The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south that contains extraordinary prose and uncomfortable home truths”

The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad begins on a particularly vicious Georgia plantation, where all anyone wants to do is escape. “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” We meet Ajarry, taken from her West African village and across the ocean on a slave ship. We meet her daughter, Mabel, who flees the plantation and its odious owner, Randall, prompting a wild and fruitless search, and Cora, Mabel’s daughter, our heroine.

“This beginning of the novel strikes two clear chords. First, it draws on traditional slave testimonies by the likes of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the subtly antique prose and detailed description combine to create a world that is entirely convincing. In this opening section there are also nods to more recent influences: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, in particular. A familiar visual and linguistic idiom has developed by which novelists and film-makers address the subject of slavery. The first 70 pages of The Underground Railroad are beautifully written and painful to read, but there is a sense of having been here before. Then everything changes.

“Cora, deciding to flee with Caesar, a fellow slave, finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad. And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality. Cora and Caesar are led through a trapdoor and down to a subterranean platform where rails stretch away into darkness. A train pulls up, heading north. It’s a brilliant conceit, and from this point forwards, the book takes on a visionary new life. Whitehead has always been one of those authors who move effortlessly between genres, as at home in the rigorously researched historical fiction of John Henry Days as he was in the futuristic zombie world of Zone One. Here, it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America.

“The narrative then doesn’t draw breath as Cora is pursued by the malevolent slave catcher Ridgeway, whom we first meet attended by “a fearsome Indian scout who wore a necklace of shrivelled ears”. Ridgeway has as his life’s mission the need to defend “the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

“Cora rises from the underground railway into a world of bodysnatchers, night riders, sinister doctors, heroic station agents, conflicted abolitionists. She finds love, loses it, is happy for brief snatches of time before the remorseless Ridgeway catches up with her, and she must flee again. There’s something Thomas Pynchon-like about the novel, but without Pynchon’s desiccating distance, his endless tangents. Everything in Whitehead’s narrative is honed to scintillating sharpness.

“Alongside the tumultuous intermingling of genres, there’s a distinct allegorical flavour to Cora’s journey. Each state she emerges into appears to present a new face of the horrors of slavery. South Carolina, with its skyscrapers redolent of Alan Moore’s From Hell, and its seemingly benevolent approach to “the negro problem”, is hiding dark secrets beneath its pristine exterior.

“It’s at the end of the novel, though, that the allegorical mode is felt most strongly. It’s to Whitehead’s credit that he never strikes too hard on the parallels between America’s current racial crisis and the material of his story (although the reader can often think of nothing else). Instead, the author looks backwards, to a previous genocide – the massacre of Native Americans – and seeks to show that, as one character puts it, “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” The book’s final pages, which are almost unbearably poignant, seem to offer a model of resistance, a small gleam of hope.

“I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.”

Winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel has achieved possibly the highest accolade, but is it a deserving winner? Without reading the dozens of other contenders who can tell. I agree with The Guardian that the opening half of the ovel is “beautifully written and painful to read”, and that the central conceit of the novel – that of the underground railroad being an actual underground railroad – is a very clever approach, I feel that this is nonetheless a novel that loses its way and one that doesn’t realise its potential. The later scenes with the slavecatcher Ridgeway – where he explains his thinking to the novel’s protagonist – are implausible and break the reader’s experience of the story and its characters. Is implausibility such a sin? In a novel that employs the actual impossibilities of Magical Realism (where things that can’t happen do in fact happen – e.g. the existence of a series of rail tunnels spanning the length of the East Coast of America built by slaves in secret) where is the sin in adding another implausibility? But the problem is that it just doesn’t fit: there are rules that a novel sets itself, in this case Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” transgresses those rules, and in so doing undermines what it has set out to do. Yes, this is just one crack in an otherwise great book, but a major fault nonetheless.

Mr A



Mating by Norman Rush 

The “most fully realized female character in the English language”?

Mating by Norman Rush “Exploring diametrical opposites on a personal, political and global scale, Rush’s 1991 novel highlights the disjunction between ideals and realities. From bedroom politics to the exploitation of the developing world by the west, a chaos of misunderstanding is revealed. But what ultimately stands out is a quirkily acquisitive heroine compulsively collecting “new material to be integrated into the study of me”.

“The narrator of Norman Rush’s “Mating” — who through almost 500 pages remains persistently unnamed — opens her sprawling comedy of manners by announcing, “In Africa, you want more, I think.” And she does want more: there she is, 32 years old, a would-be Ph.D. in anthropology with an exploded thesis on her hands, tired of her own company with no one left behind or on the horizon, “feeling sexually alert” and circulating in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, “in a medium of other whites who are disappointed too.”

“…presented in an allusively freewheeling first-person narrative that provides exhilarating evidence of an impressive intelligence at work and play. Readers receive a palpable sense of having their education sternly tested — and expanded — by Mr. Rush’s novel. Geography, history, political science, economics, literature, biology, popular culture and utter trivia — the narrator and her beloved Denoon hash everything out, and in doing so are encyclopedic in the extreme, segueing from bats to Boers to Borges to Botswana.

“…we’re in fast and very self-conscious company with this narrator and her beloved. These are people smart enough, loquacious enough, logodaedelic enough to play games like “Filling in the White Spaces in the Dictionary” (“skreel”: a “neologism for the sound a police whistle makes”), and the wordplay is often of the slyly and pleasingly unobtrusive variety: “Nelson adored glass. Blowing it, casting it, it didn’t matter: he loved it. If I had pressed something home on this subject it might have had a clarifying effect.”

‘The narrative itself represents the heroine’s reconsideration of her relationship with Denoon, her emotions recollected in the shakiest of tranquillities, a strategy that allows for endless asides, digressions, minilectures, documents entered in evidence and, most of all, hindsight. She tirelessly organizes and tries to make sense of her material with mordant titles and subtitles, for which she has a knack: “Of Surfeit One Can Never Have Too Much,” “Gratitude Is a Drug,” “A Fete Worse Than Death,” “This Is How Depraved You Can Become” and “I Love a Demystified Thing Inordinately.”

“Denoon’s utopia, Tsau, surpasses her expectations. Run by women and for women and designed to maintain a “diffuse cultus around the wonderfulness of women,” it is dedicated to — and seems to have achieved — “an amazing equality of condition” to such an extent that it calls to mind Blake’s “organized innocence.” And Denoon himself seems even more clearly the Pygmalion object she would have carved for herself as a mate: a man so politically correct that he occasionally branches off “into an intense static condition of empathy for some victimized group he hadn’t thought about in a while,” so keen that “movies are a bore for him” because he, unlike “the groundlings,” is aware of “that flicker of black between the frames,” and so perfect that for a long stretch the only fault she can find is that “he was sure he’d implied that he’d read Middlemarch, but the truth was he’d only read two thirds of it, or a half.”

“But all of her attempts to, as she puts it, get “inside the moat,” to be embraced by the perfect man and perfect community, only point out to her how problematic the paradox of her position as a feminist is becoming: for all her gifts, she’s relying for happiness and a sense of purpose on a male, and she’s having more and more difficulty reconciling her supposed independence with the implications of her pursuit of Denoon and his utopia. She understands that “women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives” and that “because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.” She understands that “intellectual love is a particular hazard for educated women,” and she sees the dangers of loving someone who “takes a serious tutelary attitude” toward her. She’s afraid that in even “the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions” she can hear “the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity.”

This for me is the novel’s central problem – the female protagonist – written by a male author – is horribly subservient: intellectually and absolutely. She is in a story, that she is more or less writing herself, but instead of being a story about her, it is a story about the man she decides to fall in love with: a man with an idea, with initiative, with momentum, with a meaningful life, in a world where women don’t have ideas, nor can have a meaningful life on their own.

“Not everything that Mr. Rush attempts in this extraordinarily ambitious novel comes off. …A certain amount of rambling does take place; at one point the narrator feels as if her story is “turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents,” and the reader is forced to agree. Every now and then, we’re jolted out of the female voice. And important secondary characters in Tsau, even given the narrator’s focus on Denoon and her own self-absorption, are sketchily drawn.

“If these seem like relatively small complaints, they are. Mr. Rush has created one of the wiser and wittier fictive meditations on the subject of mating. His novel illuminates why we yield when we don’t have to. It seeks to illuminate the nature of true intimacy — how to define it, how to know when one has achieved it. And few books evoke so eloquently that state of love at its apogee — or, as the protagonist puts it, the way in the state of passion one feels oneself the “pale affiliate” of the storm, “acted on at some constitutive and possibly electrical level,” the way one feels the intensity of the nourishment derived and that sense of a great sweetness to everything, that sense between lovers of surmounting all, seeming “to coast over everything, up and over, a good thickness of rushing water between us and the boulders underneath.” At their happiest, the lovers arrive at a personal utopia of equal love between equals, a love exalting in its seeming inexhaustibility.”

I would disagree with the reviewer. The protagonist is horribly flawed, as is her notion of love and a meaningful life. But it is in these flaws that the novel’s merit exists: the narrator is wrong, wrong, wrong. But she can’t help but stumble upon insight after insight, some of which she picks up, and then lets drop, and some of which she fails to pick up on at all, making the reader squirm a little.

“For me love is like this,” the narrator tells us. “You’re in one room or apartment which you think is fine, then you walk through a door and close it behind you and find yourself in the next apartment, which is even better, larger, more floorspace, a better view. You’re happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it’s breathtaking, a surprise, something you’ve done nothing to deserve or make happen. You never intend to go from one room onward to the next — it just happens. You notice a door, you go through, and you’re delighted again.”

This is a novel in which the narrator makes great strides and goes nowhere. I suspect though that it succeeds despite itself, despite the jaundiced and faulty perspective of the protagonist, and despite even the intentions of the author

“I know it sounds absurd, but I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language,” said Rush.

A weird novel, full of intelligence, but infuriating too.

Mr A





Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

Tolstoy’s favourite novel

Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov“Oblomov, first published in 1859, is the charming tale of a lazy but lovable aristocrat in 19th-century Russia. The novel’s eponymous hero cannot see the point of doing anything at all, and spends his time lying in bed or wandering around his St Petersburg flat in his beloved oriental dressing gown, bickering about the dusting with his manservant. The newspaper on the desk is a year old; flies buzz from the inkwell. Oblomov broods; he worries; he thinks.

“The book’s author, Ivan Goncharov, is perhaps little-known now, but in its time Oblomov was hugely popular in Russia. Tolstoy, that venerable, saintly moralist, was deeply in love with it, writing: ‘Oblomov is a truly great work, the likes of which one has not seen for a long, long time. I am in raptures over Oblomov and keep re-reading it.’

“Later, that humourless man of action Lenin saw Oblomov himself as a symbol of everything that was wrong with Russia. The book and its central character had had such a success that ‘Oblomovism’ became an adjective for sluggishness, and even today an ‘Oblomov’, meaning ‘a lazy person’, is a word used by Russians who have never read the book. Lenin believed that if social progress was to be made, then Russians must cleanse their Oblomovian tendencies.

“In actual fact, like many apparent idlers, Oblomov is not really lazy — or at least he is only slothful in the physical sense. Intellectually, he is a fizzing ball of energy. It’s just that he spends a lot of time in bed. But he is thinking, thinking hard, all the time. He is a philosopher. His observations on the vanity of human effort are positively Christ-like — or at least like the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount:

Isn’t everybody looking for the same thing as me? After all, surely the purpose of this hustle and bustle of yours, all these passions, wars, trade and politics is to achieve precisely this very peace and quiet, to strive for this ideal of paradise lost?

“The most wonderful section of the book is probably the extended utopian fantasy, ‘Oblomov’s Dream’, an idealisation of his own childhood, where our protagonist conjures up a Virgilian bucolic idlyll:

The river burbles merrily and playfully along, widening in spots into a pool and then, narrowing into a swift thread of a current, pauses for reflection and just trickles over the rocks, branching into frisky rivulets whose babbling lulls the surrounding countryside into a sweet slumber.

“As for the people of ‘Oblomovka’, as this land is known,

There are no robberies, murders or other calamitous events; their tranquility is never broken by strong passions or ambitious enterprises.

Oblomov is a beautiful and romantic novel. It is gloriously purposeless and no one who was serious about the business of life would ever waste their time reading it. I’d be willing to wager a million pounds that it does not sit on Alan Sugar’s bookshelf. It is a book to be re-read, savoured and pondered about. And of course you must read it in bed, and let it fall from your hands as you sink into a delightful reverie. Great riches lie between its covers. It is also an oddly modern book: in its treatment of childhood it is positively Freudian, and the female characters are strong.

But above all Oblomov is an extended meditation on that old question which has perturbed man for millennia, and which we are no closer to solving today than we were in the time of Zeno, Socrates and Epicurus: which is superior, the active life or the contemplative life?


Yes, there are a bundle of flaws in this novel. Partly owing to the fact that it is a work of several distinct parts – written over two long and discrete periods – each with their own influences, and where the authour’s concerns, sympathies and approach is different. But it also manages to float one of the most striking and stirring ideas in Russian Literature – the idea of Oblomov himself. What a creation! And the charm of the novel (the charm of Oblomov) that caught Tolstoy (and irked Lenin) is still very much appreciable today. A character in the mould of Don Quixote. And on almost the same scale. Great novel.

Mr A



Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme

“serious frivolity” – giving us “a new sense of fiction’s possibilities”

Forty Stories by Donald Barthelme

“…Barthelme is not an easy writer. Despite being best known for short stories that seldom extend beyond five pages, he is a high-minded artist who can be difficult to digest. His fictions are dense, surreal affairs that eschew conventional narrative and skip giddily between genres. Those looking for plot, character, linearity or any other hallmarks of creative writing workshops should look away now.

“It is a cliche (but true nonetheless) that in 246 pages, the book covers more fictional ground than other authors could hope to in entire careers. This is slightly unfair given that it was a selection of his best stories, but even fêted contemporaries of his, such as Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, struggle to match the furious, joyous mélange of styles. Just the titles – in stark and arch contrast to the collection itself – are a source of great enjoyment…

“Part of the greatness of Forty Stories derives from its vertiginous variety. In reading these tales, the reader is exposed to – among other things – a story composed of one long, slithering sentence; another composed almost entirely of questions; and yet more that are composed entirely of dialogue. There are legends, there are letters, there are fables, there are essays. Of course, the narrative does occasionally lapse into classical storytelling, but the majority of the stories are studied attempts to avoid the staid Chekhovian/Joycean, small-epiphany-delivering style that was and is so prevalent. The long shadows of Beckett, Kafka, Borges and Nabokov do hang low over the work, yet Barthelme nearly always sounds fresh.

“Twenty-eight years since its publication, and 26 since Barthelme’s death in 1989, the book remains essential reading. Firstly, because its author is grossly under-appreciated and secondly, because reading him will give one fresh insights into recent short story greats such as George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. People should also read the book because Barthelme is a relic of a time long since passed: an author willing to take stylistic risks, an author who manages to be frivolous and intellectually serious at the same time. He is a writer who is not afraid to make the reader roar with laughter – or to be wilfully difficult. He wanted his readers to work but was ready to reward them every step of the way.

“What’s more, few writers have ever believed in the power of words as much as Barthelme, and even fewer have demonstrated the same conjurer’s deftness with them. His self-described artistic “project of restoring freshness to language” is one to be appreciated and applauded. I understand that these stories can seem dated to some or cold to others, but Barthelme’s genre-bending flash fiction, with its offbeat tone and surreal imagery, is just as relevant for the YouTube generation as it was for the Baby Boomers. To read him is to refresh your sense of fiction’s possibilities.”

Indeed. I’d entirely agree with this review by Matt Lewis in The Guardian. Barthelme keeps asking what fiction can do, keeps guessing, keeps answering the question in different ways, coming at it from different angles, and if you get to the end of a story and wonder: well, what was that for, you would be minded to think again: what is fiction for? What can, what should, what might the short story do? A good place to start if you’re wondering about the state of fiction today. And amidst all those pronouncements on the death of the novel and the annual declaration of the revival of the short story form, you might begin to place other things you have read, and begin to appreciate what fiction is, can and will do.

Mr A

The Charterhouse of Parma by Henri Stendhal

“one of only two French works that could be counted among the top 10 of world literature

The Charterhouse of Parma by Henri Stendhal

“Almost since the moment it appeared, in 1839, Stendhal’s last completed novel has been considered a masterpiece. Barely a year after the book was published, Balzac praised it in a lengthy review that immediately established the novel’s reputation. ”One sees perfection in everything” was just one of the laurels Balzac heaped on ”Charterhouse,” in what was surely one of the world’s great acts of literary generosity. Sixty years after Balzac, Andre Gide ranked ”Charterhouse” as the greatest of all French novels, and one of only two French works that could be counted among the top 10 of world literature. (The other was ”Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”) The encomiums weren’t restricted to France — or, for that matter, to Europe. In an 1874 article for The Nation, Henry James found ”Charterhouse” to be ”among the dozen finest novels we possess.”

“At first glance, the bare bones of Stendhal’s story suggest not so much a literary masterpiece as a historical soap opera. The novel recounts the headstrong young Italian aristocrat Fabrice del Dongo’s attempt to make a coherent life for himself, first as a soldier in Napoleon’s army and then, more cynically, as a prelate in the Roman Catholic Church; the attempts of his beautiful aunt Gina, Duchess of Sanseverina, and her lover, the wily (and married) Prime Minister, Count Mosca, to help establish Fabrice at court, even as Gina tries to fend off the advances of the repellent (and repellently named) Prince Ranuce-Erneste IV; Fabrice’s imprisonment in the dreaded Farnese Tower for the murder of a girlfriend’s protector, and his subsequent escape with the help of a very long rope; and his star-crossed but ultimately redemptive love affair with his jailer’s beautiful (and, it must be said, rather dull) daughter, Clelia.

“Why, in the words of one contemporary Stendhal scholar, does ”Charterhouse” exhale ”some incomparable air of which every human being needs absolutely to have taken at least one breath before they die?”

“On Nov. 4, 1838, Stendhal (the most famous of over 200 pseudonyms used by Marie Henri Beyle, a Grenoble-born career diplomat and lover of all things Italian) sat down at his desk at No. 8 Rue Caumartin in Paris, gave orders that he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances, and began dictating a novel. The manuscript of ”Charterhouse” was finished seven weeks later, on the day after Christmas — an impressive feat, when you think that a typical French edition runs to 500 pages. The swiftness of its composition is reflected in the narrative briskness for which it is so well known — the ”gusto, brio, elan, verve, panache” of which Howard is rightly conscious in his translation — and, as even die-hard partisans of the novel would have to admit, in passages where compositional speed clearly took a toll in narrative coherence. (”We have forgotten to mention in its proper place the fact that the duchess had taken a house at Belgirate.”)

“The idea for the book had actually been rattling around in Stendhal’s head for some time. His Roman diaries of the late 1820’s are crammed with lengthy references to the convoluted histories of the Italian Renaissance nobility, and the lineaments of ”Charterhouse” owe a great deal to a 17th-century chronicle of the life of Alessandro Farnese, later Pope Paul III, that Stendhal came across during the course of his Italian travels. (Farnese, who became Pope in 1534, had a beautiful aunt, Vandozza Farnese, the mistress of the cunning Rodrigo Borgia; murdered a young woman’s servant; was imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo; escaped by means of a very long rope; and maintained as his mistress a well-born woman called Cleria.) So while the extraordinary speed of the novel’s composition can be attributed to an almost supernatural flash of inspiration, it can also be seen as the more natural outcome of a long and deliberate process that had finally achieved fruition.

“Like the circumstances of its creation, the finished novel seems at once spontaneous and premeditated. The quick pace of the narrative and the vividness of the characters are balanced throughout by a coolly sardonic assessment of human nature and, in particular, of politics. Stendhal, a lifelong liberal who as an idealistic young man had followed Napoleon into Italy, Austria and Russia, found himself living at a time of almost unprecedented political cynicism in post-Restoration France; disgust with the bourgeois complacency of his countrymen played no little part in his admiration for the Italians, whom he considered to be more authentic — more profound and more susceptible to violent emotions,” as he wrote in his diary.

“But the appeal of ”Charterhouse” is more than just a matter of its urgent, even impatient style (”Here we shall ask permission to pass, without saying a single word about them, over an interval of three years”); it lies, too, in its vibrant characters, who are prey to unruly emotions that will be familiar to contemporary readers. There is, to begin with, the novel’s ostensible hero, the impetuous young Fabrice, who as a teen-ager, when the action begins, disobeys his right-wing father and sneaks off to fight for Napoleon. What is most resonant for contemporary readers isn’t Fabrice’s starry-eyed idealism — which is, after all, endemic among protagonists of Romantic novels, and which, in any case, is constantly belied by the hard and occasionally farcical realities of lived life (an exhausted and slightly hung over Fabrice sleeps through much of Waterloo) — but the decidedly more modern, and even post-modern, way in which a sense of authenticity keeps eluding him.

“Like so many of us, Fabrice is always measuring his life against the poems and novels he has read. With a self-consciousness more typical of the late 20th than the early 19th century, he keeps checking up on himself, as if trying to conform to some hidden master plan for being, or for loving — a plan that, as the novel tragically demonstrates, he is never quite able to follow. No wonder he so often expresses himself in the interrogative: ”Had what he’d seen been a battle? . . . Had this battle been Waterloo?” ”Am I such a hypocrite?” ”What about a minor affair here in Parma?” One ironic measure of Fabrice’s inability to master the art of living as a free man is that he finds true happiness only in the womblike security of his prison cell in the Farnese Tower (as many critics have noted, he’s jailed for exactly nine months), from which he is loath to escape after he falls in love with Clelia.

“Fabrice is hardly the only vivid and oddly contemporary character here; you could easily argue — many have — that the real heroes are his aunt and her lover. Master political and social puppeteers, they are far more complicated and interesting than the young man they spend so much time trying, in vain, to establish in an adult life — even as, with Laclos-like sang-froid, they try to stage-manage some contentment of their own. (Mosca to Gina: ”We might find a new and not unaccommodating husband. But first of all, he would have to be extremely advanced in years, for why should you deny me the hope of eventually replacing him?”) Gina, in particular, is one of the great creations of the 19th-century novelistic imagination: brilliant, flirtatious, cunning, vulnerable, passionate, extraordinarily self-aware and yet helplessly the prey of a forbidden passion for her beautiful nephew. We first meet her at the age of 13, trying to stifle a giggle at the ragged appearance of a Napoleonic officer who’s been billeted in her brother’s opulent palace (the Frenchman, Stendhal hints, is Fabrice’s natural father), and from that moment we’re never quite able to take our eyes off this woman who, despite her exalted social position and the Racinian dilemma she finds herself in, is never less than fully, sometimes comically, human. Mosca, too, who in the perfect, inevitable geometry of unrequited love hopelessly adores Gina in a way he knows will never be reciprocated, is an intricate creation, complex and conflicted in his public as well as his private life (we’re told that this leader of the ultraconservative party started out, like his creator, as a Bonapartist) and the victim of erotic passions that grip him, in Stendhal’s vivid locution, ”like a cramp.”

“The novel’s headlong narrative momentum, and the refreshingly real emotions of its acutely self-conscious characters, are clearly the work of a man who, like his young hero, rebelled in his youth against his stultifyingly conventional family, a man who wanted to be known as an artist and lover of women. (Stendhal’s epitaph, in Italian, which he composed while still in his 30’s, reads: ”He lived. He wrote. He loved.”) But ”Charterhouse” is just as much the work of a seasoned diplomat only too familiar with the compromises that adult life imposes. The author’s older voice comes through in the fate he chooses for his characters: by the end of the book Fabrice, solitary in the religious retreat to which the book’s title refers, has died, still very young, having inadvertently caused the deaths of both Clelia (by now married off to another man) and their illegitimate child, the victims of a harebrained kidnapping plot gone horribly wrong; Gina follows him to the grave not long after. Only Mosca, the sole character who governs his passions successfully, survives.

“So, like its creator, the novel is part Fabrice and part Mosca. Or, to put it another way, it contains the best qualities of its contemporary French rivals: it has the headlong plottiness of Balzac, complete with assassinations, forged papers, disguises and politically motivated self-prostitutions, and also the elaborate, almost glacial self-consciousness of Flaubert. In other words, it’s got something for everyone.”


Yeah, it’s a pretty crazy novel. And from 1838! It reads like a bizarre mix of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (picaresque) and maybe George Eliot, or even Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – the characterization of Gina / the Duchessa Sanseverina is amazing – for it’s time and generally – she’s such a great female character – so well realized and informed – her motivation and intelligence and assertiveness all combine to make her an unforgettable character. The delineation of love and of the Italian character are both thought provoking. The description of the Battle of Waterloo and the other errors of apprehension that bedevil this book are though what make it so modern. Did Fabrizio even go to war? Had he really been in love? For the reader (and the character himself) to ask such questions of a nineteenth century novel is staggering.

What did this novel do to the writers that followed?

Thought provoking indeed.

Mr A



Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett“Daniel C. Dennett, the director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, is one of a handful of philosophers who feel this quest [to explain consciousness] is so important that they have become as conversant in psychology, neuroscience and computer science as they are in philosophy. “Consciousness Explained” is his attempt, as audacious as its title, to come up with a scientific explanation for that feeling, sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating, of being alive and aware, the object of one’s own deliberations.

“Ever since Emil Du Bois-Reymond demonstrated in 1843 that electricity and not some supernatural life force travels through the nervous system, scientists have tried to explain mental life biologically. It’s been a long, slow haul. An important step was taken in the early 1940’s when the neurologist-philosopher Warren McCulloch and the teen-age prodigy Walter Pitts showed how webs of neurons exchanging electrical signals could work like little computers, picking out patterns from the confusion buzzing at our senses. Inspired by this metaphor, neuroscientists have been making the case that memories are laid when the brain forms new connections, linking up patterns of neurons that stand for things in the outside world.

“But who, or what, is reading these neurological archives? The self? The ego? The soul? For want of a theory of consciousness, it is easy to fall back on the image of a little person — a homunculus, the philosophers call it — who sits in the cranial control room monitoring a console of gauges and pulling the right strings. But then, of course, we’re stuck with explaining the inner workings of this engineer-marionette. Does it too have a little creature inside it? If so, we fall into an infinite regress, with homunculi embedded in homunculi like an image ricocheting between mirrors.

“The great success of cognitive science has been to point a way out of this fun house. As Mr. Dennett explained in an essay in his 1978 book, “Brainstorms,” the reason we get the regress is that at each level we are assuming a single homunculus with powers and abilities equal to those of its host. Suppose instead that there are in the brain a horde of very stupid homunculi, each utterly dependent on the others. Make the homunculi stupid enough and it’s easy to imagine that each can be replaced by a machine — a circuit made of neurons. But from the collective behavior of all these neurological devices, consciousness emerges — a qualitative leap no more magical than the one that occurs when wetness arises from the jostling of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

“The information processing carried out by the homuncular hordes need not be a particularly orderly affair. In the late 1950’s a computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Oliver Selfridge unveiled a model called Pandemonium, in which homunculi — he called them demons — shouted at one another like delegates in a very democratic parliament, until they reached a consensus on what was going on outside the cranial chamber. In a more recent theory, called the Society of Mind, Selfridge’s colleagues Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert call these homunculi agents. The psychologist Robert Ornstein calls them simpletons, perhaps the most appropriate name of all.

“Some homunculi might be dedicated to such basic tasks as detecting horizontal and vertical lines, or identifying phonemes. Their reports would be monitored by other homunculi (shape recognizers, word recognizers) that are monitored by still other homunculi. Suppose you are watching a play. Tripped by reports from various line and shape detectors, the homunculus that recognizes bilateral symmetry might fire, and its signals (along with those of other homunculi) would activate the person detector. There is someone on stage. But before that final flash, other parts of the brain might be entertaining rival hypotheses — what Mr. Dennett calls multiple drafts. Spinning tops and pine trees can also appear bilaterally symmetrical. But the minority committees of homunculi considering these interpretations would be contradicted by reports from various motion detectors (trees don’t move, people don’t spin) and finally by the sighting of moving columns generally agreed by yet other homunculi to be arms and legs.

“Considering all this hubbub, maybe it’s a blessing that we are not more conscious than we are. Usually it is only the winning interpretations that we become aware of. But occasionally we get to eavesdrop on the behind-the-scenes debate. Sometimes in winter, I glance out the back window of my apartment in Brooklyn and am startled to see an old Indian woman in a shawl, like a figure from an R. C. Gorman painting, standing on the terrace of the building behind mine, huddled against the wind. It takes a second longer before a rival, more convoluted interpretation emerges: the shape is really a tree wrapped in burlap to protect it until spring. Sometimes, driving fast with the window down, you might find your word detectors, fed by your phoneme detectors, misfiring, picking voices out of the wind.

“But what exactly is happening when these subliminal judgments shove their way into consciousness? As Mr. Dennett explains, if the result of all the homuncular discussion is that a winning interpretation is presented for appreciation by some central self, then we have solved nothing. We’re back to the image of an intelligent, fully conscious homunculus sitting in a control room, which Mr. Dennett calls the Cartesian Theater.

“His way out of this mess is to propose what he calls a Joycean machine, a kind of mental operating system (like the computer programs Windows or MS-DOS) that acts as a controller, filtering the cacophony of inner voices into a silent narrative — a stream of consciousness. To avoid the problem of infinite regress, he hypothesizes that this master controller is not a fully cognizant marionette but a “virtual machine,” created on the fly from temporary coalitions of stupid homunculi. It is because of this mental software, he proposes, that we can not only think but reflect on our own thinking, as we engage in the step-by-step deliberations that occupy us when we are most aware of the plodding of our minds.

“For someone who is encountering this kind of theory for the first time, that is probably not a very convincing summary. But Mr. Dennett’s argument is not easily compressible. At a time when so many nonfiction books are just horribly long magazine articles, he makes use of just about every one of his 500 pages. As he readily concedes, it is practically impossible — for him or anyone else — to keep from lapsing into a deeply grooved mental habit: thinking that there is some kind of ego inside us, peering out through the ocular peepholes. To break us of these assumptions, he makes his argument cumulatively, using thought experiments and anecdotes to build up his case piece by piece. For 50 pages or so, he attacks his subject from one angle, until we start to get a glimmer of what he means. Then he retreats and attacks from another angle.

“In his best seller, “The Emperor’s New Mind,” the Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose dismissed in a few pages the possibility that consciousness can be explained by thinking of the brain as a kind of computer. If there is any justice, everyone who bought a copy of Mr. Penrose’s far more difficult book will buy a copy of Mr. Dennett’s and marvel at how, in the hands of a master explicator, the richness and power of the computer metaphor of the mind comes shining through. A JOYFUL KILLER OF SACRED COWS”

So this is where philosophy is these days: helping scientists out who’ve got themselves into an awful conceptual muddle. Dennett admits, in one of the book’s appendices, that all he’s been doing his whole career is taking the lesson he learnt from Wittgenstein – to which most of his contemporaries were virulently resistant – and he “put it to work”. And that’s how this book works – he’s tackling the big messy metaphors that have beset neuroscience – and the other sciences of the mind – as well as all the other common sense ways of thinking that have bedeviled this particular branch of science – and turning them inside out and giving the reader’s thinking – as well as that of the scientists themselves – a thorough good seeing to. Thanks Mr Dennett. 

This is a good introduction to the philosophy of mind, though I imagine there are better ones – more accessible and less of a slog. But any more than that? I’m not sure what Dennett achieves in the end, or indeed what any branch of philosophy can – other than clearing the way for the scientists to come in with their big cumbersome microscopes and their computers that beat Grand Masters. I suppose he does point the way for the philosophy and science of consciousness, but for all that he might just as easily be guilty of muddy thinking as those he throws mud at. Though it’s a pretty convincing narrative. And maybe he will paint the picture that will shape, for good or ill, the way we think of consciousness for the next few years of our scrabbling about.

Mr A



10 Experimental Novels That Are Worth the Effort

Today marks the US publication of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, a highly experimental, Joycean novel that, despite the fact that modern readers often eschew difficulty, has been heaped with awards. It is, in fact, a difficult book — but it’s totally worth it. And it’s not the only one. After the jump, ten experimental novels that are worth the effort it takes to parse them. Take a look, and since this is only a list of one reader’s favorites, add your own to the bizarre pile in the comments.


A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Eimear McBride

McBride’s widely lauded novel is full of fragmented, floating sentences that sometimes feel like only gestures at sentences, like gestures at the things under thoughts, that real, pre-language stuff. It’s hard going at first, but once you let the language wash over you and form a rhythm, the book blossoms into a gorgeous, brutal stream of word and thought.


C, Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s second novel is gorgeous and devastating, a search for patterns in the phenomenal world and a warning against the same; a book of just-missed connections, wireless communication and full-on joy. As Jennifer Egan wrote, “C is a rigorous inquiry into the meaning of meaning: our need to find it in the world around us and communicate it to one another; our methods for doing so; the hubs and networks and skeins of interaction that result. Gone is the minimalist restraint he employed in Remainder; here, he fuses a Pynchonesque revelry in signs and codes with the lush psychedelics of William Burroughs to create an intellectually provocative novel that unfurls like a brooding, phosphorescent dream.”


Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

This is book that can be read in any order, with chapters that can be left out or left in, depending on the mood of the reader. It sounds easy to screw up this literary labyrinth, but you really can’t: every page hums with life and language, and however you make your way through, you’ll be glad you did. As Pablo Neruda famously wrote, “People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease.”


Notable American Women, Ben Marcus

Marcus’ sophomore novel is totally weird, but also pretty gorgeous. Like another, later novel of Marcus’, language is weaponry here, and the protagonist of this book (“Ben Marcus”) is a child whose mother belongs to a cult of Silentists, obsessive verging on abusive. This novel constantly asks its reader to re-evaluate the real, both the absolute real and the relative real, and the difference between the two. For instance, the two blurbs on the back of this book are these: “Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world.” — George Saunders; “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” — Michael Marcus, Ben’s father. Point and case.


The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker

This entire novel takes place over the length of an escalator ride. No, no, it’s about 140 pages of minute details, imaginings, footnotes, and lists with columns like “Subject of Thought” and “Number of Times Thought Occurred per Year (in Descending Order).” There are times when the amount that Baker can focus on one tiny thing threatens to drive one mad, but in the end, the novel is a deeply moving meditation on change and life and, of course, language.


Speedboat, Renata Adler

Adler’s mostly plotless first novel is stunning, hilarious, vivid, vital. Let go of what you think a novel should be, and let this novel be what it is, and you’ll be rewarded by waves of pleasure on every page, both emotional and intellectual.


Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

This novel is organized as a long series of notes written continuously on a typewriter by the last woman on earth — a woman who is obsessed with art and philosophy and literature, but keeps forgetting, or confusing, or willfully misrepresenting things. Again, the book is sort of plotless and (especially for sticklers for facts) frustrating, but it’s also a beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking ode to loneliness and the world of the mind.

83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacket

How to Be Both, Ali Smith

Smith’s newest novel, just recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, can be read two ways — depending on which version of it you happen to pick up. Some copies of the book begin with one of its interconnected stories, some with the other. In both structure and subject, Smith is investigating duality and the relationship of surface to substance. “It’s about fresco form,” Smith told The Guardian. “You have the very first version of the fresco underneath the skin, as it were, of the real fresco. There’s a fresco on the wall: there it is, you and I look at it, we see it right in front of us; underneath that there’s another version of the story and it may or may not be connected to the surface. And they’re both in front of our eyes, but you can only see one, or you see one first. So it’s about the understory. I have the feeling that all stories travel with an understory.”


JR, William Gaddis

This novel is long. This novel is almost entirely made up of untagged dialogue. This novel is brilliant and will suck you in and keep you forever.



The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald

Sebald’s writing is at the easy end of experimentalism — that is, there are no bizarre sentence structures, no choose-your-own-adventure-style tricks, no tomfoolery. But at its heart, his work is deeply experimental — after all, what is it? Novel, travelogue, essay? Some combination of these, complete with badly reproduced and sometimes doctored black and white photographs and the specter of Nabokov following us through all the complicated pages? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

10 Experimental Novels That Are Worth the Effort