Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for September, 2008

Last Orders — Graham Swift – A Book Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 21, 2008

Where does life in all its elemental purity reside  — the big lofty thoughts and concepts or the fractals of quotidian details? I guess it resides in both. However, my own personal leaning is towards the daily ordinary details that we are habituated to ignore. They are rich and intricate with a dazzling variety and texture. In a sense they are like countless snowflakes. And like snowflakes they either get smothered under other snowflakes to form ice or melt away without leaving a mark by the heat of sunrays. They leave no traces of remembrances…. at best… only vague fading memories. For a majority of us our lives are filled with these small details – a multitude of transactions, interactions, thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions, motivations — all fleeting and transient with vanishing currency. Try and dig them for a record and almost nothing significant comes up handy. Momentarily momentous — that is what they are. But for any fiction writer these are invaluable raw materials to weave their narratives from. Combined with a plot, dialogue and themes these minute details can produce arresting fiction. Not all writers can handle this elementary stuff well. Only those with special talent can really use this insignificant and elusive material to make the leap that connects the quotidian details with the big lofty thoughts. The ability of any writer who can make this connection happen is a mark of her talent. Why all this? I have just completed reading Graham Swift‘s “Last Orders” and was simply taken in by the beauty of this book. The beauty of this book resides in the ability of Mr.Swift to make that connection between  the humdrum of daily existence with the big and permanent questions associated with death and dying.  

My ignorance of contemporary writers writing in English has begun to go beyond being a major personal embarrassment to the realms of genuine amazement of a curious ignoramus. I just did not know that a writer like Graham Swift existed

At the surface “Last Orders” is a very simple story of four buddies, drinking partners – Vic – an undertaker, Ray – a retired clerk and an uncannily successful betting man, Lenny – a vegetable and fruit merchant, Vince a used car dealer – on a journey from Bermondsey – London to Margate to abide by the wishes of their dear departed friend Jack Dodd — the butcher — to disperse his ashes in the sea at Margate. ” We head on past the gas works, under the railway bridge. The sun comes out from behind the tower blocks, bright in our faces, and Vince pulls out a pair of chunky sun glasses fro under the dashboard, Lenny starts singing slyly through his teeth, Blue bayoo…… And we all feel it, what with the sunshine and the beer inside us and the journey ahead:like it’s something Jack has done for us, so as to make us feel special, so as to give us a treat. Like we are off on a jaunt, a spree, and the world looks good, it looks like its there just for us.” Although cheerful and bright,  the journey triggers a series of flashbacks and remembrances of each ones lives and bring forth the known and secretive aspects of their lives. Ray who is especially very close to Jack has a long affair with Amy who is Jack’s wife. Jack and Amy have two daughters – June who is mentally undeveloped and reared in an institution and Sally who ends up in a marriage to a jail bird. Jack and Amy adopt Vince who is orphaned due to bombing of London during World war II. Vince runs away from home to become a soldier but returns only to refuse to take up Jack’s profession. Ray meets Jack in Egypt during World War II and each develop a great liking to the other. Ray is married to Carol and they have a daughter Susie who marries and emigrates to Australia. Carol elopes and Ray ends up as a loner. It is during this time that Ray develops an adulterous relationship with Amy. Lenny is another war veteran like Ray and Jack but runs a fruit and vegetable shop and is a drinking buddy of Ray, Jack and Vic. He too at one point in time harbours feelings for Amy. Vic is the least involved of all and runs funeral services. He too is very close to Jack and is the first one to find out the relationship between Ray and Amy. Jack and Amy adopt Mandy and use her to keep Vince away from Sally. Vince marries Mandy. Amy refuses to accompany the quartet on the journey as that day is her day of visit to daughter June. Through a couple of detours on the journey, intense personal reflections and sumptuous quantities of beer and alcohol, the friends fulfill the last wish of their departed mate

For all the seeming simplicity of the story, “Last Orders” is a funny, deep and touching book. The book moves you and the moving quality comes from multiple aspects. First is the simplicity, depth and honesty of characters. In the hands of any ordinary writer what would the characters like an undertaker, a butcher, an office clerk and a car dealer be? Nothing substantial I guess. Swift brings such depth to them that at one stage of reading I sorely felt I should try and know some people like these in real life. All of them have a huge pride in their work. Consider Vic when he says… ” It is a good trade. It doesn’t exist to buy cheap and sell dear, or to palm off on the nearest mug something he doesn’t need. No one wants it. Every one needs it…” or Vince when he says … “And I always say it ain’t the motor by itself, it’s the combination of man and motor, its the intercombustion. A motor aint nothing without a man to tweak its buttons. And sometimes man aint nothing without a motor, I see that. Motorvation I call it. Fit the car to the customer, that’s what I say. I aint just a car dealer, I am a car tailor. I am an ace mechanic too, as it happens. I know engines like you know your wife’s fanny, b ut I’ve moved on from them days. A good motor is like a good suit…. …I’ll tell you what the big change is, the change underneath all the change. It aint the Beatles, it aint the Rolling Stones and it aint long hair or short skirts or free milk and baby-stoppers on the National Health. It’s mobility, it’s being mobile… You listening? Ten years from now the Beatles and the Stones will be old-time music but what they’ll still want is wheels. Wheels. More and more wheels. And I’ll be there to sell them. Vince Dodds will be right there to sell them…..”

Swift makes the honesty of their characters shine through their monologues as they gradually unfurl their past, their lives, compulsions, commitments, drives, feelings for one another. The whole story is built through these reflections. James Wood considered to be one of the finest literary critics of our times in his wonderful book “How Fiction Works” comments on narrative styles as follows “The house of fiction has many windows, but only two or three doors. I can tell a story in the third person or in the first person, and perhaps in the second person singular or in the first person plural, though successful examples of these latter two are rare indeed“. “Last Orders” is a delightful book with multiple first person narrations  

Second aspect of the book is that it is continuously discussing death and ritual of laying to rest the living associate with death…in some sense the whole book is concerned with the memories of last days of Jack Dodd who is dying from severe form of stomach cancer and yet there is no sense of fear or morbidity that is associated with death. The nature of human persihability is accepted and people move on with their lives and the burning need to support the lives of others that they are linked with. In some sense there is a mature, wise and sagely understanding of the dimensions of death. Swift handles this portrayal brilliantly

Third aspect of the book I liked is the patois of 80’s – 90’s London working class — ( I am not sure if this is the famous London cockney). . Direct, straightforward and no embellishments. Tinged with a caustic sense of humour it is an utter delight page after page

Overall, “Last Orders” is a kind of its own. Wonderful, engaging, moving and deeply satisfying book. No wonder it won the Booker prize in 1996 

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I found this interview of Graham Swift on Salon website and I found a couple of his thoughts on the approach to writing fiction quite interesting, insightful and honest:

I really do have tremendous faith in writing as a leap into the unknown. But it is a leap that you take with the sort of rope of the imagination to hang on to. The imagination is a wonderful thing: it can cross the gap between you and some experiences you have never had personally, or to some person who is entirely out of nowhere and not someone you’ve known. That’s the excitement, and of course it’s the real creative element in writing

Assuming that you have to write about what you know — which is often the standard advice given — is rather sad. The stock of your own experience is limited, so it might provide you with the material for one or two things, but sooner or later you’ve got to make it up. If I don’t know how this novel began, how those characters walked into my mental life, that’s because I had no starting point for them in real life. A mysterious and extremely exciting thing just happens. That’s the great joy of writing fiction — discovering things that come out of space at you

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Moon Tiger — Penelope Lively — A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 15, 2008

With me the dynamics that surround a reading experience vary from book to book. With some books the conditions are so unbelievably favourable that I get to read them in a few sittings and with others the number of interruptions are as many as the number of pages they contain. Yet some of my best reads have been the most interrupted ones. I think, besides the genuinely inherent quality of the book, the overpowering desire to steal a few moments from time and explore a book seem to add to the pleasure of reading. Penelope Lively‘s “Moon Tiger” has been one such book that I managed to read in very interrupting conditions

To the seemingly silly question whether or not it is interesting to live through turbulent periods of history – a sensible answer would be a non committal – “It depends” . Yes, it depends on who you are and where you are placed in the situation. If your job is to be an obsever and chronicler of the time passing by, it may well be the most interesting time to live in. But on the contrary, if one were to be a mere statistic it may not be an appealing prospect to be part of those times. More so if those turbulent times are predominantly centered around wars

Claudia Hampton is an ex-war correspondent, currently a popular historian on her deathbed in a London hospital recollecting her past and along with it some glimpses of the history of the 20th century that she had the good fortune to observe. Set in both England and in Egypt, the entire book is structured as a series of flashbacks of her childhood, education, adolescence, an intellectually competitive and physically incestuous relationship with her brother Gordon, a condescending relationship with her sister in law Sylvia, life as a reporter in war torn Egypt, her affair with Tom Southern – an army captain and the stillborn child of their union, relocation to London, marriage to Jasper — who is part Russian in his ancestry, their child Lisa, rise to fame as a popular historian and adoption of a Hungarian orphan Laszlo — a product of the Russian invasion of Hungary. In sum “Moon Tiger” is a slice of history which is deeply intertwined with Claudia’s life and portrayed as a memory recall

Undoubtedly “Moon Tiger” has been a wonderful read and viewed through traditional aspects of evaluating fictional output like language, detail, portrayal of a milieu, characterisation, plot, narrative – it has been been first rate. Yet what I think have been the unique aspects of this book are a couple of sub themes that Ms. Lively deals throughout the book. The first sub theme is that of wars — how twentieth century has been a witness to some of the most horrifying wars that mankind has seen and yet mans’ incredible chicanery to justify them through the subversion of language, logic, motives and memory is brilliantly depicted. The second sub theme has been the desire of people to view history as a spectacle and in the process miss the real direction of where it has been leading to and the approach to understanding it. In physical terms “Moon Tiger” is a green mosquito coil that burns slowly, gradually and collapsing into itself.  May be a hidden symbolism of the relentless but definitive movement of history and mans own predicament of repeating it by ignoring it

The singular failure of this book in my view is the author’s inability to bring out the visceral feel for what a real battlefront looks like. I have read Erich Maria Remarque‘s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and in comparison “Moon Tiger” pales in its vitality to depict the horrifying suffering and conditions of the dramatis personae in a war despite the multiple pages dedicated to describing the battlefront. There are instances of brilliant descriptions especially the notes in Capt Tom’s dairies but they are ocassional and not of a consistent elevated quality.  If one were to ignore this aspect, “Moon Tiger” is a fine book worth reading

In a sense Penelope Lively has been a new introduction to the limited repertory of modern English writers that I know of. “MoonTiger” has definitely sharpened my appetite to explore the literary output of this gifted, controlled and mature writer. It does not surprise me that this book has won Booker in 1987

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