Saturday, February 1, 2014

In The Day, a novel by Kevin Marman, reviewed by Peter Cowlam

Kevin Marman
Kevin Marman's debut novel In The Day is part narrative, part journal, part interior monologue, chronicling the book's narrator, Tom Seagrave, in his struggle to overcome the consequences of a suicidal breakdown. The seeds of that breakdown are many, when over the course of the novel he reflects on his relationship with his father (an alcoholic), with predatory sex abuse suffered as a child, with his own battles with alcoholism, with a marriage breakup, and with the family and platonic relationships he has so far experienced. Tom Seagrave is forty-nine. He has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which a note at the end of the book tells us is unclear in its causes, though a 'particular contributing factor is trauma experienced during childhood.... Major symptoms are emotional instability, disturbed thinking patterns, impulsive (including self-harming) behaviour, and unstable or dysfunctional relationships with other people.' All those elements are expertly realised in a book that could and should be unbearably depressing, yet is exhilarating for the sheer verve and precision with which a mental health condition has been defined, through the medium of fiction, with an account probably of more psychological value than a closely observed clinical study might give us. It's a testament to Marman's skill as a writer that, for the reader, it is very difficult indeed to decide to what extent his material is derived from personal experience, and to what extent it has been meticulously researched.

Paperback, 235 pages, In The Day is published by Longmarsh Press. Highly recommended.

Who's Afraid of the Booker Prize? a novel by Peter Cowlam, reviewed by Jack d'Argus

Jack d'Argus
Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is the diary of computer-science graduate Alistair Wye, who has been hired by celebrity novelist Marshall Zob to act as his assistant and oversee his archive. Wye’s first job is to sift through the author’s computer discs, saved emails, fax printouts, and handwritten letters and postcards. All this goes towards Zob’s project in compiling material for a commemorative volume celebrating the life and work of his dead mentor, John Andrew Glaze. Secretly, Wye also starts his own record, a review of his life in the pay of a literary celebrity. The novel therefore is as much about the communications revolution as it is about vanity, greed, egotism, and the seductions of public careers. While that might sound a serious note, the book is remarkably funny.

The narrative depends for its material on modern communications – email and so forth – yet is never far from its epistolary precursors. The form is extended to dramatic new limits, blurring the relationship between reader, cult figure, and messenger. It tests accepted rules of plot and composition. 

The teeming world we find in Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? is bewildering, sordid, comic. Its narrative relentlessly deconstructs the nature of fame and reputation. Its chosen ground is a species of literary research reduced to professionalised gossip. The narrator Wye is the book’s master of pyrotechnics. In working through his employer’s archive, he unearths secrets Zob would have rather seen untouched – often with hilarious consequences. Nothing is static for long. As the plot unwinds, we are forced to consider our loyalties. Are we with Wye, the tormentor, or with Zob, a man undermined by paranoia? It’s certainly the case that his ‘friends’ of the literati are all too willing to conspire against him. 

The book is steeped in irony and the depiction of social mores. Its carnival of characters is a multitude of voices. It is a kaleidoscope of differing writing styles. As literary satire it is very sharp indeed, with a pedigree recalling Pope’s ‘Dunciad’ or Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God and The Roaring Queen. It also recalls cultural satires by Huxley (Antic Hay), Waugh (Vile Bodies) and, especially, Burgess (the Enderby trilogy). The fact that it evokes comparisons of that calibre is an index to its quality, while in style and form it’s completely original. The teeming vocabulary and the alternations between high literary style and low colloquialism are an achievement in themselves.

Paperback, 261 pages. Amazon and other purchase options available here.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Other Problem With Nabokov, by Peter Cowlam

Vladimir Nabokov
It’s easier to ask what motivates novelists to participate in the currents of political debate than what motivates one like Nabokov not to. There is self-serving and flattery in the kind of fiction – ‘stark’ and ‘realistic’ – that offers insights into civilisation’s woes and discontents, those our professional politicians have either missed or are not capable of forming themselves. That the Nabokov oeuvre was destined to find enrichment without that currency might not have been so obvious given his provenance. His grandfather, Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, was a minister of justice (under Alexander II and his son), and it might be said of his father, Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, that involvement in politics led to a political, premature death (he took an assassin’s bullet).

Typically the Nabokov novel has as its central character an exotic male of highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, who rather suffers than is part of a middle-class social and professional milieu, and bears through it his own flaws wittily. Artistically the landscape is dominated by cliché-ridden hacks, and a receiving public in thrall to writers of soaring reputation, if mediocrities nonetheless. These latter, in the Nabokovian conception of things, are held permanently responsible for the tonnage of ‘stark’ and ‘realistic’ fiction referred to already, which the world is all too willing to line its bookshelves with. Often too the debunking process involves the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, whose founder is dismissed as the ‘Viennese Quack’, though one suspects slight irritation that Sigmund got to business a bit ahead of Vladimir, the doctor mapping out the id before the poet could. Martin Amis would seem to think there might be something in this, but tells us ‘…it is Nabokov, and not Freud, who emerges as our supreme poet of dreams…and our supreme poet of madness’ (Amis, ‘The problem of Laura’, The Guardian, 14th November 2009).

Nabokov’s first fame as a writer was among fellow-émigré Russians in Berlin and Paris, after the Bolshevik Revolution, which dispossessed him and his family of extensive property and wealth. More spectacular fame came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Nabokov and his wife Véra had long been established in the USA – Nabokov now writing in English. The book that brought that fame was Lolita, the story of a middle-aged man’s illicit pursuit of a pubescent girl. Purists would not like to think that with the success of so supremely styled a poetic fiction Nabokov had stumbled on the right commercial formula, and under that constraint must go on adding not simply more of the same, but the same under ever more shocking conflations. Obsessive sexual mores noticeably proliferate in Nabokov’s later fiction, if prefigured in earlier books – though what else could he have written about, a man in the last decades of his biblical allocation, and a poet of the sensual and of surface appearance?

Well, there might have been that hardy perennial, war, and the material exploitation of populations plunged in war. Then of course there’s love, for which humans have an endless capacity – delusional as that may be. There is politics too, though by what authority does an ousted Russian aristocrat anatomise the affairs of Western states, where we see at least the theoretical possibility of free speech and the promise of social mobility…

An ocean of reviews and reviewing sentiment has been the predictable response to the recent publication of some few tantalising fragments – all that exists – of the novel Nabokov was working on when his own death was imminent – The Original of Laura, with that happy subtitle Dying is Fun. It’s a tale of cuckoldry and self-negation, and consists of 138 index cards, pencilled with notes, passages and paragraphs, in whose unfinished state the author left instructions for their incineration. There is mixed opinion as to what, exactly, this legacy is. Tom Stoppard insists Nabokov’s final wishes should have been honoured, with the cards committed to flame (Times Online). Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) quotes from these fragments themselves: ‘…do not linger over your own ruins…’ (Laura, p181). Amis reads these same fragments as ‘a longish short story struggling to become a novella’ (Amis, ‘The problem of Laura’). He further notes a decline and falling-off in those of Nabokov’s last novels that are complete, summarised as ‘a horrible brew of piety, literal-mindedness, vulgarity and philistinism’, though one could argue that might just be the point, given something intellectually debauched in the organising intelligence supposedly narrating.

Nabokov’s prose is the prose of a poet, which at its intoxicating height is both scintillating and terrifyingly effortless, the cost of which was a technique worked at indefatigably. I personally don’t believe that would have been jettisoned had Laura reached its final form.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Marisa, by Peter Cowlam, reviewed by Jennifer Armstrong

Marisa, by Peter Cowlam
Bruce Junior, protagonist of Marisa and surveyor of English middle-class life, has everything a rising urbane professional college boy could ask for: a life happily circumscribed, a ready-to-wear career path, and a position in haute bourgeois society, courtesy of his father, who is also named Bruce. Yet something's missing, and not just the smile on his face, which Junior first notices in the collection of family photos his father had gathered together in extremis. This particular lack is an unconscious one, engendered by his upbringing, and is indicative of a determined source of absence.

It's not that Bruce isn't able to choose to go against his mother and father's will, in the sense that Edith Wharton reminds us in her novel, The Age of Innocence, where romantic loss can be an outcome of a good son's class loyalty. For Bruce, it isn't the will to make a decision that is missing. His problem is a lack of the associated underpinnings of passion, which solidify a romance into something more than just ephemeral upper-class dreaming, nightmare material or vainglorious gesture.

Marisa is a modernist romantic tragedy, which tips its hat to Wyndham Lewis, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henri Bergson and others. Yet Cowlam's novel has more to offer than this. It explores a broad range of intellectual themes, such as the psychological dynamic of left-wing and right-wing politics and their relation to art, male and female conceptions of love, our intuitive conceptions of time and the tragic nature of humour.

Its rhetorically understated quality is developed on an unbridgeable gulf that is not defined by overt cultural boundaries or moral 'sin' – it is more peculiar, more esoterically haunting than that. After all, Marisa and Bruce share much of the same cultural context, even though their values appear to differ more widely as the drama
progresses.

There is a subtlety to Bruce's despair, since he longs for the intoxication of a powerful artistic effect, able to deliver the message he secretly longs for: that 'the social mores we take for granted every day' might give us less than the full serve demanded of our human desires in the world. This intoxication is not to be imbibed in the form of seemingly lowbrow student confections, however. Form is not only as important as function – it is the fundamental key for Bruce, aiding him in determining his class calling on the basis of certain straightforward and external social signs. Therefore, it must be via his own elitist social circle that the artistic message can reach him, one by which the 'whole cosy notion of what civilisation is, is undermined.'

Yet, the ironic tragedy is that the corporate class to whom he owes his loyalty cannot deliver the level of passion and truth he craves. The only one who can do that is Marisa, and she belongs to a tribe not of fact-based, hard-headed financiers, but of artists. Bruce appears to represent form in search of content, whereas Marisa, his love interest, ever eluding his knowledge and control, is unable to show him her substantial, if aesthetically and psychologically murky content (from Bruce's perspective at least).

The narrative of recollection is in the form of Bruce's reminiscence. Through his darkened lens, Marisa appears in various manifestations – a ghostly figure ministering to his needs, or a highly abstractive and impractical person, unable to convey her intended artistic and personal meanings. Whereas the reader suspects that Marisa's character is in itself deep and complex, we know what she aspires to only via Bruce's selective memories, his eye for her liberal left tendencies often patently and openly jaundiced.

On Bruce's part, such perceptual bias is the formula of failure to engage. This appears to lead (and it's only his perspective we know) to events of a sadistic or masochistic nature. As Bruce becomes the domineering inheritor, and manipulator, of patriarchal power and finances, Marisa engages in a masochistic act, not entirely distinguishable in form from the contemporary feminist statement of Annabel Chong. Furthermore, this might have been judged to spite Bruce, not just as an enactment of 'feminist' artistic statement. What can this and other feminist performance mean for women? This is one of the subtle questions indirectly raised in the novel.

There is subtlety in the plot, so that we're unsure of what exactly is taking place, psychologically, with Marisa and with Bruce. The dynamic that resonates most strikingly is that of British class social inflections of meaning and differing value systems. The plot's development is adeptly marked by Bruce's realisation of loss throughout the narrative's latter part.

Aesthetically, the novel is completed by Bruce's desperate effort to recall the detail of his life with Marisa a long time ago, to recapture and retain a vestige of living passion. Indeed, most of Bruce's ill-fated attempts to repossess the essence of Marisa is represented in his act of collecting: thus it is that Bruce peruses the memoirs he has stockpiled from Marisa's life, still perhaps not understanding some of the intentions underlying her artistic endeavours. The gender dichotomy is delicately represented: it is one of an objectifying male collector of Marisa-memoirs alongside an ephemeral and subjectively simplified potential 'collectee', reminiscent of John Fowles' intriguing and gender-archetypical depiction of Clegg and Miranda in his novel The Collector.

There is a dry sardonic tone to Cowlam's Marisa. A soft sense of mirth flows through the narrative, as we learn to see how the eye that seems to see all, also fails to see aspects of meaning relevant to his intimate interests. We are treated to an education concerning what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of an upper-middle-class Englishman. Readers will experience his repressed way of looking at the world, his reflexive dismissive propensities, his regularly intelligent but overdrawn artistic flourishes (a function of his self-appointed semi-aristocratic role as arbiter of taste) and yet often classically imbued turn of phrase, his interest in the material quality of good nourishment, preferably imbibed within tasteful interiors boasting thoughtfully chosen furnishings as well as his paradoxical interest in mysterious, elusive (because passionate) modern forms of art.

Bruce has everything a British rising middle-class individual could ask for. Yet something tragic happened to him at a crucial point at approximately the middle of the book, where his élan vital undergoes a transformation for the worst. Nobody knows it – except finally perhaps Bruce himself. Whereas mechanistic, linear time appears to go on as before, and his son, Bruce Three, is born, and so continues the line of Bruces, Bruce's own intuition of time has radically changed. Worse, he now knows something he didn't know before, which he wishes he hadn't apprehended: that ghosts and murky lures of the imagination can no longer simply pass for fanciful left-wing tropes, but are finally to be taken as…something all too real.

Cowlam, Peter, Marisa, CentreHouse Press, ISBN 978-1-902086-03-3.

For more information see http://www.centrehousepress.co.uk












Monday, November 17, 2008

New Skins for Old Wine: Plato’s Wisdom for Today’s World, by Stephen C. Lovatt, reviewed by Peter Cowlam

In positing a Christian eschatology, Stephen Lovatt presents a persuasive and thoroughly thought-out argument in its support. Millennia of human soul-searching have gone into difficult and pressing questions as to how civilisations should organise themselves, and how we – the beings constituting them – should live. Plato thought this wasn’t solely a matter of politics, and nor does Stephen Lovatt. It is desirable, of course, that we uphold ideals in fairness, justice, good governance, etc., but if these concepts are borne only of our material life what does that say for our spiritual being, supposing we have one?

‘For a mortal being to somehow gain an association with God, and to be granted a participation in God’s divine life, would be to gain a firm basis for its existence, not subject to the vicissitudes of the material universe. No greater good is possible.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p223

Lovatt, as Plato did, believes in humanity’s divine aspect, the flesh not merely clay, but inspirited:

‘[The gods] having taken the immortal origin of the soul…gave it the entire body as its vehicle.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p118, quoting Plato’s Timaeus (69b-70b)

The learning process our life experience subjects us to, and the institutional tents we raise on its behalf – schools, laws, parliaments, and a lot more things besides – are not just the instruments of social progress.

'The basic point of being human is that a person can relate to the material world and in that relationship the soul can learn what it is to be just. This requires consciousness, because the spirit is only aware of conscious thought, and conscience can only act through consciousness. Life without consciousness (or the prospect of consciousness, as in a sleeper or an embryo) is sub-ethical and so sub-human.'
New Skins for Old Wine, p360

This vale of tears our earthly life is, is a prerequisite of the path of enlightenment the soul is purposed to take, for eventual communion with God, and that is the point of all our agonising over the right models of community being. No other outlook will do, particularly that espoused by the philosophers of relativism, all too prevalent today, whose

‘…common attitudes arise from their shared subjectivist assumption that truth is personal. This implies that truth differs from one individual to the next and so each man’s truth is his own affair. Each of us is an island, cut off from each other, without any hope of meaningful communication. This is a truly sad and frightening prospect to face, and anyone who fully adopts this perspective, it seems to me, is liable to despair.’
New Skins for Old Wine, p244

According to Lovatt, it’s all in fact quite to the contrary, there being just one form of the good (as set out by Plato in his theory of forms), and this it is the soul’s duty to aspire to, having first been enmeshed – and possibly more than once (though a theory of metempsychosis is not fully adduced) – in the complicated circuitry of flesh. How an individual human soul must navigate the world is systematically set out in Stephen Lovatt’s book, with insight into the meaning of, for example, friendship, education, human sexuality, and the relationship of person to state.

For myself, a man in a blinkered life here in this corrupted Eden, it’s a step too far to share his faith, and in my mind raises the question why some people are predisposed to a belief in the Christian God and an afterlife. Is the whole thing just a matter of acculturation, or are some of us closer to God than the rest? And how are we supposed to spend our eternity?

I don’t know the answer, but Stephen Lovatt explores the question in an extremely eloquent and thought-provoking way.

Lovatt, Stephen C, New Skins for Old Wine: Plato’s Wisdom for Today’s World, (Boca Raton, Florida: Universal Publishers, 2007), ISBN 978-1-58112-960-1.