Thursday 24 August 2017

Review: Pure by Andrew Miller

I picked this book up back when it was making headlines as a Costa winner. I read the opening sentence, ‘A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles.’ It’s a sentence that greatly annoys me. Why is the narrator so slippery with the details, so vague? I threw down the book with frustration and didn’t pick it up for several years.

However, having read Ingenious Pain (and less so Casanova) I was comforted to realise that Andrew Miller is a skilled and confident writer. This is a wonderfully written book but that initial vagueness spreads over the whole story. There’s enough in the writing to let you know something is going on but not enough to let you know what.

It tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Barrette, an engineer who is tasked with removing a cemetery that is fouling the centre of Paris. He must mine deep into the ground for old corpses and have them transported, and in doing so, he comes of age. 

In the course of the work, he must build a team and a method to achieve the huge and disgusting feat. He must struggle against the priest who is about to lose his church, the daughter of the house he is lodging in and the opinion of the people. He is aided by the church organist - who is part of the coming revolution. There is also the incident with the gravedigger’s daughter and the man in charge of the army of engineers. 

One of the most pleasurable parts of the book is the camaraderie of the engineers and diggers, there is the feeling of a huge and accepting family that feels warm and lets the reader into it. (I also enjoyed the priest throwing missals as missiles - that made me smile).

This a book of many conflicting duos. It pits the living against the dead, the rational against the irrational, the mind against the body and the past against the future. To make Paris pure, Barrette must battle with the past and deal with those literal skeletons in Paris’s closet. But Barrette is not completely convinced of his task, he has an awkward standing in ‘the party of the future’. The year is 1785 and that future, as mixed in blood as progress, is just around the corner.

All these big, conflicting ideas make it seem that something is definitely occurring, that the clearing of the cemetery has a definite meaning beyond itself, but it is so busy contrasting those ideas that it never quite makes it clear what it is.

In the beginning of the book there is a description of an elephant, which is purposefully set up as a metaphor. The elephant lives on fine brandy and frightened the palace dogs, before they got used to it and attacked the elephant which had to be put into seclusion. At the end, the elephant is dead. Again - this may be a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? Is it the behemoth of the state - about to be attacked by the dogs of san-culottes? Is it the fear of death and desecration, that the gravediggers overcome? It’s not sure.

I had a little read of the removal of Les Innocents graveyard, what surprised me most was an element of the genuine removal that I think would have made a brilliant metaphor for purity out of decay. The engineers and diggers had a side business in collecting the congealed fat from the rotting corpses and turning it into soap - like in Fight Club. What more compelling and strange  image can there be then that?

Again, this was a very well written book, extremely nippy and enjoyable as I read it and introducing me to a fascinating piece of history and some well realised and interesting characters. Yet, like Casanova, there was something ultimately dissatisfying about a book that hinted it was about more then it said. By all means pick up Andrew Miller, but beware, it will haunt you with meanings that aren’t quite there.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Review: Casanova by Andrew Miller

My next Andrew Miller book is his second, ‘Casanova’ (or ‘Casanova in Love’ in some countries). It is a novel about Casanova’s time in London, particularly his romance of Marie Charpillon. It was not a successful romance and Casanova was not the same since.

I’ve read some Casanova, though I’ve not reached his adventures in London, but the Casanova in this book is really not the same person as the one he writes about. Casanova’s ‘History of my Life’ was written when he was an old man, with far more experience and far more misadventures then those times in middle age when he was in London. Despite this extra experience, Casanova seems to view his younger self with such affection and amusement that the world-weary, tired-of-life element of this book doesn’t really ring true. It’s also not much fun.

Casanova is so dour in this. Viewing London in the eighteenth century as little more then a purgatory in which he is condemned to live out the whole of his life following the same dull patterns. Actually, it’s more like Tartarus, where Tantalus finds all his pleasures pulling away from him at the last minute.

Throughout the course of the book, Casanova tries to seduce Miss Charpillon, but she plays him repeatedly, driving Casanova half-mad. In public she fusses over him, leading everyone around to feel that she and he are together, but when he gets her alone, she closes up physically and emotionally - which he can’t cope with at all. He starts to question how easy and enjoyable such intrigues used to be and questions the paths he has taken that has led him to where he is now.

In reality, Casanova did act in extreme ways; threatening her with a fruit knife, buying lead shot to drown himself in the Thames and training a parrot to describe her as a whore. It is extreme, but Casanova (in one of his less famous romances) stole locks of a woman’s hair and turned them into special sweets. Casanova dug up a corpse as a prank against someone who got his coat dirty. He always let his feelings and actions to go too far, this romance seems business as usual as far as Casanova is concerned.

In the novel, he does threaten her, he does buy the lead shot and he does train the parrot - to say ‘je t’aime’, watering down Casanova’s fantastic bitchiness. Other things added to the novel include a completely confusing section (which begins without warning) where Casanova and his manservant swap clothes with poor people and live as penniless builders for a few weeks. Why they do this is never explained, it makes no sense from Casanova’s point of view and has no real point. I have the feeling that it is trying to make a point about something, but I’m not sure what.

A relationship is created between Casanova and Samuel Johnson. It’s a great idea; one represents Venetian impulsiveness, lasciviousness and luxury and the other represents English common sense, plain wholesomeness and solidity. However, Johnson is flat - as is Casanova. In this pair, we have two of the finest raconteurs and conversationalists in history, but the dialogue is plain. Though I did like Johnson as a secret lech. 

Something that did work, was the inflation of a massive storm that grows to a Biblical flood, engulfing London up to the roofs, causing people to row around it, tying their boats to the steeples of churches. It’s a lovely image, with Casanova finally able to feel home after years of exile. It is, however, a very fairytale image which doesn’t really sit well with what is often a grounded and somber book, which again feel like it’s making a point I don’t quite understand.

It’s written by Andrew Miller, and so very well written. I particularly enjoyed the description of the ticking of a clock being the sound of time’s hammers chipping away slowly at an hour and also the description of a young woman’s lips looking as succulent as new prawns. He has a wonderful way of putting things and I don’t think I could ever not enjoy one of his books - but this one was very difficult to find out what he was actually trying to say. I just didn’t get it.

Wednesday 2 August 2017

Johnson's Reading Circle: Trip to Oxford

29th of July 2017: Marylebone Station. 

Among the people swirling around the station, running to a train or cursing the lines closed for weekend maintenance, stood the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle. Slightly shocked at the crowds, some bright spark figures out which platform the next Oxford train will be on and we bundle to the front, managing to seat ourselves comfortably.

We peeled off into little groups on the train; I heard hair-raising stories of exotic travels, featuring sultry beauties, tomb-raiders and dodgy contacts before pitting wits against a cryptic crossword. Never having done one before, it was like stepping into a whole world of weirdness, where the following sentence is supposed to make sense: ‘Heavenly body mostly struck that woman as alluring (4-6)’ 

Finally arriving in Oxford, we bobbed and weaved our way through the crowds - following local knowledge and arriving up at our key Johnsonian attraction, Pembroke College where Boswell says he lived ‘upon the second floor over the gateway’ and ‘the enthusiast of learning will ever contemplate it with veneration’. So we did. 

Indeed, we did more than that. We were met by the bursar, a librarian and a professor of the History of English and an author on Johnson and dictionaries. This A Team split us in two groups, one to tour the college and one to explore the library.

Here we're in the staff common room, I am here, find the wally.

The tour was conducted by the bursar and so we received many little behind the scenes tit-bits about how Pembroke was moving into the 21st Century, and how the college had grown out since Johnson’s day onto what had previously been a public street and also into (and over) Oxford’s medieval walls. 

We explored the dining hall, the chapel (built during the time Johnson was a member) and up the creaking wooden stairs to Johnson’s room. I reckon it’d have been a decent little place to live as a student. Nowadays it is the office for the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, once held by JRR Tolkien.

 Johnson's room was the second one down.

We were then taken to the library where the librarian and lecturer showed us various items, including some of Johnson’s letters, his private prayers and meditation and some of his university essays. he had neater writing as a student, perhaps he was trying to impress. We also saw the library records which show a library book still overdue and the battle books, written in an undeciphered squiggly code. The numbers at the end show Johnson living at steady expense, not altering as his expenses begin to dry up. We chatted about the heavy editing of the prayers and how Oxford’s best text-detectives had been unable to scan or read those excised parts and we speculated what might be in them.

Then we had all the sandwiches we could eat and those other Reading Circle staples, wine or elderflower fizz, before thanking everyone and heading back into the crowds of Oxford.

Round Christ Church, through the huge queue in, down the Cherwell, glancing across Christ Church fields and thinking of the film Shadowlands, we then went to Magdalen College. 

A larger college, with Alumni such as Oscar Wilde, William Tyndale and Edward Gibbon, we split up to cover more ground. The cloistered quads with white hydrangeas and statues led to secret gardens, a deer park and a building called The New Building built in 1773. The highlight was probably the chapel, built in 1474 with sepia stained glass windows that make the stone roof look like a trompe l’oeil.

Wrestling through the crowds, we got to the Ashmolean, where we split up, some to go home, some for a cup of tea and some to explore more. 

One of the frequent topics of conversation was our various reflections on our own university and young-adult experiences. When asked if she’d enjoyed university years, one gave the reply, ‘I thought I was at the time.’  Johnson and Boswell had a similar conversation.

“Dr. ADAMS told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, “was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.” But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real internal state even of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease. When I mentioned to him this account as given me by Dr. ADAMS, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolick. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”

Not that I take Johnson at his word, he revisited Oxford many times since and complained about it in that way that confirms an affection for the place. As for me, I had never been to Oxford before and enjoyed myself a great time. 

Session for the reading circle start on the 26th of September with another Boswell chunk. Following that we should be joined by the authors for Jacqueline Riding’s Jacobites and Kate Chisholm’s Wit’s and Wives, about Johnson’s relations with women.

So, another great year discussing eighteenth century ‘stuff’ and another great year to come. Can’t wait.