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Monthly Archives: April 2011

A young South African escapes his mother country and flees to London, where he is miserable and then becomes slightly less so: this would seem to be a fairly accurate plot outline for Youth.

This is the second of Coetzee’s novels I have read. The first was Foe, which I studied but didn’t enjoy entirely. Some books are made for studying, some for enjoyment – Foe was one of the former, and I think Youth may be mid-way between the two.

The main problem with this novel – or the genius of it – is the vastly unsympathetic nature of it’s protagonist. The un-named male voice and central character of this novel is so unlikeable that one is forced to acknowledge the flawed nature of the narrative voice in fiction; it’s role as a persuasive tool, and the reader’s responsibility to read outside it; to see it for what it is. This is undoubtedly the point. However, this doesn’t make him any easier/more enjoyable to read about. It reminded me -unfavourably – of Catcher In The Rye. It’s the same problem, I think; unflinchingly and unapologetically homocentric, self-absorbed voice which is both a literary strength and weakness. In theory it’s interesting. In practice it is boring and borderline unreadable.

His relationships with women are so cold and impersonal as to almost not register as part of his story; his self-delusion in the face of all evidence, that he is a poet trapped in the body of someone very boring, is funny and tragic at the same time. Sex and poetry – two Romantic obessions that mark this poor boy’s life, and in the end get him nowhere and achieve nothing except years of fruitless angst and malcontent. Again, one feels one is being led down the garden path a bit – Coetzee is pressing our noses in the cliches of art and artistry, creating self-reflexive art in the process. The final feeling is one of deflation – of many circles having been run around; tails chased to no avail. The boy is become young man and has been defeated, or at least feels that this is the case, but he has gained a modicum of self-awareness along the way. Hurrah for small victories!

Having said all this, it is a well-written and thoughtful novel. There can be no doubting Coetzee’s skill or critical engagement. The characterization is perfect and painful; the London he depicts is brutal enough to convince, lonely enough to incite compassion; an unlikeable boy becomes an unlikeable man and the reader winces and cringes along the way. It’s a tough read because of all these things, but a worthwhile one for the same reason.

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There are some books you pick up and your preconceptions of it are confirmed; nothing changes and you are disappointed, but you read on safely and unscathed. There are some authors who have towering reputations that baffle the average and not-so-average reader. I have lately discovered that In Cold Blood is not one of those books, and Truman Capote is not one of those authors. 

I held off reading this book for a few days while I was alone in my flat, as the back cover blurb said “Blood and hair all over the walls…” and I didn’t feel strong enough to undertake it without someone to fall asleep next to. The flat we were living in was creepy at the best of times. So, full of anticipation and fear I started it, and finished it in a few days because I was so engrossed. Utterly gripping, from start to finish, which is no mean feat for such a dense prose style, and a true story too. Capote makes this into such good fiction, it would be fascinating to have seen him at work, putting the pieces together, constructing a narrative just as the police had to.

Obviously the murder is horrific, the ghastly and heart-breaking centrepiece of the novel, but the characters of the two perpetrators are what pulls the story along and keep you hooked right until the end. Callousness, ignorance, psychosis, fearlessness, stupidity, and pig-headed self-righteousness are just a few adjectives that spring to mind when thinking about Dick and Perry, the murderers and main characters. Why then the fascination? Why the compelling nature of the story? It’s a combination, I think, of superb craftsmanship and simple human curiousity. You want to know what happens; if they get away with it or not; if they show any remorse; if there’s any revelation about their motivation – which, it turns out, is ambiguous in the extreme. I suppose this is classic crime-writing stuff, but the difference here is that Capote wrote this in 1965 and it hasn’t lost any of its power to shock, and that this is a true story makes one think more about the process, more about the ‘facts’ being related; the reader is forced to maintain a distance, to keep a wary critical eye on proceedings.

I’m not normally one for this kind of thing, as you may have gathered from the fact that I had to wait until there was another person in the house before I could start reading it. I don’t like or understand gore and horror for their own sake alone. However, I enjoyed this immensely: Capote is someone I want to read more of. What next? I think perhaps Music For Chameleons, because it’s a great title..

AN ADDITION: I recently watched the film Capote (I hadn’t wanted to watch it before I had read In Cold Blood) and it confirmed some of my suspicions about Capote’s involvement with the ‘facts’ of the case. The invisible hand of Capote directing and influencing proceedings is, indeed, everywhere – in his relationship with Perry, in his meddling with the judicial process, for the sake of his art. The film is an astonishing portrait of a deadly serious artist on the brink of a breakdown, producing the work that would shape (even define) the rest of his life – something one cannot know from the book, except perhaps obliquely, through it’s sheer brilliance.

I have mixed feelings about Milan Kundera. He is one of those prolific modern authors who tends to riff on a particular theme, and one’s appreciation of his work depends very much upon how warmly you feel towards said theme. Milan Kundera’s theme is, invariably, love; sex, relationships, the vagaries of modern social intimacies (with, of course, a heavy dose of European – mostly Czech – politics thrown in for good measure). I’ve read books by him that I have loved – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Farewell Party – and books that have left me cold – The Joke. I fear that Ignorance is going to fall into the latter category, but I fear more that it may be due to bad timing..

With Milan Kundera there is always humour. This is something I like about him as an author; he is not po-faced. This is something that Ignorance has, and I like it. However, there is something that doesn’t engage me with this book. Perhaps it is the fact that I couldn’t fully engage with either of the main characters. Perhaps it was the fact that I read this mainly on trains and my mind was elsewhere.

The opening is fantastic. An examination of nostalgia with reference to expatriated people/emigrants. “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering’. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” Excellent. Pure Kundera; modern and ancient languages, displacement, sadness – this is a promising beginning. Lots of talk about the magic of the return, which is a theme which he revisits in other work. There are also some interesting observations along the way – about the human life-span and how it defines us totally; shapes our lives, or rather we shape our lives to it. But what of the characters? Promiscuous? Of course, this is Kundera. Likeable? Perhaps, but with a huge pinch of salt. Believeable? Again, with seasoning. A woman who loses an ear as an adolescent in a suicide attempt, and for the rest of her life covers her deformity with her hair and no-one notices? Hm. I often feel that Kundera’s characters are part allegory, part true characterisation – this is certainly true and in full swing in The Farewell Party, but in Ignorance the balance is unstable, and it just seems odd. 

It’s a short book so there’s not a lot more to say. Well put together, very readable, as ever, some poignant insights. The next Kundera I’ve got lined up for the future is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Watch this space.

Last weekend was the opening of the new Turner Contemporary art gallery on Margate’s seafront. I attended.

Having spent the best part of last year living in Deal (a small, quietly vibrant seaside town on the Kent coast) I got to know Margate a bit, mostly through outreach work that the company I worked for did there. It’s a very deprived and depressing place, but there is so much visible potential (so much fantastic architecture, so much space, so much beach) it’s possible to remain upbeat about the place in spite of it all. I suppose perhaps that’s the Londoner in me talking – a place that has unused/semi-derelict Georgian terraced houses with huge windows? Unthinkable. Fantastic. I think that’s part of the problem; the intimation of gentrification that opening a stonking new art gallery brings with it. Is that what Margate needs? I suppose the idea is to attract money to the town and hope for the best.

Stepping off the train I am struck by the contrast with the last time I set foot in Margate. Here is an extract from something I jotted down whilst waiting to be collected from Margate train station cafe, not more than a few weeks ago:

“past a closed pub towards a ‘cafe’ sign, which on closer inspection marks a chip shop with indoor seating. Someone in a grimy sweatshirt sits inside with their back to the window and is the only customer. A few steps further down the street is a patch of grass. A burly dog is defecating. You couldn’t make it up. Down the hill, stretching out into the distance is an elongated row of boarded up kebab shops, broken street lamps, the sound of seagulls… concrete and grease-smelling view.”

So last weekend the sight of hordes of people on the promenade, sitting outside pubs I hadn’t noticed were there, strolling, laughing, generally making merry, was a bit of a shock, if a pleasant one. I can’t imagine that all of these people are local – the whole scene seemed improbable. Perhaps local in the same way that our little group is – all the way from Deal, half an hour away by train. This, I think is part of the problem with the whole project, and what makes me uneasy about it. Who is it for? It’s not for the people of Margate, surely? There is no denying that there is an artistic community here, and all over the Kent coast, Whitstable in particular, but is the fact that artists live here enough? Where is the audience? I suppose the idea is that there will be a gradual influx, both of day-trippers and permanent settlers who can’t afford to live in London or have lost the inclination. Both of these things, I feel certain, will happen – it’s only a matter of time – but how soon? I can see the potential here, can see the hunger in the eyes of developers.. but how long does Turner have to earn back the millions spent on this brand spanking new state of the art gallery? There are a lot of questions.

But, to the gallery itself! What a fantastic space. It really is very beautiful, inside and out, and the location couldn’t be better. As we appraoched it, the light installation set up for the opening glowed on the water like a lighthouse or a moon, outshining the real full moon which hovered also above the gallery. Bright lights of Margate! and the people, still flocking around their new playground. I wonder how many will return.

The work on display was very much themed around locality, and all was of  a high standard, all clearly well thought out and chosen for purpose. I would expect nothing less for such a high-profile event at which there is so much at stake. There was live music downstairs from the Cocos Lovers, a Deal-based band making big waves. It’s always heartening to see them amassing more and more followers. See them live if you can (they’re at lots of festivals this summer): there’s no substitute. We weren’t allowed to bring drinks from the cafe into the room they were performing in, so we climbed (ever-so gracefully) over the balcony railings outside to drink and loiter, looking in. I suppose they didn’t want their brand new floors soaked in beer on opening night, which seems fair enough. The music was playing on speakers outside the bulding as well, so people looking out to sea could hear it too. A lovely touch; very atmospheric.

All in all I suppose there’s no room for negativity about this project. It’s a great space and surely an art gallery is never a wholly bad thing; one just hopes that the people in charge have a well-laid plan. It’ll be a huge shame if it doesn’t work out, so I urge you: go and see it! Make it work! Give Margate a chance.