By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

By NightfallI read The Hours back in about 2003 and completely loved it – and loved it again when I re-read it maybe ten years later. I’ve read a couple of other Cunningham books (one fiction, one non-fiction) since then, but there are a few others waiting on my shelves, and I’m still trying to build up what I think of him as an author. Was The Hours an amazing aberration, or do I love him? To be honest, By Nightfall (2010) hasn’t completely cleared up that question.

The novel is from the perspective of an art dealer, Peter Harris. It’s not in the first person, but it is thoughts and personality which infuse the narrative – occasionally (as we’ll see) making it unclear whether the opinions are the character’s or the narrator’s. Peter’s career is going well, though he is constantly trying to square commercialism with his own appreciation for art. Is it acceptable to take on artists he doesn’t like, in order to make more money? He’s saddened by the way his daughter is distancing herself from him, having dropped out of college at least temporarily. And he’s feeling a bit static in his marriage to Rebecca, an editor.

It is a character study. And it is one which takes place surrounded by privilege. Peter is well-off, lives on the ‘right’ side of town, and is the sort of person who refers to his furniture by the name of the designer. This privilege is perhaps most pointed when he has to meet with somebody marginally less well off (asterisks my own):

Bette is already seated when he arrives. Peter follows the hostess through the dark red faux Victoriana of JoJo. When Bette sees Peter she offers a nod and an ironic smile (Bette, a serious person, would wave only if she were drowning). The smile is ironic, Peter suspects, because, well, here they are, at her behest, and sure, the food is good but then there’s the fringe and the little bandy-legged tables. It’s a stage set, it’s whimsical, for G*d’s sake; but Bette and her husband, Jack, have had their inherited six-room prewar on York and Eighty-fifth forever, he makes a professor’s salary and she makes mid-range art-dealer money and f*ck anybody who sneers at her for failing to live in downtown in a loft on Mercer Street in a neighborhood where the restaurants are cooler.

We are put into the mindset of somebody who thinks that fringe on tables is a major issue; we must look through the lens of somebody who probably doesn’t have anything from Ikea in his house. Perhaps that’s you too, and this wouldn’t be an obstacle to overcome, but I had to jump from my world of Argos flat-pack into this moneyed existence of self-indulgence. A jump that I can do with ease when it’s also back in time, but which somehow took some effort when it was only across an ocean.

I suppose the bigger obstacle, perhaps, is the name dropping. Peter is an art dealer, so of course we move into a world of artists – and I was constantly confronted by my own ignorance. This is my problem, not Cunningham’s, of course – though it didn’t necessarily help the world building when I didn’t know if the artists were real or fictional, or missed references to their styles which were important to describing a scene. Is it pretentious of Cunningham, or simply the accurate depiction of a type of man? Hard to say.

This aside, it is a beautifully and thoughtfully written novel. I’m not married and I don’t have children – I have no idea about Cunningham’s status on either – but I was firmly convinced by his portrayal of the anxieties of both. There is strain and misunderstanding and moments of connective joy – it feels like a poetic and true depiction. And an already complex scenario is rendered more complex by the arrival of Ethan, Rebecca’s younger brother, known as ‘Mizzy’ – short for Mistake – because he was born so many years after his three older sisters.

From the moment Ethan appears, he is intensely sexualised – even fetishised. Seeing half through Peter’s eyes and half through the objective narrator’s, it still isn’t much of a surprise when Peter starts to feel attracted to Ethan – even with Ethan’s fairly nuanced character, he has clearly been brought to the page to be an object of attraction.

What follows isn’t anything as simple as a love triangle, but it has the complexity and style that I’ve come to expect of Cunningham. The writing is the right side of poetic – so that it feels thoughtful and moving without being showy or obtrusive. Somewhat surprisingly, it is the structure that lets down By Nightfall a bit – I say surprisingly, because structure is what Cunningham used so brilliantly in The Hours. It feels too heavily weighted towards the end, where characters develop rapidly – and then, a little hurriedly, the novel comes to a close. It’s not often that I think a novel should be longer than it is, but I think By Nightfall could have benefited from another 50 pages or so.

Despite all this, it’s a very good novel – if it were the first I’d read by Cunningham, I think I’d be keen to explore more by him; as it’s the third novel I’ve read by him, I can’t help thinking that the other two were a bit better. But I’ll keep exploring the options on my shelves, and build up my understanding of who he is as a writer.

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Contested WillIf I had to pick my favourite book title, there is a strong chance that it might be Contested Will (2010). I’m a sucker for a clever play on words, and Shakespeare helpfully lends his first name to plenty of them – though they were puns that he made himself in the Sonnets, so we can hardly assume he’d be hurt. James Shapiro’s book doesn’t end its cleverness there, though – Contested Will has the subtitle ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’, but it’s really a study of how different theories came about, and the evidence acquired for them.

I read a little around the ‘authorship question’ when I was researching to write the notes accompanying a DVD of Shakespeare’s plays. That was a funny little job that I got to do while working in the Bodleian Rare Books department, and I never saw the end result (or even know if it came to fruition), but I do know that my first draft of Shakespeare’s biography was rejected as “having too many facts”. Anyway, I dipped one toe into the waters, and even put forward Jane Austen as a candidate, sort of. Last time I approached the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ question, I got quite a lot of lengthy, impassioned comments – so I look forward to doing the same this time!

Contested Will looks at three candidates for the authorship – one of them being Shakespeare himself (I’m not going to bow to the style of some who write ‘Shakspere’ or ‘the Stratford man’; the former misses the point about not having standardised spelling at the time and the latter is too cumbersome). The other two are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford – though, as Shapiro acknowledges, there are almost as many candidates as there are people arguing about it. These three are the mainstays – or at least held sway for the largest number of people.

The keynote of Shapiro’s book is calm thoroughness. He says early on that he is persuaded that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (and – nailing my colours to the mast – so am I), but he is not bombastic or insulting. Nor, to be honest, is he the ‘devastatingly funny’ that John Carey’s puff on the back cover promised me, though he is occasionally enjoyably wry. No, he is professional and engaging – as interested in the psychology of those who passionately argued the case of Bacon, Oxford, or others as he is in the question itself.

The first section looks at the history of hunting out Shakespeare’s papers, and the near-desperation that people had over several centuries to find out more about his life. Not until some years after he died, sadly, and nobody troubled to interview his surviving relatives – so the papers were all. Along with the discoveries you may have heard about (paperwork about poaching and a loan), Shapiro details forgeries that fooled some across the years – and, alongside, rebuffs some of the “gosh, it can’t be him” claims. Worried that a rural lad could know Latin? The education at Warwickshire grammar schools was about equal to a contemporary Classics degree. Concerned that no books are mentioned in Shakespeare’s will? It was very common for wills to be accompanied by inventories that detailed things like books, and Shakespeare’s has been lost. Anxious that his family kept grain? So did everybody else with any money in the area.

From here, we move onto Bacon, and the earliest stirrings that something was amiss – though Shapiro also reveals that some of these early murmurings were, in fact, latterday forgeries. Much of the ethos of Bacon’s authorship seems to have been involved with strange code-hunting practices, believing (like so many conspiracy theories) that those who are desperate to hide the truth will also, for no clear reason, leave clues to the truth. Baconians dominated the early 20th century, when less was known about the way plays were produced in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, or how the First Folio was printed, and much of this code-breaking was based on misunderstandings. And yet luminaries were involved in these theories – Mark Twain devoted the last years of his career to the authorship debate, and Freud was also preoccupied with it – ditto Henry James, Helen Keller, and right up to Mark Rylance (albeit these people don’t all favour Bacon).

I’m racing through, because there is so much richness in Shapiro’s book and this review is getting too long, and we move on to the man of the moment (for now, at least): the Earl of Oxford. Yes, he died before many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written, but that’s one of the things carefully tidied away by Oxfordians. He remains very much a popular choice for Shakespeare’s writings, but he did almost die out as a candidate – through lack of interest, rather than anything else. Shapiro writes very interestingly about his unexpected survival, and how it came about.

Oxford’s claims mostly come from the idea that the plays and poetry must be autobiographical – a theory I find as frustrating as Shapiro clearly does, though he manages to write about it with the same calm he demonstrates throughout. It intensely annoys me that anybody would think a genius would have to reflect his contemporary thoughts and feelings into his work rather than, y’know, being creative and making things up. And the idea that anybody might discover anything through research is anathema to some people of this school. You can’t possibly write about Italy unless you’ve been to Italy; you can’t write about being an earl unless you’re an earl. I suppose they haven’t spotted the irony of writing about Jacobean playwrights when you aren’t a Jacobean playwright.

Shapiro is more polite than I am, and doesn’t let himself get carried away – instead, he steadily tells us about Oxford’s time in the sun (including a court case in the Supreme Court about the authorship, no less; Shakespeare won) and points out times where the anti-Stratfordian arguments are based on unintentional or intentional errors, or explain away anything contrary to their views. Here, Shapiro refers to a story written by James Lardner in the New Yorker, which in turn quotes Professor James Boyle:

“The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretive framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information”/: “all the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected”. When Boyle added that it was impossible “to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents”, Lardner asked, “What about a letter in Oxford’s hand… congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?” Boyle didn’t skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: “What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player!… Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!”

But the essential chapter is the last, where we are back to Shakespeare. In it, Shapiro (again, very calmly) outlines all the reasons that he has been convinced that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – based on everything from contemporary printing practices to the diaries of fellow playwrights, and countless other points that he expertly explains. Long story short, being an expert in the period and in theatre history, Shapiro is able to help a 21st-century reader understand the reasons behind things that look like anomalies today, or show how many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments have been based on misunderstandings. The chapter should be handed to anybody interested in the authorship question, and no advocate of any other author should be able to continue without coming up with good replies to all the points made (as Shapiro has, in turn, come up with good replies to the Bacon and Oxford arguments).

I loved reading Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare, where he has a lot of fun in depicting the inconsistencies of anti-Strafordians; Shapiro is less amusing but better mannered (though even he can’t resist enjoying the psychics who relayed information from Shakespeare and Oxford). Much of what he writes is documenting what happened, and how theories came to popularity – it is still a page-turner, and fascinating, but less of an all-out entertainment. And it really is fascinating – and given me a taste to read more and more about this area. And I’m also excited to see which new candidate might take centre stage in the ‘who wrote Shakespeare’ debate – indeed, perhaps it will be Jane Austen after all?

A Reader on Reading – Alberto Manguel

It’s been a good year for finishing books about books.  There was the wonderful Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, which is one of my books of the year and which I read over the course of a couple of days – there was Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, and there was his A Reader on Reading.  The Manguels I dipped in and out of contentedly for years – my lovely friend Lorna bought me A Reader on Reading back in 2010 – and it was with a happy sigh that I finally closed its pages a month or so ago.

It’s the sort of book that one inevitably reads with a pencil in hand, wanting to make little notes of agreement in the margins – or at least jot down page numbers to read again later.  Manguel’s work is a touch more high-flown than bookish books I adore (like Jacques Bonnet’s, or Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing) but even when he is discoursing on Argentinian highbrows I’ve never read of, I can’t help loving him – because, at heart, he is simply a passionate reader.

I believe that we are, at the core, reading animals and that the art of reading, in its broadest sense, defines our species.
I had to give up making notes quite early on, because I knew that I’d essentially want to write down every page.  There are literary truths known only to the ardent reader on almost every page.  My head nodded in happy agreement so often that I’ve probably got whiplash (NB, I probably haven’t).  Check out these two:

Like so many other readers, I have always felt that the edition in which I read a book for the first time remains, for the rest of my life, the original one.
(That’s how I feel about I Capture the Castle and the curious 1970s edition I read.)

The experience may come first and, many years later, the reader will find the name to call it in the pages of King Lear.  Or it may come at the end, and a glimmer of memory will throw up a page we had thought forgotten in a battered copy of Treasure Island.  
Of course, having read it over so long a period, I can’t remember all that much apart from the things I jotted down… I know that I ended up skimming some of the stuff on Borges, and was surprised by how interesting I found a political section towards the end.  When he wrote about individual authors and books, I tended only to be riveted when I knew the books myself (and I love that he uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the source of every chapter’s epigraph) but I was most delighted when he wrote about reading or writing in general.

I realised that if reading is a contented, sensuous occupation whose intensity and rhythm are agreed upon between the reader and the chosen book, writing instead is a strict, plodding, physically demanding task in which the pleasures of inspiration are all well and good, but are only what hunger and taste are to a cook: a starting point and a measuring rod, not the main occupation.  Long hours, stiff joints, sore feet, cramped hands, the heat or cold of the workplace, the anguish of missing ingredients and the humiliation owing to the lack of knowhow, onions that make you cry, and sharp knives that slice your fingers are what is in store for anyone who wants to prepare a good meal or write a good book.

Yes, this post is fast becoming simply a list of quotations, rather than a review, but I think that’s the best way to entice you to read Manguel.  (Plus, I’ve just come off the stage for the village’s Christmas show, and this is the best you can get out of me…!)  And with that in mind, I’ll end with the longest quotation yet – about anonymous authors.

The history of writing, of which the history of reading is its first and last chapter, has among its many fantastical creations one that seems to me peculiar among all: that of the authorless text for which an author must be invented.  Anonymity has its attraction, and Anonymous is one of the major figures of every one of our literatures.  But sometimes, perhaps when the depth and reverberations of a text seem almost too universal to belong on an individual reader’s bookshelf, we have tried to imagine for that text a poet of flesh and blood, capable of being Everyman.  It is as if, in recognizing in a work the expression in words of a private, wordless experience hidden deep within us, we wished to satisfy ourselves in the belief that this too was the creation of human hands and a human mind, that a man or woman like us was once able to tell for us that which we, younger siblings, merely glimpse or intuit.  In order to achieve this, the critical sciences come to our aid and do their detective work to rescue from discretion the nebulous author behind the Epic of Gilgamesh or La Vie devant soi, but their laborus are merely confirmation.  In the minds of their readers, the secret authors have already acquired a congenial familiarity, an almost physical presence, lacking nothing except a name.
Thankfully Manguel isn’t anonymous, so I can go out and buy other books by him – and the hardback editions of his essays are simply beautiful.  Despite being a die-hard fiction lover, I think my dream books are non-fiction literary essays – which are essentially what blogs are, of course.  My little shelf of books-about-books may not be as extensive or as personal as the wide (and widening) blogosphere, but it holds almost as special place in my heart, and I long to find well-crafted examples to add to it.

Caroline by Cornelius Medvei

Lest you get completely the wrong impression about Mel, who gave me Dewey (and thanks for your lovely comments on that!) and High School Musical: The Book of the Film, I thought I’d better review a really good novel that she lent me recently.  It’s become sort of a stereotype that when Mel gives or lends me books, it takes me years to read them.  Well, last Wednesday she lent me Caroline: A Mystery by Cornelius Medvei (can this be his real name?), and I started it at about 8.30pm while waiting for my train home – and by the end of the night, I’d finished it.

Mel knew I would love it for a couple of reasons – it plays with the fantastic, and it involves a donkey.  Donkeys are my second favourite animal, after cats (obviously) and I was definitely prepared to enjoy a novel where donkey takes central focus.

It actually kicks off with one of those layered narratives beloved of Victorian writers and earlier – the sort of thing we see in Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights etc., of someone telling someone telling someone, all remembering things perfectly, etc.  So Mr. Shaw’s son is relating the story to someone who may or may not have a name.  Sorry, can’t remember.  I’m not entirely sure why Medvei did this, unless it’s to put all sorts of question marks about reliability and integrity into the narrative.  (It’s also a nice excuse to include photographs and scraps, apparently left behind by Mr. Shaw.)  Let’s skip past it onto the story proper.

Mr. Shaw is on holiday with his wife and child, from his job as an insurance broker, when they come across Caroline in a field.  They know she’s called Caroline, because it’s painted on her stable.  Mr. Shaw’s son gives this account of the meeting…

They faced each other across the sagging gate.  He saw a rusty grey, barrel-chested donkey, with pretty ears nine inches long (one cocked, the other drooping to the left), head on one side, flicking her tail to keep the flies away.  I noticed her shaggy coat and the pale whiskers on her upper lip, and wondered how old she might be.  I wasn’t sure how you told a donkey’s age; something to do with their teeth, I thought, but she kept her mouth firmly shut as she champed on a mouthful of grass in a manner that suggested intense concentration mingled with dumb insolence, like a bored teenager with a plug of bubblegum.

And she, fixing my father my her great, dark, limpid eyes – “eyes a man could drown in”, as he later described them – took in the hair thinning at the temples, his nose reddened with sunburn, his stomach bulging slightly over the waistband of his shorts (like all his colleagues, my father always wore shorts on holiday, regardless of the weather; shorts were not allowed in the office).

I suppose this was the moment the whole strange affair began; the moment, so well documented in classical poetry and TV soaps and sugary ballads, when two strangers come face to face; the heart thumps, an overpowering force shakes them, like the wind in the birch trees above the stable – in short, they begin to fall for each other.
One interesting result of Medvei giving the focalisation to Mr. Shaw’s son is that we never really know what Mr. Shaw is thinking, or quite what level of affection he feels for Caroline.  His son describes it as a love affair (er, non-physical of course.  It’s not that kind of book) but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it isn’t – that Mr. Shaw simply thinks Caroline is incredible.

And it’s hard not to agree.  Mr. Shaw manages to persuade Caroline’s owner – and his own wife – that taking Caroline home with him is a good idea.  Once established in the backyard of their terraced city house, Caroline becomes something of a nuisance to the neighbours with her eeee-orrrring.  (We used to live a few metres away from a field of donkeys (known as the ‘donkey field’, demonstrating an early flair for linguistic manipulation) and, believe me, some donkeys make their presence known.  There was one called Charlie Brown who was LOUD.)  Anyway – Mr. Shaw’s solution to this predicament is somewhat unorthodox.  He decides to take Caroline to his office.

After initial protests, Caroline becomes an integral part of office life.  Eventually, even though Mr. Shaw is only a few months away from retirement, she even takes his place.  It isn’t clear whether the office staff are having a joke at Mr. Shaw’s expense, or whether Caroline somehow does perform adeptly at the job… but these ambiguities aren’t practicable once Caroline begins to play chess…

This is where the potential element of the fantastic comes into play.  It’s possible that delusion is at work, but it seems more likely (within the context of the story) that Caroline can play chess and look after financial clients.  She never speaks or writes, or anything like that – Medvei is much cleverer, by giving her a curious form of communication which centres around the chessboard.

Caroline: A Mystery has the feel of a fable, but without any moral or message.  But with, so the subtitle proclaims, a mystery.  What is it?  Her unusual abilities, or his unusual affections?  Or simply the suddenness of it all, without any connection to Mr. Shaw’s previous life?

As I said before, I read this in a few hours.  It’s short (around 150pp) and definitely a page-turner – but with lingering thoughtfulness, rather than the rush-through-discard-immediately feel of some fast-paced books.  Medvei isn’t particularly a prose stylist – there is no bad writing though, it’s just secondary to the plot and the characters – but he certainly knows how to craft a novel so that the reader rushes through, loving every moment, curious as to what the next page will hold.

I know it’s still early to mention the C-word, but I think this would make a lovely Christmas gift for the animal lover in your life.  If that person happens to be you, then… what are you gonna do??

Others who got Stuck into it:

“This is a lovely little book!” – Jackie, Farm Lane Books

“a small but finely wrought – and very enjoyable – read.” – David, Follow The Thread

“Sheer delight from start to finish, amusing, sad and wonderfully written, with great economy of style.” – Elaine, Random Jottings

Box Clever

It’s always exciting when you read something completely out of your comfort zone (if you should have such a thing) and you find that you absolutely love it. This happened to me months and months ago when I read Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman. Boxing, beetles, Nazis… none of these are on my hitlist of must-haves for books, and yet Beauman’s novel is one of the most interesting and compelling that I’ve read this year. Sadly I didn’t write my thoughts down at the time, and now that it’s actually been published, I’m having to cast my mind far, far back to remember what I thought… with the help of Claire’s review and Lynne’s review! Sorry if I’ve missed others…

Boxer, Beetle flits back and forth between two time periods – in one, trimethylaminuria sufferer and Nazi-paraphernalia collector Kevin (also known as Fishy) is investigating the work of scientist Philip Erskine. Erskine occupies the other time period, in the 1930s, where he encounters Seth “Sinner” Roach. Sinner is a five foot tall Jewish man who, despite his stature, is incredibly good at boxing. Which catches the attention of a man interested in eugenics. Oh, and beetles. Hence the title – alongside investigating Sinner, and paying for the privilege of examining him over a period of time, Erskine is trying to develop a strain of very resilient beetles. As you do. Oh, before I go further, I have to mention the first line – which really grabbed me into the novel, as well as putting a smile on my face:

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party.
Well, don’t we all? I should add hear that Kevin isn’t a Nazi sympathiser – nor, of course, is Ned. Kevin collects the memorabilia without having the slightest fascist leaning. Unlike quite a few of those roaming around 1930s London.

But East End London isn’t the only place we see in the 1930s – Erskine whisks Sinner off to a country house, and the family of his fiance (I think… as I said, I read it a long time ago) Evelyn. Evelyn is a rather fab character, a composer of atonal, avant-garde music. She makes the mistake of asking Sinner whether he likes avant-garde music (remember, this is the working-class lad who likes beating people up, swearing and joining gangs):
“I’m quite sure you would,” said Evelyn, “I can almost invariably tell.” Evelyn was aware that she didn’t compeltely convince when she made knowing remarks like this, especially to someone like Sinner with that gaze of his, but she didn’t see how her repartee was supposed to gain any poise when she had absolutely nobody to practise on at home. If she tried to deliver a satirical barb at dinner her father would just stare at her until she wanted to cry. And Caroline Garlick’s family were lovely but the trouble was they laughed rather too easily, rather than not at all – it wasn’t quite the Algonquin Round Table. She was convinced that if she had been allowed to go to Paris she would have had lots of practice, and of course me lots of people like this boy, but as it was, if she ever met any genuine intellectuals – or any beyond their neighbour Alistair Thurlow – they would probably think she was hopelessly childish. For about a week she’d tried to take up heavy drinking, since heavy drinkers were so often reputed to be terrific conversationalists, but most of the time she just fell asleep.

This isn’t, to be honest, the main tone of the novel. This humour, and this sort of almost Wodeshousian character, are drowned out by violence and antipathies and all sorts of terrifying things. Sinner is a pretty unremittingly horrible person. But Beauman’s writing is so good, the pace so well judged, and the climax so dramatic that I couldn’t help admiring this novel to the hilt.

It is difficult to get across my enjoyment of this, because I can’t point to any of the characters or any aspects of the plot which appealed. If I were just to read a synopsis of Boxer, Beetle, I’d probably steer well clear. That’s why I’m not going a ‘Books to get Stuck into’ feature today – I just can’t think of anything along the same lines. So you’ll just have to take my word for it, until you get your hands on the novel – Ned Beauman is a very talented writer, and if he can make this novel addictive for me, just imagine what he’s capable of!

For more from Ned Beauman, pop back tomorrow – I’ll be posting an interview he was kind enough to do with me… find out what inspired Boxer, Beetle, what Beauman’s doing next, and a little about his famous mother…