Posh Spice: Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers”

Amis, Martin (1984), The Rachel Papers, Penguin Books
ISBN 0-14-007001-X

This is a quick review. Published in 1974, this is Amis’ first novel and the third of his I’ve finished. The other two, Time’s Arrow and Information, were stupendous achievements where Amis proved himself among the best stylists of his age, at least judging by the narrow diet of books I am on. I was fascinated that two so different yet excellent novels could have been authored by the same cranky Brit. Then, some five years ago, I stopped reading Amis, for fear of being disappointed or for lack of motivation, I really can’t say. Now, the Rachel Papers. In a way, picking a good writer’s first novel is an excellent means of warding off disappointments since the very fact of it being the first means you have to make allowances, for youth, inexperience. So, no, I was not disappointed. On the other hand, the Rachel Papers never achieve the power of the other Amis novels I read. This novel is not consistently interesting, funny or well written. It is, at times, all three of these, but not for longer than two thirds of this rather short book.

The novel certainly is worth reading, if only for the first half which is riotously funny. I spent much time walking around my workplace and reading sentences and paragraphs aloud to virtual strangers. The humor is not for everybody, the main character, Charles Highway is a posh, snotty, selectively well read (I’ll return to this) fuck, who is the younger version of a certain type well described as ‘geezer’, who is part of every single norm in society (white male heterosexual etc.) and who regards any deviations as slightly suspicious. Hence his brand of humor.

I spent the night in a state of mild, run-of-the-mill delirium, sweating quietly as my mind wobbled and raced and swerved: and with morning, came the unshakeable, indeed serene, conviction that I was a homosexual. It all added up: I had had, it was true, one queer experience (a smegmatic handful of queer experience in my primary-school cricket pavillon); I was a soprano, a first soprano, often taking descants, in the choir; I was as yet a virgin, and I had to lie my unpimpled head off to my friends about how I wanked as often, and with as much piston-wristed savagery, as they said they did. Clearly, the minute I was off my arse, I’d be getting it on the bus to Oxford and hawking it there to the friendly undergraduates at Magdalen. In puzzled preparation I read the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, and (for what little it was worth) E.M. Forster.

Did you laugh? Grin? Raise a disapproving eyebrow? These are some of the reactions this novel tries to elicit from its readers, smugly, I may add. The main reason why it drags at times and why many readers will leave it less than satisfied is its smugness yet this is also part of the fun of reading it.

To the plot. Charles Highway, a young man from a thoroughly bourgeois household, relates his life and his efforts to get into Rachel’s pants. Rachel is 20, which qualifies her for that desirable category: an Older Woman, since Charles is only 19, a few hours away from becoming 20. The book is largely composed of reminiscences and reflections. It’s a pretty straightforward coming of age tale and as many of them are, it is somewhat dated. The main difference to the generic treatment is Charles’ character. Charles is smug. Yes, many of the main characters are smug. Not like Charles, though. He is a frail boy, often sick, who has few friends, but is decently well looking, frightfully smart. His frailty leads to neurotic obsessive behavior. Before he meets people, even if it’s just the few minutes it takes to walk someone home from the train station, he plans every word. Before people come into his room, he carefully arranges every detail. The amount of dirt, the records and books on display and other things are carefully calibrated to achieve an effect. He worries and circumspectly tends to his pimples.

Many men (i.e. former boys) will nod and say: yeah well what’s so particularly neurotic about that? I did the same thing then. Well, in all likelihood, not quite the same thing. Charles plans his words not by thinking hard: he assembles a dossier. He tends to his pimples and draws up tables and charts and he has journals for all aspects of his life. The titular “Rachel Papers” are literally all papers and journals and ‘documents’ that chart his endeavors to bed Rachel including plans and the like. Charles does not like to think for himself, he surfs on a crest of received rules and traditions. He judges people according to his society’s prejudices and it works embarrassingly well. And when he sits for his O levels, his essays are a collection of others’ ideas and judgments, although, judging by the book, it’s a very well written collection.

Despite all this, the novel is highly generic. Yes, Charles Highway is an extraordinarily enjoyable character but that’s about it. Everything else is pretty run-of-the mill. The way the story is narrated is unusual enough, but the writer clearly does not have the chops to do a great job of this yet, so what could be innovative falls flat and is merely amusing. That is quite enough for a book, however. The Rachel Papers is no masterpiece, but I enjoyed it every bit of the way. Funnily, what you are left with is not a feeling of exhilaration, and Charles Highway is too flat a character to not vanish into thin air the moment you turn the last page, but you feel the author’s smugness. Behind the last page you can see Martin Amis grinning arrogantly. The book exposes Charles Highway’s arrogance as youthful and premature, it casts judgment on his casting judgment on everybody in his papers yet it supports the basic drift of it.

Thus, the book seems very cold, aloof and so does his author. Having an unbearable author is never the book’s problem or else we would be bereft of many great works of literature and philosophy. Here, however, the reader is constantly being talked down to and the more the book proceeds, the clearer this stance becomes and the more it gets on one’s nerves. The fact that the book contains two Charles Highways, one’s the protagonist and the other’s the author is not its main flaw, but that the writer’s unable to make the book succeed in spite of this is. The constant self-congratulation is like a solid brick wall between The Rachel Papers and a really good book. Still. A recommendation. It’s a barrelful of laughs and it’s extraordinarily well (if intrusively) written. And while the smugness of the author may be a hindrance, the smugness of the protagonist is an attraction, it adds spice to the dreary olla podrida that the genre has become.

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Field Work: Ilija Trojanow’s “Der Weltensammler”

Trojanow, Ilija (2007), Der Weltensammler, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-13581-8
[Translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds (Faber and Faber, 2008)]



As an introductory remark of sorts: when Trojanow’s novel was translated into English, his name was strangely transliterated into “Ilya Troyanov”. Strange, since he, although he is of Bulgarian descent and has lived both in India and South Africa, is German. Thus, they needed, in a way, to transliterate his name back into Bulgarian and then transliterate it into English. Funny thing, when his travel books on the hadj and the Ganges were translated in the “Armchair Traveler” edition, his name was stated correctly (here’s a longish discussion of this) So, this is just me being a pedant, but if any of you wants to go out and buy the book I thought you should know this. Speaking of which: you should read this book. It is among the best German novels I read in 5 years and certainly the best German novel I finished this year.

For me as a reviewer there are two ways to approach this book, because on the one hand it’s highly readable and evocative, a novel of adventures and exotic places, and on the other hand it’s a very smart book about narratives, orientalism, colonialism etc. It makes many of its theoretical points in a quiet manner, sneaking theory onto the reader’s mind, so to say. However, just in case, if I forget to mention this again: this is a gorgeous, fragrant, compelling novel that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. It is a very well written book. With so much of contemporary German literature in a stylistic slump, Trojanow’s clean, complex prose, which is elevated yet highly readable at the same time. It is functional prose, in the very best sense. The language needs to shoulder a huge story, a brilliant narrative structure and evoke three different locales without detracting from either of the three, which is just what it does, providing, additionally, chunks of gorgeous prose scattered all over the 523 pages of my edition.

The novel, consisting of three sections and a coda, follows the life of famous explorer, translator, poet, soldier, sufi Richard Burton. The novel is no biography, it does not claim accuracy. As the author himself says, it is “inspired” by the life and work of Burton and at times strays far from the path of biographical fidelity. The most intriguing experience for me was the fact that I was left not with a desire to read a ‘proper’ biography of Burton but to delve deep into Burton’s own writing. Der Weltensammler is at least as much about the cultures it writes about and the difficulty of writing about culture and biographies as it is about Burton the person. The novel may seem conventional, but any closer reading will reveal it’s anything but. In dealing with three periods of Burton’s life, as a soldier in the British army in India from 1842–1849, as an incognito ethnographer/pilgrim in Medina and Mecca in 1953 and as an explorer, hunting for the sources of the Nile in central Africa with Speke from 1856–1860, it examines the very acquiring knowledge and the product is an eminently readable book that appeals to a vast readership. Reading the novel you can see not Burton’s but Trojanow’s mind work. Each of the three parts is constructed in a different way although they share certain basic properties. They all consist of two strands of narrative: one’s the Burton narrative, written by a third person narrator, sometimes Burton, sometimes omniscient. The second is, let’s say, the informant. The detective. The storyteller. All of these. As the novel proceeds Burton’s voice is more and more muted. Instead of leading us, step by step, into Burton’s mind, we withdraw more and more and see knowledge, doubt and the world as perceived by multiple points of view take center stage. From the very first chapter the voice of the native dominates Burton’s. Der Weltensammler has been criticized repeatedly for failing to render Burton the person in a satisfying way, which is puzzling since the novel clearly has no intention of ever doing so. Reproaching it for failing in an endeavor it never undertook is, to say the least, boneheaded.

The first section treats Burton’s time in British-India where Burton is portrayed as insatiable as far as knowledge and languages are concerned. He takes a teacher and learns several Indian languages, among them Gujarati and Hindustani, as well as studying in-depth Indian culture and religion. He takes a lover (a temple prostitute) and when he is moved to a largely Muslim part of the country he learns their religion and both Persian as well as Arabian. He starts to practice the Muslim faith as a means of mingling with the common (enough) people in disguise. He develops an opinion of how to deal with civil unrest and uprisings and although the reader may have the notion of meeting a tolerant and open man, Burton recommends draconian measures. In the end a scandal and bereavement lead to his leaving the country precipitously, “on sick leave”. This is the whole story. Trojanow, luckily, completely abstains from trying to sound the depths of Burton’s soul, from attempting to find out Burton’s motivations.

The only helping hand he lends the reader is the voice of Ramij Naukaram, who becomes his servant, his mediator between the foreign country and Burton. Naukaram’s voice is recorded because, at the outset of the novel, he seeks out a lahiya, a writer, to write down his story in order to compose a letter of application. Thus, the story is narrated by the third person narrator and Naukaram, who is frequently asked by the lahiya to clear up confusions. The lahiya, it turns out, is as much of an author as he is a human recording device and by and by he fills in narrative gaps in the story. As Naukaram’s audience, he clearly represents the readership of the novel and as an inventive writer he is just as clearly a stand-in for the author. He helps us make sense of the story we are watching unfold. How much of Naukaram’s story is self-serving? How much is, later on, anti-Muslim prejudice? What is the truth? When does it turn to fiction?

Thankfully, there is remarkably little of that popular literary parlor game: letting the native puzzle about white/Christian rituals and customs. This usually contains two elements: making fun of the native’s naiveté and criticizing our own culture. Barely anything of that here. By using Burton’s voice to explicate the British and Christian elements and leaving Naukaram to explain the parts of the story that involve his own culture. Thus far, he seems to be the common figure of informant, something, however, which is both subverted by the fact that his strand contains an Indian recording an Indian, and by the fact that we get a lot of grumbling about the low morals and despicable religion and behavior of Muslims. Naukaram cannot understand why Burton would choose to become Muslim, even for a disguise. We get an outside view from the inside, so to say.

The second part is even more complicated. There is again the Burton strand, yet the second strand contains more elements. Instead of having one man relate a story to a second man, it mostly consists of three man debating Burton’s identity. The three men are the Turkish governor, the Sharif of Mecca and the Kadi. The occasion is Burton’s publication of the “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah”, wherein he details his pilgrimage in disguise, something which is, if undertaken in bad faith, heretical and blasphemous. The Turkish governor, who appears to have called the meeting, is worrying about something else, however: whether Burton may have been a spy for the British army, paid both to reconnoiter Mecca, Medina and its environs and to sow unrest among the people under Turkish rule. The three of them proceed forthwith to debate this back and forth. In order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion they call witnesses and engage in theological discussions. Here the Burton strand often appears to be a commentary upon the discussion of the three, by depicting situations described by the witnesses from Burton’s angle. There are many details hidden beneath the folds of this construction, some revealed, as in an afterthought, late in the sections, such as Burton’s subterfuges to measure and draw Mecca without anyone noticing. Burton slips on and off the page like the Dervish that he claims to be while traveling. The extent to which identity is subject to interpretation is demonstrated brilliantly, as we see Burton’s honesty being debated.

The third part is the least exciting yet not less enjoyable. This is the part where Burton’s voice finally takes a back seat to the commentary. Here the commentary is, in a way, an insider-outsider-insider, a black slave who ‘returns’, so to say, with the Slave holder culture clearly imprinted upon his mind. The fact that Burton is so subdued here may be due to the fact that Burton is here as ‘himself’, he is not trying to pass himself off as someone he’s not. As the novel clearly demonstrates, however, it is no longer his choice, he has become his masks. This does not lead to a harmonic melting-pot kind of character, however. In his conflicts with the different kinds of ethnicities and religions (and Speke as Brit is but one of them) the difficulties and the possibilities of intercultural communication become clear. Nonetheless, we should never forget that Burton was a soldier and a fighter and although the novel accords little weight to these aspects of his personality, he is, as the title says: a collector of worlds. He had a voracious hunger for other cultures, and although his seniors doubt his loyalty, the Burton represented in the book has his loyalties straight. Everything, from his way in assessing political situations to his attitude to gathering knowledge is clearly routed in his own culture (there are a few telling differences between him and Speke that sent me to look up something in Foucault but I shouldn’t go into these details). The book demonstrates the bonds that knowledge as we see it, are for us and how little, at the same time, we can afford to forgo it.

All this is contained by the Burton described in the book, who is so well contained by the strands of narrative that he never towers over the events and places. Fittingly, the coda is reduced to the one aspect of his person that is never before properly focused on: his beliefs as a Christian. A small investigation is launched to determine whether Burton merits the Catholic burial his wife insists upon. The smallness of the grave serves as a perfect metaphor for the provincialism that Burton tried to escape by trying to become a Weltbürger, a citizen of the world. That he didn’t become one and merely became a Weltensammler is his tragedy and, to an extent, ours. Putting on the news tonight, I sighed quietly.

I talk no more

A remark by someone on a board I frequent sent me to look up music by Jay-Jay Johanson, which in turn led me to purchase two records of his. Incredible stuff. Way to spice up depressed drinking! No, really, a fine artist, but most of you will know him already. Here are three favorite songs from the two records: