Archive for January, 2012

Old Filth

28 January 2012

Old FilthOld Filth by Jane Gardam

Eddie Feathers was an accomplished and admired judge and, before that, solicitor, working in Hong Kong before retiring to Dorset. The engaging title of the novel was his nickname within the legal world. In his private life, however, he was a monumental underachiever, living within a shell of icy dignity, married to a decent but (towards him) passionless wife. They have no children.

The Justice had been dealt a colossal injustice in his developmental days. The old filth of his past emerges as he reminisces in late life, and revisits old locales in both mind and person. Times sequences are chopped about in the novel, as they are inside Old Filth’s head.

His personal story is caught up in the emotional sterility of the Empire. He had been born in Malaya, his mother dying in childbirth, after which his father, emotionally smashed by WWI (like one of the fathers in Flight of the Maidens) ignores Eddie’s existence. The boy is allowed to wander as he will, flourishing amongst the local Malay children, mothered by a warm local woman – until the age of four, when Auntie Madeleine (a female type found so often in Gardam’s books) engineers the Right Thing and has him returned to England. Here his other aunties pocket the financial allowance for his upbringing and farm him out to bargain-rate care and joyless, heartless family life as one of many Raj Orphans.

It is not all bad. In his teens he is taken under the wing of the rich Ingoldby family, living with them and treated (well not quite) as one of them. His learning and his moral system are shaped by Sir, a stuffy closet-gay headmaster of a boarding school. He emerges somehow with a charisma that endears him to women throughout his life, but nothing within him resonates when they offer love.
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Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2

28 January 2012

Bad DirtBad Dirt by Annie Proulx

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bad Dirt is the second volume of Wyoming Stories, and for me it did not reach the same heights. In Bad Dirt there are more departures from realism and more use of the folksy yarn, less of the sharp love for the land, less capturing of character. Three stories stand out for me, each focusing on a different demographic. ‘What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?’ tells of a rancher gradually ground down and reduced to disarray, along with the whole state of Wyoming. ‘Man crawling out of trees’ describes the experience of a middle class couple from the East, and their growing unhappiness, set against the sometimes fairylike beauty of their surroundings. The ‘Wamsutter wolf’ deals with trailer trash.

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Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1

28 January 2012

Close RangeClose Range by Annie Proulx
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 11 short stories the lives of Proulx’s characters are shaped by the environment and political economy of Wyoming, mediated by personal relationships and especially by family life, with its deeps and shadows. The prose is spare yet often poetic.

The wonderful collection sometimes soars up within sight of William Faulker. The idea I took from Faulkner was that the intensity of people’s passions can redeem their dignity and honour, even as they blunder through stunting and degrading conditions, but while the tensions of the deep south are evident in his work, it is fundamentally a terrain of the soul. In Close Range political and economic forces are more visible – vague at first, like the silhouettes of machinery seen through ripples of overheated air, but coming into focus in the latter part of the collection.

In ‘The half skinned steer’ a rather dried-up and nasty man has emerged from his hick Wyoming background to an old age of prosperity, exercise bikes and austere diets. News of his brother’s death and forthcoming funeral entices him on a trip back to the old ranch. In his ornery way, resisting his advanced years, he chooses to drive there. As a result it becomes a spiritual journey into his own childhood and his own heart. It is a a well worn theme but in this case but there is nothing schmaltzy or trite. The story was inspired by an Icelandic legend.

‘The mud below’ tells of a short young man despised by his mother, who strains to find accomplishment and intense experience. The search is distorted by self-hatred. ‘Job history’ is a personal life trajectory drawing vaguely and a little mischievously on the form of the career curriculum vitae. In passing, it points out how often people get screwed when they take the free-market dream seriously enough to set up small businesses. ‘The blood bay’ is a folksy historical yarn that offers some light relief, before People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water, where a damaged young man encounters Wyoming at its worst. In ‘The bunchgrass end of the world’ a thickset young woman temporarily goes off her rocker from loneliness and isolation, unless you prefer to see the tale as one of the author’s departures from realism. ‘Pair a spurs’, one of my favourites, has a treasury of characters. It takes up two of the author’s main themes: the growing failure of the small ranch as a business model, and the clash between stupid-yet-knowing rednecks and cashed-up, knowing-yet-stupid city folk (already well explored in her Proulx’s earlier collection of about New England, Heart Songs). After that a group of ageing, burning-up women work the Wyoming bar scene in ‘A lonely coast’.

The mood changes with the next story. ‘The Governors of Wyoming’ tells the story of the state’s twisted development, as interpreted by a twisted environmentalist and his accomplice. It draws the collection together in terms of its message, but artistically was less satisfying to me than the preceding pieces. 55 miles to the gas pump is darker again. The collection is rounded out by ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

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Cairo trilogy volume 3

2 January 2012

Sugar St.  Naguib Mahfouz. New York : Doubleday, 1992.

Sugar St concludes the stories of the two older generations of the Jawad family, which now continues into its third generation. However the grandchildren’s characters are less developed, and function more as devices to illustrate social change.

As Ahmad enters decrepitude he is confined to the house, the fate to which he had formerly condemned his wife, Amina. She is now free to go where she will but her focus remains on religion and family. They have both become background figures.

Khadija and Aisha’s lives are defined by their roles as mothers. Aisha has been shattered by the deaths of her husband and sons, and now lives only for her daughter, the fair but dangerously frail Na’ima. The character of Khadija’s daughter, Karima, is least developed of the grandchildren, her sole role being to marry a cousin. Khadija’s sons, Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad the younger, get more attention. They are caught up in wider social currents. Muni’m joins the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Ahmad works as journalist on a radical leftwing newspaper, where he meets a female fellow-worker, the first female character who sees options other than wife or prostitute. Yasin’s son Ridwan, meanwhile, becomes the protege and darling of the gay politician Abd al-Rahim Pasha Isa.

Personal trajectories diverge: Fuad, son of Ahmed Jawad’s shop assistant, becomes a government attorney, gaining the sort of prestige that Kamal had disdained. The possibility of Fuad marrying Aisha’s daughter, Na’ima, is uncomfortable to the more highly placed Jawads; but they find that Fuad’s ambitions have risen higher than her for his nuptials. Elswhere, the entertainter/sex worker Zubayda sinks into destitution while her colleague Jalila flourishes. Yasin’s third wife Zanuba, having secured respectability through marriage into a good family, now plays this card for all it’s worth.

Zanuba is also streetwise enough to manage Yasin, constrain his compulsive flirtation, and generally make herself indispensible to him. In the workplace, meanwhile, the shiftless Yasin has his fortunes hoisted up for him. Thanks to the intervention of his son’s powerful patron, Yasin becomes a senior official, part of the layer of corrupt parasites installed as buffers between the people and the elite.

While Yasin is a more minor player in this volume, Kamal remains in focus. He has devoted himself to, or hidden himself away in, philosophical abstractions, writing dense articles that no-one reads. Difficult, fruitless, disconnected from the flow of events in Egyptian society, his theorising is a sterile playground of the mind. His sexual needs, instead of powering a drive toward deep personal bonds, are diverted onto prostitutes. He feels a pang as friends disappear into married life.

It is in this context that he discovers a tragedy affecting the family of his former muse, Aida: her father, destroyed by the Depression, has killed himself. Aida and her husband Hasan Salim live abroad, as does her brother, Kamal’s old friend Husayn. Left in Egypt, more or less destitute, are Aida’s mother and the youngest daughter, Budur, who had once adored Kamal, and would now, he realises, be entering marriageable age. His feelings stir to life, but come up against his inner paralysis. The religious and the fairytale spirits of his childhood have morphed into the abstruse writings of C18th and C19th philosophers: another inner world of phantoms that keeps a ghoulish grip on his heart.

Backstage, seedy politicians squabble, the king and the English manouvre, the pure hopes raised by the 1919 revolution sink into a quagmire. Sugar Street, it turns out, is a place of unrelieved bitterness. Each character’s road becomes a blind alley, as Egypt turns from degraded semi-colony to a military prison, a maze with no exit. Until 2011.