Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2007

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2007

Nick Hornby
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  • On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
  • My Life with Nye—Jennie Lee


  • Novel (abandoned)—A. Non
  • On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan
  • In My Father’s House—Miranda Seymour
  • The Blind Side—Michael Lewis

This morning, while shaving, I listened to a reading from Anna Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary on BBC Radio 4. It was pretty extraordinary—brutal and brave (Politkovskaya, as I’m sure you know, was murdered, presumably because of her determination to bring some of her country’s darkest wrongdoings into the light). And its depiction of a country where the state is so brazenly lawless is so bizarre that I couldn’t help but think of fiction—specifically, a novel I had just abandoned by a senior, highly regarded literary figure. Politkovskaya’s words reminded me that the reason I gave up on the novel was partly because I became frustrated with the deliberate imprecision of its language, its obfuscation, its unwillingness to give up its meaning quickly and easily. This, of course, is precisely what some people prize in a certain kind of fiction, and good luck to them. I can’t say that this kind of ambiguity is my favorite thing, and it’s certainly not what I look for first in a novel, but I know that I would have missed out on an awful lot of good stuff if I wasn’t prepared to tolerate a little incomprehension and attendant exasperation every now and again. In this novel, however, I found myself feeling particularly impatient. “A perfect day begins in death, in the semblance of death, in deep surrender,” the novelist (or his omniscient narrator) tells us. Does it? Not for me it doesn’t, pal. Unless, of course, death here means “a good night’s sleep.” Or “a strong cup of coffee.” Maybe that’s it? “Death” = “a strong cup of coffee” and “the semblance of death” = some kind of coffee substitute, like a Frappuccino? Then why doesn’t he say so? There is no mistaking what the word death means in Politkovskaya’s diaries, and once again I found myself wondering whether the complication of language is in inverse proportion to the size of the subject under discussion. Politkovskaya is writing about the agonies of a nation plagued by corruption, terrorism, and despotism; the highly regarded literary figure is writing about some middle-class people who are bored of their marriage. My case rests.

The highly regarded literary figure recently quoted Irwin Shaw’s observation that “the great machines of the world do not run on fidelity,” in an attempt to explain his views on matrimony, and though this sounds pretty good when you first hear it, lofty and practical all at the same time, on further reflection it starts to fall apart. If we are going to judge things on their ability to power the great machines of the world, then we will have to agree that music, charity, tolerance, and bacon-flavored potato chips, to name only four things that we prize here at the Believer, are worse than useless.

It wasn’t just the opacity of the prose that led me to abandon the novel, however; I didn’t like the characters who populated it much, either. They were all languidly middle-class, and they drank good wine and talked about Sartre, and I didn’t want to know anything about them. This is entirely unreasonable of me, I accept that, but prejudice has to be an important part of our decision-making process when it comes to reading, otherwise we would become overwhelmed. For months I have been refusing to read a novel that a couple of friends have been urging upon me, a novel that received wonderful reviews and got nominated for prestigious prizes. I’m sure it’s great, but I know it’s not for me: the author is posh—posh English, which is somehow worse than posh American, even—and he writes about posh people, and I have taken the view that life is too short to spend any time worrying about the travails of the English upper classes. If you had spent the last half century listening to the strangled vows and the unexamined and usually very dim assumptions that frequently emerge from the mouths of a certain kind of Englishman, you’d feel entitled to a little bit of inverted snobbery.

I’m not sure, then, quite how I was persuaded to read In My Father’s House, Miranda Seymour’s memoir about her extraordinary father and his almost demented devotion to Thrumpton Hall, the stately home he came to inherit. George Seymour was a terrible snob, pathetically obsessed by the microscopic traces of blue blood that ran through his veins, comically observant of every single nonsensical English upper-class propriety—until he reached middle age, when he bought himself a motorbike and drove around England and Europe with a young man called Nick, with whom he shared a bedroom. Nick was replaced by Robbie, whom George called Tigger, after the A. A. Milne character; when Robbie shot himself in the head, a weeping George played the Disney song on a scratchy vinyl record at the funeral service. Actually, you can probably see why I was persuaded to read it: It’s a terrific story, and Miranda Seymour is too good a writer not to recognize its peculiarities and its worth. Also, the same people who have been telling me to read the posh novel told me to read the posh memoir, and I felt that a further refusal would have indicated some kind of Trotskyite militancy that I really don’t feel. It’s more a mild distaste than a deeply entrenched worldview.

Miranda Seymour owns up to having inherited her father’s snobbery, which meant that I was immediately put on the alert, ready to abandon the book and condemn the author to the legions of the unnameable, but there is nothing much here to send one to the barricades. There is one strange moment, however, a couple of sentences that I read and re-read in order to check that I wasn’t missing the irony. When Seymour goes to visit some of her father’s wartime friends to gather their recollections, she finds herself resenting what she perceives as their feelings of superiority; they saw active service and George Seymour didn’t, and the daughter is defensive on the father’s behalf. “I’ve plenty of reason to hate my father, but his achievement matches theirs. They’ve no cause to be disdainful. They fought for their country; he gave his life to save a house.”

Where does one begin with this? Perhaps one should simply point out that George died in his bed (a bed within a bedroom within one of Britain’s loveliest houses) at the age of seventy-one, so the expression “he gave his life” does not have the conventional meaning here; a more exact rendering would be something like “he put aside an awful lot of time…” It’s a curious lapse in judgment, in an otherwise carefully nuanced book.

A couple of years ago, I wrote in this column about Michael Lewis’s brilliant Moneyball; when I found during a recent trip to New York that Lewis had written a book about football, I was off to the till before you could say “Jackie Robinson.” The Blind Side is very nearly as good, I think, which is saying something, seeing as Moneyball is one of the two or three best sports books I have ever read. It cleverly combines two stories, one personal, the other an account of the recent history of the game; Lewis explains how left tackle became the most remunerative position in the game, and then allows the weight of this history to settle on the shoulders of one young man, Michael Oher, currently at Ole Miss (I’m finding my effortless use of the American vernacular strangely thrilling). Oher is six feet six, weighs 330 pounds, and yet he can run hundreds of yards in fractions of seconds. He is, as he keeps being told, a freak of nature, and he is exactly what every football team in the U.S. is prepared to offer the earth for.

He has also had a life well beyond the realms of the ordinary, which makes his story—well, I’m afraid my knowledge of the terminology has already been exhausted, so I don’t have the appropriate analogy—but in my sport we’d describe it as an open goal, and Lewis only has to tap the ball in from a couple of feet. I don’t wish to diminish the author’s achievement. Lewis scores with his customary brio, and the recognition of a good story is an enviable part of his talent. But who wouldn’t want to read about a kid who was born to a crack-addict mother and part-raised in one of the poorest parts of one of America’s poorest cities, Memphis, and ended up being adopted by a wealthy white Christian couple with their own private plane? This is material that provides the pleasures of both fiction and nonfiction. There’s a compelling narrative arc, a glimpse into the lives of others, a wealth of information about and analysis of a central element of popular American culture. There’s a touching central relationship, between Oher and his adoptive parents’ young son, Sean Jr.; there is even a cheesy, never-say-die heroine, Oher’s adoptive mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose extraordinary determination to look after a boy not her own is Christian in the sense too rarely associated with the American South. This would make a great movie, although you’d need a lot of CGI to convince an audience of Michael Oher’s speed and size.

The Blind Side is funny too. Michael’s first game for his high school is made distinctive by him lifting up his two-hundred-and-twenty-pound opponent and taking him through the opposition benches, across the cinder track surrounding the pitch, and halfway across a neigh-boring field before he is stopped by players and officials from both sides. (Oher had been irritated and surprised by the opponent’s trash-talking—he later told his coach he was going to put the lippy kid back on his team bus.) And the formal interview between Oher and an investigator from the NCAA, the organization whose job it is to determine whether any illegal inducements have been offered to influence a promising footballer’s choice of college, is equally memorable. It’s not just Oher’s attempts to list his brothers and sisters that baffle the investigator; it’s the opulence of his surroundings too. The Tuohys are Ole Miss alumni, desperate for Michael to take the scholarship being offered by their alma mater, while trying to avoid putting inappropriate pressure on him. But isn’t Oher’s whole new life—the access to the jet, the new car, the pool, the exclusive private high school—a form of inappropriate pressure? The baffled investigator eventually decides not, but she is clearly perplexed by the atypicality of the arrangement.

Ian McEwan has hit that enviable moment that comes to a novelist only very rarely: he has written himself into a position where everyone wants to read his latest book now, today, before any other bastard comes along and ruins it. He’s genuinely serious and genuinely popular, in the U.K. at least, and in an age where our tastes in culture are becoming ever more refined, and therefore ever more fractured, he is almost single-handedly reviving the notion of a chattering class by providing something that we can all chatter about. On Chesil Beach is, for me, a return to top form after the unevenness of Saturday. It’s unusual, on occasions painfully real, and ultimately very moving.

Philip Larkin famously wrote that “Sexual inter-course began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me) / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” On Chesil Beach is set on a July night in 1962, and sexual intercourse is about to begin for Edward and Florence, married that afternoon, and painfully inexperienced. Edward wants it and Florence doesn’t, and that, pretty much, is where the drama and the pain of the novel lie.

On Chesil Beach is packed with all the period detail one might expect, and occasionally it can feel as though McEwan’s working off a checklist; there’s the bad food, the CND marches, the naïveté about the Soviet Union, the social-realist movies, the Beatles and the Stones…. Hold on a minute. The Beatles and the Stones? “He played her ‘clumsy but honourable’ cover versions of Chuck Berry songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” Well, not before July 1962 he didn’t. (The sentence refers to the couple’s courtship.) What’s strange about this anachronism is that McEwan must, at some stage, have thought of the Larkin poem when he was writing this—it might even have inspired him in some way. So if the Beatles’ first LP was released in the same year sexual intercourse was invented, what exactly was he playing her in the months leading up to July 1962? “Love Me Do” was released toward the end of that year, and there was nothing else recorded yet; the Stones, meanwhile, didn’t produce any-thing until the following year. Does it matter? It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book, but I suspect that it does, a little. The Beatles really did belong to a different age, metaphorically and literally. I hereby offer my services as a full-time researcher.

On Chesil Beach is so short that it’s actually hard to talk about without revealing more than you might want to know. You should read it, and be thankful that you grew up in a different age, where all matters sexual were a whole lot easier. Too easy, probably. Some of you younger ones are probably having sex now, absentmindedly, while reading this. You probably don’t even know that you’re having sex. You’ll look down or up at the end of this paragraph and think, Eeek! Who’s that? Well, that can’t be right, can it? Surely things have gone too far the other way, if that’s what’s happening? I’m off to read some Jane Austen.

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