Alternative Title: I Learned Everything I Know From the Novels of Marian Keyes.
In the midst of the never-ending clear out of my possessions, I re-organised the bookshelves and took stock of all the stories I have loved. I had a motley array of Nabokov and a well-worn copy of Ulysses. I also had ten Marian Keyes novels. It was Keyes novels that I was most excited about, because I knew I had a whole lot of joyousness right there to re-read my way through.
I started with Last Chance Saloon when I was 15, and I was besotted. Behold, the original secret style icon, Katherine the accountant, a character who lived in London, owned a ‘powder-blue Karmann Ghia’, went to the cinema by herself and had matching pyjama sets. She was living the life I hoped would be mine when I was thirty-two: a smooth-haired woman in a big exciting city, accomplished, independent, perfectly chic, with an apartment to herself and a cool way of sitting in a trendy restaurant nonchalantly holding a glass of white wine.
Keyes writes big chunky books that just carry you along – tender and compassionate portrayals of people going through the worst – bereavement, alchoholism and rehabiliation, illness – and surviving. And, they’re all very, very funny.
If we are in any doubt about her genius, I’d like to present exhibits A and B.
A) Marian’s take on feminism (and the bad rep that it has had): “As long as you believe you’re entitled to the same rights as everyone else (i.e men) you’re a feminist. See, that’s not so bad, is it? In the words of that bard and visionary, Adam Ant: There’s nothing to be scared of’.
B) In ‘Rachel’s Holiday’ (clue: the book is not about a holiday), there is a side-plot about a group of men who hang around in the same New York bars as the Rachel of the title, and are all poor student types, who share between them their favorite pair of leather trousers, which they believe to be incredibly cool and quite the hit with the ladies. They actually have a time-share on a pair of trousers. Amazing.
While I studied English at university, many the books I hold dearest didn’t see the far side of my Eng Lit reading list. Book Snobbishness is rife in this world.
But. It works both ways.
In my own dream reading list, there would be Rachel’s Holiday, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, and Ulysses. Has ever a book been as savaged as Ulysses? It’s unreadable nonsense, written for critics, the witterings of a madman…
To be fair, it does take steely determination to get through some of it. I’ve only managed to get through five chapters (at the beginning and end. And some in the middle). But it is also, I believe, a truly brilliant book, that everyone should at least try to read, if they’re into reading. It’s a deeply compassionate work, which so tenderly takes an ordinary, not particularly successful, not particularly witty or wealthy man, and follows him through the epic narrative of his inner life. Each man, no matter how lowly he may appear, is his own Ulysses in his own Odyssey. (And each woman too, as the many female voices in the book express, whenever we get to dip into their experience for a little while). The book expresses horror, both public (the anti-semitism in 1920s Dublin, scathingly picked apart by Joyce) and personal (Bloom’s painful, diffused, utterly secret feelings about his wife’s infidelity). All kinds of hypocrisy are laid bare. As well as the horrors, there is the sublime and the beautiful. For example, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and her enduring love for her husband, with the word ‘yes’, her answer to him when he proposed, repeated throughout her final, hazy dreams; and Stephen Dedalus’ memories of his dead mother, her old dancing cards ‘folded away, musk perfumed’, along with the phantom sound of old dance-hall laughter.
Tiny excerpt: Bloom gets into bed, his wife is already asleep: ‘the presence of a human form, female, hers, the imprint of a human form, male, not his’. In such a huge book this is the only statement of certainty about whether or not she’s been unfaithful. Later Bloom lies in bed next to Molly and thinks of ‘the inanity of extolled virtue: the lethargy of nescient matter: the apathy of the stars’. He has forgiven her, and feels that she doesn’t really need to be forgiven anyway (the pointlessness of ‘extolled’ virtue – it would be wrong to hold a moral argument over her) and then he connects matter and stars with inanity, lethargy, apathy – it seems to me, beamed all the way from the olden days of the 1920s, that here is a man lying in bed mulling over the insignificance of his turmoil in the context of the universe. Which we’ve all done at some point, in our own Odyssey.
Phew. It’s brilliant, is all. I’m not pretending to have anything vaguely elucidating to say on this topic, except, book snobbishness is stupid. A book is a book. Some are great. Some are not so much. Whether the cover is intimidatingly sparse and black so we know it’s oh so very serious, or all the pretty shades of pink, don’t be judging. Just read it and see.
Here’s a picture of a Karmann Ghia. I still want to be Katherine when I grow up.