Writers Reading

BEATING THE BOUNDS

Jim Crace Harvest (Picador, 2013)

JimCraceHarvestHarvest was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, the last fiction prize competition to be held before the Americans arrive, as many British writers fear, to dominate the lists. And Harvest was in fact the favourite to win. According to Booker traditions, the favourite never wins. And sure enough, this one didn't win. I read Harvest for the first time at the end of January, 2014. I finished reading the novel in a blaze of resentment several days later, very irritated and slightly drugged by the poetic rhythms of the prose. There is not enough action in Harvest to retain this reader's interest, and at least two fatal errors. The action takes place in an unnamed village, known simply as THE VILLAGE, and surrounded by THE LAND. There is no specified time period either, and as the novel describes the process of enclosure, or the removal of the people's ancient rights over common land, it could be any time between the 16th century and the 18th century. Enclosure is an important theme in Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (1798, 2nd edition, 1800), and no doubt continued on through the nineteenth century. Crace describes a pre-industrial world.

Fatal Error Number 1.

The narrator, one Walter Thirsk, an incomer to the village, is no hero. He is a coward, a trimmer, self-serving, self-interested, obsessed by heterosexual sex, and ever so slightly creepy. I don't have to like the narrator or the character in charge of the story to appreciate a work of fiction, but I do have to be deeply engaged by his actions and implicated in his fate. The proud witch who gets her head shaved appears to arouse all the men in the village, but especially our narrator, who tells us all his sex fantasies in some detail. Not content with recounting his own sexual appetites, he speculates about what every other man in the village is thinking of doing to her. Women don't appear to exist for any other purpose. They are there to be fucked and raped. I found this gratuitous lechery, while no doubt authentic, very alienating. And for two reasons: Thirsk's attitudes are never challenged by the narrative itself, and they therefore simply reproduce the tedious sexism still there in much contemporary writing. To me these sexual politics indicate not historical authenticity - ah! men were men in the Middle Ages, and thought with their pricks! - but facile cliché. After all, I encountered many of exactly the same sentiments in the very next book I read, published at the same time as Harvest: James Lasdun's Give me everything you have: On being stalked (Jonathan Cape, 2013), which deals with a twenty-first century sexual obsession. The monstrous cyber-stalking witch is one of Lasdun's ex-students; he admits that he did think of her in sexual terms, before she turned nasty. Crace's witch woman, nicknamed Dame Beldam, the stranger who generates a certain amount of the action and clearly has courage and agency, turns nasty with a vengeance, but remains a hollow space offstage - we never know in any detail who she is or what she thinks. Crace has trapped himself into a first-person narrative that cripples and distorts the emotional charge he is clearly seeking to generate in the novel. Spending time in Walter Thirsk's head is an extremely unpleasant experience. I neither trust him to tell the truth, nor even to lie plausibly. But, and this is far more serious, I am not interested in what he does, or why he does it. This repugnance has nothing to do with anything so trivial as the loveable goodness, or lack of it, in a character, but with agency and dynamism. I don't think I would have enjoyed spending time with Shakespeare's Richard III, but I can't take my eyes off him once he's on stage. It is a very high-risk strategy to construct a first-person narrator whom the reader despises. The relationship between a reader and a narrator, who is also a central character, is crucial in fiction, and has to be cunningly negotiated. Contempt is an uneasy basis for such a relationship.

Fatal Error Number 2.

The theme of Harvest is loss, waste, the abandonment of the land and the end of a rural community. The writing is hypnotically beautiful. But I for one would have to be persuaded that this way of life was worth preserving to mourn its loss, and the entire village appears to be peopled by mad xenophobic bigots, all of whom have a cowardly, cringing death wish. There is a complete disjunction between the loveliness of the writing, the vile populace described and the lack of rational action. I think I can best explain the effect of this by summarising the evolution of the plot. If you haven't read Harvest, look away now.

SET UP

1. The village people gather in the harvest as they have always done. Lots of local colour and jolly yokels.

2. Strangers arrive.

3. Some of the villagers slaughter the master's doves and set fire to more of the manor house than they originally intended.

4. The strangers are falsely blamed and viciously attacked. At this point the reader loses all sympathy with the people of the village. The sooner they are all closed down the better. Strangers are popped into the pillory where the older man suffocates and gets chomped by roving pigs.

5. Enter The Chart-maker, who is effectively surveying the land and making maps of the village. This is a pointless character, bristling with unspecified symbolic significance, and the nearest we get to a writer in the fiction. He is given so many names, Quill, Earle, our fiddler, etc, that he may as well be a character, or even a sword, in Lord of the Rings.

ACTION PLAYS OUT

6. The Master's cousin appears with a posse of thugs and claims the land. He plans to get rid of the villagers and grow sheep instead. The hired thugs sow mayhem.

7. General uproar. Various witches menaced with faggots. Villagers pack up and do a runner.

8. Cousin smug. Leaves manor house and village with our narrator in charge. Why? This is never clear.

9. Narrator frees remaining stranger from pillory, ploughs one heavily symbolic furrow, then drugs himself up on magic mushrooms and gets drunk.

10. Stranger and interesting witch woman - whom we've hardly seen since Chapter 2 - set fire to all the houses in the village, nick everything of value from the Manor House and then make off with the last two oxen and the cart.

11. Narrator sets fire to the Manor house having discovered the Chart-Maker murdered in a large box in the attic. Did the witch woman murder him? And if so, why? Neither the narrator, nor the reader will ever know.

12. Narrator leaves the Land forever. The End.

And the end comes, for this reader at least, NOT BEFORE TIME. Action and motive have been muddied and stifled by endless, rhythmic, lovely prose. Going on, and on, and on. Telling us how the village once was, how the narrator felt about it all, what the bounds and lanes used to look like. Here is the oak that was our landmark ploughing, our oxon, hens, our shit pit called the Turd and Turf. There is no dialogue to speak of, indeed, no dialogue to speak. Harvest is a modernist text set in a remote English past. Writers need cunning, tact and a distinct strategy to manage dialogue in historical fiction. Clearly no one wants to read anything as crass as Godwottery, thou saucy knave, but it would be one way of giving another perspective on the events described. Dialogue represents parts of the text speaking to one another, and this creates a ripple of uncertainty and interest for the reader. Will something unexpected be revealed? Will division and conflict ensue? But because the dialogue barely exists we are stuck inside the loathsome Walter Thirsk's head.

My other writer, with whom I discuss writing and books, began reading Harvest and gave up after a chapter or two. Beauty proved to be too cloyingly intrusive. The prose, claustrophobically beautiful, simply impeded all forward movement on the part of the narrative and the reader. She stopped reading.

There is a huge danger in Beautiful Writing. Endless beautiful prose usually indicates that the writer has no serious fictional content to communicate, no agenda, political or otherwise, and is just simply going through the motions of writing lovely prose. This is not the case here. Crace has an agenda and one that clearly engages him deeply. Harvest, for me at least, represents not a failure of ideas, or a lack of political engagement and intent, but a failure of method. I love beautiful writing, and I go to Jim Crace for precisely that, but Harvest reminded me of its dangers and temptations.

24th February 2014