Madonna in a Fur Coat

May 31, 2016

madonna

Classic novels from around the world can take a while to appear in English. Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in Fur Coat (originally published in 1943), however, seems only recently to have been fully appreciated in his native Turkey, translator Maureen Freely commenting (in an article in the Guardian which makes a perfect introduction to the novel) that “for the past three years, it has topped the bestseller lists in Turkey, outselling Orhan Pamuk.” Ali spent his writing life seeking to express himself freely in the face of state censorship. He was imprisoned more than once and eventually murdered at the behest of, or perhaps by, the National Security Service in 1948. His oppression is, of course, echoed in Turkey’s treatment of writers today, and Freely sees his adoption by a new generation of readers as, at least in part, an act of resistance.

Madonna in a Fur Coat, however, seems far removed from what we might expect from a ‘political’ novel. First and foremost it is a love story, and one with a gentle and unassuming hero, Raif Efendi. When we first meet Raif he is working as a translator for a firm which trades in machinery; he is introduced by our narrator, a young man who has stated work at the desk opposite, who is initially dismissive of Raif, frustrated by his inability to stand up for himself:

“I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me, endlessly translating… He was, I thought, too timid ever to dare explore his soul, let alone express it.”

The discovery of a sketch Raif has left on his desk alters his opinion, as he realises there is more to the man than can be observed on the surface:

“From that day on, I took an intense interest in everything Raif Efendi did, no matter how trivial or absurd. Eager to know more about his true identity, I seized every opportunity to speak to him.”

As they grow closer, he discovers that Raif is an equally forlorn figure at home, taken advantage of by his brothers-in-law, disrespected by his daughters, sent out for messages despite his poor health:

“What if Raif Efendi really were a simple man with nothing inside? It was clear he had no purpose, no passion, no connection to others, not even those closest to him… So what did he want from life?”

Ali’s intention, in beginning the novel at the end of Raif’s story, is to create a mystery – a mystery which is uncovered when Raif, fearing he is dying, hands the narrator a notebook with instructions to burn it. The narrator begs a night to read it first, and so we enter our second story, set In Germany 1933, where Raif has been sent to learn about the family soap business, though with his own plan to “learn a foreign language, read books in that language, and, most importantly, discover Europe.” It is there he encounters the Madonna in a Fur Coat of the title, a self-portrait in an exhibition of new painters:

“Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat.”

Raif returns daily to view the portrait, which in turn leads to a relationship with the artist. This is the love story at the heart of the novel, but it is not one which simply sees the couple fall in love, or Raif pursue the artist, Maria, romantically. Ali seems intent on using the relationship to explore the nature of love – even Raif’s reaction to the portrait seems indicative of our tendency to idealise, particularly as when Maria speaks to him at this point he does not recognise her. Maria forcefully rejects stereotypical ideas of male and female roles in love:

“They are the hunters, you see. And we their miserable prey. And our duties? To bow down and obey, and give them whatever they want… But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t give away a single bit of ourselves.”

Maria is the stronger of the two, and often takes the lead – an idea which would have been more shocking in the 1940s, and still has the power to shock in Turkey today – and it is in this sense that the novel is political.

This dimension may be less important for English language readers, but that does not diminish the power of Ali’s writing in describing their developing relationship. Ali’s novel continues to resonate today because it is about a man who is both ordinary and extraordinary – as are we all:

“It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life. And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasure we never expected.”

This novel is, indeed, an unexpected treasure.

Hill

May 25, 2016

hill

When Scott of Seraillon and Dorian of Eiger Monch and Jungfrau, as a result of a discussion surrounding the latter’s dislike of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, suggested reading Jean Giono’s Hill, recently published by New York Review of Books in a new translation by Paul Eprile, I felt almost obliged to join in given my own hostility to Seethaler’s novel. Hill was Giono’s first novel, originally published in 1929, set in a small village, the Bastides, in Provence, an area Giono knew well. (This, of course, immediately points to one difference between the novels: Seethaler, born in 1966, is writing about a past he never experienced; Giono, who was thirty-four when Hill was published, is writing about a time and place which he knew intimately).

That the novel begins with a description of the landscape, and that the first consciousness we inhabit is that of a boar, is an indication of the importance of nature in Giono’s work. The landscape is as alive as any other character, with Giono frequently using imagery to suggest this:

“Mount Lure dominates the landscape and blocks out the west with its huge, numb, mountain body.”

Shortly after he describes night “pouring into the valley”:

“It washes over the haunch of the hill. The olive groves raise their song, under the shadow.”

While nature is given human attributes, characters are often described in terms of the nature around them:

“From his beady, chestnut coloured eyes his blank stare flits into the sky like a moth.”

Despite cramming the novel with a wheen of apt and striking similes and metaphors, Giono never strays from the world of the novel in his imagery, enhancing the sense of a closed eco-system, and the limits of his characters’ perspective.

Thirteen characters live in the village, the oldest of which is Janet, now bedridden. A deterioration in his condition has prompted a doctor’s visit, a rare intrusion from the world outside:

“I don’t believe he has much time left… Do what I told you. However, in my opinion it’s like putting a bandage on a wooden leg. If he gets any worse, come and get me if you want, but it’s a long way. It took me three hours to get up here.”

Janet’s approaching death is not the only cloud hanging over the village, both literally and metaphorically. Much of the novel has an ominous feel; the village’s dilapidated state is a reminder of the precariousness of man’s existence, and tension builds towards some sensed but unknown threat. First there is a storm (“The sky is like a swamp where patches of open water gleam between patches of slime”), and then the sighting of a black cat associated with previous misfortunes, which Gondran, Janet’s son-in-law, is happy to list to the other villagers:

“As for the earthquake back in ’07…it was on a Thursday. The Monday before that, when I was stalking partridge, I’d seen the cat.”

Soon after the fountain, the village’s only supply of water, runs dry.

A rural life is one where luck, and therefore superstition, plays a part, but Giono is making a more profound point than that. Gondran has an epiphany where he considers the way man treats nature:

“Is he directly to blame for the suffering of plants and animals?
Can he not even cut down a tree without committing murder?
It’s true, when he cuts down a tree, he does kill.
And when he scythes, he slays.
So that’s the way it is – is he killing all the time? Is he living like a gigantic runaway barrel, levelling everything in his path?”

The novel, as well as being a detailed portrait of rural life in the early part of the twentieth century, is also a meditation of man’s relationship with nature, for which, it suggests, there is a price to pay. (This can be seen, for example, in Gondron’s failure to shoot a boar at the beginning, a kill which he makes at the end). In this it is in some ways a very contemporary novel despite its description of a way of life which has largely disappeared in Europe, exploring ideas about how we should treat animals and land, a debate which is even more urgent today.

Above all, it is a joy to read. It is beautifully written, and therefore I imagine beautifully translated, with too many memorable phrases to mention. Stylistically, its short paragraphs and sections of direct speech perfectly suit both the characters and the building tension. The characters themselves, though often built in a series of brief strokes like an etching, soon come to inhabit the landscape, as does the reader.

Diaboliad

May 22, 2016

diaboliad

When I decided to conduct my classics challenge (to read fifty classic in five years) in the same haphazard and chaotic way that I conduct the rest of my reading – without creating a list or plan in advance – there were still one or two writers I was determined to include. Foremost among these was Mikhail Bulgakov – a writer I had mysteriously managed to avoid up to this point. Given that so much of his work is readily available in English – Alma Classics, and translator Hugh Aplin, are to be particularly praised here – I was bereft of excuses and decided to make a start with Diaboliad, a collection of four stories originally published in 1925 (the Alma Classics edition makes a point of mentioning that it does not include The Fatal Eggs – which they publish in a separate volume – leading me to assume it originates from the same place).

The title story is by far the longest, taking up around half the volume, giving it plenty of time to move through the gears from satire to insanity. Briefly, Korotkov feels secure in his position as Chief Clerk at the Main Central Depot of Match Materials, having “completely expunged from his soul the idea of the existence in the world of the so-called vicissitudes of fate”; his new role as the protagonist of a Russian short story will quickly put him right. Bulgakov begins with some pointed satire of the Soviet system: first Korotkov and his colleagues aren’t paid, then they are paid in the goods they produce. Korotkov heads home weighed down with armfuls of match boxes hoping to sell them only for his neighbour (surrounded by her own wages in communion wine) to tell him they don’t work:

“…without losing a moment, he grabbed a box, unsealed it with a snap and struck a match. It hissed and flared up with a greenish light, broke in two and went out. Choking at the pungent smell of sulphur, Korotkov had a nasty fit of coughing and lit a second. This one gave a bang and two sparks spurted out from it. The first hit the window pane, the second Comrade Korotkov’s right eye.”

With his bandaged eye, Korotkov misreads a memo at work the next day and is sacked. The rest of story concerns his attempts to win back his job, a task which is not aided by the usual labyrinthine Russian bureaucracy, and the involvement of not one, but two sets of doubles. At times the story moves with the frantic pace of a car chase, driven by Korotkov’s desperation to understand and be understood, lurching on two wheels between farce and fantasy.

The other three stories go some way to demonstrating Bulgakov’s range, though all are infused with the same grinning despair. ’No. 13 – the Elpit Workers’ commune Building’ is exactly that, the story of a building – but one used to illustrate the changes that Communism has wrought. Once the residence of the well-to-do, it is now a Workers’ Commune:

“In all seventy-five apartments, unprecedented folk appeared. Pianos fell silent, but gramophones were alive and often sang in ominous voices. Lines stretched across the drawing rooms with damp linen on them. Primus stoves hissed snake-like, and acrid fumes floated up the staircase day and night. The lamps disappeared from all the brackets, and gloom would descend each evening.”

The new inhabitants are canny enough to keep on the building supervisor, Christy, who is able to maintain some semblance of order until the heating fails. The third story, ‘A Chinese Tale,’ concerns a Chinese man who drifts into the Red Army but is accepted due to his skill as a machine-gunner. The man remains a rather opaque racial caricature but the focus here is on the ironic ending. The final story borrows its title, epigraph and characters from Gogol. ‘The Adventures of Chichikov’ was what Gogol had originally planned to call Dead Souls, Chichkov being the novel’s main character. Bulgakov makes use of him and other characters from Gogol’s works to create a story of greed and corruption in Soviet Russia which also seems to foreshadow the Russian oligarchs of today. That the story transfers so easily is a sign that Bulgakov’s main aim was to expose humanity’s flaws, whether individual or institutional, rather than simply satirise one political system.

Its seems clear from this slim volume that Bulgakov saw himself to be connected to the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century like Gogol and Dostoevsky, walking a high-wire reality with madness always lying a misstep away. His imagination may be more drawn to farce and slapstick, more likely to make you laugh than cry, but that does not disguise the same darkness lying beneath.

The Sunlight Pilgrims

May 17, 2016

sunlight pilgrims

The sections in Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, are indicated by date and temperature, the dates revealing that the novel is set in our near future, the temperature suggesting that it belongs in the ever-growing sub-genre of climate catastrophe. While flood has generally been the doomsday scenario of choice in recent fiction, Fagan has opted for a new ice age instead: as the novel progresses, so the temperature drops, plunging Clachan Fells, the Scottish caravan park where it is set, into a winter without end.

Just as the novel begins with three suns in the sky – a naturally occurring illusion called parhelia, but one which immediately creates the sense of the world becoming another, more alien planet – so too are there three characters: Constance, her twelve-year-old daughter Stella, and Dylan, a newcomer to the park. Except that Stella was until recently Constance’s son and the community is struggling to accept her new identity. It doesn’t help that her ex-best friend, Lewis, shared a kiss with her, before becoming complicit in a beating she received from the local boys:

“He did kiss her, though, and the only two people who know about it are her and him. He won’t kiss her again in case any of his friends find out and think he’s weird – that’s why he won’t do it again. Or because he already knows he’d like it.”

Her estranged father also finds it difficult to accept:

“Stella always puts her father’s useless gifts into the charity shop at Clachan Fells. Somewhere in the village there is a boy walking around dressed as her father’s son.”

Dylan has arrived from London having lost his mother, grandmother, and the cinema where he was brought up. His unlikely destination is a result of his grandmother’s Scottish origins, and a parting gift from his mother:

“A pile of unpaid bills are stacked neatly in Vivienne’s vintage sewing box and when he got back from the crematorium he found an envelope containing the deeds for a caravan 578.3 miles away, with a pink post-it note and her scrawl: Bought for cash – no record in any of our accounts. Mum x.”

He quickly falls for Constance: it is typical of Fagan’s skill in marrying the everyday with deep emotion that this happens when he sees her vacuuming:

“At the end of the path a woman hoovers up the road…Her pyjama top rides up and exposes each knot of her vertebra like a fine rope.”

Though Stella is, of course, the star of the show (Fagan’s debut The Panopticon demonstrated her talent for describing the development of identity when growing up), The Sunlight Pilgrims, as the plural in the title suggests, is about the relationships which exist between the three main characters, and how this helps them to define who they are.

For a novel which headlines not one but two topical issues (climate and transsexuality), it is striking how quietly they are absorbed into the narrative, never seeming shouty or preachy. Fagan is aided by the narrative trick that is third person – Stella is simply ‘she’ throughout, overriding the questioning of her gender which takes place among her peers and unaccepting adults. Stella also fronts a line of confused adolescents dating back to at least The Catcher in the Rye – the context of the bullying and unrequited love may be different, but those aspects of coming of age are not. The worsening climate gives Fagan the confined setting, cutting off easy escape from these problems. In both cases, Fagan’s exploration of these themes is characterised by a profound sense of humanity – even the threat of an ice age is balanced by the desire to see an ice berg which is floating down the coast, a very human reaction.

The novel also has a compelling ambiguity. Even the story of the sunlight pilgrims leaves the reader uncertain whether to hope or despair:

“All they had to eat was gannets and one year they all went mad, threw themselves off the cliffs, about seventy of them… They all died apart from one. The found him on the mountaintop naked, sitting in lotus, drinking light… He said you just drink it. He said it keeps humans right.”

Even the title of the last section, The End Has Almost Come, is open to interpretation, as are the novel’s final lines. Such is Fagan’s affirmation of the essential humanity of her characters, however, that it is difficult to believe there isn’t hope.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers

May 13, 2016

man

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Iranian author Fariba Hachtoudi is a short novel about love in a time of totalitarianism. The totalitarian regime in question is known only as the Theological Republic and its leader as the Supreme Commander, giving the novel an allegorical power, but no doubt drawing on Hatchtoudi’s experience and knowledge of Iran, which her family left after the 1979 revolution when she was a young woman.

Appropriately for a novel concerned with love, the story unfolds in two voices, but these are not the voices of lovers, though their developing relationship is the novel’s subject. The first is that of Vima, or Bait 455 (the word ‘bait’ refers to prisoners who are taken to make other prisoners talk), who was tortured at length by the regime before being allowed to leave the country; the second belongs to one of the Supreme Leader’s most trusted Colonels, a man whose job it was to spy on the torturers to ensure they could be ‘trusted’. He, too, has now fled his homeland and has been seeking asylum for a number of years; he encounters Vima in her capacity as an interpreter at the Office for Refugees and Stateless Persons. Both have left loved ones behind, the single voices of their narratives in fact emphasising their loneliness.

The Colonel recognises Vima almost immediately – “The woman sitting next to the official, strung as tight as a bow, is none other than 455” – but feels certain she will not know him as all prisoners wore hoods and blindfolds. However, in captivity Vima learned how to loosen her blindfold enough to squint underneath and observe the feet of her torturers:

“Tell me how you walk and I will tell you who you are. The Colonel has returned from the toilets. I am trying to concentrate. I’m staring at the ground, following his steps.”

Her relationship to the Colonel is closer than Vima at first realises: it was his wife’s discovery of a recording of her being tortured (which the Colonel was analysing to assess the performance of the torturers amid concern that Vima refused to break) that caused him to arrange her release, and later leave the country himself:

“You said, You have only one solution, and that is to leave. Once you’ve rescued this woman. You are going to arrange her escape. And her husband’s… They are the ones who will save you, in the end.”

The Colonel does this out of love for his wife, which he calls his Achilles’ heel. Vima is able to resist her torture because of her love for her husband, Del:

“Del’s love was what kept me safe. More than anything, when I was in the depths of hell.”

The Colonel’s weakness is Vima’s strength, though arguably in both cases love brings them suffering, and separation.

Hachtoudi uses the Colonel and Vima’s perhaps unlikely love stories to reveal how totalitarian states work, both by describing the Colonel’s rise to power, and Vima’s treatment as a victim. The descriptions of Vima’s torture holds nothing back as she is both physical and sexually abused. That the torturers themselves are also under observation reveals the totalitarian mind-set. The Colonels’ story shows how his participation in (presumably the Iran-Iraq) war leads to recognition and admission to the Supreme Commander’s inner circle – from which, of course, there is no escape. In both cases it is the regime which tears their relationships apart. In Vima’s case this happens literally through imprisonment, but also through her fear Del might have betrayed her. For the Colonel, it occurs when his two roles as loving husband and brutal soldier collide. That his wife is also called Vima highlights the contrast.

Some readers may find it hard to accept the ‘truth’ of the Colonel’s love given his complicity in torture and murder – sadly history shows us otherwise. Importantly, Hachtoudi demonstrates the humanity of the oppressor and the victim, and the victim’s humanity revealed to the oppressor. Our attitude to all the characters may contain some ambiguity, including the Colonel’s wife, who writes at the end:

“Of the two of us, who was more to blame? The young devoted soldier caught in the tyrant’s vice, or the scientist cloistered on her Olympus, refusing to see what was there before her eyes?”

It is Hachtoudi’s ability to engage with her characters, the roles they are assigned by history, and how much power they have to reject them that makes this a gripping examination of totalitarianism’s perpetrators and victims.

Chernobyl Prayer

May 9, 2016

chernobyl prayer

I have always been irritated by Sunday Supplement interviews where the words of the interviewee are buried in the often overly pleased-with-itself prose of the interviewer. If all you really want to do is write about someone, why go to the trouble of talking to them? Clearly the newest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, agrees; as the first non-fiction author to be honoured, it would be easy to categorise her work as journalism, yet Alexievich seeks to absent herself from the text in a way that even the most honest journalist can only dream of.

Chernobyl Prayer is a new translation (by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait) of Voices from Chernobyl (Penguin Classics also have a new translation of Zinky Boys coming out later this year). It is typical of Alexievich’s work in that it attacks its topic – typically a topic largely ignored by both mainstream journalism and fiction – using the voices of those who know. Alexievich’s role in this, beyond the initial interviewing (which is extensive), is to arrange those voices in a chorus which captures the totality of the experience: you might compare her to an artist working with found materials.

Her decision to begin Chernobyl Prayer with a ‘lone human voice’ – most of the other sections in the book are choral – immediately displays her skill as an arranger. The lone voice is that of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of one of the firefighters, Vasily, who fought the blaze caused by the reactor explosion. (It is the voice of the wife, of course, because her husband is dead). Not only is this chronologically accurate but it delivers a powerful emotional punch and prevents the book reading like a thriller where the suffering of the victims acts as a climax. It also demonstrates the dangers of radiation in a visceral and unarguable manner:

“He was passing stools maybe twenty-five, thirty times a day. All bloody and gooey. The skin on his arms was cracking. His whole body was coming up in blisters. When he turned his head, clumps of hair were left on the pillow.”

Vasily’s slow death – he was the last of his crew to die – is a vivid demonstration of the damage radiation can do. At the end, one of the nurses says to his wife, “You mustn’t forget, this isn’t your husband… this is highly contaminated radioactive object.” This first section felt like an initiation, a test of the reader’s emotional strength, but there are already indications that Alexievich’s theme is not simply suffering: this is a book about the endemic attitudes of the Soviet state, like secrecy:

“Nobody said anything about radiation. It was just the soldiers who were wearing respirators. People were taking bread from the shops, buying loose sweets. There were pastries on open trays. Life was going on as normal. Only they were washing down the streets with that powder.”

Later we read the testimony of Nesterenko, the Director of the Institute of Atomic Energy in Belarus at the time, who describes his attempts to warn the authorities:

“I was phoning on the government network, but they had already classified everything. The moment you started talking about the accident, the phone went dead.”

Also present is a sense of heroism with its roots in the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War):

“…there was… the heroic urge. They’d nurtured it, sown it in our minds at school, at home.”
“You have to serve the Motherland! Serving the Motherland is our sacred duty.”

Soldiers were sent in where robots had failed, melting and malfunctioning in the heat, armed with shovels. Eventually evacuation begins, but people are reluctant to leave their homes, their land:

“My mother was still living with us when the reactor blew up, and she used to say, ‘We’ve already survived the worst, my son. We survived the Siege. Nothing can be more horrific.’ That’s what she thought.”

Alexievich describes the evacuated Zone, abandoned houses such as we are used to seeing in apocalyptic Hollywood films. We learn of the genetic damage which continues to affect the population. Told in the voices of those who were, who are, there, we can relate to each individual experience, rather than lose perspective in facts and charts. I am old enough to remember both Chernobyl and the Soviet Union – it would interesting to discover what someone without these memories makes of this book; it must seem like a different world. And that is as good a reason as any for it to be essential reading.

Robinson

May 5, 2016

robinson

Robinson was Muriel Spark’s second novel, published in 1958, three years before the novel which would make her name, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. From its title onwards, Robinson exists in conversation with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this case our narrator, January Marlow, is plane-wrecked on an island, one of only three survivors. The island itself is called Robinson (not the one where Alexander Selkirk, one possible inspiration for Crusoe, was stranded off the coast of Chile, which was not renamed until 1966), as is its only adult inhabitant. January and her fellow survivors, Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, quickly realise there is little chance of rescue until the arrival of the pomegranate boat in three months, and must adapt to life on the island.

As in all Spark novels, there is a gradual revealing of character motives and intentions, though never to the point of clarity. Early in the novel January comments, in response to the Donne quotation, ‘No man is an island’:

“Some are…Their only ground of meeting is concealed under the sea.”

This might describe Spark’s approach – her characters appear like islands but the connections lie beneath the surface. January, as the narrator, takes an active part in attempting to uncover the true characters of her fellow islanders, though from the beginning she is hampered by her own prejudices, from an initial sighting of Tom at the airport to the similarities she sees between Robinson and her brother-in-law. But then, Spark will never drain the water entirely and leave everything in plain sight: she, like January, is disparaging of Robinson’s advice that, when keeping the journal he has given her, she should “stick to facts.” Spark is a writer of inference, and it is often the weapon of choice for her characters: Robinson, Tom asserts, “isn’t a man for the ladies,” an innuendo that may also be interpreted as a threat. In a world of secrets, the blackmailer is king.

As I said, Robinson cannot help but exist in conversation with Defoe’s novel. Robinson Crusoe has often been discussed as an exemplification of the protestant work ethic – the harder Crusoe works the more he is rewarded by God. Given Spark’s Catholicism, it was always unlikely she would leave this aspect of the novel unexplored. Spark’s Robinson has a more recognisably capitalist outlook, making the money he needs from growing pomegranates rather than cultivating his own food supplies:

“Try to eat as little as you can. Most of our food is tinned, and I had not counted on guests.”

Robinson is also contrasted with Crusoe in that, far from longing for company, he seems to prefer his solitary life. The books in his library are stamped with the motto nunquam minus solus quam cum solus (never less alone than when alone) and, as Jimmie realises, his guest are beginning to irritate him:

“I commence to think… that Robinson is becoming exceedingly cheesed.”

However, Robinson’s Protestantism is asserted in his horror of luck. He is appalled when Tom gives Miguel one of the lucky charms he peddles to make a living (along with the spiritualist magazine he publishes):

“Listen to me, Miguel: these things are evil… you must give them back.”

He feels similarly about January’s rosary, which he hides from her (January, like Spark, has recently converted to Catholicism). Of course, one might think Crusoe benefits from rather a lot of luck on his island, but this is ascribed to God rewarding him for his hard work, not chance or the power of prayer. Robinson’s dislike of superstition is linked with a very Protestant distrust of imagination, hence his “stick to facts” mantra. In contrast, January’s superstition involves a very un-Crusoe-like attitude to salvage:

“I already had one arm in the garment when I peeled it off and threw it on the ground as if it were teaming with maggots…
‘It’s salvage,’ I said.”

Unlike Crusoe / Robinson, January can imaginatively associate the ‘salvage’ with the dead.

The need to uncover the secrets of the other inhabitants becomes more urgent when Robinson disappears and, later, his blood-stained jacket is discovered. January’s name becomes more than an early one-liner when Robinson asks what she is called and thinks she is replying with the month and the place of her birth; echoes of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe are clearly intentional. With only a limited number of suspects, the situation on the island becomes even tenser, though in Spark’s hands, the denouement is quite different to any Agatha Christie might have treated us to.

Robinson tells a straight forward story but it is a complex novel, accruing meaning like an island, layer by layer, seemingly banal phrases echoing through the text until they resonate, fiercely accomplished for a second novel. Though currently out of print, there is a treat in store in August when Canongate will release Spark’s Satire, containing Robinson alongside The Abbess of Crewe and Aiding and Abetting: now that is a volume well worth getting.

The Encyclopaedia of the Dead

May 1, 2016

encyclopaedia

The Encyclopaedia of the Dead was the final work of fiction to be published in Danilo Kis’ lifetime (he died at the age of 54 in 1989); that it remains his most famous work can be perhaps ascribed to his early death, but it is a useful reminder in today’s debut-obsessed literary culture to allow writers to develop. Kis began as a realist but by the time of The Encyclopaedia of the Dead he had adopted a much more experimental style, influenced by Borges among others. This is particularly evident in the short stories of The Encyclopaedia of the Dead, though Kis’ work has a much greater political urgency and, however playful it may seem, feels firmly rooted in the realities of the Balkans.

The magnificent title story concerns the author being admitted to the Royal Library in Sweden and discovering a network of rooms, each accorded a particular letter of the alphabet. The rooms are, in fact, a vast encyclopaedia of lives. Instinctively he searches out the name of his recently deceased father:

“What makes the Encyclopaedia unique (apart from it being the only existing copy) is the way it depicts human encounters, relationships, landscapes – the multitude of details that make up a human life.”

What follows is a description of his father’s life based on the notes he makes from his reading of the Encyclopaedia. Frequently the notes and the Encyclopaedia are compared:

“Here, in my notebook, I have recorded only the word ‘Kraljevcani,’ but the Encyclopaedia devotes several dense paragraphs to this period, complete with names and dates.”

Later he talks about how “the Encyclopaedia immerses us in the atmosphere of the times.” The Encyclopaedia becomes a metaphor for literature, taking facts and adding detail and atmosphere. Not only is it a metaphor, however: Kis demonstrates the same power in his own writing as he turns the facts of his father’s life into a series of developed scenes, using his skill as a writer to enhance what he knows. Kis is also making a political point as The Encyclopaedia of the Dead contains the lives of ordinary people, those who go unrecorded by encyclopaedias; that there should be record of these lives, even an imaginary one, is a declaration of their importance.

For the other stories in this volume, Kis mines a rich vein of history and religion. In ‘Simon Magus’ he describes a stand-off between Simon and the disciple Peter:

“Miracles serve only as proof for the gullible, the multitude. They are nothing but a craze introduced by your miserable Jew, the one who ended on the cross.”

Despite this, Simon is needled into performing his own miracle. The story is in two parts, the second offering a different version to the first. This concern with interpretation runs through many of the stories. In ‘Pro Patria Mori’ a young man awaits his execution: is his calmness in the face of death a result of bravery or the belief that he will be granted a reprieve?

“The first, heroic, version was upheld and promulgated… by the sans-culottes and Jacobins; the second, according to which the young man hoped to the very end for some magical sleight of hand, was recorded by the official historians of the powerful Hapsburg dynasty top prevent the birth of a legend.”

In ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Head’, the inspiration for a poet’s work writes to a lecturer on the subject to reveal the ‘true’ meanings of his poetry:

“In the poem with the puzzling title ‘Stellar Cannibalism’, the ‘meeting of two stars, two beings,’ is by no means the product of a close collaboration of preconscious and subconscious activity… it is a poetic transposition of the electric shock which ran through Mendel Osipovich’s soul the moment our eyes met…”

Despite recurrent themes, Kis’ stories cover a wide range of subject matter and style: it would not be an exaggeration to say he displays a mastery of the form. Penguin are to be congratulated for bringing this volume back into print: the translation by Michael Henry Heim is from 1989 (which seems, unbelievably (or perhaps just incorrectly) to be that last time it was published in the UK) but has been revised, and is also introduced, by Mark Thompson, author of a recent biography of Kis. Given that Kis’ most well-regarded novel, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, is also out of print in the UK, it is to be hoped that more of Kis’ work will follow.

Lost Books – The Tennis Players

April 29, 2016

tennis players

I first became aware of Lar Gustafsson, who died this month, when Harvill Press published a number of his novels in the 1990s, including perhaps his most famous, The Death of a Beekeeper. Since then I’ve tracked down the rest of his fiction (he was also a poet) and only recently acquired the final volume (in English, that is) a short novel from 1977 (translated by Yvonne Sandstroem in 1983) called The Tennis Players.

At fewer than a hundred pages, The Tennis Players is properly a novella, and, as its narrator is a Visiting Professor at Texas University, it falls into the category of campus literature, with autobiographical leanings (Gustafsson spent much of his life teaching in the US, and the cover photograph – on which he features- suggests he can wield a racket). The narrator (called, of course, Lars Gustafsson) is approached by a student on his Swedish literature course with the memoir of a Polish chemist, Zygmunt. In it, Zygmunt describes his attempt in Paris, alongside a group of Polish anarchists, to acquire the secrets of August Strindberg’s alchemy, as described in Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, Inferno. Inferno is usually cited as evidence that Strindberg was suffering from some form of psychological neurosis, but now it seems that his paranoia may have been justified. Zygmunt’s actions include attempting to render Strindberg unconscious by gassing him in order to steal his notes.

“Zygmunt ascribes the fact that they had eluded detection to nothing more than August’s naïve conviction that he was the centre of the universe, and so naturally had to assume the Powers were persecuting him.”

However, as Gustafsson’s girlfriend points out,

“There are just too many people who have built their careers on the Inferno Crisis, who make their living teaching it. You can’t drag in some old Polish alchemist at this point…Believe me, sensible people have seen that memoir long ago and decided to disregard it.”

What’s needed is a careful comparison of the two texts, and what better way to accomplish that than to “feed both books into a computer and program it to check the day-to-day correlation between the two narratives” – or, at least, that’s the novel suggestion put to Lars. This is, of course, a much trickier proposition in 1975, but luckily Gustafsson has recently befriended (on the tennis court) Chris who, despite being blacklisted by the FBI and the CIA, works for Strategic Air Defense. This allows him access to a particularly powerful computer:

“I can transfer a lot of memory capacity so it isn’t easy to discover that the machine is moon-lighting.”

These events play out against the background of an attempt by the Boards of Trustees to remove the University President over a refusal to replace a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Verdi’s Aida, and so all apsects of campus comedy are covered.

For, despite the occasional reminder of death – a student shooting from the university bell tower; the potential for nuclear Armageddon as a result of misuse of the Strategic Air Defense computer – Gustafsson retains a comic tone throughout. He begins and ends with the declaration, “It was a happy time” and a sense of happiness pervades the narrative, quite at odds, one would imagine, with Strindberg’s Inferno. At the novel’s heart lies Abel, a tennis player who can match Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver, but who is contented playing against whoever arrives at the university court:

“He was related to the great teachers, Gunnar Ekelof, the Japanese Zen monks, the ancient archers, and the Australian aborigine medicine men.”

The Tennis Players may not be a great novel, and its more dated elements may mean it is unlikely to be reprinted, but the idea that the narrator can look back on a moment of happiness in his life, without quite being able to explain why he felt that way, still rings true. Amid all the satiric shenanigans, it is that feeling that makes it such a joy to read.

The Large Glass

April 23, 2016

large glass

It has taken me a while to get around to reading something for Mexicanos perdidos en Mexico, which luckily Richard at Caravanoderecuerdos has allowed to run through March and April and into May. I can’t recall where I first encountered Mario Bellatin’s name – perhaps via Roberto Bolano, or perhaps simply through a rather more amateurish ‘Mexican writer’ search online – but whatever I discovered was enough to convince me to order one of his books – The Large Glass, translated by David Shook, and published by Eyewear in the UK last year. (Although a number of Ballatin’s books have been translated, he has suffered from a lack of a regular English-language publisher).

The Large Glass is subtitled ‘Three Autobiographies’, but anyone expecting a straight-forward recounting of events in Ballatin’s life, or even for the three stories to obviously connect, will be disappointed. The first story, ‘My Skin, Luminous’, is probably the strangest, written in a series of numbered sentences. The child narrator describes how his mother takes him daily to the baths where she displays his genitals to the other women in return for gifts:

“The women rummaged through their belongings and managed, by means of the particular barter for my propitious body, to contemplate me for the time they deemed necessary.”

This is presented as a tradition, which takes on a ‘Golden Bough’ aspect when we discover that “many details about genital-displaying women are remembered, but everything about their exhibited sons is forgotten” because they are killed “mercilessly” when their testicles shows signs of ageing. Having established this surreal premise, Bellatin allows autobiographical elements to enter the story as the narrator remembers a time when he and his mother stayed with his father and brothers – uncertainty (“My brothers – now I understand that I did have brothers – began to hopelessly cry”) suggests he was very young. That their eviction shortly after the father’s departure is repeated in the final story suggests it may be autobiographical, but that is, of course, a presumption.

The second story, ‘The Sheikha’s True Illness’, begins in the most autobiographical fashion:

“Curiously, the protagonists of the last book I had published feel satisfied with the work.”

Having introduced the idea of how those he knows react to his work, the narrator goes on to discuss a more recent story:

“Before closing the door she called me a prostitute; she didn’t understand why else I would have sold, to Playboy magazine no less, a mystical dream that I had had about the sheikha of the religious community we both belonged to.”

It’s unclear whether the story that follows is a repetition of the Playboy story, or if we are indeed reading that story (should it exist). In it Bellatin tells of meeting the sheikha in a hospital where he goes to be treated for an ‘incurable’ disease; this narrative is intercut with memories of when he was first diagnosed, and the tale of a friend killed in a road accident in what becomes a meditation on death and illness. Even the sheikha’s car, an old Datsun on its last legs, seems part of this.

The final story, ‘A Character in Modern Appearance’, begins with the declaration that the narrator, along with his German girlfriend, is searching for a car – a Renault 5. Any suggestion of straight-forward autobiography disappears with the discovery on the second page that the narrator is female, however. As mentioned, this story also contains a childhood eviction; it also echoes ‘My Skin, Luminous’ in the father’s exhibition of the narrator when he dresses her in a folk costume and ties transparent nylon to her wrist and ankles as if she were a puppet.

Bellatin was born with much of his left arm missing and the fixation with deformity, illness and exhibition which pervades these stories may well be rooted in this. The constant shifts in narrative direction also indicate his fascination with the craft of writing. The Large Glass is, in turns, puzzling, invigorating, infuriating, and refreshing. Its title echoes that of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (as well as the obvious reference to autobiography as a mirror) which has been thought by some to be designed to mock those who search for the key to its meaning. The writer he most reminds me of is Cesar Aira, though this may be a lazy comparison based on brevity and eccentricity. Whatever the case, the most important conclusion is that I fully intend to read more.


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