This is an astounding novel, with its stripped back insight into relationships and growing up.
A beautifully told and evocative – if slightly capitalist leaning – short story of the power of generosity whatever the circumstances.
Pushkin and his wife Irina are peasant farmers on the eve of the Russian Revolution. As the revolution occurs they move from the country to Moscow to be part of the birth of a new communist world.
Irina straight away becomes an organiser and Leninist activist, becoming active in her factory work. Pushkin ends up getting fired for incompetence and assumes the traditional role of the woman, queuing in long lines for essentials like bread or grain.
But, though he may be incompetent he is kind and endearing with everyone he meets in the queues, and he soon finds that his generosity towards others is rewarded. He stands in lines for others and they, in return, give him a share of what they gain – bread, jam, coffee etc.
As time goes by he, through generosity not self-interest, recruits a team of young orphans who follow his lead, and together they help people queue in long lines for things they need and get their rewards in return.
Irina re-evaluates her view of Pushkin; from a kind, naive, hapless idiot – like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – to a useful contributor to the revolutionary society, helping people achieve their aims and even making others productive. Unspoken, though, is that she’s rationalising his contribution because it benefits them so much. By then they live in a beautiful large apartment of the sort occupied by party grandees.
All is well until Pushkin finds himself in a line for the right to emigrate, on behalf of an artist / cleaner he befriends.The artist never relieves him of his place in the queue, and so Pushkin ends up successfully getting the seal for himself and his wife.
Irina and Pushkin leave for New York, but Pushkin’s naivety leads him to give away half of their possessions on the journey there, prompting Irina to realise he’s as hapless as ever and so leave him alone with almost nothing in this heaving and entirely alien city. But it ends with a positive note, as Pushkin joins the queue for a soup kitchen, and Towles hints that through his patience and generosity in lines like this he will recreate m himself and achieve his previous successes again, there in New York.
This is a simply told, light and amusing story, almost parable-like at times, very Russian even. But it has a pretty clear message: that enterprise and ingenuity and survival are inherent to all people, even the most naive and virtuous, and this will thrive in a communist society as much as a capitalist one. The implication, too, is that the aims of communism are not only easily betrayed by good people like Pushkin naturally doing what they do, but also that people like Irina – activists and supporters – are easily corrupted into wanting more and more, and they will rationalise that desire to allow their acquisition to continue and inequality to grow. In other words i can’t help finding a pro-capitalist, pro-enterprise message in this otherwise touching and enjoyable story.
Wow. This is a brilliant book – complex, thought-provoking, gripping, surprising and, I think, covering some of the big historical moments of the twentieth century from the perspective of women who are forced to compensate for their powerlessness with determination and wit.
Written in the first person by Iris Chase-Griffin, it tells the story of her and her sister Laura – who had driven herself off a bridge fifty years earlier.
Beginning in rural Canada in the early twentieth century, Iris and Laura are well-off children of a family which had made its fortune in button manufacturing. As the Depression kicks in, though, their fortunes change, their father turns to drink, as the economy collapses and the business folds, leading to unemployment in the town, circling by capitalist Richard Griffin and eventually the death of their father.
Iris ends up marrying Richard Griffin, to endure their family get financial support as the business closes down, and the narrative from Iris covers all these years – from the pair as young children to just after Laura has driven off the bridge.
Iris is an excellent character – until the end of the book her steeliness and resourcefulness are hidden to the reader and, importantly, to her husband Richard. She is treated at times horrifically and at others like a child by him and his scheming sister, and it’s only at the end of the book that Iris reveals what she’d really being doing all those years.
Laura is an intriguing character, highly moral and obsessed with God in most ways but rebellious and clear-sighted in others. We learn of her apparent relationship with Alex, a communist sympathiser who burnt down one of her father’s factories, and after Iris is married to Richard, how she is treated like a lunatic by Richard. In fact, none of this is quite as it seems and it transpires that in fact Richard and Laura had a very different relationship, as did Iris and Alex.
An apparently posthumously published book by Laura has led to her becoming an acclaimed literary celebrity – and chapters from the book, called the Blind Assassin, punctuate the book, telling a story that we assume until the end is a semi-autobiographical account of her relationship with Alex – a shocking, pulp-style tale of a well-off women carrying out a secret affair with a hard drinking, itinerant writer.
This is such a good novel – characters, the style, the complexity, the cagy narrator – but more than anything it’s like a take on the Great American Novel that tries to highlight the role of women in the great themes of history, economics and politics. Iris, Laura and even Richard’s sister have no power in the patriarchal world in which they live and so are forced to use ingenuity and determination to find ways to live with meaning and purpose and a future – ways that ultimately affect their lives, and those of their female children, detrimentally.
This is a captivating, readable and sad story about the repressed upbringing of a traditional, aspirational Indian family.
It focuses on a sister and a brother, with the novel split into two halves, focusing on each.
Uma is a kind but not beautiful or especially competent girl who watches other girls be married off and boys get an education. Her parents – the strict Mama and worried Papa – take her out of school to look after her younger brother and arrange for two marriages for her, both of which turn out to be scams, and eventually she is left at home, little more than a help. She longs to volunteer at local Christian school, the only people that have ever offered them any autonomy, but her parents refuse.
Arun, as a boy is offered so much more, but in a way that has a similarly repressive effect. From a young age he is at school and in tutoring almost constantly, eventually getting into a good university in the States. But his upbringing has made him chronically introverted and unable to deal with the people and situations he encounters – the other students and especially the Pattons, the American family he stays with over the summer. Mr Patton is a football loving, meat eating worker, Mrs Patton someone who loves having Arun and a chance to mother someone again, while her two kids have their own lives, the girl bulimic and the boy sport obsessed.
The Patton family is as dysfunctional as Arun’s but in a different way, one stemming from having too much rather than the risk of too little. And it’s this comparison or similarity that’s at the heart of this book, with each family set to reproduce itself again and again.
The contrast between men and women is as marked as that between rural India and suburban America. Uma has a freedom within, a life of the mind, a will, but her outward possibilities are limited, whereas Arun has all the chances but his upbringing was so stultified that he is imprisoned in his own mind, and so unable to make the most of any of them.
This is a brilliant book, but there’s something of its time about it, at least in its portrayal of the traditional patriarchal Indian family, where Uma is strictly prohibited from most activities because of her gender and marital status – today novels on these themes are often more complex, with resistance and oppression and snatches of freedom mixed together, the portrayal of people not quite so one dimensional.
Written in Ali Smith’s wonderfully readable style, this a story about hope and positivity set against a very contemporary setting of immigration and discrimination.
Two tales interweave over the book. One is of an ageing BBC play director who is grieving the loss of his best friend, a women called Paddy. He impetuously gets on a train to Scotland to get away from the pressures of a new play he’s been asked to direct.
The other is of a security guard at a migrant detention centre, Brit, who apparently randomly meets a 12 year old called Florence who she thinks she recognises as a pro-migrant activist and, mostly out of curiousness and a sense of adventure, joins her on a train journey to Scotland. And it’s on the train that they meet Richard.
They are picked up by a women called Alda from the station who, it turns out, is part of a network of resistance against migrant detention.
This novel is an insightful take on the injustice and downright unfairness of migrant detention centres. But more than this it’s a positive exploration of human motivation. Brit, in particular, is far from the stereotypical prison guard; her reasons for doing her job are not clear but she does her job with care and attention, and her sense of protection towards Florence is huge, and she begins to develop a friendship with her, one as equals, even if she ends up disappointed at the end.
Florence meanwhile is a beacon of hope – impossibly intelligent, mature, brave, challenging, charming, a symbol of what immigrants offer.
It is spring after all, so much of this is about hope, even against a backdrop of racism and sexism and immigrant sentiment.
And as always, it’s as much Ali Smith’s style that makes this book. She writes in long flowing sentences that you kind of gulp down, that are realistic, that read just as you’d hear them, without adornment or metaphor or pretension. Despite tackling weighty themes and the big ideas of social theory that lie behind much of her writing, her style is fluid and readable and digestible.
A simple and simply told short story but one that lingers, making you reflect on humans and animals, men and women, and hierarchies.
In the first couple of pages we meet a family attacked by wolves who’s young children disappear, save from one baby boy. Years later, as a child of nine or so, he comes across a pack of wolves with a female among them who is more human than wolf and he thinks is in fact his cousin, thought killed years ago by the wolves.
The family capture and take her to their home, where she prowls around on all fours, her body grown into the shape of a wolf, and her mannerisms more animal than human. Eventually the family is attacked by the wolves who return her to their pack.
What’s so interesting is how Carter uses this simple tale to show that the difference between animal and human is not too big – how over a few years a child socialising only with animals might develop things like longer ankles, walking on all fours, defacating as they walk and so on, taking on the characteristics of animals not humans. The gap is so small.
Likewise, the way the boy gazes at his female cousin’s naked body leads you to wonder not only about how humans are so divorced from what’s natural, the naked body, but also how men objectify women, liken them to an irrational species, to animals, and use this to create a hierarchy between men and women. In this way Cousins is an allegory about how women are treated by men, as animals to be tamed rather than equals.
Blimey. Milkman offers a hugely inventive, insightful and darkly comic take on the cultures that develop in divided places. But it is a difficult book too, it’s stream of consciousness style both readable and tough in equal measure.
Set in an unnamed city divided by religious / ethnic conflict, it follows the story of an unnamed 18 year old as she describes her fate when a member of the paramilitary elite (known as the Milkman) starts to fall for her and follows her around. Rumours begin to spread about their involvement, meaning she’s treated a bit like royalty in some ways, but looked down on in others. It leads to fall-outs with her complex family and her ‘maybe-boyfriend’ and ‘longest best friend’.
It’s not so much the plot that makes this such an interesting book but the insights into living in a city divided by religion – clearly supposed to be Belfast – where violence, murder and conformity are constants that force people to live self-censored and limited lives for fear of standing out. It’s the everyday nature of the narrator, the writing and the events that brings the ever-present threat and terrible affects of the divided culture to life.
Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…
She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.
This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.
Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.
The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.
The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?
This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.
Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.
At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.
We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.
What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.
And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will
at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.
We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.
This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.
Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.
A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.
The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.
Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.
The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.
Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.
“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”
Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider
This is a beautifully written tapestry of a novel with a host of characters‘ lives intersecting in the story of the end of modern civilisation and the beginning of a new one, after a flu epidemic wipes out almost the entire world’s population and everything we associate with modern life.
The core character that ties all the others together is Arthur, a famous actor who in fact dies on stage just hours before the ‘Georgian flu’ begins to affect people.
We meet a woman who acted with him as a girl, Kirsten, who two decades later travels the devastated world in a travelling symphony playing Shakespeare and classical music to the scattered townships that have emerged.
We meet Clarke, his friend, who finds himself trapped with a couple of hundred others in an airport on the way to Arthur’s funeral, and makes his post-apocalypse home there, eventually setting up the Museum of Civilisation that collects objects from the old world – iPhones, laptops, medicines, magazines etc.
We meet his ex-wife Elizabeth and son Tyler who are initially at the airport but leave, with Tyler becoming part of a religious cult, one of many, which claim they have answers, that the flu happened for a purpose, and attempt to wrestle control or at least take power, wherever they can.
And we meet Miranda, Arthur’s ex-wife too, who dies early on in the flu epidemic but whose hobby is creating a comic, Station Eleven, which Kirsten has a copy of and which finds its way to the Museum of Civilisation.
What’s the book about? Mostly, I think, the distinction between the contingent and the vital. What we think of as essential are really just the trappings of modern civilisation – air travel, nations, technology, healthcare… yes, no doubt they make life more comfortable – mostly anyway – but they can disappear, and when they’ve gone life is stripped to back to what is vital: human relationships, co-operation, selfishness and selflessness, art, and of course the flourishing of non-human life like animals and flora and fauna. It’s complex and difficult, and the book offers no simple solutions about what matters in our existing civilisation or afterwards, but it’s thought-provoking and haunting in equal measure – and, it’s worth saying, a highly readable if exploratory plot, with characters that you want to know more about even whilst you might not fully like them. Ambiguous and interesting to the last.
“Since I was young I have always wanted to be in the landscape. Not passing through, skirting over or observing it from a distance, but in it. A part of it. Immersed so totally that it scratches the skin and stains the pores. Fills the lungs, the veins, the bowels.”
Benjamin Myers, Under the Rock
After reading Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo and finding it one of the best and most memorable novels I’ve read, I had high expectations for this.
In some aspects it met them, but in other ways it was less fulfilling as a book.
It interweaves four stories: a woman whose twin has died and throws herself into an affair with a friend’s husband. Her Dad, a famous landscape artist and hedonist, who we learn about while he is stuck on the hills after an accident. An aged Italian artist who is close to death. And a young woman who has lost her sight and finding her way in the world.
There are links between them all, and Hall’s interest is in delving beneath the art, which is what animates much of their lives, to the relationships that make them – the Italian artist to his housekeeper, the woman to her sister, and so on.
At times it’s a little meandering, though the artist and his daughter are well developed characters and gripping to read about, especially as the daughter deals with the death of her sibling and the unexpected emptiness she feels and the chaos that ensues.
But what makes this book is the incredible language. Hall’s style is poetic but without any pretension, her descriptions vivid and ability to connect the reader to the people outstanding.
Compared to the long and thorough story of one person’s life of Electric Michelangelo, I found this less engaging, but it was nevertheless a book with language and style and characters to savour.
This is a book full of life but so much despair and sadness and horror that it’s at times both impossible to put down and hard to keep on reading.
It tells the story of four close friends who meet at university – JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. All of them become successful, unrealistically so in some ways (artist, architect, actor, lawyer respectively), but what the book focuses on is Jude’s life.
In his adult life a hugely successful lawyer, as a child he was subjected the most horrific upbringing and abuse – first in an orphanage, then at the hands of Brother Luke, then by Dr Traylor and finally in a children’s home.
He manages to present himself as a success, but beneath it is constant self-loathing, cutting and self-harm and an inability to connect properly with others because he is always holding back what he views as his real – and, he feels, depraved – self.
Eventually, in his forties, he establishes a relationship with Willem that, though hard for him, is the closest he comes to contentment, but which is then ripped apart by Willem’s death. At this point he lets himself go entirely, unable to control his core drives, with self-harm and starvation escalating, and his relationships with JB, his adoptive parents Harold and Julia and friend / doctor Andy falling apart.
This book is so so sad. The length of the book means we get deep into Jude’s psyche and history, neither of which are nice to read, but both of which explain his behaviour, his life. And his life is both, as the book title says, little as he is so self-limiting, but also big because he has experienced more than anyone ever should.
For me, this book made me reflect on two things.
That people of all sorts, even the most apparently successful or brilliant, might be hiding brutal personal truths or emotions or even physical scars beneath the surface of their personality or clothes. It’s obvious but the brilliant, brutal exploration in this book really makes it so apparent.
And second, that despite everything, therapy and time and love will not always allow people to overcome or come to terms with their past and live happily or lightly; sometimes the experience is so horrific that a person’s life is so badly damaged that they can never live without despair, pain or suicidal thoughts hijacking their every moment.
This is a wonderfully written and closely observed book with two interwoven stories, one absolutely brilliant, the other less engaging, but both provoking questions about responsibility and guilt.
The novel centres on a Northern Irish Protestant family and particularly two sisters, Liz and Alison.
Alison had stayed in Ulster, has two kids, works at her Dad’s estate agency, and is about to embark on her second marriage to a seemingly nice if slightly uninspiring guy called Stephen.
Liz left Ulster for an academic life, lives in New York, and is about to go to Papa New Guinea to present a TV programme on a new religion that has sprung up there, but is back home for Alison’s wedding.
Alison’s story is incredible. It transpires, the day after they are married, that Stephen is in fact called Andrew and is a former terrorist who killed five innocent people in a pub shooting at the height of the troubles, but was given early release through the Good Friday Agreement.
Liz didn’t know because although she knew he had a past she’d never really wanted the details; the chapters building up to the wedding explain why she would rather bury her head in the sand than confront a difficult truth.
Liz meanwhile travels to Papa New Guinea with some BBC types and meets the leader of the new religion – Story – as well as a family of evangelical Christians spreading God’s message there. Things gradually unravel and Liz is thrown against the question of whether she should observe or intervene.
In a way that’s at the heart of the book, the question of how responsible you can be for something that you did not do or intend: how responsible is Liz when she doesn’t act against barbaric acts, or Alison for not enquiringly more about Stephen’s past, or Judith – their Mum – for always making Alison feel unloved, or Stephen for past actions?
The Gods of the title provide something of a guide to people, but not necessarily with the answers people want to hear.
A hugely relevant short story with a cutting critique of our apolitical narcissistic times.
Henry and Susan are the kinds of people who hate each other: he a part of the American elite, she a left feminist. But in their late twenties they meet one another at chance and strike up a loveless relationship based around sex and drink.
Their relationship is really a series of nights at hotels, where they antagonise and sometimes discuss politics with one another, both knowing they’re diametrically opposed to one another and stand for what the other hates.
Their first night together is the one when David Bowie dies, the second when Prince dies. The third, and the focus of the story, is Trump’s election. They are in a hotel, getting wasted as it happens, and they end up arguing, waking up with little recollection of what they did, then driving home via a sleezy motel where they argue, have sex and Henry gets beat up pointlessly defending his Porsche.
This is a good read but more than anything is a story for the Trump era, one that perhaps explains to us why Trump can succeed: irony and self-absorption are such motivating factors for Henry and Susan that political and social events, however much they dislike or care about them, are nothing more than a backdrop to their lives. They dislike one another’s politics but ignore it for the hedonistic pleasure of being completely other than themselves.
Tellingly, Susan even runs out of time to vote because she’s meeting Henry, and so feels partially responsible for Trump’s victory because she did nothing to stop it, because she was so obsessed with her own disingenuous enjoyment that she let something terrible happen.
A difficult book yes, but ultimately one full of insight, surprises and, at times, humour.
Flights definitely pushes against the boundaries of the novel form: a series of vignettes, essays and stories, some written in the first person, others in the third, others presented as facts in some way, what links the disparate entries together is the themes of travel and the body.
In fact, travel might be a bit narrow. Flights is about movement, though human travel is a big part of that. It includes the journey of a dead body, a brilliant rumination on the marvels of a plastic bag, the travels of Chopin’s heart, experiences of air travel, and most affectingly the story of a man whose wife and child go missing on a Greek island, and after he imagines his worst fears they re-appear untroubled, as if the freedom of being somewhere else made her realise the freedom open to her.
At the same time we get detailed rumination on the workings of the body, which Tokarczuk shows might appear a static entity but is in fact constantly in motion inside. It’s as if she’s saying that travel and movement are natural, they constitute the body itself and so global travel is inextricably linked.
An oddity of the book is that it presents travel and movement as a central part of the daily lives of writers, professors, holidaymakers, business travellers. But for so many, travel is forced upon them; their movement is in fact migration driven by poverty or war. The positive nature of travel loses its allure in this context, but it’s not something we hear about in Flights.
But this aside, Flights is a thought-proving book, surprising in both its content and its format.
This dark and thoroughly readable novel offers a thought provoking take on art and the art world the temporary nature of life.
It focuses on a reluctant artist, Jed Martin. After an almost loveless upbringing – his mother committed suicide and his architect father shut him out by choosing boarding school for Jed and working continuously – Jed finishes university as an intelligent loner. His father buys him a small Paris apartment, and from there Jed drifts and thinks and works.
His earliest phase an artist sees him photographing hundreds of industrial and man made objects, earning him a misunderstood respect among his peers.
He then begins creating a series of photographs based on Michelin maps that are regarded as works of huge beauty. The Michelin company loves them, he receives artistic prestige, meets a beautiful Russian woman living in Paris – Olga – but characteristic of Jed, he fell into creating these works of art and when Olga leaves for Russia he leaves it all
begins are becomes a recluse once more.
Ten years later he’s exploring painting, this time painting everyday and famous figures in ways that capture their essence. Waiters, bakers, executives, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – he paints many – and they become recognised as great depictions of people, and at this point he comes to be seen as one of France’s greatest artists.
It’s at this point too that he meets the author Houellebecq, living as a drunken, depressed recluse in Ireland. They begin an acquaintance based on a shared antipathy to the world. Jed does a portrait and gives it to him, and though they rarely see each other it looks like they’d be friends of sorts – until, that is, Houellbecq is brutally murdered after moving into his family home in rural France.
The story then focuses on the policeman investigating the murder, and in a sense the book turns away from Jed and the art world to the investigators. But eventually we return to Jed as a rich artist who has bought his grandparents’ old house in the countryside and adjoining land and built an estate that allows him to live for over a decade without meeting anyone. He even builds a private road in order to avoid going into the nearby village.
At the same time, though, he is working on a series of overlaid films that depict the organic breakdown of matter, including his artworks, that show the finite nature of human life and meaning – a series discovered after his death, when it is seen as a masterpiece.
Besides the rich plot and characterisation, and the simple prose (despite its translation from French), there are some brilliant themes in this.
One is the question of the authorial intent of an artist. Jed appears to create works that people see as offering a deep insight into being human. But in Jed we see none of this gift: he is lonely, taken up by everyday concerns like the boiler, and rarely seems introspective or reflective. Where do these works come from? How much are they intended? The same appears to apply to the character of Houellebecq when we meet him too. Autobiographical maybe? Who knows.
Another interesting question raised, though a more cynical one, is the relation between money and art. Jed is able to spend time on complex artistic works because he’s relatively well off at the start and not occupied with the drudgery of work, and at the end when he’s rich. Further, it’s because Michelin and various rich people are flattered that he has taken them as subjects that we see his popularity and the price of his paintings increase. It’s not all about money, the recognition of good art, but it plays, its part it seems to be saying.
One thing that intrigues throughout the book is the author – is it Houellebecq? Whoever it is they often offer strong opinions that can’t always entirely be ascribed to the characters they are talking about: on religion, or immigration, or the state of France say. It might be that the little I know of Houellebecq is that he’s a controversial public figure prone to reactionary views, and so I was looking for this, or it might be that this undertone is there. I need to read more of him to see, and will.