Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Bedside Books and Beryl Bainbridge

I was hesitating over publishing this post, because in it I planned to admit that I’d failed to fall in love with a Beryl Bainbridge novel. Generally I love Beryl: her working method, the cigarette stitched between her fingers, the driest humour that I had to learn to understand with guidance from another fan, my mother. Then a friend who knows my taste in literature told me that Beryl the ‘Booker bridesmaid’ (surely a phrase she would have disparaged, along with the alliteration) would be awarded posthumously a Booker Best of Beryl award, as voted for by readers from amongst her five previously nominated books.

So, having salved my conscience by voting, I can reveal that Bainbridge’s Another Part of the Wood did not capture my imagination quite as I had hoped, let alone held it hostage while I rampaged furiously from cover to cover, which is my usual response to her work. Perhaps partly because of this disappointment, however, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it while I read other things. The characters I had found a little flat and strange are lurking in my imagination after all, silently summoning me back to find out what happens to them. I will honour this grip of theirs and return to the novel, perhaps when I too am lurking in woodland with inscrutable beings (I’m booked on a rural residential writing course in the spring).

Next in my reading pile was a Raymond Carver short story collection, Beginnings, which I picked up in the hope of a brief, beautiful lesson in concision. It turns out the minimal style for which Carver is famous was largely the result of his editor’s labours, and I had accidentally bought the unedited versions of what became the collection What We talk About When We Talk About Love. The editor was right: for the kinds of stories they are, moments and lessons in life, many of the originals do go on too long. More guilt ensued; how could I think ill of Carver, even unedited?

I gave up again and turned to book three: the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. I first discovered O’Connor when providing academic support to a friend studying American literature at university. At the time I felt as though a whole world of incredibly satisfying and wonderful literature had been hidden from me while I shook the dust from English classics, and O’Connor bowled me over with Deep South detail and the horrors of the human soul. Reading these on the commuter train proved tricky though, every page being littered with the word ‘nigger’ so that I was constantly aware of who might be reading over my shoulder without understanding the context. After a while even I wanted a change of theme; the book is by my bed, ready to be dipped into rather than digested in one uncomfortable swallow.

Christmas came and with it much enthusiastic quoting by my mother of Howard Jacobson. She’d read his Kalooki Nights for a book group and I borrowed the copy with her underlinings, first listening to her thoroughly enjoyable analysis of what made this book great for her.

At first I was sceptical. The protagonist-narrator seemed to be preoccupied with giving us back-stories, tangents, and explanatory expositions of the kind of man he thought he was, albeit in a style I rolled around in like a wondrous bed of erudition, wit and complex sentence construction. Once I’d got used to the idea that it was a novel in which not a lot would actually happen between time A and time B, I carried on rolling and laughing, pleased to find a voice so confident in its expression and unafraid of a bit of stylistic showing off. This latter seems to be unfashionable just now, or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books. Despite an unsatisfactory ending, I gave a hooray for a true master of words and felt inspired once more. I’ve yet to read The Finkler Question, for which Jacobson caught the Booker bouquet, but I’m sure my mother will pass it on complete with notes.

I’m going on too long here, but I couldn’t leave out Philip Roth’s The Humbling This I finished all too quickly, and it is a short book, in two distinct parts. By the end I wondered whether all of the first part – a portrait of an actor who has lost his ‘gift’ – was really necessary to the story, and I’ve pretty much concluded that the answer is yes. Roth does the opposite of explanatory Jacobson, so that the reader has to look at the whole and infer any explanations, or cause and effect relationships between the first and second parts, as they please. The second half would stand alone as a tragic tale of misguided love, but memory of the first part renders the following events even more tragic, and does significant work in justifying the ending.

This was another book that I didn’t expect to stay with me since I read it so fast, barely noticing the words or construction, but I find myself peering back into its painful world with a mixture of dislike and empathy for its deeply flawed protagonist. I realise I’ve given little away, but I recommend you spare a few hours and experience it for yourself.

I’ve stocked up at the second hand shop, and I’m sure another slew of mini reviews will follow. For now I have to get through chapter four of Langford’s Basic Photography before I’m allowed any more novels, but somehow that has ended up on the desk while Updike, Roth and Shields have quietly migrated to the bedside table…


  1. Often I return to paintings and to a lesser extent writing that I initially dislike

    Years ago I went to a Rose Wylie exhibition and could not see what the fuss was about - I hated it. But then the images began to come back, niggling - like they'd been burned onto my brain (no, not like that at all, John would say). I ended up obsessed with Wylie's paintings and those of her husband Roy Oxlade. I think they are wonderful still.

    Strange how our minds work and our spirit responds.

  2. My novels always make it ahead of my non-fic titles. They’re sneaky like that. ;-)