29.12.12

George Orwell - A Clergyman's Daughter

Rating 6.4

com·ple·tist /kəmˈplētist/
"An obsessive, typically indiscriminate, collector or fan of something".

Ah, I like this one. I am an obsessive - although not indiscriminate - collector of something: books.
Now, my problem with George Orwell is that I liked, if not adored, all that I read by him, which is pretty much all that the man wrote. With one exception: A Clergyman's Daughter.

I knew that Orwell himself disowned this novel deciding to don't have it reprinted during his lifetime. However, unlike Franz Kafka - who burned much of his early writings - and Graham Greene - whose second and third works have never been published again - Orwell set a different fate to A Clergyman's Daughter.

Writing to his literary executor, Orwell agreed to have "any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs" printed again after his death.
And that's why a novel which Orwell himself looked at as "a silly potboiler" found its place into the Penguin Modern Classics.

Well aware of the fact that A Clergyman's Daughter was all but a masterpiece, I've always postponed the right moment to buy it hoping to bump into a second hand edition in a charity shop, to no avail.
Then, rummaging through the bookshelves of a provincial Oxfordshire library I found the novel and promptly borrowed it.

Done with the reading, it's time to talk about this book.
And what can I say?
Well, first of all that this stuff is not that bad.

I mean if you're a completist of George Orwell, you might read this one. Just keep in mind that the final version of this novel is far from what its author had in mind having been savagely maimed by its fearful and puritan publisher, Gollancz.
That alone could explain why on my Orwellian scale this book comes last even though in some of its moments is better than the clumsy, but exotic, Burmese Days.

Let's name the merits first. It's admirable that George Orwell put himself in the shoes of a woman, Dorothy Hare, for the first (and last) time in his career as a novelist.
It's equally praiseworthy that Orwell wanted to open the eyes of his readers on something of a taboo in 1935 England: rape. The idea behind this novel was to highlight the supreme injustice of many English women in the 1930s. Women who were powerless against oppressive families, perverted men, vicious gossip and dodgy employers. Not that many of these nooses have changed in the meantime.

Dorothy Hare is oppressed by her father - a snobbish lazybone of a reverend - and stalked by an old womanizer in a dull village. A village where social life revolves around the male obscenities shouted in a pub and the female backbitings whispered in a tea house.
And Orwell is quite good in portraying the pious monotonousness of Dorothy's humble life and her passive resignation.

Then this bucolic nightmare is suddenly interrupted. But thanks to Gollancz censorship we don't know what happened to Dorothy. All that we can read is that the clergyman's daughter wakes up on a pavement in London unaware of who she is and where she comes from.

Badly struck by his own publisher, Orwell tries not to sink.
The novel follows Dorothy (now Ellen) in her new harsh life as a beggar, a hop-picker and eventually as a teacher in an awful school.
This part of the book deals with George Orwell's personal experiences down and out in London and teaching in order to make a living, but it doesn't work as it could.

Sure, there are vivid and poignant descriptions of a miserable life in London and its countryside among gypsies, petty thieves and prostitutes, but whom the author fails with is Dorothy/Ellen. The poor woman recovers all of her memory, but never develops as a character.
No matter what happens around her, the clergyman's daughter sticks to her role of a musty wallflower at the mercy of events. Till the disappointing but pretty obvious sweet and sour end.

At the end of the day, it's not clear what Orwell wanted to achieve here.
What was the point of putting Dorothy's life upside-down if she didn't change a bit? How doesn't she feel any frustrated emancipation?
True, the woman admits that she lost her faith and that's certainly bad for a clergyman's daughter. But does she seem to care? Mmh, not really.

In all of its insipidity (and due to the significant cuts), A Clergyman's Daughter is not a silly potboiler, but definitely a missed chance. What a pity.

16.12.12

Colin MacInnes - Absolute Beginners

Rating 7.4


Published in 1959, Absolute Beginners is the sort of novel that became extremely popular in the UK without leaving many traces elsewhere.

To this day, the book written by Colin MacInnes is perceived as a "modern classic" on the eastern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Some critics compare the impact of Absolute Beginners on the British popular culture and literature to the one The Catcher in the Rye had in the US.

Now, what surprised me is that this novel is supposed to be an early manifesto of the so called Mod subculture and yet the term "mod" doesn't appear once into the 286 pages of Absolute Beginners. I mean, not a single time.
Still, the book stages plenty of "Teds" which stands for "Teddy boys" that is the archenemies of the Mods.

Don't get fooled by the yellow Vespa on the cover. This book will not take you back to the age of customised scooters, amphetamines and R&B or ska music. True, the protagonist of the novel likes to dress well and spends the money he earns on books and jazz records, but he calls himself "a teenager" and would abhor joining a gang of Mods.

The greatest merit of this novel is the way MacInnes talks about London and - above all - the very specific area between Maida Vale and Willesden that the narrator calls "Napoli". The six pages taking the reader into this Londonian Naples in the 1950s are masterful.

MacInnes is far less skillful in portraying the characters of his novel. There is a lot of attention to the way Wizard, Suze, Ed the Ted, Mr Cool and the Hoplite - the bizarre cast of Absolute Beginners - talk, but much less focus on their personalities.

The author shows us these colourful people through the eyes and the ears of the protagonist - a 17 year old freelance photographer - thus limiting their possibilities. Even though this choice makes sense, it's just a pity that, say, a character worth of Isherwood like the Hoplite cannot develop all his potential in this novel.
Other literary influences that I could find here include two minstrels of the down and outs of London such as George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton along with a debt to Evelyn Waugh each time the novel moves uptown.


As a non-English native speaker I found the way the protagonist and his friends talk here very cute and almost irresistible. I'm well aware that all those "cats" (people), "spades" (coloured men), "cowboys" (policemen), "darl" and "hon" are outdated slang from fifty years ago and that's precisely the reason why I liked them so much.
In a way, the extent of what MacInnes did with the language used in this novel is no less than what Anthony Burgess accomplished by creating the Nadsat argot for A Clockwork Orange.


Reading through the negative reviews of Absolute Beginners I found here and there, I can see how many disliked the way MacInnes describes  the racial clashes that happened in London in 1958.
I agree that the author  doesn't dig very deep into this subplot and treats the whole matter of the Notting Hill riots in a superficial way, but I didn't find that disturbing. Just keep in mind that this book doesn't deal with history, but with lifestyle.  

After all, the protagonist and narrator here is supposed to be a 17 year old chap hence having a very limited understanding of the subject.
What I found odd is that, as a freelance photographer, this guy doesn't think to take some snapshots of what's going ill in his neighborhood selling them to the press. Especially considering how the young chap wishes to make easy money as quickly as possible to impress "his" Suze. Shall we consider this lack of initiative like a proof of the juvenile inexperience of the teenager or rather like something missing in the novel?




Mind you, Colin MacInnes is not always consistent in remembering that his hero is just a teenager and often makes him much more full-grown than he should be. No matters.
The title of the novel says it all: Absolute Beginners. You don't expect perfection in greenhorns, don't you?

8.12.12

Andre Agassi & J.R. Moehringer - Open

Rating 7.0


«Did you know that Agassi is an Iranian surname? It should be pronounced Agassì, with the stress on the last "i"».

No, I didn't know that when I was 12. But I kept that in mind, as you can read.
Now, the same fact that, back in 1994, my friend Amir (owner of an Iranian and final "i" stressed surname himself) told me something on Andre Agassi and I knew who that guy was means something.

One year before our teens, Amir and I were all but into tennis. Not that we didn't care about sports - football, basketball and even ski were among our chief interests -, but tennis was definitely not.
On the one hand, as self-proclaimed egalitarians, we looked at the racquet & ball discipline as an elitist pastime of the bourgeosie. On the other hand, the lack of a single talented Italian tennis player in the ATP circuit in those years left us with no one to cheer for.

And yet, Andre Agassi was somehow a household name for us. Why?
Did I care about stylish hairdo and weird outfits? No.
Was I a rebel? Most certainly not.

Well, Open worked as a refresher. And a good one too.
Agassi was a character. He did crazy things and the media loved or hated him for that due to the circumstances. When Agassi won, the man was a picturesque, charismatic star with the potential to revolutionize tennis for good. When Agassi lost, he became a bad model and a foul-mouthed buffoon not worthy to set foot on a tennis court.
I knew the name of Andre Agassi, but didn't pick a part.

After learning that the surname Agassi was of Iranian origin, I didn't care a bit about tennis for a couple of years. Then, at the age of 14 all this radically changed. I started reading the main tournaments results on newspapers and on teletext. I couldn't stand Sampras and Becker, the winners. I supported erratic players such as Rafter, Kuerten, Henman plus the old champ Edberg because I liked his serve and volley. Andre Agassi didn't stir positive or negative reactions in me.

What led me to follow tennis much more than I used to towards the end of the 1990s?
That's easy to say. Love. Not love for the game itself, even though I quite liked to watch the few tennis matches shown on TV (the Rome and Montecarlo Opens, the fortuitous Davis Cup final reached by the Italian male team).

Nay, love for a girl. Or so I thought at that time. Her name was the same of one of the then rising Williams sisters. She looked mysterious and unapproachable. Schoolyard rumours said she was a countess. Faced with aristocracy, my early egalitarianism went through a teenage crisis. Apart from slightly stalking the girl following her everyday on her way to our school, I did some research. You see, I desperately needed some common ground with her to start a conversation.



And I discovered she was the cousin of two professional female tennis players in the WTA circuit. Two sisters who, unlike the Williams, were far off from the best rankings, but still stayed in the top 100 for years.
To cut a long story short, I was too clumsy at that time to win a single point with my beloved girl. And when I managed to drag my possible countess on an actual tennis court, I played so badly that all I recall of that morning is my double faults. No metaphors involved. We played tennis. I was hopeless. Out.

Not so Andre Agassi. Even though the hairy bald man states umpteen times that he "hates" tennis in this book, he was a talent in the game.
He started winning local tournaments well before his teenage years and became an international sensation reaching number 3 in the world ranking at the age of 18.

The best part of Open is when Agassi and his Pullitzer-prized ghost writer J.R. Moehringer recount the early years of the champion. That crazy father of Andre torturing his son by the means of a self-built tennis balls shooting machine. The oddities of the Agassi family. Young Andre humiliating adults on a tennis court and being either mocked or patronized by the likes of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase.

And, above all, it shines the time Agassi spent at the infamous Bollettieri Academy where the pygmalion of scores of tennis stars created the tennis equivalent of a Victorian mill. I believe Agassi and Moehringer exaggerated some details of life at the Bollettieri Academy, but reading those pages was highly entertaining. The antics of Mr Agassi himself and of, say, Jim Courier were priceless.

Less compelling were Agassi's late years in the ATP circuit, when he starts complaining about his back, his sentimental life, his unfair opponents, etc. I appreciate the man wants to show us how fragile he actually is, but he does that with too much victimism for my liking.

And it's funny to read how the already world famous Agassi decided that Steffi Graf had to be his woman by the means of rumours, slight stalking and finding a common ground: just like I did with my teenage love. Poor Steffi Graf.

Let's face it, just like this review of mine, Open is a narcissistic accomplishment. Whatever Andre Agassi does in this book, the reader has to be on his side, no matter how wrong that is.

When Mr Agassi breaks the speed limits on his Corvette it's always for a good reason (charity, love, etc.). When Mr Agassi takes drugs or drinks too much it's because others took advantage of his trust and shattered feelings. When Mr Agassi loses a match with a low ranked player it's always because Andre is not focused on tennis, or injured or DECIDES to lose on purpose. I mean, get over yourself man!



And yet, Open is an engaging book. I was brought to the tennis courts where Agassi's career took its turning points for bad or for good. And the way Andre A. tells us what he had in his mind while playing those matches is fascinating although a bit unnatural.

Once a woman asked Louis Armstrong what he thought about as he played the trumpet. And Armstrong answered: "Lady, if I told you, your mind would explode".
Your minds will not explode after learning what Agassi thought when he played, but they will certainly have something to think about. Tiebreak.