Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Quote of the Day

Today’s quote comes courtesy of Welsh thespian, Richard Burton.

During his lifetime, Burton’s considerable acting talents were often overshadowed by his hell-raising reputation and his on-again, off-again marriages to Elizabeth Taylor. This being so, it may surprise many to learn that, despite his heavy drinking, chain smoking and womanizing, Burton was also something of a literary buff, often finding solace in the pages of a book.
"I’m a reader, you know. I was corrupted by Faust. And Shakespeare. And Proust. And Hemingway. But mostly I was corrupted by Dylan Thomas. Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I’m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader. Give me Agatha Christie for an hour and I’m happy as a clam. The house in Celigny some day will cave in under its own weight from the books. I hope I’m there when it does. One hundred six years old. Investigating the newest thriller from Le CarrĂ© or a new play from Tennessee Williams."
Sadly, Burton didn’t live to see the grand old age of 106. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1984 at the age of 58. His death marked the culmination of years of ill-health, mainly due to cirrhosis of the kidneys and liver.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – A Missed Opportunity

It has certainly been a good summer for Canadian author, Esi Edugyan. At the beginning of July, her latest novel, Half Blood Blues, was dramatised and serialised for BBC Radio 4’s popular late-night programme, Book At Bedtime. This was followed, two weeks later, by the announcement that the book had been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. With so much positive buzz abounding, this novel surely wouldn’t disappoint … or would it?

Set in Berlin and Paris in the late 1930s and early 1940s, while occasionally fast-forwarding to the present day, Half Blood Blues tells the story of a group of jazz musicians who, on the brink of stardom, fall foul of the Nazi Party’s laws banning so-called ‘degenerate’ music.

The group, known as Hot Time Blues, is made up of a motley crew of musicians – the novel’s African American narrator, Sid Griffiths and his best friend, Chip Jones, are from Baltimore, while the other band members hail from Germany. The star of the show is undoubtedly 19-year-old Hieronymous Falk, an awesomely talented trumpeter, who has recently come to the attention of jazz legend, Louis Armstrong.

Unfortunately for Hiero, the fact that he was born to an African father and a German mother meant he has been deemed a crossbreed, or Mischling, by the Nazi Party. When Mischlings were rendered ‘stateless’ or non-German in accordance with the Third Reich’s Legal Provisions, Hiero becomes a prime candidate for transportation to the dreaded camps. The book follows Hiero and this group of misfits as they flee Berlin to the relative safety of Paris, where they are due to cut a record with Armstrong. However, France’s capitulation to Germany in 1940 means the Nazis finally catch up with the unlucky Hiero …

Given what we all know about Hitler’s Aryan ideals, it comes as surprise to realise that, despite the vast swathes of material written about this bleak period of history, we know relatively little about the fate of black or mixed race people in the Nazi Fatherland. This novel had the potential to plug this gap in our knowledge … but, unfortunately, it falls short.

Esi Edugyan
Instead of making the black experience in Nazi Germany the focal point of the novel, Edugyan merely skims the surface of this under-examined subject. What should be the novel’s main storyline is relegated to a mere sideshow, as the author instead explores more superficial avenues. Preferring to dwell on themes of unrequited love, jealousy and betrayal, Edugyan squanders a unique opportunity – that is, the opportunity to write an ‘important’ novel on the Afro-German experience during the Third Reich.

'Half Blood Blues' by Esi Edugyan is published by Serpent's Tail

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Controversial Casting Choices

As the film adaptation of David Nicholl’s bestselling novel One Day hits cinemas this week, spare a thought for the unfortunate Anne Hathaway, the movie’s much maligned lead actress.

From the moment news broke of Hathaway’s casting as Emma Morley, the book’s dowdy but much-loved heroine, fans of the novel have not been shy about expressing their outrage.

Their chief complaint seems to hinge on the assertion that a beautiful Hollywood movie star like Hathaway could not possibly do justice to Emma, the frumpy and bespectacled Yorkshire lass.

Being a fan of the book, I must admit that, initially, I too was perplexed at the unusual casting choice for the character of Emma. But, on reflection, I resolved to keep an open mind and withhold judgement until the movie’s release. After all, Renee Zellweger had to contend with a similar degree of consternation when she bravely took on the lead role in the movie adaptation of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary. And that particular casting gamble proved to be a stroke of genius – Zellweger’s outstanding portrayal of our beloved Bridget silenced each and every one of her critics.

Unfortunately for Hathaway, it would appear that she is not destined to replicate Zellweger’s success. For the most part, previews of One Day have been negative, with Hathaway’s poor attempt at a Northern accent coming in for particular ridicule. In this case, it seems, the naysayers have been proved right.

Incidentally, Zellweger and Hathaway are not the only actresses to encounter severe opposition to their casting in film adaptations of iconic books. Incredibly, Audrey Hepburn in the role of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was far from a unanimous choice. In fact, Hepburn’s most vocal opponent was none other than the novella’s author, Truman Capote - who, rather implausibly, was intent on Marilyn Monroe for the part!

Hmmm … one can’t help but feel that this was one casting decision the movie execs got right!

Truman Capote died on this day (August 25th) in 1984.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Mon Dieu! La Joconde, elle est perdu!

Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. La Joconde. However you know her, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a beguilingly mysterious lady is inarguably the world’s most famous painting. Instantly recognisable, the face of the Mona Lisa is identifiable to even the most uncultured philistine among us.

But why is this the case? Why is this particular painting more famous than, say, Virgin of the Rocks or Lady with an Ermine? Both are equally as accomplished, if not more so, as Mona Lisa. For that matter, why does Mona Lisa's renown eclipse works by other Old Masters, like those of Raphael, Caravaggio or Rubens?

Many would claim that the reason Mona Lisa has captured our imagination for generations is all down to that enigmatic, mesmerizing smile. Others would point to her inscrutability (Is she smiling or smirking? Is she happy or scornful?) as the reason behind our continuing fascination with her. Still more would cite the long-running theory that the painting is, in fact, a crafty self-portrait of the artist himself.

Most likely, all of these explanations are true, in part at least. But it may surprise many to learn that, up to a century ago, the most famous painting in the world existed in relative obscurity. While she still hung in the Louvre, the daily queues of tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of those legendary lips, simply did not exist. Yes, she was a highly valued example of da Vinci’s genius, but she did not inspire anything like the adoration she does today.

Vincenzo Peruggia
The fact is, Mona Lisa’s fame can be traced to a precise point in time, 21st August 1911, almost exactly one hundred years ago. On this day, a humble Italian painter and carpenter by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia staged one of the most audacious art thefts the world has ever seen, and in doing so, propelled Mona Lisa into a realm of notoriety, hitherto unknown for any artwork, no matter how extraordinary.

Peruggia, in the mistaken belief that Mona Lisa had been stolen by Napoleon, was determined to restore the masterpiece to his native Italy. (In fact, the painting had never been misappropriated - da Vinci had brought the painting with him to the court of the French king, Francis I, and it had remained in France ever since.)

Having previously worked in the Louvre, Peruggia was familiar with the layout of the gallery, and so was able to secrete himself in a hiding place close to where Mona Lisa hung. There he waited for hours, until the gallery had cleared of visitors. When he emerged, he was wearing a painter’s smock, similar to those worn by the gallery’s many restoration staff. Coolly lifting the precious painting from the wall, he then sauntered to a stairwell, where he discarded the frame and protective glass. Sticking the bulky treasure under his smock (Mona Lisa is painted on wood, not canvas), Peruggia calmly exited the building. He then took a bus back to his apartment, where he laid the painting in a specially constructed box, and stowed it under his bed, where it remained for the next two years.

Astonishingly, the theft went unnoticed for a full 24 hours. When the Louvre’s security guards saw the empty wall space which had previously been occupied by Mona Lisa, they assumed the painting had been taken to the photography department for safekeeping. Blithely unaware that any theft had taken place, the guards went about their business as normal. Only when a persistent visitor asked repeatedly about Mona Lisa’s whereabouts was the theft discovered…

Within hours, news of the robbery had spread all around the world, where it was greeted with widespread consternation. How could so precious a painting as Mona Lisa simply disappear from the Louvre, without a single person noticing the loss?

The ensuing controversy captured the public’s imagination unlike any other art theft in recent memory – to the extent that more people went to view the empty space where Mona Lisa once lived than had seen the actual painting the entire year previously. Ironically, despite the fact that Mona Lisa had hung in the Louvre for many years, it seemed the precious masterpiece only began to be appreciated in its absence.

So unknown was da Vinci’s painting prior to the theft that French police, in an attempt to familiarise the public with the image, printed 65,000 copies of Mona Lisa, which were subsequently distributed throughout Paris.

In the blink of an eye, an industry sprang up around the missing painting. Enterprising traders, keen to capitalise on the unprecedented interest, set about reproducing the police copies with fervour. Soon, she began appearing on everything from postcards to matchboxes to chocolate boxes. So intense was the demand for reproductions that, within days, even the de Medici Society in London sold out of its store of facsimile copies. Mona Lisa was suddenly the most celebrated artwork in the world.

However, two long years were to pass before Mona Lisa was returned to her adoring public. She eventually re-surfaced in a hotel in Florence in December 1913. Peruggia had travelled to Italy with a view to selling his ill-gotten gains to an art dealer. As he was leaving the Hotel Tripoli-Italia for a rendezvous with a potential buyer, an eagle-eyed concierge noticed he was carrying a rather bulky load. Fearful that Peruggia was making off with one of the hotel’s cheap reproduction paintings, he accosted the guest and accused him of theft. When a quick search of the unfortunate Peruggia revealed that painting he was carrying was, in fact, Mona Lisa, the gig was finally up - Peruggia was arrested soon afterwards. And so it was, rather comically, a lowly hotel concierge unwittingly nabbed the most daring art thief in history!

Peruggia at his trial
But the story doesn’t end here. Luckily for Peruggia, the Italian authorities refused to extradite him to France, insisting he should be tried in Italy instead. He was eventually sentenced to 27 months for his crime, which was commuted to 7 months on appeal. Upon his release, Peruggia entered the Italian army, where he served honourably during WW1. In 1921, he married an Italian girl and eventually settled in (where else?) France.

Mona Lisa was not returned to her adopted home straightaway. She went on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where she was seen by many thousands of people. She was made her triumphant return to the Louvre on 4th January, 1914, none the worse for her adventure.  If anything, her little sojourn proved only to be beneficial ... Mona Lisa emerged from her two years in darkness to become the most feted work of art in the world – and it doesn’t look like she will surrender her crown any time soon.  Now that's definitely something to smile about!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Coco Chanel – Nazi Sympathizer?

Coming just a few months after John Galliano’s spectacular fall from grace as a result of his ill-judged anti-Semitic remarks in a Parisian restaurant, the fashion world has once again been left reeling by a similar controversy, this time involving la grande dame of haute couture, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel.

In his new book, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, author Hal Vaughan puts forward the argument that, not only was the fashion designer ‘fiercely anti-Semitic’, but she was also engaged in some high-level wartime espionage.

Claiming to have used ‘new archive evidence’ in his research, Vaughan insists that Chanel was recruited by the Nazis in 1940, at the age of 57. Identified only by her agent number (F-7124) and her codename (‘Westminster’, after her ex-lover, the Duke of Westminster), the book claims that Chanel travelled to Madrid and Berlin on secret missions with her new lover, the German spy, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

 The notion of Chanel being a Nazi sympathizer is not new. Post war, rumours of collusion with the enemy dogged Chanel until her death in 1971. Numerous biographies, including last year’s offering from Justine Picardie, have alluded to these suspicions, but Vaughan’s book is the first to present these rumours as fact.

A spokesperson from Chanel was today quick to dismiss the book, claiming her close friendships with scions of the Jewish community, including the Rothschild family and the photographer Irving Penn, refuted the assertions that Coco Chanel was an anti-Semite.

The life of Coco Chanel has always been shrouded in mystery. Often economical with the truth, Chanel concocted numerous different versions of her life story. A notoriously slippery interviewee, she seemed to revel in the confusion she created for reporters and biographers. So, has Hal Vaughan at last succeeded in unravelling the mystery of Coco Chanel’s life? Well, that remains to be seen. But if his claims prove to be true, it will make life very difficult indeed for the fashion house’s current owners, the Jewish Wertheimer family, and it’s Jewish head designer, Karl Lagerfeld …

'Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War' by Hal Vaughan is published by Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House. Out now.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Quote of the Day: Andy Warhol

Never one to deny the inherent superficiality of his work, this quote by Andy Warhol reveals the artist's awareness of how this shallowness pervaded every aspect of his life and personality:

"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

So, it seems Warhol's colourful screenprints of Coke bottles and tins of Campbell's chicken soup are harbouring no hidden meaning whatsoever. Who knew?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Animal Farm & the Plague of Doodle Bugs

On this day (August 17th) in 1945, George Orwell's fifth novel, Animal Farm, was published.  As is often the case with great fiction, the book - which is now regarded as a classic of 20th century literature - initially struggled to find a publisher.  Indeed, the very fact that the book saw the light of day at all is a testament to the tenacious determination of its beleaguered author.

The book was written during the height of World War Two, while London was being pulverized by a steady stream of flying V1 bombs known as ‘doodle bugs'. In fact, the book itself very nearly fell victim to the deadly doodles - when, in June 1944, Orwell’s flat was, er, flattened, and the author was reduced to scrambling around in the debris in a bid to rescue his tattered manuscript.

George Orwell
And rescue it he did - but having narrowly escaped a quick death at the hands of a German bomb, the book looked set to suffer an agonizingly slow death at the hands of its potential publishers.

By this stage, Orwell's regular publisher, Victor Gollancz, had refused to take the book, fearful that its anti-Soviet themes would be unpopular at a time when the Russian alliance was proving crucial to the success of the British war effort.  TS Eliot, then editor at Faber & Faber, had similar objections.  An acceptance by Jonathan Cape was swiftly reneged upon after the publisher paid a visit to Peter Smollett, a shady official at the Ministry of Information. (Interestingly, Smollett was later discovered to be a Soviet agent.)

Thankfully, soon after the curtain had fallen on the Second World War - and not long before an entirely different curtain was erected on the edge of Eastern Europe - the book finally found its audience. Where once political tensions had hindered the book’s path to publication, the climate now proved to be much more favourable. In the lead up to what was to become the Cold War, the British Establishment were no longer concerned with suppressing criticism of the Soviets. Anti-Russian sentiment, it seemed, was now the order of the day. Publishers no longer baulked at the book’s themes, and in fact, rushed to snap up the manuscript. But it was too late for them.  Animal Farm had been accepted by Secker and Warburg … and, when published in the late summer of 1945, with the subtitle A Fairy Story, it was an instant success.

A full transcript of TS Eliot's rejection letter can be viewed here:

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Original Domestic Goddess

If one was to conduct a poll to name the nation’s most influential female cookery writer, there can be no doubt that contemporary rivals Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith would vie for the number one spot. Similarly, it would come as no surprise if we saw the top five rounded out by old stalwarts like Elizabeth David, Mrs Beeton and the rather frighteningly efficient Fanny Craddock.

However, one name that would be guaranteed not to appear on any such list would be a certain Hannah Glasse, a cookery writer whose heyday was sometime during the mid 18th century. But, thanks to a chance discovery of a 200-year-old cookbook, Glasse’s recipes are currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity.

The book in question is a 1796 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy which was found at the back of a kitchen drawer in Plymouth, where it had languished, forgotten, for decades. The discovery was made by 73-year-old great-grandmother Sylvia Sibley when she was clearing away some of her recently deceased mother’s possessions.

It is thought that The Art of Cookery was one of the very first cookbooks to appear in English (it was first published in 1747), and is credited with introducing the nation to what was to become one of our favourite dishes – the humble chicken curry. And remarkably, the recipe - which involves frying chicken with herbs and spices before adding stock and cream - is startlingly similar to today’s versions of this much-loved classic.

Unsurprisingly, the book also features a variety of recipes which have failed to stand the test of time, with baked calf’s head and pickled pigs’ feet meriting particular mention. Also unlikely to stage a comeback are Glasse’s various ‘cures’ for ailments such as rabies and the plague (!)

But perhaps what is most interesting about this re-discovery of Glasse’s work is the insight it provides to the class-conscious society of mid 18th century England. In the book, which was written primarily to instruct servants, Glasse apologises to her upper class readers for the low-brow nature of her writing:
“I have not wrote in the high profile style. I hope I shall be forgiven, for my intention is to instruct the lower sort and therefore must treat them in their own way.”
Much like the snobbery evidenced above, the author’s xenophobia goes equally undisguised. When lamenting the rise in popularity of European cuisines, she says:
“So much is the blind folly of this age that they would rather be imposed on by a French booby, than give encouragement to a good English cook!”
Quite what Hannah Glasse would make of the proliferation of Italian, Spanish and French dishes favoured by our modern-day domestic goddesses is anyone’s guess!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Mr Men Get a Makeover

“Daddy, what does a tickle look like?”
Forty years ago this week, in an effort to answer this earnest enquiry from his young son, Roger Hargreaves attempted to sketch the outline of a long-armed, smiley little man, whom he named Mr Tickle. Little did he know then that his innocuous little creation would be just the first in a long line of characters, which would become eventually become known as the now-iconic Mr Men and Little Miss series.

Despite Mr Tickle’s rather inauspicious beginnings, Hargreaves soon came to recognise the appeal of this type of simplistic character to young children, and set about creating six short children’s books which aimed to convey easily-understandable moral lessons. This collection, which included Mr Tickle, Mr Happy, Mr Greedy, Mr Nosey, Mr Sneeze and Mr Bump, proved to be an instant success, selling over a million copies in their first three years.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hargreaves worked tirelessly to expand the series in a bid to meet the frenzied demand - which increased significantly when the BBC, recognising the animation potential in his creations, picked up the series for dramatisation. The resulting BBC cartoon show proved to be widely popular and introduced Hargreaves’s colourful characters to a whole new audience, ensuring the series’ continued success.

Adam Hargreaves
When Hargreaves died unexpectedly of a stroke in 1988, at the age of 53, his son, Adam, took over where his father left off. Adam, the inspiration for the original Mr Tickle, continued to write and illustrate an ever-growing number of Mr Men and Little Miss books, until the business was sold to a UK entertainment group, Chorion in 2004. The £28 million paid by Chorion proved to be a wise investment – the books have now been translated into over 14 languages and have sold an astonishing 120 million copies globally (an average of one every 2.5 seconds). They have also spawned an impressive merchandising business, selling everything from toys, playsets, and games to Mr Lazy Slippers and Mr Cool toilet seat covers.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mr Tickle’s creation, Adam Hargreaves, now 47, has revamped some to the most popular characters to accurately reflect some of the changes we have seen over the past four decades. Mr Greedy now appears as 1980s investment banker, while Little Miss Chatterbox is now seen nattering into a contemporary mobile phone. However, as evidenced by the series’ enduring popularity, such updates are unnecessary – the originality and simplicity of Hargreaves’s characters will surely guarantee their continued appeal to children for many generations to come.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Gift of Time: A Family’s Diary of Cancer

When Rory MacLean’s mother, Joan, is diagnosed with a terminal cancer, he and his wife, Katrin, unhesitatingly take the ailing woman into their home in an effort to make her last remaining weeks as comfortable as possible. Each keeps a diary of their experiences, the results of which are collated into this incredibly moving book.

Told with humour, grace and searing honesty, Rory, Katrin and Joan lay bare their innermost emotions as they come to terms with this dreaded disease – to the extent that the reader sometimes feels like a voyeuristic intruder, blithely eavesdropping on their most private of thoughts.

However, the benefit of this intensely personal, warts-and-all account is that it throws into harsh relief the devastating effects of cancer on the sufferer, while also giving unique insight into often-overlooked plight of those left behind to pick up the pieces – the family, the friends and the carers. Cancer, it seems, is all-consuming - and in more ways than one.

It cannot be denied that parts of this book are uncomfortable to read – it is, after all, a chronicle of death. It forces the reader to confront the one basic truth that we spend so much time trying to ignore – the fact death is an inevitable and inescapable part of the human condition. However, despite this, the book is strangely life-affirming – in acknowledging death, it also succeeds in celebrating life … and the indomitability of the human spirit.

A truly remarkable book – Gift of Time should be essential reading for mortals everywhere.

"Gift of Time: A Family's Diary of Cancer" by Rory MacLean with Joan and Katrin MacLean is out on August 18th.
It is published by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson.

Friday, 5 August 2011

How the New York Met Rained on Da Vinci’s Parade

The countdown has finally begun. In less than three months, one of the most anticipated exhibitions in the history of art will open its doors to an eager public.

When Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan finally goes on show on November 5th at the National Gallery, it will be the culmination of years of careful planning and delicate negotiations. Bringing together some of the finest paintings by the Renaissance master and his followers, this blockbuster exhibition will feature works on loan from, among others, The Lourve, The Vatican and The Hermitage in St Petersburg. Although this amount of international co-operation is by no means unprecedented, it is certainly the first time that so many Da Vinci masterpieces will be leaving their permanent homes to be displayed side by side.

Leonardo Da Vinci Self Portrait
However, the organisation of this ambitious project has not been entirely smooth sailing. In fact, even at this late stage, the owners of one of the exhibition’s highlights, Lady with an Ermine, are getting a serious case of cold feet. Fearful that the rigours of transportation, unforeseen accidents or changes in atmosphere will damage the fragile 15th century wood panel painting, the owners (the Polish Princes Czartoryski Foundation) are considering withdrawing the masterpiece from the exhibition. This course of action has received some support in Poland, with a number of leading scholars vehemently opposed to the painting’s removal.

And their fears are not entirely unfounded. Back in 1963, when on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Leonardo’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, fell victim to an accident that could have left it irrevocably damaged…

One morning, upon entering the secure storeroom where the Mona Lisa was kept prior to going on show, the museum’s curator was shocked to discover staff rushing around, wild-eyed and panicked, carrying armfuls of towels. It seemed, overnight, a faulty sprinkler had sprung a leak and had sprayed the painting with water for several HOURS before being discovered by officials! Although the painting had been under constant surveillance, the team of security guards failed to notice the spray of water on their grainy, black-and-white security monitors…

In ordinary circumstances, such water damage would have proved catastrophic. Thankfully, the Mona Lisa was shielded by a thick pane of glass which protected it from the liquidy onslaught. Once the water was mopped up, the Mona Lisa was fortunately none the worse for her little adventure. The exhibition went ahead as planned and her enigmatic smile was seen by over a million people over the course of a few weeks. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the New York Met worked hard to keep the mishap under wraps – the incident went unreported for over half a century!

Queues to see the Mona Lisa in '63
So, will the National Gallery succeed in securing Lady with an Ermine for their much-anticipated exhibition? Well, that remains to be seen. But one can’t help but feel that the Polish scholars have a point. Maybe we should try to disregard the hype and consider the wisdom of such an exhibition as this. With the plethora of dangers associated with such a project, do the risks outweigh the benefits? Is it really worth putting some of the world’s most valuable paintings in jeopardy for our viewing pleasure? Mona Lisa’s New York story should be a lesson to us all …

'Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' runs from Nov 9 to Feb 5 next year.
Viewing sessions are timed and tickets are available to pre-book only.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Quantum Leaping with Jennifer Egan

Much like the character of Dr Sam Beckett in the cult 80s TV show Quantum Leap, Jennifer Egan’s latest offering, the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, is a novel that likes to jump around … a lot

Spanning four decades, crossing numerous cities and continents, and resolutely shunning chronological conventions, the book is a montage of random episodes that serve to illustrate the lives of its many characters. Seemingly inspired by the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, the actors in this drama are drawn from a complex web of connections which all lead back to two main players, the music impresario Bennie Salazar and his beautiful-but-complicated assistant Sasha.

Jennifer Egan
The book is a very ambitious undertaking for Egan. With a cast of characters to rival Tolstoy, a rather lengthy time span and an unconventional structure (with each new chapter devoted to a different character in a different place and time), the pressure is on Egan to make it work … and, for the most part, she does.

Reading more like a collection of short stories than a novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a unique concept which has been cleverly executed. Occasionally, the reader feels that the various strands of the story are in danger of becoming irretrievably tangled, but the author always seems to pull back from the brink – thanks mainly to Bennie and Sasha, who ‘anchor’ the narrative and prevent it from spiralling out of control.

The overriding theme of the book is time, or rather the unrelenting passage of time. As the title suggests, time is the ’goon’ or bully from which there is no escape – this particular goon will visit us all in the end. Such a theme as this could easily have made for an unremittingly miserable read, but while there are some gloomy chapters, Egan’s dark humour is often deployed to lighten the load. In fact, as Egan whizzes backwards and forwards in time, from person to person and place to place, the novel veers from the depressing to the exhilarating with breathtaking speed. Add to this the 75 pages of powerpoint presentations and the dizzying array of references to subjects as diverse as ancient history, art, architecture and obscure punk rock bands from the 70s (Egan is obviously quite the renaissance woman), and it soon becomes clear that this is a novel that simply refuses to be ignored.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published in the UK by Corsair, an imprint of Constable and Robinson Ltd