I’d expected to read more books in July than my list shows, having been on ‘school holidays’ since July 5, (although slaving at home on and off for a fortnight on the School magazine). But then I look at my bed – which is where the books I’m reading tend to sit – and there are five of them! A straight novel, a linked story cycle, poetry, a straight non-fiction book, and some diaries. This is unusual for me – normally I’m a two at a time max gal (one fiction, one non-fiction). I hope I don’t lose interest in any of them, expect a review glut in August!
Meanwhile, here are two more from my pile of 20 books – although you may notice that I’ve swapped the Hustvedt in as it caught my eye in my bookcase where it has languished for too many years.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2018. This is all the more remarkable because it is a comic novel; a rarity for such to be shortlisted for any major literary prizes (not specifically for comic novels). It was also a jolly good read, being funny and endearing, with a protagonist whom you’ll have your fingers crossed for all the way through.
Arthur Less will shortly be fifty years old. Although he is a published novelist, his main claim to fame has been his relationship with an older poet Robert Brownburn – of the ‘Russian River School’ of writing, with whom he lived for years in San Francisco, that relationship eventually failed. Arthur had dallied since, particularly with Freddy, the son of a childhood friend, Carlos. Arthur had told Freddy he should find someone his own age, and shockingly Freddy did just that. The invitation to the wedding of Freddy and Tom threw Arthur into a spin – and in a do -anything-rather-than-accept-the-invite panic, he accepts all the invitations he’s received – planning a neat around the world trip that means he can’t attend. From interviewing a grumpy author in New York to a conference in Mexico, being up for a literary prize in Turin, a five week lecture course in Berlin, a holiday in Morocco via Paris, a writing retreat in India and finally Japan before returning to San Francisco. What he doesn’t realise is that his life will follow him around on the gravy train however hard he tries to get away. The constant reality checks that he is, perhaps, not a literary giant could overwhelm a more egocentric man, but Arthur picks himself up and moves on to the next one! This was never more brought home to him in Turin, where he meets his translator Giuliana Monti, and discovers why he sells so well in Italy:
…who worked his mediocre British into breathtaking Italian. His book was ignored in America, barely reviewed, without a single interview request by a journalist, (…) but here in Italy he understands he is taken seriously. (…) She has written this book. Rewritten, upwritten, outwritten Less himself.
On he goes around the world in his trademark blue suit with fuchsia lining that he’d ordered on a whim while on holiday in Ho Chi Minh City.
Without the suit, there is no Arthur Less.
Less is definitely more, as he stumbles through his mid-life crisis on a sea of misunderstandings, constant mishaps, snarky comments from his so-called peers, and still searching for friendship and love. This was a lovely, chucklesome book, a gentle comedy with a sense of underlying panic that gives it the edge it needs to take off. Arthur is an amazing creation – a sympathetic gay everyman, still trying to make his own space in the world and craving acceptance, hiding behind his blue suit (and yes the inside covers of the paperback are fuchsia pink – a neat design touch!) . Can the real Arthur Less emerge and prove he is more? (9/10)
The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt slightly intimidated by the idea of reading Hustvedt’s work, not least because she’s married to my favourite author of all, Paul Auster, although why that should matter I don’t know. I finally took the plunge with her first novel, published in 1992 – and dedicated to guess who?
The Blindfold is a story cycle, presenting a series of four episodes in the life of Iris Vegan, a graduate student at Columbia, some of the sections were originally published separately. The sections jump back and forwards in time, building up a picture of Iris’s life and the strange encounters she has. It begins with Iris looking for a summer job to help pay the rent – and she goes to see Mr Morning who has advertised for a research assistant:
“For a kind of biography,” he said. “For a project about life’s paraphernalia, its bits and pieces, treasures and refuse. I need someone like you to respond freely to the objects in question. (…) You see, I’m in the process of prying open the very essence of the inanimate world. You might say that it’s an anthropology of the present.”
Okay… it turns out he is in the possession of an assortment of items that had belonged to a girl who died. He’s boxed them up individually. Iris’s job will be to examine them and whisper a description of the items into a tape recorder, to bring them back to life through observing them. She’ll get $60 per item. The first item is a glove, and it is only after she’s finished and put it back in the box that the screaming begins! This was so creepy and strange – and I was hooked.
The other episodes, while all having a degree of strangeness and darkness, don’t have quite the air of unease the first provoked. However, they are all thought-provoking. In the second, she strikes up a friendship with her boyfriend Stephen’s best friend George. She agrees to pose for George who is a photographer, which only invokes Stephen’s jealousy. In the third she is hospitalised for her migraines and her bed is beside an old woman who disappears. In the fourth, she has an affair with her supervising professor, and there’s an incident with a blindfold. She starts dressing as a young man, wearing the suit of a friend’s brother who had lent it to her for a fancy-dress party where she meets Paris, another of her professor’s students. Calling herself Klaus, after the main character in the German novella she is studying and translating, she roams the streets, until one day she comes to her senses.
Hustvedt, would undoubtedly argue, as would Auster, that the novel is not autobiographical, but uses some of her chronology. She, like Iris, went to Columbia – as a graduate student in the late 1970s. She was broke during her college years and had to get an emergency loan as Iris does. That’s as far as it goes though, I noticed a little nod to Auster’s work where Iris and Stephen go to a Chinese restaurant, the Moon Palace.
The Blindfold turned out to be a compelling story cycle of a novel, exploring and playing with different aspects of the feminine psyche. Iris, and the men with whom she has relationships, be that as friend, lover or employee, are interesting characters. I found George and Paris particularly intriguing, both of them pulling out different sides of Iris’s personality. As much as it is a dark and disturbing read at times, it is punctuated by moments of normality for its protagonist, which are portrayed equally vividly. It’s short at around 220 pages and Hustvedt’s prose is spare and readable, with carefully chosen words. I enjoyed it a lot, and will certainly move on to read more of the books by this author already on my shelves – which should I read next? (8.5/10)