathing life, are people not characters, and completely real. Which is not to be reduced by the fact that, of course, they were.


Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

177 of 186 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Organic Experience, 16 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Never Let Me Go (Paperback)
Never Let Me Go is in some ways more straightforward than most of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels, and more fully comprehensible than any since his masterpiece The Remains of the Day. And yet there is still enough lightness of detail and wealth of moral ambiguity to justify much strokey-chin thought after the last page has been closed, and even to warrant an early re-read.
The setting of the book is "England, late 1990s," but not as we know it. We can tell this even from the limited narrative offered by Kathy, who tells us very little of the real world outside her immediate (and past) environs. There are words dropped innocently but sinisterly: donations, carers, completing, none of which have the meanings we understand. Kathy was a student at Hailsham, a residential institution for children which educated them and encouraged creative expression, but was not quite a school... They are being prepared for lives as 'carers' and 'donors', and they are a form of experiment made possible by advances in technology which, in this parallel world, came in the 1950s but which we are only seeing now.
To say more than this would ruin the story, as there are two mighty coups of revelation delivered about a quarter and halfway through the book, which resonate through the rest of the story and are quite impossible to free from your mind. The impression I get, however, is that Ishiguro is less interested in the sci-fi aspect of this than in using it as an allegory for us all, the stunted limitations of many of our lives, and our blithe acceptance of our ultimate fate.
Although the book has much to say, occasionally - even for this Ishiguro-lover - the saying was a little too restrained, and I was left feeling I had missed something important - why were Tommy's temper tantrums relevant? What about this, or that, or the other, interminable description of a tiny unimportant incident? For that reason I would suggest that Never Let Me Go is not ideal for newcomers to Ishiguro's work, who should begin with The Remains of the Day. Nonetheless, here Ishiguro has delivered another reliably fine confection, perhaps without the pixel-perfect wondrousness of The Remains of the Day, or the mad beauty of The Unconsoled, but with more accessibility than any of his other books and, despite the unruffled surface, a cast iron certainty to perform open heart surgery on any reader who's got one to give.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2013 8:43 PM GMT


Eleven Kinds of Loneliness
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback

42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eleven out of Ten, 14 Mar. 2006
The first of many things to love about this book is the bold-as-you-like title. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness? Man goes into publisher's office:
Man: I've got this book of stories I want you to publish.
Publisher: Oh yeah? Let me see that.
Man: Try this one.
Publisher: [reading] Well, this is gloomy as hell, buddy, but there's something there. Maybe we can get them in with a cheery title, they won't know what hit 'em.
Man: I have a title.
Publisher: How many stories have you got for the book?
Man: Eleven.
Publisher: And what's your title?
Man: ...Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.
Publisher: Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out, buddy.
And yet - it worked. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was published, and acclaimed, shortly after Revolutionary Road. Didn't sell, of course, but what do you expect? It is gloomy as hell - but there's most certainly something there. More than something: misery, humiliation, pity, desperation, weakness, ignorance, bullying - oh and loneliness. But despite all this, the stories are bright-eyed and pink-tongued. They shine or bristle with life, even if it's not the sort of life you would conceivably care to share in. This is the sort of thing you get, from the second story, The Best of Everything, about a couple who are about to get married without either really wanting to:
"She'd have time for a long talk with her mother that night, and the next morning, "bright and early" (her eyes stung at the thought of her mother's plain, happy face), they would start getting dressed for the wedding. Then the church and the ceremony, and then the reception (Would her father get drunk? Would Muriel Ketchel sulk about not being a bridesmaid?), and finally the train to Atlantic City, and the hotel. But from the hotel on she couldn't plan any more. A door would lock behind her and there would be a wild, fantastic silence, and nobody in all the world but Ralph to lead the way."
The pleasure in Yates's stories is not some sort of misanthopric delight in seeing the downtrodden trodden yet further down. His characters are unfortunate yet resilient (admittedly because sometimes they're unaware how unfortunate they are); they bear their fate with stoicism, and there are no culpably dramatic Perfect-Day-for-Bananafish endings. Even, in a rare moment of generosity, there is compassionate relief for a character at the end of his story (A Glutton for Punishment), albeit only in the sense that he gets to share his burden with his wife, rather than concealing it as he had intended to.
Whatever the pleasure, it's undeniable and unopposable, because the stories kept me reopening them - just one more - like some sort of anti-candy, as unsweet as can be but nonetheless addictive.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 15, 2012 1:22 PM BST


Ripley's Game
Ripley's Game
by Patricia Highsmith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highsmith back to doing what she does best, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Ripley's Game (Paperback)
In this third volume of 'the Ripleiad," Tom Ripley, still edgy after the risks taken in the Derwatt affair (which is frequently referred to, and refreshed my memory nicely of Ripley Under Ground), is settling back into life at his French place-in-the-country, Belle Ombre, when he is contacted by an old criminal acquaintance who wants two Mafia figures from rival families killed, so the Mob will stay out of his native Hamburg. Ripley, who, the book reminds us, "detested murder unless it were absolutely necessary," is not of course interested in carrying out the jobs himself, but becomes instrumental in finding someone who will. And so the first half of the book becomes a study in persuading an upright citizen to carry out the most unspeakable crimes (clue: it helps if they're terminally ill), and the second half of the book shows what happens when the Mafia want revenge. It's gripping, thrilling, beautifully weighted and paced, and with enough meaty analysis of the personalities and relationships of all those involved to keep it well above potboiler status. A delectable triumph, with a seriously implausible body count. It's also been adapted twice for film, just like The Talented Mr Ripley (though why nobody wants to adapt the intervening volume of Ripley Under Ground is a mystery): a couple of years ago under its own title with John Malkovich as Tom Ripley; and in 1977 by Wim Wenders, as The American Friend. Either guarantees confusion from anyone viewing it as a sequel to Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley, so save yourself the effort and read the books instead.


Edith's Diary
Edith's Diary

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Words to the Wise, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Edith's Diary (Perfect Paperback)
Judging from the quotes on the back, Edith's Diary has much praise to live up to: "With Edith's Diary, Patricia Highsmith has produced a masterpiece" ... "As original, as funny, as cleverly written and as moving as any novel I have read since I started reviewing" ... "A work of extraordinary force and feeling ... her strongest, her most imaginative and by far her most substantial novel."
The setting at the outset is not dissimilar to something we might encounter in Richard Yates: in the 1950s a New York couple, Edith and Brett Howland, with a young son decide to escape the rat race and downsize to the country, for a better way of living. They want to produce a local newspaper which will win everyone over to their left-of-centre political stance. There's no denying, however, that Highsmith lacks Yates's masterful prose: which is not to say that there's anything wrong with her writing on a sentence-by-sentence level; it's just that it's more serviceable than beautiful. The start is subtle and slow, but even by a quarter of the way in, things are starting to go seriously wrong for Edith, though she seems strangely reluctant to tell her diary this, even though she's the only one (apart from us) reading it. Highsmith excels in creating a downward pull that drags you through the chapters, knowing that nothing good awaits you there.
And Edith's Diary progresses satisfyingly, if not surprisingly, and with a good helping of understated tragedy. For a portrait of descent into mental illness - paralleled by other characters' descents into decrepitude and death, and into delinquency and alcoholism - it's as gripping as it is grim. When Edith, less than halfway through the book, haltingly admits to her husband
"I have the feeling sometimes that something's - sort of cracking in me,"
it carries as much weight and force as Willy Loman declaring that he feels a little temporary about himself, or Ishiguro's Mr Stevens telling us "Indeed - why should I not admit it? - at that moment, my heart was breaking." Yet Edith's descent is subtle and slow, even toward the end, when we begin to see things from other people's points of view, and her diary entries are heartbreaking. Another high then from a writer who, along with Yates, must be one of the literary world's leading lowsmiths.


Deep Water
Deep Water
by Patricia Highsmith
Edition: Paperback

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars High and Low, 14 Mar. 2006
This review is from: Deep Water (Paperback)
As with her better known Ripley novels, in Deep Water (a welcome reissue from Bloomsbury in a handsome edition), Patricia Highsmith gives us a portrayal of a killer who is not entirely unsympathetic: or at least (as with Tom Ripley), it seems to the reader that the people who suffer at his hand are a lot worse than he is... Here, she sets Victor Van Allen, a small publisher with an independent income, against his vampish wife Melinda, or, as the blurb puts it:
"Melinda Van Allen is beautiful, rebellious, tempestuous and sexy. Unfortunately for wealthy socialite Vic Van Allen, she is his wife."
When one of Melinda's lovers is murdered, Van Allen seizes the opportunity to frighten off another by telling him that he, Van Allen, was the murderer. No-one believes him, but word gets around, and soon enough, Van Allen finds himself the true possessor of the title. The transition from wronged husband to killer seems to us logical, fluent and plausible, and our sympathy is, if not unequivocally with Van Allen, certainly never with the victims (though Highsmith dextrously forces this by never delving into the reactions of those left behind: the other victims of any murder). She is more interested in exploring what makes a man do these things, and in interesting us in it too, by making the books so devourably readable. "She writes about men like a spider writing about flies," said one critic, and it's a sticky, addictive web once you're in.


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