Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged 󈥴th century fiction’

I read Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon too quickly, admiring it on a superficial level only, and so what she was doing and how the narrative worked eluded me until I sat down to write about it and began re-reading the first few pages. These lines, which come just at the end of the third paragraph forced me to slow down, begin again and read the entire novel a second time:

…chronological prestige is tenacious (NB: Hazzard means here the right to look back upon an event from a far point in the future): once attained, it can’t be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.

What is more curious about this passage is that the narrator – a woman named Jenny – does something unexpected with it. These sentences sound like a kind of regret, a sad meditation upon memory and old age, how remembered experience will whittle away under its increasingly detailed accumulation. But she immediately tells us that she is looking forward to this, that certain memories she would like to get out from under.

This then sets the frame for her story, which begins with two encounters while she is working as a translator at a NATO base in Naples sometime in the 1960s. Her first encounter is presented as a non-encounter; she is sent to do a translation off-base for a visiting marine biologist, a Scotsman. She does the job and leaves. But because of this unexpected change in her usual schedule, she ends up with free time to go into Naples for the first time, and here occurs the second encounter, this one described immediately in terms that illustrate its importance. It’s an extended scene in which Jenny meets Gioconda, a scene that covers nearly four pages. Something I loved about this scene is that it involves Jenny describing Gioconda (a woman who will immediately become a very close friend) but it reveals so much more about Jenny.

The novel then goes about its duty of taking the reader through Gioconda and Jenny’s friendship, Jenny’s relationship with the Scotsman, which is wonderfully peculiar and sad, as well as Jenny’s relationship as a third-wheel with Gioconda and her lover, Gianni, which is somehow more ordinary at first but then becomes a central element of the bigger questions the novel raises.

Jenny’s time in Naples is situated beneath an unusual emotional umbrella. She has gone there to escape an unrequited love story – that doesn’t sound unusual, I know. But the person she was in love with (whom I won’t tell you) is what makes it so unique, and so touching.

And the book is about nothing more than this. Jenny and Gioconda, Gioconda and Gianni, Jenny and the Scotsman, and so on and so forth. But it manages—in very few pages—to reveal these four people in great depth, to look at them through personally historical but also culturally historical lenses, to make subtle (but uncommon) pronouncements on human feeling and behavior. For nearly a third of the book their meetings and conversations and comings and goings proceed without much narrative intervention, until almost the point that we forget that Jenny is telling the story from some point in the future, and that her perspective is more melancholy than anything else.

But then we reach the end and the timeline gets jumbled. This jumbling is purposeful (and was hinted at in those first paragraphs on the distance between memories and how it influences understanding). The last twenty or so pages of the novel require a very slow, a very careful reading. Done this way, the experience of what Hazzard is offering stretches long and lovely. Layers of meaning unfold, references back to earlier statements and questions, new insights into several of the characters, careful reflections on memory and friendship.

This is one of those books that sneaks up on you if you let it. I’ve read Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and enjoyed it (and it lingers in my memory with a similar tone to The Bay of Noon – a little bit haunting with sharp, incisive passages peppered throughout), but it has been some years now and I feel like I should go back and re-read to see what else it may offer.

I am trying to get back into the habit of taking some notes of my reading and finding time to write up thoughts in this space. I’ve neglected this blog over the last two years and this feels a little unsteadying. I am never quite as happy as when I have time to think (which for me means writing) about a book. But I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking about each book as a potential “review” and this has kept me from writing a bit more freely about the books I’m reading.

A few months ago a good friend passed me Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills. I’ve read him before, and in fact, An Artist of the Floating World as well as Never Let Me Go are both favorites of mine—although for very very very different reasons. But A Pale View of Hills is one of those books that went on the special shelf I reserve for books I end up thinking of as “perfect”.

I found it perfect for a number of reasons—in its prose style mainly (Ishiguro is a quiet writer who writes directly and simply but still achieves an overall lyrical feel) but also its structure and the way the time jumps inform the front story in surprising ways.

The novel is told by Etsuko and she begins by telling us something of her two daughters—Niki, who is younger and half-English, and Keiko, who is Japanese. The novel takes place over the course of Niki’s five-day-visit to Etsuko in her countryside home in England—that is the present framework—but the story is actually one of Etsuko going back into the past, into post WWII Japan and telling the reader something of her life at that time, before she came to England.

It isn’t just Niki’s visit to her mother that inspires these memories, but the recent suicide of the older daughter Keiko. Ishiguro writes this devastating sentence on page two:

The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary; for that was all they reported, that she was Japanese and that she had hung herself in her room.

That “as if further explanations are unnecessary” is so key here. Not only does it reflect the depth of bitterness and maybe even resignation that Etsuko is dealing with, but it also gives the reader the entire reason for the story she is about to tell.

The book then very quickly jumps into the past and Etsuko begins to tell the story of a woman she once knew, a woman named Sachiko with whom she was not really friends but with whom she spent much of a summer while she was pregnant with Keiko. Etsuko tells us about Sachiko and Sachiko’s daughter Mariko. We learn that Sachiko has fallen on hard times and is living on the fringes of town. Etsuko helps her find a job and begins to look after Mariko from time to time.

Sachiko is one of those marvelous fictional characters who presents the reader with many questions. What kind of woman is she? Are her actions (many of which seem cruel and self-centered) coming from her own innate character or from her difficult situation? Or what measure of each? Mariko, the daughter, is a difficult and mysterious child. She is badly behaved and sullen. And yet I found myself achingly sad as I read her story because Ishiguro reveals her loneliness and fear in disturbing ways.

This story from the past takes up most of the book, but the way the two timeframes speak to each other is really where the book affected me. Generally, I love books that do this (a past story informing a present-tense story) but A Pale View of Hills is one of the best examples. I don’t want to give anything away, so it’s hard to be too detailed, but it wasn’t just that because of Etsuko’s memories of that summer we understand something more of her relationship with her two daughters, it was more that we begin to question Etsuko’s memories and what she is actually trying to say. By the time we get to the end we realize that Ishiguro has been laying out a series of fascinating parallels that change almost everything about what we think we’ve understood all along.

And finally, throughout the past-tense story are hints that this is also a book of the war, of a Japan that is sorting out its future. This idea remains fairly muted but it is very powerful when looked at alongside the more personal stories of Etsuko and Sachiko and what happens to their lives.

I haven’t said nearly half of what I wanted to write about for this book, but it will have to do for today. I have a short stack of books I read over the summer and this fall that I’d like to write about as well, including Ramuz’s first novel Aline (1905), Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Justin Torres’s We the Animals, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, which I absolutely loved. I hope to get to these books soon. I am slowly reading Kathryn Davis’s Duplex right now, and it’s such an odd book. It’s strangely beautiful and often a little disturbing, which I think is the intended effect, but I am enjoying it and enjoying the work involved in trying to understand it.

For some unexplainable reason, I had Barbara Pym down as a writer of a different generation altogether. I wasn’t so off as to have catalogued her as an Austen or an Edgeworth, but I did mistakenly think she wrote somewhere around the turn of the century. However, she is much more contemporary. The bulk of her novels were published between 1950 and 1980, although several that were written earlier were published after her death in 1980.

My first experience of Pym’s work comes through her second novel, Excellent Women, published in 1952. Because of this title, I can’t help kicking off my Women Writers Project with this book. Pym uses this label, excellent women, with terrible irony, so I suppose I should be careful how I throw it around, but her ironic use of what should be a compliment reminds me of why I wanted to do this project in the first place. Pym is looking sharply at women’s roles and women’s happiness and so what better book to launch a project whose impetus came out of my frustration that women writers aren’t getting as much air time as their male counterparts.

Excellent Women is not about a woman writer, but it is about how women get noticed and about how women must navigate a male-dominated world. And the heroine of Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, is definitely literary. However, despite of (maybe because of!) her knowledge of English poets, she is heading toward confirmed spinsterhood. She lives on her own, spending most of her time in the company of members of her local church, especially Father Malory and his sister. The story begins with new tenants, Mr. and Mrs. Napier, moving into the flat below Mildred’s. The Napiers are a rather bohemian couple, and by that I mean that they seem to be anticipating the impending social and sexual revolution about to sweep the West, while Mildred and many of her friends and acquaintances are comfortable in the quieter times they are about to be forced to leave behind.

Now, just quickly, before I go on, I have to make a tiny complaint about the introduction to my edition of Excellent Women. I have a Folio Society edition, and it is absolutely beautiful, but the introduction actually gives away the entire story. So I knew what was going to happen to Mildred before I even started the book. This was unfortunate, actually, because the question of her future is quite central to story.

Mildred’s future, or more correctly, Mildred’s future happiness, seems to rely on the question of her being married. Isn’t this what she should want? Isn’t this what all women want? Pym frames and re-frames this question of the value of marriage throughout the novel, setting forth both good and bad examples of marriage, and letting Mildred explore her own feelings on the matter. But before this review makes it sound like Excellent Women is a form of 1950s chick lit, let me point out that the tone of Mildred’s constant musing is so wonderfully sharp, so dry and critical (of herself and of others), that the book turns away from its pretend focus on the race for wedded bliss and becomes a keen, sharp-edged analysis of social manners of the period.

The book is amazingly funny and I caught myself laughing out loud on several occasions. Mildred’s explanations for other people’s behaviors are often hilarious. She is critical of others, but also both astonished and admiring. There are moments when a desire to transcend her own fussy, prissy manners takes a hold of her, and she gives the reader a glimpse of a very real fragility, a longing to be someone else, to experience another kind of life. But then she quickly returns to her comfort zone, often with a subtly derisive comment on someone else. This combination of delicate and censorious is especially effective.

I’d like to read more of Pym, and my plan is to try the last of her “comedic” novels, No Fond Return of Love, because I’m curious how her satire evolved throughout the sixties and into the seventies. Did it become even more biting? Following that I’d like to read Quartet in Autumn, as this was the book that brought her back to publishing after a long series of rejections. It was then shortlisted for the Booker. Any other suggestions from the bookish crowd?