Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Catton’

The Luminaries

November 18, 2013

The LuminariesThe Friday before last, I had my thirtieth birthday party; last Friday I finished The Luminaries. I’m not sure which Friday was more triumphant. While the first was a glorious yellow celebration of friendship and happiness and fun, the second saw the end of a colossal book which has taken up a whole month of my reading life.

It was a very enjoyable month. Well, at least the first fortnight was, then, as you might have gathered from my last post, the pleasure was tinged with impatience. And I read quickly – I can’t imagine what it would be like to read The Luminaries at a more sedate pace … just think, you’d still be reading it well into next year!

In case you have been on a different planet (see what I’m doing there, with the astrological pun), The Luminaries is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s second novel. She is only twenty-eight. It won the Booker Prize. It is over 800 pages. All facts awe-inspiring enough to pique a curious reader’s interest.

The novel opens with two of the oldest clichés: a combination of ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘A man walks into a bar’. Walter Moody walks into the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, on 27 January, 1866, which happens to be a dark and stormy night. He soon senses that something fishy is going on. It transpires that the twelve men gathered there have come together to discuss the strange happenings of the last fortnight: a recluse has been murdered, a whore has attempted suicide, a young man has gone missing, and a fortune of gold has been found in the murdered man’s house.

It is an exciting beginning, and the pages whizz past as Catton takes us from one protagonist to another, telling us the story from all sides, letting us – alongside Walter Moody – gradually piece together what exactly has happened. At one point, Moody is asked, what it means for him ‘to know something’ and he replies:

I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides.

We do indeed see this story from all sides, and never do we feel that Catton has lost control of the many sides of her narrative. In a way, it is an extension of Virginia Woolf’s seven-sided carnation in The Waves, or Penelope Lively’s disconcertingly wonderful jolts in perspective in Moon Tiger (see this post for more on this). Here the thing is initially twelve-sided, but expands, as more and more characters come into play.

I enjoyed getting to know Hokitika in 1866, at the height of the New Zealand gold rush, of which, until The Luminaries, I’d never heard. Here are men and women on the make, seeking their fortunes, making their futures and, more often than not, running away from their past. These are first class ingredients for a piece of high Victorian drama, and that is what we get, complete with the slightly kitsch chapter-opening epigrams, such as:

In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomforted; and the shipping agent tells a lie.

Everyone has his secrets and motives, and the web of intrigue is complex and entangling. It reminded me a little of Dickens’ Bleak House.

Except, of course, we’re in the twenty-first century and Catton is too clever to spin us just a shaggy dog story. We know she must have employed that double-cliché beginning as a kind of bluff. There are indeed many moments where our attention is drawn to the many layers of storytelling, such as:

We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.

All the while, the reader is made aware of the astrological patterning, with chapter titles like ‘Venus in Aquarius’, or ‘Mercury Sets’, and charts drawn out at the beginning of each of the novle’s twelve parts. I have to confess that the astrological side of things flew right over my head (appropriately enough), although I did like this moment when Moody first looked at the Southern Hemisphere sky:

The skies were inverted, the patterns unfamiliar, the Pole Star beneath his feet, quite swallowed … He found Orion – upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook … It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.

The world is upside-down, life here is of a new order. Now we’re further back than the Victorians and are with John Donne and Shakespeare and their ‘brave new world’ and ‘new-foundland’, except that New Zealand is even farther away than America, the old order even more inverted. It is refreshing and fascinating to read about a different frontier people.

So far so good, albeit so long… then, as the weight of the book shifts from the right hand to the left, the narrative takes a different turn. The mysteries are unravelled and understood, and a love story is revealed between a man and a woman (I won’t reveal their identities) who are spiritual twins. It is a strange sort of love story that feels peculiarly unsatisfactory, just as the resolution of the novel’s mysteries don’t leave one particularly fulfilled. The novel becomes increasingly post-modern as the end draws near; the chapter epigrams start to contain more narrative than the rapidly shrinking chapters, which become snippets of conversation, glimpses, moments. They are reminiscent of the cover design – the moon revealing just part of a face as it waxes and wanes, while the whole is hidden by all the white space of the night sky.

The Luminaries begins as tight as a coil, sprung with tension – you could cut the atmosphere in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel with a knife. As the narrative plays out, the coil slackens and everything spaces out. It is entropic. Soon we are left with more gaps than writing.

GravityThis may be a ridiculous comparison, but indulge me please, given the appropriate astrological context. The Luminaries is not dissimilar to George Clooney in Gravity. It begins doing one thing – fixing a space station or solving a mystery – then segues into an almost-but-not-quite love story, and then drifts out, ever outwards, into the vast nothingness of space.

The Luminaries is a genre-defying novel that makes its reader question what a novel is. What do we desire from a novel, and what can we demand from it? What is a mystery all about? What is a love story all about? It’s a shape-shifting book. You think you’re reading one thing and then find you’re reading something else. It happens on the small-scale as you are passed between the different protagonists, getting to know things ‘from all sides’, and then in a brilliant post-modern stroke, Catton makes us question not just the fictional events but the very nature of fiction itself.

Eleanor Catton is very clever to have got us all puzzling over these big questions, while situating her puzzle in such an engrossing world. The Luminaries is a great book that works on many levels, and I can completely see why it won the Booker Prize. But for all the beautiful language and the narrative dexterity and the big post-modern questions, it left me feeling unsatisfied. By the end I no longer cared much about the murder, the gold, the whore or the love story. Perhaps that’s the point, but I found it a somewhat frustrating point to make. And if that is the point, then couldn’t she have made it rather more quickly?

As I said, The Luminaries took up a month of my reading life. I can’t remember when I last spent such a long time reading the same book. I would have read five or six normal-sized novels in that time. You might quip that bringing time into it is pointless but, put it this way, in the time it took me to read and puzzle over The Luminaries, I could have read all of E.M. Forster’s novels, or two-thirds of Penelope Fitzgerald’s. I expect I could have read a third of all Shakespeare’s plays. As was brutally pointed out to me a few months ago – we can only read so many books before we die. Our reading lives are limited more than we might care to think. For a novel to be six times as long as another novel, hence take up six times as much of one’s time, then surely it must be six times as good? While The Luminaries was a thoroughly enjoyable book, clever in so many ways, imaginative, transporting, brilliant yes … I’m afraid I just don’t think it was better than all of Forster’s novels put together.

Perhaps I would feel less vexed about all the time that it demands of its reader if I’d read it on holiday, when one suddenly gets a glut of unexpected reading time. I would heartily recommend it for a flight to New Zealand, for instance. Or, perhaps if I’d had an unlucky patch of reading and had read a few short not-particularly-good novels, then I would have rejoiced at finding such a big brilliant novel that comes pretty close to  fulfilling the reader’s desire of never wanting it to end. I read The Luminaries during my everyday reading life, however, and, although I enjoyed the trip, I slightly wish I could get a fortnight of that time back.

These things pray on one’s mind as one begins a new decade.

Perhaps you have read The Luminaries and think differently of it? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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Three treats

November 4, 2013

The LuminariesI’m afraid I can’t write about a book today. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I’m thoroughly entrenched in The Luminaries. I had thought I might read a thin little book on the side when on the tube etc., but Eleanor Catton’s writing is too engrossing to be left at home, so I’m afraid I’m stuck with it and so stuck for something to say. Secondly, I think I’m on the final push with the novel, and so for now must put every ounce of energy into that.

Fear not, however, for here are three short treats instead.

William Blake on Autumn:

To Autumn

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may’st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.
`The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

‘The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.’
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

The first three hundred words of my novel-in-progress:

Let’s begin with what happened to Anna at twenty-past-six on Kingsland Road. That was when she met Roger – she would take to calling him ‘Jolly Roger’, and then, later, ‘Dodgy Roger’ – nodding off at a bus stop.

Anna was in a shuffling, bulging line of people trying to cram themselves, bleep by Oyster-card bleep, on to a busy 149. It wasn’t long before the bus driver shook his head and the doors slid closed, blowing a sigh of frustration through the huddle left behind on the pavement. Anna, not in any particular hurry, slipped out of the scrum and sat down on the hard, thin, red bench in the bus shelter. It was like a giant piece of Lego, she thought, not sure whether to be more impressed that a seat could be designed to be quite so uncomfortable, or that a man had managed to fall asleep on it.

He was asleep, wasn’t he? He wasn’t dead? Anna dismissed this flash of worry when a noise, somewhere between a grunt and a snore, came out of his mouth.

The squashed bloom of a turquoise silk handkerchief protruded from his corduroy jacket pocket and cornflower swirls of a paisley shirt danced brightly beneath, lending him an air of dishevelled splendour, as though he ought to be cushioned by crushed velvet, rather than slumped against the toughened glass of a bus shelter.

‘That wasn’t your bus, was it?’ she asked, instinctively pitying the vulnerability conferred on him by sleep.

Roger didn’t answer. Through the dullness of slumber he was dimly aware of a noise – sharp, new, clear – near his ear, but he hadn’t realised that a young, pretty, slip of a woman had spoken to him.

Encouraging feedback gratefully received.

Last night, I had dinner with the wonderful folk from the fantastic book blog Don’t Read too Fast. They have an inspiring series called ‘Why Read‘, to which I contributed a few months ago:

We use words all the time. More often than not we abuse them, punctuating them with umms and ahhs, likes and sort ofs; sloppily approximating them to our meaning; relying on gestures to get our point across; barely even hearing the sound of them; and rarely giving a thought to their innumerable resonances. We are so terribly careless with our words.

Some might argue that this doesn’t really matter. So long as we are able to communicate, share information and understand each other then words have served their purpose. I might agree, were it not for the astonishing pleasure to be found in words that are used well.

When you read a good book, you find pages and pages of words treated with the utmost respect. Here is language used with consideration, deleted of slurs and ers, where words have been picked, swapped, and replaced again until the perfect one falls into place.

Moreover, these are words which a writer has spent years choosing. Someone has spent a tremendous amount of time finding the right words and arranging them to tell a story in the best possible way he or she can, and you need give only a few hours – at most, perhaps a few days – to a book to read all those carefully-chosen words. After all that work put in by the writer, reading those words is the least you can do.

I wonder how long it took James Joyce to write one of my favourite lines in all literature, which falls at the end of ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners:

‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

How did he come up with the crooning sibilance of ‘soul swooned slowly’; how did he even think to use the word ‘swooned’? How did he discover that inverting ‘falling faintly’ to ‘faintly falling’ would create the perfect echo of snowfall, soft but persistent? So much care, time and genius has been put into making this brilliant sentence, and yet it takes us only a few seconds to read it, a few seconds and then we have it for the rest of our lives.

Once you’ve read something so beautiful, so powerful, it will linger in your mind, minutely affecting every other word you will encounter. Even if you don’t remember the exact quotation, it will stay with you. You might catch an echo of it when you next hear the word ‘swoon’, or perhaps you’ll remember to look it up and read it again next time it snows.

Why read? Read because it’s been written well. Read because we all use words, and if we were all to read more we might use them a little better.

Those who remain curious can find many more reasons to read on their blog, here.

Why all the threes, you may well ask… Suffice to say that on Friday I shall turn the big three oh. Indeed. Oh.