Sunday, November 17, 2002

The 1983 Granta list

The 1983 Granta list

This list defined a generation... but whatever happened to Christopher Priest and Ursula Bentley?

Sunday 17 November 2002 04.29 GMT

Martin Amis 
Pat Barker 
Julian Barnes 
Ursula Bentley
William Boyd 
Buchi Emecheta 
Maggie Gee 
Kazuo Ishiguro 
Alan Judd 
Adam Mars-Jones
Ian McEwan 
Shiva Naipaul 
Philip Norman 
Christopher Priest 
Salman Rushdie 
Lisa de Terán 
Clive Sinclair 
Graham Swift 
Rose Tremain 
AN Wilson


Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Forster's cynicism / Where Angels Fear to Tread

Forster's cynicism

Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster reviewed in the Guardian, August 30 1905

Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster
William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London

Tuesday 13 August 2002

Where Angels Fear to Tread is not at all the kind of book that its title suggests. It is not mawkish or sentimental or commonplace. The motive of the story, the contest over the possession of a child between the parent who survives and the relatives of a parent who is dead, is familiar and ordinary enough, but the setting and treatment of this motive are almost startlingly original.
EM Forster writes in a persistent vein of cynicism which is apt to repel, but the cynicism is not deep-seated. It is a protest against the worship of conventionalities, and especially against the conventionalities of "refinement" and "respectability"; it takes the form of a sordid comedy culminating, unexpectedly and with a real dramatic force, in a grotesque tragedy.
There are half-a-dozen characters in the book which count, and two of them - Mrs. Herriton, the incarnation of spotless insincerity, and Harriet, purblind, heartless, and wholly bereft of the faculty of sympathy - are altogether repellent and hence not altogether real. The other four, whatever else they may be - and they are all more or less unpleasant - are undeniably and convincingly real. It is a trick of Fortune in her most freakish mood that brings about the union of Lilis, the vulgar, shallow Englishwoman, and Gino, the courteous, shallow, and discreditable Italian.
The results of the trick are at once fantastic and inevitable. The whole is a piece of comedy, as comedy is understood by George Meredith. We wonder whether EM Forster could be a little more charitable without losing in force and originality. An experiment might be worth trying.

Saturday, June 15, 2002

Rereading / One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis

That uncertain feeling

David Lodge on the prophetic self-portrait Kingsley Amis created in his least likeable novel, One Fat Englishman

One Fat Englishman 
Kingsley Amis Gollancz

David Lodge
Saturday 15 June 2002

In 1963 I published one of the earliest articles about the novels of Kingsley Amis to appear in an academic journal. In it I discussed his first four novels, from Lucky Jim to Take A Girl Like You, but not One Fat Englishman, which came out in the same year. Nor, when I later reprinted my essay in a book, did I extend it to include consideration of that novel.
The reason for this silence was that I didn't quite know what to make of One Fat Englishman, and it certainly didn't fit the general drift of my argument. I hadn't really enjoyed reading it, and enjoyment was very much at the heart of my interest in Amis's earlier fiction. Those books, I wrote, "speak to me in an idiom, a tone of voice, to which I respond with immediate understanding and pleasure".
Lucky Jim and its successors had that effect on many readers of my generation, who came of age in the 1950s, especially those from lower-middle-class backgrounds who found themselves promoted into the professions by educational opportunity, but remained uneasy with, and critical of, the attitudes and values of the social and cultural Establishment.
The heroes of those novels were quick to identify and satirically subvert any hint of pretension, affectation, snobbery, vanity and hypocrisy in public and private life. What they stood for is most simply described as "decency", and when they didn't live up to their own code, they felt appropriate remorse.
The least ethical of these heroes, Patrick Standish in Take A Girl Like You, is balanced by the transparently decent heroine, Jenny Bunn, whose point of view complements his. Roger Micheldene, the corpulent British publisher whose adventures on a brief business trip to America are chronicled in One Fat Englishman, is a very different character. He is rude, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, treacherous, greedy and totally selfish.

While trying to revive an affair with Helene, the wife of a Danish philologist, he grabs every opportunity to copulate with other available women. His mind and often his speech are crammed with offensive observations about Jews, Negroes, women, homosexuals and Americans in general. He eats like a pig and drinks like a fish.
The story punishes Roger for his sins by submitting him to a series of farcical humiliations, and eventually he is sent home with his tail between his legs. But he is the hero, or anti-hero, of the novel, whose consciousness totally dominates it and with whom the authorial voice is rhetorically in collusion: that is to say, his obnoxious opinions and responses are articulated through the same distinctive stylistic devices that were associated with the earlier and more amiable Amis heroes.

The reader may guiltily catch himself sniggering at lines like: "At this evasion a part of Roger wanted to step forward and give Helene a medium-weight slap across the chops" or "a girl of Oriental appearance who would have been quite acceptable if she had had eye sockets as well as eyes".
In 1963, knowing nothing about Amis except through his writings, I was puzzled to know why he had taken such pains to create this vividly unpleasant character. In my memory, most reviewers were equally baffled and disappointed. Recently I picked up a second-hand copy of the first edition of One Fat Englishman, which prompted me to reread it. In the light of Amis's subsequent literary development, and all the biographical information that has emerged since his death, it seems a much more comprehensible and interesting novel - also much funnier, in its black way, than I remembered.
It now seems obvious that Roger Micheldene was in many respects a devastating and prophetic self-portrait. The character's promiscuous womanising and inordinate drinking certainly had autobiographical sources. For the novel's American setting, Amis would have been drawing on his experience as a visiting fellow at Princeton University in 1958-9, when, he informed Philip Larkin in a letter on his return: "I was boozing and fucking harder than at any time - On the second count I was at it practically full-time - you have to take what you can get when you can get it, you sam [sic]."
Amis's casual infidelities were a constant source of friction between him and his wife Hilly, but in 1962, when he would have been working on One Fat Englishman, he fell seriously in love with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom he met that autumn at the Cheltenham Literary Festival (appropriately enough as co-members of a forum on sex in literature); he commenced a passionate affair with her.
Shortly after Hilly discovered this, she accompanied Kingsley on a trip to Italy and Yugoslavia, and when he fell asleep on the beach one day, she wrote on his exposed back in lipstick: "1 FAT ENGLISHMAN I FUCK ANYTHING". (A photograph of this vengeful graffito is reproduced in Eric Jacobs's biography.) Before the novel was published, the marriage had ended.

Although Kingsley was not really fat at this time, he became so in due course, and as gluttonous as Roger Micheldene. But whereas for Roger this was an appetite that competed for priority with the sexual (at one point, having picked up a girl at a bring-your-own-picnic, he worries about "the problem of retaining contact with Suzanne without giving her anything to eat"), with Kingsley, according to his son Martin in his memoir Experience, "getting fat was more like a project, grimly inaugurated on the day Jane left him in the winter of 1980 - a complex symptom, repressive, self-isolating. It cancelled him out sexually."
One Fat Englishman was written on the cusp of Amis's ideological transformation, almost exactly halfway between the Fabian pamphlet of 1957 in which he declared his allegiance to the Labour party, and the 1967 essay, Why Lucky Jim Turned Right, which announced his conversion to conservatism. As time went on, he became more and more notorious for his politically incorrect opinions on education, war, women, and race, and domestically he enjoyed winding Martin up in this way. Many of his prejudices were anticipated by Roger Micheldene, but in the novel they have an ambivalent import because of the implied moral of the tale.
It is as if Kingsley Amis, conscious in the early 1960s of the way his values and opinions were changing, and, half-appalled himself at the process, projected them into a fictional character he could simultaneously identify with and condemn. In a curious and interesting way Roger himself is similarly divided. "Why are you so awful?" Helene asks him at a moment of post-coital candour. "Yes, I used to ask myself that quite a lot," he replies. "Not so much of late however." She finds this honesty disarming, which is exactly the effect he calculated, but it is not "just" calculation. Roger is really full of self-hatred - it is the source of the vitriolic anger he directs at almost everything and everybody in the world around him and it is hard to disagree with the judgment of the American priest, Father Colgate, absurd figure though he is: "You are in acute spiritual pain."
We take leave of Roger weeping tears he is unable to explain as his ship slides out of New York harbour, and resolving to lift his mood by surveying the shipboard totty. "Something in him was less than enthusiastic about this course of action but he resolved to ignore it. Better a bastard than a bloody fool."
Father Colgate would call that maxim "obstinacy in sin", while Jim Dixon would have turned it the other way round. One Fat Englishman is certainly a much less comfortable read than Lucky Jim, but no longer seems as inferior to it as I once thought.
· David Lodge's most recent novel is Thinks... published by Penguin





Saturday, June 8, 2002

Rereading / Jane Austen / Emma´s pride

Jane Austen

Emma's pride

AC Grayling on Jane Austen's pre-Freudian analysis of humanity and folly

Jane Austen
First published by John Murray, 1816

Saturday 8 June 2002 00.06 BST

Jane Austen painted a large universe on her "two square inches of ivory". In the narrow round of life as lived by country gentry in late Georgian times, in the interesting but even narrower margin of that epoch in young ladies' lives when they are looking about them for a husband, she found and anatomised fundamental features of human sense, pride, prejudice and sensibility.

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Fay Weldon / This much I know / There's a time and a place for everything

Fay Weldon
Fay Weldon

This much I know

There's a time and a place for everything 

Fay Weldon, 70, writer, on the lessons she has learnt in life

Jonathan Heawood
Sunday 12 May 2002 01.57 BST

There's a time and a place for everything - even incest and morris dancing - in fiction.
Therapists say you should learn to live independently after a break-up: not rush into another relationship. Are they mad? Turn your back on God's gift and it may never come again.
Children will call their teacher a fascist because he makes them do things they don't want to, and Hitler called himself a socialist. I'd always prefer a funny fascist to a serious socialist.
When I arrived in London I saw the city as a challenge. I think I've won.
In autobiography you put a kind of shape on to the life. In the first half you set all the questions, and in the second half you answer them.

Which came first, chicken or egg? The egg. You can't go to work on a chicken. Of course I didn't write Go To Work On An Egg. But it's a long and boring story and no one has the patience for it - not even me.
Yesterday's boys are today's girls, guarding their sensibilities and their virtue against predatory attack, demanding commitment, affection and babies.
True creative freedom is these days reserved for children's authors, their editors silenced and their marketing departments struck dumb by the unexpected success of Harry Potter .
The media wears you out, there's so much of it. But it's our only protection against government.
People long for literature to be pure and writers to live in garrets, but someone has to do it, someone has to be morally responsible for society, and the bishops are a bit flaky these days.
Yesterday's truth is today's lie. Ibsen gave the process 20 years and he was right. Feminism started as a revolution, succeeded, and turned into an orthodoxy.
I once killed two friends of the family by putting them in a swimming pool with a diving board but no way out. I could get addicted to playing The Sims, although the game is limited by the imagination of its creators. They have a suburban idea of luxury.

I know that I'm a real writer because sometimes I write a short story just because I want to; not because someone's told me to.
Nothing stops me writing except flu.
A little recognition always goes a long way. Getting my CBE was like a school prizegiving. We stood in a queue with the other great and good, and we chatted a lot and were asked to be quiet by the footmen. (It is possible for the great and the good to become extremely noisy.) The Queen said: 'I believe you write television plays,' and I said: 'I write anything I'm asked, Ma'am.' I have been a royalist ever since.
Women always feel the need to apologise for the weather, as if it was their fault.
I write in short paragraphs because when I began there were always children around, and it was the most I could do to get three lines out between crises.
Learn to write with a computer. I've only recently begun to use a keyboard. It happened because I read one of my own stories in an anthology of mostly American writers, and my handwritten piece seemed gnarled and twisted compared to the easy flow of the other writers who I realised all used computers. So I decided gnarled and twisted was not the path of the future. I've yet to see if it makes much difference to my style.
I would write another sponsored novel [like The Bulgari Connection] if the opportunity came and I could do it with a degree of integrity. A young male Belgian writer has just finished a book sponsored by Harley-Davidson and is getting rave reviews, so it can be done, but not often. Companies have to choose their writer very carefully.
The only historical figure I identify with is Patient Grisel in The Canterbury Tales - a forlorn and self-pitying figure who came to a bad end.
I crave nothing but constant love and attention.


Saturday, May 11, 2002

Life and style / Kathryn Williams / I look like a fish when I sing

Kathryn Williams

"I look like a fish when I sing"

Rosanna Greenstreet

Saturday 11 May 2002 01.59 BST

Kathryn Williams was born in 1974. Her father was a folk singer in the 1960s. After doing an art degree she, too, began songwriting and performing. In 1998, she set up Caw Records, and released a mini album, Toocan. The following year, her Dog Leap Stairs album won critical acclaim, and, in 2000, Little Black Numbers gained her a Mercury Music Prize nomination. She is married, and lives in Newcastle.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness isn't a continuous state: it happens in small amounts of time, and that's what keeps me going.
What is your greatest fear?
That people who love me don't love me any more.
Which living person do you most admire?
Bob Dylan as a writer, but he might be a bad person, so Arundhati Roy, who has stopped doing what she does so well to do something she believes in.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Impatience. Next question please.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Arrogance, two faced-ness, vanity.
What vehicles do you own?
A car.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I look like a fish when I sing.

Where would you like to live?
Somewhere with a garden.
What is your favourite smell?
Water boiling on a cooker (it reminds me of my gran's house).
What is your favourite fantasy?
A quiet life.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Conventional beauty.
Have you ever said 'I love you' and not meant it?
A man took me to Paris, and I came back engaged, just to be polite.
What is your greatest regret?
My gran never seeing me sing.
When and where were you happiest?
Every Saturday breakfast, reading papers, radio, Neil and the cats.
What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
A garden or a private jet.
What keeps you awake at night?
My cat standing on my chest.

How would you like to die?
Without knowing.
Do you believe in life after death?
Only when thinking about people who aren't here any more.
How would you like to be remembered?
With affection.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
TV will survive you.

Sunday, May 5, 2002

Peter Ustinov / This much I know / Children are close to the mystery of birth and old people are close to the mystery of death

Peter Ustinov

Peter Ustinov
(1921 - 2004)

This much I know

Children are close to the mystery of birth 
and old people are close to the mystery of death

Sir Peter Ustinov, 81, actor and writer, Vaud, Switzerland

Geraldine Bedell
Sunday 5 May 2002 00.47 BST

Being an exile is a huge advantage, if you handle it properly.

I have few regrets. But once, when I was making a film in Israel, I was collecting my breakfast from a buffet when I saw Ariel Sharon coming in the other direction with his tray. I stood back elegantly to let him past, and he went on like an express train. I have always regretted I didn't stick my foot out and send him and his breakfast sprawling.
Immediately I'm interested in something, I feel 10 years younger.
I only found out after my father died how consistently he had been unfaithful. He even stole a girlfriend of mine.
Children are close to the mystery of birth and old people are close to the mystery of death. Those in between are involved with the moment, so that their horizons are much nearer.
Comedy is tragedy that has gone wrong. It's one way of being serious.
When the little boys at my prep school in London wished to be unpleasant, they accused me of losing the First World War because my father was German. When they realised they'd gone too far, they claimed the German trenches had been much more sanitary than the French. But my mother was French, so it didn't really help.
An optimist is someone who realises how grim things are and resolves to try anyway; a pessimist is someone who finds it out anew every morning.
My half-Ethiopian grandmother would tell me the story of the crucifixion when I was a child on her knee. She would describe it as if she had been there, crying so copiously that the top of my pyjamas became wet with her tears and very cold. I've been suspicious of the Bible ever since.

Politicians are like milk that has been forced to float above cream.
I suspect if I'd married my third wife first I only would have been married once. But you can't tell.
Children are born completely without prejudice. So it shows that the basic material is very good.
Technology is developing so fast that the human mind is not ready to take it in. And just as in the 15th century, when explorers were discovering new lands, we are in desperate need of cartographers to make sense of it.
Russia is a country in which 60-year-olds are queueing to play Hamlet, but can't because some 80-year-old is still doing it. So if you're Russian you just carry on working.
Human beings can walk on the moon, but can't make successful airport baggage trolleys.
I tried to keep my second marriage going for so long because of the children. When it broke up, the children said to me, 'Why did you wait so long?'
Why was I always so aggressive about Mrs Thatcher? It's simple: I am a feminist and she isn't.
Education ends with death. Or after, according to your beliefs.

My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I told him I would be an actor, because it's really the same profession but less dangerous to our fellow men.
The only form of patriotism I can really stand is a feeling for the sap in your veins. I can't bear patriotism at anyone else's expense.
Tennis umpires have a code of conduct that makes no concessions to anything other than the stiff upper lip. Why shouldn't a man break his racket if he wants? It's his racket.
How do actors learn their lines? I've played King Lear twice, at four-and-a-half hours a time, and I still don't know.
At school we were asked to name a Russian composer on a general-knowledge paper. The answer was Tchaikovsky, because we had been studying him. I put Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and I was upbraided in front of the whole school for showing off.
The English believe the Germans don't have a sense of humour. But they do; it's just more intellectual.
There was a picture up in my first school of Jesus Christ pointing out the extent of the British Empire. No one would dream of putting up such a picture today, so it shows there is progress.
What would I like on my tombstone? Keep off the grass.