Reality and Dreams

October 23, 2020

Muriel Spark’s 1996 novel Reality and Dreams returns to the film world of The Public Image, only on this occasion the main character is not the star but the director, Tom Richards. As the novel opens, Tom is recovering after falling from a crane. Despite general agreement that he is lucky to be alive, he has no regrets:

“Yes, I did feel like God up on that crane.”

The reality and dreams of the title is the world of film-making, and it’s no surprise that Spark should see the director as a God-substitute who “often wondered if we were all characters in one of God’s dreams.” Like all those who think they can think like God in Spark’s work, Tom is blind to his own faults. In particular, he sees everything through the lens of film-making – “Everything I do is basically connected with my work,” he tells the taxi-driver, Dave, who he has drive him around as he recuperates from his fall.

“When I see people in frames I know I want to make a film of just that picture.”

It from just such a sight that his latest film originates, from the glimpse of a girl of a campsite, The Hamburger Girl as the title would have it: “Tom had no further interest at all in that girl, except that glimpse.” Instead he only has eyes for his leading lady, Rose, rather than the actress who plays the hamburger girl, Jeanne, who barely features in the film, and always in profile.

He views his daughters in much the same way, preferring the attractive one, Cora, from a previous marriage, rather than Marigold, from his current marriage to Claire. Cora, he feels, “increases in beauty every year,”

“Only to see her move half across the room was an aesthetic delight.”

Marigold, on the other hand, is “too serious” (but, as Spark reminds us, “who is to say he was the just arbiter of other people’s characters?”).

“Try as he might, Tom was not fond of his daughter by Claire.”

It is difficult not to think that Cora is a dream compared to Marigold’s reality (Cora means ‘maiden’, perhaps ironically as she is far from virginal, and references Persephone as the goddess of spring; Marigold is, of course, the flower, but is also commonplace for rubber gloves used for cleaning – one of the most prosaic items you might think of). Tom thinks it a pity Cora cannot act (though also sees this as a virtue as he describes acting as “the art of hypocrisy”) as he tends to see things superficially – he is put out when another director tells him, “You can’t hire actors mainly for their looks.” Halfway through the novel Marigold goes missing and Tom and Claire find it difficult to whole-heartedly wish her back:

“They don’t want to find me… That’s the truth.”

Only when Tom begins to see her in a part does he really see her at all: “She would do well in a harsh movie.”

Alongside the question of reality and dreams lies another of redundancy. Spark makes most of the characters redundant at one time or another, either from their jobs or in some other fashion (when Marigold’s husband leaves her she describes herself as a “redundant wife”). As Dave tells Tom, “Redundancy worries me; it hangs over us all.” Tom does not believe this as, convinced of his own talent, “nobody fires a man if he is exceptionally good.” He refers to Cora’s husband, who has used his redundancy money to leave her for India, as a “non-necessary man,” revealing not only his Darwinian outlook, but Spark’s intention that we look beyond ‘redundancy’ as an economic definition.

Reality and Dreams is, in many ways, an appropriate description of Spark’s work in general; the language alone can both soar and bring us down to earth with a bump. The novel is a generally light-hearted affair, though it contains two attempted murders and a death. Tom bemoans that the century is getting old, while speculating on what dead friends, including Auden and Graham Greene, would say to him were they still alive. Age is also referenced in the repeated opening of The Lover Song of J Alfred Prufock, a poem that certainly mingles reality and dreams. Spark was almost eighty when the novel was published and it’s hard not to see some of her in Tom’s character here, playful as ever. Perhaps that is why he seems to have learned little by the novel’s end, as he drinks with Claire and Cora, “here in the tract of no-man’s land between dreams and reality, reality and dreams,” a here that is both his life, and the novel itself.

The Gardens of Light

October 18, 2020

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prise in 2003 for Balthasar’s Odyssey, until this year the most recent of his novels to appear in English. In 1996 his 1991 novel The Gardens of Light was translated from French by Dorothy S. Blair and may very well have been selected then as well had the prize not been temporarily paused. Like almost all of Maalouf’s novels, it is historical (the exception, The First Century after Beatrice, is set in the future). Set in the third century, it tells the life story of Mani, founder of Manichaeism, a religion which sought to unify Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Though now largely forgotten, or remembered only as an adjective, for four hundred years Manichaeism was a popular religion, with believers spread across various empires from Rome to China. Maalouf’s novel is a sincere attempt to imaginatively recreate the life of this important historical figure.

The story begins with Mani’s father, Patek, who himself is a seeker of spiritual truth, on the day he meets the religious teacher Sittai. He warns Patek that enlightenment comes at a cost:

“Truth is an exacting mistress, Patek, tolerating no disloyalty. You owe her all your adoration; every moment of your life must be devoted to her.”

Sittai invites Patek to join his religious community, but warns him he will have to renounce meat, alcohol and women. Patek is already married, and his wife pregnant, but he goes along with Sittae deciding he will collect his child later if it is a boy. Here Maalouf establishes religion as something central to life, which supersedes all other markers of identity including family and rank.

The child is, of course, Mani, who joins his father in the religious community where he now lives. He is a model pupil, in contrast to his best friends, Malchos, who dreams only of leaving, marrying a beautiful woman and starting a profitable business. Here we see the doubleness so important in Manichaeism echoed in Mani’s life. It is as a result of this friendship that Mani begins to visit the home of a Greek in town (strictly forbidden) and there the first seed of the faith he will develop is sown when he asks to restore a mural in the house. Once the work is complete he identifies one of the figures as John the Baptist, “Not at all,” the Greek tells him:

“…there was never any Baptist in this room. It must have been the goddess Demeter, mother of corn, or Artemis, the huntress, or Dionysus, the one all our banquets are dedicated to…”

It seems likely that we are to assume the idea of the interconnectedness of religions originates here. It is not, however, until he is twenty-four that he leaves his father’s community:

“If he stayed on so long with the White-clad Brethren, even though he rejected their practices and their beliefs, even though he suffered every day by having to live cheek by jowl with them, it was possibly because his desire to leave was accompanied by fear to which he was ashamed to admit.”

It’s worth noticing that Maalouf does not attempt to ‘modernise’ Mani by presenting his interior monologue. For the most part we remain on the outside; such aspects as the spiritual twin from whom Mani gets advice are presented at face value.

The most gripping part of the novel recounts Mani’s attempt to establish his religion, a dangerous mission at a time when religion and power are often intertwined, and anything which challenges religious orthodoxy can also be seen as a threat to political order. Mani encounters power when he is sent by the merchants of Deb to sue the Sassanian emperor, currently surrounding the city, for peace. Though the emperor does not convert to Manichaeism, he allows Mani to preach and sees him as a trusted advisor. From then on, however, Mani finds himself embroiled in court battles, opposed by the emperor’s Zoroastrian retinue:

“Many people have warned me against you, Mani, during all these years. Those who are envious and jealous, but also certain people whom I believe to be devoted and sincere… How can you count among your intimates someone who rejoices in your hesitation and will tomorrow grieve over your victories?”

Mani must decide whether to compromise his beliefs in order to ensure they are spread more widely.

As someone who left Lebanon as a result of the civil war of 1975, it’s not difficult to see the attraction for Maalouf of a religious figure who seeks to unite different religions rather than divide. His career as a writer also suggests an interest in demonstrating to Europe (he writes in French) the complex and varied history of the ‘East’. There is little attempt to impose contemporary psychology on his characters which can make them appear flat and distant, but his story-telling is wonderful and the reader quickly becomes entranced by the vibrancy of the setting and the vitality of the tale.

Night

October 11, 2020

In 1956 Elie Wiesel had finally written about his experiences during the Holocaust, convinced in part to do so by the French writer Francois Mauriac. The result was published in Yiddish that year in Buenos Aires; Wiesel had already created a French version, La Nuit, but struggled to find a publisher until 1958, and it was thereafter translated into many languages. In 2006 a new translation was undertaken by Wiesel’s wife, Marion, who had been translating her husband’s work for a number of years.

From the creation of the ghettos in Sighet (now in Romania) to the liberation of Buchenwald takes little over a year (March 1944 to April 1945) but Wiesel begins his book in 1941 when he is thirteen and deeply religious having, against his father’s wishes, found a man willing to guide him in his study of Kabbalah – Moishe the Beadle. This period of study is interrupted when all foreign Jews, including Moishe, are taken away:

“Crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian police, they cried silently. Standing on the station platform, we too were crying. The train disappeared over the horizon; all that was left was thick, dirty smoke.”

Here, of course, we can see Wiesel and the other observers’ futures, but the attitude is largely philosophical: “the deportees were quickly forgotten.” Even when Moishe returns to warn them, they dismissive. He tells them that the Jews were taken off the train in Poland by the Gestapo and marched into a forest where they were told to dig pits and then shot on the edge of them.

“Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns.”

The Jews of Sighet, however, would rather believe that he is mad. In fact, the reluctance to believe the worst continues throughout Wiesel’s story. When the Germans invade it is believed that they will stay in Bucharest – three days later they are in the town. When the Jews are placed in ghettos, “we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves.” Most people assume they will remain in the ghetto until the war is over (it is already clear that Germany will lose). Soon, however, they are in cattle cars and leaving Hungary (Hungary because the area which was Romania during the inter-war years had been part of Hungary since 1940). Even their arrival at Auschwitz is celebrated such are conditions in the cattle cars:

“Confidence soared. Suddenly we felt free of the previous nights’ terror. We gave thanks to God.”

If the first half is filled with unfounded hope, the second foregrounds the strength required to fight despair. In particular Wiesel finds his faith slipping away:

“For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank him for?”

As the war nears its end, and the Russian army approaches, the camp is abandoned and its 60,000 inmates marched out so they can be transferred to Buchenwald. Wiesel is recovering from an infected foot, but still goes on the march rather than remain in the infirmary (he later discovers that those left in the infirmary where soon liberated by the Russians).

“I was putting one foot in front of the other, like machine. I was dragging this emaciated body which was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body.”

Wiesel also worries about his father. On the one hand, his father sustains him – feeling his father running next to him, he states “I had no right to let myself die.” On the other hand, he fears he will betray him as survival is a single-minded skill. At one point he watches a father and a son fight over a crust of bread.

It seems ridiculous to call Night a ‘difficult’ book – how can any book be difficult when we are faced with life reduced to second by second survival? It is simply a book that will not leave you unmoved or untouched. Wiesel generally avoids rhetoric, and is unsparing in the description of his own emotions as well as his experiences. His doubts about whether to commit his memories to words are understandable, but his decision to do so is correct. He bears witness to his life as he does to his reflection at the end:

“From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
“The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”

A Dangerous Game

October 9, 2020

In 1956 Friedrich Durrenmatt was arguably in the middle of his most important decade as a writer. He had begun the 1950s with his two Inspector Barlach mysteries, The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion, and had just written one of his most famous plays, The Visit. Soon he would go on to write The Physicists and the novel he described as a “requiem for the detective novel,” The Pledge. In the meantime he wrote A Dangerous Game (included in Picador’s 1985 The Novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt, though not really long enough even for a novella) which also explores ideas of guilt and justice.

A Dangerous Game begins with a first part which is really a preface from the author, asking the question, “Are there any feasible stories still left for writers to write?” In his answer we begin to understand Durrenmatt’s attraction to the crime genre:

“And in our modern world there are only one or two feasible stories left, in which the fundamental nature of man can still be glimpsed in an ordinary face: in which some trifling misfortune accidentally impinges on the universal: and in which righteousness, justice, and perhaps even grace, are still made manifest, caught for a fleeting instant in the monocle of a drunken old man.”

The story proper begins when a travelling salesman, Alfredo Traps (it has also been translated as The Trap) finds himself stuck for the night after his Studebaker breaks down. The inn is full but he is directed towards a private house where a retired judge invites him to stay, asking only that he join him, and his friends, for dinner. This was not what Traps had planned (he is, we know by now, an inveterate womaniser) but he feels he cannot refuse. Predicting a dull evening, he is intrigued to be asked to take part in their game – one of trying either famous figures from history or, if they are lucky, “it was most fun when they were able to play with living material.”

“His host pointed out that they already had the judge, the prosecutor and the counsel for the defence – posts which in any case required knowledge of the subject and the rules of the game. Only the post of defendant was unoccupied.”

Traps is enthusiastic about taking the role. His defending counsel immediately recommends that Traps confess his crime but, of course, Traps points out that he is innocent:

“Mark my words, young friend… innocence doesn’t matter one way or the other. Tactics are what count.”

For Traps, the game is merely a lark. He happily tells the others about his life despite repeated warnings from his defending counsel to “Watch your step” and be “Careful.” His innocence is shown when, after telling them about his success in achieving his current position, he comments, “Wait until the interrogation begins,” only to realise from the reaction of the others that it began they moment he started talking. In particular, they have focused on his claim that, in order to gain promotion, his superior had to be “got rid of” – a statement compromised further by the fact that the man is dead, albeit of a heart attack.

Throughout the rest of the dinner the prosecutor attempts to lure Traps into admitting some form of guilt. Traps’ enthusiastic naivety and misplaced arrogance gives the reader little faith that he will be able to outwit the older men. Much like a Roald Dahl story, we are torn between the rational expectation that the game is simply a geriatric entertainment, and acknowledging the underlying sense of dread. Where Durrenmatt departs from Dahl is that his intentions are philosophical. Clearly A Dangerous Game is a minor work but one which further reveals the author’s preoccupation with justice and guilt. As a short story it more than delivers: excruciatingly tense and with an ending which satisfies the reader by bridging between the naturalistic and the macabre.

The Chase

October 8, 2020

In 1956 Cuban author Alejo Carpentier was in exile (again) in Venezuela – he would only return to Cuba three years later after Castro came to power (he was Cuban ambassador to France for a while). The novel he published that year, however – The Chase – though it is not explicitly mentioned, is clearly set in Havana. Despite being widely regarded as Carpentier’s best novel, and also an important influence on later Latin American writers (it is still ten years until Marquez writes One Hundred Years of Solitude), it was not until 1989 that it was finally translated into English by Alfred Mac Adam.

The Chase is a short novel in three parts. In the first part we meet a man on the run, as observed by the ticket collector in a theatre where a concert of classical music is currently underway:

“’A seat,’ said an urgent voice. ‘Any seat,’ the man added impatiently, while his fingers slid a bill through the bars of the ticket booth. The ticket books had been put away and, as the ticket taker was searching for the keys to get them out, the man disappeared into the darkness of the theatre. Then two more men came up to the booth.”

The ticket collector, who is also a music student, decides to take the bank note and use it to visit a prostitute, Estrella, but she turns him away, the note is a forgery, and he returns to hear the end of the concert. In the second part we learn of the journey that has led the fugitive to the theatre. We find him hiding in the house of an old woman, now bedridden, who once nursed him. The old woman dies and, after attending the wake, he goes to the house of Estrella, whom he also knows, and asks her to take a message to the one person he feels might still save him. She returns, however, to tell him that the bank note he gave her is fake, causing an argument with then taxi driver that soon involves a passing policeman and leads to an exit out of the window.

Eventually we discover why he is on the run. Responsible for an assassination using a bomb hidden in a book, he was captured and quickly confessed, implicating many of his comrades:

“He told them whatever they wanted to hear; he explained the recent attacks, and depicted himself as an apprentice, an extra, in order to lessen his own guilt; he listed the names of those who at that moment were sleeping on the couches in a certain villa in the suburbs or drinking an dealing cards at a long table in the dining room with their pistols hung over the backs of their chairs.”

Now he has one last hope of leaving the country, but when he reaches the house of the man whose help he was relying on, he finds it destroyed. In the third part we return to the theatre to discover the man’s fate.

Carpentier makes a number of connections between the narratives – not only the bank note and the relationships with Estrella, but more subtle links such as the man in hiding hearing the music of the music student, and the student seeing the wake. When the man is in the theatre is transfixed by the neck of the person in front of him:

“I must not look at that neck: it’s scarred by acne; it would be there, exactly there – the only place in the hall – so that the very thing I should not look at is near me.”

Later we discover that it reminds him of the first assassination he took part in:

“The back of the victim’s neck was soon so close that they could have counted his acne scars.”

The style of the novel is dense, with each chapter a single paragraph, using (as can be seen) semi-colons and dashes to break up the sentences. At times it is almost stream of consciousness, at others a distanced third person: in one chapter, the fugitive, whose every thought we have known, suddenly becomes “the person lying on the floor.” It is also morally dense, with the fugitive a heroic freedom fighter, a killer, a traitor, and possibly a police spy. His struggle for political freedom is contrasted with the student’s struggle for individual freedom, to be allowed to live as a musician:

“Despair gave way to shame. He would never get anywhere, never free himself from the maids’ room, from pressing his handkerchiefs on the mirror to dry, from worn socks tied up at the big toe with a piece of string, as long as the image of a prostitute was all it took to distract him from the True and the Sublime.”

These, of course, may represent contrasting forces which Carpentier understood. Despite its length, The Chase is not a quick read. The prose is demanding, and the reader is required to be attentive to the narrative which, at times, also feels like it is on the run. It is novel, however, in which passages can be picked out and enjoyed and, in that sense, it is easy to see why it was such an important work.

Zama

October 7, 2020

In 1956, when Argentinian writer Antonio de Benedetto published what is widely regarded as his most important work, Zama, he was still living in Mendoza, over six hundred miles from Buenos Aires. He therefore well understood the position of his title character, Diego de Zama, stationed in Asuncion, now the capital of Paraguay, but in the late eighteenth century when the novel is set, a relative backwater. Benedetto’s own self-imposed literary exile perhaps explains why the novel was not translated into English (by Esther Allen) until 2016.

Zama, it has to be said, is an unpleasant and impulsive man, one whose entitlement exceeds his rank, and whose passions exceed his common sense. In the novel’s first part, as he waits for news of his wife and children’s arrival from Spain, and a promised promotion which will see him sent to more prosperous parts, his impulses mainly direct him towards women. In the first few pages he spies upon a group of women bathing in the river even though he recognises “acknowledging my impassioned disposition, I must shun all stimuli that are contrived or deliberately pursued.” When he is caught and chased by one of the maids, he grabs her round the neck and slaps her, then pushes her onto the ground before leaving:

“With me went my anger, already yielding to bitter self-reproach. Character! My character! Ha!”

First Zama sets his eye on Rita, the youngest daughter of his host, but he is provoked to aim for a new target, Luciana, by the rumoured comment that she has “the most beautiful body Zama has ever imagined.” He enlists a visiting merchant to allow him an excuse to meet with Luciana while her husband is away, continuing even when the merchant falls ill:

“Such was my hunger for adventure and risk that I wanted the Easterner to remain prostrate, thought I did go to the trouble of passing by once more to inquire after his condition.”

The phrase ‘go to the trouble’ tells us exactly how little Zama cares for others (the man later dies). In general he is suspicious, in particular regarding his colleague, Ventura Prieto, as an enemy on very little evidence, and blaming him for discovering a blonde boy in his room one night:

“Without further words, without warning or delay, I deliver him two hard blows. He staggered, astonished.”

The fight ends with Zama slashing Prieto on the cheek, and Prieto in jail. Zama later has him exiled.

The first part of the novel largely focuses on Zama’s pursuit of Luciana, then we move forward four years. Zama has a son with a woman of a lower class, Emilia, but has little to do with either until he asks to move in with them when he is thrown out of his lodgings at an inn, unable to pay the rent. No money has been arriving from Spain and therefore he has not been getting paid:

“Perennially malnourished when not tightly sealed, my purse was held in ill repute, which forestalled all possibility that a household aware of anything beyond my name and position would afford me lodging.”

For much of this section Zama and his secretary Fernandez wrestle which obtaining enough food. The pattern of the novel is now clear: Zama, whose early promise is hinted at in the first part, now seems in irreversible decline. Even at the beginning he complained that, “my career was stagnating in a post that was, it had been implied from the start, only a temporary stopgap appointment.” Now, four years later, all that has changed is that is that his existence is even more precarious; the seduction of rich women has been replaced by a bastard son and his mother living in squalor, and the glimpse of a mysterious pale figure across the courtyard of his new lodgings. By the third and final part – the briefest – a further five years later, he has finally left Asuncion, but only for the desert, on the hunt for an outlaw with a group of soldiers. It almost seems a last desperate attempt to be someone else.

Zama is one of the great creations of literature: arrogant and offensive, he owns his faults, though not without some sense they may disadvantage him. He longs to get ahead but lacks any of the cunning needed to succeed, unable to flatter or kowtow. As his situation deteriorates, he earns the reader’s sympathy, but always with the recognition that he is his own worst enemy. Zama is a historical novel where the history lies largely in the character: prickly and pathetic, adrift at the end of the eighteenth century, Zama always feels like a dying breed.

The Sybil

October 5, 2020

1956: in the Soviet Union Khrushchev denounces the personality cult which has grown up around Stalin; in the US Elvis Presley appears on television for the first time and Norma Jean Mortenson changes her name to Marilyn Monroe. Around the world countries continue to gain their independence – Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia… Hungary attempts to leave the Warsaw Pact and Britain and France bomb Egypt in order to force a reopening of the Suez Canal. Oh, and the first ever Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Switzerland. And in literature? As it turns out, Karen and Simon have chosen a year filled with fascinating writing, as I’m sure we shall see in the coming week.

The Swedish author Par Lagerkvist enters 1956 already a Nobel Prize winner (1951) with a publishing career that began in 1912. In 1956 he published a novella, The Sybil, which would be translated in 1958 by Naomi Walford. Like his most famous work Barabbas, The Sybil is an overtly religious work, not only telling the story of a woman who becomes an oracle at Delphi, but including the legend of the Wandering Jew. It begins with that very character who has travelled to Delphi to discover his fate, only to be turned away:

“There was no answer to what he asked, they told him. No oracle in the world could answer it.”

He is sent instead, by a beggar, to “an old priestess of the oracle, an ancient pythia, cursed and hated by all because she had committed a crime against god.” It is to her he tells the story of how one day he was standing at his door when he sees a man approaching with a cross. The man rests against the wall of his house and, in the fear that this may prove unlucky, he tells him to move on. In turn, the man curses him:

“Because you denied me this, you shall suffer greater punishment than mine: you shall never die. You shall wander through this world for all eternity, and find no rest.”

Of course, the man dismisses the idea, but still it preys on his mind. Interestingly, the first effect his immortality has on him is to make him feel distant from his wife and child; he feels like “a stranger standing there, like some outsider who ought not to disturb them in their life.” Rather than, more obviously, have the man watch his family ageing, Lagerkvist has his perception of them altered: it is his mind as well as his body which has been changed. Already Lagerkvist has touched on two important themes of the novella: how contact with god changes us; and how divine punishment can be cruel and excessive.

These ideas continue through the story of the sibyl, which she tells the man in return. Her story begins when she is taken from her parents as an adolescent to the temple to be the voice of the oracle:

“It aroused a tumult in me; it frightened me, annihilated me – and filled me with boundless happiness.”

As with the Wandering Jew, Lagerkvist is very good in recreating both the physical and emotional aspects of her experience, from the “stifling fumes” and “stench of goat” in temple where she must prophesy, to the feeling of possession which overcomes her:

“I felt relief, release; a feeling not of death, but of life, life – an indescribable feeling of delight, but so violent, so unprecedented… It was he! He! It was he who filled me, I felt it, I knew it!”

The sybil’s “crime against god” is to fall in love with a young man who returns to the village and is apparently unaware of her role as a pythia. In this role she is regarded as “god’s bride” – and is, indeed, dressed as a bride – “the only bridal gown I would ever wear” – and is forbidden any other relationships. Eventually she falls pregnant, her secret is discovered and she is chased from the temple by a mob. Confusing matters further, just before she discovers her pregnancy she feels “violated” by god:

“…the god in the shape of the black goat, his sacred beast in the cave of the oracle, threw itself upon me and assuaged itself and me in an act of love in which pain, evil and voluptuousness were mingled in a way that revolted me.”

She never knows if the idiot son which results is the child of her lover or the god. For both the sybil and the Wandering Jew, god is far from loving:

“Yes, god is evil… Heartless and malignant. Revengeful to anyone who dares to love another than him. Towards him who dares forbid him to lean is head against his house. Cruel and merciless. He cares nothing for mankind, only for himself. And he never forgives, never forgets.”

Yet at the same time, the old woman questions, “What would my life have been without him?… If I had never experienced anything but myself?” Here Lagerkvist is facing up to the paradox of religion: its inability to explain a meaningless world while, at the same time, giving that world meaning. The Sybil grapples with the questions and doubts this raises, ultimately leaving the reader to decide where their loyalties lie, making the novel a powerful and unflinching parable of faith and despair.

Ankomst

October 3, 2020

“Clear and measurable phenomena are what I want,” the narrator of Ankomst tells us, “The language of indisputable realities, rather than dumb, undefinable feelings.” Yet her time in the far north of Norway – “This is where the world ends” – collecting data on seabirds, is far from clear or measurable as she finds she cannot entirely escape the abusive relationship with her husband, S, which sent her there, or entirely embrace the newer relationship with Jo which she hoped would flourish amid the snow and ice. Feeling guilt for leaving her young daughter, Lina, behind, she is also haunted by the death of a child more than one hundred years before.

Ankomst (the title, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘entry’ remains untranslated, which makes me wonder if it has connotations of ‘visitation’, a suggestion of the supernatural) is Gabrielsen’s second novel to be translated after The Looking-Glass Sisters in 2015, the story of two sisters in which setting – the claustrophobic interior of the family home – is equally important. On this occasion Gabrielsen is translated by Deborah Dawkin, whose previous work for Peirene Press includes Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room. The novel begins in hope as the narrator, having arrived in her isolated outpost, calls Jo:

“As I call him, an intense joy rises up inside me. Joy for everything that lies behind us and for what is in store, the experiences that are to come, the time that we’ll spend together out here.”

Almost immediately plans are changed as Jo tells her that he cannot yet leave his daughter as she has done:

“As though his love for Maria is greater than mine for Lina.”

The situation is complicated by their ex-partners: while S has insisted on custody of Lina, Jo’s ex-wife is often too busy to look after Maria. Yet, Jo’s reluctance to leave her also feels like a criticism, one previously in evidence in a scene recalled later when the narrator and her daughter sleep over at Jo’s: talking about her project she discovers that Jo is not really listening, “because his attention was directed towards the children.” It is on that same visit that he tells her, regarding leaving her child:

“I find this decision of yours so problematic that I don’t even know what I think about you anymore.”

This may make us speculate as to how certain Jo joining her is, one of a number of aspects of the narrative which we become increasingly unsure about. Certainly, she seems very afraid of her ex-husband, S, one reason why she has travelled to such an isolated spot, “out of S’s panoptic gaze and hopefully out of his mind.” She mentions a number of occasions when she fears his anger, including one when he suddenly turns the car off the road and down a deserted track. At the same time, we must remember that it is she who has brought the relationship to an end by having an affair, and so some anger is perhaps to be expected. The feelings of others seem to be an area of difficulty for her:

“Emotions should be like that too. Measurable. Predictable.”

Her fear, however, is real: at one point she receives a text from S and does not dare read it for two weeks.

Her reliability as a narrator is also called into question by her increasing obsession with an event which took place more than a hundred years before, when a child is killed in a fire at the settlement where she is living. More and more frequently she finds, “I drift into the thoughts of Olaf and Borghild,” increasingly identifying with Borghild:

“I continue to see her in my own movements… When I open the stove door and put on a couple of logs, I think how she too sat like this, on her knees, as she blew the embers to kindle a flame.”

At one point she thinks she sees Borghild, only to realise it is her reflection. That Olaf blames Borghild for their son’s death also seems to conflate with her own neglect of Lina:

“I am spinning a story out of thin air and my own experiences.”

The novel is taut with tension. Will Jo appear as promised? Will he narrator survive alone? And will S, as he has threatened, find her? Gabrielsen emphasises her isolation through accidents such as when she sprains her ankle or cuts her face with a fishing hook. She also regularly reminds us of S, not only through flashbacks and texts but when the narrator has her supplies delivered and the captain tells her S has “asked me to keep him informed of the situation here.” That he looks at her with “a scepticism mixed with a hint of concern” suggests that there might be reason to worry, as does her loss of memory for a few hours which include a conversation with Jo. As the end nears she feels “utterly alone, in a vulnerable place, and with the threat of a visit hanging over me.” All is prepared for a masterful conclusion.

Ankomst is a compelling human drama with the tension of a thriller. It asks unsettling questions about our relationships – with those we love, those we once loved, and those we should always love. Increasingly the reader, too, is isolated, as characters become less certain, their solidity dissipated as if walking off into a snow storm. By the end, we are left to answer those questions alone.

Slowness

September 29, 2020

Milan Kundera (and translator Peter Kussi) won the second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1991 with Immortality so there is every reason to suppose he would have made the long list with his following novel, Slowness, in 1996, this time with a different translator, Linda Asher, this being the first novel he wrote in French. Kundera himself features occasionally in the novel as he travels to and then stays in the chateau which is the setting for its stories, waking his wife as his restless imagination invades her dreams, “as if you’re dreams are a wastebasket where I toss pages that are too stupid.” Aware that he is inventing a new novel, she recalls:

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it.”

It’s difficult to resist the idea that Slowness is that novel, particularly as it descends into farce in the final pages.

Kundera first considers the concept of slowness as he drives to the chateau increasingly aware of the impatience of the driver behind him:

“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”

In contrast he recounts an 18th century French novella which tells the story of a young Chevalier who spends the night with a married woman only to discover he has been used as a decoy to disguise her true lover. Of the woman, Madame T, Kundera imagines “a gentle indolence emanates from her” and that “their adventure might bloom in all its splendid slowness.” Slowness not only allows us to experience but to remember:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Later, Kundera will contrast this encounter with a more modern one which seems grotesque in comparison. This second story begins with another idea (Kundera is nothing if not discursive), that of the ‘dancer’. A dancer, according to the character Pontevin, is someone who is performative in their moral actions: “The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks not power but glory.” Berck, he says, is the “king of dancers”, but he begins with a story of him being out-manoeuvred when another ‘dancer’ kisses a man with AIDS at a dinner. Realising he cannot either copy or outdo him, Berck instead flies to Africa “and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies.” As Pontevin says:

“Taking over the stage requires keeping people off it.”

In this Kundera seems to be outlining virtue-signalling (and those that condemn it) well before that phrase came into common use, summing up the attitude of the dancer as follows:

“He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”

In this way, Pontevin sends his friend (though a clearly inferior friend) Vincent to the chateau and a conference of entomologists where Breck will be making an appearance. It is there Vincent embarks on the grotesque amorous encounter mentioned earlier which ends in simulated sodomy by the hotel pool and includes the author addressing Vincent’s member in an attempt to understand its lack of arousal. (A scene which, as in a farce, will involve all the characters coinciding in the venue, each one ridiculous in their own way).

One of these is a Czech scientist, attending the conference after years of being denied his position in his own country. This, we are told, makes him feel, a “melancholy pride”, even though he was never really in opposition to the government, a fact he has slowly forgotten over time. When he tells this story to the conference he receives a rapturous response, led, of course, by Breck:

“…he feels famous and he wants his walk to his seat to be long and never-ending.”

Kundera has great fun with this character, no doubt recycling many personal incidents, as his name is either pronounced or spelt wrong (or both), central European capitals are mentioned interchangeably, and his country is referred to as being in the ‘east’. He is in the pool to shown off the muscles he has developed through manual labour through a series of handstands, another reason for his pride.

All the characters, in fact, are exposed to the reader’s laughter in one way or another, but at the same time Kundera is usually gentle in his ridicule. We understand the anxieties which lead them to expose themselves (though perhaps less so with the female characters) and therefore we rarely feel Kundera is vicious in the spot-lighting of their weaknesses. This can, however, have a distancing effect and, for some readers, it may seem too much like his characters are merely experiments in an idea, but the laughter – sometimes cringing, sometimes cruel – always feels very human. Slowness is a novel to enjoy, whether it is read languorously or at pace.

Long Live the Post Horn!

September 24, 2020

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament was one of my favourite novels of last year; the good news is that Long Live the Post Horn! (translated again by Charlotte Barslund) is even better. Its narrator, Ellinor, is a PR consultant who finds herself questioning her life. The crisis begins when she discovers an old diary and sees clearly the emptiness of her past – and present:

“…there was no sense of progression, no coherence, no joy, only frustration; shopping, sunbathing, gossiping, eating – I might as well have written ‘she’ instead of ‘I’. And had anything changed, had growing older made any difference?”

Her relationship with Stein, a divorcee with a young son, Truls, leaves her largely numb. When she meets Truls for the first time she finds the significance Stein places on this uncomfortable: “I was embarrassed on his behalf because he cared so much.” Similarly, a visit to her sister, Margrete, after she has had had a miscarriage leaves her feeling like “an imposter, a fraud” as Margrete assumes her distress is sympathetic. “Why couldn’t I feel the way I used to?” she wonders, “Except that was exactly what I didn’t want.”

In an echo of her own despair, one of her two business partners, Dag, goes missing and is later discovered to have killed himself. “I yearned for a breakdown,” she tells us, but even that release seems beyond her reach. In Paris to collect Dag’s body, she sees a group of homeless people gather beneath an awning to sleep:

“They were alone with their stories just like I was, I thought, except they were aware of it.”

Later she recalls this image as an escape: “I can go home, fly to Paris, and sleep under the awning.” Hjorth brilliantly captures the continual anxiety, to the point that it’s difficult to read this section of the novel without your heart beating faster and a knot of dread in your stomach:

“Even during my worst nightmares was more excited about continuing to dream than what the day I was waking up to would bring.”

Such a mid-life crisis is, of course, a staple of a certain kind of novel; Hjorth’s portrayal of it is almost too real (the first fifty pages read like an extended panic attack) but it is where Hjorth takes us next that marks the novel out as something special.

At the point of his suicide, Dag was working on the ‘postal directive’, an EU ruling that the Norwegian Labour government looks likely to enforce which will open postal services to competition (British readers will recognise a similar change which took place here). Dag’s remit was to prevent this happening, at the behest of the postal workers’ union, a task that Ellinor and her remaining partner, Rolf, will now need to take on. It is through this unlikely campaign that Ellinor will find a reason to continue; as she realises quite quickly, “I was lacking a cause.”

The change is not overtly political – it occurs when she meets the men and women of the post office in an attempt to school them in the rules of media communication, and listen to their stories for the first time:

“Rolf was bamboozled, but my heartbeat changed pace and my breath filled my body.”

She immediately decides that the training would, in fact, hinder their attempt to get their message across:

“If you were to write letters in the way I was going to teach you, your words wouldn’t move anyone.”

One story in particular moves her – that of a poorly addressed letter which eventually finds its intended recipient only because of the persistence of the local postman. What is the significance of this story? It demonstrates purpose, caring and connection (as all letters do) – all elements which seem to have gone missing from Ellinor’s life and which she now attempts to get back. Slowly she connects to Stein, realising for the first time, “he existed, he was real, he had a heart.” Instead of waiting for a future which she realises is not coming, “waiting for my fairy tale to begin,” she attempts to live in the moment:

“I didn’t want to distance myself, I wanted to engage with the present, but how could I without faking it. Stop faking, I ordered myself, be real!”

Just as Hjorth is convincing when it comes to Ellinor’s spiralling anxiety, she is equally believable when describing her struggle to change. It is neither instantaneous nor complete, but a process she must drive herself, all the time motivated by having a social as well as a personal goal. In this way, Hjorth turns the outcome of the postal directive vote into both a political and a personal drama in which the reader quickly becomes utterly involved. Her great skill lies in taking the most ordinary characters in the most ordinary situations and creating narratives which feel like life or death. She is no ordinary writer.