Saturday, 3 February 2018

Book 4, 2018 - The Improbablilty of Love by Hannah Rothschild

Just after finishing The Improbability of Love I read an article in the Washington Post by Garrison Keilor, in which he describes accompanying his teenage daughter to a dance. When they arrived, he found that the kids were dancing to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Fats Domino. "It dawned on me", he observes, "that when rock-and-roll got all progressive and artistic and inward, something you listened to and tried to figure out what the lyrics meant, it lost the power to make people jump around and have a good time".

It seems to me that a parallel thing happened to the novel when Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Proust and even the - to me - faintly baffling Henry Green got hold of it. Experimenting with plot, attempting to convey the flow of time and existence in all its glorious tedium became a marker of higher artistry, regardless of whether the results had the power to provide a good time.

One problem with this - leaving aside the thing I don't really like to admit, which is that I find Woolf and Joyce and Proust extremely boring (but, in my defence, I don't find Henry James boring, although most do; in addition, I believe he wrestled far more energetically with the problem of conveying experience than many of those writers I've mentioned, but that is probably an argument for another day) - is that writers who are immediately entertaining tend to be discounted, seen as of lower value than their experimental brethren. In my opinion, this is extremely misguided. Writing in a way that is accessible to many, if done well, is a great deal more difficult than the most "difficult" fiction. Easy reading is not necessarily easy to write, if it is any good. Creating characters that live in a reader's imagination, thinking up plots with resolutions readers care about, conjuring up whole imaginary worlds - and also writing without cliche but with perception and wisdom - is something remarkably few people are capable of. When it is done right, one of the best kinds of novel is the really entertaining easy-read.

And Hannah Rothschild has done it right. Somehow she has produced a book that could be recommended as a beach read while: being very well written, (no repetitive hackneyed turns of phrase or girlie nonsense); portraying nuanced relationships - most particularly that between the protagonist and her mother; raising difficult questions, (Nazism and Jewish reparations is one of the book's main themes; Rothschild's ability to introduce such dark and weighty topics without either treating them with lack of respect or destroying her book's tone is remarkable); maintaining a romantic plot line you care about; and providing quite a lot of art history to boot. The novel is highly imaginative and often funny. When I finished and looked the author up and discovered that she is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery in London - in other words, writing fiction is just a sideline, rather than her day job - I was awed. Mind you, the article I read did mention that this novel took ten years to finish. That shouldn't be surprising though as, unlike so many novels these days, The Improbability of Loe gives the impression of having been created with great attention. I enjoyed it very much.

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