The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Two of Britain’s leading novelists show that it is still possible to bend a familiar form into start

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 480pp, £18.99

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe
Andrew O'Hagan
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £18.99

According to D H Lawrence, Lionel Trilling and others, the novel matters because of its moral benefits; and therefore it still matters, or matters even more, when there are other things to vex or trouble us. I like this argument and wish I could believe it. But the essential - or potential - nobility of the novel, though pleasing to invoke, is in reality less important to its continuing survival than its success in arousing feelings of obsession and frustration.

And this is evergreen. John Mair, writing the "New Novels" column in the New Statesman in the late 1930s, anxiously contemplated the difficulties of defining this mongrel form while recently conscripted soldiers were being packed off in their millions to combat fascism. At around the same time, Auden and Isherwood wrote their Vogue essay about Graham Greene, Henry Green and other "Young British Writers - On the Way Up". For all kinds of mostly ignoble reasons, the novel always matters to those to whom it ever matters.

And there are always things the matter with it - or so they say. In a recent article in the New Yorker, James Wood claimed that the novel's "basic narrative grammar" has barely altered since Flaubert. The elements of this "grammar" include "vivid brevity of character-sketching", "more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory", and "lucid but allowably lyrical sentences" - local devices, in other words. Yet, while the grammar of the novel may not progress much, formal and strategic possibilities continue to be found, or refound. The best novels I have read this year - by Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle and now Andrew O'Hagan - show little desire to upset, much less displace, the novel's grammar. But this is not the same as saying that they take place in Hampstead, or that we know instantly what they are telling us or how they will end.

The books have a common predecessor: Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, first published (serially) in the 1750s and 1760s. Sterne, frustrating the reader's (as yet unfixed) expectations, structured his book around false starts and dead ends, and further stuttered its progress with black and blank pages, squiggles, doodles and footnotes. Tristram's birth takes place almost halfway through. Volume IX, Chapter 27 reads in its entirety: "My uncle Toby's Map is carried down into the kitchen." V S Pritchett thought that Tristram Shandy was probably "the most put-down book in English literature"; but those readers who kept with it long enough to steal its tricks include Pushkin, Joyce (a joker and a thief) and Beckett.

O'Hagan, in his crowded and deliriously wonderful comedy of ideas, confesses a debt to Sterne in his title (The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe), and incurs the debt in his - or in his canine narrator's - prodigious display of erudition (Marxism, psychoanalysis, interior decorating, zoology, lit crit), his cast of real and invented characters, his obsessiveness and repetitiveness and his use of footnotes. As an essayist in fancy journals, O'Hagan has stupendous fluency and sanity, together with a slightly surreal reliance on autobiography (his recent essay on Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong was entitled "Me and the Moon"). His subjects include fame, misery, Bloomsbury, Hollywood, journalistic ethics and biography; and he has found an ideal repository and vehicle in the doggy life of Marilyn's Maltese terrier Maf.

We first meet Maf in June 1960. He is living with Vanessa Bell at Charleston; then, via Mrs Gurdin, pet finder to the stars (Natalie Wood's mother), he is presented by Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe. As the star of Some Like It Hot, and recently divorced from Arthur Miller, Monroe is in demand as a party guest in Beverly Hills and the Upper West Side. She works on O'Neill with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and screwball with George Cukor at 20th Century Fox; and enjoys similarly familiar relations with Elia Kazan and Alfred Kazin. (The novel comes without acknowledgements or a note on sources, but there is a great deal of fact mixed in with the fantasy and conjecture.)

In one sequence, Marilyn and Maf attend a party given by Kazin. Among the other guests are Allen Ginsberg, Edmund Wilson, Noel Annan and the Trillings. An unknown young woman named Susan outlines her nascent views on "the good taste of bad taste" (camp, in other words). During a conversation presented in play script, Irving Howe imagines "this dog" writing a novel: "It would no doubt be a piratical compilation from the work of old Spanish masters. Old British masters. So be it. Let's have it." Maf congratulates Howe for being "agile and open in his absurdity". (O'Hagan's novel has more than a faint hint of the absurd.)

The Spanish masters are the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes and Cervantes, for Don Quixote and Colloquy of the Dogs; the English masters are Sterne, Fielding and Dickens. We are in picaresque territory. The picaro, Howe helpfully explains, "moves from adventure to adventure, each cluster of incidents bringing him into relation with a new set of characters"- and, in Maf's case, seeing them afresh.

The "Martianism" of perspective here is metaphysical, where the original Martianism - in the poetry of Craig Raine - privileged defamiliarisation of the visual, social and anatomical. Maf claims that actors - and acting is one of his chosen areas of inquiry - "show humans what they are", and so does he. "Humans feel such compassion for themselves," he says, "it's one of their charms." He attributes Monroe's misery at least partly to "the human thing, that burden of self-consciousness that weighs down the day", and describes her, as few novel characters have been described, in her "quiet, reading moments".

Maf's narration displays that "spiritual brawn", the anthropologist's universalising capacity, which he admires in Saul Bellow. He is taken with the habits of the species: the ways in which human beings perform to the world and lie to themselves, and are immediately readable but finally unplumbable - which is exactly what human narrators, desensitised or inured, neglect to explore or elect to ignore.

The novel's gimmick, though also its engine, is to present Maf as an image of the novelist. Dogs, we are informed, absorb the thoughts of human beings. And though he has difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction, he claims that nothing is lost on him, in accordance with Henry James's injunction to the aspirant novelist ("Try to be one on whom nothing is lost!"). The view of dogs as dimwitted or servile, perpetuated by such figures as René Descartes and Ivan Pavlov, is condemned as a failure in novelistic terms - speciesism and racism, we are told, come from the "same dense briar of unimagination". A note of whimsy is struck by Maf's periodic charting of canine contributions to history and the arts - his memoir doubles as a manifesto - as well as in his conversations with other animals. I admit I laughed at the butterfly that speaks like Nabokov.

O'Hagan's choice of narrator provides a mischievous context for the novel's generally polite grammar. Maf displays vivid brevity in his character-sketching: Cyril Connolly is "a frequent and frequently complaining guest at Charleston"; Natalie Wood's father is "the sort of man who sweated gently, like a girl crying". The sentences are lyrical, but allowably so: "From the analyst's apartment, the world seemed uncomplicatedly yellow, a busy jungle where plants spluttered carbon dioxide and billions of creatures had their say."

As novelist-narrator, Maf appears to have more or less orderly access to the consciousness of his characters: Lionel Trilling is described as "thinking how well - relatively well, almost well - his wife was coping at the party, given Kazin's unforgotten criticism of her psychoanalytic approach to D H Lawrence"; he is also said to have "travelled back to himself, to the place where other people's bad behaviour merely confirmed his own certainty about how he himself must behave". But the sense of order is cancelled by the fact that this character is a real literary critic and the narrator a dog. Maf's project would have been familiar enough to Flaubert: to paint a portrait of a time and place, and provide a psychological account of his heroine. Sly means refresh familiar ends.

David Mitchell's novel, a disappointment, is also Shandean in its garrulity and busy traffic of accident and incident, and in many details. Mitchell, an Englishman formerly resident in Japan, tells the tale of a clash of superstitions (eastern mysticism and European religious doctrine), with rival tribes - Dutch would-be colonists and Japanese isolationists - living at cross-cultural purposes on the island of Deshima at the end of the 18th century.

Jacob, a shy, ginger-haired pastor's son, is working as an interpreter for the Dutch East India Company. He hopes to return to Holland rich and respectable - and eligible for his beloved Anna, in the eyes of her demanding father. But he quickly falls in love with a young Japanese woman, who is just as quickly packed off to a convent. The novel, having started as a riotous comedy about intellectual credulity and ideological conflict, mutates into a rescue thriller, with a subplot involving run-of-the-mill armed conflict between colonists.

Mitchell shows impatience with "grammatical" ingredients such as scene-setting, which is despatched with cursory briskness: "Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting"; "Long and curving rice paddies stripe the low and laddered mountains". These descriptions are never longer than a sentence, the sentences never longer than a line. The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through. Otherwise, the novel palls. Erudition is inimical to narrative flow, unless - as with Tristram and Maf - it provides the narrative flow. Mitchell is dependent on conventionalities, while lacking O'Hagan's releasing context.

In his previous work, Mitchell has proved himself a virtuoso of voice, but this novel is conducted in a third-person plod. The juggling of divergent perspectives in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the adolescent solipsism of number9dream and Black Swan Green, have ill-equipped him for the challenges of the multi-character set-piece novel. Access to consciousness is too orderly, not only tagged ("he decides", "he reflects") but italicised: "The Captain thinks, I want those damned Dutchmen torn to rags."

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a long shot, misses by a mile. But it is not an important failure. What is important, what matters, is that these writers have a taste and gift for wriggling out of straightjackets, and embody a great promise or dream - to accomplish, in this battered form, something new.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.