Reading Smiley on the back cover of Independent People:
‘I can’t imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time’ Really? I mean, REALLY????? Better than sex? Chocolate icecream??? What sort of life has Smiley lived that makes her say that. I couldn’t help thinking of this exchange on the comments of my Harry Potter review:
Brook: “I hav read every single book 14 times and i read an average of 200 books per year and have never read a better written book.”
Manny: “Hey, talk about a run of bad luck! My commiserations.”
And how on earth, of all the words to use of this book could you come up with ‘delight’? Conversation with Manny last week:
‘Where’s your review of Laxness?’
‘I have no idea what to say.’
‘Does it have sheep?’
‘Yes, on every page, relentless numbers of sheep.’
‘On every page.’
‘Death in child-birth?’
This is such an awful book, I really don’t know where to start. The worst is, as I reeled, battered by the author’s not very interesting opinions about the world at which he was pounding away, I wondered if Perlman’s The Seven Types of Ambiguity will survive. Will it too in 80 years seem no more than the pompous heavy-handed opinionated yawnings that this one appears to me now? I very much hope not.
This, seriously, is how the whole book is written. It is the scene where the girl is in bed with her father.
At first she thought he was asleep and had not noticed anything. The moments passed. She heard his breathing and listened also to the strong heavy beating of his heart. But gradually she realised from his movements which were far too small and wary that he could not be sleeping; he was awake. And she was ashamed of herself – would he rise and strike her, angry because she had dared to turn around after he had ordered her to face the wall? In her despair she nestled even closer to him and for a while they lay thus with their hearts beating quickly one against the other. She was lying motionless now with her face against his neck pretending to be asleep. Little by little almost without her being conscious of it his hand had come nearer, involuntarily of course; all that he had done was make a very slight change of position. One of the two buttons of her knickers had by chance become unfastened and in the next moment she felt his hand warm and strong on her flesh.
She had never known anything like it. All her fear was suddenly gone. The shiver that now passed through body and soul was of a kind altogether different from the cold shivering that had kept her awake all night and in her mouth there was suddenly something that resembled a ravenous appetite, except that it was not the sight of food but his movements that had roused her hunger. Nothing, nothing must ever separate them again; and she gripped his body fiercely and passionately with both hands in the intoxication of this impersonal, importunate selfishness that in a moment in time had wiped everything from her memory. pp. 237-238
I’m sorry, I just have to say this. Fucking what the fuck. I mean, really. SERIOUSLY??? And may I reply to your usual argument before you make it, Manny Rayner, bullshit. You can’t say every time something is read in translation and not liked that this is because of the translation, any more than you could argue every time I liked something in translation that it was because of that fact. It does make me retract everything I’ve said about Larsson’s mind-numbingly dull descriptions of Swedish food. If you want them to sound like a gourmand’s delight, tuck into this book. What is it about the Scandanavians that drives them to talk endlessly about food and drink that is best left unmentioned?
So, this is it, Laxness at – so we are told – his best. Coincidentally I read Pericles immediately thereafter, the play often seen as problematical and certainly not Shakespeare at his shining best. Reviewing that list:
Sheep? Not as such, but lots of Greek men, so, you know.
Grim determination? Check.
Death in child-birth. Check.
Pretty much, that is, the same subject matter to both stories. That Pericles nonetheless is an absolute pleasure to read and see, is maybe as great a tribute to Shakespeare as one could give. Being good at your best is easy, but good at one’s worst, that’s something we’d all give a lot for, would we not?
Maybe this is the ultimate test. A few years ago my father fell into a coma after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. When I joined him in intensive care and was wondering what might make him talk, I came up with the idea of asking him if I should see Pericles, which was playing in Melbourne at the time. He roused himself for long enough to whisper weakly that it was a difficult play, but yes, I should go and see it. Then he went back to his seemingly unconscious world. I would bet my last dollar that if I’d asked him if I should read Laxness, I probably would have killed him for good.
I have no idea if Laxness writes accurately and well about Iceland sociologically, though this is clearly where his forte lies. He, like Singer, couldn’t paint a character to save his life. They are all wooden caricatures, not a thing rings true about them. So, I guess if you want a kind of social geography of part of Iceland set in a particular historical period, this could be the book for you. But if you want a book about human beings, look elsewhere. I am gobsmacked that the NY Review of Books says that this is ‘the book of your life’. Who wrote that? Presumably he meant the book of his life, it surely isn’t the book of mine. Poor fucker, that’s all I can think to say. And what a turnaround that he managed to escape the life of 22 hours of darkness a day, eating gruel whilst living above horseshit, illiterate with nothing but sheep for company. How did he get to NY? Now HIS story would be interesting.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, in Pericles starts with sheep, death in childbirth, incest and grim determination, but instead of turning them into a dreary social history, he manages to write entertainingly, as usual about the meaning of life, with some great characterisations in the minor characters, Cleon, his ghastly wife, the brothel owners and Boult. The main characters, Marina and her father, are good. I mean really really good, so it is hard to call them interesting. They represent how we should live as they survive the privations they face. It is rather Lord of the Rings where the main characters are so much cardboard, whilst Golem is so alive and real. And yet that cardboard is important.
After the utter humourlessness of Laxness, it was a relief to read something which could be both horrific and hilarious at the same time. Good fair Marina is condemned to be murdered by the servant of Cleon’s wife. He is about to do the deed when the two of them are beset upon by pirates who take Marina with them. The servant is simultaneously relieved that he can go home and tell his mistress that the deed has been done without having done it, but worried that maybe the pirates won’t take her. Maybe they will merely gang rape her and leave her there on the beach. He will wait, he tells us. If that is what they do, then he will murder her. Oh, okay….it doesn’t sound funny, but trust me, it is!