Stoner, a novel by John Williams

I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. It received good reviews when it was first published almost fifty years ago, but then disappeared from view and went out of print. Williams won prizes for his other novels, but they also passed out of print. Then it was rediscovered, recommended by word of mouth, was reprinted, almost one could say re-published, by Vintage Classics, and taken up by Waterstones as their book of the year. Waterstones’ Book of the Year, it is said, has been nominated by the managers of Waterstones’ shops. It all sounds very fishy.

The opening words tell us that Stoner is a failure, that he never achieved anything, that his colleagues did not regard him with any respect. It is almost a challenge: now I dare you to read this book.

But right from the very first page I found myself enjoying it. The writing is beautiful, restrained, and there are some memorable phrases that illuminate an event, a character, a scene. Stoner feels that the dead raised themselves to live before him, and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive. He thinks of lovers, Tristan and Iseult the fair, Paolo and Francesca; and then Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence. Their faces bitter with consequence. A whole terrible story encapsulated in five words.

And the description of the grinding poverty and the hard life of his parents on a farm , just able to scrape an existence, not really a life, from the barren soil, is perfect in its own terrible way.

Stoner is the story of a man who comes from that background, and who finds himself at a college, the University of Missouri, sent there by his father, to learn agriculture. The college is enlightened: everyone must do a course in English, and Stoner is seduced, leaving his science studies for English, fascinated by one of his teachers, Archer Sloane. He meets a young woman, Edith, brought up to be decorative, and to look to her menfolk for protection. Stoner seeks her, and marries her, and then realises what a disastrous mistake he has made. She is neurotic, spiteful, and manipulative. She refuses any form of sexual relationship, which is hard for a man brought up on a farm, and learning from an early age the needs that men have, that need they share with the farm animals. Then she decides that she wants a child, and they embark on a grotesque, lustful, behaviour, until she becomes pregnant, when she reverts to the way she behaved before. After the birth of Grace, their child, his wife completely ignores her child, who is then brought up by Stoner until, one day, she turns the tables, and takes over Grace’s life. Stoner has a remarkable understanding of Edith, his wife, and knows that at least part of the blame for the situation in which they find themselves is his.

In such circumstances, a man can do many different things. He can leave his wife. Stoner doesn’t want to do this. Grace is too important to him. A man can fight back, give his wife hell. Stoner can’t do that: he understands that he is in part to blame. A man can embark on an affair. This is what Stoner does. It’s surprising that it took him so long.

At the beginning of Stoner’s affair with Katherine, a young colleague, he realises that they had believed that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate, and inimical, but learned that the one could intensify the other. Ovid begins The Art of Love with the life of the senses, but soon comes to tell that a lover and his mistress need the life of the mind as well. It is a fortunate man who finds that his mistress opens his mind to how their love-making enhances his understanding to something that had been closed to him before. You would expect a teacher like Stoner to know about this. Odd that he never refers to Ovid. Every young man embarking on an affair should be obliged to read what Ovid wrote. It won’t happen, of course.

This is where the politics of an academic community come into play. His adversaries use their relationship to attack, not Stoner, but Katherine.

And the separation from Katherine is handled beautifully. They see that what they do – their teaching, their explorations of the literature of the past – would be imperilled if they stayed together, and that they couldn’t give that up. Not a conventional romantic ending, but a path that many men and women have taken. And it’s what he learned from Archer Sloane. The parallel is there: Sloane sees that the 1914-18 war destroyed something of value – for what? The demands of middle class morality destroyed something of value that Stoner and Katherine had.

His daughter’s pregnancy, her marriage, the subsequent death of her husband on a Pacific atoll in the Second World War, passes almost without comment. This is the one part of the story that doesn’t ring true to me. A father has to let his children go, but how could he not wish to reach out to her? She had to get away, but he didn’t have to let her go completely.

And at the beginning of Chapter 16 he goes through, himself, the feelings that Archer Sloane did about the First World War, the regrets for the waste, the loss of so much promise. And he comes to terms with what Grace has become. This is something a father has to learn, and Williams describes it well.

Williams has the capacity to write something that moves the reader. Stoner reads Katherine’s book. Old men are often thought to be beyond passion, but it isn’t true. He cannot think of himself as old. He thinks, look, I am alive.

It’s easy to blame Stoner for imperilling Katherine’s career, but to do so is to look to a paternalistic relationship that surely most feminists would reject. Stoner does try to stay away from her, but weakens when he hears that she has been ill. He goes to her, still unsure of what to do. He tells her he is sorry to hear that she has been ill.

‘I’m not ill,’ she says ‘I haven’t seen you for two weeks.’

‘Shut up,’ she said softly, fiercely. ‘ Oh my dear, shut up and come over here.’ She shares the responsibility for the development of their relationship, which is how it should be.

And talking to Edith near the end, a new tranquillity has come between them. They had forgiven themselves for the harm that they had done each other. That also rings true.

The description of the approach to death, at the end of the book, is, to my mind, a wonderful piece of writing. None of us dwell on this inevitable end, we avoid thinking of it. And those who have understood, who have gone through the dying, are not in a position to write about it. They’re dead. And one of the most touching episodes in the novel is when Edith asks ‘How shall I manage without him.’

I was reading this book when the Literary Review published (July 2014), a piece by Patricia Duncker (a novelist and Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester) about what happens to books that find their audiences long after they are written (her words). She discusses Emily Dickinson, who has become a cult figure for the gay community, or at least the literary members of that community, Irène Némirovski’s Suite Francaise, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Stoner. Duncker writes perceptively about why Stoner didn’t achieve lasting success when it was first published, and asks if its present success owes something to the contemporary backlash against feminism. She concludes “I enjoyed the book but despised the sexual politics”. Stoner is a novel that appears to divide men and women. Men may say, “I was unhappy with much of the sexual politics (there but for the grace of God …), but I loved the novel as a depiction of the harm that men and women can do to each other. Some women may think that nothing can excuse Stoner’s behaviour, and that it is therefore a bad book. We have to move on from that if there is to be any hope of men and women understanding each other’s needs.

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This book is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The concept is not new: the idea of the second chance has come in many forms in novels. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one of the earliest, and the idea of parallel universes in which a different choice, the flap of a moth’s wings, altered how events developed is frequently explored. The fascination with the ‘what if?’ What if the Germans won the second World War (they very nearly did at one point)? What if Khrushchev hadn’t blinked when Kennedy told him to get his missiles off Cuba? What if the English army had not been exhausted by marching all those miles to Hastings after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, and had routed the Normans? We would be speaking a completely different language. What if Dutch William had said No, when invited to take the English Crown? The English would have had a French Revolution. Perhaps, perhaps.

The central character, Ursula, dies, many times, and in many different circumstances, and returns to work out an alternative destiny, she kills, or doesn’t kill Hitler, having somehow come to join his circle. She works as a warden in London during the blitz. The character doesn’t have to die and come back, of course, although that makes it more dramatic. All the time we are choosing which path we follow. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken puts it well: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, /and sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveller, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth; /Then took the other, as just as fair, /And having perhaps a better claim, / because it was grassy and wanted wear.”

But what is so clever about this book is what you can look for in it. It uses some quite straightforward accounts of episodes to explore how character and personality are affected by what happens. Our genes influence who we are, but experience is important as well. How similar is the Ursula of one episode to the Ursula of another? Interesting character development is the mark of a good novel, and you can look at the characters and ask how they have developed. Does Ursula’s personality change? I’m not sure. I can imagine it doing so, but is that me doing my thing as the active reader? Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is one of the most interesting characters, and her opinions and behaviour change as the novel unfolds and she ages. This isn’t a linear novel: some scenes are throwbacks to earlier times, and there are some difficulties in remembering that this is, for example, a 1920s version of whoever. But it is worth the effort. And Ursula? How consistent are her later thoughts and actions with her earlier ones? Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t: there has been a divergence. The moth’s wings have flapped, but this is how Ursula could have changed.

It’s not just Ursula, of course, all of the characters in a novel, as in a life, choose different paths, but it’s been hard enough to follow Ursula’s death and resurrection, without having to follow similar events for everyone else as well. But that would be a fascinating challenge for a writer. Thinks!

 

Mansfield Park: screen versions of Jane Austen’s novel

Mansfield Park

Three versions of Mansfield Park are available on DVD: a BBC version (1983) directed by David Giles, with Sylvestra le Touzel as Fanny Price, another BBC version (1999) directed by Patricia Rozema, with Frances O’Connor as Fanny, and an ITV version (2007) directed by Ian B MacDonald with Billie Piper as Fanny. If you are someone who cannot accept much of a departure from Jane Austen’s novel, then probably the 1983 version is the only one you will be at all happy with, as the other two versions take very substantial liberties with the story. Neither Frances O’Connor or Billie Piper are anything like the shy, diffident Fanny Price of the novel, while Sylvestra le Touzel’s portrayal is much closer. The drawback of the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel version is that the acting of most of the actors is nothing like as good as that of the two other version, and in places is wooden. Judged purely as a film, the Patricia Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is a delight, and has a stellar cast, with Harold Pinter as an excellent portrayal of Sir Thomas Bertram, Lindsay Duncan is very convincing as both the impoverished Mrs Price and the affluent Lady Bertram (they are sisters, said to look very alike).

Issues about the slave trade feature much more significantly in the Rozema (1999) version than they do in the novel (the Bertrams wealth is derived from their West Indies plantations, which depend on slavery), and in another interesting variation Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford are discovered in bed together by Fanny Price, something that occurs ‘off-stage’ in the novel, although brought forward in the film to a time when Maria is engaged to her future husband, not after marriage as in the novel.

Billie Piper acts her part like, well, Billie Piper, the gutsy, charming extrovert, and therefore an interesting casting decision for Fanny Price. Her acting should not, however, be criticised. Given the slant on the novel that this version produces, Billie plays her part well and consistently, and is frequently very moving, particularly when she thinks that Edmund Bertram is going to marry Mary Crawford, and when she is banished to the poverty of her parent’s house at Portsmouth by Sir Thomas as a consequence of her rejection of marriage to Henry Crawford.

Mansfield Park is one of the more ‘difficult’ of Jane Austen’s novels, and it is frequently pointed out that one of the main problems is that the charming but selfish Crawfords became too interesting, and this leaves the character development of several of the other people in the novel unsatisfactory.

All three of these versions can be enjoyed, in different ways. The most faithful, though the least satisfactory as a film, is the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel, while purely as a film the Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is outstanding.

Andrés Neuman, Traveller of the Century

Traveller of the Century is set in post-Napoleonic Germany, after 1815, at one of the great turning points in European history, and in a country at the centre of Europe, struggling to come to terms with new ideas conflicting with tradition and custom. It opens with a man, Hans, travelling by coach towards Wandernberg, a town of shifting boundaries and situation, “sit. approx. between the ancient states of Saxony and Prussia”. It is winter, Hans is cold, and he breaks his journey at Wandernberg, at an inn. The innkeeper is Herr Zeit, whose name (Mr Time) underlines one of the themes of the novel. It is some time before we learn the name of the inn, and we never learn Hans’ surname. He is addressed as Herr Hans by most of the characters, placing him in an intermediate position between the servants and the aristocrats whom he meets. Much of the novel is taken up with the conversation at a salon at which Sophie, daughter of a minor aristocrat, presides.
It’s a novel that can be read in several ways. But the main interest is that the characters are discussing poetry, philosophy, literature, the rule of law, economic systems, and so on. You get drawn into thinking about these issues. Sometimes you’ve read the book or poem referred to, or know something about the topic, and feel a glow of cultural satisfaction, but sometimes you’ve never heard of it. Sometimes you go away and look it up. The novel is rich in its depiction of relationships, and you have to think about what X meant when he said what he did to Y.
It is a long novel (584 pages), packed with metaphor, metonymy and allegory, and indeed almost any figure of speech known to man (and, no doubt, many that I don’t know of, and therefore didn’t pick up). Readers and reviewers have suggested that it would have been improved by the removal or curtailment of certain parts. But everyone suggests different parts to be excised. Some would curtail the discussion at the salon, some would excise the organ grinder, a fount of folk wisdom who lives in a cave and whose dog has its own dialogue, and for some the murder of a series of young women and the comic policemen who investigate is extraneous. You can take away from this novel what you like. But Neuman is setting out the beliefs and concerns of the people he depicts. It is 1820, or thereabouts. There are resonances with the present day, but they are incidental. Europe is what she is today because of her history, and you are bound to see the past in the present.
At the time of the novel the Napoleonic Code, a liberal code based on the rights envisaged by the French Revolution, and which had been applied in countries under French rule, was being set aside. The German states reverted to their previous codes, a much less liberal legal system, after 1815. Young men like Hans regretted this loss, even though they had become disillusioned with Napoleon. There’s one scene which sets out one of the themes of the book. Hans is talking about the years 1811 to 1814 when he was at university, at Jena. “The question I kept asking myself then, and which I still ask myself, was – how the devil did we go from the French Revolution to the dictatorship of Metternich.”… “Or, more generally, how the devil had Europe gone from the Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen to the Holy Alliance.” Well, we know now. We’ve seen it many times since. To every revolution there is an equal and opposite counter-revolution. Well it isn’t quite like that. Each revolution leaves behind some traces of itself.
Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet, and translator, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who was taken to Granada, in Spain, where he now lives, when he was very young. He’s a philologist with a degree in Spanish Philology from the University of Granada, where he also taught. Could only a philologist could have written this novel? Hans is a translator and a philologist. ‘Philology,’ Sophie said, bewildered. ‘Didn’t you say philosophy?’ ‘No, no, philology … and he goes on and on. Poor Sophie. Interesting that Professor Mietter, another habitué of the salon, and Hans’ verbal sparring partner, is a Doctor of Philology. Small world. (Philology is the study of language in written sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history of words, and linguistics.)
The novel was translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Caistor is a British journalist and translator who has twice been awarded the Valle-Inclán prize for Spanish translation. Garcia is also a writer and professional translator. The fact that they are experienced, professional translators is particularly important, given the complexity of the structure and the writing. For example the dialogue is written without the use of speech marks so that speech is embedded in the narrative, and with the selective use of parentheticals to mark off different speakers. Caistor and Garcia said, in an interview, that they understood that Neuman’s intention was to mingle voices, rather than write linear. And although it’s not the common practice among English-speaking writers, it is closer to the way a group of people talk. Just you listen to a discussion: two people talking at the same time, interrupting each other, and interweaving comment and riposte. If you wrote it down, it would be just like this book, and it is how beginners at writing novels often write, before they learn ‘better’ at some creative writing class.
Hans embarks on a love affair with Sophie, who is betrothed to one of the more important local aristocrats, Rudi Wilderhaus. In an interview Caistor and Garcia say that they discussed certain aspects of the novel with the author, and Neuman insisted that the love-making scenes should not be prettified in any way, as he wanted to underline the difference between his approach and the traditional romantic nineteenth-century novelistic tradition. The descriptions of love-making are explicit and graphic. However, if a novel has two characters who are beginning a relationship, it’s dishonest not to deal, to some extent, with the nature of that relationship. This is where Fifty Shades of Grey, and James Bond or Dan Brown novels are dishonest. Of course, it’s a matter of judgement, both by the writer and reader, where the bar should be set. I think Neuman got it right, and I think DH Lawrence would have agreed, perhaps envious that he couldn’t be quite as explicit as Neuman.
Caistor said that something he particularly liked was the insistence in the novel on the way that European culture was interconnected, and that comes across very strongly. So we’re into intertextuality: the notion that a novel reflects and references other novels. Mere allusion is not enough. Hans refers to Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, which deals with the unsettling effect of the arrival of a young woman on a long-married couple. Adultery is implied, rather than explicitly described. Later novels, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effie Briest, those great 19th century depictions of adultery, explore the ambiguities of married womens’ experiences. We know both Fontane, who wrote Effic Briest, and Flaubert, knew Elective Affinities, and it seems likely that Neuman had read Madame Bovary, at least. Hans and Sophie are not, technically, committing adultery, but what they do is much the same. There is an interesting frisson between Hans and Elsa, Sophie’s servant, an intelligent although uneducated woman, full of regret that she cannot read the love letters that she carries between Hans and Sophie.
The epigraph page starts with a quotation from Wilhelm Müller’s poem, Der Leiermann, the organ grinder. In Germany and Austria the profession of organ grinder was at times reserved by law for ex-soldiers, always old men, and often seen to symbolize Death. Der Leiermann was the last poem of Der Winterreise, the winter journey, and set to music by Franz Schubert. The song is very different to the rest of the song cycle, desperately sad, and written at the end of his life by Schubert when he knew his health was failing. Hans arrives in winter at Wandernburg, his own winter journey, but things look up. Spring arrives. He meets Sophie, and all is well for a time. So it is for Anna Karenina, she meets Vronsky. Madame Bovary escapes from the boredom of her father’s farm. Effi Briest, a very young girl, is married off to an aristocrat and gains her own establishment. Sophie likewise is to marry an aristocrat. But then it all goes wrong for these women. Vronsky is not what he seemed, the doctor disappointed Madame Bovary. Effi Briest is neglected by her Prussian lord, and Sophie finds how much more satisfactory Hans is than Rudi as a lover. Philip Larkin told us that sexual intercourse began in 1963. He meant if began in writing, in novels and in poems, fostered by the acquittal of the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but it had been discovered many times before. It is there in all of these novels.
One thing that connects Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Effie Briest, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Traveller of the Century is the sense that all of these women have that they must achieve something before death calls, and their dissatisfaction with the life they have. There are differences and similarities in how they get there. Or fail to get there. The level of self-destruction they achieve varies, and it’s interesting to see why. Sophie has said how sad she was that she could not go to university at Halle to study and there’s a very telling scene in which Sophie speaks of her mother., and she says “From what I have been told she was rather pretty, and, like all women from here, domestically minded, fond of saving on clothes and staying at home.”… “When I was a child and I asked people about her, they would say “Your mother was a great beauty!” so I ended up assuming no one considered her particularly intelligent”. What a terrible thing for a clever woman to have to say about her mother.
But perhaps Sophie doesn’t destroy herself. At the end of the novel Hans and Sophie have parted, everything left up in the air, nothing resolved, and Hans has gone away in a coach. Later that day Sophie is waiting for a coach? Where is she going?

 

Richard Ford: Canada

This is an extraordinary book. It sets out, in detail, the life of a boy growing toward manhood, following an inept robbery of a bank by his parents. The key to the boy, Dell’s, success in overcoming all the setbacks that followed this event is slowly disclosed, and is given its final form only at the end of the novel, when Dell, now a teacher, tells his students that “I believe in what you see being most of what there is… and that life’s passed on to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent.” That’s not the way I personally look at life, but it’s a mark of Ford’s greatness as a writer that he convinced me that it is a valid philosophy for him, although not for me, valid in that it allows Dell to rebuild his life and survive. Survive rather well, in fact.
Along the way we meet characters who are remarkably well described. Even if we don’t really understand them, they are very real to us. Arthur Reminger, accidental murderer and revolutionary, is an unlikely character to find in a small town in Saskatchewan. Reminger’s woman friend, Florence, is a welcome arrival on the scene, a counter to the unbalanced Reminger. Charley, the weird general help: it’s hard to tell how accurate, or even believable, his tales about Reminger Ford intends them to be. And there’s a host of minor characters who appear briefly, but whose identity is sketched in faultlessly.
It isn’t just the characters that are written about so well. The descriptions of Great Falls, of Dell’s home there, of the state prison, of the drive into Canada, and, above all, of Fort Royal, are done so well. Canada is a remarkable country, so diverse, the great cities, although we don’t see them in this book, attractive and interesting, but there is the other side to Canada, the rural decay. You drive through Canada, and you keep coming across awful places like Fort Royal and Partreau, desperate in decay. But these places are set in the most beautiful scenery in the world. There are two ways of looking at the prairies: one is the way some people think about East Anglia. Very flat, Cambridge, they say. Nothing there. Others look at the huge skies, the clouds sailing towards the north-east, and say that on a good day you can see forever, they see the hidden meaning. Ford sees Canada, and life, in the first way, it is a valid view, written about convincingly, but it isn’t mine. It’s no surprise that Ford’s best friend is Raymond Carver.
The story of his run-in with Alice Hoffman, who reviewed an earlier novel, the Sport’s Writer, in the New York Times, is well-known. What Hoffman wrote is (and this is a quote):
“Though ”The Sportswriter” aims for a tough, realistic stance it suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents. MR. FORD is a daring and intelligent novelist, but in choosing Bascombe as his narrator he has taken a risk that ultimately does not pay off. The authorial voice is so weakened that we are left only with the observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator. This is not to say that the author doesn’t allow us some access to Bascombe’s psyche. Certainly, his observations about a former athlete hold true for himself, for what he needs ”is to strap on a set of pads and beat the daylights out of somebody and quit worrying about theories of art.” He never trades theorizing for action. Bascombe’s inability to write fiction, which should illuminate his inability to connect emotionally, instead seems trivial. Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis, so that Bascombe’s lost son seems less a ghostly presence than a tiny piece of glass set in the kaleidoscope of self-scrutiny.”
Exactly the same criticism can be made of Canada, and, probably, of all Ford’s books, although I’ve only read two others, The Sportswriter and Independence Day.
In retaliation for her criticism, Ford shot a hole through her latest book (Fortune’s Daughter) and posted it to her. “Well my wife shot it first,” said Ford, rather proudly. “She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”
Canada is a fine example of a book that is outstandingly well written, and you have to admire it, but in the end, it is a portrayal of a view of life that is sterile and unsatisfying. It’s a book I would give 10 to for literary merit, and not recommend to many people as a good read. And that shoots a hole through what we think we’re doing when we decide “Is this a good book?” Or “Should this book win a prize?”.

Colm Tóibín The Testament of Mary

Colm Tóibín writes with a sparseness of style that leaves the impression that every word has been weighed. His novel Brooklyn tells us of a woman who escaped from small town Ireland to New York and those she left behind, and shows us the dilemmas, and the doubts of both those who leave and those who stay. This novel, The Testament of Mary, is also about escape, and the dilemmas of everyday life around the time of the crucifixion.

There are two aspects of this book, as there are in all, novels: the content (here the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus) and the way the story is told, style, characterisation, voice, and so on, but we are more aware of this duality here than we often are. Is that a success or a defect? Most of the published reviews concentrate on the content, the retelling of the crucifixion. Well, that’s not surprising.

But for me what makes this novella a success is the characterisation of Mary as a woman at the end of her tether, full of anger at what she sees as the exploitation of her son by unscrupulous men, and their determination to teach her what she has to witness to. The characterisation of these men is good as well, and what is a stroke of genius, I think, is that the character of Jesus is left almost blank. He has the traditional lines: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”, but that’s about it.

Tóibín is a writer of sparse sentences, but which are also lyrical. Especially over the raising of Lazarus there’s an amazing combination of words portraying the feeling that this is not something that should happen, death should not be tampered with, and, indeed, isn’t in the end. The cut-down sentences are there in all of his novels, especially in Brooklyn. There’s his comment, often quoted, that his writing comes out of silence. I’m not too sure what that means, although you do get the feeling, as with many novel writers who are not just good but inspired, of the words struggling to get out. I’m always amazed that he has such a deep understanding of Henry James, whose novels couldn’t be less like his. He wrote a wonderful novel, The Master, in which he explores the contrast between James’ fame as a writer, and his anguish at the inadequacy of his personal life.

The Christian story is very difficult for many people today. Many of us reject it, but at the same time we know, or we should know, how much we owe to it. Christianity has shaped Western European civilisation, and the church has formed society. Sometimes the church did terrible things, but on the whole the results were beneficial. Beliefs and behaviour developed in ways that the church may have resisted, but which sprang inevitably from a clearer understanding of the Christian story. The protestant reformation paved the way for the Age of Enlightenment and Humanism.

Toibin has enlightened for me several parts of the story. It’s all there in the wonderful prose of the King James version, and the language is so beautiful you don’t think about the meaning. The literal meaning is often a false friend.

This book is very much about the relationship between Mary and Jesus, from Mary’s point of view. Jesus is a distant, uninvolved character, and this heightens our understanding of what Mary feels. In the second chapter of the St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, we can read:

And the third day there was a marriage in Canaa of Gallilee; and the mother of Jesus was there;
And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage.
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.

This is a very ambiguous statement. Do we understand what he meant? Taking it at its literal meaning, it’s a terrible thing for a woman to hear from her son.

In this book Tóibín strips away the accretion of myth and legend that surrounds the story of the crucifixion, to show us, from Mary’s point of view, a believable picture of what happened, how the disciples reinvented  the events. Even if this reinvention didn’t happen at the time, this is surely how it was, as the early Christian church set out their message over the next 200 years.

I found the retelling entirely believable: Mary’s distrust of the disciples, her awareness that they wanted a version of events that she knew wasn’t right, running away, fearful for her own safety.

For some readers the content of this book is blasphemous. For many readers the content will be consistent with what they believe: something happened, there was a teacher, a religious leader, who was killed in this barbaric way by the Romans who had to try to keep peace in this part of their empire. The teacher’s followers made up a story, probably not realising exactly what they were doing, and over the next two or three hundred years the story was developed further.

I hope this book has opened up new possibilities for the novel. The average novel these days is about 60,000 to 80,000 words, inexorably increasing in length from earlier days. There are many blockbusters that strain the arms and the endurance, approaching 100,000 and even longer. There was a debate about whether the Testament of Mary actually was a novel, on the grounds that it was too short, at about 29,000 words and 104 pages. But, as Edmund White wrote in the Irish Times, it is as dense as a diamond. It is complete. Long novels like Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century` have their place, as does Jonathon Franzen’s Freedom (190,000 words), but I hope we shall have more writers embracing the shorter novel, like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a miniature gem.

Marilynne Robinson: Home

Marilynne Robinson: Home

Marilynne Robinson has published three novels. They all deal with family life and relationships between members of a family. Two of them, Gilead and Home, relate much the same events as seen from two families. The first novel, House-keeping, was published in 1980, and immediately established Robinson’s reputation, winning the PEN/Hemingway award for a first novel. It recounts the history of a family living in a remote town, Fingerbone, in the American mid-west, particularly two sisters, Ruth and Lucille. They are brought up by their grandmother, then by their comic great-aunts when their grandmother leaves, and finally by their mother’s eccentric sister Sylvie. Ruth comes under Sylvie’s spell, but Lucille wants to live a normal life, and runs away to live with her schoolteacher. Fingerbone is the site of disasters: it is where their grandfather dies in a spectacular train crash, where their mother dies when she drove a car over a cliff, and where the glacial lake on which the town is set floods, and brings disaster to everyone. The novel is a story of the girls’ struggle towards adulthood, written in the most beautiful language.

There was no other novel until 2004, 28 years later, when Gilead was published, winning the Pulitzer Prize. It is an extended letter to his four year-old son from the Reverend John Ames, in his seventies, nearing the end of his life, telling his son of his life, and of the life of his father, also a minister, and of his grandfather, another minister who preached soldiers into the civil war to free the slaves. It recounts the conflict between fathers and sons, and the conflicts of John Ames with his great friend, Boughton, and the conflict of his great friend, and himself, with Boughton’s prodigal son Jack Boughton.

Then after a gap of only four years, in 2008, this novel, Home, was published, winning the Orange Prize in 2009.

I suspect that this novel will divide readers over the reason why we read novels. When I first started reading novels seriously, that is, as something to talk to my friends about, I read a little book, Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster. Forster starts by telling us that ‘the fundamental aspect of the novel is its story-telling aspect, but [that] we shall voice our assent in different tones.’ He cites three readers who are asked what a novel is. One is vague: Well – I don’t know – it seems a funny sort of question to ask – a novel’s a novel; another is aggressive: ‘tells a story of course – he dismisses art, music, literature, ‘give me a good story’. The third is regretful: “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.” This third man, Forster confesses, is himself. Telling a story is the fundamental aspect without which the novel could not exist. He “wishes it could be something else – melody, or the perception of truth, but not this low atavistic form.”

Forster’s own novels all tell a story, but there is something else more important to many of Forster’s readers (and to Forster himself). It is the exploration of the characters: why they are how they are, why they say and do what they do.  No-one would deny that Howards End and A Room with a View tell stories that enthral, but it is the character development that makes them great novels. Are there readers who can rate them as great novels without thinking anything of the delineation and development of the characters?

This is also true of Marilynne Robinson’s novels; she has taken the novel even further in the direction in which Forster was heading. Where is the story in Home? It’s a poor timid creature. It hardly exists. Many readers will complain: nothing happens. Things do happen: Jack tries to kill himself, but he’s been destroying himself all his life, and in the end he leaves, and things are as they always were. The two old ministers struggle to maintain their children’s faith, and fail. Most readers will think that Jack and Glory have a view of the world that is healthier and more generous to others than that of the ministers, the ayatollahs of nonconformity.

What is important (to me, at any rate) is the way in which the language in which Marilynne Robinson writes shows how history lives on through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. She doesn’t tell us about this, she shows it through the words the characters speak. The ultimate expression of show not tell. This is a novel about family relationships, and how parents imprint certain beliefs and patterns of behaviour, or, because of some antipathy, lack of belief and an antagonistic behaviour, on their children. All the children leave, of course, in their own way, all except poor Glory.

Marilynn Robinson’s novels are not easy reading.  They are hard work, and if you take them seriously you often find yourself putting them down, thinking about them, and then going back and re-reading a scene.  There were times when I wasn’t sure at first what was happening.  An example is the provision of clothes for Jack, some of them his father’s, and Jack’s response to these gifts, which in the end I thought was underlining Jack’s fear of being swallowed up again by his family, after he has so painfully broken away. And there are subtleties about this.  Not all gifts of clothes are unacceptable.  Clothes  play an important part in the story – an example is the shirt with the sleeve embroidered by Jack’s woman friend.

A rewarding book to read, and a book to remember years afterwards.