Tag Archives: McEwan

The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

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Never Let Me Go Trailer


Carey Mulligan has certainly shot to fame and critical acclaim since her appearance in perhaps the best ever Doctor Who episode, the chilling and gripping Blink back in the modern show’s third series. The episode was penned by the now lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat and has won him great kudos that helped boost his own recent rise through the ranks of influence, but it would not have left such a lasting impression but for the instantly likeable, occassionally funny, warm and convincing performance by Mulligan as Sally Sparrow. It was her role in the Nick Hornby scripted film An Education that truly marked her breakthrough with Bafta and Academy Award nominations, but when I finally saw this film I was surprised to find the confident adult Sally Sparrow transformed into a young girl; still confident but uncertainly and naively embarking on adventures, led deceptively by an older man skilfully mainpulating her lustful longing for someone to hit play on the remote control of life. I did not enjoy An Education as much I was expecting to, as it had darker undertones not alluded to in the promotion of the film. It’s clear from the start that the charming older man is also predatory and the narrative can only end badly, but the picture was marketed as a vivid, coming of age journey. Mulligan’s performance though is nevertheless excellent, showcasing her diversity as a performer and is easily the best feature of the movie, along with Alfred Molina’s turn as her father and the lively soundtrack (the opening credits set to “On the Rebound” are particuarly invigorating and capture the youthful essence of the era and film).

I wish someone could enlighten me about the captivating music used in the trailer below to Mulligan’s latest project, Never Let Me Go. It’s a testament to Mulligan’s deserved rise, her ease on screen as the key character for the audience, that she tops the bill for this film ahead of established blockbuster performer Keira Knightley. Even from this tantalising trailer, pumped full of restrained emotion and tempting details, Knightley’s performance lacks the subtlety and engaging charge of Mulligan’s. Andrew Garfield, recently cast as the new Spiderman (a dauntingly iconic American role for a young British actor), who was excellent in Channel 4’s startling bleak and brutal Red Riding series, takes the male lead in this adaptation of a dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro chosen for the opening night of the London Film Festival. From the trailer it appears a taught love triangle shall play out in confined, beautifully shot rural locations against a secretive and ethically divisive alternative history backdrop. It’s always unwise to get over excited about a trailer but I for one can’t wait until Never Let Me Go is released in the UK on January the 21st, if only to see Mulligan on screen again, as she completely commands this trailer, setting the idyllic scene for heartbreak and drama irresistibily. She has been courted and reportedly signed on to star in On Chesil Beach, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella for the screen, directed by Sam Mendes. She would certainly have the depth to be the perfect Florence, but whether or not any screenplay could replicate the intricate flashbacks and honeymoon night catastrophe of the book is another matter. This is another project I look forward to though and would similarly showcase the best of storytelling in fantastic, beautifully English rural surroundings.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2010/sep/10/never-let-me-go-trailer

Booker Shortlist 2010


Room – Emma Donoghue
In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut
The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobsen
C – Tom McCarthy
The Long Song – Andrea Levy
Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

Ironically, given all the talk about the omission of quality humorous writing such as Ian McEwan’s Solar when the longlist was announced, the shortlist is now being hailed as the funniest in years. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen is seen as a properly comic tale, whilst the others have their elements according to the judging panel. All the hype around the shortlist is the surprise dropping out of both The Slap, the biggest selling book on the longlist and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. In truth neither of these omissions surprises me. I have read both books and enjoyed both but neither deserved to win. The Slap is an entertaining read that is well written at times but suffers from a number of fatal flaws in characterisation, narrative structure and content that meant it could never be a worthy winner. David Mitchell’s latest work is weaker than all his previous ones and it would therefore had been odd had this one finally got him a win. He struggled with the switch to a third person narrative viewpoint, over indulged when it came to including his historical research in the story and lost some of the originality and flair so synonymous with his earlier novels. My money is on C by Tom McCarthy (despite having read none of the shortlisted titles!) as I am most desperate to get me hands of a copy of this.

I was going to attempt a funny short story to go with this post, but that may have to wait until my moods shift. Stay tuned if interested I suppose.

Booker Longlist 2010


I’ve been closely following announcements relating to this year’s Booker Longlist and indeed public interest in general seems to be up. According to this BBC article sales of those selected in the initial 13 are at their highest since Ian McEwan’s Atonement was among the nominees in 2001.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-10951497

Interestingly McEwan’s latest novel, Solar, is one of a number of high profile omissions from the list, with Martin Amis also missing out. There has been debate as to whether this indicates that more humorous storytelling is not being recognised by a judging panel headed by former poet laureate Andrew Motion. Solar has been well received critically elsewhere, with McEwan winning a prize dedicated to writers following in the tradition of comic writer P.G Wodehouse. I’m a fan of McEwan and quickly digested Solar, but disagree with the way it has been portrayed as a purely comic novel. There are some delightful comic set pieces in the book which are beautifully crafted and provide a refreshing contrast to the usual content of McEwan’s diverse work, showcasing a side of his writing repertoire rarely praised. However most of the humour is less direct and subtly layered over the rich characterisation of the bumbling protagonist Michael Beard, with a lot of serious comment on our culture of waste and the greedy nature of mankind as an obstacle to tackling climate change. McEwan also makes us feel pity and other emotions for Beard; we are invited to empathise with an ordinary man of simple needs hounded by the media as well as cringe and giggle at his stupidity.

Ultimately the Booker judges may have perhaps ignored Solar because it lacked the epic sweep present in some of the other nominations and which was certainly there in the “fictional panorama” that was Atonement in 2001. I have only just finished reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer from last year’s longlist and that was a novel that perfectly demonstrated how grand scales and themes can add to the likelihood of recognition. A story about minimalist architecture and ideas largely taking place in the grim turmoil of Eastern Europe, The Glass Room may not seem ideal “summer reading” material if there is such a thing, but I found it easily readable divided as it was into manageable chunks and driven by compelling human relationships. At times the focus on interlocking loves and sex lives became repetitive but the opening portion of the book in which the idea for a striking, modern home is conceived and then lived in by a complex family driven away by the Nazi menace is so gripping that you are carried to the end of the book by acute curiosity as to the fate of the house and its former inhabitants. Mawer grapples with themes such as fidelity, homosexuality, friendship, the permanence of architecture, the perfection of ideas and the problems of expression when translating between languages. Overall the novel also covers vast historical ground, charting the physical and emotional scars left by seismic political change.  I am yet to read Hilary Mantel’s winning novel from last year, Wolf Hall, which sits expectantly in my room but it too was suitably epic and historical and I would guess superior to The Glass Room, despite its strong points.

This love of the epic and grand and historical continues into this year’s longlist, if not literally then in the depth and intensity of content. The Room by Emma Donoghue and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas both deal with particularly intense or extreme experiences for example; a child’s captivity in The Room and a child slapped by a stranger in The Slap. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the latest and most conventional offering yet from one of my favourite authors David Mitchell, is set in colonial Japan. It is the only title from this year’s list I have read so far and it was suitably epic whilst less engaging and cinematic than his previous offerings. I have ordered The Slap as I am intrigued by its differing narrative perspectives, the gripping nature of one moment in time rippling outwards with consequences and a view of Australian culture I am not familiar with. Generally I am surprised with how tempting I find most of the books selected for this year’s longlist, judging by extracts I have read via the Guardian website.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booker-prize

C by Tom McCarthy also interests me as it is supposedly experimental whilst also continuing that theme of grappling with grand ideas such as communication, science and discovery. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson seems to be excellently written and contain that humour some thought to be lacking after the exclusion of McEwan and Amis, going by the Guardian extract. All the others, as you would expect, seem well crafted and I encourage you to take a look at the previews. Here is the full 13:

  • Peter Carey, Parrot and Oliver in America
  • Emma Donoghue, Room
  • Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal
  • Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
  • Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question
  • Andrea Levy, The Long Song
  • Tom McCarthy, C
  • David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
  • Lisa Moore, February
  • Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
  • Rose Tremain, Trespass
  • Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap
  • Alan Warner, The Stars in the Bright Sky