2011/24 Solar

 

Having become used to Ian McEwan’s economic, beautiful, yet serious and lyrical prose, Solar  seems to be something of a new departure. This is still unmistakeably McEwan with his cast of flawed, English middle-class characters, but this is also a openly humorous campus novel. There is something redolent of David Lodge in this.

Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a self-indulgent, self-obsessed science professor and a serial faithless monogamist. The extent and success of his sexual exploits are rather puzzling given that Beard is so thoroughly dislikable, but it is also what makes his gradual and inevitable downfall so funny.

But Solar is  much more than a comic novel charting the trials and tribulations of a Nobel Prize-winning academic with a wayward moral compass. It is also about climate change, the state of science as a discipline and, in particular, about the arrogance and self-righteousness of the scientific establishment. Beard represents that establishment which shows itself to be ultimately fickle and self-defeating, yet admittedly brilliant in may respects – an establishment that claims that scientific truth lies beyond the moral sphere, and yet which shows itself to be morally degenerate. It is, for instance, Beard’s encounter with some Humanities scholars that is described in the most telling way:

“Beard was suspicious (…) People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to have equal value.”

And yet this is a narrative about climate change and what Beard ultimately finds is that his uncritical belief in something called ‘the scientific truth’ has become obsolete, as more scientists come to realise that we will only tackle climate change through behavioural change – a problem caused by human behaviour can only be solved by human behaviour – and people’s behaviour is governed by the stories we tell each other, not by complex scientific data.

For what is at one level a comic campus novel, Solar has a much more philosophical contribution to make.

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End of the holidays…

I may not have written anything on the blog for a few months, but the reading has continued nonetheless. So, now I’m going to try and do a bit of catching up. I won’t have time to write very much on everything I’ve read recently, so some of these ‘reviews’ will be very short, but I’ll try and get back on track as soon as I can.

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A quick update…

Just a quick note to apologise for no new postings for the past couple of weeks. With Easter, the Royal Wedding and the May Day Bank Holiday here in the UK falling on successive weekends, we (like many of others) took the opportunity to have a slightly extended holiday. We went to our house in restful, republican France where much reading was done and the monarchy was ignored, but where there is no internet access. I am now back at work trying to catch up with the backlog, but more posts will appear shortly…

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2011/23 The Troubled Man

We seem to have been waiting a long time for the next Wallander novel, but it has finally arrived in English translation and I devoured it the moment it arrived. It is also a book to be savoured, as it is the final Wallander book – there will not be any more.

For a long time Henning Mankell resisted writing more Wallander novels, saying that he was too distraught following the suicide of Johanna Sallstrom, the young actress who played the role of Linda Wallanader, Kurt Wallander’s daughter, in the Swedish television adaptations. Finally Mankell returned for one final Wallander novel to bring closure to one of the most remarkable series of detective novels in recent years.

The first Wallander novel was published in Sweden in 1991 and first appeared in English translation six years later. In The Troubled Man the usual Wallander themes are evident and the detective is his usual miserable, alcoholic, workaholic and socially dysfunctional self, struggling as much with his personal relationships as with the challenges of the current case. The story revolves around a retired naval officer and future father-in-law of Linda Wallander, who, seemingly preoccupied, disappears one day whilst on a walk. The ensuing investigation inevitably reveals a more complex web of intrigue and scandal. Ostensibly, the missing officer is ‘the troubled man’ of the title, but it is equally clear that Wallander is also a troubled man and, given the background to the writing of the book, it could be said that Mankell himself is also the troubled man.

As with all the Wallander books, this is a fast-paced quick read. I don’t want to give anything away, but I found the ending particularly fitting and poignant. Whilst some may be disappointed by the anti-climatic finish to Wallander’s career, I found his destiny to be particularly appropriate for the melancholic sociophobe, drawn increasingly into himself, that he is. A brave way to end such a fabulous series of books. Now I shall have to start all over again at the beginning with Faceless Killers.

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2011/22 The Colour Out Of Space

If you are not a great lover of the short story form (and I’m not, really), then you absolutely have to make an exception for H P Lovecraft. Lovecraft (1890-1937) is the natural inheritor of the American horror tradition from Poe and arguably provides the link between Poe and more modern writers of the horror genre such as Stephen King (who acknowledges his indebtedness to Lovecraft). But Lovecraft is made for the short story with his poetic, even flowery, use of language (somewhat redolent of M R James in a way) that harks back to the nineteenth century, but looks forward to the twentieth. Where Lovecraft departs from the earlier Romantic and Gothic traditions is that horror lies, for him, much more in the real and everyday, rather than in the spiritual and unknown, yet he avoids the more contemporary prediliction for what King calls the ‘gross-out’.

The Colour Out Of Space (has the title been anglicised, I wonder?) is a collection of three stories, published by Penguin as a mini-modern classic and, if you haven’t read Lovecraft before, then this is as good a way to start as any. The story after which the title of the volume takes its name is the most interesting. A meteor ploughs into a field in a remote rural location and the wonderful luminescent colour it emits is a kind of poison that slowly infects and rots all living things in the immediate vicinity. The fact that is a poison that is formless and can’t be seen, felt or smelt makes it all the more terrifying. The story was written in the 1930s, but the fact that I was reading about it whilst hearing the worrying news from the Fukishima nuclear power station in northern Japan, made the story all the more relevant. It is a beautifully written and controlled story that is well worth an hour of your time.

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2011/21 The Killer’s Art

 

The Killer’s Art bring us up to date with Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas novels that are available in English. As the title suggests the setting for the novel is the world of modern art – at least, the commercial world of modern art (the private galleries, collectors, investors and the trade in stolen art), rather than the concerns of the artists themselves. As with the earlier novels, the story is set on Gotland and, at least in part, explores the tension between Stockholm, the capital, and the provinces. It is a tension that is best exemplified by the character of the reporter, Johan Berg, who is constantly torn by his responsibilities to his Stockholm-based employers and his responsibilities to his Gotland-based partner and young daughter. It is also a tension that Jungstedt uses well to address the central problem that faces her as a writer – how do you write a novel that is set in the world of modern art, that is inarguably metropolitan in its focus, and which is also set on a provincial island known for a sense of remoteness for the modern centre?

It seems that Jungstedt’s writing becomes more confident with each novel and The Killer’s Art is her most accomplished to date. Nevertheless, there are moments of clunkiness in the plot that aren’t well explained and the occasional passages that are rather derivative. Also the very notion of setting a crime novel within a particular and closely-defined sub-world (in this case that of the art world) feels a bit ‘old hat’. As such the novel, as with her other ones, lacks some of the edginess and bleakness of other Scandanavian crime writers such as Nesbo, Mankell and Fossum. Nevertheless, it is still a good read – perfect for a night in!

 

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2011/20 Homer and Langley

 

I remember when I was growing up my dad had a copy of E L Doctorow’s Ragtime on the bookshelf. Given my dad was a big fan of early jazz, I had at that time assumed that the book was a history of Ragtime. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that Doctorow was a novelist and it has taken until now for me to get round to reading any of his work.

Homer and Langley is a fictionalised account of two real-life brothers Homer and Langley Collyer who lived in the bourgeois suburbs of New York in the first half of the twentieth century and earned reputations as being eccentric. In real-life the two brothers, one of whom, Homer, went blind, became increasingly withdrawn from society, paranoid and dependent upon each other. They died in March 1947 after which police discovered the body of Homer in his armchair, who had starved to death. Their mansion was piled high with collected rubbish and newspapers that they had hoarded over the years. During the clear-out the police finally found the body of Langley, buried beneath mountains of rubbish. The assumption is that Langley had fallen foul of one of the many booby traps he had set around the house to protect them from imaginary intruders and had become trapped beneath the debris.  Homer had simply died waiting for his brother to come and attend to him.

Doctorow takes considerable liberties with history. He makes Langley the older brother (whereas in real life the opposite was the case) and he stretches their lives well into the 1970s. Homer becomes blind as a teenager due to an illness that causes gradual deterioration. In reality, Homer became blind much later, in the early 1930s after suffering a stroke. In adjusting the timeframe in this way, Doctorow uses their story to comment on American society at critical times during the twentieth century. The narrative leaps quickly across the decades so that we get a snapshot of a particular period of a few months before moving us swiftly on to a number of years later.

Where Doctorow is most successful is by painting a picture not of delusional madness, of everybody’s worst neighbours, but of extraordinary brotherly love in the face of a series of tragedies. They are abandoned by society as much as society abandons them and their withdrawal is an exercise in self-reliance and resilience as much as anything else. Time and again Homer and Langley are shown to be kind-hearted, well-meaning, non-judgmental, finding solidarity with others on the edge of society. They are, in their own way, brilliant, but unable to function in a rapidly changing society. Their hoarding is an ultimately doomed attempt to keep control of their lives and the outside world, but when the outside world invades their lives, they are shown to continually struggle and fail to successfully manage it.

By narrating the story through the eyes of the blind Homer (pun intended), Doctorow allows us to enter their world and their struggles, well-intentioned but destined to end in yet further tragedy. And, of course, by allowing us to view history through the lives of people living on the very edge of a society that rejects them, he is able to make comment upon society itself. This is a deeply affectionate portrait of two brothers who don’t quite fit.

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