Saturday, 23 July 2011

Books I Am Reading Now

I am currently reading a total of four books simultaneously—three novels and a non-fiction book. I do not do this very often; once I start reading a book (usually a novel) I read it till the end, and only after that do I pick up another novel.

So why am I reading not one, not two, but four books at the same time? (I don’t mean of course that I hold two-three books in my hand at the same time and attempt to read them; that would be silly)?

Well, firstly, I think I am falling behind a bit with my book reading in the last couple of months. Last year I read in excess of hundred books. While I knew that I wouldn’t be reaching those dizzy heights this year, I would like to read a good number, say 75, this year.

At the start of July, I took a stock—the original plan was to write up about the books I have read so far, this year, but I gave up on that because I couldn’t be bothered—and realised that unless some reparative measures were taken, the chances of my reaching the target of 75 books by the year end were slim to less than slim (and slim had just got up and left); hence the decision to read more than one book at the same time.

Has it worked? Not really. Had I read one book at a time, I would have finished reading four books in a month.  This month so far, since I changed my strategy, of the four books I took up reading, I have finished only one, and there is absolutely no chance that I will finish the remaining three before the month ends. At the most I will finish reading two.  The strategy has regrettably not worked. Which means that unlike the German and France politicians’ approach towards the Greek debt crisis, I shall not do more of the same in future.

The other reason why I started reading four books simultaneously was that I thought I could. I mean no disrespect to the authors of the four books but none of the four books was excessively taxing. They did not make you ponder on the human condition. They were the kind of books you could read in the loo, on the tube, during lunch breaks; the kind of books which you could put aside for a few days and take up again without getting any sense of discontinuity because, not to put too fine a point of it, they were works of essentially unserious nature. You could give them less than full attention and it wouldn’t detract anything from the pleasure you’d derive.

You—at least I— couldn't say that about all the books. I have recently bought V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa.  I shall read it after I finish reading the current four books I am reading. Now Naipaul is an author that demands your full attention; you wouldn’t want to dilute the pleasure of Naipaul by reading another book at the same time. You should read him slowly, going over sections of the book again, savouring the prose.

The first of the four books (and the one I have finished) was D.J. Taylor’s At the Chime of A City Clock

Taylor’s reputation in England rests mainly on his Whitbread award winning biography of George Orwell. He is a regular contributor to the broadsheets and is a respected reviewer. He is also a fairly prolific novelist who has published more than half a dozen novels, the most recent of which is At the Chime of A City Clock.  Taylor has carried out what a friend of mine (who is a boffin and tortures mice to advance the frontiers of human knowledge) calls the salami technique. The salami technique works like this: you carry out a whopping big study and then dine out on it for the next ten years; use it as a basis to publish several studies which differ from each other only marginally. Taylor has used the same technique in a manner of speaking: he has now published three books—two novels and a non-fiction book on the theme of the rise of the nouveau riche in England between the two great wars of the twentieth century. The first was his non-fiction work entitled Bright Young People: the Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940. In a literary programme Taylor remarked that while he was researching for the book he was interested to note that quite a few of the high society women who reached positions of prominence (usually by marrying rich Englishmen) between the two wars were American women of very modest, at times shady, background who crossed the Atlantic and made a success of their lives in England. That gave him, so he said, the germ of a story: he imagined an American woman with a dark secret who travels to England as a vaudeville artist and in due course becomes a rich society woman. Then the ‘secret’ gets on a steamer and begins blackmailing her. The novel was Ask Alice, which I read last year. I found the novel patchy: good in parts but on the whole it did not work for me. Densely written and rich in geographical details it nevertheless lacked drama or suspense; it simply wasn’t riveting enough.

At the Chime of A City Clock finds Taylor in a different, much lighter, mood. Set in the 1930s, the novel tells the story of James Ross, an aspiring writer who works as a salesman to make ends meet and who unwittingly gets embroiled in a plot he does not fully comprehend. The novel is described a s a thriller, but there is hardly any sense of suspense or thrill; however it is not any less entertaining for that. Taylor seems more interested in evoking for the reader the seedy side of London during the Great Depression: the world of cheap pubs, and of chancers who are always up to some or the other tricks (there are characters in the novel who exclaim ‘That’s a mulligatawny!’ and use words like ‘borrasics’ to describe impoverished women of questionable morals); and he does it brilliantly. It is not a novel that you will read through the night because you absolutely have to know what happens in the end; but it is an enjoyable read—the kind of novel based on which Cohen Brothers might make a stylishly droll (perhaps black-and-white) noir film  starring (young) Jeff Bridges.

The second novel, which I am half-way through so far, is the debut novel by the Indian author Sarita Mandanna, entitled Tiger Hills

The novel had created a sort of stir even before it was published when news leaked out that Penguin India reportedly paid seven figure sum to purchase it. The novel is also selected by the Channel 4’s  TV Book Club boasting such celebrity members such as Laila Rouass (who I believe is an actress and, according to WikiPedia, was voted in 2005 as the 69th sexiest woman by FHM and has acted in serials such Footballer’s Wives, so just the sort of panellist you would want on a programme about books), Jo Brand (who, I don’t think would feature in anyone’s list of sexiest women—unless one enjoys riding bouncy castles, but who is a very clever and witty stand up comedienne and I suspect has written a book or two), Mira Syal (who years ago acted in the very funny sitcom Goodness Gracious Me and, like Brand, has written a couple of books), and someone called Dave Spikey whom I had never heard of but who, according to WikiPedia (what would we do without it?), is an actor and comedian and I guess reads books. 

Coming back to the novel, it is, at almost 600 pages, a behemoth. It tells the story of love triangle involving, as love triangles do, a woman and two men. The novel is set at the turn of the twentieth century when India was under the British colonial rule and is set in the Southern Indian region called Coorg which, we are invited to believe in the first few pages of the novel, is Scotland in India (although such information as is provided on the dietary habits of the native fails to mention whether fried Mars bar formed  a constituent of their diet—perhaps Mars bar was not invented then—nor does the author provide statistics on the incidence of alcoholic liver disease in the region). The novel reads like a Bollywood pot-boiler, full of big emotions and the subtlety of a Centurian tank. On the plus side Mandanna  (whose photograph suggests that she ought to be taken as a serious candidate for the top 100 sexiest women in the world—perhaps she already features in the list for all I know) writes with such self-assurance that it is difficult to believe that it is her debut novel.

                                   (Doesn't she have a winning smile?)

That, regrettably, is not enough. Despite several moments of high octane drama (in the 350 pages I have read so far) there is a curious lack of excitement; there is simply no tingle. You read the twists and turns in the life of Devi (the novel’s heroine) with a sense of disconnection. Wonderfully written, but not absorbing enough for me. The novel does provide some historical context to the story such as the Afghan Wars of the British and I thought about checking whether the chronology was correct, but decided not to do it, partly because I reckoned the author (in receipt of a seven figure sum, allegedly) must have done the research, but mainly because I couldn't be bothered.

The third novel I am reading currently is another debut novel, Paul Torday’s impossibly titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

The novel was published a few years ago and was a success. I didn’t buy it at that time because I remember being slightly put off by the title. I bought it for a couple of quid from an Oxfam shop last month (the old biddy at the till, in-between pushing her dentures in and out of her mouth, which seemed to occupy her fully, told me that I had made a great choice). This is the book I am enjoying the most.  It is a whimsical novel that brims with gentle humour, and successfully combines the political satire (of the looking-glass world of Blairite politics) with the Pooterish comedy of the novel’s protagonist Dr. Alfred Jones. The novel couldn’t be more different from Tiger Hills: unlike the heroine of Tiger Hills, Devi, whose emotions refuse to follow any curve other than a hyperbole, Dr. Jones, the protagonist of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is an emotional flatliner, yet I found him to be a far more absorbing character and would be very glad if, by the end of the novel, he jettisons his wife (who seems like a mean bitch) and wanders into sunset with the delectable Harriet Chetwode-Talbot. 

Paul Torday was almost sixty when he wrote Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. After a life-time of running an engineering firm which repaired ships' engines, Torday sat down to write after the company became the subject of a hostile take-over: he had a lot of time on his hand and he couldn’t play golf, which, I guess, is as good a reason as any to start writing. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a very enjoyable read; and the publication of two subsequent novels by the author suggests that the late blooming of Torday’s auctorial talent will continue to provide pleasure to the readers. I am going to scour the Oxfam shops and second-hand book shops to get hold of Torday’s next novel, The Irresitable Inheritance of Wilberforce, which is about a man who drinks himself to death. Not a jolly topic, I daresay; but I would be interested to find out how Torday treats it.

The last book I am currently reading is a part-memoir-part-travelogue. It is called The Mango Orchard by Robin Bayley. 

I borrowed it from the library where  it was recommended as a ‘good summer read’.  First published in 2009, The Mango Orchard tells the ‘extraordinary’ journey Bayley undertook in the 1990s, in Latin America, when he learned (from his grandmother) that his great-grandfather, Arturo, lived in Mexico for many years before he returned to England in somewhat hurry. The book so far is mildly absorbing. Bayley has a simple, disarming way of telling a story (a true story in this case) which touches your heart.  I have read only the first third of the book but I think I know where this is going: I wouldn’t at all be surprised to learn that Bayley will be surprised to learn that great-grandfather Arturo had put himself about in Mexico and, as a result, he has a Mexican family. 

Bayley, as mentioned earlier, made the journey in the 1990s and made copious notes. He thought that he would be able to write a book, based on the notes, in a few months. He underestimated his dyslexia and his ability (despite the handicap) to write voluminously. Over the next several years, in various locations in Mexico, Spain, and the UK, Bayley wrote over 3 million words, and damaged three computers and nerve endings in his fingers. The heavily edited version of the book was eventually sent to the agent (his grandmother, who was 103 at the time, read the manuscript  twice, although, regrettably, she did not live to see the book getting published) and was eventually published in 2009. The paperback edition I am reading informs that Bayley now works as a full-time writer. One wishes him the very best of luck and  hopes he will have a steady supply of computers and regular follow up with a neurologist.

So these are the four books I am currently reading. I should finish them in the next couple of weeks. 

Then I shall settle down to read The Masque of Africa.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Phone Hacking Scandal: I am Bored of it

Am I the only one in the country who is bored to death of the ongoing hysteria about the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s  media empire? I hope not.

So it turns out that there were some scumbag journalists at The News International —or is it News Corporation (do you care?)—who hacked into phones of politicians, relatives of dead soldiers; and an adolescent who was murdered many years ago by a psycho and who would have sunk into well deserved obscurity had her father not been grilled about his sexual practices in the court by the defence lawyer and the grilling—note this—not reported by the newspapers in detail, lamenting about the invasion of the man’s privacy!

Try as I might I can’t generate outrage about hacking of the dead girl’s mobile. Did it harm anyone? Certainly not the girl, who was probably dead by that time. It was no more in poor taste than, say, if the scumbag journalist had hacked into (he probably did) the mobile of a scumbag Manchester United footballer who had group sex with some scumbag whore who called herself a model.

As for the hacking into mobiles of the relatives of dead soldiers, I can’t help feeling that the journalists were wasting their time and money. I do not know what they were hoping to find out by dropping eves on the telephonic messages of the relatives. Don’t get me wrong; I mean no disrespect to the dead soldiers (although neither do I feel particularly proud of the fact that they died while fighting ill-advised, amoral and illegal wars; a substantial proportion of them was probably killed by the Americans’ friendly fire than by the Talibans in any case; also, getting killed, I would have thought, is the occupational hazard of being a soldier—you can’t go to the front and expect not to die; if you don’t want to take that risk I suggest you look for some other job, such as a middle ranking manager in the public sector). Were the journalists expecting to hear some startling revelations about the UK war strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq (and learn, instead, that the reason NATO ended up bombing a marriage procession in Waziristan—killing several goatherds, farmers and donkeys—instead of the hideout of Al Qaeda terrorists was the map of the region was held upside down)?

It was interesting to see how the politicians of both the main parties (OK, let’s make it three—let’s include the Lib Dems) descended on the Murdochs faster than vultures swoop on rotting carcass.

Ed Miliband had a good crisis. He finally found a topic on which he could say something that was not a cure for insomnia. He even went to whichever town the dead Mili Dowler’s family lives and spent time speaking with the family, making sure that the cameras were flashing,  trying to look sympathetic, concerned, supportive, and outraged at the same time (managing, instead, to look like a man facing a quandary as to whether he should give priority to stifle a yawn or suppress a fart). This guy, who has the personality of a mannequin and charisma of a box of Kellogg’s cornflakes, obviously thinks that this scandal is his opportunity to get his popularity ratings up. In his dreams! The chances of Ed MiliYawn (whose only significant achievement before he defeated his unpleasant older brother to become the Labour leader was he was good at the Rubik’s Cube), becoming Mr. Popular are about as good as Rayan Giggs has of getting his sex addiction cured. MiliYawn is a pallid, humourless bore who, no matter how hard he tries, will always looks like a grocer’s clerk.

Unlike boring Ed, David—‘Call me Dave’—Cameron had a bad crisis. Dave is making the discovery that this time round bullshit won’t baffle brain. When the going got tough Dave legged it to the Welsh assembly leaving the cultural secretary to face the music. And whom was Dave avoiding? Ed MiliYawn, who has the oratorical skills of a chimpanzee with a cleft palate. Perhaps Dave needs time to organize his thoughts so that he can come up with a semi-plausible excuse as to why he employed Andy Coulson, who came with a warning round his neck that he was about as trustworthy as a hungry praying mantis. Then there is the minor matter of Cameron accepting favours from Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud, such as travelling in his (Freud’s) private jet. Cameron’s mate Rebecca Brooks is in a spot of bother, seeing as she was the editor of the tabloid when the journalists hacked into Mili Dowler’s mobile. (It is interesting the words Brooks chose to respond when the news broke out. ‘I hope you realize,’ Brooks told the News International employees, ‘that it is inconceivable that I could have known anything about it.’ You see, you are not allowed to conceive that Rebecca Brooks could have known about, let alone authorized, the phone hacking. And if you have the temerity to do so you have obviously taken leave of your senses. All of this, insofar as I understand it, is not the same as saying ‘I did not know about it.’) But don’t fear: Teflon Dave is smooth, smoother than snot on the doorknob. Nothing sticks to him.

The despicable Nick Clegg—the shitty flake on the underpants of existence—advised the Murdochs to do the decent thing and give up their bid to take complete control of B SkyB. Doesn’t that take the biscuit? Nick Clegg asking Murdoch to do the decent thing! Here is newsflash for the worm. If people always did the decent thing they would offer him rat poison.

And finally, Gordo, full 14 months after he blew away Labour’s mandate, turned up to deliver what he obviously hoped was a punch in the solar plexus, telling how devastated he and his wife were when The Sun splashed the news that his younger son had Cystic Fibrosis on its front pages. Gordon was in tears, he told the BBC interviewer. He now wants this investigated. This raises two questions in my mind. First: why did he not do it himself when he was in power? Actually I know the answer to this one. The election was round the corner and Gordo was thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if Murdoch, with however many millions of lobotomised morons who read his shitty tabloids, supported him (he didn’t and they didn’t). Second: is it good use of taxpayers’ money to find out how The Sun found out about the medical condition of Gordon’s son? I don’t give a tinker’s cuss how The Sun got to know about it. The tabloid didn’t lie; the child does have the condition. And it wasn't as if the son was going to feel upset about the news, seeing as he was only a few days old. Also, I don’t think he is going to be scarred for the rest of his life, which, from what I have read about Cystic Fibrosis in WikiPedia, is not going to be very long, by the fact that The Sun published news about his condition when he was born. I should hazard a guess that the boy, in years to come, would have many other things to occupy his mind than worrying about what The Sun published about him (all of which was true in any case) when he was born. As for Gordon’s delicate sensibilities and hurt feelings, all I can say is ‘Really!’ While Gordo may have reasons to hate Murdoch’s intestines and is filled with a desire to seek revenge, I don’t think tax payers should foot the bill for his vendetta.  

Murdoch stood by the flame-haired Rebecca Brooks, the ‘fifth daughter’ of the Murdoch household, for as long as he could (although not everyone in the Murdoch household, it would appear, shares Rupert's warm feelings towards her; Elizabeth Murdoch, Rupert's daughter from his second marriage, is reported to have used language not befitting a lady to describe what Brooks did to News International; however, seeing as News International is reported to have lost £ 40 millions over this, one can understand her fury). When the scandal first broke out, everyone was convinced that Brooks was toast. But the tycoon decided to sacrifice a newspaper rather than get rid of Brooks, who was the editor of The Sun when Mili Dowler’s mobile was hacked into by the hacks in the tabloid. 

This suggests that Murdoch has at least one quality of a dog: loyalty. 

Which none of the leaders of the political parties would recognise if  it bit them on the ass. Both Cameron and Mili-Ywan were schmoozing up to Murdoch until the scandal broke out. Both had accepted the invitation to the summer party of the News International. Cameron apparently wines and dines regularly with Brooks (Mr. Brooks is an old chum from Eaton) and according to Guardian (who is dishing up dirt on him on a daily basis) even invited the disgraced Andy Coulson for his summer party after Coulson had to resign his job at 10 Downing Street. However neither has lost any time in riding the moral high horse (although, for once, Ed stole a march over Dave) and lecturing Murdoch on ethics. Cameron has publically distanced himself from Brooks and has withdrawn the invitation extended to her for one of his parties. I am a bit unsure as to what adjective will sutaibly describe Dave, but the phrase ‘piece of shit’ comes to mind.

Interestingly, Murdoch was compelled to let Brooks go after the second largest stake holder in the News Corporation, one Saudi Prince, with a caterpillar moustache, who goes by the improbable name of Al- Waheed bin Talal Alsaud (a nephew of the Saudi king who presides over a country that is obviously a paragon of democracy and journalistic freedom) came out against Brooks. Giving his esteem opinion to the BBC about the phone hacking scandal the prince said, ‘For sure she [Brooks] has to go, you bet she has to go.’ The Saudi Prince further explained (I am having some difficulty in keeping a straight face as I type this): ‘Ethics to me are very important. I will not deal with a lady or a man that has any sliver of doubt on his or her integrity.’

So the Murdoch media empire is reeling. They have closed down The News of the World, which was one of his profit-making newspaper (unlike The Times and The Sunday Times which are haemorrhaging millions every year) and he has abandoned his bid to take the complete control of BSkyB. At least for the time being (although with almost 40% stake in the company, he remains a major stakeholder). Murdoch himself arrived in the UK, his face like a portentous mushroom. And now he will have to face the Commons media committee hearing. Facing aggressively low intelligence can be exhausting, but I don’t think that would be enough to finish off Murdoch—who will probably have to drop his IQ by half to be twice as clever as the lot of them. It is also ironical that the MPs who were fleecing the taxpayers for years by claiming money for their moats, duck ponds and wisteria (the Tories), nonexistent mortgages and fictitious second homes (Labours), and  packets of crisps and Mars bars (Lib Dems) are asking questions whether Murdoch is a fit and proper person to run BSkyB. Let me say this. If Boris Johnson is considered fit to be let out on a day release and be the mayor of London, I think Murdoch can run BSkyB).

The whole thing is a coup The Guardian. But one should be careful what one wishes for. Like The Times, The Guardian, too, loses money every year. And if the rumours that the Russian oligarch who now owns The Independent is thinking of distributing it free turn out to be true, The Guardian would be in trouble.

As for The News of the World, I never bought it, never read it, so I can’t really say whether its closure has left a vacuum which won’t be filled until The Sun goes out seven days a week. 

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Book of the Month: The Making of Henry (Howard Jacobson)

There are many things weighing on the mind of Henry Nagel, the eponymous hero of Howard Jacobson’s 2004 novel, The Making of Henry.

Henry, pushing sixty, has been bequeathed an opulent apartment in St John’s Wood, London. Henry does not know who has bestowed this largesse on him, but he is not complaining; the bequest couldn't have come at a more opportune time, just as he was wondering where he was going to live after getting the sack for writing a less than flattering reference for a less than average student of literature at the University of the Pennine Way (‘but before that it had been a polytechnic, and before that a place for keeping hairdressers on day release off the streets, and before that a spinster’s institute, and before that Henry had no idea’)—where Henry had plodded on for years, teaching a course entitled Literature for Life, taking care to show not the slightest appetite for the job— and thus flouting the University protocol for writing references. Henry strongly suspects that the flat was left to him by a mistress his father had tucked away for years in London. Both of Henry’s parents died within days of each other more than two decades before. His mother died when the coach on which she was travelling to London ran off the road. His father dropped dead, within days, of a massive coronary. Henry’s guess is that his mother was travelling to London to confront the mistress, and died in the road traffic accident on her way. His father, who must have loved her despite the affair, died (literally and figuratively) of broken heart. Henry’s further conjecture is that the mistress stayed on in the St John’s apartment pining after her dead lover and decided to bequeath the apartment to Izzi Nagel’s only child, Henry.

Then the old woman in the apartment next to Henry’s pops her clogs and her stepson, Eliot Lachlan, a descendent of Robert Louis Stevenson, so he tells Henry, moves in. Henry, who has plenty of time on his hands, mopes in some or the other cafe in the area, and takes a shine on to an Eastern European Jewish waitress in a Jewish patisserie in the area. He begins frequenting the patisserie and leaving abnormally generous tips for her. In due course Henry gets to know the waitress, who informs him that her name is Moira, that she is neither Jewish nor Eastern European, and that she is part owner of the patisserie along with her Jewish ex-husband Aultbach. Henry goes for walks with Moira, takes her out to meals, tries to regale her with stories of his Jewish childhood in Manchester, and tortures himself inwardly when he suspects that his neighbour Lachlan too is vying for Moira’s attention.

Henry has never been in a long-term relationship until then. That is not to say he has not had sex. Henry’s speciality, the reader is informed, was carrying out clandestine affairs with the wives of his colleagues in the University Of Pennine Way, and, when the opportunities presented themselves, with the wives of his friends. But now, as he is on the cusp of receiving his first bus pass, Henry thinks he is ready to settle down; and Moira might just be the making of his, even though she insists that she is not Jewish.

When Henry is not worrying himself sick about whether or not Lachlan has designs on Moira, he is thinking about his childhood in Manchester, his parents—Ekaterina and Izzi—, and his grandmother and great aunts—the Stern girls. He has also got into the worrying habit of talking to his father’s ghost in his empty apartment and, perhaps more worryingly, his father’s ghost stands firm that he never had a mistress in London and that he, when he was alive, had never been to the apartment, an assertion Henry is sceptical about, as he remembers an incident from his childhood when his father was spotted, in broad day-light, entering a hotel with the wife of the Jewish greengrocer, Yoffey. Surely, a man who was capable of snicking off with the wife of a man belonging to the local Jewish community would think nothing of hiding a rich mistress in London. Henry’s father was a children’s entertainer—a profession Henry was always ashamed off—fire-eating being his speciality. It would have been easy for his father, Henry reckons, to visit his mistress on the sly, telling his unsuspecting wife that he was going to be away for a few days because of his assignments. Until there came a point when Henry’s mother, Ekaterina, suspected he was having an affair; hence the ill-fated journey to London.

Henry Nagel is an unlikely hero, prone to solipsistic monologues which alternate between the surreal and the farcical. He reminisces about everything—from his clumsy pass (when drunk) at his youngest great-aunt Marghanita after whom he has lusted every since he grew his first pubes, to the inner life of his neighbour’s dog, Angus, whom he takes for walks under duress. Henry is also obsessed with death—he is concerned how it is all going to end for him, and his eschatological musings often compel him to examine the minutiae of his parents’ lives. Henry loves to live in the past, and despite valiant efforts by the practical Moira to bring him with the scruff of his neck to the present, he is always looking to escape into his past, which, while not wholly comforting, might provide him with the answers he is seeking.

Then, while taking a sea-side walk in Eastbourne where he has come with Moira—she runs cookery classes—Henry is astonished to see a plaque on a bench dedicated to his mother. Back in London his neighbour, Lachlan, informs Henry that he has been going through his dead step-mother’s diaries and that there have been references to Henry’s mother in the dead woman’s diary. Further revelations follow, this time from Eastbourne council whom Henry has contacted regarding the bench dedicated to the memory of his mother. As the story saunters towards its surprisingly moving end, Henry is forced to re-examine the lives of his parents and revise his earlier conclusions.

If the above has led you to believe that the novel has a plot, then I have given you the wrong impression. The novel does not have a plot in the sense nothing really happens. There is a little bit of mystery surrounding the apartment bequeathed to Henry, but that is not the main focus of the novel, and Jacobson’s heart is clearly not in it. What Jacobson is interested in is telling us the story of a self-absorbed lonesome man who is looking back on his life. And it is an ordinary life, beginning with an ordinary Jewish upbringing in a closely knit Jewish community in Manchester, followed by—after Henry graduates and moves away from the Jewish world of his parents and grandparents—a nondescript teaching job in a wretched university at which he does not excel. The only thing that marks Henry Nagel out is his affairs with attached women; but even here, it is the bored, unhappy women who choose him and not he them. Henry is—to paraphrase Winston Churchill—is a modest man, with much to be modest about. At one of the many points in the novel when Henry contemplates his own mortality, he thinks the epitaph ‘To know him was to be embarrassed for him’ sums up his life. Henry, like so many of Jacobson's protagonists, is dogged by triviality.

Howard Jacobson, who won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, has been described, from time to time, as the British Philip Roth. There are similarities: both Roth and Jacobson have libidinous, witty, tortured Jewish men who are unable to see the world from outside the prism of their Jewishness, as the protagonists of their novels.  Both are prolix. However, whereas Roth’s recent novels show a near complete absence of humour, Jacobson, who is almost ten years younger than Roth, continues to bring a smile to his reader’s face.

And it is the humour that saves The Making of Henry from becoming a drag. Jacobson’s humour is not P.G. Wodehouse type or even Tom Sharpe type; it is curmudgeonly humour, which manifests from sardonic observations made with piquant precision. Henry notices everything not least his own foibles that have marred his own less than successful life, and he is as merciless with himself as he is with others. The lack of a plausible plot (or a plot), is almost beside the point, because that is not the point of Jacobson’s novels, which, in any case, have followed the same plot thematically, since the publication of his first novel, Coming from Behind, in the 1980s: neurotic, self-loathing, angst-ridden, libidinous Jewish academics who prefer to have sex with older women. (Henry Nagel is a warehouse of neuroses, a dream for analysts; the list of Henry Nagel’s phobias is longer than M1.)

I said earlier that Jacobson is often compared to Philip Roth; however, the mordant humour in Jacobson’s novels makes him a writer more in the tradition of the great Kingsley Amis. There aren’t many authors writing in English today who can be said to be carrying the mantle of Kingsley Amis’s grouchy, irascible humour. Jacobson is the last of the tribe.  

Howard Jacobson is a seriously funny writer, and The Making of Henry is a seriously funny novel. 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Peter Falk RIP

I was very sorry to read about the passing on of the veteran actor Peter Falk a week ago.

While he acted, in a career spanning several decades, in a number of Hollywood films—he was even nominated for a couple of academy awards in the 1960s, although he did not win on either of the occasions—and television series, it is for his eponymous lead role in the detective series Columbo that Falk would be remembered by posterity.

I was too young when Columbo was first aired in the 1970s, but watched the re-run of the cult series in the 1990s. I was hooked up so much on the series that I’d tape the episodes, which were usually aired on the day-time television.

While there were several renowned actors who gave stellar performances in various episodes of Columbo, the success of the series rested, in my view, on its unusual structure, high quality scripts, and the bravura performance of Peter Falk as the shabby, self-deprecating detective who lulled the murderer into a false sense of security before striking him down with the metaphorical killer punch.

Columbo was a remarkable series. The structure of the plots never varied. The viewers knew who the murderer was right at the beginning; the viewers also knew how the murder was carried out. The rest of the episode was all about how the bumbling Columbo, outwardly gullible, giving a good impression of not being excessively burdened with grey cells, inched, step by step, towards his quarry. There were no car chases, no breathtaking action scene, yet it was riveting stuff.

Falk invested Columbo with credibility. The middle aged detective who drove an old banger, and who talked all the time about his wife and dog (neither made ever an appearance in any of the episodes) was treated by his opponents (the murderers) as an intellectual lightweight to their eventual peril.

I was interested to read in one of the obituaries that in real life Falk shared some of the characteristics of his small screen alter ego. Just as Lieutenant Columbo incessantly harried his suspects for clues and to find the chinks in their armour, so did Falk, in real life, hassled the studio bosses for improving the quality of the scripts.

Like many famous stars of successful television serials and sitcoms (Seinfeld and Friends are two titles that immediately come to mind—Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and David Schwimmer (Friends) are very talented actors, but the success they once enjoyed in the cult sitcoms has proven to be illusory) Falk was unable to replicate the success of Columbo in Hollywood films. He left Columbo in the late 1970s to concentrate on his film career, which, despite a spattering of releases, went nowhere. Columbo was revived in the late 1980s (the later episodes were not as brilliant as the first ones). He was in his sixties by then; he wore the same shabby coat, smoked the same cigar; and had the same mannerisms—all the ingredients that had catapulted Columbo to cult popularity more than a decade earlier; but this time round the critics complained that the series and Falk had become predictable.  Falk left Columbo after a series, complaining that the quality of scripts had deteriorated.

After reading about Falk’s death I scrounged through my DVD collection and found The Sunshine Boys, the 1995 television version of Neil Simon’s 1972 Broadway hit (of the same title). Woody Allen played Lewis while Falk played the cantankerous and cranky Clark.

As I watched Peter Falk deliver pithy one liners with great panache I laughed aloud till there were tears in my eyes; and I wasn’t sure they were all of mirth.