Look at the Lights, My Love

June 5, 2023

Annie Ernaux’s Look at the Lights, My Love (now translated by Alison L Strayer), like Exteriors, is deliberately presented to the reader as a record, a series of journal entries – a different entity from her more reflective work such as A Man’s Place or Happening, and even more so from the book which (perhaps) won her the Nobel Prize, The Years. I mention this as it was subjected to a rather harsh review in the Guardian which described it as a “grab-bag of jottings, which is too presumptuous and banal to merit being published in this raw state.” While the first criticism (That it is a “grab bag of jottings”) is fair, the second is irrelevant (surely all art is presumptuous?) and the third is perhaps the point. As Kate Briggs has put in a much more sympathetic review in the Washington Post:

“Ernaux’s diary is a provocation: to accept these life scenes as worthy of our time and attention.”

The scenes in question revolve around the relatively recent phenomenon of superstores. Ernaux argues that such superstores “provoke thought, anchor sensation and emotion in memory” and that:

“We could definitely write life narratives from the perspective of superstores visited on a regular basis.”

She is also clear about her medium: “not a systematic investigation or exploration but a journal, the form most in keeping with my temperament, which is partial to the impressionistic recording of things, people, and atmospheres.” Her journal begins in 2012, now over ten years ago (Look at the Lights, My Love was originally published in 2014), with her own attraction for visiting the Auchen superstore, “as a way of breaking up the writing day.” The book is not without its criticism of the consumerism championed by the superstore. She speculates on the feelings of those who must check every price:

“The humiliation inflicted by commercial goods: they are too expensive, so I am worth nothing.”

There is mention of a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh which kills 112:

“Of course, crocodile tears aside, we who blithely reap the benefits of that slave labour cannot be counted on to change anything at all.”

There is also a growing sense of something authoritarian in the way the superstore works, for example when she is told that she “is not allowed to take photos in the store, it is forbidden.” In reference to the self-checkout, she comments on “the growing certainty that consumer docility knows no bounds.” We might even suspect that, rather than a symptom of society, the superstore foreshadows it. But observation is more common than criticism, and, throughout Ernaux includes herself among the consumers, although pointing out after the discovery of a stranger’s shopping list, what we consume to some extent defines us. By visiting the store at different times, Ernaux also notices the customers are not uniform:

“Whole segments of the clientele are segregated from each other by the hours during which they do their shopping.”

Ernaux does not neglect, however, the joy that she witnesses. She spots some young adults looking at toys they used to own: “They look happy, lovably childish.” She sees a grandmother tell a child that they can only have one of two gifts, but then slip the second gift into the trolley. She notes an “ecstatic little boy” holding a packet of dates. She interacts with the staff, many of whom have worked there for years, though often briefly. Longer, more probing, conversations would certainly have added to our understanding of the place but she feels she is “unable to stand outside my status of customer.” This is typical of Ernaux, admitting to her own weaknesses and worries, as she does when she outlines her consideration of whether to say “black woman” – it is a mistake to see these as condescending as Ernaux has always exposed herself, often to her disadvantage, in her work.

Look at the Lights, My Love is certainly not the most vital of Ernaux’s work, and would be no-one’s idea of the best place to become acquainted with her writing, but it does exemplify her method, and her continued ability to look beyond where most writers are looking.

Nothing Left to Fear from Hell

June 1, 2023

With Nothing Left to Fear from Hell, Alan Warner is the latest contributor to Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, novellas which tackle some of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) episodes in Scottish history. The series has proved to be a winning combination of writer, genre and form so far, with authors unused to writing historical fiction bringing a verve and vibrancy to the shorter length which promotes depth and insight over historical sweep. With Denise Mina having opened the series with her presentation of Mary, Queen of Scots, Warner delivers another iconic Scottish figure in the shape of ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie, Charles Stuart, who came to Scotland in 1745 to claim the British Crown for his father, but, after some startling victories, was finally defeated at Bannockburn and forced to flee for his life. Nothing Left to Fear from Hell tells of that flight, which takes him to the islands in search of a boat to France.

Warner has described Charles as “a cross between a rock star and a Renaissance prince, with a modern vulnerability thrown in” (while adding “I don’t feel romantic or sentimental about him”), but the novel’s opening is designed to emphasise the fragile, and often graceless, humanity he shares with us all as he lands on shore discomfited by the crossing:

“Tipping his face forward from his slim neck, in a curious, not inelegant, stance, he vomited liquid, spat, then sicked up much more, along with a deep eruption of stomach wind…”

Soon, as if to say, ‘he is just a man’, he has voided his bowels and bladder, but if we fear Warner is simply set on ridicule, we are mistaken; instead, his determination seems to be to present Charles with a reality frequently missing from ballad and romance. At the same time, we are reminded of his importance by Warner’s decision to refer to him as ‘the Prince’ throughout, and by the loyalty he inspires – his bodyguard, O’Neil’s, attitude is typical:

“I am indifferent to all aspects of my fate, so long as your Royal Highness’s fate is to be at liberty.”

(Lest we see this as ‘romantic’, Warner refers more than once to the astonishing £30,000 reward placed on his head to tempt the local population to hand him in). Charles, of course, expects this loyalty, but Warner balances Charles the Prince and Charles the man throughout. In one scene, he shoots at a whale (“a monster from the deep!”) and then expects one of his companions, Neil, to swim out for it believing he has killed it. Neil is understandably reluctant but, shortly after insisting “it is a royal command,” Charles changes his mind:

“Ach, you have the truth. It lives and travels on to cross the oceans. I could have had it, though.”

(The scene also acts in miniature as a symbol of Charles’ attempt on the throne). In another incident, when one of his companions tells him he is about to have “the best cream you will taste in Scotland” and it is instead the previous day’s milk warmed, he at first insists the woman of the house be beaten, but soon relents:

“Threaten her with the deed alone, Neil, and let us forget the thing.”

We see here the humanity which lies beneath his spoilt royalty, but Warner is not afraid to show us the petulant demands first. In a similar fashion, though he is generally resilient, there are flashes of despair.

The most famous aspect of Charles’ flight is, of course, his disguise as a woman, which Warner manages to detail with a flirtatious humour as Flora MacDonald describes the clothes in which the Prince is being dressed (“Now to the gown, formed from a calico we had fortune enough to have supply of.”) The humour continues once Charles is dressed as the men venture to make comments (“I have a loose button here, Miss, if you are able”) while aware that this may be dangerous until, finally, their suppressed laughter is released.

As one might expect from Warner, the novella is beautifully written. Though not obtrusive, Warner peppers his prose with archaic words and grammar. An old woman they meet is a ‘crone’, the men themselves are ‘desperadoes’ and ‘brigands’, Charles’ presence is described as a ‘disbenefit’. Warner grew up in the Highlands, and he describes the wild landscape with the precision of a poet, particularly when it comes to the sea:

“A vapour smoke blew of the razor ridges of the biggest tumblers that appeared out of the dark before them. The boat smacked down over the tops of these glens and spilled along the far sides which became spoiled with frothing as the sea grew more demented by the wind.”

As with all historical novels, we know the history by and large – the trick is in the telling, and this is where Warner shines. He gives us a landscape we can see and feel, and populates it with characters we believe in. Immersive and insightful, the is an impressive recreation of a key moment in a man’s life, and a country’s past.

Our Share of Night

May 24, 2023

After two well received collections of short stories, it would be fair to say that Mariana Enriquez’s first novel to be translated into English (though the fourth she has written), Our Share of Night, was eagerly anticipated. This wasn’t just a novel, it was a 700-page novel, quite different from the short fiction with which she had made her name but retaining the same translator in Megan McDowell. Our Share of Night is not only epic in size but also in the story it tells, ranging from 1960 to 1997, and revealing the existence of an ‘Order’ which worships a monstrous, living Darkness and thinks nothing of torturing and murdering to pursue its aims. Similarities to life in Argentina during years of dictatorship have not been lost on either its local or international, audience. Enriquez is keen to point out that the horrors she describes did take place:

“…those things did happen here. Women had children in captivity and the children were stolen. They were torturing people next door to your house. They threw bodies into the ocean… Maybe I turn up the volume to 11 because of the genre I like to work in, but the genre puts a light on the real horror that gets lost in [a phrase like] ‘political violence’.”

The novel begins in January 1981 with Juan and his young son, Gaspar, leaving Buenos Aires. We recognise that Juan is unusual, not only from his frequent headaches and constant tiredness, but in his own admission:

“…he wasn’t a regular father, and people could tell just by looking into his eyes or by talking to him for a while. Somehow they recognised the danger: he couldn’t hide what he was.”

When he realises Gaspar possesses the same ability – at this point limited to seeing the dead – he describes it as an “inherited condemnation” and is determined that his son does not suffer “the terrors of his own childhood”. The one dead person Juan cannot summon, however, is his wife, and Gaspar’s mother, Rosario, killed in a road accident for which Juan holds the Order responsible. Despite this, he is headed to their compound; discovered as a child to have the power to summon the Darkness, this is a duty he must regularly perform, and the fate he wishes to save Gaspar from. The summoning is the centrepiece of the first part, Enriquez generally saving her best writing for the most horrific moments. The Darkness is presented as mindless cruelty rather than calculated evil, killing and maiming those who come to witness it:

“…the Darkness first sliced off his fingers, then his hand, and then, with a gluttonous and satisfied sound, took him all. The blood of the first bites spattered Juan, but he didn’t move now. He wasn’t going to move for a while, not until the darkness closed.”

We learn that summoning the Darkness also has a detrimental effect on the medium – Juan has already had a number of heart operations – and this adds a further layer of desperation to his attempts to protect his son. The Order, under the leadership of Rosario’s mother, Mercedes, are shown to be entirely without conscience in the pursuit of their aims, believing that the Darkness can bring them eternal life. The first section is followed by a briefer second part which ends with Juan’s doctor, Bradford, (who is also the narrator) being taken by the Darkness:

“I smell its glee mixed with the scent of my blood, while I watch as it eats my hands, my shoulders, attacks my sides, I remember how you told me once that the Darkness doesn’t understand, that it has no language, that it’s a savage or too-distant god.”

Readers, however, should not fear that the novel overflows with violence – as brutal and shocking as some scenes may be, they are relatively rare. Relationships are more important, and the third part, from 1985-86, focuses on the often-uncomfortable relationship between Gaspar and his father, as well as his introducing Gaspar’s schoolfriends: Pablo, Vicky and Adela. Juan’s ailing body, his fear for Gaspar, and his refusal to tell him anything about the Order, create a tension between them which only occasionally dissipates. Gaspar finds relief in the time he spends with his friends, who will also prove important to the novel’s plot, and if Part I’s set piece is the summoning of the Darkness, in Part III it is when Gaspar and his three closest friends enter a house which is believed to be haunted.

The fourth section marks a pause in the narrative as Enriquez focuses on world-building: not only do we see Juan, Rosario and other characters we have already met, in London in the 1960s, but we also discover the origins of the Order and the fates of previous mediums. Some of what we learn will be important to the novel’s conclusion, but this section can feel like a detour, especially as Enriquez gives the impression of being a little too in love with the time period (and the clearly detailed research she has done). It is also another section where the focus is on teenage characters and there is a sense throughout the novel that, as characters grow older, they become everything from less trustworthy to outright evil.

After a brief fifth section narrated by a journalist, Part VI returns to Gaspar and drives the novel to its conclusion in which (no surprise) Gaspar must face the Order. The novel’s threads tie together, and elements of every section align to create a satisfying conclusion. On its own terms, Our Share of Night is a brilliant example of the genre – Juan’s more complex character raising it above the black and white of good versus evil. As a response to the dictatorship its success is less certain – conspiracies and demons tend to obfuscate rather than shine a light on human evil. For horror aficionados, however, it is a must-read.

The Investigation

May 19, 2023

Stanislaw Lem is best known for his science fiction, but he also wrote in other genres, from the realism of Hospital of the Transfiguration to the autobiography of Highcastle. In The Investigation, first published in 1959 and translated into English by Adele Mileh in 1974, Lem turns to the crime genre. Lem sets his novel in England – his detective, Gregory, works for Scotland Yard – though the characters seem to drive American model cars (perhaps the translator’s work) and the police are routinely armed. The investigation is unusual in that all of the victims are already dead. Yet, despite this, their corpses are on the move, and there is very little in the way of evidence to suggest how or why:

“All the corpses disappeared at night, there was no evidence on the scene, no signs of forcible entry.”

After the latest incident, all roads were immediately closed and the area locked down, but no body was found. Only police consultant Dr Sciss seems to bring any insight into the events by “preparing a statistical breakdown of all the phenomena.” But how relevant are his measurements and observations? What should we make, for example, of the fact that an animal (“in two cases it was a cat and once it was a dog”) is spotted near the scene? As is often the case with Lem’s work, beneath the criminal investigation, a philosophical investigation is taking place, into the scientific method and the possibility that observations are created by the observer’s mind rather than what is being observed. This is demonstrated shortly after Gregory is assigned the investigation when he mistakes his reflection for a stranger:

“Unable to escape the disconcerting feeling that he was looking at someone else, Gregory stared at his own reflection for a moment.”

Later in the opening chapter he will chase, but fail to catch, an old man he first recognises on the Tube:

“The sleeping man was the subject of one of the posthumous photographs in his pocket.”

This also introduces a Kafkaesque atmosphere which sits alongside the police procedural, as, for example when the Chief Inspector Sheppard asks to see Gregory at his house:

“The hall was completely dark. Farther inside the house, a weak glow streaked the stairs in a trail of light, beckoning upward… Gregory noticed something staring at him from overhead – it was the skull of some kind of animal, its looming empty eye sockets clearly standing out from the yellowed bone.”

Sheppard also seems to have an uncanny ability to know where Gregory is, phoning him at a hotel and, later, at Sciss’ house. This is probably just as well as Gregory rarely goes near a police station, nor does he seem keen to work with others on the force. Gregory’s own lodging amount to a room he rents from an odd couple, the Fenshawes. Mrs Fenshawe spends her days cleaning the house from a stool, while Mr Fenshawe (“a melancholy man who, because his nose looked as if it had been borrowed from a different more fleshy face, gave the impression of being in disguise”) is silent all day and produces a “rhythmic knocking” all night.

Having been tasked with solving the case, Gregory is awoken by a call to tell him of a further incident in Pickering where a policeman (on guard at a mortuary) has been run over after running into the road in fright (Lem seems to have borrowed some placenames from Yorkshire, or imagined it was closer to London than it is). He discovers a body is missing and assumes this is what disturbed the constable, though he is too badly injured to be questioned. There are plenty of clues: footprints in the snow, a cat (but no paw prints), and the possibility the corpse could have been moved by river, but Gregory is no further forward. Sciss, using cancer statistics, proposes a microbe which can reanimate dead bodies; Gregory begins to suspect Sciss and follows him.

The Investigation has all the elements of a classic crime novel. There are clues, theories, interrogations, characters being chased and characters being watched, but Lem’s aim is not to tie everything up in a reader-pleasing bow. The case is closed when Sheppard proposes an entirely new version of events. “Is this true?” Gregory asks him:

“No… but it might be. Or, strictly speaking, it can become the truth.”

Aficionados of the genre may find this too much to take, but those who wish to have a little fun with it (yet with serious intent) will find this novel hard to resist.

Seven Empty Houses

May 14, 2023

Seven Empty Houses is Samanta Schweblin’s third, and most recent, collection of short stories, following her debut (still untranslated) El núcleo del disturbio in 2002 and Mouthful of Birds in 2009. As with all her previous work, it is translated into English by Megan McDowell. Schweblin’s great skill as a writer is to infect the ordinary with unease, and this is even more evident here where, as the title indicates, the setting is domestic: all seven stories have houses at their centre and use the most mundane objects and events to create a growing sense of horror without ever tipping over into that genre.

In the longest story, ‘Breath from the Depths’, a box of cocoa becomes an essential part of the story’s atmosphere. Although in the third person, the story is told from the point of view of Lola, a woman who no longer leaves the house and thinks only of dying.  The nature of her illness is vague, and her refusal to leave her home seems to be related to the shame associated with an incident in a supermarket when she fainted as much as it is with her problems with mobility. Her husband, who remains unnamed, is sent with a list for groceries but regularly returns with a box of cocoa which is not on the list:

“She never saw him use the powdered cocoa, really, she didn’t know how it ever ran out, but it was a subject she preferred not to ask about.”

The cocoa is a sign of her husband’s independence which she resents, an independence that increases when a family moves in next door:

“That night, Lola tried to talk to him, to make him understand the new problem that this move meant. They fought.”

Her husband befriends the family’s teenage son, who is a particular focus of Lola’s dislike. The story immerses the reader in Lola’s prejudice and paranoia while slowly revealing her back story and suggesting her unreliability as a ‘narrator’. Lola spends her time boxing up her belongings in preparation for her death; in ‘Two Square Feet’, the narrator and her husband have “boxed up the things we weren’t taking with us” before leaving Argentina for Spain where they are staying with her mother-in-law. Again, an ordinary object is prominent in the in the story as the narrator is sent out for aspirin by her husband’s mother despite being new to the area. She ends up in a subway station, remembering a her mother-in-law telling her about the time when she left her husband and:

“…she was sitting on two square feet, and that was all the space she took up in the world.”

She has a longing for the boxes in storage as she feels alienated from the new world around her in what is a powerful story about dislocation. In ‘An Unlucky Man’ a pair of child’s underpants play a key role in the story as the eight-year-old narrator finds herself without them, her father having used them as a ‘white flag’ to signal to other traffic that their journey is an emergency – her younger sister has drunk bleach, and they are on their way to hospital. While her parents are with her sister, a man in the waiting room starts talking to her and soon she tells him about her predicament:

“I don’t know why I said it. It’s just that it was my birthday and I wasn’t wearing underpants, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those circumstances.”

He takes her to a nearby supermarket to buy her new underpants, Schweblin masterfully building suspicion and unease in the reader through the innocence of the child narrator’s viewpoint. A similar juxtaposition of innocence and sexual fear is evident in ‘My Parents and My Children’. The story opens with the following question from the narrator’s ex-wife, and mother of his two children, Marga:

“Where are your parents’ clothes?”

When the children and grandparents go missing, Marga’s worry for the children is intensified by the strange behaviour of the grandparents:

“This is really bad. I mean, they could be doing anything.”

Eventually the police are called. Once again, the story benefits from the narration as the husband’s attempts to stay calm are overwhelmed by his ex-wife’s anxiety and anger. Of the other stories, ‘None of That’ tells of a mother and daughter who view the houses of the wealthy, correcting landscaping details. In the story the mother falls ill and they end up inside one of the homes – again, an ordinary object (a sugar bowl) is central. In ‘It Happens All the Time in This House’, the narrator tells us that the clothes of her neighbour’s dead son are regularly thrown into her yard by the wife and then collected by the husband. Death, and different generations, are also common to the stories – Lola, for example, also has a dead son. The final story, ‘Out’, is perhaps the most ambiguous, where the narrator, a young woman, leaves her flat wearing only a dressing gown and towel, her hair still wet – at no point in the story do we find out why.

Schweblin is a wonderful writer with such exquisite control of both voice and narrative. In all her stories there is a shadowy depth beneath the surface which may or may not hold horrors. Her ability to convey the anxiety of modern life is unsurpassed.

The Spark

May 5, 2023

The Spark and Other Stories was Elspeth Davie’s first collection of short stories, originally published in 1968. To say her work concentrates on the ordinary is almost an understatement – even the titles indicate as much: ‘Oven Gloves’, ‘The Eyelash’, ‘A Loaded Bag’. Photographs and film, perhaps still a novelty for many, feature in a number, beginning with the first story, ‘A Room of Photos’. Two young men wait for their photos to be developed, passing the time by looking at those displayed on the walls of the shop:

“Have you noticed this is how everyone looks at photos – this minute inspection that’s seldom given to paintings or even to flesh and blood persons…”

Such is Davie’s art – to look more closely at what is around us. In the story, the results are not uplifting as the men find only “the prevailing look – blank and glassy… Impenetrable boredom!” In the final story, ‘Camera’, there is a similar inability to reflect reality as Paxton attempts to film the elderly Mr Fendell, futilely instructing him to “Just be natural.” Only when he collapses and dies (in a way that also seems over-acted) can he be said to be ‘relaxed’. A photograph also features in ‘Removal’ where the central charter had developed a habit – an obsession even – of being present when a removal is taking place:

“The boy had to be there when the stuff spilled out. He liked to look through the uncurtained windows at the rooms emptying and whitening.”

As he wanders round one such house, he picks up a photograph of a young girl and, when he goes outside, is mistaken for a relative sent to close up the place. When an old woman criticises the family for spoiling the girl (“…the girl was actually given a harp!”) he defends her as if he knows her well, and soon develops a story of camping with her in the mountains of Switzerland. The boy’s imagination becomes somehow truer than the photograph.

Painting also features as an amateur artform in more than one story. In ‘Promise’ Carter is an “amateur of promise” whose success comes when he has the idea of sticking scraps of paper lying around his room onto his paintings. (Again, it feels as if Davie is hinting at her own process here as the discarded scraps of life are mixed with art). Only when he starts using banknotes, especially in a painting for his old school, does he encounter objections: “It’s a question of temptation.” Davie’s object does not seem to be satire; rather the ways in which art and reality coincide. ‘Space’ also features an artist and a meeting with an old school friend, Mullen, who notices the empty spaces in his paintings and considers them unfinished:

“I must beg your pardon. I was simply judging by man-in-the-street standards. Of course, it was the large spaces of untouched paper – those white patches, which led to the mistake.”

Mullen cannot unsee the white spaces (“The white spaces had expanded enormously”) and insists on buying the painting. Only once he has it in his possession, he “began to feel safe, and the fearful hollow inside him began to fill up as though he had already started on his solid meal.” (The juxtaposition of the existential ‘hollow’ with the prosaic ‘meal’ is very Davie). ‘Space’ is one of many examples of Davie using an object to reveal character. We see this again in ‘Oven Gloves’ when a husband fails to notice his wife’s new outfit. When he eventually spots her gloves (“Something different about them?”) she replies, “Different from the oven gloves you usually see me in?” Oven gloves, it transpires, was the annual Christmas gift from her mother-in-law. Eventually she goes to a neighbour to have her new outfit admired. In ‘The Eyelash’ the offending object is found on the edge if a plate in a restaurant: “I feel rather disgusted,” the diner, a young woman, declares. A conversation ensues between her and her boyfriend which soon ranges beyond the incident:

“I think the disgust or disappointment or whatever it was came a long, long time before that.”

Soon the couple have left their friends behind to finish their meal, underlying tensions revealed though nothing you might call an argument taking place. ‘The Eyelash’ is one of the shorter stories, and Davie can observe and reveal over a few pages as skilfully as she does on the longer pieces. On the one hand the very ordinariness of her charters and situations demonstrate why she has been largely forgotten, yet they are her great strength rather than a weakness.

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding

April 30, 2023

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is Amanda Svensson’s third novel, but her first to be translated into English (by Nichola Smalley, who won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize in 2021 with Andrzej Tichý’s Wretchedness). At over 500 pages, it was one of the longer books on the International Booker long list, and it’s therefore no surprise it contains more than one narrative. It tells the story of triplets Sebastian, Matilda and Clara, beginning, after a brief summary of their birth and childhood, with Sebastian in London, working in the field of neuroscience for an Institute whose director, Corrigan, is deliberately vague about the purpose of their research, even to employees. He explains to Sebastian that he has adopted the model of terrorist organisations “in which each cell holds only holds only the information needed to undertake the tasks delegated to that cell”:

“Because to be as frank as I can without undermining the model I’ve just described to you: I can’t tell you exactly why we’ve recruited you.”

Sebastian’s responsibilities include looking after the ‘moral monkey’ (a monkey whose morality, Corrigan claims, “never wavers”) and his colleague, and eccentric genius, Jennifer Travis, as well as treating patient such as Laura Kennedy. Laura suffers from an intermittent, but escalating, inability to see the world in three dimensions:

“To think she’d become flat… Laura Kandinsky, a paper doll!”

Laura can, however, see Sebastian clearly, which might be one reason why, despite the fact she is married with a daughter, they begin sleeping together. Sebastian’s own family also have more than their fair share of ‘issues’. His father is missing, and his two sisters are not on speaking terms – or, at least, Clara is not speaking to Matilda, though she still reads her emails. They fell out at the funeral of Sebastian’s girlfriend, Violetta, for reasons we will only discover much later. Clara is on Easter Island, having lost her job as a journalist, and hoping to strike out as freelancer writing about a small group who have moved there led by a man called Jordan:

“This guy Jordan believed, apparently, that it was already too late, that no so-called climate solutions would be able to halt the catastrophe, that tech optimism and rolled-up sleeves were just a new phase of the same illusion that had brought the human race to this very point…”

While on the island she befriends an American TV star, Elif, although Clara is a reluctant friend to anyone. Meanwhile, Matilda is living with Billy and his daughter, Siri. Matilda has synaesthesia and is increasingly bothered by a particular shade of blue:

“There was a flash, somewhere behind Billy’s head. It was the colour. She couldn’t see him clearly.”

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is, therefore, a novel in which there is a lot happening, though the stories of the three protagonists are each given time and space to breath, and the number of secondary characters is, in fact, fairly limited. There is less clarity on what the novel is actually about, however. Having introduced Sebastian’s research into the brain, and a number of characters whose brains work differently, Svensson seems to become less interested in this aspect of the novel as it progresses. The same applies to the issue of climate catastrophe foregrounded in Clara’s story. At times, the novel begins to feel a little like the building in which Sebastian works, where they are searching for Travis at the end:

“You’ve only seen a fraction of this building, you’ve no idea how big it is. And jumbled. And illogical.”

Yet Svensson has built in answers to this criticism (which is not to say the reader must accept them) in Corrigan’s conclusion:

“…there is no order. The whole damn thing is just chaos.”

(Ironically, this statement occurs just as Svensson foists yet another coincidence on us as we discover that Laura’s husband was one of the founders of the Institute). Similarly, as Svensson ditches her bigger issues for a conclusion which is focused on the feelings of her characters, she pre-empts that criticism too, telling the reader, “soap operas are the only true narrative form.”

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding is packed with incident and interesting characters (though they are characters who are consistently free of financial concerns) but it ultimately lacks the thematic heft that would raise it above an entertaining family saga despite promising beginnings. There is a lot to enjoy, but less to take away.

The Jewish Son

April 27, 2023

Daniel Guebel is an Argentinian writer whose first novel was published in 1987 yet whose first appearance in English came only last year when The Absolute was translated by Jessica Sequeira. Sequeira, who has now translated the novel that followed The Absolute, The Jewish Son, explains her admiration for his work as follows:

“What do I love about Guebel’s writing? He’s obviously clever. But more importantly, he’s not just clever. He invents many symbols, but never lets them overtake his characters, who remain flesh and blood.”

It is certainly true that The Jewish Son, which, whatever it’s autobiographical content, uses Kafka’s Letter to His Father as a starting point, never feels like a purely intellectual exercise. It begins with the sentence, “An anecdote can explain everything, if you don’t forget what escapes it,” before Guebel goes on to tell of a time his parents, frustrated at the fact he was a fussy eater, stopped feeding him. He then describes the physical punishment he would suffer at the hands of his father, which would grow increasingly intense until his sister or mother intervened:

“…he lost track of his strength or perhaps the rhythmic cadence made him enter into a disturbed state, and, from a certain point onward, return became impossible.”

The anecdotes which Guebel offers us tell of a difficult childhood, but “what escapes it” is, in part, what escapes the child he was at the time, seeing his mother, too, as a victim, rather than the instigator of these punishments which she refused to deliver herself. What also escapes, is the story which continues into the present with the father now dependent on the son. Suffering from prostate cancer and various other ailments, the father is in a state of physical decay, first seen “wearing only an adult diaper, extra-large.” His father is only able to walk short distances but refuses to use a wheelchair – until, that is, he can’t go on and the author must return home to collect it. But even as he helps his father, the continuing influence of his childhood is clear: when the kitchen sink is blocked, he fails to fix it, concluding:

“After two hours of effort, it’s clear the drains need the inspection of a plumber, and I’ve only managed to confirm that he was right when he said I’m useless with practical matters.”

Guebel alternates his father’s life in the present with stories from his childhood. His father’s unrelenting demands are demonstrated when he insists the author works during his summer vacation “when all of my friends were spending the days playing football in the street, or soaking up the sun…” He sets him the task of dusting the refrigerators for sale until another employee tells him the task is thankless as they will simply attract more dust. When he confronts his father, an initially angry response changes tone into a memory of when his father used to read to him and his sister:

“…your sister fell asleep right away. You, on the other hand, resisted…”

He goes on to recount one of the stories, about a father and son, which ends with the father showing thankfulness to the son – the very thing the author desires. It is an example of going beyond the anecdote to reveal an unexpected conclusion to the incident. It marks a change of tone in the novel as Guebel’s memories of his father begin to present a more sympathetic character, even going as far as to admit that his ambitions were once the same:

“The truth must be told. He also dreamed of being a writer: he wrote poems, and fragments of a travel diary he once gave me to read and I kept for years without really knowing what to do with it.”

Slowly he makes peace with his memories, and his father, ultimately rejecting Kafka’s template:

“Kafka never understood the nature of paternal affection, of shame as a mask. Who told him his father never read his writing? Where did he get the idea that the best way to read a son is to read the books a son writes?”

The Jewish Son is a moving book about the relationship between a father and son, a relationship which shifts and switches as the novel progresses. In the end, the writing of the stories it contains becomes part of the relationship itself.

The Birthday Party

April 23, 2023

Laurent Mauvignier is a French author who has published regularly since 1999 but has only been translated into English twice previously, despite The Birthday Party (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) being his thirteenth novel. This novel is a thriller but one in which the execution of the prose is as important as the pace of the plot. The novel is set in an isolated hamlet of three houses known as Three Lone Girls. One house is inhabited by the painter, Christine, another by the Bergogne family – the father, Patrice, the mother, Marion, and the daughter, Ida (the daughter’s age is not mentioned but we can work out from other information she is around ten). Mauvignier moves from character to character to tell the story in a style that may prove frustrating for readers who just want to know what happens next, but ultimately increases rather diminishes the tension.

The novel opens with Patrice taking Christine to the police station to report threatening, anonymous letters she is receiving, the latest of which “wasn’t mailed… someone slid it under my door.” Although the letters are, to an extent, a misdirection, they immediately place the reader on alert. Mauvignier quickly establishes the relationships between the characters: Christine is friendly with Patrice, wary of Marion and affectionate with Ida. Ida comes to Christine’s (whom she calls Tatie or Auntie) after school, taking the drawings she intends to give her mother for her birthday:

“Ida hopes Tatie will like them, her drawings, because Tatie’s opinion counts for her almost as much as her mother’s.”

That, when Ida asks Christine if she has a present for her mother, she gets no answer suggests the coolness between the two women:

“Ida doesn’t dare ask her if she has a reason for avoiding talking about Marion, if it’s all just in her head or if there is something amiss between them, if what Tatie thinks of Mum means she can’t say…”

Patrice, too, can find Marion remote. His love for her tempered by a feeling that she is too good for him; where Christine is suspicious of her, Patrice regards as her as exceptional in a way he does not quite understand, but this can also make her seem distant:

“This pain, so often renewed, of feeling like he’s not there when she looks at him, when all this beauty to which he believed – used to believe – she gave him access, the possibility of contemplating it, or touching it, cast him back even more violently into his loneliness…”

Today is Marion’s fortieth birthday and Patrice has not only invited Christine over, but also two of Marion’s work colleagues (who, it must be said, also look on her as something out of the ordinary).  Into his preparations for the evening, Mauvignier injects further tension via everything from the moral dilemma of whether he should sleep with a prostitute (later we will realise this is thematically relevant in the sense that we all have aspects of our lives which need forgiven) to a flat tyre. In fact, over a hundred pages have passed before we really enter thriller territory with the arrival of a strange car at Three Lone Girls and the disappearance of Christine’s dog (set up as far back as the first chapter when Christine was worried about the anonymous letters):

“I have my dog you know. I have my dog.”

At this point, Mauvignier has cleverly removed all his characters from the scene apart from Christine, yet the reader knows each one will return: first Ida, from school, then Patrice, from town, and finally Marion, from work. Each arrival will offer potential plot twists, until all the characters are together, including Marion’s work colleagues. As to what happens on the night of Marion’s’ birthday, that is best left for each reader to discover for themselves, but the final section is a masterpiece of narrative control.

The Birthday Party has the plot of a thriller but the prose of modernism, as if an artist had decided to render a superhero comic in the style of Vorticism (as I am sure someone has). Most successfully, it does not lose its power as a page-turner, but brings with it a depth of character and stylistic panache that should have transported it into the shortlist of International Booker Prize.

International Booker Prize Shortlist Predictions 2023

April 16, 2023

With the International Booker Prize shortlist announcement on the 18th of April, I thought I would venture my own suggestions as to what should remain when the original thirteen books are whittled down to six. True, I have not yet managed to read all thirteen – but, as I have managed to add eight to the two I read before the long list was announced, I feel entitled to propose my own favourites. Generally, at this point I have simply avoided the longest books (which often have a more than reasonable chance of winning) but that is not the case this time, with only While We Were Dreaming, (unpublished when included in the long list) falling into that category.

The other two I have yet to read can be more fairly dismissed as shortlist contenders. Andrey Kurkov’s Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv (translated by Reuben Woolley) has been described by Marcel Theroux in The Guardian as “a charming but slight addition to the author’s oeuvre,” and, much as I’ve enjoyed Kurkov’s novels in the past (though admittedly with diminishing returns) this does not feel like a prize-winner. Maryse Conde, thoroughly deserving of her alternative Nobel Prize in 2018, is now eighty-six and can only write through dictation as she struggles to both see and speak. While this doesn’t in itself suggest The Gospel According to the New World (translated by Conde’s husband Richard Philcox) is inferior to her previous work, it does tell us that, as a writer with a well-established reputation, she has no real need to win another prize. The novel has not been widely reviewed, but Tony (at Tony’s Reading List) from the Prize’s shadow jury commented, “While there’s nothing particularly wrong with Condé’s fun romp around the Americas, nothing about it really impressed me overly, either.”

The two strongest contenders for the prize (and therefore definitely on my shortlist) are Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) and Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born (translated by Rosalind Harvey). Both are novels unafraid to tackle serious topics in an intellectual way. Gospodinov examines our irrational attachment to the past, and Nettel questions the role of motherhood. At the same time, both are accessible and narrative driven.

I would also place Vigdis Hjorth’s Is Mother Dead (translated by Charlotte Barslund) on the shortlist. Although I don’t think this is Hjorth’s best novel, it is a wonderfully controlled narrative where our sympathy for the narrator slowly dissipates as the novel progresses. As in Will and Testament, it questions how far family loyalty should go and explores issues of guilt and blame. Cheon Myeong-kwan’s Whale (translated by Chi-Young Kim) also deserves to be on the shortlist – the first shortlisted writer that is entirely new to me. Scatological and even grotesque at times, it is a powerful satire of society with some unforgettable characters.

This leaves two final places for two of the longer novels. Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) is another exciting discovery from Fitzcarraldo Editions. It might be described as a modernist thriller but the most important factor in its inclusion is that its success in transcends the genre while building towards a conclusion that is surely perfectly timed for maximum tension. I might also be tempted to include Amanda Svensson’s A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding (translated by Nichola Smalley). This novel, Svensson’s first to be translated, had entirely passed me by, but is packed full of incidents and ideas, though I have misgivings about the way it becomes increasingly like a soap opera towards the end. I suspect therefore that While We Were Dreaming (translated by Katy Derbyshire) might be a more likely contender.

Of course, my suggestions mean little, and exist without the horse-trading that juries have to endure to ensure everyone can agree – a process that can improve variety but diminish quality. On Tuesday we will know whether my predictions are in any way accurate.