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.