Recent Readings: A Sweet-Talking Murderer and a Perfect England

On the one hand, I hate classicistic snobbery. “Oh, nothing good has been written since Austen”, or, “modern art will never compare with Caravaggio” (or whatever). On the other hand, there’s something very convenient about sticking to the canon. Works that survived the test of time – at least according to critic such-and-such – you rarely go wrong with. The average bookstore display, stacked with all the latest titles, has, just like anything else in life: a few masterpieces, several complete time-wasters, and mostly a lot of mediocrity.  So much that is written is just Okay. You pick it up, you read it, and you conclude that it was fine.  And how could you have possibly known it wouldn’t be? Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20. That – and mandatory reading for class – is the reason I don’t get to read a lot of new fiction. Truth be told, I spend quite a lot of time reading ‘for myself’, i.e. not for an upcoming paper; still, I tend to go for the safe choice (though looking back I see that it is hardly reflected that way in the blog). Except recently I chanced on a couple of those dangerously new books, and they completely and utterly restored my faith in the contemporary novel. Coincidentally, both books were shortlisted for a Man Booker prize, and both authors won one for another book of theirs. Also, both authors’ last names begin with a B. (Side note: I was going to write: “…dangerously new books – fresh from the print!” or something like that when I realized that 1989 and 1998 are not as recent as I think. How is it 2012 already? I feel like I’ve overslept!)

The first book is John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. It is basically one long monologue from the mouth of Freddie Montgomery, standing on trial for murder and theft: he had killed a maid who happened to catch him in the act of stealing a painting from a neighbor’s house. The painting used to belong to his own family, you see, until his mother sold it without realizing its value to Freddie. The plot is foreseeable in that he tells you from the beginning what is about to happen; it is a book to be read not for the mystery of the murder but for the mystery of the strange calmness and detachment of its thief-and-murderer narrator, a fascinatingly amoral being. The Books of Evidencehas a heavy literary

A worthy use for a book if there ever was. Banville

background, which is something I always love thinking about. The first reference that came to my mind is to Nabokov’s Lolita – the narrator, being an all around Bad Person (so to speak) is extremely charming and clever, and you cannot help but liking him. He never for a second denies his actions or their severity and yet… An interesting addition here, though, is the strong sense of vagueness and detachment. The murder itself is an almost dissociative episode. He remembers it to detail but doesn’t feel like he was actually there. It’s a very interesting – and quite convincing, to be honest – point of view to take. It also made me think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, who’s protagonist stars at the reader with similarly empty eyes. Evidence has, too, a strong mother-issue, just like The Stranger. Then there’s the inevitable reminiscence of Crime and Punishment (except in size, thank god). For both Banville and Dostoyevsky’s texts, the material motive for the murder is so important and yet so unimportant at the same time. Freddie, just like Raskolnikov, gets rid of the plunder by drowning it. But the feeling that you get from this book is different. Again, this detachment – it gives the whole story a very strange atmosphere, a dream-like state. Freddie mentions towards the end of the novel that blurry feeling that everyone gets in prison. He calls it a defense – drowsiness that allows him to sink into numbness. Since the narration is from within the prison cell – after the murder – it is impossible to tell whether that drowsiness is what makes the narration so detached or an innate quality of the protagonist, who’s just a run of the mill psychopath. There are several smaller references that came to my mind which I have decided to spare from you, seeing as how this post is starting to turn into a name-dropping pageant. The bottom line: it’s a superbly written book, with great psychological depth, which is busy with very intelligent questions of meaning (there’s hardly any), morality (seems to be pointless) and on occasion, true emotion (but even then, directed to nature, not people).

Another book I picked up recently from the B shelf is Julian Barnes’ England, England. I’ve only just started it so I can’t say much about the plot, or about anything really. But I was so taken with the beginning that I felt I just couldn’t NOT write about it. Already in the first 30 pages Barnes makes so many beautiful insights about memory and perception. About how untrue and tainted our memories are, how shaped by the events that since happened to us. About sticking religiously to meaningful moments from our childhood. About how much it hurts when we find out that a parent doesn’t even remember that event, though he took crucial part in it. About our tendancy to make symbols out of everything all around us, and about how maybe that’s good for us. In one especially endearing moment, we are told about the puzzle the protagonist used to play with as a child, piecing together the different counties of England, and always having one middle piece empty – hidden by her father in their usual game. “What was Staffordshire doing in his pant pocket?”. After the existential heaviness of The Book of Evidence, how nice it is to be back in childhood (albeit someone else’s). The process of sobering is painful (said father leaves her and mother; when she meets him, years later, he has no recollection of the puzzle whatsoever, and instead he goes on and on about his son from his new family), but the telling of those early memories is just so, so sweet. Can’t wait to see what happens next.