Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Recent Reads 2

J. G. Farrell in His Own Words edited by Lavinia Greacen

This is a combination of the letters and diaries of J. G. Farrell up to his untimely drowning near Kilcrohane. The letters mainly concern the logistics of a writer's life and are not that interesting except to throw light on his early struggles for publication and survival. There's a lot of moving between modest flats and importuning his publishers for advances. A sad irony of his death was that he had (thanks to the Booker prize) just achieved financial independence.There's also an ever changing cast of women with whom he's arranging rendezvouses - while making it clear that he is not the marrying kind. Fair enough I say. Also, touchingly, he continued to write to his parents up to the end. The occasional diary entries from New York, India, Malaysia and Singapore are more interesting as the descriptive powers of the writer are employed. And you get glimpses of the characters he encountered, including Sonia Orwell, David Lean and William Burroughs. The tone throughout is rueful and self-deprecating but underneath you perceive the driven ambitious writer.

The Humbling Philip Roth

In his Last Poems Yeats referred to the perennial nature of the sexual urge: "You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age". Roth's recent novels with their elderly protagonists clearly establish that this is an itch that's never cured. There is a wonderful scene in Everyman where the terminally ill hero encounters a beautiful girl running on the beach and toys with the notion of asking her out. The barrenness of the present compared to the superabundance of the past is the theme of his late novels. In The Humbling the elderly character gets the girl and much unfeasible sex occurs. But this is merely a dying spasm and soon soon he is left with nothing but his lonely decline. A lot of people prefer Roth's earlier more wordy novels, I prefer these pared down minimalist meditations on sex and mortality.

Annapurna by Maurice Herzog

As a rule I love climbing books and admire the insane romantics who write them. But I'll make an exception for Herzog's account of his ascent of Annapurna in 1950. The tone throughout this chaotic book suggests a hubris hardly in keeping with the disastrous venture that he led. He also fails to conceal his contempt for the sherpas and the "coolies" they encountered. A refrain throughout is the dirt and smells in the villages they passed through. What a prig. Structurally the book is a bit of a mess with the climb itself taking a secondary role to the struggle to actually find the right mountain and the disastrous aftermath. Herzog exalts his own leadership qualities, quoting some petty examples of how he exerted his authority. For someone who lost all his toes and most of his fingers, a degree of modesty might have been more apt. He lost his gloves on the summit and climbed down bare-handed, despite the fact he had spare socks in his bag. An expensive oversight eh.