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P. J. (Sheffield)

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The Foundation Pit (Vintage Classics)
The Foundation Pit (Vintage Classics)
by Andrey Platonov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Foundation Pit, 1 Dec. 2012
Archetypally Russian. This means, of course, more over-emoting than is found in most operas. Russian literary characters have always reminded me of Elmer Fudd (Elmer Fuddovich?), the seemingly bi-polar nemesis of Bugs Bunny. Fudd's moods, in a five minute Looney Tunes cartoon, run the full gamut, from murderous to vengeful to bashful to melancholy and so on. One moment he loves Bugs, is contrite for trying to kill him, cries even, the next he is intent on extreme violence once again. Much the same is on display here: lots of hand wringing, soulful gazing into the distance, gulping down tears, and angry exchanges.

The plot of The Foundation Pit is, quite frankly, as threadbare as the plot of one of these cartoons, although it is built around a satisfyingly satirical idea. A group of workers are engaged in digging the foundation pit of the title, upon which is to be erected a house that will be inhabited by the whole of the proletariat. Chortle. The primary concern of the novel is the tension between one's desires as an individual and one's responsibility to the whole state. Collectivisation, a kind of pooling of agricultural resources, which involved an order for farmers to give up the best of their possessions, features heavily.

It is worth bearing in mind that Platonov was writing this stuff whilst it was actually happening, not after the event, and he ought to be admired for his bravery. But bravery does not make a masterpiece, otherwise Ivan Denisovich would be one, so what then earns The Foundation Pit those 5 stars? The prose. His style, in this novel in particular, is exhilarating, is so odd and uniquely his own that many criticise the translation, believing an inept translator to be the only reasonable explanation for their own struggles with the text. Platonov's sentences are idiosyncratic, the word order initially confusing but designed to give emphasis to certain important words.

His greatest achievement is to make the reader feel as though he too is trapped in a wildly incomprehensible world. The novel is written, and the characters more often than not communicate, in baffling doublespeak. You are given the impression that everyone, including the author, has been brainwashed, with party-approved phrases abounding:

"You're a fully class generation. You may only be a minor but you have a precise consciousness of every relationship."

"The proletariat, comrade Voshchev, lives for enthusiasm! It's time you received this tendancy!"

"Silence, you benighted pettiness! Your task is to remain whole in this life. Mine is to perish, in order to vacate a place!"

There is evidence enough, I hope, in this review to convey just how very funny The Foundation Pit is, but I would also make a case for it being a very moving book. There is a sense that these characters are "lost souls," that they are striving towards a future and believe in an ideology that is to their detriment. No one is happy in Platonov's world, but there is some hope in the hearts of the characters, and that is the most painful thing of all.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 7, 2013 10:01 PM BST

by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jealousy, 1 Dec. 2012
This review is from: Jealousy (Paperback)
The novel as virtual reality.

The term virtual reality conjures up images of people strapping on funny headsets and being exposed to simulated environments; its goal is to make the participant feel as though he or she has stepped into another world, one that feels real or is at least able to recreate some of the conditions of a real experience. This is very much what reading Jealousy is like. Robbe-Grillet's novel, if one is in the right frame of mind, recreates many of the attendant emotions relative to jealousy.

Of course, just like with virtual reality one must approach Jealousy with an absence of cynicism, but if you do this is an almost mind-warping experience. Experience is the correct word, because this is not engaging as a story, the most one needs to know about the plot is summed up in the title. A jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. That is all.

What is striking is the construction of the story. It is almost entirely written as a stream of banal descriptive statements, similar to a series of stage directions, such as "A... is writing, sitting at the table near the first window." Strangely, for a novel named after an emotion there is no explicit emotional content. We are not told how the husband is feeling; we infer his psychological state from his behaviour, we infer his jealousy from his preoccupations. Apparently innocuous scenes are repeated numerous times, giving one the impression that the husband is continuously reliving, reimagining, these moments.

Even more remarkable is that the character of the husband is only apparent logically, not literally. What I mean by this is that he never reveals himself, is never active in any of the narrated events, we simply assume his presence because, for example, there are three places set at dinner (one for the wife, one for the chief suspect Franck, and one for an uninvolved but clearly present other). However, the effect is that one almost feels as though YOU are the other; that you are the cuckolded husband, that it is you who are watching, stalking, obsessing over this woman and her potential affair. One starts to feel the paranoia as one observes A... reading a letter, one imbues her every action with significance, regards all of her behaviour with suspicion.

The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics)
The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics)
by Henry James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ambassadors, 1 Dec. 2012
I can't decide whether I think this is the greatest novel ever written or the most infuriating. Or both. It is a subtle, oh so subtle, rumination on regret and missed opportunities. The premise, of a middle aged man dispatched to Paris to help persuade the errant son of his formidable partner to return home to America, was instantly appealing to me. That this ambassador falls in love with Paris, and experiences a reawakening of Lost In Translation proportions, made this a book that could have been written specifically to delight me.

The Ambassadors for all its stuffy reputation is a quixotic, sensual novel. Strether, the principle focus of the story, is a man who despite his advanced years is lacking in experience of worldly matters; Paris affords him access to a sophisticated, and exciting, new world, one that simultaneously hints at what life might have been like had he had the courage to `take it by the horns' and what life might still have in store for him.

His emotional growth during the novel is quite remarkable, one shouldn't make the mistake of believing that he exchanges one naive view of the world (stuffy oppressive America) for another (idyllic liberated France). Strether becomes more cultured, more confident; he finds himself. He doesn't view Paris as an Eden, doesn't consider the inhabitants to be without weaknesses, but learns about life and himself from his exposure to these faults.

All this is well and good, but the extent of one's enjoyment of one of Henry James' later novels rests upon one's ability to appreciate his style. James' sentences are so serpentine as to be hypnotic, and so complex that I almost felt as though I were reading him in a foreign language, one that I know quite well but am not fluent in.

If you've read any of my reviews you'll know that I love a comma, that I won't use a full stop if I can find some way of extending the sentence further with one of those low-riding little beauties. James, however, is the king of the comma and of course this poses a problem if one suffers from a lack of patience.

Yet, it isn't the composition of his sentences that I find occasionally infuriating. Contradictorily, what is most striking about The Ambassadors is also the most frustrating, which is James' way of excluding the reader from important aspects of the story. His characters reference incidents and activities that you are never privy to. There is a constant sense of things happening 'off-stage,' things that are never explicitly shown to the reader, but which the characters speak of as though you were fully included in their world, fully up-to-speed. Reading James is sometimes like looking through the dirty window of a moving bus at what you think may be a beautiful woman.

I cannot remember whole passages verbatim, of course, but here is my own version of the kind of conversation you will find in The Ambassadors:

"You know?"
"I know."
"What do you know?"
"Oh, you know."
"I do."
"I'm surprised that you already knew that I know that you know."
"You are?"
"Why, yes. In any case, how do you feel about it?"
"Isn't it marvelous/dreadful/shocking?"
"Of course."


This kind of discussion is, obviously, confusing but it adds an almost interactive element to the novel in that you have to actively imagine, or create, part of the story. Instead of relying solely on the author you have to do some of the work yourself, to join your own dots. I found that equally maddening and exhilarating.

Desperate Characters
Desperate Characters
by Paula Fox
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Desperate Characters, 9 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Desperate Characters (Paperback)
I love novels like this, ones that trade in an atmosphere of unrelenting unease. Nothing other than the most banal occurrences make up the plot, but Fox imbues these events with a significance that renders them almost surreal. The stray cat, for example, which like most felines (and i do own one) is just as likely to purr in your face as want to shred it, takes on a horror film, Jaws-like, level of ominousness (you can almost hear the quickening ''duh duh's'' when Sophie spots it outside the house). There is a sense of decay surrounding the landscape of the novel and a malevolence, a barely suppressed hysteria, in almost every character.

Whilst this may give the impression that Desperate Characters is a dour read, it isn't and this is largely due to Fox's prose, which is sardonic, even laugh-out-loud funny at times, and wonderfully perceptive. There are a number of marriage-in-crisis novels out there, as there are novels that concern themselves with the vacuousness of modern society and the disintegration of values, but this is one of the very best.

The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
by Gerald Murnane
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.86

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Plains, 15 Sept. 2012
One of the great 'books about nothing' (see also: The Shipyard - Onetti, The Opposing Shore - Gracq, and The Tartar Steppe - Buzatti), reminiscent of Borges and Calvino's Invisible Cities, it will, i imagine, be most commonly compared to Kafka. It concerns a filmmaker who intends to make a film about the plains, but who, of course, never makes one. This, in fact, is what the beguilingly odd plainsmen seem to admire about him the most, as they believe it is impossible to represent the true vision of the plains in any realistic image. It is, obviously, not actually a book about nothing, but its themes are obtuse. What i most enjoyed about it, however, is that, like Carpentier's work, who coined the term 'lo real maravilloso,' Murnane was able to make mundane events, the not-spectacular, seem magical and enchanting.

Ulysses (Penguin Modern Classics)
Ulysses (Penguin Modern Classics)
by James Joyce
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'Love - i mean the opposite of hate', 5 Sept. 2010
James Joyce was going to give us back our precious English language one day, but he died unfortunately, and so his reputation as an obscurist overtly difficult almost humanity hating (thanks Henry Miller, for that one) writer was cemented. One of the prevailing problems with Joyce is other people's perceptions of him, rather than the work he actually produced. There seems to be, increasingly, two types of Joyce reader amongst the general public: there are those who want to convince us they exited the womb with a copy of Ulysses in hand, read and understood (every single word, sir) while entombed in their mother's bellies and those who read him because they think they have to (self flagellation isn't usually an enjoyable experience). These two groups, then, shout the loudest and sometimes succeed in putting other people off. Try and approach him with an open mind, if you can. I am not saying he wasn't sometimes a contrary ol' sob, but he did (and here's the important bit) write some of the warmest most beautiful enlightening funny prose one is ever likely to encounter. Joyce was, above all, a humanist (cobblers to you Miller). He was an anti-dramatist. He wanted to put every tedious, glorious, dirty, mundane etc etc etc aspect of human existence on the page, but, luckily for us, he wrapped them tinsel-like in poetry.

That is Joyce out of the way, so what of this particular book? Some have criticised it as plotless and it does certainly meander aimlessly most of the time, and it does almost completely lack dramatic tension. But, and you'll have to forgive me a moment of pretentiousness, does life have a concise and satisfying 'plot'? Because that is what Ulysses is about: life, in all it's unstructured and whimsical glory. And i, at least, found reading about it to be a genuinely moving experience.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 3, 2012 9:14 PM GMT

by W. G. Sebald
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Austerlitz, 24 Aug. 2009
This review is from: Austerlitz (Paperback)
Yes, Sebald's other major works are all beautifully written, profound, and insightful. but they lack narrative force, or propulsion (and in this way are reminiscent of the similarly negligent Perec or Calvino). They essentially consist of a series of vaguely themed anecdotes and musings, and often remind me of a grim existentialist version of the TV programme QI. This is not to say that i don't value them, but i do regard them as difficult books to read, cover to cover, as novels. They are, perhaps, best enjoyed as books to dip in and out of, and are closer to something like Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet or Burton's wonderful treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Good, then, but not quite the supreme masterpieces some would claim. Austerlitz, however, is a masterpiece, in that it contains the same beautiful descriptions and philosophical weight that elevates Sebald's writing beyond most other authors, but marries these gifts to a story worth reading, in-itself, as a story. Lovers of modernist fiction would tell you that plot is unimportant. Ignore them. The true greats are able to tell a great story AND move emotions AND massage the intellect. With this novel Sebald confirmed himself as one of the true greats.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 30, 2013 7:38 PM BST

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