Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Quiet Girl by Peter Høeg

Prélude en Do M. Ja.
With the publication of Høeg's latest, The Elephant Keeper's Children, came a timely reminder that I had so far neglected his often disparaged 2006 "thriller". This may be a tiresome refrain, but it had been on the shelves for quite some time (since approximately 2006 in fact) and looked off-puttingly drizzle-grey, conjuring images of prose of vague beauty and uncrackable intellectualism, coupled with only a dizzy hint of narrative and mostly confusing characters. Of course, this is written with hindsight, so most of my now fully formed thoughts are informed by one particular review I read before starting, that of the much enjoyed Bookslut which one may read by clicking on the disturbing moniker so indicated.

Of course, regular readers (oh ho! More tired self-deprecation approaching - the plural noun there is probably redundant) of mine will understand that, as Aristotle puts it, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it" so of course, believing myself to be educated (by which I mean I have amassed a substantial quantity of facts with which to give the lie to my restricted intelligence) I set out immediately to make camp in the opposite point of view. On went Bach's Goldberg Variations and out came the stern, furrowed brows and pensive lip-chewing.

For those of you unable to successfully navigate an embedded hyperlink, what Bookslut suggests is as follows: in order not to actually enjoy but to simply comprehend Høeg's much maligned novel, one would need most if not all of the following tools:
  • the complete audio recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach, which, as collected in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis [Bach Works Catalogue], amount to some 1,100-plus cantatas, canons, fugues and chorales;
  • a comprehensive book on music theory;
  • a detailed street map of Copenhagen;
  • a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device;
  • a guide to the Danish tax system;
  • a working knowledge of poker;
  • a thorough understanding of gambling addiction, which can be acquired through sitting in on a few Gamblers Anonymous meetings;
  • a Ouija board;
  • an picture book of nun orders of the world;
  • a familiarity with clown performances, ranging from slapstick to the highly stylized;
  • a hearing aid (or better yet a bionic ear, if you can afford one);
  • and a bottle of extra-strength ibuprofen [for the inevitable headache GBD]
"Get Bach, get Bach,
get Bach to where..." etc.
So, Kasper Krone, world-renowned clown (something it seems to be considered a boon in Denmark) has supersonic hearing, a deep and abiding love of J.S. Bach, and an awful lot of trouble with the Danish (and Spanish - she neglects to mention this point) authorities for various misdemeanours and felonies. For context's sake, he is thus manoeuvred into helping a bizarre cult-ish order of nuns (of an Orthodox Eastern Russian denomination if I'm not mistaken) find a missing child, whose proximity provides Krone with a mystical and mysterious oasis of calm in the sound-scape of the modern world.

However, to pick off the first on the above list: one need not be familiar with the works of Bach, or the modal key of his cantatas and fugues, to appreciate the reason for their inclusion. Whilst Bookslut accuses the author of overloading the reader, I would argue that the additional information comes as a caveat or footnote to explain to the lay reader what this means to the character and is therefore quite important to a fuller understanding. One may counter by saying that he is therefore spoon-feeding the reader. One wouldn't if one had actually read the book! 

In addition, Chabon makes no apologies for the use of the streets and environs of Sitka in The Yiddish Policeman's Union without providing a scale O/S map of the city; nor does Delillo for a similar oversight in Cosmopolis (worryingly, so it would seem, now a film with the versatile ex-vamp R-Patz). Høeg goes to town (pardon the pun) on the streets of Copenhagen, where he was born way back in 1957* with a love that is evident in the way he lingers on the names and places that evoke the place of his birth and no doubt bring back happy childhood memories**. The essential information is present, clearly so, and we understand where Krone is in relation to other key venues and points of action, and although perhaps persiflage to the reader in search of distracting enjoyment, the additional info adds value to the sense of place and indeed time.

I, no more so than any other, understand the lure of a good hook in a book review, but I think Bookslut may have over-reached with the employment of this one. After these two points have been addressed, the others are merely superfluity to draw out a creaking trope.

To reaffirm my thorough enjoyment of Bookslut's talents here would not be a bad idea. I think she is a very talented critic, with a mostly positive influence on the way that others read. Here, I think, she may have been slightly overawed to the point of fatigue by the weight of detail. As an apologist for Høeg I would defend this novel, even to the death (of course, not my death). I have since invested in the (nearly) complete works of Bach (as well as Haydn and have also added to my Mozart collection) and even pursued the foolish notion that Kasper Krone may have a real-life doppelganger (not that I can see). This book has inspired me to listen to beautiful music and suspend my disbelief, even in things as crazy as Children of the Corn-type telekinesis. For that I am grateful to the author and would recommend The Quiet Girl to anyone with some time and patience, and an ear for wonderful prose.

BUT - please go read more of Bookslut's reviews and columns. She too is the worth the effort.

Well would you credit it? The lovely author is only a chuffin' Taurean, born a day "after" me! In my book, that makes him a solid gold, stand-up guy with no praise undue. 

** Forgive the projections here. I SAID FORGIVE!

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Metaliterature on Hiatus

Metaliterature is taking a break. Not a long one, and not by choice. You see, the Literature family, (Meta, Children's, Challenging Women's and Pet Care Literature) is moving home, and all of the family's library has been packed into discrete but very similar boxes with no obvious markings thereupon. Thus, I am in the startling position that I actually have nothing to read! 
Have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea etc.
We should be in and unpacked for December 2012* so normal service will be resumed once I've found where I put the latest Will Self novel.

In the meantime, there is a last hurrah on the horizon, what with Peter Høeg due a punt imminently, so don't go too far now, y'hear? 


*Realistically, July 2013...

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard

'Ee's not the messiah etc.
All is not what it seems with Richard Beard and his writing. Taken on a primary level, as I do with most novels, Lazarus...is a slightly dry, mostly comic portrayal of an interpretation of the life of Lazarus, interspersed with "fact" taken and / or extrapolated from various sources, including the Gospel of John, various Renaissance paintings and the like. My wife, being an intelligent, literate and generally >170 IQ type person, quickly identified that this book was clearly not just a simple imagined biography.

I think the exchange went something like this:

She - Oh.
Me - Wassat?
She - Reminds me of Raymond Queneau and those chaps*.
Me - Exercises in Style Raymond Queneau?
She - Hm-hm, and the Oulipo bunch**.
Me - Aren't they a Romanian football team?


After her withering look and sigh of disgust, of course I rushed immediately*** to the library**** to check out Oulipo (or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) and what that meant in context. I was none the wiser.


Me - You've lost me.
She - What are we talking about?
Me - Oulipo FC, the Romanian football team.
She - That was two months ago!

She graciously pointed out that I was, in fact, overlooking a very interesting literary conceit in that Beard was numbering his chapters from seven (also, so it happens that she was able to tell me an important biblical number) to zero and back to seven again, whilst restricting each chapter to the same amount of passages or sections therein, creating a sense of tension towards the middle where everything becomes contracted and the drama builds. 

Apparently, there was a
man on a bus.
Me - Oh. And did you like it?
She - Hm? What?
Me - The book? You read it?
She - No. Not my cup of tea. 
Me - Then how...?
She - What?
Me - ...did you know...?
She - I'm not a fucking moron.

She may as well have added "like you" to that last sentence. Well, the scales fell from my eyes***** and I wept with understanding at last. Beard is clearly influenced by these French intellectuals and therefore what is on the surface a very interesting and entertaining read (Lazarus is a good, solidly realised character in spite of the tiny amount we actually know about him) is made doubly so by the fact that he has forced such a curious restriction on his writing. The result, as mentioned, is right up my street, and makes Jesus out to be a very cold, calculating Messiah-in-waiting, as he tests all of his "stunts" on Lazarus before trying them himself, and as each "miracle" he performs increases in wonder, Lazarus becomes progressively sicker as he knows he must. Without risking a spoiler, Lazarus dies. Beard, however, continues his narrative. 

Erudite, imaginative and full of dry humour, I like Beard's vision of Lazarus and life in the time of Jesus. Personally, I think it stands up as a novel without all the extra literary guff, but then I'm clearly a dimwit.


*N.B. such gentrified nonsense as the use of the word "chaps" is purely a fiction of my own making. Being French, she would of course only use the correct word at the correct moment, and not be such a useless fop.
** Ditto for the use of the word "bunch".
*** For verisimilitude, in place of "immediately", please substitute "eventually". And you can probably trim off the verb "rushed" and replace with "found myself stumbling upon"...
**** Ahem. Wikipedia....
***** Need I highlight my unworthiness as a narrator once more?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Double Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I take exception to this tag-line;
Dexter barely does any killing
In retrospect, it is a fool’s errand to attempt to review one of a series of books, especially when earlier volumes have been given the old sacred cow slaying once before, thus outlining the particular themes and devices used by the author and the singular characteristics of the recurring character(s). Indeed, Dexter is now a household name, thanks to the popular Showtime series, and as such it is difficult to find a new angle amidst the entropy of my particular system. If one is aware of the main conceit, the only other areas of discussion are plot or style related. Therefore, after a cursory attempt to put across what is new or what continues to be good / bad in this, the sixth volume of the series, I might take the opportunity to digress.


Dexter is still alive and practising his dark arts in the Miami district, all the while maintaining his double existence as a forensic geek at Miami Metro PD. Curiously, in this volume, he doesn't get to do much killing, although it doesn't stop him from thinking about it. Apart from in the opening scene, the catalyst for the resulting plot development of which more later, the killing is performed by a mad chap with a mallet and a grudge, a sinister stalker, brother Brian, and a hammerhead shark. A little disappointing you might think, especially as Astor and Cody have seemingly regressed to being simply children and teenagers with a bit of a hump (suppressing their own dark urges for now). Oh, and Rita gets drunk a bit. So much for plot. On style, Lindsay does get a little maudlin in places, where the future is not so bright for the devilish Dexter and what appears to be depression sets in. Of course, being written in a retrospective, first person narrative style, everything is recounted in a very knowing fashion, with no doubt as to the successful conclusion of the story arc. Lots of the usual dramatic irony, some rather amusing one-liners, and the ubiquitous moral abyss of the main character keep Lindsay right on message, in the groove, and other metaphors for successful stylistic continuity. If you like books one through five, you will most likely like book six.

That digression I warned you about will begin right here. Those informed readers may wish to hit back on the browser about… now. So the digression is this – where do I go from here? Dexter is clearly brain candy, and should probably have gone in an In-Betweeners review – no disrespect to the author or his endeavours – where it could be appreciated quietly without upsetting anyone. There is no natural inter-textual link from here (not that I ever needed one) but I currently lack inspiration, due to the fact that most of my books are now weighing down fifty or sixty cardboard boxes adorning the formerly void spaces of my apartment, waiting to be shipped to my new house, should such a thing ever exist. I risk going off with tangential rage about estate agents and the whole house-buying scam, but I have been severely restricted in the visible choice of next reads. However, thanks to the broadsheets and a surprising second hand purchase via Amazon Marketplace from Waterstones Gower Street (I never knew they were selling books through the competitor’s website), Peter Høeg is back on the list, and I think may well be next. Either that or the new Will Self, a copy of which is winging its way me-wards as we speak, thanks to Jonathan Main and @booksellercrow. I’ll keep you informed.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Metaliterature - what meaning to have is this for meaning?

Not a review this time, more of a curiosity. It seems I'm receiving lots of hits from Russia (Здравствуйте России!) from people searching for the definition of "metaliterature". As such, it is something of a bespoke word, created to fit a need and probably not yet recognized outside literary theory / criticism circles (Merriam-Webster Online certainly don't like it). I was wondering what they typed in to end up here, so, for fun (it's not fun, sorry) I thought I'd bung it in Google Translate and see what came out. As it turns out, one needs a little hyphen for the rather ponderous machine to understand it, and even then only does half the job (meta seems to be meta in any language). 
Incidentally, below is, ironically, a Google Chrome Thesaurus definition* of "meta":

met·a Adjective /ˈmetə/
  1. (of a creative work) Referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential
Interestingly (not interesting, sorry) it says this for the full term, taken from a website which, despite having been on it several times, I'm not entirely sure what it's called (but is written by a Dr Wheeler who one would hope is a teacher, given his history of teaching people in US universities, although that may not be an essential criterion these days):

METALITERATURE: Literary art focused on the subject of literary art itself. Often this term is further divided into metapoetry, metafiction, and metadrama.
I'm pretty happy with my definition, and would welcome any comments to the contrary or, indeed, in support. I'm also happy to live in ignorance, so it's up to you**.

Meta-Literatur (German)
Meta-literaturo (Esperanto)
元文学 (Chinese - simplified)
μετα-λογοτεχνία (Greek)
मेटा साहित्य (Hindi - my favourite as is particularly pretty)
Meta-llenyddiaeth (Welsh!)
Meta-tài liệu (Vietnamese)
Meta-fasihi (Swahili)
Meta-bókmenntir (Icelandic)

*For a more interesting definition and in context, you should probably check out the Oxford Online Dictionary entry.

**You may consider this a fraudulent attempt to court mis-directed visits from random countries for no other reason that to clock up on hit-counts. You would be correct but also in danger of revealing the vanity of this whole set-up, so I would kindly ask that you don't tell anyone, okay?