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Monthly Archives: February 2012

ImageThis is one of those front covers I feel like I’ve seen a lot of. For some reason it just always seems to be around. And I’ve never liked it – it never made me want to read the book; if anything it put me off. I really dislike books with big flashy covers. It makes me think of it as packaging, which it is in a sense, but a book cover should be sympathetic to the content, not overpower the reader before he/she has even begun. It makes me think that the content can’t be up to much if a cover has to shout that loudly. But I was willing to overlook my assumptions and prejudices just this once (for reasons I can’t remember). Perhaps the cover of Atomised is designed to put off readers like me. I really didn’t enjoy it. I have certainly been cured of my desire to test that particular theory, at least for the time being.

The novel unfolds by following the lives and families of two very different men in tandem. One is a scientist, with an unnatural emotional detachment. One is a sex-obsessed writer/teacher/psychiatric patient, who also seems to find relationships rather difficult. Neither is particularly likeable, and nor are any of the other characters – the women are whores or saints, and either way end up dead. The two men are half brothers, and much is made of the fact that their mother was absent throughout their lives. Their respective fathers were also absent, but this point is less laboured – presumably the mother’s depravity is the important factor here. Depravity is something that features a lot.

Now, before I go any further I would like to point out that I am fully aware of the ‘point’ that is being made by all the sex and violence and generally disastrous human behaviour that goes on in this novel. The ending offers us a twist: the novel is being written by a super-race of humans immune to death and violence and all that inconvenience. The novel is a tribute to the imperfect race that brought them into being. OK. I get it. It’s a nice little twist, I’ll give it that. It makes you sit up and realise that every time a character said or thought something sexist or your face was rubbed artlessly in suffering and death, often marred by insensitivity and crass behaviour.. every time you wanted to put the book down and give it up as a bad job, it was because Houellebecq was making a point about how vile humans are/were. Great.

Am I glad I persisted with it and read to the end? Yes – there are a few good bits. I liked a lot of the philosophy; I have no trouble subscribing to the ‘we’re all going to hell in a handbasket’ school of thought. But overall, I think this novel lacks subtlety, and it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Roald Dahl is a household name; a deserved giant in children’s fiction, and his imprint on me is deep. I was an ardent fan from an early age, and I think I still have my copies of The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me and The Enormous Crocodile. I had a tape of George’s Marvellous Medicine that I used to listen to, rapt and terrified, on my walkman. Fantastic Mr. Fox was a favourite bedtime story. He is a writer whose work transcends the age group it was written for, because it contains themes that persist in adult life. His stories have the quality of myths or legends in their ability to span decades and continents while losing none of their potency. Growing up, as I did, the child of someone who was raised in Africa, stories about exotic and wild creatures were all around me. I never questioned the strangeness of the animals in Dahl’s fiction – the way that he employs giraffes and crocodiles as comfortably as Kipling or African folk tales. It never even occurred to me, until reading Going Solo, that the reason for this might stem from his own experience rather than a simple flight of fancy.

Going Solo is a short and incomplete autobiography, but for these very reasons it is consistently interesting, often very funny and an effortless read. As Dahl says himself; ‘an autobiography must…unless it become tedious, be extremely selective, discarding all the inconsequential incidents in one’s life and concentrating upon those that have remained vivid in the memory’. I don’t want to say too much about the book itself – it begins with Roald Dahl’s journey to Africa, as a young man in 1938, and ends with his return home in 1941 after fighting in the war as an RAF pilot. So the space of time covered is not very great, but there is a lot of action and anecdote inbetween; plenty of encounters with weird and wonderful creatures and people to furnish his children’s stories in the years afterwards.

I found his writing style immediately engaging, and almost as quickly came to feel a great deal of affection for the young man Dahl describes. I suppose it is the prerogative of the writer to make the reader feel sympathy for or kinship towards the version of themselves they set out in an autobiography. With Dahl however, because of the events described and what I feel one can instinctively grasp from his fiction, I had no sense of being manipulated into feeling affection for this character – he really does seem like a terrific and maybe slightly mad person, whom I’m sure it would have been a pleasure to know. He appeared in my mind as an off-kilter David Attenborough figure: long and lanky, deeply sensitive to the natural world and the people around him; with a wild, derring-do attitude bordering on foolhardiness. I suppose the comparison is a lazy one. What I mean to say is that he is of that same Englishman-goes-adventuring mould, but in a benign and sympathetic way, of which Sir David Attenborough is the apotheosis. They were probably nothing alike.

If you hadn’t already guessed, I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who read Dahl as a child*. It’s a brilliant little window on the life of an extraordinary individual at a fascinating point in his life and in history.

* I would recommend that anyone who didn’t encounter his books as child should pick them up now – you cannot imagine how immeasurably richer your life could be, with a firm grasp of The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Magic Finger. Your children will thank you for it.