Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2014

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2014

Nick Hornby
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  • Open Marriage: A New Life—Nena and George O’Neill
  • Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny—Nile Rodgers
  • Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds—Lyndall Gordon
  • Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages—Phyllis Rose
  • The Last Word—Hanif Kureishi


  • The Last Word—Hanif Kureishi
  • Nameless Novel—Anonymous
  • Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion—Robert Gordon
  • A Song for Issy Bradley—Carys Bray

This column always begins with a list of books I have bought and a list of books I have read, but the main body of the text, for obvious reasons, tends to relate to the latter list. I wish this were not so, for obvious reasons. But the confidence of my youth has ebbed away: these days, I seem to have much less to say about books I know nothing about. This month, however, there is a title on the Books Bought list that requires explanation, even though I suspect nobody will believe a word of it, not least because I can no longer remember what the explanation is. I was under the impression that I’d bought Open Marriage, by Nena and George O’Neill, because I’d recently read an obituary of Nena and it had piqued my interest, but she appears to have died in 2006, so that can’t have been it. I did read the obituary, but I can’t recall why.

Whatever. I somehow learned that (a) Open Marriage was published in 1972 and spent forty weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, (b) just three of the original book’s two hundred and eighty-seven pages deal with the subject of monogamy, and (c) only one or two lines in those three pages seems to suggest that monogamy may not be as essential to marriage as had hitherto been supposed. “We are not recommending outside sex,” the O’Neills said, “ but we are not saying that it should be avoided, either. The choice is entirely up to you.” This is hardly incendiary stuff, and some disgruntled book-buyers might have pointed out that the choice had been entirely up to them even before they’d coughed up for a hardback. And the rest of the book seems pretty mild, too. It advises married couples that they should have friends, and separate interests, that our marriages should be open to outside ideas and influences. It also advised husbands not to shout at wives about spending too much money on clothes. (Open Marriage was published in the same year that Last Tango in Paris was released, incidentally.) For some reason, the entire Western book-buying world turned to page two hundred and thirty-seven, ignored the rest of the book, and started having sex with people who were not their spouses, to the eternal mortification of the authors. I can’t help feeling that this doesn’t reflect well on the Western book-buying world, which apparently needs the validation of a book before it will think of doing anything.

The O’Neills’ story struck me as interesting, something that I might want to investigate further at some stage in my professional career. And that’s all. It has no relevance whatsoever to my private life. And in any case, I have no idea where the book has gone. I think my wife—who now works away from home on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, incidentally—might have borrowed it.

Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word, which is ostensibly about the relationship between a biographer and his subject, contains a lot more about sex than Open Marriage promises to; indeed, it’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in which the characters think quite so much about the subject. Harry Johnson, the young biographer, finds it difficult to remain faithful to his beautiful fiancée, Alice; Mamoon Azam, the feted, haughty, contemptuous novelist, has had a tumultuous private life, but no longer seems interested in Liana, his current wife, who as a consequence is frustrated and vulnerable.

I picked up The Last Word in an airport, on a whim. I was looking for something lively and engrossing, like everyone who buys a book at an airport, and, presumably, like everybody who buys a book anywhere. I wasn’t disappointed, even though I was occasionally perplexed by some of the sexual content. This, I suspect, says much more about me and my painful lack of worldliness than it does about Kureishi’s novel. I had no idea, for example, that a woman might judge a man on the density of his sperm: Liana complains that “in her experience, intellectuals were not sufficiently devoted to sex, with weak erections and watery, even frothy semen.” This needn’t concern most men. We’re not intellectuals. But it’s disheartening all the same, discovering that we have to worry about frothiness as well as everything else. I had no idea, either, that literary biographers were so highly sexed. Harry tells Mamoon that before he met Alice, he “liked to have three girls a day,” although his record, he points out, is five. I have met a couple of people who are in Harry’s line of work, and there was absolutely no evidence of anything on that scale, but I always miss what’s going on right under my nose. While biographizing Mamoon, Harry limits himself to Alice and to Julia, a young woman who works for Mamoon as a housekeeper. “Your penis is my dog,” Julia tells Harry at one point. “I love the taste of you in my mouth.” The juxtaposition of the words dog, taste, and mouth I found disconcerting—why would you put a dog in there? But then Harry compliments Liana by telling her that she is “a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin,” so there is clearly some kind of zoological sex-talk thing that I just don’t get. That figures. I should get out more.

Mamoon, whose uncanny resemblance to the novelist and essayist V. S. Naipaul has been noted by many English critics, is a magnetic and maddeningly convincing character, and the relationships Kureishi describes are imaginatively freighted: he’s writing about the relationship between libido and talent, between genius and those who want to leech off it, between an aging writer and the triumphs of his past. There’s something here for all the family.

Regular readers of the Believer are presumably aware by now of the magazine’s no-snark rule, which I found problematic when I first started writing this column. How was I supposed to write about books I didn’t like without saying I didn’t like them? It turned out that I didn’t have to. First I discovered that I didn’t have to say I didn’t like them. Then I discovered that I didn’t have to finish books I wasn’t enjoying. And then I discovered that I didn’t even have to pick them up in the first place. This last discovery was particularly helpful—it revolutionized my reading life—and it’s been a long time, nearly a decade, since I was last forced to hide a novel under a cloak of anonymity. I’m sorry I have to bring back the cloak for Nameless Novel by Anonymous; Anon is a very talented writer who I’m sure will, in the future, produce books I like a lot more than this one. And it’s not like this one was terrible, either. Line by line it had a lot going for it, which is why I didn’t give up on it. Around fifty pages from the end, however, I realized that it couldn’t possibly pay off, that the author hadn’t given himself enough time or space to deliver on all the things he’d set up. And I was right: Nameless Novel ended up reading more like a set of notes than the thing itself.

There was never any danger of Carys Bray being rendered anonymous, because A Song for Issy Bradley is a terrific book. It took me a while, however, to convince myself that I had the stomach to read it. Are we entitled to ignore, or at any rate steer well clear of, works of art that we know are going to make us unhappy? There are lots of people who simply wouldn’t understand the question: it is the job of art, these people would tell you, to make you confront the horror of existence, and anything that isn’t doing that isn’t art, by definition. The opinion of this column is that you’re entitled to ignore anything you feel like ignoring; tonight might not be the night to watch 12 Years a Slave, and tomorrow night might not be the night either. There is palpable critical disapproval for this kind of reluctance, which is seen as lily-livered and Philistine, but it seems to me that you need to know a lot more about the root causes than you’re entitled to know before you start judging people. Several online film critics, fearing that 12 Years A Slave was going to be robbed of awards by voter cowardice, blamed older Academy members, apparently forgetting that old age is full of grief, pain, and loss. Perhaps they can be forgiven for not necessarily wanting to watch a movie about it.

A Song for Issy Bradley is about the death of a child; I was hesitant about reading it, because my own immediate community has been profoundly affected by a loss very similar to the one imagined so sensitively and thoroughly by Carys Bray. I had every reason not to pick it up, I think. Life can be hard to endure sometimes, and if Three Men in a Boat is going to assist with the task of endurance more than a novel which will inevitably remind you of your own sorrow, then a trip down the Thames with Jerome K. Jerome may well be the best way to go. By contrast, other people want to know that they’re not alone, that they’re being thought about and understood, by writers with wisdom and deep, deep empathy. Whatever works, no?

I read on because this debate has been woven into the fabric of A Song for Issy Bradley: it’s about faith, specifically religious faith, and what happens to that faith when the unimaginable happens. It’s a good subject, rich and dramatic, and, you realize, universal in ways you might not have suspected: we all have faith, or whatever you want to call it. When the unimaginable does happen, we set our sights somewhere a long way in the distance and set about the task of dragging ourselves toward this place. It might take us years, but we usually need some kind of belief in something—the slow diminution of pain, the love we receive or wish to give to others—to get us there.

The Bradleys are British Mormons, and when four-year-old Issy dies of meningitis, her three siblings and her devastated parents all find, in their own ways, that their faith isn’t containing them in the way they wish to be contained. It’s a ragged, literal-minded thing, big on the idea of reunion in the life to come, and with very little to say about devastating grief in the here and now. Ian, the father, a bishop in his local church, is the most committed, not least because he’s grown up in the church; his wife, Claire, is a convert who in the depths of her despair finds her husband and his comforting, threadbare saws increasingly inadequate. Their three surviving children, Jacob, Alma (a boy), and Zipporah, are variously confused, maddened, and isolated by the oddness of their beliefs—there aren’t many Mormons in the north of England. Carys Bray writes simply and well about all of this, and the increasing fragility of Claire’s mental state is portrayed with care and a devastating authenticity. Indeed, if this novel has a weakness, it’s that we miss her when she disappears inside herself, and we are denied the same access to her doubtful commentary. If you don’t have a religious belief, then you may find, like me, that you need Claire around to speak and think for you. I loved A Song for Issy Bradley. It’s wry, smart, human, and, rather miraculously, avoids mawkishness. And, ultimately, it’s moving and comforting in a way that makes sense even to the agnostic. I still found the first eighty pages excruciating, though. Only you will know whether you’re at a place in your life where you can hack them.

You’d think that Respect Yourself, Robert Gordon’s definitive history of Stax Records, could not provide anything other than light relief, but the story of Stax is both extraordinary and sad. It was founded, as you may or may not know, by Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle, who in 1959 were a couple of white squares working in a bank, but who by 1964 were responsible for some of the greatest black American popular music ever made. For most of the 1960s, Stax was a Hollywood scriptwriter’s dream of creativity, excitement, and racial harmony: Estelle ran the record store, the black kids danced outside on the pavement, Jim grabbed them and turned them into successful recording artists, while the MGs, half-white, half-black, provided the backing tracks. And then Martin Luther King was shot, Memphis changed, Stax lost its voice in its bid for world domination, and the racial harmony vanished. This is an important, gripping, and authoritative book about a key period in twentieth-century cultural history, but it’s melancholy, too. Ach, that melancholy. It gets in everywhere. That’s life, I suppose.

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