A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Maurice is an aspiring young writer with a talent for crafting sentences when he meets Erich Ackerman in a Berlin hotel. Erich’s status as a mid-list author has been recently boosted by his having recently won The Prize, but he’s lonely on tour. Charmed by youth’s beauty and enthusiasm, he invites Maurice to travel with him as his assistant. Gradually, the balance of power shifts from the older to the younger man.
Erich has a secret from his childhood in Nazi Germany, an interesting story he’s been wise enough not to write about, or talk about, until Maurice winkles it out of him. Having done so, the young man moves on to another established gay writer who can ease his way through the publishing bottleneck, with disastrous consequences for Erich, as for most others Maurice flatters and discards.
There’s tremendous fun in this satire of literary patronage and backbiting, from the creative writing industry that feeds on youthful arrogance and naivety to publishers’ unpaid interns sifting through the slush pile to expunge the competition. Having approached John Boyne (via his agent) with a request for him to read with a view to a possible endorsement of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, I particularly enjoyed the scenes on the Amalfi Coast when Maurice professes nonchalance at the prospect of his debut novel’s endorsement by Gore Vidal. Readers of The Heart’s Invisible Furies will be delighted when a novel by Maude Avery, one of the characters, appears on a bookshelf.
But A Ladder to the Sky isn’t only a sendup of the literary establishment. Maurice Swift isn’t the only character willing to sacrifice others at the altar of his own ambition. Erich Ackerman’s story of betrayal is also shocking, although he was a brainwashed adolescent and suffered for it for the rest of his life. Maurice’s sister-in-law Rebecca – whom we meet during his brief marriage to a lecturer on the renowned University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA – is almost as cruel to her husband.
Not having read any of his other eight novels for adults before I was beguiled by his exposé of endemic sexual abuse by Irish Catholic clergy, A History of Loneliness, I can’t say for sure, but I’m wondering if that novel was particularly cathartic, enabling him to be more playful in addressing serious themes. Or perhaps I’m projecting – or more likely constructing a fantasy connection between us (if only I had Maurice Swift’s beauty, youth and charm) – as my possibly third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is both humorous and dark.
Outrageous, engrossing, and highly entertaining, A Ladder to the Sky is a study of envy, narcissism and naked ambition in and outside the literary world, and a contender for one of my favourite reads of the year. Thanks to Doubleday for my review copy.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
As Arthur travels through literary life’s petty humiliations, he reflects on events from his past, including the end of his relationship with a much younger man. His plight echoes that of the more circumscribed journey of the protagonist of his latest novel submission, rejected by his publisher shortly before he left the United States. Arthur isn’t unusual in using travel as a form of avoidance; will he learn that you can’t run away from grief?
With a mixture of poignancy and humour – although rather schoolboyish, I particularly enjoyed the translations of Arthur’s confident but seriously flawed German – Less is also about the difficulty of judging one’s work and one’s worth. Having lived with a genius, Arthur is accustomed to being overshadowed, but he’s surprised when he’s told he’s missed out on prizes not because he isn’t a good writer but because he’s “a bad gay”.
With Arthur’s anxiety about reaching his half-century, this is also a novel about ageing and the difficulty of accepting change, not only in ourselves, but in the world external to us. Amid the losses, Arthur must learn what he values and what endures.
Although I enjoyed this novel, and can recognise the relevance of its themes beyond the claustrophobic sphere of the literati, I confess I’m surprised it was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. For me, it lacks the gravitas of previous winners, such as The Orphan Master’s Son. Thanks to publishers Little Brown for my review copy.
On the subject of prizes, it’s disappointing to read of criticism in some lofty quarters of the recently-announced winner of the UK’s most prestigious literary prize. Although, as mentioned in my post on funding for prizes, my fingers were crossed for Washington Black, the actual winner, Milkman, is a more Bookerish choice, and well worth pushing through the initial challenge the quirky style presents.