Sunday, 23 December 2012

Two Entirely Unrelated Reviews

Normally, if I feature two reviews together, there tends to be a reason.  I try to find some links between them, and so forth.  Well, the only reasons that these books are combined is that I've finished them, and need to get all my Century of Books reviews out before the end of 2012.  Maybe unexpected connections will arise by the time I've finished writing about them?  At the moment the only thing I can think is that I didn't really think either of them were great.

Sunlight on Cold Water (1969) is the second novel I've read by Francoise Sagan, after really liking her most famous novel, Bonjour Tristesse, last year.  That short novel focused on a young girl's self-discovery, first love, and developing relationship with her stepmother.  It was all very introspective, but that was totally forgivable in the mindset of a teenager.  In Sunlight on Cold Water (title from a poem by Paul Eluard), this introspection is transferred to a middle-aged man...

Gilles Lantier is depressed.  Depression is such a difficult thing to convey, since it involves such listlessness and the deadening of emotions.  I was impressed that Sagan was going to give it a go and, if it didn't make for very compulsive reading, at least it was sensitive and thought-provoking.  But... then it wasn't.  He meets a woman.  He starts having an affair with her (she's married).  He worries about his mistress back in Paris; he worries about being good enough for his new mistress.  And so on, and so on.  This sort of writing filled the book:

"That's not it at all," he said, "I've left out the main thing.  I haven't told you the main thing."The main thing was Nathalie's warmth, the hollow of her neck when he was falling asleep, her unfailing tenderness, her utter loyalty, the overwhelming confidence he felt in her.  Everything that this semi-whore of a kept woman with her cockneyed perversions couldn't even begin to understand.  But in that case, what was he doing here?
Lovely, isn't it?  (Er, no.)  I'm afraid I am not remotely interested in the elaborate musings of a man who may or may not be in love, talking about the sight, sounds, and smells of his various love exploits.  It's not Fifty Shades graphic or anything like that, but, boy, is it tedious.  This is the only excerpt I jotted down which I thought a bit clever:

"Could you love a man who was so rotten?""You don't choose the people you love.""For an intellectual, you're not afraid of platitudes.""I'm only too afraid of them," she murmured, "they're nearly always true."
But, still.  Total dud for me, I'm afraid.  Only about 140 pages long, and dragged for ages.  Perhaps it's my own lack of tolerance for this sort of novel, but I found it meandering, self-indulgent, whiney, and dull.  If I can find a Francoise Sagan that has nothing to do with introspective love affairs, then I'll give her another go - because I so admired Bonjour Tristesse.

*  *  *

And onto the other novel.  I'm still not seeing any connections.  It's The Simmons Paper (1995) by Philipp Blom.  I bought it in a charity shop, because the cover struck me as delightfully eccentric, and the topic appealed.

After his death, Simmons is discovered to have left behind a manuscript detailing his work in compiling the section P in a Definitive Dictionary.  Blom's conceit is that the manuscript has become a famous, much-discussed piece of work - and this novella is framed as though it were an edition of the essay, footnotes and all.

Simmons is totally besotted with his work.  Most of The Simmons Papers concerns his daily life of researching words, philosophising about the role of dictionaries, and raging against neologisms.  He believes P to be 'the most human letter in the alphabet', and manoeuvres through various interesting facets of the letter and its history.  I love anything to do with linguistics, and it's a rare novel that assumes you know all about Saussure.  I'm also rather drawn to novels where the main character gets obsessive and increasingly unbalanced (c.f. also Wish Her Safe At Home.)  Simmons certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard - quite genuinely obsessed with the letter P (every section opens with a word beginning with P, and Simmons takes to eating mostly peas):
I must confess that in a sense even I am a victim of this daunting work.  Invariably the study of words, their history, meaning and evolution, etymology, connotations and formation, must impress on any mind its seal, especially since some words will resound for a certain person more than others and come to exercise a considerable influence of their own on any mind connected with them.  The long-winded proem which I am now engaging in now seems necessary before I can tell what I hardly dare admit: that I am subject to daydreams, voices and visions.  Words, p-words, emit and emanate images, stories, pictures and fantasies, which ultimately are impossible to keep at bay.
So, The Simmons Paper had all the ingredients of a novel I'd really like - and is packaged in a really attractive edition, incidentally.  So why didn't it really work for me?  Well, it's rather too close to what it is pretending to be.  The faux-introduction is amusing, some of the footnotes are really enjoyably silly if you spend a lot of time reading literary criticism - (cue interrupting my sentence for a long example of a footnote)
The pseudonym 'P' has been the cause of much controversy.  In the interpretation of Mandelbrodt and his followers, P designates 'paradigm', a notion which, in this reading, the text sets out to deconstruct by showing its inherent limitations and contradictions.  'The indefensible stronghold of the face of the dying Kronos falters from the owl, its death-ode on the phallus and His contemporaneous demise.  The giant turns back in agony and the very power against himself is the very powerlessness against this power' (Mandelbrodt, The Question of Femininity, pp.345-6).  According to this reading, the destruction of the paradigm of male hierarchical order is what the text 'which is by no means fiction, but an emanation of the act of writing in its existential peril itself' (ibid.) sets out to prove.  While A. Rover takes P as quite simply Simmons' own initial, Richard Silk suggests that it stands for 'pater'.  'Simmons addressed his father with this name, traditionally used by public boys for "father", throughout his life until "pater" died in 1946' (The Dramatic Personae).
- but parody has to go further than imitation.  Examples like the quotation above do seem to work in this way, but, as a whole, the novel didn't feel all that much like a novel.  It got a love interest towards the end (but not in the traditional sense) - but a lot of it read like critical theory.  And I read plenty of that for my day job!  There wasn't enough novel in the novel.  I thought The Simmons Paper had real potential to be a little-known much-loved novella for me - have I ever told you about my fascination with dictionaries?  I wrote a thesis on them once - but I found the style a little clogging, and the thread of spoof rather one-note.  Good, but still disappointing.  Yet I will say this for it - it was much better than Sunlight on Cold Water.


20 comments:

  1. The Simmons Papers sounds like a terrific find. Thanks for sharing through your well-written reviews.

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    1. Thanks Diane! I wish I'd liked The Simmons Papers more, but it was definitely an unusual find.

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  2. I think my husband might really like The Simmons Papers - I'll have to suggest it to him, and thank you for the recommendation! He loves books about how stuff works, how it gets put together, and descriptions of the people involved. He recently read a history of the bookshelf and is currently in a history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Is this in a similar vein?

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    1. Which is he reading? Dad is currently reading one by Simon Winchester (I think... Simon something.) This one is similar, but much more eccentric - and I'm pretty sure the referencing is all made up, so it might frustrate him if he's looking for knowledge! But it's an interesting play on all that kind of thing. He might well enjoy it more than I did!

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    2. Must be the same book - "The Professor and the Madman"? I found it for fifty cents in a thrift store; it was one of those really rare times when I actually buy a book he's interested in. I've mostly stopped ever looking for books for him, which is why I'm so appreciative that you've put me onto this one! Many thanks!

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  3. Actually I think that S is best letter.....

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  4. I don't know any of those books. The Simmons Papers seems to me like an interesting one. Thanks for the reviews, Simon.

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    1. Thanks Agnieszka :) It's definitely interesting, and I'm glad I've read. I've also subsequently discovered that the author was only 25 when he wrote it!

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  5. This may be of interest if you like letters and dictionaries: at the beginning of the year I found a great book in library (of which I later bought a copy) called 'Alphabet' by David Sacks. It details the history of each letter in the English alphabet, and the history of alphabets generally. Very interesting stuff. Not entirely related but the bit about P being Simmons' favourite letter reminded me. Shame that book didn't end up being that good. I too think dictionaries are fascinating, but not necessarily just monolingual English ones...

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    1. Oh yes, I remember you reading it! I might well be interesting to me, although you know how partisan I am to English-only linguistics ;)

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  6. About the first of these books, it seems, the less said the better. As for the second, and in memory of someone we lost this year, I feel compelled to say: "I'll have a 'P' please, Bob."

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  7. Unlike you, the introspection of Bonjour Tristesse put me off trying another of Sagan's. I think, in fairness, I was just too old for it, instead of forgiving the teenager as you did. And I think you are right too, for that book. But it sounds as if Sagan does not leave it there.

    Thank you for these!

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    1. Yes, if Bonjour Tristesse proved too introspective, definitely don't go near this one! I have three or four others of hers on my shelf, and I'm wondering whether to give away the lot, or to keep them on the off-chance that she returns to form elsewhere...

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  8. Sorry the Sagan didn't work out. I have only seen the movie Bonjour Tristesse years ago when I was briefly obsessed with the work of actress Jean Seberg. My library has a copy of the book, so I may pick it up some day.

    Your review of the Simmons Papers somehow makes me think of the book Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn...I think it is the obsession with the alphabet that triggered it. Ella Minnow Pea is a "progressively lipogramatic epistolary fable" and lots of fun to read.

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    1. A friend gave me Ella Minnow Pea last year, and I'm looking forward to reading it this year - I've heard a few good reports of it. I'll report back in due course!

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    2. I also loved Ella Minnow Pea. It was unusual, clever and thought-provoking.

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  9. Your review of the Sagan book is how I usually feel after reading most books from the 60's. Maybe I'm just reading the wrong books. :)

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    1. Actually, thinking about it, the Drabble I read recently (The Garrick Year) left me feeling much the same, so perhaps there's something in that theory! But The L-Shaped Room is one of my favourite books...

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