Monday, October 10, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“SHROUD” John Banville (first published 2002)
“GOOD FAITH” Jane Smiley (first published 2003)

The new novel I looked at this week, Ian Wedde’s The Catastrophe, could reasonably be called satire because its story points to a trend or fashion in the modern world, in part ridicules it and in part admonishes it. But, although it has some light moments, it is not the sort of satire that’s designed to get laughs. Its admonitions have a strongly moral edge. Isn’t satire meant to mend our morals, after all?

For this reason, and this reason alone, it has something in common with two very different good novels I enjoyed reading in the first decade of this century.

Irish novelist John Banville’s Shroud is definitely no comedy, but it does take apart one element of modern thought and lets us see how corrosive it is. This is a moral lesson.

Its main character Axel Vander is an ageing, cynical, world-weary postmodernist literary critic who earns a comfortable living in American universities by teaching the gullible that there is no such thing as the ego, that personality is a delusion, that “the author is dead” and similar deconstructionist dogma.

Then one day Vander gets a nasty shock. A young Irish researcher Cass Cleave has been looking through yellowing files of Second World War-era newspapers from Vander’s native Belgium. She has discovered the opinions that Vander published as a young man. Working for the collaborationist press during Belgium’s occupation by the Nazis, Vander had written pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish criticism. The credibility of his later post-war career would, of course, have evaporated if this had ever been known. Cass Cleave asks Vander if he would like to meet her in Turin to talk this discovery over.

The novel’s initial premise echoes the notorious factual case of the prominent deconstructionist critic Paul de Man, who was posthumously discovered to have had just such a collaborationist background. Naturally Banville does allow us some directly satirical moments. Part of the novel is written in the fussy, pedantic, self-justifying voice of Vander himself. We are allowed to reflect that verbal obfuscation, denial of personality (and personal responsibility) and theories which say an author’s opinions are all irrelevant to the texts the author produces – all are very convenient for people who have something to hide. They are keystones of deconstructionism.

But Shroud goes well beyond satire. In an extraordinary whammy, Banville introduces a plot element that forces us to reassess our reaction to Vander and his motives. By setting the story in Turin, Banville symbolically makes the novel an interrogation of the very concepts of truth and authenticity. (Turin is the home of the shroud which is venerated as an authentic image of Christ but could well be a fake.) He writes convincingly enough to make such an interrogation credible.

One warning about this novel, which I am recommending strongly. Do NOT go on line and read the New York Times review of it. The reviewer praised the novel highly, but also managed to completely ruin it by giving away the crucial twist. This is as mischievous as giving away the culprit in a whodunit.

Much brisker and more direct is the satire of the American novelist Jane Smiley in her Good Faith. Although first published in 2003, it is set in the 1980s and is in part a polemic against the “greed is good” acquisitiveness of that decade.

In upstate rural New York the narrator, Joe Stratford is a reasonably successful real estate agent. He makes fair profits, wheels and deals a little bit, and has to perform such mercy work as coaxing a neurotic builder into actually letting go of the houses he’s built on commission.

Enter smooth-talking developer and deal-spinner Marcus Burns, who says he knows everything about finance-gearing and tax dodging. He used to work for the tax department and declares he hates paying taxes. Marcus is able to dazzle and charm everyone – the city fathers, the local building authority, the builder, the banker and especially Joe. Marcus has this huge property development that’s supposed to attract big-city interest. Marcus is going to make everybody a billion, just so long as they invest with him. Naturally everyone begs to scramble aboard.

You can see where this is going and how the satire is loaded. The irresponsible individual (who hates taxes) is set against the common good. The whole concept of “good faith” – supposedly the cornerstone to all fair bargaining – is undermined in a culture where “the deal” is the Holy Grail, substituting for love, loyalty, family and social concern. Acquisitiveness corrupts and raw unregulated capitalism kills. The message travels far beyond the 1980s.

In case this sound too simplistic and obvious as a piece of satire, there are two things about Good Faith that make it first-rate.

One is the utterly convincing male voice that this woman novelist has created for her narrator Joe. We feel sympathy for the guy even as he staggers from one bad decision to the next.

The other is Jane Smiley’s admirably clear prose, which makes vivid and interesting those precise details of real estate bargaining that would have been tedious in other hands.

The satire of Good Faith is grounded in close observation of reality.

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