Thursday, 11 February 2016

"The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollinghurst - February 2016

This Booker Prize winner (2004) was very intriguing. Most of our group members lived in England in the 1980's, and vividly remembered "how vile the times were": How Thatcherism was gripping the country, how gay men died of AIDS - and got blamed for it by the media, how the rich got richer. In this novel, we only got to see the rich side of things. Nick, the main character, is unconcerned with any of the social unrest, the miners' struggle, unemployment, the protests against Thatcher... in short, the other side of the divide. He has inserted himself into an upper-class family like a parasite, nursing his crush on the son of the family, trying to make himself useful to them in order to enjoy his secret longing as well as the privileged life, which he calculatedly uses for his success. He was strongly disliked by almost all of our group's members. In fact, some people said that there wasn't a single likable character in the entire book.

As a gay man from a bourgeois background, Nick isn't really integrated into his host family however, and the differences between them come to a crashing separation at the end of the book - which we kind of felt would happen from the start. He was for some reminiscent of Jeremy Irons in "Brideshead Revisited", a social climber who is patronised by wealthy people, remaining very distant from them in his feeling and thinking, but never expressing his differing opinions to them. We got to read some wonderfully sharp, inventive, satirical comments on the upper classes through Nick's thoughts. His first boyfriend, Leo, from a working class background, also gets to say some very funny put-downs about his lover's posh affiliations. I particularly enjoyed his snarky imitation of Lady Partridge, the grandmother, who was like a caricature personified. However, some group members felt that the working-class characters of the book, Leo and his family, were very simplistically portrayed and that, for example, Leo's mother's religiosity was written in a cliched way, not allowing the character to come across as multi-faceted and real as the posh counterparts - although we acknowledged that her simple religious fervour was clearly intended to be her way of denying that her son was gay.

We all said that the writing style was utterly brilliant. Hollinghurst writes in such a sophisticated, inventive way. His satire was great - the welly-whanging contest stood out as a highlight. We thought that the class divide was perfectly portrayed, and that it was utterly real for the times that someone like Nick would remain totally unconcerned with anything that was wrong, until it comes crashing down on him. He was the great aesthete of the book, shallowly concerned with beauty, facade, and his own advancement, and disgustingly oblivious to most of the social struggle. We also enjoyed that the perspective of the book stays with Nick, and doesn't switch around characters as so many books seem to do now. We thought that the portrayal of Nick's sexual relations and fantasies was very real, and thus rewarding for some, but others found it overdone, and distasteful - not for being gay, but for being too glaringly detailed.

A brilliant book, describing people and events that were pretty disgusting to us, therefore maybe not too easy to digest, despite the great writing!
By Cordula

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

"Stoner" by John Williams - January 2016

One member of our group started our discussion by saying that she bought her own copy of the novel a couple of years ago after hearing about it on the radio. Everyone was going on about how marvellous it was. She started it but found it too depressing so put it aside. As a result she groaned on discovering that this was our book for the month. However, this time she not only stuck with it but really liked it. She found it a good portrait of someone sleepwalking through life; someone who was more acted upon than acting.
The group as a whole concurred with this view. Many wondered if people would or could really live as Stoner has done. Would they have continued with the marriage, how would they put up with the wife?

Another reader commented that he so loved the first few pages that they made him want to dive right into the novel. He loved the clean writing, no wasted words, no unnecessary description. Everyone was impressed by William’s ability to create startling, vivid and believable images of people, places and relationships with few words. Nothing was wasted, every word counts. Descriptions of the view from a window were perfectly done; faces came alive.

We had a lively discussion over whether Stoner’s life should be seen as tragic. Most regarded him as a failure of a man. Why did he not stand up for himself? It was also a portrait of the time. Stoner’s affair with Katherine would not raise an eyebrow now. Should Stoner have fought harder to keep her in his life? The same question was raised about Grace. Hers is the most tragic decline. Stoner had such a close relationship with his young daughter yet he allowed that to be taken from him. He allowed his wife to take over just as he allowed her to evict him from his own study.

The submissive pattern continued with his work. Stoner allowed Lomax to marginalise him, to overload him with more junior teaching, keeping him too busy to pursue further research. Stoner only stands up to Lomax at the end of the novel, when it is almost too late.
This however is the key to Stoner. His true love was the academia, the university. His role as a teacher was absolutely core to his being. Even with Katherine he remained a teacher, as evidenced by the dedication of her book to him. He was always happy and fulfilled in that role, academia, books, English literature did not betray him. A shy, unconfident farm hand managed to find a true love and passion that sustained all his life. From that perspective his tale is less tragic. Ultimately however it remains a tale of a life not (fully) lived.

The male readers found themselves annoyed with Stoner’s failure to stand up for himself. It is interesting that despite the huge popularity of Stoner across Europe when it was “rediscovered” recently and rave reviews by journals such as the New York Times, the book did not achieve great success in the USA either first or second time around. Was Stoner seen as too much of a failure as a man to be popular with an American audience?