Sunday, 13 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 4 - Slash fanfiction

I have reservations about calling this post 'Slash fanfiction' as if I'm going to be expressing my definitive viewpoint on it. There's no way I could do this, since almost every slash story I read slightly alters my view on what it's for and what it's doing.

Slash, for non-readers of fanfic, is a term describing fics revolving around homosexual pairings (it's opposed to 'het', heterosexual, pairings). Many of these are fairly improbable pairings, such as Snape/Harry (or 'Snarry'); others, such as Sirius Black/Remus Lupin, are more understandable, especially given the similarity in the two's animal forms, and their notorious affectionate embrace towards the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.

Suman Gupta, in the revised edition of his excellent book Re-reading Harry Potter, spends a small part of the last chapter trying to theorise why there is so much slash fiction. One possibility he moots is that unusual pairings, such as Draco and Harry or Ron and Draco, are trying to provide an alternative route to resolving the splits in the wizarding world through romantic love, rather than confrontation and violence. He also suggests that the slash presence on fanfic sites is an emancipatory move by fans to fill in the social gaps in the wizarding world, where only coy hints of homosexuality are found. (I'm ignoring Rowling's declaration that Dumbledore was gay, since there was so much slash fiction before Deathly Hallows was published and she made this statement that it hardly matters; at any rate Dumbledore is only one of a very large number of characters used in slash pairings.)

It is true that there are characters whose sexual lives we know very little about, such as Charlie Weasley or Sirius Black. But there are also those who we know are in heterosexual relationships, such as Lupin (briefly, before he and Tonks are murdered). Of course you could theorise that Lupin only marries Tonks because Sirius has been killed and he is searching for comfort. But most SBRL fics (as they're coded) don't do this: they either go backwards, looking at the characters' lives before 'canon' (the published texts), or they choose an alternate universe (AU) approach and rewrite their lives.

So why this intense urge to write homosexuality into almost every fissure of the Harry Potter? Go to's Harry Potter section, relax the ratings filter so you can view 'M'-rated fics, and search for almost any pairing of male characters of the same generation/era, and you'll find some, I can pretty much guarantee. Lucius Malfoy and Blaise Zabini (Draco's aristocratic classmate). Lucius and Harry. Snape and James Potter. Even 'twincest' between Fred and George Weasley (the loosening of traditional sexuo-moral boundaries in the fanfic realm will be looked at in the future at some point). It is extraordinary - and, for me, discovering this world at the age of 14 - exciting and liberating.

Plus, Gupta cites a survey done by a fanfic site that suggests most slash fanfics are written by women in their twenties. Most fanfiction in general is written by female fans - this is pretty much accepted - so perhaps this shouldn't be a big surprise. And there are, comparatively, very few fics with female slash pairings. Ginny/Hermione appears sometimes (but compare 57 pages of this pairing on to 398 pages of stories about Sirius Black and Remus Lupin). I read an excellent one about Professors Hooch (Quidditch mistress) and McGonagall once, but this was years ago, and there are still only 3 pages of stories with a 'McHooch' focus.

This is the bit where I have no answers. Is it to do with the nature of male vs. female characters in the series? In general, females are pretty marginalised: they're eccentric, like Tonks and Luna, maternal, like Molly Weasley, overly girly and flirty, like Fleur, Lavender and Parvati or mad like Bellatrix Lestrange (the only major female Death Eater, by the by). Hermione is more concrete, and highly intelligent, but she's also ripped to pieces in many ways: she can be vain and shrill and bossy. Umbridge is evil and clever, but ridiculous with her obsession with fluffy kittens and pink. Cho Chang is impatient and weepy. The only female character who seems to have real steel and charisma, as far as my reading goes, is Ginny Weasley, and unfortunately she doesn't really mature until the sixth book.

The male characters, by comparison, dominate the series in number and personality: look at Dumbledore, Voldemort, Snape, Draco, Sirius Black, James Potter, Wormtail, Cedric Diggory, Viktor Krum, Mad-Eye Moody, Kingsley Shacklebolt, Fudge, Rufeus Scrimgeour, Argus Filch etc. All very memorable characters, with, in my opinion, much more solidity and individuality. More, in short, to hang a fanfic on.

There's also a culture of heterosexual masculinity throughout the books which it's quite fun to disrupt by introducing a strong sexual element into it. Take this fic, 'I'm Not in Denial', which begins with a typical brawl between Draco Malfoy and Ron Weasley that turns into a sexual assault. The fighting goes on as the relationship develops - most of the time the two don't know whether to fight or fuck, to put it crudely. This is an extreme example, but it's posssible that fans find this much more interesting - and unlikely, perhaps, so therefore more novel? - to read than a typical lesbian pairing, which is often based on deep meaningful conversations and frustrations with the men in their lives (certainly this is true of Ginny/Hermione).

Could it also be argued that women have the same kind of fascination with male homosexuality as men do with lesbianism, if male-aimed porn is anything to go by? This is certainly possible, and the lack of erotica addressing this interest could certainly be attributed to the domination of the sex industry by male desires and the expectation of women to fulfil them - just in the same way that there are hardly any male prostitutes compared to the numbers of females.

I suppose I don't know the answer. I certainly continue to find male homosexual relationships deeply interesting - perhaps it's the exoticism of it, givenI will never be able to participate in such a relationship myself. I don't know. But, going back to 'I'm Not in Denial', one thing I like very much about it is the effort to address stereotypes, the demonstration that males can experience homosexual desire without being feminised at all. It's a shame there aren't more teenage boys reading these fics, especially those who are uncertain about their own sexuality, but at least the stories exist. It's a start.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Harry Potter: Part 3 - Fanfiction, an Introduction

I'm not going to say much here, partly because I've just written two posts and I have a life to lead. But I do want to lay down some preliminary questions about Harry Potter-related fanfiction, which I'm going to be thinking about over the next few weeks/months, especially as I continue to read examples of it:

  • Why do people write fanfiction? Is it to fill in gaps they've identified in the books, to explore issues that are not resolved, to alter the world to fit their preferences, to experiment with alternate possibilities? (I suspect all of these are true in some cases.)
  • Are there common themes in the stories that receive the most critical attention? (I am measuring critical attention in terms of numbers of reviews on a site such as or The vast majority of these reviews tend to be laudatory, often emphatically so.)
  • How are new romantic/sexual pairings presented, and how often are the characters kept IC (in character) or taken OOC (out of character) in order to present them?
  • How are themes that would be considered incompatible with the genre of children's literature (especially deviant sexual behaviour) presented?
  • Who writes fanfiction? Male or female? What kind of age? (In the media, the genre is largely presented as a realm dominated by teenage girls, but this cannot be exclusively true.)
  • How much of themselves do fanfiction writers tend to reveal about themselves, and how often does this relate to how they write or what they write about?
  • How often is the loose generic allocation of 'fantasy' to the Harry Potter books manipulated or destroyed?

I'm sure other questions will appear during the course of this series, but for now we'll leave it there.

Harry Potter: Part 2 - Class, an Introduction

One big issue that is pretty obvious throughout the Harry Potter series is that of social status, especially social class. Various analyses have pointed out that there are several kinds of parallels to be drawn between relations in the books and social relations in our world.

More particularly, there are consistent representations of characters who, in our world, we would consider to be of a lower social class. For instance, we have the house-elves, a species servile by nature and employed almost exclusively without pay. They are presented as approximations of humans: they comically wear pillowcases, they speak in a non-standard dialect, and seem not to be able to police their own speech, having to resort to injuring themselves if they speak ill of their employers.

Then there is Hagrid, who is presented both as uneducated (he was expelled from Hogwarts for a crime he did not commit, and supposedly had his wand snapped) and governed more by impulsive emotions than common sense or intelligence (he lets out school secrets in the pub, he likes to drink too much and loses his guard, he sobs when any of his precious animals are hurt or taken away). He is frequently mocked by Draco Malfoy (more on him later), and geographically is an outcast as he lives in a hut cut off from the elite world of the school. He is oversized and clumsy (he, even more famously than Dobby, has a noticeable regional accent, rendered as West Country by Robbie Coltrane in the films), and it is revealed that he is half-giant, suggesting his cognitive abilities may be different (and by different, let's be honest, most will read inferior) to those of full humans. In Deathly Hallows, he nearly kills Harry by getting a spell wrong (a motif common to underdog-type characters); in general he is more of an inadvertent antagonist than an active protagonist.

There are the Weasleys, who, we are constantly aware, don't have much money. They have to buy second-hand school materials. In Goblet this results in Ron making a fool of himself at the Yule Ball, because he has to wear old-fashioned, frilly dress robes, and Harry mocks him mercilessly. This is interesting, because Harry is generally quite conscious of Ron's lack of money, being quite rich himself, and it is possible that Rowling has disguised social disadvantage with clownlike appearance enough that it becomes acceptable to take the piss. More on them at some other point.

There are other characters who are worth examining aside from these -Lupin, for instance, and Neville, as well as Harry himself - but for now I want to shape these by mentioning a point made by Andrew Blake in his The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, which is that the Hogwarts house system could be seen to map quite neatly onto the British class system: Hufflepuff are the working-class labourers, who are relatively unskilled but highly dilligent; Gryffindor are the lower-middle-class, who are more educated but by no means intellectuals, and rely on their bravery and confidence to get them through; Ravenclaw are of course the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and Slytherin are the "wicked aristocrats", rich and snobby.

I'm not sure I wholly agree with this - given Harry's wealth, and Ron's lack of it, I think Gryffindor is a less easily locatable social set, for instance - but the analogy does raise some interesting points. Bearing in mind the story of the origins of the Harry Potter books, which has now become something of a legend/myth - that Rowling wrote the books in cafes while she was a single mother on benefits - it is perhaps unsurprising that the very rich characters are the most evil. But it is more surprising that Hufflepuffs, the unskilled workers, are the least explored house in the books (Cedric Diggory is their main spokesman, and he is disposed of after four books), and the most obviously low-status.

As I mentioned briefly with Hagrid, the films reflect this class difference fairly reliably - especially the Slytherins. Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs and Ralph Fiennes all produce cut-glass drawls for Snape, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort, as does Tom Felton, more or less, for Draco Malfoy. Both Felton and Isaacs are far less 'BBC' in their accents in real life. The G ryffindors, meanwhile, are less identifiable - whilst Richard Harris was fairly 'posh' (excuse the term), Michael Gambon's Dumbledore often sounds slightly Celtic, Professor McGonagall has a well-to-do Scottish accent, the Weasley parents are Midlands at times and RP at others, Ron/Rupert Grint have a non-RP Essex accent, and so on. Harry is fairly RP, and Hermione/Emma Watson is, it's fair to say, amongst the upper classes accent-wise.

This is where the films blur into real life, of course, since Emma Watson is certainly from a well-off family and went to a private school. Perhaps one could draw an analogy between her and the 'Posh Totty' in the film St Trinian's, who run a sex chatline with their Queen's English voices, given how objectified Watson has been by the media, especially tabloids and men's magazines.

This has been a fairly meandering exploration, mainly because it is possible to explore all of these points in more detail, which I inted to do at some point. The complement of class issues one can tease out of the books is by no means complete here. So there is definitely more to follow.

- Andrew Blake, The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter (Verso, 2002)

The Harry Potter books: Part 1

I've had an ongoing interest in children's literature for quite a few years now, both as a reader and critic. Parallel to that, I've always adored the Harry Potter books, and got quite into reading and writing fanfiction when I was about 14, a fascination which has never really left me.

More recently, I've discovered that there was a spate of books published about the Harry Potter series in 2002-4 (some of which have been reissued in revised forms since the Deathly Hallows came out), and have been reading a couple of them. They're riveting stuff, full of analysis of power relations, class issues, gender representations, alternative sexualities, the significance of blood, religion, reception and banning, the films etc. In particular, Suman Gupta's Re-reading Harry Potter is wonderful, though I haven't finished it yet.

To call the effect of the Harry Potter books a 'phenomenon' (and I think it's fair to include the films as an effect rathr than a cause of this phenomenon) is, in my view, totally justifiable. Never before had a series of books, let alone those ostensibly for children, been so devoured, banalised, universally known. (The Twilight series will never match this, because its audience is so limited to teenage girls. And, quite frankly, because they're dreadful.) So they deserve special attention, and how 'literary' or 'good' they are, or any other value-judgement-type terms you can think of.

Every time I start thinking about this kind of analysis in any detail, my mind fills up and goes mad. There is so much to say about these books. They are rich with characters, subplots and backstory, and nearly everything is of interest. So I'm going to write a series of entries on these books, looking at broad themes, posing questions, perhaps formulating answers to them. These entries probably won't be in any logical order. But I'm doing a media module as part of my teacher training course, so I think it is going to be extremely helpful to me to start getting my thoughts together, so hopefully I might be able to write about them in the future.

I will also be thinking about a selection of fanfiction texts, because for me and hundreds of thousands of other readers, they have become an integral part of the Harry Potter experience. Ditto the films - but replace 'hundreds of thousands' with 'millions'. I'm excited about this. Enjoy, folks!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Adam Bede by George Eliot

This isn't going to read much like my other book reviews, since George Eliot is so well established as a 'classic' author that only quite personal reflections on the novel can really add anything new.

I first read Adam Bede when I was preparing for my first year at university. It was one of a long list of weighty Victorian novels, and the list also included Bleak House and Middlemarch, as well as The Mill on the Floss and Great Expectations, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. In such star-studded company, Adam Bede didn't exactly stand out from the crowd. Still, it was the first written of the three Eliots on the list, and so the one I read first.

The book revolves around four characters, principally: Adam himself, a fairly obvious cipher for Jesus, since he's a straightforward, self-improving and eloquent carpenter. Then there's Hetty Sorrell, the girl he's loved for years, despite the fact that she's vain and self-centred, to which Adam is blind. Thirdly, we have Arthur Dunnithorne, the squire, who falls quite under Hetty's spell, and manages to seduce her. Finally, there's Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher, who is plain but forthright and impossibly good-hearted, who is Hetty's cousin.

The drama of the plot doesn't really kick off until about halfway through the book, so one has to plough through an awful lot of description, characterisation and Christian doctrine. This is wonderful if you love Eliot, which I do - and I found the religious stuff particularly inspiring since I lost a relative around the same time - but it is quite dense, so people in search of a light read should stay away. Eliot captures the small-town attitude, quick to judge, sometimes happy to forgive but never to forget, perfectly, as well as - and I think this is a quality of Eliot that is often overlooked - managing to be very witty and amusing.

You can't help but love Adam, since he comes across exactly as a bumbling man in his mid-twenties might in a modern novel: frustrated but affectionate with his mother and brother, susceptible to irrational and largely appearance-based attachments, yet highly moralistic. I don't know how popular Dinah would be, since she is pretty damn well perfect and readers tend not to like these kinds of characters, but I thought she was marvellous, the kind of character that makes you see how much your own personality is wanting of essential kindness.

The most interesting character is probably Arthur, who does not lack this kindness by any means, but surrounds it with rashness and a propensity to care too much what people think of him. There is a particularly deft scene where Arthur nearly confesses to his vicar that he has been playing with Hetty's heart, but at the moment when he is about to unburden himself, the clergyman changes the subject and the opportunity is, for Arthur, lost. This is exactly how conversation works today, and it seems both marvellous and unsurprising that so little has changed over the years.

I was also struck by the fact that Hetty and Arthur's dalliance turns out to have gone much further, in physical terms, than we are led to believe (Eliot, of course, embraces the Victorian delicacy which consists not so much in euphemisms but in complete silence. Bring on the feminist critics.). They tend to meet in a wood, and Eliot is quick to capitalise on the inherent mystery of events that disappear into the trees and reemerge at some point later. If someone you know spends a great chunk of time elsewhere, it is impossible to calculate their movements accurately enough to know what they have been doing the whole time - and, consequently, easy to slip in a little illicit activity.

Rereading Adam Bede, much more slowly than the first time round, makes you able to appreciate how sleepy the first half is, and therefore how great a shock to the system the quick-moving crisis of Hetty's unplanned pregnancy and flight, and subsequent disasters, are. It is a long book, facts is facts: my Penguin classics has fairly small font and still runs to 540-odd pages. But it is a book that rewards patience, as few seem to nowadays. My former tutor edited the Oxford edition once; no doubt he will agree with me. If you like being in for the long haul, there are few better places to go than a Victorian tome, and I will always hold a peculiar affection for Adam Bede.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Other books read recently ...

... for which I shan't be posting reviews, however much I'd like to.

  • Geoffrey Eugenides, Middlesex - a long but readable and funny epic of incest, dislocation and hermaphroditism;
  • Sarah Waters, The Night Watch - an again long, but highly readable and fascinating, peek into nascent homosexuality, and associated emotional issues, in 1940s London;
  • Linda Grant, The Clothes on their Backs - shortlisted for the Booker last year, though many of my book club couldn't quite see why, this is funny and unusual, but emotionally rather sterile;
  • Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life - this is brilliant - profound and delicate, with both reverence and wry humour shown towards Proust and his work;
  • Christopher Isherwood, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin - two fairly meandering, short novels based around Nazi-ising Berlin in the 1930s. Funny and vivid - and they based Cabaret on Goodbye to Berlin, so look here if you want to see the original Sally Bowles ...
  • Jessica Adams, Imogen Edwards-Jones, Maggie Alderson, Kathy Lette et al, In Bed With - a selection of erotic stories which are supposed to subvert the genre. To be honest, I only got that subversion vibe from two of the twelve odd stories in there. The rest were playful, yes, occasionally funny, but rather predictable, and a bit too many rippling muscles for my liking (qv. Mills and Boon). They're all anonymous, but the one written by Ali Smith is pretty easily identifiable, and that one is rather nice (naturally). (Oh yes - on a wee tangent - I met her recently at a Cambridge Wordfest event, and she is super-nice. I now have lovely messages inside a few of my books. And I made her giggle. Eek!)
  • Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (oh yes)- no introduction needed, of course. I hadn't read this since I was 16, and had forgotten how wonderful it is. More on which soon.
  • Shakespeare, The Tempest (for some tutoring I've been doing)- am realising how much better (and how much easier to understand) Shakespeare is if you read it aloud. It takes rather longer, but it does mean I can put on an Ian McKellen-style voice for Prospero.
Currently I'm on Fiona Shaw's Tell It to the Bees, for a book club.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The End of Alice by A. M. Homes

(256pp; £7.99; Granta Books, 1997)

If someone had given A. M. Homes the brief -

"Write a short novel exploring at least three forms of sexual activity considered deviant. Be as graphic as you can; break as many taboos as you like. Make sure a good 30% of readers won't be able to finish it."

- then she could hardly have produced a more intense, shocking novel than she has. Ali Smith described it as a flipside to The Great Gatsby, showing the grotesque side of "doomed yearning" that characterises many great American novels. A customer, according to a friend of mine, returned it to the bookshop where I used to work, claiming it made her physically ill. Reading it in the Orchard cafe in Grantchester in the blazing sun of a Sunday morning, surrounded by giggling families, I was gripped by waves of furtive guilt - and thrilled nausea.

The plot has four strands, each dealing with a new and delicate issue.

A male narrator in his sixties reminisces about his seduction, and eventual murder, of a twelve-year-old girl named Alice, who, by his account, was just as instrumental in initiating and perpetuating the relationship as he (plain old paedophilia).

His memory drifts sporadically back to his childhood, when he was abused by his mentally deteriorating mother (incestuous paedophilia).

He has now in prison for twenty-six years, and spends a lot of time imagining a narrative for his correspondent, a nineteen-year-old girl now engrossed in carrying out her own seduction of a pubescent boy, including a pretty disgusting scene where she eats one of his scabs. Her brief missives, and the vivid, detailed conclusions he draws, form the third strand (female paedophilia, rarer and more refined ...!).

The final thread in this sordid, though expertly woven, braid is the details of the narrator's time in prison, including how he has become the plaything of his gay murderer cellmate (homosexual rape, voyeurism). It's like Lolita, with the volume turned up, and probably the most shocking book I have ever read.

Nine times out of ten, the novel I've just described would be a disaster. Luckily, it was in the hands of a dangerous author who can make the unimaginably appalling seem banal, humorous - and attractive. A. M. Homes is an author who understands the fraught, ambivalent relationship we have with our society's taboos, and she capitalises on it. It's a troubling result. As with Lolita, I frequently had to remind myself exactly what my moral standpoint on such events was, because I was being so insistently besieged.

One point about the style before I begin urging you to read this novel. Homes occasionally repeats verbatim a few lines, even a chunk, as the narrator remembers and re-remembers. His memories are already crystallised, instantly accessible, and replaying them is a quick, repeatable process. Is it overly Freudian to draw similarities between this experience, this regular release of mental energy, and the relief gained through masturbation? The narrator is near-impotent during his time in prison, after all. It's a thought I'll leave you with, and now get on with the recommendation ---

This is a book to challenge yourself with, to test yourself, to see how mentally robust you really are. I read it pretty slowly, which is suggestive in itself, but I managed to get through it without vomiting, and without ceasing to be aware that I was reading an extraordinary piece of work. (But maybe avoid the bit with the scab-munching.)

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Absence, and chickening out

In the drafts folder of this blog there is a long and indignant post about Susan Boyle, the 'unlikely' singer who blew away the judges of Britain's Got Talent. I was arguing that people had overreacted to her talent, which is not so rare as many believe, and I was especially annoyed with Clive James, who wrote smugly - and ill-advisedly so - that there were many members of professional opera choruses who were just as good as Boyle but could never hope to be stars. I wanted to add my ha'penny's worth of bile by spitting scorn at him, since Boyle's voice is untrained and therefore nowhere near as strong, reliable and wide-ranging as any professional singer.

In the end, though, I decided the post was too long, and too vitriolic, to actually publish. It is true that people often wax lyrical on subjects they know nothing about - but this is what we call the public consciousness. If people just stuck to what they know, we'd be a nation of closeted specialists, scurrying around in tight gangs and expressing approximately eight opinions a year, the rest of the time restricting ourselves to curious, neutral observation, nodding gravely as singing instructors and musicologists pronounce on a performance that has brought joy to many people, however amateur.

Susan Boyle will never have the voice of a trained opera singer; that is fact. But I think the longer version of the article I have saved simply misses the huge emotional point far more than it makes a new, rational one - so I'm going to censor myself. I like doing this. It makes me feel responsible. How clear-headed and mature I am!

Now I'm off to terrify twenty eleven-year-olds into bewildered submission. I've got to let my anger out somewhere, after all.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

(Film tie-in edition, Phoenix 2008; £7.99; 240pp)

Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

I have to admit, my three main reasons for reading this book were: a) the huge popularity of the film, b) my admiration for both Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, who star in it, and c) the word 'Schlink', which can be pronounced in all sorts of amusing ways and bears a pleasing resemblance to 'slinky'. I wasn't that keen to read it for itself. Books about the Holocaust don't appeal to me: my granny can tell me as much about that as I need to know, and I wasn't keen on meeting a fictional character who carried some weight of responsibility for my great-great-grandmother's death. My mum had also read the first part of it and said the translation was clunky and unnatural, and not bothered to finish it, which for a book so short and a reader so avid is ominous.

But anyway. I picked it up off our table and read it. It's a quick enough read: only 220 pages' (the other 20 pages are filled with rather patronising reading group notes) worth of quite widely-spaced text, with chapters that are only three or four pages long. A couple of hours is more than enough. For those of you who haven't been saturated with the story: fifteen-year-old Michael Berg has a highly sexualised fling with a woman named Hanna, who likes him to read books aloud to her in between snoozing and bathing and shagging. Then one day she abruptly leaves town. Michael goes on to university, then law school, and ends up one day at the trial of several female ex-Nazi guards. Hanna is among them, and he watches silently as she is sentenced.

There is a twist, which I knew before I started reading the book - and which, frankly, isn't that difficult to guess, though of course I knew what I was looking for. In fact, that was the huge problem I found reading this book: because it's quite short and the film has been so well publicised, there wasn't much about the plot I didn't already know. The best parts lay in the bits I wasn't expecting: there's a touching scene where Michael asks his philosopher father to help him solve a moral dilemma, for instance, and I loved the sparsely-drawn but surprisingly memorable governor of the prison where Hanna ends up. I couldn't help agreeing with my mum on the stylistics of the book, but I think there's a bit more to it than bad translation: the prose is abrupt, and in places comes across as emotionally sterile because Schlink doesn't give much away on, for instance, the relationship between Michael and his parents (until the lovely scene with his father), or the abortive friendships he forms at school. Still, I'm inclined to give Schlink the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is part of Michael's personality: by his own admission, he tends to think too much with the head and not enough with the heart, so any story he writes will naturally be analytical, concise and, for want of a better word, very 'German'.

Indeed, you can feel the writer's nationality in the translation (I couldn't help but imagine Hanna speaking with a German accent, which didn't seem right to me) - but unless we want to get into the huge translation debate and argue that it's better to give a text a new, 'British' identity rather than attempting, and inevitably failing, to retain its original 'German' one, I don't think this is necessarily a fault. The book itself is about the generation whose parents served for and collaborated with the Nazis, their shame and guilt, so in this case its German character carries meaning in itself.

In writing this review I've realised that I actually liked the book much more than I either expected to or thought I had while I was reading it. It doesn't pretend to be much more than a novella (although the publishers make some attempt at this pretence with the luxurious spacing and thick paper - it looks much more than 240 pages long), and whilst the moral discussion is rather thinly-disguised as the character's rather than the author's, the plotline is simple and sticks to a small, exquisitely-complicated part of its characters' psyche. Hanna is, quite frankly, a brilliant character: unmistakeably womanly yet curiously childlike, violent, earnest and beautiful. The third section of the book, where she is in prison, was for me its triumph, the most convincing and poignant. This book grows on you, and though I might not wholeheartedly share the ravings of the reviews quoted inside the cover ("Read it ... and read it again"), I would suggest that there are far worse ways to quietly pass a Sunday afternoon than this thoughtful, decidedly un-slinky book.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Here's a short story I wrote over half term. As per usual, this is nowhere near close to a final draft. In fact the oxymoron of the 'final draft' is something rather alien to me.


Losing One's Temper(ament)

‘You know,’ she says, placing a hand over mine on the table, ‘I always rather liked you.’

I raise an eyebrow. I nearly flinch at how warm her hands are – but my anger bolsters me against such instinctive reactions, and I am able to remain calm.

‘If you liked me so much, why did you go ahead with it?’ I say.

She shrugs. ‘That’s a tricky one.’

This place is a tricky one and all. CafĂ©, restaurant, hidey-hole? It has a lot of rooms and a lot of character and a lot of coffee, but all the meetings I’ve had in here have been heartbreakers. This was where Patrick brought me when we needed somewhere neutral, to talk about her.

The waiting staff must think my life consists of nothing more than difficult conversations. I wonder if it is flattering or disgusting to a coffee shop to be used as a tight, table-sized battleground. What do they think, if as they approach a table they can hear quiet, quick, intense voices?

Finally I take my hand out from under hers. She obviously pressed harder than I thought: my own hand is rather red and hot. ‘Could you maybe try and answer it? Because we’ve grown up with this idea of sisterhood, you know, and you say you actually like me, but …’

‘But some things are more important,’ she says coolly.

‘Really? Like Patrick?’

‘No, like what Patrick can give me that I need and that friendship and sisterhood and all that can’t give me.’

‘You mean a hard old shag.’

God, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry or get angry. Not that these restrictions leave me with many places to go, actually, when faced with this bizarre and provoking woman. She keeps fiddling with her nose-ring. Is it infected or is she just nervous? The skin around where the metal goes in looks a bit red. In fact, you could argue she’s a bit the worse for wear all over. Her hair’s going frizzy. In two hours it’ll be a couple of centimetres shorter. Perhaps Patrick’s rubbed her up the wrong way, perhaps that’s why she wanted to meet me properly. Perhaps he’s chafed her a bit on the inside.

‘Not a hard old shag,’ she says, emphasising my words carefully as if they are new words, as if they are words she would never think of applying to this particular situation. ‘But perhaps – perhaps that roughness you can’t get from women.’

This actually makes me smile. (Should I have denied myself this reaction too?) I put my hand back over hers, clenching my fingertips into her wrist. ‘What makes you think that women can’t be rough?’

‘You want to beat me up?’

‘I’ve been sorely tempted. I could easily bash you against a wall.’

‘You think it’s nice for women to behave like that?’ Sometimes it is obvious she’s foreign, though her accent is nigh on perfect.

‘I don’t know. It’s nice to fantasise about behaving like that sometimes.’ But it’s not allowed, it’s not permitted, I think. Male domestic violence is well documented. If a man beats his wife it is slotted into that category with weary ease. It’s a ritual, something we think men think they have to do, and its repeated discovery makes it acceptable, whatever women’s refuges and support groups might say otherwise. We used to have ceremonies for these things. Time was we’d have to wash the knife and hold it up, catch the sunlight with it, wait for a heron to fly over with its blessing, before plunging the knife quite legitimately into a cheating husband’s chest. Then the corpse would be bled, slowly, into the straw bed underneath it, the knife would be cleaned in the reeds, the body would be rolled roughly down a hill and left there while we gathered up our things and moved on.

This is a kind of ceremony too, the meeting-for-coffee, a modern ritual. Get it over with on the Saturday morning to enjoy the rest of the weekend (as if that’s likely while I watch Patrick gather his little heap of belongings into his car and take a deep breath in my empty house).

She leans towards me, her eyes concerned. She doesn’t look as young as I thought, in fact. Her eyes are a bit rough around the edges. ‘We all hate men,’ she said, ‘and when they hit us we are very angry – and yet you say you want to do the same thing. Perhaps we should just let men be men and stop blaming them when they are the same as we are.’

She wouldn’t be saying that if Patrick had hit her, I remark silently .

‘What about poaching then?’ I say. It is taking me too long to react to her movements. She came in towards me and I didn’t lean away, so I can nearly feel her breath, I can certainly hear it, low like her voice.

‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ she says. ‘I usually poach men, not often women.’

‘Well, aren’t we talking about poaching men? Is that right, poaching?’

‘No, of course not. But it’s not as bad as poaching women.’

She seems at pains to convince me of something, something spectral in her words that is expected to help. What is the meaning of these lesbian hints? Is she finding a kind of logic in the idea that if she also fancies women I will like her?

‘Do you mean poaching women from men, or from other women?’ I ask. Let’s get it clear what we really are talking about.

She smiles. She has very big teeth, they’re filling the whole of her mouth so her smile is just an expanse of good clean white. ‘Either is possible,’ she says.

‘So why poach Patrick and not me?’ I say. I need more caffeine. I need to feel like I’m the hero of this story. Perhaps I should have let myself get angry. Too much of this conversation has been about her, her ideas. I’m the wronged one. I thought I might be able to impress on her the seriousness of the heartbreak she has caused me. Patrick is not a bad guy, but before certain kinds of pressures he is helpless, and she happened to be one of them. She’s like the wild wind careering in from the south, the exotic blast that tugs at his groin. What on earth has prompted her to start talking about seducing women, seducing me? Or was it me who brought that up?

‘Well,’ she says, ‘partly laziness. To poach you I’d first have to awaken feelings in you that you didn’t know were there, and that takes time because people are very bad at knowing themselves and recognising their own feelings.’

‘That’s fair enough,’ I say, ‘because I’m pretty sure there are no such feelings in me and I would be very surprised to discover any. This may sound a little odd to someone who thinks as you do, but I’m not the slightest bit attracted to you.’

She smiles again. Her eyes narrow a lot when she smiles, in a warm sympathetic sort of way, as if she understands that I cannot help being laughable and wants me to know that she forgives me for it.

‘You think you’re being very honest,’ she says, ‘but really it’s only conceit. You want to wrong-foot me by claiming you have a lot of self-knowledge.’ She puts the emphasis on the wrong rather than the foot. Somehow it only makes the word mean more strongly. Just the sound of her pronunciation has, in fact, wrong-footed me.

‘No,’ I say. ‘Permit me to be capable of recognising my own attractions and feelings, and permit me to enjoy total immunity to you.’

My hand is still on her wrist, although my fingers have long since relaxed; clasping someone like that becomes tiring after not very long. It is a signal that she will wilfully misread, I expect, so I remove the hand and put it under the table in my lap. How odd this has all turned out to be. So she does not really care much about Patrick after all. I’m still not convinced she cares about me either.

As I remove my hand she looks into my eyes, then looks away as if what she has seen there is not enough to cause her any concern. Then she unzips her top, leans forward to get her arms out the sleeves, and drops it on the floor beside her chair. Her shoulders are, like mine, quite broad, quite rounded. Her bra straps are emerald green and intermittently visible where the thicker strap of her vest does not cover them. I know what lies an inch or two further in, anyway. I’ve seen it.

Her email was the same as this conversation has been. I know what you must be feeling and I don’t want it to stay that way. Please meet me for coffee and I will try to explain. She was its protagonist, except for a brief foray into the imperative voice. The problem with text messaging and email is that we no longer have any choice whether or not we communicate with them. If we receive an email from someone we will read it. We can’t slam the door in an email’s face. The sight of an email does not make us physically sick, as the sight of her body lying naked on my sofa did. It takes a conviction that outweighs curiosity – and not many people, surely, possess that – to delete an email or a text without reading it. In fact sometimes it is physically impossible, since to know the sender of a text message you must read the message to deduce who they are, and then it is too late.

When I read the her message last week, I made the mistake of glancing out of the window at the sky. The sun had just set, and quite suddenly there were stripes of pale pink spreading across the space behind the messy dark outlines of the trees whose detail was dissolving. One taller tree was brushed along its smooth trunk with light – or, not light exactly, but the privilege of not being in shadow like the rest of the garden – and at that moment in my mind there was no doubt that it was as alive as I was.

And I was all listening-to-Schubert, and watching-the-sunset, and getting-slightly-drunk-on-very-nice-red-wine, and I was probably crying, and I just thought, bugger it, yes I will meet her, anything to sort out this adulterous mess, so I replied a bit daftly, All right then.

I want to explain this to her now, that our meeting is an accident, that I don’t know what I’m doing here and whatever she’d hoped to achieve is not being achieved, and that instead I’m getting a slow, calm discomfort, as if whole chunks of my body are itching all at once and there’s no particular place I can scratch that will make any difference whatsoever.

‘What do you want from me exactly? I thought you wanted to apologise,’ I say.

‘No, not apologise. I wanted to make it better, but not that way.’

‘By trying to persuade me I might be gay? Oh sure, miles better, thanks a lot, I’m all set now. Look, if you’re not going to apologise I don’t think this discussion can really get off the ground. I’m going to go.’

I stand up. She makes no move to prevent me, but slides a pen out of her pocket and grabs a napkin out of the pot with the cutlery and ketchup sachets. She writes a number on it. ‘Here’s my home number. You can call me if you like. Take care.’ Then she grabs her bag and her top and takes a few steps away from the table. ‘I’ll save you the embarrassment of having to decide whether to take it in front of me. Ciao.’ Then she’s gone.

Our waitress comes with the bill hastily. She thinks we were going to sneak out without paying. And that bitch has left me to pay for it all.

I shove a tenner on the little plate, then look at the napkin with the number on it. I pick it up and crumple it slowly while I wait for her to get my change, wanting the rejection to be complete, properly done, emphatic and deliberate. I roll the ball around in my hand, dampening it with sweat.

Then I put my bag down and use both hands to spread it out on the table. The number is still easily readable.

The waitress comes back with three pounds, and I put one of them on my saucer. The napkin and the other two quid go in my pocket.

It occurs to me that I am now feeling exactly how she intended me to feel. No doubt I have been much easier to poach than Patrick. I have a sudden vision of her sprawled happily in the Ritz, ordering two poached eggs, naming one Patrick and one Frances, then crushing them together into her toast with her fork.

I look at the waitress a bit suspiciously, but suspicious of myself, as if suddenly I might be attracted to every single woman who crosses my path.

Perhaps all honesty really is just conceit. Watch out, I think, for the people who claim to be candid.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Ali Smith's genius

Well, it's been an awfully long time since I wrote anything here, and I've been reading rather a lot. I'll put a full list up later on, perhaps, but mainly I've been on an Ali Smith binge - I read Girl Meets Boy, Free Love, Like and Hotel World, and I'm going to read Other Stories and Other Stories. I also heard her reading an abridged version of her story 'The First Person' on Radio 4 over half term, and I have to say I was blown away. Her voice is so warm, she reads quickly and lightly, always a tinge of wry humour - you know that no one else could have written those words. I was taken especially by the form of Hotel World - much like The Accidental, it's episodic, divided into chapters and using several different points of view. The last chapter is one long sentence, like the 'Penelope' section of Ulysses, which frankly is a bugger to read but is hard to beat if you're going for the full realisation of stream-of-consciousness writing. Hotel World, more than The Accidental or Girl Meets Boy (both of which alternate points of view), seemed like a cross between short stories and a novel: it gives you various characters around a hotel, meeting each other, remembering the same events, although the narrative does move forward and doesn't simply repeat the story of the previous chapter. Each character has a stylised consciousness - one is even drawn in the third person, which is rare in Smith's novels - and particular, obsessive concerns.

Smith has a particularly good ear for the way in which the brain shortens language, cuts off utterances without bothering or needing to finish them, and the way in which people actually speak - for instance, writing "Fuck sake" instead of "Fuck's sake" or "For fuck's sake", to imitate how this phrase actually manifests itself. She combines this - in 'The First Person', for instance - with playful, almost insanely witty banter: one character is allowed a spiel on how "You're not the first person to ..." Characters in Smith allow each other to talk, are unembarrassed about straying into melodrama or theatricals; the conversations lift themselves above reality whilst echoing it and convincing you at every turn. A girl falling down the lift shaft of a dumb waiter in a hotel? Highly improbable. The characters around her existing and reacting in their own particular words. Unquestionable, after Smith's crafting. She never pretends to be thorough. Her writing is whimsical, it frolics, it meanders. It overjoys and it hurts and it batters you from head to toe with her personality. I want to meet her, I want to have a pint and giggle with her. Could you say that about the flinty, though brilliant, Ian McEwan? Look back at the passage I quoted at some length from Girl Meets Boy, and tell me that isn't the perfectest picture of the intense, chanting, painful joy of falling in love.