Well, should a) I send it back, or b) learn to read French in order to catch up on all Djian's untranslated stuff, or c) was this the only one worth translating over the past 20 years, or d) why can't we just get over the Betty Blue thing and translate some more of his brilliant stuff into English, and why, while we are in a cataloging mode, e) can't we just dump Michel Houllebecq - he should delay no more and get his merde out of our visages - we want more Djian!
I know that this blog rambles from nonsensical book reviews (case in point) to the cataloging of the sexual exploits of various people called Bruce, to para-seditious mumblings about Singapore's taxi drivers, coffee purveyors and the spookily ubiquitous Lee family who run the city of Singapore like a fascist state. Well big deal. Blogging is dead. These digital pages are for me and my handful of necrophiliac lurkers and zombie friends. And I don't care if you'd rather read about Clive Cussler, Clive James or Clive Barker - what I'd like to talk about tonight is what I talk about tonight.
And I really had trouble deciding what tone to take in this book review type post tonight. I chose the 'pissed ramble'.
You've never met such an arsehole as the narrator in this relatively short novel (212 pages, large type). Not that he is violent (much) or your classic anti-hero as such, not a likable rogue who gets away with it, not your Ripley/Alfie type. No, he is just selfish to the point of pathology and as grumpy, narcissistic and insensitive as anyone you'd ever have the misfortune to meet - in short, he is French. Or English, in the Kingsly Amis, Philip Larkin mold.
'Curmudgeon' is a word you might associate with such grumpy, intransigent old men as this, and with the previous generation of angry young/old men writers like the above-mentioned insufferable (at least to his son and wives) Kingsley Amis. Well the protagonist of Djian's recently translated novel is also a curmudgeonly old writer, an ostensibly (and perhaps essentially) unlovable, fastidious and unloving, old fart. Self-centred and misanthropic? You have no idea. Makes the infamously arsehole-ish Kingsley look like the unflappably affable host of a Sunday morning TV chat show on the shopping channel.
The elderly writer Francis (please Lord I hope this is not based on Djian, surely on Amis) has one surviving daughter, Alice. When she was a teenager, her mom and sister were incinerated after a car accident in front of their eyes as she and Dad, who both survived the crash, looked on, helpless. To illustrate his insensitivity and self-centredness, at one point, just after the tragedy, Djian has Francis come into her room and tell the desperately grieving Alica, that hey, he has writer's block and needs some sympathy.
Alice has grown up to be a (willful selfish) famous actress, who is rather alienated from dad (duh!), and shagging the likes of Brad (while denying it - "Angelina is my friend") and/or Shia LaBoeuf, while her ex-drug-abusing banker hubby Roger and their adorable twin girls (one with two less fingers thanks to a stoned Roger) look on with great confusion.
Then Alice disappears.
Then it goes downhill. New wives, PIs - amateur and professional, old girlfriends turned lesbians with suicidal sons fresh out of jail, and writer's block, and homosexual dog-murderers, and guns (and lovers) [good name for a band?], misunderstandings, massive jealousy and a web of little white lies... as Francis' long lost passion for writing comes back...
One of the reviews calls it "cinematic". I guess that is because Judith, Francis's second wife, is a real-estate agent. And because someone fires a gun at the end. But the frequent and often un-noted time shifts (paragraph by paragraph sometimes) swerve the narrative back and forth, it might seem like something you'd see in some Stephen Soderburgh directed/edited flick (the person dying in a burning car is another link) like 'Crash', rather than having the conventional linearity of the dysfunctional family in 'American Beauty'.
I downed the last 80 pages of 'Unforgivable' in a rush, along with a bottle of Coonawarra Cab Sav and a medium-rare rib-eye, and was sitting in the low red ambiance of the Rib Room of the Landmark (got upgraded to a suite, so thought I'd give them all their money back) and was stunned (by the book, not the wine, though it was bloody nice too) and considering that if this is what it takes to be a writer, then I don't want to go there...
Francis's aunt had a solid affair with Ernest Hemingway (she knitted that thick white jumper you see him wearing in some photos, and sent him a load of anchovies [wtf?]) and he is Francis' writing hero. He has his aunt's couch, one that Hemingway slept on (he keeps reminding us) and a framed card thanking her for the anchovies (brilliant!). Was Hemingway an arsehole too? c.f. 'Happy Birthday Wanda June.' Discuss.
Francis knows almost nothing about his fellow human beings and seems to care only as far as things affect him, at least with those is in his immediate family and environs. He reminds me (another film allusion) of the Jack Nicholson character (Alice would never sleep with Nicholson!) in 'As Good As It Gets' - someone who can write amazing stuff but cannot live or act in the emotional real world, completely unlike his characters or his authorial self. High functioning autism.
But despite the chaos, the anger, angst and emotional dysfunction (here's another film allusion that is not a million miles from the mark - 'The Royal Tennenbaums') I still am fond of Francis. "Am I not allowed a sexual life?" he asks his angry (packing her bags, leaving with the twins) daughter when, after years of abstinence/impotence (he was incapable of making love with his second wife), he surreptiously, he thought, brings home a lady he met in a bar. She (Alice) breaks down and cries on his shoulder. "Forgive me", she says. Yet, hell, holy fuck, HE should be asking, pleading, begging, gnashing his teeth, cutting off his arms in pleas for her forgiveness for HIS unutterably bad parenting (which made her turn out this way).
[Addendum: now I think back on it, with the perspective on literature one gets after two or three hours, I'd say there is only one unequivocally nice person in the whole goddamn book (and she... no, won't spoil it), not counting the sweet, almost interchangeable and digitally challenged twins - but counting their always crying newborn baby brother!]
And the pains of the writing process he describes; the concentration and dedication required to get the rhythm of one sentence right, let alone the clarity of a paragraph or a page and the solitude one needs for this task, and the pressure that this intolerance of distraction puts on the demands of family life... No, not a writer's life for me. Just keep me blathering away incoherently and unedited on this blog till the wee hours (again).
And stay well paid in my day job.
More than recommended. Unforgettable - an emotional kick in the guts. As was that Katnook Estates Cab Sav!
Some writers produce books so that you have something to hold in your hand as you pass the time (and be "entertained"), and some so that you have something to think about when you put the book down.
(also highly recommended for those times you are wandering around Chiang Mai in a daze - The New Yorker fiction podcasts. Short stories from the NYer archives, read by other writers. Awesome. Free. How I got onto the incredible Denis Johnson)