Where does Karl Ove Knuagaard’s cultural cachet stand after the publication of the fifth instalment in his six volume opus, titled Some Rain Must Fall? It is now over five years since Norway went c…
Where does Karl Ove Knuagaard’s cultural cachet stand after the publication of the fifth instalment in his six volume opus, titled Some Rain Must Fall? It is now over five years since Norway went crazy for the confessional series. However, on publication of the latest novel (as Knausgaard has always insisted on referring to these books) is it still accurate to use the phrase ‘literary sensation’ outside of his native lands?
The answer is probably not. While Some Rain Must Fall was reviewed in all the usual places, the book appeared without much fuss at the beginning of March and appears in none of the bestseller charts. The initial excitement and accolades has certainly died down of late. Back in 2014, Zadie Smith was helping to promote the books by declaring that she needed the next instalment “like crack.” A couple of months ago, however, Roxane Gay, discussing Beyoncé’s Lemonade in a well-received TED talk complained that “When white men write about themselves, people are like, oh my god that’s groundbreaking, like Knausgaard. When a women does it it’s self-indulgent.” Too true. But the question is does Knausgaard still write about himself better than anyone else. While in 2016 we may be more interested in the identity of Becky with the Good Hair than Knausgaard’s infidelities and indiscretions, what literary delights are to be found in Some Rain Must Fall’s 600 plus pages?
Fans will, of course, be compelled to read it; if you’ve got this far, you’re in it for the long haul. The small clutch of Amazon customer reviews give it an average of 4.7 of of 5 and frequently refer to the addictive nature of his writing. Readers “love the immersive experience of the series”, another is “sucked into the world of Karl Ove”, someone describes the books as, surprise surprise, “completely addictive”, and another mourns that they will be sad when they eventually get to read book six. So certainly for some of his dedicated readers’ book five hasn’t disappointed. It has all the Knausgaard hallmarks; long, descriptive prose chronicling every detail of the young Karl Ove’s days reading, smoking, wandering and drinking, and the recording of his innermost feelings, often of disgust, shame and inadequacy. The recurrent themes of black-out inducing alcohol binges, infidelity and his struggle to write anything of substance are all here.
However, it is the weakest volume so far without doubt. Now with five books published, a step can be taken back to view the books as separate entities, and to evaluate them on their own merits. While each of the preceding novels has distinct themes, atmospheres and conflicts, Some Rain Must Fall is more of a sprawling meander. This is partly because the writer finds his twenties, like many people, largely directionless, depressing and repetitive.
Book one and two are still vastly superior to what has come after, in that they did something fairly unusual in current popular literature. By employing a mixture of intensely detailed experience, reflection from the present day and grappling with key struggles such as his love/hate for his father and his complicated relationship with being a husband and father himself, Knausgaard created a style all of his own.
Volume one enthralled with its description of a dead alcoholic’s house, with all the sadness and depravity that comes with that, while volume two made readers gasp in shock and/or delight at Knaugaard’s confession that he couldn’t bear looking after his children most of the time. Volume three is the traditional childhood memoir, told purely through the eyes of a young Karl Ove. Dancing in the Dark was the teen years, but in mainly focusing on his time spent on a small, dark island, had a particular atmosphere and focus. Volume five, in comparison, just goes on and on. If there is a key issue in this book (in volume four it was his struggle to lose his virginity) then it is his struggle to write anything of substance.
So Some Rain Must Fall is about that most tedious of things, a writer who cannot write. The descriptions of his creative writing course, and the egos and characters that he finds there, are as honest a portrayal as he is capable of, revealing his own and other’s joyless pretentions. He struggles with the constant criticism, is judgemental of his classmates, and the prose is full of bitch and bite as usual.
“The dark haired one might be forty. She dressed like a forty-year-old anyway, wide sleeves and big earrings. But tight trousers. Meticulously drawn eyebrows. And thick lipstick on her narrow lips. What the hell could she write?”
Anyone who has spent a decent proportion of their youth in hedonistic pursuit will recognise his descriptions of blackouts and hangover dread. By now, his drunken behaviour is catching up with him and others are concerned. He vandalises property, starts fights, and cheats on his girlfriend. As always, Knausgaard describes his shame and regret in painfully acute detail:
“This was the pattern for the end of the autumn, I tagged along with Yngve and his friends, was silent and shy but polite and affable for the first few hours until alcohol had me in its grip and then anything could pass my lips, anything could happen with my hands, until I woke up in an internal darkness the next day, when image and image of what I had done and said was hurled back at me, and I could only get myself going with a huge effort of will, drag myself back to normality, which then slowly took over.”
As the paragraph above demonstrates, the writing in Some Rain Must Fall is just as good as always in describing human experience. However, by this point, after hundreds and hundreds of pages of minute detail over five separate volumes, it is easy to be as fed up with Knausgaard as he is with himself. While the series has been hailed a modern literary masterpiece, a significant part of the appeal is our basic curiosity in the juice bits of other’s lives. In Volume Five we finally get the recollection of how he met and fell in love with his now ex-wife, Tonje, which is only ever briefly alluded to in the previous books:
“Occasionally she flashed me a little glance and a smile, sending shivers right through me. The thought of her was light, it arched like a sky over everything, but the thought of approaching her was heavy. What if I was wrong? What if she said no? What if she laughed at me? What has gotten into you? Who do you think you are? Do you imagine I would go out with you? You’re just a miserable wimp!
But tonight I would have to!
Tonight I had to”
As the paragraph above demonstrates, Knausgaard does shame and self-disgust better than romantic tension. The satisfaction in finally finding out what happened in his first marriage is not dissimilar to discovering who is getting off with who in a favourite television drama. However, his reminisces of his life in his twenties are not nearly as interesting and absorbing as the writing in volumes one and two, which move back and forth between the writer’s past and present.
It is rumoured that Volume Six, due to be published next year, changes course completely. It has been reported to include a lengthy mediation on Hitler, his feelings on the 2011 Anders Breikvik attacks in Oslo, and a description of the mental breakdown his wife Linda Bostrom-Knausgaard suffered after the publication of the series in Norway. This is good news. After making our way through Some Rain Must Fall, fans will hopefully be rewarded with something more satisfying from the last instalment of this fascinating enterprise.
When it was announced that Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life had made the Man Booker Prize shortlist nobody who had followed the hype on this novel could have been surprised with its inclusion. Since its release in the US last year it has been hailed by many as an emotionally unsettling, affecting and important work.
A Little Life begins as the story of four friends – Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude – all living in New York and all equally talented in their respective fields of architecture, painting, acting and law. Before they make it they eat noodles in cheap restaurants, share cramped apartments and take odd jobs in restaurants and on reception. Yanigara draws the dynamics of these male friendships with care, and just as the reader is settling into this witty, enjoyable account of ambitious young men, the character of Jude St. Francis emerges as a deeply troubled young man and the central object of her attention. Jude was sexually abused as a child and as the narrative shifts to focus on both his present and past it becomes a study in memory, shame and trauma.
Reaction to Yanagihara’s second novel has been extreme. The Financial Time’s reviewer reported that ‘more than once I held A Little Life with shaking hands.’ However, they detected something deeper beyond the shock value, reporting that ‘emerging from horror, persistent and enduring, is a touching, eternal, unconventional love story.’ Others were less impressed with the unrelenting misery. The Telegraph complained that; ‘There’s something almost heretically pessimistic about this book, as though it were an experiment calibrated purely to demonstrate that neither love nor money can heal past hurt.’ The Atlantic review honed in on a different and more positive aspect of the book, describing it as The Great Gay Novel (JB is a gay man and Jude and Willem’s friendship turns into a loving relationship as the novel progresses) and praising an “ambitious chronicle of queer life in America.”
Interestingly, almost every favourable review takes the time to point out the various reasons this book shouldn’t work; it’s overblown, relentlessly tragic and written in a writing style generally agreed to vary vastly in quality across 700 odd pages. However it is those things which makes it stand out so much in the current literary scene. It is a deeply unfashionable book, a work by a writer with a singular vision brilliantly out of step with her peers. The Guardian detected something peculiarly nineties about its themes, citing the misery memoir A Child Called It, the film Girl, Interrupted, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and the Manic’s Richey Edwards as cultural reference points. There is some truth in this, but while there was a certain type of showoff-y glamour to that Generation X brand of misery, A Little Life is the story of a man who hides his pain, self-harms in secret and keeps the pain of his childhood buried. He refuses to see a councillor and hides his scarred body. Richey Edwards may have written of the “beautiful dignity of self-abuse” but there is no hiding from the rotting of human flesh and the risk of infection in Yanagihara’s florid descriptions of Jude’s cutting sprees. Take, for example:
“He cut himself more and more; he began cutting around the scars themselves, so that he could actually remove wedges of flesh, each piece topped with a silvery sheen of scar tissue, but it didn’t help, not enough.”
While Jude’s story is so extreme it has been described as allegorical or fairytale-like, Yanagihara’s voice is at the same time revelatory on basic human experiences and emotions associated with sexual abuse and self-harm. Even the reader who considers themselves sensitive to and knowledgeable on the issue may find themselves recoiling at the reality. The passage above may be gory but it forces the reader to confront the practicality of years and years of bodily mutilation – you run out of flesh to cut. She really goes there, as gruesome as it may be, and it works. A large part of the book concerns the struggle of trying to convince someone of the worth of staying alive when they are in constant pain. Jude simply doesn’t want to exist anymore:
“He had visions of taking an ice pick and jamming it through his ear, into his brain, to stop the memories. He dreamed of slamming his head against the wall until it split and cracked and the grey meat tumbled out with a wet, bloody thunk. He had fantasies of emptying a container of gasoline over himself and then stricking a match, of his mind being gobbled by fire. He bought a set of X-ACTO blades and held three of them in his palm and made a fist around them and watched the blood drip down from his hand into the sink as he screamed into the quiet apartment.”
In its earnest and emotional portrayal of love, friendship and the aftershocks of abuse and trauma, this novel is about as far away from postmodernism as you can get. In fact, it is set in a perpetual and unplaceable modernity, something which has divided critics. Although the characters have email and mobile phones, 9/11 never happens in their New York and there is no pronounced difference in the historical and cultural landscape as Jude and his friend’s progress from childhood into their fifties. There are few real life pop culture references, but Yanagihara skilfully manages to evoke an unspecific urban 90s/00s through her writing on JB’s art pieces or Malcolm’s architecture projects. There is a mild satire in her enjoyable and instantly recognisable descriptions of the fictional productions Willem stars in such as The Poisoned Apple, a study of the last years of Alan Turning’s life. While there is a wit and sass in her depictions of her characters, A Little Life is fundamentally concerned with the heart and soul rather than making clever observations about society.
The New York Times, while praising her ‘subversive brilliance’ griped that “Yanagihara’s success in creating a deeply afflicted protagonist is offset by placing him in a world so unrealized it almost sees allegorical, with characters so flatly drawn they seem more representative of people than the actual thing.” There is some truth in this, though it is Jude himself who seems to have little personality beyond being immensely troubled and stubborn (likes: cutting, dislikes: himself.) There is also a sense of unreality in the main character’s success and wealth. However, this means she is free to do with her characters as she wishes, without the concern for a trivial thing such as a lack of cash. She takes the kitchen sink right out of the drama. In this aspect the work is reminiscent of the A M Holmes novels This Book Will Save Your Life and May We Be Forgiven, where the characters are similarly minted and in crisis, the plot free from the constraints of a budget. Social realism this is not. There is however a side plot of one character’s decent into drug addiction which is a wonderfully observed piece of writing, depicting with feeling the cycle of boredom and shame associated with addiction. The book could have done with more of this, and more of the lives of JB, Malcolm and Willem more generally.
Her description of the damage of abuse is masterly and is why this book should be read. However, an unexpected plot twist towards the end complicates the central question of whether Jude can learn to live with his demons, taking the story somewhere else entirely. These little quibbles with character and plot add up to beg the question; does Yanagihara entirely know what she is trying to do here? It lacks the clarity of purpose required for a truly great novel and for that reason probably shouldn’t win the Man Booker when the winner is announced later this month. However, it should definitely be read by as many people as possible. A Little Life is rather like an epic, overblown heavy metal song in a world of subtle songwriters. It initially flabbergasts but wins out through sheer conviction of feeling. It’s not necessarily tasteful or pretty, but there is great beauty in her graphic depiction of one man’s little life.
Back in my first year of University, I distinctly remember flicking through a copy of the NME to discover that the singer Amy Winehouse, who I had never much cared for, had an arresting new look. I was fascinated with her style, the clashing cultural references – 1960s beehive, Skinhead Fred Perry and braces, ghetto girl gold hoops and sailor’s tattoos – adding up to something totally unique, and to my nineteen-year old self, winningly cool. Later, I asked my best friend “Have you seen Amy Winehouse recently?!” She had, and was also taken with the makeover. I still don’t like her music though, I had mused. However, the new look was the heralding of a new sound for Winehouse. I remember the content of the article well, and the stories she told – of listening to the Shangri-Las lying on her kitchen floor with a bottle of vodka, of a love affair gone wrong and playing pool all day with boys in the boozers of Camden – would become almost as synonymous with Amy as the beehive and winged eyeliner. My interest was piqued, and I sought out her new material with curiosity.
The new documentary depicting her rise to fame and fall from grace, Amy, poses some interesting “what if?” questions around this musical evolution. Shown in interview around the time of the release of her debut album Frank, Winehouse states that she will never be properly famous because she is a jazz musician, and there isn’t the audience for her work. It is obvious that this doesn’t bother her at all. In another interview her first manager Nick Shymansky pinpoints the moment where he believes there was an opportunity for disaster to be averted. Amy had been drinking heavily and avoiding working on her second album when he staged an intervention to try and get her to seek help at a residential rehabilitation unit. This was the event that inspired her first hit single Rehab, and it was Mitch Winehouse – the ‘daddy’ who thinks she’s fine – who halts the plans and decides she doesn’t have to go after all. Shymansky observes that if she had got help at this time there may never have been the Black to Black album, but she would have had an opportunity to get healthy out of the limelight. With so many problems before fame hit – depression, bulimia, alcoholism, and destructive relationships – what hope did she have of getting better once she was in the view of the world’s media?
Her growth as a songwriter and the development of her musical repertoire were the very things which led to both her success and destruction. Because while her amazing voice seems to have arrived fully formed – we see footage of an incredibly self-assured eighteen year old Amy singing and playing guitar for record company execs – Frank was a fairly niche coffee table concern, and if she had emulated its style on her follow up she would almost certainly have not been an international superstar, and most likely another talented but underachieving British soul singer. It is also questionable whether she would have had the success she did if she had not worked with Mark Ronson. But work with him she did, and we are treated to some wonderful footage of her in the studio recording a perfect version of Black to Black for him in one take. It is telling that around the time of the release of Black to Black she calls jazz an elitist genre of music, having been inspired by the guitar bands of Camden, but before her death she was apparently planning to go back to her roots, seemingly wishing to return to the small jazz clubs of her early career.
Director Asif Kapadia has amassed a wealth of footage, including home videos, interviews from promotional tours, concert footage, the recollections of her friends and family and the (often tipsy) messages she left on their phones. Like many fans of Winehouse, I had become bored of her due to the relentless overexposure, both before and after her death. The length of time Amy was trailed by the tabloids, relapsing again and again, meant we all got sick of her, as if she were our own erstwhile friend who kept letting us down. However, the combination of the time since her death and the skill of the director makes this familiar story fresh again. At one and a half hours, the film is a triumph of great editing, bringing out the various plots – the doomed love affair with Blake, dubious actions by family and management, her descent into hard drug use – with both skill and subtlety.
Mitch Winehouse has of course objected to his depiction in the film and threatened to take legal action. However, how he will argue his case is anybody’s guess, as the film’s representation of him is mainly limited to footage of him already within the public arena. Once scene shows him nagging Amy to have her photo taken with some fans on the beach when he brings a camera crew to St Lucia where she is trying to get clean. He can hardly complain of being stitched up – here he is on camera, filming her for a TV documentary called My Daughter Amy and exposing her to more intrustion in return for what can only be personal gain, in the form of financial reward or public attention. A few members of her inner circle point the finger at Mitch for putting pressure on Amy to perform the humiliating show in Belgrade in 2011 where she is incapable of performing and is booed of the stage, and are clear that she had not wanted to do the show. Though beyond this there is no direct accusations or overt criticism of him as a father. In fact, the most shocking example of parental neglect is from an interview with Amy’s mother, when she admits that a fifteen year old Amy told her she had a great “new diet” which involved eating as much as you wanted before throwing it all up. Janis Winehouse says she didn’t think much of this confession, and put it down to a “phase that would pass.”
In her review for The Sunday Times, Camilla Long complained that the depiction of Mitch is “infuriatingly non-judgemental” and the film as a whole “less an insight into the singer’s downfall and death, more a well-curated, noncommittal collection of moments.” This is actually where the film’s strength lies – letting the story tell itself, without unnecessary embellishments, theorising or conspiracy theories. Amy was special enough, and her story sad enough, to keep us gripped without additional sensationalism.
And my, is it sad. I felt much more emotional than I expected to feel, after the years of Amy fatigue. It is less her death than the hopeless spiral of addiction which is so heart-breaking, its awful repetitive cycle and depravity. Seen in chronological sequence, images of her physical decline are quite shocking, a haunting visual depiction of a young woman who has declared war on her body. A series of pictures presumably taken by Amy herself while in the nadir of her crack den days are genuinely grotesque. It is that squalidness that beings the tears down my cheeks, a reminder that addiction can happen to anyone and ruins young lives and tears families apart, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ having failed so miserably to actually get people to stop taking them. The director then juxtaposes this footage with clips of Frankie Boyle and Graham Norton making jokes at Amy’s expense on TV. Of course this is par for the course and it is not a question of saying that the nasty comics shouldn’t be mean to poor Amy. But it does neatly reflect that within our society there is still a notion that addicts simply choose to keep using, because they are bad people who are happy to let the people they love down, despite all the evidence we have to the contrary. Even when she was clean, her pleasure receptors were so mangled she could no longer delight in normal things. Upon winning a Grammy award, she tells her childhood best friend that the whole thing is “so boring” without drugs.
I watch the film in a quiet Sunday afternoon showing at the Cameo, where two very cute, but slightly irritating, women sit watching enraptured next to me. They giggle, whisper, weep, hold each other’s hands and hiss when the baddy Blake appears on screen. Although Amy it is a compelling and artfully constructed film, this is really one for the fans, where we can fall in and out of love with Amy all over again.
Much evidence suggests that being a teenage boy must be one of the most wretched states. It appears to be a time of both extreme depravity and insecurity for many; compulsively masturbating in a manky bedroom while regularly having your efforts to get off with a real, live girl rebuked. It is a state which can only be altered by finally being relieved of one’s virginity. At the same time your little pals are in the same boat, so you all lie about copping off with birds, call them sluts, accuse each other of having tiny penises in the name of ‘banter’ while an anxious little voice at the back of your head asks ‘What if I’m gay?!’ Terrible, terrible stuff and many great works of modern literature – from Portnoy’s Complaint to dear old Adrian Mole – will attest to this. And here, in Knausgaard’s Dancing in the Dark, the forth novel in his autobiographical six novel cycle, we have the Nordic teen–boy misery memoir.
Of course, as we know, Knausgaard is very handsome (it is remarked upon by an acquaintance every 40 pages or so in all his books, while being confirmed by almost every single interviewer, male and female) so pulling at the local disco in Kristiansand, or any of his football trips abroad, is not a problem. Knausgaard’s complaint, as it were, is premature ejaculation. To his deep shame, every time he gets near a naked girl, the show is over before it has begun. This inability to lose his virginity haunts him throughout the book.
Knausgaard believes that the reason he finds it so difficult to do the deed is because he elevates women so highly, describing them as angels and living for their eyes and smiles (but mainly their breasts and thighs.) This may be true, but he can still treat individual girls pretty appallingly, dancing with one poor girlfriend to Lady in Red at the local hotel (she was wearing a red dress – smooth!) before abruptly dumping her when they get back to his mother’s, ordering her to sleep in his brothers room instead of his own. So far, so normal in terms of cruel adolescent behaviour, and as usual Knausgaard is willing to depict himself in the most unflattering light. The following quote has been highlighted before in other reviews, and amusingly demonstrates Knausgaard’s willingness to depict the teenage Karl Ove in all his gauche glory; “Her breasts were big and her legs long, what more could I want?”
Unlike A Death in the Family or A Man in Love, there is much less reflection on the past from the position of the present. It flips around a little within those adolescent years – its Knausgaard after all, don’t expect a linear narrative – but doesn’t stray too far from them, only occasionally inserting observations or additional information, such as extracts from the diary found after his father’s death. However, even without outright reflection or analysis, his carefully constructed prose conveys clearly what he wants us to tell us about his youth.
The parallels between his father’s tragic alcoholism and Karl Ove’s own black out inducing binges are carefully drawn. The fact that both behaviours are evolving at the same time makes for a squeamish scenario where Karl Ove is embarrassed by his dad’s behaviour when boozing, while hoping he gets drunk so he can help himself to the wine without his dad noticing. The detailed description of his father’s wedding day is classic Knausgaard. The post wedding lunch is a sad little affair at a local restaurant where a pissed Karl Ove falls asleep in a toilet, missing the main meal. This is followed by a drinking session at his father’s flat where the bride and groom have an argument and the embarrassed guests flee in a taxi. Funny yet disturbing, his description is unflinching, with the young Karl Ove as quick to feel shame and self-loathing as the man will be (it is a major theme, or indeed the main theme, of the whole multi-volume enterprise.) The next morning he is disgusted at his behaviour:
“I knew how drunkenness appeared in the eyes of the sober and was horrified, everyone had seen how drunk I had been at my father’s wedding. That he had also been drunk didn’t help because he hadn’t shown it until right at the end when we were alone in his flat and all his emotions were flowing freely.
I had brought shame on them.
That was what I had done.
What good is it that I only want the best?”
Alongside his sexual insecurities and drinking, he is also typically teenage in the lousy way he treats his mother, even though it is obvious he loves and respects her. He frequently spends all his wages or the child support money he directly receives from his father on records, and then berates his mother if she cannot afford to buy him a new typewriter or send him away on a football trip. At one point he throws a party for all his classmates where somebody kicks a hole in the bathroom door, vomit flies everywhere and the kitchen table is attacked with sharp knives. Again, he lays bare to us what a little shit he was, and the book is all the more engaging for it.
While Dancing in the Dark relates Knausgaard’s very average teenage experiences, it is also obvious that there is something special about him. At sixteen he calls in at the local newspaper and asks if he can write about music. He is given a short interview and hired on the spot to be their chief reviewer of new releases (although didn’t there always seem to be more opportunities like this for talented kids in the past than there is today?) When he is eighteen he takes a job teaching in a remote island in Northern Norway, where he compares his frail limbs to the strong, bulky bodies of the local hard-drinking fisherman. While he might be insecure about his physical masculinity, at eighteen he is fully formed in terms of his ambition and regard for his talent, and has no hesitation in describing himself to these men as a writer. However, unlike many eighteen year olds proclaiming to be writers, he actually does write, forgoing parties to bash out short stories on his typewriter.
As with A Death in the Family, his love of music is carefully detailed, with favourite bands and records making regular appearances throughout. His era is the mid-eighties and U2, Simple Minds, Husker Du, Led Zeppelin and REM all get the Karl Ove seal of approval. However, as with every young music fan, he finds that your favourite bands will let you down, or fall out of favour. Simple Minds are perhaps his most treasured group, and he is bitterly disappointed with their performance when the Scots synth poppers visit Norway, as the following extract attests:
“Leaving the concert, I was, however, somewhat disappointed, not least with Jim Kerr, who had become quite flabby and actually stopped the gig when a fan ran onto the stage and pinched his red beret. He crouched down at the edge of the stage and said they wouldn’t play any more unless he got his hat back. I couldn’t believe my ears and from then on it didn’t matter how good the songs were, for me Simple Minds were a thing on the past.”
The title Dancing in the Dark, while most likely intended to reflect the searching and stumbling we do in adolescence (and perhaps Karl Ove’s favourite Bruce tune?!) it also refers literally to the dancing that he so loves, both by himself and with friends. Alone in his digs in Northern Norway he dances to Talking Heads:
“When, for example, I played Remain in Light…it ignited every part of my body, me, the world’s least rhythmic eighteen-year-old, sitting there squirming like a snake, to and fro, and I had to have it louder, I turned it up full blast, and then, already up on my feet, yes, then I had to dance, at that moment, even if I was alone. And, towards the end, on top of all this, like a bloody fighter plane above a tiny dancing village, comes Adrian Belew’s overriding guitar, and oh, oh god, I am dancing and happiness fills me to my fingertips and I only wish it could last, that the solo would never land, the sun would never set, life would never end.”
The visceral way he describes the physical, and indeed spiritual, release of moving to music demonstrates that while some of the prose has rightly been described as bland, repetitive or pedestrian, when Knausgaard is on form he is a writer that can punch you in the stomach with the best of them. Roll on volumes five and six.
Richard Yate’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is now rightly claimed as a modern classic, with an accompanying film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. While this novel received initial critical praise on publication, Yates never achieved the status he deserved as a writer during his lifetime. Although not perhaps the ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ great American writer as has sometimes been claimed, fellow authors and critics continually feel compelled to champion his work and assert him as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Julian Barnes is an enthusiastic cheerleader for Yate’s The Easter Parade, recently nominating it in a Guardian Review article on books that should have won the Nobel prize for literature, and Kate Atkinson quotes often adorn the Vintage editions of his work with the 1950s style cover illustrations. These editions are testament to the fact that Yates is a now a writer attached to a particular time, a chronicler of an era in American history, even if it went largely unrealised at the time. Fans of Revolutionary Road will be pleased to know that the essential style and themes of his books are consistent in mood, if completely different in circumstance and character. Like the title of Yates collection of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and indeed Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each Yates creation is unsatisfied in their own peculiar way. Here is my pick of the best of the rest of Yates…
The Easter Parade (1976)
The Easter Parade, a novel generally thought to be another classic alongside Revolutionary Road, is the only Yates novel where the main protagonists are women. However, sisters Emily and Sarah have all the same issues as his men – alcoholism, doomed relationships and failed artistic aspirations. The Easter Parade has been championed by Julian Barnes many times over the years, and it is obvious why. Barnes would kill for a book as unselfconscious as this, a deceptively straightforward tale of two sisters which is realist and natural in style, with the signposts and themes hanging together perfectly in the background. Sadness, pathos and beauty deliver themselves to the reader in the story of Emily and Sarah, and are never strained for in Yates writing.
Sarah marries young and moves to the country while Emily takes the ‘career girl’ path in the city and never settles down. While there is no doubt that these women love each other, they grow apart and end up with little to say to one another. The sister’s story is a perfect conduit for a Yates rumination on the sad passage of time, of how our lives often turn out far from what we expected, with no chance to turn back the clock and repair the damage. Emily wastes her time on a series of love affairs which are initially thrilling, using the sex and passion to distract from her unhappiness. The once beautiful Sarah is as sad an alcoholic as any of Yates’ sad alcoholics, a woman who ends up frumpy with bad teeth, unable to attend the show she has travelled to the city to see when too many martinis are consumed over lunch.
The sister’s strange, eccentric mother, who insists they call her ‘Pookie’, is the shadow over their lives, a woman whose delusions of grandeur embarrass and distress the girls in childhood and burden them as adults. Although a facsimile of this character appears in Cold Spring Harbour, the key to Pookie’s inspiration is in the name. Yates’ own mother was a failed artist and fantasist who preferred to be known as Dookie. The harsh yet strangely sympathetic depiction of Pookie is almost certainly Yates working out his mummy issues on page, making for a sad and wonderfully perceptive novel, with the irony never far from the surface in the late afternoon scotch and soda mix.
Disturbing the Peace (1975)
Although all of Yates’ work drew heavily on his own life for inspiration, Disturbing the Peace is probably his most autobiographical work. Apparently dismissed by critics as a failure on publication, it is in fact an arresting study of mental illness by a man who suffered from psychiatric breakdowns throughout his life.
John C Wilder is a successful advertising salesman but his life is no longer satisfying him. In this novel the connection between alcoholism and mental breakdown, which often features to some degree in Yates’ other work, comes to the fore as John’s drinking becomes out of control and leads him to NYC psychiatric unit Bellevue. Yates himself was a chronic alcoholic who had many mental breakdowns over the years, ending up in a series of state institutions including Bellevue. The descent into madness, fuelled by an anxiety driven desire to drink-drink-drink, leaves Wilder in a predicament which, despite all his infidelity and bad behaviour, the reader can’t help but empathise with. Friends who I have lent this book to have been similarly struck by this disturbing and sad portrayal of multiple breakdowns, as we watch Wilder gets better, become manic again and eventually go mad in a seemingly inevitable cycle.
There is also much humour and clever satirical bite to this novel. A very enjoyable postmodern element occurs in the narrative when John’s life is made into a film, and the producers discuss the dramatic need for further breakdown in the character’s life, a knowing wink from Yates to the reader, signalling tough times ahead. In another flash of dark humour, John’s young lover leaves him for another man, a successful writer named Chet. John is a short man, and his hang ups over his height run throughout the book. Once she is safely ensconced with Chet we are treated to the following exchange:
“Oh, Chet” she said, stretching up on tiptoe to receive the kiss, “You’re so nice and tall.”
This line and many others had me chuckling away into my brandy and cigarette, which is, of course, the best way to read any Yates book.
Cold Spring Harbour (1986)
Yates’ last novel, Cold Spring Harbour, contains his most simple and straightforward narrative, yet is arguably his most sad and affecting. In depicting a doomed young marriage in the sparse Long Island town of Cold Spring Harbour, the story is stripped to it’s bones, with none of the irony or humour of his earlier works.
When Evan Shepard’s car breaks down while on a trip to New York city with his father, he encounters the Drake family and takes a shine to the young and attractive Rachel. However, Rachel’s eccentric mother Gloria and awkward younger brother Phil come as part of the package when the couple begin their married life in Cold Spring Harbour. Gloria as the clingy, deluded mother is an instantly familiar character to Yates fans, surely based on his own mother. However, Rachel is a very rare thing in Yates’ world, an innocent. In most of his work, we are sympathetic with the character but are aware on some level that their unhappiness is often of their own making. Rachel’s biggest sin is in trying to please everyone and, in what is often the way, pleases no one.
The Drakes are a small, unlucky family, used to clinging together against the world. Even Gloria, a tiresome and irritating raconteur, is just a desperate woman who should be pitied more than anything else. As Evan’s father Charles notes after his first encounter with her, “There’s never been anything funny about a woman dying for love.”
Evan Shepard doesn’t have the usual excuses of a Yates anti-hero – failed literary success, alcoholism, mental breakdown – to justify the destruction of his marriage and and is much of a puzzle to the reader as he is to his poor bewildered parents. His mother Grace provides this novel with the obligatory alcoholic, a mysterious woman ‘taken to bed’ whose husband brings her daily doses of hard liquor to be consumed in her chair on the porch.
Devoid of any drama or knowing winks, Yates’ final quiet book could also be his most heartbreaking.
Alan Warner’s latest novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief, is set in 1984, and tells the story of a young Scottish university drop-out, Douglas Cunningham, who moves into the council house of a young couple and their baby daughter Lily after a chance encounter with the father, Llewellyn Smith, at the local hospital. Both men are aspiring writers and set out to pen the next great literary classic, as soon as the dole cheque has been spent on a pint or ten at the nearest pub. This is the dawn of Thatcher’s Britain, and these struggling (piss) artists are at odds with a changing society in their bedsit bohemianism.
As with the much of Warner’s previous work, his latest is a triumph of brilliant dialogue. He is a master of the poetry of everyday speech. In The Sopranos (published 1998) the slang and sex filled banter of his girls from The Port depicted a gang both apart from their teachers and parents, but also apart from the majority of women depicted in literature. In Their Lips Talk of Mischief, our boys Cunningham and Lou are at the age (21) when nothing is more important than impressing your friends with your wit, intelligence and supposedly unique beliefs in the pub. In their world, to proclaim anything with enough conviction is tantamount to actually doing it, which is why they spend their days drinking and discussing the literature they approve of and what their masterpiece will consist of, rather than actually writing anything. They seek to impress each other with language, which makes their conversations a joy to read. Take the following exchange when Douglas arrives at Conrad Flats:
‘What do you think? Think you could be happy up here for a bit, working as my valet in the sky?’
‘Sure. It’s great.’
‘Come on, Cunningham. You can do much better than that. Give us a few bon mots?’
I said, ‘It’s Look Back in Anger with digital watches.’
He put the fork down and clapped.
There is a steady run of social commentary from Lou and our narrator as they survey the mid-80s political scene. The boys stand with cans of Guinness watching the wreckage of the Grand Hotel in Brighton on television, prompting Lou to proclaim ‘Now we’re going to get the plucky survivor theme for a year. Napoleon was right – a nation of shopkeepers and we’ve got one running the bleeding country. Big sign up: Sorry No Credit Here, her stood behind the scales. Get out of my shop you malinger. And go eat with the miners.’
Although Douglas will stop to drop money in the miners’ tins, class solidarity is really the last thing on his mind as her settles into his new home in Conrad Flats. He is quickly sexually obsessed with Lou’s wife, Aiofe, and becomes, in his own words, the viper in the nest. A time-bomb is now ticking beneath the literary bromance, as the lads begin writing calendar captions and doing other odd jobs for publisher Toby Hanson, a yuppie figure to be pitied and rinsed for every last pint.
The real romance here is between the boys, rather than the not-quite-believable manage-a-trios between Cunningham, Lou and Aoife. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Warner spoke of the quaint bohemianism of the boys belonging to another era. There is definitely a feeling that this is his love letter to a by-gone youth as an undiscovered writer, a time which can never be recaptured. Cunningham’s love for Aoife seems shallow in comparison, and it has been noted in other reviews that Aoife is hardly the most intriguing object of affection. This could well be intentional on the part of Warner, as Lou comments at one point as he and Cunningham discuss Aoife and her best friend Abby; ‘Cunningham. I don’t mind you fucking Abby, or even fancying Aoife, that would be normal, but please, please do yourself the dignity and have the intellectual honesty not to romanticise them.’
Religion runs throughout the book, as Lou and Aoife’s catholic backgrounds are the main reason they are married with a child in their early twenties. This predicament makes their relationship intriguing as both Cunningham and the reader question how genuine their bond is. Lou’s resentment of his situation manifests itself in heavy drinking and bad treatment of his wife. He does eventually return to Catholicism, but this is mainly due to the fact that he is a fairly unhinged individual and when forced to give up drink chooses religion as his new vice. Warner has discussed both morality and guilt in reference to the novel, but really Cunningham and Lou are existential anti-heroes, morally ambiguous to the core in the vein of Morvern Callar.
Essentially, Their Lips Talk of Mischief isn’t a complex work of literature but a well-crafted, amusing and intriguing snap shot of a particular time in history. As usual, Warner does both sex and pop culture references well, making for a great read. It is a quiet achievement, but an achievement nonetheless, especially when added to his overall body of work. Warner is fascinating in the scope of his fiction, writing books (e.g. The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven and The Sopranos) which could have been written by two different writers entirely. I’m intrigued to see where he will go next, and forever hopeful of a third Sopranos installment.