Now here’s a book you can knock off in a few hours and have a great deal of fun while doing so. H spotted it before I did which must be a first given that it’s a novel. He was chortling so much at a review that I felt I had to read the book. Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is made up of letters from the office of Jason T. Fitger, long-suffering Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University, and he’s had enough.
Fitger is currently under siege, writing from his office in the crumbling English department while the Economics bods are having their offices renovated upstairs. Noxious liquids leak through from the toilet above, he has to enter the building through a basement, his window won’t close allowing toxic fumes into his office and that’s just the start of it. He spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation – he’s written around thirteen hundred in all – some to other academic institutions, others to a supermarket, a nut emporium and a paintball establishment to name but a few. Interspersed are a multitude of pleas for funding for his advisee Darren Browles, often addressed to his two exes who also work at Payne. Browles is close to the end of his retelling of Melville’s Bartleby in which the titular hero is employed as an accountant in a brothel and Fitger’s convinced it’s a work of genius. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his sojourn at the notorious Seminar writing workshop; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels.
Schumacher’s book is very funny indeed, all the more so for academics, I’m sure, but anyone who’s brushed up against obdurate bureaucracy (haven’t we all) will find themselves sniggering. Even as a bystander on the sidelines of academic life, I winced in recognition at some of it: ‘those already serving in the killing fields of administration’ rang a particularly loud bell. Fitger’s early letters often start in emollient tones but exasperated barbs are soon aimed at students who barely know him but want a reference; at the philistines bent on cutting English departmental funding even further and at the recipients of funding largesse, usually the economists. Beneath all this waspishness beats a kind heart: Fitger tirelessly promotes Darren Browles; entreats his exes to look kindly on deserving students looking for work or funding; hopes in some small way to help his talented friend, hit by tragedy. There are some nice little digs at IT along the way, both at Fitger’s ineptitude – an unfortunate use of the ‘reply all’ function – and help desks who seem hell-bent on doing the opposite. Unsurprisingly, Schumacher turns out to be an academic. I wonder if she was getting a few things off her chest.
This is not an easy book to write about, nor to read. Short it may be, but it’s dense and its style takes a little getting used to but if you’re prepared to make the effort it pays dividends. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings.
Driven and obsessive, always the observer never the participant, Anna is treated with suspicion in their local town. Much beloved by the townspeople, John’s openness and conviviality smooths the way for her. These two seem an odd pairing but their relationship has lasted decades. Now frail and dying but refusing to admit it, Anna looks back over their time together finally acknowledging the price John has paid, his dedication to her work, his joy in life and his sorrow in tragedy. John, it seems, has decided to visit her portraits of him, attempting to see what others see when they look at Anna’s work.
Niven Govinden’s exploration of creativity, obsession and the relationship between art and life is compelling. In a convincing depiction of the bond between artist and sitter, Anna’s steely determination to paint – or perhaps her overwhelming need – is matched by John’s dedication, his patience and sacrifice in bowing to her demands. In terms of length this is a novella rather than a novel but don’t expect a quick read – it’s a book that requires attentive reading.
When I was reading All the Days and Nights I was reminded of The Man with a Blue Scarf which I read a few years ago. It’s a chronological account of the seven months art critic Martin Gayford spent sitting for Lucien Freud but it’s also Gayford’s first-hand view of watching an artist work. It’s as if Freud was sitting for a word portrait while painting Gayford’s in oils. I found it fascinating and highly recommend it.
If you’re from the UK, you’ll know exactly what I mean by a Marmite novel: you’ll either love it or hate it. Charles Lambert’s new novel is made up of 24 themed chapters, each of which has 10 paragraphs of 120 words and if you’re already stalking off towards the hate camp thinking ‘how tricksily pretentious’, bear with me – I hope to persuade you to love it. Written in the third person, it’s a book of memories – some playful, others melancholy; some gloriously beautiful, others starkly spare. The themes are many and varied, ranging from sex to fear, death to music, celebration to work, and ending with books. Each is introduced with a single word followed by a phrase picked from within the chapter which I found myself looking forward to, searching out like buried treasure and wondering why that particular one had been chosen. Woven through these 24 themes is a man’s life – sometimes recalled in impressionistic sketches, sometimes in vivid snapshots.
The beauty of this book lies in Lambert’s language – his skewering of a particular sentiment with a pithy phrase, his evocation of an experience in a few striking words. Here are a handful of my favorites but there are many more to savour: as a child ‘Home is the busyness of the kitchen, where what’s left in the mixing bowl is his, and the oven can burn his hand.’; ‘With a rustle like fire, the crack comes running across the ice to greet them.’; in adolescence ‘Each body is strange to him, and frightening, his own most of all.’; in later life ‘A good age is when people you don’t know – movie stars, politicians – die’; ‘If music is the food of love, then canned music is the bolted snack’ on hearing Joni Mitchell’s Ethiopia playing in a supermarket. It’s billed as a work of fiction but it’s clearly autobiographical – in his acknowledgements Lambert thanks all the people who appear in it and there’s a particularly nice touch when the narrator arranges his books by the colour of their spines thinking that one day he would like to be published by Picador, which Lambert is. There’s even a reference to Marmite in the hunger section when, succumbing to an attack of the munchies, the narrator finds a jar five years over its sell-by date thrust to the back of a cupboard and tells his friend ‘You’ll love it or hate it’. His friend replies ‘I’ll love it’. So there it is – a Marmite novel, and I loved it.
This is the third novel written in short paragraphs I’ve read this year – the first was Dept. of Speculation, the second The Wives of Los Alamos. Two seems a coincidence, three makes me wonder if it’s a trend. First World War novels aside, have you noticed any trends in fiction this year?