De Botton, Alaine. Essays in Love
In her introduction to de Botton’s book (Picador Classics) Sheila Heti begins, ‘Essays in Love has been classified as a novel, but it’s a very strange novel.’ It is, she says, ‘a guide through the landscape of contemporary romance.’ In the book de Botton makes a habit of reflecting on a previous paragraph telling the story of (presumably his) love affair with Chloe, a woman whom he meets by chance sitting next to him on a Paris-London flight. Thus the novel-memoir seems at times to be a mere jumping of point to a profound analysis of the trite business of falling in love - and of course inevitably the disillusion inherent in that commonplace but unique event.
I must confess that I am often puzzled by the memoir genre - how much is ‘true’ and how much falsified for the sake of art? In books about love affairs, which this absolutely is, how constant is the point of view? How can the reader believe in the ‘facts’ as retailed by the narrator? Well, de Botton (who wrote this book in his early twenties) does a masterly job of analysing the ebb and flow of desire, beginning with rapture over finding that the lovers have so much in common that some supernatural agency must have pre-determined their meeting. ‘I love chocolate, don’t you?’ asked Chloe. ‘I can’t understand people who don’t like chocolate.’ Well, the narrator, the ‘I’ in the story, de Botton or a version of him, hates chocolate: ‘I had been more or less allergic to chocolate all my life.’ So of course in the ‘story’ the narrator has to lie, or else run the risk of losing the ‘angel’ as Chloe is soon to become. This is the key to the novel, focusing on a mundane preference and lying about one’s true feelings. It’s what we all would do in the circumstances. It’s both true to life, and perfect for art. Now, whether the ‘real’ de Botton likes or hates chocolate is a moot point, one which the reader should not, according to convention at least, ask.
What I liked about the story (I almost said ‘loved’ but then recalled de Botton’s complex of analyses of the word) and about the philosophical commentary that accompanies it is its lucidity, its honesty about feeling and beliefs, those transient markers we cling to - and eventually are obliged to release from our grasp. But the book is not all Freudian or Marxian analysis (Marx is the term confusingly used in the book to refer to Marx the comedian) but a moving and totally convincing ‘love story,’ telling it like it is, a rare thing in fiction.
McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man
Frank McCourt’s memoir on his teaching experience is divided into three Parts, the first and longest dealing with his experience of surviving eight years at McKee Vocational and Technical School, Staten Island. In Part Two he moves to New York Community College and in Part Three, after two years studying in Dublin for an aborted PhD at Trinity College, he returns to America to become a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For most of the book Frank is in the classroom, facing non-academic pupils who yearn to be free of discipline and routine. He learns their tricks and indeed, much to the detriment of his reputation as a teacher, encourages their bid for freedom. If they want stories about his life of poverty in Ireland he’ll tell them, if they want outside activities, such as movie-going, he’ll take them and even pay for them from his meagre earnings. Frank is a very earnest and honest man, not afraid to admit ignorance, not afraid of losing dignity and devoted to the thankless task of what he believes in, something honorifically known as teaching.
In between trudging through mountains of illiterate scripts, Frank manages to tell the reader that he got married, had two children and got divorced; but the focus of the book is on that strange routine and for the most part useless activity of ‘teaching,’ in other words occupying and entertaining the disinterested and cheeky adolescents before him. He is the Pied Piper leading his charges to another world - a world of something called ‘culture,’ where words on the page are substituted for popcorn and candy. It’s a heroic journey, but one founded on the belief and enthusiasm of one man - Frank McCourt. Although frequently reminded of the importance of sticking to the syllabus, Frank goes his own way. Like the maverick schoolmaster AS Neill, Frank believes in Hearts not Heads in the School. The reader empathises with him and with his stand against snobs such as the academic Dahlberg, who asks Frank what he’s reading. Frank replies O’Casey, whose natural writing about growing up in Dublin even matched the work of the ancient masters. ‘If you admire so-called natural writing you can always scrutinize the walls of a public lavatory,’ was Dahlberg’s riposte. ‘My face was hot and I blurted, “O’Casey fought his way out of the slums of Dublin. He was half blind. He’s a … a … champion of the worker …. He’s as good as you anytime. The whole world knows Sean O’Casey. Who ever heard of you?” [speech marks added] To which Dahlberg invites him to leave the party.
The Illuminations feels like two short novellas that have been interleaved, presumably in an effort to add bulk.
On the one hand, we have Anne, an elderly mother who is succumbing slowly to dementia. Her family knows that she had lived in the United States and England before settling down in Ayrshire, but as her recent memories fade, she exposes the hints of old secrets.
And on the other hand, there’s the story of Luke, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, witnessing brutality and betrayal – then failing to adjust to life back home. Luke is Anne’s grandson.
Of the two stories, Anne’s is more intriguing, but perhaps promises more than it delivers. The denouement in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations) feels contrived and when the secrets are revealed, the biggest mystery is why they were ever secret to start with. Luke’s story is pretty standard Afghan fare that is doing the rounds at the moment; others have done it in more depth and, perhaps, with more credibility. The characters in Luke’s story seem a bit cartoonish; the events a bit too much like a reheating of news headlines. It may be readable (actually, it zips along), but it doesn’t seem to add much to the canon.
The real sticking point, though, is that the two stories never cohere into a whole; but neither do they offer any real counterpoint to one another. They are just two separate stories, with a familial relationship built in as a framing device to justify their inclusion within the same covers.
The end result is a short, readable novel but one which won’t offer much insight into the human condition; won’t wow anyone with its beauty; won’t impress anyone with its skill; and won’t provoke strong feeling towards its characters. Graham Greene divided his novels into “serious literature” and lighter “entertainments”. Were Andrew O’Hagan to do the same, I suspect The Illuminations would be in the entertainments category.
An elderly couple become foster carers in their mid-sixties. The Times Higher Education of June 2015 wrote in its column What Are You Reading? ('A look over the shoulders of our scholar reviewers') : "This is an unusual, amusing, sometimes heart-rending memoir. Learmont offers a compendium of family breakdowns and other social problems, narrated in a style that ranges from Catch-22 to Bertie Wooster. The Learmonts are now enjoying 'a second retirement' in Andorra, and after reading this book, you feel they deserve it."
A non-fiction book with two intrepid oldies.