So far, this is the less convincing book by Greene I picked up this year (which means at all).
The main character is an author so famous that one of his novels has been made into a movie (in the 1940s) and yet he has a landlady?! Oh come on! There are no aspidistras flying here.
And although some pages are beautifully written and highly enjoyable -think to the accounts of Mr Parkis and "his boy"- others look a bit silly.
"I'm in love" says the poor famous novelist to the woman he likes "for her brain" while he's on the verge of saying good night to her after flirting over a dish of onions.
Well, I assume this naive declaration sums up my distaste for certain elements of this book. From the likes of Graham Greene I was expecting something of more sophisticated!
This is my fifth Orwell and the one I liked the most, so far.
I reckon how I should reread (and in English at this time) both 1984 and Animal Farm before putting Coming Up for Air on top, but at the moment it stands there.
So why have I liked this novel so much?
Oh, there are several and kind of personal reasons.
To begin with, I had the chance to spend some time in the tiny village of Sutton Courtenay where Eric Arthur Blair better known as George Orwell rests. Sutton Courtenay is just a little corner of Oxfordshire without a single shop, two or three pubs and a church with the graveyard hosting the tombs of Orwell and the former British prime minister Lord Asquith. There are plenty of bunnies popping up in the fields and the funny statue of a dog guarding up the porch of an old mansion. The river Thames flows nearby. A perfectly functioning lock let the boats go by.
It's just a coincidence that Orwell ended up in Sutton Courtenay at the end of his way too short days, but as a matter of fact he spent some time wandering and wondering around there when he was a kid.
Now, what Coming Up for Air is if not an elegy of a similar corner of Oxfordshire? You can really picture young Eric Arthur spending his time fishing along the grassy banks of the river back in the old days and riding his fixed-wheel bicycle up and down a little hill.
The imaginary town of Lower Binfield reminded me of Abingdon, where I currently live, with its market square, its High Street, its beer factory chimney and the bygone shops swallowed by the big distribution.
The only difference is that Orwell wrote about this "lost England" at the end of the 1930s sighing for how much things changed in a span of only thirty years.
And the way this dull, but peaceful Lower Binfield has given way to an industrial, red-bricked town populated by people coming from Lancashire or Staffordshire and with no roots in Oxfordshire is masterfully rendered.
I could actually do what George Bowling, the protagonist of this novel, did escaping from a monotonous family life in some pointless London suburb to come back to the places of his childhood. It's just that I don't have an idyllic place to come back to.
So, it's mostly about memories, childhood memories, and the bitter but sharp reflections of a fatty man who lost his momentum. But there is also some devastating humour in this book and the foresight of the imminence of World War II.
Oh well, the whole list of the reasons why I liked Coming Up for Air may take too much time and far too many words to be done.
But let's add a last one: I now know the English names of a dozen river fish. I bet you were not expecting this bit of knowledge from a book by Orwell. Weren't you?
Who are you, Gordon Comstock?
Why do you struggle? Why you can't live the life of the copywriter and being content with it?
No. That's not how it works. It's not that easy. You prefer not to work for vile money. You are a sort of Bartleby, the scrivener, but far more radical than your colleague in Wall Street. While the scrivener keeps his job by warming up his chair, you decided that a voluntary unemployment may suit you in a better way.
Let's face it. You Gordon are a slacker, but a cultivated slacker. You are one of these laddies who think that any sort of job involving their skills for the wrong cause would be "intellectual prostitution", as they put it.
Unfortunately at your time they had not invented any of those Phds in semiotics or semiology that you would have enjoyed so much.
You live for your undercover teas and for a literary masterpiece in progress that accidentally you know you will never finish. You live not to love but for being loved. But who can love you the way you are? Your girlfriend did it, but the chances she will stand you for a long time are few.
Because, Gordon, you are boring. You play the victim way too often. You may write or speak beautifully, but who will have the nerve to read and listen apart from yourself?
It was interesting to meet you, but I'm afraid we don't have so much to talk about. And no, I don't want that aspidistra, thanks. It wouldn't really fit in my flat.
Take care, cheers
Now I know that I can take Tim Parks more seriously than I used to.
This guy could and can write something better than sweet and sour accounts of his Italian family life. Not to mention those times in which Parks wrote about a season he spent having a fling with the gross supporters of an Italian football team (sic!)
This novel flirts quite a lot with the likes of David Lodge, but has a black and somehow American-like mood rather than a touch of British humour.
What I learned from "Tongues of Flame" is the utter confirmation that those who mispronounce "Ay-men" instead of "Amen" are not the kind of people I'd like to spend time with.
For once I lived in sin, Father Tim. Behold! Once I attended a Christian gathering somewhere in Scandinavia. It happened by chance. No hosts involved. No gospel choir.
And while listening to two zealous guys named Jeremi-ah and Jebedi-ah reading chosen passages of the Corinthians aloud (by the way, does anyone know where to find those Corinthians on a pocket Bible?) I understood that the free dinner we were offered before -sheep stew- was not enough a reward for such proselytism.
I would have never wondered that a movie from Hollywood could have been better than a novel by a writer from Argentina. Which is like saying that I prefer a McDonald's plastic-like burger to a succulent meaty asado. But, well, there's always a first time.
For the big screen version of "The Oxford Murders" is far from being brilliant, but still better than the original version of the story on print. I think this should tell you a lot regarding this novel. And when you do prefer the big-eyed Elijah Wood and his naive American attitude and accent ("I dooohn't understaaand") to the unnamed Argentinean main character of this book, that means how this novel is a utter failure.
Now call me too harsh, but I actually kind of liked ONLY the opening of this novel with its "Borgesesque" style. Unfortunately, from the second sentence onwards everything began to collapse.
Let's face it: the plot of "The Oxford Murders" is dull. The characters are flat, unrealistic and blabber way too much about their own number theories in a way that has nothing of intellectual but is a mix between a cheap imitation of the scholars' lingo and a Dan Brown outtake.
Not that Martinez prove to be any better of Mr Brown: actually sometimes he is even worse than him. A few lines are absolutely ludicrous, particularly when the author is trying to add some exciting red hot chili moments to the boring repetition of those number series of him. Number series you can easily find on one of those "Get your IQ in 30 minutes" paperbacks.
In order to excite his little half-wits readers, Martinez calls a thin woman "very huggable" (mmmh, spicy!) and indulges on a supposedly hot scene on a tennis court which made me laugh with astonishment.
For those of you who watched the Hollywood movie, I'm sorry to tell you that there is no spaghetti sex in the book. Which is a pity. Especially considering how that blatantly awful scene is way better than what Martinez wrote here when portraying a sex affair.
Moreover, the author doesn't even try to justify his choice of picking Oxford as the main set of this novel by not creating any atmosphere of the town. It's one year I live in Oxfordshire and, apart from naming some local places here and there, Martinez doesn't catch a hint of the town with its mysteries kept beyond the high walls of the colleges.
The reason why this book gets a 4.6 and doesn't go below 4 is merely because I lived in Oxford and feel a kind of sympathy for the novelists who put the town on paper (Waugh, McEwan, Marias...). That and a surprising reference to one of my favourite Italian writers: Dino Buzzati. But it's not showing us that he read Buzzati (and Prevert) and studied a whole lot of maths that Guillermo Martinez can save this book from a well deserved death by numbers.