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Lucky I didn’t read Sweeth Tooth reviews..

9 Oct

A number of novelists can count themselves lucky that I read their latest offerings within a heartbeat of release. I tend to the deferential, almost fawning – and possibly mistily uncritical – appreciation of whatever they produce. Ian McEwan is one such. Sweet Tooth, his latest, was Amazon pre-ordered and the anticipation was delicious. What improbable, extraordinary event would reshape the lives of ordinary people? On what moment would this new novel turn? And how would it open? What quixotic character (s) or events would make the bizarre seem normal, probable even.

Serena Frome (rhymes with Plume) is the ‘heroine’ of this love story, set in the turbulent austerity of the early 70s –  Miners’ Strike, 3 day week, the Troubles, continuing Cold War, battered Ted Heath giving way to burnt-out Harold Wilson…and so on. Serena is looking back some 40 years as she gives us her potted CV in the characteristically engaging opening salvo of Chapter 1. The bookish child of a bishop, she dispenses with her upbringing as uneventful, save for the obvious signposts which, we know, Mcwan will pick up and run with later. The real story starts at Cambridge; it is this and her Maths degree (3rd) which sets her up as a square peg, a woman destined be a pawn in the games of others – mostly men.

Serena is recruited by an ageing don, Tony Canning with whom she spends a summer being indoctrinated into his view of most things, not merely sex, politics and philosophy. We know where the action is heading when Tony has secret meetings. Serena is being groomed for espionage. When her lover suddenly dumps her she needs a job and MI5 are on hand.

Now at this point the narrative had already taken me in a direction that said ‘This isn’t really going to be a spy novel, so don’t get your hopes up.’ With characteristic meticulous interweaving of character, plot-thread and, we suspect, a large dose of autobiography, McEwan pulls us compellingly down his own road of literary indulgence. Serena is charged with signing up an author, Tom Haley, who will, unwittingly, produce pro-Capitalist and certainly anti-Communist tales to sooth (or Sweet Tooth) a nation under cultural siege. That TH is a lecturer at Sussex; that we are encouraged to read a series of his shorts stories and novella plot; that Serena falls for this younger version of Canning…all this and more seems like Ian is revisiting his own literary genesis and enjoying the digression from what might otherwise have been a failed Le Carre lookalike. It isn’t and I never remotely thought it would be.

Unlike James Lasdun whose Guardian review at the end of August smacked of a man not fed his spy-catcher sweeties. He thought that Sweet Tooth promised the proper tensions of espionage and just didn’t deliver. I’m glad I didn’t read his disappointed words before tackling the novel. It’s hard to block out such an informed deconstruction but he’s wrong! The ending of the novel, rather than the beginning is the real McEwan deal. Self-indulgent, possibly, but I revelled in the neatness of the sting which Haley reveals in the long letter that concludes the story. This was intelligence outwitting espionage. This was cocking a snook at the cloak and dagger sound and fury of so much that characterised the intelligence services of the time. This was McEwan saying, ‘I can’t do the espionage stuff as well as Le Carre, so I didn’t try…I wrote my own thing, so there!’

And his own thing is that research-steeped knowingness of time and place and cultural context which he seems to blend so expertly with characters which are delineated, honed, perfected so that their decisions, successes and disasters are plasible, natural…ours. Will you enjoy this latest McEwan? Its last line gives such good advice: ‘Dearest Serena, it’s up to you.’

Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?

26 Jun

I acknowledge the influence of Martin Amis’s latest offering for the canon –  Lionel Asbo – a visceral, gruesome morality tale of extreme Chavism. The reception has oscillated between sycophancy and disappointment, which is pretty much what the exile in New York is used to. Both  he and his amoral thug-hero Lionel are beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.

Amis patronisingly subtitles the grubby tale ‘State of England’ – as if we wouldn’t geddit. Lionel is a viscious, small-time gangster who lets no-one have peace – least of all himself – unless he is banged up in the ‘Scrubs’. His nephew, Des is a half-caste, academic, renaissance goody-two shoes save for the minor blemish of having had regular sex with his gran, Li’s mum. Li and Des. Ego and id? When Des proclaims a fondness for poetry Li wearily whines “….I despair of you sometimes. Why aren’t you out smashing windows?”

The narrative crackles along but it’s a path that doesn’t surprise once the set-up is established. Li has Des’s schoolmate Rory ‘topped’ for being another granny conquest and Asbo is able to shift a gear when he wins £140million on the Lotto. Amis now shifts into celebrity anti-culture and fires obvious and entertaining bullets at as many aspects of our broken society as he can manage in 276 pages. It’s funny, it’s disturbing but it’s also just a tad boring.

We get the ‘joke’ – although it’s hard to discern why Amis insists on his knowingly ‘clever’ but also often impenetrable tricks of language, grammar, syntax. I’m not keen on speech, dialogue, mediaspeak and soundites being italicised. Some ‘Li -speak’ is phonetic, some not; some dumbed down – some surprisingly eloquent.I’m happier with the more obvious. Lionel is a megabucks moron whose story is a graphic slide-show of the perversions of England 2012. But we have heard this before, haven’t we- and in slightly more digestible form such as Little Britain, Kevin and Perry, Keith Richard’s autobiography and  Eastenders. Last night’s Traffic Cops on BBC1 was more real and hardly less frightening.

For Amis’s fictional slides,  each jpeg has a recognisable heading: Rooney, Tabloids, Bankers, tax dodgers, PR men and smart-arse accountants, Jordan, Simon Cowell, cheap booze, cheap sex, underage sex, drugs galore, dogs with studded collars (fed on Tabasco), corrupt politicians, insufferable families, brutal shouting-matches, high-rise benefit fraud, immigration, education, toilet values as far as the eye can see, love, hate, language, violence….And in 2102, money buys you more and more of it all.

It’s an easy disconcerting read. But I didn’t really care if upstanding Des’s secret incest was discovered or not. I didn’t much care if the lovechild Cilla was mauled to death by Jek and Jak, the Tabasco-crazed dogs. The narrative had beaten me up so much that I was desensitised by the time I came to Lionel’s best-man speech, pages 76-79, delivered shortly after the bride had been gang-banged by hotel kitchen staff.  ‘With her fucking trousseau up round her waist and her fucking knickers down round her shins and her great big fat arse in the air…’ This signalled a family riot, untold damage, hospitalisation aplenty,  various custodial sentences…but the marriage remained intact with Gina prostituting herself to Lionel, once he’d been released.

Her husband Marlon took the money and kept schtum. Martin Amis should probably do the same.

William Butler Yeats 1865-1939. Wonderful Irish crackpot.

24 Mar

Of course William Butler Yeats was an Anglo-Irish crackpot:self-obsessed; into witchcraft and the occult; apocalyptic visionary for the future; incurable romantic; sometime stalker of the charismatic Maud Gonne. His dismay at the money-grabbing middle-classes was matched by his inability to reconcile the brutal heroism of the Easter Rising of 1916, in Dublin with his own deeply-felt nationalism.

And yet he revered the ‘terrible beauty’ of ‘MacDonagh and MacBride and Connelly and Pearse’ the shakers and movers of the IRA who died for their cause. His was a softer search for ‘Irishness’: in myth and landscape; art and drama; love and friendship.

Teaching Yeats is tough. His poems can be technical, enormously varied, romantic, indulgent; terse,dense; bonkers, impenetrable; uplifting, revelatory.  Getting to know him over time provides lasting pleasure, an unending and contrasting resorce of rythm and discord, warmth and bitterness, joy and disappointment. Above all, truth.

The sentimental romance and derivative poeticisms of his early poetry are, simply, arresting – often beautiful. Wandering Aegus of folklore myth searches life-long for his love, whom he has only once glimpsed – it’s a delicious, joyous search but always with hope:

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

W.B.’s story is always at the romantic heart of these folklore musings. That means his unrequited love for Maud Gonne and, indeed, Ireland. He switches easily from things pastoral and mythological to himself.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made..

He sees himself as the fok-hero; a throwback whose Irish pulse beats out the tunes of the West of Ireland as walks the streets of London

….on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core. 

This ability to see the heroic as well as its tawdry opposite is at the core of Yeats’ greatness. Love and friendship are all; a vision of a better life – of the aesthetic, of time-honoured values; of a striving for what is  noble, honest  and of good report.

When I think of the fragility of young love my mind trips easily into  Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne is captured in so many places and could provide an anthology for the lachrymose Kleenex brigade: The Pity of Love,The Sorrow of Love, When You Are Old, Never Give All The Heart etc ad infinitum. MG has a bloody lot to answer for. But it’s all lovely.  And the range of imagery surprises. The tough, near brutal, rhetorical love poem No Second Troy suggests that love for this passionate woman was inescapable for she had:

                                                    a mind

That nobleness made simple as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this..

His great friend Robert Gregory, shot down in the First World War was loved somewhat similarly for a carefree, perhaps careless dynamism captured in the wonderful An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

I know that  shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight  do note hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

Here a timeless reminder of war’s absurdity but also the paradox of life, death, love, friensdships and fate which Yeats both embraced and wrestled with. He lost his best friend but his love for this noble renaissance man is enshrined in In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,

As ’twere all life’s epitome.

What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?

I think of bankers’ bonuses, of Carlos Tevez, of the murdered, innocent French schoolchildren; of British binge drinkers vomiting on the early morning streets our major cities (and elsewhere); of Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, rainforests and the arctic thaws. The extraordinary excesses and abuses of our lives have blunted the edges of proportion, decency, morality. We have bludgeoned ourselves into a hypnotic acceptance of what is – and our vision is blurred – even blinded – to what should be.

Yeats saw all this too. He hypothesises what Christ might find if he returned for a  Second Coming- indeed what sort of ‘Christbeast’ the early 20th century might have spawned:

And what rough beast,its hour come round at last

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The poem has the image of a gyre, spinning out of control – civilisation seemimgly at its extreme, depraved limit – Things fall apart the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. It’s uncomfortably close to our desensitised world of acceptance of : greed,  environmental disaster, human suffering, conflict and war, religious disharmony and the unstoppable mantra of ‘grow the economy’.

Yeats was a celebrated figure of post partition Ireland – a senator, politician, eminence grise of the inter World War years. He, however, dwelt on his (and our) failings and, in so doing was both indulgent and achingly memorable. He was a grumpy old man, recognising that, An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick. But he loved his friends, his country and his values. These stand out in his poetry, often underpinned by a craftsmanship that was fine-tuned over a lifetime and needs more attention that this brief blog. As an old politician he chuntered:

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics….

He concludes simply:

..O that I were young again

And held her in my arms

So while there was a continuing sense of disillusionment – even failure – finding its last expression in The Circus Animals’ Desertion – we are left with the sense of a rich life of energy and involvement and contribution. The declaiming last poem Under Ben Bulben is a typical call-to-arms:

Irish poets learn your trade

Sing whatever is well made,

He is passing the baton of purveying Ireland’s heritage through art and language to the next generation. He is sceptical that the challenge can be met by base born products of base beds but he set his stall out before the turn of the century:

Know, that I would accounted be

True brother of a company

That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,

Ballad and story, rann and song.

His dismay at what the world was doing to itself never overwhelmed him. He thought of that girl; he thought of Ireland’s ballad and story; he smiled at the thought of horseman, racing past his grave, no time to stop – just wave and ‘pass by’.

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