Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Rich reading, and reasons to write

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Wulf This morning, in time set aside to write, I slunk away from my desk for half an hour and started Hamish Clayton’s Wulf (Penguin Books, 2011: you can read an informative review here). I found myself wanting to read aloud so as to live the words and see the images:

Every word spoken, sent like a raft of smoke onto the air of that strange country, smelled like the blood riding the breath of their great chief..

The prose is mesmerising and there’s promise of a compelling story. I also love the occasional prose-poetry that marks off segments in the first chapter, and Clayton’s hypnotic use of repetition. (Made a mental note to mention him in writing classes as an example of a writer who breaks that not-particularly-hard-&-fast rule beautifully. Beginner writers often unconsciously repeat words from sentence to sentence.) This’ll probably turn out to be one of those books that will live on my bookshelves all my life: no trade-in at Arty Bees.

I did write, finding my way in the dark as usual. I love those sparking moments when a new aspect of a character whom you barely know enough to narrate, yet, reveals itself. Kept my leg tied to the chair.

I’ve also recently read Their Faces Were Shining (Tim Wilson, VUP), and August (Bernard Beckett, Text Publishing), but won’t write about those novels here as am reviewing them for New Zealand Books. However, I’ll say it was no hardship to have to reread them while preparing the review, and anyone who wants to be happily submerged in fiction over the Easter weekend could look to these two  New Zealand writers.

Old SchoolA significant cohort of the boys at Tobias Wolff’s Old School (set, I think, in the 1950s) want to be writers. Of course, there’s no mention of the Internet, or America’s Next Top Model, or MTV. This atmosphere of dedicated literacy reminded me of reading old copies of Life magazine in Wellington Central Library while researching early 1960s US culture, and being startled by the elegance, lyricism and complexity of their current affairs writing – politics aside.

The school believes itself to be an egalitarian meritocracy, blind to class or financial distinctions. However, Wolff’s protagonist, hiding his Jewishness because he has the ‘tremor of apprehension’ that the school somehow sets apart those identifying as Jewish, speculates on the motivation of the aspiring writers:

Maybe it seemed to them, as it did to me, that to be a writer was to escape the problems of blood and class. Writers formed a society of their own outside the common hierarchy.

Does anyone out there want to comment on why they write? Elizabeth Knox included her essay ‘Why I Write’ in her  collection, The Love School (more on that another time). Elizabeth seems to me like someone who has always worked in interesting ways towards being conscious of what’s going on in her mind (although she’s also said that she’s not the type of writer who’s solely curious about her psychological workings, but instead naturally turns to making up stories, which tendency is pretty clear from the novels she’s written). This extract is a lovely example of the consciousness, though:

In the dedication at the beginning of R. L. Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae, the writer talks as if to to the father, who, addled by strokes, is no longer able to follow his work. Stevenson says what I’d like to say in dedicating my next book to my dead father (to the man his family all but lost years before he died). Stevenson says it perfectly, but I’d like to add this – that you don’t just walk away from any of the people from whom you write. You notice them missing. You stop and go back and try to coax and help. You stand still and wait for them to be themselves again. Perhaps you get mad with them. But you wait, you wait. Then finally you walk off and leave them behind. And you find that, while you’ve waited, a dark wood has sprung up around you…

(A friend recently returned my copy of The Love School. I had mourned it, unable to remember whom I’d lent it to and thinking it lost, but it was on her bedside table the whole time, one of a pile of books lent over a year ago during a post-op recovery period. She’s very good about – eventually – returning books, so I needn’t have worried. These days I write down every book that leaves the house in a notebook kept on the bookshelves for the purpose. No more lost books! Who has my copy of Maurice Gee’s The Big Season, or Patricia Grace’s Baby No-Eyes? Huh?)

If we narrate our lives through our thoughts and dreams, first, and then through incidental conversations at work or the bus stop or on the pillow or in the car, that has never felt like enough for me. When I haven’t been writing, I feel like I don’t know myself. Even if everything other element in life is running along perfectly, it all feels skewiff. Conversely, dust can accumulate, letters can go unanswered, my attempts at cooking dinner can be mediocre, and it’s all OK if I’ve written, even if the writing is unusable. And there’s something about joining in with the song, the continued murmur, that long-lasting overseeing conversation and the talk that goes beyond our daily experience and is also tied to it.


Written by Susan Pearce

April 19, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Essay, Fiction, Memoir

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Why is Lolita so often misunderstood?

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Humbert H’s narrative is mindbending. He’s writing Lolita (so he claims)  from jail before execution, and he’s writing it because ‘I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted’. (He’s describing her at 17, pregnant and well past the age at which he usually stops finding girls attractive.)

But that declaration comes close to the end, and given his  lyrical raptures over Dolores Haze’s beauty, and the beauty of the nine to fourteen year old ‘nymphets’, a reader can’t help but to try to figure out whether he’s repentant, or is recommending paedophilia. Nabokov keeps us guessing while he plays plenty of word games: ‘…breakfast in the township of Soda, pop 1001’.

Many readers (including Martin Amis, if my edition’s blurb is anything to go by – though I assume he was quoted out of context) do take it as the latter, an enconium to sex with young girls.


(Added bit, April 9th):

I couldn’t return the book to my # 1 Book Club convenor (it was a Book Discussion Scheme book; amazingly, they’re still operating out of their Christchurch offices) without transcribing Martin Amis’s blurb, because the more I thought about it, the more inexcusable it seems:

Lolita is comedy, subversive yet divine…You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent.’

From an article in the Observer, apparently.

I’d like to shackle Amis to a chair and repeatedly read him that quotation alternating with all the sentences in the book that describe Dolores’s suffering. Am I a naive reader? Maybe, if that means seeing the character of Dolores as an intended representation of a ‘real’ person, and so worthy of being read as if she had all the sensibility of a real person.

According to Robert Brissenden, the author of the notes sent out by the Book Discussion Scheme along with the book, ‘Lolita is…shallow, corrupt, sentimental…no depth of character and no desire to develop what she has’. Why does Brissenden take Humbert’s word for what she is? And if Nabokov did intend us to see her as such (and now, having read that N himself used the word ‘nymphet’ to describe the kind of character he wanted to create, I’m not sure that he didn’t), why choose an almost willing girl? Did he want to make Humbert’s paedophilia not too obviously an obnoxious act? Did he, like Humbert, want us to see it primarily as a love story?

Brissenden also reports that in Nabokov’s earlier novel, Laughter in the Dark, he charts the

…obsessive love of a responsible married man for a young woman who is little better than a prostitute: she lacks the depth, complexity and integrity of character to respond to the intensity of his passion.

Oh, poor man. Again, why would Nabokov choose to create such a female character to play opposite a seductive male? Why not make his female characters stronger? And how could Brissenden just go along with these constructs? His ‘notes’ were taken from writings made in 1983, when he was 53:  maybe that has something to do with it.

And now back to my earlier post, where I was still hoping that Nabokov intended us to interrogate Humbert’s narrative more than many readers (including Brissenden) have done.


You’d have to read the book more than once to pick up all of Nabokov’s games (for example, what’s the significance of the amnesiac who turns up one morning in the hotel room of Humbert and his third wife Rita?). I’m too drenched with Nabokovness to return to it any time soon.

From the start Humbert comes off as a manipulative, self-indulgent, unbelievable narrator. For example, we’re given to believe that due to his unresolved grief for childhood love Annabel, he has no choice but to fall for twelve-year-old Dolores Haze.

For most of the book I felt we could not know the ‘real’ Dolores at all, such was his bias. By his description, she’s whiny, shallow and materialistic, has ‘vacant eyes’, an ‘eerie vulgarity’, and a ‘nymphean evil breathing through [her] every pore’. (In his afterword, Nabokov himself refers to ‘nymphets’.)

After her camp experience she is ‘hopelessly depraved’, with ‘not a trace of modesty’. She has ‘the body of some immortal daemon disguised as a female child’. (The cover of this edition upholds the idea that she was a precociously experienced and willing child. Sensationalist marketing, anyone?)

But Humbert / Nabokov also gives us plenty of evidence to stack against his claims. Again and again, Humbert describes his violence against Dolores, and her misery and reluctance (‘…her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep’). Relatively early in the book, after he first rapes her, he begins to develop a conscience: ‘an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed’. In perhaps the saddest scene, he makes it clear that she only goes with him because ‘she had absolutely nowhere else to go’.

As the book continues, Humbert often does not weave into the narrative retrospective regret for his actions and intentions. (Nabokov would never want to make it easy for us.) Therefore (for example) the not-too-discerning reader may believe that the narrator Humbert holds the same values as the earlier Humbert, who considered the virtue of marrying Dolores so she could produce another girl child for him, even resulting in a third-generation Lolita to play around with, or that the narrator Humbert thinks its fine that his earlier self forced a feverish Dolores to have sex with him, and had her masturbate him in her classroom while he ogled a schoolmate. (She must have had a very unobservant teacher.)

After the balance of power changes a little, his references to his conscience increase: ‘I…hurt her rather badly for which I hope my heart may rot…’. Towards the end of the book he is explicit about his regret:

Unless it can be proven to me…that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven…I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

I believe him, I think.

This book reminds me of seeing Toni Morrison on Oprah a few years ago. Oprah said to Morrison that she loves her books but sometimes has  to go back and reread a paragraph to figure it out. Morrison leaned forward and said ‘Oprah, that’s called reading’.  Nabokov’s sentences are pretty straightforward, but the contorted layers of consciousness in his narrative have consumed me for the last week. Reading as extreme sport.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Posted in Fiction

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Emma Bovary: a false character

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Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary is a false story, featuring false characters. Flaubert’s genius for description and imagery, for the specific, concrete detail, for evoking the material world and for building a scene, does not make up for his chronically limited and inflexible vision. (‘His mother remarked…that the pursuit of the perfect phrase had dessicated his heart’ – from the intro.) Therefore the novel is more of a literary artefact than a text that still has the power to move a reader, unless the reader is an embittered misogynist.

Reading Madame Bovary, I was constantly reminded of the warning Charles Baxter gives in his excellent book Burning Down the House about not ‘overdetermining and overparenting’ one’s characters. From beginning to end of the novel, there’s no doubt that Flaubert knows exactly what sort of character he was creating in Emma: she must never have surprised him. On virtually every page, he manipulates her, and tries to manipulate us. For example, when he unexpectedly turns to Charles’s point of view after the terrible amputation scene, it’s only so that we judge Emma the more harshly a few pages later.

Of course, someone like Emma could exist. This book enraged me not because Emma died, or because she was meant to be ashamed (though I don’t believe she was: she was, instead, terrified of humiliation and of oblivion, and most of all, furious that she hadn’t got the perfect life she lusted after). I dislike Flaubert because Emma is a false character, meant to illustrate a point. She is a lie, and so the whole book is a lie. And she stands for all the women who have been used to make a point.

It is Flaubert’s insistence on her nature, and his determination that she be consigned to hell, and the clunky techniques he uses to try to persuade us of the rightness of his vision, that make her unbelievable. Emma is never anything other than sentimental, sensual, selfish, self-indulgent, hypocritical, and deceptive. She is consistently and continually deluded about her own nature and her entitlement to happiness, and she has almost no rational intelligence. She is terribly unkind to her daughter, though it’s questionable how much Flaubert meant that to be a sign of cruelty, given his general attitude to women in this book. ‘Where could she have learned such corruption…?’ Flaubert endowed her with it: she has no free will.

Once Flaubert has set Emma up, there’s very little further character development. She’s merely on a predictable trajectory, ready to fall. Flaubert gets her there with marvellously rich writing, but that doesn’t take away from the sour taste.

As she begins her descent, Flaubert seems to suggest that Emma might find redemption in religion, but even then she’s shown to be insincere: ‘…she thought herself seized with the finest Catholic melancholy that ever an ethereal soul could conceive of…’; ‘…she called upon her Lord in the same sweet words she had once murmured to her lover, in the raptures of adultery.’

In the introduction, Geoffrey Wall says that Emma ‘dies in a pain that is exactly adjusted to the intensity of our preceding identification’. That’s not true. I was deeply sorry for her in her pain; but I did not identify with her at all. I did not even believe in her. It was Flaubert who visited that pain upon her, and to an intensity matched by his desire that she should suffer. It’s interesting that he repeatedly vomited while writing the scene. I can’t imagine it’s because he identified with her.

Geoffrey Wall also suggests that the characters speak in clichés; that Flaubert set out to perpetuate stereotypes. I don’t think this is true of Emma: Flaubert tried his hardest to persuade us of her reality.

Again, as she’s dying, Flaubert seems to offer her redemption through the sacrament. For a moment there’s ‘an expression of serenity on her face, as though the sacrament had cured her’, but then she gives an ‘atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, at the imagined sight of the beggar’s hideous face, stationed in the eternal darkness’: I think Flaubert meant us to understand that she’s off to hell. He hates her to the very last.

Charles is the more ambiguous, interesting character (I love the moment when Flaubert writes of his meeting with Rodolphe: ‘He so wanted to have been this other man’) and I’m annoyed that Flaubert already wrote his ending. He deserves (and in my imagination does have) a more interesting fate than falling off a bench, dead, having gone insane. But by Flaubert’s metaphysical rules, Charles does not enjoy full self-determination: ‘She was corrupting him from beyond the grave’. What a load of rubbish.


Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 5:54 am

Posted in Fiction

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Janet Frame’s Towards Another Summer

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Towards Another Summer
Feb 6th: I copied the following paragraph onto the whiteboard for my writing class yesterday, offering it as an on-the-button description of what might happen if you don’t ‘look sharply after your thoughts’, as Emerson said. It comes towards the end of the novel, at the beginning of a chapter in which Grace has been invited to view her host’s office in the attic:

She sat before Philip’s huge desk, considering the drawers and pigeonholes crammed with papers…How could he dare to give a stranger permission to enter this room! Or was this room not the repository of his secrets? Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures; perhaps he hoarded them elsewhere without ever recognising them; perhaps he discarded them one by one without ever having known them?

There were several passages like this one, that made me stop and wish to commit them to memory. Now, of course, I can’t really remember what they were about…there’s one that describes the subtley shifting expressions on Philip’s face as (she surmises) his feelings change. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that deal with the book’s present moment, in the cold northern city that Grace is visiting. But those chapters act as coat hangers for the chapters about childhood memories, and after a while, wonderfully evocative as they are, those representations of memory seem somewhat self-indulgent & not to fill any larger purpose in the narrative.

Jan 26th: Having finished Patrick Evan’s Gifted, I picked up Towards Another Summer again and took it on our camping trip to the Whangaparoa Peninsula. I bought it when it came out but, at the time, wasn’t in tune with Frame despite having loved her writing since first reading her at 20. Evans’s wonderful novel has helped, and possibly so have my experiences over the last 18 months. Camping didn’t leave much time for reading so I’m still less than halfway through: oh, also, I temporarily put it aside, in the tent, for the more easily accessible stories in The Return by Roberto Bolano. (Must note here that Gifted is still burning in my consciousness.)

Side note: I read the first few paras of Pride and Prejudice on my new Kindle (!!!) this morning, just because it’s the only book on there at the moment, and while I’m determined to enjoy the Kindle (cheaper books, portability, special gift from my love, etc) my first five minutes of use freaked me out a little. I noticed myself reading very self-consciously, hearing my voice echo inside my head rather than, as I’ve been used to since childhood, the text bypassing any inner auditory sense and going directly to my understanding so that I seem to absorb the words rather than having to ‘read’ them. Also, I appreciate the choice of text sizes but am startled by the wide gaps between paragraphs and the frequency with which I have to turn the pages.

Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:56 am

Patrick Evans: Gifted

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giftedFeb 14th
Below, in my earlier review, you have it: the proof that I was happily persuaded, via a narrative I knew was fictional, that I ‘understood’ Frame more thoroughly than I did before reading Gifted. This type of (in my case willing) delusion is just one of the reasons for the recent outraged and abusive post by Pamela Gordon, Frame’s niece and the executor of her estate.

(2nd May: The part of the post that prompted me to use the adjective ‘abusive’ – a comment Gordon added to it about Fergus Barrowman’s objections to CK Stead’s story ‘Last Season’s Man’ – has been now been taken down, so in regard to the original post, ‘abusive’ no longer stands. )

As a writer and reader, I object to her objections.

I don’t think ‘cultural appropriation’ is a crime, unless the new artefact is devoid of any meaning, for example car manufacturers’ use of Maori designs. What do we now think of any royal objections to Shakespeare’s use of actual kings & princes in his history plays?

Gordon also objects to Frame being ‘only 7 years dead’. I don’t think that makes any difference. Time is a random factor, and apparently much more flexible than we have thought: it’s only time that separates us from ancestors with whom we share nearly all of our genetic code. They are closer to us than we usually consider: does that mean we can’t reinvent them?

Would Gifted be OK if no-one could remember what Frame was ‘really’ like? Would we then be allowed to reinvent her? If yes, then why not now? If no, then what’s the difference between that and being unable to cartoonify the prophet Mohammed?

Gordon accuses Evans of portraying Frame as ‘deceitful, dishonest and inhuman’, which makes me doubt that she has read the book at all. For a start, Evan’s Sargeson is far harder on himself than he is on Janet. He, who knows exactly what he’s writing (a knowingly fallible narrator), shows himself up to be sometimes intellectually and emotionally limited, contradictory, often petty (and despite all that, deeply sympathetic).

What does Frame do, in the novel, that makes Gordon think that Evans has depicted her as such? Hide under the hedge? Give him evasive answers? Tell him that she’s doing something other than going to the shops, then go to the shops? I really fail to see how Gifted is an attack on her integrity. Does Gordon mean that in life, Frame always behaved with utter consistency and reliability? She would have been very boring if that were the case.

And where does ‘inhuman’ come from? Evans’s Frame seems to me much more human than most people: that she knew to her core the difficulties of being human, and that her love of truth often did not allow her to fake normality the way most of us [try to] do. I had the impression, after reading Towards Another Summer, that somehow she knew that if she committed all her energies towards blending into normal society, she would lose the connection to her treasures, as Phillip Thirkettle has. (‘Perhaps he himself had no access to his treasures…’)

And so what if I do feel ‘closer’ to Frame than I did previously, and if my Frame is not the same as the ‘real’ Frame? I *did* realise that Gifted is fiction, and that my ‘understanding’ of Frame is actually in some imaginative world, some kind of mirror city I guess, but (despite the biographical evidence that Frame was keen not to have the facts of her life misrepresented) I do feel that her writer self might have approved of and understood: after all, we all get a deluded idea of who a writer ‘is’ just from reading their books.

Maybe it’s something to do with this: that the ‘self’ of the writer who comes through their novels are generally very different from their day to day ‘selves’; Pamela Gordon knew the day-to-day Janet, and perhaps what Evans has done is to extrapolate from her novels (which he has studied so closely) and has therefore made a Frame from a somewhat different dimension. (My neighbour, who has read Acts of Love, says ‘I never would have guessed that you would have written it…it’s so different from my idea of you.’)

Gordon also states that

‘Actually in an online interview Evans claims his novel is the “culmination” of all that Frame never really achieved (in his opinion)… He calls this her “last novel” and claims to have channeled her in writing it.’

If this is true, then it is a weird claim, but not one worth getting upset about. A work of art stands apart from its maker and the maker’s ego. I reckon it has a separate consciousness and cannot be discussed in relation to the maker himself (which is why interviews with writers of fiction are often such a diverting nonsense).

I do believe that the ego is not very much concerned with creating. If it is, the art it creates usually doesn’t work very well, and / or isn’t very interesting or longlasting. In any case, whatever Evans says about Gifted, and whatever his motives were in writing it, has nothing to do with the merits of the book.

However, if Gordon’s talking about Margo White’s excellent review / interview in the Listener, what Evans actually said there was

“You’re listening to a voice and thinking, ‘What’s the next line?’ It’s the writing that’s doing this … it’s coming out of a part of your brain than is not normally accessible.” After Evans’s decades of teaching and reading “the father of New Zealand fiction”, it seems the man was lurking in his subconscious, just waiting to be channelled. “Yeah, a friend of mine has said, ‘It’s your life’s work. This is what you were put on this planet to do’”

It’s White who uses the word ‘channelled’, and it’s in relation to the Sargeson character, not Frame. I couldn’t find any other online interviews that referred to channeling.


I’m loving being tangled up in this book. It’s as though, even when I’m not reading it, Frank Sargeson is at my side, gossiping and philosophising into my ear. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction (though actually I don’t very often, as I love the delusion) because, probably aided by the knowledge that Frank and Janet were ‘real’, part of my brain does believe the book contains Frank’s memoir.

I’m struck by the difference in my enjoyment of Gifted, and my recent consumption by Franzen’s ‘Freedom’. I haven’t worked through the following thought, but it seems to me something to do with Franzen’s more obvious manipulation of his readers. I’d love to be able to do what he does, but Freedom left me feeling bloated and weighed down. Reading Gifted, I feel light, fizzing with the excitement of such a well-wrought fiction. I suppose it’s not as manic as Freedom’s accumulation of detail. (And as said before, I couldn’t forget about the characters while I was reading Franzen’s book, but they haven’t stayed with me.)

Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 3:48 am