Zone

February 28, 2015

 

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Mathias Enard’s Zone was originally published in France in 2008, and then translated into English by Charlotte Mandell for US imprint Open Letter in 2010; it has taken until 2014 for a UK appearance thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. It has the happy distinction that two of its most note-worthy features are obvious without the necessity of reading: that it is over 500 pages long, and that those 500 pages consist of one sentence – or, to express it differently, the first full stop appears at the end. (Well, that is if you exclude the sections of a novel being read by the protagonist which are punctuated conventionally). That 500 page sentence tells the story of Francis Mirkovic, a spy with a suitcase full of secrets which he is transporting from Milan to Rome to sell. Retirement, a woman, and a new identity await.

Zone’s stream, of consciousness places it firmly in the modernist tradition, and Enard is not afraid to use the same Homeric echoes as Joyce – the 24 sections of Zone mirroring the 24 books of the Iliad. As early as the first page he mentions “the sound of two bronze weapons clashing”, and Achilles is one of a number of reoccurring military figures:

“…Rome, rotting flamboyant corpse of a city, you understand too well the fascination it can exercise over certain people, Rome and the suitcase I’m going to hand over there the time I’ll spend there maybe the choice has been made the choice has been made ever since the goddess sang of the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus, his warlike choice…”

Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century archaeologist who believed he had discovered the location of Troy also features, in a novel designed for (I would never be so cruel as to suggest with) Google. Whereas Joyce used Homer to counterpoint his quotidian content, Enard uses him quite differently, to create a sense of southern Europe and northern Africa – an area known in intelligence circles as the Zone – perpetually at war

Zone is littered with historical figures, including writers such as Ezra Pound and Malcom Lowry. To suggest these are tributes may not be entirely accurate: Lowry is pictured drunkenly strangling his wife; Pound (who also provides an epigraph) is, of course, noted for his fascism as much as his Cantos. Fascism looms large in the novel, not only because Nazism is inescapable in any examination of 20th century atrocities, but because Mirkovic has his own dark past, fighting in the Balkans. On one occasion, in his new job as a ‘civil servant’, he recognises one of his old commanders at a war crimes trial:

“I left Bosnia on February 25th, 1993, I had gotten there from Croatia in April 1992, and after a few months stay on the front near Mostar I joined Tihomir Blaskic in central Bosnia… I felt bad when I saw him in the midst of that multilingual administrative circus… in countless witnesses and hours of atrocities while I knew perfectly well who had committed them, I could see again the places, the flames, the battles, the punitive expeditions…”

Fascism seeps through the novel, from historical figures such as Millan-Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a supporter of Franco, to the (presumably) fictitious, like Harmen Gerbens, the ex-SS officer whom Mirkovic finds in Cairo, and whose file is the first to enter his suitcase. The atrocities are unending and unrelenting, recycled through history and involving Mirkovic (and his parents) as both witnesses and participants. This does, of course, make the novel remarkably mono-tone; even the extracts from the novel Mirkovic is reading, though written conventionally, treat of the same topic being the story of a Palestinian woman who loses her lover and comrade in fighting against the Israelis. Enard’s intention seems to be to present our worst aspects, unleavened by hope or humour, in a novel that feels like a weapon itself.

This is emphasised further by the novel’s circular nature: the madman in Milan asking for “one last handshake before the end of the world” replaced by the man he imagines will offer him “one last smoke before the end of the world.” Is escape for Mirkovic really possible? Is escape for any of us?

The Islanders

February 23, 2015

 

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It’s easy to see why Pascal Garnier is frequently compared to Georges Simenon, and not only because of the English-speaking world’s limited supply of famous French writers’ names at its fingertips. Like Simenon, his novels are short and (apparently) numerous, and their violence is rooted in the everyday. This is not the Simenon of Maigret, however, where we shadow the enigmatic detective until the mystery is solved, but the often darker Simenon of his stand-alone novels where ordinary men and women find themselves pushed to the edge, caught in acts they would at one time have thought unthinkable: crime novels with crime, rather than detection, at their heart.

The Islanders is the latest of Garnier’s novels to be published by Gallic Books, translated, like two of the five others, by Emily Boyce. Garnier begins by introducing us to his cast of characters as they move remorselessly towards the coincidence of their collision. Olivier, arriving by train in Versailles to organise his mother’s funeral, seems harmless, though a reference to his detox treatment (“I told myself I was on a desert island”) two years ago suggests a less than straight-forward past. We are also aware of his reluctance to be there, not having been close to his mother:

“He had long since scrumpled all family ties into a ball and chucked it over his shoulder.”

Roland’s appearance is more notable: he has just lost his job as Father Christmas after a punch up with a fellow Santa:

“Roland and the other guy had been at on another’s throats like two hooker’s fighting for turf.”

Garnier’s greatest grotesque comes next, however; an obese, blind man with a perverse sense of humour. We find Rodophe in the Lourve where he likes to sit facing Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, asking passers-by to describe it to him before shocking them with stories of how a few survived (he claims three survived – true of the novel but not of the Medusa). The raft is, of course, an island of sorts, driving its inhabitants to desperate acts in the name of survival, much like, we will discover, the characters of this novel. Finally, we meet Rodolphe’s apparently devoted sister, Jeanne. She, too, however, shares something of her brother’s wicked humour, deciding to buy him a set of scales for Christmas:

“It was a completely useless gift since Rudolphe didn’t care two hoots about his obesity and would not be able to see the reading anyway.”

All four characters are united in their unhappiness, and soon their four stories begin to run together. When Olivier knocks on a neighbour’s door and Jeanne answers, it is not the first time they have met:

“He had come round to ask his neighbour for the phone and found himself face to face with his past, with Jeanne, his Jeanne, the Jeanne of his youth with whom his life had turned upside down, and again he felt knocked off balance.”

In adolescence, Olivier and Jeanne had been inseparable, describing themselves as an island:

“The island was everywhere…They carried it with them wherever they went; they were the island, a mound of sand with a palm tree and Jeanne and Olivier standing under it like the model bride and groom on a wedding cake.”

This siege mentality is quickly rekindled, especially once Olivier starts drinking again. Meanwhile, much alcohol is also being consumed by Rodolphe and Roland, Rodolphe having found Roland in a church and offered to buy him all the food and clothes he wants, before inviting him back home. The foursome are soon in party mood, albeit a rather tense, uncomfortable party, but by morning one of them will be dead.

This is, of course, only the brilliant set-up of The Islanders: we have still to discover the secret which binds Olivier and Jeanne together, and also witness the desperate scrabble for survival which will follow the unexpected fatality. (Garnier’s novels may be short, but a lot happens). With his acerbic wit, grotesquely fascinating characters, and transfixing plotting, Garnier is an author who should appeal, like Simenon, well beyond his genre.

A Man in Love

February 19, 2015

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Volume 1 of Karl Knausgaard’s six volume My Struggle focussed on his father, using his father’s death as a starting point for his exploration of their relationship, reliving moments from his childhood and teenage years as he sought to both define and understand the man in his absence. In volume 2 another relationship forms the core of the story, that of Knausgaard and his second wife, Linda. In it he writes of their first meeting, the growth of their love for each other, and the birth of their two children. Typically this does not happen chronologically as Knausgaard seems intent in these books to mimic the movements of memory, beginning at a present point and building around it. The opening of A Man in Love finds him an unhappy husband and parent, an unsuccessful search for a restaurant with hungry children having left everyone’s tempers on edge:

“I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me in matters large and small.”

One might be forgiven for thinking that Knausgaard intends the title be ironic at this point, but that is not the case: he is simply establishing his modus operandi. By immediately sharing an unpleasant memory, he makes it clear that, once again, nothing is off limits, and that his description of their relationship will be as honest as he can make it, even when it portrays him in a bad light. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this is when he describes his reaction to his initial rejection by Linda, who prefers a friend of his:

“I…grabbed the glass on the sink and hurled it at the wall with all the strength I could muster…Then I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face. I did methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face.”

Of course, the fact that they later get together makes this moment more meaningful than if the rejection was simply an end point; it makes it part of the ‘love story’. And Knausgaard is often very certain of the intensity of that love:

“The spring I moved to Stockholm and met Linda, for example, the world had suddenly opened, the intensity in it increased at breakneck speed. I was head over heels in love and everything was possible, my happiness was at bursting point all the time and I embraced everything.”

This is what makes Knuasgaard’s work unlike most autobiographical writing: he doesn’t attempt reflective summarising but writes in the moment, giving the impression that honesty is more important than art.

He applies the same approach to any discussion of writing within his writing, and A Man in Love also contains his struggle to write his second novel, its success and his disillusionment with that success, and with the novel form:

“How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough?”

His writing is often set in opposition to his family (something, of course, that women writers have been aware of for some time):

“I told Linda I was moving into the office, I would have to write day and night. You can’t do that, she said, that’s not on, you’ve got a family, or have you forgotten? Am I supposed to look after your daughter on my own? Yes, I said. That’s the way it is. No it isn’t, she said, I won’t let you. OK, I said, but I’ll do it anyway.”

(Again, just as with his relationship with Linda, this selfishness is contrasted with all the time he does spend with his children at other points). Most interestingly, we can see the development of the My Struggle project in the aftermath of his second novel:

“Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature…the only genres which I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.”

It is possible, perhaps even easy, to level criticism at Knausgaard. The way in which he insists on his poor memory while at the same time recreating his life in great detail can be irritating. There is also a suspicious lack of financial detail – for much of the book neither Karl nor Linda work, but money never seems to be a concern. (More generally, the way in which Knausgaard seeks to lay out everyday life is to some extent undermined by its lack of contact with the world of work). However, it continues to strike me as a fascinating and valuable artistic journey – and one that can only be properly judged in its entirety.

The Invention of Morel

February 17, 2015

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After enjoying Melville House’s recent translation of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (written in collaboration with his wife, Silvina Ocampo), it was only a matter of time before I read another of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ slim novels – and what better destination to disembark than his most famous work, The Invention of Morel, written in 1940, in a translation by Suzanne Jill Levine. The Invention of Morel was not Casares’ first publication but is regarded by most (including the author himself) as his starting point, and is still the novel most associated with him, in part due to his friend Jorge Luis Borges’ endorsement: “To classify it as perfect s neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”

The novel is narrated by a fugitive who is hiding on an uninhabited island – he is, in fact, told “a human being cannot live there.” A previous attempt to settle there – a museum, chapel and swimming pool were built – was quickly abandoned. Imagine his surprise when he discovers he is not alone:

“And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.”

The narrator regards the interlopers as “unconscious enemies” representing “a network of consular establishments and a file of fingerprints that can send me…to jail.” At first he watches them from a distance, puzzled at times by their behaviour. Why, for example, do they listen to the music of their phonogram outside, singing and dancing, despite “a torrential downpour that threatens to uproot all the trees”? He is, however, attracted by one particular woman, Faustine:

“She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her…But I still feel…that if she only looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.”

From this point on the novel becomes a love story fully deserving of the adjective unconventional, as well as a mystery. When finally he reveals himself to Faustine he receives no response:

“Trembling, almost shouting, I begged her to insult me, to inform against me even, if only she would break the terrible silence.”

As this continues the reader begins to speculate: is the narrator a ghost? Is he simply imagining the people around him? Is he the victim of a strange hoax? Casares’ solution is both more interesting and more elegant, but to reveal it here would take away much of the pleasure of the novel: I found the opening section worked well taken at face value, thanks in part to its Robinson Crusoe template, with only the vaguest of doubts at first, and indistinct whisper that slowly becomes a nagging voice. The tipping point, where rational explanations no longer suffice, will be different for every reader, though ironically Casares’ explanation is perfectly rational (though the novel is frequently classed as ‘fantastic’ it is more properly science fiction, just like the novel whose title it echoes, The Island of Doctor Moreau).

Like Wells, Casares uses his central idea to question what it is to be human. The novel also has interesting things to say about how we relate to one another, and about memory. It seems to suggest that however we try to distance ourselves from our humanity, by science or isolation, we cannot escape our nature.

Skylight

February 9, 2015

 

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Skylight, published in Portuguese in 2012 and in English (translated by Saramago’s usual interpreter, Margaret Jull Costa) in 2014 is not Jose Saramago’s final novel but his first. Usually such exhumed manuscripts, raised from the grave as their author is lowered into it, are a blight on their author’s memory, juvenile scribblings that the writer themselves had consigned to a drawer long ago. Saramago had certainly prevented Skylight’s publication while he was alive, but its story is slightly different. We can at least say that Saramago felt it was worthy of appearing in print when he sent it to a publisher’s in 1953, only for the publisher to lose the manuscript. Saramago did not write another novel for twenty years; when Skylight was rediscovered in 1989, however, he was a relatively famous novelist at the peak of his powers who had no interest in an early work suddenly appearing. That it’s available now, though, seems fair and proper, and, although Saramago will be remembered mainly for the great novels he wrote in the 1980s and 90s, Skylight is a valuable addition to his oeuvre.

Skylight utilises a simple premise, though one that is complex to accomplish: that of portraying the lives of a disparate group of characters united by their habitation of a particular apartment block. Saramago very cleverly introduces almost all his characters in the first chapter, connecting them with a series of ‘’Good mornings’. Immediately contrasts appear: between, for example, the happily married Silvestre and Mariana (“Neither of them had any illusions about the other and both were more than aware that the fire of youth had long since burned out, but they loved each other dearly”) and the miserably conjoined Justina and Caetano:

“The silence that filled the apartment from top to bottom, like a solid block, shattered at the sound of his laughter. Unaccustomed as it was to the noise the furniture seemed to shrink in upon itself.”

Their life is blighted by a dead daughter; Rosalia and Anselmo indulge their daughter Maria Claudinho though she is old enough to work. She is old enough to love, too, and desire is to be found bubbling beneath the surface of the block’s young women:

“Standing in front of the mirror, she unbuttoned her housecoat and her nightdress and looked at her breasts. A shiver ran through her and she flushed slightly.”

Isaura, who stays with her mother, her sister and her aunt, has a more uncomfortable sexual awakening:

“Slowly, Isaura’s hands moved towards her sister…one of her hands ran along Adriana’s arm from wrist to shoulder, where it slipped in beneath her hot, damp armpit and insinuated itself beneath one breast.”

When Adrian wakens she reacts in horror and finds it difficult to forgive her sister. These unconscious desires are contrasted with the experience of Lidia, a ‘kept woman’, whose apartment is paid for by her lover:

“She was not the kind of woman who relies solely on her body to attract men; instead she radiated sensuality from head to toe.”

Lidia is placed in direct competition with Maria when she asks her lover to find her a job; he does this as a favour to Lidia but soon his eye settles on Maria, something she does not entirely discourage.

Age and youth also compete when Silvestre takes in a young lodger, Abel. Abel arrives shortly after the novel begins and his departure signals its end. Interestingly, it is the cynicism of his youth which is contrasted with Silvestre’s optimism. Silvestre believes love is the answer: “loving each other with a lucid, active love, a love that can overcome hatred.” Abel dismissed this as utopian:

“Life is a fight to the death, always and everywhere. It’s a case of every man for himself.”

One can’t help but think this is an argument going on within Saramago, and one that is certainly not settled in the novel, with examples of both beliefs in evidence. Skylight may not be among Saramago’s very best novels, but it is beautifully constructed, told with his usual gentle empathy and fearless glance, and entertaining from first page to last.

The Beautiful Indifference

February 5, 2015

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Sarah Hall is a writer whom I have long admired from a distance. Every new book would find me on the verge of making her acquaintance, but for some reason I would hang back, shy of taking that final step. Until, that is, I discovered a copy of her short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, in a second hand bookshop last summer. The title itself seemed a reprimand to my previous lack of passion, and a short story collection seemed the ideal way to get to know her. Hall herself is a writer well versed in passion, both the raw emotion of relationships and the redder urges of nature itself. She also seems to be able to range across class with her characters in a way that most writers find difficult to do.

Sex is a central concern of a number of the stories. In the title story the narrator awaits her younger lover. Her friends regard the affair as “avoiding the hard stuff” by which they mean settling down and having a family:

“Perhaps she was not entitled to the sex after all. Or the radiance.”

What seems a life-affirming story about sexual fulfilment, however, inverts completely when we discover the narrator’s tragic family background and her own plans, with her childless state more a burden than a freedom. More straight-forward is ‘The Agency’ where the narrator, on the recommendation of a friend, visits a male escort agency, so tastefully run that she is convinced “the agency had been conceived by a woman.” The story itself has a playful tone with such lines as:

“The marks around my wrists I would have to cover until they faded.”

Sex is more problematic in ‘Bees’, a fantastic example of how to use the second person. Here, the central character has left her husband for London, remembering “you never said no when he wanted to.” In the description which follows the ‘you’ is particularly effective in convincing the reader of the abusive nature of the relationship. In every case Hall develops the sexual aspect of the story without prurience, as an insight to character, and with a recognition of the way desire can drive lives.

The violent passions of sex are often accompanied by the equally wild and irrational workings of nature. In ‘Bees’ the protagonist’s observation of the insects’ demise seems linked to her own hopeless situation, living with a friend and unable to get a job. It is difficult to read the appearance of a fox at the end as hopeful:

“It is as if the creature has been stoked up from the surroundings, its fur like a furnace, eyes sparkling…The jaws open and snap shut, and as it lands it shakes its red head furiously.”

Its contrast to the ‘pale’, ‘discreet’ foxes of the north, it suggests a savage, alien city where gentler creatures, like the bees, are not at home. In ‘The Beautiful Indifference’ Hall literally drives a horse and cart through the story, the horse out of control, and breaking from the carriage:

“The shire kicked away, its reins trailing, its eye white-cupped and livid.”

While the narrator’s lover, a doctor, calmly goes to aid the driver, the narrator is frozen, staring in the horse’s wake, its passing having caused an inexplicable but irreparable rift in her life. Best of all, in ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, nature becomes enmeshed with a fractured relationship when the protagonist stalks an African beach after a row with her lover and senses an animal following her:

“She did not want to look behind again…The dress she was wearing was low-backed. The flesh felt exposed. She was all meat, all scent.”

The dog turns out to be friendly, and she meets it again on the return journey:

“The muzzle was wet and when she lifted it up to look underneath she could see it was dark and shiny.”

Only when she is back at the hotel does the terrifying possibility of the dog’s dual nature rear its head, opening up two readings of the story. In one, the couple have been subject to an ironic accident; in the other the dog becomes an avatar for deep-lying feelings within the relationship.

Another three stories feature, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ also being a stand-out. Hall is as good as I hoped she might be; I wish I’d met her sooner.

Cassandra at the Wedding

January 30, 2015

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One hope I have this year is to read more women writers than last, so when I was recommended Dorothy Baker’s final novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, by Jacqui over at Jacquiwine, it seemed the perfect opportunity to acquaint myself with a writer I had never encountered before. It’s perhaps not entirely unsurprising that Baker was a new name to me – her four novels appeared sporadically between 1938 and 1962, with the first and last rescued from oblivion by the New York Review of Books in 2012.

Her second novel, Trio, was adapted by Baker and her husband into a play shortly after publication, a fact I found interesting considering Cassandra at the Wedding’s dramatic structure. Although split into three parts (the first and third from Cassandra’s point of view, the second from that of her sister Judith), part one’s division into three chapters gives the novel the feel of a five-act play. This is intensified by its largely single setting, and the way in which Cassandra’s arrival triggers the introduction of the other characters (her father, grandmother, and sister) with further characters appearing in later acts (Judith’s fiancé, Jack, and Cassandra’s therapist, Vera). Like many American plays of the 40s and 50s, it places a family together to reveal the tensions and secrets beneath the surface. Although the wedding is the ostensible reason for Cassandra’s arrival, it is Cassandra, and her relationship with her twin sister Judith, that is the focus of the play – with Baker arranging for the marriage itself to be downplayed, almost an aside.

Cassandra arrives not for the wedding but in the belief that Judith – “the dazed, hood-winked, marriage-prone bride” – will not go through with it. Everything originates in their close relationship growing up, a relationship that Cassandra does not expect to end. Baker uses as piano they bought together to symbolise their symbiotic ties:

“It was unmistakably a Boesendorfer, meant for us, and we became its co-owners right away. Without conferring. Without the slightest need to.”

For Cassandra, their permanent separation would be akin to sawing the piano in half. It is on the day that the piano is delivered that Cassandra remembers Judith saying, “We ought to live this way, don’t you think?”

“It was as if I’d been waiting all my life to hear her say it, and I said yes, oh yes, how could we imagine it ever being any other way?”

Baker cleverly presents the novel’s first half from Casandra’s point of view, giving the reader an initial sympathy that is difficult to shake entirely even as we slowly discover that she is both damaged and manipulative. After spending the first night drinking and talking to her sister (Jack is off-stage at the moment, his collection from the airport a task both Judith and Cassandra plan to undertake), she convinces herself that Judith shares her feelings:

“…maybe after we’re together again someplace, wherever we decide to be – Tenerife, possibly, for a while – I might go on to something new, try a balanced diet, get a tan, swim a lot, run up and down the beach, write from six until ten in the morning…”

The list echoes everything she is not doing – she hardly eats, has becomes sunburned on the journey (a nice touch, the burning representing her frenzied mental state), finds she can no longer hold her breath for long (the sisters were swimmers), and refuses to write, anxious she could not live up to her dead mother who was a writer. Everything is put off until she has Judith, and it is little wonder that she attempts suicide when she discovers Judith intends to go ahead with the wedding. (Death has been in the air since the start: when she says, “The bridge looks good again”, in the first few pages she is not referring to the view).

Only with Cassandra incapacitated do we finally get to hear Judith’s voice, and Jack, bringer of common sense, finally makes an appearance. In comparison with the other characters Jack seems dull and dependable, providing a direct contrast to Cassandra. The emergency phone booth Cassandra used to call ahead when she was on her way home is dismissed by Jack: “This isn’t an emergency.” When Judith comments, with reference to Cassandra, “All I wanted to do was die,” he is angered by the hyperbole:

“Quit talking about wanting to die…Dying is a big thing.”

It is, of course, Jack who saves Cassandra, rather than her therapist, Vera, whose desperate drive to her side echoes Cassandra’s own sudden decision to head home a day early to be with Judith. We finish again with the bridge, in a scene which could be regarded as optimistic or fore-shadowing something much darker – perhaps a prophecy we do not understand.

Cassandra at the Wedding is a wonderful book – thanks again to Jacqui for suggesting it.

Lost Books – Poor Tom

January 21, 2015

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Edwin Muir is best known as a poet and, perhaps, as the translator, along with his wife Willa, of Kafka into English. He also wrote, however, in a number of other genres: an autobiography; a travel book, Scottish Journey, which remains in print to this day; and three novels. The last of these was Poor Tom, published in 1932. It contains a strong autobiographical element, though nothing to compare with what Muir himself suffered when he, like the brothers Tom and Mansie, came to Glasgow when his father lost his farm on Orkney: Muir’s father, two brothers, and mother died within the space of a few years.

Though death is, unsurprisingly, a central theme of Poor Tom, it begins with that other great staple of literature, sex. Rarely, in fact, have I read a novel so concerned with sex (certainly in the first half) that is, at the same time, entirely without the act itself. Both Tom and Mansie retain a rather Puritan attitude towards sex –indeed Scotland is more than once referred to as a Puritan country – and this attitude is at the root of the issue which divides them when the novel opens and Tom spies Mansie with a woman, Helen, he recently courted, only to be rejected for over-stepping the boundaries of propriety:

“…he hadn’t dared to touch her or to kiss her for weeks and weeks…Better if the thing had always stayed at that stage. For her kisses drove a fellow frantic and she didn’t seem to know it…No wonder he had got violent that night that night in Maxwell Park; he was beyond himself, couldn’t help it.”

A foggy vagueness descends whenever any sexual activity beyond kissing is discussed, but it is unlikely that the violence amounted to much more than groping, a clumsiness that perhaps originates in Tom’s inability to understand how to connect his desire with action:

“Tom, in other words, simply could not imagine himself lying in bed with the stylishly dressed girls whom he walked out – at least while he was walking them out; or rather he could not imagine the process which would lead to that consummation.”

It is important to remember that such attitudes towards sex were held sincerely – though television adaptations and contemporary novelists often like to suggest otherwise. Tom’s desire for Helen makes him feel that he has “desecrated their love”. Mansie also uses religious language to describe his experience of sex: unexpectedly finding a girl willing to sleep with him (we assume – the act itself happens within an ellipsis) he observes:

“Yet, sitting now in the lighted tram, she looked so proud and unapproachable that what had happened that evening seemed a blasphemous impossibility.”

This ends the relationship; the next time they meet she looks right through him. This attitude towards sex exacerbates Tom’s anger towards Mansie and Helen: he sees Mansie as having betrayed him, and Helen as having revealed herself not to be the respectable young woman she pretended to.

The themes of sex and death are united by that most Scottish of emotions, guilt. After seeing Mansie and Helen together, Tom falls out not only with his brother, but with life, something which manifests itself in excessive drinking, and a tumble from a tram car. Though he initially seems to recover from the resultant blow to the head, his condition slowly begins to deteriorate. His failing health brings the brothers together again, but Mansie blames himself for Tom’s condition:

“If it hadn’t been for my going with that girl this might never have happened! I wish to God I’d never set eyes on her.”

Poor Tom has moments of wonderful writing, for example the description of Helen’s ineffectual attempts to conceal her desire: “she cannot keep the waves of passion from flowing over [her face], from rippling under that smooth mask like the muscles under the hide of some lovely animal.” Muir’s extended personification of Death towards the end, originating from Christ’s sight of the Roman soldiers approaching Gethsemane, and ending with Death as a nightly companion who “lies down quietly beside him and takes him in his arms” is worth reading on its own.

However, Muir’s narrative voice overpowers the characters, with his thoughts dominating whether ascribed to Tom or Mansie. Perhaps for this reason, the female characters – the mother, Helen, and a sister, Jean – rarely come to life. It remains interesting as a social document – not only for its examination of sexual attitudes, but also the political scene, with socialism competing with religion for Mansie’s heart – and for anyone interested in Muir’s poetry (there is a powerful scene with a horse, an animal which appears throughout Muir’s poetry). Only those with a very hard heart, though, will not be moved by its conclusion.

The Calligraphy of Dreams

January 14, 2015

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Victoria Mir runs from her house in obvious distress, pauses for a moment, and then lies on the road, her head ostentatiously across the tramlines. Her suicidal impulse seems less serious when we discover that the tram no longer runs along this particular street, but the emotional trauma that has led her here is undeniable, an early indication of the fine line between comedy and tragedy that this novel will journey along. One observer among the curious crowd which gathers to witness Mir’s behaviour is fifteen year old Ringo, the protagonist of Juan Marse’s The Calligraphy of Dreams. In the disconnect between Mir’s desperate actions and their less than desperate repercussions, Ringo senses something:

“Possibly this is the very first time that the boy intuits, in however vague and fleeting a manner, that what is invented can carry more weight and truthfulness than what is real, more life of its own, be more meaningful, and consequently have more chance of triumphing over oblivion.”

The reasons for Mir’s actions remain the novel’s central mystery; Ringo’s interpretation of them a signpost on his journey to manhood in a coming-of-age novel which contains echoes of Marse’s own life. (In both cases they are adopted after their mother dies).

Another obvious similarity is that they are dreamers with a powerful imagination. A teacher comments on his “rich interior life” and we find him regaling his friends with stories of cowboys and Indians. Imagination comes first (“I can have a beach wherever I want one”) and he doesn’t like it when reality, in the form of needing a sea to have a beach, intrudes:

“Ringo feels as though reality has burst into his world like a shockwave after an explosion…and has torn something form his hands.”

Later, when he loses a finger at the jeweller’s where he works, it his dreaming that is to blame;

“…he was caught daydreaming at the electric rolling mill, trying to hum the first notes of a simple tune he could not remember properly, when in a flash the machine swallowed his index finger.”

Ringo’s daydreaming nature is also shown through his innocence. His father is a rat catcher and Ringo is particularly fascinated by the blue rats he mentions: “He often hears him curse and blaspheme against the terrible, disgusting plague of blue rodents infesting the city.” This reference, however, is not to rats but to the Nationalists who have recently won the Spanish Civil War (this is made clear later when one such is referred to as a “blue dummy”). His father’s political activism explains his frequent disappearances, and also why in one scene he has to burn his books, telling his son it is “just in case, because of the flies.”

Ringo’s seemingly harmless nature becomes dangerous when it intersects with Mir’s love life. Ever since her time on the tramlines, she has been awaiting a letter from the man she says she threw out of her house that day. Ringo is aware of this as, after he loses his finger, he spends a lot of time in a nearby bar where the letter is to be delivered. He becomes directly involved when he meets the man one night and promises to deliver the letter for him, only to become so drunk he loses it. His attempts to reconstruct the letter (hence the calligraphy of the title) display the gap between his imagination and reality.

This is only one aspect of the way the novel shows Ringo entering the adult world, a world still shaken by the Civil War, the repercussions of which require an extra layer of secrets to be decoded. Strangely, Marse chooses not to tell the story chronologically, with episodes from Ringo’s childhood interrupting the main plotline. While Marse’s portrayal of Ringo is sympathetic, he also shows him to be detached from the urgency of the post-war period, as if representing a generation who had not fought in the war, but, having seen their parents dreams shattered, were now retreating from reality to write dreams of their own. In Ringo’s experience, we see the disillusionment of a country.

Tomorrow Pamplona

January 9, 2015

 

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Tomorrow Pamplona by the Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen was the middle title in Peirene Press’ second year, 2011; having now read all three books (the others were Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella and Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig) I would probably go as far as to say it is my favourite collection (I wouldn’t like to comment on whether its theme, Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy, has any bearing on that!). As with most of Peirene’s authors, it was van Mersbergen’s first appearance in English; unfortunately, it remains his only one so far (he has written at least four other novels).

In the novel a young boxer, Danny, gets the opportunity to fight outside Holland with promoter Mr Varon. We don’t need to be told that this represents an important chance for him – the scene where Varon leaves his card after seeing Danny fight is familiar from many boxing films. The fact that Varon is wheelchair-bound and accompanied by a beautiful Thai woman, Ragna, seems intended only to make the moment more picturesque: in fact van Mersbergen is already presenting us with vital components of the plot in a novel where everything seems necessary. This scene, the novel’s origin, is already a memory, as it begins with Danny, weeks later, on the run for reasons unknown. This of course immediately creates suspense – Danny’s reasons for running are not revealed until near the novel’s end – but also gives the narrative urgency, as if the story has already begun and we must catch up with it. This is emphasised by the constant movement, beginning with the opening lines:

“A boxer is running through the city. He heads down a street with tall buildings on either side, darts between parked cars, runs diagonally across a junction, down a bike path, crosses a bridge and follows the curve of the tram tracks.”

Here van Mersbergen uses our expectations against us – why shouldn’t a boxer be running? – as he does when he reveals what is going through Danny’s mind:

“He lands another punch. Again he hears a bell, sharper and louder than before. Stop, someone screams.”

Danny’s real journey begins when he hitches a lift with Robert, who is heading, as he does every year, to Pamplona to run with the bulls. Robert accepts Danny despite his monosyllabic replies to Robert’s questions, and advises him:

“For a man who doesn’t have a specific place in mind, Pamplona is a great destination. Maybe the best destination of all.”

The road trip companions make an interesting contrast, not only because of Robert’s openness and Danny’s taciturnity. Robert is well equipped for the trip; Danny does not even have any cash. He calmly accepts Danny at face value (when he breaks the door of his son’s toy car he says, “These things happen”), Danny seems uncomfortable with himself. Robert describes Pamplona as an “express pilgrimage”, something that allows him to feel at peace with the world; for whatever reason, Danny is permanently on edge. Only when he decides to go with Robert does he “feel a little calmer.”

Much of the novel, therefore, consists of Danny and Robert travelling, a series of one-sided conversations which keep the tension slowly simmering. Their journey is interrupted by Danny’s memories (a device that feels natural as Danny would obviously be replaying these scenes in his mind as they drive), particularly his relationship with Ragna. Many of these scenes also consist of only two characters – in the gym, in a room – heightening the novel’s claustrophobic feel.

The novel heads inexorably towards two climaxes: the bull run and the revelation of what Danny has done: both (I won’t reveal either here) are entirely satisfying. This is not a novel about escape, however – Robert’s journey is predicated on return, a theme indicated by Danny’s encounter with a woman when they stop overnight near a river:

“I met the love of my life in this place…I never saw him again…But I return here every year.”

Tomorrow Pamplona is a breath-taking read – by that I mean that at times it was so tense I found I had forgotten to breath! Peirene’s books are famous for allowing a reading in one sitting; this is certainly one you won’t want to put down until it is finished.


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