T Singer

August 16, 2018

“Dag Solstad is without question, Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist,” according to Per Petterson, yet, ironically, Petterson’s availability in English (with eight books translated) far exceeds that of his compatriot who, up until this year and the publication of both T Singer and Armand V, has been represented by a meagre three. T Singer is the novel which Solstad has claimed as the pinnacle of his literary craft:

“After I had written T Singer it struck me that I couldn’t write any better than that, and if I wanted to, I could write a book like that every year. And that I didn’t want.”

While this might seem like a declaration of retirement, it was, instead, a licence to experiment, Solstad describing everything he has written since (including Armand V) as “an exception, which will never be repeated.”

T Singer is a man who, by and large, lacks purpose. At the age of thirty-one he decides to “say goodbye to the intoxicating days of his youth and become a librarian instead.” (We learn little about his life before this point). Once he has trained as a librarian he moves to a remote town, Notodden where he intends to live “incognito”:

“Using his full name, of course, but hiding from the thirty-four years that had clung to him, comprising the life he had led so far.”

He sees himself as “vague, even anonymous” and “a denier of life, lacking in identity.” His ambitions are slim:

“Routine work, conscientiously performed, was something he’d always liked.”

Is he lonely? It doesn’t seem so: while popular with his colleagues, he dislikes the friendly overtures of library users:

“At times his stomach would knot when book borrowers came over to the counter, carrying books they wanted to take out, and they would speak to him with an overly familiar and cheerful tone, offering some so-called clever remarks that personally amused them greatly, and then look at him expectantly, waiting to hear his response.”

He is happy to lunch alone, always at the same restaurant, and also go to the cinema. Routine is his refuge, which is not to say his life is without anxiety. In fact the novel begins with a description of the shame he stills feels recalling moments in his life from years before. It’s an opening which almost seems intended to daunt the reader as he repetitively describes these minor events, for example when he accidentally speaks to one friend as he would normally another. He still agonises over this although the individual in question is oblivious:

“He doesn’t know that it is Singer’s ‘nakedness’ he has captured, and observed.”

There is a similarly extended section where Singer speculates about his dream to become a writer, a dream which has never gone further than one endlessly edited sentence – presumably the type of passage Solstad is referring to when he describes his work as “objectively humorous but actually sad.”

Some semblance of narrative is created when Singer moves to Notodden, but Solstad continues to confound our expectations when Singer meets Adam Eyde, manager of the area’s largest employer, Norsk Hydro, on his way there and spends the evening with him. This incident is described with the detail one assumes will lead to a relationship of some kind, but Singer only sees Eyde once more, from a distance. Conversely, events which would normally be regarded as dramatic are underplayed, as when Singer meets the woman who will become his wife:

“Can a man like Singer fall in love? Yes, he can. But can he, under the influence of this love, move in with the one he adores in order to sleep with her and eat at her table, which they will now share? Yes, he can.”

Note how Solstad quickly answers the reader’s questions, eschewing any chance of narrative tension.

T Singer is not a novel, then, for those in search of a narrative arc, but it is filled with many other pleasures. In particular, as the novel progresses, Singer’s strange behaviour seems more and more normal, its initial ‘strangeness’ simply a conflict with our expectations of a fictional protagonist rather than its unlikelihood. Solstad’s narrative choices perhaps reflect more accurately our experience of life. His is certainly a voice to be cherished.

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Not to Disturb

August 8, 2018

As the second chapter of Not to Disturb opens, Muriel Spark pauses to describe the long drawing room in Baron Klopstock’s expansive country house: “Many objects in this large room are on a miniature scale,” we are told, including a group of “what appear to be family portraits.” Have the Klopstocks always inclined towards miniatures, the narrative voice speculates, or perhaps:

“…these little portraits have been cleverly copied, more recently, from some more probable larger originals.”

Not to Disturb, the most miniature of Spark’s novels, also feels as if it has been distilled from something larger and more probable. Borrowing from many genres – the Gothic (a storm literally lights up its middle section), the country house murder (with its own locked room scenario), and the aristocratic sagas of Waugh and Powell (amusingly the BBC series Upstairs Downstairs premiered the year it was published) – it retains the unities of time and place associated with classical drama, delivering five chapters in place of five acts. As Peter Kemp has pointed out:

“Its narrative technique – all characters are externally presented, only their actions and their speech recorded – brings it close to a transcript of something occurring on stage.”

The action takes place ‘above stairs’ but the Baron and Baroness barely feature, arriving separately only to lock themselves in a room with one of their secretaries, Victor P, delivering strict instructions that they are not to be disturbed. As in a Jacobean tragedy (Webster is quoted on the opening page), however, their fate has already been decided, as Lister, the butler, explains:

“To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.”

“They haunt the house like insubstantial bodies while still alive,” he later says; and when Mr McGuire refuses to believe the Baron is ‘no more’ as he can hear his voice, Lister replies: “Let us not strain after vulgar chronology.” The two friends which Victor arrives with are dismissed: “They don’t come into the story.”

Lister is the mastermind behind the servants’ scheme. Their intention is to make as much money as they can by selling the Baron and Baroness’s scandalous story to the press (privileged journalists are already waiting in a hotel room), as well as Hollywood:

“The popular glossy magazines have replaced the servants’ hall in modern society. Our position of privilege is unparalleled in history.”

Even when wrong-footed, Lister quickly adapts. Discovering that the madman in the attic (a further Gothic twist) is the Baron’s brother, rather than a relative of the Baroness, and therefore his heir, he arranges an immediate marriage to a pregnant housemaid.

The Baron and Baroness’ life is, indeed, scandalous, one in which sexual gratification, with numerous partners, plays the central role. (“The Baron Klopstocks were obsessed with sex.”) That this is entirely superficial and emotionless suggests that ‘not to disturb’ might be a family motto. Ironically, their deaths are expected as a result of the Baroness not “playing the game” – as one of the servants comments, “she did a Lady Chatterley on him,” that is fell in love with one of her many lovers – Victor. This internal change is noticed by others externally – for example, when she stops dying her hair:

“Why did she suddenly start to go natural? She must have started to be sincere with someone.”

Her sincerity is unique in a novel where appearance is all we have, and it is made quite clear that cannot be trusted. The Baron’s house is filled with antique furniture but only recently built. The parquet floor, for example, belonged to a foreign king who took it with him when he had to flee his homeland:

“Royalty always do when they have to leave. They take everything, like stage companies who need their props.”

Meanwhile Lister stage-manages photographs for the press, and taped interviews, susceptible to editing. Even the jokes make the same point:

“’You look like a Secretary of State.’
‘Thank you sir,’ says Lister.
‘It isn’t a compliment,’ says the prince.”

Not to Disturb is Spark at her sharpest, shining the pinhead while pressing it home:

“One of my motives is to provoke the reader; to startle as well as to please.”

Lost Books – Sacred Cow

August 5, 2018

One writer inevitably leads to another, and when Cristina Rivera Garza was asked what authors she might recommend to readers looking to explore Latin American literature by women, her immediate response was: “Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit continue to be a must.” Valenzula was known to me but Eltit, from Chile, was not, and a few days later I had acquired a copy of Sacred Cow, written in 1991 and translated by Amanda Hopkinson in 1995 for Serpent’s Tail (one of only four, I think, of her books available in English).

Sacred Cow is a brief, intense novel in keeping with Eltit’s declaration that, “I believe I function in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony.” Largely written in the first person, it tells of the narrator’s relationship with two men, Manuel and Sergio. Though initially she feels little desire – “I wasn’t too bothered about sex, which seemed to me little more than an excessive if gratifying ritual” – an encounter with Manuel’s estranged wife which leads her to confess details of her previous relationship with Sergio, seems to ignite their passion:

“On heat, overheated, nothing could restrain us.”

The relationship (though not the narrator’s longing) ends when Manuel returns to his home in the South; rumours reach her that he has been detained. (Eltit remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, which only ended in 1990). It is then she renews her relationship with Sergio:

“I forced myself to feel continually seduced since I had to cling to something in order to efface the unleashed perversity of those times.”

Desire, which is a constant theme, is seen as an escape. Sergio’s own back story is one of desire for the teenage Francisca, whom he wants from the first moment he sees her. It is desire rather than fulfilment which is his focus as he spends a year without talking to her:

“After a year of observing her, of possessing her in every way he could imagined, he finally seemed to be moving towards the reality of speech.”

Of their present relationship, the narrator says:

“Sergio was seeking in me an image that he’d held in his head since he was more or less a child… the forgotten Francisca.”

This revelation is further complicated by the fact that the narrator may be Francisca. Her first appearance in the novel – presumably in the present – is lying in bed with her face beaten: notably the narrative moves from first to third person for this chapter. The story of her relationship with Sergio is interrupted with sections of direct speech – Francisca and an older relative – and first person asides (in brackets) describing looking after someone who is ill. Could this be what the narrator later refers to as “the time when my grandmother was dying”?

Sacred Cow, then, is a complex novel to interpret. Though largely eschewing politics, we are at one point faced with the idea that the narrator is participating in some kind of protest:

“There was a crowd of women drawing up the basis of a new constitution. Their thighs were tattooed with symbolic devices. My tattoo burned into the flesh of my thigh. At this fiesta I was initiated as a worker, rejecting the slurs and the bribes they offered me to break the forthcoming strike.”

Later, when she says, “there’s something slippery in me which that stops me taking the workers’ side” it suggests her personal desires overwhelm her political convictions. The tattoos demonstrate Eltit’s powerful use of imagery: the two most common here are blood and birds. Images rather than symbols, their use is difficult to pin down, though blood generally relates to desire and femininity, and birds frequently suggests something ominous – though at one point she says, “the image of my blood became a huge flock of birds,” no doubt to keep the reader guessing.

Sacred Cow is certainly not for the casual reader. Containing many powerful moments it is difficult to draw anything certain from it. Its refusal to be obvious, though, is perhaps its most admirable quality, and one which, in times of dictatorship, can be seen as a political act in itself.

Shadows on the Tundra

August 1, 2018

This year I been making a concerted effort to re-balance my reading towards women writers, and, as I read mainly in translation, this means that Women in Translation Month 2018 might not look radically different from any other month in 2018: 65% of the books I have reviewed this year have been written by women, with just over half of those in translation. This can be seen as the culmination of a process which began with my participation in the first Women in Translation month in 2014 where I encountered writers such as Elena Ferrante, Teffi, Clarice Lispector, Silvina Ocampo, Herta Muller and Hella Haasse. Women writers in translation may not always be as visible as male writers, but, over the years, encouraged by WITMonth founder Biblio and the discoveries of other bloggers, I have developed my own personal cannon which (perhaps because there are still so many untranslated women) increases annually.

One of the few negatives of a month of reading women in translation, however, is that the subject matter can be harrowing. Yes, this is partly because I am attracted to depressing books, but I think it also reflects how difficult life for women is across the globe, both historically and in the present day. Dalia Grinkeviciute’s Shadows on the Tundra, the story of the author’s incarceration, along with her mother and brother, in a Soviet labour camp in Siberia, is no exception. Aged fourteen, she is taken from her home in Lithuania and begins the long journey to Siberia. Though unaware of what lies ahead, she realises the significance of their exile:

“I am aware a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous.”

“I wonder how many pairs of eyes,” she speculates, “are taking in their native city for the last time…” By writing largely in the present tense Grinkeviciute not only gives the narrative a sense of immediacy and immaturity, but is able to reflect the changing mood of the prisoners as they are transported, which ranges from despondent to hopeful. There are rumours, for example, that they will be deported to America. When they are on a barge on the Lena:

“Everyone is upbeat. We are fed three times a day and given as much water as we can drink… For the young, it is like a field trip. A school holiday.”

Only occasionally does the narrator look ahead:

“I get a bad feeling, as though I was seeing the shadow of death hovering above some heads. Perhaps it was only a child’s intuition. Yet time would confirm it.”

When they reach their destination life could hardly be bleaker:

“I look around and am chilled to the bone. Far and wide, tundra and more tundra, naked tundra, not a sprig of vegetation, just moss as far as the eye can see.”

First they must build their own shelters, and then begins the never-ending battle against cold and hunger. When winter arrives “although we have a brick shelter we might as well be outside.” She steals firewood and, when she is caught, simply admits it – her youth and candour winning her a reprieve. At times the entrance to their shelter is completely blocked by snow. Hunger also haunts them perpetually:

“At night we all dream of bread…but when you go to eat it – the bread disappears.”

While they starve their overseers live comfortably:

“I thought that in wartime everyone was supposed to bear the burden equally, but these people don’t feel the war at all.”

What makes her story bearable is her will to live. From the beginning she tells herself, “We will live, we will survive. We will fight and we will triumph – hear that?” Much later she continues to hold onto these sentiments:

“I want to live, to live, to be alive, to return to life, damn it.”

As one of the other prisoners tells her, “You’re incredibly determined, practically possessed, in the way you grapple with life.” This, at least, gives the reader something to hold onto in a story in which the suffering of ordinary people torn from their homeland is foremost. The survival of the book itself might also bring us hope: written when Grinkeviciute was in her early twenties, having illegally returned to Lithuania, she buried the manuscript in a glass jar fearing (correctly) arrest. When she was allowed to return six years later (in 1956) she was unable to find the jar, and it was only discovered by accident in 1974. (And now, thanks to Delija Valiukenas and Peirene Press it is available in English).This, like the book itself, demonstrates that the testament of women throughout the world, however painful or uncomfortable, should not, and cannot, be silenced.

The Iliac Crest

July 29, 2018

Before entering the world of Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel The Iliac Crest, originally published in 2002 and now translated by Sarah Booker, it is worth considering her approach to writing. “What is interesting to me in the process of writing,” she has said, “is precisely the opportunity to enter a universe I might be able to visualise but that I will only know, if at all, through the writing of it.” In a separate interview she stated, “I don’t write books to communicate.”

“It’s not their function to pass meaning or transmit messages. I tend more towards writing as a process through which I try to empty language, to leave just what is strictly necessary so that the reader might take what he or she can see there and jump into his own production.”

Some sense of this remains in the finished novel which moves forward in short chapters with an uncertainty which is invigorating in its sudden shifts and sashays, often eliciting a reaction similar to that of the narrator to his unexpected visitor’s story:

“Her response sounded absurd to me, of course, but also plausible.”

In such a story the opening must immediately grab the reader by the hand and pull him in, as Garza does here in what might be seen as a mirror image of that process, where a strange young woman appears at the door of our narrator’s house in the middle of a storm and he lets her enter:

“How is it possible that someone like me allowed an unknown woman into my house on a stormy night?”

The ‘someone like me’ is a psychologist working at a remote hospital, a hospital of last resort:

“The lost causes come here and, instead of making them comfortable, we forget about them.”

The unlikelihood of his action is based partly on his professional standing, but perhaps mainly on a life which is so settled as to seem ossified. Not only is his working life reduced to ‘going through the motions’ (“I was not interested in curing them”), his very existence is one of “wild isolation”:

“…this community, formed round a handful of lost souls was, in fact, disappeared.”

His unwanted visitor will provide the stimulus for change, just as she provides him with the idea of ‘disappearance’, even if the exact nature of that stimulus is uncertain: he first tells us “I wanted her” only to immediately reveal, “I did not feel desire, but fear.” The story further changes (the narrator confesses to “the almost pathological way I forget to mention something essential at the beginning of my stories”) when we learn that he was, in fact, waiting for a visitor on that night, an ex-lover he refers to as the Betrayed, who later arrives. These additions layer rather than contradict what has gone previously as the narrative builds its own internal logic.

The strange young woman introduces herself as Amparo Davila, (a real Mexican author born in 1928). She tells the narrator she has come to him because “A conspiracy…disappeared me” and:

“I am sure that the man who commanded them came to die in your hospital… if this is the last place he lived, then this is where the manuscript he stole from me should be.”

Despite the narrator’s distrust of her, and his dislike of the relationship she has struck up with the Betrayed – which includes a private language – (“Their closeness bothered me”) he investigates. His investigations include discovering the ‘real’ (i.e. appropriately aged) Davila, who describes the younger Davila as an ‘Emissary’. Both refer to him as a woman at points, telling him, “We all know your secret.”

As was made clear at the beginning, there is no answer to the puzzle of this novel. What is clear, however, is that the challenges brought by Davila revitalise the narrator, as perhaps the challenges of the novel should the reader:

“Entire years had passed since I’d felt the nervous energy that drove me to act, to resist, to persevere.”

When the Director of the hospital discovers he has been illegally examining old patient records, it is clear he would rather the narrator simply denied it:

“’Perhaps these reports are wrong,’ he benevolently offered, ‘in which case it would be appropriate to ask your forgiveness for this awkward misunderstanding’”

The narrator, however, is happy to admit it: “I answered from a state of complete relaxation and joy.” Despite his resentment of both the ‘true’ Davila and the ‘Emissary’, they have unquestionably touched his life, though whether positively or negatively, as with most elements of the novel, it is difficult to say. In the same way, readers of this novel are unlikely to leave its world untouched.

The Last Children of Tokyo

July 26, 2018

Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (translated by Margaret Mitsutani) is a gentle dystopia. Its opening moment is one of love, demonstrating the bond between Mumei and his great-grandfather Yoshiro, with only subtle hints of a changed world, as when Yoshiro describes his morning routine of renting a dog to walk:

“Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down…”

Later we are told that some words had “disappeared after being labelled ‘old fashioned’” suggesting an evolutionary change rather than one imposed by law – a reaction, we learn, to an undescribed nuclear event in the past. Again this is accomplished with subtlety: a worry, on a visit to the dentist regarding Mumei losing his milk teeth, that the phrase ‘fall out’ may have been misheard as ‘fallout’, and an oversized dandelion which has mutated:

“Actually the word mutation was rarely used anymore, having been replaced by the more popular environmental adaptation.”

Life has changed and that change is seen in mutated social attitudes which are, in turn, demonstrated through language. The relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei is one example of this. Yoshiro is a remarkable age in our terms – over a hundred years old – but is no longer regarded as old, with terms like ‘young-elderly’ now in use:

“Retirement – what an odd system, but it was important back then as a way of handing jobs over to younger people.”

Despite his age, Yoshiro is not only Mumei’s carer but the stronger of the two: “Like most children of his generation, Mumei was unable to absorb the calcium he needed.” He prepares Mumei’s food for him, from the limited raw materials available, as Mumei has difficulty eating. Most of that food comes from Okinawa, where Yoshiro’s only daughter, Amana, lives. With no telephones, contact between them is limited to postcards.

Very little happens in the novel – there is nothing of the jeopardy we normally associate with dystopias where the protagonist is either struggling to survive in a hostile world or living in contradiction to the oppressive laws of the state, fearful of being caught. Yoshiro does not agree with Japan’s policy of isolation but he is careful not to share this with Mumei, instead adopting a more philosophical approach:

“Unable to see what sort of fate awaited Mumei in the future, Yoshiro kept his eyes open, taking each day as it came, hoping the present wouldn’t crumble under his feet.”

Instead we learn of Yoshiro’s past, his grandson, Tommo, and the events leading up to Mumei’s birth. The narrative is largely concerned with relationships: Yoshiro’s relationships with his family – past and present – and, above all, his relationship with Mumei. As with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the strength of the relationship brings the reader hope when circumstances are bleak – the gentleness of the narrative should not be taken as a sign that Yoko’s vision of the future is more hopeful. Yoko’s novel may not contain the terror of McCarthy’s, or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we should not assume it is a more optimistic book. There is something of Orwell in the idea that “it wasn’t just hot and cold – the idea between darkness and light was also becoming vague.” Similarly the distinction between male and female seems less distinct. But these are not simply a question of ‘double-think’ but of physical changes which may be irreversible. Both its title and conclusion give us little to be hopeful about.

The Last Children of Tokyo is a fascinating addition to dystopian literature. As with Yoko’s previous novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, her creation of new worlds seems effortless, but, similarly, the narrative within that world can, at times, seem to meander. As a warning, however, it is as prescient as any.

The Return

July 20, 2018

Dulce Maria Cardoso’s The Return (translated by Angel Gurria-Quintana) is a coming-of-age novel set against the background of the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola in 1975, a setting Cardoso knows well having left Portugal with her family for Angola as an infant only to return at the age of eleven. (It is thought that over a million Portuguese returned from African colonies during this time). In the novel the experience of returning is voiced through the character of Rui, a fifteen-year-old boy, who, as well as coping with arriving destitute in a country where he has never lived, must grapple with his approaching adulthood.

The stubbornness of Rui’s father means that they are among the last to leave:

“Everyone has gone away. My friends, the neighbours, the teachers, the shop owners, the mechanic, the barber, everyone. We should no longer be here either.”

Only Rui’s mother has any attachment to the Motherland, partly because she blames her nervous illness on living in Angola:

“It’s because of this country that mother is the way she is. For Mother there were always two countries, this one, the country that made her ill, and the Motherland, where everything is different, and where she was also different. Father never talks about the Motherland. A man belongs to the place that feeds him unless he has an ungrateful heart, that is what Father replied when he was asked if he missed the Motherland.”

His mother teaches him and his sister, Maria, “about relatives in the Motherland as if it were homework.” When cherries arrive from Portugal she eats them “with such pleasure” even though they are “old and shrivelled”. Rui imagines that in the Motherland he will find “beautiful girls. Girls with cherries for earrings…”

As they are waiting to leave, a jeep full of soldiers arrives at the door. In a scene as tense as you will find in any novel, the father attempts to appease them by sending Rui for beer and cigarettes while the mother and daughter lock themselves in a bedroom. Eventually the soldiers take his father away and Rui and his mother and sister must leave for Portugal without him.

In Portugal they are given a room in a hotel which has been set aside to house returnees. There they wait for Rui’s father to arrive, but in a general atmosphere of waiting: their future of all the returnees uncertain, with little chance of employment and money running out. They are looked down upon by the local Portuguese; Rui complains of a teacher who refuses to learn their names and soon stops going to school. He decides he must believe his father is dead:

“I can’t live hoping that Father will arrive.”

Rui’s father looms large in his life, and he sees the manhood he is approaching through his father’s eyes: “men should not blush”; “a man doesn’t cry”; “a man only vomits when he’s drunk or if he’s eaten something bad.” His dreams also echo his father’s:

“With the sea in front of you the rest of the word is closer, Brazil and America seem to be right there, with the sea in front of you the future can be like Father’s on the Patria twenty-four years ago, it can be whatever you want it to be.”

Rui’s also adopts his father’s attitude towards the Angolans, the innate racism of the colonist:

“No-one ever bothered trying to explain who these people were, it was always just the blacks, blacks are lazy, they like to lie in the sun like lizards, blacks are arrogant, if they walk with their heads down it’s only so they don’t have to look us in the eye, blacks are stupid, they don’t understand what we say to them…”

Naturally, Rui is also very interested in sex. When he pictures his future in Angola, despite doubts creeping in after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, his grand vision (“the band was never going to stop marching past playing songs of love”) also includes:

“Paula would agree to go out with me and let me unfasten her bra”

Cardoso captures his adolescent fascination with the opposite sex perfectly, from observing scenes from Emmanuelle using binoculars in Angola to an affair with a married chambermaid in the hotel. She pitches his voice perfectly between the innocence and the limited experience of his age, often in an urgent rush of thoughts. She is particularly adept and ensuring the language and references do not exceed the character’s reach, instead using pace and rhythm for stylistic effect.

The Return manages both to be a vivid document of a particular moment in Portuguese history (no doubt echoed across all colonial nations) and a sympathetic portrayal of adolescence. It’s to be hoped that more of Cardoso’s work will appear in English.

Crudo

July 18, 2018

Olivia Laing has always been a writer interested in other writers: her first book, To the River, reflected on her journey along the Ouse, the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself, and The Trip to Echo Spring explored the relationship between creativity and alcoholism in writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. It’s no surprise, therefore, that her first novel, Crudo, should feature a writer, Kathy Acker, as its central character. It is not, however, a fictionalised biography, taking place over seven weeks in 2017, twenty years after Acker’s death. The Kathy of the novel, however, is not the seventy-year-old she would have been had she lived, but forty, the same age as Laing (coincidentally their birthdays are only four days apart):

“Kathy was worried about ageing. She hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she wouldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”

Laing is clear from the opening line that Kathy is both her and Acker:

“Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.”

(Laing also got married in 2017 and it seems, at least to some extent, the narrative filters events in Laing’s life through Kathy’s persona). The novel begins in Italy on the 2nd of August and ends on the 23rd of September as Kathy boards a plane, bringing us full circle. Such precision with dates is important as Laing wrote the novel ‘live’ and without editing (‘crudo’ is Italian for ‘raw’), incorporating the news of the day into the narrative. Laing has twice been short-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize, and the process of writing (and publishing) contemporaneously is reminiscent of Burn’s 2008 novel Born Yesterday, the difference being that Laing’s news comes directly and constantly to her from her Twitter feed. In interview, Laing has described her intentions:

“It’s summer 2017 day by day or sometimes hour by hour. With Brexit and Trump, things were just changing so fast. So while there’s a narrative going on inside the book about Kathy’s life, as for documenting the real world, it let me get down how feverish, terrifying, and sometimes funny but often bleak that period was. It’s about what it’s actually like to wake up every morning, pull Twitter open and see fascists walking through an American city.”

This perhaps explains why, while Burn’s book concentrated on British news (Blair’s resignation, Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport), Laing’s is largely focused on the US (to such an extent, I felt I had to check she wasn’t American). Obviously Trump’s domination of American politics is partly responsible, but the urgency and immediacy must surely come from being permanently connected to American friends and news outlets, perhaps exaggerating the importance of US politics in the UK. (Though, as Kathy is American, the preoccupation seems more natural).

This unedited newsfeed, though it recreates lived experience, is weakened by the very phenomenon it seeks to portray – that rolling news demands one crisis after another with little sense of which will be remembered and which forgotten. (Some stories mentioned – Sinead O’Connor on YouTube; “Everyone was angry about a thing called Bodega”- had completely passed me by). Trump dominates the headlines: when he fires the Director of the FBI “everyone was saying it was a banana republic…he’s taking a giant shit on our nation.” During Charlottesville we are told:

“That was the morning that white people finally realised the President of the United States was white supremacist, he’d as good as said so.”

The problem here is that Kathy (Laing), completely unaffected, can only be outraged. Laing does touch on Acker’s political involvement during her life:

“She’d been writing about Nazis since 1988, she knew what she was seeing.”

However, what could have been a fascinating comparison is not fully developed. Instead the novel is dominated by Kathy’s character ‘today’ – a ‘live’ novel voiced by a character appropriately full of life and living in the moment. Kathy is restless both mentally and physically:

“What Kathy wanted currently was complicated to explain. She wanted three or four houses so that she could move between them. She was happiest on her travels, like a clockwork toy, maybe happiest unpacking or booking a train ticket.”

This makes the idea of ‘settling down’ threatening – “I don’t like proximity,” she tells her husband-to-be. Kathy’s character swamps that of her husband, just as her moods do:

“Her husband was furious but Kathy’s fury as ever was larger and less ambiguous.”

It is the rawness of her feelings, however, which make her an always interesting companion. At times spoilt and selfish, she is also vulnerable and tender. It is this composite Kathy/Laing character that is the novel’s greatest success, portrayed with wit and verve:

“Kathy had always had unsatisfactory relationships and her current unsatisfactory relationship was with sleep.”

While not perhaps fully releasing its presentation of our crises-strewn world, Katy ensures Crudo is an invigorating read.

An Untouched House

July 15, 2018

None of the great triumvirate of post-war Dutch writers – Harry Mulisch, Gerard Reve, Willem Henrik Hermans – have been particularly well treated in their translation into English. Mulisch has been the most widely, if haphazardly, translated, but only The Discovery of Heaven is still in print, with others (particularly Two Women and The Stone Bridal Bed) hard to find; Reve was largely unknown until the publication of The Evenings in 2016; and Hermans had only two previously translated novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, to his name, both of which appeared over ten years ago having waited over forty years to be translated. Now, finally, we have another work of Hermans to read thanks to David Colmer and Pushkin Press.

An Untouched House is a novella of only eighty pages (this edition comes with an afterward by Cees Nooteboom) but is a powerful evocation of the chaos and confusion of war, a deliberate puncturing of the picture of heroic resistance to the German army which must have been shocking in 1951 when it was originally published. It begins (and ends) with an image of destruction:

“The main bough, almost the whole crown was suddenly lying at the foot of the tree without my hearing the crack.”

Immediately we sense the war-weariness of our narrator, a lone Dutchman in a band of partisans, “there wasn’t a single person I could understand.” He walks on, under fire, but all he can think of is his thirst. Hermans’ descriptive powers are such that the opening scene, familiar from so many films, is experienced anew. A downed plane “changed into a comet of soot”, the explosion as it hits the ground “like the world making a swallowing sound.” Shooting German soldiers, the narrator sees them “bent double like butterflies being mounted.” A lull in the fighting is described:

“…as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine.”

Hermans, however, is more interested in the psychology than the events of war. When the narrator is given an order he doesn’t understand it leads him to an empty house:

“I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.”

Discovering hot water, he decides to have a bath, but, once clean, he cannot stand the thought of putting his filthy uniform back on, instead borrowing a shirt and trousers from a wardrobe. He falls asleep only to be wakened by the ringing of the doorbell: on the discovery of a German officer at the door he claims to be the owner of the house.

An Untouched House, short as it is, still has many twists and turns to lead us through, each darker than the last, before its end. We enter a moral no man’s land, where the narrator’s ownership of a house he does not know (“How many rooms in the house? I wasn’t even sure how many floors.”) mirrors his own life.

In particular, Hermans takes aim at the idea of culture. The house itself, with its piano, on which the German officers play Beethoven, and its library, is a symbol of culture. To the German officer who has commandeered the house, shaving is the apotheosis of culture:

“I have been in the army for forty years today. Shaving with hot water, war or no war! That is what I understand by culture!”

For the old man who collects fish they are “something of unique cultural significance.” He praises the Germans as “defenders of our culture”. These ridiculous ideas suggest something of the dark humour which runs through Hermans’ work, accompanied by a nihilism which is visible in the novella’s conclusion. For all its brevity, An Untouched House is a classic of war literature.

The Mandelbaum Gate

July 4, 2018

The Mandelbaum Gate, Muriel Spark’s eighth novel, has a typically Sparkian opening:

“On Saturday the 12th of August 1961 when Barbara Vaughan had last been seen, Freddy had accompanied her from the Cartwrights’ front door to Matt’s car outside in the roadway… This was the last thing he remembered until he was walking along his usual route from the Mandelbaum Gate to his hotel on the following Tuesday, which was the 15th of August.”

Containing two mysteries – Freddy’s lost weekend and the suggestion Barbara’s whereabouts are unknown – it perfectly sets up what follows, the story of Freddy’s attempt to rescue Barbara from Jordan where he feels her half-Jewish identity places her in danger. It is an opening, however, which we do not reach until chapter 5 as, of all of Spark’s novels, The Mandelbaum Gate is the most conventional. (Spark herself described it as “much more concrete and solidly rooted in a very detailed setting”). Prior to chapter 5, where it might be said the novel finally begins to progress with pace, Spark has carefully introduced her characters.

The novel, in fact, begins with Freddy composing a polite poem of thanks, as is his habit, while crossing to Israel through the Mandelbaum Gate which splits Jerusalem, something his position at the Foreign Office, which grants him diplomatic immunity, allows him to do with the minimum of fuss. He is an unusual Spark character in the sense that he is a good man, honourable and modest. Barbara, too, is an unusual characters, but for a different reason: she is probably the closest Spark came to presenting a portrait of herself, a Catholic who is half-Jewish. There is also a certain duality to her nature: she is, according to Freddy, “a pleasant English spinster”, but he also finds himself “filled with a sense of her dangerousness”. She is “afflicted by her gifts”:

“For she was gifted with an honest, analytical intelligence, a sense of fidelity in the observing of observable things, and, at the same time, with the beautiful and dangerous gift of faith…”

Barbara is on a pilgrimage, but she is also struggling with a matter of principle, a love affair with an archaeologist, Harry Clegg, having led to a proposal of marriage. Harry, however, is divorced and therefore she cannot marry him and “remain within the Church, unless his marriage was invalidated by the Church.” News of her engagement will also infuriate the headmistress at the convent school where she works, who sees their friendship threatened, and she will follow her to the Middle East. Barbara’s pilgrimage takes her to Jordan, even though Freddy warns her of the danger posed by her ‘Jewish blood’, where she falls ill.

Spark handles the slow return of Freddy’s memory with the skill one might expect. Freddy has a “premonition of bloodshed” but, though shots are fired at the border, the death he has foreseen occurs back in England. In the novel’s second half Spark immerses herself in the espionage genre with disguises, nocturnal escapes, illicit passions…and an unexpected spy.

The novel takes place during the trial of Albert Eichmann – Spark had visited Israel to observe the trial, just as Barbara does. It is tempting, therefore, to see Freddy’s early plea –“Why couldn’t people be moderate?” – as its key message, but it is Barbara who seems to identify Spark’s main concern, quoting scripture:

“I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou will make me vomit thee out of my mouth.”

Initially Freddy seems the epitome of lukewarm, but when his friends, the Cartwrights, attempt to dissuade Barbara from visiting Jordan he finds himself supporting her, and, indeed, quoting her:

“’The trouble with you,’ Freddy said, fully conscious he was wrecking the delightful atmosphere, ‘is that you blow neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm – What was that passage in the Bible, Miss Vaughan?’”

Freddy’s attempt to rescue Barbara and, later, Joanna Cartwright, demonstrate he is no longer ‘lukewarm’, an option Spark has dismissed in the face of Eichmann.

In some ways, The Mandelbaum Gate is Spark’s most fully rounded work, but it is not her most successful. Her brilliance seems to be diluted in the attempt to create characters with detailed back stories (not only the English characters, but the Ramdez family and Alexandros) in a three dimensional setting. It is worth noting that in the novels which immediately followed, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat, she would leave realism entirely behind.