Slow Man – J M Coetzee

Read August 2015
This is a study of age, loneliness and what makes a good life. It tells the simple story of Paul Raiment who has his leg amputated after a cycling accident. Already an ageing man, the accident isolates him and leaves him longing for contact, but too embarrassed to get in touch with his old friends, who are already few and far between.

He falls for Marijana Jovik, his nurse, a Croatian, and foolishly declares his love to her. He eventually offers to pay for her son, Drago, to attend a private school and bails out her older daughter from a minor offence. His declaration of love – entirely unrequited – briefly drives a wedge between the family members but not for long. Her full family life, with both quarrels and love, stand in stark contrast to his solitary life and they come together, with Paul remaining outside, alone and a figure of pity and amusement.

The plot is complicated by the appearance of an ageing novelist, Elizabeth Costello, who camps out at Paul’s house and provides a running commentary on the desperation and loneliness of him as a childless single man.

As a narrative device Costello works well, and adds a level of entertainment that, without her, would have meant for a narrower and sadder book. But nevertheless she is an odd addition – how does she got into it, and where does she come from?

As well as the themes of ageing and the question of what makes a good life (alone and negatively free or embedded in tying but meaningful relationships) is the issue of invention in the novel. There’s a striking point when Paul describes his leg as a loss, as if he is now his old self but minus something, whereas Elizabeth (I think it’s her) says a different way to look at it is that he’s entered a new stage and he’s become something new.

It resonates with the idea that we are always ‘becoming’ found in the philosophy of Foucault or Deleuze. This is echoed in the lives of the Joviks too, who have moved to Australia but their lives, rather than replicating their old ones or starting afresh, instead become something new that emerges and grows from the old and the new together.

Without ever saying it, then, Coetzee manages to write a study in ageing and loneliness that addresses major philosophical questions about how a life changes over time and what makes a good life.

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

Read August 2015

Despite being massive and difficult in its totality, where it is often hard to know what exactly is going on – The Savage Detectives is hard to put down, is full of evocative phrases and fascinating characters, it constantly surprises with new people and perspectives, each section is immensely readable, sometimes seeming like a series of interlocking short stories, and, when you reach the last pages it all makes sense, though you then want to go back in to hone in on different parts to get the most out of all the characters and views.

The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1970s Mexico three young poets – who call themselves ‘visceral realists’ – set off on a quest to find a poet from the 1920s who has disappeared, but they are in pursuit by two thugs who want to stop them. They find the poet but it all goes wrong and subsequently two of the poets go their separate ways and travel around the world, with Bolano revealing different parts and episodes of their lives.

The structure is a standard diary (by Juan Garcia Madero, a young new comer to the scene) for the first 150 pages. The second section is 400 pages of first person accounts from various people in different times and places who have known the two poets (Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima) since the road trip, giving subjective and partial accounts of different periods of their unsettled and difficult lives. The third section, about 100 pages, takes us back to what happened when they were searching for the lost poet and led, in part, to the rest of their lives being as they were.

I’ve heard it said that Bolano has a longing for the vigour and reckless abandon of youth, a longing apparent throughout the Savage Detectives. But part of what he does in this book is make poetry and literature an elemental force of youth – a force more potent than sex or drugs, both of which are present throughout the book, but without the strength of poetry.

The book also seems to be a parody of literary circles, with Lima and Belano aggressively attacking establishment poets (Octavia Paz is the main target) whilst their visceral realist is a circle, but one where very little poetry is spoken or cited and there is some question as to whether many of them really write poetry at all.

More than just being about literature, though, the book’s runaway success is to evoke up the atmosphere and a visceral sense (I guess something intentional given the name of the poetry school which the novel circles around) of what it was like be young and heavily steeped in literary and student life in 1970s Mexico. It’s a bit like reading Jack Kerouac for an immersion in 1950s beat-era America.
I know nothing of this time but came away with the kind of feeling I have when visiting a city and, rather than learning the history, just walk and walk. I leave knowing few facts about the place, but have a sense of its streets, its daily culture and its atmosphere.

Canada – Richard Ford

Read August 2015

The story of a boy, Dell, and his sister, whose lives are transformed when their parents, fairly desperate but highly unlikely criminals, rob a bank.
When they are caught, the mother arranges for them to be transported to Canada to live with the strange brother of her friend. Berner, the sister, runs away, leaving Dell to make the journey alone, where he experiences a strange, desolate and ultimately violent period of time. It appears that after this he establishes a normal if somewhat detached life, becoming a teacher and, possibly, writer. Berner’s life, from the little we see and hear of it from Dell, is more troubled and plagued by bad relationships and drink, and the book ends, fifty years or so after the initial incidents, with Dell visiting her as she dies.
Themes – the whole idea of America’s rural land as a place where people can invest, reinvent and hide their acts is a major theme, with Dell’s parents and Arthur Remlinger both thinking they can get away with robbery and murder by simply disappearing in to the large land of America and Canada.
We also see a lot about deception and the ways people hide their different natures and the ways they hide them from themselves.
And what is interesting is that Dell, despite all he has been through, is a fairly untroubled character. He is somewhat distances, detached, and on a quest to understand what happened but importantly, without digging too deep into how people think and feel. He wants thing to be surface level only, whilst knowing that they aren’t. It’s interesting to see, and have a story told through the voice of, a person who isn’t crazed or duplicitous but rather shows remarkable resilience in the face of a difficult and troubled upbringing. His voice throughout is one of simple and honest explanation, though still searching, indicating that people can and do live through terrible experiences and survive.

Being Dead – Jim Crace 

Read March 2015 

This book is all about the writing and characterisation – the descriptions are accurate, the perspectives unique, the depth amazing. From the fairly dull surface of a relationship between two middle class people we end up with a full and deep understanding of them and their relationship with one another.
They are murdered, at the place where they first met thirty years before. An unlucky coincidence, though that allows the author to trace the parallels and delve into the start to their lives together.
As well as the overall sense of knowing them (Joseph and Celice) that grows throughout the book, two particular parts are striking. One is a short description of the decomposing bodies, told, it feels, from the perspective of the flies and crabs that feed on the bodies. The other is the complex and changing feelings of the daughter, Syl, as she moves from resenting the mundanity of her parents’ lives to realising the important but ambiguous place in her life that they occupy.