Tag Archives: Music

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.



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The things that they were not told

Away from the Man Booker again as the last three titles are still not available.
So now to a new author, a debut novel: scan0019All That is Solid Melts into Air. This astonishingly accomplished novel is set in Russia, beginning in April 1986.

There are no spoiler alerts here, all that I reveal here can be seen on the dust jacket, of which more later.

This is a love story blighted by fear and misunderstanding, it is a story of Chernobyl and of the Communist key-turner, Gorbachov. Although there are not many named characters in this book it is also the story of a whole nation. State suppression of facts meant that millions, literally millions of people were kept in the dark about the effects of radiation after the Chernobyl explosion. 1,321.67 miles away in England, on the other hand, the eating of mutton (or lamb) from any hill farm sheep growing in the North of England or in Wales was banned – this is the headline on the BBC News:

Restrictions on hundreds of Welsh and Cumbrian sheep farms dating back to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have finally been lifted – 26 years on.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said the controls were not “proportionate” to the “very low risk” and removing them would not compromise the consumer.
The disaster in 1986 affected 10,000 UK farms, including 334 in north Wales.
The movement of sheep was heavily restricted after the nuclear disaster.
Before farmers could sell livestock, the animals’ radiation levels had to be monitored. If they were above a certain level, the sheep were moved to another area and the levels had to subside before they could be sold and consumed.

So for those readers who were not born in 1986, what happened?

Previously, in March 1979, there had been a meltdown on the nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on Three Mile Island. The site supervisors quickly identified the fault, a stuck valve, and following the manual procedures for such an event shut down the plant. The environmental effects were, nevertheless, felt in an moderate increase in leukaemia, especially in men living within a ten mile radius of the plant over a number of years. Statistically, it is impossible to say exactly how many or what percentage of these cancers were caused by the accident, it is likely however, that a larger than usual number of cancers appeared in the affected population as compared to the rest of America.

In April 1986, a fire in the nuclear plant at Chernobyl got out of control and eventually the whole cover of the plant blew off sending a radioactive cloud over a huge swathe of Ukraine and all points West, to countries as much as fifteen hundred miles away. For several weeks it was impossible for the international governments to verify what had actually happened, the only evidence was atmospheric monitoring, firstly alerted in Scandinavia. In Russia, however, even in towns and cities less than two hundred miles away there was a blanket ban on information. The supervisors at Chernobyl nuclear plant turned to the pages of the manual, only to find that the instructions on what to do in the event of an accident had been blacked out. There could be no accident, this was State policy. Work out for yourself the effect on the local population.scan0018

Darragh McKeon has written with daring and clarity, a novel about people intimately involved in the disaster. Two boys, a young piano prodigy living in Moscow and Artyom, a young boy living in Belarus give the reader the teenage perspective on life in Communist Russia. The adults: the parents, aunts and teachers of these two, give us the other point from which to view these matters. State control leads to many things: unimaginable pressure from petty bureaucrats, employment punishments for the brave who speak out, or gulags for the dangerously dissident. These are all things we know about, but in this book we will experience them for ourselves.

There are times, and this is one, when I feel so blessed in having time, the capacity and the ability to read, and to read a lot. This new voice in fiction is here to stay, I am sure. The sweep and beauty of this writing will catch your heart, the story is daring and tragic, exhilarating and triumphant and Darragh McKeon holds it all together with a masterful brilliance. The author must have been about ten when the Chernobyl disaster occurred, it left its mark obviously.

Back to the dust jacket. Dust jacket design is really important here. The cover of the book shows a rural Russia basking in sunshine, the vivid green of the fields, sunlight glinting on the bulbous domes of a distant church, calm skies with maybe the hint of a storm brewing in the darker clouds in the distance. Put on the dust jacket, and the whole scene is covered in a grey blanket, whirling black flakes fall to the ground, even the title of the book seems to be about to vanish into air. Brilliant!

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Blogging the Booker 2014/2

scan0005Orfeo by Richard Powers. I have a real problem with this novel, quite apart that is from its ridiculous dust jacket. The narrative is strong, the adventure quite engrossing but the core is undecipherable, unless of course you are a musician. If like me you have not got perfect pitch and barely know the difference between a quaver and a crotchet, a tone or a semi-tone, then a great deal of this book will be in a language you simply do not understand.

I had a similar problem with The Blazing World. Siri Hustvedt was writing about art works that never existed, but it was possible to imagine that they might have been. Richard Powers is writing about music which not only has not been written but might never be written by an American composer, Peter Els. Els is on the run from the FBI in a post 9/11 America awash with biotech terrorism threats. Why? Because he has been “composing” music with the genome sequences.

The whole novel is full of musical references: Mahler, Shostakovich, Mozart, Bartok, Bach, or everyone (or every instrument) you have ever, and never, heard of actually. So if you don’t know Strauss’ Four Last Songs, or Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, or the Shostakovich 5th well, you will be in a foreign country, they hear things differently there. Of course, you could stream all the references on your smart phone…if that floats your boat, as they say.

I was engaged for about half of the time, then on every other page I was lost. This is undoubtedly a clever book, much of the prose is lyrical, and Els’ journey long but I suspect its true audience, musicians to be precise, number only in thousands. Is that enough? No, I think not.

So what was my quarrel with the cover? This is a book about the internet, tweets, texts and GPS, and music as I have said before – so why does the cover hark back to the good old days of cut out newspaper (or in this case musical score) to get the message across. It doesn’t make sense.

The title? Orpheus was a mythological musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greece. The major stories about him are centred on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music, his failed attempt to save his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld, and his death at the hands of those who could not hear his divine music. Peter Els doesn’t quite fill the bill, but I do understand the drift – certainly the last part about people not understanding his divine music, I am afraid I didn’t either.

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Man Booker swings

In Esi Edugyan’s novel Half Blood Blues, we are in a territory scarcely covered in fiction, so overwhelmed is the genre already with Holocaust Literature.  But it is the same ground – merely a different racial texture. Half Blood Blues swings, if that is not too grotesque a pun, between the 1990s and the 1930s and ‘40s.  It is the story of a jazz band that got caught between the ban on ‘degenerate’ music after the rise of Hitler, the housepainter, and the racial complexities of its make-up.

We have Charles C Jones (Chips), a drummer, African-American; Sidney Griffiths, double bass, also African American but a quadroon so pale-skinned he can pass for white; there is also Paul Butterstein, piano, German Jew; Fritz Bayer, saxophone, German; Ernst von Haselberg, clarinet, German aristocracy; and Hieronymus Falk, trumpet, mischling Afro-German which is probably the worst combination in a community striving for Aryan purity – a black German.

So we start in Paris in 1940.  The Nazis, the Boots as they are called in this book, have marched into Paris and are rounding up undesirables, that is: Jews, stateless persons and anyone without papers. Hieronymus Falk, has no papers and gets rounded up; then we swing to Berlin 1992.

The legendary Hieronymus Falk is being memorialised in a documentary, and Chips and Sid are there to represent the group, being apparently the only survivors. Then we swing back, this time to Berlin 1939 and get some of the background filled in – the music is banned and the group are hanging out together, playing in the dark, so to speak, when Delilah Brown, an habitué of Louis Armstrong turns up and persuades them to go to Paris to meet The King of Jazz.  After a ‘damn braid of mistakes’ some of them are on the run, some have defected to another band, and one has vanished along with Delilah.

Back in Berlin 1992, and the present day section moves on a pace.

Swing back to Paris 1939. What is left of the band has escaped from Germany to meet Louis Armstrong.  They start to make a disc, it is not finished and Armstrong is in the South of France, when events catch up.  After a first run through with Armstrong, Sidney has been dropped in favour of another ‘jack’ and thereby hangs the rest of the plait: for jealousy, both sexual and professional, creates a terrible situation.

Like jazz itself, the novel has a theme and then there is a textual change and the story spreads out, different threads riff, tempo changes and then it cools off, and one is back on the theme. Apart from some of the language which is hard to make out if you are not over familiar with jazz terms and Afro-American slang this is a great story. I have seen reviews which complain it is a missed opportunity, but I hardly think so.  This book is full of real people – Louis Armstrong for one, but the fictional characters have a reality too, so much so that I had to check out some of the names.  So what if it isn’t a book about the way jazz was regarded in Nazi Germany, or a book about the treatment of Afro-Germans, or even other degradations in pre-war Germany? It is a book about friendship and the failure of friendship to prevent awful things happening, and maybe about a betrayal.

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