Hot Milk

September 30, 2016


In her latest novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy once again (as in Swimming Home – a villa in Nice – and The Unloved – a French chateau) takes us on holiday. In Levy’s hands, however, these sun-bleached beaches, glittering pools and glaringly white buildings become other-worldly, as altered in her handling as Ballard’s suburban Britain. (Though, to be fair, Ballard himself wasn’t averse to getting out the passport in his later novels like Cocaine Nights). This time we are in Almeria, mingling with tourists, but on a different mission. Sofia and her mother, Rose, have come not to holiday but to heal at the hands of Dr Gomez, a last resort made possible by re-mortgaging their home. Rose is unable to walk, a mystery that no medical professional in the UK has been able to solve, and Sofia’s life has been placed on hold as she cares for her:

“The dream is over for me…. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph. D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind the shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.”

As her future fades, Sofia becomes less and less certain who she is in her present. This is highlighted when she is stung by a jelly fish and must write down her name, age, country of origin, and occupation: when it comes to the latter she doesn’t know what to write. Even her nationality is in doubt, with a Greek surname from a father she hasn’t seen in years pointing towards a language she doesn’t speak. She puzzles Dr Gomez by referring to her mother as ‘Rose’. As he says, “identity is always difficult to guarantee.”

Rose’s identity is her illness; as Sofia says, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember.” Her father leaves because he, too, has adopted a new identity:

“My father suffered a religious conversion but as far as I know he has not got over it.”

In both cases, these identities allow her parents to undermine Sofia’s sense of self: her father simply ceases to see her, as if she were no longer his daughter; her mother reduces her to the role of carer, even complaining about her to Gomez:

“Sofia is lazy when it comes to putting a glass of water by my bed at night.”

At times Sofia finds it difficult to separate herself from Rose. Shaking Gomez’s hand on behalf of her mother she thinks, “Her arm is my arm.” Later on the beach:

“Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother.”

From the moment we meet Gomez we sense that he is suspicious of Rose’s illness:

“His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable.”

He encourages her to reduce her medication, and the treatment becomes a battle of wills as Rose refuses to admit her health, even suggesting she might have her feet amputated. However, Gomez gives Sofia courage, as does her holiday romance with Ingrid, a woman, she admits, who is “not a safe person to love.” Just as Sofia struggles to see herself, so too she finds it hard to visualise Ingrid or the relationship clearly. She first meets Ingrid when she thinks she is a man in the Ladies’ toilets. Later, Ingrid gives her a blouse with a word stitched into it, but it is a different word to the one Sofia reads there.

The novel is the story of Sofia’s attempt to free herself, just as she wants to free the dog of owner of the diving-school, Pablo. But, as Ingrid points out, freedom is never straight-forward:

“There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies.”

Hot Milk (is the title a reference to maternal comforts?) is a novel about freeing yourself from family, not only those who cling to you, but also those who reject you. In pushing Rose to find the first step she needs to save her life, Sofia hopes to save her own. It’s another sharp, insightful novel by Levy, who writes realism (like Ballard) by jarring the probable against the possible. Its recent appearance on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist (as well as the Man Booker) is no surprise.

Something Written

September 24, 2016


After my review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first novel, The Street Kids, I was offered the chance to read a novel about his last novel, Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, also translated by Ann Goldstein. The novel is, I assume, largely autobiographical, telling of Trevi’s time working for the Pasolini Foundation in the early nineties, a story which sits alongside an extensive discussion of Pasolini’s final, unfinished novel, Petrolio, which was not published in Italian until 1992 (Pasolini was murdered in 1975). Trevi’s approach is clearly signposted in an epigraph from Pasolini describing Petrolio:

“It’s a novel but it’s not written the way real novels are written: its language is that of essays, of newspaper articles, of reviews, of private letters, even of poetry.”

The Pasolini Foundation is run by an actress who once worked with Pasolini, Laura Betti. Laura is known (affectionately would be putting it too strongly) as the Madwoman, a nickname no doubt influenced by her roles (she dubbed the voice of the Devil in The Exorcist into Italian) but also her behaviour:

“I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut…’”

Despite his treatment, you sense that Trevi feels some admiration for her as the representative of a bygone age, a time of liberated behaviour and imagination, a contrast to the conventional eighties (in one wonderful scene, feeling slighted by a hotel, she urinates in the lift) In this she is like Pasolini, and Petrolio:

“…a mad, visionary work, outside the rules, revelatory… Petrolio is a savage beast. It’s an account of a process of knowledge and transformation. It’s a becoming aware of the world and an experiment on itself.”

When it is published in 1992 “such books are no longer being written. They are creations that have become incomprehensible to the over-whelming majority of the world.” Compared to Pasolini’s time, Trevi finds the literature of the nineties “impoverished.”

At this point, it might be worth saying a little more about Petrolio. Though it is both unfinished and with no linear structure anyway (Trevi at one point describes it as a “whirlpool” – before suggesting that water swirling in a toilet bowl might be a more apt description), it does centre on one/two characters called Carlo (a double – one lower and one upper-class). While upper-class Carlo achieves material success, lower-class Carlo is driven by sex – he seduces his mother, grandmother, and four sisters, and, when he turns into a woman (as both Carlos do) he has sex with twenty boys in a field. (This review from Fernanda Eberstadt in The New York Times in 1997, when it was translated into English by – you guessed it – Ann Goldstein, provides a good introduction).

I found Something Written fascinating: the autobiographical elements enhanced the criticism, and the criticism enhanced the autobiography. Trevi’s enthusiasm for both Pasolini and Petrolio exudes from every page. I say this not as a devotee, or even an advocate, of Pasolini – I am not now driven, or even tempted, to reach for Petrolio, which frankly sounds a bit of a mess and a bit of a chore. Trevi, however, is arguing for more than one unfinished book. When he describes the novel as ‘revelatory’ he means this literally. He describes the revelation which takes place within the novel, “of a taking possession of reality”:

“We can define quite clearly and concisely what the initiation will allow us to grasp: the game of hidden forces that rule the world.”

In this scene, Pasolini refers to the drug kykeon, used by the Greeks in initiation rituals at Eleusis. In Something Written’s final section Trevi goes to Eleusis (in 2011) in a chapter in which he discusses ‘vision’. Trevi’s defence of Petrolio is that art is visionary. This may open it up (like religion) to fakes and fraudsters, but if art is not allowing us to take possession of reality, one might question what its use is.

The Schooldays of Jesus

September 19, 2016


When I first heard that J M Coetzee’s follow-up to The Childhood of Jesus would be The Schooldays of Jesus, I did momentarily wonder if it was a spoof rather than a sequel, an attempt to infuse Coetzee’s work with the unlikely spirit of Adrian Mole – The Secret Diary of Jesus, anyone? In fact, not only does the novel exist, but it follows directly from its predecessor with Simon, Ines and David, arriving in Estrella where, at the end of Childhood, they plan a “new life”.

Initially wary of discovery, they find casual work on a farm picking fruit. David’s schooling quickly becomes a concern:

“David went to school in Novilla…It wasn’t a success. He didn’t have good teachers. He is a naturally clever child. He found the pace in the classroom too slow. We had to remove him and educate him at home.”

David is clever, but he can also be obstinate. When he is offered Maths tuition he refuse to cooperate:

“Because his way you first have to make yourself small. You have to make yourself small as a pea, then as small as a pea inside a pea, and then a pea inside a pea inside a pea. Then you can do his numbers when you are small small small small small.”

Eventually the three sisters who own the farm propose that he be sent to one of the two academies in the town, the Academy of Dance (the other is of Singing) and offer to pay his fees. There, according to his teacher, Ana Magdalena:

“First comes the dance. All else is secondary. All else follows later.”

It is through dance that they learn numbers, which in turn have an astrological aspect – “You close your eyes while you dance and you can see the stars in your head.” As dancing is largely visual, the reader must take this on trust – rather as Simon, whom David refuses to dance for, must:

“He thinks you won’t understand. He thinks you will make fun of him.”

David becomes infatuated with the Dance Academy, and Simon becomes less important to him. Part of that infatuation is directed towards Dmitri, a caretaker at the nearby museum who is frequently to be found at the Academy, and whom Simon dislikes. Ines, too, is colder with Simon (Simon is not David’s father, and, though Ines claims to be his mother, this is based on Simon’s insistence that he saw them together when they arrived as refugees; like all refugees they have no memory of the time before).

The key question (as with Childhood) is what on earth are we meant to make of it all? It reads like allegory, albeit one where the key has been mislaid. Should we identify David with Jesus? It is made clear that David is not his real name, simply one assigned to him on arrival – and also one inextricably linked with Jesus. Simon and Ines also have Biblical connotations: Simon, one of the apostles, and also the man who carried the cross for Jesus, meaning ‘he has heard’ (which might be particularly applicable given the novel’s conclusion); Ines, the Spanish version of Agnes, a martyred Saint, meaning ‘chaste’, also appropriate for her passionless character. Coetzee can’t resist dropping further hints into the narrative: David, when asked what he wants to be, saying he “wanted to be a lifesaver”; his declaration that he doesn’t “want to be human” – though this in a conversation where he says he wants to be “the kind who takes” rather than gives (of course, even this can be interpreted Biblically).

The use of Jesus is clearly intended to point to something exceptional in David, but I suspect we are also meant to question this. David is a striking character – Simon describes him as being “like a bulldozer” – but is he really that unusual, or is it simply that Simon patiently indulges his questions and expends more energy on educating him than he does on his own life? It seems unlikely that Coetzee is suggesting that dancing is the future of education, but he is certainly questioning current pedagogy. In a lecture delivered at the novels’ end on Metros (likened to Prometheus, but in fact an invention) is portrayed as the discoverer of measurement:

“Were he and his heirs guilty of abolishing reality and putting a simulacrum in its place?”

Coetzee seems to be suggesting that some kind of transcendence is necessary in education; that we should go beyond facts and figures.

Schooldays are therefore central to the novel; but so is one of Coetzee’s, and religion’s, key concerns: punishment and forgiveness. Having won David’s trust, Dmitri commits a terrible crime. David finds it impossible to condemn him. This is an area Coetzee has explored before, particularly in relation to South Africa, but here he does so relentlessly as Dmitri literally refuses to be forgotten.

The novel’s conclusion suggests a shift has taken place; that Simon is now learning from David. When Childhood was released some reviewers complained that David was not very Christ-like, but, even if we are to take the title literally, this surely misses the point: this is the childhood which shapes Jesus, though is suspect Jesus is shorthand for spiritual enlightenment rather than orthodox Christianity. It is the philosophical journey of a child. And, like all childhoods, it has more questions than answers.

Voyage in the Dark

September 14, 2016


If Julia in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie often feels the cold of London, Anna, in Voyage in the Dark, feels it colder:

“She’s always cold…She can’t help it. She was born in a hot place. She was born in the West Indies or somewhere, weren’t you, kid?”

Shortly after her friend, Maudie, comments, “I’ve never seen anybody shiver like you do.” It’s difficult not to feel that the coldness is more than physical, something fundamental, and that “the cold nights, the damned cold nights” represent the loneliness borne of her being out of place (transported from the Wests Indies to England after her father’s death) and having only a half-interested step-mother for support. (At one point she says, “I felt I was more alone than anybody had ever been in the world before.”)


Her loneliness is alleviated, unsurprisingly (if you’ve read Rhys before) by a wealthy man, Walter, whom she meets one night in Southsea, renewing the acquaintance when she returns to London. As Maudie tells her:

“You go out with him if he asks you. These men have money; you can tell that in a minute, can’t you? Anybody can. Men who have money and men who haven’t are perfectly different.”

One is tempted here to echo Hemmingway’s response to Fitzgerald – the difference is they have more money – but Rhys’ world is one where passion may feature but love does not. This is largely because the emotions of her characters are revealed moment by moment, with no past or future, making idealism, or even consistency, unlikely. When Walter first kisses her she pushes him away, but “as soon as he let me go I stopped hating him.” She then waits for him to kiss her again:

“Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different.”

This is not only psychologically convincing, especially considering Anna’s youth (she is nineteen), but our moment to moment access to her thoughts and feelings also adds to the impression of a precarious existence, one in which planning for the future is foolish. The scene also further utilises the climate to suggest the coldness both of the relationship and society in general: “the pillow was as cold as ice”; “The fire was like a painted fire; no warmth came from it.”

Access to money, however, changes how Anna feels about herself:

“My voice sounded round and full instead of small and thin. ‘That’s because of the money,’ I thought.”

Maudie is unabashed in advising her to make the most of it:

“The thing with men is to get everything you can get out of them and not care a damn.”

Her relationship with Walter is based on the money he provides, and the unspoken understanding that it isn’t permanent:

“When it was sad was when you woke up at night and thought about being alone and that everybody says the man’s bound to get tired.”

Rhys’ protagonists have middle class origins and are used to a certain amount of material comfort but lack any means to procure it. Both Julia and Anna have suffered the loss of their father, and therefore their income. They have little hope of even moderately paid employment, nor do they have much of a welfare system to fall back on. Marriage seems the most obvious option for Anna (Julia is already married, but separated from her husband), but she (as it is suggested Julia once did) embarks on an affair that rules out marriage within her own class. (Of course, it might be argued that marriage to escape poverty is little different from Anna’s arrangement with Walter anyway).

Above all, Anna has little faith in her future, or her ability to make choices – in her interior life (the novel is in the first person) it is difficult to think of a decision she makes about her own life, or a decision which she understands as one she has made about her life. It is no surprise that her future is decided, in the novels final lines, by another:

“She’ll be alright…Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.”

Anna’s fate may seem dated, but her experience of narrowing choices and her sense of isolation is not. It is perhaps for this reason that Rhys’ work remains as vital as it ever was.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

September 11, 2016


Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie opens with a description of one of the many “cheap hotel” rooms that her down-at-heel heroines inhabit. It is here, in Paris, Julia has retreated “after she had parted from Mr Mackenzie” six months before to live (according to her landlady) “the life of a dog”. Later, in London, her sister Norah will cast her eyes around her accommodation there and say, “This really is an awful place. Why on earth do you come to a place like this?” The city may have changed, but circumstances remain the same. “You ought to get away for a change,” she is advised, but by that point we realise that change is no longer possible.

Julia leaves Paris when the money Mr Mackenzie has been sending her dries up. A final cheque moves her to confront him, her rejection of the money and the blow she lands (“She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink”) suggest his first impression of her is correct:

“…she wasn’t the hard-bitten sort…Afraid of life. Had to screw herself up to all the time.”

An observer of this scene, George Horsfield, takes pity on her:

“Hang it all, one can’t leave this unfortunate creature alone to go and drink herself dotty”

Horsfield convinces her to return to London, where she tours her nearest relatives hoping they might offer her some help. They disapprove of Julia’s life however – she is, for example, married but has lost track of her husband in Europe. Norah can only offer her a place by her dying mother’s bedside; her Uncle Griffiths a pound towards her return fair to France. The problem, as always, is money, as Horsfield had swiftly realised:

“He felt that he could imagine what her mother and her sister were like. No money. No bloody money…They would be members of the vast crowd which bears on its back the label ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave…”


Refused by her family, Julia writes to her first lover who agrees to meet her and later sends her money. Horsfield also helps out. If there are strings attached, Julia is also culpable of attaching them, begging Horsfield not to leave her alone one night:

“He thought: ‘I knew she’d do this.’”

Julia’s life is one of seedy rooms and temporary men. Whereas when her first affair ended she remembers, “You felt as if your back was broken, as if you’d never move again,” she now boasts to Horsfield:

“I can always get somebody, you see. I’ve known that ever since I’ve known anything.”

If Julia is bitter it is not at her choices but at her lack of luck:

“I had a shot at the life I wanted. And I failed… All right! I might have succeeded, and if I had people would have licked my boots for me.”

Later she says to her sister, “All you people who’ve knuckled under – you’re jealous.” Rhys exposes the lottery of life; Julia at least has rolled the dice. Even her wealthy first lover, Mr James, admits:

“I despised a man who didn’t get on. I didn’t believe much in bad luck. But after the war I felt differently.”

There are no happy woman in this novel. Norah, who “knuckled under”, has spent years caring for her sick mother, “brought up to certain tastes, then left without the money to gratify them”, her mother bedridden and dying, with her “bloodshot, animal eyes” suggests what lies ahead. Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost.

The only joy comes for Rhys’ masterful prose. When Horsfield first watches Julia, feeling “detached and ironical,” Rhys is both mocking him while at the same time underlining the novel’s’ tone. Even her still lifes, the rooms Julia flits through, are imbued with a bitter wit, from Uncle Griffiths’ parlour, “a large, lofty room, crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs” to that first room:

“But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa for the act.”

In scenes like these Julia plays her part, the idea and the act, each “disconnected episode to be placed with all the other disconnected episodes which made up her life.”

A Girl in Exile

September 6, 2016


Though Ismail Kadare has returned to his original UK publisher, Harvill (now Harvill Secker) with A Girl in Exile, the translation of his work into English continues uninterrupted. Even better, this is the fourth novel John Hodgson has translated directly from Albanian (rather than via French as his work once reached us), with a fifth to follow next year. A Girl in Exile is a recent novel, having first appeared in 2009, shortly after The Fall of the Stone City (translated into English in 2012). His last novel from Canongate, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, was a much earlier work from the 1970s, as is his next book, The Traitor’s Niche. Deciphering any development in his writing is not straight forward, therefore, though Kadare himself seems happy to move between historical novels and those that deal with Communist Albania. A Girl in Exile is one of the latter, exploring love under the pressure of a police state.

As the novel begins, Rudian Stefa, a writer, is summoned by the Party Committee:

“…he rehearsed the two possible issues that might, unknown to him, have got him into trouble: his latest play, which he had been waiting two weeks for permission to stage, and his relationship with Migena.”

In their last meeting he had accused Migena, a younger woman he has been sleeping with, of being a spy; in a brief struggle she had dislodged books from his shelves, including those banned by the state. The turbulence in their relationship is caused by the mystery of her unhappiness:

“Every time she wept he hoped to find out what her tears concealed.”

When they ask him about a ‘girl’ he assumes it is Migena, but, after a brief conversation at cross purposes, it transpires that they are referring to a girl he has never met on the basis that he once signed a book for her: “For Linda B., a souvenir from the author.” He has never met her because she cannot come to Tirana, she lives in ‘exile’, interned far from the capital; the book was signed at Migena’s request, and now her friend has killed herself.

Migena, as Stefa quickly realises, is an anagram of enigma, and he feels that if he can solve the mystery of her sadness he can also discover the reason for Linda’s suicide. Unfortunately the political situation is such that he is riven with suspicion:

“…how could a police informer weep so movingly? It was of course impossible. But then the opposite thought, that this was precisely the reason why she wept, disorientated him.”

He even comes to distrust his own feelings:

“It was a long time since he had fallen in love, although he wondered if this were not love but something else which had donned love’s familiar mask to deceive him.”

The investigation into Linda’s death becomes Stefa’s investigation, conducted through his relationship with Migena. There is even an unofficial handover during a lengthy conversation with the official investigator. Stefa is haunted by her in a novel full of hauntings. He suspects that his latest play is being delayed by a scene in which a ghost appears:

“He had expected some of them to take fright at the ghost. What’s this ghost doing here? Is this social realism or Hamlet?”

Kadare also, as so often, refers to Greek myth (though perhaps he wouldn’t see it as ‘Greek’), in this case the story of Orpheus. One might even see Stefa, as a writer, attempting to charm Cerberus (the state) in order to recover Linda from the dead – that is to recover the meaning of her life. Her body, too, remains in exile, her internment as applicable to the dead as to the living.

At the same time, Kadare provides a portrait of a writer in a one-party state: at times surreal, at others almost comic: Fidel Castro speaking for six hours on revolutionary Cuban theatre on the radio, Stefa trying to think of an appropriate nationality for a character in his play (“definitely mustn’t be a Western state, but there were no friendly states left. After China, North Korea had gone too”), and the ‘the Dajti test’ – using a hotel popular with foreigners to test how safe you felt:

“If your feet hesitate even for an instant before entering, forget it.”

A Girl in Exile is a wonderfully layered novel. The truth regarding Linda’s life (and death) is slowly revealed – each time Stefa feels he has grasped it, a further detail suggests that he is no closer to the truth. Kadare’s use of myth provides a further layer, a novel in which we have the recreation of a particular time and place but also the sense of something universal, a novel of love and loss – Linda having lost her life long before she took it.

Dirt Road

September 4, 2016

dirt road

Dirt Road is James Kelman’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While Stephen Dedalus, at the end of Joyce’s work, decides he must leave Ireland to flourish, Kelman’s protagonist, Murdo, leaves Scotland behind in the first few pages, heading to America with his father, Tom, to visit relatives. Murdo has no plans to forge the uncreated conscience of his race; though never stated, the trip is a reaction to the recent death of his mother:

“Mum died of cancer at the end of spring. This followed the death of Eilidh, his sister, seven years earlier, from the same disease, if cancer is a ‘disease’. He could not think of cancers like that because of the way they hit people. One minute they were fine but the next they were struck down. More like a bullet from a gun was how he saw it.”

Murdo’s road trip is a tale of two encounters: with a young girl, Sarah, who serves him in a small shop while they stop-over in Allentown, Misippippi on the way to his Uncle’s, and with the music of her Aunt, Queen Monzee-ay, which he hears the next day when he returns to the shop hoping to see Sarah. Murdo falls for both, and before he leaves he’s invited to join them for a gig in Lafayette in two weeks. The road of the novel is the road to the concert, which will represent both Murdo’s coming of age and his choice of music (art), impractical and precarious as it is, for his future.

H.G. Wells said of Joyce’s novel that “one believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction,” and in this Kelman is Joyce’s successor. Dirt Road is so finely crafted as to appear without craft; so beautifully written that the writer disappears. You cannot prove this by quoting Kelman: immediately the quotation will clash with the language of the review, not unlike the comments of the ‘general public’ in a news report. Kelman’s prose works because only the language of the character, in this case Murdo, is allowed; once we are immersed in the rhythms of that language, Murdo may as well be real, one reason, perhaps, the ending feels a little as if someone has simply pressed pause.

Yes, Kelman’s novels are political, but he is as likely to capitalise that p as he is to begin using quotation marks for dialogue. Criticism of America permeates the novel, but is subsumed into the narrative. Race is one example. When Sarah’s brother, Joel, sees Murdo watching Queen Monzee-ay play he says:

“This aint your place. What you doing round here? What you spying on us!”

It’s the fact that Murdo is white which lies behind “This aint your place” but trace doesn’t impinge on Murdo’s consciousness unless placed there by others. Later a friend of Uncle John’s will comment on their stop-over:

“One night huh. You see a white face?”

Similarly, labour conditions in the US are alluded to when we discover that Uncle John has not been allowed any time off for the visit:

“After twenty-two years! Huh! They wouldn’t give him no proper time off! His family from Scotland!”

Kelman’s main theme, however, is immigration. Looking though a road atlas, Murdo is amazed to find numerous place names which he recognises:

“Look! Gretna! Imagine Gretna! Elgin! Jeesoh, Elgin! McKenney! Cadder! Aberdeen! Aberdeen, actual Aberdeen. It’s all Scottish names Aunt Maureen. Glasgow!”

Queen Monzee-ay’s name, written down, is Menzies. As Kelman has said:

“The absurdity of this whole thing about immigration gets shown up in these characters. The idea of any culture being homogenous, which is nonsense.”

This, in turn, is reflected in the music: in the folk songs, passed on, often with words adapted to new lands, in musical styles, and in the musicians playing together.

Dirt Road is a wonderful novel – perhaps Kelman’s best. It is worth reading for its portrayal of the relationship between Murdo and his father alone. Shorn of all romanticism, it is the best argument you will ever read for art.

The Street Kids

August 31, 2016

street kids

Pier Paolo Pasolini is perhaps best known as a film director, but he also wrote a number of novels, as well as poetry and plays. The Street Kids is a new translation, by Anne Goldstein, of his first novel, Ragazza di vita, originally published in 1955 and previously translated as The Ragazzi. It’s a story of adolescents and young men struggling to survive in post-war Rome which caused a scandal on publication for its honest portrayal of the ‘underclass’ – the Trainspotting of its day.

It also shares with Trainspotting its episodic nature. Riccetto is the unifying character, with others coming and going, and not all surviving until the novel’s conclusion. The first chapter provides a good example of this. Chronologically first – it begins with mention of Riccetto’s first communion – it presents us with a picture of a country with little to offer where survival day-to-day:

“At the market there was nothing, not even a cabbage stalk. The crowd began to move through the warehouses, under the shed roofs, into the stores, because it wouldn’t stand for coming away empty-handed.”

Finding a cellar with tyres, tarpaulins and cheeses, the crowd surge through the door, Riccetto and his friend Marcello included, “swallowed up by the suck of the crowd and their feet barely touching the ground.” Marcelo manages to stuff some tyres in a sack – jumping over the corpse of a woman killed in the crush – but loses them later to the police. This struggle to stay alive by any means possible, however, is contrasted (as it is throughout) with the joy of youth: one moment they are stealing a manhole cover, the next swimming and bathing in the sun. The chapter ends with the boys on a boat which they have somehow raised the money to rent. Riccetto spots a swallow thrashing in the water and dives in to rescue it:

“’It’s all wet,’ he said after a while, ‘Let’s wait for it to dry off.’ It didn’t take long; in five minutes it was flying off among its companions, over the Tiber, and Riccetto could no longer distinguish it from the others.”

It is this lyrical ending which gives the chapter the shape of a short story, and also indicates that Pasolini will present his characters in three dimensions, not simply as hard men and hooligans.

Money is a constant obsession, and what can be done with it is measured exactly:

“Riccetto had just a few cents left, enough to buy two or three cigarettes and take the tram.”

At one point he uses the last of his money to buy a tram ticket so he can steal a woman’s purse form her bag. With money in his pocket he feels like a king:

“Riccetto sang… at the top of his lungs, completely reconciled with life, full of great plans for the near future, and touching the cash in his pocket: cash which is the source of every pleasure and every satisfaction in this filthy world.”

As in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poverty means every coin is counted and every moment of sufficiency regarded as great wealth.

Though Riccetto grows older, this is not a coming of age story, or one where character development is Pasolini’s primary concern: in a sense his characters have must survive first, and develop later. Even when Riccetto becomes engaged it is suggested that his maturity is to some extent superficial, “content to play the part of a serious youth,” though perhaps also indicating a longing to do more than simply live of the streets. Life, however, is precarious, as is perhaps best demonstrated by the final chapter when another boy, Genesio decides to swim across a river, but gets into difficulties on the return journey:

“Genesio no longer put up any resistance, poor boy, and flung his arms around, still not asking for help. Every so often he sank under the surface of the current and then re-emerged a little further down.”

From the woman killed in the crush to find food to the boy swept away by the current, the novel’s characters live their lives under threat, knowing that one wrong step might mean the end.

The Street Kids is not only a vivid historical document, but a valuable reminder that war and its aftermath are merciless, and that we should be careful not to condemn its survivors. At the same time, it also radiates a love of life, a joy in simple pleasures, which we might also learn from.

Moderato Cantabile

August 27, 2016


Marguerite Duras’ short novel Moderato Cantabile (translated in 1960 by Richard Seaver) is neither ‘moderate’ nor ‘melodious’; just as her son refuses the instructions of his music teacher to play in such a style, so too does Anne Desbaresdes attempt to rebel against the strictures of her own quiet life. The music teacher, striking “the keyboard a third time, so hard that the pencil broke right next to the child’s hands,” has no effect. The stand-off is interrupted by a scream, “a long, drawn-out scream, so shrill it overwhelmed the sound of the sea. “ The boy begins to play, but as he does so it becomes increasingly clear that something serious has occurred below – a woman has been shot. Anne leaves in time to witness the aftermath:

“At the far end of the café, in the semi-darkness of the back room, a woman was lying motionless on the floor. A man was crouched over her, clutching her shoulders and saying quietly:
‘Darling. My darling.’”

Anne becomes fascinated by the crime, returning to the café the next day where she strikes up a conversation with another customer, Chauvin, on the subject, pretending that she was unaware of the murder:

“Perhaps they had problems, what they call emotional problems.”

Chauvin, it transpires, already knows who she is:

“You have a beautiful house at the end of the Boulevard de la Mer. A big walled garden.”


Anne’s visits to the cafe become daily, each time meeting Chauvin and discussing the murder. Duras hints that their relationship echoes that which so recently ended in death:

“They met by chance in cafe, perhaps even here, they both used to come here. And they began to talk to each other about this and that.”

The man, having mentioned Anne’s house the first time they spoke, proceeds to describe it in more detail, as if he is drawing closer to her:

“Isn’t there a long hallway on the second floor, a very long hallway onto which your room and everyone else’s opens, so that you’re together and separated at the same time?”

The conversation continues at cross-purposes, her insistent probing of the reasons for the woman’s death – a death, it is suggested, she chose; he describing her own life to her. He returns time and again to the workers of the company her husband manages walking beneath her window, sometimes heard, sometimes observed, as predictable as the tide:

“Whether you were asleep or awake, dressed or naked, they passed outside the pale of your existence.”

Their appearance at the cafe, at the end of the day, acts as a sign for her to leave. The man, it seems was once such a worker, remembering a visit to her home, “you were standing…on the steps, ready to receive us, the workers from the foundries.” We are given the impression he has loved her since that moment; what is less certain is how she feels about him, perhaps seeing him as an escape from a life she finds intolerable. What is without question is that their intense feelings charge every scene, with Duras able to encapsulate enormous passion in a moment such as when he lays his hand next to hers. Slowly their discussion of the murder becomes a discussion of their own relationship:

“He had never dreamt, before meeting her, that he would one day want anything so badly.”

Very little happens in Moderato Cantabile: like the sea, which is so often referenced, it is what lies beneath the surface which is most powerful and dangerous. Duras beautifully conveys the repressed feelings of her protagonists to create a love story unlike any other.


August 16, 2016


An unnamed woman enters a flat she has fled to (without clothes or belongings). We do not know why she is there or where she has come from. She asks the man who owns the flat (her lover?), “How long am I allowed to stay in this flat?” He comes and goes, dropping her off, phoning. She has no plans, though surgery, which she may or may not have, is mentioned. On her first night she finds a “crumpled panty”:

“Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was.”

Later, without clothes of her own to change into, she wears it:

“What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.
I slipped into her womanhood.
Her sexuality, her love.
I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”


This is not a novel, however, about a transformative piece of clothing, instead it is about the many facets of womanhood, a theme reflected in the novel’s unusual style. A series of disconnected chapters – those disconnections emphasised by seemingly random chapter numbers – tell the woman’s story, some clearly referring to the same character, but others allowing for the possibility that this is about more than one woman. Even the manner of their telling changes: opening in the first person, the second and third person are also freely used. The reader is often cast in the role of lover via the use of ‘you’ though the woman may be ‘I’ or ‘she’:

“She fell silent. You said, ‘Hello? Hello?’ a couple of times then hung up.”

“Your breath against my face was impossibly heavy. My whole body throbbed.”

This prevents the novel being about one woman’s experience (though it may be) and reflects instead the experience of women. The novel’s exploration of sexuality created problems for both Bandyopadhyay and her translator Arunva Sinha in their native India. It demonstrates the sexual exploitation of women in a dream of childhood when the woman is shown pornographic pictures by a man:

“The man had pursued her ever since clutching the book with the green cover.”

Later, when a similar scene is re-enacted by dogs – “Chasing for pure sex. Only sex. Nothing else.” – the woman feels only desire. Her desire, however, is shown to be in conflict with her role as mother in a horrifying story she tells of her son burning to death “on an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew.” Trapped in the house, he phones her:

“He was coughing, choking. But I could still hear the hurt in his voice as he asked, ‘Why did you go away, Maa, why did you leave me?’”

This perhaps explains her flight, and the attention she pays to a homeless family she observes from her balcony, often taking the child food:

“At such times I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her a full meal. To give her brushes and paints.”

In the bedroom of the flat, one wall is painted dark brown, but beneath the paint the woman can see a couple making love:

“I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were in the wall. The one which was painted dark brown.”

Later we learn this was painted by the owner of the leopard skin panty – the woman whose suicide is described at one point? – raising the possibility that some of the previous chapters are hers, or that it doesn’t, in fact, matter:

“I couldn’t picture myself at your side. Instead, I found her taking my place… Then I couldn’t tell whether it was I who said it or she, ‘We will be married one day…’”

Panty is a fascinating novel: like a jigsaw the reader must piece it together, but I suspect every reader’s, and every reading’s, finished picture will be different.