Monday, 24 October 2011

A Moveable Feast

I've been sitting on this one for a while. There are many reasons why I sometimes delay in writing up my thoughts on a book. Sometimes I don't know how I feel about a book until it has digested for a while, but that was not the case here. Sometimes I don't feel strongly enough about a book to be moved to write something, but that was not the case here. Here, rather, I suspect I was worried that by writing about the book I might lose some of the marvellous escapism I felt while I was reading it, that somehow in putting my feelings down on paper [sic], I might somehow lose them.

I loved this book. I really did.

Its a funny sort of book when I think about it structurally. Its basically a series of Hemingway's memories about time spent living and writing in Paris with his wife in the 1920s. The stories he tells are short, and are mostly centred about his interactions with other artists, poets and especially authors either living or passing through Paris at the same time: Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. Much like the other Hemingways I've read, I just felt so at home in his Paris. Its a city far removed from any I've lived in, and he fills it with activities far removed from those I prefer - betting on horses, in particular - and yet I felt such a strong connection.

That this was a book published later in his career shows through in the writing, which carries his trademark simplicity and economy of words, but with more mastery than he had shown in the other of his books I've read this year. What is lovely, too, is that much of what he writes about is his writing; he discusses his philosophy of le mot juste, and many of his practices, exemplified here by their very own description.

Ebert, or some other commentator of film, used to say that "No good film is too long, no bad film is short enough", but after reading a great novella like this one, it is tempting to suggest that a book this good is too short. We shall never know; all we have is what we are given, but like the food of the city it describes, it is a dish whose perfect flavours make any paucity of volume irrelevant. I will forever be indebted to Nicole for recommending it to me.

Next up on deck: continuing with Hitchcock/Truffaut, and starting on Pullman's His Dark Materials. Also, in a moment of weakness at Wellington airport in the early hours of Saturday, I picked up a copy of Updike's Rabbit, Run.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Ginger Man

Yesterday I finished the Ginger Man, probably the most distinctive book I've read so far this year, and probably the most difficult to review (if these little reflections can be called reviews). This was another book I'd come across via my late uncle Mick, but unlike others, one for which I had absolutely no context, in that neither title nor author were at all familiar to me (although I have since seen it in some lists of prominent books from the 20th century).

This is a striking and divisive book. The story, such as it is in what is very much an impressionist book, is essentially a year (perhaps) in the life of Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield, an alcoholic, womanising, entitled, 20-something law student living, for most of the book, in Dublin. For the most part, he's thoroughly dislikable. The women of the story - Marion, Chris, Miss Frost and Mary - are often fairly insipid characters, and although Sebastian does seem to genuinely love them, he treats them appallingly, leeching and stealing from them, beating them, neglecting his son, charming them into things they either don't want or shouldn't do, and moving on to other pursuits at a moment's notice. The other characters who drift in and out of Sebastian's world - O'Keefe, Percy Clocklan, Tone Malarkey, etc - share many of his reprehensible characteristics, and serve only to reinforce the reader's sense of Sebastian himself.

There is no denying, though, the really vital energy with which Donleavy tells the story. His style of writing reminds me of Joyce, in the pace and perhaps setting, or Thompson, or even Kerouac, in its stream-of-consciousness style, yet its somehow very different. The intensity and consistency of the style throughout the book's 350 pages is admirable - it never lets up, right through to the story's conclusion (inconclusive though it is) in London.

There were times when I wasn't sure whether I was liked the book or hated it, but it is certainly memorable, and at no point did any dislike diminish my eagerness to keep reading. As it moved towards its close, I genuinely didn't know whether it was gravitating towards a tragic but just come-uppance, a repentant redemption, or rescue for Sebastian's sorry soul, and to the author's credit, he steers clear of any archetypal resolution, and stays true to the impressionist style.

A book I won't quickly forget.

Next up: continuing with Hitchcock by Truffaut, and resuming my Hemingway journey with A Moveable Feast.