Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Goodbye Leonora

I was very sad to hear at the end of the Book Review Show on TV last night that the artist and writer Leonora Carrington had died. It wasn't exactly a surprise - she was 94 after all - but to me she was one of the great lights of the last century, a thrilling person to have in co-existence.

I first discovered her when Virago published a volume of her work entitled The House of Fear in 1989. The cover features one of Leonora's most famous paintings, The Inn of the Dawn Horse. In a bare blue room, Leonora herself, seated in a flouncy chair and wearing riding gear, reaches out towards a hyena with human eyes (the strange, shadowed mist behind it might be the dimension it has just stepped out of). Suspended on the wall behind her is a white rocking horse, while outside the window, a real white horse races off into parkland. Leonora, the beautiful girl in the house, made a similar escape from wealth and privilege in Lancashire to the wild world of the imagination.

This compelling image was created when the painter was around 20 years old; round about the same time she wrote a story that anticipates Angela Carter, 'The Debutante', in which a hyena befriends a young heiress and goes in her stead to a ball. The fact that the hyena tears off the face of the girl's maid in order to achieve the imposture hints, perhaps, at the cruel-seeming single-mindedness necessary to be an artist. 'Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face,' the narrator tells the hyena. 'It'll hurt her too much otherwise.'

The book also contains a series of fascinating photographs, including a press clipping of an unsmiling Leonora as an actual debutante, off to court with lace fan and headdress; a photo of creepy Crookhey Court where she grew up, surely the source of her persistent Gothic fantasies; and snaps with her much older lover, the artist Max Ernst. She underwent a terrifying experience of madness in 1940 after being raped by a gang of soldiers in Spain while Ernst was in a concentration camp. The result was a remarkable memoir, Down There, which impresses with its pitiless revelation of a mind unravelling. 'Exactly three years ago,' it begins, 'I was interned in Dr Morales's sanatorium in Santander, Spain, Dr Pardo, of Madrid, and the British Consul having pronounced me incurably insane.'

After surviving this horrific experience, and unable to resume the relationship with Ernst, who took up with Peggy Guggenheim, she eventually found happiness in Mexico City. There she married a Hungarian photographer, met Frida Kahlo (no love lost, I gather) and became friends with that other powerful magus, the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky.

It's very rare for a human being to achieve such heights in two disciplines. Leonora seems to have left writing behind, but never gave up painting. I was lucky enough to see her retrospective in the Serpentine Gallery some years ago, which became a temple of the occult for the duration of the show. The space was filled with images and statues of elongated women with bird or animal heads, elaborate clothes of fur or feathers; they performed rites of alchemical transformation, enacted magical rituals or ominous scenes from Celtic folklore. They ran through mazes, made strange gestures or tended Ceridwen's cauldron: glittering figures netted and dragged up direct from the subconscious. 

At the cash till, buying the exhibition catalogue, I was amused to see a scribbled notice to the staff: 'Before locking up, wrap Catwoman in bubblewrap and turn on the demystifier [sic]'. Perfect! For mere mortals, a demystifier is essential when roaming this underworld of bizarre forms and occult threats. For Leonora Carrington, it was home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Golden Age or last gasp?

Is the book dead? It's the major question of our time, with most of us booky types insisting that it isn't, perhaps with more hope than confidence. In this turbulent era, it surely can't be a coincidence that recently there has been, to my mind, an extravagant rise in the quality of hardbacks. I have a pile of new books on the desk in front of me which bears this counterintuitive notion out.

Yesterday I received a finished copy of Andrew Miller's new novel Pure, published next month. The cover image is based on Goya's print, 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters', although the sleeping man has been embellished with gilded buttons and cuffs, buckles to his shoes and a bow in his hair. The design runs over to the back cover, placing the man in a large, bare room, at a table with a pen, candle and jug, and a set of mathematical rules and compasses, while the birds of nightmare swoop and circle above. Outside the window is an 18th century city scene. (The illustration is credited to Royston Knipe.)

It's not just a question of the cover image, but the whole conception: the fine etched lines that give the grain of linen to the cover (there's no dust jacket); the pleasing contrast of the black birds, the grey tones, and the touches of green and gold on the title and man's coat; the way the spine displays the corner of the table with  loaf and knife. It's a delicious artefact, and I can't wait to tuck into Miller's tale of a fetid and groaning Parisian cemetery, and the 18th-century architect charged with clearing it.

Miller is published by Sceptre, who as you may remember did such a brilliant job with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and in much the same way: dispensing with the dustjacket, making the texture of the cover an intrinsic part of the design, and wrapping the illustration (by Joe Wilson) round to the back cover. Sceptre's fiction designs are consistently excellent, as are those of John Murray, also part of the Hodder group. My next example is Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke, the follow up to the Man Booker shortlisted Sea of Poppies. This has a conventional dustjacket, but there's nothing conventional about the illustration in deep blues with sinuous white lettering. The hint at blue and white Chinese pottery and the junks silhouetted in the distance express the next stage of the Ibis's journey as it enters Chinese waters with its heterogenous runaway crew. The floral motif is echoed on the beautiful jade green endpapers and at each chapter heading. Well done, John Murray!

More conventional perhaps, but still striking, is Weidenfeld and Nicolson's treatment for Clare Morgan's forthcoming novel, A Book For All and None. It's good to know that a publisher can still invest like this in a debut. There are no coloured endpapers or chapter-heading embellishments, but the Art Nouveau design in turquoise, yellowy-cream and crimson is striking and beautifully articulated across three areas: front, back and spine. The motifs of lighthouse, waves and books point elegantly to its Woolfian subject. The confident design (Nadina Gray)  proclaims, quite rightly, that the author, an Oxford academic, is one to watch.

Another fiction debut, Alice Albinia's Leela's Book, has been thoughtfully realised by Harvill Secker.  The dustjacket image of Ganesha has a cutout to display the pretty patterned cover within. The book would look just as attractive without the dustcover (which is just as well, as I'd deduct points for the white jacket - they look grubby almost immediately).

Albinia is not a total novice; her first book, Empires of the Indus, was well-received (she is married to the writer Tristram Stuart, the 'TS' of the dedication page). Again, such care and attention signal that this is a major new talent; this is a book to cherish, something that will stay around for years on your shelf, rather than vanishing into the ether.

But will they sell? A friend of mine, a senior Waterstone's bookseller, does a great horror-film scream (eyes wide and terrified, hands clawing the air) at any book jackets he thinks are hopelessly uncommercial. We are frequently at odds - the books I think most exciting visually are frequently dismissed with a brusque: 'Won't sell.' But I think all of these would get the thumbs up from him.

So instead of kowtowing to the populist demands to make everything cheap, cheaper, cheapest, some publishers at least are fighting back with beautiful artefacts that demand to be cherished. Looking at these lovely volumes, you'd never think publishing was in crisis. Would you?

PS My comments refer to the UK editions. To my mind, American book designs are almost always duller and more conventional than the British equivalents, though their standards of book production remain high. There are some glorious exceptions but.... have a quick trawl through Amazon and see what I mean.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How much plot?

Agent Jonny Geller recently complained that The Independent's review of Jane Harris's new novel Gillespie and I contained too many spoilers. Having just  reviewed the book myself for the Financial Times, I was curious to see what he meant. On reading Carol Birch's review I thought Geller was being unfair, and challenged him to see if he could do any  better.

Reading a novel in advance of publication is like setting out on a long sea voyage in which you're not just ignorant of your destination, but even what sort of vessel you're travelling on. The captain may be a fraud and the unobtrusive fellow who brings your tea in the morning might turn out to be the one you should have kept an eye on all along. Certain tip-offs will help later passengers enjoy the trip more fully. Yet in alerting them to all the sights, you should never rob them of the thrill of surprise.

My rough rule of thumb is that the first quarter to a third of a novel generally constitutes the set up and is fair game. The reviewer can describe that set-up, and maybe drop a few broad hints as to the direction the action might go, but at some stage you have to say 'Now read on...' However, sometimes even an early twist is clearly designed to come as a shock. (In which case it'll probably be given away by the jacket blurb.)

When editing reviews, a literary editor all too often has not read the novel in question, so it can be difficult to ascertain how much is too much. I might send an entire review back with the terse note: 'Too plotty!' A phrase such as 'After his wife dies...' would have me trying to elicit where in the book this happened. If it fell foul of my golden rule, I'd amend it to something like 'After a family tragedy...' Sometimes even this is too much, if it's a 'lightning from a blue sky' development. Sensitivity to the writer's design is all.

It's amazing how wedded reviewers can be to revealing the plot: 'I can't discuss the book properly without revealing that she dies halfway through/the butler did it/it was all a dream.' Funnily enough, this defence does have some historical weight. Reading Virginia Woolf's early book reviews, I was surprised at how much of the plot she routinely gave away. Perhaps today we focus on plotting above all other stylistic issues; certainly her reviews were also full of insight about the craft of fiction. Most often, though, the 'this happens, then that happens, then finally...' school of reviewing is just lazy.

Gillespie and I does present specific problems for the critic. To use the maritime analogy above, it quickly becomes clear that deciding what sort of vessel you are on, be it comfortable cruise liner or leaky tub, is absolutely crucial. Harris's narrative is so deft at wrong-footing the reader that even to know at the outset what sort of story you're going to be told will take away from the purity of discovering/deciding that for yourself.

Sadly, Jonny Geller did not choose to rise to my playful challenge to write a review himself. At least he conceded that in this case it is a tricky undertaking. I recommend Harris's superbly slippery novel, but the less you know about it in advance, the better.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dinner with Guillaume Musso

Guillaume Musso is a French literary sensation. His novels have sold 11 million copies world-wide. The French print-run for his latest was 400,000. He's big in South Korea. An anonymous kind of guy, he bashfully recounts that while paying for things with his credit card, it's not unusual for the sales assistant to gasp: 'The writer?'

To all of which a British reader is likely to say 'Who? Eh? What?' Unless they've been on the London Underground recently, in which case they may have seen one of the posters for his latest, Where Would I Be Without You? A woman in jeans walks away from us along a beach towards a hazy blue horizon. Nice image, but enigmatic. So what's the deal with Guillaume Musso?

As you might expect from the figures, this is commercial fiction. As I've written before in this blog, this can be a contentious distinction to make from literary fiction. Green is a different colour to yellow, but you can get from one to the other by infinitesmal additions of blue. There will always be a middle range where you could call it either way (and it doesn't make sense to say that green is better than yellow). John Banville is yellow; Jackie Collins is green; Sarah Waters is greeny-yellowy. And Musso is as vert as you can get.

My first thought on beginning the novel was maybe this would read better in French. I was puzzled as to why there needed to be two translators (Anna Brown and Anna Aitken). He's not Flaubert, that's for sure.

'The young flic was feverish with excitement. That night, he was going to arrest a famous thief, the kind a flic comes across once in his career. He had waited a long time for this moment and he'd replayed the scene over and over in his head. Interpol would be green with envy, as would all the millionaires Archibald had robbed.'

Interpol would be green with envy? Further down on the same page we get 'Martin's heart raced'. We're going on a cliche hunt! The art-loving cat-burglar villain 'really is a master of disguise'. The Velib (Parisian free bicycle) Martin uses in a low-speed chase, 'must have weighed a ton'. Surely not?

'Paradoxically, the police knew almost nothing about Archibald McLean - neither his nationality, nor his age, nor his DNA.' Really? No clue whatsoever about his nationality? Even when he says things like: 'For a moment there, you overestimated your strength, laddie?'

If it isn't obvious enough, Archibald also drives the very Aston Martin that James Bond drives in Thunderball and Goldfinger. Handily it still has 'machine guns concealed in the indicators... a mechanism that poured oil or nails onto the road and retractable blades to slash the tyres of any pursuing cars...' They weren't just props, then? Of course Archibald is planning One Last Heist.

The young French cop Martin Beaumont turns out to have more personal links with the art-thief than he suspects. They date back to his youthful romance in San Francisco with an alluring young woman, Gabrielle ('With her long straight hair and her green eyes flecked with gold, she looked just like Francoise Hardy'). The labyrinthine plotting requires their reignited affair to be artificially hindered by numerous misunderstandings, but fundamentally the dilemma is a sound one: Gabrielle must choose between two people who equally deserve (or don't deserve) her loyalty; Martin must choose between personal and professional satisfaction.

One thing becomes clear: Musso (who's a nice guy, by the way) is absolutely sincere. This is full-strength, heart-on-sleeve, shiny-eyed storytelling, not a cynical bid for massive sales, and therein lies its considerable charm. The Parisian scenes are stylish and thrilling, and although most of the book is set in the United States (Musso, who is in his early 30s, moved to New York age 19, and sold ice-cream to support himself), there is a refreshing European flavour to the adventure. It's hard not to warm to a thief who bags 'the original manuscript of Une saison en enfer' inscribed 'a P. Verlaine, A. Rimbaud'.

But the real secret to Musso's success, I suspect, lies in a particular aspect of his backstory. At 24 he came close to death in a car accident. This led to a personal metaphysical enquiry: consequently his novels overlay the genres of thriller and love story with a veil of the supernatural. In Where Would I Be Without You? the otherworldly element comes late but is thoroughly effective, and, despite the whopping coincidence it involves, rather moving.

For such a soppy romantic, it was not a surprise to learn that Musso is himself blissfully happy. Although, he pointed out, his wife is not entirely satisfied with his current regime of spending only one week out of three with her in Paris, then returning for two weeks to Antibes, his birthplace, to write.

I'm not sure this rather ploddingly translated novel (at least, I assume the French is sparkier) will be the one to break him in the English market, but it's a refreshing enough beach read. In the original I can see it being excellent language practice for anyone learning or brushing up their French.

'Where Would I Be Without You?' is published by Gallic Books (£7.99)