Books Now!

News and reviews from around the corner to across the world


3 Comments

An Uneasy Entente Cordiale: on the Trail of Expo 58

 

coe

EXPO 58 by Jonathan Coe      Penguin     $23.95

As we approach the end of the year, I thought I’d review something lighter and more amusing, in keeping with the forthcoming holiday season. Looking over my list this year, it’s been predominantly serious, with the exception of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which continues to do exceptionally well both in Australia and abroad.

Expo 58 was published earlier this year and is one of those books on my list to read for a while.  I hadn’t realised that Brussels had hosted an international exhibition in 1958. The Expo saw pavilions from all around the world erected to showcase the best of international design, art, and lifestyle.  Brussels’ famous Atomium was built to display contemporary engineering, science and creativity in the Exhibition Park. Mandarins, intellectuals and the media swarmed to Brussels to see what the post-war world had to offer.  With what’s described in the book as ‘an example of the Belgian sense of humour’, the US and Russian pavilions (remember, we’re at the height of the Cold War) nestled uncomfortably side by side in a public show of uneasy harmony.

Coe takes the Expo as a starting point for a farce on British mores and international relations. He blends elements of Ealing comedy and Le Carre (with more than a touch of David Lodge) to concoct an irresistible, fast-paced read that’s guaranteed to make you smile – if you appreciate an anglophile sense of the ridiculous.

Thomas is a lowly pen pusher in the Central Office of Information. He’s given the chance to escape his boring public service job and suburban marriage to travel to Brussels and be part of the British delegation at the Expo. His task is ostensibly to oversee the running of the Brittania, a replica of a British pub which takes pride of place near the British pavilion. However, he’s soon caught up in a network of hush-hush activity. Under the guise of camaraderie over a pint, the British, the Russians and the Americans are obviously spying on each other. Plus, there’s Anneke, the beautiful Flemish hostess, who soon captures his attention. Where, in more ways than one, do Thomas’ loyalties lie?

Reading this at a time when Indonesia and Australia are caught up in a “who spied on whom?” scandal, and the recent revelations of American and British phone tapping, Coe’s novel seems both prescient and topical. Plus ҫa change etc etc.  His novel doesn’t pretend to be anything more than lighthearted. And yet, it resonates with profound truths about Great Britain’s attitude to its neighbours  pre EU (usually condescending), a fact that’s particularly ironic considering Britain’s woeful state in 1958.

Having just emerged from rationing and a devastating war, Britain was struggling to get back on her feet. Riddled by a suffocating class system, insular, bridling with suspicion and prejudice against anything new and foreign, the country was stagnating. The liberation of the 60s was yet to occur. No wonder Thomas views a stint at the Expo as a chance to escape his stifling existence.  Here’s his (admittedly naïve) view of all the Expo has to offer, when he first arrives in Brussels: “Here for the next six months, would be thrown together all the nations whose complex relationships, whose conflicts and alliances, whose fraught, tangled histories, had shaped and would continue to shape the destiny of mankind.”

All this seems to be epitomised by the structure of the Atomium itself, which Coe describes as “this brilliant folly… a giant latticework of spheres, unperishable, interconnected, each one emblematic of that tiny mysterious unit man had so recently learned to divide and conquer: the atom. The very sight of it set his heart pounding”.

Of course, the novel is a gradual exploration of loss of innocence. And there are flashes of the real price countries had to pay after the Second World War. Here and there are reminiscences of villages pillaged, houses burned, friends deported, lives in ruin.  But the underpinning seriousness of the message is always deflated by farce and fun.

This is epitomised by the delicious cartoon characters, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford (we never learn their first names), two secret service men in black who recruit Thomas to the cause. With dialogue straight out of PG Wodehouse, a habit of finishing each other’s sentences and a penchant for tortuous language: “He had the sachet and the packet in the pocket of his jacket”, they’re a comedy duo, caricatured spies who come in from the cold with very English flair.

So if you’re lazing on a beach this summer digging into a raspberry Pav, or tucked up with a hot toddy and Christmas pud  and turkey leftovers near a blazing fire, Expo 58 is a good companion. Definitely recommended.

 

Advertisements


21 Comments

CLASSICS VANDALISM: HANDS OFF JANE AUSTEN!

jo-trollopeausten

As I was cleaning the oven this morning (a thankless if necessary task made only marginally more acceptable by a fresh crop of this week’s arts, books and music podcasts, the family sensibly staying away from me as I swore and scrubbed with a mad gleam in my eye), I reflected on the current Austen debate.

Cleaning the oven and thinking about Jane Austen may, at first glance, seem an oxymoron, but as I battled with seemingly irremovable burned-on grime, it appeared a suitable metaphor for a malaise spreading through the literary world: scouring the classics, re-inventing the déjà-vu.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favour of the next film adaptation of Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield, but it seems to me that Classics Mania is spawning a new breed of literature: Classics Reinvention, whereby contemporary writers are commissioned to write sequels to, or radically review our well-loved favourites.

In the columns of the British press, we’ve seen a sparring match between writers Sam Leith and Elizabeth Day in The Observer over the so-called “Austen Project”. For those not in the know, this HarperCollins publishing initiative involves six novelists reworking Austen’s oeuvre for the 21st century. Joanna Trollope has just published (and note the ampersand) Sense & Sensibility; out soon are Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice and Alexander McCall’s Emma.

Leith is all in favour – there’s nothing wrong with dressing an old aunt in new clothes, he says, citing Bridget Jones as the obvious pastiche-to riches phenomenon . Day, however, is scathing. “I’d much rather read a new book….containing inventive ideas and new ways of seeing human behaviour than a novel that is constrained by someone else’s plot devices handed down through the centuries.”, she writes.  “I don’t need to read about Mr Knightley listening to Arctic Monkeys on his iPod to be convinced that Jane Austen is ‘relevant’. I already know she is.”

There are in fact two ideas here. The first stream is the homage novel, inspired by a piece of fiction, but remaining highly original, with its own take on character and plot.  Although I’m not a Helen Fielding fan, Bridget Jones clearly falls into this category.  So does a work such as Zadie Smith’s fabulous On Beauty which revisits Howard’s End in a completely individual way.

A few years ago, BBC TV produced a superb series where a number of Shakespeare comedies, including Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were re-interpreted for today. Although plotlines were subscribed to in principle, the writers enthusiastically fitted them to contemporary mores, so they became free-standing works of art.

The second stream is where pure spin-offs or sequels of original works are written, which I have greater difficulty accepting. It’s all very well to say such books acquire a separate personality and should be judged accordingly but why tamper with what already works? Cynically, this seems to be an exercise in pure greed and commercialism, with publishers and the media cashing in on our seemingly unending appetite for much-loved classics.

There was a ghastly reworking of Pride and Prejudice on television a few years ago called Lost in Austen where a modern day London gel time-travels  back to the 19th century and finds herself living and acting out the role of Elizabeth Bennett. It was so unbelievably awful that I can’t recall it now without shuddering.  As a spoof, it was crass beyond belief and seemed to me to be merely exploitative, with no artistic merit whatever.

It’s not only Austen, of course.  David Benedictus has revisited Winnie-the-Pooh. This year, Sebastian Faulks has given birth to a new Bertie Wooster and William Boyd has launched a revamped 007. I’m sure that the authors who have been commissioned to write these “new” works have done so with respect, a high level of craft and great intelligence. And yet, and yet, I remain unconvinced. I truly enjoy the work of Sebastian Faulks but  have absolutely no interest in  a 21st century version of Jeeves.  I’ll keep on reading Wodehouse as I’ve always done.