Two very different books this time, one by British writer David Constantine, the other Zadie Smith’s latest, one contemplative and internal, the other exuberant and more plot-driven.
If you saw 45 Years, the film based on a David Constantine short story with the always divine Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtnenay), you can anticipate the yearning and keen intelligence of Constantine’s new novel The Life-Writer. It’s the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the death of her much older husband by obsessively mining his past life, in particular his passionate youthful love affair with a French woman.
As in the film, the theme that dominates is that of the vitality of youth and in this case, the protagonist Katrin’s fear that the love she had with her husband is less than what he experienced before, almost as if his whole earlier life was in technicolor while the life they shared is reduced to black and white.
Katrin is a biographer of insignificant figures of European Romanticism, men and women who share much with their better known contemporaries (ambition, passion, dedication) but, alas, not talent. When she turns her biographer’s eye to piecing together her husband’s past we are beneficiaries of the astonishing precision with which she has learned to describe her subjects’ lives.
There’s a profound sense of melancholy here, which I have to admit I like (Orhan Pamuk anyone?) but if that’s not for you, this isn’t your book. On the other hand if you want to feel as if you’re on the road with the young Eric when he hitchhikes through France in the early ‘60s or become immersed in the passion and despair that are his young love with Monique, check this out. Constantine also has some profound thoughts on how we face or fear death in the beautifully crafted opening chapter.
Which brings us to Zadie Smith. Exuberant is the best word that comes to mind: it’s a party on the page. Swing Time is so full of life, so lively and colorful and packed with observations about race and class, the complexity of families, celebrity, poverty, politics and privilege, I almost didn’t mind I had a little trouble with the plot.
Two mixed race girls growing up in public housing in London are at the center of the novel, both of whom share a love of classic song and dance à la Fred Astaire. The narrator, unnamed, shares a partial biography with what we know of Smith herself, so the book is something of a memoir.
One of the girls goes on to have a brief career on stage, the other to serve for over a decade as assistant to a mega-star clearly modeled on Madonna (with some Oprah and Angelina Jolie thrown in for good measure), a self-absorbed, globe-trotting singer/dancer with a penchant for young men who sets up a school for girls in Gambia and buys herself an African baby.
The book moves from London to new York to Africa, all described with Smith’s gift for observation and detail. There’s a small scene where the narrator, working in a dingy pizza parlor run by a “ridiculous Iranian,” watches a televised soccer match, between a player from Morocco and a black American, with a Somali delivery boy and endures the shop owner’s commentary:
The black man, he informed us, he is instinct, he is moving body, he is strong, and he is music, yes of course, and he is rhythm … but Karim his is like me: he think one, two step in front. He have Arab mind. Arab mind is complicated machine, delicate. We invent mathematics. We invent astronomy. Subtle people. Two steps ahead. Your Bryan now he is lost.
After finishing Swing Time I meant to go on to Michael Chabon’s latest, Moonglow. But I felt happily stuffed like after Thanksgiving dinner, and, much as I love Chabon’s writing, its density (in a good way) requires a cleaner palate. So I dipped back into a bit of restorative Josephine Tey (Miss Pym Disposes) and have some new ones (The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill, A Separation by Katie Kitamura) I may tackle, saving Chabon for a long upcoming plane ride.
An Audible note: So may friends loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove but i just couldn’t get with it in book form so I listened instead and enjoyed it a great deal. Very sweet, funny and less predictable than I’d imagined. Perfect for walking around my new neighborhood up in the hills.