Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March 2006

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: March 2006

Nick Hornby
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  • Eustace and Hilda—L. P. Hartley
  • Hang-Ups—Simon Schama
  • Scenes from Metropolitan Life—William Cooper


  • Scenes from Provincial Life—William Cooper
  • Scenes from Metropolitan Life—William Cooper
  • Death and the Penguin—Andrey Kurkov
  • Ghosting—Jennie Erdal

So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; It was Christmastime in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading—David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an egg nog and….

Oh, what’s the point? No one, I suppose, will remember that I began my March ’05 column in this way. And if no one remembers me beginning my March ’05 column in this way, then there is even less chance of them remembering that I began my March ’04 column in this way, too. The tragedy is that I have come to think of those opening words as a tradition, and I was beginning to hope that you have come to value them as such. I even had a little fantasy that one of your popular entertainers—Stephen Sondheim, say, or Puff Diddle—might have set them to music, and at the beginning of March you all hold hands and sing a song called “It Was Christmastime in England,” to mark the imminent arrival of spring. I am beginning to suspect, however, that this column is making only medium-sized inroads into the American consciousness. (I have had very little feedback from readers in Alabama, for example, and not much more from our Hawaiian subscribers.) I shall keep the tradition going, but more in hope than expectation. It’s the New Year here in England, and I’m sorry to say that, because of the apparent indifference of both Puff Diddle and Alabama (the whole state, rather than the band), I am entering 2006 on a somewhat self-doubting and ruminative note.

This last reading month really was a washout, though, for all the usual holiday reasons, so it was as well that, with incredible and atypical foresight, I held a couple of books back from the previous month, just to pad the column out a bit. I met Andrey Kurkov at the Reykjavik Literary Festival and loved the reading he gave from Death and the Penguin. (He also sat at the piano and sang a few jolly Ukrainian songs afterwards, thus infuriating one of the writers who had appeared on the same stage earlier in the evening: as I understood it, the Infuriated Writer seemed to think that Kurkov had wilfully and sacrilegiously punctured the solemnity of the occasion. You can see his point, I suppose. You can’t mess around with readings by singing after them. The paying public might begin to expect fun at literary events, and then where would writers be? Up shit creek without a paddle, that’s where.) I afterwards discovered that Death and the Penguin is one of those books that people love unreservedly. The eyes of the assistant in the bookshop lit up when I bought it, and all sorts of people have shown a frankly sickening devotion to the novel whenever I’ve mentioned it since.

I think I’d sort of presumed that the eponymous penguin was metaphorical, like both the squid and the whale in The Squid and the Whale; my antipathy to the animal kingdom is such that even animal metaphors tend to have a deterrent effect. (What kind of person thinks in animal metaphors? In this day and age?) Imagine my horror, then, when I learned during Kurkov’s reading in Reykjavik that the penguin in Death and the Penguin is not like the squid or the whale, but, like, an actual penguin. The penguin really is a character, who—pull yourself together, man, which—has moods and feelings, and has an integral part in the story, and so on. And, as if the author actually wanted me to hate his novel, it’s a cute penguin, too. “It will be a hard-hearted reader who is not touched by Viktor’s relationship with his unusual pet,” says one of the quotes on the back.(Why not just include a blurb saying “DON’T BUY THIS BOOK”?) And, of course, Death and the Penguin turns out to be fresh, funny, clever, incredibly soulful, and compelling, and the penguin turns out to be a triumphant creation. I might read only books about animals from now on.

Misha is effectively Viktor’s flatmate; Viktor ad-opted it (I’m not giving in on the pronoun thing) when the failing local zoo was dishing out animals to whomever could afford to feed them, and as Viktor’s girlfriend had recently moved out, he was feeling lonely. (Oh, stop it. It’s not that sort of book.) Misha, how-ever, turns out to be as depressed as Viktor, and it just sort of wanders about, and occasionally disappears off to its bedroom, like a homesick teenager on a foreign exchange program. Viktor, meanwhile, has recently started work as an obituarist: he’s told to write and stockpile the obituaries of leading local figures, but the obits turn out to be needed earlier than anticipated, and Viktor eventually realizes that his work is somehow bringing about the untimely demise of his subjects.

It’s a neat plot, but Death and the Penguin isn’t a plotty book: Kurkov gives himself plenty of room to breathe (it’s actually more of a long, rueful sigh) and that’s pretty cool in and of itself. This is a literary novel—Kurkov loves his weltschmerz as much as the next guy—but he doesn’t see why weltschmerz shouldn’t come bundled up with a narrative that kicks a little bit of ass. Sometimes it seems as though everything in the arts (and I include sports in the arts) is about time and space—giving yourself room to move, finding the time to play…. My copy of Death and the Penguin is two hundred and twenty-eight pages long, and yet it never seems overstuffed, or underpowered, and it manages to be about an awful lot, and it never ever forgets or over-looks gesture or detail. And I already said it was funny, didn’t I? What more do you want? At that length, you couldn’t even reasonably want less.

Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting is a book about writing, so, you know, if you don’t want to read it because you’re a plumber or a chiropodist, then I quite understand. If I were you, I would resent the repeated implication, by publishers and books pages, that my profession is more interesting than yours. Unlike most books about writing, though, this one contains a narrative that is both genuinely gripping and eccentric. Jennie Erdal was employed by a flamboyant London publisher, the sort of man who is often described as “larger than life.” (In other words, run for the hills! And don’t look back!) She began as a translator, and then worked on a huge book of interviews this guy conducted with women; finally, she wrote two novels for him. They were his novels—his name, and his name alone, was on the title page—but according to Erdal, the author took only a passing interest in their conception and execution.

His first novel, he decides, will be both thrilling and very romantic: “‘It has to be a love story. People associate me with love….’” When his amanuensis asks whether he has any notion of the characters who might populate this thrilling love story, he is precise and unequivocal: they must be “‘a man and a woman. Do you think I could write about poofters?’”

So away Jennie Erdal goes, and writes a novel, and the flamboyant publisher publishes it, and it gets respectful reviews—partly because the flamboyant publisher is a respected figure, and partly, one suspects, because Erdal can clearly write. And, rather than breathe a huge sigh of relief, he decides to “write” another, although this one turns out to have a higher, tighter concept than the first: he wants it to be about two women, cousins born on the same day, who are so close that when one achieves orgasm, so does the other. Pretty good, you have to admit, and as Erdal seems, inexplicably, to have ignored the idea, it’s still going begging.

Ghosting is a strange and rather wonderful book, and it makes you think about all sorts of things connected with writing and the notion of authorship. The truth is, however, that it’s old news. Almost nobody writes their own books these days; indeed, to do so is seen as a mark of failure in literary circles. Of course, the young have no choice, and there are, apparently, a few renegades who insist on churning out word after word: the word on the literary street is that Michael Chabon wrote every word of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for example, presumably out of some misguided and outdated notion of honesty. But the rest of us don’t really bother. I have always used an old lady called Violet, who lives in a cottage in Cornwall, in the far west of England, and who is an absolute treasure. She’s getting better, too.

For some reason, I found myself up a ladder in Strand Books in NYC a couple of months ago, looking to see whether they had any copies of old William Cooper novels. I know that Philip Larkin mentions him in his letters, but there may have been another nudge from somewhere, too. Whatever the motivation, I was led as if by magic to a beautiful 1961 Scribner hardback which cost me six dollars, and which contained Cooper’s first and third novels, Scenes from Provincial Life and Scenes from Married Life, published in the U.S. as Scenes from Life.

I’d read them both before, twenty or more years ago, and I remembered them as being particularly important to me, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why. Now I can see it: Joe Lunn, the hero of these books (and Cooper’s thinly disguised alter ego) is, in the first book at least, a schoolteacher who has ambitions to make his living from writing, and that’s exactly the situation I found myself in when my sister gave me the books as a Christmas present in what must have been ’82 or ’83, seeing as those were the only years I was in full-time gainful employment in a school. I don’t think I managed to see the connection at the time. Really. I thought I’d been enjoying them for other reasons (they are incredibly enjoyable books). I thought I should own up to that, just to help you gauge the soundness of all the other literary judgments I make on these pages.

The reason that Scenes from Metropolitan Life, the second novel in the sequence, isn’t included in the edition I bought is that it wasn’t published until 1982, even though it was written in the 1950s; Cooper’s work was so autobiographical that he was threatened with legal action by the real-life version of the young woman who is Joe’s girlfriend in the first book and his mistress in the second. (Is that right? The thing is, she gets married in between the two, although he doesn’t. Can you have a mistress if you’re not married? Can you be a mistress if your lover isn’t married? Is there a useful handbook you can look these things up in?) Publication of Scenes from Metropolitan Life was only possible after her death, and in the meantime Cooper’s career had lost all the momentum it built up after the success of the first novel. All his books are out of print now.

Scenes from Provincial Life is a lovely novel, sweet-natured, and surprisingly frank about sexual relationships, considering the book is set in 1939: Joe has a weekend cottage which he shares with a friend, and where a lot of the book is set. Joe sleeps with Myrtle, the ious girlfriend, there; Joe’s friend Tom uses it for trysts with his seventeen-year-old boyfriend Steve. See what I mean? Who knew anyone had sex in 1939, in a provincial town? Well, we all did, I suppose, but in Larkin’s words, “sexual intercourse began / in 1963”—or at least, twentieth-century mainstream British artistic representations of it did—so it’s weird to read what is effectively a Kingsley Amis–style comedy of sexual manners which also talks about Chamberlain at Munich.

If Scenes from Metropolitan Life is a little less successful, it’s partly because all the characters are a little older, and a little sadder, and they take their jobs more seriously, and those jobs are a little more dull: Joe is a civil servant in the second book. He’s still trying to make up his mind whether to marry Myrtle, but Myrtle’s married already, to someone stationed in Palestine, and Cooper’s insouciance doesn’t really seem to take the sadness of any of that on board. (My pristine second-hand copy came from my Amazon Marketplace seller with Kingsley Amis’s 1982 Sunday Times review tucked neatly into the dust jacket, by the way. Kingsley loved the first one but gave the second a reluctant thumbs-down.) I’ve just started the third, and Joe’s nearly forty, still single, and still looking, and you’re beginning to suspect that there might actually be something wrong with him that he’s not owning up to. It’s hard, trying to be funny about getting older. Scenes from Provincial Life can afford to be cute and fresh because the characters have so little at stake; but then we grow older, more tired, more cynical, more worried; and then we die. And where’s the joke in that? Oh. Ha. I’ve just seen it. It’s pretty good.

Happy March, dear Believer readers. I hope you have a fantastic ten months.

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