Review – Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

I was soooooooooooooooo disappointed by this. The preponderance of ‘o’s is completely justified, by the way, because I was enormously looking forward to reading it. It ticked all the boxes, for me – Victorian fiction, strong heroine, doorstop of a novel, grand themes of love and war.

Well. I’m going to try my hardest to be fair. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. Things I liked about it:

  • Thackeray’s sense of humour. You’d think I would have learned by now, but I’m always surprised at how darn funny the great Victorian novelists are. There were points in this at which I laughed out loud, mainly at his tongue-in-cheek observations about the crassness of humanity (whenever they’re on the right side of a sneer, anyway). Becky’s son, calling her out on her shamelessly hypocritical behaviour, is a particular highlight: ‘For Rebecca, seeing that tenderness was the fashion, called Rawdon to her one evening and stooped down and kissed him in the presence of all the ladies. He looked her full in the face after the operation, trembling and turning very red, as his wont was when moved. “You never kiss me at home, Mamma,” he said, at which there was a general silence and consternation and a by no means pleasant look in Becky’s eyes.’
  • The rather post-modern self-awareness of his form also felt like a private joke, but one in which the reader is included – you can’t help but feel that he is poking fun at himself and at our expectations, for example when he notes that ‘The causes which had led to the deplorable illness of Miss Crawley, and her departure from her brother’s house in the country, were of such an unromantic nature that they are hardly fit to be explained in this genteel and sentimental novel.’ There’s also a very short chapter, near the beginning, which I’m fairly confident was written at the last minute before that week’s deadline (this, like so many of the massive Victorian novels, was written for serialisation), and quite possible in the throes of a hangover.
  • Contemporary(ish) commentary. Although written some 50 years later, the novel is set at and around the time of the Battle of Waterloo (indeed, the battle itself provides a major plot point which I’ll try not to give away), and occasionally gems like this are dropped in: ‘”That was the most beautiful part of dear Lord Nelson’s character,” Miss Crawley said. “He went to the deuce for a woman. There must be good in a man who will do that.”‘ Superb.
  • The comparative lack of ‘battlefield analysis’. Although this is a novel of the Napoleonic Wars, it dwells very little on actual warfare (‘We do not claim to rank among the military novelists,’ says Thackeray; ‘Our place is with the non-combatants’.). It may sound odd to like a novel for a distinct lack of something (and I’ll leave it to you to determine whether I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here), but I’m currently reading War and Peace and – although it’s kicking Thackeray’s a$$ in all other respects – the ‘war’ chapters do have their moments.

So, yes, very funny, very clever, a great achievement, etc. BUT. Oh. my. Goodness. Can we please talk for a moment about how badly Thackeray treats his characters?

Let’s start with poor Becky Sharp. I mean that literally, by the way. Here is a girl without money or family, and with only her wits (and one or two other attributes) to rely on. Vanity Fair is famously subtitled ‘A Novel Without a Hero’, and so I assumed – perhaps foolishly – that it would be full of heroines, instead. Nope, not allowed. Thackeray HATES women. They are all presented as either grasping harridans, or slavish nincompoops (see: Amelia’s devotion to George; ‘it was only when George was spoken of that she listened, and when he was not mentioned, she thought about him.’ Yuck.). I don’t think Thackeray has much time for men either, but he seems to reserve special ire for poor Becky. And I know, we’re not really supposed to sympathise with her; she does dreadful things, uses people and then throws them away, even flirting with the husband of her best friend for no apparent reason other than for sport. And she is an appalling parent. But she’s smart, and a born survivor, and almost everything she does is – rightly or wrongly (OK, OK, it’s wrongly) – in the name of necessity, an attempt to support herself and her family. As she herself says, ‘”I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year.”‘

I sort of knew most of that about Becky before I started. But I think I was expecting Thackeray to present her, warts and all, with a kind of amused complicity – maybe even a grudging respect. There are flashes of that, particularly towards the beginning; but for most of the novel, if it’s there, it’s buried pretty deep.

Thackeray’s contempt isn’t limited to his main character, though; and this is another thing which I found more and more wearing as the novel rumbled on. His snide asides, sprinkled through the chapters, about ‘vanity fair’ (a near-synonym for civilised society) and how badly-behaved we all are, start out as caustically funny, but by the end are mildly-and-increasingly uncomfortable – like the elderly uncle who sits in the corner and says inappropriate things at Christmas. Like this misogynistic trio:

  • ‘Who has not seen how women bully women? What tortures have men to endure, comparable to those daily repeated shafts of scorn and cruelty with which poor women are riddled by the tyrants of their sex?’
  • ‘Women only know how to wound so. there is a poison on the tips of their little shafts, which stings a thousand times more than a man’s blunter weapon.’
  • ‘Oh, those women! They nurse and cuddle their presentiments, and make darlings of their ugliest thoughts, as they do of their deformed children.’

Really? Really, though? I don’t even think these are the worst. I only know that by the end, every time I came across one of these, I involuntarily muttered nasty things at the narrator. Since a lot of my reading happens on public transport, I suspect this came across as frankly antisocial.

I think in the end that was my problem with this. I’ve read novels with unlikeable characters, and loved them (the novels, I mean. And actually sometimes the characters as well). A good novel with no likeable characters is harder, but I think they do exist. A novel where the narrator sneers at the characters, and by extension the rest of us, all the way through….900 pages is a long, long time to be in the presence of a voice so out of love with the world. Too long, for me.

**

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Bookish Lists – Best Reads of 2015

A little late maybe, but because it’s (still, just about) that time of year again, and because – as I’ve said before – I’m a sucker for a list, here are my top eleven reads of 2015 (where I haven’t reviewed yet, I’ll try to soon):

  1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – this was amazing, unexpected, and kept me up till 2.30am and thinking about it for an awful lot longer. Probably my read of the year.
  2. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – review here
  3. Election Notebook by Nick Robinson – review here
  4. Words of Radiance (Stormlight 2) by Brandon Sanderson – I’m not an avid fantasy reader, but I discovered Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss last year as part of a push to read more widely, and this – read last January – was fantastic.
  5. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – review here
  6. The Vegetarian by Han Kang – definitely one of the most unexpected novels I read last year; weird, sad and reflective. It’s totally different to The Fishermen, but I sort of think that fans of The Fishermen might like this one as well.
  7. Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie – review here
  8. Tightrope by Simon Mawer – review here
  9. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – review here
  10. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma – review here
  11. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – I’ve actually not long finished this, because I wanted to wait until I had the time to devote myself to it properly, but its scope and breadth and language are incredible.

And the eight biggest disappointments. When I say ‘disappointments’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad – just that they haven’t sat quite right with me somehow – maybe because I expected great things. I tend not to review books I haven’t enjoyed very much, on the premise of ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ – but of these, 1, 4, 5 and 6 are by authors whom I admire and have previously enjoyed; 2 ticked all the boxes (politics, Andrew Marr, thriller) but just could have been better executed; 3 and 7 were my least favourite of a pretty strong field for the Booker Prize; and 8 was maybe the most overrated classic I’ve read in the last ten years.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
  2. Head of State by Andrew Marr
  3. Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
  4. The Cocktail Party by TS Eliot
  5. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  6. The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer
  7. The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
  8. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I loved this. It reminded me, very much, of Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Build a Girl’, which I reviewed earlier this year. There are obvious differences; Hornby’s novel starts in the Sixties, not the early Nineties, and it covers a much longer time period. But that’s not why I liked it more. I think what swung it for me was the well-rounded cast of characters. Hornby does comedy well, and pop culture exceptionally; that’s a given, for anybody who has ever read one of his novels, or even one of his articles in The Believer. But he can also twist your heart right in your chest. For example, this, about one of the main characters and his horrible wife:

‘What was he doing with her? How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but ‘love’ would have to do for now.’

Or this, about Tony, a young man who wanted to be conventional, at a time when being a homosexual was anything but. Tony marries June, and they are lovely both individually and collectively, but of course their life together is far from easy. Hornby keeps it relatively light, but he doesn’t shy away from complexities altogether, creating moments of pain and beauty like this one, at their anniversary dinner, when Tony says:

‘You’re so patient, and kind, and loving, and I don’t know why.’
‘I love you,’ she said with a shrug and a little smile – not a sad smile, exactly, but a smile conveying complications.’

The star, though, the runaway star of the novel, is Barbara (or Sophie, if you prefer). From the moment she runs out of Blackpool (almost literally), she wins over almost everyone, but in a completely unirritating and authentic way, with as many adolescent mistakes and false starts as triumphs.

At its most basic, the novel charts her rise from teenage beauty queen to a Lucille Ball-type star of BBC teatime telly. Hornby uses the format to poke fun at the naysayers of light entertainment, but also to attempt to convey the energy of the Sixties, and the desire for newness, brightness, following the overdue end to post-war austerity:

‘Was it really only young people who wanted to pain over the misery of the last quarter of a century? The first thing she did when she moved in was strip off the brown wallpaper, and then she paid a man to paint the place white. As soon as she had the money and the time, she’d find things to hang on the walls. She didn’t care what these things were, as long as they were yellow and red and green and there were no sailing ships or castles and there was nothing with four legs anywhere.’

This success spree, though, eventually runs out. And it’s good that it does, because it’s this that allows us to see how the characters cope, not only with success, but with its aftermath. I won’t say anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who might read it (and I hope you do) – but as much as anything, it’s this which gives the novel its heart.

****

Random Bookish Thoughts – 13 November

On things being a little spooky

So, we’ve had Halloween and Friday 13th within a couple of weeks of each other. I’m not normally one for spooky reading – my imagination is far too overactive – but I found myself at home, on Halloween, at a bit of a loose end, and so I read Susan Hill’s classic The Woman in Black.

I’ve got to say, I think I just don’t really ‘get’ Susan Hill’s ghost stories. I mean, people rave about this book. They study it for GCSE, for heaven’s sake. Daniel Radcliffe was in the movie adaptation, and – well – after Harry Potter, isn’t that a pretty high bar? I’ve read a couple of Susan Hill novellas before – The Mist in the Mirror, and one or two others – and they didn’t leave much of an impression, but I always thought this one would be different.

Well, sorry. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, exactly. The whole thing just left me a little….meh.

I downloaded The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson) to my Kindle at the same time, but haven’t read it yet. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of my favourite favourites, so I have high hopes.

On the honest-to-goodness God-damn-awesomeness of David Mitchell

I’m going through a wee bout of insomnia at present. (Being only two weeks back from California,  I blame jet lag, rather than a subconscious impact of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. But there are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.) Anyway, for whatever reason, I haven’t got to sleep before 2.30am any night this week. It’s a trial. But at least it gives me plenty of time for reading.

On two consecutive nights, I stayed up late finishing David Mitchell novels – on Sunday, The Bone Clocks, which I read in a day. I’ll review it, at some point, but really, you shouldn’t wait till then to read it. You should go and read it right now. If not sooner. Seriously, if you’re still reading this, stop it and go and read David Mitchell. You won’t regret it.

And if you’re still reading this, then I can only assume you’ve already read The Bone Clocks, and are mulling over whether to read Slade House. Well, that was the one which kept me up till the small hours on Monday night, so – you should. Problem solved. Although maybe don’t read it alone, in a quiet house, at 2am like I did. Cos, you know, at 2am the boundaries between fantasy and reality sort of….thin out. A bit. Enough to stop you getting to sleep, anyway.

On things I’ve recently read, am currently reading, and am possibly reading next, as well as arbitrary targets and deadlines

Apart from all the spookiness and David Mitchell, I’ve recently finished Down Under by Bill Bryson (funny and informative, like all the best non-fiction), and The Cocktail Party, a play by TS Eliot (not great, if I’m honest, despite its author being the best poet of the 20th century). I’m halfway through The Lake House by Kate Morton, which I downloaded as a little light relief, and which is diverting enough, but somewhat unfortunately almost identical to every novel the author has ever written. Perhaps I’m just getting old.

I’m close to admitting that I’m not going to reach my goal of reading 100 books this year. Once it becomes a clearly impossible task, I’m anticipating a little relief, because I’m actually finding myself drawn to longer books  – and classics – for winter. I’m not sure I’ll set myself an absolute reading target again. It drives me towards quantity over quality, and in a world where more books are published each year than one could possibly read in a lifetime, what on earth – really – is the point? I’d much rather (she says sniffily) focus on the books which I actually want to read, the tomes recommended by people I trust.

I do like a good list, though. Well, we’ll see, when the new year rolls around.

Review – The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, and Sweet Caress by William Boyd

I’ve said elsewhere that I really liked The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant. I read it on holiday, and liked it enough to go to Barnes and Noble and seek out – although not, in the end, buy (luggage allowance) – a couple of her other titles.

Superficially, it reminded me a lot of Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Both purport to tell the story of a woman, born more or less at the turn of the last century, and trying to navigate her way through the twentieth century and whatever that meant. The fact that the two novels are really nothing alike is a testament to both the century and the writers; as Boyd has his main character note, however full a life one lives these days, the world is so complex that we’re always going to feel as if ‘the century was galloping away without us’. However, one of these novels surprised me in a good way and one disappointed me, so I thought I’d deal with them together to soften the blow.

Let’s deal with the problem child first. I liked ‘Any Human Heart’ (I read it before the miniseries, thank you very much), and I also liked Boyd’s lesser-known but similar-format ‘The New Confessions’. ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ was better than OK, as was ‘A Good Man in Africa’, and I more-than-liked ‘Restless’, the only attempt of Boyd’s that I’ve read where he writes a female protagonist. Reading the blurb for Sweet Caress, then, I got very excited about Boyd’s century-charting story of Amory Clay.

Oh dear. It was…it was fine. There were great bits; Boyd is, on the whole, a fantastic writer; the moment when Amory comes into contact with British fascists, in particular, haunted me. And he prods Amory to get on her soapbox about some really important issues (euthanasia, war, the power of the state to shape individual lives), and to be very eloquent in her views of them.

But the thing as a whole just left me cold. I wasn’t convinced by her voice. In particular, her habit of describing in detail the penis of every man she slept with irritated me; it felt very, very male. (He never did this in ‘Restless’, which contains one of the best female-point-of-view first-kiss moments I’ve ever read.) In the end, it just annoyed me too much for me to be able to give Sweet Caress more than three stars, however much I wanted to.

The Boston Girl, on the other hand, was a delight. Charting the life of Addie, the first in her family to be born in the United States, it captivated me completely. There was an unbleak, but unflinching, portrait of growing up in poverty in early twentieth-century Boston; there was a lot about culture clash among first-generation immigrants. There was a constant thread about the redemptive power of art. An early ‘men-are-b*stards’ theme was successfully reined in and counteracted later on. And the ending, coincidentally in the same year as Sweet Caress, was charming, and full of hope.

At bottom, I think Sweet Caress is very British, and The Boston Girl very American. That is a sweeping generalisation for which I have very little evidence or justification, but here goes: The former deals with the years more evenly, and in particular has the big 20th century wars as defining events, but most particularly seems to subscribe to the theory that everything is getting just a little bit worse. (I won’t give away the plot. But read it, and you’ll see what I mean.) The latter is skewed very heavily towards adolescence, and the immigrant experience, a part of the American story still written so large in the nation’s history that – to an outsider, at least – it almost eclipses everything else. The later years are dealt with in comparatively few pages, but the narrative is explicit – very explicit, and down to its closing sentence – in its message that things are getting better, not worse.

Thing is, I prefer the American message. And Diamant wrote her Addie far more convincingly, to my mind, than Boyd his Avery. If there was a cage fight between these two novels, then for me, the American wins hands-down.

Sweet Caress by William Boyd – ***
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamond – ****

Review – Election Notebook by Nick Robinson, and Live From Downing Street by Nick Robinson

I became borderline obsessed with this year’s UK General Election. Politics interests me at the worst of times and, in terms of interest at least, this certainly wasn’t the worst of times. We were just coming out of the first full-term coalition in living memory; the Prime Minister was either (depending on your view) competent but uninspiring, or bordering on the devil incarnate; the leader of the opposition was rapidly moving from punchline to heartthrob (I still don’t get it, but Google ‘Milifandom’ if you’re not familiar with the concept – it’s truly disturbing). On top of all that, a new political force was rewriting the electoral map north of the border; support for the Lib Dems, the long-time third party of British politics, was collapsing; and the UK Independence Party seemed, somehow, to be blundering into the limelight, dragging along voters from Left and Right alike.

Small wonder, then, that almost nobody predicted the result. I was in Zurich the night of the election. I remember the shock of the first exit poll, announced at 10pm UK time, predicting the Conservatives would be the largest party; I remember that shock being echoed on every news outlet. I made some of my American colleagues stay in the bar with me till 6am, until the result was beyond doubt. I went to sleep for two hours; when I woke up, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, had lost his seat. It was easily the most interesting election of my lifetime.

Nick Robinson was the BBC’s Political Editor for ten years, up to and including the election. I picked up his Election Notebook, a diary of the year leading up to polling day, expecting it to be gossipy and full of insider knowledge. I wasn’t disappointed. I thought I remembered a lot of the events he describes – most notably perhaps the Scottish referendum – but reading descriptions from someone who had a front-row seat was a real eye-opener. An awful lot of stuff gets cut from the news, and this – around 350 pages on one of the most seminal years in recent political history – was just the ticket to remind me of all the things I didn’t know. (As an aside, I consider myself reasonably politically aware – I watch the Sunday morning political shows, read the websites of the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian, as well as some of the American papers when I have the chance – and the gaps in my knowledge reading this made me despair a little. Honestly, where does anyone find the time?)

Anyway. Perhaps inevitably, my favourite parts were the light-hearted anecdotes about the politicians who try to come across as anything but, including this gem – for me, the highlight of the whole book – ‘The other revelation of the night is that Ed and Yvette and the kids went inter-railing this summer, taking in a Sound of Music bike tour in costumes made by the Balls-Coopers themselves from curtain material on the train to Salzburg – lederhosen for the boys, headscarves and neckerchiefs for the girls.’ Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper are the Labour Party’s power couple; both MPs, he is the former Shadow Chancellor, she the former Shadow Home Secretary and recent (unsuccessful) Labour leadership candidate. That is just one of the things which makes that story so delightful. So there’s really something for everybody – if you have only a tangential interest in modern British politics, then you’ll learn a lot; if you are a political nut already, then you’ll learn at least a little, and have some fun, too. (‘Everybody’ might be overstating it. If you have no interest in British politics at all, then, well, it’s probably not for you. But you’d probably figured that much out and stopped reading already.)

I started Live from Downing Street, Robinson’s earlier book, expecting more of the same. It’s not, really. The first half is a history of the BBC and its reporting of British politics, and, well, if that sounds a little dry, then I agree with you. I learned some interesting things, about the independence of the BBC and the opinions about the free press that were held by some of our most famous statesmen (and, latterly, stateswomen), but it felt a bit like a university lecture – improving, but – apart from in isolated places – not a lot of fun. Literary fibre, if you will. There are those who would say that I’d brought this upon myself, picking up a book called ‘Live from Downing Street’, but even with my slightly unusual ways of getting my kicks, I found it hard going.

The second half started to move into territory that was more familiar to me from the Election Notebook – it became more personal, covering the time of Robinson’s tenure at the BBC, and including anecdotes such as this rather charming comment from (then) President Sarkozy of France to (then) Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

‘Even President Sarkozy of France, who’d threatened to boycott the summit, was impressed. Some weeks later, at a dinner at the Elysee Palace, he stunned the British prime minister and his closest aides with the candour of his assessment: ‘You know, Gordon, I should not like you. You are Scottish, we have nothing in common and you are an economist…’ Diplomats and civil servants were, I’m told, fidgeting nervously at this point, wondering where the president’s remarks might be leading. They need not have worried. ‘…but somehow, Gordon, I love you.’ This expression of Gallic ardour so unsettled the Scot known for never showing his emotions that Sarkozy added hastily, if perhaps unnecessarily, ‘But not in a sexual way’.’

Frankly, having that story in my life was worth persevering through the first half of the book. But if you only want to read one book by a former BBC Political Editor about modern British politics this year (and frankly, if you want to read even that many, then I applaud you), then the Election Notebook is the one.

Nick Robinson’s Election Notebook *****
Live from Downing Street ***

Review – Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

This was released on Tuesday. I actually downloaded it on Monday, because I’m currently in the US and so eight hours behind London time, and because my Kindle is still hooked up to Amazon UK, and because I’m really just that much of a fan of anything written by JK Rowling or her alter ego, Robert Galbraith.

This was great. I think it was the best yet of the Robert Galbraith novels, which I put off reading for ages because – well, hype – but which I finally succumbed to at the beginning of this year. For those of you not yet converted, these are written by JK Rowling under a pen name, but they are Not. For. Kids. Seriously. Although they are easy to race through, because of the quality of the writing, subject-matter-wise they are reasonably heavy crime fiction (this one starts with the delivery of a severed leg).

The novels follow the – adventures, except that’s really too benign a word – of Cormoran Strike, private investigator, one-legged Afghanistan veteran, and love child of a rock star and a ‘super-groupie’, and his assistant-cum-work-partner-definitely-just-a-work-partner-nothing-more, green but sharp-as-a-razor Robin Ellacott. Reading about the developing relationship between these two is enormous fun – the characterisation is well-rounded and generally superb, which won’t be a surprise to anybody who’s read Harry Potter.

‘Fun’ is actually an important word here. In the acknowledgements, JK Rowling says she’s never enjoyed writing a novel more than she did this one. She notes that that’s strange, given the subject matter, which is pretty grim. But I sort of get it. It was certainly great fun to read. (I finished it on Wednesday night – reading it in two days of pretty heavy travel, getting out my Kindle whenever my travelling companions did anything like get their phones out, or go to the bathroom.)

This isn’t going to be one of those reviews full of words of the author; it’s not a novel that’s full of quotable quotes. But it’s got a cracking plot that keeps you guessing almost right to the end, a fantastic sense of place (I’ve been in California for two weeks, and it almost made me miss London), and you can’t help but care about the characters. If you need a good old-fashioned crime novel, to read on holiday or on the Tube or really anywhere, then this series is a damn good bet.

****