Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2006

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2006

Nick Hornby
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  • We’re All in This Together—Owen King
  • Funny Little Monkey—Andrew Auseon
  • The March—E. L. Doctorow
  • A Man Without a Country—Kurt Vonnegut


  • Persepolis—Marjane Satrapi
  • Persepolis 2—Marjane Satrapi
  • Moondust—Andrew Smith
  • A Man Without a Country—Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Pendulum Years—Bernard Levin
  • Running in the Family—Michael Ondaatje

I have a bookshelf over my bed, which is where I put the Books Bought and others that I have a serious intention of reading one day. And inevitably, over time, some of these are pronounced dead, and taken gently and respectfully downstairs either to the living room shelves, if they are hardbacks, or the paperback bookcase immediately outside the bedroom door, where they are allowed to rest in peace. (Do we have a word for something that looked like a good idea once? I hope so.) I’m sure you all knew this, but in fact books never die—it’s just that I am clearly not very good at finding a pulse. I have learned this from my two younger children, who have taken to pulling books off the shelves within their reach and dropping them on the floor. Obviously I try not to notice, because noticing might well entail bending down to pick them up. But when I have finally and reluctantly concluded that no one else is going to do it, the book or books in my hand frequently look great—great and unread—and they are thus returned to the bookshelf over the bed. It’s a beautiful, if circular, system, something like the process of convectional rainfall: interest evaporates, and the books are reduced to so much hot air, so they rise, you know, sideways, or even downstairs, but then blah blah and they fall to the ground… something like, anyway, although perhaps not exactly like.

This is precisely how Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family was recently rediscovered. It turns out that I own a beautiful little Bloomsbury Classics hardback, as attractive to a small child, clearly, as it was to me. Indeed it’s so attractive that it wasn’t even placed back on the bookshelf over the bed: I began reading it fresh off the floor, as if it weren’t rainfall after all, but a ripe, juicy… enough with the inoperable imagery. Running in the Family is a fever dream of a book, delirious, saturated with color; it’s a travel book, and a family history, and a memoir, and it’s funny and unforgettable. Ondaatje grew up in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, and it would not be unkind to describe his father as nuts—now and again, dangerously so. He pretended to have gone to Cambridge University (he sailed to England, stayed in Cambridge for the requisite three years, read a lot, and hung out with students without ever bothering to enroll); he was banned from the Ceylon Railways after hijacking a train, knocking out his traveling companion, who happened to be the future Prime Minister of the country, and bringing the entire railway system to a standstill; he was a part-time alcoholic, prone to epic drinking bouts, who buried scores of bottles of gin in the back garden for emergencies.

Ondaatje helps us to float over all this emotional landscape so that it feels as if we were viewing it from a hot-air balloon on a perfect day; someone with a different temperament (or someone much younger, someone who still felt raw) could have written—and been forgiven for writing—something darker and more troubling. “I showed what you had written to someone and they laughed and said what a wonderful childhood we must have had, and I said it was a nightmare,” says an unnamed sibling at the end of the book, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the theory and practice of memoir: it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion. The passage describing the death of Lalla, Ondaatje’s grandmother, who was swept away in a flood, is one of the most memorable accounts of someone’s last moments that I can remember. I’m grateful to my children for all sorts of things, of course, things that will inevitably come to me immediately after I have finished this column and sent it off; but I’m extremely grateful that one of them dropped this wonderful book on the floor. Actually, that may well be it, in terms of what my sons have given me, which puts a different complexion on the experience. I loved Running in the Family, and I mean the author no disrespect. But it’s not much to show for twelve years of fatherhood, really, is it?

I’ve been losing a lot of books recently, so I am glad that nature has been bountiful, whether that bounty takes the form of fruit or rain. I have no idea where I’ve put Eustace and Hilda, the L. P. Hartley trilogy I was reading and loving, and Andrew Smith’s book about the Apollo astronauts, Moondust, which I started and stopped a while back, was missing for most of this month, and as a consequence I haven’t quite finished it.(It turned up in a drawer.) Lots of people are reading it here at the moment—it’s a Richard and Judy book, Richard and Judy being our equivalent of Oprah—which is both weird and great, because in many ways Moondust is an eccentric book, with a set of references (Bowie, Neil Young, Updike, Rufus Wainwright, Eric Hobsbawm) that perfectly reflect the author’s interests without necessarily reflecting the tastes of a mass reading public.

Smith knows that his obsession with the moon landings is about something else, and he is particularly good at teasing out the personal and global meanings of the Apollo missions—hell, there are even a few cosmic meanings in there—without ever sounding mad or pretentious. The author argues that when Apollo died in 1972, the dreams of the ’60s died with it (and David Bowie is quoted as saying that the ’70s were the start of the twenty-first century, which means that the twentieth century, perhaps uniquely, contained only seven decades), and there’s a nostalgia for what the future used to represent and no longer can, and there’s all sorts of stuff about aging and ambition. Despite the astronauts’ protestations to the contrary, it’s clearly been a struggle, flying to the moon and back in your thirties and forties, and then having to live out the rest of your life earthbound.

There’s something in Moondust that I’d never thought about before, and it’s haunted me ever since I read it. I had always felt rather sorry for Michael Collins, Richard Gordon, and the other four guys who flew all the way to the moon but then had to stay in the Command Module. I’d always had them down as close-but-no-cigar Pete Best types, doomed to be remembered for all time as unlucky. And yet their Apollo mission was surely every bit as extraordinary as those of the guys who got to put up flags and drive around in little golf buggies: forty-seven minutes of each lunar orbit that the Command Module took was spent on the far side of the moon, “out of sight and unreachable and utterly, utterly alone.” The six Pete Bests were, as one NASA employee put it, the loneliest men “since Adam.” Charles Lindbergh actually wrote to Collins, saying that walking on the moon was all very well, “but it seems to me that you had an experience of in some ways greater profundity.” I find that it takes most of my courage simply to contemplate their pitch-black solitude. The closest I have ever come, I think, was last Christmas Day, when I walked round the corner to buy cigarettes and my whole neighborhood was utterly deserted. I’m not suggesting for a moment that my existential terror rivalled theirs, but it was a pretty creepy couple of minutes, and I was certainly glad to see the guy in the shop.

There are now nine people in the world who have walked on the moon, and unless something dramatic happens (and I’m talking about a governmental rethink rather than a cure for death), it won’t be too long before there is none. That might not mean anything to a lot of you, because you are, I am led to understand, young people, and the moonwalks didn’t happen in your lifetime. (How can you be old enough to read the Believer and not old enough to have seen Neil Arm-strong live? What’s happening to the world?) But it means a lot to me, and Andrew Smith, and when the Apollo missions, the future as we understood it, become history, then something will be lost from our psyches. But what do you care? Oh, go back to your hip-hop and your computer games and your promiscuity. (Or your virginity. I forget which one your generation is into at the moment.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country was an oddly fitting companion to Smith’s book, perhaps because the quirky humanist hope that one used to discern in Vonnegut’s novels—several of which were writ-ten just as men were trying to get to the moon, and which frequently took an extraterrestrial view of our planet—is all but extinguished here. It’s a charming, funny, wise little book, of course, because Vonnegut is incapable of writing anything that doesn’t possess these qualities, but it’s sad, too. Perhaps the questionable advantage of old age—Vonnegut is in his eighties now—is that you can see that hope is chimerical, and A Man Without a Country is devastatingly gloomy about the mess we have made of the world. I know he’s right, but there is something in me, something callow and unrealistic (and something connected with the little boys who pull books off the shelves and drop them on the floor), that stops me from feeling that he’s right. It has a very good smoking joke in it, though, this book. “Here’s the news,” says Vonnegut. “I am going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, manufacturers of Pall Mall cigarettes, for a billion bucks! Starting when I was only twelve years old, I have never chain-smoked anything but unfiltered Pall Malls. And for many years now, right on the package, Brown and Williamson have promised to kill me. But I am now eighty-two. Thanks a lot, you dirty rats.”

It’s been kind of a gloomy month, all in all, because Marjane Satrapi’s two brilliant, heartbreaking graphic novels, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2:The Story of a Return, aren’t likely to lift the spirits, either. The story of Satrapi’s childhood is also the story of the Iranian revolution, so she witnessed one violent and repressive regime replacing another; I got the same feeling I had while reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, that the events described are so fantastical, so surreal and horrific, that they no longer seem to belong to the real world but to some metaphorical Orwellian dystopia. We know very little of the real world, though, those of us who live in the U.S. and Europe, just our small and relatively benign corner of it, and though we can see that the Guardians of the Revolution are human, just like us, it’s pretty hard to find a way in to their humanity. Satrapi follows the trail of blood that leads from the overthrow of the Shah, through the fatuous and tragic war with Iraq, and on to the imprisonment, torture, and eventual murder of the leftists who helped bring about his downfall. And as the free-thinking daughter of left-leaning parents, Satrapi is able to use the small frames of her own life to create the bigger picture without contrivance or omission. (If the first book is slightly more successful than the second, it’s because Satrapi spent some of the 1980s in Austria, so her personal and national histories take divergent paths.)

Satrapi draws in stark black-and-white blocks which bring to mind some of Eric Gill’s woodcuts, and these blocks quickly begin to make perfect sense; in fact, it would be pretty hard not to draw post-revolutionary Iran without them—what with the beards and the robes and the veils, there was and still is a lot of black around. You know how bad things were for young Marjane and her mates? A poster of Kim Wilde comes to represent freedom, and who wants to live in a place where that’s been allowed to happen? I know myself well enough to understand that I would never have read a prose memoir describing this life and these events—I wouldn’t have wanted to live with this amount of fear and pain over days and weeks. I’m glad I understand more than I did, though, and these books, it seems to me, provide an object lesson in all that’s good about graphic novels.

I picked up Bernard Levin’s The Pendulum Years, about Britain in the ’60s, because there’s a little story in it that I’d always thought would make a good film, and I wanted to remind myself of the details. But then I remembered that the book contained one of my favorite pieces of comic writing, Levin’s account of the Lady Chatterley trial, so I reread that, and a few of the other chapters. The piece on the Lady Chatterley trial made me laugh all over again, but it struck me this time that, even though Levin does a great job, it’s not so much his writing that’s funny as the trial itself; it’s hard to go wrong with this material. For the benefit of young people: at the beginning of the 1960s, Penguin Books published Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the first time it had been available to the general public since 1928, and the publishers were promptly prosecuted. Penguin won the ensuing court case, but not before some very English (and, it has to be said, extremely dim) lawyers argued, with unintentional comic élan, that the book had no literary merit, and therefore Penguin couldn’t justify its obscene content. The law’s notion of literary merit was both revealing and instructive—Mr. Griffith-Jones, for the prosecution, doubted, for example, that any book which contains a misquotation from the 24th Psalm could be said to be much good. “Do you not think that in a work of high literary merit…. he might take the trouble to look it up?”

Mr. Griffith-Jones was also perturbed by Lawrence’s repeated use of the words womb and bowels, taking the view that your absolutely top authors, your greats, if you will, would get the thesaurus out. “Then a little bit further down page 141, towards the bottom, at the end of the longish paragraph the two words ‘womb’ and ‘bowels’ appear again…. Is that really what you call expert, artistic writing?” This really happened, honestly.

I was going to point out the bleeding obvious (as I prefer to do whenever possible, because it takes less effort, but fills up the space anyway)—I was going to say that a decade that began like this ended with man walking on the moon. Things aren’t quite that cheerily progressive, though, are they? Because we’re not landing men on the moon, or anywhere else in space—indeed, we no longer even possess the proper technology. There are plenty of people out there, however, who don’t want us reading about wombs and bowels. Just ask Marjane Satrapi.

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