November 17, 2017

Euphoria begins with a group of men huddled together for warmth:

“When it’s too cold to lie down at night we remain standing. We stand close together, back to back, side to front. We turn slowly over the course of the night so that each one of us gets a turn in the middle, and from time to time each one of us has to be on the outside.”

Little do we know that this will be one of more optimistic scenes in Heinz Helle’s ironically titled, end-of-the-world novel (translated by Kari Driscoll). The next few pages reveal the scale of the disaster when they encounter a child sitting in the road next to the charred remains of a tent. That they simply leave the child (“The kid looks quite well fed. He will last another week at least”) even when they find his murdered parents lying further along the road suggests how ruthless their survival instincts have already become. As we shall see, the appearance of another human being will be a rare event.

Eventually Heinz allows us to glimpse the everyday world which lies before the burnt-out landscape of the novel’s present. The five men are friends who have rented a cabin in the mountains for a weekend break. The first sign that anything might be wrong is “thick, black smoke over the village in the valley” on the morning of their departure. At no point do they, or we, find out what has happened: the narrowness of their viewpoint, deprived of communication, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the novel. They walk in the hope of outpacing the devastation, but with no way of knowing how widespread it is:

“We see pylons with no wires between them, abandoned petrol stations, supermarkets, holiday homes, vacancy signs, here and there the burnt-out wreck of a car.”

Despite the destruction all around them, the most damaged aspect on the new world is human relationships. Where Cormac McCarthy’s The Road preserves a certain amount of balance in its presentation of the love between father and son, here the men act like a tribe, regarding outsiders as enemies. The few people they meet, like the boy, are either dismissed or attacked. When they encounter a woman, they casually rape her (“When it’s my turn, she doesn’t even raise her arms…”) leaving her unmoving, a piece of bread laid on her stomach. The world around them is portrayed in a similar fashion: they find an overturned tanker which has been forced off the road by ramps built out of logs:

“I imagine that the driver in the cab was desperate to get away, but he probably also had a broken leg, and so he had to lie and wait, and he knew what was coming.”

When one of their number, Furst, breaks his ankle, they leave him behind without debate:

“We leave him sitting in the wet grass, and we hope the night won’t be so cold that he will die in the dark. But cold enough that not long after sunset it will be over.”

Euphoria is a deeply pessimistic book. Though the friends stick together their unity is animal, to the point that there is very little dialogue in the novel. The short chapters also suggest the incoherence of their experience; although a first person narrative, there is little in the way of reflection as the basic needs of each day supplant all other thought. In comparison the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead looks positive cosy with its undamaged ecology and access to shops and vehicles. Reduced to walking and scavenging, Helle portrays human life as, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The novel’s conclusion drives the final knife into any hope we might have left, though a final chapter in which the narrator imagines “another perfectly ordinary Monday” might be read as a desperate plea to preserve what we have, characterising the novel’s incessant bleakness as a warning rather than a prediction.


Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology

November 13, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares have more in common than membership of the subset of writers who use three names: both Borges and Casares were admirers of their predecessor and had included ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’ in Extraordinary Tales. This fable was also to be included in an anthology of Stevenson’s work which they planned and hoped to translate and publish. Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition, but now, thanks to Kevin MacNeil, we can finally read their selection, if only in English. The Anthology cannot be described as the perfect introduction to Stevenson as it contains nothing of his most famous works – neither of his bona fide classics, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are represented, nor is anything of his historical novels, such as Kidnapped. Instead we have a selection of his essays, one of his best known short stories (‘The Bottle Imp’), ‘The Suicide Club’ (from New Arabian Nights) and a selection of fables.

Stevenson’s non-fiction is no longer well known, yet a quick glance at what he published in his lifetime will demonstrate it formed much of his output, including several volumes of travel writing. Even more neglected are the essays, many of which were collected in his lifetime, beginning with the publication of Virginibus Puerisque in 1881 (Treasure Island did not appear until two years later). Borges and Casares have chosen twelve of these to make up the first half of the Anthology, beginning with ‘Lay Morals’ from an unfinished treatise on ethics which was only published after Stevenson’s death. This highlights the way in which Stevenson was fascinated throughout his life by moral questions yet never found an easy answer in religion (it can be helpfully partnered with ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’). This is followed by five further essays which might be termed ‘moral’ ranging from the cosmic (‘Pulvis et Umbra’) to the everyday (‘On the Choice of a Profession’). The former contains some extraordinary writing:

“We behold space sown with rotary islands, suns and worlds and the shards and wrecks of systems: some like the sun, still blazing; some rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in desolation.”

Stevenson crafts his sentences, and, like any other craftsman, he has his favourite tool: the semi-colon. His longest sentence in this volume (I think) also features in this essay, coming in at two hundred and twenty-nine words. This is not to suggest he is long-winded; he can as easily deploy a deceptive simplicity:

“Education, as practiced, is a form of harnessing with the friendliest intentions.”

The remaining essays focus (perhaps unsurprisingly) on the art of writing, and include his famous manifesto, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, as well as lesser known insights such as ‘A Note on Realism.’ The latter debates the qualities of realism (Zola’s Germinal was published the year before Jekyll and Hyde) versus those of what Stevenson terms ‘idealism’ (or what might be known in post-modern terms as ‘fabulation’). Stevenson, despite what some might see as his vested interest, is able to see both sides of the critical divide:

“The immediate danger of the realist is to sacrifice the beauty and significance of the whole to local dexterity, or, in the insane pursuit of completion, to immolate his readers under facts…The danger of the idealist is, of course, to become merely null and lose all grip of fact, particularity or passion.”

The Anthology’s second half is filled with Stevenson’s fiction, from his earliest (‘The Suicide Club’ published in 1883) to his latest (‘The Bottle Imp’ from 1893). (As the dates demonstrate, Stevenson’s writing life was brief) The former is written very much as entertainment despite its dark premise, with an emphasis on breathless plotting and central characters who are self-consciously heroic. The latter, despite its supernatural premise, is more ‘believable’, Stevenson having developed his ability in ‘realism’ without losing any of his skill in constructing a story. Both noticeably, though in different ways, grapple with moral issues, as do the seven fables that follow (from the posthumously published Fables), brief stories which make a moral point, written in the style of tales or legends.

The Anthology provides a welcome reminder, not only of Stevenson’s range, but of the regard he was, and is, held in by other writers. Though his work is now widely available electronically, critical editions from respected publishers of ‘classics’ are not. If you want to buy his complete short stories you will have to buy an American edition. Luckily Robert Louis Stevenson Day provides an annual opportunity to read his work – one that everyone should take.

After Midnight

November 9, 2017

Though Irmgard Keun lived until 1982 – long enough to be appreciated as a writer for the second time – her best work is generally regarded to be those novels which describe living in Germany during the thirties: Gilgi (1931), The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) and After Midnight (1937) (alongside her exploration of exile, Child of All Nations, which was published in 1938). By After Midnight, the subjugation of all aspects of German life to National Socialism was impossible to ignore and it impresses itself on every page of the novel. Like Hans Fallada, however, Keun is interested in demonstrating the ways in which this new totalitarianism impacts on the life of ordinary men and women, particularly women.

The novel’s narrator is Susanne, or Sanna, a young woman who has already had to leave Cologne after being reported to the Gestapo by her relative, Aunt Adelheid, with whom she was staying at the time (an attempt to warn her off a developing relationship with her cousin, Franz), and now lives with her brother, Algin, and his wife, Liska, in Frankfurt. Algin is a once-successful writer who is threatened by the new regime:

“He has had another letter from the Reich Chamber of Literature. There’s going to be another purge of writers, and Algin will probably get eliminated. He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Fuhrer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far.”

It’s reasonable to assume Algin’s problems were also Keun’s, who was reluctant to go into exile, and later returned to Germany for the duration of the war. Keun, however, focuses the novel on the trials of the more prosaic Sanna and her friend Gerti. The novel takes place over one night, with flashbacks filling in the characters’ backgrounds, hence the title – though one can assume it also reflects a feeling that Germany has passed into a long, dark night of the soul. Sanna’s state of mind at the beginning is typical of many of the characters:

“I feel tired. Today was so eventful, such a strain. Life generally is these days. I don’t want to do anymore thinking. In fact, I can’t do anymore thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”

At present she is particularly concerned that Gerti will say the wrong thing – “Gerti ought not to go provoking an SA man like that” – as well as worrying about her friend’s relationship with Dieter:

“Dieter is what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class – I can never get the hang of these labels. But anyway, Gerti’s not supposed to have anything to do with him because of the race laws.”

Sanna’s confusion over ‘class’, and the informal nature of her language (’anyway’ features a lot in her vocabulary) actually highlights the ridiculousness of the prohibition. Her position as narrator, what might be termed her ‘common sense’ viewpoint, interested in individuals rather than politics, provides an effective vehicle for criticism. Anti-Semitism runs through every conversation, from Heini claiming that Breslauer, a Jewish doctor, is luckier than most (“I need my sympathy for thousands of fellow poverty-stricken emigrants”) to the claim of one visitor to the pub that he has discovered a way of divining Jews:

“You see, one can’t always tell who Jews are, straight off… But I can find him out with my rod!”

That he divulges this to Breslauer, bonded by their shared star sign, makes clear Keun’s view.

More generally, Politics is used as a weapon in petty rivalries and squabbles, as it was against Sanna by her Aunt. Franz also suffers when he attempts to set up a tobacconist’s shop with a friend to provide an income for himself and Sanna. Accused by a rival of anti-Nazi comments, by the time he is released the shop has been ransacked.

Though the pervading atmosphere of the novel is an almost unbearable tension, this is punctuated by two scenes of sudden violence which punch through any sense that life is somehow ‘carrying on’. Keun selects a day on which Hitler visits Frankfurt and we meet, among the celebrants, the young girl, Berta, who had been chosen to give him a bouquet and recite a poem. Hitler’s haste having rendered her surplus to requirements, she is performing for the benefit of the assembled drinkers when she collapses. “Bedtime for you!” her mother cries, but the girl is dead. The very unlikeliness of her death borders on comic, but this death foreshadows a later one which will provide the novel with its climax.

After Midnight is a heart-stopping evocation of Nazi Germany. Its narrow focus, both in terms of time and character, provide a snapshot of the everyday tensions, indignities and compromises faced by ordinary people whose loves and jealousies are immediately recognisable. The optimism of its ending seems slight in comparison.

You Should Have Left

November 5, 2017

I read You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann on Halloween (at just over a hundred short (literally) pages it was easy to finish in a day), ideal timing for what is, at heart, the story of a haunted house. The narrator is a writer – not unusual in the horror genre since Stephen King began to dominate – who has retired to the Alps with his wife, Susanna, and four-year-old daughter, Esther, for a working holiday (that is, they are on holiday, he has a screenplay to write, a sequel to his only successful film).

The house itself is not a typical haunted house:

“Not a musty little Alpine hut, but two storeys, new, and minimalist, with a narrow upper balcony and a large living-room window, clearly an architect-designed house.”

The views are beautiful but Kehlmann also quickly establishes its isolation – it’s a “terrible drive” to get there, along a road “with many hairpin bends and no side barriers.” Both the narrator and Susanna have difficulty coming to terms with the geography of the house:

“On the way to the bedroom we briefly got lost, because we didn’t know the house yet, and we ended up in a storeroom with a washing machine and a dryer.”

Later, having put Esther to bed, he gets lost again – “the corridor suddenly seemed longer to me.” Even a reader well-versed in the genre, however, is unlikely to take much notice as Kehlmann buries the unusual beneath layer upon layer of ordinary: the tensions of their marriage and his preoccupation with the screenplay. When the narrator visits the nearest village (again placing emphasis on the difficulty of the journey), the rural / urban disconnect is comic, items at the local shop being located one by one in a back room before appearing on the counter. This makes it easier to dismiss the store owner’s cryptic comment, “Anything happen yet?” and his even more cryptic gift, a triangle ruler (or set square). A woman who tells him, “Get away quickly,” is harder to forget, particularly when he returns home and, sitting at his desk working, looks at the reflection in the window:

“Only I don’t see myself. In the room in the reflection, there’s no-one.”

His reaction, however, is rational – to take a photo on his phone (of course, when he looks again his reflection is there) and to believe there must be an explanation:

“If I were a physicist, I’d probably know what it is, and all this wouldn’t surprise me.”

Things continue to become stranger in the house, however, for example, when the narrator goes to bath Esther:

“When I reached for the faucet, it was – how can I describe it? It was further back than it should have been.”

Although the effect is slightly spoiled by the word ‘faucet,’ which is perhaps the Americanism I find it most difficult to acclimatise myself to (to be fair to translator Ross Benjamin, he is American), this is exactly the kind of everyday eeriness with which Kehlmann begins to permeate the narrative, slowly building to a point where we feel the characters are in jeopardy without the need for any identifiably supernatural force (though it is supernatural in the strict sense that the house does not seem to follow the laws of nature).

I found You Should Have Left an excellent addition to the ‘haunted house’ genre, a horror story which might also be shelved under science fiction, but largely uses genre as a jumping off point for originality. Within the confines of the narrative, it’s true that even the narrator’s character is not fully developed, but Kehlmann builds tension superbly and never loses the reader to improbability. Though lacking the depth of his novels, it demonstrates his range and adroitness as a writer. A perfect tale for winter.

The Public Image

November 3, 2017

The Booker short-listed The Public Image was Muriel Spark’s ninth novel, appearing just before the more experimental The Driver’s Seat in 1970. Of all her pointed (or perhaps pointing) titles it is perhaps the most on point as the novel dissect the lengths to which an English actress, Annabel Christopher, will go to protect her public image, and the lengths her husband, Frederick, will go to destroy it. It has a rather tame beginning for Spark as we meet Annabel in the all but empty house she is moving into in Rome. The house, bought to bolster her reputation as a film star (as her husband’s friend, Billy, comments, “Is this all in aid of your public image?”), also echoes her public life – showy, empty and, as she comments when Billy simply walks in, lacking in privacy:

“…she had observed before that when people were in the process of moving into a new house, and until the furniture had arrived and been put in place, everyone felt they could come and go, like the workmen and the removal men, without permission.”

The pared back setting also reflects the novel as a whole, which does not feel as richly present in place as the Edinburgh of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or the London of The Girls of Slender Means. Like a stage set, the house will also be, flashbacks aside, almost the only setting.

Annabel is unapologetically presented by Spark as a very ordinary woman who has been thrust into the spotlight of stardom. The detached cruelty of the narrative voice informs us:

“…she had no mean of knowing that she was, in fact, stupid for, after all, it is the deep core of stupidity that thrives on the absence of a looking glass.”

As Frederick tells her, “You can’t act. You’re just lucky to get parts.” It is Frederick’s assumption of his intellectual superiority which leads him to believe he can ruin her by attacking her public image, but Annabel understands that he, too, is playing a part:

“…if only for effect, he had cultivated a private self-image of seriousness, and that she was a threat to it.”

In Annabel’s eyes it is just as much a “role” as the part he plays in the public image of their marriage, “impeccably formal by the light of day, voluptuously enamoured of each other under the cover of night.” In the novel, public image is not restricted to that presented to the media, but is also that we present to others, and ourselves.

Frederick’s plan to undermine the lie of her public image (their happy marriage) with another lie is the one true Sparkian touch in a novel where the satire can, at times, seem commonplace today. Having been missing for days, Annabel discovers that he has invited every friend, acquaintance and hanger-on to a house-warming party. As the guests pile in, much to Annabel’s bemusement, Frederick is meanwhile committing suicide, leaving behind a number of letters (including one to his dead mother) suggesting that he has taken his own life as a result of Annabel’s promiscuous behaviour (the word “orgy” is bandied about widely in the novel, as Spark, in typical fashion, reduces the most shocking aspect of Fredrick’s contrived scandal to amusement with repetition).

In what follows, Annabel attempts to immediately counteract Fredrick’s plot:

“I must say something to the press now, or it will be too late for the morning papers. Things like this are easily misconstrued, and I don’t want the world to get the wrong story.”

She gathers her neighbours around her in a scene we might expect an old master to paint rather than the press to photograph. Her director, Luigi, is doubtful (“Stop the orgy story? How do you stop the waves of the sea?”) but she is determined.

Spark allows Annabel a route to redemption through her baby. The fact that her son is referred to as “the baby” throughout suggests, at first, he is little more than a prop, and Annabel certainly uses him to prop up her public image and excuse herself from tiresome situations. Whether the initial cynicism is Annabel’s or the reader’s, Spark slowly reveals that, not only is her love genuine, but that it supersedes the need to retain her fame. The novel’s lyrical ending, where Annabel literally embraces her child, also acts as riposte to Frederick’s claim that she is “an empty shell”:

“Nobody recognised her as she stood, having moved the baby to rest on her hip, conscious also of the baby in a sense weightlessly and perpetually within her, as an empty shell contains, by its very structure, the echo and harking image of former and former seas.”

For all that Annabel is butt of her more obvious satire, Spark ultimately champions her against the attempts of the more ‘intelligent’ men around her to manipulate and control her life.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

October 31, 2017

1968 also saw the publication of Robert Coover’s second novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Waugh, Prop. Coover, at least, is a writer I have previously enjoyed in the form of Pricksongs & Descants and Noir; on the other hand, my knowledge of baseball is entirely limited to the Dan Bern album Doubleheader, and I’ve yet to even discover what a doubleheader is. Luckily Coover’s astonishing imagination and dynamic language were enough to carry me through, though I suspect a love of the game makes the novel an even more attractive prospect.

J. Henry Waugh is an accountant who, disenchanted with his job and perhaps his lonely life in general, has created a fantasy baseball league which he regards as his true work:

“It was true: the work, or what he called his work, though it was more than that, much more, was good for him. Thing was, nobody realised he was just four years shy of sixty. They were always shocked when he told them. It was his Association that kept him young.”

The game is played with dice, but it is more than a dice game, having a cast of characters which Waugh has created and lived with over many seasons. They don’t simply play ball – they walk, talk and feel like living individuals (Waugh has even developed two rival political parties). Indeed you might say the game is rather like a novel, as Coover proceeds to demonstrate by moving seamlessly between the two narratives: a conversation in which Waugh orders a sandwich takes place among the conversations in the stands as the game proceeds.

Presently he is relishing the excitement of a rookie player, Damon Rutherford, who is having an outstanding game:

“Henry was convinced it was Damon’s day… He laughed, almost carelessly… pitched the dice, watched Damon Rutherford mow them down. One! Two! Three! And then nonchalantly, but not arrogantly, just casually, part of any working day, walk back to the dugout. As though nothing were happening.”

Rutherford has a perfect game (though I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what that meant) and Waugh celebrates by heading to his local bar (Waugh jokingly calls the barman ‘Jake’ as he once did accidentally, mistaking him for one of his baseball players). Waugh celebrates with wine (well, beer), women (well, bar regular Hettie) and song – because his ‘game’ also contains a number of amusing songs, demonstrating that Coover’s facility with language extends to rhyme. During his amorous encounter with Hettie he insists that she call him Damon, and Coover takes great delight in describing their passion using the language of baseball:

“And…Damon Rutherford whipped off the uniform of the first lady ballplayer in Association history, and then, helping and hindering all at once, pushing and pulling, they ran the bases, pounded into first, slid into second heels high, somersaulted over third, shot home standing up, then into the box once more, swing away, and run them all again, and ‘Damon!’ she cried and ‘Damon!’”

Waugh can’t resist playing Rutherford in the next game, where he quickly nears the world record for perfect innings. Two throws of 1-1-1, however, lead him to the Extraordinary Occurrences Chart where, among the possibilities, he reads:

“Batter struck fatally by bean ball”

(A bean ball is a ball deliberately pitched to hit a batter). This eventuality would require an unlikely third throw of 1-1-1, but Rutherford is the next batter. Unfortunately he cannot find a plausible excuse to replace him, and so real is the game to him, he cannot simply do it on a whim. Of course, he throws 1-1-1:

“No one moved. All stared at the home plate. Damon lay there, on his back, gazing up at a sun he could no longer see.”

Waugh responds to Rutherford’s death as you might to the death of a loved one – in fact, his one friend at work, Lou, assumes it is someone close to him. Soon both his real life, and the Association itself, is threatened by his grief.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. is a novel ahead of its time in its examination of the lure of virtual reality. Waugh’s ‘in-head’ life (or online life as it would be now) comes to dominate his every waking hour making holding down either a job or a relationship problematic. Recreating that imaginary existence very much as the novel we are reading is created makes the reader complicit in Waugh’s escapism, and ultimately the novel showcases the power of the imagination to triumph over reality, for good or bad. All of this is relayed with the usual verve and humour we expect from Coover, demonstrating that a novel can also triumph over its reader’s sporting ignorance.

The Boat in the Evening

October 27, 2017

Sometimes a writer can exist on the periphery of reading for many years, a series of nods and nudges moving you ever closer to picking up one of their books. So it was with Tarjei Versaas, who I first became aware of over twenty years ago when I saw the 1987 film of The Ice Palace. In the last few years, numerous positive review of that novel and others by those whose opinions I trust have gathered momentum, so when I discovered, while exploring options for Karen and Simon’s 1968 Club, that his final book, The Boat in the Evening, was published that year it seemed that fate had finally decided it was time.

What I didn’t know was that The Boat in the Evening is not a novel, but “a series of semi-autobiographical sketches.” Despite this, it begins strongly with a story of the author and his father. The first few lines give an indication of Vesaas’ style, at least in this translation by Elizabeth Rokkan:

“There he stands in sifting snow. In my thoughts in sifting snow. A father – and his winter-shaggy brown horse, in snow.
His brown horse and his face. His sharp words. His blue eyes and his beard. The beard with a reddish tinge against the white. Sifting snow. Blind, boundless snow.”

The repetition and short sentences are more reminiscent of poetry (Vesaas was also a poet) and, indeed, at times the prose breaks into lines. The chapter (around nineteen pages long) is short on action but develops a powerful sense of the relationship between the young Vesaas and his father. In it he is helping his father clear snow from the logging roads when their horse cuts its leg. The father attempts to urinate on the wound to clean it but cannot (“I’ve been sweating too much today”) so Vesaas (who is generally referred to as “the child” – the story only occasionally drifting into first person) is ordered to do so in his place. His own failure tells of a more general sense of failing and weakness as he sees himself through his father’s eyes:

“The black command that came out of the wall of stone. It cannot be explained. He cannot perform. Not one miserable drop.
A caustic look from the man above him rests on him and paralyses him so that he cannot move either.”

The second chapter, ‘In the Marshes and on the Earth’, tells of an encounter with cranes and was less enthralling. The third, ‘Spring in Winter’, depicted my favourite scene, a young woman slowly covered in snow as she waits for the man she loves. He does not appear and it is the narrator, who is in love with her himself, who must tell her this. Once again, Vesaas is able to convey the nuances of the relationship with great depth and subtlety:

“He unpacked her out of the little snowdrift on her breast. She saw that his fingers were uncertain. And so cold, she thought.
What will he do?
She held her breath, but all he did was go on unpacking her. Bit by bit she turned into an ordinary girl.”

Unfortunately for much of the rest of the book Vesaas loses interest in other people, becoming instead fascinated with landscapes and visions. In ‘Daybreak with Shining Horses’ Vesaas and a friend, Per, witness a strange sight: both an inexplicable light (a “shining aura”) and a naked girl in the distance. No rational explanation or reaction is required as Vesaas assumes we will simply fall under the spell of his incantatory prose:

“We could not help but believe what was approaching had its own sense of power… Our bodies were buoyant… We thought of it as air, but knew it was the glow of something approaching…”

Later we are told “we were alive and more than alive, we were open and ready to be filled with what was coming.” Clearly Vesaas is recalling an important moment, but by retelling it without context the visionary element becomes detached and meaningless. This method persists for much of the remainder of the book, with Vesaas attempting to instil meaning into ordinary events through insistently poeticising them. Often he will take a metaphor (such as “mirror” in ‘The Drifter and the Mirrors’) and repeat it page after page until it is completely severed from whatever it originally described. Or he will attack the reader with a series of questions in an imitation of profundity:

“Was that answer good enough? Why did that answer come? Does it perhaps not matter so much anymore?
What does good enough mean?
What does matter mean?”

This is not to say that the book is not full of wonderful lines – many of the sections (much shortened!) would, I’m sure, make excellent poems. Where there is an element of narrative, there is enough to suggest that Vesaas is, indeed, a novelist worth reading. The Boat in the Evening, however, is a wishy washy mishmash of prose and poetry, the prose thickening the beauty of the poetry, the poetry thinning the sense of the prose, until there is very little of anything appealing left on the page.

Vernon Subutex 1

October 22, 2017

Despite Maclehose’s Press reputation as a publisher of typically wonderful translated fiction, and the temptation to take a completist approach to their new Read the World series (with its echoes of the Harvill Press’ numbered editions in the nineties), I found it difficult to be enticed by the fourth release, Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex (translated by the ever-reliable Frank Wynne). I suspect my suspicion of anything labelled punk, grunge or trash fiction originates in my lack of sympathy for the Beats. Certainly the cover was striking and unmistakeable, but was I really the target market? In fact, the novel is both ambitious and accomplished, nothing less than a panorama of French life at the beginning of the 21st century. In particular it focuses on Despentes’ generation, those who were born into an analogue world and have had to either adapt or die in the new digital age. Vernon has failed to adapt: having spent many pleasant years as the owner of a record shop – with the twin advantages of making a living out of his first love, music, and easy access to his second love, women – he now finds himself without an income:

“These days, his chances of finding work were slimmer than if he had been a coalminer.”

When Alex Bleach, the only one of his friends to have made it big in the music business, dies, and, more importantly, can no longer be relied on to pay his rent, Vernon also finds himself without a home. As he sofa-surfs from friend to friend – contacting them – of course – via Facebook – Despentes introduces us to his past (as he avoids contemplating his future), and a generation whose best years are behind them.

Rather predictably the novel, with its large cast of characters, has been compared to contemporary box sets. This seems both an unlikely and patronising comparison. Firstly, it has very little in the way of plot, though it does have plot-generating McGuffin in the form of tapes Bleach recorded and left with Vernon which a number of characters are keen to get their hands on. The most obvious predecessor for Despentes is, of course, Balzac, particularly when we learn there are another two volumes to come. There also seems to be a sly nod to Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manuel which also tells the stories of many characters but is centred on one apartment block: what could be more appropriate than a contemporary version where the writer is able to tell those stories because the protagonist is homeless?

Vernon has been unable to leave his youth behind; rather it has left him. When his friends left Paris for the suburbs he stayed behind. He is “haunted by the memory of the girl who got away” – or the girl whose possessions he dumped outside his flat when he discovered she was seeing someone else – an untypically decisive if hypocritical gesture (she had already forgiven him a number of affairs). Though seemingly able to easily charm women, he is wary of relationships:

“Vernon understands women, he has made a study of them. The city is full of lost souls ready to do his cleaning and get down on all fours to lavish him with lingering blowjobs designed to cheer him up. But he is too old to believe that all this comes without a series of reciprocal demands.”

“Friends are different”, he says, but as his friends get older, and begin to die, he increasingly isolates himself:

“After he buried Pedro, Vernon stopped going out, stopped retuning phonecalls. He thought it was a phase, that it would pass. After the deaths of several close friends, it did not seem inappropriate to need to withdraw into himself.”

Though he is not an unsympathetic character, Vernon is by nature a parasite. When Alex Bleach dies, his first thought is, “Who is going to pay his back rent?” In the one part of the novel where he demonstrates any talent it is as a DJ: using the talents of others to impress. His only other skill is his ability to seduce women, which he can also use to his advantage:

“As he stepped in, he noticed that the couch was not a sofa bed and besides was piled with mountains of clothes. If he was going to sleep here, he would have to share her bed.”

Perhaps the reason he remains sympathetic is that it is clear that he genuinely loves women even while he uses them. When he goes to stay with an old friend, Sylvie, he is initially delighted they are attracted to each other. Unfortunately her desire for him lasts longer than his for her, to the point he begins to drug himself so he can bear her company:

“He had left her to calm and went to look in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom where he found some tranquilisers. From that day on, he took one every morning when he heard her getting up.”

This is not a novel to renew your faith in humanity. Despentes roving narrative allows us access to the thoughts to her many characters, and most of it is unpleasant. For example, Kiko, a wealthy hedge fund manager:

“The cultural habits of the poor make Kiko want to puke. He imagines being reduced to such a life – over-salted food public transport talking home less than €5,000 a month and buying clothes in shopping mall.”

Or Noel, a right-wing thug whose hobbies include beating up the homeless:

“And remember to save up for when you have cancer, you fucking prole, the public hospitals are overrun by illegals from all over the planet who know France is the place to be. When it’s not North Africans being used to drive down working class salaries, it’s factories moving abroad to where people are starving. And why wouldn’t they?”

Despentes ability to inhabit the minds of her characters, and invest them with an individuality which rises above caricature, is the novel’s most astonishing achievement. Its final pages, where the narrative skips from person to person in a series of “I am”s which becomes steadily more intense makes Despentes’ choral intent clear. There’s nothing punk about this fiction except perhaps the energy which pours from its pages; it is both controlled and carefully crafted, a novel of our times and for our times.


October 19, 2017

Abandon is the second of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novels to be translated into English by Arunava Sinha following Panty last year. Once again Bandyopadhyay seeks to explore the experience of Indian women with a rawness and honesty which is only matched by the skill and awareness with which she constructs the novel. It tells the story of a mother and child, Ishwari and Roo, seeking first refuge and then survival while on the run from Roo’s father’s family. Ishwari, having given Roo up as a young child, finds herself unable to live without seeing him:

“Countless days and nights without Roo in them haunted her like an unforgiving famine… Ishwari had become insane with need for her son.”

Despite this she is also aware that Roo will make her life more difficult:

“Why did you come away with me like this? All I wanted was a glimpse of you. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city.”

The novel carefully balances her love for her son with the frustrations of trying to care for him without any support and very little money. Luckily they are taken in by a boarding house thanks to the kindness of the caretaker, Gourohori Babu, who lets them stay in an attic room. Babu will be the first of a handful of characters who will show Ishawari kindness, though perhaps the only one who does not hope to receive something in return. At first Ishwari is only guaranteed one night’s shelter, but she manages to convince the owner of the hotel to let her stay longer. She is also able to find employment, but struggles to keep it as Roo falls ill. Her second job lasts only five days:

“On the fifth day of work… Roo fell severely ill. For three out of the five days Roo had been locked in the room from nine in the morning to seven in the evening…. Gourohori stayed by his side on the fifth day – that night Roo began to burn with a high fever.”

The novel, then, tells of the struggle for survival of a lone mother and child in a society with no safety net – but Bandyopadhyay has a greater ambition than simply to move us by describing Ashwari’sand Roo’s suiffering. Early in the novel she introduces a symbiosis between author and character:

“My famished love showers blessings on him [Roo] and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishawari continually slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window.”

Bandyopadhyay reflects this relationship in the narrative’s drift between first and third person. The relationship itself is complex: partly it is created as she imaginatively inhabits her character, but also more literally she is, in part, her character. This is true of all writers but it strikes me that Bandyopadhyay is pre-empting the assumption that women’s writing, particularly when outside ‘Western’ literature and dealing with poverty, is autobiographical. At times she identifies points where their stories cross over:

“I abandoned domestic life, left my child to arrive at a distant land to write a novel.”

It is noticeable that this frequently happens when she draws attention to her art, and the novel takes on a self-conscious aspect from the first page:

“The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.”

“One day,” she says later, “this novel will stop joy in its tracks and throttle it.” It is a “predatory novel.” Bandyopadhyay is not simply adding a post-modern gloss to her work; she is making clear that the novel is not simply an emotional outpouring. She is also identifying a danger within the genre in which she is writing (novels which describe the suffering of the poor) by alluding to the pleasure readers may get from indulging in the misery of others:

“…to the reader of this novel, I’m sure, all kinds of humiliation faced by humans, by the hungry, by the afflicted, by the beggar, by the injured are effective. The more meticulous the description of this humiliation by the writer or poet or painter, the more successful they are, the more triumphant their art. The more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable.”

Bandyopadhyay will continue to bruise the reader throughout, and all these aspects will contribute to a powerful ending which affirms in way the reader may not like or expect. It is exactly this, however, that marks Bandyopadhyay out as a novelist of great craft and skill as well emotional depth and honesty.

The Evenings

October 12, 2017

Gerard Reve is generally regarded as one of the three major post-war Dutch writers alongside Harry Mulisch and W.F Hermans. While Mulisch has been reasonably well treated by translators (though much of his work is now out of print) and Hermans less so (though both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles are well worth seeking out), Reve has been all but neglected. (So much so that in 2011 he featured in Writers No-one Reads, where you can find an exhaustive list of what was available in English at that time). Last year he was finally recued from this oblivion when Sam Garrett’s translation of his first novel, The Evenings, was published by Pushkin Press.

The protagonist of The Evenings is Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker whose life seems to have ground to a halt in the gloom of a Dutch winter. While his brother, Joop, is married, and his friends Jaap and Joosje have a child, he remains with his parents in a state of perpetual irritation:

“’Good morning, Father,’ Frits said. To speak these words, he felt as if he first had to clear his windpipe of a stone, which now fell at his feet.”

He regards his parents as ignorant and ill-mannered and alternates between criticism and forced gaiety. “The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,” he tells his mother, while at the same time thinking, “Make it sound like I’m joking.” He confides to his friend Viktor:

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that.”

Reve makes us fully aware of the disparity between Frits’ feelings and what he says by punctuating the narrative with Frits’ thoughts, a running commentary on the situations he finds himself in and the people he meets, frequently cruel and critical. By placing his thoughts in speech marks, and not dogmatically paragraphing each new speaker, he creates momentary lapses where we are uncertain if Frits is thinking or speaking. The fact that Frits’ cruellest thoughts are often spoken out loud makes second guessing impossible. An early example is his suggestion that his brother is balding:

“Listen, Joop… without meaning to be nasty, your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand.”

Baldness is a topic he broaches with many of his male friends and acquaintances; in his suspended adolescence it seems to be an accusation of ageing. He also happily tells Joosje that her child (another sign of adulthood)

“…is, in truth, a terrible little monster… The nerves have developed all wrong. It probably doesn’t have long to live.”

His inner monologue is given a certain pathos, however, as he clearly uses it to stave of his own unhappiness:

“An early start, this will be a day well spent.”

Later, with reference to visiting his brother, he thinks, “We shrink from nothing… It would be childish not to go. One must face one’s torments head on.” Though never explicitly stated, he seems as despairing of his own existence as he is of others. His nights are frequently spent searching for company or going to the cinema, almost anything to distract him from the emptiness of his life: Frits’ unpleasantness is redeemed by his own despair.

We also see him show kindness to his parents, asking questions on topics which he knows his father will speak on and making cheerful remarks, attempting to bridge the gulf between them while aware he has no hope of success. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a masterpiece of this type of communication, for example when he discovers his mother has bought fruit cordial thinking it is fruit wine:

“‘I’m sure it will be good, said Frits, ’It doesn’t matter much.’ ‘And now the moment for tears has arrived,’ he thought. His eyes grew moist.”

Frits’ own tears are existential, here contrasted with his mother’s tears of frustration, but “Shall we pause and feel sorry for ourselves?” is the danger he feels, and fights off, constantly. Frits’ complexity is the novel’s greatest success. It has been compared (by Herman Koch) to The Catcher in the Rye, and, though I am naturally suspicious of any comparison which appears on a book jacket, there are many similarities. Frits may be older, but he suffers from the same narcissistic ‘what is the point of life’ isolation, let down by, and alienated from, everyone he knows. Let down, also, by the seventy years we have had to wait to read this powerful addition to the genre.