intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘irony

Bang-bang You're DeadBang-bang You’re Dead by Muriel Spark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bang-Bang You’re Dead is a sophisticated story for sophisticated readers. At the beginning I was having to re-read each sentence three or four times. The English isn’t difficult but the context is. The narrator is at a friend’s house watching some old reels of film from her life in South Africa. Many questions played through my mind. How old is the person telling the story? Where is she? How old was she in that film? Who are these friends? Are they close friends or just acquaintances? Gradually, if you’re patient, the questions get answered. The reels of film trigger flashbacks and revive old memories. The watchers of the films get one story. We get another. 

It’s an ambitious technical device and I was thinking that I was going to be very disappointed if the narrator didn’t do something special with it and repay the effort I was making to interpret the layers of meaning.

But as the story unfolded I realised before I got to the end that I actually was being treated to something very special indeed. I became engrossed in the story and in the searingly honest character of the narrator. As she began to dissect her emotions and the motivations behind her relationships, I became hooked.

The layered viewpoints and the indirectness of the storytelling are not gratuitous. There are poignant ironies in the story that the narrator couldn’t have conveyed any other way.

The tension builds. There is a climax. It’s beautifully done. It’s astonishingly economical storytelling. Thirty-eight succinct pages hold all the depth and range of a novel.

And then there is one final, crushing, heart-stopping revelation. Something she can’t tell her friends but which she has told us, the sophisticated readers, who have stayed with her story to the end. I was totally gripped by the last few pages. Nothing could have wrenched me from my seat.

Muriel Spark seems to be regarded as old-fashioned by some readers these days. That seems a great pity. This kind of narrative power should never go out of fashion. It is heartening to see, therefore that her complete stories have recently been published in a new edition by Canongate, one of the more enlightened of British independent publishers (another of their recent titles was Life of Pi).

The Swimming-Pool LibraryThe Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You never stop learning a language, which is why I buy two unabridged English novels from Audible every month and listen to them with as much concentration as I can muster. Style is very important. I don’t like to listen to bad style. So I choose very carefully what I listen to. Those books become like voices in my head. I absorb every cadence. I internalise, verbalise and repeat.

Finally I have found time for Alan Hollinghurst. He’s been on my list for a long time because everybody in the literary establishment says what a fine style he has.

I agree. He has a very fine English style. He also has a delicate sensibility. He has a beautiful sense of irony. He is mischievous, cheeky and arch, while at the same time having a coy vulnerability.

Let’s listen in on the secret thoughts of his narrator, William Beckwith, as he goes back to the hotel of his latest pick-up, an athletic young boy called Phil:

I was so lucky in general, so blessed, that my pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look. But with Phil I had let something dangerous happen, a roundabout, slow insinuation into my feelings. Though I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked – my stronger feeling was more protective and caressing. It was growing so strong that it allowed doubts not entertained in the brief certainties of casual sex. If I had got it all wrong, if going back to his place meant a drink in the bar, a game of chess, a handshake – ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow’ – the evening would be agony. Already I dreamt up headaches, queazy tums, excuses for dullness and an early escape; and I was so tense that as I did so I even began to feel the symptoms.

I wish I could quote more but already there is a lot going on. Hollinghurst takes a cliché of romantic fiction and gives it several ironic twists. The cliché in this case is that of the serial philanderer who meets our heroine and is reformed by love. Here the philanderer is a gay man. This is a beautiful twist. But he is also the narrator, which is another twist. We are asked to identify with the philanderer. To make it even more piquant, the philanderer is an aristocratic English gentleman who has been brought up in the finest English traditions – the traditions of queazy tums and other feeble excuses.

Hollinghurst’s ironies are best enjoyed in longer passages than this. But his ironies would be empty without the delicious observational details –

I very much wanted to fuck his big, muscly bum – and several times dropped behind a step or two to see it working as he walked

which make listening or reading to him such a joy.

Excellent English style is not just about vocabulary, word order and syntax. It is about something that is very hard to teach. It is something that perhaps you are born with, I don’t know, or that you have to absorb and acquire in the nursery. It’s about sensibility.

I’m hoping that having this voice in my head will help me acquire a refined English sensibility.

My only worry is that this particularly wicked, arch and mischievous voice will corrupt me and have me thinking about cocks and bums far more than is good for me.

Tower for the Summer HeatTower for the Summer Heat by Yu Li
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yu Li is a very famous erotic author in China. His most famous novel, called The Carnal Prayer Mat, has just been made into a completely over-the-top 3D flesh feast called Sex and Zen and, from the trailers on YouTube, the movie looks hilarious. Those Hong Kong movie makers really know how to choreograph action sequences.

The humour of Yu Li is much more sophisticated, let me assure you, and, though there is nudity a-plenty, it is very decorously described.

I will come to The Carnal Prayer Mat another day. For now let me just give you a taste of Yu Li’s summer tower, originally published in China in the seventeenth century.

These stories are very fresh and delicate. The humour is refined and won’t appeal to everyone. They have a tongue-in-cheek moral tone. For example, Yu Li, who is very learned and well-read, defends his subject matter thus:

“How can anyone deny that the frivolity of sex supports a serious endeavour and that its lewdness is at least not inconsistent with propriety?”

It’s a fine philosophical point, isn’t it? Unfortunately, not many modern readers want moral philosophy with their porn, so I must, I’m afraid, withhold a star.

The sex when it comes is as frivolous and as lewd as you could wish, though, as I said, somewhat decorously expressed, with flowers and essences substituting for the coarser expressions so many of us prefer.

The first story ends with a moral, which is that women should never be naked, not even in private. How seriously you take this moral is up to you. I think it is beautifully expressed and has an exquisite irony but I am sure there are many naked women out there who would take it literally and either throw up their hands in rebellion or else cover themselves up in shame.

Irony, for this reason, is one of the most dangerous weapons an author can deploy, and should be used only by an expert. Yu Li, fortunately is a black belt in the art of irony and it’s for this reason that his work has not only survived, but retained a luminous clarity, free of the patina of time even in this somewhat academic translation.

I would love to tell you about all the stories, one by one, but I haven’t finished telling you about the first one yet so, may I politely suggest that you read them for yourselves? At least you don’t have to learn Chinese.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits


Books by Vanessa Wu

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