Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

Love Life is a truly beautiful book: beautiful in its turn of phrase, in its intensity and beautiful in the way that people are beautiful – you stare and stare and then suddenly beauty breaks down into individual features and for one terrifying moment beauty is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and you can’t look away.

Ya’ara is a young married woman trying to find a place for herself in the world. She is trying to understand her past – what role her dead brother played, how her parents’ relationship turned sour, who her parents are. She is trying to understand her choices and her desires, which are so readily fettered to others’ expectations. She is unhappy in her married life. She is unprepared to work for her university career. She dislikes her parents and her friends. She wanders around hungry for something that will help her change and she finds it in her parents’ old friend, Aryeh. Despite the age difference, despite his painful indifference, she debases herself for him, throwing her life at his feet all in order to discover more about Aryeh and his past with her parents and his past with his dying wife, and his every passing thought and movement in the present. Their relationship is suffocating in a completely opposite way to that of her relationship with her husband and ultimately that is what saves her and leads her love life to force her into loving life. Of course, she is also saved by the pages of an old book.

This love of narrative and the hidden meanings in old stories – much of which I need more time to understand because they are Jewish legends surrounding the fall of the temple – is another reason I loved this book. Truth is hidden in the interpretation of the stories others tell and the stories we tell ourselves. It’s hard to resist quoting the book, so here’s one:
‘This was apparently the root of love, to want to tell someone about every trifle that happened to you, in the hope that on the tortuous path from your mouth to his ear, the story would achieve its meaning, its justification, as if it had all happened simply so that I could tell it to Aryeh when he came to me at night, and not only it but every little thing that had ever happened, that was happening, that would happen in the future, this was their whole point, to tell them to Aryeh, even if Aryeh wasn’t in the least interested.’ (p181-182)

Whilst the description of intelligent Ya’ara being buffeted by the whirlwind of her relations with Aryeh is often extremely unpleasant, it is usually when it strikes some chord of familiarity – ‘I wondered to myself if this was harassment or pleasure’ (p199). There are moments when the dreadful things we sometimes think appear in black and white, unerased from the narrative of her life and they are both pleasing and horrifying because the intensity of her voice is hard to breathe especially when it holds up the dark mirror of mania. Perhaps, what I’m really saying is that, unlike Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life is my kind of book and has an unpalatable quality that fascinates me.

I loved Love Life and would read it again. This is a bestseller you should buy and treasure.

I’m relieved I’ve managed to make the Christmas blog. Next week I’m reading The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr in what will be probably be a cold and windy New Year in Brittany.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

There is absolutely nothing to dislike about Intuition. It is a well-researched book that takes a choppy ride over the seas of life in scientific research, specifically cancer research, where the tiniest results can extrapolate out with life-saving possibilities. We follow one particular lab, the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, in its battle against cancer, looking at its postdocs and lab technicians, as well as the lab directors and their families.

When one disgruntled postdoc announces significant cancer beating results in his mice experiment, opinion becomes divided about the veracity of those results and the lab is torn apart by the battle between self-glorification and scientific truth, played out against the politics of government funded research and all the responsibilities that should engender. Whilst there is a wealth of material here, and Intuition is by no means written badly, I couldn’t get excited about the book. In the end I felt it came down to me simply not being Intuition’s ideal reader.

I enjoyed reading Intuition and I would encourage those interested in scientific research and its complexities to read it, but I like books to be more than a good read and whilst there was nothing in Intuition to rile me, neither did I find myself lost in the pleasure of a turn of phrase or in the run of the narrative. Intuition could be about the search for truth, and certainly critics have read it that way, but for me it was more about humanity’s incessant and unrealistic desire for longevity, something I’m not entirely sure the book wanted me to think about. However, in this instance, I’m putting my feelings down to taste. Given the subject of longing for eternity, I’d rather read something less scientific, like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Next week, I will be reading Love Life by Zeruya Shalev and of course indulging in Christmas. It remains to be seen whether I can manage both…

The Human Script by Johnny Rich

The Human Script is an unraveling of the code of Chris Putnam’s life. It is about DNA – Chris works in a lab mapping some of the human genome and has an identical twin, someone theoretically made to be exactly the same who is in practice quite different. It is about the religious possibilities of creation – Chris’ father is a Calvinist who believes in predestination. It is about Chris’ father, who dies early in the novel but who nevertheless has fathered Chris, has influenced his development and his thinking in ways Chris does not find easy to accept. It is also a reworking of Roland Barthes – Chris’ twin, Dan, goes mad, plagued by the controlling interference of Johnny (the author), and as the novel progresses Chris feels the presence of Johnny too and attempts to confront him. In the end The Human Script reminds us that the code only has meaning when it is read.

Despite the overt intelligence working behind the novel, the catholic quotations, the philosophical and psychological conversations Chris has with his flatmate, Elsi (the only woman with a real voice in the book), that ripple out into his work and love life, and of course the science, I found myself looking forward not to what would happen next in The Human Script, but to what Johnny Rich would write next. This is a first novel that promises a glittering second. Whilst I was inhabited by the characters in a very engaging way – in particular I was caught up in Chris’ relationship with Leo, the publicly heterosexual, privately homosexual, famous actor – the narrative took turns I had not anticipated from its early pages and in the end became weighed down by the theory. The creationist grappling reminded me of Borges’s story ‘The Circular Ruins’ where a man dreams a son into existence, only to discover that he too is the progeny of dream. Borges’ ability to embed fiercely intellectual theory in narrative is something I would like to see Johnny Rich do more of in his next novel.

The Human Script is an ambitious and intriguing novel. Johnny Rich’s voice is one I hope we will all become more familiar with.

Next week I’ll be reading another overtly scientific novel, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, then Love Life by Zeruya Shalev, followed by The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr and then The Mall by S. L. Grey.

Cain by José Saramago

I can’t help it, I really enjoy reading Saramago and his translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Whilst there are books of his I haven’t enjoyed – I’m thinking of The Double – I was looking forward to reading Cain and I wasn’t disappointed. I like the lack of capitalization for proper nouns. I like the lack of punctuation for speech, indeed the lack of paragraphing for speech because despite all of that, you know who is speaking and you also know you are being asked to question the veracity of the speech being written down by an author who didn’t even hear the speech to begin with. So, reading Saramago is a pleasure and the words flow with a compelling retelling of an old story.

Cain is a new version of the Old Testament, one in which Cain challenges God’s interaction with humanity. After killing his brother, something Cain gets God to admit he is partly responsible for, Cain wanders through some of the salient points of the Old Testament (the destruction of the tower of Babel, the near sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Job’s trials, the battle of Jericho and so on) witnessing the limits of God’s power and compassion. Eventually Cain challenges God’s will by destroying all life on board the arch leaving God with no new humanity to repopulate the earth, only Cain, whom he has decreed he will not kill. So Cain ends his days arguing with the lord. He says no one will miss the human race. Even the angels, described in every instance as compassionate, have explained that to their mind human beings do not deserve the life God gave them – and by that they mean the freedoms of life outside of heaven. Heaven is as boring as life in the Garden of Eden. But the life the angels covet comes with a price for God, his creations will not always comply with his wishes. God is the foreman in creation and Cain is keen to remind him that there is a greater force than God at work in the universe, perhaps the very force that had Cain wander through time to follow how God manages his human creations.

At first, I was disappointed in the ending of the book because I wasn’t ready for the end of humanity, or the story to end, but perhaps that is Saramago’s point. Really we are a plague upon the earth, polluting and endangering the world and ourselves. Who would miss us? And how could any God, allowing us to live in this way, be more loving, more just, less blood-thirsty than us? When does a parent step in? Usually before serious harm comes from a child’s actions. Perhaps an ongoing debate between God and his creation, between Cain and God, as happens at the end of the novel, is all God could really have hoped for? This God at least?

Cain is a pleasurable way to remind ourselves of the foundations of our culture, of the angry God of the Old Testament who still seems to rule the way we live today. The stories of the Old Testament are so rich, and Cain does them justice, unwinding the threads of civilization with humour and beauty.

Next week I’ll be reading and reviewing The Human Script by Johnny Rich. Then the reading list is as follows: Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life by Zeruya Shalev, The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr.