Of spanking, chickens, Multi-Infarct Dementia and the reunification of Germany
Since its foundation in 1979, Granta has gained quite a reputation for itself - "quite simply the most impressive literary magazine of its time", according to the Telegraph - so it was with suitably high expectations that I picked up the book which commemorated the publication's first 21 years by featuring the cream of the crop, one piece for every year of its existence.
To be perfectly frank, at first it was a bit of a disappointing experience. The initial short stories - by the celebrated likes of Raymond Carver ('Vitamins') and Richard Ford ('Rock Springs'), both of whom might be said to fall into the Granta-invented genre of "dirty realism" - did nothing for me, while Nadine Gordimer's contribution, 'A City Of The Dead, A City Of The Living', seemed solid enough but scarcely a patch on many of the pieces gathered together in 'Selected Stories', a book I had enjoyed so much. And the less said about 'Girls', Harold Pinter's mercifully short piece about spanking, the better - other than that it's an exercise in pointlessness.
Norman Lewis' 'Jackdaw Cake' hit home, though, with its arresting opening description of a face disfigured by severe burns: "She bent down stiffly to proffer a cheek and, prodded by my mother, I reached up to select a smooth surface among the puckerings, the ridges and the nests of tiny wrinkles, and touch it with my lips". Tim Lott's 'The Separated' was also a curiously engaging read, an account of the breakdown of his marriage fictionalised only by being rendered in the third person. That might lead to the clever-clever self-reflexive irony of statements like "He often wishes he could turn his life into fiction, or be given the option to claim it as fiction", but it does also permit some unflinchingly scathing self-analysis: "The man, Tee, considers it vital to the successful execution of his skill that he can see what lies underneath the skin of people. That, at the very least, he can make good guesses. He prides himself on his expertise at communication".
But the best contributions - or at least those which held my interest the most tightly, contrary to my expectations - are the non-fiction pieces: James Fenton's report on election time in the Philippines; Primo Levi's speculations about the human desire for weightlessness; Diana Athill's recollections of editing V S Naipaul, a real prima donna it seems; Jonathan Miller's musings about chickens and the nature of laughter.
I was particularly struck by 'The State Of Europe', which features contributions from a whole host of prominent writers and commentators. As a snapshot of Europe in the year it appeared in the magazine, 1990, it is fascinating. We get the strident optimism of Stephen Spender and particularly Isaiah Berlin counterbalanced by Gunter Kunert's vision of a future to be approached with trepidation and Jurgen Becker's lament for the demise of socialism, a reminder that not everyone in East Germany welcomed reunification with open arms; Hans Magnus Enzenberger's exhortation to the newly unified West to "retreat [from] the war against the biosphere which we have been waging since the Industrial Revolution"; Mircea Dinescu's impassioned call-to-arms to fellow Romanian writers for whom the Iron Curtain lived on.
Very different is 'Are We Related?', Linda Grant's memoir about her mother's struggle with Multi-Infarct Dementia (described as "tiny, silent strokes ... occurring in her brain, mowing down her recollections of what she had said half a minute ago") which, in its simple detail and unmawkish poignancy, reminded me strongly of Alan Bennett's diary entries about his mother in 'Writing Home'. Beginning by reporting without commentary mundane conversations when out clothes shopping, Grant manages to convey both the frustration of her mother and herself, and also the grim humour of their exchanges, before going on to detail the extent to which her mother was fictionalising her own life in the absence of any memories to fall back upon and the agonising difficulty of finding herself with no choice but to remove her from her own home. It's a beautifully written account of something most of us will have to go through, to some extent, and as such was my favourite piece in the book.