Lanark: A Life in Four Acts, by Alasdair Gray

Written between 1954 and 1976, though not published until 1981, Lanark is the second book most mentioned by readers responding to an article in The Guardian asking for the best post-war British novel. Under the Volcano was the first.

Half of this book is a coming-of-age story of Duncan Thaw in pre-war Glasgow, an unsurprising account of the usual obsessions of the young men in such tales: sex, embarrassment, sex, trying to impress other men, sex, girls, fame, sex. Only willing to do the schoolwork that interests him (art, literature, and history), he is the despair of his widower father, whose highest ambition for his son is that he get a steady job while Duncan’s own dream is to create the greatest artwork his city has ever seen.

The other half of the book is a post-modern fable about Lanark, a young man who finds himself in the city of Unthank, which happens to resemble Glasgow, where he mopes about and wishes he had friends. Time plays strange tricks in this alternate world where the sun never shines except, occasionally, for a brief moment at dawn. Lanark, however, is as unsurprised and accepting of the bizarre jumps in time as he is of all the other fantastic happenings in Unthank.

While waking up as a loner in Unthank, with stones and shells in his pockets and as desperate for sunlight as for a woman to love, is certainly better than waking up as cockroach, Lanark finds misery enough. Beset by forces he doesn’t understand, meeting the same people over and over in different guises, he sometimes seems as hapless and innocent as Candide. As he tangles with the powers that run the place—the Council, the mysterious Institute where he is confined, and various mega-corporations—he begins to grasp the so-far elusive rules of the game that is his life.

Like the Lowry book, this is one I probably would have liked better if I’d read it when I was in college, immersed in existentialism and still new to the narrative tricks Gray plays here. By now I’ve read too many Bildungsroman, I guess, and listened to too many people describe bad trips. I’ve seen too many abuses of power and too much of the blind apathy of those abused.

Still, I must recognise and pay tribute to the imaginative brilliance that holds the book together and kept me reading to the end. Maybe it is just the wrong time of year to read this story, now when the daffodils fill the hillsides with sunlight and the tulip magnolias lift great armfuls of creamy pink blossoms to the cerulean sky.

The Wayfarer (Kojin), by Natsume Soseki

Although this novel starts off with young Jiro, who is on his way to Osaka to meet a friend with whom he plans spend a vacation climbing Mt. Koya, the story is really about Jiro’s brother Ichiro. One of Soseki’s later novels, it was written during 1912-3 and appeared as a serial in Asahi, a large daily newspaper. Thus each of the four parts is divided into multiple short sections, each one standing alone as a short short story and yet tied to the others by the overall narrative arc and theme. Scenes are carried over between sections, so that each acts almost as an enjambed line of poetry. This fracturing of the story reinforces Soseki’s exploration of the chaos of modern life.

In Osaka, Jiro stays with a happily married couple, the man being a distant relation, while he waits for his friend Misawa to join him. Jiro has also been charged with meeting and assessing a man who has asked to arrange a marriage with a woman under the care of Jiro’s parents. These events and the stories told by Misawa once Jiro catches up to him—one of a divorced woman and one of a geisha—seem at first unrelated to the second part of the book, when Jiro’s mother, brother and sister-in-law arrive in Osaka on a spur-of-the-moment vacation and carry Jiro off to Wakayama.

However, it gradually becomes clear that marriages good and bad, arranged and romantic are constants in this narrative. Suffering from a kind of existential crisis, Ichiro’s marriage to Nao is in trouble. Ichiro even suspects that his feckless younger brother Jiro has been carrying on with Nao, and voices despairing references to Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s Inferno. The third part of the book covers the period after they all return to Tokyo from their travels. As Ichiro and Nao’s marriage continues to deteriorate, Nao is tight-lipped, refusing to argue or complain, while Ichiro seems close to a nervous breakdown.

The fourth part, in an odd break that Soseki manages to smooth over, is narrated, not by Jiro like the first three, but by a friend of Ichiro’s who has accompanied Jiro’s brother on further travels in the hopes of saving him. This friend has found his comfort in religion and recounts, in a long letter to Jiro, the discussions he has had with Ichiro about religion, marriage and Nietzsche.

This summary may make the book sound like a domestic drama, but it is far more, infused as it is with Soseki’s persistent theme of the anguish associated with the shift from Japan’s feudal past to a modern society. Both Ichiro and Nao try to find space for their independent concerns within the restrictions of their arranged marriage and the world of Ichiro’s conservative parents. Ichiro and Nao strive to become, as we would say today, self-actualised, caught between the formalised order of the past—church, state and family—and the new individualism, rejecting prescribed solutions. Ichiro says at one point, “‘To die, to go mad, or to enter religion—these are the only three courses left open for me.'”

The book was the more interesting to me in that I had just reread Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and was curious to see those ideas played out in the lives of ordinary people. The characters I found most interesting, though, were the women: Ichiro’s wife Nao who could not go wandering off like her husband to seek consolation for her existential angst, the demented woman in Misawa’s story who clutched after her long-divorced husband, Jiro’s sister Oshige for whom he is tasked with finding a husband. Perhaps I will write more about Soseki’s female characters in another post.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

I don’t think I ‘d ever even heard of this novel before seeing it named by many people in response to an article in The Guardian asking for the best post-war British novel. First published in 1948 though taking him over ten years to write, it is set in and around the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, based on Cuernavaca where Lowry lived with his first wife. I expect that Under the Volcano has often been compared to Ulysses since it covers one day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin—usually referred to by his title, the Consul, though he has recently resigned—and that day’s experiences seem to embody not only the Consul’s entire life, but the lives of an entire generation, perhaps western civilisation itself.

The Consul is an alcoholic and most of the stream-of-consciousness narrative takes place within his mind. On this day, 2 November, the Day of the Dead, the Consul emerges from a night of drinking with a new acquaintance, a local doctor named Vigil, to find that his estranged wife, Yvonne, whose loss he has grieved and used to justify his continued drinking, has unexpectedly returned. A phrase that recurs to the Consul often is No se puede vivir sin amar, which I believe means one cannot live without love. He has long believed that if only Yvonne would return, he could master his craving for alcohol and build a good life with her.

However, complicating her return is not only his continued drinking, but also the presence of the Consul’s younger brother, Hugh, who has just quit his job as a journalist and plans to embark that very evening to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Apparently there has been some improper relationship between Hugh and Yvonne in the past which precipitated her departure.

This is a book I appreciated more than enjoyed. I found it hard to warm up to the characters and have to say I didn’t care what happened to them. However, I was overwhelmed by the intense physicality of the descriptions of the Consul’s garden and road, the town, the cantinas, the countryside. The area is split in two by a great ravine and dwarfed by two volcanoes. I also recognise Lowry’s immense achievement in constructing this book, the way apparently random scenes and details fall together, the use of repetition and “found” phrases, such as the signs plastered on the walls advertising the Peter Lorre film Las Manos de Orlac, which I remember being terrified by the first time I saw it.

In many ways I liked this book better than Ulysses. It is more true to the world as I know it, with the breakdown of order, the fracturing of experience, the mistrust of memory. I also liked the way both the Consul and Yvonne long for Canada as their imagined paradise. The Consul owns an island in British Columbia, and the two imagine—without being able to communicate their visions to each other—how much better life would be there, away from the snares and entanglements of Mexico.

I’ve been talking in the blog about Soseki and the way his novels (written from 1909 to 1915) reflect the shift in Japanese culture from the formal order of the past to the individualisation and chaos of the present. With Lowry’s novel, we are plunged in the maelstrom, the chaos of one man’s mind as he struggles to order his memories and perceptions against the beloved and nefarious effects of mescal and tequila and whisky. We are thrust into this chaos without—as Stephen Spender points out in his introduction—even the cultural framework that Joyce provides. The only thing these characters have to sustain themselves is his or her own individual past.

Lowry’s book reminds me of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy which I blogged about last week, where each character is isolated in his or her experience, even as they knock at the door to paradise. The paradises in these two books are lost ones and, since Proust’s books had just been translated into English, perhaps Lowry had Proust’s words in mind as he started writing this book. Under the Volcano is a difficult book to read, but well worth the effort.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison

A choice for one of my book clubs, this 2008 novel opens with sixteen-year-old Florens telling us not to be afraid. As she goes on to relate her story, we come to know the other people on the plantation where she is a slave: Jacob Vaark, the self-made man who has inherited the land in Virginia; his wife Rebekka, who came from London in response to Jacob’s ad for a capable wife; the Native American slave Lina, whose tribe was wiped out by smallpox; the silent slave Sorrow, who lived on a ship for her first ten years, never setting foot on the ground; and two indentured servants, who have been hired from their owner by Jacob. The time is the 1680s and1690s, a period when slavery is just beginning to be enshrined in law and custom.

Throughout the book, using methods both subtle and apparent, Morrison examines how slavery—how dominion over another person—affects both the owned and the owners. Jacob hates the idea of having slaves and only took on the three women because he believed he was rescuing them from a worse situation. Yet he invests in sugar plantations in Barbados—worked of course by slaves unseen by him—and his reluctance to confront his own reality feeds the pride that works against his generous impulses. Rebekka, at first afraid of these others who she has been taught to believe are savages, not quite human, begins to accept and trust them as the women work the farm together. However, Rebekka, like Jacob, suffers losses that seem unbearable to her, losses that Lina attributes to the bad luck brought by Sorrow being in their midst.

In grappling with the condition of slavery, the story of the slaves brought from Africa is just a starting point for Morrison. The indentured servants are slaves in all but name, their period of servitude extended for real or false infractions. The burden a mother must bear in making choices for her child—something I have thought about often—reveals another aspect of the cost of having power over another person. In an even broader sense, all of the women in the story are under the dominion of a man, even Rebekka who was essentially sold into the marriage by her father. And the women do not have the option of someday finishing their indenture or becoming a freedman like the blacksmith who comes to help with the mansion that Jacob is building. A woman without the protection of a man faces dangers from all sides.

These are all motherless children, men and women alike. Orphaned, lost, given away, all of these characters struggle with their sense of abandonment as they try to become their own selves within the constraints that cage them. The structure of the book reinforces the story. Within Florens’s overall narrative arc are embedded a series of extended flashbacks in which we learn the background of each of the characters in turn. Within these encapsulated stories each character is alone, reinforcing the isolation each experiences.

The transitions in and out of these flashbacks are seamless and something I will be studying for a long time. Some members of my book club thought the language, with its biblical cadences, affected. One suggested that the self-consciously literary language distanced the characters and made it hard to care about them. I loved the language. I loved the attention paid to each description, each sentence, even in little ways, such as when Jacob at the end of a long ride gazes at the ocean and sees the moon dappling the waves; the association of the word “dapple” (at least in my mind) with the horse he’s riding pulls the scene together in an unexpected and subtle way. And the poetry of the way Florens describes the blacksmith made me gasp. Another member of my book club felt that reading this book was like falling into a dream. I felt that way too.

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

After a brief interview with his sister-in-law, the housekeeper starts a new assignment, working for a professor whom she has not met but who has had problems retaining housekeepers in the past. When she arrives for her first day, he immediately asks her what her shoe size is. Thus begins this quirky and—reluctant as I am to use the word—charming story.

Since a car accident seventeen years previously, the professor can only retain his short term memory for eighty minutes, although all of his memories prior to the accident are intact. Thus, he can perform complicated math operations in his head, but must be reintroduced to the housekeeper every eighty minutes, A delicate relationship between them begins to grow, in the smallest of increments.

The details of the story reflect the thought Ogawa has given to what it might mean to live constantly in the present. The professor’s clothing is decorated with little notes held on by binder clips, some new while others are crumpled and the clips rusty. The housekeeper introduces herself by pointing to the note about her, and one of the chores she takes on is while he is sleeping to renew the notes that have gotten too tattered.

The other thing that Ogawa does beautifully is to integrate the math into the story, so that it does not interrupt the flow. The professor understands the world through numbers, and finds associations between a number and the larger universe: perhaps the number in question happens to be the sum of all prime numbers between one and one hundred million or the number of home runs in Babe Ruth’s record. He falls back on equations when he finds people too difficult to understand. Intrigued by the mathematical terms the professor explains to her, the housekeeper begins to explore them on her own time, looking things up in the library, puzzling them out with pencil and paper. Thus, we are introduced to the math with her.

When the professor finds that she has a ten-year-old son who is home alone after school while she works, he insists that the boy come here where his mother is, even though it is against the agency’s rules. The two become friends. This part really touched me, that he showed the same affection for the boy every time they were reintroduced. It reminded me of Mimi, my friend when I was a child though she was elderly even then. Later, when I was grown and she was over 100 and not recognising anyone around her, I used to stay with her one night a week, feeding her and putting her to bed while her caregivers (her granddaughter and grandson-in-law) had a night out. Mimi had always been sweet to me and to everyone, gentle and patient and kind, but I admit I was surprised that she retained her sweetness even into dementia, when every moment was a new one for her, with no remembered social conventions to restrain her.

As a child, I never quite trusted adults, believing that the face they showed me was probably not their true face. But Mimi was the real deal. As is the professor. This book made me think about how we create relationships, how we can bear to trust each other, and how we stubbornly continue to do so against all obstacles and in spite of all common sense.