Fiction & Biography . , I . . .


Youth (Seeker 8. Warburg $514.99) 0.0.

Aspiring artistes in fiction do not make the most likeable of protagonists. Think Stephen Dedalus, the ultimate miserable black-clad bore who sets out for Paris to embrace the world of art in Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist. . .. In fact, much more compelling are those spot-on satires on such artistic pretensions, like Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books, whose incompetent poetry makes

McGonagall look like Burns.

At first sight, the central character of two-time Booker winner J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel shares something of the humourless self-importance of a Dedalus. When the book opens, the protagonist - whose name we eventually discover to be the

rather innocuous John - is nineteen-years-old, residing in a one-room garret in Cape Town and studying for his bachelor’s degree in mathematics while nursing dreams of becoming an important


His heroes are the modernists Pound, Eliot, Ford Maddox Ford, Henry James - whom he devours ravenously as a form of self-tutelage, without ever betraying any artistic instincts of his own. Indeed, in the whole novel, Coetzee exhibits only a few lines of John’s poetry from the laughably bad Portuguese Rock-Lobster


Later, John concludes that to become a truly great poet, he must go in search of life experience. Moreover, he must take up residence in one of the world’s great artistic cities. As Paris involves the tricky conundrum of learning French, the young aesthete ends up in London, not at the heart of swinging 60$ hedonism, but as a trainee computer programmer at IBM, and treated with some

suspicion for his colonial origins.

In John, Coetzee has created a believable

portrait of youthful self-absorption and naivety, though his intention is not to poke cruel fun at his character’s fate. That he wishes to be a poet is not hugely significant, but the choice of vocation accounts for John’s sensitive reaction to the hostile surroundings in which he finds


Throughout, Coetzee succeeds in conveying the sense of alienation John suffers and creates for himself, firstly through his efforts to distance himself from his rural Afrikaaner background, and later because of his soulless existence in London. In his stark, potent prose, the author communicates the stifling, machine-like environment of IBM, inviting comparisons with the daily grind of today’s

offices and call centres.

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A quietly profound portrait of a young man

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This environment ultimately defeats John. He becomes caught up in his work, plays cricket with his colleagues in his lunch hour, and gives up on poetry. Yet, Coetzee’s vision is not entirely bleak. Wandering from cafe to cinema to the reading room of the British Museum on his

rare days off, John meets and briefly draws relief from

various sources, most notably an Austrian au pair and a brilliant young Indian computer programmer.

John’s concern for Ganapathy the Indian who, having been removed from the shelter of his family home, quietly rots away in a filthy flat, is particularly touching. It is in these moments, when we are shown the shared humanity between outsiders, that Coetzee’s novel is at its most

quietly profound. (Allan Radcliffe)

As a comic actor in The Fast Show Arabella Weir could be relied upon to take female stereotypes and push them to their illogical extreme. From the fascistic Afrikaaner beauty consultant or the high flying modern woman who melts to a mush of girliness at the mere sight of a fella. Weir got laughs from the most conventional of female foibles.

It would then seem a logical progression for her to ease into the role of comic stOryteller. And ease into it she did. Does My Burn Look Big In This? being her most mirthful Fast Show line and title of her passable debut. But by the time we get to the fusty chocolates and wilted flowers of Stupid Cupid. the ideas have simply dried up.

The plot reads like a Woman's Own true story gone awry. Forty—two days before their wedding. a girl's beyfriend declares: ‘Ah . _ . eriii . . . cannae' (he's from Paisley). when discussing their imminent betrothal. But she tries to

convince everyone that all is well and the wedding will happen despite the secret that (gasp!) there's no groom. Cue a series of flabby encounters where our large-bottomed but big- hearted heroine Harriet (‘Call me Hat') flounders her way through endless episodes of chronic fibbing.

If the casting of a plain Jane overshadowed by her oh—so perfect sister and flamboyant friends is an attempt to give us a likeable everywoman to identify with. then why make her such a stupendously foolish. misguided twit’? Why not redeem her with a sense of humour instead of neuroses?

This lacks cohesion. pace and direction and finds Weir languishing under the rnisappreherision that she's reviving the spirit of PG. Wodehouse with her brittle prr se. Instead she is just doling out weak gags wrth longer than normal punchlines. Very. very stupid indeed. (Mark Robertson)

Shelf life

Classic novels revisited. This ssuesFungusihe Bogeyman

Published years ago. What’s the story Deep below the earth, in the dark. dank cavernous network of tunnels. known as Bogeydi.)m, live the Bogeymen. They pass their days sleeping and reading bogey newspapers. in between trips to the bogey ball and Visits to the National Bogey Gallery. But when night falls and the birds are hushed. the Bogeymen go to work above ground. gorng bump in the night and generally scaring the sleep out of human peOple. Raymond Briggs' classic children's book follows a night in the life of one such scabby. repulsive creature. Fungus. and his wife. Mildew.

What the critics said 'A coprophilous and putrid volume.’ screamed the Times Literary Supplement. while Quentin Crisp proclaimed the book's 'exouisite i_)erversity'. Key moment The Bogey awakening ritual is a particularly gruesome affair. invoIVing much squeezing of beils and consumption of snot and bogey pie washed down with cups of cold sick. Mildew then departs for the shops while Fungus Joins the ‘slow movrng stream of Bogeymen' in their vehicles heading for the human world.

Postscript While Briggs' other creations. including the Snowman and Father Christmas have famously been adapted for televrsion and film. several attempts to bring Fungus to the screen have failed. Perhaps. this is largely down to l ungus' ability to sicken the soul compared to the Snowman ai‘d ather' Chrrstnras’ tendancies to gladden the heart. l'hough now. to celebrate the Bogeyman's silver Jubilee. the character will appear in his own animated film later this year.

First line test ‘lhe sun sinks below the hills.' (Allan Radcliffm