Thursday 27 September 2012

Joan Didion: Fiction v Non-Fiction

Joan Didion in Hollywood, 1970

I never liked Joan Didion. I have yet to discover whether this is a controversial statement or not. I’m guessing that it is, given the amount of “Top 50”/”Top 100”/”Books to Read Before You Croak” lists her work crops up on.

I read “Play It As It Lays” a couple of years ago and couldn’t get into it. I found it stylistically irritating and – while I enjoyed the flourishes of ingenious language and description that abound throughout the book – I was unable to get beyond this.

Descriptions of characters driving into the “hard white empty core of the world,” for example, are excellent, and showcase Didion’s talents as a true literary artist. But each time the book is given a chance to fly, we are dragged back down into the lazy, languid, mire of Didion’s own narcissism.

You might think narcissism is the wrong word, that I’m being unnecessarily harsh, but I’ve thought about this long and hard and found it to be the right word. Joan Didion’s prose is narcissistic in that the concept of “Joan Didion” – i.e. “the author herself – is always fully evident within it, staring back at the reader with its ironic, beatnik-ian arrogance.

I’ve read substantially about the relationship between Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne – who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie – and have spotted more than a couple of parallels between the real life ‘Didions’ and the characters of “Play It As it Lays”. The problem with this sort of dreary gonzo-literature is that Didion appears to be almost legitimising the actions of a ‘Lost Generation #2’ (or #3,#4 or whatever number we’re up to now) and denying the existence all other responsibility or obligation.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I didn’t like "Play It As It Lays" and I didn’t particularly like Joan Didion as a person.

Earlier this year, I read “The Year of Magical Thinking”. My reasoning for picking up this book was that I was thinking about "Play It As It Lays" one day and was struck with the peculiar thought that Didion’s self-absorbed writing style would probably translate rather well to a memoir.

So I went out on a limb, purchased the book with low expectations, and gave it a go. The thought process that led me to this book must have been a form of magical thinking in itself, as I found it thoroughly compelling from the outset.

For those who are unaware, The Year of Magical Thinking deals with Joan Didion’s own experience of the sudden death of her husband and its immediate aftermath. It is also grimly capoed by the death of the couple’s daughter shortly after the book was completed, an event which would be dealt with in a second book, “Blue Nights”.

Maybe it is the grim and sobering subject matter of the book that finally brings Didion – now an elderly lady – into the realms of sympathy and normality, or maybe it is that – with Didion in this newly reflective frame of mind – the author is able to write more candidly about her own failings and her own issues, rather than retreating into the superficial constructions of her fiction.

In the book, Didion deals with death head-on, often more bluntly than many of her fellow authors. Those whose literary diet began with the stoicism of Hemingway will be fascinated by the way that Didion’s grief is personified to such an extent that it almost becomes an additional character in the book, as well as the way in which she accommodates the insanity this monstrous grief brings.

Unflinching and reflective in its portrayal of Didion’s relationships with both her husband and her daughter Quintana over the years, "The Year of Magical Thinking" is made even more poignant by the reader's prescient knowledge of Quintana’s imminent and untimely death following intensive brain surgery in 2005.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" is literary redemption for Joan Didion, in the most heartbreaking and brutal fashion. 

Thursday 20 September 2012

Elmore Leonard wins Lifetime Achievement Award

Novelist Elmore Leonard – the skilful crime writer who produced such high-paced classics of the genre as “Out of Sight” and “Rum Punch” – is to become the latest recipient of a prestigious lifetime achievement award.

The 86 year old will receive the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, in New York on November 14th.

In receiving the coveted – if slightly longwinded – award, Leonard joins a list of luminaries that includes John Updike, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.

After the news broke, Leonard answered questions about the award with characteristic humility;

"I was very surprised,” he said. “I didn't ever count on winning this kind of an award; I’ve won a lot of awards but not like this one.”

Leonard is expected to make a speech at the National Book Awards on the same evening, the organisers of which are requesting her trims down to only six minutes. We’ll see if he manages to adhere to such a limitation.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

“Hamsun Was a Nutcase”: Why It’s Not Always Necessary to Agree With Someone’s Politics to Enjoy Their Work

Hamsun on the cover of "Hunger" ("Sult")
Most modern Norwegians have an uneasy relationship with Knut Hamsun, a man who should’ve been one of the nation’s cultural darlings.

For many years, Hamsun – an author often cited as the originator of the modernist movement and an undeniably brilliant and innovative writer – was shunned as a Nazi sympathiser and his work largely ignored by a country still scarred by the effects of German occupation during the Second World War.

Now attitudes are changing. Hamsun’s work is gradually creeping back into the classrooms and libraries of Norway and is slowly but surely becoming a more acceptable subject for discussion or even appreciation.

But does this softening of attitudes represent a natural and sensible view of the work of a man now consigned to the annals of history? Or does it symbolise an apathetic response to the sorts of far-right views and extremist politcal values that Anders Breivik has brought back onto the national agenda?

History does not record Hamsun as a particularly good person. Attempts to play down the Nazi ravings that characterised Hamsun’s later life as the baseless ramblings of someone deep in the grips of mental illness are discredited by his description of the USA as “a mulatto studfarm” as early as 1889, when the author was only 30 years old and in the first flushes of his creative brilliance.

Hamsun’s view of himself as a member of an intellectual elite led him to despise the egalitarian politics of the left and instead embrace the cause of the fascists during World War I. He became a member of the notorious Nasjonal Samling party that would later seize power in Norway during World War II and even wrote a passionate eulogy for Hitler after his death in 1945, only escaping execution for treason after the war by being declared psychologically unsound.

So no, Hamsun was no angel. In fact, the man was downright abhorrent. But does this render works like “Hunger” (published in 1890) worthy of deletion from literary history?

“Hunger” is an exceptional piece of work. Following a struggling journalist as he traipses around Oslo in search of food, work and self-respect, this short, searing and devastatingly visceral novel represented a step away from the realist traditions of the 19th century and laid the groundwork for what would become the modernist movement.

Hamsun’s literary manifesto is clear: writers should only concern themselves with a character’s own, inherently flawed perception of the world around them; presenting that world in terms of cold hard fact is boring and disingenuous. Without Hamsun, it’s debateable whether the work of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner or any of the other totemic writers of the first half of the twentieth century could have developed in the way it did.

Hunger remains a stunning portrayal of the strange experiences and bizarre rationale of a man on the edge. Think “Post Office” transposed to Scandinavia in late Victorian times on you’re on the right track. Whether or not you agree with the class politics or racial prejudices of its author – none of which are touched on in the novel – Hunger remains a fascinating book.

As human beings, we should trust ourselves enough not to be so swayed by the argument of another that we lose touch with our own principles and convictions. We should be able to expose ourselves to views we do not agree with, without fear of succumbing to some sort ideological radiation poisoning.

When we specifically select our reading material based upon what we think our principles are, we are in serious danger of prejudicing ourselves and reinforcing the rigidity of our thought processes. Strong convictions will stand up to any test; reading Knut Hamsun will not turn you into a fascist. Unless you are one already, of course.

Lermontov, Pushkin and Byron – The Original Superfluous Men

A youthful looking Mikhail Lermontov
The superfluous man is one of the lasting legacies of Russian literature in the 19th century. The phrase – referring to a peculiar individual, undoubtedly gifted but tortured and existing outside the practical bounds of society – was coined by Ivan Turgenev in the title of his 1850 novella “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”, but the roots of the concept stretch further back in time.

The origins of the concept of the superfluous man are so fitting that they are almost predictable. The formation of its constituent parts began in the mind of – you guessed it – Lord Byron; in many ways the archetypal superfluous man himself. Byron’s narrative poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” was published over 30 years before Turgenev’s famous work and is widely credited with sowing the seeds of the superfluous man character in the Russian literary consciousness.

It was Alexander Pushkin who first took the idea of the superfluous man back to Russia, using Byron’s work as the inspiration for his own famous narrative poem, Eugene Onegin. Onegin is a suitably Byronesque dandy from Saint Petersburg, who cobbles together his own ‘individual’ personality from various literary tropes and ideals.

If Pushkin and Byron laid the groundwork for the character of the superfluous man, it was Mikhail Lermontov who cemented its place in the Russian literary canon. Born in 1814 to an aristocratic family, Lermontov was an artistic prodigy, producing poetry, stunning landscape paintings and prose while barely in his 20s.

It was in 1839, when aged only 24, that Lermontov completed the work that would crystallize the character of the superfluous man, “A Hero of Our Time,” a novel which elucidates the life of its central character, Pechorin, through the eyes of a number of witnesses to his deeds.

Apart from both being prime exponents of one of Russian literature’s most enduring devices, the parallels between the lives, careers and deaths of Pushkin and Lermontov are eerily apparent. Both “Eugene Onegin” and “A Hero of Our Time” describe a duel between the protagonist and another character; both Pushkin and Lermontov came to untimely ends while participating in a duel.

On July 25th 1841 the dashing, swashbuckling army officer Mikhail Lermontov engaged in a duel with another officer, Nikolai Martynov, whom he had offended. Martynov shot Lermontov dead; the writer was  26 years old.

In many ways, Mikhail Lermontov, Lord Byron and Alexander Pushkin represent the archetypes that have made the idea of a superfluous man so enduring throughout the development of modern culture. The live-fast-die-young-leave-a-beautiful corpse attitude has pervaded into some of the most famous and evocative cultural iconography of the 20th and 21st centuries.

James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are all more modern examples of the superfluous man – and woman – concept made flesh, of people whose disorders made them brilliant but crucially incompatible with real life.

Criticised by some as symptomatic of arrogance and an inability to “pull yourself together”, but embraced by others as a fascinating critique of social convention, the superfluous man concept will continue to be relevant as long as society continues to impose its restrictive framework onto ordinary lives.