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Old 21st Jan 2004, 9:13   #1
John Self
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Default Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath is the author I'd most like to be stranded on a desert island with if Martin Amis didn't exist. (Actually scrub the qualification: he's taller than Little Mart and could reach the coconuts more easily.) And all because of four and a half books. (By way of biographical details, McGrath is almost indecently connected with the great, the good and the ugly: married to actress Maria Aitken, brother-in-law to other jailed Tory Jonathan Aitken, stepdaddy to TV's Jack This Life/Coupling Davenport.)

His first novel is The Grotesque (1990) in which he scored an early hat trick by making it short (none of his first three novels made it past 200 pages), setting it in the, for me, irresistible setting of Waughian upper-crust between-the-wars England, and giving us a big juicy unreliable narrator to get our teeth into. The narrator is Sir Hugo Coal, an aristocrat who has been confined to a wheelchair by the dastardly actions of his butler, Fledge, who gradually usurps Sir Hugo's place in the house, ultimately sleeping in his bed and providing for his wife the functions Sir Hugo no longer can (like solving 3 down in The Times). Or, as I am contractually obliged to say, does he? The Grotesque is the least subtle of McGrath's tricksy tales, and it's pretty obvious pretty early on what might really be going on. So it's no disservice I hope to say that McGrath explains that he got the psychology of Sir Hugo from Freud (if you really do want to read the book unspoiled, skip the rest of the paragraph): it's that other reliable factor in McGrath's work, of simmeringly repressed homoeroticism. Sir Hugo, unable to cope with his lust for Fledge, mentally turns around his feelings to go from I love him to I hate him. But even this is unacceptable to his psyche, as he cannot justify such unreasonable passion even in a negative form. So he turns it again into He hates me. And so blooms the paranoid fear of Fledge which fuels Sir Hugo's delusions of what he has done to him, as well as the book's drama and frequent comedy. There's a murder in there too, and lots of mouldy old bones of the palaeontology sort. A heady brew.

Spider (1991) was made into a film by David Cronenberg recently, and a faithful but limited interpretation it was too. It got all the details right - Dennis Cleg, who calls himself Spider, is returning from a certain place (which he calls Canada) and trying to rehabilitate himself into the world. But he is haunted by memories of his mother, who murdered his father - or so, in his paranoid ravings, he believes. Cronenberg's film however left out the most impressive feature of the book: Spider's playful, skittish voice, all exclamations and unrequired question marks, as lively on the inside as he is stagnant on the outside. More subtle than The Grotesque, although again by the end you have no doubt whatever about what has really happened, McGrath being too pleased with the clockwork fitting of his narrative elements to leave anything for the reader to decide.

Dr. Haggard's Disease (1993) was my favourite McGrath for a long time, and may still be listed in my top ten on the relevant thread. It's the only book I have ever re-read within a month of first reading it. From the opening we are given unrestricted access to the mind of Edward Haggard, a G.P. on the south coast of England during the second world war, and the mesmerising mix of passion and control that inhabits him:

Quote:
I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man in the surgery to see me, a pilot. You know how she talks. 'A pilot, Mrs Gregor?' I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out onto the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like - pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachectic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we'll make it all - go - away -
Now I could write about that paragraph for hours. The perfect rhythm of his description of the descent down the stairs, the acceleration towards the end of the sentence, the slightly creepy note at the end and the mystery of what is going on there, the question of who Spike is, and what the hell cachectic means, and on and on... And the amazing thing is that it is all like this - which in my terms means as good as this. The whole book has line after line of memorable turns of phrase, a moment of heart-filling humanity followed by the twist of a sick mind, all culminating in what one review called "the eventual denouement, where delusion and event combine" - just as they rather sneakily are in this opening paragraph - to give the most memorable and affecting and wonderful/horrible ending to a book I have ever read. The plot, as ever with McGrath, involves an affair, and the affair Dr Haggard had with his head surgeon's wife, which ended badly and created "the unendurable sense of loss that is slowly poisoning him." Dr Haggard's Disease is a flawless masterpiece - which makes it all the odder that it is the only book where everyone I have lent it to has hated it - without, I think, exception. Perhaps I am as mad as he is.

Asylum (1996) had a lot to live up to, for me, after that. When I first read it I thought it disappointing, rather straightforward after the rich stew of Dr Haggard's Disease. But it has depths and subtleties unmatched by his earlier books, which took me a while to see. It is a curious book in that - as can be seen from reviews on Amazon - it is quite possible to read it simply as the story of a woman's breakdown after a passionate affair. She, the glamorously named Stella Raphael, is the wife of the head psychiatrist in an asylum in England in the 1950s, and has an affair with one of the patients, a dangerous psychopath called Edgar Stark (McGrath never mucks about with his names: did I say the object of passion in Dr Haggard's Disease was called, well, Fanny?). All this is narrated with admirable dispassion (the opening sentence is the dry-as-dust "The catastrophic love affair characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now") by a colleague, Dr Peter Cleave, whose name, like asylum itself, has two opposite meanings. And that is where the hidden depths come in. We realise, perhaps only on a second reading, that he has only seen Max and Edgar together once. So how can he be telling us so much about their times together? And what do you make of a man who declares, on page 2, that he knew the moment he saw Stella's husband, his colleague, "that he wasn't the sort of man to satisfy a woman like Stella"? He did say professional interest, didn't he? From top to toe, through the finest details (like the changing of the seasons with each chapter, or the knowledge that in the 1950s, curry was considered a dead posh food), Asylum is a complete triumph.

And then, finally, it was downhill - with Martha Peake (2000). McGrath strayed away from his known territory here - from 20th century England to revolutionary America, and from slim novella-like things to a solid semi-epic. He did however make amends with not one but two unreliable narrators. I have only read Martha Peake once, though, so it too may reveal unexpected delights when I eventually get back to it.

And that brings us up to date - his new novel, Port Mungo, is out in May 2004. I, of course, can't wait. And, if you do the decent thing and read all his existing novels between now and then, neither will you.
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 9:23   #2
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Gotta say these sound really good and that quotation is stunning. I'm a quarter into Middlesex and rapt with it, but one of these might come next. I'm also keen to start reading the Patrick O'Brien books.
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 10:03   #3
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Just checked out all of McGrath's back catalogue on Amazon, and it would appear he's undergoing some sort of re-packaging at the moment (might this coincide with the imminent release of Port Mungo?).

Anyhoo, having in my pocket a nice crisp book token to muck around with, I think he might be worth taking a flutter on ... Asylum first, perhaps?
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 12:39   #4
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Good stuff, this, John. You have an uncanny ability to make me want to buy every book you like. As a result of this, my bookshelf loves you, but my bank manager and girlfriend do not.
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 13:25   #5
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Your girlfriend certainly does love me Wavid - ...ooerwhatagiveaway.
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 15:46   #6
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:) Yes, you are convincing, John. Even though our tastes probably vary quite a bit, you've already made me pick up my first Martin Amis (finishing) and now I'm making a mental note about McGrath.
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Old 21st Jan 2004, 19:32   #7
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Asylum or Dr Haggard's Disease would be the place to start, amner - and incidentally did you see on Amazon that Dr Haggard's Disease has just one review, a one-star one? Perhaps I am the only person in the world who likes it...

By the way the rejacketing of McGrath was done a couple of years ago when Martha Peake came out in paperback. Port Mungo is being published by Bloomsbury (all his others are in Penguin) so it's completely different, just to annoy us.

I hope, m., you will be sharing your thoughts on Amis with us, good or ill. Here's the thread you need.
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Old 22nd Jan 2004, 10:55   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
Asylum or Dr Haggard's Disease would be the place to start, amner - and incidentally did you see on Amazon that Dr Haggard's Disease has just one review, a one-star one?
You've mentioned Asylum before (in a Top 10, I think). When I've cleared away the unsightly mound that is my to-read pile, I'll get cracking.

Yes, saw the one star review. If you're going to be damning or ecstatic, you really should be a bit more effusive than a couple of lines, shouldn't you? That sort of review - as I believe you memorably stated on another thread - tells us only something about the reviewer.
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Old 23rd Jan 2004, 15:13   #9
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Ya convinced me. I caved in and bought Asylum this morning in Ottakar's. Finish Middlesex first, then that. I also spotted the Lesser Spotted Jesse James in the 8-12's section (the Golden Glow, no less) and had a look through. It started off Cinderella-esque and ended Potter-esque (with the plucky heroine about to return from her adventures to a Dursely-like cruel step-family for the interim).
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Old 7th Feb 2004, 12:36   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Colyngbourne
Ya convinced me.
Yep. Me too. I really loved The Grotesque and Spider but I've fallen off a bit since then. Must catch up. I see he's got a new one out this spring. http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0747570191
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