The Wych Elm

wych elm

Tana French ‘The Wych Elm’

There are books and there are BOOKS!

‘The Wych Elm’ is astonishing.

Scrupulously, and brilliantly written from the protagonist’s point of view there is nothing allowed beyond the narration of Toby’s direct experience, tortured memory and/or imagination. I was so enmeshed in the narrator’s understanding, or lack of comprehension, of himself, and his history, that I almost came to doubt my own grasp of what ‘certainty’ might mean. The ensemble of characters, the detail of their behaviours and their ignorance of their realities is bewyching. No spoilers here – but as I finished the last page I was bereft, immensely sad and overwhelmed.

It is, ostensibly, a crime novel, which makes as much sense as saying that Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ is a ‘thriller’. I hadn’t read any of French’s work until this book – I shall remedy that oversight.

Do read this fantastic book.

Don McCullin

Don McCullin

Don McCullin’s exhibition at Tate Britain is profoundly moving, perplexing, and, ultimately joyous.

The galleries were crowded. I had to go round one room in the opposite direction to avoid two people who, standing in front of the horrors of war, were laughing while happily talking about their recent holidays – were they blind?

I am familiar with many of McCullin’s photographs but in the majority of cases in reproduced form in magazines – it was inspiring to see his own prints made exactly the way he wanted.

By the time I reached the final room – that containing his landscapes and still lives – I was overwhelmed by the dedication and passion McCullin has used over so many years to represent the human condition in the worst of circumstances of war, famine and deprivation. His photographs capture the feeling of pain and suffering and it’s not just because the prints are dark – it’s because he feels, cares, and it comes across in his photographs so that I was nearly in tears. But then there was a moment of epiphany – I’ll come back to that.

What is both perplexing and saddening is that the lessons we learnt when we first saw the images from e.g. Biafra and Vietnam have faded. The men living on the streets of Shoreditch years ago are no different from the rough sleepers that now abound thanks to austerity and the destruction of the Welfare State. We are still responsible for war and the misery it causes – the Yemen and Syria to name but two. I found myself asking what was the point? Maybe the point is that the work exists, it was made, it was, is, true, evidence, and that we choose to ignore it at our peril.

His landscapes. The moment of epiphany. The realisation that in the ‘natural’ world, as rendered through his lens, there is beauty beyond measure.

McCullin has said

“So, there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And that I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

Maybe the joy in these landscapes, this celebration of life and peace, would not have been so profound without the horror, without the guilt, and there would not be this beauty?

It was one hell of a price this man, this photographer, had to pay.

Thank you.

 

Saul Bellow ‘Herzog’

Herzog

I’ve been reading Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ (1964) and it’s given me pause for thought, not least because the intensity of the writing is overwhelming; the way Bellow works with the conjunction of improbable partners in misunderstanding and even (imagined?) malice reveals the plight of the creative mind. His prose is aggressive, sharp, staccato daggers as they pierce me with the uncertainty, challenge of life, but tempered, still softened, made conditional, by the salve of familial memory, love, and Moses’ Father Herzog.

And also pause for thought because it has made me, yet again, think about what I write and how I find the ‘right’ form to do that.

The constant commentary provided by the ‘letters’ Herzog writes captures the duality of writing one thing at exactly the same time as thinking about something quite else, of being something, or somewhere, else, evidencing the struggle of setting down the complexity of inner and public life in words, and not, moving images.

And he’s funny! But it’s funny that’s humourless;  the bone jolted in your elbow; the ‘humour’ engendered by the latest pogrom – but still funny!

Though it’s a book of its time it feels, somehow, like a work from the nineteenth century  set in the twentieth in the USA and not Europe in the ghetto (where it actually feels it’s set) from which it stems. Where does success, self worth, achievement and respect exist?

Bellow, aka Herzog (?), is erudite to a fault. Amidst the ‘academic’ arguments, the endless dropping of names that give Herzog purpose, validity, authenticity, everything, so that every memory and thought and plan collides with every other idea in spontaneous combustion as smoke and flames burst from the page leaving me exhausted and astounded hiding from the heat.

The personal becomes universally crucially relevant so that Herzog’s dilemmas are those  we all face in trying to make sense of one existential crisis after another whilst, in Herzog’s case, inflicting yet another upon oneself until the finale.

He asks. Am I this? Am I that? Is it me? Is it her? Is it? Is it real? Is it? What? What is my life? What is the point? What am I? Herzog bellows!

His life unravels, as it must, a tragedy, and it made me weep. Inevitability. Loss. But, also hope. That we, readers, may … do what?

What a writer – that isn’t interrogative (as he might say) but a statement of fact.

When I am, once again, ready, I shall read this book again – unhurriedly, ignoring plot, sustained by the joy of Bellow’s writing, laughing, frustrated, delighted and inspired. That’ll do for me.

“PIGS IN HEAVEN”

pigs in heaven

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel ‘PIGS IN HEAVEN’ (1993) is intriguing.

Initially there is something ‘Updike-like’ about Kingsolver’s prose – sharp ironic writing laced with humour. Early on – “Alice wonders if other women in the middle of the night have begun to resent their Formica.” Later – “You might see things better on television, but you’ll never know if you were alive or dead while you watched.” But, unlike Updike there is a sort of inevitability, a preordainedness, here that is quite different from the tension of the Rabbit books. It’s not a tragedy but rather a celebration of love over adversity.

The portrayal of the Cherokee Nation as a haven of familial support, love and joy makes no substantial reference to the impact of significant poverty and racism instead representing an ideal state of oneness in ‘Heaven’ that it would be a joy to be part of (some of the time).

The plot – no spoilers – resolves itself as if by magic – which is what it is – a ‘romance’ in which the best of all possible worlds comes about through (apparent) serendipity aligned with the scheming of Ms Annawake Fourkiller and the finger of god suggesting the inevitability of the victory of good over evil.

This novel feels good and there’s little harm in that right now in the midst of Brexit and the idiocy of Trump. Nothing wrong at all with love winning the day, but … the pain that has been suffered, the legacy of sadness, to get to that ideal ending is but chaff blown away, and almost forgotten, in a gentle breeze from the idyllic world of the Cherokee Nation in Heaven. But rock on – we could do with more of it! I enjoyed it.