Sunday, September 10, 2006

Got it, thanks

Now this is more like it. Give this one the Booker now and save eyestrain.

Gordimer is well known of course, but still something of a discovery. This is her 32nd book, 14th novel. Nobel Prize for literature 1991. The voice is distinctive, but also has echoes of Coetzee – is it a South African cadence, this laconic, incisive, ironic note?

Get a Life is brief – just 187 large font double spaced pages. At around 270 words per page that’s slightly more than 50,000 words. You, dear reader, writing at 1000 words a day, could create something similar in less than 2 months.

Well, perhaps not similar. The same length. For this is writing of the highest quality, elliptical, amusing, insightful and compelling. It’s the tale of an affluent South African professional family – the father a businessman, the mother a lawyer, a son who is an ecology campaigner, married to an advertising executive. They fall in and out of love, acquire children, advance their careers. Just human.

Two plot devices overlay the domestic: in the first, the son develops thyroid cancer in his thirties, requires surgery and then the ingestion of radioactive iodine to ablate the remaining tumour cells. This works. The enforced retreat - while he is ‘hot’ - to his childhood home provides a caesura for reflection, and the inevitable intimations of mortality.

The second revolves around a campaign to save certain ecologically sensitive parts of South Africa from development. This, frankly, doesn’t work as well: it’s dull and repetitive, the issue is presented monochromatically, and one tends to skip forward. It may be possible to write grippingly about the environment, but it doesn’t happen here.

What makes this novel successful, as so often, is the writing. The epigraph is from Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?

An unanswerable question, of course, but an engrossing one. Good things and bad things happen to these folk, as good and bad things happen to us all. The soft-shelled carapace of language Gordimer constructs as their ordinary story unfolds creates beauty of its own accord, makes the particular universal, and not only leaves the reader noting, as Donald Rumsfeld did, that stuff happens, but also, as Donald didn’t, wondering why.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear QV, nice review, if a little wordy and pretentious. But seriously, don't you get discouraged that no-one reads your posts and you never get any comments? Probably you should just give up. Your friend - Mustafa Leak.

Sunday, September 10, 2006 11:20:00 AM  
Blogger P Knight said...

Well I for one have always read this blog, and I have never commented previously because there has not been the facility. As for pretention, not only it is pretty much lacking in my view, who says its such a bad thing in any event? Go Leak somewhere else, i say.

I particularly appreciated the preceding comment on Peter Carey, mirrored my experiences almost exactly. My reading of The fat man in history was all the sweeter because I was doing a stint as a junior clerk at the Australia Council for the Arts, which must have sponsored the publication, and came across it in a box I was supposed to be archiving. So they ended up sponsoring my reading of it, as well as his writing of it. And I thought it a real gem, but struggled through Oscar and Lucinda, and one later one that I didn't even finish, which my sister in law gave me. As the above, I'll definitely add it to my list, after I have finished the gloriously tacky thriller I am half way through called "want to play" - about a serial killer inspired by video games...

Monday, September 11, 2006 8:57:00 AM  

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