Timelessness trumps timely

What we have is pure storytelling delight, a page-turner that works forwards and backwards as the reader fills in the gaps

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

The literary critic John Carey in 2000 published Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. In it he warned of those who associate reading with “swank and false refinement” and argued for “pure reading-pleasure”. Crucially, for his list he rejected “books that gain their power from their subjects more than their writing” — a sentence which made me realise that if Carey ever set up a cult, I’d be down the front slurping the Kool-Aid.

In a year more interesting than most, it seems commoner than ever to be assured by publishers and critics — yes, I have indulged, but I can quit any time I like — that every new book has designs on our times. (Pity poor Don DeLillo, whose new novella The Silence, about a technology blackout, had a reference to Covid-19 added to the text by some well-meaning SEO-jockey at the editing stage. It didn’t survive.) Yet there are new books which offer an escape from relevance — or, even worse, “relevancy” — and they don’t involve leaving your critical faculties behind.

Laid low by chronic illness for many of the 16 years since her humdinger hit debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke has been working too long on her new novel Piranesi to pretend it’s timely. It is, much better, timeless — not least because the narrator, Piranesi, feels that he has always lived in the House, a mysterious structure which covers several kilometres and contains thousands of rooms (or “Halls”) filled with statuary and lashed by a surrounding sea.

The only other person in the House is an older man Piranesi refers to, reasonably, as the Other, and who has a commanding spirit over our man. He directs Piranesi’s exploration of the Halls, in a delegated search for “the Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World”, and although the House seems not very like our world at all, the Other is able to provide Piranesi with quotidian essentials like new shoes and multivitamins.

Mark the use in the previous sentence of what J. B. Priestley called Komic Kapitals infecting most of the nouns, though here it’s really more Kamp Kapitals, where they ostentatiously suggest a mock-heroic consequentiality. Yes, we appear to be in the fantasy genre. But wait, come back: fantasy, like science fiction, is precisely designed to strip away the preconceptions we might have about a novel set in a known place and time: to reduce the risk, in Carey’s terms, of valuing the book for its subject more than its writing.

As such, Piranesi is one of those books that thrives on its delicate mysteries, so if I hold them up to the light too long they might collapse. Part of the pleasure is trying to run ahead of Clarke as she drops clues about who Piranesi is and what he’s doing in the House. When we learn, for example, that Piranesi and the Other meet only twice a week, for exactly one hour, I wondered if they were really therapist and patient. (I mention this only because they’re not, but I hope I haven’t spoiled anything by saying that. Nor by saying that. Nor by saying that.)

Elsewhere, the search for knowledge, which takes Piranesi to the fringes of the House, its most distant and dangerous Halls, seems like a spiralling iteration of our own experience of reading the book — I half expected to see my own stone gob leering down among the statuary — a little like Coetzee’s triumphant Jesus trilogy.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke Bloomsbury, £14.99

And at times it reminded me of Christopher Priest’s genre-crossing slipstream fiction, though with more charm for the reader — largely through Piranesi’s solicitous, welcoming voice — than Priest is generally interested in providing.

What we have, in other words, is pure storytelling delight, a page-turner that works forwards and backwards as the reader fills in the gaps and re-interprets what’s been read in light of Piranesi’s increased understanding of his own life. This is the only part where I have a little quibble: in the end the revelations about what is “really” happening are a bit too explicit, and I would have liked Clarke to leave a veil or two undisturbed. But that doesn’t diminish the book’s strange power or melancholy direction, and throughout it I felt more or less like a kitten having its tummy tickled.

Now if we’re talking about pleasure in art, where better to go than the films of Billy Wilder? The co-writer and director of The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard and, er, Buddy Buddy is the subject of Jonathan Coe’s new novel Mr Wilder & Me. Coe, like Wilder, is almost a national treasure (the accolade will be officially bestowed next year when he turns 60), having established himself as one of the few comic novelists taken seriously by the literary establishment.

Wilder is a perfect subject for Coe, whose books have often drawn from popular culture and film in particular (What a Carve Up!, Expo 58). This book feels smaller, though not more minor, than his recent novels Number 11 and Middle England, which held a cracked mirror up to contemporary British politics: this one is a chamber piece to their seven-reel epics.

Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe Viking, £16.99

Our narrator is Calista, a middle-aged composer of film music, who is finding herself de trop both personally and professionally: one of her daughters is leaving home for Australia, and her film scores are no longer marketable (“they don’t want what I write”) in a world that seeks only “noise. Written by numbers.”

It would be tempting to say that Coe might associate with this sentiment, as a not quite elder but middle-aged statesman of English letters: but as Mr Wilder & Me is not just one of the most reviewed, but also best reviewed, novels of the season, perhaps not. Really the parallel Calista’s character seeks to draw is with Billy Wilder, with whom she worked on his penultimate film, Fedora, in 1977. The rest of the story is mostly a bright reminiscence of this time.

By then, Wilder was long past his great successes: not that he cared for critical acclaim, just bums on seats, as that’s what persuaded the studios to pony up for the next project. The artistry we see now was just his best efforts to make a marketable hit. But in the 1970s, Wilder and his co-writer Iz Diamond were out of fashion, in favour of the “kids with beards”: Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg. Their films were darker than Wilder’s — there is, as Martin Amis wrote in Inside Story, an “intellectual glamour to gloom” — but more than that, they were new. The kids with beards could give audiences what Wilder could never give them: a change from Wilder.

So, in Calista’s story, Wilder and Diamond go to Germany to get funding for Fedora, and the resulting caper involves lots of fun stuff on pretentious actors and publicity junkets, but also a slowly widened vein that not only brings Wilder into contact with Emeric Pressburger — half of that other great twentieth-century filmmaking pair — but also back to his own European heritage.

Coe passes between registers from funny to subdued with fluency and no grinding of gears, so that when Wilder tells Calista, “Whatever else it throws at you, life will always have pleasures to offer. And we should take them,” it’s impossible not to nod submissively: a book more loving towards its readers or its subject is hard to imagine.

One way to skip the books that are trying to crowd us with their contemporaneity is to find pleasure in the oldies. Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier Takes Berlin was published in 1931 and is now available in English, translated by Sophie Duvernoy. It’s a satire on the excesses of both the news media and Weimar Germany. The journalism world here is recognisable from Evelyn Waugh or Michael Frayn (or indeed Christopher Hitchens’s account of the war correspondent in the Congo who shouted, “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”). A small Berlin newspaper, battling for relevance and readership — “We really must find out how Professor Möller’s doing. His obituary is the lead article, and it’s already gone to the printers” — writes an excitable report of a mediocre lounge singer called Käsebier, which goes viral. Everyone wants a piece of the “short blond fat and flabby” man; a feeding frenzy commences. Käsebier himself is the unmoving eye of the storm, surplus to requirements as a nation projects its needs onto his blank features.

Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit, translated by Sophie Duvernoy Pushkin Press, £9.99

A whole hyperinflationary economy develops around him: recordings, a theatre and housing development, impersonators, and more feeble branded stocking-fillers than Krusty the Klown (“I heartily endorse this event or product!”) ever conceived of. The style is loose and messy — sometimes too messy — recalling other Weimar fiction like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Irmgard Keun’s chaotic chronicles of young women’s lives. It’s all going to hell of course — this is 1929 — but it isn’t half fun to watch it burn. Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others? I bet the Germans have a word for that.

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