Stranger to the Moon

July 4, 2022

Evelio Rosero is best-known in English for his 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winning novel The Armies, his first to be translated (by Anne McLean, who has been involved in all subsequent translations of his work). It was followed by Good Offices (2011) and Feast of the Innocents (2015), in which Anne was joined in translation by Anna Milsom, both novels incorporating elements of the surreal, but with a clear grounding in realism. Stranger to the Moon, now with Victor Meadowcroft as co-translator, is entirely allegory, a short novel where, in Rosero’s words “the nightmare took control of everything,” written in the late 1980s when Rosero returned to Colombia from Europe:

“I came back to Colombia, and after less than a week in Bogotá I fell in love and went to live in Chía, in the Cerca de Piedra district, among cows and chickens. The little brick house seemed right out of a fairy tale, but also out of nightmares. I stayed there six years, and I wrote Señor que no conoce la luna, because before I lived in Chía I’d never really seen the moon, as simple as that, I didn’t get to know the moon in Paris or in Barcelona.”

Stranger to the Moon wastes no time in making the reader sit up and take notice:

“It’s true that this house is enormous, but there are just too many of us. In order for us all to fit, there must always be one, at least, inside the wardrobe.”

The narrator, however, sees the advantages of inhabiting the wardrobe, not least the ability to “see without being seen,” having grown his nails sharp enough to bore a hole to look through. In this way we are introduced to the world of the Naked who fill the house, only rarely venturing outside among the clothed, a striking allegory for the divide between the poor and the wealthy, or between any powerful group and those who live on the margins of society, expanded further when the narrator reveals their reasons for remaining indoors:

“Not because we’re terrified of going around naked, but because they themselves, those from outside, seem to be the terrified ones, and therefore do everything possible to terrify us, attacking us in all manner of ways.”

The Naked are not only insulted, humiliated and attacked but are literally tortured in the belief that this will somehow cure the Clothed. In one description of torture Rosero alludes to Christ, when the Clothed tie one of the Naked to a tree “giving him vinegar instead of water to drink, and piercing his skin from time to time with sticks smeared in toxic aloe juice.” The Clothed also visit the house for ‘parties’ – “their friendliness is hypocritical naturally” – bringing food which allows the Naked to survive:

“The most frequent visitors like to get us to fight over a plate of lentils, and they place bets.”

The only physical difference between the Naked and the Clothed is that the Naked have two sexes, and at one point the narrator speculates as to whether stories that anything they wear will burst into flames, are intended “to discourage anyone intending to put on clothes in the hope of incorporating themselves – clothed – into the world of the Clothed.”

Much of the novel’s opening establishes the world of the Naked and the Clothed, but it is also suggested that the narrator in some way different. He tells of a time when he was saved from the Clothed by a woman because of the light in his eye – “Let him go, he’s just a wandering gaze” – and it is implied he is of greater intelligence than most of the Naked:

“They were astonished I was able to speak and respond and refute.”

At times he seems as alien to the Naked as he is to the Clothed, and the novel taps into the genre of the sensitive, intelligent child trapped in poverty and gives us hope of escape, however unlikely.

Stranger to the Moon is an imagination unleashed. It exists in a world of nightmare but one which is also recognisably human. Within only few pages you will believe this world exists, and by the novel’s end you may fear you live in it.

Goodbye, Ramona

July 1, 2022

Goodbye, Ramona was Montserrat Roig’s first novel, originally published in 1972, and now translated into English by Megan Berkobian and Maria Cristina Hall (following the success of Tiago Miller’s translation of The Song of Youth which was short-listed for the Republic of Consciousness Prize). It tells the story of three generations of Catalan women, grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Ramona, at three important moments in Catalan history. It opens and closes with a scene in which the mother, Ramona Ventura, searches for her husband, Joan, after a bombing raid in Barcelona during the civil war. This is not only a pivotal moment in Catalan’s history, but in her own, as she fears Joan is dead, a death that one suspects would have dramatically changed her future – a change which her daughter, with whom she is pregnant at the time, senses may have been positive. She describes her mother as “crushed by her husband’s very presence”:

“He frightened her and she didn’t make any effort to hide it, not even from her children.”

Later the novel will go on to reveal the back story to Ventura’s marriage, which perhaps begins with her mother, Ramona Jover’s, declaration that “I’ll never marry you off.” In fact, Ventura soon falls in love, but it is with a man called Ignasi:

“When she saw him two evenings later… Mundeta came to understand all that talk about beating hearts that she’d read about in novels, that a heart could race as if intending to burst, shattering into a million little pieces.”

On the day she is searching for Joan, Ventura looks back on this time as an exception in her life – “but everyone has a summer and a fall.” The difficulty for the three women in finding and holding onto happiness is a recurrent theme in the novel, emphasised by the fact that their stories are told concurrently, in fragments, moving from one to the other. Her own mother, Jover, whose story takes place at the turn of the century, finds herself in a conventional marriage with a man she likes but does not love:

“I feel none of the ivresse [intoxication] you read about in novels.”

Whereas her daughter finds love before she is married, she does so after, when she falls in love with a student, Victor:

“They say to love is to die. I must simply die of love then.”

Interestingly, in both cases, these love affairs are kept from Ramona Claret, who represents the youngest generation. Instead, her mother frequently talks about “an entire day spent searching for your father,” and whenever her grandmother talks about her husband, Francisco, “she did so like a woman in love, and Mundeta envied her for it.” Roig is charging these women with a dishonesty that perpetuates the difficulties women have in finding, and accepting, happiness. Ironically, Ramona Claret sees herself as rebelling against the previous generations in her own relationship with Jordi. She, too, has romantic ideas about love – “She’d spent her whole life searching for her one true love…”- and she longs to:

“…be back by his side, and for them both to be thinking that nothing else mattered but their own little world, just the two of them.”

Unfortunately, she is a student at the time of political unrest – at one point the universities are closed – and Jordi is heavily involved in the movement. This could perhaps be a warning sign for her if she knew the history of her family, as both her mother and grandmother’s ‘true loves’ were also politically active:

“Mundeta noticed that they’d set off from two distinct, irreconcilable points: she found herself in a universe in decline, unimaginative, corrupted for which the only plausible ending would be, at best, the triumph of individual happiness. It was very different in Jordi’s case: he belonged to family for which the word ‘struggle’ possessed, as was tradition, an optimistic and ascending meaning.”

To some extent, this dichotomy is central to the novel, which provides us with a version of Catalan history that acknowledges the political history but is focused on the emotional impact. It also demonstrates both changes which take place in women’s lives over almost a hundred years, and the factors which remain the same. Fittingly, it’s conclusions are nuanced rather than feminist, with Jordi telling Ramona Claret that, “we’re nothing but tiny particles, countless, inexistant nearly invisible particles. We’re not the centre of the world,” and Ramona Ventura realising amid the ruins:

“The truth is I’ve been moulded out of details and miniscule events which will never add up to much of anything at all.”

Goodbye, Ramona is a thoughtful, engaging kaleidoscope of women’s lives in the 20th century, and another example of Montserrat Roig’s skill as an author which is, thankfully, now being revealed to us.

A Ripple from the Storm

June 28, 2022

Four years passed between the publication of A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm, the third volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, during which Lessing wrote Retreat to Innocence, the novel she later disowned, a collection of short stories, The Habit of Loving, and a memoir, Going Home. By the end of the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, the world was at war, and Martha’s marriage to Douglas Knowell existed only in name as she had left both him and her young child. To others it might appear her husband had been supplanted by one of the many RAF officers now stationed in the colony – and, indeed, Martha is having an affair with one of them – but he has been more firmly ousted by her increasingly radical political beliefs and her desire to forge her own identity.

Lessing makes this political focus clear from the novel’s opening scene – a meeting of ‘Aid for Our Allies’, which raises money for the Russian war effort, and is one of the organisations which Martha and her fellow Communists participate in and hope to influence. This Communist group, which has only recently declared itself a ‘party’, is few in number: here we meet her lover, William, Jackie (another RAF officer), Marjorie, Jasmine and Anton Hesse, a German exile. Jackie is the most charismatic, but he is also the most chaotic, as we see when he tells the committee of ‘Aid for Our Allies’ they are “cowardly, lily-livered social democrats” and they promptly resign.

As the Communist group expands, tensions occur between the RAF members, who come and go as they are posted, and the ‘colonials’. These are, in part, class tensions as some of the airmen are working class whereas none of the settlers are, the working class of the colony being black. We see this in Martha’s experience with Bill, who speaks to her as if “patiently explaining to an imbecile” with:

“…a soft jeer. Bill Bruett had cast Martha in the role of ‘middle class comrade’ and never let her forget it.”

(Martha being assign identities by men is a constant theme of the novel). The RAF members also tend more towards action and this often clashes with party discipline, infuriating Anton.  When Bill explains why they spend more time than the allocated one afternoon a week in the coloured quarter (“There are so many things to do: people in trouble, and the women want advice about their children”) Anton replies:

“How many Coloured people are there in this colony? A few thousand. They are unimportant, economically and politically.”

Anton’s analytical approach makes him appear cold and unfeeling, and also at times ridiculous, for example when he insists that because the group voted to keep the party secret it should be kept secret even when everyone knows about it. During ‘criticism’ he is described as “an arrogant, stiff-necked, domineering bastard,” albeit with an element of humour. All the more surprising, then, that Martha ends up marrying him – though ideas of marriage are clearly in the air as at one point she comments:

“That means that all the RAF members have proposed to us all in the last month.”

It follows Anton looking after her when she falls ill:

“Suddenly he’s human. She was also thinking: Suppose he is in love with me? The thought was half exciting, half pure panic.”

As with her previous marriage, the agency seems to be entirely with the man, though she is also influenced by her duty to the party. Already one of the RAF members, Andrew, has married an unmarried pregnant woman, Maisie, because she does not want to have an abortion. Typically, on the day of her wedding, Martha goes to an important meeting immediately after the ceremony. Once they are married, she talks about how “outwardly she was affectionate and compliant with her husband” suggesting the continued disparity between how she lives her life and the life she longs to live, which she still cannot articulate. In this sense she is torn in two:

“Martha watched in herself the growth of an extraordinarily unpleasant and upsetting emotion, a self-mockery, a self-parody, as if she both allowed herself an emotion she did not approve of, allowed it and enjoyed it, but at the same time cancelled it out by the mockery.”

This uncertainty, Martha’s constant questing for something better, is the series’ greatest strength. We see it both in her personal life, and in her political journey. Lessing does not pretend there are easy answers. In particular, there are disagreements about how the Communists can help the black population – some want direct action, but the others argue that this will simply lead to the RAF members being posted, and Anton being interned. Instead, they work with the Labour party to allow black membership – in a segregated group. (Lessing also personalises this problem by having one of the RAF men visit the black community one night in the name of ‘friendship’). Of course, for many readers the politics will be out-dated, but Lessing is very good on the dynamics of political groups, and how the political mixes with the personal. By the novel’s end Martha is “overwhelmed with futility,” her innocence further eroded, and no clearer to understanding who she is.

Hex

June 22, 2022

Jenni Fagan’s Hex is the second in Polygon’s Darkland Tales series in which contemporary Scottish writers recreate a moment in Scottish history. The first was Denise Mina’s Rizzio which focused on the night when Mary, Queen of Scots’, secretary was murdered by Scots nobles. Fagan turns her attention to Geillis Duncan, perhaps hoping to offer a different fictional version to that seen in Outlander, though, like Rizzio, Geillis is an important historical figure. Geillis was only a teenager (she is fifteen in the novella) when she was accused of witchcraft by her master, David Seaton, an accusation at least partly based on her knowledge of healing. She was tortured at length and eventually implicated other women in what became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials, before being finally executed on the 4th of December 1591.

An important part of the writer’s task, as with any historical novelist, is to make the narrative as much about the present as the past. Mina did this largely through the language used to present the characters’ dialogue and thoughts – a casual glance at a random page reveals: “fobbed off”; “fancy that”; “doesn’t feel right”; “snobby, surly little shit”. There are occasional missteps, for example when she makes a point of describing the nobles rather redundantly as “white men,” but the general effect is to make the characters accessible to a modern reader. Fagan has taken a different approach by introducing a contemporary voice into the narrative, that of Iris, who reaches Geillis from 2021 through the ‘Null’ as a spirit:

“Travelled time all my life.

“Have had spirits come to me, go through me, had them drag me out of my body and throw me across rooms or ceilings all night long.”

It’s an interesting choice as the familiarity (and she describes herself as Geillis’ familiar at points) of Irene as a contemporary character contrasts with the disbelief the reader needs to suspend to accept her supernatural presence. It also contradicts the commonly expressed argument that witches are innocent because witchcraft does not exist – this, I think, is deliberate as in Fagan’s eyes the more important point is that Geillis has done no harm. As narrative device, however, it works well, introducing us to Geillis’ existence as a prisoner in Edinburgh:

“Your cell is several floors below the city… It is so far below the seasons they might well not exist. There is only one kind of weather in here: freezing cold and cloaked in darkness.”

Iris allows a dialogue to take place with the isolated Geillis, granting a character who has been historically voiceless a voice (part of Geillis’ story is that she recanted as she was led to the gallows but was ignored). Iris claims they are “related by blood – though it wasn’t by marriage, I know that much” providing her with comradeship and comfort to balance her bleak story; it not only suggests that we, in the present, care, but that Geillis can know this. The excruciating descriptions of her torture become a testament:

“They wrapped a rope around my head, wrapped it tighter and tighter to crush my skull… I felt my own bones crunch. Blood leaked out of my ears. They held my legs open wide. Rammed things inside me.”

The cruelty is extraordinary – at one point there are ten men around her – but no worse than we hear of today. She sees the hatred of men:

“There is no man on this earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs! We are portals. Humans emerge from our bodies into a world without explanation. Some men hold a brutal kind of grudge for that.”

She also understands the more calculated hatred of Seaton – “a man made almost entirely of hate” – who uses her to accuse others of a higher station:

“He could not go after her directly, being of nobility as she is a of money… He could not have his motive – to try to get his hands on her inheritance – as something that linked him to her death.”

Fagan’s prose could not be more suited to her subject – at times stripped back, at others almost incantatory. These short books remind me of Canongate’s Myths series in that by giving writers a particular brief it allows them a certain freedom. Hex feels like an offshoot of Luckenbooth, giving Fagan has the opportunity of exploring an even darker side to Edinburgh in this accomplished if harrowing tale.

Canzone di Guerra

June 16, 2022

Dasa Drndic, who was first translated into English only ten years ago, is gradually being acknowledge as one of the most important voices of this century, although her focus often lay in the past – in Croatian and Serbian complicity in the Holocaust in the 1940s, and the conflicts which erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, from where she drew lessons still unlearned. Now we finally begin to see some of her earlier work with the translation by Celia Hawkesworth of Canzone di Guerra, originally published in 1998, and centring on the experiences of refugees from the former Yugoslavia in Canada. Drndic’s books are always, in a sense, ‘timely’, tied as they are to uncomfortable truths about humanity, but with war raging in the Ukraine and refugees numbering in millions, Canzone di Guerra (‘war song’, here subtitled New Battle Songs) arrives at a point when understanding what it means to be a refugee is as important as ever.

Canzone di Guerra is narrated by Tea Radan, a writer, partly a surrogate for Drndic in the way Andreas Ban is in Belladonna and E.E.G. But the novel is not a straight-forward first-person narrative; instead, it is a patch work of stories and genres, accompanied by numerous footnotes. Take, for example, an early chapter on pigs designed to lead us, via stories of peasants in newly socialist Yugoslavia taking their pigs with them when they move into towns, towards this conclusion: “confined pigs, forcibly moved away from their familiar surroundings, die abruptly.” Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs are later mentioned in relation to the fad for adopting them as pets in America, and then, when the fashion changes, abandoning them:

“They came into parks, they reached the suburbs, the rubbish tips and – the butchers.”

In both cases, the link to Drndic’s wider theme of refugees is clear.

For Tea, and her daughter Sara, the move to Toronto is not their first migration, having already moved from Belgrade (Serbia) to Rijeka (Croatia). In some ways, Tea says, that move was harder – for Sara learning a completely new language, English, was easier than understanding the differences between Serbian and Croatian which are “essentially the same language”, and, in Canada, Tea’s accent is seen as “charming” rather than a sign she is from what is now a different country. The book’s best description of being a refugee, however, appears in the words of another as ‘Branko’s story’:

“Overnight you become a person without anything. A person without property, without money, without land. You have nothing. First there were some gunshots, then you could hear shelling in the distance. That sounded like fireworks. Exactly like fireworks.”

Tea’s story often involves dealing with bureaucracy – “Canada,” she says, “is a land of papers, that is a land of thick, rich forests, which are cut down in order to turn them into paper.” Registering for social support she is told that Sara’s father’s name cannot be left blank- eventually she suggests ‘Croaticus Magnus’. Later she and Sara attempt to adopt a cat and another lengthy form is required. When asked for reasons for adopting a cat, Tea replies “personal” –

“What were your personal reasons?

“I said: They’re personal.”

She refuses to have the cat neutered, a condition of adoption. Her obstinacy is a minor resistance which highlights both the possibility of independent thought and the difficulty of acting on it. It demonstrates that the rigidity of authority can be found not only in Eastern Europe, but in the West – a point Drndic makes about surveillance as well:

“And Big Brother is till here. He is multiplied in countless Little Brothers who conceal themselves in invisible information bases from where they monitor everything we do… Orwell is naïve material these days.”

Tea’s personal story is interspersed with her historical research – largely, but not exclusively, Croatian. She reveals the faults in her home country originating in the Second World War between those who supported the Nazis and those who resisted. This history is both personal and impersonal – some of it is told through letters her grandparents send to Tito. It contains both horror and farce – such as when Croatian nationalists insist that Grandfather Frost is replaced by Grandfather Christmas: “attitudes to Grandfather Frost had suddenly become a political question.” (See also the so-called ’culture wars’ taking place the UK today).

But no country escapes Drndic’s scrutiny. Canada, too, is not blameless when to comes to the Holocaust, for example allowing around two thousand former Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis to into the country to work. Typically, Drndic is able to distil this to a single case to make her point: Haralds Puntulis, responsible for thousands of deaths, sentenced to execution in Latvia, but allowed to die naturally in Toronto in 1982. This can make Drndic’s work seem depressing, almost nihilistic, in discovering cruelty and injustice wherever she looks, but the indefatigable resistance, and refusal to be cowed or to look away, of her and her characters allows the reader hope. If you wish to understand the world today, reading her work is a good place to begin.

Self Portrait in Green

June 12, 2022

Anyone approaching Marie Ndiaye’s Self Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump in 2014 and now released in the UK by Influx Press) expecting straight-forward autobiography will be, at the very least, disconcerted – a not uncommon occurrence when it comes to her writing in general. While the slim volume clearly draws on her own life with references to friends and family, its content is deliberately restricted and, at times, surreal, as if she intends to draw on only one aspect of herself, one self-portrait among the many possible.

The book begins ominously in 2003 as the village where Ndiaye is living in France faces the prospect of the Garonne River bursting its banks:

“It’s the first thing you learn when you make up your mind to settle in this place, eternally under threat from the floodwaters of the Garonne.”

NDiaye insists the river is ‘feminine’ and the same sense of being under threat from the ‘feminine’ follows her throughout the book, even as we go back through time to 2002 and 2001. (The carefully dated narrative feels more like a defiance of chronology than an attempt to establish it as the story, in many ways, refutes the ordering of cause and effect). This ‘feminine’ presence is portrayed throughout as a ‘green woman,’ first seen as she takes her children to and from school:

“…never once did my gaze fail to meet with the still, watchful silhouette of the woman in green standing near the far more imposing banana tree…”

The children, of course, see nothing. The woman reminds her of another “woman in green” from her school days:

“Tall, brutal, and heavyset, she promises us all a trip to prison if we eat too slowly, if we dirty our clothes, if we don’t raise our eyes to meet hers.”

Then there is a conversation with her friend Cristina, also dressed in green, about Cristina’s children – despite the fact Cristina has no children. Cristina tells her about arriving to collect her children from their grandparents only to overhear her father repeating to her mother, “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore…” This dreamlike conversation is the first indication that the ‘green woman’ might represent some nightmarish version of Ndiaye herself.

The following sections of the book focus largely on her father and her friend, Jenny. Ndiaye did not meet her father until she was fifteen and he is portrayed in the book as an inconsistent man moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Throughout the book he is married to a woman who was once the narrator’s friend. She is now a ’woman in green’ having altered her brown eyes with green contact lenses:

“I feared that my father and the woman in green might have child of their own, or two, or three, and that would only compound my father’s problems, engulfing all of us, those of his children who feel it in our hearts when some sorrow befalls him.”

Later she visits her father in Burkina Faso “to put my affection for my father to the test.” Part of the distance between them is her father’s disapproval of her vocation:

“He looks on literature with loathing and contempt you understand.”

In establishing herself as a writer she sees herself in opposition to her stepmother, certain that she “abandoned her vocation, her free will, her joyousness, just to become one with this man.” Again, there is a sense that her friend, now her stepmother, represents an alternative route for her – marrying a man like her father – that she fears. Similarly, another friend, Jenny, who, at fifty, finds herself abandoned by her husband and her son, and forced to move back in with her parents:

“She’s a passive and trusting person, and nothing she’d done was really to blame for this ruination.”

She begins an affair with an old boyfriend, Ivan, but it is Ivan’s wife, not Jenny, who is the ‘woman in green’. She befriends Jenny and talks about her life with Ivan, the life Jenny could have had. Jenny finds herself “growing small, transparent and empty.” Eventually Jenny becomes suicidal.

What Ndiaye intends with these insights into the lives of other women is not entirely obvious – our journey through their stories is poetic rather than logical, particularly as they flit in and out of the narrator’s life. Ndiaye’s writing always contains a dreamlike quality and it is as if she takes moments from her daily life and transmutes them into something slightly less real but more intense. Self Portrait in Green does not reveal much of Ndiaye’s biography, but it does tell us what it feels like it be her through these other women who haunt her, displaying the doubts and fears she lives with. Perhaps, like the river, they threaten to overwhelm her – but, just as the Garonne subsides at the end, so she controls her fears: when her children see the black creature she spotted earlier she tells them: “To tell the truth, I didn’t see anything. Nothing at all.”

The Life Before Us

June 6, 2022

The Life Before Us is, of course, the novel with which Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt for the second time (strictly against the rules) having published it under another name – Emile Ajar.  He chose to publish under a pseudonym as, by the 1970s, he felt pigeon-holed by critics and readers, but also because, as he stated in The Life and Death of Emile Ajar (published in 1981, a year after his suicide):

“I have always been someone else.”

This feeling of estrangement from his own life no doubt has is roots in his origins, born Roman Kacew in Vilnius, spending parts of his childhood in Moscow and Warsaw, and only arriving in France at the age of fourteen. (A version of his life can be found in his autobiography, Promise at Dawn). It is perhaps only to be expected that the narrator of The Life Before Us, Momo (short for Mohammed), is also confused about his origins, and even his age.

Despite this, Momo is certainly a child as he tells the story of his life so far and it is his character which carries the novel, a combination of curiosity, innocence and resignation which is captured perfectly by Gary and his translator, Ralph Manheim. Gary cleverly has the young Momo looking back on his younger self (“I stopped being ignorant when I was three of four, and sometimes I miss it”) with the hard-earned wisdom of the slightly older child. We meet a boy who has no mother but is instead looked after by Madame Rosa, an ex-prostitute who now cares for the children of prostitutes. Other children come and go, and are granted visits from their mothers, but not Momo. Eventually Madame Rosa tells him:

“You kids are lucky you don’t know your mothers, because children your age still have sensibilities, and it’s hard to believe what dyed-in-the-wool whores they are, sometimes I think I’m dreaming.”

Lacking a mother, Momo steals a dog – a poodle – but later sells it for five hundred francs, and then throws the money away. Looking back, the older Momo thinks he understands this (“There was no security at Madame Rosa’s, we were all hanging by a thread… That was no life for a dog.”) but it is clear to the reader he cannot fully explain his behaviour. In this way the novel is built up in layers – the child Momo, the narrator Momo, the adults around him (who, after this incident, worry he “isn’t normal”), and the reader.

At the novel’s centre is the relationship between Momo and Madame Rosa (the novel was first translated as Momo and filmed in 1977 as Madame Rosa). Momo’s sympathy for Madame Rosa can be seen immediately when he comments on her daily struggle to reach the sixth floor: “if ever a woman deserved an elevator it was Madame Rosa.” He later describes her as “so sad you didn’t even notice she was ugly.” She is a survivor of Auschwitz, and when she feels afraid she retreats to the basement of the building where she sweeps the floor – another example of Momo observing but not understanding. Yet, despite her age, and her often less than tender manner, Momo not only stays with her when she falls ill but protects her, even from the knowledge she is ill. “Her brain isn’t getting the blood and oxygen it needs,” the doctor tells him:

“Pretty soon she won’t be able to think, she’ll be like a vegetable.”

When Madame Rosa, having overheard word ‘vegetable’, questions Momo about this, he tells her: “You’ll have to eat your vegetable for your health.” And so he stays with Madame Rosa as her condition deteriorates, for example finding her dressed one day to go back on the streets:

“Madame Rosa, mother naked in leather boots, with black lace panties around her neck, because she’d gotten her arms and legs mixed up, and tits that defy the imagination lying flat on her belly, is something you won’t see anywhere else even if it exists.”

This also gives a flavour of the novel’s humour, even in the bleakest circumstances. (Lighter moments include Momo turning an umbrella into an imaginary friend but removing its face when he learns that this offends Moslems).

Ultimately, The Life Before Us is a novel about love. “Can somebody live without love?” Momo asks at the beginning. Yes, he is told, but, in a sense, he refuses to accept this, choosing to love Madame Rosa until she dies, and finally solving the mystery of whether she loves him. Winning a prize you can only win once for a second time is not the only paradox Gary has created with this novel about death that is the radiantly life-affirming.

Climbers on a Stair

June 1, 2022

Though the most famous example of a novel centred on characters living in the same block is undoubtedly French (Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual), a tradition of ‘tenement’ novels also exists in Scotland, from Iain Crichton Smith’s The Tenement (1985) to Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth (2021). Another example is Elspeth Davie’s Climbers on a Stair from 1978. Although Davie is best known, if known at all, for her short stories, this was her third novel. As with most tenement novels, it deliberately avoids a central character, and, in fact, goes out of its way to characterise the building itself as the focal point in a Prelude:

“It is a tenement stair with eight houses on it – a building which probably in the 120 years of its life have never been cut off from the outside world for more than an hour or two.”

It is the stair that connects the building’s homes and, potentially, those who live in them. As the opening sentence suggests it is also connected to history, but equally to the contemporary world outside the front door. It has a permanence (“a single, sculptured spiral of solid stone worn into deep, smooth moon-curves at its foot”) but is also mutable (“there is a cycle of change on the stair like the organic cycle in an organism”).

The inhabitants of Davie’s tenement are a similar mixture of characters – those in the process of change and those who fiercely remain the same. Davie cleverly makes one of her characters, Neilson, a town planner, thus introducing the topic of buildings into the narrative. He feels himself blamed for every disliked concrete construction, of which, in the seventies, there were a few, and yet he is also aware that planners like himself have produced imperfect results:

“It was Neilson’s luck to have found a flat which… had a magnificent view of the city for miles around. He had also the ill luck to see for the first time what he and his kind had done to the horizon over the years.”

Other inhabitants of the tenement include Thomas Baird who, since heart problems caused him to give up his job, now spends his time weaving, a passion he discovered by chance when recuperating. Art is also represented by the aptly named Miss Winterfield, a retired music teacher, who can, indeed appear frosty in conversation. Both represent the possibilities of new beginnings: Baird because he has found the craft which he loves late in life; Miss Winterfield because she sees age as no barrier to learning:

“I think I can say that some of my greatest achievements have been with my older pupils.”

Yet they are two characters who have no intention of leaving the tenement. In contrast, Neilson is planning to go down south, and Steven Singer, a student of orthoptics, similarly does not intend to be a permanent resident. Miss Winterfield is perhaps the most developed character, never short of an opinion, and verging on a Muriel Spark creation, as, for example, when we are told that once she would have hidden her bottle of wine from prying eyes but now:

“She took a certain pride in leaving the bottle standing on the hearthrug like an unruly friend who was not to be dismissed simply because other visitors had arrived.”

Singer’s back story is revealed thanks to a remark of Miss Winterfield’s when she comments he is too young to think about death. He makes a point of visiting her later to tell her:

“I knew this boy… He was nineteen. He was killed. Hit by a lorry. Knew him well. We’d done endless walks together. And we had talked. We had talked a great deal.”

These few short sentences suggest the depth of the relationship, perhaps even something more than friendship, and it will be returned to throughout the novel though without adding much in the way of detail. Miss Winterfield is also influential when it comes to Clara Kirk, who is introduced as follows:

“Though Clara Kirk had never crossed a border there was a great deal of luggage in the cupboards and wardrobes of her first floor flat.”

Clara seems to belong to those who are in permanent residence. Though she talks knowledgeably about “a remote mountain village in Bavaria” or St Peter’s gallery in Rome, that knowledge comes for guidebooks and travel brochures. Her desire to travel is one of the small dreams that inhabit the tenement alongside its residents.

Climbers on a Stair is an unassuming novel much like the tenement itself, but Davie not only brings its characters to life, revealing dreams and passions, hopes and regrets, as powerful as any protagonist, but also illuminates their lives with small moments – for example when they observe a man struggling to raise a kite on a windless day. Its stories (and its storeys) are to be cherished.

Tender

May 27, 2022

When Charco press launched in 2017 one of its first books was Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, the opening volume of what the author has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’. Its focus was the narrator’s often unhappy relationship with her baby. Her husband was a distant figure as she came to terms (or didn’t) with being a mother, her anger alternating with waves of desire directed at a neighbour. In the second book, Feebleminded, that desire takes centre stage – “Degenerate desire. Damaging desire. Demented desire.” It is similarly focused on a man she cannot possess, a married man who will not leave his wife. Now, in the final volume, Tender (again translated by Annie McDermott and Caroline Orloff), we return to the mother / child relationship as the narrator is torn once again between love and desire.

Her son is older, perhaps bordering on adolescence:

“But he’s grown too big, too long, he’s outstripping me.”

“The weight of his head,” she tells us, is “my first indication he’s become a man.” Despite this physical closeness, we quickly realise the narrator struggles to embrace the role of mother: in an early episode she is caught shoplifting with her son; they wake up and there’s no food in the house; a social worker has to be told he is ill to explain why he isn’t at school. He is her “little ray of sunshine” but at the same time:

“The son doesn’t make me happy, the son doesn’t fill me. I feel like a hair in a bottle of alcohol, adrift alive and dead.”

Her love for him must compete with her sexual desire, “an erection to get me through, through the Sunday, through the chores, through the chit-chat…” In one scene she follows a man in her car with her son in the back. When he stops she gets into his car:

“At no point did I remember him asleep in the back with the handbrake off.”

Only the man’s quick action saves her son’s life. Her behaviour might be described as that of an addict (at one point she says she would make a good junkie), but in her own mind she is simply too young to be ‘only’ a mother:

“…not old enough yet to crash and burn, too young to be a mole living under the pipes or spend my days picking parasites off leaves.”

The narrator lives in the countryside and animals feature throughout the novel, almost interchangeable with the characters suggesting there is something feral about the lives of the mother and child. They see a rabbit “bounding, flying, soaring before us” – it refuses the safety of the woods:

“We watched her take on the cars and escape unscathed, defying the law of the jungle.”

If we sense this is how the narrator sees herself, we can also infer the criticism implied when she talks of “cats abandoned by holidaying families.” These precarious roadside animals emphasise the narrator’s rootless existence, just as the numerous car journeys highlight her restless nature. Increasingly isolated, mother and child inhabit a nightmare landscape, “pastures of pesticides and hormones”, a landscape of deliberate harm and abandonment:

“On either side we see grimy waterlogged handbags, tin cans, dresses and summer hats floating down the stream. Sacrifices, discarded lives.”

They are furthermore trapped within their bodies. The narrator talks of her “swollen brain”, her son’s “mammal mouth”. This is perhaps best emphasised in a physical collapse caused by, in the words of the doctors, “damage from various incidents”:

“At the mercy of an artery, a spasm, a bone.”

More and more withdrawn from society, they are like criminals on the run – but what they are running from is never clear. The narrator worries for her son without her and with her; she tries to leave him behind yet is lost without him.

This is not simply a ‘bad mother’ novel however – for a start, the viewpoint is always the mother’s, never the child’s, and the mother is entirely aware of her flaws. It is driven by Harwicz’s fierce prose which punches from the page taking no prisoners. It confronts the reader with uncomfortable questions as we are brought face to face with a life lived with the chaotic power of unfiltered emotions, an animal freedom which is frightening in its intensity. Just like the narrator herself, it does not ask for our approval or condemnation.

The Anomaly

May 22, 2022

Herve Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, winner of the 2020 Prix Goncort and recently translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is a ‘concept’ novel in more ways than one. It is, first of all, based around one central, movie-pitch idea – a ‘what if’ which Le Tellier both begins and ends with. In addition, however, its form, too, is ‘conceptual’ – more conceptual than the average novel that is – as befits Le Tellier’s role as the current president of the Oulipo. The novel is divided into three parts: the first and last of 13 chapters, the second of 9 chapters. Each part takes its title from a line in in a Raymond Queneau poem. Its epigraphs come for a book written by one of its characters, Victor Miesel, called The anomaly – and they are exactly what we might expect from the pensées of a French intellectual:

“A true pessimist knows that is already too late to be one.”

There are references to Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and (for reasons which will becomes obvious) Romain Gary, the only writer to have won the Prix Goncort twice (by publishing under another name as the prize only allows one win).

If this makes the novel sound solipsistic then nothing could be further from the truth. Its literary references are either tongue-in-cheek or all but invisible, and certainly not necessary to enjoy a novel as gripping as any thriller. Of course, this is in part because Le Tellier is also writing across a series of genres – including thriller and satire – in short chapters which focus on one of his many characters. The novel opens with the hired killer, Blake. We learn about his first and latest kills and, incidentally, about a recent flight from Paris to New York which was “so terrifying he thought his time was up.” He is reading a book by an author he spotted on the flight – Victor Miesel who takes centre-stage in the next chapter. Here we learn about the flight in more detail:

“…the plane plummets in yet another air pocket, and something in Victor suddenly snaps, he closes his eyes and lets himself be sloshed every which way, no longer trying to anchor himself. He’s turned into one of those lab mice that’s subjected to violent stresses and eventually stops fighting, resigned to dying.”

We soon realise that the event which links all the characters is the turbulent air flight as Le Tellier introduces us to them one by one: Lucie, a French filmmaker whose relationship with Andre, thirty years older, is coming to an end; Sophia, a seven-year-old girl who is terrified of her father; Joanna, a black lawyer defending a dubious pharmaceutical company; Slimboy, a gay Nigerian singer; and David Markle, the pilot, who has terminal cancer. That there is more to it than a shared near-death experience, however, is clear from many of the chapter endings when police or FBI arrive three months later (everything is meticulously dated) looking for the passengers. One exception is Miesel: since returning to Paris he has been writing:

“Over just a few weeks, a gramophonic Victor Miesel fills hundreds of pages…”

When he finishes his new book he sends it to his publisher and, “overcome by a piercing anxiety that he cannot identify” he falls / jumps (it is left deliberately ambiguous) from his balcony to his death. The book is The anomaly which goes on to become a best-seller.

In the first part we also meet Adrian Miller, a mathematician at Princeton, who, after 9/11, had been part of a group tasked with detailing responses to possible air incidents. When their report is submitted, they are asked: “What if we’re confronted with a case that fits none of the situations covered?” As a fan of Douglas Adams, he names this scenario ‘42’ (parts of the protocol are also borrowed from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) in the firm belief it will never be needed. Not so: he has just received a message on his bullet-proof phone to tell him a car is waiting outside.

Only at the end of the first part does Le Tellier reveal what has happened to provoke such a response (look way now if you don’t want to know – though the book’s blurb reveals this in its first sentence) – Flight 006 lands safely on the 10th March, and then again on the 24th June. Not simply the same flight number or the same plane but the same pilot, passengers and crew: a duplicate of the original, or perhaps the original which has been duplicated. Whichever way round, the fact is there are now doubles of everyone on board.

The novel’s second section details the experience of the June passengers, taken to a military base and held there while a team of scientists and philosophers attempt to work out what has happened. They are not immediately told that three months has passed since take-off, nor that they already exist elsewhere in the world. Both scientific and philosophical explanations are kept light, but it would be naïve to think that they were not also serious. In the final section the March and the June passengers are brought together with varying consequences, and the novel’s conclusion is retrospectively obvious, though still one I didn’t see coming.

The Anomaly is Oulipo at its most entertaining – a compelling read which is impressive both as a literary feat and as an example of speculative fiction. Hopefully its accessibility will not detract from Le Tellier’s achievement.