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Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

Howard Jacobsen writes effusively, in the introduction to my edition, of Catch 22’s magnificent unruliness – its unkempt transgression of bookish conventions about form, symmetry and balance, its rampant comic energy in the grand ribald tradition of Rabelais through Dickens. From Huck Finn and Moby Dick to The Adventures of Augie March and Gravity’s Rainbow, this is also characteristic of many of the books typically bracketed under that most macho of literary categories, the ‘potential Great American novel’.  Like Ernest Hemingway hunting big game, the entire idea of this mythical pursuit smacks of testosterone. Jacobsen accordingly high-fives Joseph Heller for his manly swagger, ‘leonine Jewish Byronic’ looks and dashingly rough edge.

Unsurprisingly, contenders for the Great American Novel gong in the second half of the 20th century often had a military theme (The Naked and the Dead, Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse Five, at a historical remove, Blood Meridian); not only did a lot of the defining events of the period involve violence, a lot of the most prominent post-war US authors are also ex-servicemen (many of whom returned to university on the GI Bill): Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy. Even when they’re not writing about war, their works and themes are testosterone-pumped, and if truth be told they don’t often have much to say about one half of the human race.

It’s not atypical for British authors to go a bit starry-eyed in the face of this priapic quality in American literature, and it’s particularly entertaining when, like Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, they try and take it off. Jacobsen himself is a self-styled ‘British Roth’, another US author whose novels are so preternaturally virile that they have been known to spontaneously impregnate blushing librarians if accidentally unsheathed from their protective latex dust-jackets.

If the British novel is a sober, cerebral Inspector Morse, the postmodern US novel is a shit-faced, unshaven Jimmy McNulty banging some broad whose name he doesn’t even remember over the back of a car in a Baltimore parking lot. It’s the Hemingway to our Fitzgerald, the Obelix to our Asterix, the Batman to our Robin. It’s Cormac McCarthy riding a horse around New Mexico and dismissing James and Proust as ‘not proper literature’; it’s Norman Mailer having a hammer fight with Rip Torn live on film; it’s even Saul Bellow, that most unashamedly learned of ex-GI authors, walking it like he talked it with his string of ex-wives, his Chicago street-slang and his macho intellectuals like Augie March, Eugene Henderson and even big, barrel-chested Moses Herzog.

Jacobsen goes on to draw a distinction between the gargantuan, trouser-bulging rambunctiousness of a novel like Catch 22, and the austere, cerebral Flaubertian novel that ‘minds its words’. However, he maintains that this hysteria effect – a contemporary reviewer famously noted that it seemed Catch 22 had been ‘not so much written as shouted onto a page’ – is achieved only with the most meticulous craftsmanship and technical control. While on face value he may be accused of rather too obsequiously allowing Heller to have his cake and eat it – despite Jacobsen’s claims to the contrary, is it not fundamentally easier and less sophisticated to trade in shouty caricature than in delicately observed detail? – Catch 22’s blundering lack of subtlety is an important part of its response to its subject matter.

The manic energy and unrelenting volume of the narrative is used as a means of conveying the endemic insanity of the wartime predicament. The narrative is screamed into your face like a bollocking from a US sergeant major who likes a bit of napalm with his cornflakes – there’s no time for subtle observation or gradations of emotional detail, wrenching Michael Furey disclosures or profound moments of madeleine-prompted recollection.  A reasonable amount of the dialogue is literally shouted, and the accompanying narrative is for the most part set to 11.

However, this hysteria is also the novel’s central trope – applying caricature and exaggeration to describe, with ironic aptness, a situation already more grotesquely exaggerated than any fictional scenario imaginable. Ironic too, that the figure who seems the most implausible is Nately’s whore – a darkly comic, crazed caricature who over the course of the last 50 pages lurks around every corner waiting to stab at Yossarian with a kitchen knife in revenge for Nately’s death – rather than the young men who drop bombs on people they have never met.

Yossarian, the novel’s unremarkable hero, is a kind of reprise on Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin – an everyman who functions as a yardstick by which to measure the absurdity of the characters and situations among which he is placed. He’s also a prototype for a kind of self-protecting numbness in the face of the unspeakable horror of war. Unfashionably serene and rational amidst the novel’s cast of grotesques, the embodiment of the central postmodern trope of sanity being rendered inversely ‘insane’ when insanity is the status quo, Yossarian also voices our own inability to linguistically accommodate the horrific potential of sheer physicality. Kurt Vonnegut wrote ‘there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’, and just as the birds’ ‘tweet’ is the enduring response to the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse 5, the  ‘There there’ that is all Yossarian can offer to an eviscerated Snowdon as he lies dying is a symbol of this linguistic redundancy.

James Wood, that traditionalist in sheep’s clothing, famously dissed ‘hysterical realism’ a few years ago – his genre-tag for the contemporary gaggle of show-offy, google-happy, polymath vaudeville acts like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Dave Eggers’ A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. These novels all took their cue from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, he said – using sheer scale, glitzily redundant idea-flaunting and shouty stylistic gewgaw to mask their lack of psychological depth.

Alongside Thomas Pynchon, Catch 22 is in many ways a forerunner of this sort of hysterical realist novel, and its brand of energetic absurdity influenced a generation of American writers. However, the Emperor’s New Clothes maximalism and caricature excess of contemporary ‘hysterical realism’ seems far more appropriately applied when set against the deathly black backdrop of Catch 22. A formless postmodern howl rather than a modernist well-wrought urn, in its very implausibility and excess it still manages to convince you that it constitutes an all-too-appropriate literary response to the most implausible situation mankind has yet managed to concoct.

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C by Tom McCarthy

C, Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy often talks of himself as both an anti-novelist and a neo-modernist, and his pleasingly theatrical declarations recall the days of pamphleteering, movements and manifestos. Founder of the International Necronautical Society, a clandestine ‘semi-fictitious avant-garde network’ that produces conceptual art instalments and delivers hilarious artistic manifestos, a walking high-brow encyclopedia (you know, the sort of person who says stuff about Finnegan’s Wake being ‘actually quite readable’), McCarthy even somewhat hubristically referred to his work in a recent interview as a ‘grand anti-humanist manifesto’. For better or worse, he’s no Hilary Mantel.

So how could a novelist who would appear to be so unapologetically arcane have written a novel that is being widely tipped to win the Booker Prize, that traditional barometer of everything virtuously middlebrow? Is the Booker going experimental or is C perhaps not as wildly challenging as its author would have us believe?

On the surface, C reads not so much as an ‘anti-novel’ (in the overtly deconstructive, nouveau romain sense) as a sort of old-school European novel of ideas. McCarthy seems to routinely pepper even the most casual conversation with references to abstruse continental literature, theory and philosophy, and to eschew all things British almost as a matter of honour. He is at pains to emphasise that he hasn’t read the likes of Amis, McEwan and Rushdie (don’t get me wrong, I frequently wish I hadn’t), and it was no surprise to see him jumping in to support Gabriel Josipovici’s recent book Whatever Happened to Modernism?, about the British failure to culturally or artistically assimilate that movement’s epistemological advances.

Accordingly, there is a very un-British feel to C. This is evident both in its austere lack of the sort of emotional content McCarthy tends to deride as old-fashioned ‘humanism’, and in its rejection of the stylized voice – a combination of on-the-sleeve lyricism and patrician after-dinner wit – that we have come to expect from the modern English novel.

This novel made me think most of big, cerebral, state-of-the-age, idea-driven German-language novels with an allegorical bent – like Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, or Grass’s The Tin Drum. Despite its abstruse themes, it is first and foremost a story told sequentially (or at least episodically) and in a conventionally realist manner. For all the talk (plenty of it from him) of McCarthy being an anti-novelist, a modern-day reprise on cultural iconoclasts from Sterne to Robbe-Grillet who is currently launching a one-man jihad against the stultifying conservatism of contemporary mainstream fiction, C on a surface level doesn’t do anything much that we wouldn’t in general expect a novel to do.

Though McCarthy may in interviews drop post-structuralist slogans like the most rampantly unkempt 1970s PhD student (and good lord he does), the novel displays little of the chic, left-wing avant-gardism of Robbe-Grillet and pals, the one-hand-tied-behind-back Oulipo japes of Calvino, Perec and Queneau, or even the trickery of Latin American ‘neo-baroque’ writers like Borges and Cortazar. If one of McCarthy’s aims in writing is to challenge and subvert the norms and received wisdom of (that perennial chimera) the ‘conventional novel’, then he operates as a mole, taking the system down from the inside rather than coming out all formal guns blazing.

Like a kind of plotted textbook, C is a metaphorical investigation of modernist culture, art and theory – the metaphor being the traditional novelistic device of plot. The novel tells the story of the not-insignificantly-named Serge Carrefax, both an inscrutable cipher and a kind of modernist everyman who is from the outset, as the name would suggest, associated with technology. In the opening scene, Serge is born (artificially induced) into the world to the counterpointed background hum of electricity wires on the one hand and bees on the other. From here, like a 1920s Forest Gump, he seems to wander aimlessly though most of the culturally, historically and technologically significant developments of the age.

Much has been made of the symbolism of the title, from c-words like code, circuit and correspondence, C as in carbon (referred to in the novel as the basic building block of life), c for culture, c for condition, c for cocaine (Serge uses it, Freud used to prescribe it), C as a shout-out to one-letter novel titles like Thomas Pynchon’s V or John Berger’s G (with which it apparently shares more than a passing resemblance).

Of these permutations, ‘code’ is the one that grabs me the most. Buzzing with transmissions (a word McCarthy uses frequently), a circuit-board for the various channels of modernist thought, like an Ezra Pound canto rendered into a superficially ‘realist’ narrative, C is awash with references to and interplay between the various semiotic systems or codes we use to make sense of the world. In one of the novel’s opening scenes, Carrefax’s father – an orator who bloviates on the sacredness of words – demonstrates a contraption allowing a school of deaf-mute children to speak, thereby ceremoniously initiating them into the main code that connects one person to another. Throughout the novel technology – with its new codes and transmissions – is buzzing and crackling, clanging and grinding away in the background

However, the title C also describes the narrative ‘shape’ (such as it is presented to us). The novel consists of four alliterating parts – Caul, Chute, Crash and Call – which (sort of) describe the shape of a C (as well as the events contained therewithin): Caul, the covering perched atop the letter (as well as the literal caul in which Serge is born and from which he figuratively escapes when losing his virginity); Chute, the downward descent of the upper curve (as well as the parachute that is wrapped around his crashed plane prior to him being captured as a prisoner of war); Crash, the collision with the bottom line (as well as the car crash that acts as the culmination of Serge’s libertine period as a smack-head architecture student in 1920s London); and Call, the up-curve transmitting back up to the start of the letter (as well as the telecoms company for which Serge goes out to work in Egypt, where he dies and the novel ends. This ending, incidentally, combines with the opening birth scene to give the plot an inward-facing symmetry, like that of the two curves of a letter C).

What is interesting about C is that it seems to take on the ‘conventional’ novel in the domain of content rather than form. This means it is able to be a neo-modernist novel without using the techniques – stream of consciousness and cut-up narrative – that make high modernist literature intimidating and inaccessible to the general reader. Yet at the same time it is sufficiently packed full of obscure references and concealed internal symbolic patterns to keep Joyce or Pynchon fans happy.

Modernism for the masses? A well-marketed homage to McCarthy’s genuinely quite interesting and expansive range of chic intellectual heroes, and certainly a more cerebrally exerting experience than your average Booker-shortlisted tome. Like Remainder, C is not a novel that knocks you out with pyrotechnics, but it is intricate, subtle and sustained, if not without the occasional longeur. Let’s be honest, it seems unlikely that the current generation of British novelists contains a Joyce or a Proust, and if does, it sure as hell isn’t Tom McCarthy. But then again, as an exhumation of neglected ideas and an attempt to shake the British novel out of its lyrical-realist stupor, C is a step in the right direction – and it’ll be no bad thing if it does win the Booker.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road was the first Cormac McCarthy book I ever read – quite soon after it won the Pulitzer prize and everyone from Oprah Winfrey to George Monbiot started proclaiming its unprecedented and potentially world-saving amazingness. I remember at the time thinking it was kind of like an Old English alliterative poem mixed with an ITV survivor documentary (man hacks off own leg with toothpick to survive avalanche, etc) – The Wanderer meets Touching The Void, with added cannibals.

Having re-read it, I can’t shake off the same ambivalence. Somehow the manly-yet-beautified language – the striking descriptive sequences, the sweeping vistas, the strange Anglo-Saxon syntax, the eulogistic tone, the near-metric, unpunctuated pulse of the prose – is mixed with the uneasy feeling that you’re getting a bit of a cheap thrill. Part of you says ‘this is proper bollox – end of the world? cannibals? really?’ – while the other says: ‘just shut up and enjoy it like everyone else, you pseudo-intellectual tosser. George Monbiot likes it, and he seems like a really good guy’.

To elaborate, it strikes me as kind of a strange combination of deliberate high-brow obscurity (alongside William Faulkner, McCarthy’s biggest influence is Roget’s thesaurus) and low-common-denominator (or as McCarthy would write, lowcommondenominator) appeal: ever-so-slightly nonsensical pseudo-Biblical bombast; a page-turning lack of clauses and generous spacing, but with the surface appearance of canonical gravitas (it just sounds like it should be important); absence of difficult-to-digest psychological complexity or nuance (the characters don’t have names or personalities, don’t really speak, don’t make decisions any more complicated than whether or not to eat each other); scare-factor (end of the world, small boy getting raped and eaten alive, that sort of thing); almost sublime, prelapsarian obliviousness to irony.

Quite a lot of the time it sounds a bit like a sci-fi thriller written using a set of St James Bible-vocabulary fridge magnets.

The effect may be striking, I scoffed, but it only really works if you read it quite quickly and don’t spend too much time thinking about it. That said, I won’t pretend that I didn’t then go out, lay hands upon and devour all of McCarthy’s (nine) other books in reasonably quick succession. I guess the Monbiot voice won.

Now, I think I can locate part of said unease in a fundamental, biologically encoded aversion to sci-fi. I won’t try and justify this to anyone who pipes up citing the universally acknowledged merits of Philip K. Dick or Russel Hoban or Neil Gaiman or whoever. You’re probably right – it’s just not my cup of lapsang souchong.

Unlike The Road, all of McCarthy’s other stuff – with the possible exception of Blood Meridian – is set in the Real World (prior to some inexplicable apocalypse in which every form of life is razed from the earth apart from quite a few people). Not that it’s a Real World most people who read McCarthy will have a great deal of familiarity with. The earlier stuff – The Orchard Keeper (or, Being William Faulkner), Outer Dark (a crazed, freakish, semi-mythical, sacrificial gore-fest – Flannery O’Connor meets the Brothers Grimm), Child of God (the profoundly delightful chronicle of the life, times and misadventures of a serial-killing necrophiliac), and the hefty Suttree (McCarthy’s autobiographical, modernist epic – Ulysses rewritten amidst the riverside detritus, moonshine-drenched camaraderie and grotesque comedy of the Jacksonville underworld) – is set in deep-South, God-fearing, isolated Appalachia: but it might as well be Faulkner’s Yukutawa County.

From then (1978) until The Road (2006), McCarthy focused his attention on the barren borderlands of New Mexico. Blood Meridian (1984) – surely McCarthy’s main claim to lasting significance, and anointed by arch-canoniser and professional Grey Eminence, Harold Bloom as ‘the greatest imaginative work by a living American author’ – is revisionist history meets picaresque meets slasher-epic: Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Titus Andronicus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, spaghetti western and action movie all rolled into one still-twitching, brutalized word-corpse.

Following the exploits of a precociously vicious and borderline-autistically taciturn protagonist known simply as The Kid  – who drifts around on mangy steed from whorehouse to psychotically dodgy boozer before ending up in a bounty-hunting gang exchanging scalps of indigenous Indians for cash – Blood Meridian is both a carnival orgy of stylised horror, an explosion of the Little House on the Prairie, Cowboy-and-Indian American pastoral mythology, and a Girardian/Nietzschean exploration of the nature of evil – with the occasional shout-out to semiotic theory to keep the academy happy.

It also features McCarthy’s best (in an admittedly weak-ish field) character: a colossally bad-assed, proto-existentialist anti-Christ called The Judge – a persona reprised in (slightly) more domesticated form under the guise of the No Country For Old Men hit-man, Anton Chigurh.

McCarthy’s commercial break, however, didn’t come until the 1990s Border TrilogyAll The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. Again, the format is picaresque, the mode of conveyance is equine, women are seldom seen and almost never heard, Mexicans are all pathologically violent liars, and a well-placed punch is worth a thousand words. Rather than the groundbreaking bad taste and histrionic excess of Blood Meridian, however, the violence is restrained to the upper limits of general acceptability. There’s even a love interest. All The Pretty Horses bagged McCarthy the National Book Award and made him really, really famous.

So, having read and largely enjoyed the back-catalogue – Suttree, though uneven and overlong, manages to add some psychology, characterisation and humour (!) to its lavish lyricism, Blood Meridian is a 350-page face-melting prose solo, No Country For Old Men is slick and deceptively sophisticated, and the Border Trilogy contains some genuinely stunning descriptive passages amidst its swashbuckling silliness – I found myself more, rather than less sceptical about the western-culture-climaxing success of The Road.

On reflection, it seemed like there was a lot of amazing stuff in McCarthy, but his work in general – and The Road in particular – uses, in a fairly cheap way, one identifiable mass-cultural inclination to mask its shortcomings: the reverence for antiquity. Make it sound old, as Ezra Pound didn’t say. Or: if you find you don’t have anything that interesting to say, just add a venerable sheen of epic diction – which, as Goethe did say, does your thinking and your poeticising for you.

And then there’s the whole end-of-the-world, ‘carrying the torch’ for humanity histrionics – it’s just somehow too crass, too easily emotive: pressing big, populist sentimental buttons in a way not altogether dissimilar to, say, Schindler’s List (the cinematic equivalent of a bog-wash: make people cry by shoving their face in the worst genocide in mankind’s history). Or Armageddon.

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there was some huge, inexplicable apocalypse and the only people left were you and your small boy, stranded in a desolate, godless wilderness populated only by marauding gangs of cannibals, with possible but unconfirmed rapist tendencies?  Well yes, of course it would. So what?

Throw-you-hands-in-the-air descriptive sequences aside, the bits of The Road that work best are the bits that take place inside the man’s head. The way I read it, the main narrative basically consists of his interior thoughts. You’ve then got the objective narrative bits that move the characters around – deliberately drained of any sort of emotional content or commentary, and sometimes reading a bit like a self-parody (‘they did this and then they did this and it was cold and he was hungry’ etc etc – this is all ripped out of Hemingway, Carver and Bukowski, incidentally). And then you’ve got the dialogue with the boy, which is ridiculously pared down and minimal. The contrast sometimes works pretty well because a lot of the flashy, poeticised language takes place inside of the man’s head (often when the boy is asleep, like in the opening paragraph), and refers to a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The words still exist but the things that they refer to have all been destroyed.

So it’s kind of tragic because all of this language is dying with the man, and also the values that people have created using this language – like not eating each other – seem to be dying too. All of this is inaccessible to the boy, who has never known anything else. Which is why McCarthy makes it all take place inside the man’s head.

Basically McCarthy’s philosophy boiled down is that the world is a fundamentally meaningless, random and violent place – and things like morality and being nice to each other are flimsy constructs. Though that makes them all the more important. A bit like Lord of the Flies, the premise is that left to our own devices and without any of the restraints that society has placed upon us, the vast majority of use would rape, pillage and murder to get what we want, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise. But in a perverse kind of way that makes something simple and genuine like the bond between the man and the boy all the more sacred – because it’s fragile. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really all that profound.

Remainder, Tom McCarthy

A couple of years back, Zadie Smith (who, for the record, is still way too hot for her profession – for maximum credibility you need to be either a hunched, macchiavellian ghoul like Martin Amis or an elephantine oaf like A.S Byatt) published a long essay called ‘Two paths for the novel’, which pretty much did what it said on the tin. Said potential paths were represented by two novels: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. It’s an old argument with a twist, really, which comes down to how novelists these days deal with the aftermath of modernism – during which Joyce took the novel to one ‘what the fuck are you on about mate?’ extreme, and Beckett beat the shit out of it in a Parisian toilet whilst taking it to another.

One of Zadie’s two paths  – the lyrical realist highway – involves knowing that you’re peddling a bit of a shoddy and washed-up old bag of tricks, but doing it anyway (with the occasional wink or furtive flash of your still-crossed fingers to the reader) because, let’s face it, noone can really be arsed to read – or indeed write – Finnegan’s Wake or The Unnameable. This is the quickest and most convenient route to commercial success, and it’s the one taken by Joseph O’Neill, whose Netherland was magisterially accomplished in pretty much every respect, but ultimately so formally conventional as to be quite forgettable (Zadie’s argument less felicitously paraphrased, but I’m pretty much with her on this one).

The other way is the ‘scenic route’ – which involves being fancy, self-aware and META rather than just telling a story in nice pretty sentences. This is the less commerically viable route, as evidenced by the fact that Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – designated ambassador of the latter approach – took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. I’d already read Netherland (basically The Great Gatsby with more cricket) when I read the Zadie Smith essay but I’d never heard of Tom McCarthy. And I’ll be honest, I thought it sounded more my scene: a guy wakes up from a mysterious accident (involving ‘bits of technology’ falling from the sky) and has to have cognitive therapy to rewire him back into reality; he wins loads of money in compensation and blows it all on staging increasingly elaborate reconstructions of trivial events (later graduating to a gang execution and a fully-fledged bank robbery involving shootings and hijacked planes); he then re-reconstructs it by telling you about it (but he might actually just be making it up), and it turns into a bit of a Borgesian labyrinth of reconstructions to the power of reconstructions.

(It’s not as much of a twat-fest as I just made it sound, but I understand your concerns).

Those who have had the not-entirely-unmoderated pleasure of seeing it will at this point say ‘Isn’t that pretty much exactly the same as Synecdoche New York?’ (where a writer blows his Macarthur Fellowship money on elaborately re-staging scenes from his life in an apartment block). This had occurred to me, and two minutes on google revealed that Remainder was written before Synecdoche New York, but it wasn’t really very well known until recently, and Charlie Kaufman said in an interview he’d never heard of it (cough).

Not that originality is really what Remainder aims for – it’s packed full of literary samples, like an insanely highbrow mash-up: from the opening sentence’s tip of the cap to Gravity’s Rainbow to the waft of fried liver carried over from Ulysses to the private eye who seems to have drifted in via Molloy to do some of the interpretative leg-work for us, to the reconstructed apartment block out of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Tom McCarthy – who has been all up in the literary press since his new novel C was made this year’s token highbrow effort on the Booker longlist – has been quoted as saying that he thinks of writing as being a bit like DJing, and Remainder was certainly designed with the needs of the point-scoring literary train-spotter firmly in mind.

Unlike Synecdoche New York – which seemed to me to turn into a big theory-obsessed, kitchen sink-shaped mess about half way through – Remainder manages to keep all of the knowing post-grad jiggery pokery pleasingly under control. It’s so controlled, in fact, that it took until about half-way through for me to stop feeling underwhelmed. As sparely styled as Coetzee at his most stingey, this is a novel that makes no concession to conventional lyricism (and is all the more refreshing for it) – but this means that it is, as they say at boarding school, a grow-er not a show-er. In fact, the opening hundred or so pages – complete with scenes down the boozer, rubbish dates, house parties in Brixton, the occasional heavy-handed shout-out to pop culture (someone whistles ‘History Repeating’ by The Futureheads) – reads a bit like Martin Amis without the flashy prose.

As Tom McCarthy puts it in an essay on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (an incredible novel, incidentally), “literary realism is itself a contruct as laden with artifice as any other”, and in the often plodding opening section – in which McCarthy has yet to show his full hand – we are left with something initially resembling a half-hearted rendition of the sort of literary realism that McCarthy is writing against, without any of the stylistic luxuries we would normally associate with the genre. However, in the second part of the novel – where reconstructions spiral into reconstructions and the novel turns into a hall of mirrors – the original perseverance yields some serious dividends.

Whether I would place Remainder in the company of the literary heavy-weights it implicitly seeks to a align itself with is another matter – but the fact remains that accomplished, inventive and genuinely ambitious British novelists with mainstream recognition are few and far between. Whereas so many middlebrow lyrical realist novels seem to be merely going through the motions – like Wolf Hall, which though clearly very accomplished and painstakingly detailed left me catatonically underwhelmed – Remainder is a novel that isn’t afraid to look in the mirror and drop the convenient realist fallacy for long enough to explore some other potential ways of playing the fiction game. And with critics cueing up to sound the novel’s death knell, that seems to me to be a very good thing indeed.

I have, accordingly, purchased C in its imposing hard-back edition, complete with jacket copy modestly suggesting that it is “reminiscent of Bolano, Pynchon and Beckett”. It may or may not live up to the hype, but at least it won’t be reminiscent of every other carbon-copy, production-line middlebrow novel on the Booker longlist this year.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Let’s face it, if the first two words you read when you pick up a book are Frank and McCourt you tend to be in trouble – even if it’s just an ungrammatically gushing soundbite. “A blockbuster, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, symphony of a novel”, he declaims across the front cover of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, taking a handful of unrelated words and ingeniously stringing them together using commas. He helpfully goes on to elaborate on the back cover, returning to the more familiar realm of cliché: “No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper”.

Not that I can put my finger on exactly why, but Frank’s majestically cadenced affirmations of this novel’s ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’ excellence led me to expect it to be a bit shite. After all, on face value it ticks quite a few of the boxes. Annoying title? Check. Written by ex-Westlife member? Check. String of platitudinously enthusiastic quotes from B-list novelists and critics all over the (outsized and annoyingly illustrated) cover? Check. Large jacket photo of author wearing jauntily-tied scarf over a suit jacket (known in the fashion world as ‘the Banville look’)? Check. Oprah’s book of the month? Sure.

I was therefore relieved on beginning to read it to find that, instead of being another pseudo-lyrical, parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey – the genre-piece of Enright, Barrie, and McCourt fame – Let The Great World Spin comes over all Don DeLillo. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the set-piece description that begins the book is at times textbook Bad DeLillo, particularly the inauspicious opening sentences: “Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful”.

This is reminiscent of the effortlessly comic Bad DeLillo parodied by The Onion:

From across America, they come to Minneapolis, to Denver, in herds, teaming hordes filled with sounds, smells. In great tidal flows of seething humanity they ease around the I-beam sculptures and move into the sports arenas. They are loaded down with noisemakers and paper and special hats.

The crowds are a slowly spreading ripple and moan. They heave and surge with some unexplainable animal intelligence. They have to walk slowly to accommodate their awe. Snatches of unattributed dialogue—absurdist, yet paradoxically naturalistic—come out of the mass of pressing bodies

However, it’s also at times a bit like Good DeLillo doing what Good DeLillo does best – describing a big, complex mass of phenomena and people by using the narrative eye like a camera lens, zooming in and out and piling images on top of one another to make us feel disoriented and buffeted from all angles. Like in the big set-piece descriptions he tends to slap down at the beginning of novels: the after-carnage of the twin towers falling in Falling Man, the baseball match in Underworld, the ceremony at the start of Mao II.

As is the case in DeLillo’s Falling Man, the description that opens Let The Great World Spin – of a real event, Phillipe Petit’s mindbowing tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (if you haven’t seen Man On Wire you really should) – serves to introduce the defining image that pins the book together (‘defining image’ in this sense is a reciprocal phrase – the image defines the narrative, just as the narrative is at some level an exercise in defining the image).

In DeLillo’s Falling Man, we begin with a virtuoso description of the 9/11 fan/shit collision, only to work our way  – via recollections, switches of perspective and a non-linear (slash non-existent) plot – back round to the symmetrical ‘ending’: the moment when the plane smashes into the tower (again). That moment itself is an evolving image, and the narrative is constructed as a means of rotating and re-examining it. Its meaning is fluid, and evolves over the course of the narrative – when we come back to it at the end, it has been altered, or re-contextualised.

Likewise in Let The Great World Spin, the defining image (Phillipe Petit bestriding the twin towers) is given a general articulation at the beginning of the book – from an overall, encompassing perspective – using snapshot and montage techniques to recreate the visual objectivity of film (it’s a bit Man With a Movie Camera). We are then over the course of the narrative shown a series of other, initially unrelated perspectives that are all in some way touched by the initial image – though for each it has a meaning, texture, significance and connotation that is radically different.

So the novel – through fragmented narrative perspectives and a plot that weaves itself around the streets beneath Petit’s hovering silhouette – holds the initial image of a man on a wire between the twin towers up to us, and turns it around, peruses it from different angles, placing it in the periphery of a range of narrative frames that are gradually revealed to be linked together by this central image. An eccentric and conflicted Irish monk and the prostitutes he devotes his life to trying to help – in particular a mother and daughter who work the streets together; a couple of elegantly debauched artists; a Park Avenue housewife, destroyed by the death of her son in Vietnam (a spectre throughout the novel, this being 1974) and quietly cracking up beneath the icy hauteur; her bit-of-a-self-satisfied-dickhead-but-ultimately-you-sense-not-such-a-bad-egg husband, who is the judge at the trials of the prostitutes and, immediately afterwards, of Philip Petit.

Let The Great World Spin never approaches the unreadable troughs of parts of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (another novel made up of a succession of different narratives), though as in that book it has to be said that some of its voices are a lot more convincing than others. Most of the cringe-factor, hammed up Bad DeLillo moments come during the generally unconvincing sections that describe – with mythological gravitas – Petite’s preparations for his stunt. The groping for profundity is just too in-your-face to overlook, and threatens to spoil the more subtle, cumulative effect of the overall design, which is basically a clever and sophisticated one.

As Cloud Atlas proves (sometimes the hard way), this sort of multi-voiced ventriloquism is a tricky act to pull off, and there are some cringe moments when McCann spends 40-odd pages writing in the voice of a New York prostitute – though overall this section actually works surprisingly well. The Diet Modernism stream of consciousness from the perspective of a monied housewife also falls rather flat. But overall the Fails are outweighed by the successes, even if those Fails do seem to come more frequently the more ostentatiously stylised the narrative voice becomes (whether this is an overdone, lyrical literary voice or unevenly pulled-off New Yoik slang).

Even if there are a few seams here and there, McCann’s multi-narrative design is a refreshing departure from the dominant mode of mainstream literary fiction. In many novels – bildungsromans or even Irish misery memoirs – the reference point or centre of gravity is a character or perspective whose evolution we observe as it is influenced by external events. The Real (if you capitalise it people think you’ve read Lacan) is often the predicate, with the perspective of a character or narrator the ultimate subject. With other narrative forms around that can operate in panorama more easily, subjectivity is what literature traditionally brings to the table, a claim to fame that it clings to – it can get inside a character’s head in ways that film can’t.

In Let The Great World Spin, this subject-predicate relationship is flipped round – the characters’ individual perspectives become the predicate that impacts on the subject, which is the image of Petite walking on a wire between the twin towers. Rather than exploring the significance of a chain of events as manifested in their impact on an imagined consciousness, McCann uses a series of imagined consciousnesses to explore the social impact of a strange, profound and artistic image.  On a fundamental level it’s a novel that explores the problems of defining – or even describing – a social experience. (Operating in this panoramic mode recalls a Modernist text that tries to reconcile literary narrative with the sheer scale and indefinibility of New York: John dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer).

Overall this is a novel that is refreshingly ambitious in its scope. Walking a risky narrative tightrope, there are undoubtedly a few wobbles along the way. But unlike Cloud Atlas – which falls off the wire and plunges to its sidewalk-besmattering death at around page 250 – Let The Great World Spin just about makes it to the other side.

Women in Love, D.H Lawrence

Like so much of that which Lawrence furiously ejaculated onto a page in the name of Art during his career, Women in Love is, to use the contemporary parlance, a complete and utter twat-fest. Lawrence doesn’t really do likeable characters, and that’s fine (some of my least favourite characters in literature are generically ‘likeable’: Amelia Sedley from Vanity Fair, Esther Summerson or John Jarndyce from Bleak House, Little Dorrit – in fact pretty much every Dickens good guy). But the extent to which Lawrence’s characters manage to provoke crippling misanthropy without ever really doing or saying anything that bad, is truly remarkable.

An ongoing discussion with a friend over which character deserves the title of all-time ‘biggest literary twat’ has thrown up some interesting contenders: Gilbert Osmand in The Portrait of a Lady; Stephen Daedalus; God in Paradise Lost; Martin Amis in Money; Paul Auster in The New York Trilogy. But within this debate, Lawrence is so far ahead of the game as to deserve his own sub-category.

Among the rich field of competitors for the Holy Grail of Biggest Lawrentian Twat, there are a few stand-out performers: Paul Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who miraculously turns up half-way through Sons and Lovers to render an already deeply tedious novel genuinely unreadable; Mrs Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who idles around polluting the world with her pointless negativity, patronising her poor bastard of a husband who spends 12 hours every day down a coal-mine, and fawning over her pretentious, arrogant sons; Lady Chatterley, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who seems to think a bit of social missceganation is a whole lot more remarkable and transcendent than anyone else does; the interchangeable assortment of Brangwen morons.

But even within this constellation of prize tossers, Women in Love raises the debate to a new plateau. Following the lives, shags, homo-erotic naked Greco-Roman wrestling matches and moronic conflicts of two pretentious, arrogant, libidinous, insecure and disaffected Males (Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin) and two pretentious, arrogant, stupid and ridiculously high-maintenance Females (Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen), the novel weaves its rich tapestry of cuntishness.

Rupert Birkin is an extravagantly obnoxious portrait of the artist whose semi-intelligible rants vie with his pseud’s-corner interior monologues (or Stream of Cuntishness) to tap into the reader’s most exquisite reserve of vitriol. Our first foray into Birkin’s Stream of Cuntishness sets a standard that is escalated to provoke ever more exhilarating spasms of rage as the novel progresses:

“Birkin looked down into her eyes, which were blue, and watching heavily. He could not understand them. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ he said to himself, almost flippantly.

Then he remembered, with a slight shock, that that was Cain’s cry. And Gerald was Cain, if anybody. Not that he was Cain, either, although he had slain his brother. There was such a thing as pure accident, and the consequences did not attach to one, even though one had killed one’s brother in such wise. Gerald as a boy had accidentally killed his brother. What then? Why seek to draw a brand and a curse across the life that had caused the accident? A man can live by accident, and die by accident. Or can he not? Is every man’s life subject to pure accident, is it only the race, the genus, the species, that has a universal reference? Or is it not true, is there no such thing as pure accident? Has everything that happens a universal significance? Has it?”

Indeed.

Plot-wise, highlights include: Hermione whacking Birkin over the head with a paper-weight and him wandering around the hills naked; Ursula and Gudrun staging their own waifish, frolicsome equivalent of a Kate Bush video surrounded by puissant young bullocks (a scene subtly interwoven with sexual symbolism); Gerald and Birkin letting off some steam by having a naked wrestling match before collapsing, exhausted, in each other’s sweat-slick embrace (the most homo-erotic scene in literature since Coriolanus put the ‘anus’ back into Shakespearean tragedy); and the climactic farce where Gerald’s murderous, cock-blocked rage turns the novel into an episode of Eastenders.

Now, this tirade is not necessarily to suggest that one should not read Lawrence. I mean, what could be more joyously entertaining than peeling apart the clotted pages to uncover such calorific, pullulating, jismatic splurges as this?:

“Their life and inter-relations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil, that opened their furrow for the grain, and became smooth and supple after their ploughing, and clung to their feet with a weight that pulled like desire, lying hard and unresponsive when the crops were to be shorn away. The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udders of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and, with hand on the bridle-rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.” (The Rainbow)

Did you notice how when he talks about the pulsing of the cows he uses monosyllables so that it sounds a bit like pulsing? Genius.

After all, Martin Amis was so overcome by admiration for this passage that he couldn’t resist the temptation to pay tribute to it in London Fields:

“The days passed. Though making himself no stranger to pub or club Keith drank nothing and worked hard because of the life that was in him. He sensed the pulse and body of the street-trade and heard the cars lowing in the furrows. Like new corn the young Swedes and Danes formed lines at his stall, and were reaped. He walked dog and burped baby and drew the keening of wife after his will.”

No, certainly read Lawrence – for comedy value he is unsurpassed. But for the love of God, don’t take him as seriously as he took himself.

Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

There are certain books that you begin in the full certainty that, barring some hugely improbable contradiction of everything you have been led to believe by blurbs, friends, general knowledge, critics, and years of previous reading, you are probably in for something special. A few recent examples of books whose awesomeness I took in advance to be a given (and which didn’t let me down in this expectation): Roberto Bolano’s 2666, W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, Milan Kundera’s Immortality. I won’t lie – The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was not one of these books.

I’ve always viewed the unfortunately-named Hesse as an acceptable gap – one of those major authors, like, say, Gertrude Stein or Norman Mailer, whom you can get away with leaving pretty well alone. Allegorical and/or historically removed explorations of man’s journey into The Self in search of spiritual enlightenment, strongly influenced by Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, and written by a hermetic German in self-imposed exile in Switzerland? Nah, I’ll probably be alright cheers mate.

The Glass Bead Game is, to use the accepted parlance, Hesse’s ‘magnum opus’ (ie his longest book). He wrote it between 1931 and 1943, when it was published in Switzerland (it was banned in Germany by the Nazis – but then, you don’t really want your ‘magnum opus’ to not be banned by the Nazis, do you?). Like Camus’ The Plague, it allegorizes some of the moral and existential dilemmas thrown up by totalitarianism and war and God being dead and stuff, and explores them as general, universal philosophical issues by removing them from their immediate historical context (though this context is always a thinly veiled presence in the background).

The narrative takes place at an unspecified point in the future (alarm bells), in a society of whose circumstances, values and character we get few clues, but which Hesse said he conceived of as being around the 25th century AD. (I’m sure this was a crucial part of the conception of the novel – I mean, imagine how different it would’ve had to be were it set in the 24th century or, like, the 26th century).

So, most of the story is told from the perspective of a historian, recounting the life of the significant 23rd century personage Joseph Knecht (the protagonist). This section lasts a good 350-odd pages, and is followed by the ‘Legend’ of Knecht’s life (starting from the end of the bit covered in the history) as apparently narrated by his contemporaries. Then at the end, having been given an account of Knecht’s life up to and including his abrupt death, as in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago we read a series of documents (poems and short stories written by Knecht) which cast a hitherto unseen perspective (his) on that story, and cause us, to an extent, to reassess what we have read.

So on one hand, it’s told as a bildungsroman with the slightly annoying charade of the imaginary historian (documents ‘edited by Herman Hesse’) – but on the other there is some reasonably elaborate multiple narrative framing going on in the second part of the novel.

The story is set in Castalia, a remote province designated by society as the ultimate intellectual ‘Ivory Tower’ – isolated from worldly concerns, and populated by monkish thinkers whose only purpose is to ponder intellectual, aesthetic and theoretical problems at their most pure, Platonic level: logical, abstract, non-applied, non-referential, unsullied by any consideration of their contextual relevance or application to the vulgar mutability and imperfection of the actual world.

The inhabitants of Castalia have devised the ultimate way of distancing the intellectual from the worldly and thus addressing ideas at their most abstract level – the ‘glass bead game’. This is an interesting concept that is never really explained in any detail, perhaps because its importance within the book is mostly symbolic – as a generally representative logical conclusion of Ivory Tower hermeticism, rather than something whose specifics have any real bearing on the narrative.

Vaguely what happens is, the game is played on some sort of huge abacus-like contraption, on which players make patterns using coloured glass beads. Based on music, one player starts with a theme (a shape or pattern) and other players respond with patterns of their own, all the time making the interconnections between themes and ideas more complicated and oblique – and also beautiful, because in a sense the glass bead game is a symbol of the aesthetic beauty of pure, non-referential, abstract thought at its most complex and rarefied. The patterns in the glass bead game are intricately interconnected but their reference is closed, private and internalised. Its only meaning is that which it creates within itself, and in reference to its own internal precedents.

So you can kind of see where Hesse is going with this. On the one hand you’ve got a Platonic binary separating ideas and things, with the Castallians elevating the former above the latter and recognising no necessary interdependence between the two. And on a more contemporary note, Hesse is gunning for one of the big themes in 20th century art, theory and philosophy – the relationship between symbols and symbolic structures (from signs, words and images to whole languages, pieces of art, literature, music etc) and the real world.

A few contextual examples: Wittgenstein wrestled with whether linguistic meanings boil down to anything more than word games serving to reinforce the internal structures of meaning contained within languages. Viktor Shklovsky conceived of artistic expression as a demonstration of technique whose real-world reference points were largely unimportant. Walter Pater thought art was a way of breaking down the barriers of form and content, naturally aspiring toward ‘the condition of music’, wherein the two are largely indistinguishable. Nabokov conceived of novels as self-contained ‘riddles with elegant solutions’, in which general ideas had no place.

Modernist music increasingly eschewed emotional content in favour of formal content, culminating in the ‘tone poems’ of Grieg etc, which are almost mathematical exercises. In Camus’ The Plague, the character Grande spends his time tinkering with the first sentence of his novel to make it so perfect that the only possible reaction of a reader will be to say ‘hats off, gentlemen’ (meanwhile the people of the town are dying). Formalism and New Criticism approached texts as purely aesthetic objects whose external reference was a secondary consideration to their formal design. The narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes declares that ‘words… are the great enemies of reality’. The theorist Rene Welleck referred to this category confusion between words and things as an unbridgeable ‘ontological gap’.

Modernism in general had introspective and sceptical tendencies that separated it from realism and placed it closer to the subjectivist world-view of the romantics. On one level, then, Hesse’s idea of the glass bead game is an allegory of the artistic and philosophical introspection characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century – and which, ironically, coincided with the catastrophic historical events in which the ‘real’ (which the hyper-rational Castalians treat with scepticism as an epistemologically inaccessible domain and a secondary consideration to the pure intellectual realm of ideas) flexed its muscle: like war, the holocaust and totalitarianism.

So on the one hand in the novel (and the historical situation it allegorises) you’ve got idealism (the pursuit of artistic and intellectual purity above the everyday utilitarian dross of mundane existence) alongside scepticism (which questions the knowability of the real world, and its compatibility with the signs and forms we use to represent it). A good thing up to a point, surely? Is it not in mankind’s collective interest to further theoretical understanding, to safeguard an elite whose only responsibility is to the incredibly complex abstract and aesthetic issues it serves to examine? In the novel this functions as a post-religious church, wherein the object of worship is the beauty of abstract thought at its most refined and abstruse.

But on the other hand, you’ve got the age-old whistle-blowing, parade-pissing consideration of ethical responsibility. On a pragmatic level, someone’s got to foot the bill for your fancy Ivory Tower, and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding by an intellectual elite paid for by the enslaved tax-paying masses becomes a parasitic form of decadence if that knowledge is subsequently hoarded by the elite for its own sake and not used to benefit the general populus. As Plinio Designori (the novel’s rent-a-social-conscience cipher) rants:

For generations you have left to others dangerous, daring and responsible things like economics, law and politics. Cowardly and well-preserved, fed by others, and having few burdensome duties, you lead your drones’ lives, and so that they won’t be too boring you busy yourselves with all these erudite specialities, count syllables and letters, make music, and play the Glass Bead Game, while outside in the filth of the world poor harried people live real lives and do real work.

Whether to withdraw from the world in the pursuit of transcendent ideals or use the privileges society has bestowed upon you to make life easier for others. When you pose it as a moral dilemma, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer.

Hang on though, the story. Which, if I’m honest, is the main problem with the book. The ideas are great, but the plot often feels burdensome, formulaic, and ultimately an obstruction rather than a vital way of channelling the more important ideas the novel sets out to explore.  Especially in the overlong first half of the book, the plot, outside of the interesting rhetorical trope of the glass bead game itself, seems to bring very little to the table. It made me think of this Dave Eggers quotation, used by David Shields in Reality Hunger:

I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you

Now, I’m not trying to jump on Shields’ ‘make it real’ bandwaggon and I think plot is a far more complicated artistic tool than he gives it credit for (I also think several of his ideas are half-digested and outdated, but that’s for another time). But in the 350-page ‘history’ of Knecht’s life, the narrative charade (Hesse puts on the clown suit before the novel even begins with his rather silly ‘documents edited by Herman Hesse’ rider) seemed to me to achieve very little. The characters are transparently vehicles for ideas (that’s fine – it’s also often the case in authors whose work I love, like Coetzee or Kundera) but the plot seems to bog these ideas down rather than animate them, at least until the framing techniques come into play much later in the book. The prose and dialogue is also often plodding and lugubrious, in fitting with the sober austerity of the Castallian setting.

If The Glass Bead Game were a footballer, it would be Zlatan Ibrahimovic: looks great in a three-minute youtube highlights compilation, but in real time spends most of the game indolently loafing around achieving cack-all.

Actually, given that the story is a flimsy and largely extraneous coating for the novel’s ideas, let’s pretend it’s a book about football. The plot tells the story of Joseph Knecht (Cesc Fabregas), a prodigiously gifted player for his local youth team, who gets scouted by the Music Master (Arsene Wenger) to join the elite Castallian youth development squad at Waldzell, home of the Glass Bead Game. (An ineffectually and pointlessly virtuosic bunch of effete aesthetes who tip-tap it around and weave impossibly intricate patterns to no perceptible purpose, pouring Gallic scorn on the sweaty rabble who run around kicking people and hoofing the ball up the field in the hope of scoring goals, winning games and that sort of venal, uncouth loutishness).

A meteoric rise through the youth ranks ensues. during which the young Knecht is sent out on loan to a couple of other monasteries, where he gets a taste for using his Glass Bead Game skills to elevate and enlighten a couple of mid-table battlers, giving their long-suffering fans a glimpse of Waldzell-style joga bonito. Meanwhile, his socially conscious friend Designiori (Matthieu Flamini) comes through the ranks at the same time as Knecht, but is less favoured by the coaches, in part due to his fiery temperament, combative style and often incendiary opinions about the need to compromise Waldzell’s ‘total football’ aestheticism to achieve more outward-looking goals (manifested in a tendency to tackle people and shoot from outside the box).

Designiori defects just as his career looks to be taking off, drawn by the bright lights of the outside world and frustrated by the self-satisfied insularity of Waldzell – but he ultimately fails to adapt and spends a lot of time warming the bench on the sidelines of history. Knecht, meanwhile, continues his precocious career and becomes Waldzell’s talismanic and youngest-ever captain (Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game – a priest-like, iconic position as the accepted premier virtuoso with overall responsibility for ensuring the development of the game continues uninterrupted and free from the venal and pragmatic concerns of the real world.

And, after a tediously drawn-out and inevitable transfer saga, Knecht eventually follows Designiori out the door, vowing to embrace the real world and use his technique and learning to achieve real-world goals rather than limiting himself to onanistic virtuosity without an end product, like Paganini practising his scales. Abruptly and anticlimactically, however, he dies – attempting to engage in a faintly homoerotic swimming race with a young shepherd boy (Designiori’s son, to whom he has been entrusted as a mentor), he drowns in a stream in the beautiful mountains (ie fucks his cruciate ligament on his debut for Barcelona playing over-elaborate one-twos with Xavi).

So in summary, The Glass Bead Game is a game of two halves – some occasionally great ideas ruined by poor finishing, an over-crowded midfield, and too much aimless, lateral passing.  The opening section (accounting for about three quarters of the page-count) is a bit of a plod, from which, it seemed to me, you could extract a few genuinely fascinating ideas from a whole load of tedious and lugubriously styled, plot-based filler. In the second half Hesse tinkers with the formation, leading to a more open game after which one in hindsight looks at the first half in a slightly different light. However, that light is not sufficiently flatteringly to shake the impression that, with a decent editor, maybe a day job and about ten years fewer in which to write it, Hesse could perhaps have achieved a whole lot more with a whole lot less.