A Small Tribute To Some Literary Giants

on Sunday, June 10, 2012
It's shaping up to be a sad year for literature.

Having just read that Barry Unsworth died, I realise that we've lost three writers who, if you will pardon the pun, bookmarked significant developmental stages in my reading/writing life.

First, of course, was Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are. I still remember sitting on the huge caterpillar pillow in my primary school library, sailing off to the world of Max and the wild things, oblivious to the other kids or teachers around me. Although I might not have truly understood the book at the time, it encouraged me to disappear into my own imagination and actively engage with the people and things I met there. I dare say it was also the precursor to my tenth grade Creative Writing teacher calling my parents in to discuss my "very fertile, but rather disturbing" mind.

Like many teens I gravitated toward dystopias, thanks in part to the great Ray Bradbury. Cormier's I Am The Cheese might have pipped it at the post, but Fahrenheit 451, with its world of banned books (take it as allegory for censorship or, as Bradbury himself claimed, the destructive force of mindless entertainments on reading) played an important part in opening my eyes to the subversive potential of the written word.

Barry Unsworth played a much more subtle role in my life, and not through any of his more celebrated works. Losing Nelson, Unsworth's tale of a lonely old man playing with his army figurines in a dark basement, taught me the importance of quiet beauty in literature, and showed me that a microcosm filled with compassion and empathy (the whole book takes place in his flat) can be just as weighty as a multi-generational, multi-national epic. In my humble opinion, it should have won him a second Booker.

Sendak, Bradbury, Unsworth and, of course Carlos Fuentes. Mortal men, it turns out, but immortal artists.

Microviews 16: Amis, Morrison, Barry

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis
There was a time when Martin Amis could do no wrong. Money. The Rachel Papers. Time's Arrow (yeah, go stuff yourself, haters!). The Information. And then came Yellow Dog. If ever a single book destroyed my love for a writer, it was that pile of steaming crap. Since then, Amis has struggled to get back on track, regularly putting out fair-to-middling shadows of his former brilliance.The bitterness remains, as does his linguistic mastery. But, in every other sense, age has not done him any favours. With Lionel Asbo, Amis is trying his level best to recapture the acerbic satirical stylings of his early years but he just ain't got the knack to pull it off anymore. Lionel Asbo is a lower class pommy hooligan who wins 140 million pounds in the national lottery. There was a time that this premise would have been perfect fodder for Amis's cannon but these days the old fuddy duddy doesn't seem to know what to do with it. There are some mildly amusing moments, but for the most part it just reads like an aristocratic prat taking cheap shots at the English working class.

Home by Toni Morrison
The Nobel curse is a weird beast. It either drops the laureate immediately back into obscurity (Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Muller), turns them into complete dicks (Gunter Grass, V.S. Naipaul - though to be fair he was already a complete dick) or allows them to continue on in slightly diluted form (Doris Lessing, J. M. Coetzee, as much as it pains me to say so). Very few actually rise above their earlier work to make even greater art. Toni Morrison is one of those few. Since being awarded literature's most prestigious prize, she has written three beautiful, if ever shorter, works that have not only done justice to her name but arguably added to its gravitas. She has also managed to cultivate the world's best set of dreadlocks. But I digress... Home is another small, powerful novel to add to the pile. The story of Frank Money, an African American veteran who returns from the non-segregated army in Korea to the still very much segregated "homeland" of America, it is searing in its indictment of the recent past. It is also a beautiful hymn to the downtrodden - Money's redemption is a wonderful thing to behold. I wonder whether there should be a special Nobel Prize for surviving the curse.

We All Fall Down by Peter Barry
I don't know whether it is a spectacular case of 'sophomore album slump' or whether We All Fall Down was the book left languishing in Peter Barry's bottom drawer only to be resurrected in the wake of his debut's success, but this has got to be one of the most disappointing follow ups to a literary bolt from the blue that I've ever had the displeasure of reading. I Hate Martin Amis Et Al was an absolute cracker. Hilarious, madcap, insightful and superbly original. In other words, everything that Barry's latest effort is not. Supposedly a skewering of the advertising world in times of financial collapse, it charts the downfall of a high-flyer who (surprise surprise) eventually finds dignity in poverty. Ho hum. Didn't Elliot Perlman do that over a decade ago? We all know how vacuous and demoralising the advertising industry can be. If Barry had intended to show us that it can also be incredibly boring, he didn't need to make us experience it first-hand. Turns out in this round, Amis gets the win.