The Finishing School

January 17, 2021

It seems appropriate that Spark should return, in her final novel, to the setting of her most successful: a school. Not only are there over forty years between the writing of the two novels, but, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie set in the 1930s, and The Finishing School (we assume) in the contemporaneous 2000s, there are some noticeable differences. Jean Brodie, for all her faults, was famously dedicated to her pupils; Rowland and his wife Nina, who run the finishing school of College Sunrise, are more concerned with making sure they break even, and that Rowland is allowed the opportunity to write his novel:

“Both Nina and Rowland aimed principally at affording Rowland the time and space and other opportunities to complete his novel, while passing their lives pleasantly.”

Of course, Brodie too was a ‘novelist’ of sorts, attempting to write her pupils’ lives. The novel becomes a battleground between her and her most devoted student, Sandy, just as The Finishing School develops into a conflict between Rowland and Chris, a young man who has come to the school to finish his own novel.

From the beginning we can see that their relationship is strained; Rowland, far from mentoring Chris, is jealous of the apparent ease with which he writes, and advises him to scrap everything he has written immediately after reading it:

“A faint twinge of that jealousy which was to mastermind Rowland’s coming months, growing in intensity small hour by hour, seized Rowland as he looked.”

Chris, on the other hand, is confidence personified. “He felt affectionate towards Rowland,” we are told, “almost protective.” His novel concerns Mary Queen of Scots, but he has little interest in historical accuracy:

“He was quite capable of making history work for him, his plot, his characters.”

Spark, of course, has little time for hubris. When Chris contemplates “the non-noticing faculties of people” it is an unheeded warning that his own faculties for noticing are not as acute as he thinks. To Chris, it is simply “a game he is playing with Rowland” – Rowland searches his room for the novel; Chris hides it in another pupil’s room. His arrogance extends to his writing. When Rowland asks him if his characters have a life of their own, he replies:

“Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it.”

With the focus of Chris’ novel being the murder of Rizzio – a violent act of jealousy – it seems the scene is set for a dramatic conclusion, as Rowland comments:

“I could kill him…But would that be enough.”

Meanwhile Rowland’s marriage is suffering:

“As an act of will, she gave Rowland her full sympathy but she knew it contained a built-in time limit.”

Spark is particularly funny when it comes to marital argument: Nina intends to confront Rowland about the fact that she is increasingly having to run the school herself but begins with an accusation that he is attracted to one of the pupils. She does, however, suggest that Rowland “write about Chris and get him off your chest,” a suggestion Rowland is only too happy to accede to:

“It will eventually be a life study of a real person, Chris.”

It is perhaps at this point that the power balance between Rowland and Chris begins to turn, as it becomes clear that Chris needs Rowland’s jealousy in order to write.

Amid all this there are the smaller stories of the other pupils (there are only eight in the school) and staff which decorate the novel like tiny jewels. Opal’s father is bankrupt (and under arrest) but the school decides that the right thing to do is to keep her on. Tilly is intent on a career in journalism despite her severe dyslexia. Mary’s dream is to open a shop which sells ceramics and scarves. Meanwhile Nina teaches them such useful skills as how to eat a plover’s egg, and how to confuse an elephant should it chase you. Though Chris and Rowland are at the novel’s centre, Spark does not forget her other characters, exhibiting them in style in a wonderful set piece when the school holds a fashion show (with Chris, of course, as the master of ceremonies).

Spark masterminds the increasing tension towards the novel’s conclusion with her usual aplomb. Rowland returns to the school after burying his father, relieved that at least his father’s death took his mind of Chris. “Maybe you need another death,” Chris tells him, “to get over your obsession. A more important one.” There is a sense that Chris is attempting to control Rowland as if he were one of his characters. Naturally, when any character in Spark feels they are in control, it is a sign they are about to lose it.

The Finishing School is a fitting end to Spark’s career as a novelist. It is difficult to believe anything other than that the title was predestined, and that its final line, the transfiguration of the ordinary voice of a weather presenter, carries its own playful implication:

“As we go through this evening and into the night…”


January 12, 2021

Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) bears some resemblance to her earlier Convenience Store Woman: its narrator, Natsuki, feels different even as a child, and rejects the idea of ‘fitting in’ as she grows older. However, her sense of alienation takes on a far more literal meaning. At a young age she comes to believe that her favourite soft toy is from another planet:

“Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from the planet Popinpopobia.”

Soon this is linked in her mind with the only other important relationship in her life, with her cousin Yuu, whom she sees every year when the extended family meet at Akishina. Yuu tells her:

“Every time I come here for Oban, I’m always secretly looking for the spaceship that will come and take me home.”

Both children are treated badly within their families. “That child is hopeless,” Natsuki’s mother tells everyone, “She can’t do anything properly.” Yuu’s mother is equally cruel, as he explains to Natsuki:

“Mitsuko’s a bit crazy, and when she gets angry she always says she’ll throw me out of the house.”

It’s not difficult to see why both children might retreat into a world of imagination, and why they might promise to marry when they are older. Natsuki’s alienation is further exacerbated when she is abused by a teacher, Mr Igasaki:

“His hand came up inside the hem of my shirt and rubbed my back directly on my skin.”

Her mother is, of course, dismissive of Natsuki’s attempts to tell her of her fears – “I can’t believe you’re making out your teacher’s a pervert just because he told you off.” (In fact, even when she tells her sister and a friend when she is older they attempt to place the blame with her). The abuse escalates to fellatio, Murata highlighting Natsuki’s distress when she tells Yuu “my mouth was destroyed recently.” It is this, and the fact that her family are intending to holiday elsewhere, which compels Natsuki to ask Yuu to have sex with her even though they are still children:

“Before my body stops being mine, I really want to be physically married to you too.”

The parents’ reaction to discovering them together is placed in direct contrast to their refusal to believe Natsuki’s claims about her teacher. From that point on, Natsuki lives almost as a prisoner (“Even after I went to college and got a job, I was not allowed to leave home”) but she is still allowed ‘extra lessons’. It is at this point that the novel takes the first of a number of strange turns as Natsuki follows Piyyut’s instructions and goes to Mr Igasaki’s house one night:

“Hurry. Hurry! If the Wicked Witch kills you, it’ll bring about the end of the world. Only your magical powers can prevent that.”

As with Convenience Store Women, Earthlings explores the idea of what it is to be normal in a society where conformity is very important. As Natsuki sees it, “I was still expected to become a component for the Factory.” Increasingly she feels that she too must be an alien:

“So all I can do is keep my head down and pretend to live as an Earthling.”

To this end she enters into a marriage of convenience; her and her husband, Tomoya, live largely separate lives, but by being married they appease their families and friends. Like Natsuki, Tomoya has an aversion to sex. In fact he goes further and says:

“Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotised into thinking they’re great.”

When Tomoya loses his job, he asks that they go to Akishina – Natsuki has told him about her holidays there as a child – where Yuu is now living. Though Yuu, too, has found it difficult to settle into adult life, he tells Natsuki, “As an adult you have to squarely face up to problems.” No amount of persuasion, however, will convince Natsuki and Tomoya that they are wrong.

What makes Earthlings such a powerful and genuinely unsettling novels is the way it takes its premise – Natsuki’s premise – to its uncompromising conclusion. Her position is extreme but also plausible: life as a Factory with people nothing more than parts. It also accurately highlights the hypocrisy of what is accepted and what is condemned: Natsuki’s sexual abuse is ignored but her failure to become pregnant is seen as a fault. Readers generally sympathise with society’s rebels and, by the novel’s end we have been inside Natsuki’s head for so long – and we have so many reasons to sympathise with her – that it is difficult for the reader not to feel complicit. Despite this, it is unlikely anything will prepare you for the final chapters. While Convenience Store Woman may be a ‘better’ novel, Earthlings is, in many ways, a more effective one.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

January 6, 2021

The final book in my missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 long list is Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, originally published in 1989, and the fifth of his novels to be translated into English (by Giovanni Pontiero) in 1996. The novel tells the story of a proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, who inserts a deliberate inaccuracy into the history book of the title, a ‘not’ which reverses the assertion that the Portuguese were helped by the Crusaders in the retaking of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Strangely, Silva has no real idea why he does this:

“No one would be happier than I to find a satisfactory explanation.”

It is thirteen days before the publishers discover the ‘mistake’, an unwelcome professional discovery that leads to a more welcome personal one as Silva meets Maria Sara who has been placed in charge of the proof reading department. At first Silva is only aware that “the woman had not taken her eyes off him” during the course of his reprimand but the meeting will lead to a late flowering of love for a man who had given up hope of any such thing:

“I’m in my fifties, he says, who is going to love me at my age, or who am I going to love…”

The novel is, at heart, a love story, but one where love is pursued through The History of the Siege of Lisbon as Maria brings Silva the single uncorrected copy and suggests “you yourself should write a history of the siege of Lisbon in which the crusaders do not help the Portuguese.” Silva’s ability to do this has already been highlighted to the reader in an opening section which we assume is from The History until we are told:

“In his book the historian gave no such description.”

This introduces another theme of the novel, that of the uncertain border between historical fact and imaginative recreation. Silva must decide why the crusaders may not have helped the Portuguese:

“What that motive might have been, we must now investigate, if we are to give the slightest credibility and verisimilitude to this new account.”

Saramago also playfully applies these rules to his own work:

“Anyone concerned with logic mush be asking himself how it is conceivable that during all this time Raimundo Silva has not given anther thought to the humiliating scene in the director’s office, why it has never been mentioned for the sake of giving some coherence to a character and verisimilitude to events.”

As Saramago points out, the history is to Silva what the novel is to Saramago – “we are not dealing here with cinema or theatre, or even with life.” And so the two stories progress hand in hand, both overlapping, as at times we find Silva walking in the twelve century streets of his imagination, or jarringly juxtaposed, as when our experience of battle preparations is interrupted by a telephone ringing.

The siege of Lisbon becomes not only the siege of the Moorish city but, tongue in cheek, Silva’s seduction of Maria. On the day he decides to phone her he “awoke with a clear idea as to how the troops should finally be deployed on the ground for the assault, including certain strategic details of his own making.” And when he says, “Before I engaged in this battle, I was a simple proof-reader…” he is referring as much to the relationship as the siege. But there is also romance in evidence which Saramago demonstrates through the use of roses. The first time Silva delivers proofs to Maria she is wearing a white rose:

“Raimundo Silva, without meditating or premeditating, detached as he was from the act and its consequences, gently touched the white rose with two fingers…”

Later he sends her two roses, while keeping two himself, and also makes her a promise:

“No one should be able to give less than they have given before, roses shouldn’t appear today and a wilderness tomorrow. There won’t be any wilderness.”

In the history he is writing he incorporates a character to represent himself, and soon they too are in love.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is both a novel of history and of love, but, above all, it celebrates the inexplicable. Silva cannot explain why he inserts ‘not’ into the proof; nor can he explain why he caresses Maria’s rose. It is perhaps a warning against definitive interpretations:

“The relationship between what we call cause and what we subsequently describe as effect is not always linear and explicit.”

With its long, leisurely sentences and frequent digressions, it may test the patience of some readers, but with Saramago the journey is more important than the destination. The second Nobel Prize winner on a long list which includes a number of writers who are automatically assigned the adjective ‘great’, choosing a winner for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 will be far from easy.

Lolly Willowes

January 2, 2021

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes, begins disguised as a conventional novel, but eventually blossoms into something very strange and unexpected, not unlike the title character herself. As the novel opens, Lolly (properly Laura, the nickname being one of a number of ways in which the family infantilise her) is staying with her brother, Henry, and his wife, Caroline, who think of her as “a gentle creature and the little girls love her.” Their only concern is that “she would need to make haste if she were going to find a husband before she was thirty.” Lolly, on the other hand, seems little interested in marriage:

“But her upbringing had only furthered a temperamental indifference to the need of getting married.”

She puts paid to a final suitor by commenting, “If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be…” At the same time, we understand she is not entirely contented with her current life, as she sits each evening opposite her sister-in-law, reduced to embroidery by the knowledge that Caroline’s sewing (and indeed her aptitude in any domestic skill) is superior to her own:

“She had actually a sensation that she were stitching herself into a piece of embroidery with a good deal of background.”

The unconventional thought or phrase hidden in the conventional narrative, we soon discover, is Townsend Warner’s forte:

“Then the house, emptied of another day, creaked once or twice, and fell into repose, its silence and security barred up within it like a kind of moral family plate.”

Even on holiday, Lolly cannot find the freedom she is longing for:

“She would have liked to go by herself for long walks inland and find strange herbs, but she was too useful to be allowed to stray.”

The desire to collect herbs, and an earlier mention of her interest in “rural pharmacopoeia” when she still lived with her father, are among the few clues of what is to come. The war, and then influenza (fever so often being a signifier of change in Victorian novels) leave Lolly disappointed that her life remains the same, until she inquires as to the origin of a bunch of chrysanthemums she buys one day when she feels particularly oppressed:

“As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree.”

When she discovers they are from Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns, she immediately decides that she will leave London and live there. When she returns home to tell her family the news:

“She felt as though she had awoken, unchanged from a twenty-year slumber, to find them almost unrecognisable.”

Her brother is, of course, dismissive, but her determination ensures that in the novel’s second part, we learn of her first year in Great Mop. Only now does she understand “for the first time how miserable she had been,” and Townsend Warner characterises the landscape itself as welcoming:

“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves around her like the fingers of a hand.”

Still, she cannot entirely escape her family, particularly when her nephew Titus decides that he too will move to Great Mop as it is the perfect place to write the book he has been planning. She objects to the ease with which he settles, to his claim that “she is just the same,” and to the way he disturbs her walks:

“She thought the woods saw her with him and drew back scornfully.”

In desperation, she cries out, “Is there no help?” and, in the novel’s second unexpected turn, enters into a pact with the Devil. Soon she has her own familiar (a cat she names Vinegar) and has been invited to her first witches’ Sabbath. Townsend Warner prevents the novel descending into silliness with a combination of the wit and seriousness she has shown throughout. This is a novel which is often wickedly funny. Lolly, for example, finds the witches’ Sabbath less enjoyable than she had hoped:

“Even as a witch, it seemed, she was doomed to social failure…”

Its darkness can be seen when, at the same Sabbath, a man whom Lolly is convinced is Satan approaches her in a mask:

“With a fine tongue like a serpent’s, he licked her right cheek.”

It later transpires that the man is a “brilliant young author” who has sold his soul to the Devil “on the condition that once a week he should be without doubt the most important person at a party.” The ultimate joke is that only Satan can help Lolly escape from the suffocatingly conventional life and character her family insist in imposing on her:

“It had pleased Satan to come to her aid. Considering carefully, she did not see who else would have done so.”

Lolly Willowes is a novel which balances great naturalism (in both her portrait of life in London and of the countryside) with the strange and unexpected, both in its language and in its plot. It is full of wonderful turns of phrase and witty descriptions. (My favourite is perhaps Caroline’s rationale for her exquisitely folded clothes: “We have our example… The grave-clothes were folded in the tomb.”) In many ways it is like Lolly herself: bursting with a life that finally cannot be repressed. Penguin Classics are releasing the rest of her novels this year and I, for one, cannot wait to read them.

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

Best Books of 2020 Part 2

December 27, 2020

For part two of my favourite books of 2020 I’m going to focus on those books which bridge the gap between the past and the present – that is, those books which, often after many years of waiting, have finally made it into English this year

The first of these, originally published in 1948 and translated by Joyce Zonana, is Henri Bosco’s Malicroix in which the narrator, Martial, must live in the solitary residence of his newly deceased great uncle for three months in order to inherit. The house is on a remote island in a wild part of the country, complete with a looming, silent servant and an obsequious lawyer who seems less than keen that Martial should be successful. This is a novel of mood and atmosphere, from its strong sense of place to its unremitting tension – a novel the reader lives in alongside the narrator

Another French writer whose work resurfaced this year was Jean Giono, in the shape of his Occupation Journal, originally published in France in 1995 though written between 1943 and 1944, and now translated by Jody Gladding. It was particularly interesting reading this during lockdown as Giono was experiencing much the same at the time – unable to travel and faced with an uncertain level of risk: “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” he tells us. By its very nature, there is no great structure to the journal, but it is full of insights into both the occupation and Giono’s life as a writer

Also set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is staying with her grandmother as her mother is dead and her father is fighting, it is a coming-of-age story steeped in the oppressive sunlight of the island. Matute uses the setting to show the civil war in microcosm as it becomes an excuse for age-old prejudices to resurface. Matia’s attempts to understand and negotiate these make for a gripping picture of growing up

In Magda Szabo’s Abigail, originally published in 1970 and now translated by Len Rix, we also find a young girl, Gina, caught up in a conflict she does not understand. Set in Hungary during the Second World War, Gina finds herself sent away by her father, a General, to a boarding school where he cannot visit her and only rarely makes contact. Instead she must rely on the mysterious ‘Abigail’ to protect her – a statue to which pupils traditionally confide their problems. What begins as a typical boarding school novel soon becomes a thrilling story of wartime resistance

Finally, set in Germany in the 1930s and also featuring a child narrator, Gert Hofmann’s Veilchenfeld, originally published in 1986, was translated this year by Eric Mace-Tessler. Here the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher who is increasingly persecuted in the course of the novel, much to the bewilderment of the young narrator. Hofmann brilliantly demonstrates the small cruelties which will ultimately lead to genocide by keeping a tight focus on one small town. A moving individual story, as well as a warning.

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

The Emigrants

December 14, 2020

W G Sebald’s The Emigrants, originally published in 1993, was the first of his books to appear in English, translated by Michael Hulse in 1996, and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year. It tells the story of four men, each in some way an emigrant, each in some way connected to Sebald: one is a distant relation, another his old teacher, and two he meets, one might say, by accident. In fact, the apparently accidental nature of the narrative, the randomness of the construction (the first two chapters are much shorter than then third and fourth), disguise a deeper-lying unity which builds through the emotional ripples which run through the book.

Although Sebald’s appearance in the narrative makes it something of a memoir, the author is careful to avoid seeming the centre of attention, where instead he places his subject and circles round them drawing ever closer to the heart of their story. In the first chapter he meets Dr Henry Selwyn, the estranged husband of his landlady. Selwyn, once a doctor, now spends his days tending his garden and caring for three horses which he has saved from the knacker’s yard. Eventually Selwyn shares the story of his childhood emigration from Lithuania to England, which seems to be affecting him more intensely as he gets older. A parallel story of a friend he had to part from in Switzerland when the First World War broke out provides an echo of that primal separation:

“Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli.”

Later Sebald hears that Selwyn has taken his own life, an act he has clearly been considering for some time as one day the author and his wife find him testing the shotgun he eventually uses to find out if it is still in working order.

Paul Bereyter, Sebald’s second subject, was once his teacher (in the 1950s), though we discover that before the Second World War it was difficult for him to find employment as he had a Jewish grandparent. Despite this, he fights in the German army. The chapter opens with his suicide, which prompts Sebald to discover more about his life. Even as a child Sebald is able to perceive something of the sadness in Bereyter’s life:

“…at any time – in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings – he might stop of sit down somewhere, alone and apart for us all, as if he, who was always in good spirits and cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.”

It is during the 1930s, a young man in love, and at the start of his career, that everything changes:

“The wonderful future he had dreamt of that summer collapsed without a sound like the proverbial house of cards.”

Not only must he travel abroad in order to work, but his father’s business is attacked and his father dies soon after, quickly followed by his mother. As with Selwyn, as he grows older these experiences affect him more profoundly.

The chapter on Ambrose Adelwarth, Sebald’s great uncle, I found the least successful in the book, perhaps because, as Sebald’s relative, there seems to be an excess of information, or perhaps because his story seems the most tenuously connected to the book’s themes. Adelwarth himself is not Jewish but he travels the world with Cosmo Solomon (it seems to be suggested they may be more than just ‘companions’) and then becomes butler to Solomon’s family when he dies. He, too, is an emigrant, having left Germany, with much of his family, for America.

The final chapter concerns Max Ferber, and is apparently based on the painter Frank Auerbach. Like Auerbach, Ferber was sent to Britain from Germany as a child and his parents later died in a concentration camp. Sebald meets him in Manchester when he first arrives in England but at this time Ferber gives him an “extremely cursory version of his life.” It is only years later he come across an article on Ferber which reveals that he arrived in England as a fifteen-year-old in 1939.

“The article went on to say that Ferber’s parents, who delayed their own departure from Germany for a number of reasons, were taken from Munich to Riga in November 1941, in one of the first deportation trains, and were subsequently murdered there.”

This leads Sebald to return to Manchester and speak to Ferber again, the resultant interview forming the rest of the chapter. Once again he unearths a past that was never really buried.

The Emigrants is a wonderful book. Sebald is adept at building from small details the portraits within, just as a painter might from the smallest brush strokes. He is also skilled at creating a powerful sense of time and place, both when he is revealing his subject’s past, but also when he describes moments in his own life. The intermingling of his text with photographs speaks of both these strengths; that they are uncaptioned suggests the fleeting images of memory with which he is so concerned. It is certainly arguable that, in The Emigrants, he creates a new form, one that would win him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize seven years later in 2002 for Austerlitz, and eventually provoke the prize which all writers secretly long for, his own adjective. More importantly, The Emigrants remains a subtle and immersive reading experience.

A Luminous Republic

December 7, 2020

“Violence is always there,” Andres Barba has said in interview, “it’s the ultimate agent of social destabilization.” And so it proves in his latest short novel, A Luminous Republic, translated by Lisa Dillman. In the novel, the small town of San Cristobal finds itself visited by a group of thirty-two children who we know, from the opening sentence, will die. The narrator, who had recently joined the Department of Social Affairs at the time, attempts to make sense of what happened years later, but struggles to find easy answers. Where, for example, did the children come from? When did they arrive?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when our eyes started to become accustomed to them or to know whether the first few times we saw them we were shocked.”

Their poverty is different from that of the indigenous Nee children, who “were poor and illiterate in the same way the jungle was green,” the narrator concluding that “unlike so-called normal kids, they were rightful heirs to nothing.” They roam the streets and steal in various smaller groups and without any clear leader:

“Someone once compared the children’s appearance to the fascinating synchronised flight of a starling murmuration.”

Their behaviour is also compared to “an organism’s cells,” and, when the narrator catches hold of one, “it wasn’t a human being in my hand but some sort of giant insect.” There is something inhuman about the way they act, and their interaction, which takes place in a language they seem to have invented. They are both a “benign presence and a terrible omen.” Little is done about them until the attack on a supermarket, unplanned and uncoordinated, but resulting in two deaths and three wounded:

“But there’s something harder to count than the victims, something infinitely more palpable and definite, a feeling akin to terror: the conviction that this was the first step of an irreversible process.”

The novel focuses not only on the narrator’s personal involvement in events, but also includes research undertaken later: it is both a confession and an investigation, having the emotional depth of the former while at the same time the analytical scope of the latter, accessing the theories of others. On a personal level, the narrator questions his own actions, particularly his attempts to gain information regarding the children’s whereabouts:

“I tortured a boy, for two days, to get him to give his friends away.”

At one point he meets a man who claims that “everyone had their own witness. Someone that we secretly want to convince, someone all of our actions are directed towards, someone we can’t stop secretly talking to.” This is, of course, a reasonable understanding of any first person narrative, but in this case the reader does often feel like a witness to events, asked to weigh up guilt and innocence. After the attack the children disappear, but they are not forgotten. For the adults they become an abstract threat:

“By losing their realness the thirty-two had morphed into the perfect monster.”

For the children of the town they are remembered in a different way, as they put their ears to the ground to hear them, and soon they, too, are disappearing, making the hunt even more urgent.

Barba’s novel is a modern horror, drawing on both fairy-tales where the children are frequently victims (but often capable of violent retaliation as in Hansel and Gretel) and newer tropes where children are seen as in some way alien, such as The Midwich Cuckoos. Here we question not only the children but society’s response. As the narrator says at one point, “often we submit to the prevailing morality only because the truth seems less plausible than the beliefs we adopt.” We see small town corruption, indifference and distrust. Helping the vulnerable is easy when the targets of our charity are passive and malleable, but, as the narrator says, these children “made us lose faith in the religion of childhood.” They are not what the town wants them to be and therefore town cannot help them, and attitude that exists far beyond San Cristobal.

In the final chapter, the reason for novel’s title becomes clear but, rather than providing answers, this only leaves the reader with more questions; a final image which will haunt us just as it does the narrator. Though not for the faint-hearted, A Luminous Republic is a powerful parable of dissonance and guilt which is likely to leave its readers both scared and scarred.

Aiding and Abetting

December 2, 2020

Muriel Spark has always been a class conscious writer – though the class she has largely concerned herself with is the very rich – and this is never more obvious than in her penultimate novel, Aiding and Abetting. The novel is inspired by the Lord Lucan case (which, as Spark says, she has “absorbed creatively and metamorphosed into what I have written”), a classic example of the archaic English class system, as Lucan, after murdering his children’s nanny and attempting to murder his wife, is able to escape justice (and, it is thought, the country) with the help of his friends.

Spark begins the novel with Lucan’s visit to a psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf. Wolf is immediately suspicious when he declares “I am the missing Lord Lucan,” as she is already seeing another client, Walker, who says he is Lucan:

“She was currently treating another patient who claimed, convincingly, to be the long-missing lord. She suspected collusion.”

The two Lucans are typical of Spark, raising the question of how, after all this time, anyone can be certain which is the genuine article:

“If one of us were caught, it would always be the other, the absent Lucan, who would be the real one.”

It is even proposed at one point that neither are real, and “Lucan could be dead while the conspiracies to elude the law continue.” The advantage of pretending to be Lucan lies in collecting “from the aiders and abettors,” those “benefactors” who continue to fund him.

Wolf is prevented from immediately reporting Lucan to the police as she believes he has knowledge of her own background – and, in particular, her time as a fake stigmatic, when she used her menstrual blood to convince gullible Christians that she had curative powers. (Both characters are also connected by blood – Lucan frequently states that there was “so much blood” when he killed the nanny). Spark places the two characters in parallel, though they come from opposite ends of the class spectrum, Wolf’s deceit originating from the fact that “she suddenly got very, very tired of being poor.” Not only are both on the run (Wolf in the sense that she has assumed a new identity, though later in the novel she literally goes on the run by disappearing from Paris), but both were sustained in their crime by the belief of others. Wolf argues that, “I caused miracles. I really did cure these people,” and we are told:

“When she was finally exposed, a great number of her followers, mainly poor people, refused to believe what the newspapers reported.”

Lucan, too, inspires belief in others, the rich rather than the poor, and based on class rather than religion. Maria Twickenham, whose husband helped Lucan escape, tells her daughter he got away “on the sheer strength of his own hypnotic act.”

“His proposition was: I am a seventh Earl, I am an aristocrat, therefore I can do what I like, I am untouchable.”

As Lucan tells Wolf, “People like us don’t go to prison,” regarding the murder as “a bungle like any other bungle.” Wolf eventually concludes that “Being an earl, full stop, is madness” in what is perhaps Spark’s finest skewering of the upper classes.

The novel is, of course, filled with hide and seek chases: while Wolf’s boyfriend tries to find Wolf by questioning her patients (she has gone into hiding from Lucan), Maria’s daughter, Lacey, is looking for Lucan, always just one step behind, including following his car unawares for miles. Lucan and Walker also fear that the other will give them the slip as the money begins to run out. As everything comes full circle, Lucan begins to see Walker as an obstacle, and symbol of his bad luck, like his wife:

“Walker was a card to be played in this gambling-den of life; not an ace card, merely a card.”

Spark arranges a suitably ironic fate for Lucan, one that is fitting, as ridiculous as he is, but not silly – Spark is never silly. Spark’s late novels may be lighter, perhaps even warmer, than her middle period, but they have lost none of their wit and power. Her killer instinct remains, and, unlike Lucan, she is not likely to miss the target.