Michael Flay, ‘The Persian Wedding’ – Review by Simon Lavery of Tredynas Days

The Persian Wedding (Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2015) is a timely, angry novel. I’m writing this on the day after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, apparently by Islamic extremists. Over the past couple of weeks lurid stories have been published in the media alleging sexual malfeasance by a prominent English prince, famed for his involvement in aiding British trade abroad – especially the arms trade with dubious militaristic regimes.

 

Author of The Lord, The Watchers and a volume of short stories, Michael Flay here turns his attention to the troubled cross-cultural relationship between two young lovers, in a setting in which terrorist attacks appear to be instigated by the Western political/security forces who ostensibly protect its people. Instead they ‘keep things insecure, then you impose the order that suits you.’ Sinister trains and ships transport deadly cargos of nuclear materials and goodness knows what else. British-made tanks patrol the repressed streets of the Shah’s Persia. British ‘advisers’ train torturers, their leaders gloating and gorging themselves in scenes of sickening illicit sex and violence. All power corrupts.

An unnamed English man meets a Persian girl at a language school in England at a time that seems to be around 1976. He’s the English teacher, she (her name is Zohre, which means ‘Venus’ in old Persian) the child of a privileged middle-class Persian family, sent to Europe to polish her education and no doubt make her a more suitable match for a wealthy Persian husband.

He follows her to her home country, still ruled by the autocratic Shah, propped up by UK and US interests (it was they who’d instigated the coup d’état which installed his family in 1953). We see the young man’s struggles to adapt to the passive, powerless position of a suitor for a woman who lives in a fiercely partriarchal world. He meets her young, westernised friends, who sympathise with the lovers’ plight and do all they can to help, but ultimately he fails to change the intransigent attitude of the Persian father.

Later things change for the better for the lovers, but this is set against a chilling account of the West’s cynical exploitation of a lucrative market for its weapons and personnel who specialise in intimidation, sedition and control.

The narrative style is pared down and restrained, in keeping with the sober subject matter. There are descriptions of the bucolic English setting at the start, which ironically contrast with the stark scenes in urban Tehran which fill the bulk of the rest of the novel.

Michael Flay habitually deploys a paratactic style, piling on adjectives and noun phrases to the main clauses, to demonstrate, for example, the random fortuitousness of events happening beyond the protagonist’s control; here’s an early description of Tehran soon after the man arrives there:

Air hung heavy with exhaust fumes, coloured blue grey. Unfinished blocks of apartments lined the road in disorder. Buildings were put up, incomplete, non embedded on scrap land…There were several limousines, chauffeur driven, running  silently, these were common like broken off parts of a US president’s cavalcade, dispersed. Everywhere space was taken up, cars, buildings, as if dumped down at random, unembedded and laid on.

This technique also adds cumulative detail to the disconcerting  narrative: there’s a dreamlike quality to the prose, which foregrounds the disturbing incongruities in the story. Tehran under the Shah is a city of a westernised, power elite, deeply corrupt and cynical; England is little better. And after the 1979 revolution and the return of Khomeini, nothing changes. Everywhere is the same. Women are used as sex objects but otherwise kept in subjection. Fathers and men are all-powerful, demanding total obedience of their daughters. Yet they commit despicable sex crimes themselves. Hypocrisy is rife.

The protagonist’s attitude throughout seems to me rather naive: he would go to Iran, he thought, at the start of the novel, ‘confident’ and optimistic that he could convince the family that he was a suitable match for this pampered but closeted daughter in a stereotypically protected environment, and spirit her away from potentially more suitable matches (as the father would see them). He was educated, decent – what could possibly go wrong?

But of course that’s what happens in life. We all believe the person we love and who loves us is all that’s needed to convince everyone that the match is right. To hell with convention, social pressures and the desire to conform to bourgeois morality (which usually involves perpetuating the system of self-aggrandisement financially); love conquers all.

This is a novel with some flaws in the style, perhaps – all those loose-limbed sentences with their odd syntax and accretions. But it’s also a searing indictment of repressive regimes everywhere, not just in Iran, and of the swaggering toxicity of power elites, and their inbuilt conviction that they have the right to do whatever they like in a world tailor-made for their own gratification.

Perversity takes many forms, and this novel powerfully melds the political with the personal: sexual depravity as an outward and visible form of inward corruption – in short, of the evil of our decadent western world. Yes, the Iranian society depicted here was corrupt, misogynistic and depraved, but ours has pretensions of superiority; it is no less depraved, flawed or corrupt. Worse, really, for we see ourselves as beacons of fairness and upright moral probity.

Yesterday in Paris fundamentalists murdered writers and artists for propagating satiric views. Novels like this play an important role in holding up a mirror to our complacent society; as was memorably said by Swift in the preface to The Battle of the Books (1704):

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

This review and others like it can be found on Tredynas Days, a Literary Blog by Simon Lavery.

Michael Flay, ‘Closed Doors’: The Mad Mother by Simon Lavery

Michael Flay, Closed Doors (Polar Books, Cheltenham 1999)

I’m sad to say that Mike passed away last month, far too soon. In his memory I’d like to devote some posts over the next few weeks – holidays will intervene so not sure how long it’ll take – to his published work. I’ve already posted about his novel The Persian Wedding.

Flay Closed Doors Closed Doors, his first book to appear under his own imprint, Polar Books, appeared in 1999, which is when I last read it. Because of time constraints this past few weeks I’ve not been able to reread the whole collection of stories in Closed Doors, and will have to limit myself here to the first one: ‘The Mad Mother’.

It bears many of the features of the others, in that the main characters are unnamed, known only as ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the wife’, and so on. To confer a name would be to present them in too familiar or intimate a way. These are stories that throw a beam of light on to semi-concealed lives, like an entomologist opening up a termite nest.

There’s a bleakness or grim quality that runs through them. Here’s the opening sentence to this story:

She was living strange, giving things up, doing damage.

Mike’s style is distinctive: there’s a disjointedness in those three parallel participial phrases, a lack of agency (the absence of finite verbs after the first clause). That phrase ‘living strange’ issyntactically strange. The language, in other words, re-enacts the meaning and reinforces it. We are forced to confront that strangeness, the inertia of the structure.

The abstractions and omissions are notable, too. Who is ‘she’?  In what way was her living ‘strange’? Which ‘things’ was she giving up, and why? What was the nature of the damage she was doing? These are stories that forensically examine the damage we do in our lives, the toxicity of relationships in a corrupt world in which power is wielded by the most corrupt people of all, and that poison sinks down on to all levels of society.

There’s perhaps too much tendency to use pathetic fallacy, but then these stories come from the tradition of Kafka via Lawrence and Dostoevsky. It’s psychological truth that is striven for, not poetic decoration. Hence the first pages sketch the physical scene only in terms that create the requisite atmosphere: ‘The streets were grey with rain’; ‘The block [of flats where she lives] was dismal, angular’, and from within it she could hear ‘a queer chuckling, female and gloaty’. Later ‘the landscape was grey, obscured, dead.’

This is the world of the underclass, the housing-estate sink. The narrative style has more of the features which will become familiar to readers of Mike Flay: those accumulating, dreary terminal adjectives; that Lawrentian, early-20C use of ‘queer’ in its non-sexual sense, which recurs half a dozen times in this very short story; the Keatsian habit of turning a noun into a neologistic adjective (‘gloaty’) by adding a ‘y’ to it. And of course, these details create a new, disruptive sense of unease – it’s as if the ‘block’ (there are many of these ambiguously named places in the stories) is doing the sinister gloating. The description of disembodied ‘selfish mouths opening and shutting in a black expanse’ (within the block) is reminiscent of Beckett and the abyss.

I shan’t go on here to summarise the story too closely. It involves an emotionally ‘blank’ and ‘deficient’ Swiss-German woman (abetted by her mother) exploiting a wealthy TV ‘celebrity’ (himself ‘full of rottenness’) in order to become pregnant by him, abandon the ‘weak’ husband and either increase their social security (state) benefits, or tap the man for some of his presumed wealth. The stories are set in a variety of locations: this one in Switzerland and briefly the UK. Meanwhile the women sit and endlessly, obsessively ‘talk over’ their ‘mad’ schemes and feelings. There’s a scathing critique of the self-indulgent kind of pseudo-feminism:

In her mind a female fixation circulated: she was an injured princess claiming her rights. She was justified: all her moods, her acts of spite, her small meannesses, were justified because she was female. It was best not to repress what you felt – this was the family tenet – or censor it…No criticism should be made, the female was sacred.

The free indirect style portrays the woman’s views, not the narrator’s. While she broods incessantly over her own feelings her young son is cruelly neglected, to the point of abuse.

This first story sets the tone for the rest. They are not a comfortable read. They intend to challenge and provoke. The disconcerting style works in the same way as the long lines of prose-poetry in the likes of Whitman and Lawrence’s verse: on the level of rhythm and juxtaposition rather than semantic sense. It’s a grim perspective and unflinching. Someone has to do it. Usually most of us look away.

Strangely, Mike had a wicked sense of humour. After any meeting with him one left feeling uplifted, enhanced and enriched, and there would have been a lot of laughter. In his writing, however, he was determined to anatomise the world in all its states, and to do that it’s necessary to contemplate the rottenness beneath the veneer of consumerist plenty.

This review and others like it can be found on Tredynas Days, a Literary Blog by Simon Lavery.

Synopsis and Comments on ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

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The Subject of a Portrait by John Harvey

In 1853 the most brilliant young painter of Victorian England, John Everett Millais, travelled to Scotland with the country’s leading art critic, John Ruskin, and his young wife Euphemia (‘Effie’). While in Scotland, the artist was to paint the critic’s portrait. But the marriage was built on vital secrets, and the events that followed became both the most famous love story, and the most famous scandal, to involve a young woman, an author and an artist, in nineteenth century England.

The Subject of a Portrait catches the excitement of watching an artist, torn by conflicts, produce a great painting. A young wife must change the foundations of her life — and of herself. And a great critic gains revolutionary insights at the cost of his personal disaster.

‘A discerning and rather sumptuous study of one of history’s most infamous love triangles.’ Independent

‘Excellent; I was taken by every page; more, every sentence. It is beautifully and startlingly written, the sudden shifts and turns, impulse and counter-impulse within and from these remarkable people. A very fine love story.’ Christopher Ricks

‘A true page-turner . . . it becomes impossible to put down.’ The PreRaphaelite Society Review

‘The novel is so alive, so full of movement and momentum.’ Anita Desai

‘The characters of Millais and Effie are far from romantic stereotypes; their passion is depicted as convincingly as Heathcliff and Cathy’s. But it’s the strangely sympathetic portrayal of the monstrous innocent Ruskin, with his angels and demons in constant conflict, that dominates the narrative and lingers in the memory.’ Tredynas Days

‘Powered by lyrical prose of the highest order . . . John Harvey’s evocation of Victorian England and its climate of sexual repression will be hard to match. So too will the subtlety and eye for intimate detail with which he brings alive an achingly beautiful love story.’ Farzana Shaikh

‘If you’re a fan of art history, fictional biographies or 19th century settings, this wonderfully atmospheric tale should please . . . the personalities ring true and each will surprise the reader in turn.’ historical-fiction.comS

Praise for Julietta Harvey’s Novels:

‘Fresh, delightful and arresting. The sweep and momentum of history are maintained throughout like a rainbow arc through the murky sky of war and disruption. Julietta Harvey’s first novel combines dry wit with passion, and a sense of history with a wonderfully sensuous awareness of the immediate.’
Anita Desai, The Spectator

Familiar Wars is magnificently readable. The refugee Gregoris Gregoriou and his family are brilliantly portrayed, in time of war, in commercial success and disaster, in domestic and public dissension. The sketching of a huge cast of characters through action makes this book both powerful and memorable. By the end we are all Gregoris, Anastasia, Eleni; we have become Greeks caught up in a rich convincing saga. This is, in every sense, a big book.’
Stanley Middleton

‘Absolutely original. The first novel of Julietta Harvey is one of the best of the year and should be a favourite for the Booker Prize. The power of invention, of imagination, of creative force, make one hope her readers will be legion.’
Ariel Daigre, BBC World Service

Familiar Wars grants a magnificent sense, at once saddening and cheering, of what’s become of Homer’s people in our time, but it’s even more magnificent as a sustained ode, a long poem to the mercantile spirit and the things that human beings lovingly craft and greedily trade.’
Valentine Cunningham, The Observer