Ian McEwan

We went to see Ian McEwan talk about his new book ‘Lessons’. Quite interesting. At one point, talking about the appeal of music he spoke of ’the relief from meaning’ – unexpected from a novelist! Just need to read the book now.

The Books of Jacob

Jacob Frank

The main problem with this book is obvious at first sight: it is just too big! Olga Tokarczuk is a great writer and no doubt deserved her Nobel Prize. I was looking forward to reading this one because I enjoyed her book Flights, a strange, fragmentary, but very readable and amusing meditation on travel and curiosity. The Books of Jacob also has an interesting subject: it tells the historical story of Jacob Frank, the eighteenth century leader of a Jewish cult that picked up on the legacy of Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi. Tzvi (as Tokarczuk spells him – ‘Zevi’ is a more pronounceable version) was a self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam under duress. Many of his followers, rather than giving up on him, assumed that they were to follow his lead, converting either sincerely or just outwardly. Frank’s followers, somewhat similarly, were instructed to reject the Talmud and undergo Christian baptism, though it seems, according to this account, that they secretly practised scandalous rituals of their own devoted to the principle of purification through sin. The book relates their struggles with the authorities in several countries and with unconverted Jews, the help and indulgence they sometimes got from Christians impressed by the possibility of bringing hundreds of Jews into the church; Jacob’s imprisonment in Częstochowa, his release and last years living like an aristocrat in Offenbach. It seems to be a largely accurate historical account, the main exception being the character Yente. Yente, a sick old woman, is given a charm to wear which will keep her alive until a family wedding is complete, but she swallows it, becoming an immortal spirit who watches the lives of her family thereafter. She could have been a handy way of telling the story, but in fact only gets an occasional mention.

The book is well written, but it tells the story in immense detail, never cutting out episodes or characters that seem relatively peripheral or inconsequential. Many letters are given in full, long letters between minor characters discussing, for example, whether it is better to write in Latin or the vernacular. The letters are highly plausible in terms of characterisation and history, and they were probably enjoyable to write, but they add even more length to a text which is already radically oversized (I think it should have been no more than about a quarter of its actual length). Finishing the book, I’m afraid, honestly becomes a bit of a slog.

The thing is, long books can be easily readable if they are really interesting. What I wanted to know here was what on Earth motivated these serious, thoughtful Jews to accept Jacob as divinely inspired, rejecting their own heritage and ethical standards? Some of the things they do – deliberately triggering a pogrom against their Jewish enemies by accusing them of murdering Christian children for their blood, for example – seem unforgivable. Alas, that core issue remained a mystery to me while more and more detail of events piled up.

I can’t therefore recommend the book – but have a go at Flights if you want to know what’s so great about Tokarczuk.

Stonehenge in Bloomsbury

I caught the British Museum’s ‘World of Stonehenge’ https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/world-stonehenge before it closes. There are always new theories about Stonehenge, but this is something different: an attempt to explore the context. Of course there isn’t exactly a wealth of contemporary artefacts, so that does involve drawing in some stuff from rather remote locations and times. The relevance of Seahenge, a wooden circle which they have been able to bring into the museum, is obvious: some of the other things are really from different cultures. There are some extraordinary artefacts, though. The stone in the picture here (from Switzerland) is a sculpture of a human figure (!) You can see a very rough face at the top with a nose. The diagonal bit is a bow and arrows and the horizontal lines are arms and a belt. Other items – the high gold hats, the carefully carved chalk drums – are almost completely inscrutable. There’s a curator’s tour on video here https://youtu.be/FymNP8copac if you’re interested.

Sickert

To the Sickert exhibition at Tate Britain with Howard, my old friend from University. Reviews had led me to expect mainly brutalised nudes and dead-eyed men watching music hall singers (some people even think Sickert might have been Jack the Ripper) , but it’s much more varied and interesting. Sickert’s unusual framings and his interest in entertainers and people off the street show the influence of impressionism and Dégas, as the nearly-black early paintings show his admiration for Whistler. But he moved things on towards modernism, and brightened up considerably later.

Raphael

I must admit to knowing shamefully little about Raphael before going to the current exhibition at the National Gallery. He was obviously important enough to have a whole artistic movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, devoted to undoing his influence, and he is generally considered one of the top three artists of the High Renaissance, alongside Leonardo and Michaelangelo (who hated him), but somehow he never made an impression on me. The only picture I could really name was the School of Athens, appearing here as a wall-sized reproduction. The exhibition has a lot of Madonnas (with babies who look like babies for once): perhaps a theme of special resonance to the orphan Raphael? Son of the court painter of Urbino, he had all of that city’s famous courtly charm, never falling out with his rich patrons or failing to befriend people. He ran one of the largest artist’s studios ever, and died young: according to Vasari, from too much sex. Perhaps charm was his weakness, and perhaps that’s why Michaelangelo took against him: beautiful, brilliant paintings – but just too damned polite?

Small but Good

I think it’s a burrowing owl, not burrowing.

We went to the ’Small is Beautiful’ exhibition. To be honest I was slightly worried it might be a bit of a rip-off, but in fact it’s quite extensive, varied and entertaining. The artists involved have a wide range of approaches, and the sizes go from nicely modelled butterflies which are almost life size (and some excellent cardboard fish that are probably larger than real ones – though they seem to be carrying little cities on their backs) down to carved pencil leads and sculptures within the eye of a needle (microscope provided). We rather liked the little owl pictured.

Is this really art, or just entertaining craft? Some pieces are really just jokes, others aspire to being slightly deeper. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with being amused.

Klara and the Sun

What was Ishiguro trying to do with this unconvincing robot tale?

An author can use robots in lots of ways. Too often they are just another monster, the threatening and unnatural beings who excitingly menace the protagonist or the whole of humanity. Very rarely an author explores how the robot mind might work – difficult, because we really have little idea of how a humanoid robot might achieve conscious thought. Often the robot merely thinks like a naïve and/or over-logical human. (It never falls into a trance or comes out with inexplicable nonsense, the way real-life computers sometimes do.) Some of the best stories use the robot as a means of reflecting on the human condition – the film Blade Runner, for example (you might claim Frankenstein was similar in that respect).  I really don’t know what Klara, Ishiguro’s companion robot in this near-future story is for. (Spoilers for low.)

She is like a naïve human in many respects. Somehow solar-powered, she thinks of the Sun the way a human might a god, invoking its power and help. Her view of the world, if I understand correctly, is split into frames, though she has a view across the frames, so you’d think a good programmer would easily iron that issue out. Her mind, however, is neither interestingly strange in itself nor an illuminating analogue of the human. Her story, as the companion of Josie, a girl made ill by the genetic improvement therapy now common, is ultimately inconsequential except for what it tells us about human reactions to robots. The trouble is, what it tells us is inconsistent and unconvincing.

Perhaps the least believable thing is the way people go along with Klara. She hatches a mad scheme to help her family based on her weird ideas about the sun. They willingly help her execute this plan, which is partly nutty superstition and partly criminal, without ever demanding to know what she’s up to or being given any explanation. At some points they profess an extraordinary readiness to accept Klara emotionally as an actual family member; but once Josie has gone to college, they deposit her, still fully conscious, in a dump.

I said the story is set in the near future, but some things are odd. Klara is bought from a big, old-fashioned store in the city centre – they still exist? People seem to be using tablets but calling them ‘oblongs’ for some reason. Most of the kids have had their minds enhanced by genetic therapy, but they talk and act like dim-witted normal ones, actually less sophisticated in their speech and behaviour than the one kid who missed out on the therapy. Maybe that is fairly believable after all.

It’s a mildly engaging story with some thought-provoking passages, but I don’t know what we are to take away at the end of it.

Luckenbooth

This novel, by Jenni Fagan, is the horrifying biography of a building, organised by floors and rooms rather than chronologically. One reviewer compared it to George Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual: the form is similar, working through a series of loosely linked stories room by room, but the tone and content is very different. This building is an old-fashioned Edinburgh tenement, 10, Luckenbooth Close. A Luckenbooth is a kind of stall selling trinkets, and by extension the little pair of linked hands made in silver that were the most popular item for sale there; but apart from providing the address that doesn’t seem to be of any wider importance to the story.

The history of this building is full of dark fantasy, violence and the supernatural, ghastly tales delivered with skill and a kind of gloomy zest. If that’s the kind of thing you like, a feast awaits you here; for me the fantastic crossed over into the absurd a little too often. There’s a passage towards the end which recounts a kind of duel between local gangsters and Triad members, which would make a great comic book, or maybe a Tarantinoesque film sequence, but while I read it avidly I didn’t believe a word of it; exciting, but in the superficial way a brilliantly choreographed fight scene might be. Perhaps I’m hard to please. Others have detected elements of social commentary here which eluded me.

Or take the opening of the book in which Jessie MacRae paddles away from some island where she has killed her father (who is the Devil, apparently, and not altogether dead, either; like a lot of things in the story this is sort of inexplicable). For a boat she uses the coffin her father made for her, though goodness knows how that works. Where is she coming from, anyway? She ends up in Leith, but there aren’t really any islands off Scotland’s North Sea coast, and her father’s corpse is said to stare at the North Atlantic. It does take her three days, but even just coming from Orkney would have to be some amazing feat of seamanship in these dangerous waters – or, of course, just magic. Perhaps I’m niggling over details, but sailing in a coffin is for me one of the touches that tries too hard, slipping from the horrifying into the risible. Jessie, who has been sold by her father to be a kind of surrogate mother, is herself demonic, producing the baby within days and growing horns like her Dad’s. That rather recalls Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, though as I understand it Mr Pye’s horns were a sarcastic comment from God on a man who took himself much too seriously and the moral complexity of the world nothing like seriously enough (I’ll just leave that there).

There’s a lot to enjoy here if you like a bit of grisly gothic. For me, when the last mutilated corpses have been uncovered, the final ghosts released, and the building finally subsides into ruin, one deep and difficult question is left in the reader’s mind. What was all that about?

Piranesi

A building that fills a whole world; an endless sequence of halls, all filled with statues. Here and there the sea has broken in and flooded or destroyed some of the great marble figures and massive stairways. And here lives one resourceful man who has contrived to live off fish, befriending the albatross and other birds who also live here. He is not quite alone. He regularly meets the Other, a man in smart suits, and together they try to obtain powerful magic. The Other jokingly calls him ‘Piranesi’; he knows this not his real name but does not mind. Piranesi believes there are probably only fifteen people in the world; the rest are all skeletons that he cares for respectfully.

This is the new novel from Susanna Clarke that we fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell have been waiting for so eagerly. We had The Ladies of Grace Adieu to keep us going, but nothing more substantial. Are we satisfied?

Well, the new novel is not a sequel, and as we eventually discover, it is set in the twenty-first century. There are no delightful footnotes, and it is relatively short. However, it clearly comes from the same imagination as Strange and Norrell. There are no fairies, but the underlying conception of magic as a dialogue with the powers of Nature is still here. The fascination with (the real) Piranesi’s bizarre architectural fantasies is obviously here, too. Even if our hero were not given the tell-tale nickname we should recognise that these halls owe something to the dream-like images of the Italian architect and artist, though for many readers they will call up faint echoes of Borges’ total library, too.  These visions presumably shaped the King’s Roads in Strange and Norrell and explicitly provide the design for the tremendous Thoresby Bridge in Grace Adieu. There are some other signs of kinship with Strange and Norrell. We might say (slight spoiler) that both books feature a resourceful black man with a false friend who inadvertently inherits an enchanted realm.
One of Clarke’s great achievements in Strange and Norrell was to provide a really satisfying conception of magic which chimed well with folklore yet got everything to make sense. Here we don’t quite get that. Piranesi’s world is explained, partly by a kind of guru who seems to be a cross between Julian Jaynes and Aleister Crowley; but there’s a certain amount of handwaving involved. In some ways I almost feel it would have been better to leave the modern world out of it and simply give Piranesi adventures in his own self-justifying world.

Overall, this isn’t the further volume of Strange and Norrell that many of us would have liked, but it’s a great book and very welcome. More please, more!