Snow, Dog, Foot

January 27, 2020

Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot (translated by J Ockenden) reminded me initially of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life as in its opening pages we meet the elderly Adelmo Farandola living alone in the mountains. He only rarely ventures down to the nearest village, despite enjoying listening to the band play on special occasions:

“But he soon stopped that because someone had come up to him, hand outstretched, and tried to engage him in conversation.”

He now only visits to stock up supplies for the winter; the description of one such trip demonstrating his deteriorating memory. “Forgotten something?” the lady behind the counter asks him, revealing that he had made the same trip only a few days before:

“A memory, albeit a rather vague one, begins to coalesce in his mind.”

The novel takes a more interesting turn on page 24, however, as Adelmo eats some wine-soaked bread:

“The dog’s tongue drips like a leaky tap… ‘Can I try a bit?’ he asks the man at last.”

The dog will be Adelmo’s companion throughout most of the novel, often more talkative than the man. Of course, the dog can be subsumed into a realist reading of the novel as an aspect of Adlemo’s imagination. Morandini even explains:

“In the war years Adelmo Farandola learned to find comfort in talking to himself and in imagining the voices of animals and objects ready and willing to reply.”

In the novel, however, the reader also hears the dog’s voice – the dog is a ‘character’ – and Morandini makes the reader further complicit in providing the dog with a back story:

“Ah, my shepherding years… I look back on them fondly.”

This makes the novel seem largely comic, which would fairly characterise the first half, even Adelmo’s determination to avoid contact with any other person. He is particularly suspicious of a ranger who speaks to him on a number of occasions, whom he sees as unnecessarily interfering – suggesting his dog should be muzzled, asking if he owns a gun, and wondering if he shouldn’t spend the winter in the village:

“He could throw stones at him from up here. He could cause a landslide and bury him beneath several tons of rubble.”

The novel takes a darker turn, however, when, having survived the winter, Adelmo and his dog discover a foot protruding from the snow and ice:

“It’s human foot, not a hoof, that the man and the dog can see sticking out from the debris of the avalanche.”

What has seemed like a rather gentle comic novel up to this point (well, as comic as a novel about a chronically lonely old man with dementia can be) becomes tense with the question of who lies dead under the snow:

“The more I look at this guy, the more he reminds me of that nice ranger who came to see us in the autumn.”

Adelmo’s failing memory means that he cannot be certain that he is not somehow responsible for the corpse, especially when he sees punctures on the man’s head that are “not the sort of wounds you get from an avalanche.” As the novel moves towards it violent and macabre conclusion Adelmo’s eccentricity becomes both more sympathetic and more desperate.

A Whole Life, admittedly much loved by many, left me puzzled by many readers’ reaction to the central character (and whether this was the author’s intention) – that is, they took the title as an affirmation rather than an ironic dismissal. My fear was that Snow, Dog, Foot would lead us down a similar road – one where an isolated and mentally infirm character is portrayed as somehow living a better life. In fact, this seems to have been exactly the trap Moradini sets for the reader, presenting us with a lovable eccentric only to slowly reveal the horror within.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams

January 21, 2020

The Pushkin Press reissue of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was fortuitously timed to coincide with his Nobel Prize win (a win that seemed to have left UK publishers largely uninterested, until Penguin Modern Classics announced they will publish three of his novels under their imprint in August). Like The Left-Handed Woman, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was originally written in the seventies, and quickly translated by Ralph Manheim. It is not, however, a novel, being instead the story of Handke’s mother’s life written in response to her suicide in 1971:

“My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks; I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.”

Although the novel is about his mother’s life, it is also, more generally, about the lives of women of her generation. (At one point Handke admits, “what is written here about a particular person is rather general”). As Handke makes clear, choices for women at that time were all but non-existent:

“No possibilities, it was all settled in advance…”

He later states that “any suggestion that a woman might have a life of her own was an impertinence.” It is for this reason, having become pregnant to the one man she would ever love (unfortunately already married), she marries a man she positively dislikes:

“She found him repulsive, but everyone harped on her duty (to give the child a father).”

This life that she didn’t choose has a bruising effect on her character:

“Because she was helpless, she disciplined herself, which went against her grain and made her touchy.”

She shuts down the conversation of others with her laugh, feels only contempt for her husband, and, at one point, packs a suitcase for one of her sons and leaves it outside the door. Handke excels in identifying the chasm between the inner life and the outward appearance, and his mother invests herself in keeping up that outward show (something that continues to the very end in her preparations for suicide):

“She comforted herself with the thought that she was at least imitating the pattern of middle class life.”

Handke presents a scathing picture of society as a whole: claustrophobic, emotionally stifling, quick to judgement:

“In talking about himself, if anyone went beyond relating some droll incident, he was said to be ‘peculiar’.”

(This is also an example of how funny Handke can be). It is only in her later years that Handke is able to say, “she was gradually becoming an individual.” Now, however, she begins to suffer from paralysing headaches, a further symptom of the stress of limiting herself for all these years.

His mother’s life, of course, covers the period when the Nazis came to power in Austria, and here we discover some insight into the attractions of fascism. His mother has no interest in politics, but she does notice a change in that “even the daily grind took on a festive mood.”

“What was happening before her eyes was something entirely different from politics – a masquerade, a newsreel festival, a secular church fair.”

It is during this period she falls in love, and, as the normal social rules are disrupted, briefly sees different possibilities – “it was contact with a fabulous world, hitherto known to her only from travel folders.”

The constricted life she faces once married, Handke suggests, is what eventually drives her to kill herself. In fact, going further back, when Handke says, “It all began with my mother suddenly wanting something” (she wants to continue with her education), the ‘it’ can be read as her suicide. Denied the opportunity to continue learning (Handke cleverly links the emphasis on neat writing for girls at school to the later need to present a superficially perfect household, calling their education a “mere child’s game”) her frustration only grows. By the age of thirty she has resigned herself to the fact that “she was nothing and never would be anything.”

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is a powerful and moving story, an evocative recreation of Handke’s mother’s life, and the lives of women in general in the twentieth century. Despite Handke’s analytical style, and his statement that “I try with unbending earnestness to penetrate my character”, there is still a sense that his mother is only partly known, and that too is part of her tragedy.

Loop

January 15, 2020

At one point in the English language debut of Mexican novelist Brenda Lozano, Loop, (translated by Annie McDermott), she speculates:

“I wonder if stories can be classified like rivers, from biggest to smallest. I also wonder if, in that case, stories could be part of the same book. Passages placed impossibly side by side. So they make another story.”

It’s a paragraph which gives the reader some sense of Lozano’s novel. Superficially it tells only one story, that of a woman whose boyfriend, Jonas, goes with his family to Spain after the death of his mother, yet the narrator’s state of waiting opens her life to many new stories, each tangential to the ‘plot’ but central to a novel which rejects the straight line. Reflecting on advice that you can escape drowning by swimming diagonally, she wonders:

“How do you swim diagonally in life?”

She applies this to her own life, suggesting, “I thought I was swimming forwards but I’m getting further away,” asking, of Jonas:

“Is this glass of water the dwarf-scale sea between us?”

A preoccupation with scale is evident throughout the novel. The opening line immediately introduces the idea: “Today a dwarf smiled at me,” and the dwarf, a neighbour, continues to feature, “so elegant, and the bigger stories badly dressed.” She identifies with living a life that does not easily fit into the ‘norm’ (“Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm?”):

“I felt a lot like the dwarf, on another scale of life and needing to lean on a tiny cane.”

Later, she expands on this idea, describing “People who don’t fit. People who live on another scale.”

Yes, things happen. A writer, like Lozano, the narrator flies to the Oaxaca Book Fair, which allows for a wonderful description of a bad poet: “His words were like a long trail of slime.” She meets with friends, and worries about her relationship – “Why is your mother’s death pushing us apart, Jonas?” Yet, so much of the narrative is internalised that her abstract thoughts sit alongside concrete events with equal weight – on the same scale, as Lozano might say. These include a number of riffs, not only on the aforementioned dwarf, but also on the song, ‘Wild is the Wind,’ which, in turn, feeds into the idea of transformation into a bird:

“If Jonas turned into a bird I could ask him to let me fly by his side, like in ‘Wild is the Wind’.”

This transformation is then linked to the act of writing:

“One way of turning into a swallow is by writing.”

Writing, unsurprisingly, is another topic to which Lozano comes back to again and again. “I think telling stories,” she tells us, “is a way of putting a scar into words.” And, returning to the idea of scale:

“All stories are a deep ocean and a puddle at the same time.”

This may make Loop seem like a rather abstruse literary game, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is fragmented, but it is a friendly fragmentation, echoing the way we think rather than some abstract plan. It is also endlessly questioning, perhaps its most likeable characteristic, and, again, a very human one. Lozano, however, is taking us somewhere; as she says of her own experience, “His journey to Spain has taken me on another journey.” That journey takes place in the text. Midway, considering Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she wonders, “If writing and reading transform us into something we have yet to discover.” By the end, she has concluded:

“…however profound or superficial the journey may be, what’s transformed is the way we recount it. If that’s transformed, then everything is transformed.”

In the end, Loop is a glorious reaffirmation of the power of words and the stories they create.

A Moth to Flame

January 9, 2020

Stig Dagerman’s A Moth to a Flame (translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz and previously published as A Burnt Child) is the latest in Penguin’s European Writers series. Despite a recent revival in the US (where this was originally published), it has not been since Quartet Encounters in the eighties that Dagerman has enjoyed regular publication in the UK, making him a perfect fit for the series which focuses on writers highly regarded in Europe but largely neglected here. A Moth to a Flame is the third of Dagerman’s four novels, originally published in 1948 when he was twenty-five. Six years later he would kill himself.

A Moth to a Flame is not an easy novel to like as it sets out to portray all its characters unsympathetically. The central character, Bengt, who narrates parts of the novel in letters he writes to himself (a device that works rather like a soliloquy), is a student approaching the threshold of adulthood but frequently prone to the moods of adolescence. The novel opens at his mother’s funeral and we see he is keen to differentiate his grief from what he sees as his father’s indifference. The son cries and “as he is drying his eyes he can hear through the silence of the room that everyone is listening to him cry.” The father, on the other hand, is described as unfeeling as stone: “a stone arm around his shoulder”; and:

“The father gently presses his cheek against his. It is a cheek of stone.”

When Bengt answers the phone to a woman looking to speak to his father he realises that his mother has been, as he sees it, betrayed – and “he who betrays another kills her slowly.” He regards his father’s grief as false:

“Finally, the mask thuds off, the widower’s dismal mask.”

This would seem to leave the reader’s sympathy with Bengt, but Dagerman demonstrates the cruelty which lies within him in the way he treats his fiancée, Berit. When she begins to cry after they have watched a film together, his immediate reaction is, “So I thought I’d really give her something to cry about.” When she tells him she thinks that spring is the most beautiful season, he instinctively replies that he finds it the ugliest. This cruelty is also in evidence in the way he treats his father. He tells him about his successes at university, knowing that his father will want to reward him financially (“I told him the exam went well, and then he gave me twenty kroner”), while having stopped attending lectures entirely. In Bengt’s view:

“I think a lie should be judged by what a person hopes to gain from it.”

This is suggestive of Bengt’s more general belief that he is superior to both his father and Berit:

“For weaker persons, it might be considered necessary to have an absolutely fixed value for a concept, but for a person who knows where he is going… a fixed definition like that can even seem obstructive at times.”

Dagerman also demonstrates both his father’s affection for his wife and Bengt’s mother’s own flaws. We see the father taking out a pair of the dead wife’s shoes, feeling the “smooth interior” in a scene that will be repeated when Bengt puts his hand into the foot of one of her stockings. Another pair of shoes, unworn, were a gift from the father:

“Alma didn’t like anything that was beautiful.”

Dagerman frequently uses clothing to depict his character’s feelings. A handkerchief which the father gives to Bengt at the funeral is impregnated with the perfume of his father’s lover, Gun. Bengt later wakes from a nightmare with it in his mouth: “It tastes like tears and perfume.” In the dream he wakes from he is wearing a cloak made of blood which he cannot remove. Dagerman also uses a dog which the father brings home in a similar way. The dog is Gun’s and Bengt’s father uses it as excuse to go out walking at night and visit her. Bengt thinks “he’s hunting me with that dog,” and beats it one night when he comes home to find his father with Gun.

As the novel progresses, Bengt’s hatred of Gun becomes an obsession with her and he takes to phoning her where she works as a cinema cashier:

“She is constantly in my thoughts all day and constantly in my dreams all night.”

When his Bengt and Berit holiday with his father and Gun, his obsession burns more fiercely, a rivalry with his father first seen when he asks to row them across to the island. Once there he watches her and follows them when they go off in the boat together (he would go with them until he is reminded that, “You can’t leave Berit.”). When they dance together we see how dangerous his fixation is becoming:

“But the dance seems to last forever. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her for so long and by the end his hands are completely wet. When they finally do stop, he notices he was holding her tight…”

Bengt’s hatred for Gun becomes a different kind of passion entirely.

A Moth to a Flame is a claustrophobic coming of age story in which Bengt moves from puritanical rage to affected cynicism:

“What we are doing is something everyone does but most do it without really knowing it because they cannot face it.”

In the end he can cope with neither. Its intense atmosphere is exacerbated by the confined settings – the house Bengt and his father share, the cinema, the island – and the fact that much of the novel seems to take place in darkness, with, in keeping with the title, numerous candles. It’s another worthy addition to what is a fascinating series.

Lanark

January 3, 2020

To understand the importance of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark you first need to understand Scottish literature in the 1970s. The revival, known as the Scottish Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, had faded, and its greatest writers had never been given the international, or even UK-wide, recognition they deserved. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s modernist masterpiece, A Scots Quair, was hindered by his use of Scots, as was Hugh MacDiarmid’s best poetry. Neil Gunn wrote in English but his novels were largely set in the Highlands: his epic novel The Silver Darlings was about herring fishing. (The Renaissance generally was a rural movement and therefore not reflective of most people’s experience in post-war Britain). The impact of these writers was also hampered by the fact that publishing was largely controlled from London. Gray did not write the first Glasgow novel, but previous efforts, for example Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place which won the Guardian First Book Award in 1966, quickly fell out of print. It wasn’t until the establishment of Canongate Classics in the late 80s that the Scottish ‘canon’ became easily available.

Scotland was also unusual, perhaps unique, in allowing its population to be educated to degree level in literature without ever encountering a writer born in their own country. As Janice Galloway explained in her 2002 introduction to Lanark:

“I had barely encountered any of my country’s writers at all, let alone one this engaged with the present tense, this bravely alive. Scotland, my schooling had at times implied, at times openly professed, was a small, cold, bitter place that had no political clout, no cultural heritage, joyless people and writers who were all male and all dead.”

(It was only in 2013 that Scottish literature became a compulsory element in the new National 5 English exam). This was, in part, connected to the fact that it was a country with its own education and legal systems but with no parliament. A referendum in 1979, while producing a majority for devolution (by a now ironic 51.6%) was hamstrung by the necessity of achieving 40% of the electoral role in favour.

In other words, Scotland felt like a country where very little was possible, and, while Gray’s intentions, both literary and political, were quite deliberately international, they originated in the belief that anything was possible, at least when it came to the novel. In fact, one of the most important things about Lanark is that it was unashamedly ambitious (not easy in Scotland as, certainly when I was growing up, the worst thing you could do was ‘show off’). A prodigious reader, Gray looked for inspiration wherever he could find it, and with no intention of limiting himself to Scotland, or its neighbour England. When asked where Lanark came from in 2001, he answered:

“From Franz Kafka. I had read The Trial and The Castle and Amerika buy then, an introduction by Edwin Muir explaining these books were like a modern Pilgrim’s Progress. The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden sky that often seem dot rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

Gray also looked west as well as east, modelling Thaw’s story on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, deciding it should end tragically as “young artists couldn’t make livings by painting easel or mural in 1950s Scotland.” In inviting comparisons with two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Gray demonstrated a refreshing arrogance, which he went on to poke fun at in Lanark’s Epilogue (which, naturally, does not appear at the end any more than the Prologue can be found at the beginning) with the appearance of the author, Nastler (Nasty Alasdair) who happily discusses his creation with reference to the great works of literature, beginning with The Iliad and ending with War and Peace. (That we should not take Nastler entirely seriously can be seen from the fact he is unaware his own character, Lanark, has a son).

Gray perhaps also took something from Joyce’s Ulysses, not just in the scale of its ambition, but in Joyce’s determination to portray Dublin as vividly as any character, for Lanark was to be a Glasgow novel. Not for him the ‘London’ of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nor the international approach of Muriel Spark, inspired by her Scottish upbringing but setting only one of her novels there. Famously, in the novel he explains the importance of his choice:

“No-one imagines living here…If a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live here imaginatively. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

Gray goes further than simply presenting Glasgow in fiction, however, by juxtaposing it with the dystopian Unthank, which both is and isn’t Glasgow in the same way that Lanark is and isn’t Thaw. Beginning the story with Book 3 he mimics the in media res of the epic while indicating the post-modern nature of the novel (Lanark was published only two years after post-modern classic Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). “I want Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another,” Gray explained, and further illustrated in the novel in Thaw’s description of his approach to painting:

“A landscape seen simultaneously from above and below and containing north, east and south can hardly be peaceful.”

Gray’s post-modernism manages to be both meaningful and playful; it allows Thaw and Lanark’s stories to be read both sequentially and in parallel. Thaw’s story focuses on art as he increasingly looks inward until objective reality becomes unclear; Lanark’s is political, forcing him to look outward, though not always successfully. Gray’s playfulness is most in evidence in the epilogue, not only because he makes a personal appearance (“His face, framed by wings and horns of uncombed hair, looked statuesque and noble apart from an apprehensive, rather cowardly expression”) but due to the inclusion of an Index of Plagiarisms. Among the many literary debts acknowledged, Gray also includes poems and stories by his fellow Glasgow writers such as James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, with references to chapters beyond the novel’s conclusion.

It is, of course, arguable (and often argued) that Lanark is not Gray’s best novel, with Poor Things and 1982 Janine vying for that position. But only a novel of the scale and ambition of Lanark could change the literary landscape in the way Lanark did because the scale and ambition was a statement in itself. It both freed and challenged the writers which followed. In the words of Brian McCabe:

Lanark’s importance consists of the fact that it has opened a very large door in the windowless little room of Scottish fiction, a door we did not know to be there, and only now can we begin to realise how much scope there is.”

Books of the Year 2019

December 20, 2019

After another year of failed projects – re-reading Doris Lessing during her centenary (got as far as three books); continuing re-reading all of Muriel Spark’s novels from her centenary last year (still have four to go) – and one which saw me taking a month off reviewing entirely before more than halving my output, there still remains the annual disappointment that is my Books of the Year. I say ‘disappointment’ as, rather than finding it impossible to choose from the hundred or so contenders, I increasingly find it difficult to select twelve books which have made an indelible, or at least a water-resistant, impression on me – a commentary on my deterioration as a reader rather than on the quality of the literature before me I fear. Anyway, without further delay, in only the particular order in which I read them, my Books of the Year (2019 edition).

Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I loved the way it flitted between realism and surrealism, with a side helping of science fiction. I also read The Day of the Oprichnik this year and will be tackling The Queue early in 2020.

The Accompanist (translated by Marian Schwarz) wasn’t my first experience of Nina Berberova but the novella form suits her ability to distil intense emotion perfectly, as I was to find again in The Revolt.

I’d already read my favourite of the Man Booker International long list (Annie Ernaux’s The Years) last year, but, of those that were new to me, I was most impressed by Sara Stridsberg’s The Faculty of Dreams (translated by Deborah Bragen-Turner). Repetitive and circuitous in the way dreams are, it also felt wild and untamed like its subject, Valerie Solanas. (Both Ernaux and Stridsberg appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, bizarrely at the same time, but as I couldn’t go anyway, that difficult choice was not thrust upon me).

Two well-deserved republications of German writers come next. The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie von Ankum) marked the passing into my reading past of Irmgard Keun’s four most famous novels. Not only important for its evocation of 1930s Germany, it has a more universal appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending fatality becomes almost unbearable at points.

I’ve yet to read even a mediocre novel from Edinburgh’s Charco Press, but the best this year was Selva Almada’s The Wind Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews). Perhaps more of a ‘traditional’ novel than most of Charco’s output, it was a beautifully weighted observation of character and relationship, with a thoughtful, but never intrusive, philosophical background. Luckily more of Almada’s work will be with us next with the publication of Dead Girls in September.

Another new South American voice to me was Mario Levero. Empty Words (translated by Annie McDermott) managed to make normally irritating attributes such as having a writer as the main character, and even including writing exercises as a secondary text spliced into the main narrative, quite charming. I now long for his much lengthier The Luminous Novel to be translated.

Then saddest book I read this year was Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (translated by Janet Louth). Even sadder, it is often quite funny. A number of Bove’s books have been translated into English but most are out of print and expensive to come by, so please buy this and encourage NYRB to continue the Bove revival! (Coincidentally, this novel is much mentioned in Brenda Lozano’s Loop which I read this month).

Having made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, it’s refusal to answer the questions it asks makes it feel very like reality.

Emiliano Monge’s brutal epic Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne) places the reader among Mexico’s people traffickers in a story in which everyone is a victim. Viscerally immersive, this is a powerful, yet at times surprisingly poignant, novel.

Verso’s new translated fiction imprint began promisingly with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Though you are fairly certain where this novel is heading, that doesn’t stop it being an addictive examination of a family in denial.

Finally, the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find many who believe Hitler has a plan to ensure Germany’s victory.

The Taiga Syndrome

December 15, 2019

Reading Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) I kept thinking of the opening lines of the W S Graham poem, ‘Imagine a Forest’:

“Imagine a forest
A real forest.”

As the title suggests, forests feature extensively in Garza’s novel, but it was the proposition that both the real and the imagined forest are one and the same that seemed most significant.

The Taiga Syndrome, perhaps Garza’s most experimental novel, is a strange hybrid of noir and fairy tale. It begins as the search for a missing woman, who has left her husband for another man, and headed for the remote forests of the taiga. The detective-narrator is hired by her husband to track her down. When it is suggested that the wife may not want to be found, he replies:

“If that’s what she wanted…would she be sending me messages from everywhere she goes?”

The novel, however, suggests that interpreting any message is complex and perhaps even futile. The detective accepts the case but rejects the idea that she can discover the truth: “…in the end, no one knows why someone leaves. No one can be sure.” Even reading the woman’s diaries is of little help:

“Journals…are written in an intimate code capable of escaping the reader’s – and often the writer’s – understanding.”

The detective-narrator is also a detective turned writer. Her description of her methods is one indication that we entering territory where solving the ‘case’ will not simply be a matter of finding the facts:

“This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be, or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination.”

That this equally applies to her methods of detection can be seen when she first touches the messages the woman has been sending:

“As soon as I placed my hands on the faded paper, I began to dream.”

Before she sets off on her search she hires a translator and guide, creating a pattern of “a man and a woman pursuing another man and a woman,” as well as adding a further layer of uncertainty, as, for example, when a young boy recounts one of the key events in the novel:

“That it is difficult to translate the words for sexual body parts, especially with a small child, that this all could be the result of such a difficulty or of the imagination – either the child’s or the translator’s – I would have to make clear before continuing with the report that I would eventually write for a man who may or may not have existed.”

Persistently the novel asks us, “Had all this really happened? Impossible to know.”

In a further amalgamation of the real and the imaginary, Garza threads fairy tales into the tapestry of the novel. “So, is she Hansel or Gretel?” the detective asks the husband. Later, in reference to their trail, she comments:

“No doubt someone or something had eaten whatever crumbs they might have left behind them.”

Wolves also feature, as when the local people tell the detective that a wolf cub prowled around the cabin that the couple were staying in, refusing to let anyone near.

The refusal to settle on a single interpretation, or, indeed, a single type of interpretation, is also reflected in the novel’s form. Most obviously, the narrative is ‘interrupted’ by memories which privilege all the senses, for example:

“I recall I was eating an apple while doing this. I remember the dreadful noise made by my teeth…”

And:

“I remember the taste of my saliva. The bitterness. The acidity.”

These feel like a refusal to concede that narrative experience, experience as part of a story, supersedes the sensual experience of the moment.

The Taiga Syndrome is a more challenging novel than The Iliac Crest; its very nature challenges the reader: there is no truth to be discovered as in the darkest noir, nor fairy tale ending. The key discovery of the narrator’s search exists outside the normal frame of reality: “It’s difficult to describe what’s impossible to imagine,” she says. Yet the repeated comment that the narrator tells the translator the ‘truth’ suggests that it is a principle which is not entirely devalued, and it continues to exist importantly on a personal level. The taiga itself may represent our realisation of the vague, unknowable contours of reality, and the syndrome, where one attempts to leave but cannot, one possible reaction. The novel, to some extent, incurs a similar panic, but, as W S Graham says, “Do not imagine I put you there / For nothing.”

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am

December 2, 2019

When Amy Arnold, author of Slip of a Fish, was speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, she discussed her love of Scandinavian Literature and mentioned, in particular, The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am, the award-winning debut novel by Kjersti A Skomsvold, originally published in 2009, and translated by Kerri A Pierce two years later. The novel’s narrator is an elderly woman, Mathea, who lives a life of solitude, both longing for and terrified by the company and conversation of others. Her isolation begins with her marriage, though this is not something she recognises, talking throughout about her husband Epsilon with love.

Her life has revolved around Epsilon to the point she has wanted little to do with others. Early in their marriage her husband gets her a job cleaning his boss’ house. “But I don’t like mingling with people,” she tells him, “I like mingling with you.” Needless to say, the job does not last long. “Now I’ll have more time to spend with you,” she informs Epsilon, responding to his observation that he will be at work:

“Yes, but you’ll be in my thoughts.”

This is also perhaps the first occasion when she mentions Epsilon retiring, something he refuses to do even when he is past retirement age:

“’But I need a refuge, away from all the …” – for a second I thought he was going to say “togetherness” but instead he said “nakedness.” ‘Does that mean me?’ I asked. ‘I’m not naming any names,’ he said.”

Epsilon, we gather, is not the most affectionate of husband’s; when he makes her a wooden box for her knitting (it could also be argued that the ear-warmers she is always making for him suggest his inability to hear her) the engraving at the bottom, ‘To my beloved Mathea’, is an unusual out-pouring of emotion:

“Usually, I only ever hear him say ‘I love you’ when we’ve already gone to bed and he thinks I’m asleep.”

Her brief and intermittent contact with the outside world is both funny and heart-breaking. She largely avoids her neighbours:

“Sometimes June or his mother peeks out their door at the very moment I do, to grab their newspaper off the mat, and it’s uncomfortable every time.”

Yet when June comes round to borrow sugar, she makes sure to buy more in case it should happen again. Similarly, after she is asked for the time as she returns from the shops, she begins to wear her husband’s watch. The grocery store is another point of contact:

“When I give him my money, I touch the palm of his hand, but he doesn’t seem to notice… if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.”

Her isolation is symbolised in her every expanding collection of jam: she is unable to unscrew the lids of the jars but lacks the courage to ask anyone to do it for her. When the building she lives in holds a community meeting it throws her into panic, and she wishes instead she was under house arrest.

What sets this novel above being simply a story of how the elderly can become detached from society, alongside the engaging if eccentric narrative voice, are the occasional excursions beyond the boundaries of realism into the absurd. One such can be found when June unexpectedly visits and Mathea is able to see how he sees her flat, as we are transported to a time after her death:

“He takes all the pictures off the wall and leans them against the coffee table, and then he takes out a paint brush… Then he rips up the carpet and lays parquet…”

Another story, which seems at first an aside but will go on to provide the novel with its affecting conclusion, is that of Stein, their dog:

“I tried to convince Epsilon that he’d committed suicide… In reality, though, it was me who’d killed him.”

She does this by pretending to throw a meringue into a lake for Stein to fetch; he keeps swimming and is never seen again.

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am is a surprisingly light-hearted mediation on death and loneliness, but though it will make you smile, its quirky humour does not disguise the deep sadness which lies at its heart.

On a Day Like This

November 26, 2019

As with so many of Peter Stamm’s characters, Andreas, in his 2006 novel On a Day Like This (translated, as always, by Michael Hofmann), makes a series of apparently impulsive decisions which will change his life dramatically. Typically, Andreas’ motives are not entirely transparent, though we understand that his life as a teacher in Paris has gradually been drained of meaning:

“Emptiness was his life in this city, in eighteen years in which nothing had changed, without his wishing for anything to change.”

With a secure, if increasingly unrewarding, job and two casual lovers, Andreas considers himself settled into the pattern of his life, but there are signs that he is beginning to long for change, imagining, for example, what it would be like to be run over by a bus:

“The collision would be the end of what had been thus far, and at the same time a sort of fresh start.”

Nothing quite so dramatic occurs – as Stamm has said in interview, “The behaviour of people in daily crisis seems much more varied than when big things happen” – and Andreas continues to feel both the insignificance of his life and his detachment from it:

“He was both an extra in the imaginary film and a member of the audience.”

He will also complain:

“He life was too formless, and at the same time too much of a tangle.”

Much of his dissatisfaction is rooted in a story from his youth, a summer afternoon when he went swimming with two friends, Fabienne and Manuel. While Manuel is swimming in the lake, Andreas kisses Fabienne. Nothing more happens, and later Fabienne and Manuel begin a relationship that will end in marriage, but Andreas feels that “Fabienne and Andreas was a love story that had never quite happened.” This has allowed Andreas to continue to idolise Fabienne – “he couldn’t imagine Fabienne sweaty or tired” – and this, in turn, at least partly explains why he has never sustained a relationship with a woman:

“From that time, she had accompanied him through all his relationships.”

Though Andreas seems, unconsciously at least, to be longing for change, it is, as previously stated, a series of minor decisions, rather than one major one, which lead his life in a new direction. Stamm has described his writing technique as:

“…more to do with feelings than with thoughts. I use my intuition to decide whether a person would do one thing or another. There is no planning, most of the time it’s not even real decisions.”

When Andreas decides to walk one of the younger teachers, Delphine, home at the end of term, and they end up sleeping together, it does not seem particularly out of the ordinary; afterwards, knowing that she will be going to a new job after the holidays, he assumes “that would be the last either of them would ever hear of the other.” This choice, however, coincides with an event Andreas has less control over, a small exploratory operation, which leads Delphine to move in with him while he recovers. This, too, ends abruptly – “I want you to leave” he tells her – but he is not only reacting to the threat of someone getting close to him (“He had always been careful not to be loved too much himself”) but to fear of the results of the biopsy:

“Someone had made a diagnosis and come to certain decisions about him, someone he didn’t even know.”

In the end, he cannot face finding out that something serious may be wrong with him, and he misses the appointment. It is this which leads him to decide to return to his home town in Switzerland, abandoning his life in France by selling his flat and buying a car instead, and asking Delphine to go with him, while at the same time intent on seeing Fabienne again:

“He had to begin a new life. That, he thought, is my only choice.”

The novel then contrasts the relationship with Delphine – casual, uncertain – with his feelings for Fabienne. As with many of Stamm’s novels, this represents a contrast between fiction and reality – if we weren’t sure that Andreas and Fabienne’s ‘relationship’ was ‘fictional’, Stamm has already made this clear by connecting it to the story in an instructional booklet which Andreas uses to teach German. Though he is set on meeting Fabienne again, “He didn’t know what he expected from her. He didn’t even know what he wanted.” It is almost as if he, too, wants to believe that part of his life is not real:

“He wanted to convince himself that the only reason that his love had lasted so long was that it had remained unrequited.”

Fabienne also makes the point clearly:

“What I have with Manuel isn’t a story. It’s reality.”

In many ways Andreas is an unsympathetic character, showing little understanding of others, but it becomes clear that this originates in a lack of self-knowledge – “He had never had a very clear sense of himself.” His failure to follow up on the moments he shared with Fabienne (“You were so dismissive, after you kissed me”) is what he has been missing in holding on to that memory.

On a Day Like This is another fascinating Stamm novel, its title capturing both the banality of Andreas’ world and his long-stifled hope for change.

The Bread of Those Early Years

November 17, 2019

Heinrich Boll’s fifth novel, The Bread of These Early Years, originally published in1955, is a story of hunger. The hunger originates in the narrator’s childhood: the rationing of the Second World War, and the poverty of the post-war period. But it also encompasses a more ambiguous longing, one which rejects the conventional life he has gradually accrued for the love of a woman he barely knows. As with The Train was on Time, it is short enough to qualify as a novella, and exists within an even briefer time period, a single day, a fact Boll emphasises by echoing the first sentence (“The day Hedwig arrived was a Monday…”) in the opening line of the final part: “It was dark, still Monday…”

On that Monday morning the narrator receives a letter from his father asking him to meet the daughter of a fellow teacher, Hedwig, who is coming to the city to train as a teacher herself. He is already aware of Hedwig’s approaching arrival as he has previously been asked by her father to find her a place to stay. Having lived in the city for seven years, only rarely visiting his father, he remembers her only as a child, “playing with some empty flower-pots in the garden.” In his recollection her hair is blonde and so he doesn’t initially recognise her as the young woman he is immediately attracted to at the train station:

“Her hair was dark, like slate roots after rain, her face white, startlingly white, like fresh whitewash with a bit of ochre shimmering trough…”

This physical description is suggestive of a new beginning – the cleansing rain, the freshening paint – and we are reminded of the narrator’s earlier comments on “how things would have turned out if I hadn’t met Hedwig at the train station”:

“I would have stepped into another life, the way a person mighty step into another train by mistake, a life that, in those days, before I knew Hedwig, seemed tolerable enough.”

His instant reaction is that he must make her his:

“…suddenly I was filled with fear, that fear explorers must feel when they step onto a new land, knowing that another expedition is on the way, might have already planted its flag, taken possession…”

Though the metaphor may feel slightly dated in its description of ‘conquest’, it too conveys the idea of new beginnings, and, in highlighting fear as the primary emotion, emphasises how vital this relationship suddenly seems to the narrator. This is not simply a love story, where the central character leaves one woman (in this case Ulla, the boss’ daughter) for another, but one where that decision is connected to rejecting the life he is currently living for a different one. It is clear that he has already struggled to find a life which satisfies him:

“I didn’t feel like continuing my electrician’s apprenticeship, but I had already tried so many things: I had been a bank clerk, a sales clerk, and a carpenter’s apprentice, each for exactly two months, and I hated this new job too…”

Meeting Hedwig is enough to make him abandoned his current job, fixing washing machines, leaving calls unanswered not only when he goes to meet her, but from that moment on. Even when he is standing in the laundrette he refuses to look at an overheating machine:

“I knew now what I’d always known but hadn’t admitted to myself for the last six years: that I hated this job as I hated every job I had tried my hand at.”

Further, he withdraws all his savings in another sign that he is drawing a line under his old life, this having hardly spoken to Hedwig. This longing is mirrored in his longing for bread as a child – he tells how he ‘prompted’ his father to visit a baker whose son his father taught every Sunday to get a loaf of bread, a gift which ends when his father gives the boy an F. He frequently remembers those who have fed him – Sister Clara, Veronika (“Each time she gave me a piece of bread I had those hands near my eyes”) – and often calculates prices in terms of loaves of bread. He describes his hunger as “the wolf that still slept inside me.” The memory of a visit to his mother in hospital demonstrates he is not the only one marked by this obsession as she says in reference to the woman in the next bed:

“Every time he [her husband] came they quarrelled about the money she gave him to buy food.”

This is perhaps contrasted by his boss’ more abstract attitude to money, also exemplified by his intended Ulla. In the conversation where he ends their relationship, he specifically mentions “the bread that you, that your father, never gave me,” while she speaks throughout in financial metaphors, even telling him, “There are such things a receipts for kisses.” It feels like two different ways of looking at the world are in competition.

The Bread of These Early Years, translated by Leila Vennewitz, is another powerful story from Boll, both a document of Germany’s post-war years and a wider examination of human longing, a longing which, as the ending suggests, can never be assuaged.