The Gates by Jennifer Johnston

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I’ve read Jennifer Johnston’s The Gingerbread Woman multiple times, and I was thinking if she can write such a masterpiece as that, then I want to seek out her other work, too. I was biased, a lot, but I had to admit to myself: this novel, for me, is nothing special. It’s like a novel young and talented authors write, authors who would later go on to write much better books (if we assume that this is a linear process, and things become better and talents get more talented in time).

The Gates is about a family who’s seen better days. The alcoholic uncle and the trusty old housekeeper, Ivy spend their days on the family farm, which has also seen better days, and things are slowly rotting away, until one day the niece, Minnie comes home from her London school, and starts to disrupt the old rules and habits with all the enthusiasm and insolence of a 16-year-old girl. Minnie, for instance, makes friends with the oldest son of the poverty-stricken Kelly family, and they decide to do something about the derelict farm.

Jennifer Johnston is, fortunately, not a Hollywood writer, so it’s not like a movie where the amazing Minnie would cure her uncle’s alcoholism, save the Kelly children from the brutality of their father, and make everything and everyone thrive. The Gates is much more realistic than that, and I’m glad it is, but being realistic isn’t enough to blow my mind.

Perhaps my problem with this novel is that it’s too short, and I feel that all the subplots (lessons in Irish history; flashbacks about the family’s past; dramatic events of the here and now) just don’t fit into this mere 160 pages. All these themes would need more words. And my other problem is that I feel that Johnston here is a much less sophisticated writer than she became later (of course, the main basis of this comparison is The Gingerbread Woman, which is a wonderful and delicate and heartbreaking novel), and this novel is just a little too obvious and not completely devoid of clichés.

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Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez

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Bodega Dreams is set in Spanish Harlem, and it’s about Willie Bodega, an eternal dreamer and criminal and businessman and generous humanitarian, who spends his life, well, dreaming and engaging in criminal activities, but also with trying to make his neighborhood a better place, and it’s narrated by a cool and intelligent narrator, more or less an outsider.

Before I started reading, I investigated this novel and its author a bit, and I was surprised to see how one article compared Bodega Dreams to The Great Gatsby.

I have no idea whether I would have noticed the similarities on my own (I do hope so, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I’d be ashamed not to notice if something is similar to it), but anyway, now that I already had this idea, it was easy (and entertaining) to see the similarities, of which there’s a lot: the relationship of the narrator and the main character is just like in The Great Gatsby; Willie Bodega’s dreams, flashy lifestyle, utter tastelessness, the desperate love he feels for a woman, and his extravagantly benevolent gifts all remind me of Gatsby; and of course, just like Gatsby, the inscrutable guardian angel of the Spanish Harlem also does everything for the sake of a woman – a woman who had to marry a rich man a long time ago, even though she was wildly in love with the then penniless Willie. Moreover, several famous episode or dialogs from The Great Gatsby are repeated here almost verbatim, in a slightly different context, sometimes with slightly different consequences, and observing all this is very intriguing.

All the more so because in The Great Gatsby, there’s a lot of talk about white supremacy: some Fitzgerald characters think very highly of their own white richness and lifestyle, and are shocked to see if non-white persons lead similar lives. So here we can see how it is when non-whites play at being Gatsby and try to realize the American Dream, which – as they are all first or second generation immigrants – is still new to them.

And the novel is good, even if we don’t look at the Gatsby parallels – Quiñonez is excellent at creating the atmosphere of places and events, and his Spanish Harlem is a wonderfully vivid, colorful, noisy, dangerous, and exciting place – it’s great to see it, it’s great to be inside it – it’s good to be in the middle of all this messy and wonderful life.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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The carnival:

I have a hard time imagining how carnivals and circuses can continue to function; I know no-one who likes them. Of course, I probably haven’t yet spoken with enough people about carnivals and circuses, but those I’ve spoken with all hate and/or fear them. Me too.

Friendships, especially the big, eternal ones:

The sense that no, they won’t last forever seems to have been coded into them from the very first moment. This is how it is here, too. Right from the opening scene where Will, the eternal American good boy politely replies to the questions of the lightning-rod salesman, while his best friend, Jim, the eternal American trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, a boy instinctively drawn to everything weird, unsettling and dark, keeps quiet.

One of the basic elements of novels about young boys growing up is that there’s a moment, somewhere around the age of 14, when the innocent boy-life is first invaded by adult life, and sure, you can go on pretending for a couple more years that nothing’s happened but the fruit stolen from the neighborhood trees on warm summer nights won’t taste quiet as sweet anymore. Bradbury captures the terrible melancholy of this perfectly.

Death:

I don’t know when the right time to learn about death comes – but whenever the knowledge comes, it always feels way too early. I’m not thinking about a particular death, rather about the realization or acceptance of the fact that death exists. After this moment, it seems we must keep asking ourselves: would I ride the magic carnival ride that can take me back or forward in time? And if I would, in which direction would I ride it?

Still – I was expecting this novel to be darker and more horrible. But Bradbury can always surprise me with his eternal optimism, his ability to see the good everywhere, and his ability to honestly believe that death doesn’t exist. (Why he writes about all this in such an extremely flowery, overcrowded language is a mystery, though.)

Porno by Irvine Welsh

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It’s quite revealing (to me, knowing myself) that it took me almost two weeks to read this novel, which is just under 500 pages. I wouldn’t say I found it very boring (because I only found it mildly boring), but I wouldn’t say, either, that I didn’t find any other thing or event more interesting than this (because I did).

So yeah, Welsh wrote a sequel to Trainspotting, awesome. The question arises, though: why? Reading Porno, it seems to me that in the years since the era of Trainspotting, the characters have gone on to fit in somewhere, or have gone on to dig themselves completely into a mess, in a way that was already foreseeable during the Trainspotting era. There’s nothing new here, really, and reading two novels about basically the same flavor of fucked-upness is a bit too much.

It wouldn’t necessarily be too much, it could well be interesting, however, Welsh seems to have lost his grip on the world he writes about, and reading his clueless wandering around is somewhat – boring.

Of course, it’s possible that he’s not really clueless, and that this fake cluelessness serves the purpose of expressing the idea that’s often mentioned in the novel: how the old Leith is disappearing, and how soon there will be no-one to remember how it used to be. However, Welsh himself doesn’t seem to remember it all too well, and the brutal, raw, tragic, hopeless, extremely nihilistic yet screamingly funny world of Trainspotting is almost non-existent here. And not because it doesn’t exist anymore – the characters still inhabit that world, it’s only that Welsh doesn’t know anymore how to describe it.

I think the best thing that could have happened to this novel is that it was turned into a film. Sure, T2 Trainspotting has almost nothing to do with the novel, it only uses a couple of basic motifs and episodes from the book, but I feel the film does the thing honestly that Welsh doesn’t do honestly at all: wallowing in dire nostalgia. The film doesn’t really bother with a proper story, it revolves around a couple of funny, unsettling or thought-provoking episodes, Trainspotting-style, and by using great visual and musical effects and references, it becomes a pure nostalgia trip. Which, to me, is perfectly fine – I went to see it four times in the cinema, which is an individual record, and I was never once bored with it.

Compared to the film, though, here Welsh pretends that he isn’t just being nostalgic but has something new to say, and pretends that there’s a proper story (which Trainspotting doesn’t have, and doesn’t need one, either). Problem is that Welsh doesn’t actually have new things to say, and he doesn’t actually seem to know how to write a 500-page long proper story, so in the end this novel is a bit of a torture (to me, to read it), and more than a bit strained.

Anyway, I’ll still come round to read Skagboys one day.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

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I haven’t read such a charming yet completely authentic novel in a while.

Dodie Smith’s novel is a modern take on the marriage above all story-line typical of Jane Austen’s novels, but at the same time it’s a completely self-standing work.

The narrator-protagonist is 17-year-old Cassandra, who lives with her delightfully (really: delightfully! not irritatingly, not hatefully, not unbearably) crazy family in a romantic, half-ruined castle in the English countryside, writes her journal (using a unique, consciously naïve style) by candlelight, imagines herself to be the heroine either of a novel by Jane Austen or by a Brontë sister, and slowly grows up.

Her coming of age really starts when two eligible bachelors move to the neighborhood from the mythical world of the United States. Cassandra and her sister, Rose take an active interest in the newcomers and regard them as the possible means of saving their family from its not at all romantic poverty, so they start out on a quest to get a husband, each sister in her own way – Rose by assuming the role of a passive heroine and frantically batting her eyelashes, and Cassandra by… – well, she doesn’t really do anything at all; instead, she observes the people around her, interprets and analyzes her reactions and emotions, and comes to all kinds of conclusions – and very smart ones at that.

So this is really something like Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility here, to the extent that it caught me by surprise when, for example, Cassandra once wondered around in London in the middle of the night – I was automatically thinking that no proper 19th century lady could ever have done something like this, no matter how impoverished her family was – and then I realized that we’re already in the 20th century here, where it’s possible for a young girl to walk around in London at night.

Dodie Smith, of course, plays with this feeling of timelessness deliberately. Even if you can more or less determine when the story takes place, from such details that there are automobiles, radios and gramophone records here (and I think there’s a single mention of the fact that we’re in the 1930s), still, there’s an ageless atmosphere here (or rather an atmosphere reminiscent of an era at least a hundred years earlier), and it’s hugely intriguing: roaming in this new-old English countryside, and comparing the real Jane Austen-world with this updated Jane Austen-like world, and seeing how they are different.

For me, the most interesting difference is that while in Jane Austen’s world marriage carries an inherent value (sure, it’s great if you accidentally find a suitable partner, however, if you’ve been stupid enough to hook up with a less than suitable person, then, well, tough luck, you still need to get married to that person for appearances’ sake), for Dodie Smith marriage is not inherently valuable, and there’s more than one possible way of life for a woman in her world. (Sure, it’s the 20th century already, with supposedly more opportunities, and so on – still, if I think how easy it still is to automatically follow the default way of life, then it’s really something that Smith writes about more than one possible ways.)

Besides all this, this is a pure feel-good novel. There’s an edge of sadness to the feel-good atmosphere, though, which makes it all the more interesting, but going into details about this would be a spoiler even by my lenient standards so I’ll just stop right here this time.

The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhulst

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I’m happy that in this novel, Dimitri Verhulst once again concentrates on the individual rather than enlarging on the topic of how humanity as a whole is rotten beyond redemption – I always like his more personal work better than his world-encompassing ones. (Of course, I have no idea if there’s a clear sense of direction in Verhulst’s life-work, as most of his work isn’t available in any of the languages I speak.)

The Latecomer’s protagonist is 74-year-old Désiré, who’s had enough of all this stuff we conveniently refer to as life (most of all, he’s had enough of his conventionally frigid dragon of a wife, Monika), but then he has a brainwave and because at the age of 74 there just aren’t that many escape routes available anymore, he decides to put on a charade: he pretends that he suffers from dementia so that he can end up in a nursing home and finally be free from the nuisance of the outside world (mostly from Monika).

From Désiré’s flashback sections we slowly learn about his youthful dreams (I hardly need to say what happened to those) and we also learn about the details of his life with Monika, with special emphasis on the tensions, betrayals, and lies of said life. (As a bonus, you can also learn how to pretend to have Alzheimer’s disease – this might come in handy one day.)

And Désiré’s style is so deliciously dark and cynical that it cracks me up. Once, for instance, he’s contemplating his funeral arrangements and he says he doesn’t give a damn what kind of funeral he gets, the only thing is that he’d prefer not to lie next to Monika in his death as they’d spent their lives lying next to each other like dead bodies, so there’s no need to continue with this after death.

Verhulst is again at the height of his cynicism, and this time I feel it’s not just random bitterness thrown all over the place, but something well-warranted. Who wouldn’t be cynical and who wouldn’t take refuge in pitch-dark humor, after all, when he realizes at the age of 74 that he’s probably about to die pretty soon and that all this – life – was simply stupid and meaningless.

But – and I’m especially happy about this – it seems to me again that Verhulst actually likes humans, or if he doesn’t like them, at least he has lots of empathy and compassion for them. Because sure, we can laugh at all the nosy pensioners living in Désiré’s street who suddenly must mow their lawn and check their post box every minute on the morning when the family prepares to transport Désiré to the nursing home – but we also feel that the pensioners don’t just gawk around because they are nosy – they are also contemplating how they might be the next ones to end up there.

Verhulst here is also concerned with the questions of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. And at first glance, Désiré’s life is nothing special – he’s had an OK time in his life, working in a library, drinking red wine, feeding the birds – but the need for something else was ever-present in his life, and so was the awareness that probably he shouldn’t have married such a woman as Monika, a woman insanely and exclusively concerned about the look of things, and that he probably could have done lots of other things instead. (Just an example to illustrate Monika’s habits – being obsessed with recording the family idyll in the most perfect way imaginable, she once makes Désiré blow the candles on his birthday cake 9 times until she can capture the moment satisfactorily.)

And still – it hasn’t been, it couldn’t have been such a dreadful life. If a man at the age of 74 still has such an excellent sense of humor, and is still able to reinvent his life in a manner, then that man must be in possession of wonderful creative forces and energy. Of course, he could have possibly used all this creativity and energy for some other purpose, but perhaps this is life, and perhaps screwing things up is a must, just so that later you’ll have something to quietly accept, or something to laugh about cynically and with exquisite self-deprecation.

Emma by Jane Austen

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I know (or at least vaguely remember) I always mention this when I write about Jane Austen, but I will mention it again that my favorite Austen novel is always the one I’m re-reading. So I enjoyed this again, a lot, and right now this is my favorite, even if my latest re-reading wasn’t the result of my usual spring-summer desire for English romanticism (which is, by the way, not really romantic at all – and I probably like it exactly because it’s not romantic) but mostly the result of the fact that Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own wrote about Austen in a most flattering way.

Looking at Austen from Woolf’s perspective, I realized that she really didn’t try or want to please anyone, which is great. Her style, her irony, her cool-headed sensitivity, the way she describes her characters through their style and mannerisms, and the way she criticizes are all very much her, filtered through her own experiences, way of thinking and imagination – and the amount of criticism or compassion she has towards people doesn’t depend on whether Austen is a man or a woman, or whether the character she describes is male or female.

I read somewhere once how Austen never wrote scenes where only men were present, after all, she couldn’t have known how men behave, what they talk about when they are in an all-male company. I must have been a bit surprised when I first read this but now I tend to consider it another sign of Austen’s genius, and I think about how fantastically smart she must have been, and how great it is that she never presumed to be a know-it-all, and didn’t attempt to write about things she hadn’t seen with her own eyes. And I think, too, that she could draw extremely precise conclusions from the things she had seen.

Of course: this is a true Austen novel, where the main goal is marriage, and where everyone lives happily ever after when the goal is reached. But I see her idea of conjugal happiness less and less romantic and fairy-tale-like, even if all her novels end with saying something like how the couple then went ahead to spend their lives in the most perfect harmony imaginable. Yes, the text might end like this, but the implication that this is not a static state is very much there.

Here and now I was especially struck by how much she emphasizes the importance of happy couples complementing each other, and how much her idea of happiness in marriage is based on the assumption or foundation that man and woman will have a good influence on each other.

Perhaps Austen was an archetypal romantic after all. But no matter in what I light I see her, I always feel that what and how she writes – is real, ever since I first read her work in my teens.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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There’s something in the story and atmosphere of Hartley’s novel that reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (it must be McEwan’s novel that’s similar to The Go-Between, and not the other way around, but I read Atonement earlier than this): it’s an ominous, cruel, and fateful atmosphere.

At the beginning of the novel, Leo, a man in his sixties, comes across an old journal and other mementos of the past he had carefully hidden from himself throughout his life because confronting them would have been too painful. However, the moment of truth is finally here, so Leo starts out on his journey to the past.

The main story is set in the summer of 1900, when one hot day follows another. And weather is important here – there’s something menacing in the long heatwave of the summer, as it creates an atmosphere full of anticipation, an atmosphere with an oppressive and hypnotic force. You know the heatwave will end sooner or later, but while it lasts, it feels as if time has stopped, as if nothing could lead to consequences, and this encourages reckless, thoughtless behavior.

Leo, aged 13, spends the month of July vacationing at the pleasant country estate of one of his rich classmates of noble descent, and somehow he ends up being the messenger between the young lady of the house and two men who want to win her heart and hand. Leo dutifully carries the messages to and fro among the three adults, and for a long while he doesn’t suspect the significance of the verbal messages and written notes – and even when he learns about it, he still doesn’t grasp the real seriousness of the situation.

Which is, of course, understandable – England in 1900 was probably a very innocent world (or rather: a world full of pretended innocence), and Leo at the age of 13 has absolutely no idea what passions, feelings, and hidden motivations guide the mysterious adults. Leo is still just an average little boy (probably dreamier than average, and with perhaps more propensity to embellish the truth than the average boy), whose favorite pastimes include sliding down on haystacks and looking for treasures in the garbage pile. His mind is usually not on girls – and even when it is, he only thinks about them in a purely abstract sense, without the idea of bodily contact, and he finds the idea of lovemaking simultaneously boring and nauseating.

It’s hardly a surprise then that all this secret messaging leads to nothing good, but the process leading up to this nothing good is much more interesting than the events themselves, and the most interesting here is the behavior of the characters: their secretive and pretentious ways, the way they use, abuse, and manipulate each other without qualms, and the way they cheerfully ignore the possible consequences of their actions. It’s an amoral bunch, here (with one exception – who, naturally, suffers the direst consequences). And even if Leo is supposedly just an innocent child and isn’t much to blame, still – even he is amoral, frighteningly emotionless, and rather cruel – in a way children can be.

And seeing the events from Leo’s immature, naïve, childishly selfish perspective is strangely unsettling. Sure, there’s the usual dramatic irony at work here, and it’s upsetting that the reader knows and understands a lot of things better than the narrator. But it’s unsettling for me mainly because Leo as an adult is just as incapable of understanding the significance and the real meaning of events as he was at the age of 13.

Like I said, the story is told by the old Leo, not the 13-year-old one, and he interprets the events of his childhood as an adult now. We might assume that perhaps there’s a spark of empathy in him now, and that perhaps he’ll be able to understand things more now. But no. He just doesn’t get it. And reading his clueless recounting of the events I feel like crying tears of rage and desperation, and my heart breaks.