A View of the Harbour

October 13, 2016


The loneliness which seeps through Elizabeth Taylor’s A View of the Harbour like damp sea air may not be as ingrained as that to be found in the novels of Jean Rhys – these, are after all, people with appearances to keep up – but it would be fair to say that few characters in the novel experience much in the way of happiness. The friendship at its centre, between old school friends Beth and Tory, is built upon a betrayal; its other characters live in the desperate isolation best exemplified by Mrs Bracey, unable to leave her house and living only through what she sees and hears of others:

“Bored, she was, frustrated; not only her body but her mind, her great, ranging, wilful imagination… the brilliance, the gossip had gone from life.”

She complains that her daughter, Iris, who works at the local pub, the Anchor, “don’t give a crumb of it away. Thinks I’m being nosey.” Iris, meanwhile, is dreaming of a better life: “in her mind Laurence Olivier kept opening the saloon door and coming into the bar.” In the Anchor the running joke is the landlord’s assertion that, “It’s been quiet to-night,” every night.


Mrs Bracey and Iris are typical of the novel’s characters, lives on hold, watching out for a better future like a ship on the horizon, in a town which has all but closed down:

“The Waxworks exhibition looked sealed, windows covered with grey lace; next door the second-hand clothes shop was having a lick of paint; the first coat, salmon pink, framed the display of dejected, hanging frocks; shutters covered the Fun Fair…”

(Even the lick of paint feels like a cry for help). Only Tory and Bertram, a retired sailor who has come to the coast to paint, make any attempt to influence their fate. Tory’s loneliness is palpable since the departure of her husband, Teddy, with a younger woman:

“That house maddens me. I shall let all the clocks run down, I think, so that I can’t hear them ticking.”

She finds herself beginning an affair with Beth’s husband, Robert – that they have previously avoided each other (“We don’t…hit it off”) perhaps speaks of some suspected attraction. Tory puts up some resistance but, as Robert says, “too late.”

Bertram, meanwhile, ingratiates himself with most of the other characters, even going as far as to spend time with Mrs Bracey. For a while it seems he may take up with Lily Wilson who, like Tory, is husbandless (in her case a widow) and fears going home alone each night (though having to go through a roomful of waxwork killers might make anyone a little nervous):

“As the days went by it seemed to Lily Wilson that her very happiness was staked upon Bertram… No longer did she fear the light failing and all those wretched thoughts about the future…”

As with most characters in the novel, Lily’s dreams falter and fail in the realm of reality; unable to bear a return to her lonely existence she instead sacrifices her reputation, leading Bertram to comment later, “Well, I compromised myself there… If all I hear of that girl is true.”

The only character who achieves any degree of happiness is Beth, seemingly oblivious to much that is happening around her as she types her latest novel. Her writing, however, seems as much as burden as a joy:

“Even if she wished to be released from it, as she sometimes did which, she knew that she could not. The imaginary people would go on knocking at her forehead until she died.”

This may sounds rather gloomy and depressing, but that takes no account of the wit and brio with which Taylor writes. While she is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, she frequently raises a sardonic smile in a way that is similar, though not as detached, as Muriel Spark. A View of the Harbour may well be her most accomplished novel as she skilfully recounts its numerous stories, blending and contrasting with precision and rarely a word wasted. It also has my favourite ending (nothing to do with the plot) as Teddy appears in his yacht, catching sight of the town and thinking, “Nothing has changed.” This view from the harbour, in a novel where watching plays such an important role, reminds us that, whatever we’ve seen, we haven’t seen it all.

Nightmare in Berlin

October 11, 2016


If I could have read any book published in 1947 for Karen and Simon’s 1947 Club I would probably have started with Jean Giono’s Un roi sans divertissement or Jose Saramago’s Terra do Pecado. Unfortunately neither seems to have been translated into English (if you know differently, let me know), but fortuitously another previously untranslated work from that year has recently appeared: Hans Fallada’s Der Alpdruck. Nightmare in Berlin (translated by Allan Blunden) is Fallada’s penultimate novel, written shortly before Alone in Berlin, which was also published that year.


Jenny Williams (author of Fallada biography More Lives Than One) has described it as “The book that cleared the way for Alone in Berlin,” and we see something of that in the novel itself which is largely autobiographical and makes reference to the central character, Doll’s, crisis of faith regarding his writing. We can find an accurate summary of the novel in the notes on Fallada’s life provided at the back:

“Marriage in Berlin to the 22-year-old Ursula ‘Ulla’ Losch, who also has a history of morphine addition; because of the ceaseless air-raids they…move out to [Ulla’s] wooden chalet in Klinkecken, on the outskirts of Feldberg; when the war ends Fallada is made mayor of Feldberg by the occupying Red Army; in August the couple suffer a breakdown and are hospitalised; they return to their apartment in Berlin-Schoneberg which is partly destroyed, partly occupied by others…”

Much of what Fallada writes in Nightmare in Berlin is therefore almost contemporaneous with events around him. The novel begins with Doll and his wife Alma awaiting the arrival of Russian troops after the SS pull out of the town. As other villagers consider hiding in the woods, Alma announces:

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not hiding anything away; my husband and I are going to welcome the long-awaited liberators at the door of our house!”

Doll, however, is not feeling so optimistic: yes, he is pleased at the defeat of the Nazis, but at the same time he despairs for his country:

“…he knew, at least in theory, that ever since the Nazi seizure of power and the persecution of the Jews, the name ‘German’, already badly damaged by the First World War, had become progressively more reviled and despised, from week to week and month to month. How often had he said to himself, ‘We will never be forgiven for this!’”

He has a recurring dream (or nightmare) in which he is trapped at the bottom of a bomb crater:

“He was lying at the bottom of a huge bomb crater, on his back, his arms pressed tightly against his sides, lying in the wet, yellow mud. Without moving his head, he was able to see the trunks of trees that had toppled into the crater, as well as the facades of houses with their empty window openings, and nothing behind them.”

This sense of helplessness pervades the novel, a helplessness which is exacerbated by the Dolls’ use of morphine. Despite the threat of an occupying army Alma ventures out to “replenish her supply of gallbladder medicine,” going as far as to ask one of the Russian soldiers to open the chemist’s shop for her.

Morphine addiction also haunts their return to Berlin, as we see when Doll finally finds a doctor to see his wife (who has injured her leg). She refuses to go into hospital but is happy instead to be treated with morphine at home:

“The effect was immediate: no sooner had the needle gone in than Doll saw the relaxed, almost happy, expression spread across his wife’s face.”

Soon they have numerous doctors coming at different times in order to receive more and more of the drug.

After each of these periods of addiction Doll regrets the time wasted in what he calls their “bed-graves.” This fear of addiction may explain the inclusion of a lengthy detour which recounts Doll’s confrontation with Dr Wilhem, a vet reduced to alcoholism.

While addiction may not characterise every survivor, Fallada paints a vivid picture of life in the aftermath of the war. Doll has to come to terms with the fact they are little more than beggars:

“Now the Dolls, too, were down and out, with only a small suitcase to their name, homeless, dependent on the help of friends, strangers, maybe even public assistance.”

Every time they meet an old friend they discover that each of them is so eager to tell the story of their misfortunes they have no patience to listen to the other. Fallada is particularly good, as he is in all of his novels which I have read, at detailing the minutia of hope and despair, the small victories and defeats which characterise a life of struggle. This, more than anything, gives the novel its dramatic force.

Nightmare in Berlin may not be as great a novel as Alone in Berlin, but it is a powerful testament of the time in which it was written. That strength is also perhaps its weakness, mined from life in reaction to the fear Doll expresses that “Maybe I’ll never write another book. Everything looks so bleak.” Even its last few pages, however, contains many wonderful moments, from Doll’s nurse, Truller, who asks everyone leaving the hospital, “And if you should hear anything – you know what I mean – you’ll let me know at once?” in reference to her missing son, to the young girl Doll spots in the street:

“Her dress appeared to have been made from a couple of flour sacks. When the wearer made it she still retained a little bit of hope, despite her wretched circumstances; she had added some crudely embroidered decorative trims and a little white collar, as if to say, ‘I’m young, you can still look at me, even if I’m only wearing a dress made from old sacking!’”

And, of course, we can enjoy Doll’s friend and fellow writer, Granzow’s, remark that “one day you’ll write the book that everyone is waiting for!”

Solar Bones

October 9, 2016


Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is, in many ways, an apocalyptic novel. No wormhole opens in the sky threatening otherworldly invaders, nor are its streets crowded with shambling corpses, but behind the layered normality, as paragraph after paragraph piles up, thought over thought, there is an end of the world insinuation, like rot, weakening the structures of the everyday.

Solar Bones begins with Marcus Conway at his kitchen table:

“the kids all away now and of course Mairead is at work and won’t be back till after four so the house is mine till then, something that should gladden me as normally I would only be too happy to potter round on my own here, doing nothing, listening to the radio or reading the paper, but now the idea makes me uneasy, with four hours stretching ahead of me till she returns”

Over the next 200 pages Marcus reflects on his life and marriage, his relationship with his father and his two children, Darragh and Agnes, in one unspooling piece of prose, broken into sections but not sentences, each paragraph joined to the next in a relentless flow. Memories merge with recent events, as we piece together the days before beginning with the opening of Agnes’ exhibition where Marcus is shocked to discover she has been painting with her own blood:

“whatever dreams a man may have for his daughter it is safe to say that none of them involve standing in the middle of a municipal gallery with its walls covered in a couple of litres of her own blood”

Shortly after Mairead falls ill:

“I stood by the side of her bed, frequently at a loss as to what exactly I should do, her face glossed with sweat, skin glowing in the weak light of the bedroom and something deathly about the way this illness closed her eyes”

The illness is traced back to a glass of water she drank when they went out for a meal in the city after the exhibition: the water supply has become contaminated and Mairead is just one of thousands to feel the effect:

“the story started drifting towards us in mid-March, coming out of the middle distance with its unlikely news of viral infection and contamination, a whole city puking its guts up, the stuff of a B-movie apocalypse seventy miles up the road”

As Marcus nurses her back to health, a wider debate over how much control we have over our lives opens up. As a civil engineer, Marcus builds a world of function and utility, but in his job we see that it is politics which often has the final word. When he refuses to sign off on the foundations of a school, believing them to be unsafe, the contractor simply goes above his head to the local councillor. He points out a lamppost to Mairead which has been placed in the corner of a field so that the farmer can feed his cattle:

“that’s ridiculous
it’s not as ridiculous as trying to remove it now, when our engineer tried to do that he was told fairly sharpish that he could forget about making a budget submission the following year if he moved it”

He tells Darragh a joke about a lawyer, a doctor, a politician and an engineer arguing about which profession came first. The engineer proposes that it must be his as God was the first engineer when he created the earth and the heavens out of chaos. “Who do you think made the chaos,” says the politician.

The water contamination, too, is an engineering problem – “the politicians will make sure the engineers take the blame for this” – demonstrating that engineering alone is not the answer. Marcus knows this form a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague:

“it became clear from their craft and complexity that these machines, with their screws and gearing mechanisms were… the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their gifts”

Marcus’ doubts can be seen in his original intention to join the priesthood before turning to engineering, two different ways of understanding the world. The novel quietly questions us on how we understand the world and how much control we have over it. In the face of our limitations, it offers a very ordinary love.

The novel’s conclusion is revealed in its blurb (or maybe I’m just a bit slow) which luckily I hadn’t read, and would suggest any potential reader avoid. Often beautiful, at times elegiac, it is an immersive experience from which readers will not emerge untouched.

Martin John

October 4, 2016


“I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be,” might well be the credo of the Goldsmiths Prize, so it is perhaps no surprise that Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John is to be found on the short list. Martin John is an unusual novel, but then Martin John is an unusual man:

“They had come for him after the incident outside the SuperValu shop, down the lane with the girl.
They had come for him with the one on the bus.
They had come for him that time with the girl who said he put his hand down the band of her skirt.
The other girl where he put his hand between her legs.
They had come for him.
They were her brothers. It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly.”

Martin John doesn’t mind the beating – “He derived pleasure from their aggression” – but his mam decides something must be done:

“- We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop, we’ve to stop it.
Could he stop it? What would he stop?
– Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She will never give voice to that which she wished stopped.”

Martin John is exiled to London where he finds work as a security guard:

“Mam has warned him the only thing keeping him on the straight is the job…
The job, she points out, stopped you doing the other stuff. The other stuff no-one can save him from.”

This not the tale of Martin John’s redemption or damnation, however: this is the story told but not the way the story is told. Martin John’s past and present unfold together in a pattern of tenses and voices. Repetition is the key because Martin John is a repeat offender. The circuits he patrols as a security guard, and in his own time around Euston Station, are both his salvation and temptation.

“To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.”

The daily crossword, the weekly visits to Aunty Noanie, the annual Eurovision Song Contest: Martin John’s life is one of ritual. The language, too, takes on the rhythm of ritual, with Martin John’s five refrains listed at the beginning in an index (surely a sign in itself that order will not be observed). These five nonsensical statements accrue meaning throughout the novel, but do not become meaningful: they are little more than hooks on which Martin John hangs his life and rationalises his irrational behaviour. The circuits with which he seeks to control that life simply circumscribe it; as time loops backwards and forwards, language tightens the noose, the echo of recurring phrases emphasising the walls of his prison.

Novels about ‘bad’ people can seduce the reader (think Lolita, think American Psycho), but Martin John lacks any glamour. The looped world of his obsessions makes him small, yet we also come to understand that world. Martin John is so focused on his own gratification he does not consider his actions within the realm of right and wrong; “harm was done”, one of his five refrains, is an empty catechism, not an empathetic realisation. Schofield achieves the perfect balance of engagement without identification: we understand Martin John but do not sympathise.

What, then, is the attraction for the reader? Firstly, the poetry of the prose; not a poetry of beauty but one of power – fierce, incantatory – allowing, secondly, the cracking open of Martin John’s mind, an under-the-stone glimpse, but without forgetting, thirdly, the reverberation of his actions on those around him. Schofield lures the reader, at times, into the narrow tunnel of Martin John’s viewpoint, only to suddenly look up and reveal the outside: mam’s complicity; the treatment of his victims:

“Years ago his mother had come. His mother had come and asked that she – The Girl – not press charges. She, his mother, said The Boy, her son, would be going away and promised he would never bother her again.”

The novel may come from a different time – “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” – the 1980s, but its urgency is never in doubt. The paralysis Martin John creates in the final scene echoes society’s indecision when faced with the problem he represents. Ironically, as much as Martin John remains unchanged, in Martin John we witnessed the novel becoming something new.

Quotations from Anakana Schofield are from an interview in the Irish Times.

Hot Milk

September 30, 2016


In her latest novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy once again (as in Swimming Home – a villa in Nice – and The Unloved – a French chateau) takes us on holiday. In Levy’s hands, however, these sun-bleached beaches, glittering pools and glaringly white buildings become other-worldly, as altered in her handling as Ballard’s suburban Britain. (Though, to be fair, Ballard himself wasn’t averse to getting out the passport in his later novels like Cocaine Nights). This time we are in Almeria, mingling with tourists, but on a different mission. Sofia and her mother, Rose, have come not to holiday but to heal at the hands of Dr Gomez, a last resort made possible by re-mortgaging their home. Rose is unable to walk, a mystery that no medical professional in the UK has been able to solve, and Sofia’s life has been placed on hold as she cares for her:

“The dream is over for me…. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph. D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind the shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.”

As her future fades, Sofia becomes less and less certain who she is in her present. This is highlighted when she is stung by a jelly fish and must write down her name, age, country of origin, and occupation: when it comes to the latter she doesn’t know what to write. Even her nationality is in doubt, with a Greek surname from a father she hasn’t seen in years pointing towards a language she doesn’t speak. She puzzles Dr Gomez by referring to her mother as ‘Rose’. As he says, “identity is always difficult to guarantee.”

Rose’s identity is her illness; as Sofia says, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember.” Her father leaves because he, too, has adopted a new identity:

“My father suffered a religious conversion but as far as I know he has not got over it.”

In both cases, these identities allow her parents to undermine Sofia’s sense of self: her father simply ceases to see her, as if she were no longer his daughter; her mother reduces her to the role of carer, even complaining about her to Gomez:

“Sofia is lazy when it comes to putting a glass of water by my bed at night.”

At times Sofia finds it difficult to separate herself from Rose. Shaking Gomez’s hand on behalf of her mother she thinks, “Her arm is my arm.” Later on the beach:

“Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother.”

From the moment we meet Gomez we sense that he is suspicious of Rose’s illness:

“His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable.”

He encourages her to reduce her medication, and the treatment becomes a battle of wills as Rose refuses to admit her health, even suggesting she might have her feet amputated. However, Gomez gives Sofia courage, as does her holiday romance with Ingrid, a woman, she admits, who is “not a safe person to love.” Just as Sofia struggles to see herself, so too she finds it hard to visualise Ingrid or the relationship clearly. She first meets Ingrid when she thinks she is a man in the Ladies’ toilets. Later, Ingrid gives her a blouse with a word stitched into it, but it is a different word to the one Sofia reads there.

The novel is the story of Sofia’s attempt to free herself, just as she wants to free the dog of owner of the diving-school, Pablo. But, as Ingrid points out, freedom is never straight-forward:

“There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies.”

Hot Milk (is the title a reference to maternal comforts?) is a novel about freeing yourself from family, not only those who cling to you, but also those who reject you. In pushing Rose to find the first step she needs to save her life, Sofia hopes to save her own. It’s another sharp, insightful novel by Levy, who writes realism (like Ballard) by jarring the probable against the possible. Its recent appearance on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist (as well as the Man Booker) is no surprise.

Something Written

September 24, 2016


After my review of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first novel, The Street Kids, I was offered the chance to read a novel about his last novel, Emanuele Trevi’s Something Written, also translated by Ann Goldstein. The novel is, I assume, largely autobiographical, telling of Trevi’s time working for the Pasolini Foundation in the early nineties, a story which sits alongside an extensive discussion of Pasolini’s final, unfinished novel, Petrolio, which was not published in Italian until 1992 (Pasolini was murdered in 1975). Trevi’s approach is clearly signposted in an epigraph from Pasolini describing Petrolio:

“It’s a novel but it’s not written the way real novels are written: its language is that of essays, of newspaper articles, of reviews, of private letters, even of poetry.”

The Pasolini Foundation is run by an actress who once worked with Pasolini, Laura Betti. Laura is known (affectionately would be putting it too strongly) as the Madwoman, a nickname no doubt influenced by her roles (she dubbed the voice of the Devil in The Exorcist into Italian) but also her behaviour:

“I sensed almost physically the animal hostility, the uncontrollable rage that flashed, like the zigzag lightning in a comic book, from behind the lenses of her big square sunglasses. The standard greetings immediately followed. ‘Good morning, little slut…’”

Despite his treatment, you sense that Trevi feels some admiration for her as the representative of a bygone age, a time of liberated behaviour and imagination, a contrast to the conventional eighties (in one wonderful scene, feeling slighted by a hotel, she urinates in the lift) In this she is like Pasolini, and Petrolio:

“…a mad, visionary work, outside the rules, revelatory… Petrolio is a savage beast. It’s an account of a process of knowledge and transformation. It’s a becoming aware of the world and an experiment on itself.”

When it is published in 1992 “such books are no longer being written. They are creations that have become incomprehensible to the over-whelming majority of the world.” Compared to Pasolini’s time, Trevi finds the literature of the nineties “impoverished.”

At this point, it might be worth saying a little more about Petrolio. Though it is both unfinished and with no linear structure anyway (Trevi at one point describes it as a “whirlpool” – before suggesting that water swirling in a toilet bowl might be a more apt description), it does centre on one/two characters called Carlo (a double – one lower and one upper-class). While upper-class Carlo achieves material success, lower-class Carlo is driven by sex – he seduces his mother, grandmother, and four sisters, and, when he turns into a woman (as both Carlos do) he has sex with twenty boys in a field. (This review from Fernanda Eberstadt in The New York Times in 1997, when it was translated into English by – you guessed it – Ann Goldstein, provides a good introduction).

I found Something Written fascinating: the autobiographical elements enhanced the criticism, and the criticism enhanced the autobiography. Trevi’s enthusiasm for both Pasolini and Petrolio exudes from every page. I say this not as a devotee, or even an advocate, of Pasolini – I am not now driven, or even tempted, to reach for Petrolio, which frankly sounds a bit of a mess and a bit of a chore. Trevi, however, is arguing for more than one unfinished book. When he describes the novel as ‘revelatory’ he means this literally. He describes the revelation which takes place within the novel, “of a taking possession of reality”:

“We can define quite clearly and concisely what the initiation will allow us to grasp: the game of hidden forces that rule the world.”

In this scene, Pasolini refers to the drug kykeon, used by the Greeks in initiation rituals at Eleusis. In Something Written’s final section Trevi goes to Eleusis (in 2011) in a chapter in which he discusses ‘vision’. Trevi’s defence of Petrolio is that art is visionary. This may open it up (like religion) to fakes and fraudsters, but if art is not allowing us to take possession of reality, one might question what its use is.

The Schooldays of Jesus

September 19, 2016


When I first heard that J M Coetzee’s follow-up to The Childhood of Jesus would be The Schooldays of Jesus, I did momentarily wonder if it was a spoof rather than a sequel, an attempt to infuse Coetzee’s work with the unlikely spirit of Adrian Mole – The Secret Diary of Jesus, anyone? In fact, not only does the novel exist, but it follows directly from its predecessor with Simon, Ines and David, arriving in Estrella where, at the end of Childhood, they plan a “new life”.

Initially wary of discovery, they find casual work on a farm picking fruit. David’s schooling quickly becomes a concern:

“David went to school in Novilla…It wasn’t a success. He didn’t have good teachers. He is a naturally clever child. He found the pace in the classroom too slow. We had to remove him and educate him at home.”

David is clever, but he can also be obstinate. When he is offered Maths tuition he refuse to cooperate:

“Because his way you first have to make yourself small. You have to make yourself small as a pea, then as small as a pea inside a pea, and then a pea inside a pea inside a pea. Then you can do his numbers when you are small small small small small.”

Eventually the three sisters who own the farm propose that he be sent to one of the two academies in the town, the Academy of Dance (the other is of Singing) and offer to pay his fees. There, according to his teacher, Ana Magdalena:

“First comes the dance. All else is secondary. All else follows later.”

It is through dance that they learn numbers, which in turn have an astrological aspect – “You close your eyes while you dance and you can see the stars in your head.” As dancing is largely visual, the reader must take this on trust – rather as Simon, whom David refuses to dance for, must:

“He thinks you won’t understand. He thinks you will make fun of him.”

David becomes infatuated with the Dance Academy, and Simon becomes less important to him. Part of that infatuation is directed towards Dmitri, a caretaker at the nearby museum who is frequently to be found at the Academy, and whom Simon dislikes. Ines, too, is colder with Simon (Simon is not David’s father, and, though Ines claims to be his mother, this is based on Simon’s insistence that he saw them together when they arrived as refugees; like all refugees they have no memory of the time before).

The key question (as with Childhood) is what on earth are we meant to make of it all? It reads like allegory, albeit one where the key has been mislaid. Should we identify David with Jesus? It is made clear that David is not his real name, simply one assigned to him on arrival – and also one inextricably linked with Jesus. Simon and Ines also have Biblical connotations: Simon, one of the apostles, and also the man who carried the cross for Jesus, meaning ‘he has heard’ (which might be particularly applicable given the novel’s conclusion); Ines, the Spanish version of Agnes, a martyred Saint, meaning ‘chaste’, also appropriate for her passionless character. Coetzee can’t resist dropping further hints into the narrative: David, when asked what he wants to be, saying he “wanted to be a lifesaver”; his declaration that he doesn’t “want to be human” – though this in a conversation where he says he wants to be “the kind who takes” rather than gives (of course, even this can be interpreted Biblically).

The use of Jesus is clearly intended to point to something exceptional in David, but I suspect we are also meant to question this. David is a striking character – Simon describes him as being “like a bulldozer” – but is he really that unusual, or is it simply that Simon patiently indulges his questions and expends more energy on educating him than he does on his own life? It seems unlikely that Coetzee is suggesting that dancing is the future of education, but he is certainly questioning current pedagogy. In a lecture delivered at the novels’ end on Metros (likened to Prometheus, but in fact an invention) is portrayed as the discoverer of measurement:

“Were he and his heirs guilty of abolishing reality and putting a simulacrum in its place?”

Coetzee seems to be suggesting that some kind of transcendence is necessary in education; that we should go beyond facts and figures.

Schooldays are therefore central to the novel; but so is one of Coetzee’s, and religion’s, key concerns: punishment and forgiveness. Having won David’s trust, Dmitri commits a terrible crime. David finds it impossible to condemn him. This is an area Coetzee has explored before, particularly in relation to South Africa, but here he does so relentlessly as Dmitri literally refuses to be forgotten.

The novel’s conclusion suggests a shift has taken place; that Simon is now learning from David. When Childhood was released some reviewers complained that David was not very Christ-like, but, even if we are to take the title literally, this surely misses the point: this is the childhood which shapes Jesus, though is suspect Jesus is shorthand for spiritual enlightenment rather than orthodox Christianity. It is the philosophical journey of a child. And, like all childhoods, it has more questions than answers.

Voyage in the Dark

September 14, 2016


If Julia in Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie often feels the cold of London, Anna, in Voyage in the Dark, feels it colder:

“She’s always cold…She can’t help it. She was born in a hot place. She was born in the West Indies or somewhere, weren’t you, kid?”

Shortly after her friend, Maudie, comments, “I’ve never seen anybody shiver like you do.” It’s difficult not to feel that the coldness is more than physical, something fundamental, and that “the cold nights, the damned cold nights” represent the loneliness borne of her being out of place (transported from the Wests Indies to England after her father’s death) and having only a half-interested step-mother for support. (At one point she says, “I felt I was more alone than anybody had ever been in the world before.”)


Her loneliness is alleviated, unsurprisingly (if you’ve read Rhys before) by a wealthy man, Walter, whom she meets one night in Southsea, renewing the acquaintance when she returns to London. As Maudie tells her:

“You go out with him if he asks you. These men have money; you can tell that in a minute, can’t you? Anybody can. Men who have money and men who haven’t are perfectly different.”

One is tempted here to echo Hemmingway’s response to Fitzgerald – the difference is they have more money – but Rhys’ world is one where passion may feature but love does not. This is largely because the emotions of her characters are revealed moment by moment, with no past or future, making idealism, or even consistency, unlikely. When Walter first kisses her she pushes him away, but “as soon as he let me go I stopped hating him.” She then waits for him to kiss her again:

“Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different.”

This is not only psychologically convincing, especially considering Anna’s youth (she is nineteen), but our moment to moment access to her thoughts and feelings also adds to the impression of a precarious existence, one in which planning for the future is foolish. The scene also further utilises the climate to suggest the coldness both of the relationship and society in general: “the pillow was as cold as ice”; “The fire was like a painted fire; no warmth came from it.”

Access to money, however, changes how Anna feels about herself:

“My voice sounded round and full instead of small and thin. ‘That’s because of the money,’ I thought.”

Maudie is unabashed in advising her to make the most of it:

“The thing with men is to get everything you can get out of them and not care a damn.”

Her relationship with Walter is based on the money he provides, and the unspoken understanding that it isn’t permanent:

“When it was sad was when you woke up at night and thought about being alone and that everybody says the man’s bound to get tired.”

Rhys’ protagonists have middle class origins and are used to a certain amount of material comfort but lack any means to procure it. Both Julia and Anna have suffered the loss of their father, and therefore their income. They have little hope of even moderately paid employment, nor do they have much of a welfare system to fall back on. Marriage seems the most obvious option for Anna (Julia is already married, but separated from her husband), but she (as it is suggested Julia once did) embarks on an affair that rules out marriage within her own class. (Of course, it might be argued that marriage to escape poverty is little different from Anna’s arrangement with Walter anyway).

Above all, Anna has little faith in her future, or her ability to make choices – in her interior life (the novel is in the first person) it is difficult to think of a decision she makes about her own life, or a decision which she understands as one she has made about her life. It is no surprise that her future is decided, in the novels final lines, by another:

“She’ll be alright…Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.”

Anna’s fate may seem dated, but her experience of narrowing choices and her sense of isolation is not. It is perhaps for this reason that Rhys’ work remains as vital as it ever was.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

September 11, 2016


Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr Mackenzie opens with a description of one of the many “cheap hotel” rooms that her down-at-heel heroines inhabit. It is here, in Paris, Julia has retreated “after she had parted from Mr Mackenzie” six months before to live (according to her landlady) “the life of a dog”. Later, in London, her sister Norah will cast her eyes around her accommodation there and say, “This really is an awful place. Why on earth do you come to a place like this?” The city may have changed, but circumstances remain the same. “You ought to get away for a change,” she is advised, but by that point we realise that change is no longer possible.

Julia leaves Paris when the money Mr Mackenzie has been sending her dries up. A final cheque moves her to confront him, her rejection of the money and the blow she lands (“She picked up her glove and hit his cheek with it, but so lightly that he did not even blink”) suggest his first impression of her is correct:

“…she wasn’t the hard-bitten sort…Afraid of life. Had to screw herself up to all the time.”

An observer of this scene, George Horsfield, takes pity on her:

“Hang it all, one can’t leave this unfortunate creature alone to go and drink herself dotty”

Horsfield convinces her to return to London, where she tours her nearest relatives hoping they might offer her some help. They disapprove of Julia’s life however – she is, for example, married but has lost track of her husband in Europe. Norah can only offer her a place by her dying mother’s bedside; her Uncle Griffiths a pound towards her return fair to France. The problem, as always, is money, as Horsfield had swiftly realised:

“He felt that he could imagine what her mother and her sister were like. No money. No bloody money…They would be members of the vast crowd which bears on its back the label ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave…”


Refused by her family, Julia writes to her first lover who agrees to meet her and later sends her money. Horsfield also helps out. If there are strings attached, Julia is also culpable of attaching them, begging Horsfield not to leave her alone one night:

“He thought: ‘I knew she’d do this.’”

Julia’s life is one of seedy rooms and temporary men. Whereas when her first affair ended she remembers, “You felt as if your back was broken, as if you’d never move again,” she now boasts to Horsfield:

“I can always get somebody, you see. I’ve known that ever since I’ve known anything.”

If Julia is bitter it is not at her choices but at her lack of luck:

“I had a shot at the life I wanted. And I failed… All right! I might have succeeded, and if I had people would have licked my boots for me.”

Later she says to her sister, “All you people who’ve knuckled under – you’re jealous.” Rhys exposes the lottery of life; Julia at least has rolled the dice. Even her wealthy first lover, Mr James, admits:

“I despised a man who didn’t get on. I didn’t believe much in bad luck. But after the war I felt differently.”

There are no happy woman in this novel. Norah, who “knuckled under”, has spent years caring for her sick mother, “brought up to certain tastes, then left without the money to gratify them”, her mother bedridden and dying, with her “bloodshot, animal eyes” suggests what lies ahead. Julia leads a precarious existence from man to man. Rhys brilliantly exposes her inner anxieties via outer discomforts – tiredness, cold. More than once she is described as a ghost.

The only joy comes for Rhys’ masterful prose. When Horsfield first watches Julia, feeling “detached and ironical,” Rhys is both mocking him while at the same time underlining the novel’s’ tone. Even her still lifes, the rooms Julia flits through, are imbued with a bitter wit, from Uncle Griffiths’ parlour, “a large, lofty room, crowded with fat, chintz-covered arm-chairs” to that first room:

“But really she hated the picture. It shared, with the colour of the plush sofa, a certain depressing quality. The picture and the sofa were linked in her mind. The picture was the more alarming in its perversion and the sofa the more dismal. The picture stood for the idea, the spirit, and the sofa for the act.”

In scenes like these Julia plays her part, the idea and the act, each “disconnected episode to be placed with all the other disconnected episodes which made up her life.”

A Girl in Exile

September 6, 2016


Though Ismail Kadare has returned to his original UK publisher, Harvill (now Harvill Secker) with A Girl in Exile, the translation of his work into English continues uninterrupted. Even better, this is the fourth novel John Hodgson has translated directly from Albanian (rather than via French as his work once reached us), with a fifth to follow next year. A Girl in Exile is a recent novel, having first appeared in 2009, shortly after The Fall of the Stone City (translated into English in 2012). His last novel from Canongate, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, was a much earlier work from the 1970s, as is his next book, The Traitor’s Niche. Deciphering any development in his writing is not straight forward, therefore, though Kadare himself seems happy to move between historical novels and those that deal with Communist Albania. A Girl in Exile is one of the latter, exploring love under the pressure of a police state.

As the novel begins, Rudian Stefa, a writer, is summoned by the Party Committee:

“…he rehearsed the two possible issues that might, unknown to him, have got him into trouble: his latest play, which he had been waiting two weeks for permission to stage, and his relationship with Migena.”

In their last meeting he had accused Migena, a younger woman he has been sleeping with, of being a spy; in a brief struggle she had dislodged books from his shelves, including those banned by the state. The turbulence in their relationship is caused by the mystery of her unhappiness:

“Every time she wept he hoped to find out what her tears concealed.”

When they ask him about a ‘girl’ he assumes it is Migena, but, after a brief conversation at cross purposes, it transpires that they are referring to a girl he has never met on the basis that he once signed a book for her: “For Linda B., a souvenir from the author.” He has never met her because she cannot come to Tirana, she lives in ‘exile’, interned far from the capital; the book was signed at Migena’s request, and now her friend has killed herself.

Migena, as Stefa quickly realises, is an anagram of enigma, and he feels that if he can solve the mystery of her sadness he can also discover the reason for Linda’s suicide. Unfortunately the political situation is such that he is riven with suspicion:

“…how could a police informer weep so movingly? It was of course impossible. But then the opposite thought, that this was precisely the reason why she wept, disorientated him.”

He even comes to distrust his own feelings:

“It was a long time since he had fallen in love, although he wondered if this were not love but something else which had donned love’s familiar mask to deceive him.”

The investigation into Linda’s death becomes Stefa’s investigation, conducted through his relationship with Migena. There is even an unofficial handover during a lengthy conversation with the official investigator. Stefa is haunted by her in a novel full of hauntings. He suspects that his latest play is being delayed by a scene in which a ghost appears:

“He had expected some of them to take fright at the ghost. What’s this ghost doing here? Is this social realism or Hamlet?”

Kadare also, as so often, refers to Greek myth (though perhaps he wouldn’t see it as ‘Greek’), in this case the story of Orpheus. One might even see Stefa, as a writer, attempting to charm Cerberus (the state) in order to recover Linda from the dead – that is to recover the meaning of her life. Her body, too, remains in exile, her internment as applicable to the dead as to the living.

At the same time, Kadare provides a portrait of a writer in a one-party state: at times surreal, at others almost comic: Fidel Castro speaking for six hours on revolutionary Cuban theatre on the radio, Stefa trying to think of an appropriate nationality for a character in his play (“definitely mustn’t be a Western state, but there were no friendly states left. After China, North Korea had gone too”), and the ‘the Dajti test’ – using a hotel popular with foreigners to test how safe you felt:

“If your feet hesitate even for an instant before entering, forget it.”

A Girl in Exile is a wonderfully layered novel. The truth regarding Linda’s life (and death) is slowly revealed – each time Stefa feels he has grasped it, a further detail suggests that he is no closer to the truth. Kadare’s use of myth provides a further layer, a novel in which we have the recreation of a particular time and place but also the sense of something universal, a novel of love and loss – Linda having lost her life long before she took it.