Recent Reading: Atkinson, Greene, Kennedy, Simonson

I have been reading quite a lot, thanks to being on sabbatical, but the irony is that I feel a little overwhelmed and unfocused now, sitting down to try to say something about the books! It may be not so much the quantity of reading, which isn’t really overwhelming; it’s more the motley assortment. But I’m already moving on to the next ones, so if I don’t write at least something now, these ones will recede into the mists of my increasingly imperfect memory. So.

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. I enjoyed reading this instalment in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series almost as much as I enjoyed the first three–almost. Atkinson is fiercely good at characterization and scene setting, and she takes a theme-and-variations approach to plot, so that the overlapping or intersecting stories she tells relate to each other thematically as well as chronologically or historically. The result (as Miriam Burstein explains better and in more detail in her post on this novel) is a book that tests and even refuses some of the conventions of mystery fiction as a genre. This time I found myself starting to get impatient with Atkinson, though: the book seemed to me to lack a certain tautness and the plot served so conspicuously as a vehicle for presenting her cleverly conceived characters that I wondered why she didn’t let go of the pretense of the genre altogether. I realize there may seem to be a certain inconsistency in this, as I have been known to complain about the dully formulaic nature of a lot of mystery novels, and my own reading preference is certainly for those that let go of the constraints of the ‘puzzle’ form and raise the literary stakes–as, for instance, P. D. James and Ian Rankin do. But James has always been explicit that she likes the basic form of the detective novel because of the clear structure it provides, which enables and supports elaboration. I thought Started Early, Took My Dog, with its diffuse attention, nearly fell off the scaffolding.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. I’ll write more about this after my book group meets tomorrow night to discuss it. It certainly follows on in an interesting way on our last reading, Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved: both books are about priests struggling to express and act on their faith according to their own principles when circumstances conspire against them. But the tone of Greene’s book is altogether darker and I founds its idea(l) of religion altogether more elusive. Where is God, in this novel? What are we to make of the whiskey priest, who hardly seems to have a calling or a vocation–indeed, it’s not clear what, exactly, he still believes in–and yet cannot turn his back on what he believes to be his duty, even when he knows it will cost him his life? Are we to read him as a martyr? What kind of a faith is it that glorifies an existence so squalid and pathetic? Where is the power, or the glory?

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. This is the first in the cluster of novels by Margaret Kennedy that I’m reading for my little Virago Modern Classics project (mentioned here). I knew almost nothing about Kennedy when I started it, and at this point I feel I know hardly any more now. It’s a very odd novel, nothing like what I expected. For a long time I couldn’t figure out who was the nymph of the title–I was only certain at the end, and then after I went back and looked up the blurb on the Virago website, as my library copy has no jacket information, no introduction, nothing at all to help me figure this weird thing out. The novel’s plot centers on the eccentric family of Albert Sanger (his “circus,” as everyone calls it). Convinced he could not flourish in England, Sanger has exiled himself to Europe and raised his miscellaneous offspring quite free of the inhibitions and values of “civilized” life. The one value they all recognize is music, or perhaps art more generally; they take really nothing else seriously at all. On Sanger’s death his second wife’s relatives step in to act as guardians to the younger children; the cousin who comes out to collect them falls in love with one of Sanger’s friends, another misunderstood musical genius, and their marriage creates the tensions that carry the novel along to its conclusion. Love, in this novel, is not a mutually beneficial or fulfilling relationship but seems to manifest itself almost entirely through a peculiar kind of worship directed by women towards brilliant, creative, anti-social men. Kennedy’s take on this is satirical, I think, but I’m not entirely sure because I found her tone difficult to interpret: she writes with a fairly flat affect, and the only times she rises into anything like compelling language is when she writes about music, which suggests she may, in fact, be aligned, or align the book, more with those who worship the muse than with those who seek worldly compromises. Reading more of her novels may help me get my interpretive bearings better. There’s hardly any critical work on her to help me out, but I have a book coming through interlibrary loan on the Somerville College novelists (of which she was one).

Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I really enjoyed reading this novel but in the end I think it’s a near miss. It prompted lots of wry laughs, and approaches questions of cultural difference and misunderstanding in a nicely muted and nuanced way, allowing its characters to make fools of themselves rather than setting them up as targets for the novelist’s (or protagonist’s) rebukes–at her best, Simonson handles this much as, say, Jane Austen does, allowing us to enjoy our superiority as we root for the happiness of Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali. The lead up to the dinner/dance–the theme of which, the ladies of the club decide, is to be “An Evening at the Mughal Court”–and then the calamitous events of that night, are beautifully handled. Here’s a little excerpt that will give you an idea of the artfully artless style of the book:

“We were reminded of the story of your father and his brave service to the Maharajah. We’ve decided to do it in three or four scenes. It’ll be the perfect core of our entertainment.”

“No, no, no,” the Major said. He felt quite faint at the idea. “My father was in India in the thirties and early forties.”

“Yes?” said Daisy.

“The Mughal Empire died out around 1750,” said the Major, his exasperation overcoming his politeness. “So you see it doesn’t go at all.”

“Well, it’s all the same  thing,” said Daisy. “It’s all India, isn’t it?”

“But it’s not the same at all,” said the Major. “The Mughals–that’s Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal. My father served at Partition. That’s the end of the English in India.”

“So much the better,” said Daisy. “We’ll just change ‘Mughal’ to ‘Maharajah’ and celebrate how we gave India and Pakistan their independence. Dawn of a new era and all that. I think it’s the only sensitive option.”

“That would solve the costume problem for a lot of people,” said Alma. “I was trying to tell Hugh Whetstone that pith helmets weren’t fully developed until the nineteenth century, but he didn’t want to hear it. If we add an element of ‘Last Days,’ they can wear their ‘Charles Dickens’ summer dresses if they prefer.” […]

“Partition was 1947,” said the Major. “People wore uniforms and short frocks.”

“We’re not trying to be rigidly historical, Major,” said Daisy.

At the event itself, Mrs Ali’s deadpan responses offset the absurdity perfectly:

“The Maharajah’s wife throws herself upon the protection of the British officer,” said Daisy’s voice again. “He is only one man, but by God he is an Englishman.” A round of cheers broke out in the audience.

“Isnt’ it exciting?” said Mrs Jakes. “I’ve got goose bumps.”

“Perhaps it’s an allergic reaction,” said Mrs. Ali in a mild voice. “The British Empire may cause that.”

The relationship between the upright, stiff, but good-hearted Major, with his old world courtesy and literary inclinations, and the astute but reticent outsider Mrs Ali is developed at once believably and sympathetically. Simonson does well with her secondary characters too, particularly the Major’s insufferable son and his American girlfriend–who is, thankfully, redeemed from reductive stereotypes after a scene or two. But I didn’t understand the turn towards melodrama at the end of the book, or why, if some kind of crisis was felt to be necessary, it took quite the form it did. Perhaps Simonson felt she should balance her satirical treatment of the shallow English villagers with some equal opportunity mockery (if that’s what it is) of the values that lead to ‘honor’ killings, but I felt that this very troubling episode threw the book off balance. I was interested that Simonson chose Kipling as the author who drew the Major and Mrs Ali together. I haven’t read any Kipling beyond snippets of (jingoistic) verse, but the part he plays here, along with Ahdaf Souief’s allusions to him in her novels (including the title of In the Eye of the Sun) make me think he’s worth taking a closer look at.

7 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Atkinson, Greene, Kennedy, Simonson

  1. Annie January 16, 2011 / 5:30 pm

    I would have to agree with you about the Atkinson. I loved the first three but felt that this was a book too far. there comes a time, I think, when an editor or publisher or agent should say to a writer, “move on” and with Brodie, much though I love him, I think that time is now past.

  2. litlove January 17, 2011 / 5:28 am

    I have Major Pettigrew to read – I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about, having heard mostly very positive reviews. I am also intending to read Graham Greene this year – The End of the Affair is the one I’ve promised myself.

  3. Susan January 17, 2011 / 11:55 am

    I’m about 30 pages into Started Early and enjoying it so far. I’m not much of a mystery reader and I certainly don’t mind when Atkinson doesn’t adhere to the genre’s conventions, but I have begun to wish over the past few years that she’d return to writing strictly literary novels.

  4. Carolyn January 17, 2011 / 9:22 pm

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog quietly for some time now and enjoying your detailed response to books and to learning about them in university (I was especially interested to read your review of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which was more thoughtful than most I’ve seen on the internet that simply say it was too detailed). I just wanted to add that at the end of January I’ll be hosting a Virago reading week specifically for all those Virago Modern Classics and so hopefully a lot of reviews will turn up to give you more ideas for your own Virago reading project!

  5. Rohan January 19, 2011 / 11:39 am

    Thanks for your comment, Carolyn, and for alerting me to your Virago reading week–I’ll be sure to stop by. Also, your alphabetical listing of all the VMC is a great resource!

  6. Pat Hobby January 20, 2011 / 4:49 pm

    You should definitely put Kipling on your reading list. High on your reading list.

  7. Rohan Maitzen January 20, 2011 / 10:14 pm

    OK! Should I start with Kim?

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