Archive for January, 2011


January 30, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Julio Cortazar

I have long admired Julio Cortazar as a short story writer, and have read a couple of his shorter novels (The Winners and Final Exam), as well as the non-fiction Autonauts of the Cosmoroute which was finally translated into English a few years ago. Hopscotch, however, though widely regarded as his masterpiece, was the one that I never got around to, even when I eventually acquired a copy two years ago. Of course, it is almost six hundred pages long and possesses a rather intimidating structure that immediately presents the reader with a choice. We can either read linearly from chapter one to 56, ignoring the remaining “expendable” chapters “with a clean conscience”, or we can ‘hopscotch’ around the novel following Cortazar’s instructions, beginning at chapter 73 then moving on to 1,2 116,3,84…and so on. Obviously, having set out to challenge my reading habits, I opted for the latter approach.

Then novel is traditional enough to have a central character, Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian writer who we first meet living in Paris with his lover La Maga and socialising with a group of self-consciously intellectual bohemians. La Maga’s young child dies and La Maga disappears; Horacio returns to Buenos Aires where he is met by an old friend known as Traveler and his wife Talita. He works with them at a circus and then an asylum, gradually seeming to lose his mind before finally threatening suicide. The “expendable chapters” sometimes add to this story or provide background (for example Horacio’s relationship with a previous lover, Pola), but often contain seemingly unrelated stories, quotations, extracts from a book a character is reading, and statements attributed to a writer, Morelli, who features briefly in the main narrative.

The first effect I found this had on my reading was that I never knew where I was in the novel: that is, measured from beginning to end (a journey which still exists, though not represented by the novel’s pagination) I had no idea how far I had come or how far I had to go. Also, the physical act of moving back and forward through the book was so counter-intuitive that it did go some way to convey the directionless meanderings of Horacio’s life. The novel also moves freely between first and third person. The first two chapters are written, in modernist tradition, from the consciousness of the struggling artist, but chapter 3 begins: “Horacio Oliveira was sitting on the bed smoking his third insomniac cigarette.” This means that when we return to the first person we cannot be certain that it is Horacio’s voice we hear – chapter 7 is a good example, where one lover addresses another. Perhaps the tour de force in terms of narrative style is chapter 34 where a line from a novel Horacio is reading alternates with a line of his thoughts.

These ‘extra’ chapters work well at points in the novel, for example when, after the death of La Maga’s child, we leave the main narrative for twenty two chapters. This both emphasises the narrative importance of the death and Horacio’s desire to avoid thinking of it (also shown in his non-appearance at the funeral, and representative of his general withdrawal from reality). However, the more esoteric interruptions can be off-putting as a reader: you either feel under pressure to connect them to the main narrative or frustrated by their apparent lack of connection, and the sense of preening cleverness that occasionally rises from the pages. Of course, this ties in neatly with the self-absorbed intellectualism of Horacio and most of the other male characters. Horacio believes La Maga is sleeping with Gregorovious because he attempts to explain some of the ideas they are discussing to her. In offering to move out immediately draws on what he knows in their discussion:

“Lying to yourself…You sound like a best-selling novel from Rio de la Plata.”

La Maga (and later Talita) are perhaps the most sympathetic characters in the novel. La Maga is frequently excluded from the group because of her lack of education:

“She was terribly in awe of Oliveira and Etienne, who could keep an argument going for three hours without a stop. There was something like a circle of chalk around Etienne and Oliveira and she wanted to get inside…”

However, it is her focus on Oliveira and the group that leads her to ignore the health of her son who, for me, lay at the centre of the novel, ignored and neglected, a reminder that intellectual pursuit alone is not enough. Whether Cortazar shared this view I could not be sure. Is his intention to satirise Horacio? Is the novel’s structure actually an attack on his purposeless life, ending in a loop to show that he is heading nowhere? Hopscotch certainly convinces as a novel that would reward a second reading but, personally, I would rather return to Cortazar’s stories

Danger rating: I would liken this to climbing a mountain, but that would only be accurate if the route was the most circuitous, involving frequent descents, and never quite reaching the peak. Hopscotch doesn’t seem to be currently in print. I read the award-winning translation by Gregory Rabassa in an American edition. An excellent selection of Cortazar’s stories, Bestiary, was published by Harvill in 1998 but is also out of print. Individual collections are, however, available.


January 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Jenny Erpenbeck

Visitation is the third of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels to be translated into English (you can pick up the other two, The Old Child and The Book of Words, in one volume) and yet further proof of her astonishing talent. In praising her work, Michel Faber singles out The Old Child for its “jewel-like perfection”, but I have to admit that I regard The Book of Words, an examination of a Latin American dictatorship from the point of view of a child, as even better. In Visitation she continues to explore the cruelties of the twentieth century from the confined space of a single viewpoint, but here the viewpoint is that of a place rather than a character, the banks of a lake in Brandenburg where an architect builds a summerhouse. Largely contained within this setting, we move from mind to mind, imitating as a reader the urge described in the novel’s German title, Heimsuching – home-seeking.

Translator Susan Bernofsky’s English title is equally appropriate. The novel begins like a folk tale, listing superstitions related to marriage and death, and telling us of the Mayor’s youngest daughter, Klara, who will inherit the wood where the summerhouse will be built, her meeting with a mysterious fisherman, and her descent into madness. Like all folk-tales the story has supernatural overtones, particularly when Klara meets the fisherman:

“Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are around her in this bit of the woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air.”

Here the wood seems to be haunted by the future rather than the past.

Klara’s suicide leads to the wood being sold, one third to the architect who builds the summer house. The narrative immediately transports us to the point where he is forced to leave the house in order to escape to the West, burying valuables in the ground and remembering the last time they were hidden, in fear of an advancing Russian army. Immediately Erpenbeck’s central point is clear: home is a fragile concept and one we should not readily identify with a particular place (the word ‘visitation’ also suggests the temporary nature of ‘home’). Throughout the novel characters’ love of the lake and its surroundings is contrasted with the impermanent nature of their residence. Often this is highlighted by possessions left behind, for example the towels of the architect’s Jewish neighbours

“Before it could occur to his wife to wash them, he’d gone swimming and rubbed himself dry with one of the strangers’ towels. Strange towels. Cloth manufacturers these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods.”

In doing this, Erpenbeck presents us with a very moving history of twentieth century Germany and, by extension, Europe. Two particular scenes stand out. One is when Doris, a niece of the Jewish cloth manufacturers, is hiding in the Jewish ghetto her family has been transported to, alone, in a confined space:

“Now only a brief transition lies before her. Either she will starve to death in her hiding place, or she will be found and carted off.”

The chapter is beyond commentary, and ends as follows:

“For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no-one will ever again call her by: Doris.”

The second scene, though not as powerful, is equally memorable, and occurs when the architect’s wife is raped by a Russian officer. In her description, Erpenbeck blurs the boundary between victim and assailant, not in any way condoning rape, but to reach for deeper truths about war. Both these scenes take place not just within houses, or rooms, but within much smaller spaces (the rape takes place in a closet where the woman is hiding). The search for home is echoed in the way these characters attempt to protect themselves through enclosure: neither is safe.

Though these two scenes stand out, they are only two among many. Erpenbeck makes us live with each character she introduces as if we are immersed into their consciousness: it is something more than sympathy. She is one of the brightest young writers in Europe today.

Danger rating: Each character in Erpenbeck’s novel is like a plunge into an ice bath, shocking both the body and mind, cleansing and reinvigorating.

Nazi Literature in the Americas

January 15, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Roberto Bolano

Nazi Literature in the Americas is not Roberto Bolano’s most famous or admired novel, but it seemed the ideal place to continue my efforts to read only what it is unusual and challenging. The book takes the form of an encyclopaedia of writers from the Americas, all of whom have fascist political leanings. Each writer is covered in a biographical entry of between two and twenty pages, focusing mainly on their literary output. In doing this, Bolano highlights perhaps more starkly than anywhere else the two obsessions which run through all his work: literature and politics. Here the title itself arrests our attention: surely ‘Nazi literature’ is an oxymoron? However, it does not take long to think of real (and American) writers who have been influenced by fascism. And anyway, Bolano has said that in writing the book he was thinking about the left as much as the right. Bolano is not positing the theory that all writing is political, he is pointing out that many writers are, and that being writers does not automatically put them on the side of the angels.

So what do we learn from reading the thirty biographies (and the appendix of secondary figures, publishers and books)? We learn that writers can be as unpleasant and petty as anyone else; that their lives can be tawdry and empty; and that their work often comes second to the need for publication and recognition. While Bolano frequently presents a realistic view of the writer’s life and writers in his work, rarely has it seemed so unappealing. However, these are not writers united in political belief. All are right wing to some degree (and sometimes to an extreme degree) but many seem politically immature or opportunist and Hitler, Nazism, Jews are not frequently mentioned. When they are – one writer treasures a photograph of Hitler holding her as a baby – the connection is not always entirely political.

Bolano has fun not only with the writers’ lives but with their work, with many summaries of books never written scattered throughout. However, the book’s conception remains more amusing than its execution. For me, its final entry, on Carlos Ramirez Hoffmann, is its most effective. Here Bolano’s style of writing changes completely, from the mock-factual to a much more personal, first-person narrative:

“Why did the Venegas sisters get mixed up with him? It’s a trivial mystery, and everyday accident. The man known as Stevens was, I suppose, handsome, intelligent, sensitive.”

Part of the effectiveness of this voice is its contrast with what has come before, as if the writer has broken free of his own rules. Going further, Bolano himself appears in the story, helping a detective track Hoffmann down. Bolano’s appearance (common in his work) is not a literary trick but a link between the lives he has described and his own.

Presumably Bolano had some idea that this particular fictitious writer stood out among all the others, not only from his refusal to neuter his story by adapting it to the encyclopaedia format, but also from his decision to develop it further into the novella Distant Star. Unfortunately this means that Distant Star is a much better place to begun reading Bolano.

Danger rating: A bit like reading the obituaries – amusing and tedious by turns, but the final chapter has the power of suddenly coming across your own.

If on a winter’s night a traveller

January 8, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Italo Calvino

If B. S. Johnson has rather faded from view, Italo Calvino is a writer who is now marketed under the ‘classics’ imprint, and If on a winter’s night a traveller is generally regarded as his most important novel, and a key postmodern text. It wears its postmodernism lightly but loudly from the very first lines:

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the other room.”

After a few pages of such scene-setting, we enter the first chapter of the novel itself; however Calvino continues to draw attention to the act of reading:

“I am the man who comes and goes between the bar and the telephone booth. Or rather: that man is called “I” and you know nothing else about him, just as this station is called only “station” and beyond it there exists nothing except the unanswered signal of a telephone ringing in a dark room of a distant city.”

Worse is yet to come for anyone hoping to lose themselves in the story as “you” soon discover that the book has been incorrectly bound and that the first few pages of the novel are repeated throughout. In fact, the only continuing story is that of the search for the next chapter, as each time the reader thinks he has found this it turns out to be the beginning of yet another narrative.

This is a novel, then, which is not simply self-referential in the sense that the writer draws attention to its construction, but which is about the art-form itself. Its main protagonist is a reader who is connected to every reader through the use of the second person, a particularly tricky and insinuating narrative voice. By weaving together a series of openings, Calvino both emphasises and undermines the ‘what happens next’ nature of story-telling. Despite quickly becoming aware that each narrative thread will end prematurely, I certainly found it impossible not to become hooked time after time like a particularly dim fish. This is also a commentary on the nature of stories: any story contains the unfulfilled potential of the directions not taken:

“I am producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.”

It also, of course, allows Calvino to demonstrate his versatility as he skips from genre to genre, nationality to nationality. Meanwhile, between beginnings, he explores the process of a book’s creation as we visit a bookshop, a publisher, a university, and, finally, a writer. If this part of the novel is now the weakest it is probably because it is the most dated and its satirical intent is therefore less obvious. The diary of Silas Flannery (the writer), with its sly parodies of Borges, remains amusing, but the interrupted narratives are generally preferable to the continuing one.

If taken in the playful and light-hearted manner intended (which is not to say that the it is not serious), If on a winter’s night a traveller is an entertaining and charming novel, but it does not quite live up to its billing as one of the most important books of the post-war period, or even as Calvino’s best book.

Danger rating: It’s a little like that Candid Camera trick where you get in a lift, the lift moves, but when the doors open you’re on the same floor: the main danger is that you share the frustration of the “reader”. However, if you take Calvino’s advice and “relax” you’ll have little to fear.

House Mother Normal

January 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: B. S. Johnson

What better place to start than with England’s most famous experimental (though he disliked the word) novelist, B. S. Johnson. Johnson wrote six novels between 1963 and 1973 when he committed suicide at the age of forty. (His final book was published posthumously in 1975). House Mother Normal appeared in 1971 and is set in a home for the elderly, consisting of nine interior monologues recapping the same events. Eight of the narratives are residents and, from each to the next, exhibit a degenerating sense of what is happening around them and ability to express it. The final voice is that of the House Mother herself. But don’t take my word for it: Johnson expressed his own intentions with clarity:

“What I wanted to do was take an evening in an old people’s home, and see a single set of events through the eyes of not less than eight old people. Due to the various deformities and deficiencies of the inmates, these events would seem to be progressively “abnormal” to the reader. At the end there would be the viewpoint of the House Mother, an apparently “normal” person, and the events themselves would then seem to be so bizarre that everything that had come before would seem “normal” by comparison.”

Each voice is preceded by some basic character information: age, efficiency of senses, CQ (classic question) count – that is, a measure of their mental acuity – medical conditions. As the CQ count drops, so do the narratives become increasingly disjointed, full of gaps and non-sequiturs. Not only is each character allotted 21 pages but each line of each page represents the same moment in time, hence the blank page where Sioned Bowen dozes off, or the almost empty pages of George Hedbury and Rosetta Stanton. By placing the characters in this order, it allows the reader to make more sense of the later voices as we piece together a picture of events. So, for example, when George spends almost a page on:

“crepe paper, creper                       crepep         creper


we are aware he is making crackers out of crepe paper. Similarly, we can reconstruct conversations as in each section we only get the spoken words of that character.

House Mother Normal can be both funny and touching. There is a rather slapstick sense of satire with dog shit as the prize in a game of Pass the Parcel, jousting using the wheelchair bound residents and mops, and a Home anthem which is sung with varying degrees of accuracy, and adapted to represent a quite different viewpoint by the House Mother. Johnson also includes an unsubtle dig at his critics as Ivy Nicholls offers an opinion on Albert Angelo:

“What a load of all rubbish! No story about it. Boring.”

We can also be amused by the petty rivalries (“I can do more cracker cases in ten minutes than some of these can do in a whole evening”), the complaining (“ooooooooooooh! my arse again, keep still”) and the mundane memories, but not without some pathos created by the smallness of the world the residents now now inhabit. Each chapter ends with the phrase, “No, doesn’t matter,” which might be seen as a summary of society’s attitude towards the home’s inhabitants even now. The exception is that of Rosetta Stanton, a narrative largely made up of ‘noise’: noddwr, Teg, enwog, geirwer, arabus are the contents of one page. This may seem an extravagant waste of pages to make a simple point, but the moment of enlightenment which comes at the end is all the more moving for what has gone before:

“Now I can every
word you say I am a prisoner in my
self. It is terrible. The movement agonises me.
Let me out, or I shall die.”

As Johnson intended, the final narrative proves the House Mother, as the representative of the ‘normal’ world to be by far the least normal. Indeed, the final scene, which has largely been only vaguely indicated by expressions such as, “What a disgusting spectacle!” and, “Oh filth, utter filth!” may shock some readers even today. However, it’s Johnson’s portrayal of old age that remains the most affecting.

Danger rating: About as dangerous as taking a sip of tea without checking the temperature first. House Mother Normal is not difficult to read, despite some work needed to match up the different narratives. It is available in an omnibus edition of Johnson’s work along with Trawl and Albert Angelo published by Picador. However, astonishingly, some of Johnson’s other novels remain out of print.

The Year of Reading Dangerously

January 3, 2011

In his essay ‘Mr Difficult’, Jonathan Franzen outlines two contrasting models for fiction. The first he calls the Status model where:

“…the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.”

The second is the Contract model where:

“…a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.”

Franzen uses these models as a basis to tackle the issue of difficulty. To simplify, he argues that in the Status model difficulty is seen as a good thing and that novels are celebrated for little more than being difficult; and in the Contract model difficulty is, conversely, a bad thing as it will simply cause readers to abandon the book. (I mention Franzen deliberately because when reading Freedom I couldn’t help but think to myself – if this is such a great novel, why is it so easy to read? This is exactly the attitude he deplores – and one might argue he goes out of his way to disguise the complexities of his own work).

Beyond an element of self-justification, it is perhaps no surprise that such an essay would come from an American writer. As Franzen admits, the Contract model, as its name suggests, places art alongside any other commercial transaction:

“Taken to its Free Market extreme, Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s.”

Reading, however, is a learned process, during which we constantly change as reader, and a text that might prove ‘disagreeable’ at one point might later be loved. (Similarly, we may look back on books we once enjoyed and find them shallow and uninvolving). Franzen’s position also suggests the underlying Anglo-American fear of seeming pretentious, an anti-intellectualism that is prevalent in both cultures. (The only reason an English writer would have been unlikely to have written this essay is the topic would not even be regarded as worth debating).

Franzen’s biggest error, however, is in focusing on enjoyment and pleasure. The best play I saw last year was undoubtedly Tim Crouch’s The Author. If you don’t know the play, it begins without a stage, only an audience, from which characters gradually reveal themselves. In other words, it does the kind of things that experimental writers do. I found it unsettling and thought-provoking, but I would not use the word enjoyable to describe the experience. Yes, just as Franzen notes the ‘difficult’ novels left uncompleted by readers, so too there were members of the audience who left (prompted by audience member planted by Crouch!) But just as their reaction was extreme, so was the reaction of those who stayed more profound.

Over the last few years, entertaining page turners, no matter how literary, have begun to wash over me. (In fact, I began this blog to ensure that I spent at least a little time thinking about what I read). The process of reading is now so automatic that I’m worried it will become more and more passive. I’m sorry, Jonathan, but I‘m looking for a little more than just enjoyment. As Kafka said:

“Altogether I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?”

Over the next year I’m going to explore the world of experimental fiction. Some of the writers will be well known, and others more obscure. Hopefully some new names will surface. While I intend to read many of the ‘classic’ experimental novels, I have no intention of attempting to be exhaustive. I will also try to include newly published or reissued books as appropriate. Any suggestions are welcome.

At times it will be difficult, but – who knows? – I might enjoy it.