Ellie's second report from the Hay Fesitival is crammed with amazing events, so if it's raining where you are perhaps just pretend you are in a deckchair and why not tag along. My thanks to Ellie again for doing this and with apologies for the belated posting (where do the weeks go?)
Blusteryness gave way to warm sunshine for a couple of days, before bad weather returned and it has rained heavily on and off for several days and been cold. It was quite noisy at times if you happened to be in an event tent during a shower. Thank heavens for the covered walk-ways!
After a couple of days we soon learned the ropes of Hay. When and where to queue for the different venues, and which area of seating to aim for. Most of the events start and end at the same time to avoid overlaps, which means that there's a crowd surge when all the venues empty. Picking the right exit to your venue can help avoid the worst bottle necks!
Comedian Marcus Brigstocke played the largest venue on the first Sunday night introducing his own version of the 'Big Society' with his sharp satire. He also poked fun at festival goers who like to be seen reading a certain book but are actually peering over the top to check that people have noticed them! Our sides ached from over an hour of solid laughter!
Monday morning saw politician Jack Straw getting a grilling from the festival's interviewer, Peter Florence. A fascinating figure whose humble beginnings set him apart from many of his political contempories, and an unhappy childhood that sent him to seek comfort from books, Straw was Foreign Secretary at the time of the war in Iraq. The subject of the 'dodgy dossier' about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction came up several times. Hans Blix, who had headed up the UN weapons monitoring and inspection body at that time had been at Hay the day before, and many members of the audience had seen him so questions kept coming back to that subject. As Peter Florence said to Straw "this was never going to be an easy book tour for you".
Such was the popularity of American writer Barbara
Kingsolver that she got bumped up to a bigger venue.
She has long been one of my favourite authors, and I have returned to her novel Bean Trees many times, and enjoyed her subsequent books. She was a delight - warm and funny, elegant and charming she spoke about the climate change theme of her current novel Flight Behaviour. She uses her background as a scientist to inform the novel and believes we are all in denial (she quoted country singer Pam Tillis's hit 'Cleopatra, Queen of Denial') about climate change, and are in danger of throwing our good life away through our abuse of our planet. She spoke about how the first sentence of the novel is important and makes a promise that the rest of the novel must keep. By reading a novel you remove yourself from your everyday life and experience life in a different way - through another's eyes. Most sessions at Hay are followed by a book signing. I had been anxious not only to buy the novel, but also to get my old battered copy of Bean Trees signed. My books are still packed so that meant going through several boxes of 'US female fiction' frantically trying to find it. I was booked to see Roger McGough immediately after the session though and I had to make a choice - whether to combat massive signing queues myself and miss the first part of the next session, or to send Adrian to meet Barbara. As it turned out he had come with me to the event and was happy to meet her and get both books signed.
It was a tough call as I would have loved to have met her too, but Roger McGough's performance was incredible. His voice is so familiar from Radio 4's 'Poetry Please' programme and of course poetry is best served out loud so to hear him read his own work was a joy. He has a very entertaining way of turning words and meanings around to capture the essence of an everyday truth. Adrian doesn't particularly 'do' poetry so wasn't joining me for this one, but I know he would have enjoyed it if he had.
I enjoyed a joint session with Maggie O'Farrell, another favourite writer, who appeared alongside Rupert Thompson, who I knew nothing about, but to whom I warmed immediately. I'm now itching to read his novel 'Secrecy' set in post-Renaissance Florence. The interviewer was scarcely needed as there was a good rapport between the two writers with some insights into their process aired. No neatly planned plotlines here, both writers shared what Maggie described as her very organic approach... well actually chaotic. The works evolve gradually almost as a sculptor creates from a piece of stone, but with many redrafts. Maggie O'Farrell held up her reading copy of her new novel 'Instructions for a Heatwave' and showed all her annotations. Words and phrases she wished she'd used, and those she wished she hadn't. No novel was ever perfect, otherwise you wouldn't need to write the next one.
Paul Roberts is the force behind the new blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum on Pompeii and Herculaneum. We visited both of these sites in the shadow of Vesuvius on our travels and were looking forward to rekindling our memories and finding out more. It was a fascinating illustrated account including behind the scenes views of the huge store rooms of artefacts in Naples he accessed for exhibits and how they were transported to London. The focus is on the ordinary people who were caught up in the aftermath of this devastating eruption and what has been discovered about their lives, and he really brought this to life in a very entertaining and easy to understand way, warning the audience to 'brace, brace' whenever he was about to show a slide of one of the more explicit objects of Roman life. He struck a chord with us when he was asked about the effects of mass-tourism. It is the cruise groups that have the greatest negative effects - so many people passing so quickly through, but it's the tourist euros that help fund further excavations and maintenance of the sites. And although he couldn't answer the little boy's question about exactly when Vesuvius would erupt again, a major eruption is apparently long long overdue.
I'm in awe of speakers like Paul Roberts who can entertain and inform holding their audience for a whole hour without a script, make perfect sense and not lose their thread. Linguistics guru David Crystal was another one. His new book is about the history of English spelling, very much my area of interest (yet another of them!). He looked at how our words have evolved to be spelled as they are today, the influences and the way the language is continuing to evolve.
There's so much to report on and I don't want to invade Lynne's blog indefinitely so I'll quickly mention that Ruby Wax, who completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy last year spoke inspiringly and with her trademark humour about her own mental ill-health with Rosie Boycott. We also went to a panel session with war writers, most memorably Paul Conroy who was with Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times in a besieged town in Syria when Marie tragically lost her life. He spoke movingly of this experience and was obviously still recovering from being wounded himself. There was a wine tasting with Simon Hoggart - with anecdotes about life being too short to drink bad wine. Liebfraumilch was mentioned at least once! And the wines (not at all bad) we tasted were served to a large audience by the ever-efficient Hay volunteer stewards who contribute to all aspects of keeping the festival so slickly smooth-running.
After several days of bleak weather, and one day when some
of the car parks were closed due to the rain, the weekend grew closer and
promised a reprieve and we saw the sun again.
Umbrellas were exchanged for boaters and wellies for sandals as the temperatures and everyone's spirits rose again. The deckchairs had dried off and were in use again...
In danger of overload, so many events in a short period of time on top of a tiring move, we still had a session on green building, featuring among others Ben Law (he of the famous Grand Designs wooden house) and our last event - comedian Jo Brand to go. Then Adrian spotted a blackboard notice that Cerys Matthews would be doing an impromptu performance recording at The Daily Telegraph's stand the next day at noon. He asked about it, and no, no need to book, it wasn't ticketed. Just turn up. We arrived at five to noon expecting a crowd, but there were just a few people milling about and playing chess in the drawing room atmosphere of the stand. Yes, Cerys was coming and sure enough after a short wait she arrived and urged everyone present to make themselves at home on the sofas and comfy chairs, as she checked her guitar tuning.
What we didn't realise was that she has just brought out an anthology book of songs: nursery rhymes, childhood favourites, folk songs with a bit about their origins. She started by playing Baa baa black sheep urging old and young alike to sing along. She dipped into her book and played for us for about 40 minutes and we still can't quite get over that we were in on such a joyful interlude singing with a major star. A highlight of Hay!
Eventually it was time for us to drive back down to Hay festival one last time to see Jo Brand. A great end to a hectic ten days with lots of thoughts, ideas and impressions, chance conversations and catch ups with friends still whirring in our minds, and new books to read of course. And no longer any excuses keeping us from getting on with sorting out our new house and garden.
'When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?'
Those famous lines, written in the 14th century by John Ball, form the epigraph to Zadie Smith's most recent novel NW.
I knew of them and they had puzzled me for years so finally I look it all up and discover they were written during the Peasant's Revolt. Read with so many differing inflections and interpretations, the words can be made to say so much about gender and class distinctions and equality, that they do make the most perfect entry into a novel that really kept me very pleasurably on my toes and pounding the streets of London ... even if I was basking in the dappled sunlight of the Shire and gazing out on this view as I read. It was an incongruence that struck me with great regularity.
Ultimately so possessed was I by the mood and the spirit of the read that it had to be the book I took along to Endsleigh Salon last week for the reading theme of Fruit and Veg. This on the basis that I had meant to re-read Susan Hill's The Magic Apple Tree but hadn't, and really wanted to talk about NW anyway, so I winged it on the basis that Zadie's grandmother might have been called Granny Smith and thus had an apple named after her. It was tenuous but the salonistas let it pass, and my thanks to Simon Prosser, Zadie's publisher, who alerted me to the presence of the apple tree on page twenty-nine.
Thinking too of book as object. If you open out the French flaps on the cover of the new paperback edition of NW, this is what you get..
It was a bit of a bookish origami moment, and I was quite pleased with that clever design effect as I occasionally dragged myself away from the pages to have a play with the book, and to think about what I had read, before diving back in. In fact I had wanted some latter-day contrast, some anti-nostalgia, some get-real-and-of-the-moment reading to balance out that week of Coronation musing and I couldn't have chosen a more perfect read.
NW is relentlessly and minutely about London and a group of four Londoners, all from the same housing estate in Kilburn, all going to the same school and now all leading very different lives. Often disillusioned, frequently challenged and compromised yet returning to their roots and their origins for explanations and answers, and somehow, as I read of them emerging from each scrap and scrape, I had an innate sense of optimism that mostly all would be well.
There is no doubt that on paper it is Keisha Blake who has achieved the greatest success, changing her name to Natalie in order to fit into the world of the corporate lawyer for which she has qualified, but remaining inseparable from her Kilburn roots.
Perhaps it is Leah Hanwell, Keisha's best friend, who is overtly the one with potential and ambition the least fulfilled as she drifts into life as a council administrative assistant and grapples with her aversions to pregnancy and parenthood with her husband, hairdresser Michel.
Or maybe it is Felix with his ambitions to restore classic cars...and as you read you sort of know it's never going to happen.
And then there's Nathan...
Yet as the novel unfolds so do the surprises, contentment with life's pattern is hard won and not where you may always expect to find it.
For me, the best part of the book came with the 185 numbered vignettes that take the story right back to the early days and the beginnings of Keisha/Natalie and Leah's friendship, finally converging with the present-day story as the reader already knows it. We had an interesting debate about this at the Endsleigh Salon. Someone who had read the book (and enjoyed it) suggested these short pieces conveniently reflected the fact that Zadie had perhaps written the book on and off through interrupted time post-childbirth... it hadn't occurred to me but we did just wonder all the same. If so it was a clever use of time leading to a brilliant outcome (all I had to show for that time was a patchwork quilt that took me five years to finish...oh yes, and three lovely children) and by coincidence a few days later some thoughts on motherhood and creativity from Zadie herself.
The writing is so very clever but not too clever. The style, once I became accustomed to it, and to Zadie's omissions and inferences ...those tiny asides and hints that send the reader off to make some assumptions of their own, well it all felt astonishing, which may be why I had to keep calling a halt and taking stock. It is exactly like life, like being in a room and being part of the conversation. The way that not every single word needs to be said, that things are left unsaid because they can be, and that those present will cotton on to the meaning and go with the flow of the conversation and the situation regardless, and with what sleight of pen does Zadie Smith trap this on the page. I supect I'd be nervous should I ever (unlikely) find myself in the same room as Zadie when she is gathering book material, in fact I doubt she ever stops given her level of observation.
That playing with the French flaps just one of the many things I discovered you can do with a book by Zadie Smith apart from sending it to the charity shop that is. I am now very ashamed to admit that, having failed with Zadie's fiction to date, that is exactly what I had done with a half-read copy of White Teeth, only a few months ago in the Big Purge, though thankfully I had kept the half-read copy of On Beauty because it was a hardback and I had paid good money for it, and with all these half-reads around I hadn't bothered with The Autograph Man.
I had diagnosed myself as the wrong reader for Zadie Smith some years ago. Me old enough to be her mum, and I had declared this to be the writing of a younger generation that I just wasn't 'getting.' I can't decide if I feel happier to have discovered Zadie Smith will be thirty-eight this year, or mortifed because that makes me feel even older.
But I did love Zadie's book of Occasional Essays Changing My Mind so all was not lost, here was the razor-sharp intellect of a young woman who by her own admission agrees...
'When you are first published at a young age, your writing grows with you - and in public...I'm forced to recognise that ideological consistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.'
Hence the title of the book of essays, and hence maybe why I have suddenly clicked with Zadie Smith's fiction in NW, her fourth outing, and I have to admit I have been swept up and along and away by a book that I felt certain I wouldn't want to read.
NW is, amongst myriad themes, a book about class, and race, and prejudice (not necesarily racial) about ambition (or lack of it) and people doing the best they can with what they've got, or have inherited, or earned, or been given. Sometimes that 'best' is good enough, sometimes it falls short, but then who is anyone to judge. If you love the minutiae of ordinary people's lives then you might enjoy this one, and once you have settled into the narrative style will be pounding the streets of London with the best of them,
The oddest yet most pleasurable reading week I have had in a long time. I even had £10 at 5:1 riding on NW to win the Women's (now Bailey's Women's) Prize for Fiction, which sadly for Zadie (and for me) it didn't, but Zadie I forgive you.
So any Zadie fans out there??
Do I go back to the beginning and try again??
Not quite either of the belfries within my Beating the Bounds square mile, (though I did sing in the choir there for a couple of years,) but St Andrew's Buckland Monachorum near enough, because all these local churches were being built at about the same time. It is said that if you travelled around these parts in the mid-15th century you would have tripped over a half-built church every few miles. A number of them have a similar tower design topped out with very distinctive pinnacles, the same team working round and adding the icing on the church cake.
Tower building was all about attracting the eye and announcing grandeur and importance, a way of providing the people with an experience of heaven on earth. It was about rivalry between villages too, and each tower an example of the care and expense lavished on their church by the community. Rarely did those communities number more than 200 people, and towers were expensive additions which according to John Scott must have eaten up a huge proportion of the local wealth.
I'm not sure I had ever given much thought to who would have paid for these, but as John Scott affirms the main motive was the glory of God and we do the builders and the benefactors a great injustice if we allow 21st century cynicism to doubt it. Look what a glorious legacy they have left us, and sadly what an endless struggle it can be to raise the funds to maintain them now.
I had found John Scott's book in the reference library a while back, entitled Towers and Bells of Devon. Two hefty volumes in fact, and my interest in all things bells piqued by the discovery of a book which should, if the title is anything to go by, have been enough to send me to sleep. Far from it, all utterly fascinating. A meticulous history of each church tower in the Shire with date, size, weight, note and name of each bell ... bit like a very great big baby, but with a note of dedications and inscriptions as well. I hadn't known about the inscriptions but I discovered that the bells in our village church bear little gems like...
'Prosperity to this Parish'
' Tenor I to the Church the Living Call and to the Grave I summon All' .
This latter I assume a reference to the tolling of the sonourous Passing Bell, the death knell that seems to be getting a good work out as I read The Nine Tailors.
So at our allotted time there we were, first in the queue, Bookhound leading the way up the stone steps to the top of the seventy foot tower, built using local rubble and granite, and already we discover a design fault because though I could just about squeeze up the stairs, Bookhound found his top half was around the spiral with his legs still to waiting to catch up. If you look carefully you might just be able to see me 'going round the bend' this on the descent..
Tiny windows on the ascent giving a clue that we were rising higher, just in case the knees weren't telling us as much too..
until eventually we emerged onto the roof, and what sights to behold..
...and a close up of one of those pinnacles.
On the way down (much quicker) we were able to stop and peek through the grill at the belfry itself,
From the church website I discover a little nugget of history.
The Buckland Monachorum tower design, with its high pinnacles at the limits of practicability, sacrificed strength for elegance, though mercifully the first four bells hung all stayed put. However when two more were added in 1723, within ten years and with repeated ringing, the tower was seriously weakened necessitating major repairs. It would seem luck that the whole lot didn't come crashing down.
Now that all makes me want to read The Spire by William Golding and The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I have started both books and failed to finish them, but (sorry *SPOILER* alert) don't the towers collapse in both??
In 1858, it was discovered that the wooden bell cage had rotted and that someone had misguidedly driven wedges between the timbers and the walls of the tower.
This had caused fractures in the tower as a result of the constant vibration. More worryingly it was not until 1905 that the bells were re-hung in a new wood frame, before being re-cast in 1947 and situated in the metal frame visible, with two tenor bells added to make a glorious peal of eight bells.
Eight bells can ring 40,320 changes which would take eighteen hours. just saying in case you were wondering. I think the sum might 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 etc, someone will work it through.
It's hard to imagine how on earth any work is done in a belfry. The space is seriously limited and claustrophobic, to say nothing of dangerous, and I have yet to figure how you get a hefty bell in and out unless it is somehow lowered down through here, the chamber below housing the clock mechanism.
Unusually the ringers gallery below the clock chamber overlooks the nave of the church which I am not sure I had ever realised in those years that I occupied the choir stalls...
and like many such galleries has some wonderful signs and notices in place. This little warning from 1755... (if you click on these pictures they should enlarge)
and this more recent one...
Imagine the clock chiming in and messing up the changes.
And so to the ringing, of which I know nothing beyond that which I have learned from the authorial campanology of Dorothy L.Sayers, so I am grateful to that Coronation edition of Picture Post for the low down.. or should that be the high down...or maybe the up down.
The ringers of St Paul's reveal the secrets for the man on the street down below in 1953. Basically you must learn how to pull on a rope to achieve certain results and without 'music' as it were, all has to be done from memory. You musn't move your feet while the rope's end is on the floor or you'll be swept off them and dumped back down with two broken ankles, and not surprisingly in this case the whole process requires absolute concentration.
World records were few back then. I am not sure about now but the 1922 feat of 21,363 changes in twelve hours with not a single ringer taking a break (no, not even for 'that') seems remarkable and knocks Lord Peter Wimsey's meagre nine hours into touch. Apparently records were rare because no one wanted to listen to bells ringing for thirteen hours.
For anyone who hasn't read The Nine Tailors, the Picture Post piece ends with another spoiler so look away now...
'Disillusioning fact is that even the combined noise of St Paul's twelve bells at their loudest wouldn't really kill the victim of a detective story, locked up in the belfry. It might make his ears tingle - not more.'
On this day in 1893, Dorothy L. Sayers was born in Oxford, the only child of an Anglican vicar Henry and his wife Helen. I have chosen this picture of her in her younger days. There is an element of latent mischief in that face, almost ready to laugh; pictures of Dorothy in her later years reveal a sterner, more severe and matronly countenance.
By all accounts intelligent, precocious and much-loved and indulged by the various adults that surrounded her, Dorothy was heading for the Godolphin School in Salisbury and thence to Somerville College in Oxford, becoming one of the first women to receive a degree. A contemporary there of Vera Brittain and all a cue for me to dust off my copy Dangerous by Degrees by Susan Leonardi.
I'm sure some of you will know this book, an account of women at Oxford between 1912 and 1922 and six Somerville novelists, Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain as well as Murial Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, Margaret Kennedy and Winifred Holtby. I have only read Dorothy and Vera, have almost meant to read Winifred, have both Doreen and Margaret on the shelf and had never heard of Muriel. I have also been dipping into the biography Dorothy L. Sayers - Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds.
All lives are fascinating but Dorothy's the more so for the fact that she bore an illegitimate son in 1924 whose existence was kept a well-guarded secret from the public until twenty years after her death. Fearing that the discovery would heap shame on her parents, Dorothy hid herself away, taking eight weeks leave of absence from her job with an advertising agency to give birth to John Anthony, who she then proceeded to breast feed for several weeks before appointing a distant relative as a guardian and handing him over; adoption was illegal until 1926 ( I didn't know that) and swearing the guardian to secrecy, a vow that Ivy Shrimpton appears to have kept faithfully, loving John Anthony as her own.
I had just one Dorothy L. Sayers novel on the Have Read list and that was Gaudy Night some years ago, at which point I did the usual and acquired a shelf full thinking how much I had enjoyed it and I must read more, and never quite got around to it, so this week I have been deep into campanology and The Nine Tailors.
It's all a tangled mass of sallies and clappers and Grand Sire Triples, and bodies in the wrong place, and poor old Peter Wimsey who finds himself stranded in the snow on New Year's Eve just as the village of Fenchurch St Paul is in crisis. A man down on the bell ringing team, and with fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty celebratory Kent Treble Bob Majors to be rung for the next nine hours before morning. Obviously no one needs any sleep in Fenchurch St Paul, and as luck would have it Sir Peter is an accomplished campanologist, along with all his other competencies, and is ready (sort of) and able to slot into the team.
'Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don't need rest. I would far rather ring bells...'
There may be trouble ahead.
I haven't finished it yet but I am loving it all which is more than can be said for Q.D.Leavis who clearly had the knives out for Dorothy's fiction in general...
'... but no novelist with such a parasitic, stale adulterated way of feeling and living could ever amount to anything. And Miss Sayers' fiction,when it isn't mere detective-story of an unimpressive kind, is exactly that : stale, second-hand, hollow...it is only the emanation of a 'social' mind wanting to raise a snigger...'
Goodness me Queenie, that's bulldog-chewing-a-wasp writing if ever I saw it.
But reading The Nine Tailors was all enough to have me first in the queue and jumping up and down (in my mind) with excitement when we saw this at the summer fair in Buckland Monachorum last Saturday...
Chances to go up church towers are rare but there was the church dressed overall, not a cloud in the sky and trips up to the roof . More about our belfry experience to come, and how we squeezed up the ninety something steps and decided how very thin people must have been in them days and how on earth did they build this in 1490 ...
Buckland Monachorum village history reveals it was not just Fenchurch St Paul that was awake all night listening with copious joy to the music of the bells...
'Church bell ringers have always practised their art and skill with enthusiasm, but records reveal that in 1815, their fervour overcame their judgement and good sense. It seems that although forbidden to have the key to the belfry door by Mark Tucker, Clerk and Schoolmaster, they managed to enter the church late one evening and rang throughout the night. Understandably the village was not pleased, and for their "mutinous and riotous behaviour" they were dismissed.
That music as Dorothy L. Sayers writes it..
'Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo - tan tin din dan bam bim bo bam - tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom - tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom...'
Are you keeping up...have you got your bell competently up and set up at the backstroke and have you adjusted your tuckings, and are you ready for the hunting up, the hunting down, making the thirds and fourths and laying the blows behind before working down to lead the dance again. I do hope so. I think I am almost starting to understand it, and if I tell the musical amongst you that the notes for the Buckland Monachorum bells (smallest to largest) are as follows...
E - D# - C# - B - A - G# - F# - E
Well look, you could almost sing it or replicate a Kent Treble Bob Major on the piano couldn't you.
But meanwhile Happy Birthday Dorothy... any fans out there??
Any bell-ringers who understand it all??
Back in the dim recesses of time, as an almost qualified health visitor, I was dispatched to Tavistock to do something called Supervised Practice. This used to happen after final written exams and would involve (and may still) three months based in an area that had to be in complete contrast to your previous nine month student placement (mine had been a baptism of fire on the naval estates of Plymouth City) You would be given a mini-caseload of a hundred families to practise on visit in that time, before heading back into college at the end of the stint for a rigorous viva voce and hopefully a Pass.
Thankfully I passed but I doubt I will ever forget that Summer of '78.
Fancy being paid to drive around these lanes, and up onto Dartmoor; fresh-faced and mustard-keen I really couldn't get enough of it, so when a health visitor post came up in Tavistock while I was there, and was offered to me, I snapped it up. No matter that I would have to drive out from our flat in the gloomy Dockyard end of Plymouth every day, it would be worth it. Those were the days when you were given an NHS car, so I had an ex-Police Panda car cast-off (with the word POLICE barely sprayed over) sporting very random gears and the worrying number plate RTA, but about a month into the job I was offered an unfurnished 'Community Nurse' house too, in the village of Buckland Monachorum.
It's odd when you look back and realise how so much of your life just slots into place by luck and happenstance isn't it, and I'm sure similar things will have happened to many of you. It only took about three trips to move our two years-worth of married belongings to our new home, included the mandatory Swiss Cheese plant sticking out of the back window. We furnished sparsely... minimalist was us, decorated appallingly remembering that this was the era of the two-toned emulsioned room (Cinnamon and Spice ...a whole lot too much of brown) and got a Border Collie puppy as we proceeded to see what it was like to really live in the country.
Returning to Buckland Monachorum last Saturday, and walking through those same fields we had walked with Ben, it dawned on us both that this was where it had all begun, our road to where we are now and our love of country life and splendid rural isolation. We loved Buckland and would have happily settled there had we been able to afford it, but cottages were going for about £15k and we had a mortgage maximum of £12-14k... laughable when you look back, won't even buy a car these days. We had driven the ten miles or so for the summer fair last week but on the way turned into The Garden House just outside the village.
Now we hadn't been to The Garden House for years. To be honest we couldn't remember there being much that was of interest to us back in the day when it was a five minute walk away, but we had followed its progress over the years. We knew that the garden had been extended and that innovative head gardener Keith Wiley had wrought miracles before moving onto his own nursery along the road, that the garden has featured on Gardener's World and presenters Alan Titchmarsh and Carol Klein both adore it, and that Sophie Wessex had paid a Royal visit recently
The house was originally the Rectory for the village church and is now the tea rooms, the whole plot bought and developed by Lionel (an ex-Eton schoolmaster) and Kathleen Fortescue in the 1960s, this much we had known before..
I was, as usual, much in need of a cream tea and having had my cholesterol done last week and not yet been in receipt of the phone call to tell me off, thought in for a penny etc before I'm back on porridge. A pile of egg sandwiches, scones, jam, clotted, Earl Grey etc later we stepped out to look at the gardens before walking along the footpath to the village, and thinking the garden would only take us take us twenty minutes or so on the way and we'd moan at having payed £7 something to get in.
Cue...HUGE SURPRISES around every corner.. breathtaking ones at that
Acres and acres of it. The wildflower meadows in full flight as were the rhododendrons, this beauty (Vanessa Pastel) in a shady glade but pickled with glorious flowers...
and perhaps my favourite, unbeatable, biggest-gasp moment...
The meconopsis bed ...plant envy doesn't come close... I WANT A LOT OF THESE...
Everything looks so natural, yet planting schemes worked out meticulously to capitalise on the setting, its possibilities and above all the long gaze of the beholder...
There in the distance the village church and beyond that Kit Hill which we look across to from home. The church tower a reminder that we had meant to go to the summer fair, but we still had so much to see. Reluctantly we slipped down onto the footpath, did the village in quick order but couldn't wait to get back to The Garden House.
Far from begrudging the entry fee we were almost the last ones out, but not before we threw more money at them and became Friends, buying a year-long double ticket so that we can go whenever. Monty Don suggested on last week's Gardener's World (now avid fan) how important it was to go and look at other gardens to get inspiration for your own, and I was reminded of so much, not least that this is the only garden where we have failed to establish a good show of Aquilegias/Columbines which I love, so that is one of my many tasks for next year.
God knows what else I'll be wanting to grow after a year of seeing all this, watch this space, plus all tips for growing meconopsis, and while we're about it poppies too, gratefully received
Last year, the acclaimed theatre director Katie Mitchell put The Rings of Saturn or Die Ringe des Saturn on stage – not in England but in Cologne, Germany.This programme follows her as she takes her German actors to East Anglia to experience at first-hand the landscape in which Sebald was writing and walking. They explore a coastline, which – as Sebald was acutely aware – looks out towards Germany, across what used to be known until the late 19th century as “the German Ocean”.
The trip along the coast precipitates the actors’ personal reflections and memories of their grandparents’ generation during the Second World War and the way the history of that time has been handed down to them.
The programme introduces The Rings of Saturn through beautiful readings by the actor Stephen Dillane, interspersed with music by composer Paul Clark, and sounds recorded on the Suffolk coastline; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be dismissed.
The program is well-done. Sebald devotees won’t learn much, but there are a few points of interest. Stephen Dillane (from Game of Thrones) turns out to be a very nice reader of Sebald’s prose. The radio piece also includes the unannounced appearance of Sebald’s friend Rüdiger Gorner, editor of The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W.G. Sebald (which I wrote about previously).
At last I am back with The Persephone Book of Short Stories and back too with my reading-a-story-from-each-end alternately method, the plan being that time will converge in on itself and eventually I will meet myself in the middle. The stories are arranged by date of publication so the time gap has shrunk from the original seventy-seven years when I started to a mere ten years now, 1937-1947, and with ten stories left to read the similarities of subject matter are becoming much more striking given the world events in that period.
I have said before how much I am loving this volume and would like a new one every year (please Persephone) and I am now quite pleased with myself for not gorging on it in two days, because so much thinking and revelation would have been lost. Witness the serendipitous way that reading connects with itself as I picked the book up again only to find that the next story to read (from the front end) happened to be The Exile by Betty Miller (1935). This just as I was reading The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal.
I am new to Betty Miller but on the strength of this one story I will definitely read more. I have
a copy of Farewell Leicester Square, and also the lovely old Virago edition of On
the Side of Angels with that fabulous cover. I did know that Betty Miller was the mother of Jonathan Miller but no more, so as always the Persephone website supplies the details...
'...was born in Ireland to a Lithuanian businessman and a Swedish teacher whose (Polish) family was distantly related to the philosopher Henri Bergson. She went to school in London and did a diploma in journalism at University College before publishing the first of her seven novels. In 1933 she married the psychiatrist Emanuel Miller (1892-1970)..'
It all sounds like ample experience to have grown up in the midst of (much like Resi in The Exiles Return) plenty to offer insights into the life of an exile there, and it was fascinating to read this story alongside Elisabeth de Waal's book to further understand the impact of the exile on those around them. There is much discomfort expressed in The Exiles Return which Betty Miller's story elaborates on with great insight.
Irina, the Russian emigree, works as a maid in 'this semi-suburban, semi-countrified village' but is mysteriously being passed around from one home to the next...
'Irina is not the ordinary type of servant. Mrs Clark told me on the 'phone that she was really a very cultured person.'
'Then why's she doing this sort of work?'
'She's an emigre, dear. The revolution in Russia, you know. Why, in Paris there are grand-duchesses who are waitresses and chambermaids.'
An excellent cook, 'adept and thorough at the housework'. willing and very hard working, there seems no apparent reason why once captured this 'real treasure' should not be kept at all costs.
But no one has bargained for the impact of the emigre psyche on those around them...
'There was in their midst someone to whom life meant really nothing: measuring themselves, their joys, their pleasures, ambitions against that awoke on each of them something curiously restive, something that undermined with alarming ease all their ordinary standard of values.'
The guilt at having so much ...'unthinking fleshly profligacy,' when someone else has lost everything and now has so little...
The seeming 'plenty' and the shallowness of the lives that Irina serves discreetly yet very obviously delineated to the reader...
'...prosperous of paunch beneath his waistcoat,'
'..her perfume tantalised the air...'
And then the willing revelation about her husband's brutal demise rapidly dispelling any aura of mystery surrounding Irina's past and invoking even more discomfort in those around her.
Slowly but surely the unease pervades....
'What sort of life are we living...what meaning, what spiritual value...just suffocating in day-to-day material things...doping ourselves comfortably, pretending we'll never die.'
It is clear that Irina is a painful reminder of so much that most would prefer to leave below the surface, and whilst the exile has developed survival and coping strategies borne out of extreme necessity, it is clear that those she serves can only fall back on the securities of home and castle, the exact same thing the exile has lost.
Written in 1935 how prescient this story and that fragility is, given that we know with hindsight that every man's castle is about be threatened beyond anything he could ever have imagined. But the story still feels of relevance now. Those who have been exiled will understand, those of us who may not have been may well be able indentify with the discomfort as we watch a news bulletin these days.
Ultimately Irina is too much of a painful reminder of how quickly everything can be taken away and the answer to that is ...well, I won't spoil it, but if you read either one of these alone, Elisabeth de Waal's The Exiles Return, or Betty Miller's The Exile, definitely seek out the other.
In my second post on Dora Osborne’s new book Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr, I will look at her chapter called “Blind Spots: Austerlitz.” As I noted in my first post, Osborne chooses to use theories of trauma from Freud, Walter Benjamin, and others as the lens to look at Sebald and Ransmayr. In Austerlitz, she is concerned in the “questions that Sebald poses in his engagement with the fundamental concerns of postwar, post-Holocaust literature, with what it means to write of the trauma of another or others.”
This chapter examines the blind spots in Austerlitz, showing how they are symptomatic of trauma and of moments when the difficulties inherent in trying to represent traumatic experience. They indicate moments where the protagonists insight into his past is screened by the realization that his own fate and the fate of his family are bound to the fate of millions. This is replicated on the level of narrative where the confrontation with Austerlitz’s traumatic past is also a confrontation with genocide and the rupture of civilization which this signals. Moreover, the blind spots in narrative are indicative of Sebald’s struggle to see from his belated, non-Jewish perspective how individual experience can be remembered without being overwhelmed by history writ large.
Osborne sorts through the dense, maze-like mass of symbols, inter- and intratextual linkages, and other hints created by Sebald in his attempt to give resonance to Austerlitz’s difficult task of recreating his lost life history. She posits that the numerous images scattered throughout Austerlitz implicate the reader in the process of understanding their meaning, much as Austerlitz is struggling to understand his own past. “By looking at the images we adopt the position of witnesses, but are always trying to view events that are irrevocably past.”
In his final prose narrative, Sebald brings together the concerns of his project in highly complex ways; his eponymous protagonist is made the vehicle for a huge historical, conceptual and intellectual load, and at times Austerlitz seems to reach the limits of what it can meaningfully show. In particular, the narrative preoccupations with vision and images (photographed, remembered, dreamed, imagined) shows the scope of Sebald’s project, but it also shows its blind spots. Despite the many images in Austerlitz, the vision of the protagonist, narrator, and reader is repeatedly obscured or compromised. The blind spots in Austerlitz mark the traumatic traces of the protagonist’s experience of loss and separation, but they also screen the traumatic realization that his individual experience is linked to the fate of millions, and that the narrator can never fully comprehend either the personal trauma of Austerlitz or the collective trauma of the Holocaust. Given this narrative impasse, Austerlitz seems to develop a traumatophilic attachment, returning compulsively to the multiple points of rupture in the narrative.
Sebald seems to have thrown everything he had into Austerlitz, almost to the point of overburdening the book, and this makes it correspondingly difficult for Osborne to unpack the book in s single concise chapter. If I’ve quoted Osborne so much in this post and added so little of my own commentary, it is because her reading of Austerlitz is very densely argued and it’s tough to generalize her position. I will also confess that I’m not much of a Freudian and so I don’t always agree with some of her conclusions. Nevertheless, she brought countless things to light about The Emigrants and Austerlitz that I am extremely grateful for, and I know I’ll never read either of these books again without saying a silent “thank you” to Osborne for opening my eyes to a new way of looking at them.
Dora Osborne, Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr. London: Legenda, 2013.
'And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes..'
The May Magnificat - Gerard Manley Hopkins
They seem to have been with us for weeks and weeks this year, or maybe it seems like that because we now have time to go and look and walk through them most days, but the bluebells have been stunning, especially on our sundown walk as the sun seeps through from the west. Rivers of blue that defy words...and every so often we find a brave little hybrid in their midst.
Our eyes seem keenly attuned to blue at the moment with some glorious June evenings to enjoy as we walk up the fields towards the woods...
And then, as we step inside, we are transfixed and have to remember to lift our eyes upwards too, for more magnificence...
It's now hard to remember it looking like this back in January.
Enough words from me this week, Gerard Manley Hopkins has the edge on the fabulous sightings we have enjoyed up in Berry Wood of late...
From Notebooks - May 1871
'But in the clough/ through the light/ they came in falls of sky-colour washing the brows and slacks of the ground with vein-blue, thickening at the double...It was a lovely sight -the bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape...the overhung necks - for growing they are little more than a staff with a simple crook... crisp, ruffled bells..'
And on the same theme, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Macfarlane ...
Two years ago I wrote about British theater director Katie Mitchell’s plans to stage Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in Cologne’s Schauspiel Haus in 2012. I never gave that production a second thought until this week when several readers alerted me to an upcoming radio broadcast on BBC 3 called “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision,” Saturday June 8 from 9.00-9.30 PM (21:00). Here’s the basic information from the BBC website:
Between The Ears offers an insight into one of the strangest and most original writers of the 20th Century: WG Sebald. Polymathic and profound, the intricacies of Sebald’s writing cannot be summarised or explained; but this programme explores a few of the themes that most preoccupied Sebald in his life and writing – in particular, exile and the memory of war. A voluntary emigrant from Germany to England, Sebald settled in East Anglia in 1970. The Rings Of Saturn, a book first published in German in 1995, recounts a long walk down the coast, from Somerleyton to Orford. This programme introduces The Rings Of Saturn through readings, interspersed with music and sound, archive and interviews; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be pushed aside and replaced by a virtual sense of time and space on screen.
Directed by Katie Mitchell.
Producer/ Isabel Sutton for the BBC
Somewhat curiously, the website for justradio (the production company for the program) adds a bit more information and lists the broadcast time as 21:30.
This programme follows [Mitchell] as she takes her German actors to East Anglia to experience at first-hand the landscape in which Sebald was writing and walking. They explore a coastline which – as Sebald was acutely aware – looks out towards Germany, across what used to be known until the late 19th century as “the German Ocean”.
I believe the broadcast should be available on BBC’s iPlayer website for about a week after the original airing, but there is currently no information to be found there.
As a run-up to the broadcast the producer, Isabel Sutton, has written an interesting article over at New Statesman called “Sebald’s apocalyptic vision: The world will end in 2013.” Here’s the blurb: “Radio producer and journalist Isabel Sutton travelled to Germany to talk about W G Sebald with his old friend and colleague Professor Rüdiger Görner. She meets him in the same hotel bar where he and Sebald had lunched together many years before.” Sutton also writes about Mitchell’s 2012 play. (Fair warning! This article also claims the program will be broadcast on BBC at 21:30.)
So, while we’re on the subject of Mitchell’s play Die Ringe des Saturn, here are some links for further exploration. At the Festival d’Avignon website, there is a slide show with twelve photographs of the production, a 2:28 video clip of the production (click on the “Rings of Saturn” tab next to the “Slide Show” tab), along with commentary on Mitchell’s approach to transforming Sebald’s circuitous narrative into theater, part of which is excepted here:
It’s not a question of using sophisticated technological resources to illustrate this first-person journey but rather of wandering around inside the narrator’s mind; showing us the thoughts provoked in Sebald by the landscape, the images it inspires and the memories it evokes. Alongside him, we’re forced to plunge into history, to visit eighteenth century China, return to Germany in 1945, watch Anglo-Dutch naval battles and, above all, to listen to the sound of footsteps and the sometimes laboured breathing of someone following his path, crossing epochs and continents, no matter what. The path of a civilised being who worries for the future of a world in a state of galloping erosion.
The Schauspiel has posted a short video trailer for its Cologne production on YouTube. As can be seen in the stills and the video clips, portions of Grant Gee’s film Patience were projected in Mitchell’s play. Bringing all of this full circle, then, there are yet more photographs from the production at the Bēhance website of Finn Ross who took the rushes from Gee’s film which he “then reconstructed into a tryptic that moves in and out of the live camera world” of the theater production.
And, finally, Zigs1 has posted her thoughts upon attending the May 11, 2012 performance in Cologne.
All That Is takes for its title a summing up, which is apt enough. It is the book of a life; it is about a life. The life is that of Philip Bowman, from early adulthood to late middle age, though the narrative never limits itself to him. Indeed, only in the last third or so of the novel could the reader be certain that this is a book ‘about’ Bowman, so frequently do secondary characters rush into the foreground and steal the narrator’s attention, often so comprehensively that you think they might suddenly become the hero. That is surely no criticism – that the author’s empathy is so wide-ranging – and anyway it’s only the cover blurb that does limit the book to being Bowman’s story. So: it’s about Bowman’s world, better say. The happy reader must resist the desire to determine what a book is about before reading it.
And resist, too, the desire to expect it to be just like the reader’s favourite previous work by the author: or rather, to be simultaneously like that and entirely new. Clearly, All That Is was not going to be the new Light Years. For one thing, the fiction we’ve seen from Salter since then – the novel Solo Faces, the story collections Dusk and Last Night – shows a sparer, firmer, cleaner prose than Light Years. For another, Light Years was almost 40 years ago, and – to adapt Douglas Adams on P.G. Wodehouse – at the age of 87, you’re entitled to have your best work behind you. (See also fellow octogenarian Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies last year, which nonetheless wiped the floor with many writers half her age.)
All this might sound as though I am making allowances for a disappointment, and in a sense I am. But to avoid the charge of writing around the book but not about it – of writing a review that might be titled All That Isn’t – I had better say what it is like. Salter’s earlier works were generally books about how men measure themselves: against women (A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years) or against themselves (The Hunters, Solo Faces). All That Is, aptly for a summing-up, has both: in particular, a certain amount of war, and an awful lot of sex. This is a man’s book, a book of men, where women mostly are represented only in relation to their men. This is not to say that the men are portrayed without cynicism. When one recurring character, Vivian, is propositioned by a judge, she replies “I’ve already gone through one bad marriage,” which Salter follows with “The judge had gone through three, though he considered himself blameless.” However a more typical viewpoint seems to be that of Bowman, who, we learn, “didn’t like women who looked down on you for whatever reason. Within limits, he liked the opposite.” The men who come and go through All That Is are not always easy to distinguish, and tend to share an air of willed greatness, so that as Salter passes over his creations the effect is of a god checking in on his people, listening, moving on. Salter, who perhaps uncommonly for a writer has always been interested in success as much as failure, lords it over the reader in his reassuringly omniscient voice. He has no care for holding to a character’s restricted viewpoint, but is happy to direct and instruct the reader in all manner of details. One example is when Vivian, here aged eight, has a conversation with her mother Caroline about inviting some older boys over. After their exchange there is a passage which begins in Caroline’s head then switches quickly to an authorial aside, before slipping back into the story:
The age of imitation when there are no dangers though it depended. In the past, girls might be married at twelve, queens-to-be knelt to be wed even younger, Poe’s wife was a child of thirteen, Samuel Pepys’ only fifteen, Machado the great poet of Spain fell madly in love with Leonor Izquierdo when she was thirteen, Lolita was twelve, and Dante’s goddess Beatrice even younger. Vivian knew as little as any of them…
If Dan Brown did this, it would be considered an infodump from a guidebook and roundly mocked. Somehow, perhaps through reputation combined with the elegance of his style, Salter not only gets away with it but makes these asides into some of the highlights of the book. Perhaps this is what Martin Amis meant when he described reading the best books as being “a transfusion from above.” There are plenty more of these diversions in All That Is, most no more than a page, from a biography of Federico García Lorca to a report of a book on Reinhard Heydrich which is worth more than all of the overrated HHhH. These are page-thin slices of concentrated brilliance, and Salter brings similar expertise to short scenes usually involving intensity and danger, such as a thunderstorm and a nighttime swimming session. There is a masculinity to these too.
Then there is the sex. Ever since he wrote the words “he comes like a bull” in A Sport and a Pastime, Salter has been the poet laureate of a certain kind of sex prose. All That Is seems likely to be nominated for a Bad Sex Award, unfairly in my view, first because that award seems to me to be a puritanical thing devised to punish those who dare to describe sex at all in fiction, and second because Salter’s sex writing clearly comes from the heart – or thereabouts – and from a passion to render it fully. Even when it’s more confusing than enlightening – “he came like a drinking horse” in All That Is has taken on a meme-ish life of its own, or then there’s “her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery” – you can tell that he really gives a damn. Elsewhere, away from the eye-openers, I think the sex writing is better than some say, although that might be because I am a man, since this is an area of Salter’s writing which is even more male-oriented than the rest. A passage, for example, where a woman is fellating a man, goes, “It was like a boot just slipped onto a full calf and she went on doing it, gaining assurance, her mouth making only a faint sound.” Typing that out, stripped of context (“the zipper of his pants melted, tooth by tooth”), I admit it sounds as much pornographic as erotic. But the pornography of All That Is is not primarily of sex, but of living: everything is at a height, fully-realised and rich in colour. The characters enjoy lives of significance and meaning: events, roles, status. This is consistent with Salter’s previously expressed belief (adapted from Jean Renoir) that “the only things that are important in life are those you remember.” In All That Is, this is extended in the book’s epigraph (uncredited, and so presumably Salter’s coinage): “There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.” And so it is the big things that are written about and which stick: that interest in success again. “You lived,” he quotes Lorca, “by dying and being remembered.”
In a recent interview in Esquire, Salter said that when writing All That Is, he “wanted to write a book where nobody underlines anything on any of the pages. I don’t want it to rely on language or for the language to be conspicuous.” In one sense this is an admirable aim, and reminded me a little of Keith Ridgway’s comment that he tries in writing to “leave out anything that looks to me forced, deliberate or fake.” Yet Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child was still full of memorable things, whereas outside the set pieces, my copy of All That Is remains – as Salter would desire it – fairly unblemished by swooning pencil marks. The characters, the publishing scenes, the conversations have gone largely uncommented here because they are already fading from my memory. What that would say in the context of Salter’s epigraph, I don’t know. When he is working as an editor, Bowman initially rejects a book which was “done elegantly enough, but past its time,” and I found it hard not to nod in sympathy. There is no doubt that Salter is already assured of a place in literature, but this must be largely on the strength of the earlier works. When one character reflects that writing is “the sacred thing. Everything would be forgiven because of it,” I thought, Well. Maybe.
Legenda, which is the publishing imprint of the Modern Humanities Research Association, is on something of a Sebald kick at the moment. Two years ago they issued the rather massive anthology Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook (which I covered extensively over several posts) and they will publish Helen Finch’s book Sebald’s Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life later this summer. But in the meantime, they have just released Dora Osborne’s Traces of Trauma in W.G. Sebald and Christoph Ransmayr.
Why these two authors? Osborne explains that Sebald and Ransmayr are both representative of post-postwar literature, both share a skepticism towards the idea of human progress, and both “respond to the non-viability of conventional forms of narrative after 1945.” Sebald and Ransmayr are “caught between a contemporary espousal of postmodernist gestures and a nostalgic or melancholic attachment to modernist ones.” As the title of her book makes clear, Osborne sees trauma as a central way of defining the legacy of the Holocaust and she opts to use trauma theory (largely derived from Freud and Walter Benjamin) as the principal lens through which she will explore the works of Sebald and Ransmayr.
For Freud, “violent experiences are not registered consciously because the subject does not have the psychic resources to process them,” hence trauma works on the memory belatedly and in unexpected ways. The role of psychoanalysis is to work backward from the symptoms of trauma to locate the hidden, forgotten event that provoked the disorder. But the role of the creative writer is the totally different challenge of attempting to let non-participants or outsiders somehow comprehend the trauma of others, and this inevitably involves ethical, historical, and other complex issues. “The production of narrative should offer a means for remembering personal experience and commemorating collective events [e.g. the Holocaust], but it is also compromised by the inadequacy of memory and the limits of perspective.” And the dangers for a writer like Sebald or Ransmayr, who felt compelled to write about events that neither experienced personally, is “to be alert to the dangers of encroaching on territory which is not his own, a danger perhaps inherent in responding to the difficult imperative of writing about the lives of others.”
Thus, in a nutshell, it is Osborne’s intention to examine works by these two authors to see how they deal with the traumas caused by the Second World War. In order to focus more closely on the Sebald half of her book, I’m going to ignore the chapters dedicated to two books by Ransmayr: The Dog King and The Terrors of Ice and Darkness. I wrote about the latter book several years ago, although I can now see from Osborne’s book how much I missed the first time through.
Osborne dedicates a chapter each to Sebald’s books The Emigrants and Austerlitz. In the four semi-biographical stories told in The Emigrants, the source of their trauma is no mystery, leaving Sebald to focus on the aftermath for each of the protagonists and on the Sebald-like narrator. In the chapter called “Displacement, Dysfunction, and Erasure in The Emigrants” she initially approaches the four stories through Freud’s case from 1909 known as “Little Hans,” which was well-known to Sebald and directly referenced by him in After Nature and elsewhere. Peculiar to this case were characteristic spatial anxieties (“the spaces of habitation and travel”) that are shared by all of the main individuals portrayed in The Emigrants.
I will show how moments of breakdown or collapse in Sebald”s stories expose the experiences of loss that irreparably mark the lives of the emigrants and overwhelm the attempt to give belated expression to them in narrative. In other words, I will show how, in The Emigrants, Sebald moves between the two positions of his emigrant protagonists and his emigrant narrator, that is, between a tracing of the modern experience of displacement and dispossession and its retracing as part of a post-postwar narrative.
Osborne argues that Sebald continually demonstrates that the narrator is only permitted to see traces of the traumas experienced by the others. Even the photographs embedded in the texts tend to obscure rather than enlighten the narrative. Thus, The Emigrants is about limits – the limits of the protagonists’ abilities to cope with their traumas and the limits of the narrator to effectively grasp the lives of others.
The emigrants seek to escape the constraints of family, family history, and history writ large, but the systems via which they seek liberation are found to be overwhelming because they are implicated in the monstrous working of recent history. Sebald the post-postwar author is acutely aware of the sense of dislocation, even disintegration affecting the post-Holocaust subject, and viewed from this perspective, the lives he attempts to describe can only be represented in their drive to self-erasure.
In my next post, I’ll say something about Osborne’s chapter on Austerlitz.
"A word of warning", writes Neil Gaiman in his introduction to the Gollancz masterworks edition of Alfred Bester's (1913-1987) The Stars My Destination (1956); "the vintage of the book demands more work from the reader than he or she may be used to". The observation isn't without foundation, even if Gaiman seems to want to apply it chiefly to the book's depiction of sex and sexual violence, such as a scene in which the preternaturally angry protagonist, Gully Foyle, rapes a teacher working at the mental hospital he is temporarily ensconced in. "Were it written now," Gaiman says, "its author would have shown us the rape, not implied it". Oddly enough, I was just fine with Bester drawing a veil over said scene, but in reading it I did have to make allowances for the book's 'vintage' - in the sense of choosing to believe that it was a much less tired trope, back in 1956, to create a female character who exists solely to be raped by the anti-hero/villain, in order to demonstrate just how bad and unhinged said anti-hero/villain is (and how edgy you are, you brave writer you).
As Graham Sleight has discussed, with characteristic insightfulness, The Stars My Destination is indeed a book of its time, in ways that can be both frustrating and thrilling. On balance, the latter certainly outweighed the former, for me, in no small part because of the ways in which Bester subverts his time's expectations of what science fiction could do and what it should look like; as Graham puts it, "Bester's legacy to the field is his daring". Stars has an irresistible dark energy that is like nothing else from the period. There is a manic gleam in the novel's narrative eye as it lays bare the flaws and weaknesses of its damaged central character, "one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead", who is on a quest for revenge - the beats of the plot rework the Count of Monte Cristo - and animated by such extreme, outlandish hatred that it comes to dwarf the original wrong that was done to him. And then the novel dives headlong into experimental typesetting as a way to convey Foyle's metastasizing powers over time and space. Obviously.
First published in the UK under the title Tiger! Tiger!, from the opening words of the William Blake poem whose opening stanza Bester uses as his epigraph, Stars bears certain uncomfortable emblems of a different age: female characters who are, to a woman, pedestaled, infantilised, victimised, and/or pathologised; and a villain, Olivia Presteign, whose main motivation for villainy is bitterness and generalised misanthropy caused by disability. "'I cheat, I lie, I destroy'", she says; "'I'm criminal'". When Foyle asks her why, she replies:
"For hatred ... To pay you back, all of you."
"For being blind," she said in a smoldering voice. "For being cheated. For being helpless ... They should have killed me when I was born. Do you know what it's like to be blind ... to receive life secondhand? To be dependent, begging, crippled? 'Bring them down to your level,' I told my secret life. 'If you're blind make them blinder. If you're helpless, cripple them. Pay them back ... all of them.'"
These passages are a tough read, and while the blindness of Olivia, "a glorious albino", is made interestingly sfnal - visible light is lost to her, but she can see in infrared ("She saw the drawing room as a pulsating flow of heat emanations ranging from hot highlights to cool shadows. [...] She saw, around each head, an aura of the faint electromagnetic brain pattern and, sparkling through the heat radiation of each body, the everchanging tone of muscle and nerve") - this all smacks a bit too much of Disability Superpowers.
But at least in terms of the presentation and treatment of female characters, there are enough hooks in the novel to enable the present-day reader to read against the dominant narrative. Jisbella, Gully's ally in the escape from the eternal darkness of Gouffre Martel prison, is capable and smart and great fun, for all that Gully calls her "girl" all the time, and her name tends to get shortened to 'Jiz'. Moreover, Gully's fastidious horror at the discovery of the evil of Olivia, "his Snow Maiden, his beloved Ice Princess" with "white satin skin" and "blind coral eyes", is hilariously - and surely deliberately - hypocritical in context, given the rape and murder and gleefully callous violence we watch him carry out over the course of the novel. ("You're a monster", says Gully, aghast; "We're both monsters", replies Olivia, with some justification.) It is a patriarchal double-standard writ large, and one undercut by the novel. The fact that there are also female characters, plural, puts Stars instantly ahead of about 90% of the sf I've read that was contemporary with it: even if any one, or several, of the women are mad and evil, or beautiful and innocent, there are enough other characters that it does not feel like the novel is saying this is everything a woman can be, or all the role a woman can play.
And the truth is that all the characters, male and female alike, stand in the shadow of Gully Foyle's gleaming heart of darkness. In "an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks", when "all the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways", Foyle is the most virulent grotesque of them all. A lowly, unskilled cog in the vastly complex system of a space ship, the Nomad, Foyle is described at the start of the novel as "big boned and rough", "sluggish and indifferent", and "too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love". (Bester likes to create emphasis by piling up rhythmic collections of sub-clauses like this.) This is all about to change, however.
When we meet Gully Foyle, his ship is a wreck drifting in space, and he is the only survivor. He keeps himself alive by sealing himself up inside the only remaining airtight space on the ship: a storage locker four feet by four feet by nine feet ("the size of a giant's coffin"). Once a week, he makes a space-suited foray beyond the locker to replenish his oxygen supply from those of the ship's tanks, a helpless, race-against-time "game of space roulette": until he connects up a new tank in his locker he has no way of knowing whether or not it still contains oxygen, and if it doesn't, he won't have enough air in his suit to go back for another.
The stress, not surprisingly, is taking its toll; he sings crazed little ditties to himself ("Gully Foyle is my name / And Terra is my nation. / Deep space is my dwelling place / And death's my destination"), and both his self-image and the narrative's physical description of him are shaped by his much changed, and much degraded, state of mind. He sees himself reflected in the polished chrome of a broken door:
Gully Foyle, a giant black creature, bearded, crusted with dried blood and filth, emaciated, with sick, patient eyes ... and followed always by a stream of floating debris, the raffle disturbed by his motion and following him through space like the tail of a festering comet.
He can hardly believe his eyes when he catches sight of another spaceship, the Vorga; still less when it ignores his efforts to hail it, and passes him by:
So, in five seconds, he was born, he lived, and he died. After thirty years of existence and six months of torture, Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man, was no more. The key turned in the lock of his soul and the door was opened. What emerged expunged the Common Man forever.
"You pass me by," he said with slow mounting fury. "You leave me rot like a dog. You leave me die, Vorga... No. I get out of here, me. I follow you, Vorga. I find you, Vorga. I pay you back, me. I rot you. I kill you, Vorga. I kill you filthy."
The acid of fury ran through him, eating away the brute patience and sluggishness that had made a cipher of Gully Foyle, precipitating a chain of reactions that would make an infernal machine of Gully Foyle. He was dedicated.
He is, Bester tells us, "inspired to greatness by Vorga". Such is the force of his thirst for revenge that he is able to not only survive, but save himself, and then gradually remake himself into the perfect vessel of his vengeful rage: identifying and hunting down anyone with a connection to Vorga, then infiltrating their communities and homes and institutions in pursuit of his goal. His adventures are many, and not infrequently quite bizarre. He gets a great big tiger-stripe face tattoo (very nicely depicted on the cover of a recent UK promotional reprint, shown on the left) during a period spent among a meteor-dwelling community, which has been so long isolated from the rest of humankind they've developed elaborate religious rituals centred around garbled versions of scientific concepts of which they've lost all knowledge but the names. He is interrogated via a hallucinatory mental torture chamber known as the Nightmare Theatre, by shadowy figures keen to know where he left the Nomad, and with its precious secret cargo of uber-weapons, but is "inoculated" against this treatment by his utterly single-minded fixation with the Vorga. He has a stint in the disturbingly echoing darkness of a solitary cell in Gouffre Martel super-prison, learning by heart the reforming lectures that are played constantly to the inmates, and slowly losing his grip on reality:
He lost count of the days, of meals, of sermons. [...] His mind came adrift and he began to wander. He imagined he was back aboard Nomad, reliving his fight for survival. Then he lost even this feeble grasp on illusion and began to sink deeper and deeper into the pit of catatonia: of womb silence, womb darkness, and womb sleep.
Everywhere is larger than life - vast catacombs, enormous cities, the obscene mansions of the uber-rich - and almost everywhere echoes the place of Foyle's rebirth in various ways: he repeatedly encounters small confined niches in huge, dark, indifferent spaces, from the "womb silence" of the prison to the "wombgloom" of the Mars catacombs. His developing ability to jaunte cuts against this, holding out the possibility that there will come a time when he can no longer be confined in that way - but for much of the novel, of course, his primary prison is in his mind, both in terms of the uncontrollable physical and mental reaction that being trapped provokes in him, and also in the way he is unable to break out of the revenge mission, whether to protect or conceal himself, or to save his erstwhile partner-in-crime, Jizbella, when her life is threatened (even though he wants to).
Chief among the milieux previously alien to Foyle is the high society in which Olivia Presteign and her family live, a world "devoted to the principle of conspicuous waste", for which Foyle creates an entire new persona for himself as a flamboyant wastrel named Fourmyle of Ceres. In a future where people need only exert a little mental energy to teleport themselves to places they can accurately picture in their minds (a practice known as 'jaunting'), conspicuous consumption means doing things slowly, physically, and visibly:
Presteign of Presteign had fitted his Victorian mansion in Central Park with elevators, house phones, dumb-waiters and all the other labor-saving devices which jaunting had made obsolete. The servants in that giant gingerbread castle walked dutifully from room to room, opening and closing doors, and climbing stairs.
Foyle/Fourmyle, therefore, makes a splash and gets himself invited to all the best parties with some very fine "conspicuous transportation", involving no fewer than four different means of physically moving, the last of which involves being shot out of a cannon through the window of a car.
As we might expect, in the process of working towards his goal and adopting different selves to do so, "harried, delighted, savage" Foyle is changed, and comes to question - to a degree - what he's doing. He's never reformed, as such, but he does become more than the sum of his initial parts. Put another way, he goes through a typesetting apotheosis and jauntes off into space, but not before giving humanity a super-weapon it could use to destroy itself. A bonkers, often brilliant book.
I’ve been listening to a pre-release copy of an EP by Dao Strom called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (official release date May 28). I don’t write about music much on Vertigo, but in this case I was struck by how the themes of her work so echoed those of the literature that I’m usually covering. She studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and is both a writer and musician. In Gentle People, she blends the two by transforming the traditional CD booklet into something much more expansive. Her website describes the 150-page booklet as “a literary chapbook of prose, images, fragments and writings on Vietnam, as a late-century mythology, a war, a word, an aftermath, an inheritance.” Dao Strom has a quiet, ethereal voice that matches her lyrics about the “aftermath of a cataclysm.”
my given name is tiêu-dao….
i was born in Viet Nam, in the wake of a war.
i am the daughter of writers,
i am also the daughter of a political prisoner. but i followed my mother -
i am one of the children divided
between mother & father / mountains & sea / between
i am part of the middle world; a hybrid; a troubadour.
these are my notes from the southern world.
Here’s more information from her website:
We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People is a hybrid music-literary project, combining both written and sung voices, plus text and imagery, to revive some of the old tradition of “ca dao” (a tradition of sung-poetry in Vietnamese culture ) utilizing the tools, language, and stylings of our modern era. Music and poetry-storytelling have for many centuries been a crucial part of the Vietnamese people’s mode of expression. The project will encompass two “geographies” (or two EP’s/books): East and West. We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People: East (EP) – a 6-song EP album and literary chapbook – is the first of these two geographies.
As everyone must know by now, Sebald’s A Place in the Country is out in England. My copy has finally arrived and I’m slowly making my way through this long-awaited translation. Here’s a chance to meet the translator and scholar Dr. Jo Catling (and get a signed copy of the book). So, get yourself over to the Bull Hotel, Bridport in Dorset June 5!
MAX SEBALD : A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY
An event organised by Wild and Homeless Books and Lectures On Everything
5pm, Thursday 5 June 2013 The Bull Hotel, East Street, Bridport
W.G.(Max) Sebald’s A Place in the Country is the much anticipated English language version of literary essays, translated by Dr Jo Catling. Each of six persons evoked here were important influences on him as a person and writer, underlining his interest in the role of literature and art. Dr Catling will talk about A Place in the Country and she will introduce readings by herself and Horatio Morpurgo.
JO CATLING is a senior lecturer at the School of Literature of the University of East Anglia where she was a close colleague of Max Sebald. She is co-editor of Saturn’s Moons, W.G Sebald - A Handbook (2011). A Place in the Country promises to be a further landmark in Sebald’s extraordinary literary reputation. Copies of the book will be available for purchase which Jo Catling will be pleased to sign. Tickets (£6) are available from Wild and Homeless Books, 12, South Street, Bridport. (Tel. 01308 421970)
Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12 (London: CB Editions, 2011) employs an encyclopedia of micro-entries to convey the range of urban life found in the W12 postal code, an arbitrary zone laid over an historic area of London that includes Shepherd’s Bush and Wormwood Scrubs. Using a comical system of alphabetically-ordered hyper-brief entries beginning with “ABC,” “A&E,” “Allotment” and ending with “Yawn,” “Yoga Advertisement,” and “Z,” Robinson gives an insider’a view of his neighborhood. Each entry is accompanied by a tiny, well-composed photograph, reinforcing a kind of modesty on the whole project. In both the texts and the dead-pan images (presumably by the author) Robinson remains a calm and bemused observer, unruffled by the urban dilemmas that plague him and his neighbors, casting a forgiving eye on all the flaws and shortcomings of his neighborhood and his fellow residents. He’s also prone to dropping references to literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Dinesen, Durrell, Eliot, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others (check out the handy index to see all of the heady “topics” addressed in Days and Nights in W12). But lest we take all of this too seriously, Robinson warns us at the outset that he can’t vouch for all the tales that that are included. “Do you need evidence before you decide” what to believe or not believe, he asks? One day, when the taxi in which he is riding blows a tire on the way to Heathrow airport, he and his Somali driver “sit for a while in silence, smoking [while] gazelle and hartebeest come down the the water to drink.”
It seems to be something of an open secret in Great Britain that Jack Robinson is a pseudonym for Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions. Days and Nights in W12 is an expanded version of an earlier 2009 book by “Robinson” called Recessional, part of which may be seen here. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of the earlier title for sale anywhere on this planet.
Erik Anderson takes a different approach to the urban environment by literally inscribing letters on the map of Denver as he takes eight carefully orchestrated walks that spell out the letters P A S T O R A L in his recent book The Poetics of Trespass (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). As Anderson moves methodically through Denver, following paths that will trace the shape of each letter on the streets and open spaces of the city, the temporal part of the walk is dedicated to meditating, questioning, and stirring together dissimilar disciplines – like poetics and urban planning – in a kind of mental trespass. “The city, like the poem, consists of a tension: how we move in it and how it moves in us.” Anderson is interested in the problem of words and the interplay between words and sound and meaning.
I carved a large “P” into a medium-sized American city today. It was an attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space, one in which, due to the billboards, liquor stores, gas stations and theater, temples, churches and restaurants, strip clubs, bus stops, and the Planned Parenthood office, any possibility of tracing a curve with one’s steps has been rigorous and systematically thwarted.
Like Robinson, Anderson also places small, self-made photographs throughout his text. His images feel less like documents than questions. The most interesting ones deal with the spatial puzzlement that arises in unplanned urban spaces and the odd juxtaposition of urban architectures. I’m not doing Anderson’s richly allusive and elusive book justice with this brief post, but there is an excerpt online, which includes several of the photographs (although the photographs in the book are reproduced in black-and-white). Tacked on after the end of the essay “The Poetics of Trespass” is another shorter essay called “The Neighbor,” on Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stunning film In the Mood for Love (2001). Here, Anderson plays with themes such as displacement, loss, and the nature of film.
Around this time last year, blogging about Suzanne Collins's YA phenomenon The Hunger Games, I noted that it was "not, by any objective standards, a particularly well-written novel [...] But goodness me it's compulsive reading." Spoilers: I'm going to say much the same about volumes two and three in the trilogy - Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) - which I read last November and this March, respectively. (NB While I don't intend to discuss the plots in much detail, there will be spoilers for both books throughout, so don't read if you don't want to know key events.)
After Katniss' triumph over both her opponents and the Hunger Games system in book one, Catching Fire and Mockingjay examine the way her act of defiance sends ripples through the oppressed districts of Panem, shaking the eeeevil dystopia to its core. There is some thoughtful stuff here, although as in the first book it's often better in concept than in execution. Collins builds on the most interesting thread of The Hunger Games - the effect of the Games being televised on the way they're played, and in particular Katniss' smart, resourceful manipulation of her all-too-public image and narrative in order to save her and Peeta's lives - by focusing on how Katniss' image becomes both strength and liability once she emerges from the arena.
Over and over again, the books come back to the questions of who gets to control Katniss' story, and what the nature of that story is. In one of the trilogy's least plausible scenes, evil overlord President Snow comes to visit Katniss at home to explain why he's Very Displeased with her:
"After that, there was nothing to do but let you play out your little scenario. And you were pretty good, too, with the love-crazed schoolgirl bit. The people in the Capitol were quite convinced. Unfortunately, not everyone in the districts fell for your act," he says. [...] "This, of course, you don't know. You have no access to information about the mood in other districts. In several of them, however, people viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love. And if a girl from District Twelve of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?" he says. "What is to prevent, say, an uprising?"
Yes, he visits her to tell her this - as opposed to, say, calling her, or having her brought to him at the Capitol, seat of his power, all the better to intimidate her with - because this is Young Adult fiction, the world revolves around our plucky young heroine, and a dictator has nothing better to do with his time than pay a housecall to a minor rebel whose importance his apparently trying to play down. And because Collins continually feels the need to anticipate her readers' objections, and answer them as clumsily and directly as possible, he also explains why she's still alive:
"I believe you. It doesn't matter. Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice. Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem," he says.
"Why don't you just kill me now?" I blurt out.
"Publicly?" he asks. "That would only add fuel to the flames."
"Arrange an accident, then," I say.
"Who would buy it?" he asks. "Not you, if you were watching."
Unfortunately, this sort of laboured infodump only points up the shaky logic of Collins' world: would it matter if some people didn't believe it was an accident? And why can't the forces of the Capitol just disappear Katniss with one of their magic teleporting hovercrafts, as we saw them do to runaways and trouble-makers in the first book? Picking at the trailing threads just makes the whole thing unravel; better, surely, to let readers happily suspend disbelief, and not bring the matter up at all. (Or else do some more coherent world-building.)
Implausible underpinning or not, the central consequence is an intelligent and compelling one: Katniss' life is no longer just her own. She's a celebrity, whose moments of privacy are rare, and snatched, and precious - and soon interrupted. Even swimming in the lake beyond the District 12 fence where she used to go with her father, a place so private she never took her lifelong friend Gale there, she's not entirely alone ("Even underwater I can hear the sounds of commotion. Honking car horns, shouts of greeting, doors banging shut. It can only mean my entourage has arrived"). It is now her job to be dressed, and redressed, for the cameras: her every expression scrutinised, the details of her 'love' life poured over.
In remaking herself for the arena - the girl who was on fire, the girl prepared to die to save the boy she pretended, for the cameras, to love - Katniss became a symbol of everything that was wrong and inhuman about the Games and the oppressive system of which they're a key part. She was supposed to symbolise abnegation - the way the regime has such a complete hold over its subjects' lives that it can force their children to fight each other to the death once a year - but instead the tradition of the Victory Tour through the districts has become a vector of danger. Her scheduled public appearances are routine, but potentially subversive because she has Peeta by her side: two victors, where there should only ever be one. Snow warns her that she must maintain the narrative she created for herself; as long as she and Peeta present themselves as helplessly in love, her rebellion was romantic, not political.
The personal is political, of course, and it's not clear to me that it matters whether the vaguely understood 'public' realise Katniss was making it up or not: the point is that she defied the Games, and got away with it. Still, she is now a symbol of resistance, whether she wants to be or not:
What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It's our sign from District 12, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.
If I hadn't spoken to President Snow, this gesture might move me to tears. But with his recent orders to calm the districts fresh in my ears, it fills me with dread. What will he think of this very public salute to the girl who defied the Capitol?
The full impact of what I've done hits me. It was not intentional - I only meant to express my thanks - but I have elicited something dangerous. An act of dissent from the people of District 11.
For this act of dissent, the gathering is brutally quelled. Katniss and Peeta try to up the ante of their story in various ways - including a public marriage proposal (Katniss' idea), and pretending they're expecting a child together (Peeta's) - but to no avail. Although things remain calm in the Capitol ("There is no danger of an uprising here among the privileged, among those whose names are never placed in the reaping balls, whose children never die for the supposed crimes committed generations ago"), the people of the poorer districts begin to suffer for their investment in, and inspiration by, the symbol that is Katniss.
Katniss is in some ways liberated by the realisation that she cannot win if she plays by Snow's rules ("if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish"), and vows to take a more active stand, in a wonderful moment that I can't wait to see Jennifer Lawrence perform. "I'm not going anywhere," she declares, having just dived in to save Gale from further punishment at the hands (whip) of the Capitol's police force; "I'm going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble." Reader, I cheered. (Inside.) It's a shame much of the rest of Catching Fire is essentially a less-good rerun of the first book, with Katniss back in the arena facing many of the same story beats again.
Even as Snow and the regime attempt to use Katniss and her romantic narrative as a circus to distract Panem (I see what you did there, Collins), other forces want to co-opt her more rebellious implications for their own ends. Suspicion grows during Catching Fire, and then takes centre-stage in Mockingjay, that the apparent good guys might not be much better than the regime they plan to overthrow, in terms of their attitude to collateral damage - and that they're every bit as willing to manipulate and hurt Katniss if it serves their cause. Said good guys are centred mostly on the mysterious District 13, long thought bombed into oblivion by the Capitol, but in fact struggling on in vengeful, repressively militaristic secret:
Now the citizens live almost exclusively underground. You can go outside for exercise and sunlight but only at very specific times in your schedule. You can’t miss your schedule. Every morning, you’re supposed to stick your right arm in this contraption in the wall. It tattoos the smooth inside of your forearm with your schedule for the day in a sickly purple ink. 7:00—Breakfast. 7:30—Kitchen Duties. 8:30—Education Center, Room 17. And so on. The ink is indelible until 22:00—Bathing. That’s when whatever keeps it water resistant breaks down and the whole schedule rinses away. The lights-out at 22:30 signals that everyone not on the night shift should be in bed.
Once again, the picture of dystopia is comically exaggerated - the magic ink of repression is a particularly funny touch - and once again, Collins' point is better made through the relationship of D13's authorities to Katniss. Reeling from the crackdown that greeted her further defiance in her second appearance at the Games - District 12 was razed to the ground - Katniss reluctantly agrees to be the resistance's Mockingjay, the figurehead of the next phase of their struggle, as a way to appease her guilt over the deaths she feels responsible for. While Gale is sucked into designing bombs for the rebels, causing Katniss some disquiet ("'So, it'd be easy for you? Using that on people?' [...] I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you"), Katniss herself spends more time getting made over for the cameras - this time, as a star of short propaganda films.
Collins does a good job with this process, both because she writes some stirring lines for Katniss - whose doubts are worn down as her anger at the regime's violence increases - and because her writing is at its best when it reads more like a film script than a novel, stripped of the rather clunky first-person editorialising, showing rather than telling. Here, for example, are Katniss and Gale being filmed wandering among the ruins of their former home, District 12:
My fingers encircle a blackberry and pluck it from its stem. I roll it gently between my thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, I turn to him and toss it in his direction. "And may the odds—" I say. I throw it high so he has plenty of time to decide whether to knock it aside or accept it.
Gale’s eyes train on me, not the berry, but at the last moment, he opens his mouth and catches it. He chews, swallows, and there’s a long pause before he says "—be ever in your favor." But he does say it.
Cressida has us sit in the nook in the rocks, where it’s impossible not to be touching, and coaxes us into talking about hunting. What drove us out into the woods, how we met, favorite moments. We thaw, begin to laugh a little, as we relate mishaps with bees and wild dogs and skunks. When the conversation turns to how it felt to translate our skill with weapons to the bombing in 8, I stop talking. Gale just says, “Long overdue."
By the time we reach the town square, afternoon's sinking into evening. I take Cressida to the rubble of the bakery and ask her to film something. The only emotion I can muster is exhaustion. "Peeta, this is your home. None of your family has been heard of since the bombing. Twelve is gone. And you’re calling for a cease-fire?" I look across the emptiness. "There’s no one left to hear you."
Ah, yes. Peeta. In the confusion at the end of the second Games, in Catching Fire, Peeta is captured by Snow's regime, which parades him on TV pleading with Katniss to surrender before more people get hurt, and in a particularly vicious twist brainwashes him to think that Katniss is not really herself, but an evil muttation Katniss instead, then lets him get rescued by the rebels so he can hate Katniss at close proximity. Cue much angst from Katniss, who's been having intermittent, confused moments of kissage with Gale. Yes, the love triangle of book one is back in two and three in spades. I couldn't really care less, to be honest; I was more intrigued by their relationship when it was walking the difficult line between being fake-smiles-for-the-cameras and the intense fellow feeling of two people who've shared the shattering experience of the Games (we even get a "I love you"/"I know", with Katniss in the Han Solo role!), and when, in book two, Katniss was thinkingly strategically about why it would be better if Peeta survived the second Games and she didn't:
I will be more valuable dead. They can turn me into some kind of martyr for the cause and paint my face on banners, and it will do more to rally people than anything I could do if I was living. But Peeta would be more valuable alive, and tragic, because he will be able to turn his pain into words that will transform people.
Still, there are a few quite sweet scenes between Katniss and Peeta as she tries to help him remember what's real and what isn't. The fractures in her relationship with Gale, meanwhile, are much more interesting when they're about Gale and Katniss as people, rather than whether she kinda likes Peeta too; and in the nature of the growing conflict between them lies the big thematic concern of the third book. In short, Gale embraces District 13's violent methods of resistance - something foreshadowed in book one, where he talked frequently of the need to fight - while Katniss is more and more repelled by them ("Back in the old days [...] Gale said things like this and worse. But then they were just words. Here, put into practice, they become deeds that can never be reversed").
The actual event that drives them apart - and, ultimately, Katniss to Peeta - is painfully contrived, but the resolution itself makes sense. Katniss is fearless and capable and will do what is necessary: in book three, I particularly liked the way her first thought on seeing Capitol planes bombing a hospital is not to run, but to find a good vantage point from which she can return fire, and in book two there's no doubt that she enjoys some aspects of the attention and cachet related to being a Hunger Games victor. As she and Peeta are paraded before the Capitol crowds during the preparations for her second Games, she catches sight of them in the video screens, and reflects that, "we are not just beautiful, we are dark and powerful. [...] We are unforgiving. And I love it. Getting to be myself at last."
Nonetheless, she is scarred by her involvement in violence, plagued by guilt and a level of post-traumatic stress. "No wonder I won the Games," she thinks at one point, berating herself; "No decent person ever does." Katniss fights because she believes to not fight is to allow violence to be done to her and those she loves ("Prim ... Rue ... aren't they the very reason I have to try to fight? Because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice?"). But at length - and having been sidelined for much of the final battle, in a rather disappointing authorial cop-out - she decides that combatting violence with violence isn't actually a constructive way out:
"We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We’ve got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I’m done killing their slaves for them." I drop my bow on the ground and give it a nudge with my boot. It slides across the stone and comes to rest at his knees.
"I’m not their slave," the man mutters.
"I am," I say. "That’s why I killed Cato… and he killed Thresh… and he killed Clove… and she tried to kill me. It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol. But I’m tired of being a piece in their Games."
The deck is stacked in favour of her reaching this decision, with a number of rather clumsy plot lurches, and Katniss is able to implement her own solution and make everything better with remarkable ease because, well, she's the heroine of a fun but not very good YA trilogy. But I read the books compulsively, even so, and I look forward to watching the films.
(And not just because Jennifer Lawrence is awesome.)
Ikky was standing on the bank, her hands in a metal twin loop behind her. She'd stopped sulking; now she looked, more, starey and puzzled.
Chief Barnarndra pointed to the pit. "Out you go then, girl. You must walk on out there to the middle and stand. When you picked a spot, your people can join you."
So Ik stepped out, very ordinary. She walked out. I thought - hoped, even - she might walk right across and into the thorns the other side; at the same time, I knew she wouldn't do that.
Margo Lanagan's stories get under your skin. They seem to slide in sideways, exploiting gaps you didn't know you had, lodging themselves in the recesses of your mind.
Take 'Singing My Sister Down', the first story of Lanagan's collection Black Juice (2004), whose opening is quoted above. The story's action consists entirely of a condemned young woman sinking to her death in a tar pit, watched by her blood-family (who have accompanied her onto the tar), her family-by-marriage (sitting "prideful" on the bank), random gawkers, plus some witnesses of standing in the community (the chief is also on the bank, we're told, where he "sat in his chair and was fanned and fed"). It's a horrible, inexorable, and very public death: a death to set an example, a death to give the satisfaction of revenge to the wronged, a death aimed in part at Ik's family ("we had to go out, and everyone had to see us", the narrator, Ik's younger brother, tells us; it is "like us being punished, too, everyone watching us walk out to that girl who was our shame").
Through the eyes and emotions of Ik's younger brother we, too, are forced to bear witness. Her family do their best to make Ik's final hours celebratory: "it did feel a bit like a party", the narrator says as they set themselves up for a picnic on the tar, with good food ("May as well have the best of this world while you're here", Ik's mother tells her, as she feeds her) and even some dancing. But nothing can get away from the fact that Ik is dying, as the tar claims her, inch by inch: closing over her feet, oozing up her legs, compressing her chest so she struggles to breathe.
Around midafternoon, Ikky couldn't move her arms anymore and had a panic, just quiet, not so the bank people would've noticed. "What'm I going to do, Mumma?" she said. "When it comes up over my face? When it closes my nose?"
We never learn exactly what was Ik's crime that condemned her to this fate; references to her husband's angry family, and to an axe handle, suggest this was domestic violence of some kind ("I always knew you'd be too angry, once the wedding glitter rubbed off your skin", says Ik's mother at one point), but we're told nothing else of either circumstances or motives, or of who Ik was before she was scared and sinking. The story lives in the moment, in the inescapability of death; there are no recriminations from the family she has brought to this pit, only the urgency of time running out ("I wished I had more time to think, before she went right down; my mind was going breathless, trying to get all its thinking done") and the need to see her off, as privately as they can on the community's terms, being "watched so hard".
The stories collected in Black Juice - eleven in total, although I'm only going to discuss a handful here - are, by and large, about communities. They're about families, whether biological or chosen, good or bad, nuclear or extended; they're about individuals struggling to work out their place within their communities, or to extricate themselves from communal identity, or to return after too long an absence; and they're about the land these communities are a part of, the often fierce, unforgiving land they live in and labour on, and whose unpredictabilities shape their lives.
Many of the stories, too, are told from the perspective of young people: adolescents learning their worlds, with one foot in the imagination and fears of childhood, and one poised to take them in search of wider horizons. Dot in 'House of the Many' is just such a character, growing up in a dirt-poor subsistence-farming village where behaviour is carefully constrained, according to rules that appear terrifyingly arbitrary from a child's-eye-view. An episode that stands out is when a boy breaks out into spontaneous song, within earshot of the tent of Bard Jo, the village's spiritual authority and keeper of male mysteries:
Then one day, when spring was on the way and they were all excited for the coming plenty, this boy threw back his head and sang... nobody knew who, but if Viljastramaratan had had four sisters and five brothers, dancing together, they might have brought these sounds out.
To the children listening, this is a marvel ("World upon world opened at their ears, worlds of lawless noise and play"), but to the boy's mother is to be feared and silenced. She is not quick enough, however; Bard Jo emerges from his tent, and, as the boy's mother "bent and swayed, holding her head, grinding her eyes", he takes the boy inside, and beats him so badly that "after that day no-one heard a sound out of him". When Dot gets older, he and his friends are initiated into the way of village manhood by Bard Jo, who explains the immutable importance of the structures of village life ("the working mothers, the fathers steady at the centre with all the wisdom"), feeds them drugged tea, and terrifies them via an encounter with some extremely noisy spiritual power.
Dot runs away from the village and finds new purpose and freedom, and all the knowledge he could ever dream of wanting, in the anonymity of urban life; but where a different sort of story might end things here, with Dot's happy escape, Lanagan has him return to the village, at length, to face the fact of how much harder he made his widowed mother's and his disabled sister's lives by his leaving. In this context, one person's new opportunity is another's crushing burden made even heavier.
There is a more positive, life-affirming departure and return - and coming of age - to be found in 'Rite of Spring'. With his mother too sick to carry out "her important business" of a mountaintop ritual to aid the season's shift from winter to spring, the task has fallen to the son she's long derided, impatiently, as too slow and "thick" to follow in her footsteps. So the narrator's journey is laden with family pressures - an unfavoured son long in the shadow of an over-achieving elder brother - but also with the expectations of a whole community on his shoulders, for his rite carries with it the hope of spring for a people living on marginal land, at the mercy of the elements:
The wind doesn't shriek or moan - nothing so personal. When the river took Jenny Lempwick last spring and half-killed her while we watched, it was doing what the wind's doing now, racing so strongly that a little thing like a person was never going to matter.
Like 'Singing', this story has essentially one thread - and most of that is the extremity of the journey, with very little about the rite itself, beyond the boy's fear that he will live down to his mother's expectations, and forget the words. But it is grounded - and given grandeur - by imagery drawn from the natural world; the narrator can do nothing as straightforward as speak, under the circumstances, but rather, as he puts it, "I carve the words out of the icy air with my snow-blown lips". The return is triumphant, but quietly so, bathed in "all the dampness and the dazzle of the first day of spring".
A more pungent strain of natural imagery pervades the creepy 'Earthly Uses', which draws particularly strongly on a child's point of view - with all that implies, in terms of seeing things adults choose not to, but understanding less - for its effect. The boy in question lives an unhappy life on a tiny, remote farmstead with his Pa ("He's an old man and cranky, but he's all I've got, so I must put up with him, mustn't I?") and his increasingly sick Nan ("so small and grey and quiet [...] like a cooking and housekeeping part of him, not really her own self"). Pa sends him out to try to make contact with one of the angels that live in the hills and "stink like potatoes and death", or - as the narrator puts it, in more vivid detail than is strictly necessary - like "having mouldy dung forced so far up your nose it starts tearing out the back of your throat". The hope is that the angels might offer a way to heal Nan.
At first the boy, wandering deserted wooded paths alone, shares Pa's folkloric fear of the strange beasts:
"And their eyes - you look in and there's no-one in there that's like a normal man - they're just bright and bright, and empty."
I didn't see eyes that day, and didn't want to. Even walking here through the angel-less darkness, the power of not-wanting-to-see-eyes makes me swerve and shake my head.
I love this: the way "bright" is made sinister, the way the boy's fear-but-fascination is drawn, creating a sympathetic itch of not wanting to look round at the back of my neck. Gradually, fascination wins out, though, because the angels seem to offer something different, something more, than a return to the cottage in the woods ("their smell was like crushed mint to my brain, breathing open new spaces there that I'd not the faintest notion how to fill"). When an angel does not cure Nan, but gives her the peaceful release of death, lifting her "up out of her own bones into its dark, dirty, soft, soft breast" - the softness of leaf mould, of mud, of decay? - the boy is set free, to leave home and seek a new community in one of the towns on the plain, far below the bitter spaces of the family farm.
By contrast, 'The Point of Roses' sees supernaturally-inflected nature bringing a family back together. Once again, Billy is a boy being raised by his grandparents - there's something very fairytale about this, as a recurring motif - although the setting this time is more small-town, or suburban. (There are no explicit markers of place, but it feels much closer to our world, and our present, than most of the other tales' settings.) Once again, the protagonist has a difficult relationship with an emotionally distant grandfather.
Here, though, the boy isn't the centre of the story. Although Billy is the (current) bone of contention between his grandparents, Corin and Nance, and it's Billy's boyish dabbling in magic, using one of Nance's roses, that sets the story in motion, the emotional focus lies with Corin and Nance. At issue is the way Corin's resentment of their children - the way they steal her attention from him ("He had fumed and raged against each pregnancy, and snarled and boiled and beat at the children as they grew, and railed at her for enslaving herself to them") - has caused the slow, drawn-out failure of their relationship:
It seemed to Nance that they had held each other in a death-clasp all these years, meanly squeezing until every scrap of colour was gone from skin and hair, until their voices held no juice and their eyes too much.
The torrent of "rose-ness" Billy's magic inadvertantly unleashes ("His lungs struggled, his skin dissolved, his thoughts turned to vapour as the rose essence passed through, roaring") proves the catalyst for the self-examination and reconciliation of his grandparents. There is some wonderfully idiosyncratic confessional dialogue ("being angry was a kind of paint [...] and I splashed it all over everything, and everything looked the same"), and finally a confrontation and frank discussion of the problem.
It's all done with considerable emotional resonance and generosity, and ending with a calm, achingly well-judged moment of quiet acceptance, in which Corin potters around the kitchen, "for the moment, in this house, in this room, moving from here to there gathering bread, gathering cheese and sausage and pickle, knife, board, plate". He is preparing a plate of food for Billy, just returned home, "though he was not, himself, in any way hungry at all"; learning, at last, the contentment of a selfless, loving act.
The final story I want to discuss, 'Red Nose Day', centres on a rather less conventional community - a chosen family, built on past abuse, and present warfare - and carefully walks a line between horror and absurdity. Adolescent soldiers are hunkered down with their rifles, making nervious conversation while they endure the seemingly endless wait for their targets to emerge from a dilapidated old theatre. The narrator asks his older, more experienced companion, Jelly, about their mission; Jelly replies that they will have fulfilled their goal, "When we've made a dent in the programme. When there's enough gone to give us a warm fuzzy feeling."
When the enemy appear, they are "so close, I could see the sweat beading through their pancake". They are, you see, clowns.
That would be the absurdist bit I was talking about. This is a society in which clowns are every bit as strange and disturbing as you always suspected; in which clown-ness (clownitude? clownality?) occupies the top of the social hierarchy, but is perpetuated at the expense of child abuse (the stars of the clown world get their pick of children in state orphan homes) and affects those involved in a way that resembles drug addiction. A small, bitter guerilla army is fighting back against the clowns, and "the people who keep the world running: riggers and sweepers, ticket-sellers and physio-therapists, with a sprinkling of top hats and tailcoats".
Lanagan gives us an utterly deadpan and - if you're prepared to go with it - highly effective melding of war story and circus terminology. Our shell-shocked, emotionally deadened narrator is numb to violence ("I didn't care, as long as the painted people were falling"), but sees the world in the language of the big top ("I could read him like a matinee poster"). The deaths they inflict are glimpsed as distant, silent, stage-dramatic tumbles, until the moment where Jelly recognises two of the victims, and suddenly the reality of pain and gore comes crashing in.
But the most horror-struck tones of all are reserved for the slow-dawning reveal of Jelly becoming possessed by the spirit of Clown:
Jelly brought a foil out of his jacket He unwrapped it too carelessly for it to be drugs. Worse than drugs, a white nub of something glowed in the gloom. My whole body pulled back from it against the tower wall.
He didn't need a mirror. He drew a perfect white oval around his face from hairline to chin-dimple, and filled it in.
It goes on, all revulsion as Jelly adds more make-up, and his demeanour gradually shifts ("that terrible pretend childlikeness they have. The face dipped and floated as he stood, ooh!, surprised to find himself, why, here!"), for all the world like he's in a surrealist zombie film. I don't think I've ever been so creeped out by the appearance of a red nose before. Superb!
The German Bookshop in London is having an event with Uwe Schütte on May 22 at 19.00.
We are delighted to have the author of W.G. Sebald. Einführung in Leben & Werk, Uwe Schütte, with us to introduce you to many little known aspects of the life and work of W.G. Sebald. His book was published in autumn 2011 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of his premature death. It provides new biographical material and examines all major literary works. In addition, a chapter on Sebald’s critical writings sheds an interesting light on a neglected yet crucial part of his oeuvre. Schütte came to the University of East Anglia in 1992 to do both his MA and PhD with Sebald as his supervisor. He is a Reader in German at Aston University, Birmingham and the author of ten books on German literature, as well as numerous articles and reviews in national papers in Germany and Austria.
The event is free but requires an email reservation. For details, follow this link and scroll down a bit.
The literary review Europe has announced that its May issue will focus on Sebald and Tomas Tranströmer (great pair!). Go here to purchase a copy. Here are the contents for the Sebald section:
Lucie CAMPOS et Raphaëlle GUIDÉE : W.G. Sebald, la marge et le centre.
W.G. SEBALD : « Mais l’écrit n’est pas un vrai document… »
François HARTOG : Le simultané du non-simultané.
Romain BONNAUD : Une expérience de l’histoire.
Sergio CHEJFEC : L’histoire comme représentation et comme peine.
Ruth KLÜGER : Cheminant entre la vraie vie et la vie fausse.
Raphaëlle GUIDÉE : Politique de la catastrophe.
Ben HUTCHINSON : « L’ombre de la résistance ». W.G. Sebald et l’École de Francfort.
Lucie CAMPOS : L’excès du savoir et du sentiment.
Patrick CHARBONNEAU : Max et le bélier hydraulique.
Karine WINKELVOSS : Pathos et théâtralité dans la prose de Sebald.
Muriel PIC : Élégies documentaires.
Emmanuel BOUJU : Mind the gap ! Humour et exil de la mélancolie.
Liliane LOUVEL : Un événement de lecture.
Mandana COVINDASSAMY : Le dépaysement en pratique.
Ruth VOGEL-KLEIN : Dans l’atelier de W.G. Sebald.
Martin RASS : Le bruit du passage du train.
Jean-Christophe BAILLY : Le troc silencieux de W.G. Sebald.
Fabrice GABRIEL : « Enjoy ».
Lucie TAÏEB : Sans histoire, pas d’histoire ?
Finally, over at The Public Domain Review, Adam Green has done all Sebald readers a great service with his elegantly conceived project “Texts in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.” Here is his description of the undertaking:
Collected together in this post are the major (public domain) texts of which, and through which, Sebald speaks – accompanied by extracts in which the texts are mentioned. The list begins and ends with the great polymath Thomas Browne, an appropriate framing as the work of this 17th century Norfolk native has a presence which permeates the whole book. Indeed, in the way he effortlessly moves through different histories and voices, it is perhaps in Browne’s concept of the ‘Eternal Present’ which Sebald can be seen to operate, in this mysterious community of the living and the dead.
This post is rather belated, as the etiquette and norm of the Readerthon is to blog during the event. But I decided to join in at the last minute and, to be honest, I didn't feel like writing so much as reading at the start. So instead of doing what I should have done and sitting down and writing a quick post that I could update like many of the bloggers I follow, I did a big fat nothing at the start. Once I was reading I didn't want to loose the momentum and so followed along mainly on Twitter and on other blogs. I'm a bit sad about that now, hence this post to catch up with the reading I did.
Leading up to the Readathon lots of bloggers were posting and tweeting photos of their book stacks and snacks. (Snacks are clearly a big thing for readathon-ers, I'll have to be better prepared for that part in future!) When I got up on Saturday morning and decided, what the hell, I'll throw everything else to the wind - it was such a blustery and grey day here - I gathered together a neat collection of my own.
Some of these were books I'd already started, like Lord Jim, A Storm of Swords and Africa: Biography of a Continent (I've been reading the latter for over a year), and others were highly anticipated, like Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell and How Fiction Works by James Wood. Then I picked up a couple of wildcards from the TBR, Arabella by Georgette Heyer (for some light relief) and The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (for something unusual). A nice mix of fiction, non-fiction and short stories.
Then I set myself up with a reading corner, which ironically involved getting as close to the TV as possible.
The window - for the light - and the fire on low - for toasting my chilly-spring toes - seemed like an important combination and the TV stand was handy for my cup of tea, fruity snacks and little pile of books. I sat down at 10am, a couple of hours before the official UK start time of 1pm because I knew I couldn't stay up through the night as I had a driving lesson this morning. Starting early was my compromise. I stayed there most of the day and evening and then into the night, with some interludes for food, until midnight when I curled up in bed for the last two hours. I finally fell asleep at 2am, although I picked my book up again for an hour after my lesson to finish with all the other participants at 1pm today. 14 hours in one go, plus another hour. Not bad for my first try.
Because I'm a novice at this Readathon business I didn't keep any stats, like pages per hour or minutes spent reading vs making food or following the social media conversation. This was partly a conscious choice because, you know me, I would only be page counting and clock watching and judging my progress rather than focusing on the matter in hand. I started off really well, finishing Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim by mid-afternoon. I must have read about 200 pages, which might not sound much for nearly 5 hours reading but Conrad takes some parsing and I was flicking back and forth to the notes often. If not for the readathon it would probably have taken me another week to finish it off. I will write more about the book when I've properly processed but - spoiler - I loved it. I read Heart of Darkness at university and hadn't spared Conrad a thought since; he doesn't seem to be a writer much in vogue with anybody. It was Esther who piqued my interest by raving about her current read, Chance, which is linked to Lord Jim and to Heart of Darkness by Conrad's narrator-cum-protagonist Marlow. The book uses the darkness and corruption of late nineteenth century colonialism for narrative momentum and focuses on the moral evaluation of a single individual. It's not exactly pacey, but it is thrilling and exhilirating in Conrad's very own verbose, complex, psychological way.
I was almost afraid of finishing my first book because that usually signals a reading break for me while I choose something new. This break can last a couple of hours or a day or longer, depending on the impact of the book I've finished. Something intense and thought-provoking like Lord Jim would usually need a hiatus of at least a day. So to come down I read a few articles in the Times Literary Supplement - did you know that children and dogs are banned from Antartica? - and then a couple of chapters from Africa about the Portuguese exploration of the west coast. These were as fascinating as always; I didn't realise that the Portuguese landed in South Africa as early as 1488. Enjoying the non-fictional vibe I picked up James Woods' How Fiction Works. I've been reading quite a few of these kinds of books recently, or at least bits of them, with a faint sense of disappointment. I'm waiting to be hit by all new ways thinking about and doing this reading thing that I love so much. Of all of them I found Wood the most interesting, both on his own stylistic merits and also for the close textual readings he uses to make his points. The first section is about narrative voice, segueing into a Flaubert love-in. I've never read Flaubert but the way Wood interrogated his use of free indirect style was so incredibly illuminating that it didn't matter. I ended up taking several pages of notes. It was just the invigoration I needed to send me onto my next tangle with fiction: five chapters of A Storm of Swords and two stories from Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
I've been sitting on Karen Russell's new book of short stories for a while, waiting for the right moment to embark. I set about the first two stories after my dinner, with the early evening light fading behind me, and was immediately engrossed. The title story is a masterclass in voice and I was well placed to read it after spending time with James Wood. The narrator is an old vampire, living in an Italian lemon grove with his 'wife' Magreb, and sucking lemons in lieu of blood. Russell's speciality is this species of fantastic premise, the kind that makes you sit up and smile so that you're amused and predisposed to read on. And then she takes you down the rabbit hole of her idea until you feel utterly bewildered and almost always non-plussed. The second story - 'Reeling for the Empire' - was not quite so much to my taste, being a neatly executed but largely traditional piece of horror about women being transformed into silk worms.
I could have kept reading Vampires... but decided against rushing on. Instead I made myself a vast pot of coffee and flipped open Arabella by Georgette Heyer at about 9.30pm. This was my light relief read for when I started to flag, and safe to say it was light and it was quite a relief and I read it from start to finish (with sleep and driving lesson in between). It was pretty obvious from page one that this was perfect readathon fodder, the kind of book that runs on like a gently amusing dream. Time and the pages flew by. It's like Patrick O'Brien crossed with Marian Keyes, if such a fascinating union can be imagined; the Regency romance equivalent of Dorothy L. Sayers. Well-researched and witty, bubbly and bright. The story was utterly predictable; the characters were utterly predictable; the bon mots were utterly predictable; and I swear that some lines were lifted wholesale from Austen. But that was exactly what I was expecting, and the execution was better than I was expecting, so a win all round. When I tweeted what I was reading a flurry of my work followers tweeted back in excitement: Heyer is apparently the escapism of choice for archivists and librarians.
Now that the readathon is over I find myself feeling a bit lost. I just want to keep reading, but in that specially intense way that I do when all I'm planning on doing for the hours to come is read more, so my mind is totally on the book and not on the washing I need to hang out, or the pork loin to be stuffed for dinner, or the work email to be sent before Monday. This is what the readathon offers, and I loved it. I also really enjoyed the community of it - the organisers have set up a whole infrastructure of support and social media and mini-challenges to keep people talking. Some readers were also giving money to charity based on how much they'd read: an idea I love. I will definitely be taking part in the next readathon in October, and hope to drag Esther (and Nic?) into it with me. I might also set aside a weekend in between for my own personal readathon, just to recapture the enjoyment of it.
On paper - or in pixels - it's a damn fine proposition. A pacy non-fiction exploration of the devastating, epochal 19th-century volcanic eruption that utterly destroyed an Indonesian island. Krakatoa's death throes sent shockwaves that were felt around the world. Both literally - the noise of its explosion was heard at least 3000 miles away, and the resulting pressure wave travelled around the globe seven times - and figuratively - via the new-fangled technology of telegraphy, which ensured the news of it was carried further, faster, than of any comparable event before it.
Damn fine. Hard to screw up, really, even if some marketeer did insist on garlanding the back-cover synopsis of Simon Winchester's Krakatoa: the day the world exploded (2003) with the shockingly poor taste line, "In breathtaking detail he describes how one island and its inhabitants were blasted out of existence". (This isn't an action film, guys; between the initial eruption and the subsequent tsunamis, 36,000 people died. Thirty-six. Thousand. Actual people.)
Still, anyone who's read a book, well, ever knows that it's unfair to hold authors to account for the way their publisher chooses to sell their work. And there were a number of things that I enjoyed and admired about Winchester's work. He covers a huge amount of ground in the course of his 400 pages: the politics and culture of European imperialism in the 'East Indies' from the time of Pope Julius II's division of the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence, a wonderfully clear and interesting explanation of plate tectonics and how volcanoes happen, potted biographies of numerous scientists whose observations and theories contributed to our understanding of the aforementioned phenomena, and some startling facts and figures about the eruption itself and the way news of it was received.
Winchester's style is journalistic (thus one early-modern general active in the East Indies is introduce as "a still-infamous-in-Lisbon figure named Don Lourenzo de Brito"), and the prose has a tinge of purple, but his introductory passage - a description of seeing Krakatoa's successor-volcano for the first time in the 1970s - does a decent job of conveying awe at both natural beauty and natural danger:
It was early on a warm summer's evening in the 1970s, as I stood in a palm plantation high on a green hillside in western Java, that I saw for the first time, silhouetted against the faint blue hills of faraway Sumatra, the small gathering of islands that is all that remains of what was once a mountain called Krakatoa. There was a high peak to the left of the group, its pyramid shape cut off sharply by its vertical northern cliff. A couple of low islands hugged the horizon to the right. In between them was one small and perfectly formed, absolutely symmetrical low cone, from which rose a thin wisp of smoke. The smoke left a blackish, greyish trail that first rose vertically and then, as it caught the trade winds a few hundred feet above the darkening surface of the sea, was whisked off to the left, melting away until it became no more than a slow-fading stain against the salmon glow of the sunset. [...] This, I remembered thinking during the endless night of the flight back west, had been a scene of impeccable beauty. And all the more so because it presented a distant prospect of a place where the processes of the world were at work, a place of elemental significance, and a disastrous place once - but these days quiet again, serenely biding its time.
So, blurb aside, why did I come away from the book so disgruntled and disappointed? It began, I think, with this bizarre shortcut through world history:
The Portuguese from the warm and lazy south were slowly driven out and replaced by doughty Europeans from the cold and more ruthless north.
Where I'd been coasting along, enjoying my reading experience, suddenly I found I'd hit a pot hole. What an odd statement. Are the Portuguese not Europeans? And national characteristics determined by the climes, really? Did I fall asleep and wake up in an alternate universe where we still base our understanding of the world and its peoples on Ptolemy?
Death by a thousand cuts followed: once Winchester has unleashed the flow of lazy stereotypes, it cannot be stopped. Chinese people are all polite and hardworking (then and now!), the early-modern Dutch have an "easy-going arrogance", and Islam is and was a religion of "rigid formalism", the domain of "desert-dried Arabs". An anti-colonial Muslim rebellion in Indonesia that killed 24 people is an "orgy of bloodletting", whereas the Dutch authorities' response (which killed 30 people) is described in much less emotive terms, with only the Dutch troops' weapons (repeating rifles) getting to be "terrifying". Non-Western places where the sound of the volcano was heard are "exotic". Modern-day Jakarta is dirty, and crowded, and has "the kind of cheerful hugger-mugger mayhem that marks many a modern Asian city", in contrast to the "queenly" splendor of its European imperial incarnation, Batavia. Your guess is as good as mine as to what 'hugger-mugger' means. Later it becomes clear that what he means by Batavia's "golden age" is actually 'golden age for the people who lived in the "gigantic park" on the hill, profiting off the labour of the people who lived in the actual working city down below'.
Then there are the simply nonsensical statements. Of a successful Chinese restauranteur in Jakarta, we're told that
He remains blissfully unaware that he made his fortune in a town that had once made other outsiders, the entirely dissimilar burghers of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, extremely wealthy too.
How can Winchester know the restauranteur is 'unaware' of this, unless he asked, at which point presumably the restauranteur became... aware? (Or could it be Winchester is just assuming a Chinese man in the catering trade won't know any history?) Later he informs us, regarding the Muslim identity of Indonesians, "All of its [Indonesia's] people are either converts or descendants of converts." Wait, what? Are there any religious communities of which this isn't true? Do Christians just spontaneously discover Jesus in the womb? How else does one become the adherent of a religion, if not by converting, or being born into a family with converts somewhere back in its generations?
Some sign of what's going on begins to emerge as Winchester guides us through his history of 19th-century science. His heroes were, to a man, tragically misunderstood and ignored by their peers. Ornithologist Philip Lutley Sclater published an article about zoological regions of the world that is "all but overlooked by most biologists today". (Why would they consult it? Does a chef need to know how the oven got invented? Do budding journalists read up on Linear B before they start churning out copy?). Alfred Russel Wallace had his idea about natural selection totally co-opted by that Darwin guy. (Apparently, however, "There are not a few who believe..." that Wallace deserves all the credit really; Winchester doesn't say who, in what must be the pop-science version of the lurkers supporting him in email, preferring to insinuate that there is a bastion of true believers holding out against some vast pro-Darwin conspiracy.) Alfred Wegener was "vilified and, most cruelly, denied his deserved academic reward" for the "heresy" of thinking new thoughts.
I'm not disputing the fact that the history of science - like the history of, well, everything - often exaggerates the contributions of some individuals, and downplays the work of others. I'm not disputing that Wegener, in particular, had a chequered career because many colleagues in influential places weren't interested in hearing a word he said since he challenged their understanding of the world so fundamentally. But by the time Winchester launches into a diatribe about how, "Scientific specialists, who still today guard jealously their own fields of research, attacked him roundly for daring to invade their territories", it's all starting to feel a bit like a conspiracy theorist at work. Not everyone whose ideas are challenged or ignored is a brave maverick within an unfeeling, conservative system who will one day be vindicated; not everyone who rejects a 'daring' 'new' theory is just protecting their turf. Sometimes, you really do need to know some background in a given field before you can wade in and tell everyone already there that they're doing it wrong, or else you risk missing the point or reinventing the wheel. Sometimes, you've unwittingly overdosed on the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I can't judge Winchester's accuracy or plausibility in all or even most of the topics he touches on in this book; my understanding of things like plate tectonics doesn't stretch beyond GCSE Physics, and I have at best an interested lay-person's knowledge of 19th-century science. In areas that I do know a little bit more about, however, I find Winchester so wildly off-base that it is difficult for me to trust his presentation of the rest, although given his training in geology I assume he knows what he's doing with regards to the volcano itself.
Winchester's dilettantism becomes abundantly clear - and tripped up this reader repeatedly - when he starts commenting on Islamic history. (Although for the record, I'm a medievalist, not a modernist, so take what I say with a pinch of salt, too!) For Winchester, early-modern Islam, it seems, consists entirely of "the far-away mullahs of Araby" and "a home-grown, locally brewed version of the creed" that is "gentler" than the "rigorous" Islam of the Arabs. (Googling these sentences, I note that Winchester's judgement has been quoted approvingly elsewhere, as if he's an authority on the matter.)
In Winchester's vision of the world, even in the early-modern period Islam was something the Arabs did to other people, all centrally directed by scholars in 'Araby' who apparently cast spells over unwary pilgrims with they get to Mecca. The vast world empires of the Mughals (a Persianised Turkic elite ruling over the many peoples of India), the Safavids (Iranians and Central Asia), and the Ottomans (Turkish rulers, largely Greek state apparatus, multi-ethnic subject population, one portion - but by no means the majority - of which was Arab) didn't exist, or had no cultural weight; Mecca was in no way a meeting-point for Muslims from across the world; Islamic scholars didn't exist everywhere Muslims do, only in Arabia; and there weren't multiple interpretations of even Sunni Islamic law and practice, just "orthodoxy" and nice, syncretic, doomed Indonesian Islam. The fact that the anti-colonial movement he discusses talked about perang sabil - as opposed to using an actual Arabic term like jihad - is clearly proof that the Indonesians were indoctrined into the perfidious (and no doubt dusty) Arab way of the hajj.
This is not to deny that militant forms of Islam were and continue to be a transnational rallying cry for anti-colonial movements, or that militant forms of Islam have caused and continue to cause huge amounts of suffering today. But Winchester's presentation is all so teleological, and black-and-white, and frankly every bit an exercise in lazy kneejerk stereotyping as his comments on the Portuguese. (Dutch colonialism, meanwhile, is merely "not very kindly".)
In some ways this is understandable: the book was published in 2003, so it was presumably written in that period when plenty of more learned writers, who ought to have known better, were consumed by the notion that history was primarily important for the ways it could be read to prove the inevitability of 9/11 and the eternal violence of Islam with regards to 'the West'. And indeed, Winchester's bibliography lists Karen Armstrong, VS Naipaul, and Bernard Lewis' later, wackier output (including one from the period when he became a shill for the US invasion of Iraq), but contains little evidence of wider reading from more specialised, historically-informed scholars. Winchester, it seems, knew what his conclusion would be going in: that the eruption of Krakatoa led to the bombing of Bali, do not pass go, do not collect £200:
They [=the colonial authorities] did not stop to wonder where these people [=those communities devastated by the volcano] might eventually look for sustenance and succour.
Perhaps they should have done. For it turned out that not a few of these unhappy, dispossessed and traumatized people eventually looked to the west, to Mecca, and to the benevolent power of the Islamic religion to answer their needs.
Sometimes history really does repeat itself. And sometimes it's just that writers of history are desperate to see themselves reflected back in it.
Sebald was always asking us to reflect on how we access the past, how we rescue the dead, and how the writer performs that real, but necessarily fictional, reclamation. – James Wood
The Guardian has published an except from the much awaited publication of A Place in the Country, Jo Catling’s English translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus (1998), an important collection of essays on Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Jan Peter Tripp. (The Guardian‘s excerpt is drawn from the section on Rousseau.) Here’s an excerpt from their excerpt.
The room I took at the hotel looked out on the south side of the building, directly adjacent to the two rooms which Jean-Jacques Rousseau occupied when, in September 1765, exactly 200 years before my first sight of the island from the top of the Schattenrain, he found refuge here, at least until the Berne Petit Conseil drove him out from even this last outpost of his native land…At any rate, in the few days I spent on the island – during which time I passed not a few hours sitting by the window in the Rousseau room – among the tourists who come over to the island on a day trip for a stroll or a bite to eat, only two strayed into this room with its sparse furnishings – a settee, a bed, a table and a chair – and even those two, evidently disappointed at how little there was to see, soon left again. Not one of them bent down to look at the glass display case to try to decipher Rousseau’s handwriting, nor noticed the way that the bleached deal floorboards, almost two feet wide, are so worn down in the middle of the room as to form a shallow depression, nor that in places the knots in the wood protrude by almost an inch. No one ran a hand over the stone basin worn smooth by age in the antechamber, or noticed the smell of soot which still lingers in the fireplace, nor paused to look out of the window with its view across the orchard and a meadow to the island’s southern shore.
In conjunction with this excerpt, the Guardian also ran an article in which James Wood, Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and Will Self “reflect on what his work means to them.” The comments posted by Guardian readers make for very interesting reading, as well. A Place in the Country, is scheduled for release May 2 of this year and is available for pre-order from various book sites in England. It will also be available for Kindle then.
Money is a novel of pairings and extremes. This is common in Amis’s work: he is a “broad and comic writer” and describes - or at least reclaims the criticism of - his work as dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force.” The pairings are obvious in novels like Success – two brothers, one successful, one not - or The Information – two writers, one successful, one not. But they are there too less brashly (well, a little less brashly) in the underrated Night Train – Jennifer Rockwell and Mike Hoolihan, opposites drawn together – and House of Meetings – the brothers in the Gulag. Pairings enable Amis to highlight differences by contrast – a useful illuminatory tool when there isn’t much brightness in the worlds he creates. There are more pairings in Money than perhaps in any other Amis novel: John Self and his creator Martin Amis (who appears in the novel); John Self and his younger, fitter, happier business partner Fielding Goodney; Martin Amis and his New York counterpart Martina Twain – both mentors of John Self in their ways; the pairs of male and female actors in Self’s film; and other pairings which don’t become clear until the end.
John Self is an ad-man who is making a feature film to be titled either Good Money or Bad Money (the money men can’t quite agree). He flies between London and New York and each long chapter describes a trip to one or other city. Self is “200 pounds of yob genes, booze, snout and fast food”, driven by desires: for the fast food, the booze, the snout (“‘Yeah,’ I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically tell you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”), for pornography. He is “addicted to the twentieth century.” Self is a great success – money is drawn to him – and a terrible failure. His jetsetting life means that he never feels at home. He wakes up each morning feeling worse and worse (“Refreshed by a brief blackout…”). Before he left London, he was told that his girlfriend, Selina Street, was cheating on him. And who can blame her? After all, he wants to cheat on her. “I can never find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of.” He’s violent. “It’s hard. It’s quite a step, particularly the first time. After that, though, it just gets easier and easier. After a while, hitting women is like rolling off a log.” He goes to strip joints. “The chicks on the ramp provided some variety. None of them wore any pants. At first I assumed that they got paid a lot more for this. Looking at the state of the place, though, and at the state of the chicks, I ended up deciding that they got paid a lot less.”
You can see what Amis is doing here. “A broad and comic writer.” Jokes and fizzy phrases are the holy grail and nothing is off-limits, not even domestic violence (elsewhere in the book, Self tries to rape Selina). Is this OK? Maybe so, as Self clearly is a really terrible person – yet there is also an attempt to make us empathise with him. Maybe this is OK too: after all, Humbert Humbert rapes twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, but by the end of Lolita he is, to me, a sympathetic, or at least pitiable, character. Amis himself, in this fascinating interview with (the?) Patrick McGrath in 1985, makes it clear that he “always adored him.” Self does at least have some insight into his condition. On the one hand, he misreads his reader: “Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: It’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck!” But, he confides to us: ”I long to burst out of the world of money and into – into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.” He shows impatience with the qualities that make him what he is:
Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It’s passing, yet I’m the one who is doing all the moving. I’m not the station, I’m not the stop: I’m the train. I’m the train.
Self gets some help with this from Martina Twain in New York, and from Martin Amis in London. Amis (“his face is cramped and incredulous”) appears as a character in the book: “a writer lives around my way … This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?” This Self-indulgence is reportedly the moment in Money which caused Kingsley Amis to throw the book across the room, though that may be no more literally true than the story that after a certain age, Amis Sr would not read any book that didn’t begin “A shot rang out.” Martin Amis the character helps distance the author from the narrator. Martina Twain, like Martin Amis the author, takes on the role of reforming, and re-forming, John Self. His enthusiasm for going on a date with her (he is still trying hard to be unfaithful to Selina) means she can get him to try new things, like reading Animal Farm. (“What the fuck are popholes?”) Martina, in contrast to Selina, has had money all her life, and her power for Self is indivisible from this.
Money is everything to John Self. He is the poster-child for the ‘me decade’. That term, commonly associated with the 1980s, was coined in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, who went on to write that other great novel of 1980s money-men, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Money is set in 1981, and, like American Psycho published ten years later, it seems not so much a summation as a prediction. Books like these, cultural touchstones, help with the neat reduction of decades to one quality. In the 1980s UK of the book, money is a cushion, the only difference between happiness and misery. Men control it (“I am in a cab, going somewhere, directing things with money”); women are at the other end of it, paid, exploited, unaware. Often the relationship is defined in pornography. Self watches a film in a “porno emporium” – these are the days before the internet, before home videos even, made solitary pastimes more efficient – featuring a porn starlet named Juanita del Pablo and a nameless hunk. “By the time he was through, Juanita looked like the patsy in the custard-pie joke, which I suppose is what she was. The camera proudly lingered as she spat and blinked and coughed … Hard to tell, really, who was the biggest loser in this transaction – her, him, them, me.” Even Self’s stepmother, Vron, is “proud” of her appearance in what in those days was referred to as a jazz mag, “crouched over a flat mirror.” When he is looking at such magazines in a sex shop, a girl approaches him. “‘Why aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ ‘But I am,’ I said.”
Money is a novel of extremes, with everything at its end-point, the streets populated with the madmen, the damaged, the motiveless: the moneyless. The notion of things never having been worse than they are now is always popular, and Amis interrogated it relentlessly in Money and some of the books that followed: Einstein’s Monsters (1987: nuclear armageddon), London Fields (1989: millennial environmental catastrophe), even, in a minor key, The Information (1995: intimations of mortality, the absurdity of the human project in the universe). Money, too, is a novel of great ugliness described with surprising beauty. It’s all in Amis’s shiny, hyperpolished, superprecise sound, full of lists and pairings (“in smiting light and island rain”, “tears of barbaric nausea”), variations and combinations (“blowjob knowhow”), repetition (“Fear walks tall on this planet. Fear walks big and fat and fine”) and comic brand names (cars called the Culprit, the Autocrat, the Boomerang, the Fiasco). The language is full of hardworking words like “heft” and “twang,” both of which recur throughout the book - indeed, heft and twang is a pretty good description of Amis’s high style. He likes his ellipses too – “I don’t know what it’s like to write a poem. I don’t know what it’s like to read one either…” – which to me seem a little like an author laughing at his own jokes, a mumbled exclamation mark. Self addresses the reader, too, involves us and claims our sympathy.
After all we are only human beings down here and we could do with a lot more praise and comfort than we actually get. Earthly reassurance – it’s in permanently short supply, don’t you think? Be honest, brother. Lady, now tell the truth. When was the last time a fellow-Earther let you rest your head on their heart, caressed your cheek, and said things designed to make you feel deeply okay? It doesn’t happen often enough, does it. We’d all like it to happen a lot more often than it does. Can’t we do a deal? Oh boy (I bet you’re thinking), that head-on-heart stuff, whew, could I use a little of that.
Here is a book built out of language. A friend once observed (speaking about The Information, but it’s as true for Money) that where some authors make you stop and note something every few pages, with Amis it happens every few lines. Its intensity, its volume, its full-throated technicolor charge should be maddening and tiresome, but instead it’s energising: it transmits its own energy, generates its own electricity. Self, of course, is a slob and a yob, yet his narrative is sparkily eloquent. Amis said he made this work – and it does – by distinguishing between Self’s thoughts (pearls) and his dialogue (drivel). To paraphrase Nabokov, he thinks like a genius and talks like a child. Within the thickets of the language there is a plot, but it is twined in with the talk and the repetition so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem like a plot so much as a life. There is a delayed script, woe with Selina and Martina, trouble with Fielding and Frank the Phone (an anonymous voice who calls up Self to threaten him, and provides a counterpoint view of his behaviour), and tussles with arrogant actors which provide many of the book’s best sustained comic riffs, like the one where Self tries to persuade humourless leading man Spunk Davis to change his name.
“The thing is,” I said, “in England it means something else.”
“Sure. It means grit, pluck, courage.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
“Sure. It means fight. Guts. Balls.”
“True. But it also means something else.”
Amis was never a great plotter, but there is development as the book rolls on. Indeed, there is a sense of an ending from about three-quarters of the way through, which gives us one hundred or more pages of coming to a halt: everything moves so fast that it needs this much stopping distance. When Self appears to begin to settle down, he starts exercising, no longer drinks – well, no longer drinks all the time – but the balance of things always comes as a surprise, and only too late does he discover that when everything else starts to go right in his life, that money – oldest stalwart, truest friend – might start to go wrong. Even the language and imagery become more tender:
And in the morning, as I awoke, Christ (and don’t laugh – no, don’t laugh), I felt like a flower: a little parched, of course, a little gone in the neck, and with no real life to come, perhaps, only sham life, bowl life, easing its petals and lifting its head to start feeding on the day.
When I finished reading Money this time, I felt a little lost afterwards, having lived in such a rich world for such a long time. Who has more fun than we do? You could say, rightly, that Money speaks almost as much to the financial times of today as it did to the 1980s (“If we all downed tools and joined hands for ten minutes and stopped believing in money, then money will no longer exist”), but that’s because it’s so alive in language that it will outlive us all. And no idiot will ever claim that Amis, Money-man for thirty years now, is famous for the wrong book. He has long been fond of saying that the only measure of success a writer should worry about (“there’s only one value judgement in literature: time“) is whether they’re still being read in fifty years. Well, Martin, you’re three-fifths of the way there: more, if you count the earlier books. Cut yourself some slack. You’ve earned it.
While working as a consultant on a film dramatising these events - although 'dramatising' feels like a curious word to apply to an already pretty cinematic story - Davies found herself inspired by the questions that the process of film-making threw up, notably in terms of the motivations of those involved:
Watching Gerard Depardieu feel his way into the role of the false Martin Guerre gave me new ways to think about the accomplishment of the real impostor, Arnaud du Tilh. I felt I had my own historical laboratory, generating not proofs, but historical possibilities.
Watching actors play various interpretations of these fictionalised people gave Davies the opportunity to arrange and rearrange the real people in her head: Why did Martin leave in the first place? How might de Tilh have gathered the information he needed to 'play' him? Was Bertrande fooled by de Tilh, or did she go along with the deception for her own reasons, related to her difficult status as a young not-widow in a gossipy village? The detail of a single case like this holds much allure for a historian: it opens up the possibility of a window on a world and worldview that is rarely glimpsed on an individual level. While economic, social and cultural history can open up general images of lives lived outside the chronicles and letters and diaries of the educated elite - the cultural practices, the trends and priorities expressed by marriage patterns and consumption and shared ritual - pre-modern non-elites, being unaccustomed and/or unable to communicate their thoughts and reflections in written form, have left us few traces of themselves as distinct individual people.
Davies also itched to explore both the uncertainties of historical reconstruction, and the wider cultural context for the legal case, that a fictional narrative necessarily left out. What she has to say in the book about Martin's Basque roots offers possible insight into his actions and family life. When Martin was a boy, his parents moved to the village of Artigat from Labourd, a predominantly Basque region of France (while retaining their valuable estate back home in Labourd, which Martin would one day be in line to inherit). The shift was, Davies explains, probably jarring, and never complete:
To be accepted by the village they had to take on some Languedoc ways. Daguerre became Guerre; if Pierre had used the Basque form of his name, Betrisantz or even Petri, he now changed it. Sanxi's wife probably continued to carry baskets of grain on her head, but she restitched her headdress and the decorations on her skirt so as to fit in with her neighbors.
The clash between local and Basque attitudes to the buying, selling and inheritance of land is crucial to Davies' ideas regarding the conflict between Martin and his father that drove him to leave home in the first place, and the story's eventual resolution.
But then in 1548, when the infant Sanxi was several months old and Martin in his twenty-fourth year, [...] Martin "stole" a small quantity of grain from his father. Since they were both living in the same household, this theft probably reflected a struggle for power between the two heirs. But in any case theft was unpardonable by the Basque code, especially if done within the family. "The Basques are faithful," Judge Pierre de Lancre was to write; "they believe that theft is the work of a debased soul, of a low and abject heart; it bears witness to the demeaning neediness of a person." Martin Guerre had now placed himself in an imposssible situation. "For fear of the severity of his father", he left - he left his patrimony, his parents, his son, and his wife - and not one word was heard from him for many years.
But such details would have slowed the pace too much. Moreover, a film could not easily acknowledge, she notes, "the 'perhapses', the 'may-have-beens', to which the historian has recourse when the evidence is inadequate or perplexing". [Although now I find myself wondering about the possibilities of an undergraduate history class that juxtaposed The Return of Martin Guerre, film and book, with I, Pierre Riviere...]
Davies account is itself inevitably somewhat fictionalising. The trial records themselves don't survive; we have only the judge's retrospective narrative of events, published shortly after the trial, to give us access, second-hand, to the various historical actors' self-presentation at the trial. This can be seen in the passage quoted just above the previous paragraph, which gives some sense, I think, of Davies' approach to her source material. The trial over which the judge presided was itself, of course, a performance and a reimagining of the decisions made during the years under investigation - something that Davies perhaps doesn't make quite enough of. So when she says, "What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past", it must be taken with a pinch or two of salt. But that, of course, is part of her point, and her reason for laying the process open in such a way: all history-writing is necessarily an act of interpretation, of re-presentation, and of imagination.
Her understanding of Martin's wife, too, is the product of just such an act of imagination. Combining the judge's account of Bertrande's testimony and actions during the trial - together with the testimony of the around one hundred and fifty (1) witnesses who took part in the trial at various stages - with her wider knowledge of gender norms and social practices in early-modern southern France, Davies attempts to layer into her account some suggestions as to Bertrande's (often conflicting) desires and expectations.
Bertrande's actions appear confused and confusing to the modern reader, as indeed they seem to have done to those around her. Bertrande and Martin were married young - around the age of fourteen, which is unusual for the time and social milieu (with the exception of the upper elite, most pre-modern Europeans married in their late twenties) - to create an alliance between their ambitious, relatively wealthy families. But it seems - by the trial accounts - to have been unsuccessful union, which went unconsummated for some eight years. Nonetheless, Bertrande strongly resisted her own family's efforts to persuade her to end the marriage. Davies explains her refusal to escape as follows, seeing in her actions the seeds of what was to come:
Here we come to certain character traits of Bertrande de Rols, which she was already displaying in her sixteenth year: a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon one of her sex. Her refusal to have her marriage dissolved, which might well have been followed by another marriage at her parents' behest, freed her temporarily from certain wifely duties. It gave her a chance to have a girlhood with Martin's younger sisters, with whom she got on well. And she could get credit for her virtue.
At length a local wise woman was called in to lift, ritually, what Bertrande later testified must have been a curse on the pair; a child was duly born. When Martin disappeared, Bertrande was left in limbo: neither wife nor widow, she was legally unable to remarry or move on with her life, even after several years. De Tilh, Davies suggests, must have seemed like a way out, however dubious ("Beyond a young womanhood with only a brief period of sexuality, beyond a marriage in which her husband understood her little, may have feared her, and surely abandoned her, Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different"), and indeed Bertrande stood by her new man even when others in the wider Guerre family doubted him, diving in the physically put herself between him and the clubs with which the husbands of her sisters-in-law were beating de Tilh:
"He is Martin Guerre my husband," she is reported as saying, "or else some devil in his skin. I know him well. If anyone is so mad as to say the contrary, I'll make him die."
Of de Tilh, Davies says that he was a clever but dissolute individual, disaffected - much as Martin himself had perhaps been - with the prospects available to him in his home village, who left to join a militia in one of the many local wars, and then washed in Artigat at just the right time. This is at least in part a tale of younger generations attempting to assert themselves against the expectations of family, especially fathers - of young men in limbo (much like Bertrande without either a living husband or news of a dead one) in their family homes, obliged to wait for their parents to die to give them the chance to own their own property or determine what they would do with their own lives.
One of the things I really liked about Davies' account is the way she brings out how the villagers themselves chewed these things over, considering them - both at the time, while wondering if de Tilh was who he claimed to be, and later, going over those doubts again at the trial - as possible motives for the central trio's actions. Undoubtedly, some exaggerated the extent of their earlier doubts, wanting to seem as if they'd always be correct, but what I'm interested in here are the terms in which the doubts are couched: the villagers offer suggestions and rationalisations, seeking to explain events in much the same way as Davies does (albeit often with different conclusions). The villagers appear as people engaged with narrative, prone to speculation, to self-invention, to constructing others' motives and trying to fit them into familiar, common-sensical frameworks. Thus Bertrande herself, for example, speculates at the trial that perhaps de Tilh and Martin had met as soldiers, and that this was how de Tilh could know "such private things about me".
In the event, Martin returned at the key moment, and Bertrande was able to cap her denunciation of de Tilh with her acceptance of the real Martin:
After one look at the newcomer, she began to tremble and weep (this according to Coras, who considered it the duty of a good judge to note the expressions of his witnesses) and ran to embrace him, asking his pardon for her fault, committed because she had been overwhelmed by the ruses and seductions of Arnaud du Tilh. Out tumbled all the prepared excuses: your sisters believed him too readily; your uncle accepted him; I wanted to have my husband back so much that I believed him [...]
Martin Guerre showed not a single sign of sorrow at the tears of Bertrande de Rols, and with a fierce and severe countenance (assisted perhaps by memories of the Spanish preacher she had been among) said, "Leave aside these tears... And don't excuse yourself by my sisters nor my uncle; for there is neither father, mother, uncle, sister, or brother who ought better to know their son, nephew, or brother than the wife ought to know her husband. And for the disaster which has befallen our house, no one is to blame but you." Coras and Ferrieres reminded him that he bore some guilt here, having abandoned Bertrande in the first place, but he would not be moved.
The book raises all sorts of fascinating questions about identity, family life, and people's willingness to believe - or pretend to believe - the implausible, for the sake of finding a way around or through the social strictures that bind us. Interesting stuff.
“This material,” the back page explains, “in an earlier form, was part of the first draft of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, a book due to be published in November 2013. It was decided, as the text moved through later stages in the editing process, that a London detour might be confusing. Now it stands alone.” That excerpt, Iain Sinclair’s Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald, has just been released as a chapbook that packs a real punch for its mere 28-pages.
This being Iain Sinclair, the reader should not be surprised to find that the Sebald pages are framed by a narrative of murder and dismemberment. During a morning walk in Hackney, Sinclair happened upon the crime scene where parts of the body of soap opera actress Gemma McCluskie had surfaced in the brown sludge of Regent’s Canal. The crime scene becomes a site of tribute and remembrance, “making murder into a soap-opera tragedy.”
Wreaths, flowers, bears, cards appear, overnight, woven into the fence, above the lock where the torso was found. Yellows and purples. Deep reds and pinks. Carnations, tulips, lilies. In funnels of cellophane and twists of green paper.
This tawdry story (she was murdered by her brother) helps displace Sebald from the East Anglian landscape where he lived and with which he has become inextricably identified, for Sinclair’s elegiac, almost tender, narrative is largely a tale of Sebald in urban London. It also serves as a contrast for the way in which Sinclair wants to memorialize Sebald. As Sinclair tracks Sebald through the neighborhoods of London, sometimes accompanied by the poet Stephen Watts, he writes about places that Sebald researched and wrote about in Austerlitz. Sinclair and Watts visit places like Liverpool Station and the Jewish burial ground in Brady Street that Sebald would have seen as his Norwich train approached Liverpool Street. Watts recalls stories of Sebald’s rucksack (which became Austerlitz’s rucksack) and of Sebald trawling through shoeboxes of old postcards in Spitalfields Market. Sinclair wants to unravel the “quiet cult of managed melancholy” that has been building up around Sebald’s legend, and so he gives us a Sebald who is flawed, worried, curious, determined, ill.
I wondered if Sebald ever wrote about driving. The published books present a man most comfortable with a scenario of waiting: station hotels, Swiss lakes, distant views of snow-capped mountains, flights into northern cities, walks through marches on sandy paths. Waiting for that single justifying encounter: the trapdoor of memory, the skewed quotation. the echo of a translated text.
Perhaps it takes someone as eclectic as Sinclair (whose website describes him as “a british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist”) to give us a glimpse of a Sebald who seems, momentarily, at least, whole.
[Note added April 20, 2013: In a most curious coincidence, the day after I originally posted this, The Guardian published an essay by James Woods in which Sinclair says: "I only set eyes on Max Sebald one time. We shared a descending lift in Broadcasting House, pressed back into our safe corners, silent. He impersonated what I took him to be – writer, walker, culturally burdened European – so beautifully that I wondered if this was an actor, a hireling." This is not the impression Sinclair leaves in Austerlitz & After, where he is more coy about his actual relationship with Sebald. Sinclair rather seamlessly blends Watts recollections into his own narrative, leaving it less than clear who actually spent time with Sebald.]
Austerlitz & After is a publication of Test Centre in London. It was beautifully produced in a limited edition of 300 copies. Twenty-six copies (all now sold) were specially bound in buckram covers. Here is a view of the “extra holographic material” added to the copy which I managed to purchase.
Dion’s art usually investigates the meaning of museums, often turning the museum itself into the subject of his exhibitions. Clearly some of the fun of Dion’s installation (which I have not seen in person) is the way in which it also becomes a period room, a simulacrum that shows how a room’s furnishings reflects a specific moment in time. “The Curator’s Office” offers a look back at a time when the museum profession was very different indeed, when original objects were often casually housed in offices, when cataloging records were on 3 x 5 index cards, and when the museum staff still smoked in their offices.
“The Curator’s Office” is part of an exhibition called “More Real: Art in the Age of Truthiness,” which is on view through June 9, 2013.
Installation view of Mark Dion’s “The Curator’s Office” courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
"And you are amused to find me doing the same?"
"Strangely enough, I think it is consoling. I have a great love of comfrey. And I loved Brother Matthew."
The Abbott felt at that moment that he was the true inheritor, not only of the defunct Brother Matthew's role on the island, but of all the arts and failings of Apollo.
John Fuller's Booker-shortlisted Flying To Nowhere (1983) is the sort of odd, charming little novel - or perhaps more accurately novella, since it's 105 pages long and quite large of print - that it almost seems a shame to say too much about it. It centres on a remote Welsh island, home to a community of monks, a bunch of women farmers, and a sacred well that attracts pilgrims on account of its supposed healing properties. When the healing miracles mysteriously dry up - to the extent that pilgrims increasingly seem not to be returning from the island at all, let alone going home cured - an ecclesiastical agent from the mainland named Vane is sent to investigate. He arrives "standing with one foot on the prow, like a clerk who supposes he is required to be a hero", and that's about the last time anything makes much sense.
Fuller is a poet, I gather, and that comes through in his novel's vivid imagery and gnomic dialogue; in many ways, Flying to Nowhere is less a story than a series of striking tableaux with captions. When the horse accompanying Vane on his boat panics during the landing, and ends up fatally injured on the treacherous coast, the episode is described through the almost inhumanly detached point-of-view of a young, rather pretentious and over-serious novice:
The hooves struggled to keep the body upright, but one leg was already broken from the jump and as the horse heaved, sank and scrambled among the slippery rocks other bones failed him. For a moment it seemed as if the glistening torso might try to move by itself in a series of wriggles and lunges, dragging with it the bunched and useless withers and fetlocks. One rear leg was flattened at an unusual angle from the knee; the other seemed caught between two rocks.
The passage seems set on dismembering the horse before it is even dead; while "horse" as a whole creature gets three verbs attached to it in quick-fire succession, most of the struggles and the suffering here are anatomised as the provinces of individual body parts (all carefully specified): hooves, torso, legs, bones, withers, fetlocks. The detachment of "unusual angle" and "seemed" is so lacking in apparent empathy that it borders on callous.
This is not a young man unaware of the physical. A few pages earlier, we are told of the novices' struggles with their monastic clothing ("The garments of meditation are not designed for the pace of prologue; they walked swiftly, though without urgency. At each step their garments were caught between their legs, tugging and chafing their calves"), and of our novice in particular reflecting on what he sees around him from within "the stifling privacy of his cowl". How stifling the enforced privacy of the monastery proves to be is one of the things the book explores; our novice is not unaware of the physical, but he is terrified of it, and utterly determined to ignore it at all costs.
Ranged against the self-denying, idealistic novices are the women of the island, who are practical and earthy to a - rather cliched, it must be said - fault. When we first meet them, they are engaged in hard physical labour in the fields the novices are walking through; their sweat is lovingly described. Later, one young woman is described as (in the semi-seclusion of her bed in a communal women's dormitory),
holding the flowers of her breasts and filling them in her mind like filling cupped hands with the heaviness of spring water, trickling cool through the fingers.
The imagery is arresting; I like the water's unexpected "heaviness", though not so much the flower-boobs, not least because how exactly do you "fill" a flower in a way that makes any enlightening metaphorical sense when applied to breasts? But it does feed in a wider, rather trying dichotomy of Earth-Mother-women set in contrast to airy-intellectual-men. The women, we're told, enjoy "cheerful shared activity" on account of "the female response to the seasons and to what fittingly belonged to them. It was an absolute virtue of the sex, tested and proved in the full round of life", because women are so natural! and earthy! and in naturally in touch with naturey earthy things while the men think Really Deep Thoughts! As I've noted here before, pedestalling half of humanity isn't much of an improvement over pillorying them, since the end effect is still a dehumanising denial of individuality, and while it might be argued that all this is an extension of the novel's themes about life, body, and spirit - and that it therefore is a deliberate expression of the male characters' rather aetiolated emotional development - the narrative tends to reinforce the view rather than challenge it.
But this is one area where the novel's brevity, and its opacity, work to its advantage; I was absorbed enough over the short page-count to keep the eye-rolling to a minimum, and be puzzled at what exactly Fuller is getting at. A couple of female characters have some wonderfully elliptical things to say, as in this dormitory conversation:
"Are you crumbling away too, Gweno?"
"No, no. It's leaving me pure and new and now I've died and got wings and I'm flying away. Can't you see?"
Her fingers moved in the moonlight, and their shadows moved in the rafters.
"Yes," came several voices. "We can see you flying away. Where are you flying to?"
"I'm flying to nowhere. I'm just becoming myself."
This exchange seems to suggest a combination of bodily and extra-bodily experience, something echoed elsewhere in one character's distinctly un-monastic musing that sex can be transcendant ("Remember that spending with women is a struggle from roots, an attempt to fly"), and in the central debate between Vane and the Abbot about miracles and the well. To call it a 'debate' is to overstate the case somewhat; the two men fence warily at intervals, and mostly manage to talk past rather than to each other. This is about as direct as it gets:
"I cannot arrange cures. Cures are not for sale."
"Are you saying that there are no cures?" asked Vane.
"Perhaps there have been cures, but I do not know in every case what has caused them."
"Dry and energetic" Vane wants straight answers and obedience, and the well back online; the distracted, doubting Abbot (unconvinced, as seen just above, by the well's miraculous properties) is busy secretly dissecting corpses to see if he can find "the private chamber of the spirit", and imagining the books on whose knowledge he has based so much of his identity dissolving back into their constitutent parts:
Could leather be cured of its curing? [...] He would lose first those books bound in vellum, for the bindings would turn back to stomachs and digest the contents. Or the shelves would grow into a hedge and keep out the hand that reached for knowledge.
More earthiness. Amid an increasingly (g)lowering atmosphere, as the investigation seems to hint more and more at foul play, Vane finds himself starting at shadows and wondering who he can trust. Having demanded a meal of meat, his doubts soon make him rue what he asked for:
a plate of meat produced in sly triumph [...] It was dark, sweet meat, three slices of it in a wooden dish, and Vane had wolfed it down as if he had not eaten for a fortnight. Now it lay uneasily on his stomach, like an animal twitching in a nightmare.
Fun, pretty, and full of dark hints. I liked.
An intensity of foreboding hangs over each of the 253 pages in Amy Sackville's second novel, Orkney. It is suffocating reading, almost bare of incident or action. But what there is bristles with disconcerting significance, so that a character eating breakfast becomes a warning, and a pebble collected on the beach becomes malignant, and a lobster the very epitome of either love or perversity, depending on your perspective.
Richard and his two-day wife pitch up in Orkney, at the northernmost tip of nowhere for their honeymoon, apparently at her request . He is 60, a professor of literature and more specifically of Victorian poetry; she is barely in her 20s, only recently his brightest student and now his bride. Neither have any family to speak of. His are dead. Her mother is somewhere in Northumbria, but her Orcadian father disappeared when she was a child and she left the islands soon after. She and Richard are an unlikely conjugal pairing, and pre-judged by everyone who meets them - father and daughter is the first assumption, followed by an uncomfortable recognition. Richard narrates for us, smooth and intellectual, charming in the way that a greying male academic can be, taking great pains to tell a romantic story. He casts himself as a formerly loveless husk, hollowed out by a bachelor's life, reinvigorated by his wife's sudden appearance in his classroom and now reborn as her husband and lover. He enjoys the frisson of their relationship, the excitement of their encounters in public. Early on he recounts the first time they had dinner together, claiming she sucked his fingers in the restaurant after sharing a lobster, relishing how their fellow diners tried hard not to stare. Later on his erotic version of affairs is called into question, but Richard remains very attached to this 'memory'.
She is nameless, barely describable. Richard, who of all people should know her best, can only give us vagueries:
I have no photograph. I say, she is tall, she is thin, she has white hair and green, or bluish, or grey eyes... She has a violet freckle on her hipbone, a bruise; her hands and toes are webbed and the veins behind her knees are green.
The only number on her phone is his. She bursts into life the two or three times in the book that they encounter another person but only briefly, like a dropped match.
The novel is punctuated by cycles of waking and sleeping, and by dreams. She dreams violent nightmares of drowning, of tsumani waves and inexorable tides. She fears the sea more than anything else and cannot swim, but is drawn to it and spends her days playing chicken with it on the freezing beach. Richard's answer to nearly all her fears is to have sex, during which she clings to him 'like a limpet and whimpers'.
Richard is working on a book, his magnum opus and the culmination of:
'all the strands of forty years' thought: enchantment narratives in the nineteenth century. Transformations, obsessions, seductions; succubi and incubi; entrapments and escapes. The angel in the house becomes the maiden in the tower, the curse come upon her. Curses and cures. Folktales and fairy-tales retold. And all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties and aporia. Do I wake or do I sleep? Fantasy and phantasm. Beautiful terrible women. Vulnerable lonely cursed women. Strange and powerful women. It's an old obsession.'
These women - 'Always the women', she says. I'm afraid so, I say - are his wife's precedents. With her silver elfin hair, webbed hands and feet and mysterious Orcadian origins, she fits right into his troubling lexicon of femininity.
Or Richard makes her fit, or wants to. She won't be pinned down like a character in a poem, and he is constantly frustrated by his inability to fix her in place:
She is Protean, a Thetis, a daughter of the sea, a shape-shifting goddess who must be subdued; I hold her fast and she changes, changes in my grasp... But I am no prince and cannot overwhelm her; she will consent to marry but goes on shifting no matter how tight I grip.
Subdue, grasp, overwhelm, grip: Richard's is the romance of possession, in more ways that one. He perceives that she - this 'tiny, perfect, whittled trinket' - has possessed him, like La Belle dan sans merci. But as the honeymoon progresses, and his delight in her is darkened by ridiculous jealousies over an adolescent bird-watcher and a urine-soaked tramp, it is clear that he is the posessor and not vice-a-versa. She bruises easily, he says, ominously, on the third morning of their honeymoon.
Nearly everything takes place out in the open, in the wilderness, with the big presence of the sea and the weather-beaten Orkney landscape. Richard's new wife is a creature of this environment, standing out on the beach in all weathers, simply watching the sea come in and out. Richard doesn't join her. Instead he watches from the house, catching her in the frame of the window, literally fixing her with his gaze.
So I have taken up my station, and she is in her place, looking out. I glance from the window to the page as I work. Her view is encompassed by mind; it is not merely the sea that I see, it is the sea that she is seeing. Something at last takes the empty place at the centre of my perspective... She has brought me the sea and the sky and arranged them around her. We are quite alone in our little bay.
Impossible not to shiver at that 'quite alone' with its bare hint of threat.
Which is not to say that there isn't a whisper of the sinister about the woman herself. She and Richard tell the story of Vivien and Merlin to one another, a version in which she is 'a wilful scheming vengeful soul who by her sulks and seductions at last deceives a melancholy Merlin into revealing the spell that will confine him' and a version in which it is Merlin who pursues her, and whose 'obsessive love so exhausts her that at last, in a desperate bid to be free of him, she tricks and traps him.' Sackville leaves it to us to parse out the couple's relative power dynamic, and which if either trajectory is true in this case. Richard's wife even offers another version, in which Merlin and Vivien really are simply and innocently in love. Perhaps it is the reader's own prejudice and darkness that makes them unjustly suspiscious?
Richard's slick narrative sows many seeds of doubt, a myriad of possible interpretations. Is he a lecher or a lover; a gentleman or a brute of barely supressed violence? Ominous gaps appear in his story as it progresses, literally represented by blank spaces on the page itself. His wife slips away from him, disappearing from sight more and more. Is he breaking down, out of his mind at the possibility of loosing the happiness he has found? Or is she running away, in fear of her safety? And what kind of woman is this wife anyway? Is she something more otherworldly than a passionate literature student, a selkie or a sea-witch? Or a troubled young woman looking for escape? Is she with him by consent, or coercion, or cunning? Is she even real?
Orkney is full of the things that make folktales tick. It's dominant notes are love, longing and loss, and it captures the claustrophobia of a folktale world which is both intensely real and unreal at once. The slightness of the story is a deception; the book resonates longer and more loudly than it would appear to warrant. I'm disappointed it didn't show up on the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist this month and hope it doesn't get completely lost amidst the shortlist clamour. This is about as good a book by a woman as you could hope for.
Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
I read Barbara Demick's remarkable Nothing to Envy: real lives in North Korea (2010) during an epic two-and-a-half day train ride across the western and mid-western United States, from Emoryville to Chicago. The further I got into it, the more I found myself cherishing the continual sensation of movement in my little metal world, for the welcome - if sometimes jarring - contrast it offered to the experiences of Demick's interviewees.
The central triumph of Demick's book is the way she puts North Korea's people - specific, individual people - at the front and centre of her account. Too often, whether in the pronouncements of Western leaders, in media coverage, or in supercilious comedic films, the story of North Korea is shrunk down to that of a monolithic, basketcase state and its eccentric Dear Leader(s). Witness the sniggering coverage of Kim Jong-il's death in 2011: North Koreans are all brainwashed, or they're all too afraid to break ranks, or something else, but either way they're all "all" - there are no individuals.
Retelling the recent history of North Korea through the daily lives of six of the North Koreans she interviewed, Demick reminds us of what we should have known all along: North Koreans, like anyone else, are complicated individuals who don't all think alike or respond in the same way to their situations. Indeed, the people she spoke to - each of them after they'd left the country - weren't all in identical situations. Her interviewees include a factory worker (Song Hee-suk, aka 'Mrs Song', as Demick tends to call her), a teacher (Mi-ran), a homeless child (Kim Hyuck), and a doctor (Kim Ji-eun, the Dr Kim whose first impression of China upon her defection from North Korea in 1999 is described in the passage at the head of the post). Some were well-connected, while others were outsiders: Mi-ran was systemically disadvantaged by her "tainted blood" (her father was a former South Korean soldier and prisoner of war forced to settle in the North after the Korean War), while her sometime boyfriend Jun-sang was seen as suspect because he's descended from Japanese immigrants. Some, like Mrs Song, were long-term true believers, while others - like Mrs Song's daughter, Oak-hee - were sceptical about the regime from a young age.
They each have their own lives and loves and hopes - not all of which revolve around the political situation in their country! - as Demick discusses in a tone-setting passage in her opening chapter:
By the mid 1990s, nearly everything in North Korea was worn out, malfunctioning. But the imperfections were not so glaring at night. The hot-springs pool, choked with weeds, was luminous in the reflection of the sky.
The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars.
As the young couple would walk through the ginkgo leaves, what would they talk about? Their families, classmates, books - whatever the topic, it was fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.
This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in any East Asian Studies department, people analyze North Korea from afar. They don't stop to think that in the middle of this bleak country where millions have died of starvation, there is love.
As noted above, it's not quite an inside view. Foreign access to actual North Koreans living in North Korea is very strictly controlled and regulated by the state; foreigners are restricted to Pyongyang, and Demick notes that only certain "handsome, politically correct" North Koreans are permitted to live there ("the regime goes to great lengths to ensure that its inhabitants make a good impression with their appearance and are ideologically sound"). Necessarily, then, Demick's interviewees are all refugees: defectors who escaped to neighbouring China and South Korea (and this, too, is part of the tapestry of the book: the varying experiences of trying to adapt to - sometimes tough and unwelcoming - life elsewhere), in many cases with their names changed to protect their family members who did not or could not leave with them.
Nonetheless, several of Demick's subjects give a vivid account of what it was like to fully buy into the message, before they became disillusioned. The most heart-wrenching story belongs to Mrs Song, the eldest of the interviewees and once an eager and irrepressible factory worker, who for a long time had no doubts at all that what she was constantly being told was true: that individual suffering (not least her own) was necessary for the collective good, that Kim Il-sung was a superhuman leader, and that the rest of the world was a howling wasteland where life was even worse (this idea can be seen also in Dr Kim's reaction to what she sees in China, quoted above). Demick sums up the ideology the regime promotes through a snapshot of the North Korean film industry:
Under Kim Jong-il's direction, the Korean Feature Film Studio on the outskirts of Pyongyang was expanded to a 10-million-square foot lot. It churned out forty movies per year. The films were mostly dramas with the same themes: The path to happiness was self-sacrifice and suppression of the individual for the good of the collective. Capitalism was pure degradation. When I toured the studio lot in 2005, I saw a mock-up of what was supposed to be a typical street in Seoul, lined with run-down storefronts and girly bars.
For Mrs Song, everything bad was to be taken in stride; and anyone who fell foul of the regime must have done something to deserve it. (If you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear, etc.) Six days a week of eight-hour shifts, a daily couple of hours of Party indoctrination, and four young children to care for, were nothing to her; at Party self-criticism sessions, she expressed her anxiety that, even on just five hours' sleep a night, she was not working hard enough. Life was always one of privation, but especially after the mid-1990s economic collapse in North Korea (something whose details and causes were carefully kept from its information-starved populace), food supplies became severely limited, and water and electricity unreliable at best. Nonetheless, for a long time Mrs Song clung to her belief that this was the only way, and looked askance at those who sought ways round the system:
It was a topsy-turvy world in which she was living. Up was down, wrong was right. The women had the money instead of the men. The markets were bursting with food, more food than most North Koreans had seen in their lifetime - and yet people were still dying from hunger. Workers' Party members had starved to death; those who never gave a damn about the Fatherland were making money.
"Donbulrae," Mrs. Song muttered under her breath. Money insects.
In the past, she took comfort in knowing that she and everyone else she knew were more or less equally poor. Now she saw the rich getting richer; the poor getting poorer.
Among the profiteers was the army, a state body that incorporates some 20% of the adult male population, or one million people (making it the fourth largest military in the world), and eats up an estimated 25% of North Korea's GNP. Military personnel - themselves in penury, it must be said - commandeered and sold rice sent into the country by overseas aid agencies.
Only when the 1990s famine took the lives of her husband and her son - along with those of two million other North Koreans - did her belief begin to crumble, but even then she would not give up on her home. Devastatingly, Mrs Song's suffering was worsened by her ideological commitment, by her refusal to cheat the system and - as she saw it - betray her fellow North Koreans by buying food via the black market rather than from state distribution centres. Some of Demick's other interviewees had fewer scruples; both Mi-ran and Jun-sang's families, we're told, did much better during the lean years (if hardly comfortably) because they had fewer illusions. Mi'ran saw her primary school class, however, reduced from fifty children to just fifteen. Even Mrs Song's daughter Oak-hee, who by then had grown up and left home, took to making money to support herself by renting her spare room to a prostitute as a workplace.
Sad stories abound. Mi-ran and Jun-sang, whose families lived near each other when they were growing up in Chongjin, pursued a long-distance, largely epistolary relationship through the years he was at university and then working in Pyongyang, and she was a teacher in a distant village (she herself was unable to get to university because her access to a top school was quietly but inescapably blocked by some layer of bureaucracy within the regime, owing to her father's "tainted blood"). Mi-ran long nursed the desire to escape the country. Jun-sang came to feel the same, though - perhaps because for a time he was successful within the system - his disaffection came more abruptly, something he pinpoints to an encounter with a starving boy singing propaganda songs for money, on a railway platform:
His tiny body was lost in the folds of an adult-sized factory uniform but his voice had the resonance of a much older person. He squeezed his eyes shut, mustering all his emotion, and belted out the song, filling the platform with its power. [...] "Our father is here. We have nothing to envy."
Overcome with pity, Jun-sang gave the boy a very generous ten-won tip:
It was less an act of charity than gratitude for the education the boy had given him. He would later credit the boy with pushing him over the edge. He now knew for sure that he didn't believe. It was an enormous moment of self-revelation, like deciding one was an atheist. It made him feel alone. He was different from everybody else. He was suddenly self-conscious, burdened by a secret he had discovered about himself.
Both of them dreamed of leaving, and made separate, secret plans to go. Neither ever dared tell the other, for fear that the other was still the believer they pretended to be, and would report them to the authorities (informants, including neighbours, co-workers and even family members, were rife, and presumably rumoured/feared to be even more so than they actually were). In October 1998, after her father Tae-woo died, Mi-ran, her mother and her two sisters all escaped to the sanctuary of Tae-woo's surviving South Korean family, travelling one by one - in a really heart-in-mouth episode, even in the retelling - to reduce the risk they would be caught together. Before she left, Mi-ran destroyed ten years' worth of letters from Jun-sang, in an effort to avoid implicating him should she be caught, or once her disappearance was noted. Obviously, when Jun-sang heard, a few months later, the rumours of where she had gone, he was devastated. The pair finally found each other again in 2005, but by then it was too late: Mi-ran was married to someone else.
Mi-ran and Jun-sang simply could not afford to take the risk of telling each other; defection was an extremely dangerous enterprise. We learn this in particular through the experience of the destitute young orphan Kim Hyuck, who was caught during his first attempt to leave the country, and sentenced to a prison camp for three years. The place slept fifty people to a room, on bare concrete floors; he estimates that two or three people died each week, in his room alone. He finally reach South Korea in a later attempt, in 2001, but struggled for a long time to adapt to life there.
Dr Kim defected in 1999, in large part - she told Demick - because a government agent had "planted the idea and she found she couldn't shake it": she was approached, and warned that she was being watched because she was seen as a likely defector:
"Why would I want to leave?" she protests.
The agent enumerated the reasons. She had relatives in China. Her marriage had broken up. The hospital wasn't paying salaries.
"You! We're watching you. Don't run!"
Increasingly unable to do her job because of dwindling medical supplies - she was reduced to making gruelling hikes out into the desolate countryside on her days off, in search of plants and herbs she could use to treat her patients - and deciding that the listed reasons actually did add up to a good motive to leave, she did so. Like Hyuck, it took her several years to settle into life outside North Korea, however, a process Demick explores in detail.
By contrast, Oak-hee left North Korea not because of disaffection with the regime - she was never, we're told, particularly enamoured of it in the first place, having grown up during the period of its greater privation ("as her family got hungrier, she grew angrier") - but because she was in an abusive marriage. Seeking a divorce in North Korea would mean automatically and completely relinquishing her home and children to her husband, and so for a long while she stayed. But one evening, after a particularly brutal assault, she fled her home still in her night-dress. Her escape was one of the more difficult: lacking relatives or money or the right contacts to help her on her way, and defecting at a time (1998) when security was tighter than it became - both on the North Korean side of the border, and in China, where the authorities carried out periodic raids to deport refugees - she had to use more desperate means.
Oak-hee's only way across, and only way of staying safe once she was across, was to sell herself to one of the many Chinese men willing to buy (and hide) a North Korean bride. This too was risky - in the year 2000, the Chinese arrested 8000 such women in a single sweep, not to mention the risks of further domestic abuse that lurked in these heavily unequal, dependent arrangements - but she was lucky in her buyer. She remained with her 'husband' for two years, before moving, with his help, to a town where she could earn the money to bring her children across to join her. She was arrested and deported, but managed to leave the country a second time (the borders had grown increasingly leaky, and people's desperation ever greater; in 1998, a total of 923 North Koreans had defected, but by 2001 somewhere in the region of 100,000 people managed it - there was a now well-travelled refugee infrastructure). This time, with the money and contacts built up during her earlier stay, she was soon able to arrange to have her mother, Mrs Song, taken to South Korea - under false pretences, because Mrs Song would never have gone voluntarily. Again, Demick takes plenty of time to tell the story of Mrs Song's painful acclimatisation: for a long time she feels angry, bewildered and betrayed. The process of liberating Oak-hee's children took longer: at the time the book was published, Oak-hee had just been able to prise one of her children away from their father, but the other remained in North Korea.
Demick also explores, fascinatingly, some of the ways the regime convinced people like Mrs Song, and kept a lid on the sceptics. The tools of indoctrination she describes are morbidly amusing in their directness, at least to an audience lucky enough never to be subjected to them without alternatives, or to the mechanisms of enforcement that lurked behind them. Children were started young, with messages that ranged from the odd but innocuous:
Whether they were studying math, science, reading, music, or art, the children were taught to revere the leadership and hate the enemy. For example, a first-grade math book contained the following questions: "Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?"
to the downright sinister:
A first-grade reading primer published in 2003 included the following poem, entitled 'Where Are We Going?':
Where have we gone?
We have gone to the forest.
Where are we going?
We are going over the hills.
What are we going to do?
We are going to kill the Japanese soldiers.
One of the songs taught in music class was 'Shoot the Yankee Bastards':
Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.
Much of the propaganda centred around the personality cult of first Kim Il-sung, and then of Kim Jong-il. The two Kims were utterly ubiquitous, their portraits everywhere and their speeches broadcast and re-broadcast on state TV and radio, voiced by suitably heroic-sounding actors. Speaking to Denick, Jun-sang recalled the first time he heard Kim Jong-il's actual voice, with an illegal aerial he used to pick up South Korean TV: it was disappointingly "old, tinny, and distinctly human". This illicit source of information was also his first opportunity to get any sense of the scale of the 1990s famine death toll, in the form of solid numbers rather than personal impressions of death.
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were presented as the benevolent fathers of their people, caring for and watching over their well-being. The iconography of the regime was often friendly rather than forbidding - colourful murals would show Kim Il-sung surrounded by adoring children ("Kim Il-sung didn't want to be Joseph Stalin; he wanted to be Santa Claus"). Via Mrs Song, we catch a stunning glimpse of the real or perceived pervasiveness of the regime and its agents, of the degree of its ambition to intrude on private, domestic space:
In Mrs. Song's home, as in every other, a framed portrait of Kim Il-sung hung on an otherwise bare wall. People were not permitted to put anything else on that wall, not even pictures of their blood relatives. Kim Il-sung was all the family you needed – at least until the 1980s, when portraits of Kim Jong-il, named secretary of the Workers' Party, were hung alongside those of his father. The Workers' Party distributed the portraits free of charge along with a white cloth to be stored in a box beneath them. It could be used only to clean the portraits. This was especially important during the rainy season, when specks of mold would creep under the corners of the glass frame. About once a month, inspectors from the Public Standards Police would drop by to check on the cleanliness of the portraits.
Mrs. Song didn't need the threat of an inspection to clean her portraits. Even in the mad scramble of the mornings, rolling up the bed mats, making lunches, hustling the children out the door, she would give the portraits a quick swab with the cloth.
And through Demick's interviewees' discussion of his death in 1994, we get some sense of what it felt - still feels? - like to live within such an environment, where one all-encompassing figure is thought to be the only guarantee of security and comfort in a world that you are constantly being reminded is horrifically dangerous. Again, there was a range of responses. Kim Hyuck was too young to properly understand what was going on at the time, and initially was simply delighted that there was no school that day. Mi-ran recalls seeing a crowd gathered, spontaneously, and hearing "the rhythm of sobbing" and a "heaving sound"; she
was numb. She couldn't understand it. She was a schoolteacher in training, an educated woman who knew that mortals were made of flesh and blood and lived finite lives. But Kim-Il-sung, she thought, was something other. If the Great Marshall could die, then anything could happen.
Jun-sang found himself unable to mourn like those around him - or like the crowds whose images were soon being broadcast constantly on the television - and couldn't understand why (this was some time before his revelation with the boy at the train station). Dr Kim's father simply stopped eating, and starved to death within a few weeks. There were widepread reports of heart attacks and suicides, and increasingly social pressure was brought to bear on the holdouts who were not demonstrating sufficiently hysterical patriotic grief. For Mrs Song, meanwhile, the world seemed on the verge of collapse:
Nothing made sense. She started to scream. "How are we going to live? What are we going to do without our marshal?" The words came tumbling out.
Her husband didn't react. He sat pale and motionless, staring into space. Mrs Song couldn't keep still. She was pumped up with adrenaline. She rushed down the staircase and out into the courtyard of the building. Many of her neighbours had done the same. They were on their on knees, banging their heads on the pavement. Their wails cut through the air like sirens.
Highly, highly recommended.
The Great Victorian Collection (1975) is Moore’s tenth novel: the halfway point of his output. Its premise can be summarised in its opening paragraph:
There is still some confusion as to when Anthony Maloney first saw the Great Victorian Collection. Can it be said that he first envisaged the Collection in his dream? Or did he create it in its entirety only when he woke up and climbed out of his bedroom window?
There you have it. Anthony Maloney, a 29-year-old university lecturer from Montreal, is visiting Carmel in California when he dreams of a sort of marketplace in the parking lot outside his hotel bedroom window, the central aisle “dominated by a glittering crystal fountain” and the whole display filled with Victorian artefacts, objets d’art and curiosa. When he wakes up, the collection is really there. He recognises many of the pieces, and others he has read about. “It was as though I had memorised a huge catalogue.” He finds, to his surprise and excitement, that others can see the collection too – it really is there – and he does what any modern man would: he alerts the media. Experts are called upon, who confirm, reluctantly at first, that the items in the hotel car park are not fakes, but exact indistinguishable duplicates of the real items, which persist elsewhere, in the places where Maloney saw or read about them.
Moore’s narrative skill – his form as a thriller writer – means that the story gets going straight away, and pretty soon the reader stops waiting for Maloney to wake up again and begins to treat the odd scenario as given. This brings to mind – I never thought I’d say this about one of Moore’s books – Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and indeed it was Moore’s intention to write “an impossible premise treated realistically.” The tone begins with a certain detachment, that of a report or investigation, but Moore soon seems to forget this and gets on with it in his usual efficient style. There are no flashbacks, no switches in voice, just relentless pursuit of the story. Many of the people Maloney meets do not believe him that he dreamed up the collection (or, as it’s referred to throughout, the Collection) – but the reader does. We have no choice. We are in the hands of an expert manipulator: submitting to the power of a story means overruling your scepticism, willing the suspension of disbelief even where the events are impossible within the frame of the invented setting. The basis of The Great Victorian Collection seems arbitrary, and many of the character developments for Maloney seem directionless, but throughout the book I was itching to know what was coming – and the ending, though it could have followed many different middles, is inevitable and apt.
What makes The Great Victorian Collection interesting is the interpretations it offers to the reader. The Collection is, by definition, a product of Maloney’s mind: complete with pornographic materials in hidden rooms. It is hailed as “the first wholly secular miracle in the history of mankind,” and many of Moore’s characters are defined in part by their quest for a substitute for God. Moreover, though, the book read to me like an exploration of what it means to be a writer. Maloney must dream the same dream night after night to keep the Collection intact (or so it seems); like a writer, he has created something from nothing, and is now faced with the attention this draws to him, including religious observers who placard the Collection with warnings that GOD ALONE CAN CREATE. The Collection seems like a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil (I was reminded of Martin Amis, whom I recall saying of The Information that it was not a book about a mid-life crisis: the book was the crisis). The looseness of the plot in the second half of the book, until the end, shows Maloney prepared to go wherever the Collection – wherever his imagination – takes him. He is ambivalent about the possible loss of his ‘real’ job. The Collection, like a book, exposes Maloney’s soul to the public. “Fellows like you must be in love with yourselves. Otherwise, why would you dream up things to make the world take notice of you?”
At one point we get an odd exchange:
“See the green Chevy coming up behind us?”
“‘S not green.”
It disrupts Moore’s usual flow because it is obviously forced. The second line can only be intended, surely, as a reference to the famous coinage in the opening pages of Ulysses: “the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.” The prose of Joyce and Ulysses are about as far as you can get, stylistically, from Moore’s clear pane of glass. Although Moore wanted to write something quasi-experimental (that “impossible premise treated realistically”), he remained clear in his view that his taste was for story and not style:
I’ve discovered that the narrative forms – the thriller and the journey form – are tremendously powerful[.] They’re the gut of fiction, but they’re being left to second-rate writers because first-rate writers are bringing the author into the novel and all those nouveau-roman things.
Does Maloney’s turmoil, then, represent a conflict within Moore about his own work, or perhaps about its perceived value? One of Maloney’s confidantes turns on him near the end of the story. “What a joke! The Great Victorian Collection. Never mind whether you dreamed it up or not, have you listened to what serious people have to say about it? Why, they say it isn’t relevant, it’s completely out of date, it has nothing to do with our contemporary reality. That’s what they say and they are right.” Ouch. The Great Victorian Collection is not, in my view, one of Moore’s best books – though it won awards both in the UK and Canada – but it has his usual effortless pull, and shows him stretching himself and earning the “chameleon novelist” tag that his first biographer gave him.
It's why I have finally felt free to crack open A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R. R. Martin's magisterial A Song of Ice and Fire. I have had it on my reading pile (and in the sidebar over on the left) since I finished the first book in January, but have let it sit untouched, glancing at it wistfully now and then. Having opened it, predictably, I now can't put it down. Or rather, can't put my new copy of it down. I took the actual copy that has been sitting on my TBR to work with great anticipation and promptly spilt my lunch all over it. Not just a little spill but a big time dousing spill. Leek and potato soup + paper = a mulchy mix of things. Thank goodness GRRM is now the most popular bearded writer in all the world. The book shop two minutes from work had several copies of all the books in stock and I was reunited with Tyrion and Arya and Sansa and Jon in 10 minutes flat. (Along with a copy of Cathrynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making and Karen Russell's new collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Ahem. I also took the opportunity to evangelise the Song of Ice and Fire series to a startled man loitering around the Terry Pratchetts who had seen the TV series but thought the books weren't for him. 'What?' I cried, 'You are missing out. The HBO series is good, but you're going to like it a lot more once you've filled in all the gaps.' He bought the first three. All in all, a good lunch time for the bookseller thanks to my misplaced soup.)
I'm so ridiculously excited at the thought of reading the third, fourth and fifth books this year. My first time through I stopped mid-way into book three, for reasons now completely lost to me - probably author fatigue, as I read them all in a single rush - and after so many years thought I would never get back to them, especially knowing my poor memory and my lack of discipline for rereading. But 2013 seems to be the year for Getting Things Done. A Dance with Dragons here I come.
I've also recently snuck in Amy Sackville's second novel Orkney (on which I'm still cogitating, more in a later post) and another YA fantasy book: A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. This was an utterly unexpected delight. Hardinge has been on my radar for a little while, and I actually own another of her books, Fly by Night, which was gifted to me by my friend Niall with the exhortation to Read It. And I was fully intending to do that - I even pulled it off the shelf and put it on the dining room table ready - but then I was walking past the new fiction shelves at work and saw A Face Like Glass, picked it up, read the first four pages in the staff room and then had to keep going.
Caverna is a vast underground city, a claustrophobic, disoriented world unto itself. Its citizens are born, live and die in tunnels without ever seeing daylight or the warmth of the sun or the tug of the wind. Nobody leaves and people from the surface never come in. A discrete trade in True Delicacies - the exquisite and dangerous wines, cheeses, sweets and perfumes that the inhabitants of Caverna create - and the import of the ingredients needed to make them are the only contact with the outside world. It is cramped, dark, breathless; the only light coming from 'trap lanterns', plants that take in carbon dioxide and omit light and oxygen in its place. Men and women routinely go mad trying to understand the confusion of its geography, of the possibility of a city entirely ringed around by rock.
Ordinary maps cannot work in Caverna, and that is not just because the city is not flat. Directions do not always work as they should. Compasses spin uncontrollably or shiver into fragments... Things link impossibly, turn themselves inside out, double back. It draws you in. You twist your mind into new shapes.
The insularity of Caverna, and the proximity in which its people live, demands a stratifed, tightly structured society. Power is held entirely in the hands of a small number of families, Court artisans who create the True Delicacies and battle each other in an intense cycle of dynastic struggle. Meanwhilehile their water is pumped and their tunnels are dug and the trap lanterns that keep them alive are fed by the Drudges, a vast underclass of people who live and die in nameless obscurity.
In nameless and in faceless obscurity as well. In Caverna facial expressions do not come naturally to babies. They do not smile or frown or screw up their eyes in distaste. All children are born blank as slates. Each 'Face' or expression has to be taught and learnt. Beyond the five basic expressions taught to the Drudges - to give them the Faces for expectantly awaiting orders, politely carrying out a task, a smile of gratitude, humility when they have erred - Faces also have to be bought. The more Faces you have the richer, the more privileged you are. The richest can buy Faces for all conceivable occasions, from 'ranges' designed for them by coutour Facesmiths, from the evocatively named No 29 - Uncomprehending Fawn Before a Hound to the puzzling No 64 Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower. But no matter how many Faces a person has they cannot be spontaneous in their smiles or scowls. Their emotions and their expressions are disconnected. Suitable Faces are chosen to fit a situation 'like a card from a deck.' In Caverna 'lies were an art and everybody was an artist, even young children.' It is a highly developed system of artistry that facilitates the complexity of Caverna's political intrigue and, literally, masks its climate of repression.
Into this world bursts a little girl called Neverfell. Her origins are shrouded in mystery and she has spent her childhood hidden away as an apprentice to the reclusive cheesemaker Grandible. When she accidentally leaves the safety of his tunnels at the age of 12 - by following a rabbit not down a hole but up one - the people of Caverna cannot believe their eyes. Neverfell has no Face. Or rather, she has a face but of a kind they have never seem before, 'a face like glass' that shows everything she is thinking or feeling in a never-ceasing flicker of change. She is naturally (or, rather, unnaturally) and intuitively expressive. It is horrifying and tantalising, an abomination of the rules of the city that puts her first before the Enquiry - Caverna's answer to the Inquisition - and then into the hands of Maxim Childersin, a scheming aristocratic vintner, and then finally into the presence and service of Caverna's ruler, the Grand Steward himself.
Neverfell is the very definition of a catalyst, a fizzing, popping irrepressible thing bound to cause a reaction or explosion once introduced. This is true both at the level of her exuberant, unconstrained personality - she is a 'skinny, long-boned tangle of fidget and frisk, with feet that would not stay still, and elbows made to knock things off shelves' - and because of what she represents. She embodies a free flow of creativity, emotion and intelligence that threatens the tightly clenched world of Caverna. In a city where personality is well and truly eroded and erased through training, facial discipline and physical constraint, she is a firework in an enclosed space.
There is very little honesty and trust in Caverna - how can there be when no one can read anything into the look on someone's Face? - and very little fellowship. Political power is gained and lost in an endless round of assassinations and betrayals, a culture embodied in the person of the Grand Steward who has fossilised himself into an unassailable and miserable position:
Even the continual battle to stay alive, to avoid assassination by the hungry and ambitious, no longer made him feel slive as it once had...Now there was only a cold and heavy dread that death would bring not release but an eternity of greater monotony, that he would find himself trapped in a lifeless body, with a mind that was fading mote by mote, blind, deaf, dumb, number and powerless against the march of grey.
Seeing Neverfell for the first time he tastes life again, sees colours, smells scents, through her. She is a kind of prism that brings the world into focus at the same time as knocking everything out of kilter. The people of Caverna can't bear to look at her, but at the same time can't tear themselves away, and she inevitably becomes a piece at the centre of an almighty and long-running plot to change the city forever.
The story is long - just short of five hundred pages - and races along at a clip, and there are some disconnected moments, and sometimes one event follows another a little too much like beads on a string, but overall the book plays out a great, rounded successful story. There is invention on every page, and Hardinge is always ready to give the unexpected flesh and density with her grin-from-ear-to-ear delight in metaphor and simile. A rabbit is a 'quivering, docile dollop' that turns into a 'wild white halo of fur, claw and tooth' when touched; the rooms Neverfell is given in the palace are 'like hutches for pets that are never allowed to run around.' Hardinge has that rare and precious gift for showing you that one thing is like another in juxtapositions that you could never have imagined yourself.
Better still, there is lots to think about, and in this way the book reminded me of Seraphina. I sense that Hardinge could very easily be an imagination run amok, with fantastical creatures and places and magics popping up like mushrooms, but A Face Like Glass keeps it channeled into its Big Themes of trust, honesty and justice. The lynch-pin moment of the book, almost smack bang in the middle, is when Neverfell decides not to be pawn but to play her own game instead. She sees a little girl like herself, a Drudge, fall to her death following a pointless order; and she sees the other Drudges looking on with blank, untouched Faces. It fills her with anger and confusion. Why don't they cry or shout or at least look sad? It is only later that she thinks to look beyond their limitations.
How had she been stupid enough to think that these people were not grief-stricken or cold or weary or angry? They just did not have the Faces to show any of these things. They had always been denied such expressions... How could the Drudges rise up against bullies like the foreman? Rebels needed to look at each other and see their own anger reflected...
Here she learns the lesson of cultural coercion, and understands herself as an individual force and the force of the masses as opposed to the force of the status quo. And she also understands for the first time how she can change things. It is significant important stuff, as well as about ten ordinary book-loads of fun at the same time. You can't lose.
Next up on my YA adventure, Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity which promises to be just as good.
The detour of the title is one made by a woman who calls herself Emilie, a lecturer in translation studies in Amsterdam who is also writing a thesis on Emily Dickinson. She flees her home after her husband discovers that, in the words of a notice posted around the university, she is a “heartless Bitch” who “screws around” with a first-year student. On her way to Ireland via Hull, she stops in north-west Wales, hires a cottage, and stays there. She has, however, another reason for her departure that her husband doesn’t know about.
To describe The Detour as a comedy would not be quite right: it’s too muted and mysterious for that. Yet there is a wryness, a twinkle, underlying the details throughout, such as the suspicious locals (“Are you German?” “No, not at all”), the unromantic landscape descriptions (“It was a grey day and Hull was hideous”) and the GP who smokes in his surgery and argues with the patient. This last is part of another element running through the book, of doubt being cast on what we are being told. Emilie, lying naked on the rocks outside her cottage, is bitten on the foot by a badger. She attends for medical treatment. “Impossible,” says the doctor: “Liar.” She tells others, such as her landlord, Rhys Jones. “Impossible,” he says. “Badgers are shy animals.” What are we to make of this? Do we believe the narrative, or its characters?
There are other mysteries. Why did Emilie come here at all? Why does she lie naked on the rocks? What is the significance of ”her beloved Emily Dickinson,” whose poems and portrait she has brought to Wales with her, but whose life she seems increasingly determined to divert from: “a bird of a woman who made herself small,” with a life of “withdrawing further and further, writing poetry as if her life depended on it, and dying”? Where Emily “would have sat inside coughing and sighing, writing about bright spring days and the first bee,” Emilie decides to get out and do it: making a home for the geese she has inherited as tenant of her cottage; pollarding trees. She has some help with all this from a young man, Bradwen, who stops by while walking, and stays. Unlike Rhys Jones, whom she finds creepy and intimidating, Emilie is drawn to Bradwen, and an erotic tingle runs through the pages where she observes him as they work together. At first it looks like a harking back to the affair with her student. But it may be that Emilie is drawn not to Bradwen’s beauty so much as his youth, his vitality, and his health. In addition, Bradwen, like Emilie, doesn’t seem to fit into a locality that is half League of Gentlemen, half All Quiet on the Orient Express.
Emilie underlines a passage in Dickinson’s biography: “since nothing is as real as ‘thought and passion’, our essential human truth is expressed by our fantasies, not our acts.” She walks a line between the two, and one of the most striking scenes in the book is her recollection of a fantastical act by her uncle. One day in November he “walked into the pond, the pond in the large front garden of the hotel he worked at. The water refused to come any higher than his hips.” He was “so far gone that he hardly realised that hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in. Incapable of simply toppling over.” When she first stops in Wales, at the end of her detour, she thinks of him because
she sensed how vulnerable people are when they have no idea what to do next, how to move forward or back. That a shallow hotel pond can feel like a standstill, like marking time with the bank – no start or end, a circle – as a past, present and unlimited future. And because of that, she also thought she understood him just standing there and not trying to get his head underwater. A standstill.
This comic, troubling image of stasis gives way, as the book progresses, to something like a hectic pace, as Emilie’s husband and parents in the Netherlands come to terms with her disappearance, and take steps to bring her back. This page-turning quality, the low-key eroticism and humour, and unexpected regular appearances from Tesco and Channel 4′s A Place in the Sun, all make this book quite a … variation on what you might expect.
The poems looked into another reality, or saw reality in a different way, one that was truer than the way I knew, and the fact that it was not possible to acquire the ability to see and that it was something you either had or you didn’t condemned me to a life on a lower plane, indeed, it made me one of the lowly. The pain of that insight was immense.This is perhaps a common experience if not a common revelation. Knausgaard realises it is “entirely possible to stay afloat in that world without literature ever opening up to you”, but he does not want to settle for this world. A Man in Love covers the same time as Knausgaard was writing the angels novel and it’s disconcerting to read of his determination to write at all costs; he is willing to sacrifice his marriage and family life in order to pursue the work. Clearly My Struggle follows the same personal imperative, only more explicitly. But in this personal element lies its danger. For the fictional Bellori, writing had conjoined the world with human concepts of the world rather than revealing the one beyond the other. “Christ never wrote”. The incarnation of divinity is abstracted by writing; literature takes possession of God. For Knausgaard, however, writing can resist this self-confirming circularity, and provides a precise example:
Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.The danger here is revealed in the form: Knausgaard is merely describing this in essayistic fashion, and no matter how aware the author is of the contradictory direction he has taken, the familiar mode of discourse envelops the world, casts a shadow on the open. “Everyone can write essays! It’s the easiest thing in the world” his friend Geir complains. But Knausgaard is not a painter or photographer, and he certainly isn't Paul Celan. For this reason he must fill his books with the sensory particulars of existence – the storm blowing through our world, as he puts it – as a means of approaching the nonconceptual. So while Knausgaard contextualises and investigates his experience with exceptional clarity and intensity – which alone justifies My Struggle as a project – it is a struggle lost in advance. “Come on! Into the open, my friend, as Hölderlin had written ... But how, how?”.
The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.
The Childhood of Jesus appears to fit into that category of novels where a man arrives in a strange land and struggles to make himself understood. The lack of understanding may be literal and linguistic (Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole) or emotional and allusive (Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). Such a premise gives an author opportunities to highlight the human condition unshadowed by familiar geographical settings which might distract the reader: the great risk in setting a story in a known location is that it will seem to be about that location. Better to create a new one. The balancing risk in doing so is that the reader will spend most of the book trying to work out what and where the author is really talking about.
Certainly, the critical consensus so far on The Childhood of Jesus has been to place weight on the title and the numerous biblical analogies which appear in the book. A man and a boy arrive in a Spanish-speaking city called Novilla, having journeyed by boat “from the camp, from Belstar”. They have been assigned names and ages, based on their appearance – the man is Simón, the boy David – and have been “washed clean” of their memories of whatever went before. They are not related (“not my grandson, not my son”) but Simón has assumed responsibility for David, and his self-defined role shifts as the book proceeds: “guardian”, “sort of uncle”, even “godfather”. His main aim – his quest – is to locate the boy’s mother, but it soon becomes clear that this means finding a woman who can be placed in the role, rather than the one who previously held it. The boy asks him “Why are we here?”
‘You are here to find your mother. I am here to help you.’
‘But after we find her, what are we here for?’
‘I don’t know what to say. We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live. It is the greatest thing of all.’
This tendency toward allusion, and to render the particular into the philosophical, is present throughout. Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks, unloading sacks of grain, and has debates with his colleagues on labour and progress. (“If you were to bring a crane, you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time.” “You could, but what would be the point? What would be the point in getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage, for example.”) He grows close to a woman, Elena, who challenges his presumption of mutual attraction between the sexes (“As a tribute to me – an offering, not an insult – you want to grip me tight and push a part of your body into me. As a tribute, you claim. I am baffled”), and to whom he protests about Novilla’s desire to curb “appetites” (“When we have annihilated our hunger, you say, we will have proved we can adapt, and we can then be happy for ever after. But I don’t want to starve the dog of hunger! I want to feed it!”). He argues even with the boy, in simultaneously logical and illogical ways, trying to impose his fading memories of how life used to work (others in Novilla consider memories to be things we “suffer from”), even directing the boy’s reading of Don Quixote to his own understanding. But his love for David, although oddly expressed, is honest and true, and is his only compass in this strange new place, which might be not just another country, but another world, another life. “What good is a new life if we are not transformed by it?”
Simón is something of a fool, pitiable in his inability to let go of the past and of his irrational beliefs, such as his conviction that a woman he sees playing tennis is the mother for David that he has been searching for. He follows through on his beliefs without regard to how they will affect others; or rather, in the belief that all will be for the best because he believes it so strongly. No need to look too hard for religious allegory here, nor as the book proceeds and David acquires what can only be described as Christ-like traits, and biblical references bubble across the pages. But the title, The Childhood of Jesus, can also speak of something about which we know nothing (or almost nothing: a dozen verses in the gospel of Luke). So Coetzee’s novel is also a deliberate empty space, cleared of context to enable the ideas and thoughts – the hopes we invest in children, and how much of ourselves we put in them, for example, just as we put our own ideas into Coetzee’s story - to be seen clearly. There are knotty concerns here on reading, on order and chaos, on political engagement, on almost anything you can think of. But, “you think too much,” Elena says to Simón. “This has nothing to do with thinking.”
Simón wishes for “some saviour” to “descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.” What Coetzee has given us is a book not of answers but of questions. To use James Wood’s formulation (writing about Thomas Pynchon), it is an allegory which refuses to allegorise. Indeed, a distant resemblance for me was Magnus Mills’ Three to See the King, which, like The Childhood of Jesus, is rich in religious reference but resists reduction to one neat analogy. I was going to say “like Three to See the King without the jokes”, but that’s not really true. Coetzee is often seen as a gloomy, humourless writer (though those two words are not synonyms), probably helped by things like his reaction to Geoff Dyer telling a joke at a festival in 2010. But like many writers with a reputation for miserablism, Coetzee’s work does have comedy, most obviously seen here in Simón’s attempts to complete an application form for membership of a brothel (“Which is not to say that I am not a man, with a man’s needs”), and a dialogue with David and his ‘mother’ Ines, about a blocked toilet.
‘It’s my poo,’ he says. ‘I want to stay!’
‘It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It’s not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it.’
Ines gives a snort and retires to the kitchen.
‘Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo,’ he goes on. ‘In the sewer it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo.’
These are not the only straightforward pleasures in the book: Coetzee’s prose is clean and efficient, driving the reader on through the mazy stasis of life in Novilla. There is plenty of what, to avoid a cliche, we might call Kafkaish stuff. “He remembers asking Alvaró once why there was never any news on the radio. ‘News of what?’ inquired Alvaró. ‘News of what is going on in the world,’ he replied. ‘Oh,’ said Alvaró, ‘is something going on?’” This intellectual incuriosity provokes the opposite in the reader. The story itself is intriguing – bewildering, puzzling, frustrating, say others - though it’s disappointing that the blurb on my UK edition outlines the plot up to page 260. (The book has 277 pages.) These qualities, combined with the enjoyable and unaccustomed exercise of thinking about the book – wanting to think about it – all the way through, meant that in a strange sense, The Childhood of Jesus is the most fun I’ve had with a novel in ages.
The Examined Life carries a manifesto in its title: if, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living, then examining a life must give it meaning – or return meaning to it. This examination, I presume, is how Grosz sees his profession as a psychoanalyst. I knew nothing about psychoanalysis before reading this book, and when I finished I bought Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, but The Examined Life is a pretty good jargon-free primer in itself. There is plenty of respect for Freud, father of the discipline, and clear support for the psychoanalytical belief that childhood events are the engine of our development.
It is not a self-help book, or not explicitly. It is closest in form to one of those books – David Eagleman’s Sum, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and above all Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities – which interrogates a subject (death, time, place) from different angles, producing a polyphonic song from the slenderest of individual notes. Here the subject is human life: its unhappinesses, blockages and limitations. Grosz has taken more than thirty cases from his decades of practice – this debut author is 60 years old – and condensed them to their psychoanalytical, and human, essence. Each story is a quest, a detective investigation, where the key to the success of the analysis (“the listening cure”), the answer to the question, comes less from the analyst’s words than from the patient’s*. “Our job,” says Grosz, “is to try to find a useful question.”
Grosz has the knack, which derives not from experience only but also literary skill, of boiling down a problem to its essence. Here is an extreme example:
Mrs C., who owned and operated a small restaurant with her husband … was a mother of three. She wanted help because she felt anxious and suffered panic attacks. In our first meeting she said that she found it ‘difficult to relate honestly’, but it was only after several months of therapy that she told me she was having an affair with her children’s nanny, a woman who had been working for the family for the past seven years, since shortly after the birth of their first child. Now – contrary to an agreement with her husband – Mrs C. was secretly trying to get pregnant because she could not bear the thought of losing her nanny.
The subtitle of The Examined Life is How We Lose and Find Ourselves. This suggests that for each problem reported, there will be a solution. In a sense this is true, but the solution is not a plan of action; it is simply the discovery, acknowledgement and understanding of the nature of the problem. With Grosz’s voice – patient, paternal, wise – this becomes a seductive pattern, and after each account I was torn between the urge to guzzle another or – following Mavis Gallant’s advice not to read more than one story per day by the same writer – allow it to settle and mature before moving on.
It is difficult to sum up the force and formal perfection of the pieces here without extracting one in full. Most contain something that felt to me like a punch in the gut, perhaps because so many link back to the patient’s childhood. One woman recalls a miserable time at boarding school, and payphone calls to her parents: “I was crying hysterically, ‘Please can I come home, please can I come home?’ and being told, ‘No, you can’t come home.’” A man who, as a boy, could not remember being alone with his busy mother, developed a bedwetting habit (“a private conversation – something only they shared”), and didn’t grow out of it until she died. Another as a child lived in fear of his father’s “sudden rages” and felt that “he couldn’t wait to get away from me.” All this was profoundly affecting to me, as someone to whom parenthood is still a novelty, and most definitely still a challenge: I feared seeing elements of myself, not in the children, but in the fathers. The feeling of discovering something momentous was enhanced when I read the chapter on ‘How praise can cause a loss of confidence,’ where Grosz argues convincingly that the easy praise we scatter over our children these days is more harmful than beneficial. “If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.” More than this, I thought of how easy it is to drift into semi-engagement when supervising my four-year-old son’s play. “Being present,” says Grosz, “builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about.”
Without this, a child might come to believe that her activity is just a means to gain praise, rather than an end in itself. How can we expect a child to be attentive, if we’ve not been attentive to her?
Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness – the feeling that someone is trying to think about us – something we want more than praise?
These explanations – how obvious they seem! – felt life-changing to me, and the pleasure I took in this book went far beyond the literary. It is full of revelations to the uninitiated, such as the many ways the human mind has of deceiving us. We learn about ‘splitting’ – the unconscious strategy that places aspects of ourselves that we find shameful into another person or group (think of an evangelical preacher found cottaging, or indeed Sir Hugo Coal in Patrick McGrath‘s novel The Grotesque) – and about paranoia coming from the deep-rooted fear that nobody cares about us. There is, after all, only one thing worse than being talked about.
There is a risk of Grosz coming over like Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, the superman who sees intuitively what nobody else does. But it is experience and interest in his subjects that gains him the key to each story – and not all the stories have a key – and they take time to find. Midway through one account, my eyebrows peaked at the line “One Monday, during her second year of psychoanalysis,” particularly as Grosz has already told us that many patients will be seen five days a week. Another, a man living with HIV, sleeps through most sessions for three years. This is a time-consuming – and presumably expensive – quest.
Not incidentally, one of the pleasures of The Examined Life is Grosz’s literary understanding: he brings relevant writing to bear on the subjects, from Beckett’s Endgame to Melville’s Bartleby. It’s fitting that Grosz’s agent said in his letter submitting the book to publishers, “Think Carver, Cheever, Calvino, not Freud, Lacan, Jung.” If it is not quite true to say that literature has a civilising influence, then at least we know it can provide signposts through the thickets, with a little help from one who knows.
* strictly, the term is analysand. Let’s stick with patient.
We begin with the finished product ... and we work our way back to the mind of the thinker who produced them. But not only to the mind! To the cultural world of the thinker; in this case, to the cultural world of nineteenth century Denmark. And to the physiognomy of the thinker; in this case a melancholy disposition, a heaviness of the soul. We must move from the outward to the inward, W. says. Only then, having reached the secret centre of the work, having come to its engine room so to speak, might we work our way back out again.But would Kierkegaard ever have picnicked?
Of course, one mustn't start reading too soon. W. is adamant about that. One mustn't simply devour an oeuvre, tempting as it may be, the many-coloured spines of Kierkegaard's works in the Hong and Hong edition, lined up on my windowsill, as inviting as boiled sweets.The Spurious Trilogy as it must now become known might be this pause before the fact of philosophy, revealed here as a pause itself, a dwelling inside this space of writing, the secret centre of all work. Perhaps this is the location of W.'s despair and why he asks Lars to record everything he says, knowing it too will fall into the silence of writing, a silence which only Lars can betray.]]>
One cannot just begin at page one, and then read one's way to the end, W. says. There must be a kind of pause before reading, a dwelling in the space opened by the fact of Kierkegaard, by the fact of his writing, by the fact that he lived.
That Kierkegaard wrote: we should pause before that, mulling it over.
I wanted to write something completely different, and I wanted to write about my father ... About his fall, how he somehow changed from being a father, a perfectly ordinary teacher, a local politician, to a divorced, dead alcoholic. For three years I tried to write a kind of regular, realistic but fictional work about his death. Nothing worked. ... And [then] I started just writing it as it was: the truth, no artifice, no cleverness. Reality.Perhaps my enthusiasm was relief at the abolition of the generic niceties that even the most impressive novels observe and, like David Shields, I mistook disillusionment for truth. Here was something elemental, I thought, the word Thomas Bernhard uses to describe Dostoevsky's The Demons after he had read the novel on his teenage deathbed. But, in my review of Reality Hunger, I argued that such reality cannot enter into the work without conforming to the pressure of the conceptual unity imposed by a book, and that writing plainly about plain things is no more a guarantee of realism than – following Wittgenstein – rain experienced in a dream is a guarantee of its wetness, even if it is connected to noise on the bedroom window.
everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called “writing.” Writing is more about destroying than creating.Writing as destruction is a striking contradiction and serves Mark's reading well, but "bad books" is vague and self-serving. He names no names here but My Struggle inevitably provokes comparisons with at least two. Who has stronger styles than Proust and Bernhard and what books have stronger themes than In Search of Lost Time and Gathering Evidence? (They are also named in My Struggle, Knausgaard having "virtually imbibed" one.) I regret mentioning them in my review, not because Proust and Bernhard cannot be usefully discussed in comparison but, in my case, they weren't usefully discussed and because doing so threatens the error that Marcel himself describes: when one hears of a great book, one can imagine only an assemblage of the great books one has already imbibed. It is only when one reads the new book that one becomes aware of its otherness and perhaps also its weakness in comparison. This has happened with three friends of mine who have read My Struggle, and it has caused me great consternation.
This list is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.
Nicola Barker: The Yips
“That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her.” Well, sort of. Either this book is less demanding than Barker’s previous ‘big novel’ Darkmans, or I am more attuned to her style now. In either event, I loved this baggy, funny and discomfiting report on a certain thread of modern English life.
Greg Baxter: The Apartment
“A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.”
Maeve Brennan: The Springs of Affection
One of the best short story collections I’ve read, though to limit it by that description is wrong. It is in three sections, each section describing a family’s life in Dublin, and it is not a laugh riot. “They have the ring of truth, and they hurt.” Depressingly, if unsurprisingly, this book is currently out of print in the UK.
Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout
Certainly the strangest book of the year, and one of the few on this list (see also Baxter and Ridgway) that I read twice to appreciate better. It has to be read backwards, in the sense that it is only when it is over that its depths and subtleties are absolutely clear. It is “a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades.” It is sick, stupid, silly and very sad.
Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
This is, perhaps more than any other on the list, an entirely unforgettable book. Voice and subject – a sort of bizarre cliché-driven management-speak, and workplace sex, respectively – are so perfectly attuned that it is entirely sui generis. Like Barker and Crump’s books, it is extremely funny and also utterly serious. It is “sneaky, tendentious and deceptive” – in all the best ways.
A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
This is a great – or almost great – American novel which doesn’t beat its own chest but just gets on with it. Riddled with bizarre and amusing details, and pretty straight beneath its colourful surface, it is “a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country.”
Joseph Heller: Something Happened
I read this book for the fourth time this year to check if its status as one of my favourite books is still justified. It is. What a bold step to take – and to take a dozen years over – after the success of Catch-22. Something Happened is long, brutal, horribly funny (the humour only ever comes from sadness) and surely one of the most remarkable novels published in English in the second half of the twentieth century.
Bruno Jasienski: I Burn Paris
With its hypnotic cover design and obscure (to most of us) author, this screams cult classic. But it should have broader appeal: its tale of a man who poisons the Paris water system seems bang up to date with its satire on cultural division. It is “a mad, hyperbolic performance” and deserves your attention.
Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
I feel almost embarrassed to include this book. What more can I say about it that I haven’t already? Take the word, then, of the dozens of authors, bloggers and other bookish people who have listed it as one of the books of the year also. These include, intriguingly, Peter Stothard, who was chair of the Man Booker Prize this year (he also listed The Apartment). How close, I now wonder, did Ridgway get to the Booker longlist?
Zadie Smith: NW
Imagine my surprise when Smith’s new novel, problematic in places but enormously impressive, was not received with universal hosannas. This is a novel which “unfolds, like an origami water-lily, and contains multitudes.” I think it is Smith’s best novel by some distance, and it makes me excited to see what such a young writer (i.e. younger than me) does in future.
Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque
A very bookish book, the sort of book I would expect to love, this novel met my expectations and more. As well as being a bran tub of literary inspiration (note to self: reread Ulysses, and finish it this time), it is a work of originality and imagination in its own right. “One of the most pleasurable and joyous novels of the year.”
Robert Walser: Selected Stories
The version of this book that I reviewed is out of print (I bought it years ago), but has been reissued by another publisher. Walser is charming, knowing, naive and mischievous. Everyone who reads him seems to love him. He is also very hard to describe accurately, so do try him for yourself. “The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected.”
Chris Ware: Building Stories
To include this book – this box – in an end-of-year list feels like a rote nod rather than a full-throated roar – who hasn’t? – but its ubiquity has good cause. It’s fantastically rich, seriously beautiful, and, if the books on this list seem to fall into ‘sad’, ‘funny’ and ‘both’, it’s firmly in the former category. “Its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human.”
[Naipaul] makes us aware that most writing hurries much too much, and so misses what is essential: that nothing seems to alter, yet everything is in flux. Though this is a book almost without incident it catches unforgettably the transformation of rural England in our time. [...] It is a moving and beautiful piece of work, unlike any other book I know.These lines corroborated my innocent enthusiasm and helped me to recognise and articulate what I had experienced. However, the review ends with a question I hadn’t considered: “But why call it a novel?”
|Constable cloud study, 1822|
The need for totality that brings pages about playing the guitar, about drinking tea, about wearing his Doc Martens and listening to his Walkman [...] also brings superb, lingering, celestial passages, like the one in which Knausgaard cannot sleep, and paces his apartment.This is the insomniac passage I quote in my comparatively feeble review and is worth returning to. It also returns us to the similarities with Naipaul. Knausgaard is moved to tears by a cloud formation he sees in a book of Constable’s paintings:
I kept flicking back to the picture of the greenish clouds, every time it called forth the same emotions in me. It was as if two different forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feelings and impressions, which, even though they were juxtaposed, excluded each other’s insights. It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the “fantastic,” I was at a loss to do so.This experience relates back to the beginning of the book in the narrator’s childhood, when watching a news report he sees a face in the sea. He rushes to tell the nearest person, his father, who says: “Don’t give it another thought”. Now you the reader becomes the author’s nearest person and you might respond in the same way as the father or, like me, suffer an intense identification.
The picture made my insides tremble, but for what? The picture filled me with longing, but for what? There were plenty of clouds around. There were plenty of colors around. There were enough particular historical moments. There were also plenty of combinations of all three. Contemporary art, in other words, the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable. Feelings were of inferior value, or perhaps even an undesirable by-product, a kind of waste product, or at best, malleable material, open to manipulation. Naturalistic depictions of reality had no value either, but were viewed as naïve and a stage of development that had been superseded long ago. There was not much meaning left in that. But the moment I focused my gaze on the painting again all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go? (trans. by Don Bartlett)
I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience. [...] The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of arrival. [...] And in the winter gray of the manor grounds in Wiltshire, in those first four days of mist and rain, when so little was clear to me, an idea—floating lightly above the book I was working on—came to me of a story I might one day write about that scene in the Chirico picture.Later he expands on the content of that narrative – a man on a journey to a Mediterranean city in classical times, although he didn’t think of it as an historical story “but more as a free ride of the imagination” – and explains why it never got written. It occurred to him that the story was “an attempt to find a story for, to give coherence to, a dream or nightmare” in which he was living through his own death. This is negative equivalent of Knausgaard's bewildered affirmation before the clouds.
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—Before the second question appears, he compares his poetry to a garish photographic snapshot in contrast to a painter’s eye that “trembles to caress the light”. Something imagined in writing, however, is “paralyzed by fact”.
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
Yet why not say what happened?Until I re-read the poem today I had assumed this line was Lowell's decisive call for “life writing”, for attention to be paid to the everyday rather than, as it seems now, a reluctant concession, an admission of defeat. In writing of what happened one must only “Pray for the grace of accuracy / Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination”. Reading yet again, however, the comparison with the visual arts seems to express less the poet’s anxiety over the superiority of imagination than over writing itself; even if he were to produce the most exquisite work of the imagination, it would be a failure. Indeed, by referring to the “poet’s anxiety” and by reproducing paintings here I confirm this fallen state.
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.Winter Journal begins in the manner of the two earlier with a general statement, a valedictory welcome as it were, the first on the random event of death – his father’s – the second on the passing of the moment – his own:
He lays out a piece of paper on the table before him and writes these words with his pen. It was. It will never be again.Actually, more than that: The Book of Memory – part two of The Invention of Solitude – is written in the third person as if to mark the passing of the moment against the guile of memoir. By becoming “He” and later “A.”, Auster enacts the implications of the statement. We can see how the peculiarity of his profession, which then included translation, prefigures the fiction he will go on to write.
Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months, if not years, of one man’s solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of that solitude. A man sits alone in a room and writes. Whether the book speaks of loneliness or companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude. A. sits down in his room to translate another man’s book, and it is as though he were entering that man’s solitude and making it his own. But surely that is impossible. For once a solitude has been breached, once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude, but a kind of companionship. Even though there is only one man in the room, there are two. A. imagines himself as a kind of ghost of that other man, who is both there and not there, and whose book is both same and not the same as the one he is translation.Auster writes Winter Journal in the second person and so becomes his own translator – his own ghost writer, the second man reasserting the solitude of the subject; a kind of paranormal activity we recognise from Oracle Night when Sidney Orr disappears into his study with the blue notebook and breaks his writer’s block. The proliferation of interrelated stories and digressions and the fascination with the act of writing are undoubtedly the most distinctive features of Auster’s fiction, the former attracting wide appreciation, the latter perhaps allowed as a concession to Auster’s European inheritance (The Invention of Solitude contains extracts from his translation of Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole and Blanchot’s fiction; equivalents of which are disappointingly lacking in Winter Journal, the most notable memory of France here being an affair with a prostitute). The focus on the everyday and corporeal of which Lennon labels self-indulgent is then a necessary recourse for the ghost, however uncomfortable and unliterary it is.
[At] a certain point something began to open inside you, you found yourself falling through the rift between world and word, the chasm that divides human life from our capacity to understand or express the truth of human life, and for reasons that still confound you, this sudden fall through the empty, unbounded air filled you with a sensation of freedom and happiness, and by the time the performance was over, you were no longer blocked, no longer burdened by the doubts that had been weighing down on you for the past year.While this provokes thrills by offering possibilities for our own personal release, the hyperbole prompts the readers to wish for a prolonged meditation on this experience; what doubts were these and how does it affect the writing of his novels? What is this crack in the universe and where might we squint through it? Perhaps it is fiction itself, where Winter Journal by definition cannot venture. Perhaps the clue as to why the epiphany forms only a climax to the book rather than its core is perhaps in Lennon’s summary of Winter Journal which I did not quote in full: “a rambling, informal collection of memories, musings, and minutiae presented in the second person”. The inclusion of the form as incidental, as if equivalent to the colour of the dust jacket, is surprising because it is the formal challenge that distinguishes Auster’s narrative and aligns it with another of those European inheritors unmentioned by Lennon: Samuel Beckett’s Company (1980), which John Pilling says, “gravitates more openly towards the genre of autobiography than anything before”.
A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.
To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said. But by far the greater part of what is said cannot be verified. As for example when he hears, You first saw the light on such and such a day. Sometimes the two are combined as for example, You first saw the light on such and such a day and now you are on your back in the dark. A device perhaps from the incontrovertibility of the one to win credence for the other. That then is the proposition. To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. With occasional allusion to a present and more rarely to a future as for example, You will end as you now are.The connection is most explicit when Auster describes how he recalls his past during bouts of insomnia on his back in the dark: “For it is only is the darkness of solitude that the work of memory begins”. But, as The Invention of Solitude attests, the work of memory requires the distance between writing and what is written to be brought to life and, here, the second person eventually becomes a tic, employed as a device to win credence for straightforward memoir. The ghost and the subject become too cosy in each others company. However, while Company focuses more on the veracity or otherwise of the voice in the dark and Winter Journal its sentimental revelations, both have in common the pursuit not of what is behind the writer but what lies in front of us all.]]>
|Facing pages from Easter Island: The Great Taboo|
|Vermeer – View of Delft|
the methods of production are well-nigh invisible, buried so deeply inside the work that we cannot get at them without dismantling the parts. The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do no mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.He goes on to say that he thinks all great works of art have this “quality of reticence, of being somehow turned away from us gazing off, like nature itself, into another sphere of things, another reality”. With this comparison, Easter Island’s profound shift from erecting auratic monoliths to sealed necropoli bounds me to think of the modern literary novel, boxing with the shadows of looming effigies of statuesque classics, always appealing to equivalence, contemptuous of sealed necropoli, yet never convinced of its own capacities and unable to acknowledge the implications.
He belongs to an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers. And every day, since the beginning of this century, he has watched in despair the spectacle of the noble branch of his trade – publishers who still read and who have always been drawn to literature – gradually, surreptitiously dying out.There are fewer and fewer “genuine writers and talented readers” to make it worthwhile, a decline Riba ascribes to “the golden calf of the gothic novel”, which created “the stupid myth of the passive reader”. Riba dreams of the return of readers with a capacity for “intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other and to approach a language distinct to the one of our daily tyrannies”, but he knows it is unlikely to be realised. The younger publishers are keen instead to exploit the “the ‘new language of the digital revolution’, so useful for covering up a lack of imagination and talent”. Yes, it's time for Riba to retire.
as if at every moment you are going either to be crushed or swept away, but you also feel as if you are in touch with the secret pulse of the universe. It is an extraordinary sensation ... a compressing into the moment of everything that has ever been and ever will be. It is this that I look for in each sound I imagine ... it is this that is at the heart of every note.The same occurs when he listens to great trumpets played in a temple in Nepal. To cynical Western ears it sounds like Pavone is off his trolley, and he did indeed spend the Second World War with his wife in a sanatorium in Switzerland – “I thought, Europe is a madhouse, so the only way to stay sane is to enter a madhouse”. Still seeking the heart of the note, he sat at his piano and hit the same key over and over, eventually completing a piece called Six Sixty-Six in which the pianist has to play the same note with the same intensity six hundred and sixty-six times: “The world is there to be transformed. The human being is there to be transformed. When a note is played 600 and 66 times, it is transformed.” His wife left him.
Our music has ... returned to its ancient roots. It has escaped from the puerile imitation of sexual congress, caress arousal, delay, frenzy, extinction, which was the pattern of Romantic music and the reason for its enormous popularity among the repressed middle classes of Germany and Austria, who imagined that it was leading them up to an aesthetic heaven. Well, he said, they had their climax twice over, first in the First World War and then in the Second World War. That should have been enough for them. But not at all. Look at their books. Look at the music they flock to listen to in the concert halls, this so-called intellectual elite. Caress, arousal, delay, frenzy, extinction. All the same. No change.While we may snigger at Pavone’s arrogance, his dedication to seeking a different music – transformative rather than transcendent – has its equivalent in Massimo’s dedication to his employer and the novelist's to both. Something quite different finds its way. Massimo pays utmost attention and does not impose any opinion; he waits and lets the human person come forth. And come forth he does, in all his absurdity, arrogance, desperation, loneliness and magnificence. Even as we dismiss him, we admire Pavone's excessive commitment just as we admire Massimo's self-restraint, and recognise what art and the world lacks. He is infinitely quotable on the subject:
One cannot think one's way through artistic problems, he said, one has to go about it in a different way. Bach did not think, he said, he danced. Mozart did not think, he sang. Stravinsky did not think, he prayed.Pavone did not think then, he listened. But Infinity should not be limited to a repository of wisdom about art. The form is its wisdom. The author does not seek to assert a resolution but calmly follows the course of a life, allowing a space to be cleared in which that life can be seen and felt as one moment, with the individual’s failings as prominent and as vital as his triumphs. There is also the moment of Massimo's interview quietly revealing that the gifts of patience and dedication are affordable in all walks of life. Infinity is a literary production in the spirit of Pavone the artist, Massimo the artisan and his unnamed interviewer.
What is it saying? Now, it is saying, and eternity. If you can hear the now, he said, you can hear eternity. That is what I have tried to do, he said, to write a music of now which would be a music of eternity. Then he was silent for a long time.]]>
"You've made it nice here," said his father, looking around.Yet such prose in the context of biblical stories has the odd effect of naturalising events we would otherwise place at a distance. When Abel announces an expedition to the Garden of Eden, it is as supernatural as the North Pole. And when he is attacked by angels resisting his approach, they may as well be polar bears. Reading the novel late into the night I wondered if this is what genre fans enjoy in large volumes of speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy: imaginary worlds presented in unadorned prose to evoke – albeit temporarily – an enchantment of the current, prosaic one. But the worlds and ideas they generate are weightless in comparison to this: our culture is founded on Bible stories. Every event becomes vitally real to us as they were for generations of Jews and Christians.
"It's good enough for me at any rate," said Cain.
A shiver went through him.
Christ never wrote, is an entry in one of Bellori's notebooks. It would have contravened the fundamental meaning of incarnation. The divine became a body: arms and legs, head and belly, heart and lungs. The divine lived in a specific place at a specific time. There was no universality about it, only a singularity. And that was where the meaning lay. That the meaning of Jesus' life lay in every single unique moment that he had been here was something churchmen didn't understand, they who had raised that bloody, crucified body into the language, and dissolved it in philosophy's abstractions. But the people understood. The hysterical medieval worship of relics was an expression of it: God was here, among us, like us. Not all the time, just once. And at that moment, when Pontius Pilate was procurator in Jerusalem and Augustus emperor in Rome, he'd set foot there, laid his head there, placed his hand there.In this passage we can appreciate Vankel's turn to solitude in nature and Knausgaard's need to write the six-volume My Struggle: gathering evidence of the divine, right here, right now.]]>