Mysteries Explained
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind starts off brilliantly: a ten year old gets taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he chooses a volume and promises that he will keep it safe and not forgotten. It’s kind of downhill from then on though, as the novel descends [Zafon’s, not Carax’s from the Cemetery] into Borges-lite and literary thriller. It’s all mood and lighting effect, and not much more. A pity, because it promises so much. The Guardian review talks about the emotional energy, but to me this is just sloppy writing, with lots of moody and often gushing characters populating a rainy, fogbound city. I wanted to like it, but I don’t.

I do, however, like Chico Buarque’s Budapest a lot though. This is a slimmer, drier book, in which the narrator plays with ideas of language, translation and travel, as he is seduced by and in Budapest. It is difficult to know what is ‘true’ or ‘story’, as José, the central character, attends the Anonymous Writers’ Congress and tells us about all the books he has ghostwritten; about his quick mastery of Hungarian; about his passionate affair in the city of the title. We never quite know what is real or not, but this is not cod-philosophy, it is a moving, detailed story, with living characters and a real city.

The characters in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men are very real too, but I hope I never get to meet them or anyone like them. Moving away from Westerns but keeping the setting of the Southern borderlands, here McCarthy tells the story of a drug heist gone wrong, and a local boy sucked into carnage and mayhem. Told by a sheriff who is ready to retire, and who ponders the world aloud at the beginning of each chapter, the story moves between Mexico and Texas, leaving a trail of murder, fire, torture and fear. I’d forgotten just how bloody McCarthy’s books can be [more the earlier volumes than the All the Pretty Horses trilogy], but it’s a cold, factual bloodiness, not the close-up zoom and technicolor splash of Hollywood or horror/thriller genres. There is no happy ending here, and it’s hard to see the book as anything buy nihilistic and depressing; but it is astonishingly well written and deeply moving.

There’s also blood and fear running through Patrick Wood’s Fireglass Machine, as well as an appalling cover which would have stopped me buying it had I not known it was the sequel to the excellent The Viaduct Child of a few years ago. [NB. This book now seems to have been retitled/reissued as Electric Dragon and given a new, also appalling, cover.] Set in a not-too-distant future, or perhaps an alternative projection of our world, this is officially a children’s book, but don’t be put off. Like a lot of children’s books it often has a clarity and sparseness which adult authors could learn a lot from.

Having said that, Fireglass Machine can be a bit all over the place. There are some pretty clunky jumps in time, particularly a prologue which ends up being belonging between Parts 2 and 3; a story within a story that is never really picked up on [do I see a volume 3 on the horizon?]; and a recap rather clumsily inserted into the story to help new readers and also fill in a gap between volumes one and two. And there are lots of events and places and characters which turn up in the novel but for no reason. Why do two characters from Viaduct Child reappear when neither actually play any part in this story? Why is Dushma’s ward/guardian so thin a character ­ can Wood not be bothered? When it works this novel is good, and this is mainly in it’s descriptions of another London, and in Dushma’s blossoming relationship with juggler and eco-warrior Arbilow. Elsewhere there are some truly cliché school scenes straight from Enid Blyton and cod-gothic horror writing and bad sci-fi. I’m making it sound worse than I mean to, I enjoyed it as a lightweight read yesterday, but it is sloppily written compared to the first book.
Desmond Hogan could never be accused of being sloppy. Verbose, perhaps. Unfocussed, perhaps. But his meandering stories are carefully planned and brilliantly written Irish tales ­ wherever they take place. One hears the lilt and music of his [or his narrator’s] voice as characters and places come into and out of focus, as the story slowly develops and gently slides to a halt. There are no literary tricks here, no great morals, set scenes or big action sequences. In Lark’s Eggs: New and Selected Stories we are in a slow-moving world full of minor incident and powerful relationships and lies. Some of these stories are from an Ireland of the past ­ or certainly where I’ve never been, some from European cities full of travellers and tourists. They are stories from the side streets and suburbs, from villages and seaside towns time has passed by; stories told by children and old people, would-be lovers and writers, people lost and wandering in the world, who find beauty in secondhand clothes and trinkets, and treasuring conversation and encounter.

Hogan’s short prose has a musical quality which his longer books have never sustained. A Farewell to Prague, his last ‘novel’ [published in the mid-90s] got round this by collaging fragment after fragment of narrative into a stained-glass monument of a novel, one which could only be understood after the reader had read most of the book. It is a superb, unjustly ignored book, clearly rooted in Hogan’s own nervous breakdown and his wanderings through the shadows of a new Europe. The twenty new stories in Lark’s Eggs show Hogan returning to his literary roots, restoring a kind of order and shape, and whilst it lacks the edginess or innovation of A Farewell… it makes up for it in focus and achievement. These are gloriously old-fashioned stories, rooted in spoken narrative [storytelling to you], and full of detail and aside. They are populated by real, quirky, people living gloriously original ordinary lives. It’s good to have Desmond Hogan back after a gap of so many years.

Authors falling in and out of fashion, the public view, receiving critical attention [or not], and populist acclaim are, of course, mysteries of the universe, but sometimes things are made clear. I struggled to see anything original or well-written in Siri Hustvedt’s last novel, which newspaper reviews would have me believe was a masterpiece of literary fiction. Next thing I know she’s popped up with a book of interesting looking art criticism. Especially interesting because the artists she covers in Mysteries of the Rectangle include Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter and Morandi, three artists I greatly admire and am intrigued by. [Unfortunately there’s also a lot about Goya whose work I don’t and am not.] But there’s also an intriguing essay ­ probably the best in the book ­ about still life. What is shocking is that this book is so full of ‘I’ and personal response, that we never get to see the painting. Hustvedt simply doesn’t seem able to get beyond the idea of decoding a painting, preferring to reduce them to narrative, biography [both the painter’s and her’s] and reportage.

My favourite moment in the book is this, which is apparently ‘said’ with a straight face!:

Twenty years ago, at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, I shook Joan Mitchell’s hand. I was the new wife of an old friend of hers—Paul Auster. They had met in the early seventies through the poet Jacques Dupin, whom Paul had translated. Jacques also worked at the Galerie Maeght, which showed the art of the man Mitchell was living with at the time, the French Canadian painter, Jean Paul Riopelle. [...] It was Joan who introduced Paul to Samuel Beckett.

Isn’t that fantastic! What an absolutely massive namedrop! Dupin and Beckett have nothing at all to do with looking at Joan Mitchell paintings, Riopelle’s work is not used to discuss Mitchell or her work, Hustvedt’s marriage to Auster’s has no bearing on the discussion either. But the author wants us to know who she knows and has met and who her husband is. Unfortunately none of this helps her engage with art, but it does alert us to her approach to the matter at hand and allow us to not take her seriously, because she clearly isn’t taking herself or the art seriously. This is schmooze and rub-shoulders art criticism, confessional criticism that gazes wide-eyed and innocent at a painting and turns it into a story of personal revelation rather than paint on a canvas. And of course, who you know can often help in the publishing and reviewing world, can’t it?

I’m off to read the new Iain Sinclair. And think about who I’ve ever spoken to at The Groucho, or bumped into in Waterstones.

© 2005 Rupert Loydell