The 7th function of language by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker)

7thfunction

“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”

How good is this tornado of a novel?  The plot is wildly ambitious, an intellectual version of the da Vinci Code, and mixing real-life characters with fictional ones is controversial. But it is a hugely brilliant swirl through multi layers of plot, character deceit, sex, intrigue, violence. The writing for a start, even in translation, is sometimes achingly beautiful.. “Crumb is famous for for the way he drew women, with their big, powerful thighs, their lumberjack shoulders, their breasts like mortar shells and their mares’ arses.” The structure of story telling is fresh, surprising, novel and alive.

Essentially it is a book about the philosophy of language.  Almost overshadowing it is Paris of the 1980s described in forensic detail, not just the architecture but the dinner parties, the gay clubs, the snobby academics, the shadowy politics, the rough edges of class politics. And yet how piquant of our own (UK) politics is this line: “If the dominant class has lost its consent, in other words if it no longer directs but merely dominates…”

There is (at least one) astonishing sex – I might have liked to have known more of some the fabulous women he describes but then he assigns them off stage to decorative retirement after starring vignettes. And there is in part shocking, unexpected violence, but it is a grown up, intellectual book about ideas which also insinuate in subtle ways. The cars are always in semiotic code R5, 2C or 504. One of Simon’s girlfriends speaks in Italian, albeit just little trackable observations rather anything off-puttingly incomprehensible. We are in the world of words. Simon at one point even wonders if he is not in the novel, which of course he is, which is the point. The real fictional characters sometimes have to get an epithet to denote that they are a fiction, not real people. “For Little Red Riding Hood, the real world is the one where wolves speak”.

So carefully are some of these characters sculpted that when we finally get to meet, presidential candidate Francois Mitterand he does actually speak like a brilliantly cunning statesman. Others are caricatures, Jean Paul Sartre smoking, Jane Birkin flipping across a party floor. And some of the central characters were equally obsessed – Umberto Eco wrote a tome called Foucault’s Pendulum – we will meet both as we go. The imagery is also grounded in great reading and is delivered with panache, maybe even a smirk or more. The core unlikely relationship between academic professor Simon and his gruff, bumbling detective partner also moves agreeably with the overall romp of events. Overall it is grand satire.

I am tempted to read the original French version. This is a very French book, with Gallic presumptions, especially about language. Having done translations from the French, you are aware that French vocabulary is much smaller than English. It is a social code to be used in certain ways, and you might equally say the same about Italian, both of which suit these high faluting academic arguments. But English has much greater vocabulary so the balance is different,  the sense of being able to articulate is that much more developed and therefore precise. There is usually a word for anything, where in French or Italian they may need a whole phrase or paragraph to overcome the lack of words. Enter the French masters of bombast.  Sam Taylor’s translation is masterful on the linguistics – because yes they do come over as really interesting, the ultimate science in one thesis – but I tripped on a couple of food bits, they order a bacon sandwich when surely in Paris it would be jambon or ham, they order a bottle of chardonnay where surely a Frenchman would order burgundy, but in other areas he may, quite deliberately I suspect, have you stretching for your dictionary. Hard work but great fun.

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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper Collins)

magpiemurders

“There was going to be a funeral.”

 

This is two books lashed together as one. The first is a detective story. We are gently introduced in a slow, west country way, to the cast of villagers. The net curtains are drawn back to give us a peek at their inner lives. All may not be as tranquil as we may have thought. Soon we meet the great detective at a point of his own crisis. By page 45 we know enough to start to guess…the compass of guilt starts to swirl.

I admire Anthony Horowitz’s career. Among other things he was the creator and writer on TV’s Foyles War and also a successful series for children with Alex Rider and is ghost writing the next James Bond film Trigger Mortis. This is, so far, more Midsomer Murders with which he was also instrumental, only the story has moved up country to the Cotswolds…

The tempo is 1955 … everything is shaping to be a pretty good episode, but then, and this is a literary wake up call, the Agatha Christie upgrade morphs into something fascinatingly different, perhaps even more so than the original story, certainly psychologically.

Look out, there is drama ahead. We move back to London and the contemporary. There is a story within a story, a faction in the fiction. It is tricky to review without giving too much away and spoiling the highly enjoyable conceit. There are tricks here about writing and publishing that make for enjoyable easy reading of a different grain.

On the other hand, had Susan Ryeland been such a whizz of an editor, would she have allowed so many opportunities to pass her by, so many good characters to be idle? You have to read the whole piece to discuss, in fact this would be excellent material for any reading group. My own take, without giving anything away, is that serious villainy is down to motivation…

 

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Bad business by Robert B Parker (No Exit Press)

badbusiness

‘Do you do divorce work’ the woman said.

‘I do,’ I said.

‘Are you any good?’

‘I am,’ I said.

 

THE late Robert Brown Parker wrote more than 40 Spenser detective novels plus another nine around the character Jessie Stone and six with Sunny Randall. Bad Business was his 31st, published in 2004. He was a master of dialogue, which accounts for 90% of this writing. Literally the story is told. Plot is all. Narrative is squeezed into tight paragraphs, often at less than one a page.

I suspect he has been allowed to drift out of fashion because of his tendency to take a sexually aggressive attitude to the women in his books. Verbal variations on the ‘50s airbrush glamour print.

“At the reception desk was a young woman with a big chest and a small sweater, who probably wasn’t devoted to golf or sailing”

This jingoist approach is at some odds with some of the recognition Parker has been given for bringing different races and sexualities into his stories from when he began in 1971. Maybe that was the stamp of the era.

Spenser’s first name is not revealed but he does have an encyclopedic knowledge of the greater Boston area. And how to read a liqor list. It is the details that etch a picture. …mornings kick start with coffee, then there might well be a beer for a stake out, on high occasions martini, of which he makes a personalized orange martini on days off. His women favour white wine – pinot grigio or reisling. He goes to a meeting. It is described as mine-was-a-scotch. Whisky is playing along. He does not like Campari…I am sure he does not trust men who drink Campari. He is particular, this is his university. His thesis might have been on minority beers.

The plot in this case swings through a series of increasingly unlikely well-i-nevers starting with a commission to trail an adulterous husband which has the first twist when Spenser finds that his client is also being followed and then well-i-never so is the mistress…after passing through a fair few revolving doors we end up Agatha Christie style in a room with potential suspects and reprobates whose secrets are swiftly eviscerated. The loose ends are not so much tied up, as put into a paper bag and chucked in the bin.

“The silence got long. No one said anything. No one went anywhere. Lance drooled a little and O’Mara rested his eyes some more. I knew what had happened now…”

Spenser is valiantly honourable. He does not seem even to be concerned about getting paid, not as much as he worries about getting justice. He is the small guy, the regular guy, someone to count on, someone just a bit smarter.

There are curious autobiographical overlaps with the role of the dog, and the nature of the relationship with Susan, as wiki explains here.

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin)

My-Name-is-Lucy-Barton

“There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks”

THE thing about writing solely on a macro level is that there is no horizon over which the sun can set, there is no doorknob to turn, no door to open, the cast have no faces. You swap the human condition for a human condition.

Our Lucy of the title goes to the dance as it were, but she does not actually, er, dance. She just lies around in a hospital bed fantasizing about the kindness of her doctor and listening to her mother recant tales of broken marriages.

I did enjoy this little riposte to the self indulgent wingeing from her mother:

“Lucy Damn-dog Barton. I didn’t fly across the country to have you tell me that we are trash. My ancestors and your father’s ancestors were some of the first people in this country, Lucy Barton. I did not fly across the county to tell me that we’re trash. They were good decent people. They came ashore at Provincetown, Massachusetts, and they were fishermen and they were settlers. We settled this country…”

Lucy even shares her chats with her writing tutor as she is composing this. Maybe my arguement is really with the tutor.

What this is not really, despite its lavish (un)critical praise, is a novel, rather it is a portrait in which no knife is unsheathed, no pistol cocked, just a haughty chin raised to the world. Equally you could say it is a photograph of a long moment in time, of an era with sub themes like Aids and American class brushed in for a little shading.

How much stronger this would have been if all this had just just been a swirl of background to an interlaced story/plot. At present it does not have much to say for itself that Mabel down the pub can manage for a pint (price of) of stout.

My biography shelf favours people who have led interesting, often flamboyant lives not little girls raised in a garage who get lucky (unexplained) and make some money and feel sorry for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The vanishing futurist by Charlotte Hobson (Faber)

vanishingfuturist

“In May 1914, much against the advice of my parents, I took up the post of governess to the Robelev family of No 7 Gagarinsky Lane, Moscow”

THERE is an endearing description on page two of this provocative, colourful entertaining, even visionary novel.

“Miss Clegg was born and bred in Truro, a solid leathery woman as dependably stuffed with good Chapel values as a pasty is with potato…” Part of the charm here are the people…

I picked up my copy at the RA exhibition of Soviet futurism which might be a cute place to read this, surrounded by powerful propaganda for a new utopia. There is an essay at the back, entitled Alchemy of Art, which you could equally mug up on before.

Gerty is an English governess to an old family as revolution sweeps the streets of Moscow. When the family leaves, a new idealistic commune forms around her and two older ladies who have decided to stay in the house. The scientist Slavkin is trying to build a madcap contraption that will communize people in 20 minutes. Gerty’s hopes of love are met with a response that sex is now too bourgeois.

“We the comrades declare war on the private – from now on there shall be no I, only we.” They move into shared rooms and shared baths.

It is enough to put you off being young and idealist although the picture Hobson paints is not too different to squats and hippy communes of the ‘60 and ‘70s with the overbearing difference that they do not have any money. There is a sub text, almost an exchange of visions, a swapping of zeal for pragmatic survival, burning down the wooden windows to make a fire in the old mansion, so hungry they drink carrot tea. As Gerty’s husband tells her later: “Truth is the surgeon. It sets the bones. Otherwise time will heal them crooked”. You know the story, but probably not from this perspective.

 

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The Third Plate by Dan Barber (Abacus)

ThirdPlate

“A corn cob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail not long after we opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Along with the cob was a check for $1,000”

THE best place to read this book would be on a summer’s evening in the middle of a field of corn. It is perhaps one of the more important books I have reviewed. These arguements need to get aired to a notoriously po-faced generation of landed farmers and agricultural college graduates who have destroyed the countryside, here and in the USA, potentially to the point that we might not soon be able to feed oursleves let alone the rest of the world.

Barber is a notable chef, his restaurant Blue Hills at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley was this year voted 11th in the World’s Best Restaurants list.

The first plate was steak and carrots, the second plate is 28 day grass fed fillet served with heirloom carrots, which is roughly where you might say we are today, the personification if you like of farm to fork dining. His third plate – the future – was steamed herloom carrots sauced with a braise from offcuts of the beef. He goes much further here.

He takes us on a journey of discovery back down the food chain to explain why all that white flour that permeates the diet is nutritionally useless, the top soil in which it grows has been destroyed which caused among other things the dust bowls of the 1930s. His guide in this, as a chef, is of course taste. He is doing what any serious chef does, talk to his suppliers, but he has an anthropologist’s curiosity and an attachment to the land having been raised on a farm himself. Also, unlike most chefs, most of us indeed, he has also read up on the agricultural journals, so he recognises the value of a southern crop rotation from the 1800s – buckwheat, peas, corn, barley, rye, sweet potatos, sesame, collards and livestock raised in tandem, a latter day improvement of the native Indian three sisters of corn, squash and beans.

We currently think of foods as commodities –  indvidual items to be bought in a supermarket – the carrot, the piece of steak, but on the farm these two items would be unrelated activities. The need is to reconnect with the organic nature of the land, to reclaim it. And in that regard as a chef he (and others) has the vision to see how to link up different crop cycles, overlooked grasses, what in common parlance are called weeds but in fine restaurants might be marigolds, emmer wheat, wild garlic, wild radish etc His mission is to join up the thinking from the kitchen to the farmyard because, as he points out, most of what we grow these days goes to feed the animals not ourselves, which is pretty foolish and uneconomic.

In the introduction he explains:

“What we refer to as the beginning and end of the food chain – a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other – isn’t really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together. Which is how I came to understand that the right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same.”

For the most part he is pretty good at summarising the industrialisation of food although this rather juicy titbit might raise an eyebrow: “as late as the 1900s, a French girl from the countyside had her dowry measured by the amount of manure produced on her family’s farm”.

Along the way we meet a cast of the agroscenti like the sage of Californian organic growers Amigo Bob Cantisaro. “Mutton-chopped and moustached, he has thick silvery-black Rasta hair down his back, making him look more Pancho Villa-like than plain old Bob-like.” And Glenn, “an oddity, even in a place like Lowcountry, where eccentrics grow like beautiful weeds…”

He dates the start of battery chickens to one Cecile Steele in Delmerva, Delaware who, in 1923, accidentally added an extra nought to her order for 50 chicks. Still in the 1970s, 70% of chicken was sold as whole birds, now it is 20% “a nightmare version of the loaves and fishes – an agricultural system out of control”.

You might say this is all an elite arguement, but the land in any country is owned by the elite who are charged you might like to think with its good husbandry. You can read this as a list of acts of dereliction of duty that go back 175 years. Equally in the oceans he suggests that as recently as 1950 we took out 19 million tons of fish where in 2005 it was 85 million – “we  are taking fish faster than they can reproduce”

Dan is as sharp as any lawyer and accepts that most chefs have been complicit, although this book and various events around waste free, holistic cooking have started to get a groundswell behind them, not before time. Back in the day when I edited restaurant guides we termed this approach as Real Food, and that was 1982. Thirty years later I cannot easily point to anyone in the UK following this philosphy at all, least of all government or council. If you want to see such a vision in action, you might go here. But that is in Italy.

Dan takes us instead to the dhesas of southern Spain, home of the fabled Iberico ham, of Morucha cattle and a chance to meet the only free range foie gras farmer in the world, Eduardo. From there we move on to aquaculture and grains.

“Our job (as chefs) isn’t just to support the farmer, it is really to support the land that supports the farmer. That is a larger distinction than it sounds…” Quite. He decribes looking out on fields of American agriculture that suggested abundance, “but what I did not see were crops I could cook with.”

A long overdue politic for chefs. The food he is looking for is a “pleasure, but also a satisfaction”. The answer is to cook the whole farm.

 

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Outline by Rachel Cusk (Vintage)

outline

“Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials.”

I GOT my copy of this book second hand. Various passages were marked up as if the previous reader had been making notes for a discussion or an essay. She (or he) had opted for different sentences, looking for meaning of sorts. So we have the “coupling of formality with doom…prompting of fate…money is a country of its own…he began to ask me questions as though he had learned to remind himself to do so…(his) life had been lived unconsciously, absorbed in it, as you can be absorbed in a book…your failures keep returning to you… “The notes stop after page 65. Another refers to the “fundamental anonymity of America”. Perhaps they did not finish the book or got distracted or missed their deadline? I wonder? I have them in my head, a distraction as I read, a parallel dectective story, the start of another unattached mystery linked only by pen and paper…their thoughts abandoned mid book, not edited nor publised or for all I know not seen by anyone else, a very personal missive which was then consigned to a second hand book shop. Whatever had driven them to start and consciously make notes had been thrown away. Part of me wants to track the author down and ask what happened? Where did they read this? Somewhere in Britain probably.

Not everyone likes to make biro marks and scrawl underlinings in books; there is a certain a profanity, an interference, a mark of disrespect, a certain ruthless professionalism, the reader as more important than the written ( I use yellow post-it stickers to mark out pages with quotes I might want to return to later, which makes me wonder more about the psychological etiquette at work here). At the bottom of page 17 they have even written boldly: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle (freud) – why do people repeat their own suffering?”. Freud is spelled with a lower case f. Did something more important come along that made them stop reading or note taking? Or did they just get bored? I am straying into Modiano territory. I double check there is no secret missive hidden away at the back (I fantasise: if you find this book rescue me…and an address or better  the key is in a box at 117 castle cottage,) no dedication: To Fran. No endearment: you get younger every birthday….Nothing, no link, no clue, a dead end. Just quasi academic notes.

They are not even quotes I would have picked out to portray this book which is the more baffling. So maybe it was being used for another purpose altogether?

We open with a trio of random meetings: the billionaire, a Greek divorcee,  the writer in the caffe, Cusk sketches out deeply confessional conversations struck up in everyday settings over lunch, a beer, on a plane. She is a writer bound to a conference to teach Greeks how to write, in English. She is divorced or seperated. You start to feel that her own saga is likely to be a match for the lives she is being told about, like the moment the music starts to hum in a horror movie…Or are these men would be lovers? As in the opening lines above, we are jet setted into a situation without context or background. We are in the now with a few measly fragments of the narrator’s past although her companions are all candour. She is someone seemingly random strangers seem happy to open up to…she is an Alice walking through her own Looking Glass.

I might chose this description: “One has the curious feeling that one is looking at an illustration of Paniotis, rather than at Paniotis himself“. Or this: “Scholars on bicycles sailing like dark swans through the streets in their black robes“. Or more moody: “The human capacity for self-delusion is apparently infinite…” And “I  was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself…”

She mixes the mundane everyday – “we would drive for a while” –  with sudden psychological flashes – “other people’s lives a commentary on my own”, vivid human portraits as yet without backdrops…like a pack of cards where you see the colours of the jack and queen but cannot be sure which is which. At its centre is a recurring theme of the writing itself – we have eight pages, no less, describing Clelia, the writer’s, apartment without meeting her at all.

“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in animal’s fur, the deeper they are buried the better.” Ticks are another recurring menace.

Where to read this? Like the heroine herself perhaps on a charter flight to Athens and go on to a villa for a discussion as to what this book is really about which is fragments, clues, a vicarious self portrait told through a series of random encounters, like walking around an art gallery and looking at different, unrelated people framed in one book.

I am reluctant to give the game away here, but I would wish she had taken another step that might have turned this into a novel rather than a literary conceit. I could write an ending for her:

She opened the door. Everything was the same. The chair. The table. The note on the table should have read: your dinner is in the oven. Instead, it just said: We have gone. There was an unopened letter underneath marked. Hamilton, Bailiffs.

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