Year of a Hundred books – #37 Homer and Langley

Homer and LangleyHomer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

2/5

When I lived in Glasgow, my local library had a section dedicated to the quirky and alternative books. This is quite a broad genre, and thus it included anything from Proust to Vonnegut to Bukowski. One day, on a whim, I picked up The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, which was a fictionalised story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, told from the point of view of their son years after their executions. I really enjoyed that, so when by chance I saw Homer and Langley in my new local library, I was quite keen to read it.

To say that now I wish I hadn’t would be a bit of an exaggeration, but it definitely failed to live up to my hopes. Like The Book of DanielHomer and Langley is a fictionalised take on a true story, this time the titular Collyer Brothers, a pair of reclusive hoarders who apparently became something of local celebrities in Harlem in the first half of the 20th Century. Extending their lives into the ’70s, rather than the ending them in the ’40s, Doctorow manages to paint an interesting picture of the major societal changes that took place between in the decades after the First World War.

Except he doesn’t really. Aside from a brief involvement with the burgeoning Harlem Jazz movement, and the Japanese Internments of the Second World War, The only time that the brothers interact with the rest of the world in any meaningful sense is during the 60s when they unwittingly become gurus to a crowd of hippies that reads much more like a parody than with any sense of

You do get a sense of the degradation of their lives over the years; Homer goes blind within the first few pages, and not long after that, Langley is victim of a mustard gas attack on the western front, around about the time that their parents fall victim to the Spanish Flu. They then spend the next 60 years accumulating tonnes of junk and clutter, slowly but inexorably filling their town house to the brim. Except, you don’t really get a sense of this for most of the book. As the narrator, Homer, is blind, it’s forgivable that there are perhaps not visual descriptions of the clutter, but the ease with which he describes his movements within the house don’t really give an indication of a living space full of old newspapers, pianos, typewriters, plant pots, bikes, motor cars and all manner of other flotsam and jetsam. At times there are passing references, but until the final chapters, I just didn’t get a feel for their defining gimmick through the text.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe Doctorow wasn’t aiming for this as the main thrust of his novel and I’ve missed the point of the book. But still, in comparison to the depths and subtleties of the Book of Daniel, Homer and Langley just doesn’t even come close.

Year of a Hundred books – #27 HHhH

HHhHHHhH, by Laurent Binet

5/5

Wow. I absolutely loved this book. It’s also caused me to fundamentally rethink a number of key philosophies about historical novels.

Because HHhH is most emphatically not historical fiction. In fact, it’s not fiction at all. Binet explicitly states that he finds the concept of creating fictional characters, dialogue and situations excessively vulgar (Here taking a cue from another author whose work I’ve loved; Milan Kundera), and thus in his depiction of the assasination of the SS second in command Reinhard Heydrich, Binet includes nothing that isn’t historically verifiable. (That said, the historian in me notices he rarely cites his sources academically!)

This leads to an interesting novel that is at times more concerned with the authorial process of research, editing, and at times, obsession over the topic, than it is with the topic itself.

It’ll be interesting to see how Binet follows this up, and indeed whether the book is sincere, or if the ‘author’ we read about in the book, is actually a constructed persona instead of reflecting Binet’s actual beliefs.

Either way, I cannot recommend this enough!