Leaving the Sea

October 24, 2014

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Like Donald Antrim, Ben Marcus is an American writer of experimental fiction published in the UK by Granta. With three novels behind him, most recently The Flame Alphabet (in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults), Leaving the Sea is his first substantial collection of short stories, the oldest of which was published as long ago as 2000. It is split into six sections with the more conventional stories separated from the more experimental until, it might be argued, both forms coincide in the final story, ‘The Moors’.

Almost all Marcus’ characters suffer from an isolation that is evidenced in broken or troubled relationships. In the opening story, ‘What Have You Done?,’ Paul returns to his family home after a lengthy absence. Though we do not discover what he has done, it has clearly put such pressure on his relationship with his parents and sister that they no longer trust anything he says, unwilling to accept, though they deny this, his assertion that he is married with a child:

“Paul determined that if anyone asked him, in the years to come, he’d say that if you’ve ever scared someone, even accidentally or as a joke, that person will flinch when he sees you.”

In ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’, Fleming, a writer teaching creative writing on a cruise ship, finds communication with his wife strained:

“’Okay,’ she said, in the classic way she ended her phone calls. As in, Okay, I’ve had enough, this is over.”

The missing member of his class (was their disappearance responsible for the head count on the first night?) becomes someone to emulate:

“This was the perfect place to miss out on the next head count, should it come. No one would find him here…”

Illness is also a recurrent feature. Julian, in ‘The Dark Arts’, is suffering from an autoimmune disease and has gone to Germany for treatment. His illness seems to have fractured his relationship with his girlfriend, Hayley, and he waits on her arrival each day with less and less hope:

“She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the last two weeks.”

When she does arrive he finds himself unable to tell her that he missed her, already too far along a darker path of his own. Illness is also responsible for the eerie opening to ‘Rollingwood’, about a father left to look after his young son, when the boy wakens “wedged under the machine” – a machine to ease his breathing as it turns out. Throughout the story his son is generally referred to as ‘the boy’ suggesting a certain alienation, emphasised by his description:

“…his pink-rimmed eyes, crusty and dry in the corners, and his skin not so much pale as yellow.”

This alienation is demonstrated again and again in stories involving relationships between sons and parents. In ‘Watching Mysteries with My Mother’, the narrator begins, “I don’t think my mother will die today,” and goes on to speculate about death, his mother’s and his own, while discussing the murder mystery programmes his mother loves to watch. Both are fascinated by the mystery of death, though in quite different ways. In possibly my favourite story (though I also loved ‘The Moors’), ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, Edward is reprimanded for taking his parents along to an evacuation drill. The story unfolds with apocalyptic dread, particularly in the light of recent spread of Ebola.

A number of the stories use a more intense form of language. At times this works on the level of Martian poetry, presenting something familiar in an unfamiliar way (“In daylight she wore motion-limiting weights called shoes”) but its ultimate aim is to evoke a reaction beyond meaning. Marcus has said:

“I tend to feel that language is a tool that we really hardly understand. If I put words together in a certain way, suddenly I’m feeling things I haven’t felt before. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ability of language to do that. To cause so much feeling in us.”

In the final story, ‘The Moors’, Marcus uses this experimental approach to recreate a very ordinary incident to great effect. It’s a tour de force of internalised anxiety as Thomas stands in line behind a co-worker he wants to casually talk to, Marcus stretching a few minutes to over forty pages. It and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ are among the best short stories I’ve read this year. Like Antrim, Marcus is an exciting, original voice in American fiction.

You can read some of his stories here.

Honeymoon

October 21, 2014

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When Stu over at Winstonsdad reviewed Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant and casually mentioned he was in with a chance of winning the Nobel Prize I thought I would investigate further. This proved fairly straight-forward: although little of his work had been translated into English, and most of that was out of print, I picked up a copy of Honeymoon (translated by Barbara Wright in 1992) for under a fiver. Within a few days he was indeed announced as the winner much to everyone’s (well, not Stu’s obviously) surprise and my delight – copies of his out-of-print work were quickly out of my price range.

Honeymoon seems to be typical of Modiano’s work – the general consensus seems to be that he tackles the same themes again and again – in that it is short (Simenon is an influence) and deals with the German Occupation of France. The novel begins with a suicide in a hotel in Milan. The central character, Jean, overhears it discussed at the bar:

“What had caused her to do it I might never know.”

Only later does he discover that he knows the woman in question – Ingrid Rigaud – and, years later, abandons his own life in order to attempt to answer the question he asked himself that day. Having said farewell to his wife and friends at the airport he leaves, not for Rio to shoot a documentary as they think, but for Milan, returning to Paris to in order to “pick up her traces.” Modiano now has two characters ending their lives (though in different ways) for obscure and shadowy reasons. One clue is Jean’s sense that the past is inseparable from the present:

“For a long time – and this particular time with greater force than usual – summer has been a season that gives me a sense of emptiness and absence, and takes me back to the past…The past and the present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition.”

The summer in Milan, when he heard of Ingrid’s suicide, merges into an earlier summer when he first meets Ingrid and her husband in Saint-Raphael, hitching a lift with them to Saint-Tropez. Modiano shifts feely between the different years throughout the novel as if to emphasise meaninglessness of chronology. A number of clues to Ingrid’s past are in evidence – only to be understood later. Though her passport states she is from Vienna, when Jean mentions that he has been there recently, she does not react. Later, as they switch the lights off to avoid being invited to a neighbour’s party, Jean asks what they will do if the neighbour taps them on the shoulder (Ingrid has already said they will pretend to be sleeping if they are seen):

“Well, in that case we’ll pretend to be dead.”

Ingrid and Riguad’s relationship with each other, and that part of France, began with The Occupation when they fled Paris together to a place where “people behaved as if the war didn’t exist.” (This is the honeymoon of the title). Ingrid’s Viennese origins suggest she is Jewish, or certainly that she came to France with her father to escape the Nazis. When the Germans begin to investigate people even there, they hide in a villa that belongs to friend of Rigaud’s mother:

“They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling around the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.”

Once again, Modiano suggests the past is a template for the present.

Jean’s relationship to these memories are unclear. Though he is investigating Ingrid’s past, there is little evidence he has unearthed such detail. (He meets her only twice). It is as if what he is trying to discover sits alongside his attempts to discover it in the narrative. At the same time he is moving into Rigaud’s old apartment, he is also reliving his own past, “in all these places where we had lived in the old days and which I have now come back to.” After spending his life making documentaries about explorers, Jean now seems to be on his own internal exploration.

Though brief, this novel seemed to me rich in atmosphere and ideas. It reminded me a little of Muriel Spark, particularly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with its masterful use of a non-chronological narrative where words and events echo across the pages. If this is typical of Modiano’s work, then I look forward to reading more.

A Map of Tulsa

October 17, 2014

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Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa is in many ways the kind of typical first novel that creative writing courses have largely eliminated: in it a gauche young man, Jim Praley, falls in love with a seemingly unattainable young woman, Adrienne Booker, whom he momentarily seems to attain. Adrienne ticks all the boxes for such devoted affection: she has rejected the conventional pathway of college taken up by Jim to stay at home in Tulsa and paint – something she can afford to do because of her wealthy family, which she is, of course, alienated from. The novel also charts Jim’s relationship with his hometown for which he feels an inexplicable longing even while recognising a lack of belonging.

When Jim returns from college he gets casually invited to a party for Adrienne’s birthday – the kind of party you feel he would not have got near when at school there. His attraction to Adrienne is instant but we see her quickly take command of the relationship:

“She took my arm. ‘Can I take him?’
Edith shooed me away, as if eager to get rid of me.
Adrienne steered me out into the hall. I felt mom-escorted, stiff-armed, institutionalized by these ladies.”

In the early hours of that morning they make love, with Adrienne again talking the initiative. Lytal suggests that Jim’s innocence leaves him disconnected from Adrienne:

“The sounds Adrienne was making seemed connected up to a story I hadn’t followed. I couldn’t tell if she was faking it or not.”

Although Jim says “he did not assume it was a repeatable experience,” he pursues her and she eventually agrees to see him again. We can see he is already forming his own idea of her in his head, regarding her decision to drop out of school as “Out the box. Ruthless…you’ve actually done something with your time.” Later in the novel he says, “It was aspirational when I first dated her.” He agrees to come to her apartment each morning to teach her about the history of art, the irony being that he sees her as the teacher. As Lytal explained in an interview:

“He doesn’t exactly worship her, but he takes her very seriously as a kind of sensei who can teach him self-discipline, art, personal dignity.”

When they are in her studio Jim watches her paint or sleeps:

“Only when she wanted a break did she turn to me, and then not to chat or heaven forbid touch or kiss, but to go through the art books.”

Eventually she tells him she wants to go back to painting alone, seemingly ending the relationship – only to revive it again when she asks him (via a third party) to come on a weekend away with her and a group of friends. Only after that do they become lovers and spend the summer together, but the signs have been there since the beginning that what Jim regards as permanent, Adrienne sees as transitory.

While then novel’s first part details the events of that summer, its second moves forward five years to examine whether Jim’s feelings have changed, both for Adrienne and for Tulsa. It would be unfair to say too much about this as clearly events have moved on. This structure works well: part one unfolds much as expected; part two allows Lytal to add a further dimension to his exploration of the relationship. (If I was honest I would say part one seems heavily autobiographical, part two doesn’t)

Superficially, Adrienne seems to be using Jim – switching him on and off as she pleases, making him as much an audience as a boyfriend. However, in retrospect, Jim gains more from Adrienne than she does from him, as he realises towards the end:

“I never really opened up to Adrienne. I never confessed. I worshipped her but I sacrificed nothing.”

What initially seems Adrienne’s indifference to Jim comes to look more like Jim’s abandonment of Adrienne. He often talks about her giving him a ‘map of Tulsa’, that is showing and taking him places he would otherwise never have seen; in fact what she was mapping was his idea of himself.

A Map of Tulsa is a readable if traditional first novel, rejecting current trends in more experimental writing for a different kind of honesty. If it has a fault it is that Lytal seems a little in love with Adrienne himself.

The Afterlife

October 15, 2014

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Donald Antrim published three dark, dense, funny novels between 1993 and 2000: Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist. Next month will see the release of his first work of fiction since, a collection of short stories entitled The Emerald Light in the Air. In between we have only this memoir, The Afterlife, largely about his relationship with his mother, and partly based on articles written for the New Yorker. (The first chapter, for example, originates in I Bought a Bed).

Of course, an ordinary, unremarkable upbringing does not make for interesting autobiography, and it is perhaps no surprise that Antrim’s mother, Louanne, appears to have stepped from the surreal, twisted world of his novels:

“Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends…Her hair looked at times as if she had cut it herself in the dark. You were either with her or against her…She was, for anyone close to her, and particularly for those depending on her competency, a threatening person.”

Much of his mother’s erratic behaviour is a result of her alcoholism. A reoccurring image in the book is of her appearing in Antrim’s bedroom in the middle of the night, “swaying, half conscious and with gray smoke from her cigarette wreathing her face, shattered by bourbon and white wine.” One Christmas Eve she gets “falling-down drunk.” In the morning Antrim and his sister must open their presents as of nothing has happened.

Antrim does not tell his story chronologically, however – though whether this is a structural choice or a hangover from the magazine origins of each chapter is unclear. Certainly there seems to be no other design to the order other than the decision to begin in the aftermath of Louanne’s death and work back through memories until arriving at her deathbed at the end. Each chapter tends to focus on an object, most noticeably in the first chapter where Antrim’s attempts to come to terms with his mother’s death are illustrated by his search for a new bed. He identifies the bed with the next stage in his life:

“I imagined, or fantasized, that once cosy and secure in the space filled by the bed…I might discover who I might be and how I would carry on without my mother, a woman who had died in a dreary house in an uncomfortable bed.”

While is some ways a bed may seem a strange object to fixate on, it clearly represents the idea of a good night’s sleep – in other words, being at peace with yourself, something Antrim struggles with throughout the book.

Other chapters form a similar pattern. In the second his memories revolve around his uncle, Eldridge, but begin with his car:

“Today I cannot think of my uncle without remembering his car and the things he carried in it.”

This chapter reveals most about Antrim’s own past as he goes from admiring his uncle to pitying him in a story of growing up. Interestingly, our longest glimpse of Antrim’s youth hardly features Louanne. His mother is back in force in the next chapter, however, which centres on another object, a painting which her current boyfriend (Antrim’s parents marry and separate twice) believes to be a lost master. His ambivalent search for the truth (Antrim is never sure if he wants to discover it for certain with all the disappointment that may entail) somehow reflects Antrim’s relationship with his mother, and his mother’s relationship with art. Louanne regards herself as an artist (and Antrim’s success as a writer as down to her), demonstrating her talent through the garments she creates – a kimono she made is the starting point for another chapter.

Only one chapter touches on Antrim’s relationship with his father. His mother is a dominating presences throughout, as indeed she seems to have been in life. When he says at the end that “her ashes have yet to be scattered,” it suggests that he has still not found the peace he was searching for at the beginning.

The Afterlife is fearless and forensic as you would expect from Antrim. However, I’m not sure it is much more than a series of essays on family – each one perfectly formed, but not creating a more significant whole. Perhaps it was something Antrim needed to write. Hopefully The Emerald Light in the Air signifies a return to fiction that will not leave us waiting much longer for the next novel.

Trilobites & Other Stories

October 12, 2014

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If Breece D’J Pancake is a writer you have never heard of before, than at least he has the advantage of having a name you will never forget. Already blessed with an unusual first name, and an anglicised surname more suited to a menu, he was gifted the aristocratic D’J after a magazine misprinted his initials and he decided to keep it. So far, so lucky, except that the most likely reason you haven’t heard of him is that he killed himself in 1979 a couple of months before his twenty-seventh birthday, becoming yet another American writer to end their career in suicide. By that time he had published the six stories featured here along with six others which appeared in print posthumously in 1983 in the more plainly titled The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake.

The stories are all set in Pancake’s native West Virginia among the rural poor and dispossessed. Not surprisingly, many of them centre on the idea of escape. In the title story the narrator, Colly’s, old girlfriend, Ginny, returns home to visit. Ginny is happy to let him sleep with her, but their old plans of moving to Florida together are now firmly in her past. Colly’s fruitless search for trilobites on Company Hill seems to represent his belief that he will find what he’s looking for locally, a belief that does not remain intact to the end of the story:

“I’ll spend tonight at home. I’ve got eyes to shut in Michigan – maybe even Germany or China, I don’t know yet. I walk, but I’m not scared. I feel my fear moving away in rings through time for a million years.”

In a number of stories a character who escapes is similarly contrasted with a character who stays. In ‘First Day of Winter’, Hollis feels abandoned on his failing farm by his brother Jake:

“Hollis sat by the window all night, staring at his ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.”

(The phrase “ghost in glass” rather than “ghost in the glass” gives an indication of Pancake’s skill with language). Elsewhere characters are aware that escape will not always provide the answer. In ‘A Room Forever’ the narrator picks up a young prostitute. He tries to convince her she “ain’t cut out for it” but fails, follows her afterward to a bar, caring enough only to tell the barman when he discovers her out the back with her wrists cut.

“I stop in front of the bus station, look in on the waiting people, and think about all the places they are going. But I know they can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it.”

In ‘The Salvation of Me’, the narrator dreams of leaving to work for a radio station, but it is his friend Chester who makes it out, leaving for Broadway. He describes Chester’s success as a “germ” that “made any kid on the high-school stage think he could be Chester”:

“A couple of the first ones killed themselves, then the real hell was watching the ones who came back when pop told them there was no work at the [gas] station for faggots.”

The tension between decisions to stay or leave is discussed by characters in ‘In the Dry’:

“’You-all pity me my ways, don’t you? Only I’m better off – ain’t a thing here to change a one of you.’
‘Ain’t nothing to make us any worse off, if that’s what you’re after.’”

It would be fair to say, then, that the characters in Trilobites & Other Stories are generally unhappy, and have good reason to be. Often the best Pancake can offer us in terms of optimism is akin to the realisation of the boxer Skeevy at the end of ‘The Scrapper’:

“His head cleared, and he knew he could get up.”

It seems that Vintage hope that Trilobites will replicate the success of Stoner. This seems unlikely: its characters are not always unsympathetic but that sympathy can be more difficult to locate; the language, particularly the dialect inflected speech, is more difficult; and short stories, anyway, are a less favoured genre. However, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

October 8, 2014

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The world of work is never far away in Joshua Ferris’ fiction: “I need my characters to have jobs,” he has said, “in order to feel real to me.” His first novel. And Then We Came to the End, was set in an advertising agency and famously used a first-person-plural narrative to give voice to its office setting. His second, The Unnamed, featured a lawyer who, in the middle of his superficially comfortable and contented life, is compelled to walk as if in search or escape. Where a certain amount of coolness still clings to those particular careers, Ferris’ latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is set in a dentist’s surgery, an occupation which, for all its financial reward, rarely features among dream jobs. It, too, is concerned with the anxieties of modern life, and the search for contentment and belonging.

Its narrator, Paul O’Rourke, is another character who superficially seems to have it made, running a successful dentist practice and, in his own words, “raking in tons and tons of money.” The only thing his practice lacks is a private office, a decision O’Rourke took to allow him an extra surgery, but perhaps also subconsciously reflecting a fear of being physically alone which would emphasise his loneliness and uncertainty of his own identity. His life has so far consisted of a series of obsessive interests and relationships in which he has invested the hope of happiness, only to discover:

“Everything was always something, but something – and here was the rub – could never be everything.”

His relationships fail not simply because he immediately throws himself into them with an all-consuming love for the woman in question, but because that love includes her family and her family religion. His most recent girlfriend, Connie, (who still works for the practice as office manager), is Jewish and his relationship with her saw Paul develop a fascination for Judaism just as he had previously for Catholicism when he was dating the Catholic Samantha. All his own father left him by way of religion was the Red Sox. What Paul envies about Catholics and Jews is not their belief (he is an atheist) but their sense of community, a sense of belonging he sees in the families of his girlfriends. This contrasts sharply with his own feelings:

“You think I alienate myself from society? Of course I alienate myself from society. It’s the only way I know of not being constantly reminded of all the ways I’m alienated from society.”

In order to explore O’Rourke’s relationship with religion, Ferris invents his own; Ulmism, like Judaism, is an inherited religion which can supposedly be traced back to an ancient people mentioned in the Bible. O’Rourke first encounters Ulmism through what Ferris has described as “a force of anxiety… a hall of mirrors with diminishing returns”, the internet. An unauthorised website for his dental practice is soon followed by a Twitter account in his name which proselytises Ulm beliefs. Initially both disturbed and angry, O’Rourke is advised there is little he can do. He opens up communication with an e-mail address linked to the impersonation, initially to complain, but soon debating ideas of belief and identity.

Ferris has spoken about how the internet “creates a second world, a second reality,” something that is not dissimilar to religion, and here he conflates the two, while confronting the issue of what distinguishes a cult from a religion. Ultimately, he leaves this question unanswered, Ulmism bringing both hope and despair to characters – the fact that its central precept is to doubt God seems important here.

This makes To Rise Again at a Decent Hour sound a very serious book, but in keeping, with Ferris’ previous work, there is a lot of humour in it. I particularly liked the one-sided conversations he uses to emphasise O’Rourke’s isolation:

“’Why must you always be reading your phone?’ I’d tell her, she’d say, ‘If you know it’s merely a distraction from the many things you don’t want to think about, why let yourself be a slave to it?’ I’d tell her, she’d say, ‘That’s the most blasphemous thing I’ve ever heard.’”

There’s an echo of this later when he visits his mother in a Home for the Elderly, this time without the humour:

“’Remember when I couldn’t sleep?’ No Response. ‘Dad died and I couldn’t sleep?’ No response.”

Generally the novels tilts between tragedy and farce with different readers no doubt responding in different ways.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is probably my least favourite Joshua Ferris novel – a pity as the Booker short-listing will likely bring him new readers. The set-up is excellent, particularly the use of the internet and the establishment of O’Rourke’s character. Ferris has a great knack for identifying the anxieties of modern life and exploring them through everyman characters. However, I felt the resolution was a long time coming and not entirely convincing. I think that this is in part because Ferris’ novels often seem to be heading in allegorical direction before he roughly drags them back onto the path of realism. Despite this, Ferris is important voice in contemporary American literature and should not be ignored.

The Son

October 4, 2014

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After a summer of reading fiction in translation, I decided that autumn would begin with a shift in focus to American literature. Philipp Meyer’s The Son, published last year, seems an excellent place to start, if only because it seems unlikely I will read a novel more steeped in American myth and history this year. In an interview in The Guardian, Meyer described his intention:

“I was trying to get at what America was really about – the country’s wealth, its foreign policy, the way we control things – and somehow I knew this was connected to frontier mythology and how comfortable we are with violence.”

To accomplish this he has carved a novel out of one hundred and fifty years of Texan history and three generations of the one family, the McCulloughs. Three voices dominate: Eli, captured and adopted by Comanche, whose story begins in the middle of the nineteenth century; Peter, his son, whose diary focuses on a two year period (1915-17) when thousands of Mexicans were murdered in Texas; and his great-granddaughter, Jeanne Anne, looking back on her life from the perspective of the present.

Meyer arranges these narratives in alternating chapters rather than chronologically, always a dangerous choice for a writer as establishing three equally compelling characters is no easy task. Despite the particularly gripping nature of Eli’s story, Meyer succeeds in ensuring the reader has no regrets in moving frequently between time periods and viewpoints, often by the sheer force of his writing. The immediately established intention to cover such a long time period contributes to the novel’s epic feel, while at the same time conveying one of Meyer’s central themes, that of transience, an idea at odds with the historical epic that Meyer is imitating at the same time as he undermines it.

Meyer’s view of history might be distilled as follows:

“On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom, and while Jesus was walking to Calvary the Mogollon people were bashing each other with stone axes. When the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Cocana and Cocaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudos…but whether they had wiped out the Mogollans or were descended from them, no-one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apaches. Who were in turn wiped out…by the Comanches. Who were finally wiped out by the Americans.”

This historical violence is echoed in the violence that permeates the novel, beginning with Eli’s capture by a Comanche raiding party. His mother and sister are raped and then killed; his brother (taken like him) is killed for not being strong enough. (This idea also permeates throughout the novel as the McCullough children of each generation are judged according to whether they have that strength). Eli’s own violent path takes him from the Comanche to the Texas Rangers and culminates in the slaughter of fellow ranchers the Garcias in 1915, women and children included, for supposedly stealing his cattle( but in fact for being Mexican). Eli goes on to acquire their land, their ruined house fuelling Peter’s guilt.

Violence is not only committed on other human beings but on the land itself. By the end of the 19th century cattle and poorly thought out irrigation have damaged the land (“The country was ruined – as a woman would have been after riding in the cat wagon”) – the pasture is disappearing and the search is on for the oil that will sustain and increase the McCullough’s fortunes. The American dream of pursuing wealth is not only seen as destructive to the land and to others, however, but as contradictory to the American dream of freedom. In the novel happiness is associated with freedom, but land, wealth and family reputation all hamper rather than enhance this freedom. Eli’s admiration for the Comanche is based on their refusal to give up freedom for more food or better shelter. Both Peter and Jeanne Anne find themselves isolated by their family and position.

The Son is a dark, evocative novel of a lost America which, as its inheritance obsessed title suggests, provides a rather terrifying insight into the America of today.

The Brethren

September 30, 2014

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Robert Merle’s The Brethren is the first in a 13 volume series of historical novels published in France between 1977 and 2003 which have now finally begun the process of appearing in English thanks to translator T Jefferson Kline and Pushkin Press. Set in the 16th century, it tells the story of that period through the experiences of the de Siorac family and through the eyes of the second son, Pierre. Merle describes its construction in a brief introduction:

“It is a concentric tale, whose first circle is the family, second circle a province and third a kingdom, whose princes receive no more attention than is necessary to understand the happiness and unhappiness of those who, far away in their baronial courts, depended on their decisions.”

My limited knowledge of historical fiction makes it difficult for me to name an English language equivalent, but The Brethren neither seeks to recreate the world of the powerful as Wolf Hall does, nor use history as a backdrop to a different kind of story as in The Name of the Rose. Instead there is a clear intention to demonstrate the historical events of the time as they affect characters who are neither at their centre or entirely removed from them.

The de Siorac family are a Protestant family at a time of great religious division in France and much of the novel focuses on the tensions that arise as, first one faction, then the other, achieves temporary superiority. Pierre’s father, Jean, and his brother in arms and namesake Jean de Sauveterre are ex-soldiers who together buy the chateau Mespech with the intention of making a life for themselves after their service in the army:

“Between these two were woven, out of the hazards of battle, and their many brushes with death from which each had saved the other, the ties of an affection so deep that neither time, misfortune, nor even my father’s marriage could damage it in the slightest.”

The above quotation also gives a sense of the voice of the novel which seeks to echo an older rhythms of English without containing too many archaic terms. This can seem a little slow at times, particularly initially when Pierre is recounting events that took place before he was born. However the original novel was written in the French of the period (described on Wikipedia as ‘virtually untranslatable’) so it would have been a betrayal of the source to translate into an entirely contemporary English.

For lovers of historical fiction, the novel is rich with detail and contains some wonderful scenes demonstrating the dangers of the time, such as when the chateau is attacked by gypsies or when order collapses in the local town as the plague takes hold (an early version of The Walking Dead). Most dangerous of all is the two Jeans’ Protestant religion (not shared by Siorac’s wife or by their servants) which they initially keep hidden – a decision as to whether to make it public is one of life and death.

A lighter strand is provided by de Siorac’s inability to control his lust (much disapproved of by de Sauveterre) giving Pierre a half-brother, Samson. Pierre seems to be following in his father’s footsteps given his nightly adventures with the servant’s daughter Helix. Although there a number of strong and sympathetic female characters, it has to be said they can veer towards cliché at times and it is the men who are the clear heroes of the story. (Of course, this may change in later volumes).

The Brethren is a very pleasurable way to learn about 16th century France. Its style means it lacks the impact of Wolf Hall and it is certainly not as knowing as The Name of the Rose, but for those who enjoy historical novels I suspect they will want to follow Pierre on his journey as he leaves Mespech in the final pages.

Lost Books – Goodbye, Mr Dixon

September 27, 2014

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There has been some discussion recently about the dangers of book blogging, and, in particular, how it can confine you to reading only what is new and neglecting older, less fashionable, novels you may want to read or reread (for example from Simon Savidge and Marina Sofia).  A good time, then, to revive my Lost Books section, though I have used it in the past to consider those unexpectedly reprinted as well as those which seem destined never to be seen again. Iain Crichton Smith has featured already as an author of Lost Books (with A Field Full of Folk) but as all but one of his novels are out of print (the classic Consider the Lilies), he has plenty of Lost Books to choose from. Goodbye, Mr Dixon, like its predecessor, has not only been unavailable since its publication in 1974, but never made it out of hardback. It also shares the distinction of being a perfectly good novel, with the added interest that it is largely about writing.

The titular Mr Dixon is not the novel’s main character but the creation of the novel’s main character, Tom Spence. Spence describes himself as “an embryo novelist”:

“He was one of those people who live hand-to-mouth on practically nothing at all, but with the determination to have book, especially a novel, published.”

Spence has had the odd job – for example, delivering mail – but is largely without skills and has bet all on his career as a writer. Unfortunately he has “never brought a novel to a successful conclusion” never mind had one published, and, unable to live the dream, has instead dreamed it through his protagonist, Drew Dixon. This, however, creates its own problems:

“He didn’t even know very much about the world of Dixon who, unlike himself, had been writing novels for a considerable period and living from their sale.”

His novel has ground to a halt because he has decided Dixon will “meet a girl of twenty-five or thereabouts whose entry into his world was to change his life” but has no idea how to write it. Believing that all experience should be placed in the purpose of art, when he meets a young woman at an art gallery he immediately thinks of his novel:

“Dixon needed her: why couldn’t he think of something to say?”

And when she leaves he is angry because “now he wouldn’t be able to proceed with his book.” Fortuitously he meets the young woman, Ann, again and, as their relationship develops we begin to sense that it will be Spence’s life that is changed rather than Dixon’s. As Spence’s isolation ends he revisits his past, attempting to contact the mother he hasn’t seen in years and returning to his old school to see the English teacher who he believes encouraged him to write. Increasingly his admiration for Dixon turns to hatred:

“He hated him really because he was inhuman and brittle. He realised that there was nothing Dixon had veer really loved, not with any depth, not for itself alone.”

The novel also contains extracts from Spence’s novel where we see this change taking place: initially Dixon replays scenes from Spence’s life with greater success, but slowly his inadequacies become evident.

If at first the novel may seem satirical, Spence’s loneliness is too palpable to make him entirely ridiculous. Smith seeks not to ridicule Spence, who is ultimately a sympathetic characters, but his idea of the artist looking at the world “coldly and inhumanly.” Spence is forced to choose between life and art. Interestingly, the final chapter is told not from Spence’s point of view, or Dixon’s, but Ann’s, as if Spence’s perspective looking out at the world has been replace with the world looking in on him.

It’s possible to question whether a writer writing about a writer who rejects his character (a writer) and writing would regard this as a happy ending. At both the beginning and end of the novel Spence talks about writing as a bottle of Parazone (a brand of bleach):

“The yellow was bright and almost sunny but the liquid inside was acid and harsh.”

This seems very in tune with Smith’s own craft and for this reason we should perhaps be careful not to take the conclusion entirely at face value.

It seems unlikely that Smith’s novels are suddenly going to be reprinted, but an enterprising publisher could surely make them available electronically.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

September 24, 2014

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As Ismail Kadare’s name increasingly gets mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize, it’s fortuitous that Canongate should publish one of his early novels, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, in English for the first time, which takes as one of its one of its central events Boris Pasternak being awarded the Prize in 1958. Much has changed since then – no need now to debate whether Kadare is a dissident or not – though it’s interesting that Kadare should focus on Pasternak , a writer who was criticised by both the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn, just as Kadare has been criticised for compromise with the Albanian regime before his eventual exile. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is translated from the French by David Bellos – as Kadare’s complete works were published in both French and Albanian in 2004, it seems that this will now be the journey they make into English.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods tells of Kadare’s experiences at The Gorky Institute in Moscow (or at least those of an Albanian writer very like Kadare). Surrounded by writers from all over the Soviet Union, the narrator is developing his own identity as a writer, though it sometimes seems reluctantly. Not only does he mark himself out as an outsider form the start – “I happened to be the only foreigner staying there” – he hides the fact he is a writer from his Russian girlfriend, Lida:

“I shook my head and mumbled a few words to the effect that I did something in the cinema, regretting instantly that I hadn’t invented a calling even more distant from literature, such as table-tennis or Egyptology.”

The Institute is presented as a maze of corridors, perhaps representing all the possible variations of ‘the writer’:

“The corridor was truly endless: maybe sixty doors opened on it. No corridor before had played such an important role in my life.”

It is in an abandoned room, however, (which he describes as his “sanctuary”) that he finds scraps of Doctor Zhivago, uncertain what he has discovered – “it might be a forbidden work circulating from hand to hand.” When Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize an intensive propaganda campaign is launched against him:

“What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind?”

However, it would be misleading to suggest that this is the novel’s only concern. Much of it is concerned with the narrator’s loneliness, his relationship with Lida, and the problems created for him by the worsening relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union. Kadare uses the legend of Doruntine and Konstandin to explore this, something he will return to in more detail in The Ghost Rider. The narrator takes the part of Konstandin, the brother who returns from the dead to fulfil a promise and rescue Doruntine. At one point he tells Lida, “Did you know I’d swum the Acheron, the river of the Underworld,” with reference to a literal river in Albania. Prevuiously, in an attempt to end the relationship, a friend told Lida that he was dead:

“I thought, It’s all over now. Now she believes I’m dead, it’s all done for. ‘If only you hadn’t killed me off entirely,’ I said with a flicker of optimism.”

When he does finally leave her he does so very much in the manner of Konstandin, perhaps realising that he must return to his homeland. You can’t help but think that the promise which is greater than death also relates to the idea of writing.

If this makes Twilight of the Eastern Gods sound gloomy, that’s not a fair representation: much of it is a satirical look at literature in the Soviet Union. Here, for example is his description of the writers on holiday in Latvia:

“Most of the children who ran around noisily in the daytime had poems and stories dedicated to them by their parents…As for the older women…I knew that quite a few were still stepping out on the pages of some books as good-looking women in high heels, under the mask of initials such as D.V. or N.”

There is also a large cast of characters I haven’t mentioned to poke fun at, and an outbreak of smallpox to be dealt with. It probably isn’t the best introduction to Kadare’s work, but is a fascinating addition to what is available in English, particularly for those interested in Kadare himself, providing insight, as it does, to his early life.


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