Book Review – Martin Amis – The Zone of Interest

Book review – The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

This is a difficult book for me to review. Firstly, I am a hopeless Amis groupie. I can think of no single celebrity in literature (or elsewhere) who would similarly reduce me to as much of a stammering idiot were I to find myself in his or her presence. I have read Amis for 35 years years. From the towering London Fields and The Information, to the shriekingly funny Money and The Pregnant Widow, and even to the incomprehensibly awful Yellow Dog and the failed experimental Time’s Arrow, and to the deeply moving Experience (which rendered all other memoirs pallid by comparison). So I should not really review him – my bias disqualifies me.

Secondly, the Holocaust. There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I devoured every Holocaust book I could lay my hands on, both fiction and non-fiction. The horror of it never diminished, and the answers to the question of how a people could so industrialise hate and cruelty, even in war, were never provided. I have steered of the subject ever since, it it too hard to forage any further. Reading about the Holocaust allows one to gain knowledge, but what happened remains impenetrable.

But The Zone of Interest takes the reader there, directly into the searing center of it, a the focal point of operations of a large concentration camp. It is told via a number of perspectives, mostly Nazis (the camp Kommandant, Gestapo, SS, various German camp, army and government officials). There is one Jewish perspective, a ‘Sonder’ (a sort of senior inmate who is granted a slightly longer life by assisting in the killing).

Amis’s dark brilliance in this book is is that the near-indescribable machinery of death and torture and starvation and rape and anesthetic-less medical experiments and flogging posts are dropped jauntily into dialogue between Nazis and their colleagues and wives and lovers. They are never described in narrative, always simply as part of dinner conversations or internal first person musings over a brandy and cigars, all without a shred of awareness or guilt – how much cement for this, how many bullets for that, the length of the steel tip at the end of the whip, the funny old Jewish lady who complained that there was no dining car on the train transport (just prior to being clubbed to death), the little boy with the club foot who could not walk properly when his was forced to take of his prosthesis, the annoying cost of feeding and keeping Jews alive for 1 month to mine coal in sub zero temperatures before letting them die, the genius of stepping up slave labour from ‘double time‘ to ‘triple time‘ work, the efficiencies of the Punishment Police, the 5 year old girl who clings to the Kommandant’s leg as she is separated from her mother to go the gas chamber. These anecdotes, embedded in conversations juxtaposed with other comments about the fine chicken preparation on the table or extra-marital flirtations or party politics create a terrible cognitive dissonance for the reader. It could not possibly have happened this way. This sort of depravity was surely accompanied by at least a modicum of doubt and guilt and distaste.

Not a bit of it. The conversations and dialogue expose the stunning success of the mad racial scientists of Nazism, who had created the fact of Jews (and others – Slavs, Catholics, gypsies, communists, homosexuals) as insects, as Untermenschen – a perception of such hermetic perfection that no one ever questioned the right of a German to torture or kill for pleasure or profit or whatever reason was deemed fit. So a functionary will discuss the upcoming coming Christmas concert at the camp Officer’s Club in the same breath as complaining about the annoying smell emanating from the open sores of the women in the Women’s block, or the outrageous slothfulness of Jews dragging other dead Jews to the crematoria too slowly.

There is a plot – a love story between the camp Kommandant’s wife and a communist she knew in the thirties, and the reaction of of her drunken cuckold husband. But it is overshadowed by the awful everyday concentration camp picture that is so realistically painted by Amis – blood soaked and putrid and amoral and bestial, with the cries of the tortured and dying echoing behind every banal conversation on every page.

This is not for the faint hearted, but it is, in its terrible way, another work of Amis genius

Book Review – Us by David Nicholls

Book review – Us by David Nicholls

As part of my slow and faltering journey through the Booker longlist I waded into this book with a considerable amount of curiosity. Here’s why – Nicholls wrote a light frothy omlette of a book (and blockbuster) some years back called One Day, which I remember reading, and remember laughing at times and would have forgotten immediately and completely if not for the movie. All I remember was the device (the same day of a love relationship described each year for decades). Oh, and the heroine getting squashed flat by a truck in the last scene, so convincingly done that I was nearly moved to look up how they filmed it.

So I was curious as to how this new one ended up on the longlist, given that the Booker aspires to, um, more earnest fare (although not always – remember Skios?).

The book opens with an absolute sparkler of a first page, on in which you reach the bottom line and settle in with a slight grin on your face, saying – oh, this is going to be fun. Here is the setup – our hero, the first person Douglas, a scientist of little repute, has been happily married to Connie for 20 years. She is, by repeated account, someone who he still cannot believe he snagged. In short, she is gorgeous and sparky and impulsive, he is plain and fusty and practical. Then on page 1, she tells him that she thinks their marriage is has run its course, and she wants out. Such is the shock of this, that he, well…that’s why page 1 is such a cracker.

Then there is their 17 year old son, a dark and moody boy with whom he has a near-estranged relationship, so strained and tortured, so bruised with misunderstandings and misinterpretations, so littered with the best and broken intents of fathering, that I could hardly bear to read it (with my bright-eyed and beloved teenaged boy lying on his bed next door noodling endlessly on Instagram).

So a trip is planned before his wife intends to head off for greener pastures, and before his son becomes a stranger. This trip is a grand tour of the art galleries of Europe (a well researched travelogue of its own, a feast for art-naives like me). And thus the story of their marriage and life is told, flip-flopping between the grand tour and its attendant mishaps, and what transpired over the last 20 years of this marriage.

Will he win Connie back? Will he find common ground with the son he loves? Well, this is the engine of the story, and I wish not to spoil. It is about the illusions of permanence and the nature of second chances and love’s uncommon ways of being given and taken.

The book is often funny (although perhaps a little overheated in the wisecrack department, a malady with which I have occasionally been similarly afflicted). The voices are clear and strong, the language fluent, the narrative unencumbered by weighty digressions, the emotions authentic. And it finishes strongly and satisfyingly, perfectly pitched to the last word – a rare pleasure indeed.

But, still a light meal. To which I say, we all deserve one occasionally, particularly after the sometimes exhausting spelunking of darker literary caves.

Book Review – The Children Act – Ian McEwen

Book Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I have a rocky relationship with McEwan’s work. I liked Atonement. I loved Amsterdam. I rhapsodised to the point of obsession over Saturday. Other than the startlingly original and funny treatise on the single pubic hair peeping out of the heroine’s underwear, I did not like On Chisholm Beach. Sweet Tooth invited an unflattering comparison to Le Carre at his best (damn, whatever happened to Le Carre?).

So I approached McEwans’s latest with the attitude of beaten puppy. It is, happily, a partial return to form. Not great, but very good, particularly after the books finds its rhythm after a slow start. Although there is a section of writing from page 131 – 135 which is better than great, a smouldering, sharply chiseled and gorgeously rendered essay on the sadness and horrors of failed families. I reread it three times – it is a reminder if just how good he is.

And failed families are the bedrock of this novel. The protag is Fiona Maye, an English high court judge presiding over family court. These matters are given life by 3 cases presented to M’Lady through the course the book and described in detail – the viewing and judgement over the morally ruptured rubble of families once catalysed by love and now exploded by resentment or hate or betrayal or the monotonous cacophony of human weakness and inflexibility. And always, damaged children standing stunned and mute in their wake. Ultra Orthodox Jewish fathers blocking their daughters’ access to education, an extreme Christian sect refusing to allow a blood transfusion for their dying son, a conjoined set of twins, for whom the medical murder of one will save the other. Moral morass, all grey, the sort of choices for which the law is near hopeless

A second connected narrative, revealed early, concerns Fiona’s long term husband and partner to their childless but seemingly successful marriage who has has suddenly decided that he needs to have one great passionate affair with a younger woman before he slides down the hill of his 60s towards dotage. The interplay of her shock and humiliation and rage against him, and her cool and wise judgements in the cases that come before her are cleverly juxtaposed.

The link that binds these two narratives is a beautiful and and complex teenage boy whose life has been saved by one of Fiona’s judgements, who begins to stalk her. This culminates in a meeting between Fiona and the boy in the reception of a private hotel, and is stamped by a small and brief 3 second act of inexplicable and shocking recklessness initiated by the judge, eventually offering her a sort of bridge to forgiving.

As always, McEwan’s book is interspersed with essays and mini-treatises on matters great and small, but all tightly bound to the plot – the families that we destroy through selfishness, the moral quagmires in which we thrash, and the redemption and forgiveness that hover just within reach for those who can see.

Accidental Playwrights – An Impostor’s Story

A couple of years ago my wife, writer Kate Sidley, had a humour column in a monthly health magazine. Each month she mined the great steaming petri-dish of gyms and other health obsessions and came away with all sorts of comedic nuggets to extract a couple of laughs from readers.

Around the same time we went to see a wonderful play written by our friend Craig Higginson entitled ‘The Girl in the Yellow Dress’. The play was enjoying both popular and critical acclaim and was being (or was due to be) produced in multiple cities, including overseas.

We chatted to Craig, who described the economics of the successful playwright, and they were mouth-watering, with a juicy cut of each ticket sold ending up in the writer’s pocket. A quick calculation showed this to be potentially much more lucrative than the pittance made by the average South African novelist and columnist.

Pfft. I said to Kate – let’s write a play. How hard could it be?  Pfft, she said – sounds like fun. when do we start?

So we sat down to fashion a play based on her column, and supported by our multiple degrees from Juilliard and the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and our stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Broadway.

Where things went quickly off the rails.

Firstly, Kate and I nearly got divorced within the first 2 pages of the stageplay. She would say – I don’t think your characters’ voices are clearly enough separated, and the hairs on my neck would rise and I would wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off with a Thai mail-order bride. I would say – I don’t think your character’s first joke was funny enough, and I would see her lips and eyes narrow as she contemplated an affair with someone younger and cuter than I.

Secondly, we have another friend, Rosalind Butler, who has wads of experience in bringing stories to stage and screen, and was in the process of looking for a producer for her own original stageplay. She described the landscape – producers had little money, sponsorships were rare, theatres were living hand-to-mouth, audiences sparce and uncommitted. In short, most playwrights climb a a daunting mountain, stageplay in hand, and no summit in sight. The real world seemed that it would be a tough place for unheralded playwrights like Sidley Inc.  (Ros’s play, the very funny ‘An Unromantic Comedy’ was produced and staged last October).

We threw in the towel almost immediately, and returned to the unforgiving world of novels and columns.

So, fast-forward a year or two. I was busy doing battle with my fourth novel (still am), and I was losing. Sloshing around in a pit of despond I accidentally opened the stillborn play that Kate and I had started. The first two pages were actually not bad. I told Kate that I wanted to poke at it, to which she gave her blessing.

I sprinted through the first 15 pages, and then paused. Not having invested great deal of effort at that point I figured that I may as well get some educated feedback, and if the verdict was the expected rolling of the eyes, I would simply abandon – little ventured, little lost.

So I sent it to a person-of-influence, in secret. .

Who said – this is wonderful. If you can finish this play at this level of quality I will produce it.

I gingerly crept in to down to Kate’s writing lair, and said – remember the play? I need your help. We have a chance to be bona fide playwrights. Can we co-write without blood on the walls? She was keen – I suspect because she was supposed to be writing her Creative Writing MA proposal at the time, along with any number of simultaneous columns for various magazines and newspapers. Any distraction in a storm…

So we carefully separated the characters, the writing tasks, the schedules. We spitballed and lobbed ideas at dinner, before bed, during  slush-mouthed morning toothbrushing, by cellphone during teenager pick-up duties. Kept egos to a minimum. Smiled a lot. Swallowed choking gobs of pride.  And emerged with a competed stageplay some weeks later, perhaps in need of polish and tweak, but essentially complete.

I sent it to my person-of influence.

We received an SMS some weeks later which simply said –  ‘I love your play’.

‘Shape – A Comedy of Vanity, Race and Sex’ by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley will premiere at Theatre-on-the Square in Sandton on January 28, 2015, produced by Daphne Kuhn

And we are still happily married.

On software, jazz and the writing of novels

There was a time in my life when I was a programmer. Or software engineer, in more current parlance. This career in which I laboured during my young adulthood came to me via a university degree in a discipline that served an industry desperate for computer skills. I was living in California at the time, and these skills carried weight. So I was spoiled for choice, my good fortune fueled by lucky timing and external influences rather than personal design (my MSc was completed in large measure to please my father).

Programmers come in various hierarchies of skill, just like everyone else. As unlikely as it may seem, watching a great programmer at work is sort of like watching a great magician, or even better, watching great art-in-process. As odd as it may sound, reading an elegant module of code can be a moving experience, and I would look up to its practitioner as a sort of god. This brands me as serious geek, I know, but so be it. I was a reasonably good programmer, certainly not a great one. But there was one area in which I briefly floated with with the angels.

Soon after I graduated from UCLA I was hired by a company developing videogames at a time when the industry was just starting and was trying to gain a foothold in the public’s consciousness and purse. The machines, built by companies like Commodore, Atari, and TI were cheap, hoping to attract a young audience without much discretionary income. This meant that the various electronic components in the machine were also cheap – not much memory, little processing power. And this meant that the responsibility for being smart was transferred to the programmer, whose job it was to wring the most oomph from least capable components.

In particular, the lingua franca of videogame programming was Assembly language, an arcane and unfriendly machine dialect that bore very little relationship to the elegant and sometimes bloated languages in common use today. Its grammar was very close to the heart of the computer and there were few steps of translation from the world of humans to the world of electronics.  A command left the keyboard and made its way into the electronics to perform some small operation, like putting a red pixel in a location on the screen, or checking the position of a joystick. Worse yet, one had to perform the entire videogame program in the time it took for the TV’s electron gun to go from finishing painting the screen at the bottom right, and was retracing its way to the top left of the screen. This was 1/30 of second. This requirement has now become an historical oddity, as technology has leapfrogged ahead in many ways.

A strange thing happened in this window of time in which the constraints of the day required technological trickery and deception, without the benefit of big toolsets, and usually without the benefit of lots of time and money. I would sit down to program a section of a videogame and I would lapse into a strange solo state, almost an aloneness. I would be confronted with a visual problem (for instance, how to get my little skier to avoid hitting rocks on the slope of my game, which was entitled ‘Slalom’). And I would reduce my entire focus down to solving that problem, all other concerns, including food and phone calls and even bathroom breaks would become secondary while my head filled an unstructured modelling of possible solutions, traps, processor interrupts, synchronisation, memory limitations, processor cycles, bug eradications and the like. So complex and delicate was the web that I was weaving that a simple external interruption, like the sound of a telephone, would completely wipe out hours and sometimes days of careful internal mental construction as the myriad connections and teetering layers of logic disappeared in an instant. At the best of these times hours would pass in minutes, and a successful completion of the programming task would leave me exhausted, satiated and euphoric.

I became very good at it (I actually have 6 video games to my name, for which I got paid very little). The process of taming a problem with a mixture of learned syntax and imagination made for a deeply satisfying activity, performed for its own internal beauty before it was let loose for others to inspect. It was the perfect exercise of brain and spirit.

I have also played saxophone for decades. Initially I had dreams, like all young and aspiring musicians. These were quite quickly leveled in the Los Angeles of the 80s, as  I discovered great saxophone players far more talented than I would ever be toiling in unheralded bars and clubs, cloaked in the anonymity that was likely to last their entire lives. But occasionally, when the muse smiled, and I stepped up to the mike to invent an improvised solo guided by the mandates of song structure, melody and chords, I would play something interesting, new, surprising, moving, even close to perfect, at least against my somewhat flexible standards (and the core plot point of my latest novel, Imperfect Solo). The inner experience that occurs at such moments, which happen suddenly and without warning, are exactly the same in both detail and principle as that which I experienced when writing an elegant piece of computer code. No difference at all. Realtime subconscious invention within a body of knowledge is the definition of improvisation, it requires effort and practice and some talent and the serendipity of the moment, and it is like nothing else. It is a true and unfettered description of the self.

Which arrives, unsurprisingly, at writing. Having embarked on a writing career, and having published a few novels, I was struck again by the doppelganger of coding and jazz. Writing requires long periods of solitude. It requires, to a greater or lesser extent, a body of guidelines and syntax and knowledge (how to write a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a story). But above all, it requires constant and endless improvisation as one threads together all of the elements that colour the effort – the plot, the characters, the arcs, the relationships, the underlays and overpasses that make up 300 pages of text.

Writing, it seems to me, is the ultimate in improvisation. An improvised sax solo takes minutes, a coding problem takes days, maybe weeks. A book takes months and maybe years.  And notwithstanding story notes and chapter outlines and character summaries and the rest, even for the most organised and fastidious of writers, the moment arrives where the sentence starts, and until the end of the that sentence, improvisation rules. And the next, and the next, gradually chipping and improvising away until a scaffold and then an edifice and finally a structure appears. It is something built from nothing. It is made up in our heads. It is an act of magic.

It strikes me that everyone has a talent for something.  Accounting. Graphic arts (which I tried and was found wanting).  Childrearing. Bricklaying. Engineering. Dentistry. Kindness. Pet rearing. Loyalty. Homekeeping, And it strikes that in all these endeavours, the ultimate expression of love and passion and faith and optimism is the immediacy of improvisation.

From which we emerge, occasionally.

Exhausted. Satiated. Euphoric.

A life of blight and wry humour

A life of blight and wry humour

Steven Boykey Sidley turns a mid-life crisis into an internal adventure, writes Beverley Roos Muller

MID-LIFE often arrives with the brassy blare of an off-key note – especially for those who expect to live their lives boldly and with flair. Bliss, it turns out, is ephemeral at best. To find just a single moment of perfection becomes the grail for Meyer, an alter ego of Steven Boykey Sidley, (also a saxophonist, in a band with long-time friend and author Rian Malan). Sidley has turned out three marvellous books in quick succession, of which this latest, Imperfect Solo, has pleased me most.

And what about that middle name, I ask him during his recent Cape Town visit from Joburg? “When I was born to an American mother, the midwife said, ‘What a nice boykie!’ and she loved it, so I’ve been called that ever since – do call me Boykey.”

Though, he adds, “some people find that difficult”.

And he has a point, because its juvenile playfulness has some dissonance with his author persona: witty and very bright, tussling with the surprises and uncertainties of middle age.

Also, his middle name is actually Harry, so Boykey is better PR schtick.

Sidley is calmer and more engaging that I had imagined. I’m unsurprised to find him reading a Philip Roth biography, Roth Unbound – A Writer and his Books by Claudia Pierpont, and we spend a happy few minutes discussing the writing of one of the greatest living American authors.

Sidley is fond of stating that “a book is a scaffold to excavate themes” – not dissimilar to Roth. They have both plunged into the hurly-burly of risked lives, passionate, controversial and gamechanging, but with the capacity for great kak. They’re also firm secularists. “My father was passionate about the primacy of science,” says Sidley, who went from Wits University to UCLA for his MSc, and, for two decades in the US, lived the wild child/creative/party life.

The thing is, we all think the primacy of discovery is about the exterior world until it dawns on us that our real journey is one of self-discovery, with all its mistakes and flaws, joys and tragedies. Imperfect Solo is such a journey, filled with mordant humour and blight, and characters I’d want to encounter at my ideal dinner party – preferably a little worse for wear in that marvellous interregnum when inhibitions are sufficiently dropped but guests aren’t so pasted as to descend into drivel or incoherence.

Meyer, the central character of Imperfect Solo, is in a mid-life crisis of biblical proportions. He’s forty-ish, eluding the fame his early promise portended, and his life is going south at speed. He is filled with dread – as it turns out with fair reason, as disasters stack up and gnash at his heels.

I thought of the Old Testament’s Job when reading Solo, but the book is too ironic for that simile to hold (Sidley confirms Job is not a reference he was conscious of).

Meyer’s sh*tstorm of a life steamrollers into dread actualised, but there is also some redemption.

He has simply learned to ask for little – certainly less than he might have earlier – and to be glad of the grace of the rare but perfect moment.

He also has supporters, the most engaging of which is Farzad, his Iranian, Harvard-trained psychologist friend who placidly offers dry, wise advice and who has learned to live contentedly with the paradoxes of his own existence.

Farzad is the “moral centre” of Meyer’s thrashing life, a person we’d all be lucky to have as a sturdy lifeline.

“I think men get more hopeless as we get older,” Sidley says.

“We have a set of standards of what it is to be male, and can’t live up to that, and end up flailing and battered.”

Imperfect Solo is the best of Boykey’s impressive books so far, his own voice strongly sounding out this unique solo. It’s also the one I most want to read again.

 

Imperfect Solo is published by Picador AfricaAfrica.

 

Jennifer Crocker’s Cape Times review of Imperfect Solo

 

Darkly funny, extraordinary tale about a South African living in LA who fears losing all that he loves

IMPERFECT SOLO Steven Boykey Sidley

Picador Africa

MEYER appears to have it all: an excellent job as a code writer, two nice kids, a good friend in Van (a trustafarian), an ironic shrink as a friend, two ex-wives who are pretty nice to him, an ability to lay down some mean saxophone notes and a nice house in Los Angeles.

However, he also has a bad case of dread.

His dread is all pervasive. Meyer fears illness, catastrophe, losing those he loves, he dreads his job, his fading musical abilities – the list is endless. In fact, to list his dreads is to miss the point of this quite extraordinary novel.

Sidley has written a metaphor for modern America, or for an ageing society clinging to its glories by its fingertips. And even though he is South African, albeit one who lived in Los Angeles, it’s about the slippage from grace in the post-post-modern world.

And, in a clever twist, his first wife’s name is Grace and their son is named Innocent. She’s Zimbabwean, but before you find yourself thinking that she must be black, think again: she’s the daughter of white farmers, and her and Meyer’s son is named Innocent in a sort of reverse irony.

It’s one example of how Sidley plays with parody, engaging his reader at a deep level, while frequently causing gales of laughter even amidst the saddest moments of Meyer’s life.

Meyer is a 40-year old man shadow boxing with his dread, which almost becomes a character in the book. It’s the low melody of the saxophone, the note of sadness and fear that comes for all of us when we are paying attention. Meyer hates the company he works for. He loathes the CEO and the managers and wishes that he could take something away from them, robbing them of something dear to them, all without satiating his fears with violence.

What he really wants is to draw those around him into his existential pit of despair.

He fears losing everything, and at first one is drawn into thinking that this could be a darkly funny book about a man who fears losing all he loves but instead turns out to be merely neurotic. That would be far too easy, though, because Meyer really does, like Job, have catastrophe rain down on his head.

As he tries to make sense of his life, to understand where he went wrong with his first wife Grace, to maintain his relationship with his daughter Isobel, and to limit the damage that he knows will come when he breaks up with his perfect “soon to be ex-girlfriend” things do indeed fall apart.

The dread that sidles up to him on waking every single day becomes manifest in a number of tragedies and degradations.

Sidley has transcended the trap of turning this into a bloke book by creating a cast of wonderful female characters. Grace, for instance, is hilariously funny in her observations about life. She understands Meyer and his sometimes pitiful attempts to understand why their young relationship failed, while he remains unenlightened.

In a conversation with Farzad, Meyer’s psychologist friend, the somewhat futile nature of Meyer’s attempt to understand it all plays out as Sidley demonstrates his dexterity in manipulating language and meaning. The circularity and slipperiness of understanding, is evident in this exchange between Meyer and Farzad:

“Farzad. I don’t understand women.”

“Of course you do not. Nobody understands women. Least of all psychologists. Especially male ones.”

“Bullshit. Do understand your wife?”

“Certainly – we have a simple understanding. I tell her what to do. This is built into my history and culture. Patriarchy is the only workable solution to the gender gap.”

“Does it work? Does she do what you tell her to?”

“Of course not. She is an American.”

“So what happened to your simple understanding?”

“It gets lost in the implementation.”

“So you don’t understand your wife?”

“Of course I do. We have a simple understanding.”

“Which gets lost in the implementation.”

“Exactly.”

Imperfect Solo is filled with gems of writing in the hardscrabble attempt to vocalise the dread that surrounds and becomes real in Meyer’s life.

The culmination of this book of post-post-modern, sometimes near-apocalyptic exculpation of the modern condition, plays out softly and gently: a search for grace, a sense for place and the inexplicable solitude of the journey.

Crocker is a former Cape Times books editor.

Making Friends with Writers

As a late starter writer, but a life long reader, I have always held writers (particularly novelists) in ridiculously high esteem, assuming them to be children of greater gods, if for no other reason than they could make up a story and bind it to the seemingly impossible task of spewing out 80 or 90 thousand coherent words. The best of these, the novelists who lifted me out of my mundane concerns and into some sort of state of grace, were beyond mere children of gods, they were alchemists and magicians, a state of being I believe to above the mere godly. Sometimes my life seems to have been a series of books, it seems to me now. I cannot remember much about high school. But I can remember the shattering of my heart when I read the French Lieutenant’s Woman during that period.

Then I sat down one day well beyond many an ambition’s sell-by date, and become one myself.

One of the more pleasant by-products of having written three books, and having received some small but briefly blinding sparkles of acclaim, is that I have made friends of novelists. Many of them. I had some before, serendipitous outgrowths of my lifelong friendship with Rian Malan and my marriage to writer Kate Sidley. But here was a whole new world, largely fueled  by social networks. Among them are people I was unlikely ever to have met, let alone exchanged witty and pithy comments with – Paige Nick, Edyth Bulbring, Louis Greenberg, Fiona Snyckers, Gail Schimmel, Lauren Beukes, Ken Barris, Colleen Higgs, Helen Moffet, Jassy Mckensie, Sarah Lotz, Rachel Zadok, Lisa Lazarus, Gareth Crocker, Joanne Richards, Joanne Richards, Casey Dolan, Henrietta Rose Innes, Jame Whyle Tony Wende, and damn, a whole slew of others, to whom I apologise for having left off this list.

These people have never been to my house , nor I to theirs, some I have not even met in person (all of these holes shall one day be filled). They are mainly Facebook friends, via various online book clubs of which we are all members. We digitally chat and opine and agree and disagree and discuss and question and insert small silvers of ourselves in these  exchanges, constructing  tantalising avatars as simulcra, awaiting real human connection.

I think about these people a lot. I hardly know them, on most levels. But I am obsessively interested in their lives, what they write, how they write, why they write. I am interested and  enthused by their success (surprisingly we seem not have fallen into ugly competition, everyone seems to root for everyone. I hope this doesn’t change – we swim a very small pool). I wish to assuage my own literary anxieties in our exchanges. And I do.

And amazingly. They are not gods. They are not alchemists. They are simply people who I rather like. They have things to say. And mot most importantly, they read books, they care about books. More than anything.

More than anything.

And to me, that matters.

 

That Damn List

The Damn List

Here we go again – summer holidays, the prospect of a couple of weeks of uninterrupted slothfulness. Where you reap the rewards that you imagine you deserve  – in my case sleeping, eating and reading, preferably near a beach (not on a beach – nobody actually reads on a beach). The first two of these require little forethought. Not so the third.

Because you need to make a list. Of books to read. Which you then take to the bookstore and fulfill, emerging poorer but grinning like a kid. (Or Kindle them if that is your preference. Is Kindle a verb yet?). But it is the making of the list that is the subject of this little rant. It is a nasty stressful business, sure to make you more guilt-ridden than you already are.

How stressful, you ask? Let me count the ways.

Firstly there is the not insubstantial matter of Christmas gifts. My friends know not to bother with innovative and clever gifts from unusual sources. They know I would far prefer to receive a book. And this is the rub. How do I buy books for myself when I know that I will receive a bunch more as gifts? What do you say to you eager sister-in-law on your father’s side when you remove the wrapping and find your third brand new copy of that must-have book in your hands? Do you arrange your mouth into a zig-zag Charlie Brown smile and politely say thank you (while secretly wondering how to engineer a quiet exchange)? Do you enthuse – Oh! Oh! Oh! Been dying for this. Thank you so much. How ever did you guess? (while secretly wondering how to engineer a quiet exchange)? Do you say – So thoughtful of you, but I have this already. – now piss off and don’t come back until you can find something else I don’t already own.

Fortunately this year I devised a cunning solution. I have informed all of my friends that I will not be accepting fiction gifts this year, but non-fiction is wide-open territory. This should cut down on those awkward little moments.

Secondly, there is whole recommendation mess. My wife Kate wrote a hilarious column for The Sunday Times about this some time back. She is very funny, my wife. I am unamused. How am I to choose? FT, Guardian, NPR, NYT, Washington Post, online book club recommendations, local newspapers, well intentioned friends. The Booker Prize shortlisters? If I go with the NYT, will I be accused of ignoring my local fellow-authors? If I go with The Guardian will I miss my beloved American authors? And who the hell are they to tell me anyway? For goodness sake. I am a writer. I keep up with this stuff. I know who I want to read. Don’t I? You see my problem here?

Just go to Google and type in ‘best books of 2013’. Set an alarm before you do this, because you can spend the rest of your life there. I mean reading the lists, not reading the books.

Thirdly, now upping the stress levels – genre. I gravitate towards a certain type of book, and in doing so I am always vaguely uncomfortable that I am missing out on other genres, in which I am sure there are wonderful authors. I don’t read science fiction, celebrity memoirs, magical realism, anything translated (I unfairly assume that nuances will be lost), books where the author withholds secrets and reveals them only in the last chapter in order to solve a mystery and, oh shit, I better stop here, because as I reread this I realise that my literary world is restricted enough to be almost claustrophobic, and that more in this vein and I am in danger of losing friends, and being branded as a snobby prick, which I might well be.

OK, I say, holidays are supposed to be light and fluffy affairs, antithetical to gravitas and earnest navel gazing. Go crazy. Branch out. Lighten up, you dick. Buy a book in which the pretty single widowed mother protagonist has a scary dream, after which her child develops a brain tumour, and then she gets into a fender bender with a flawed, lovelorn but handsome ex-alcoholic scientist who has his own scary dream about a baloon popping,  at which point he realises that he can cure the girl, but not before the young mom finds solace in his loneliness, and bonks him with great meaning, and then he disappears without a trace, and is then found with his hands severed and the name of a large pharmaceutical company branded on his scrotum, and we don’t know who dunnit until a deux ex machina in the last chapter, in the form of her long lost cat which suddenly re-appears, and…

Sorry, I can’t. I just can’t. I’m going stick with what I like, OK? Life’s too short.

Fourthly, there is volume. How many books? The goal here is to read the final page of the final book on the last night of the holiday. This requires great mathematical skill. You divide the total number of pages of all the books into the number of days you are away. Do some arithmetic juggling to cater for Christmas, parties, sightseeing and the inconsiderate social demands of your family and friends, and you should be able to consume close the optimum number pages a day. If you are really mathematically inclined, you can use differential calculus to wrangle calories, time of day, horniness, weather factors, and trips to the toilet into the mix to absolutely nail it to the minute.

Fifthly. Yes, fifthly. You have to write a book report. Uh huh. For all those online bookclubs you belong to. Do not try to wrangle out of this. Or else you will get moered by book people.

Have a great reading holiday.

Boykey

(BTW – so far I have Donna Tartt, James Salter, James Whyle, Nick Hornby, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (if I can find it), Nell Feudenberger’s the Newlyweds,  Rachel Kushner’s so-far truly fabulous Flamethrowers (I must slow down here, because I haven’t left for the holiday, and this book is screwing with my maths), Adele Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (if I can find it), the new Philip Meyer (still to be bought).

Oh, and any non-fiction gifts welcomed with an authentic smile…

Short Stories

Short Stories

I ask a friend for podcast recommendations to assuage the thudding boredom of stationary bike sessions, and the short attention spans of teenagers on long trips, who while away the hours with ears jammed with hearing-damaging earphones listening to stuff which I assume to be awful, as most parents unthinkingly do. Also, I recently took on an assignment which required 90 minutes of driving daily, and having exhausted the desperate efforts of SAFM and 702 and Power FM to hold my attention, am in need of more nurturing fare.

A literate friend of mine points me to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts – free and plentiful. Download onto my iPhone, plug in the Aux cable in the car (or one of at least 3 other easy electronic umbilicals), et voila – an embarrassment of riches.

But there is a difference here. Firstly, The New Yorker magazine has been, since 1925, the most prestigious publisher of short stories in the world. There was a time when a story in the New Yorker was the young writer’s slightly cracked door to the wider world of novelistic legitimacy. The story of the New Yorker editors (particularly fiction editors) are legend, and hold a great chimera for me – fiction between the thin, glossy and hallowed covers of this magazine meant greatness, and I remembered hungrily gorging on them in my two decades in the US (although I was less successful at fully understanding the droll cartoons, often beyond my cultural reference points).

So here is how it works. A famous current author is contacted by the New Yorker fiction editor, and asked to choose a short story from their voluminous archives, and to discuss the choice, then read the story, excavating it in glorious detail the nuances and textures and mysteries of the piece with the editor, currently one deeply impressive, intimidating and (if I may I be impolitic) sexy sounding Deborah Treisman.

Not any old excavation, mind you. The famous author and Treisman burrow enthusiastically and deep, turning over the meanings of sentences and and single lines of dialogue and minute descriptive details in a 10 minute orgy of literary analysis. Remember – the author chooses the piece to read, so it is not really literary criticism ( a scary field peopled by scary people) , but rather a joyous celebration of the wonder of this piece, and its author.

I have not done much reading of short stories. The exhausting investments that I have made in creating the substance for my own novels have kept me away from the bloody truth of a short story collection, which is that some author had to create a separate world, narrative, plot, characters about 10 times over, without repeating him or herself before publication. Too scary for me by half.

But I have  a new appreciation for this genre now. In longer fiction, the margin for error is perhaps a tad larger. A less than perfect sentence, a slightly tinny line on dialogue can be subsumed into the service of the greater good, its influence of excellence or lack thereof diluted by shear volume of 80,000 words. Not so in the short story, where brevity becomes its own microscope, every sentence imbued with greater meaning, fighting for survival in a small pond of possibilities.

But having sat in silent awe of the NY Fiction podcasts, narcotisised by the pure and  spangled talents of these authors ( I listened to Thomas Mcguane and VS Pritchett in the last 24 hours), and their gentle curators, I am sold.

If you love books, stories, writing – treat yourself – this is as good as it gets.