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Once upon a time J David Simons, who has returned to his home town in Glasgow, lived in Japan. He has now channelled some of that experience into his third novel, much of which takes place in Hakone, 100 kilometers from Tokyo.  This by way of explanation, as to why I chose to read An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful for January in Japan. (The event organiser may, of course, rule the entry invalid ….)

Nevertheless this is a fine novel.  There are, in fact, other adjectives I’d like to use but I’ve decided I’m not going to repeat those used in the title … although both apply.  The novel is also unafraid to tackle the controversial. See if you can spot the controversy from the publisher’s blurb.

An eminent British writer returns to the resort hotel in the Japanese mountains where he once spent a beautiful, snowed-in winter.  It was there he fell in love and wrote his best-selling novel, The Waterwheel, accusing America of being in denial about the horrific aftermath of the Tokyo firebombings and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As we learn more about his earlier life, however – as a student in Bloomsbury, involved with a famous American painter – we realise that he too is in denial, trying to escape past events that are now rapidly catching up with him.

How many themes and subjects that interest me can be pulled from that synopsis?  Let’s see: the writer’s life, from getting his 1st break to becoming a much-lauded elder statesman; Bloomsbury; art history; secrets from the past.  The argument about America’s war record in Japan not so much, because all war subjects distress me.  However, given that both sides of the argument are fairly represented (and at times very creatively in the form of extracts from a novel within the novel) I have to say that at no stage did my interest wane.  There is further controversy in that personal secret; one that comes back to haunt our protagonist but only because he is a celebrity once married to another, whose autobiography tells all.  Politically correct society will judge him, although surprisingly I did not. (There were, I found, convincing mitigating circumstances.)

As I’ve read and reviewed both of Simons’s previous novels (here and here), I know he is, to quote the blurb, “a skilled storyteller” and so I was expecting nothing less than a darn good yarn.  So it proved to be.  His style is detailed without being overly descriptive and verbose.  The book is populated with characters to  love (the literary agent), to hate (the protagonist’s wife, Macy Collingwood), and those who are a little more ambiguous (Edward Strathairn, the eminent author himself).  The action spans East and West. The cultural differences between Japan and the West and between Britain and America are demonstrated through the behaviour of the characters – nowhere more tellingly than in the contrast between Edward’s American and Japanese loves.  While present and past narratives converge convincingly into a dramatic finale, there is mirroring along the way that I found – I give in, there’s no other word for it – exquisite.

There are other enjoyable touches including multiple references to Nobel Laureate Kawabata’s novel, Snow Country, which has duly been added to my wishlist, recognition of the importance of literary translators, and some thought-provoking linguistic theory.

“…. a linguistic theory I’m putting forward about the Japanese. The way they put the verb at the end of the sentence.”

“Meaning?”

“The Japanese want to know the details first before they take action. Same with the Germans and their verb.”

“And we English-speakers?”

“Oh, that’s easy.  We’re all about “I” with a big, capital letter.  Even in the middle of a sentence.  Only culture to do that.  But  usually it’s “I” right at the beginning followed by a verb.  We put our big selves first, then we do the action, then we worry about the details later. I, I, I, I.  That’s what we English-speakers are all about.  But does our grammar create our culture of egotism? Or does our culture create our grammar?”

In the course of his literary duties, Edward Strathairn must perform public readings and answer audience questions.  These scenes are playful vignettes of the “toil” of contemporary authors.  At one such event I attended, a mega-selling author, (Mark Billingham, I think) stated his belief that it takes 3 novels for an author to really hit his stride.  Novels 1 and 2 were good, but with this one, I reckon Simons has now taken possession of his 7-league boots.

 4_stars.GIF

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We’re in a time when governments once more are turning their military forces onto their own people (Libya). Did you know that the British Government did the same thing in Glasgow in 1919 in the Battle of George Square?   Glasgow it turns out was the hotbed of British socialism with workers, in a time of high unemployment, campaigning for a 40-hour week.  Prior to this – 1915 – Glaswegian women, their men all away in the trenches of World War I, raised the standard against the unfair rent hikes that were resulting in many of their kind being evicted from often extremely poor accommodation.  This was the period in which Red Clydeside was born, political affiliations to the left which still hold firm in the West of Scotland to this day.

Isn’t it surprising what you learn from reading historical fiction?

The reason I picked up The Liberation of Celia Kahn so soon after my reading of  The Credit Draper was threefold.  1)  I needed to know if that ending was for real (it was ….)  2) I was really curious to know what happened during Celia’s formative years.  In The Credit Draper, Celia simply disappears into a crowd, reappearing a few years later, a confident young woman with values not of her family’s making and 3) I received an invitation to attend the book launch.

Launching Celia by Walter J Woolfe

Off I went to visit the bookshop in which I can lose myself for a day at a time – Waterstone’s flagship store in Glasgow’s Sauciehall Street.  It was a well-attended event.  I’ve been to events at major literary festivals with much smaller audiences but then J David Simons is a local lad and his friends, family and readers turned out in force to support him.

The Liberation of Celia Kahn is a companion novel to The Credit Draper.  There are points of connection in which scenes in the first novel are replayed but this time from Celia’s point-of-view.  There  is further exploration of the  Jewish immigrant experience in Scotland alongside clever mirrorings in the structure such as the two disembarkation scenes, one at the beginning of The Credit Draper, the other at the end of The Liberation of Celia Kahn.    However, the novels are not clones and there is no need to read The Credit Draper first.  Celia is an engaging protagonist, a young girl trying to find her own life and make the right decisions in a period of intense social upheaval.  The forward momentum is character-driven and this avoids any semblance of preachiness in a story charting  the rise of Scottish socialism, feminism and, yes, birth control.  I didn’t realise just how modern people of the early 1920’s were. 

Again, isn’t it surprising what you learn from reading historical fiction?

The author – brave man – asked me if I enjoyed this one more than The Credit Draper.  The surprising answer is no. In theory the novel with the female protagonist should have had an automatic edge but I became so attached to Avram (from the very first chapter of his story) that Celia’s character couldn’t compete.  And while the political history in the second novel was interesting, I was much more fascinated by the spiritual themes of the first.  Other readers are bound to see this differently.

One thing I enjoyed immensely was Celia’s visit to the Miss Cranston’s tearooms with Agnes Calder, her socialist mentor.  It’s a venue that is still a treat to visit.  Art deco furnishings, linen tableclothes, china cups and silver cake tongs. I’ll end this review with an extract which demonstrates the lightness of touch, the depth of characterisation and the sly humour which ensures this novel entertains and informs without become “worthy”.   Celia is talking:

“There’s something I want to ask.”

“It is a person’s duty to be curious.”

“You won’t think I am being ungrateful or impolite?”

“It takes a lot to offend, Agnes Calder.”

“Well then, if you believe in socialism.  What are we doing here in this luxury tearoom?”

Her companion laughed loudly at this, a laugh which inevitably turned into a coughing fit. When she had calmed down, she was still chuckling when she flipped open the box of Woodbines  with her yellowed fingers and extracted a cigarette.

“Now that’s a very good question,” she said, lighting up.  “It shows you’re thinking.  And my answer to you is this.  Come the revolution, Celia Kahn, come the revolution and we’ll all be having tea at Miss Cranston’s”.

 

Additional review at Vulpes Libres

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I do splurge at literary festivals (it’s near enough the only time I’m in a bookshop) and then the books take their chances amongst the TBR mountains at home.  With the 2010 AyeWrite festival (and more impulse buys)  only a month away, I thought it was time to pick up some of those neglected literary festival purchases.

Enter The Credit Draper, purchased at AyeWrite 2009 because it was published by Scottish publishers Two Ravens Press, whose fiction catalogue I “follow”.  The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous because the book is reissued today by Five Leaves Publications.

First question: what is a credit draper? Turns out it’s a tinker,  a travelling salesman and this draper’s route is in the Western Highlands of Scotland.  But I’m running ahead of myself.  Let’s go back to the beginning, or rather 1911.

12-year old Avram when threatened with conscription into the Russian Army is shipped to Scotland by his mother where he is adopted by the Kahn family, part of the tightly-knit Jewish community in the Glasgow Gorbals.  The story follows the trials and tribulations of  this young non-English speaking Jewish lad as he assimilates with varying degrees of success into both Jewish and Scottish communities.  When he discovers his talent for football and his ambition to play for Celtic, the scene is set for conflict because football games are played on a Saturday, the sabbath, the day of rest.

Avram is sent to the Highlands to become a credit draper, an apprentice to his Uncle Mendel, a gambling whiskey lover yet paradoxically an staunch Orthodox Jew.   Yet Avram has determined to set aside his Jewry and it’s during his time in the Highlands that he grows to manhood, realises some deeply cherished ambitions and achieves a measure of success.  Yet the control he has over his life is an illusion – those Jewish/Scottish tensions are about to resurface in an unexpected and controversial ending.  (And a brave move for a debut novelist.)

The move to the Highlands also allows Simons to explore the duality of Scotland’s urban and rural communities.

I’ve never read a novel that explores Jewishness in such detail and I found it fascinating.  Also the idea of Scotland, particularly the tenement flats in Glasgow,  as a haven for the persecuted race was new to me.  The following, admittedly jaundiced view of Jacob Stein, the Mr Big of the Jewish community,  struck a chord:

There is so much hatred between the Protestants and the Catholics … And when they are not hating each other, they continue to hate the English.  Hah! What a wonderful city Glasgow is.  No-one has any hatred left over for us Jews.

Can national differences be overcome? Speaking of emigration

The Scots.  They never seemed to return.  They went to far-flung places like Canada and New Zealand and India and there they stayed. They colonized, they set down roots, they established their church, they taught people their proud ways they sang their songs that seemed to long for the return they would never make. they lived life in straight lines …. The Jews …trod lightly on the land.  Their suitcases were always packed.  Their return tickets were forever hidden under the matresses.  They kept their songs unto themselves.  The Jews were forever moving in circles.

The figure of Uncle Mendel is where circular Jew meets linear Scot.  What does it says that he’his personality is somewhat shambolic.

Other characters are symbolic too.  Avram shares his adolescent home with Celia and Nathan.  The latter is a sickly invalid who is thought to be a lamed vav, one of the 36 righteous men who bear all the sins and sorrows of the world.  He is bed-ridden during the years of World War One recovering only when peace is declared.  Celia is a bit of mystery.  Arguably Avram’s first love, she rejects him as he leaves for the Highlands and remains off-page until the closing chapters.  Throughout the novel we hear of her political activism – she becomes a suffragette – but these details are deliberate teasers, a signpost to Simons’s recently published 2nd novel, The Liberation of Celia Kahn.

I’m actually quite pleased that I left The Credit Draper on the shelf for so long.  Waiting two years to discover the impact on that ending on the characters would have driven me frantic.   So novel #2 will be read in the next couple of weeks.  I’m interested in watching Simons’s development as a writer.  Will the occasional overwritten phrase be eliminated? (Since when did horses have clawing hooves?) Will he have ironed out the flaws in pacing? (The final denouement is too sudden.)  Of course, I’m very curious to see how he handles the feminine point of view and female preoccupations.  Celia, my dear, your reader awaits.

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