“This is something of a kitchen sink novel; I threw in everything that terrifies me.” The Mandibles. Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles; A Family, 2029-2947, shifts us from familiar Shriver territory, chronicling America’s bleak present, to a satire of an even bleaker future. The dollar is in meltdown, the debt mountain has collapsed, and the once wealthy Mandible family are as bankrupt as everyone else in the country and no longer cushioned  by the comfort of wealth. Like the US, they’re no one now they’re broke.

We narrowly dodged a bullet in 2008,” said Shriver when I talked to her at The Books That Built Me, “but it’s still whizzing round the planet: all those rotten mortgages are mostly still there, but mostly I’m concerned about sovereign debt. This is a novel that, among other things, is about the United States defaulting on its national debt. It doesn’t have a reproving effect on the country.

The Mandibles is a vast, highly entertaining family saga as well as a cautionary tale of economic armageddon, but it’s also about what we value – in particular, the value of the written word in a world where there are no printed books, where the internet has made everything available for free, and where, after the demise of newspapers, it’s impossible to trust what you read, piling another unnervingly prescient aspect to her dystopia. “I pretty much eliminated the written word in The Mandibles; that seemed dismal to me, not only because I like to read, but it would leave me out of a job. One of the things I’m really worried about is the end of professional journalism. I take it to an extreme in the novel, but it’s no longer an extreme when The Independent can no longer afford to put out a print edition and is now online only. One of the things that happens when a newspaper goes on line is that people don’t take it as seriously and [newspapers] can’t afford to take themselves as seriously because they can’t afford the staff to put out quality journalism, to do investigative journalism, and to fact check their own work. I’m actually much more worried about journalism in the near future than I am about literature – literature is an indulgence, a luxury, but I don’t feel that way about the newspaper I read every morning and it’s important to me that the information in it is true. We are starting to slide into a universe where you can believe whatever you want to believe and form your opinion first and then go out looking for information as back up, which you can always find because there is always someone else out there who feels the same way as you.”

One of the novel’s pivotal character is a writer – Nollie, a thinly veiled portrait of the artist. As Shriver says, “She’s obnoxious and opinionated and pushy and tactless. She’s been living in Europe – the main thing she brings back [to the US] is boxes and boxes of  her own books, so she’s obviously something of a narcissist as well. You’re never quite sure if she’s any good as a writer, either. I figured I’m old enough and I’ve written enough books that I earned the inside job.

For more about The Mandibles, and Lionel Shriver’s Books That Built Me, listen to the podcast

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 is published by The Borough Press

 

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Mrs Bridge & Mr Bridge. Evan S Connell

Her first name was India. She was never able to get used to it.” So begins Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, the story of an unremarkable upper middle-class housewife in the Kansas City of the 1930’s. India Bridge has three children, a comfortable home, a kindly, if distant, lawyer husband and spends her time shopping, going to bridge parties and bringing her children up to be pleasant and to have nice manners. She has expensive hand towels which she puts out when visitors come and secretly hopes they won’t use, and she has never met a socialist. Her world is delightfully and sensitively observed, and Mrs Bridge – and its companion piece, Mr Bridge – are novels of great skill in which nothing and yet everything happens. Shortly before he died, Mariella Fostrup interviewed Connell for Open Book to ask him about the unexpected success of his most famous novel:

I was just trying to represent the people as I knew them…. It was rejected by many publishers…they said that people never read anything like that, and this was not meant entirely as a compliment; there was no dramatic climax, [they said] there was no climax in the life of this woman, that it was made up of minutiae. I think it was Chekhov who said once upon a time that people do not go to the North Pole, they eat cabbage soup and fall off step ladders and that is what her [Mrs Bridge] life was all about. I think [the publisher] was surprised when they sold out the entire first edition.

Lionel Shriver and I discussed Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge at her Books That Built Me and I asked her what Connell meant to her as an author. It’s partly the structure of the two novels, the sense in which Mr and Mrs Bridge occupy parallel universes, that couples always live their lives along parallel lines, that has impressed her – she employs the same structure in her eighth novel, The Post-Birthday World, but above all, it’s a sense of an author who has mastered the fugitive skill of being able to take himself out of his own work.  As she said;

I admire the author in this. I’m not always that good about this [taking oneself out of the novel] –  after all my new novel has not only the intrusion of authorial opinion but the author herself walks the page as an old lady and a pain in the ass…but there’s a lot of discipline to writing a book where the author is not present, so that you are only with the character. There’s a purity to it, that you don’t sense the author on the page at all, and there’s a self-effacement and a modesty to that kind of writing that I really admire and therefore what happens is the reader isn’t aware of the author at all and sees through the prose – sees through the novel in fact -straight to the character. That kind of clear-sightedness, that not getting in the way, of not saying ‘look at me, isn’t that a great sentence?’  I really admire that.

Mrs Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics)Mr Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics) The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, Lionel Shriver

The books that inspire Lionel Shriver

I hame and lioneld a marvellous time with Lionel Shriver last week at the Club at Cafe Royal, talking about the books that have been important to her work.

Tomorrow’s Children, edited by Isaac Asimov (a collection of science fiction short stories she loved as a child)

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

Mrs Bridge (and Mr Bridge), Evan S Connell

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

 

Catch 22. Joseph Heller.

 Set in a US bomber squadron off the coast of Italy, in the closing months of World War Two, Catch 22’s anti-heroic protagonist, Yossarian, is furious that thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. The Catch 22 of the title – now such a part of life’s everyday lexicon one can hardly believe Heller only coined it only fifty five years ago – refers to the double bind Yossarian finds himself in – the only way to get out of flying combat missions is to have oneself declared insane, but not to want to fly anymore missions proves you are in full possession of your faculties.

For Lionel Shriver, this once beloved book hasn’t stood the test of time – “There’s something about the absurdist sensibility that just doesn’t crack me up the way that it did when I was thirteen. I used to read it every year on the lead up to my birthday. I read it something like five times between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. I’m relieved that I let that ritual go.” It’s not only the humour that has worn thin, “the scenes that are much more serious moved me more when I was younger: it’s also an anti-war book and I responded strongly to that because when I read it it was the middle of the Vietnam war in the United States and I was strongly opposed to that, especially as I had an older brother who was on his way to qualifying for the draft. But those scenes don’t do it for me anymore.

Nevertheless, Catch 22 remains an important building block in Shriver’s development as a writer – “the biggest thing I got out of it – it did amuse me and it was the first adult book I had ever read that was funny and I don’t think I had ever registered before that novels for grown ups don’t have to be serious: It’s partly because of Catch 22 that my novels are bearable today”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller

 

Jude the Obscure. Thomas Hardy

 

“The small, tight, apple-like convexities of her bodice, so different from Arabella’s amplitudes”

Jude Fawley is a provincial stone mason with intellectual aspirations. Frustrated by poverty and his inability to make a success of himself at University in Christminster, hamstrung by a failed marriage, his only chance of fulfilment seems to lie in his relationship with his free-thinking, unconventional cousin, Sue Bridehead.  Refusing to be bound by religious convention, they live together but are shunned by society: harrowing tragedy piles on top of relentless misery and inescapable obscurity. As Robert McCrum writes in his brilliant 100 Best Novels series for the Guardian,

 

With brilliant economy, Hardy opens up three themes: the struggle of the poor and disadvantaged to make their way in a bourgeois world; the tyranny of marriage in the lives of women oppressed by a patriarchal society; and the stranglehold on English life inflicted by an established church, defensively circling its wagons in the aftermath of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

For Lionel Shriver, Jude is “a book about struggle and aspiration and frustration; these are themes that young people naturally respond to. i responded to a story about someone who struggles so hard and yet is constantly thwarted and that is the sensation of being young.” When Lionel Shriver was fifteen, she gave up her passion for science fiction to dedicate herself to reading the classics in a “quite systematic” way, making herself a reading list and ploughing through in the true spirit of a committed auto-didact. Having “an appetite for the sorrowful“, she read Dostoevsky and Faulkner as well as Hardy. As she says, “I think I just liked the sensation – it made me feel something and I liked feeling something. The sensation of sorrow in a book is more intense than joy. It’s very difficult to get across joy, it’s a lot easier to manipulate a reader into feeling bad…I liked that sorrow at one remove. That’s what makes it possible to read these books and not kill yourself, right, because it isn’t happening to you really.

Jude in particular made an impact: “I responded to Jude because it’s very anti-religious and it is suspicious of formal education and I’ve been chary about education, which I always found unsatisfying, and also very hostile to religion most of my life and it’s about a man who idolises formal education and has all these religious yearnings but the institutional response to these yearnings and to that idolatory is constantly throwing it back in his face. His life is miserable, he never gets anywhere, the love of his life ends up turning against him because she becomes very religious and feels guilty about the fact they’re not married. And so it’s a book that’s also suspicious of traditional morality and all the rules regarding sex and romance and those rules make everyone miserable in this book and since I was part of a generation that finally didn’t get hysterical about staying a virgin until you got married, I responded to that also. So in a way it’s also an anti-authoritarian book.”
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (Penguin Classics)

 

Wigs on the Green. Nancy Mitford

NPG x26631; Nancy Mitford by Bassano
Nancy Mitford by Bassano, 3 August 1935

First published in 1935, Nancy Mitford’s third novel,Wigs on the Green, was never reprinted in her lifetime. Although its plot – like all of Mitford’s novels – is essentially an exploration of love and marriage, and has all the trademark Mitford wit, brio, and strong autobiographical detail, it’s also a satire on British fascism.

Mitford wasn’t the only novelist to poke fun at the British Union of Fascists – I’ve always loved Wodehouse’s parody of Mosley, as Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters (1938), which makes him as ridiculous as one could possibly wish.

“The trouble with you, Spode, [says Wooster] is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

Whilst the satire is rather gentler in Wigs on the Green, Wodehouse didn’t have sisters who were infamously and intimately involved with the Fascist cause, and its publication went particularly hard with Diana, who was married in all but name to Oswald Mosley, for whom she’d left her husband in 1932. Although Mitford removed the three chapters that most obviously lampooned Mosley as Captain Jack, the leader of the Union Jackshirts, Wigs on the Green caused a rift between her and Diana that lasted almost until the end of the war. “But I also know your point of view,” wrote Nancy to Diana shortly before its publication, in an attempt to mollify her, “That Fascism is something too serious to be dealt with in a funny book at all.” In fact, Nancy later took her sister’s commitment to fascism extremely seriously, warning MI5 that she was “far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband” (Diana had married Mosley in a secret ceremony in Berlin in 1936).

Yet it’s not Diana who is caricatured in Wigs on the Green, it’s Unity, who at twenty-one was already under the spell of National Socialism, albeit some years from becoming the Hitler obsessive who shot herself in the head the day war broke out between England and Germany, with a pistol given to her by the Führer himself . In Wigs on the Green, Unity is Eugenia Malmain, ardent supporter of Captain Jack and his Union Jackshirts, and one of the richest girls in Britain, a perfect target for the attentions of the fortune-hunting Noel Foster and his disreputable pal, Jasper Aspect. It’s the adolescent aspects of the Jackshirt movement that seem to appeal to Eugenia most– the dressing up, belonging to a gang and rampaging around on her spirited horse, Vivien Jackson, with the faithful Reichshund at her side. The politics are full of fabulous rhetoric, bombast and nonsense – I’m particularly taken with Eugenia’s definition of Aryan:

Well, it’s quite easy. A non-Aryan is the missing link between man and beast. That can be proved by the fact that no animals, except the Baltic goose, have blue eyes.”

“How about Siamese cats?” said Jasper.

Every joke – even a clever if light-hearted satire – has its moment: by the time Mitford’s publisher asked for permission to reissue the novel, in 1951, the world had changed. As she wrote to Evelyn Waugh, “Too much has happened for jokes about Nazis to be regarded as…anything but the worst of taste”.

And so it remained out of print for nearly seventy five years.in 2010, Penguin reissued Wigs on the Green, alongside new editions of Mitford’s finest novels – The Pursuit of Love, – the most frequently chosen novel at The Books That Built Me – Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and Don’t Tell Alfred. It doesn’t have quite the same marvellousness of the post-war novels, which are so captivating one can’t help but read them again and again and again until the spines fall apart with love and delight– my first ever copy of The Pursuit of Love is now more sellotape than novel, really – but it is only the third she wrote and she is still finding her voice. However, it’s still a tremendous read. Wigs on the Green has sufficient Mitford hallmarks to have you roaring with laughter, but with the added fascination of having elements of a roman à clef.
Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford. Published by Penguin £8.99


Whilst having a little scoot around the internet to look for the latest Penguin covers, I came across this horror (right) from the late 1960’s (so it hasn’t been completely out of print, after all). There was a vogue in the late 60’s/early 70’s to make all novels by women resemble Mills & Boon, as if we are only capable of writing romance. Wigs on the Green is only a romance in the same way as The Code of The Woosters is. I’m making a small collection of misrepresentative book jackets – I recently found a real shocker for My Cousin Rachel…

The Code of the Woosters

image1.JPG

I reached out a hand from under the blankets, and rang the bell for Jeeves.

‘Good evening, Jeeves.’

‘Good morning, sir.’

This surprised me.

‘Is it morning?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Are you sure? It seems very dark outside.’

‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’

‘Season of what?’

‘Mists, sir, and mellow fruitfulness.’

‘Oh? Yes. Yes, I see. Well, be that as it may, get me one of those bracers of yours, will you?’

I have one in readiness sir, in the ice box.’

He shimmered out ,and I sat up in bed with that rather unpleasant feeling you get sometimes that you’re going to die in about five minutes.”

So opens PG Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters and in a few lines you have a mini-masterclass in establishing character.

The bracer in question is a Prairie Oyster, a hangover remedy in which the cure is, surely, worse than the disease

The Prairie Oyster

1 raw egg

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

salt

pepper

2 dashes Tabasco

The Code of the Woosters PG Wodehouse Penguin, £7,99