Some books shouldn’t be rushed. Although Total Chaos is a slim book, written in short, punchy sentences, it is like a rich ragout, brimming with flavours, pungent, concentrated, sensual and intense. It should be savoured slowly. There is a lifetime of experience distilled into it.
At first I struggled. The names of people and places were strange to me. I was reading the English translation but it was an English I couldn’t understand. I had no idea who the characters were or what kind of lives they led. Although each sentence meant something in isolation, together they made my head spin and I became confused.
But Jean-Claude Izzo gives you everything you need to know in this novel. It’s not his fault if you don’t get it. He immerses you in Marseilles, his city. It is a fully realised Marseilles, though not the city the tourists know. He takes you to places tourists have never seen and shows you things you will want to forget.
In a few paragraphs he can sketch out whole lives. He blends and blurs the colours on his canvas like an impressionist painter. A fear-filled teenage scuffle is inseparable from the eroticism of the touch of a woman’s breast. Neapolitan songs mingle with Ray Charles and the sounds of old men playing belote. Tomatoes, basil, bay, meatballs, garlic and red wine merge with the scent of the sea as it crashes against the rocks, recalling the stories of Homer and Conrad peddled by an anarchist bookseller on Cours Julien.
This is very specific writing. The plot is dense but fully explained. I understood it finally but I didn’t enjoy it until I read the book a second time. Then I fell in love with it.
This is not a thriller. It is a celebration. It is a poem. It is a classic French crime novel. Mediterranean Noir. Making beauty out of chaos.
I should probably point out before I begin this review that I have watched the Opus Arte production of it on DVD several times, with subtitles, and it is largely thanks to the skill of the actors that I have managed to understand some of it. Trystan Gravelle as Berowne and Michelle Terry as the Princess of France are particularly brilliant.
By which I mean I can understand what they are saying.
But all the actors and actresses are excellent. I am always moved by the two songs at the end, which are sung by the whole ensemble. The actors’ voices are both clear and resonant. The harmonies are magical. But the voices and the harmonies merely carry the words and it is the words that somehow, every time I hear them, cut right through everything and stun me.
If you know the words you might think I am exaggerating. I’m not. The words are very simple but they cut very deeply.
The imagery in these songs is very clear. We see the flowers in the meadows and hear the cuckoos in the trees and we feel the fear of married men that their wives are being unfaithful. Such is the power of spring.
The imagery of winter is even more vivid. Dick, the shepherd, is blowing on his fingers, Tom is bringing in firewood, milk is frozen in the pail, Marian’s nose is red and raw, crabs are hissing in a bowl and an owl is hooting while greasy Joan “doth keel the pot.”
What a spectacular way to end a piece of entertainment that is all about the convoluted wordplay of men and women in the courts of Europe. No, it seems to say, it is not a story about kings and princesses. It is about Dick, Tom, Marian and Joan. It is about simple English folk. Yes, and Chinese ones too. It is about all of us.
In spite of all the dizzying wordplay, the message is very simple. You learn about life not from books, not from making oaths of celibacy and studying hard, but from giving yourself to life and experiencing it. Love is an especially powerful teacher for it lives not alone in the brain but courses through all our senses and gives to every power a double power.
There is hardly a scene that doesn’t celebrate love, erotic love, physical love, lust and passion.
But in the end the lovers do not win the hands of the women they love. The women make them wait. A year and a day. Which, as Berowne wryly points out, is “too long for a play.”
This is not a happy comedy. It is rueful. It is full of fear.
In this respect it is very truthful. Life is like that. Erotic love is like that. Whatever is intense is never without some element of dread, of difficulty and pain. Although, it may, while it lasts, spur us on to magnificent flights of eloquence and wit.
Parts of this play, I should add, are hilarious. I have never laughed so much at a play as I did at this one. Even though I do not understand every phrase, I find this far more enjoyable than English TV comedies. It is still, after so many years, English drama at its very best.
I’ve mentioned somewhere in another book review that I regularly listen to audio books in order to improve my English. There’s nothing more embarrassing than mispronouncing a cool word dropped into a hot conversation. A mangled “progeniture” could have dampened the squib of many a top drawer English gentleman with whom I’ve mingled. Without the right guide, simple words like “taut” and “tighten” can prove an insurmountable obstacle to those of us from foreign parts.
So I am a target consumer of the latest audio developments from Amazon. And I was delighted by Amazon’s video for their Whispersync technology that shows an attractive woman reading and/or listening to a sizzling erotic book in bed, in the shower, in a meeting, at lunch, on the train, and, finally, in bed again. I was delighted not just by the technology but also by the choice of book. An erotic book. A literary erotic book. Not this one, by Charlotte Stein, as it happens, but it might easily have been.
What a ringing endorsement of my favourite reading matter! They have got it so right, I thought to myself. But of course they have got it right. For if anyone knows how technology has changed our reading habits, it’s those clever researchers at Amazon.
Let’s face it. One of the joys of a kindle and an iphone is being able to load it up with steamy texts to digest in private not just at home but at lunch, on the bus, on the train, at the doctor’s … everywhere!
But being sophisticated readers we do not want rubbish on our gadgets, do we? We do not want detritus.
And with Charlotte Stein’s gorgeously svelte novel we certainly do not get detritus. This book is sophisticated and elegant. It turns you on and gets you thinking at the same time. It’s light but it’s so cleverly light that it’s heavy, dark and deep.
I won’t summarise the story, since discovering the plot is one of the pleasures of the book. This is an author who knows how to take control. Her skill is quite thrilling. She unfolds the narrative with enviable panache.
How can you write a dirty story without being crude? you might ask. Well, but that’s just it. Charlotte is in control because while she’s clever, she is also crude. Compellingly crude.
So get under the covers with Charlotte, and on the bus and in the kitchen and in the bath. The audio book is available from Audible and, take it from me, every word is beautifully pronounced.
So, Philip Roth introduced this to me; Saul Bellow, the God of American letters wrote it; and Martin Amis — dreamy, cultured, super-sexy-son-of-iconic-Kingsley, Martin Amis — warmly recommended it. So how could I not give it 5 stars?
Well, to be honest, it nearly drove me out of my mind.
I have probably missed the point of it. I can sense Mr. Bellow nodding his venerable head and wagging an accusatory finger.
“The mixture of self-obsession and intellectual posturing that you found so dreary was, young lady, the whole point.”
Herzog is trapped and defeated by his own intelligence just as I was nearly trapped and defeated by this florid and extremely intellectual novel.
I have heard Herzog called a daring novel of ideas. I think the really big idea here is that when your (second) wife leaves you for your best friend and you discover that your ideas stink, you start to feel very depressed. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Herzog didn’t know how lucky he was. Amazon hadn’t even been thought of back then. In the sixties American writers like Herzog had it really good!
Oh, but don’t forget that it’s a comedy. It is, thank goodness, ironic.
Woody Allen, though, it’s not. I saw another of Woody’s films the other day and — I have to be honest, I loved it. Blue Jasmine. Wow! Woody Allen writes sensational dialogue. In Blue Jasmine, even though the story is really depressing, the artistry is uplifting.
I didn’t feel uplifted by Herzog. I just felt, well, depressed.
Yet Herzog recovers. He manages, through the persistence of his irrepressible intelligence, to reforge and revive his sense of his writerly identity.
He learns to accept himself as he is … just a human being.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s a really big idea. And it takes Herzog a long time and a lot of dense thinking to get there.
You might not need to go on that journey. If you already accept who you are, that’s fine. You don’t need to read this.
But if you’re a literary young lion and you want to know where you fit in … well, maybe not even then. Not anymore. This was 1964. Life and American letters have moved on.
I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.
Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.
So of course you can teach people to write.
It’s just sentences. One after another.
We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:
The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.
He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.
The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.
But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.
She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”
But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!
There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.
The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.
La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.
These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.
I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”
I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.
Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.
What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?
I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.
This novel was like an exotic cocktail. It went down very smoothly but had quite a kick. Its very strong storyline is helped by a trio of memorable characters and their sharp exchanges. I adored Lily. She is one of three narrators and I loved the sections where she took up the story. Her way of looking at the world and the language she used really drew me into her budding romance with Carson Bradley. It was like getting a long letter from a close friend. At times she seemed like more than a friend, because she doesn’t skimp on detail. She tells you all the juiciest bits and in the choicest language, so you feel you are right there with her, savouring every moment.
Carson was one of the other narrators. He was more business-like and brusque but the change of viewpoint worked very well. Quite often he’d reveal a completely different perspective on something Lily had just described. The effect would be to make you laugh or wince.
Carson is not without his weaknesses. Perhaps the most glaring of these is his ex, Bianca. Besides being the third narrator in the novel, she is a cold-hearted villain who schemes to destroy Carson’s relationship with Lily. These schemes become darker and more deadly as the story progresses.
The multiple viewpoints are handled expertly and give the story variety and pace. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and couldn’t wait for bedtime so I could dive between the sheets again with Carson, Lily and even the evil Bianca. (There is an intriguing under-explored storyline in Bianca’s life.)
The action, I should say, is not entirely between the sheets, but it’s a story that’s best read in bed. Some of those juicy bits are simply too good to be wasted anywhere else. If ever a book deserved to be called erotic, it’s this one. In fact it’s the most erotic book I’ve read this year.
“Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait”
So said Mavis Gallant, who is one of the world’s greatest short story writers. Or was, until she died recently at the age of 91.
I think stories can wait to be written too. They shouldn’t be forced. You don’t have to rush to read them and you don’t have to rush to write them.
Mavis herself waited many years to discover that people liked her stories. Her agent had been selling them to The New Yorker without telling her. Mavis couldn’t afford to buy the magazine but read a copy in a library one day and found one of her stories in it. Eventually The New Yorker published more than 100 of her stories, more than any other writer apart from John Updike or S.J. Perelman.
I read a very sad blog last night by a writer who was struggling to increase her output from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 to meet the demands of a ravenous publisher.
Wait! Take a step back!
Writing is not manual labour. It’s the least effective way in the world to earn money. It would be illegal if it weren’t self-inflicted.
Hanif Kureishi can vouch for that.
“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer.”
He was talking at the Bath Literature Festival, taking time off from promoting his latest novel and from his job at Kingston University where he teaches creative writing. Well, not really taking time off. Writers never take time off. He was pretending to take time off but really he was “working in the market.” He was making headlines.
“Creative writing courses are a waste of time.”
he announced. His students, he said, were talentless.
“A lot of my students just can’t tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”
I disagree with him. I think you can teach how to tell a story. Syd Field has been doing it successfully for years (and many books for writers have copied his ideas). But I acknowledge that Hanif has a fair point. Writers get very anxious about style.
“They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’”
Yes! Fuck the prose. That is a very profound point. Fuck the prose because what matters is the story.
I am putting these ideas out there because I want to refer to them in my next book review without cluttering it up with a lot of literary theory.
Talking of which, I want to leave you with another quote, this time from Stephen Fry’s book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled. Stephen Fry, you could say, was fucking the prose but in a different sense. He was fucking the prose and loving the poetry. But he still insisted that all his readers follow his first golden rule: Take Your Time.
“Among the pleasures of poetry is the sheer physical, sensual, textural, tactile pleasure of feeling the words on your lips, tongue, teeth and vocal cords.”
That quote was not quite the one I wanted but I love it. Oh, wait, here is what I wanted to him say:
“It can take weeks to assemble and polish a single line of poetry. Sometimes, it is true, a lightning sketch may produce a wonderful effect too, but as a general rule, poems take time. As with a good painting, they are not there to be greedily taken in at once, they are to be lived with and endlessly revisited: the eye can go back and back and back, investigating new corners, new incidents and the new shapes that seem to emerge.”
Actually he goes on and on and on about taking your time.
So, summing up. Stories can wait. It’s a nightmare making a living. Fuck the prose. Take your time.
That’s the literary theory. A book review will follow shortly.