Thursday 14 June 2012

Literary Turkish Delight, anyone?

Dear blog-botherers, I am on my high horse again. Not strictly, because I don't have a horse. I really wanted a horse when I was a kid because we lived in the countryside but were too poor to afford a paddock. This formative experience has left me with a compensatory tendency to get on my high horse throughout my life. To be honest, I quite like it up here.

This week I am on my high horse about books. Yes, I know the middle east is falling apart and there's a eurozone crisis and double-dip recession an' all, so books might not seem like the most important thing in the universe, but (bear with me) I sort of think there's a connection. You see, books are a good place to find answers. They are also a good place to ask questions. And I may not be the only person, right now, who has a few questions. How did we end up here? Why did nobody notice while all that happened? Were we all asleep?

Just Eat This. Everything Will Be Fine.
To which I answer, no, we were lulled into a false sense of security. It's like when Edmund goes to Narnia and the White Witch gives him Turkish Delight. Everything goes all sugary and rosy and you just do what they tell you.

Ah, Narnia. It's all about the great struggle between good and evil, right? And hanging to your integrity despite all the temptations on the way. With a bit of Christian symbolism on top, though to be honest I never noticed that until somebody told me, what with us being a bit of heathen household.

Anyway, some of that Narnia stuff is quite dark, right, like the bit where they go underground and there's a whole race of people living there who've never seen sunlight, and there's the Prince tied to the chair and he's under a spell except for one hour a night when he's sane. Scared the crap out me, that one. Poor CS Lewis, he didn't live in the easiest of times. He served in WW1 and lived through another war, and his wife died of cancer. That's why, when you read his stuff, it's not especially comforting. There's a 100 year winter and Mr Tumnus get arrested by the secret police and people get tied to chairs and stuff.

Anyway, Narnia is all a bit mid-20th Century and for gods-sake-somebody-invent-central-heating, right? The 21st Century equivalent of Narnia is Harry Potter. Harry Potter, poor orphaned child, is unwanted and unloved but then he discovers he has special powers and is taken away to a special world where everyone is special and they have history and culture and weird sport and stuff that his vile relatives on the housing estate don't. He is so amazed to be taken in by the special world where everyone is special that he takes on board all its beliefs and values. And then he gets involved in a war against Voldemort, who is a bit like a terrorist, right? Except that the muggle people outside his special circle of People Who Understand don't understand or appeciate that he is fighting this war on behalf of them. They don't get it. How the special people are really doing all the stuff for them, the muggles, who just watch television, and make crap, stupid comments all the time.

Anyway, that's children's books. Who cares, they're just children's books, right? Real grown-ups read proper, grown-up books. Like, oh, lets take some bestsellers from the last decade, that are not only bestsellers but actually considered clever as well. Birdsong, for a start.

That's a novel by Sebastien Faulks, in which a young man goes to France and has an affair with a married Frenchwoman. Apparently, having an affair with a married Frenchwoman is the height of sophistication for middle class people. I can't slag it off too much, since I haven't read it. I did try, but I got as far as the sex scene where 'she surrendered to the impalement' whereupon I fell off my chair laughing. I considered it unwise, for my own safety, and that of the furniture, to continue. I don't know if Sebastien Faulks asked any women about sex, but I for one, have never 'surrendered to the impalement'. It sounds like something that'd happen if you tried to climb the park railings while drunk, slipped, and passed out in agony. I can't remember any of my female friends mentioning they'd surrendered to the impalement either, which I'm sincerely glad of, as park railings can do terrible things to a lady.

Sebastien Faulks wrote another book, Charlotte Gray, in which a woman goes to France in the war and has an affair with a Frenchman, to prove how sophisticated she is. Then she saves some Jewish Children, to prove what a great person she is. I haven't read that either, I was afraid there might be more impalement.

After this, Faulks wrote a James Bond novel, in which Bond retires, buys a run-down vinyard in France, and bangs on about it incessantly, thus revealing himself to be a crushing middle-class bore. I made that up. Sorry.

Anyway, I have read Atonement, by Ian McEwan, in which there is some confusion over somebody impaling something and some swearing, and also, France. Atonement is the ultimate post-modernist novel, in that it gets you all carey-sharey with the characters, and then it turns out, after a series of middle-bogglingly implausible plot devices, that they've been dead for ages, and what we're witnessing is a terribly terribly clever writer (hi, Ian!) messing with our heads and 'atoning' by writing their story. Which I'm sure will more than make it up to them, since they're DEAD.

Atonement takes place in a big house, which, apart from France, is one of the things that keeps popping up in successful novels from the last decade. Chocolat, anyone?

Anyway, the main male character in Atonement is terribly clever and honest and sexy and everything, but he's also a servant's son. So when he has the temerity to shag the upper-class daughter of the house in the library, thus proving He Does Not Know His Place in the World, he has to pay for it by getting sent to prison for a crime he hasn't committed, and then dying. But it's ok, because he gets immortalised by a really clever upper class person, the writer, who was controlling everything, all along.

(If you can't cope with all that post-modern layering, you could try bestselling Richard and Judy fave, The House At Riverton, which has er, remarkable similarities to Atonement, without the writerly layers)

Another of Ian McEwan's bestsellers is about a really clever upper-class person who controls everything: Saturday. In this 200 page apologia for Colonel Blair's Misadventures in the Middle East, a brain surgeon runs into a lower class man who is stupid, violent, and dying of a disease which only the clever upper class man can cure. Which he does, despite the stupid, violent lower class man sexually assaulting his daughter, who, to show she is classy, lives in France. In between that, he ruminates about how he has special knowledge about terrorism that shows that he is clever. Also, he owns a really nice townhouse.

So, in summation, if you were an alien and came and read some of the best-selling literature of the last decade, you would be forgiven in thinking that we had three main concerns as a society:

1) Big Houses.
2) Class (and sex)
3) France.

Which is kind of funny really because that was the decade that everyone belived that house prices would go up for ever. You were, in the naughties, kind of defined by how big your house was, and how many of them you had your hands on, how much money you could make from them. It was also the decade in which being working class became shameful, and they invented the word 'chav'. Everyone was aspirational. Nobody was going to do any manual work any more, except immigrants, who were to be taken advantage of, and pitied. As for sex, you could be distracted by as much of it as you liked - on TV, in magazines, as long as it was beautiful celebrities doing it. As for you and your yucky bits, take them away, please.

France. It's where upper middle class people go for their holidays. That's why it keeps rearing its head. If novelists were more working class, you'd be reading bestselling thrillers set in the Costa del Sol. Honest. It's also a metaphor for a more genteel country, in which there aren't loads of immigrants snuggling up to you on buses and playing their music too loud. Of course, in actual fact most of France isn't like that, but hey, the upper-middle class novelists don't go to cities, they go to Provence. Yawn.

What I am saying is that much of the best-selling literature of the last decade or so is staggeringly conservative and reactionary. It is obsessed with property. It is obsessed with the lifestyles of the upper and upper-middle classes: big houses, public schools, long holidays in France.

I do understand that we weren't forced to consume all this reactionary rubbish. Some of it is even quite well-written rubbish. I do understand that Harry Potter is magical, that it's fun to imagine having an affair in a great 1930's house. The trouble is, none of it provides any answers to anything. It doesn't even ask any questions. It's Turkish Delight.

And you know where that ends, Edmund. You wake up, imprisoned, freezing, and knowing that you made a complete prat of yourself.


Incidentally, if anyone can point me at any recent fiction examining how or why we ended up in the shit, do please recommend it to me. Because I've looked, and I can't find any.

Thank you.


  1. Authors note... Sometimes Blogger isn't very good at accepting comments. So I've had to post this comment, which was sent to me by a friend on twitter, myself...

    He is @bookselector on twitter and a very good follow.

    'I think fiction tends to reflect the times in which it is written. Since, as you say, we have been living through a period of peace, wealth and prosperity (largely based on exporting misery, shite and death to people out of sight/mind) there is no surprise the best-sellers are sweet.

    But frankly I would go further and say screw the best-sellers. As Zizek said last week something to the effect of "most people are tossers". Working in retail for many years I tend to agree (though I would say 96% are c*n*s!)

    In a word forget about the masses, the best-sellers etc. Squeeze into the tiny niche you belong in and relax. There's plenty of nasty, dirty, evil fiction out there.(Not suggesting you are any of those things - just in contrast to the Turkish delight stuff) Even plenty of fiction that engages with politics directly or indirectly.

    Have you tried Michel Houellebecq? He may be nuts but he has a lot to say about contemporary life in Atomised.

    Or how about Helen DeWitt? And Other Stories are publishing her latest novel soon and it is angry, satirical, political and funny too...

    Would you like us to send you a copy?

  2. Dear Ursula,

    Your letters from my account have somehow been deleted by gmail and the "contact me" button at this site isn't working currently so I inform you this way that your brilliant work "The Time-sweepers" is available in Hungarian at AVABLOG ( As we agreed, I'm about to send you the translation if you could contact me. Hope you have my e-mail address... :)

  3. I was always a bit doubtful about reading novels set during wartime but written by someone who hadn't been in a war, what with having read so many books about real wartime things (and, er, Biggles) in my childhood... still, I gave Atonement my best shot, and was only mildly irritated by it until he pulled out the rabbit in the clever trousers. Never again, Mr McEwen! God, what a stupid book!

  4. Dear Ursula – I thought Atonement was brilliant and Saturday was pretty good too. Now you’ve put doubt in my mind! How does that work? Jane Austen writes about big houses too but that doesn't stop me being a massive fan. Even lefties are entitled to guilty pleasures! Peter

  5. Love this! I've made a bit of a new year's resolution to not read any white middle class men this year (male, pale and stale) but did get sidetracked by le Carre's The Mission Song. My excuse is his main characters are all misfits and he has a really good pop at the establishment while he's at it.

    If you'll excuse it, here's the link to my blog post about the resolution. It contains links to the places I got the idea from :)

  6. Silly me! Here's the link:

  7. Cheers for the comment. If you haven't already I highly recommend you read something by Irene Nemirovsky, who wrote Suite Francaise. For me she's one of the greats. I also really enjoyed A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth but it's a bit of a doorstop - I've heard some of his other (er, shorter) novels are also great.

    If you fancy something non-fiction for the WW1 anniversary, if you haven't read it already, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is ten times more enlightening than any book by a historian, if you can stand the gore and horror involved.

    I wonder if anyone else has any suggestions?

  8. {1) Name - URL seems to work ok here.
    (2) Dan Brown. Dystopian Narnia based on real life conspiracy theories & that stuff really gets $$$

  9. WW! Book I recommend
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom. T.E.Lawrence
    War Memoirs. David Lloyd George
    Both books mention the great contribution to British efforts in WW1 made by people from South Asia (india as it was known then).
    Lloyd George wrote many pages about a two-headed British Empire run from London & Bombay in the appendices to his war memoirs.
    Lloyd George remains topical to this day because he mentions a meeting with C.P.Scott of the Guardian, and Chaim Weizman, later president of Israel.
    When one examines the context of 'Total War' and the career of Lloyd George a naive observer may make a spurious connection
    with the efforts of Leon Trotsky to direct labour to specific industries
    etc. & see the methods of "The Welsh Wizard" QED.