Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review : The Hare with Amber Eyes : A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (Vintage 2011)

Edmund de Waal is one of our most gifted workers in ceramics - his minimalistic works grace galleries and collections throughout the world. As a young man, he was given a scholarship to work in Japan where he was introduced to his Uncle Ignace - Iggy - and his collection of netsuke, the beautiful carved belt-toggles for kimono. These netsuke had travelled full-circle, having first been purchased by Iggy's uncle Charles Ephrussi in Paris at the end of the 19th Century. This book is the story of the netsuke - but it is also the story of a family and of the 20th Century itself. It is a work as delicate and sensitive yet tough and resilient as the netsuke themselves.

Charles Ephrussi was the youngest son of Leon, the head of the Paris branch of the Ephrussi banking family. The Ephrussi were originally a Jewish merchant family hailing from Odessa in the Crimea. Like the Rothschilds, they had successfully set up office the major cities in Europe - London, Paris and Vienna - and flourished. Charles was more interested in Art than in banking, and he became an influential writer and collector in the Parisian art world of the late 19th Century (you can see him in a top hat towards the back of Renoir's "Le Dejeuner des Canotiers"). As Japan opened up to the West, and the "devaliser" of Japan fed the craze for Japonisme which was sweeping Paris, Charles bought a collection of 264 netsuke from the dealer Philippe Sichel.

De Waal writes about the netsuke with the sensitivity of someone who works creatively with his fingers every day. He describes not only their appearance, but their feel, their texture, their balance. He believes that they must held, played with and explored by children, enjoyed daily. Charles, however, has no children, and you can sense that De Waal approves when they are given as wedding present to his cousin Viktor in Vienna, when he marries the beautiful young socialite Emmy Schey von Koromla. The netsuke end up in her dressing-room, where her children play with them as she spends interminable hours with her devoted maid Anna every day ensuring that she is dressed according to the latest fashions.

Viktor has just had the magnificent Palais Ephrussi built on the Ringstrasse, and the family seems unassailable. But the convulsions of the 20th Century are about to strike imperial Vienna. The bank fares badly in the First World War. But this is nothing compared to the horrors of Vienna for Jewish family following the Anschluss. How the netsuke survived is one remarkable part of the story.

But this is a multi-layered book - the fate of the Ephrussi family is much more poignant, and explains how the netsuke came to be owned by the son of a Church of England priest. This is a story of a collection, of a family, and of a personal search as de Waal unpeels the history of the Ephrussis and in doing so explores out what it meant to be a rich Jewish family in Middle-Europe in the 20th Century. And if this isn't enough for the reader, it is written in a most beautiful, limpid, approachable style - this book really is as much a treasure as the wonderful netsuke that it describes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review - Solar by Ian McEwan (Vintage 2011)

In one of these bizarre decisions that International Award Ceremonies occassionally throw up, Ian McEwan, who must be the consistently feted British author of recent times, has only won the Booker Prize for fiction once, for Amsterdam - at the time McEwan's only stab at comedy, and to my mind a singularly unsuccessful one as it lacked the lacked the nuanced control which typically characterise McEwan's best novels. It was therefore with a certain amount of concern that I read that McEwan's latest novel would be another comedic venture. However I needn't have worried - this is the master back at his very best.

Michael Beard is a nobel laureate for physics, his Einstein-Beard Conflation setting out the theoretical basis for extracting energy from sunlight and water. This honour, conferred in Beard's early career, has ensured his fame, a series of comfortable sinecures, and his continuing attractiveness to women despite his small stature, expanding girth and generally unappealing nature.

As in many McEwan novels, the main character of the book, usually an urban professional, is threatened by an encounter with someone of lower professional or social status. So, as Joe Rose is threatened by Jed Parry in Enduring Love, and Henry Perowne by Baxter in Saturday, Beard is threatened by his earnest subordinate Tom Aldous in Solar. Aldous is committed to the possibilities of photovoltaics which utilise Beard's theories, and can see commercial possibilities. Unfortunately Beard is distracted by the fact that his fifth wife is having an open affair with her builder, notwithstanding the fact that in the short time since they were married Beard has managed at least eleven affairs himself, so he pays little attention to Aldous' theories, or to Aldous himself except when he returns home early from a short stay in the Arctic to find Aldous in his living room wearing his dressing gown...

Beard is a superb comic creation - a vain, arrogant, complacent, devious old lecher whilst still remarkably retaining the reader's sympathy as a generally hapless victim of the circumstances surrounding him, which are generally of his own making. He stumbles from one crisis to another, but always seems to survive, even while the forces are stacking up around him. McEwan has chosen a broad range of easy satirical targets, but does spear them quite effectively. From academic life (the social scientist who believes genes are socially constructed is superb) to the environmental movement, from the nature of celebrity to the way in which the press attacks its victims, there is nothing new in what McEwan is saying, but he does say it very elegantly and effectively. However, what humour there is revolves around Michael Beard. It is not the Press per se which is funny, but how it behaves in raising up and then tearing down Beard.

As always, McEwan's sentences are beautifully balanced, adjectives and subordinate clauses neatly packed in triplets, utilising volcabulary just too obscure to be comfortable : "But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame." Equally typical are the bravura descriptions of a complex technical subject: in Saturday it was neurosurgery, in Solar it is quantum physics, which provide a basis for complex extended metaphors throughout the book.

But don't let the prospect of difficult science deter you. This is McEwan at the top on his form, so perhaps it is understandable that this clever, funny, compassionate book never even made the Booker long list.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review - Parisians : An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb (Picador 2010)

Paris is like the Parisians themselves – a fascinating acquaintance, but impossible to know intimately. For a city with such an elegant, sophisticated exterior, it has a dark underbelly. Its tree-lined boulevards are little distance from the fleshpots of Pigalle. It is synonymous with art and literature and metropolitan sophistication, yet in the 1960s its Police were capable of massacring unarmed Algerian protesters, whilst Portuguese and North African immigrants scraped a living in the bidonvilles, the unofficial townships of corrugated iron which circled the city itself.

I have lived in Paris myself, I have been charmed by its history, its sense of style, its vibrancy. But you are always conscious that you are an outsider, that no matter how much you have come to terms with the language (in my case, not much) you will never understand the way the city lives and moves and breathes like les parigots themselves.

Graham Robb has known Paris for many years and recognises this problem. So in writing about the city he loves, he doesn’t attempt to compile a chronology of Parisian development. Instead he focuses on a series of vignettes, each of which turns the microscope on some tiny aspect of the “adventure history” of Paris, some of which, à la Joyce, are written in a manner appropriate to the subject and the period itself.

It is an engaging if not entirely successful approach. We learn of the reasons for the construction of the Paris catacombs under the appropriately named rue d’Enfer; of the master-criminal Vidocq who became head of the Sureté and founder of the world’s first Detective Agency; of Proust and his relationship with modern technology (although Robb cannot keep up his initial Proustian sentences); of Juliet Gréco and Miles Davis in the manner of a Nouvelle Vague filmscript.

Yet, whilst lavishly praised in other quarters, I didn’t feel that this book entirely came off. The first reason is stylistic. One feels that Robb is trying too hard to ensure that his tales are “adventures”. Subjects are obscure until the point of revelation, which, in the tale of how Napoleon lost his virginity is not until the last page of the essay. Exposition can be clotted and difficult. One needs to read and reread in order to understand what exactly has transpired – not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it is superfluous. The stories stand by themselves. One of the best essays concerns the riots of 2007 and is written in a lucid contemporary style.

The second reason is structural. Motifs and characters, such as the rue d’Enfer or Baudelaire, recur and link the tales, yet there is a lack of a unifying theme. Paris does not emerge as a city, Parisians remain mysterious and unknowable. The stories focus largely on people of fame, power and influence – in other words, not true Parisians at all – but only on minute, peripheral, aspects of their lives. Add the mix to the stylistic variations and the result is a succession of fascinating tales, but the whole never exceeds the sum of the parts. Which is a shame since, highly engaging though this work may be, and beautifully written in places, a more conventional approach may have yielded some valuable insights.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Book Review - Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Vintage 2010)

After sailing with Chums of Chance over the Olympian Heights of Pynchon's imagination in the remarkable - but formidible - Against the Day, we return in Inherent Vice to stoner California familiar from Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49.

Doc Sportello is an L.A. private investigator at the tail end of the sixties, for whom hard-bitten bourbon has been supplanted by dope in all its myriad varieties. The hippy dream is dying - Manson has struck and bombs are falling on Vietnam. Needless to say, when his ex-girlfriend turns up seeking his assistance, it means trouble. The LAPD in the shape of hippy-hating Bigfoot Bjornsen has its eyes on Doc, as have the Feds and some neo-nazi bikers whilst in the background the mysterious and terrifying Golden Fang unites the sinister forces of organised crime and dentistry, optimising heroin's vertical supply chain by supplying both the drugs and the drying-out clinics.

To try to summarise the twists and turns of the plot that follows would be beyond me, and would be missing the point anyway. The plots of the hard-bitten genre which this satirises were never great on the plausibility front - noir was all atmosphere and attititude, and Pynchon is not about plot either, as anyone who has tried and failed to make head nor tail of V will tell you. Pynchon is all about the journey - a paranoid, dope-fuelled, character-filled flight with the instruments of State repression and international conspiracy networks in hot pursuit.

This is undoubtedly Pynchon's most accessible work since Vineland. No need to understand the Riemann Hypothesis here, most of the action takes place in a planer dimension, albeit one that has been warped by a vast quantity of dope. In fact, one could almost say that the novel, whilst undoubtedly entertaining - and with these flashes of incandescent prose that are such a Pynchonesque trademark - lacks a certain substance. But Pynchon's works in general are like the songs of Bob Dylan post-1965 - anyone digging too deeply for meaning will find much material to excavate but much frustration and disappointment. Yes, the works all cross-reference each other (The Corvairs play in both Vineland and Inherent Vice), and the countercultural references keep an army of dedicated wikiists busy for months after each new tome (see the splendid Inherent Vice wiki alongside those of all the other Pynchon novels) - but is this a triumph of dizzying, mind-blowing style over any real substance?

No matter. Doc Sportello for his myriad faults is a splendid creation, and this rollicks along, frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The name of each new walk-on character is a pleasure - see Trillium Fortnight, Burke Stodger for example. The Warriors Against the Man Black Armed Militia (WAMBAM) are Pynchon's creation, but the LAPD's Public Disorder Intelligence Department (PDID) really did exist, although not in the Pynchon form of P-DIDdies. The story careers along with too many characters and subplots and conspiracies to make much sense, but is always exhilirating nonetheless. There is a hint of melancholy that times will change, the forces of conservatism and repression are winning, but whilst the journey is underway - just sit down, skin up and enjoy the ride.