Heloise – book review

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Here it is!  Hot off the press, the Christmas book for your intelligent friends, the perfect answer to the question – read anything good recently?

In Heloise, Mandy Hager retells the ancient, true story of Heloise & Abelard,  a love affair between two brilliant, medieval French scholars.

Heloise of Argenteuil is my kind of heroine: she’s a thinker, smart and ambitious, she knows what she wants (education) and is argumentative and forthright.  But because she was born around 1100 she has a totally different frame of reference to a modern heroine and she understands the world through a filter of medieval religion. Everything starts with an understanding of God. That axiom makes her humble, deeply compassionate, with a strong morality. I can’t help thinking that if Heloise had been born this century she would have set the whole world ablaze.  She is a heroine to applaud.

The story opens with Heloise, aged 5, shackled in a pig sty.  She is rescued by her Uncle Fulbert who takes her to a nunnery and eventually to live with him in Paris. Her legend grows as she hunts scholars and philosophers to feed her mind, and eventually hones in on the academic genius of the day – Peter Abelard.

I found lots to interest me in this book. The love story is fabulously confusing, twisted, ultimately unfulfilling and terribly disappointing. What a prick (just saying). But the book’s setting is equally beguiling with cloisters, nunneries, ancient universities and wonderful descriptions of Île de la Cite in Paris, where “the houses are planted as tight as podded seeds.”  Underneath it all is a strong academic backbone – education in the middle ages meant debate and argument, you proved things were true by philosophical logic as much as science.  Educated people of the day had a quote for everything – I know so few people now who remember quotes, and no one who has the mots justes to illuminate a point in debate as beautifully as do Heloise and Abelard.

The background history is a powerful tide that carries the story along. The whole of France is in a state of religious upheaval as the State and Church grab power, redistribute wealth and rearrange laws to keep control of the masses. It all sounds a rather familiar tune, playing down the centuries. If your interest is in history the detail here will add real zing.

Mostly, I loved the complexity of the characters and how they were immersed their times. In an age of sanctioned domestic violence, the kindly Uncle Fulbert recommends Abelard beat Heloise if she doesn’t perform her studies correctly. Fulbert gets old and bitter and resentful of his young charge, betrayed, he also beats her senseless and yet she continues to love him in a complicated way. From Fulbert’s ambitious friend Stephen de Garlande I expected betrayal but he remained surprisingly steadfast to Heloise, a better man than expected. 

And so, I come to Peter Abelard, the great theologian and scholar, the rock star of the Cathedral school of Notre-Dame, the lover of Heloise. Even now I don’t know how I feel about him. Part of me wants to boo, but like Heloise I found his brilliance extraordinarily attractive.  He is impulsive and calculating. He saves and deserts. He is a loving rapist. On balance, I think he was a totally nasty piece of work, a man with huge natural arrogance that is exacerbated by his sycophantic followers.  Or perhaps he is driven to madness, and deserves sympathy and understanding? Mandy Hager leaves us to decide.  I think I will leave it to Heloise.

The Sellout – book review

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”

Hackles up, right? But this book won the Booker Prize, so remember that opening line. It will be handy at Quiz Night.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout continues in this sarcastic, racist vein, blitzing through page after page of flippant, un-PC banter to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “Unmitigated Blackness”. That pretty much sums up the book. Personally I believe with every generation we are moving towards a “post-racist” world – obviously way too slowly for Beatty and I accept that anger, but will this diatribe help?

If you’re a sensitive PC whitey, prepare for an uncomfortable read.

Here’s my caveat though: I read the The Sellout because the writing is brilliant.  I squirmed for about 30 pages. Then, like five minutes into a Shakespearean play,  I clicked, and began to enjoy the wit behind the colloquialisms and pop-culture language. Although I never laughed out loud (you probably need to be American for that) I was amused by the stand-up comedy style gags.  Bear with it – if you’re struggling to make it past the prologue, soothe your hackles, go with the super-quick flow, allow yourself to laugh.

I found myself rooting for the narrator, a damaged (his father hog-ties him to teach him disadvantage), intellectual farmer who reinstates slavery and segregates his town. Why? He finds people are better behaved. It brings a sense of community. He thinks it’s worth a try. He’s a good man, I felt for his tribulations.

The supporting characters are sharp and larger than life: his father a maniac sociologist with a  “doo-wop base deep” voice who terrifies his son in intellectual debate and uses him as a subject in his social experiments – if he publicly thrashes the boy, will anyone come to his aid?  (Um, no. Turns out the bystander effect has a twist in the black community, they join in the thrashing).  But his father is also a “nigger whisperer” – just as it sounds, he coxes people back from the edge.

Fading TV personality Foy Cheshire,  (“Foy was no tree of knowledge, at most he was a bush of opinion,”)  rewrites classics: Huckleberry Finn is rearranged with the word “nigger” changed to “warrior” and “slave” to “dark skinned volunteer.”  Which got me thinking I might have enjoyed The Sellout more if “nigger” was replaced by “black,” throughout, but there I go again, missing the point.

There is an aged actor, Hominy, who volunteers for slavery,  a group of black intellectuals who meet at Dum Dum Donuts, the one-true-love bus driver Marpessa who is married to a gangsta rapper. All fully formed and sprouting their racist opinions on each page.

The story line is just a platform for the characters and the gags: the town name of Dickens is removed from the map and our narrator gets it reinstated; he goes to the High Court for slave owning. And through it all the characters weave and swear and get themselves in and out of ludicrous situations.

Towards the end Paul Beatty explains the reason why I found this book is so difficult to read.  A black comedian at Dum Dum Donuts berates a white couple for laughing at his jokes: “What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at?”   And: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Beatty has written a brilliant book, but racially segregated to such an extent that I’m afraid I  have to agree with the comedian. This shit ain’t for me.

 

The Necessary Angel – book review

The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate.  So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel  as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.

As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?

Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.

But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.

Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog.  The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.

By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up!  Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!),  but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.

There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it.  The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as  a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife?  This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.

Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV.  The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.

Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.