Posts Tagged ‘Bildungsroman’

Books appeal to me in a variety of different ways.

Some are intellectually challenging; some have intricate or gripping plots; some tug on the heart strings; some create whole worlds inside me; some create characters who live on inside my mind and imagination.

And some sing to me. They breathe under my fingers. They live

And this was one book that did exactly that.

History Of The Rain, Niall Williams

What is this book about?

A young woman, Ruth Swain, little more than a girl, is ill in bed. Surrounded by several thousand of her father’s books in which she hopes to find him, most of which are names, referenced and catalogued throughout the novel.

That’s pretty much it really in terms of plot! Oh, and she goes to hospital a couple of times. And it rains.

But, as she’s in bed, she narrates the tale of four generations of her family, interweaving this historical saga with her own personal story: yes, the image of the river is a massively significant one in the novel and, as Ruth herself says, her story meanders and potters delving from deep pasts to presents and back again. Compared to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which, of course, won last year’s Man Booker, with its very strict structure to the point of near rigidity, this is a breath of fresh air. The fluidity of the narrative(s) creates a beautiful dance between past and present and it is one of the few books I have read where you really do feel that time is not linear but the events of the past are just as much in the present – in our memories, feelings, in the way it shapes us – as the things occurring before our eyes are. 

There is so much to commend this book that it is hard to know where to start.

Firstly, it is hilarious! The novel abounds with literary allusions both explicit and implicit some of which I got and many of which I am sure flew over my head. Characters in the novel are repeatedly compared to characters in other novels. Beyond that, however, there are moments of pure comedy: the kidnapping of baby Jesus from the school nativity was genuinely laugh-out-loud; the fractious and competitive marriage of Abraham and Margaret which consisted of “silent skirmishes… moving a chair back where he wanted it, leaving open a newspaper he knew she wanted folded away, opening windows she closed” . As Ruth tells us

But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically speaking, and then boys, you were rightly stuck.

That Will teach You was Number One sermon at the time.

It is a gloriously and joyfully silly, surreal, self-aware, punning social commentary that sums up their marriage, gender relations and a whole range of sociological and religious dogmas. Part of my mind rebels and wants to complain that this generalises and overstates the concerns and is probably not historically accurate. I don’t know enough about Ireland and Catholicism to say. But it is joyous!

Poor Mrs P had the dubious benefit of hearing my reading certain extracts – baby Jesus being one – to her and seemed to find them funny even without the full context.

Alongside the comedy, however, there is incredible tragedy. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers but the Swains set themselves up as a family to whom misfortune, failure and tragedy are familiar. Williams often undermines the failures with comedy. The family has declared itself to suffer from the Philosophy of Impossible Standard bequeathed by Ruth’s great-grandfather The Reverend Absalom Swain and enshrined in the names of her grandfather, Abraham, and father, Virgil.

For example, Virgil Swain, father to our narrator, falls into farming through his marriage and lack of other option and planted potatoes contrary to the local advice and didn’t spray them against blight. The crop failed and Ruth Swain tells us that the following year

… he tried potatoes again.

This time he sprayed.

This time there was no blight.

This time the river worms destroyed them.

Williams continues however with a second account of the same failure from Mary, Ruth’s mother:

Those potatoes were all right, Mam said, when she told it. Aeney and I were maybe ten. All of us were at the table. A large bowl of floury potatoes had summoned the story.

“The way I remember it, those potatoes were all right,” she said. She looked closely at one she held upright on her fork. “If you cut around the worms.”

I screamed and Aeney ughed and Mam laughed and Dad smiled looking at her and letting the story heal….

Somehow the worm-ruined potatoes had become this happiness, somehow the years-ago-hurt had transformed, and I think maybe I had a first sense then of the power of story, and realised that time had done what Time sometimes does to hardship, turn it to fairy tale.

There was, however, a heartaching inevitability to the central core tragedy which unfolds in the novel: most readers will be able to see it coming from a distance but I won’t make it explicit. For two nights this week, when I was towards the end of this book, I set it aside because I knew what would have to be described in the final 50 pages and I needed to steel myself for it and screw my courage to the sticking point. That doesn’t happen with many books!

Gender is interesting here too. Sorry, this is just a little digression but Niall Williams has chosen as a man to write in the voice of a female character, despite the fact that she had a male twin whose voice he could have used. The first half of the novel felt very masculine: Absalom and Abraham Swain held sway both in their households and in the narrative. Virgil himself is an almost silent character: he is seen through his actions and the prism of other people. Once his narrative commences, female characters start to come to the fore: Nan, Mary, Ruth herself, even Mrs Quinty. Just an observation.

This is a book that – as stated before – is steeped in literature. It is also written in a particularly beautiful and lyrical way, wonderfully balancing the natural realism of Ruth’s narrative voice with the lyricism of poetry. The world around Ruth lives and breathes and moves exquisitely 

The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching out to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

 

Here, Ruthie, feel.

 

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

How beautiful is that?!

The tenderness of the relationship between father and daughter. Look, look at the use of the phrase “our arm” as if the two people were one. Feel the immense imaginative symbolic and mythic power of the river water tugging “seaward”: a metaphor for life, for story telling? Hear the onomatopoeia; see the personification. That river is as much a character as either of the human beings reaching into it, isn’t it?

And that quote is from just the second page of over 300.

The book’s ending is also exquisitely balanced – and the pinnacle of the lyricism of the novel. The final pages are some of the most gorgeous writing that you are likely to find. It is, i think, impossible to give spoilers because there is no ending to spoil: Ruth is in hospital for some form of investigation and is aware that she may not be strong enough to recover – details of Ruth’s illness are left deliberately blank throughout and she explicitly tells us she does not want her story to be weighed down with science instead relying on euphemisms like having Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, being Fine except for Falling Down – and she is “taken down” as the novel closes.

Niall Williams has very consciously – I think – not given any suggestion whether she is ever brought back up again. How much self control must that have taken! 

But how much better is that act of silence than either a Disney Happy Ending or a clumsy attempt – presumably by another narrative voice – to explain how she died. The reader, instead, is left waiting for news.

If you read, you will love this book. If you write, you will love this book. If you believe that we as people are as much a creation of imagination as we are of genetics, you will love this book. If you believe that stories matter, you will love this book.

So, go forth and read this book!

Stop wasting time reading reviews of it: go out and but it, download it, borrow it.

And love it.

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This is a truly exceptional book!

And, before I discuss the book, a truly exceptional reading of it by a chap called Chris Nelson. Now, I don’t know who Chris Nelson is. I have googled his name idly but I have no clue. I do not know his age or where he is from.

But he is the absolutely perfect voice for this book: a thirteen year old boy from Worcestershire in 1982. I mean, seriously, the accent is so authentic it must be genuine! And the sense of character, of knowingness and innocence and ignorance is astounding. I can’t believe Chris Nelson is 13, but I wholly believe his voicing as a 13-year-old.

There have been a couple of downloads from Audible.com where the voice has been a barrier but here it is spot on. When I read the last few places, it was in Chris Nelson’s voice!

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Chris Nelson reads the narration is Jason Taylor in this first person story. It is – as Wikipedia claims – a Bildungsroman although not in the board sweep that we might expect from reading Great Expectations. That novel follows a life; Black Swan Green follows Jason Taylor for a mere year. It is a focused and tight structure but the boy we see at the beginning of the novel is very different to the young man we see at the end.

Taylor’s narrative voice, created through Mitchell’s language, drives the book. Mitchell creates a wholly convincing voice for me: the use of colloquialisms, some of which seem specific to the Worcestershire area and some specific to the 1980s; the pattern of language; the slightly geeky enumerating of the details of his world; the litany of the listing of his friends; the sometimes clumsy and sometimes startlingly beautiful attempts to poeticise the world around him; the balance between revulsion, fear and fascination with girls (and breasts). All these details and no doubt more that I have forgotten created the voice perfectly. And matched with Chris Nelson’s voice. As close to perfect as you could hope for.

And the world that Mitchell creates of 1982 through Jason Taylor’s eyes is superbly done. I know much of the novel is at least semi-autobiographical: Mitchell would have been 13 in 1982 as well; he shares Taylor’s stammer; he too was brought up in Worcestershire. Therefore, the realism of the world is understandable. And, as I would have been ten in 1982, completely convincing and recognisable.

The casual bullying of the school scenes; the arrogance and smirks of boys getting one over on the student teacher; the petty hopes and devastating tragedies that pattern Jason Taylor’s year; the slow disintegration of his parents’ relationship. The cultural and historical references. The Daily Mail – which shifts in Taylor’s mind from being accepted as gospel truth to a more appropriately critical stance. The Falkland’s War. His older sister Julia’s presence. The unspoken but bitter tensions between Jason’s family and Uncle Brian and Aunt Alice and their pretentious prig of a son, Hugo.

It is perhaps possible to say that there are a myriad of Jason Taylors in the book: there’s the unborn twin, the voice of chaos urging him to misbehave or rebel; there’s maggot urging him to hide and cave in to the bullies, the ‘loser’ persona that some kids try to force onto him; there’s Hangman, the embodiment of the stutter; there’s Eliot Bolivar, the somewhat pretentious but promising poet. Perhaps the book is as much an account of Taylor balancing or choosing between these voices and personas as anything else.

There are a few incidents that did strike me as slightly artificially shoehorned into the narrative. Madame Cremmelink’s forays into mentoring Jason’s poetry and his stumbling into a gypsy encampment in particular.

But these are minor quibbles.

Very minor.

There are a myriad of standout moments in the book but my absolute star moment was Jason trying out for The Spooks – the local ‘gang’ of cool kids. His initiation gave him 15 minutes to run through a string of back gardens and we overhear a sequence of conversations and witness tableaux of other characters and their families. It is masterfully done: we see tenderness and humanity and depth in some of the more minor characters that flesh them out beautifully.

And beautiful is absolutely the right word for this book: it is convincing, credible, honest and – above all – beautiful

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I signed up to Audible nearly a year ago now.

I was interested in trying audiobooks and had been for a while : I drive. Lots. Daily. And whilst I like the Today Programme in the morning, I’m less keen on PM in the afternoon.

But I’m also a skinflint and object to paying £20 plus for a book.

Which left me with PM…

Until I discovered Audible. So now I have one credit a month to spend on one book. And I find it particularly hard to make that decision: what if I get the wrong book? It might be too thoughtful to cope with at the end of the day! It might be too distracting! It might be narrated by a voice I’d struggle to listen to for an hour a day without wanting to veer off the road!

I can spend hours clicking links and contemplating new releases and reading what’s recommended and browsing best sellers.

It is a trauma.

Now, this book had popped up as a recommendation a couple of months running so, doing what my Granny would hate, I judged it on its cover. A mysterious hooded man; a tangle of vines and trees framing it like a Blake engraving.

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And the narration by Rupert Degas is fantastic: he has a great range to his performance, able to give a voice to each character without it turning into poor, silly and childish squeaking and gibbering. As a father and a teacher, who frequently reads aloud to his class and sometimes to my kids, I hope I manage to achieve the same range.

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One of the irritations I had with Simon Slater’s reading of Wolf Hall was the high-pitched camp voice he adopted for Cardinal Wolsey.

Right, back to the book.

It is a poorly kept secret that fantasy, especially high fantasy, is my guilty reading pleasure. Looking at the list of books on this blog, this probably isn’t a surprise! It was The Hobbit that was the first ‘grown up’ book that got me into reading and since then it has always been a familiar, comfortable milieu. Tolkien, Eddings, Canavan, Donaldson, Goodkind, Kerr, Nix, Pullman, Pratchett, Gaiman and more latterly Sanderson, Erikson, Martin, Weeks and Miéville.

And now Rothfuss.

Golly that list makes me sound like SUCH a geek! But then, the geek shall
inherit the Earth.

Rothfuss has attracted a lot of positive reviews with this book; and some equally negative ones.

It certainly does not have the linguistic playfulness that Miéville brings to the genre but there are some features here that set it apart from the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy.

The first is structural. This is a story about stories as much as anything else. And it is a story of a story.

Rothfuss creates a world that is very credible and real in the opening chapters: an inn named The Waystone in a quiet, rural village named Newarre frequented by farmers and blacksmiths and run by a self-effacing innkeeper name Kote and his assistant Bast. It seems to be a world untouched by magic, prophecy or politics; a world removed from the usual milieu of high fantasy!

But “Kote” is in reality the semi-mythical, legendary magician Kvothe, the eponymous Kingkiller. And Bast is far more than an innkeep’s assistant; far more than even a magician’s assistant; possibly the most interesting character in the book. When Devan the Chronicler arrives in the inn, the stage is set for the true book to begin as the contemporary Kvothe relates his life history to Chronicler.

The device is a good one: the voice we get through the majority of the book is Kvothe’s. And he is an engaging narrator. But a tricky one to pull off: he is a really rather precocious and talented member of the Edema Ruh – a band, no a race, of travelling players, performers and poets – and his skill with words and performance are constantly referred to. But personally I don’t think his narration matches up to the skill he claims for himself. There are flashes of power in his language. The opening paragraphs of his narrative are powerful, muscular and mythic

My first mentor called me E’lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant “to know.”

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

Because this is his story, it becomes more of a Bildungsroman than is usual for fantasy: certainly on this book, there is no prophecy to be fulfilled or tyrant or evil emperor to be overthrown. There’s just a boy’s journey to manhood covering about three or four years of his life.

And his journey is painful: just as he looks set on happiness, settled with his itinerant family and considering a life at University, his world is literally ripped apart by seven creatures known as The Chandrian. This is the closest Rothfuss gets to providing a traditional enemy: The Chandrian are fairy tale creatures who turn fire blue, cause all things around them to entropy – metal rusts; wood rots – and appear once for a dozen pages before Rothfuss removes then from our sight!

But, having destroyed his world, Kvothe vows vengeance.

Which would be easier if any right minded person in Rothfuss’ world believed they existed!

It is in this chapter, which runs with an air of inevitability, that Rothfuss’ writing shone again for me: the tenderness of the description if his parents’ love for each other; the bitter-sweetness of Kvothe’s imagined happiness that he hoped they shared before The Chandrian attacked; the quietness of the present-day Kvothe’s grief were all extremely well depicted. Again, very powerful and moving for fantasy.

One feature of this Bildungsroman approach is that it is necessarily slow and a bit – dare I say it? – repetitive. Kvothe has had three – possibly four – sections to his life thus far:

1. happy itinerant childhood with the Edema Ruh;

2. appalling street life as a homeless beggar and thief in the city of Tarbean;

3. tenuously happy and successful life as a student at the University in Imre; and perhaps, as a jaunt within his University life,

4. a successful albeit brief career as a monster hunter and dragon slayer in the town of Trebon.

In Tarbean, he was beaten so regularly that one simply got tired of his having broken ribs! There are 206 bones in a human body that could be broken. Ribs every time?!

In Imre, he excelled in every class; misdemeanours landed him in front of the disciplinary board and he argued his way out of trouble – or at least the most serious trouble – every time; he failed to get the girl on every date! Even when a girl wearing only a see-through sheet inadequately wrapped over her naked body asks him in! Seriously?! And he’s 15!? At 15, in the presence of an all-but naked girl, one does not say “hmm, wanna go to the library?”

There is a slightly addle-pated child who lives in the sewers but that would be wrong! So so wrong! And unhygienic!

Each of these three sections is great! The stitching between them is a little clumsy. It is literally within a space of 12 hours that street-urchin-Kvothe – who has suppressed the memory of his troupe’s death – recalls it and decides to hop on a cart to University. That, I felt, needed a gentler more real transition.

What I do like here though are the narratives. In addition to the framework structure, characters gossip and tell tales; sing songs; and perform plays. Whole chapters are given over to mythology and the story of the very Christ-like Tehlu, a God who allowed a mortal form of Himself to be born of a virgin to save mankind from sin and demons and who sacrificed himself to defeat the most powerful demon.

This is, perhaps, Rothfuss’ strength: his myth building. Whereas George R. R. Martin builds worlds, Rothfuss builds mythologies. I am fully confident that the various myths that have been told, of Lanre and Lyra, of The Chandrian, of the Amyr and of Selitos will resolve into a consistent and coherent whole.