Posts Tagged ‘J.K. Rowling’

Good Behaviour

September 3, 2012

I really was shocked by Molly Keane’s novel, Good Behaviour.

It bobs along, all hunting, gardening and dancing, but then, just as you begin to sink into the relaxing comfort of this old-fashioned, grand way of life, out thrusts a hideously dark, utterly shocking occurrence. But the reader is not allowed to dwell on this horrible thing. Indeed we can scarcely process it before the narrative forces us to return to the shimmering surface of grand country life. It happens again and again, thrust after horrible dark thrust disrupting the frothy surface, until the two fall into an uneasy co-existence. The narrator, Aroon, now middle-aged and looking back on her youth, insists on focussing on the surface, but the reader can’t ignore the sinister goings on underneath.

I read Good Behaviour with the unnerving sensation of feeling my jaw actually drop when the first of these dark moments erupted. It was all the more shocking thanks to the way Aroon refuses to let the narrative even so much as pause to let us give these moments our full attention. I blinked in disbelief. These hideous occurrences scream out at you as you are ushered past, instantly vanishing under the carpet as your attention is pulled away to the next hunt or dinner.

It’s hard to write about these dark moments without giving away the plot and taking away the element of surprise. But here is one instance that happens early on and doesn’t give much away. Aroon’s father has returned from the First World War without a leg. A page or so earlier he has written back from the front about the death of Ollie Reilly, one of the servants of the house, who had fought with him and – back in Ireland – had had a romance with another servant, Rose. In the letter he wrote: ‘Tell Rose he died instantly; he never knew what got him’. A little later, we get this:

This was an interval in his recovery; later in the year he was to have his wooden leg fitted. In the meantime he must rest, he must eat. He did both, and drank as well, growing every day more irritable and rather fatter. He followed Mummie about the garden at first; he even sat in the studio and watched her painting, after he had absorbed the small amount of racing news in the daily papers. All the time he seemed sadly unoccupied, as indeed he was. He couldn’t ride. He fell into the river when he went fishing. Long afterwards I knew things were on his mind then. Reeking, new, they must have been terrible. He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying; when he talked to Rose, Ollie’s death seemed quite enviable, here and gone, out like a light.

Such things were so near and so apart from the honeyed life in Ireland. Every day was a perfect day that April. The scrawny beauty of our house warmed and melted in the spring light.

So we get the shimmering ‘honeyed life in Ireland’ full of ‘perfect’ days and beautiful spring light. We get a young woman observing her father following her ‘Mummie’ around like a lost puppy, seeming ‘sadly unoccupied’ because he can’t ride or fish, and growing plump and crochety. But snuck into the middle of this, contained in just a single sentence is the horrible fact that ‘He had shot Ollie Reilly as he lay mutilated and dying’. It is obvious to the reader that Aroon’s father isn’t ‘sadly unoccupied’, but that he is dwelling on the horror of war, of having shot his mutilated servant to put him out of his misery. Yet this awful thing which so preoccupies him isn’t spoken about, is scarcely even mentioned. The narrator wants to believe – and wants us readers to believe – that her father was only irritable because he couldn’t hunt.

In this disparity between the shiny ‘honeyed’ surface and violent undercurrent, Molly Keane has quite ingeniously pulled off the feat of rendering a gap between what is understood by the narrator and what is understood by the reader. To my mind, this is one of the cleverest things a novelist can do. The writer has to create a blinkered narrator, deliberately limiting their knowledge, while at the same time dropping sufficient hints of the greater truth for the reader to grasp it. It’s a tough balance to get just right – not too obvious, not too obscure.

This gap between the false surface and the dark thrust of tragic reality is why the narrator – and indeed the whole family – relies upon the ‘good behaviour’ of the title. When a tragedy occurs, everyone does their best to behave perfectly – to see who can cry the least, never mention it, ignore it and return to gardening or reading the Tatler. By forcing themselves to live in the surface, they try to make the surface cover up and suppress the underlying tragedy.

In Jane Gardam’s elegant introduction to this beautiful Folio edition, she tells us about an episode when Molly Keane’s six-year-old daughter wanted to weep at the death of her father. Apparently Molly Keane told her child, ‘We mustn’t let [the butler] see us crying.’

Evidently this rule of ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘not in front of the servants’, always acting in accordance with social mores, was experienced, and to some extent, followed by Molly Keane. Perhaps this is why she examines it quite so expertly in this novel. It is from first-hand experience that she has created these characters who adhere so impeccably to the code of ‘Good Behaviour’, and yet, by creating these dark jolting interruptions to the otherwise well-behaved narrative flow, she challenges the code. The reader can’t help but see that some things deserve to be spoken about, ought to be grieved over, mustn’t be swept under the carpet.

As the novel progresses, we see that Aroon has spent her youth learning, however uncomfortably, how to behave as socially impeccably as her parents. We can see how appalling the parents’ behaviour actually is – the mother cruel beyond belief to Aroon, and the father sleazing on to every woman in sight – and yet this is masked with their fantastically ‘good behaviour’, gliding along and looking the other way. Feat after feat of horrible cruelty is disguised and excused by good manners. It is like a more literary incarnation of that nightmarish character from Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge, inflicting cruel pain from a fluffy pink frilly smiling exterior. And so we gather from the main body of the novel, the excuse for what must be one of the most shocking opening scenes in all literature.

Good Behaviour begins with middle-aged Aroon murdering her mother. She does this, however, in such a polite, well-mannered way – insisting on feeding her sick mother, who she has propped up on a million soft pillows, rabbit mousse – that you almost can’t believe it.

This polite murder is startling at the beginning, but by the end of the book you realise that really it is the very pinnacle of ‘good behaviour’. Aroon has developed manners so finessed, so smotheringly good that they really will allow her to get away with murder.

Good Behaviour is an extraordinary book. It is dark and lethal, but deliberately frothed up into something that appears to be comforting and palatable. I suppose it is like that fatal rabbit mousse which Aroon serves to her mother.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981, the year that Midnight’s Children won. I can’t think of two more different novels. Good Behaviour is so restrained, so poised, so preoccupied with what is unsaid; Midnight’s Children is a splurging explosion, madly exuberant, bursting on to the page with a million highly-charged words. Each novel is a masterpiece. While Good Behaviour might appear to be the less remarkable of the two, in fact it is just understated – a mark of really very good behaviour indeed.


More Harry Potter

July 26, 2011

Last night I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two. Or ‘HP 7.2’ as a particularly obsessed friend of mine terms it.

Although many people like to criticise HP – What’s the point in something that’s not real? – is one of the more common taunts, I really do love it. For me, the point of HP is as simple as pure enjoyment. Critics point out that the books are badly written and the films are badly acted and I suppose that might lead the cynically-minded to ask, what’s enjoyable about that? Well, it’s the perfect escapism of the stories. HP is another world, linked to the one that we know, but where everything is a bit different – and a bit better.

As a friend pointed out, after we watched the film, the photographs in HP move. It’s the perfect example of something that’s similar enough to feel familiar, to be understandable and not totally alien, yet it’s different enough to be just a bit better and more than a bit desirable.

Other than those naysayers who refuse to get involved with HP (and, honestly, I do understand – it does require a terrifyingly huge investment of time), those who are HP fans, are HUGE fans. I’ve yet to meet someone who says, ‘Harry Potter, I can take it or leave it.’ It’s like Marmite. Fansites are extensive, offering all sorts of content ranging from secret facts (such as Ron and Hermione’s birthdays – 1st March and 19th September, respectively) to ‘death clues’, essay topics and recipes.

What’s particularly enticing and appealing about the books is how thoroughly they’ve been imagined. We don’t read about some half-baked world in which Hogwarts is hard to visualise and the meanings of spells change. J.K. has said that she set herself several rules and stuck to them. She planned out the books before writing them. For her forthcoming Pottermore website, which, as well as being the sole platform for the HP ebooks, will also offer a great deal of extra content, she said she ‘had more than half of the new material already written or in note form. I literally dug some out of boxes’. Apparently there’s going to be 18,000 words of new content up there. To have an extra 10,000 words of Potter notes just floating around, unused, is indeed impressively thorough.

I suppose it’s Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory all over again:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

J.K. has done this with great aplomb. I suppose the tension with the iceberg of HP is that several readers desperately want to see more of the iceberg than the tantalising tip. Hence the proliferation of fan sites and not-in-the-books-but-leaked-in-interviews trivia and the excitement about all the new content that will go up on Pottermore.

The ebooks sound as though they will be spectacularly interactive – with gaming elements added to each chapter. The reader/player gets to try on the Sorting Hat, choose a wand, get galleons from Gringrots, mix potions for their house and visit friends who are making their own journey through the book. This sounds fun and I feel more than a bit excited. (I might have just signed up to Pottermore, but not sure I should admit to it.)

But, and here’s the rub, Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory works on the premise of seeing that top eighth and that top eighth only. If we are given all this new content, isn’t there a risk of it all somehow imploding? At what point does all the HP geeky trivia become too much and risk overwhelming the actual story? Perhaps when it’s inserted into that text.

J.K. says the following about trying on the Sorting Hat:

If you are not sorted into Gryffindor, if you go into one of the other three houses, you will effectively get an extra quarter of a chapter. You will go off into your own common room, meet your own prefect, and find out what the true nature of the house is.

Just supposing I get sorted into Ravenclaw. Do I really want to go and meet the prefect? Do I want to find out more about Ravenclaw? Well no, not really. Surely the important house for HP in terms of the plot, pace and excitement is Griffindor? If you can’t read the books without being given lots of new information – which isn’t strictly relevant to the plot – then one can’t help but wonder if the books might paradoxically lose something in pace and interest by gaining something in content.

Just look at the existing books and how they’ve grown from the slim 223 pages of the first one to the massive tomes of the latter volumes – 607 pages for the Deathly Hallows. Did anyone, honestly, read the last one and not feel bored by all that guff about the wedding at the beginning? (And this from someone who is actually planning a wedding.)

The detail in Harry Potter is incredible, imaginative, brilliantly realised, but perhaps enough is enough. Extra content can happily exist outside of the books, and the fansites show how popular this bonus material is. The danger lies in inserting this extra content into the already-written stories and bloating them. It risks changing the existing stories into fatter, slower book-game hybrids. And no, I’m not sure of the spell for that.

Howards End and Harry Potter

February 7, 2011

I’ve just finished Howards End. What a stonkingly good novel! Reading it, reminded me quite why I love reading classics so much. They’re terribly good. Much of the chaff has been weeded out over the years, so that what remains, pleasingly coated in a Penguin black jacket, is pure gold.

But a strange little gold bell was ringing in my head the whole time I was reading Howards End. Something was not quite right. Something was uncannily familiar and it was only once I’d finished it, yesterday afternoon, that I realised what it was. The name Wilcox bears an uncanny resemblance to Horcrux. As in Harry Potter. Horcruxes and versus Hallows is the theme of the final Harry Potter book.

For those who have somehow managed to avoid the Harry Potter phenomenon, here is a brief gloss for this wizardspeak. A Horcrux is a means of trapping a piece of one’s soul in an object. First you need to murder someone (by means of the Avada Kedavra killing curse) – because this supreme act of evil splits the murderer’s soul. Then a bit of the soul can be fixed into an object – living or inanimate – which becomes a Horcrux. This means that if the baddie is in turn murdered, the bit of him that’s trapped inside the Horcrux will still survive. So he won’t really be dead. He’ll be immortal. This, funnily enough, counts as part of the Dark Arts and it’s Voldemort who makes use of it.

But Harry, rather painfully slowly, discovers that there is another means to immortality. The Hallows, which are three sacred objects: the Resurrection Stone, a stone which has the power to summon the dead to the living world; the Elder Wand, a wand which can’t be beaten; and an Invisibility Cloak. The bearer of all three of these Hallows is fabled to be the Master of Death, immortal.

Hallows and Horcruxes, Horcruxes and Hallows. Schlegels and Wilcoxes, Wilcoxes and Schlegels. There’s more to it than an odd, rather poetic shared rhythm and assonance.

Towards the end of Howards End, Margaret Schlegel thinks about immortality in relation to herself and Henry Wilcox:

Margaret believed in immortality for herself. An eternal future had always seemed natural to her. And Henry believed in it for himself. Yet would they meet again?

Forster ventures two types of immortality here – that of the Schlegels and that of the Wilcoxes.

Throughout Howards End, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are contrasted with each other. The Schlegels are originally from Germany and are endlessly discussing philosophy, poetry and music, hosting luncheon parties over which ‘Thought and Art’ are passionately discussed. In sharp contrast, the Wilcoxes are English and practical, believing that:

Equality was nonsense, Votes for Women nonsense, Socialism nonsense, Art and literature, except when conducive to strengthening the character, nonsense.

All the ‘Schlegel fetishes’ are held by the Wilcoxes in utter disdain.

The Schlegels are aware of this difference, indeed Margaret Schlegel says to Helen, near the very beginning of the book:

‘The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched – a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements; death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one – there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?’

So the Schlegels versus the Wilcoxes is an opposition that stands for the inner life versus the outer, the passion versus the practical. While the immortality envisaged by a Schelegel would be spiritual – a nebulous memory or feeling, a sense of someone’s continued life after death; that envisaged by a Wilcox would be practical – inheritance, money, ‘death duties’.

What Margaret Schlegel yearns to do is to connect the inner life with the outer. Forster’s very famous, oft-quoted and very brilliant line, comes into play here:

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.

And so, much of the book is given over to Margaret’s struggle to truly connect the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes.

Now to return to Harry Potter. Voldemort tries to connect the Hallows and Horcruxes in that, alongside his Horcruxes, he obsessively seeks the Elder Wand. (Albeit he isn’t aware of its significance as a Hallow.) And Harry slowly grows aware that destroying all the Horcruxes won’t be enough. To defeat Voldemort, he must destroy the Horcruxes and unite the Hallows. The Battle of Hogwarts is rather a climactic connection of Hallows and Horcruxes as Harry faces Voldemort in a final showdown.

Forster manages to resolve the Schlegel/Wilcox opposition in Howards End, the titular house, itself. For what could be a more practical attitude to death than Henry Wilcox’s summoning his children and wife into the room to tell them, quite formally, that Howards’ End is to be left to Margaret after his death. He is dealing with inheritance, practical issues.

But Howards End has something of the ‘inner life’ in it. There is a spirit to the place to do with ancestors and local folklore – the wych elm in which pigs teeth are stuck, so that the bark is said to cure toothache. All the Schlegels’ furniture and carpets fit uncannily well. As Margaret says, ‘There are moments when I feel Howards End peculiarly our own.’ The Schlegels have a strange affinity with this place of the Wilcoxes.

So Howards End as a piece of inheritance, of immortality, is at once supremely practical and spiritual. The outer life and the inner. The prose and the passion. Wilcoxes and Schlegels. Horcruxes and Hallows.

Books on film

November 22, 2010

I have never understood why someone would watch the film of a book and then buy the book.

Any Human Heart jumped up into Amazon’s Top 100 books today, after the first part of the TV adaptation screened last night. The Guardian’s TV reviewer was just one of many who was so impressed with the film that he instantly went online to order the book.

The book is, by all accounts, absolutely superb. It’s been on my list of things to get round to reading, ever since I started working in the bookshop and noticed that several copies were piled up on the favourites table. Whenever I talk to colleagues about their best ever books, Any Human Heart is almost always up there.

I should have just bought a copy and read it straight away, but instead I read Ordinary Thunderstorms, by the same author, which had just come out. And I found it, well, somewhat ordinary. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to read another William Boyd afterwards, even if Any Human Heart is, apparently, a different, far superior, kettle of fish.

If only I had read it back then, instead of the wretched Thunderstorms book, I wouldn’t be in the quandary that I’m in today about the TV adaptation. You see, as I mentioned, I don’t understand the whole watching the film and then buying the book phenomenon. If I were to watch the film of Any Human Heart, I don’t think I’d ever get round to reading the book.

Unlike the Guardian reviewer and the other thousands of people who leapt on to Amazon to order their copy this morning, I would be holding out, waiting for the series to finish rather than reading the book as well. If the story is being told in one particular medium (on screen), then why look for the same story in another medium (on the page) too? It’s the same story, more-or-less, and it’s not especially fun playing spot the difference between the two different versions.

I don’t mind doing it the other way round. If I’ve read the book, then I’m perfectly happy to watch the film. Indeed, I  tend to try and hunt down the film, once I’ve read a particularly good book, keen to see how a director, screenwriter, or actor has interpreted it, how their ideas might differ from mine. I was positively peeved on discovering that the film of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is apparently every bit as good as the absolutely marvellous book, is almost impossible to get hold of on DVD. (See this post for more on the book.)

The thing is, when reading a book, although the words enter one’s head through one’s eyes, it is the mind’s eye which is really active, imagining the described events, characters, situations. In my head, they may not have the sharp, high-definition outlines that they would be given on screen, but they’re still there.

Right now, I’m reading Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, and while I’m not precisely certain of exactly what Mr Biswas looks like, I can definitely picture the Tulsi store, with its flaking, faded signs on the walls, and his little shop in the Chase, with its mud walls, its counter, the old tins up on the top shelf. I can imagine him on his bicycle with his daughter, precariously peddling along the track in the dark, when he is stopped by a policeman. If a novel is good, if it is well-told, then I can picture it.

Of course, films work differently. The film pictures everything for you. And so your interpretation of the story is coloured not just by the author, but by the director and the actors too. It is no longer your own imagination that has free reign with what is written, but all these other people are busy telling you exactly how to see everything.

How tragic, for instance, to equate Harry Potter with drippy Daniel Radcliffe! How sad to think of the brilliantly geeky Hermione as home counties posh kid Emma Watson! Acting skills aside, they spend the latest film looking like they’re modelling Gap’s 1996 collection. J.K.’s original creations were so much cooler, so much more interesting, so much more different, so much more real than the film’s insipid characters.

Having said that, I loved the latest Harry Potter film. I don’t really mind about Daniel and Emma because I read the books first, so my own versions of Harry and Hermione can stand tall alongside the film equivalents. Thank god I hadn’t seen the film first and then went through the ordeal of spending 600 pages hearing Daniel Radcliffe’s voice every time Harry Potter speaks, perpetually imagining him in Harry Potter’s wizarding shoes.

Dare I even whisper it, but, despite my reservations about the lead actors, I think the Harry Potter film is better than the book. All the endless guff about the Weasley wedding preparations is thankfully condensed into a marquee being erected by co-ordinated flicks of wands. The hundreds of dreary pages devoted to Harry, Hermione and Ron hiding out in a tent in the middle of nowhere is transformed into stunning views of British countryside, and, admittedly, a rather grim cheesy dance between the two Hs, in the style of a dodgy uncle dancing with a five-year-old at a wedding. But it is worth putting up with a few rather more flawed characters in order to whizz through the boring bits of the book in a few minutes instead of painfully protracted hours.

Perhaps it was because my imagination went into overdrive while contemplating J.K.’s wonderful wizarding world, that when I was reading the books I used to have incredible Harry Potter dreams. Rather than the usual tedious anxiety ones about being late for something, or not being able to find my clothes, or being stung by wasps, or teeth falling out, my dreamscape suddenly had epic proportions. I was saving the world from evil. And I could do really brilliant magic.

It was a relief and delight that after seeing the film the other day, I once again had some first class Harry Potter dreams. And the dreams were blissfully free of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and the rest of the film gang. Otherwise they might have been a rather nasty surprise. Instead I went to work the following day feeling pleased, quite satisfied that I’d just saved the world.

I’m not sure what Any Human Heart dreams would be like. But I shall endeavour to resist the billboards, supplements and endless reviews of the TV series, and read the book first. Otherwise, without my own images of William Boyd’s story, I might find Jim Broadbent frowning at me in my sleep, and I’m not sure that would be entirely pleasant.