The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 17, 2013

Under 200, Part 6

For some reason I cannot fathom, the local library has an occasional memoir among its fiction books.  Perhaps the librarians have a crafty cynicism? Some of these books are less than 200 pages long and I pick them up as part of my rampage through the shelves. To be honest, I pick one up - Rod Humphries' The Last Coal Trip to Tenby. I am not happy. It reads like a transcript of oral recollections. It is punctuated badly and the grammar is often awful. It is an interesting story of vanishing life in Wales just before the Second World War. It has rugby and eccentric characters. It has bibliophiles and religious nuts. It has avid drinkers and outdoors toilets. It has sporadic references to Welsh food. It would have done much better as a period comedy on TV.

In fact, my latest stash of borrowings have been singularly under par. Even vaunted writers such as Yasushi Inoue and Janet Frame and Shirley Hazzard have underwhelmed. The last of these wrote Cliffs of Fall, and Other Stories, which explores the emotional relationships between women and men in a series of short stories set in various parts of the world. Every one of her characters appears to have the same emotional maturity; they speak in similar voices; their introspection is identical irrespective of age. Every story deals with some sort of breakup, usually prompted by the (emotionally unavailable) men, sometimes by death. It's as though Hazzard feels that she can only extract nuances of human behaviour from unhappy people. Clearly she has taken Tolstoy to heart.


Yasushi Inoue's The Hunting Gun is one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature. I don't get it.


I exaggerate a tad. Pleasure was had from Zoë Heller's first novel Everything You Know, which has one of the most acerbic misanthropes I've encountered in the past year or so. His hatred of London and New York is so intense and so exquisitely described that any reader who hasn't been to these cities would probably never want to visit. He has a troubled relationship with his daughters (one of whom kills herself) and in his youth had served time for the murder of his wife (acquitted on appeal). Despite his dislike for people in general, and contempt for the women in his life, he occasionally does feel pangs of sympathy for them, and he tries to do the right thing. Of course, his good work is invariably thrown back in his face. No wonder he staggers through life despising everyone. Heller does like an optimistic ending, though. I'd have preferred the man to die filled with his bitterly dark humour.


Oh, and Günther Freitag's Brendel's Fantasy is another exploration of a man's mortality. Like Heller's protagonist, Freitag's - Höller - is dying as well, and he is determined to go with a bang. He feels that every musical masterpiece has an ideal location suited to it, where it must be played to extract every ounce of its beauty. He is convinced that the great pianist Alfred Brendel is the man to play Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, his favourite piece. Retiring to a little town in Tuscany, he senses that here's where he'll stage Brendel's performance of the piece. The novel follows Höller's efforts to establish a venue deserving of the Fantasy. Naturally he faces incomprehension, dismay and unsavoury characters as he tries to bring his life's desire to fruit.


I'm past the letter 'I' and heading 'K'-wards... Katie Kitamura! Happy days.


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