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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2005

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2005

Nick Hornby
15 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Saturday—Ian McEwan
  • Towards the End of the Morning—Michael Frayn
  • The 9/11 Commission Report
  • How To Be Lost—Amanda Eyre Ward
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life—Claire Tomalin

BOOKS READ:

  • Saturday—Ian McEwan
  • Towards the End of the Morning—Michael Frayn
  • Case Histories—Kate Atkinson
  • So Now Who Do We Vote For?—John Harris
  • Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—Nick Flynn

A few years ago, I was having my head shaved in a local barbers’ when the guy doing the shaving turned to the young woman working next to him and said, “This bloke’s famous.”

I winced. This wasn’t going to end well, I could tell. Any fame that you can achieve as an author isn’t what most people regard as real fame, or even fake fame. It’s not just that nobody recognizes you; most people have never heard of you, either. It’s that anonymous sort of fame.

The young woman looked at me and shrugged.

“Yeah,” said the barber. “He’s a famous writer.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of him,” said the young woman.

“I never even told you his name,” said the barber.

The young woman shrugged again.

“Yeah, well,” said the barber. “You’ve never heard of any writers, have you?”

The young woman blushed. I was dying. How long did it take to shave a head, anyway?

“Name one author. Name one author ever.”

I didn’t intercede on the poor girl’s behalf because it didn’t seem to be that hard a question, and I thought she’d come through. I was wrong. There was a long pause, and eventually she said, “Ednit.”

“Ednit?” said her boss. “Ednit? Who the fuck’s Ednit?”

“Well, what’s her name, then?”

“Who?”

“Ednit.”

Eventually, after another two or three excruciating minutes, we discovered that ‘Ednit’ was Enid Blyton, the enormously popular English children’s author of the 1940s and 1950s. In other words, the young woman had been unable to name any writer in the history of the world—not Shakespeare, not Dickens, not even Michel Houellebecq. And she’s not alone. A survey conducted by WHSmith in 2000 found that 43 percent of adults questioned were unable to name a favorite book, and 45 percent failed to come up with a favorite author. (This could be because those questioned were unable to decide between Roth and Bellow, but let’s presume not.) Forty percent of Britons and 43 percent of Americans never read any books at all, of any kind. Over the past twenty years, the proportion of Americans aged 18–34 who read literature (and literature is defined as poems, plays, or narrative fiction) has fallen by 28 percent. The 18–34 age group, incidentally, used to be the one most likely to read a novel; it has now become the least likely.

And meanwhile, the world of books seems to be getting more bookish. Anita Brookner’s new novel is about a novelist. David Lodge and Colm Toíbín wrote novels about Henry James. In The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst wrote about a guy writing a thesis on Henry James. And in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the central character’s father-in-law and daughter are both serious published poets and past winners of Oxford University’s Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry. And though nobody should ever tell a writer what to write about…. Actually, forget that. Maybe somebody should. I have called for quotas in these pages before—I would have been great on some Politburo cultural committee—and I must call for them again. Nobody listens anyway. Sort it out, guys! You can’t all write literature about literature! One book a year, maybe, between you—but all of the above titles were published in the last six months.

There are, I think, two reasons to be a little queasy about this trend. The first is, quite simply, that it excludes readers; the woman in the barbers’ is not the only one who wouldn’t want to read about the Newdigate Prize. And yes, maybe great art shouldn’t be afraid of being elitist, but there’s plenty of great art that isn’t, and I don’t want bright people who don’t happen to have a degree in literature to give up on the contemporary novel; I want them to believe there’s a point to it all, that fiction has a purpose visible to anyone capable of reading a book intended for grown-ups. Taken as a group, these novels seem to raise the white flag: We give in! It’s hopeless! We don’t know what those people out there want! Pull up the drawbridge!

And the second cause for concern is that writing exclusively about highly articulate people….Well, isn’t it cheating a little? McEwan’s hero, Henry Perowne, the father and son-in-law of the poets, is a neurosurgeon, and his wife is a corporate lawyer; like many highly educated middle-class people, they have access to and a facility with language, a facility that enables them to speak very directly and lucidly about their lives (Perowne is “an habitual observer of his own moods”), and there’s a sense in which McEwan is wasted on them. They don’t need his help. What I’ve always loved about fiction is its ability to be smart about people who aren’t themselves smart, or at least don’t necessarily have the resources to describe their own emotional states. That was the way Twain was smart, and Dickens; and that is surely one of the reasons why Roddy Doyle is adored by all sorts of people, many of whom are infrequent book-buyers. It seems to me to be a more remarkable gift than the ability to let extreme-ly literate people say extremely literate things.

It goes without saying that Saturday is a very good novel. It’s humane and wise and gripping, just like Atonement and Black Dogs and just about everything McEwan has written. Set entirely on the day of the anti-war march in February 2003, it’s about pretty much everything—family, uxoriousness, contemporary paranoia, the value of literature, liberalism, the workings of the human brain—and readers of this magazine will find much with which they identify. I spent too much time wondering about Henry Perowne’s age, however. McEwan tells us that he’s forty-eight years old, and though of course it’s possible and plausible for a forty-eight-year-old man to have a daughter in her early twenties, it’s by no means typical of highly qualified professional people who must have spent a good deal of their twenties studying; at the end of the book, (SKIP TO THE NEXT SENTENCE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW) Perowne learns that he is about to become a grandfather, and this too bucks a few demographic trends. I belong to Henry Perowne’s generation, and my friends typically have kids who are now in their early-to-mid-teens. On top of that, I’m not sure that I am as consumed by thoughts of my own mortality as Perowne, although to be fair I’m a lot dimmer than he is, and as a consequence it may take me longer to get there. McEwan himself is fifty-six, and it felt to me like Per-owne might have been, too. It doesn’t matter much, of course, but the author’s decision perhaps inevitably invites attempts at psychoanalysis.

It made me sad, thinking back to the day of the anti-war march. All that hope! All that confidence! And now it’s dwindled to nothing! I should explain that Arsenal beat Man Utd two–nil that afternoon in an FA Cup match—my passionate opposition to the war was conquered by my passionate desire to watch the TV—and it looked as though we would beat them forever. In fact, we haven’t beaten them since, and I finished Saturday in the very week that they thumped us 4-2 at Highbury to end all championship aspirations for the season.

Usually, when I read a novel I’m enjoying, I just lie there with my mouth open, occasionally muttering things like, “Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” or, “You could still get back together, right? You love each other.” But both Saturday and Kate Atkinson’s novel Case Histories contain detailed descriptions of places where I used to live and work, and as a consequence there were moments when I forgot to maintain even that level of critical engagement. Whenever Kate Atkinson mentioned Park-side, a street in Cambridge, I exclaimed—out loud, the first few dozen times, and internally thereafter—“Park-side!” (I used to teach at Parkside Community College, you see, so that was weird.) And then whenever Ian McEwan mentioned Warren Street, or the Indian restaurants on Cleveland Street, the same thing happened: “Ha! Warren Street!” Or, “Ha! The Indian restaurants!” And if someone was in the room with me while I was reading, I’d say, “This book’s set around Warren Street! Where I used to live!” (It’s not a residential area, you see, so that was weird, too.) It felt entirely right that I should read these books back-to-back, and then I was sent a copy of John Harris’s So Now Who Do We Vote For?, and I felt for a moment as though certain books were stalking me or something. Until someone writes a book called I Know Where You Put Your House Keys Last Night, I can’t imagine a title more perfectly designed to capture my attention.

I am sorry if the following lesson in UK politics is redundant, but I’m going to give it anyway: Our Democrats are already in office. We voted the right way in 1997, and we have had a Labour government ever since, and at the time of writing it is absolutely certain that we will have one for the next five years: there will be an election some time in 2005, and Blair will walk it. As you may have noticed, the only problem is that the Labour government turned out not to be a Labour government at all. It’s not just that Blair helped to bomb Iraq; he’s also introducing the profit motive into our once-glorious National Health Service, and allowing some pretty dodgy people to invest in the education of our children. Sir Peter Vardy, an evangelical Christian car-dealer, wants creationism taught alongside theories of evolution, and in return for two million pounds per new school he can do pretty much whatever he wants. He already controls a couple of schools in the North of England.

I waited for this government all my voting life, and Harris’s title perfectly captures the disillusionment of several generations of people who thought that when the Tories went, all would be right with the world. Disappointingly, Harris tells me that I should carry on doing what I’ve been doing: My local MP (and we don’t elect leaders, just local representatives of political parties) has voted against everything I would want him to vote against, so it seems unfair to castigate him for Blair’s crimes and misdemeanors. I wanted to be told that the Liberal Democrats, our third party, or the Greens, or the vaguely nutty Respect Coalition were viable alternatives, but they’re not, so we’re stuffed. So Now Who Do We Vote For? is a useful and impassioned book nevertheless; it’s a brave book, too—nobody wants to write any-thing that will self-destruct at a given point in its publication year, and I don’t think he’s going to pick up many foreign sales, either. John Harris, we salute you.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City wasn’t one of the stalker books, but after a couple of recommendations, I wanted to read it anyway. Nick Flynn’s dark, delirious memoir describes his father’s journey from employment, marriage, and a putative writing career to vagrancy and alcoholism. (The ambition to write, incidentally, is never abandoned, which might give a few of us pause for thought.) Nick loses touch with his dad; lives, not entirely companionably, with a few demons of his own; and then ends up working in a homeless shelter. And guess who turns up? One image in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, of a homeless man sitting in the street in an armchair, watching a TV he has managed to hook up to a street lamp, is reminiscent of Beckett; readers will find themselves grateful that Flynn is a real writer, stonily indifferent to the opportunities for shameless manipulation such an experience might provide.

I bought Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning from one of Amazon’s “Marketplace Sellers” for 25p. I could have had it for 1p, but I was, perhaps understandably, deterred rather than attracted by the price: What can you get for a penny these days? Would I be able to read it, or would all the pages have been masticated by the previous owner’s dog? It wasn’t as if I was entirely reassured by the higher price, but a few days later, a perfectly-preserved, possibly unread 1970 paper-back turned up in the post, sent by a lady in Scotland. Does anyone understand this Marketplace thing? Why does anyone want to sell a book for a penny? Or even twenty-five pennies? What’s in it for anyone, apart from us? I’m still suspicious. It’s a wonderful novel, though, urbane and funny and disarmingly gentle, and I might send the lady in Scotland some more money anyway. Or is that the scam? That’s clever.

“If Frayn is about to step into anybody’s shoes, they aren’t Evelyn Waugh’s, but Gogol’s,” says the blurb on the front of my thirty-five-year-old paperback. Is that how you sold books back then? And how would it have worked? As far as I can work out, the quote is a stern warning to fans of elegant English comic writing that this elegant English comic novel won’t interest them in the slightest. It was a daring tactic, certainly; the penny copies lead one to suspect that it didn’t quite come off.

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