Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Barossa Street

 I finished the final draft of Barossa Street, the follow-up to Cuddies Strip tonight.

Bob Kelty, having recently resigned his commission with the Perth City Police force, immediately becomes embroiled in another murder investigation when he discovers the brutality murdered body of Hugh Smithson in a house in Barossa Street, Perth.

Once more, Bob finds himself operating alone, with the police seemingly content to pin the blame on Richard Hamill, an early suspect in the Cuddies Strip murders the previous years.

Set against the backdrop of the death of King George V and the ensuing abdication crisis, plus the looming threat of war and despotism in Europe, Barossa Street follows Bob's attempts to prove that Richard is innocent and to bring the culprit to justice.

Barossa Street will be published later this year.



Saturday, 17 April 2021

CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Longlist

I'm delighted to have been nominated for this year's Crime Writers' Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for the best first novel published in the year for my novel Cuddies Strip.

The Cuddies Strip website is here.

Copies of Cuddies Strip can be purchased here.


Cuddies Strip by Rob McInroy


Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck reviewed by Rob McInroy

The Grapes of Wrath divided opinion when it was first published. Some declared it a masterpiece, others dismissed it as crude propoganda. Charles Angoff, in his contemporaneous review, noted: 

There should be rejoicing in that part of Hell where the souls of great American imaginative writers while away their time, for at long last a worthy successor to them has appeared in their former terrestrial abode. With his latest novel Mr. Steinbeck at once joins the company of Hawthorne, Melville, Crane, and Norris, and easily leaps to the forefront of all his contemporaries. [The Grapes of Wrath] has all the earmarks of something momentous, monumental, and memorable: universal compassion, a sensuousness so honestly and recklessly tender that even the Fathers of the Church would probably have called it spiritual; and a moral anger against the entire scheme of things that only the highest art possesses. 

High praise indeed, but it wasn’t all uncritical acclaim: the novel was banned in Kansas and in Kern County, California (location of the Weedpatch camp in which the Joads stayed in the novel). In St Louis not only was it banned but the librarian was ordered to burn copies that had already been purchased. H. Kelly Crockett, a student in Oklahoma at the time of the novel’s publication, recalled in an article twenty years later that a common criticism of the novel at the time was that it was propogandist and, once the situation that had called into being the events it portrayed had been overcome, it would be read merely as a historical curiosity. 

Crockett’s conclusion, after twenty years, was that this had proved not to be the case and the novel retained its literary power. Seventy-plus years on, is that still the case? The fortunes of any novel wax and wane, and such is the case for The Grapes of Wrath. A largely positive review by Edward Galligan of the 1989 fiftieth anniversary reprint still balked at “purple prose, melodramatic plotting, and sentimental thinking” and enough “hamminess” to make us “gag at the prospect of rereading it.” Today, then, while Steinbeck is still read, it is mostly Of Mice and Men, while The Grapes of Wrath is perhaps out of favour. I would suggest that, for all the novel’s faults, this is a pity. 

Frank Eugene Cruz suggests that most criticism of the novel categorises it in one of four ways – as a story of migration, a recasting of Christian themes and motifs, a work of social protest or a powerful, sentimental epic. And the latter three representations are, in part, responsible for some of the ambivalence with which we tend to confront the book today. The Christian moralising and socialist rhetoric which some discern in it are too didactic: and it is true that, at times, Steinbeck batters us with his message where some subtlety would have been more effective. The unfairness, for example, of the way the farm owners used the surplus of men to drive down pay does not become any more unfair because we read of it three or four or five or six times: it was unfair the first time and the reader could have been trusted to intuit that. And the sentimentality that gives rise to Edward Galligan’s gagging at the prospect of re-reading it is certainly an issue. But, nonetheless, I would argue that The Grapes of Wrath is a great novel. 

What makes it so, for me, is the interconnectedness of those different categories that people ascribe to it. It is all of the things that people have described it as, but it is all of them in combination. If it can be read as a Christian narrative, then it is a highly political Christian narrative, as Stephen Bullivant demonstrates when he points to the novel’s connection of being a “red” with Jesus Christ, in the form of Jim Casy. Similarly, Stephen Railton suggests that Steinbeck’s use of Christianity, in the form of Casy, is a way of insinuating a revolutionary vision of militant socialism. Railton appears to posit this as a criticism, but for me the way the novel gives religious ideas political resonances is one of its great strengths. In any case, politics and religion are backdrops in the novel – essential, unavoidable, but backdrops nonetheless – and the central message is neither purely political nor religious, but rather about the nature of humanity and the need for community. And that transcends everything. 

While there is a strongly religious element to The Grapes of Wrath, it is not straightforward. Stephen Bullivant notes a letter from Steinbeck to his editor in which he states that he wants “all all all” the verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to be printed at the start of the novel. The repeated alls demonstrate that he is adamant on the point and Bullivant therefore makes a study of the complete song in order to understand why. He notes particularly the final verse: 

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make me free,

While God is marching on. 

Bullivant is drawn to the third line, noting that, in religious terms, the concept of dying “to make men free” is novel. Martyrdom, in the Gospels, is a transcendent event rewarded by personal salvation; “making men free” suggests more of an immanent event. Such notions, of course, would have appalled social conservatives such as Eric Voegelin or Leo Strauss, suggesting, for them, the hubris of mankind, but there is nothing hubristic about The Grapes of Wrath. Far from it, there is a deep note of pessimism sounding throughout it. It may be replete with Christ figures – Casy, Tom, even Rose of Sharon – but the freedom granted by Jesus’s death is still, in Steinbeck’s vision, a highly qualified one. 

Tamara Rombold gives a persuasive account of inversions of the Bible story throughout The Grapes of Wrath, from the superb depiction of drought in the first chapter (an inversion, she argues, of the Creation story) to Exodus (unlike the Israelites who were spared the plagues, the Oklahoma drought blights everyone), to Moses in the bullrushes (Rose of Sharon’s baby cast dead into the water) to the final scene, after the apocalypse of the flood, with Rose of Sharon in the barn with the starving man, reminiscent of Isiaiah, and the New Heavens and the New Earth. 

Rombold then draws on Jim Casy’s soujourn in the wilderness “like Jesus”, in which he realises the call of a new spirit, which he calls love. She makes persuasive allusions to Casy’s Christ-like behaviour in his arrest and death scenes. Curiously, though, she makes no mention of probably Casy’s most important speech, just prior to his death. In this, Casy himself makes an inversion of Jesus’s walk into the wilderness. The truth isn’t in the wilderness, says Casy, it is here, in the community, among the people. This is where he finds his soul. An this resonates clearly with Tom, of course, because it forms the basis of much of his later conversation with Ma Joad (and this exchange is related by Rombold), in which he reveals his intention to leave and follow Casy’s example, leading the community against the travails forced on them by the system. Thus, we have in Casy and Tom, two representation of Jesus. Casy, the pure-of-heart lover of humanity, a man who dies for his beliefs, is an earthly Jesus figure, preaching virtue and honesty and decency. Tom is at once his disciple and a symbol of the risen Christ, the one who is “with you always, even unto the end of the world” as it is written in Matthew. Or, as Tom says to Ma: 

“Then it don’t matter. Then I’ll be aroun’ in the dark. I'll be ever’where - wherever you look. Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build - why I’ll be there.” 

Casy, then, can be seen as Jesus, while Tom is Christ. And the gospel they preach is a radical one. As Casy says to Tom: 

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things people do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say . . . What is this thing called sperit? ... It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust sometimes - an’ I want to make them happy - maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” 

For all that, though, I don’t believe The Grapes of Wrath should be read as a Christian novel. It is, if anything, a humanist novel. There are clear Christian resonances, and central characters may be comparable with Christ-figures, but that is because the fundamental tenets of Christian religion such as fairness, sense of community and so on, borrowed as they are from pre-Christian Platonic thought, are equally relevant to modern humanist belief. And so you might consider the novel christian, in the sense of evoking an ideal of human decency, but not Christian, as in following the doctrinal beliefs of any Church of Christ. As Casy says, “Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus?” Thus, the titular grapes of wrath are not those of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but the spirit inside man which will rise against oppression and exploitation. Casy is no longer a Preacher of God but remains, throughout, a preacher of men for men. 

Similarly, despite its sometimes overwhelming didacticism, in the end The Grapes of Wrath is not a political novel either. Politics is simply a by-product of Steinbeck’s true interest, which is human nature and human beings, the human community. In the 1930s, the prevailing difficulties which beset humanity were political, and that is therefore what he wrote about. It is Ma Joad who makes one of the novel’s most telling points: “Use’ ta be the fambly was fust. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody.” And earlier, she says: “I’m learnin’ one thing good. Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.” 

Warren Motley, writing in 1982, complains that much of the novel’s critisism until then had focused on Casy and Tom as the core of the film and that the central role of Ma Joad in explaining the family’s gradual realisation of the need for community and cooperation is underplayed. I would agree, and I suggest that Ma Joad is one of the great characters of American fiction. She develops throughout the novel and her gradual assumption of both actual and moral control over her family is beautifully drawn. She is superb. Motley draws on the writing of Robert Briffault to explain the sense of matriarchy as exemplified by Ma Joad’s growing sense of authority over her clan as defining a relationship of cooperation, as opposed to the typical patriarchal relationships based on power. And it is through this that one can sense a note of optimism in a largely pessimistic book: 

“Why, Tom,” she says, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people - we go on.” 

And what a wonderful rallying cry that is.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, 2 November 2020

The Ten Percent by Simon McLean

 

The Ten Percent by Simon McLean reviewed by Rob McInroy

In The Ten Percent, Simon McLean, a former police officer with Strathclyde Police, takes a wry and witty look back on his long and eventful career. From callow beginnings, being sent to Campbeltown when only vaguely aware of where it was, to leading experimental attempts to quell the tsunami of drug misuse that overwhelmed Glasgow, Simon McLean threw everything into his work. He progressed quickly, becoming a weel-kent face in Campbeltown and showing he wasn’t going to be given the runaround by anyone. His investigatory skills were noticed by his superiors and at a very young age he was made a detective and later joined the Serious Crime Squad. There, he dealt with many difficult and traumatic cases but the black humour famously present among those who work in trying circumstances – police, fire and rescue, the medical profession etc – means that the stories are told in an engaging and involving way. Interspersed are many extremely funny tales, many of which – this being the west of Scotland – revolve around copious consumption of alcohol.

What we get in the book is a picture of a dedicated and proficient officer, someone who gave his all for the job and wouldn’t accept compromise but, equally, someone determined to enjoy every moment and seek fun and adventure in life.

The Ten Percent is a rattling good read, at times hilarious and at other times unbearably poignant. It is perfect for a cold, long winter’s evening, by the fire, with a dram close by.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks reviewed by Rob McInroy

Cloudsplitter is a remarkable novel, notable for two superb characterisations – the narrator, Owen Brown, and his father, the infamous John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame. It takes the form of a series of reminiscences from an ageing (ultimately dying) Owen, to a researcher who came to visit him in his hermitage in the mountains of California to ask him about his father. Through these reminiscences, Owen seeks to understand both his father and himself, and to come to some form of redemption.

The characterisation is extraordinary. Firstly, John Brown himself: he is one of the most contradictory, inexplicable men in American history, a man obsessively focused on the ending of slavery, to the extent where he turned to extreme violence as a means of forcing change. Fiercely religious, Brown lived an Old Testament existence, likening himself to Abraham and his son to Isaac, and ruling his family with iron discipline. And yet this man was a maze of contradictions: he devoted much of his time to failed attempts in business and property, as a result of which his family were constantly on the move, evading debtors, and yet his love for his family – most notably shown during the frequent deaths of his many children – was profound and genuine. He was a man of warmth who was capable of cold-blooded murder, a failed businessman who studied the arts of war, a simple man who could use oratory to inspire others to almost lunatic levels of devotion. He regarded most white liberals as weak and hypocritical – their espousal of abolitionist causes was not backed by action and they would, Brown was certain, never risk themselves for the sake of black men. That made them almost as despicable as the pro-slavers of the south. Brown’s was a world of absolutes. 

It is unsurprising that such a contradictory man should be so difficult to pin down. Banks himself noted in an interview that in the 1960s he was a hero of the left, but by the 1980s: 

he had become an emblem of the radical right, the malicious, the radical anti-abortionists and other kinds of homegrown terrorists. It seemed therefore that he was a figure for all time, in the United States at least. 

Banks, of course, is using history as a prism through which to observe modern America. Racial conflict remains and John Brown, with his absolutist certainty, his espousal of violence as a justifiable means to an end, forces the impartial observer to take a stance. Banks notes that Brown: ‘stood upon that spot in American culture where the fractures of race and violence and religion all cross.’ These are the themes Banks has consistently addressed in his works, and in John Brown he has found the perfect vehicle for his exploration. 

But this is not simply the story of John Brown. Banks himself describes it as ‘the story of a family’, and the Brown family are drawn in all their extraordinary depth and richness. The principal character, of course, is Owen, the narrator, and here, again, Banks demonstrates a depth of understanding of human nature that is extraordinary. Owen is every bit as complex as his father, and it is he, ultimately, who forces the Browns over the border of legitimate protest into murder and terrorism, ‘becoming terrible’, as he describes it. The whole novel is Owen’s attempt to reconcile the guilt he feels now, near death, with the anger and fervency which led him to the terrible acts at Pottawatomie, where the Browns hacked to death five innocent men in retribution for the pro-slavers’ sacking of the town of Lawrence. 

But it is Owen’s relationship with Lyman Epps, a black free man, which is at the heart of this book and which gives it a remarkable depth. Banks is enigmatic on the point of Owen’s sexuality – the historical record reveals nothing conclusive – but the open-ended way he deals with it is powerful. There is no doubt that Owen’s relationship with Lyman is intense and that Owen himself has difficulty understanding his feelings. They experience a ‘difficult intimacy’. He transfers those feelings to Owen’s wife and convinces himself that, in fact, he loves her, but this conviction is not steady and, ultimately, Owen admits that his attraction lies elsewhere. He writes: 

I now knew, for instance, that my thwarted love for Susan [Lyman’s wife] was my love for Lyman gone all wrong, fatally corrupted by guilt and envy. I did not want to love her – I did not love her at all – so much as I wanted to neutralize my powerful feelings for Lyman. For they had frightened me: they were unnatural; they were the unavoidable consequence of a manly love finding itself locked inside a white man’s racialist guilt, of Abel’s sweet, brotherly trust betrayed by Cain’s murderous envy. 

And this is where the novel gains its strength. For Owen, fervent abolitionist, the most ardent of his father’s supporters in the struggle to free the black man, cannot reconcile his love for Lyman with their respective skin colours. This man who takes such drastic action in the name of equality cannot overcome the fact of his whiteness and Lyman’s blackness. At one point, he writes: ‘But I was the man who had never been able to forget that Lyman ... was black.’ It is a physical fact and it comes between them. Banks does not offer glib answers because these are complex issues. In the end, Owen’s self-loathing is part of what drives him to do what he does. 

The book is rich in detail. At over 600 pages it creates and evokes a time long past with uncanny quality. There are terrible events – the Brown family lose their first mother and a number of the children in early childhood; Owen’s brother, Fred, castrates himself, tragedy surrounds them – and there is stomach-churning violence, particularly in the events at Pottawatomie. But these are anchored in the narrative and they help to create this cast of extraordinary characters, whose inhumanity is rooted paradoxically in the most profound humanity.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Indignation by Philip Roth

Indignation by Philip Roth reviewed by Rob McInroy
Add caption
There are a few very common errors that new writers make with point of view. Notably, with first person narratives, they allow a character to have knowledge of events they couldn’t possibly know about because they weren’t there. Or stories veer from POV to POV with dizzying speed so that the reader loses track of whose mind we are supposed to be in. Or the great howler that really shows up a beginner writer: the narrator dying before the end. 

On page 54 of Philip Roth’s Indignation, the narrator quietly advises us that he’s already dead. Oh dear. But this is Philip Roth, so it’s obviously intentional, isn’t it? And all rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? It’s what the postmodern is all about, after all. Maybe so. I hate so-called rules of creative writing, especially ones beginning with “Don’t”, which is a word guaranteed to make this particular contrarian reach for the “do”. There is, to my mind, only one rule in creative writing: if there is a reason why you should do something, then you must do it. 

So, is there a reason why the narrator of Indignation should already be dead? Yes, but it’s a qualified yes. It’s a yes given with a heavy heart, because I fear I may be falling prey to the “great writer” syndrome and giving Roth more latitude than I would a new or beginner writer. Indignation is a compulsively readable book but it is nowhere near as powerful as it thinks it is. The fact that the narrator is dead is not the cause of this weakness, but it does bring the flaws to the fore. 

The narrator is Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy in the 1950s raging against conformity and its strictures and making plans to avoid the imminent danger of the Korean War. His father is sliding into a paranoid condition in which he sees danger in every mundane moment and his over-protectiveness drives Markie out of the family home to a college as far away from Newark as he can find. He fetches up in Winesburg, Ohio. And here his troubles really begin. 

Markie is not someone inclined to compromise. His social skills are not well developed. He finds it difficult to empathise or to see anything from another’s perspective. Aloof and alone, he shuns offers of friendship, refusing to join the campus fraternities who queue up to recruit him. All of this is grimly familiar to me: when I was at school, one of my reports stated that I was “diffident in relationships with his peers.” I was more proud of that statement than anything else in my entire school career, continually rolling the phrase around my palate and savouring its meaning like a fine wine. For the outsider to be identified as an outsider is the greatest possible accolade. 

But, of course, there is ultimately something nihilistic about such an approach. It becomes a life lived in negative, with progress ranked and rewarded by absence, the privileging of solitude over community. “No, I won’t do that,” becomes the clarion call. “I will do things by myself. I will neither seek nor offer assistance.” Thus, although he is commonly described as “the nicest boy in the world”, Markie is not, in fact, an especially likeable person and this becomes problematic within the structure of the novel, focused as it is on Markie’s death. Throughout the novel, Markie has forced himself into an emotional bubble and it is difficult for the reader’s emotions to penetrate his sense of isolation and in so doing extend great pity for a life extinguished almost before it is allowed to begin. For the novel to have at its structural core the death of the protagonist, there must be a sense of gradually increasing emotional attachment to him. But Markie Messner does everything he can to ensure that does not happen. 

This feels to me a significant fault in the novel. By locating Markie in Winesburg, Ohio, Roth is clearly suggesting a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 story collection of that name. And superficially there are resonances, to be sure. The characters of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are insular, solipsistic people who crave but cannot sustain human relationships. Markie would fit in with these grotesques very well. But, ultimately, at least some of Anderson’s poor, stilted people find some way of connecting with one another. Like the beautiful losers of Carson McCullers's novels, through their loneliness they still, somehow, sometimes, make the spark of human connection. Markie Messner, despite opportunities, never quite does.

Most signifantly, Roth's depiction of Markie's relationship with the fragile Olivia is flawed. Olivia, a suicidal young woman with distressingly low self-esteem, has the potential to be a great character. Indeed, she is far and away the most interesting person in the novel. But in the end she is poorly served by Roth, who cannot get inside her head convincingly. It could be argued, I acknowledge, that the novel is not about Olivia and if Roth were to focus more on her it could compromise the thematic integrity of the whole. Granted, but nonetheless a great novel would find a way to integrate Olivia’s story into the narrative more effectively. After all, in a novel where the smallest mistakes have the gravest consequences, the damaged Olivia’s serial catastrophes offer a striking counterpoint to Markie’s: where Markie’s need to succeed fuels his increasing insularity, it is an overwhelming need for love which drives Olivia. 

That fragility could be heartbreaking. It is hard not to read Olivia and think of Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s  The Bell Jar. Alas, for Roth, the comparison is not favourable. There is nothing of the intensity of Esther in Olivia. The reader cannot make the same emotional investment in her. That Olivia’s tragedy is part of Markie’s tragedy and that Markie’s tragedy is part of our tragedy – Everyman approaching everydeath – should form the philosophical bedrock of the novel. Instead, the pathos of Olivia is replaced, near the novel’s ending, by the bathos of the great panty raid, a scene which is extremely funny but wholly out of sympathy with the emotional direction at that stage of the novel. If the two plot elements had even been transposed so that the panty raid preceded the denouement with Olivia it might have worked. As it is, Olivia is cast into an oblivion she doesn’t deserve and the novel loses its way. 

This is a pity, because there is a genuine profundity to Indignation which, if we were allowed easier access to the spirit of its protagonist, would make it a great work. Most of Roth’s late fiction has been obsessed by death, and Indignation is clearly part of his process of seeking an accommodation with mortality. In this he is telling us, of course, that it isn’t possible to isolate oneself in a bubble. Reality will interrupt. Life will happen. Mistakes will be made. Chance will intervene. To read Philip Roth is to understand that death will arrive, sooner or later, and there is no escape, neither for the optimist nor the pessimist, for the bon viveur or the curmudgeon, the insider or the outsider. Markie makes a mistake. It is a small mistake, trivial. Nowadays it would not even be a mistake, simply a choice made by a rational being. But in 1951, in Winesburg, Ohio, it is a mistake that leads to his death at the age of 19. And that is heartbreaking. But such is life.

 

 

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker reviewed by Rob McInroy
Add caption

 

In my review of Madame Bovary, I stated that the link between reader and text becomes paramount, more so even than the link between reader and writer: once the writer has done his or her job and completed the text, their work is done. Patricia Duncker's brilliant Hallucinating Foucault attempts to present an alternative view, proposing an explicit connection between reader and writer, fashioned by the text, which acts as some form of conduit for that passage of intellectual interaction. 

Hallucinating Foucault is a remarkable text, postmodern in the sense that it plays with perceptions of narrative yet operating within a wholly realist framework. It focuses on a fictional French author, Paul Michel, and his relationship with the genuine French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Sanity/insanity, community/isolation, love/loss, sex/death: these are the binary opposites which this novel explores. Add the tension between writer and reader and we have an extraordinary novel, a mere 178 pages which manages to present an astonishing amount of thought-provoking matter without ever losing the narrative drive one might expect from a more straightforward thriller. 

Given the title of the novel, the subject matter I describe above should not come as a surprise: Michel Foucault once said: “Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” Although he never actually appears in Hallucinating Foucault, he is nonetheless a principal character in it, and indeed he is the pivot around which the whole narrative swings. While madness suffuses Hallucinating Foucault, for Foucault himself it was relative. Indeed, he saw it as a social construct and thus subject to differing diagnoses according to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. We should expect, then, a nuanced analysis of insanity in any novel bearing his name, and this is indeed what we get in Hallucinating Foucault. 

The unnamed narrator is a postgraduate student from Cambridge University whose doctoral thesis is on the fiction of Paul Michel. Initially, he takes the same view as me, that the author is irrelevant and everything is in the text. For that reason, his PhD subject is to be a study of the novels, not the novelist. Indeed, when he finally meets the novelist in person he makes this point to him forcibly, even as his actions are beginning to give the lie to his words. 

Michel, we are told, was previously susceptible to unprovoked violent outbursts and finally succumbed to a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown in 1968 whereafter he had been secured in a variety of mental institutions. As the novel begins, the narrator meets a young woman, The Germanist, whose doctoral research area is Schiller but who appears to have a detailed knowledge of Michel, too. Together, the pair grow more interested in the fate of the mysterious author, and The Germanist persuades the narrator to travel to France to track him down. Thus begins the main element of the narrative. What follows is a beautiful and painful meditation on truth and narrative and love and loss. 

Once in France, the narrator begins in Michel’s archive, where he uncovers a series of letters to Foucault which seem to indicate some strong relationship between the two. Ultimately, however, the narrator realises that these letters were never sent. He tracks Michel down to a mental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand and visits him. After a tricky start, the two become increasingly close, to the extent that, after a few weeks, the authorities agree that Michel can be released from the hospital on licence for two months. They travel to Nice, where they begin a sexual relationship and the story develops towards its climax. 

It gradually becomes a study of alienation and isolation and disconnection. At one point, discussing loneliness, Michel tells the narrator of: “the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference.”  As such, Michel refuses to conform in any way. Even his homosexuality must be manifested in the way of an outsider: not for him the jeans and white tee-shirt uniform of the bar-room gays. He "didn't give a shit what other people thought", we are told, and he would promenade on the beach with his arm round the narrator or kiss him as the mood took him. James Purdy, that old curmudgeon of American letters, would have been proud of him. 

So we have madness, love, isolation, truth: all of this could become a bit of a mess unless there is something to hold it together So what does? As I have said, Foucault is the pivot of the novel and, in particular, one might usefully turn to his approach to the concept of parrhesia, “frankness” or “free speech”. This was a central notion in Foucault’s understanding of the mechanics of power and social inter-relationships. Two forms of parrhesia may be said to exist, and it is the second which is of particular interest in this novel. The first, political parrhesia, can be seen in the novel in Foucault’s and Michel’s participation in the riotous events of 1968, in which they spoke out against the prevailing culture and for the counter-culture. But it is the second form, philosophical parrhesia, which dominates the novel. In any analysis of power, there must be frank discourse. As Edward McGushin explains in his superb analysis of Foucault: 

Ethical/philosophical parrhesia is a form of discourse that takes place in the context of care of the self. Ethical parrhesia is poetic in the sense that its purpose is to transform individuals – both those who speak it and those who listen to it. But the notion of parrhesia, especially in its philosophical form, challenges us to rethink the concept of truth. 

And this is what we see in the relationships in this novel – the Germanist and the narrator, the narrator and Michel, Michel and Foucault and so on. There is truth-telling and there is concealment. True parrhesia will not allow concealment and so these relationships, however loving, are compromised. Nonetheless, they are borne of courage and there is something noble and beautiful about them. Foucault himself might have approved. 

As well as this, the narrative is a vehicle for an exploration of the bond between writer and reader. For Paul Michel, that reader is personified by Michel Foucault, to whom he writes those unsent letters. “You ask me what I fear most,” he says in one of the letters, and explains that it is “the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” Later, we discover that there was another, equally important and this time genuine reader, “his English reader”. These are the people to whom Michel addresses his fiction. The message he relates is difficult. His prose is described by the narrator as emotionally detached. It contrasts with his true nature, he chides, which is much more open and friendly: “you’re the most passionate man I’ve ever met. And you’re nothing like what you write.” 

The pellucid nature of his prose is neatly mirrored by Duncker’s own, the novel being narrated in an unadorned and unaffected way. What emerges is a love story that transgresses the norms of society and is all the deeper for that. 

In the end, though, I still hold to my view that the author is irrelevant. Talking of her novel, Duncker says: “I wanted it to be a love story... to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” The second sentence is undeniably true and I can empathise with it: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, reading those novels as a teenager changed my life. But that sentiment doesn’t logically follow from her first sentence: the love is between readers and texts, not writers. I have no interest in Hardy, Grass or Marquez; something compelled them to write works of literature which resonate with me very powerfully, but it is the text, not the impulsion within the writer that connects with me. In Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker tries very hard to draw the writer into the narrative. It is beautifully done. It is indeed a fine love story. It resonates, it will linger long in the mind. But, in the end, that is the point: Hallucinating Foucault will linger in my mind. Not Patricia Duncker.

 

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

 

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield reviewed by Rob McInroy
Add caption

This little collection, part of a Penguin Books series, “Great Loves”, brings together eight short stories from three of Katherine Mansfield short story collections. The stories collected here are: “Something Childish But Very Natural”; “Feuille d’Album”; “Mr and Mrs Dove”; “Marriage à la Mode”; “Bliss”; “Honeymoon”; “Dill Pickle”; and “Widowed”. And what a beautiful collection it is. 

I find Katherine Mansfield’s style utterly beguiling and completely intriguing. Her stories are so simple, hardly stories at all really, just vignettes, little slices of life, and yet there is such an astonishing depth to them. Her characters are lovely creations, so fragile and vulnerable and human. You ache for them, for the quiet sadness of their existence, for the failed ideas and lost hopes, for the brittle confidence and stoic resignation. You long for them to be able to communicate, one with the other, to convey their true feelings and allow those feelings to inform their actions. You share their desolation when love, as it so often does, founders. These stories are wonders. 

Mansfield herself was dissatisfied with her short stories. She said: 

I've been a selective camera, and ... my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive. 

I think she is being unnecessarily hard on herself here. While many of her stories end in great unhappiness, there is nothing malicious in them. On the contrary, the stories are designed to allow us, the impartial readers and observers of these people’s misfortunes, to assess what might be done to remedy those misfortunes. They are, then, entirely hopeful and honest endeavours. 

Shortly before her death (at the very early of 34, from tuberculosis), she wrote witheringly of her friends in London who:  

have come to an agreement not to grow any more, to stay just so – all clipped and pruned and tight. As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact –no, a thousand times! 

And this, it seems to me, is the key to her work. There is a serious and earnest searching for something in these stories, some understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive, to be in love.