Tuesday, 10 July 2012

And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison

The commentary on the back of this book claims it was the first of what has become a genre - the confessional memoir. It may indeed be because of what came later, namely lots of books about misery and horrible things happening to children behind a veneer of material comfort and social respectability, that I read this with more foreboding about what would come next than was justified.

This is a beautifully written and very detailed ('granular' is the in word at the moment, I think) account of the life and death of the author's father. It is a meditation on family relationships; 'blood is thicker than  water', as the saying in Britain goes. But it is also a vivid description of family life in post-war Britain, with lots of memory-jogging observations for those of us who have lived through some of the same period.

Most of all, though, it is both a paean to and a critique of the father, Arthur Morrison. So much to admire in him and, also, so much to criticise. All this is seen from the perspective of the son - filial love and filial resentment competing with each other throughout the book.

It is a lovely piece of work.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This short novel was his first. It is written in a very simple style, in unadorned prose. It tells the story of a man and his trials, not least of which is his intense awareness of the social expectations and duties of someone in his position in the Nigerian village where he lives.

Most of the book is about his life and how he perceives it. The simple style sometimes creates a strong sense of foreboding - you just know (or you think you do) that something bad is about to happen. But it doesn't, by and large. Episodes are described in the same dispassionate language, leaving the reader to judge the motivations and moral righteousness of the characters.

The story touches on the arrival of white missionaries and that is when things begin to fall apart. It is a delightful novel, deceptively simple but raising some profound questions about what it means to be human and to live a good life.

All the Wrong Places - adrift in the politics of Asia - by James Fenton

I began this book with some misgivings, expecting it to be outdated and overtaken by events, since it was written about Fenton's experiences as a foreign correspondent in South East Asia during the 1970s. My misgivings were well founded, in one sense, but in ways that are interesting in themselves.

Fenton's accounts seem almost quaint, actually, and they generate a feeling of nostalgia for a time when the rough diamond western journalist could, clad in sweat stained khaki and clutching a notebook, hang out with the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge and report from an exoticism that has no equivalent today. Video clips of missiles striking buildings in dusty, sun baked villages in Afghanistan or Iraq just don't seem so intriguing. Perhaps the politics are missing. Fenton was a proud socialist and saw the wars of the 1970s in SE Asia very much as US imperialism being beaten back by a morally superior, popular cause. That in itself seems very dated to us now. Can one imagine a journalist being politically 'committed' (a term of praise for the 1970s left) now, in Pakistan or in one of the African conflicts? The left/right dichotomy has all but disappeared, leaving only confusion and relativism.

So Fenton's book seems to take us back to a time in some ways simpler. He writes brilliantly about the fall of Saigon, portraying for us the empty hotels and the select band of foreigners remaining and living a sort of postmodern colonialism, denying while at the same time enjoying an intrinsic advantage stemming from race and wealth. None of them would ever be in the same position as the desperate Vietnamese, trying to escape from the advancing Vietcong.

And that is one of the ambiguities of Fenton's account, the occasional uncertainty about whether he is an observer or a participant. I suppose in this book he is the latter and in his reporting very much the former.

I found it interesting having travelled in SE Asia in the early 1980s, when people like Marcos were still in power. Without that background, however, I think I would have found it too much out of time.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen - you gotta love her. Beautiful prose, a perfectly crafted world of manners and feelings and then a nicely paced story about esteem, love and social delusion. This is the first of hers I have read for many years and it is easy to forget just what a class act she is. Of course, in the UK, nearly all of her novels have been adapted for film or TV so her mass appeal has grown a lot in recent years. And rightly so.