Archive for September, 2012

The Deadman’s Pedal

September 28, 2012

Alan Warner is a beautiful writer (I’m not referring to his looks, though he is undeniably handsome). Take, for example, this opening sentence from his latest novel The Deadman’s Pedal:

“Some stars still showed in uncertain bleats of light.”

Ignoring for a moment the intense but unshowy alliteration, the use of the word ‘bleats’ effortlessly creates the sense of the stars fading in the dawn. Later on the same page we discover:

“…the car headlamps sliding up the driveway, pushing vast, ghostly blocks of dusty light through the glossed metal fence…”

Again the description is vivid and original, and the sound (the balance of ‘ghostly blocks’ and ‘dusty light’ for example) almost hypnotic. Of course a novel written entirely in this style might prove rather tedious, but Warner also has another great talent as a writer and that is in his reproduction of everyday speech. He is particularly good (as seen in previous novels like The Sopranos) with the dialogue of adolescents (“Look. Crimmo’s getting a big huge massive brassing beamer.”) but here is equally adept at convincingly portraying the more Kelmanesque (surely a word by now) speech of the railway workers. Distinctions are clear, from the slang-laden dialogue of Andy Galbraith, to the slightly more formal speech of Simon, the novel’s protagonist, right the way through to the public school inflected Bultiudes.

Warner is without doubt a skilled craftsman and here he uses that skill to lovingly recreate a particular time and place – the north-west coast of Scotland in the 1970s, his fictional community of the Port. He’s not the first Scottish novelist to return to their roots in recent times – both Janice Galloway and John Burnside have done so in an explicitly autobiographical way. It would not be unreasonable to assume that The Deadman’s Pedal contains some autobiographical elements (and it does, though Warner would only be seven in 1973 when the novel begins), particularly given that Warner has said he began writing it prior to Morvern Callar. A number of critics have described it as Warner’s most ambitious novel to date and it certainly has a sense of history that his previous novels have eschewed: here is Britain before Thatcher, a railway line threatened with closure staffed by militant rail-workers whose ideal is to be paid while not working. That they are all so much older than Simon suggests a vanishing era. The political fights to come are echoed in Simon’s father’s displeasure at Simon’s decision to join the railways – he runs a private haulage company.

The Deadman’s Pedal is also a coming of age story as Simon not only enters the world of work but of love too. This includes a fascination with Varie Bultitude, the daughter of the local aristocracy (the novel opens with a prologue recounting the Queen’s visit to the Bultitude’s residence, Broken Moan, in 1961). Her brother, Alexander, meanwhile introduces Simon to culture in the form of stolen paperbacks and LPs. This is no doubt intended to introduce issues of class into the narrative, but seemed a little too Iain Banks, a Fitzgerald view of the rich rather than a Hemingway one.

The novel features some wonderful set-pieces (again, this has been a common response to it): sexual encounters with Nikki’s sister and later with Varie, a railwayman’s wake, and the flooded track near the end. Equally it has an impressive cast of characters, not only those already mentioned but John Penalty and on the railways, Simon’s father (there’s another great scene where he sacks one of his workers), and Bobby Forth, a fellow school leaver. However, there are times when it feels Warner is a little too in love with his characters, particularly when they are talking, and some scenes would probably have benefitted from editing. Above all, though skilfully written, the story itself can feel a little ordinary at times and certainly doesn’t resonate in the way you would expect a ‘state of the nation’ novel to. Of course, that isn’t Warner’s fault – it may simply be that the novel is not as ambitious as some have claimed.

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Vanishing Point

September 21, 2012

Vanishing Point, translated by Tim Parks and published in 1991, collects three of Antonio Tabucchi’s books from the mid-eighties: Vanishing Point, The Woman of Porto Pim, and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico. The title novella was also published by New Directions in the USA as The Edge of the Horizon. To further complicate its publishing history, Archipelago Books has plans to publish The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico this year and The Woman of Porto Pim next year in separate volumes. If nothing else then, this edition is certainly good value!

As already mentioned, Vanishing Point is a novella of around eighty pages. It is narrated by a doctor, Spino, and begins with the arrival of the body of an unknown man. We learn little about Spino’s life but are given the impression there is little to learn. He has a lover, Sara, but their relationship seems distant and static:

“Sara has been saying how nice it would be to get away for ten years now, and he answers her that one day maybe, sooner or later, they ought to do it. By tacit agreement their exchanges on this subject have never gone beyond these two ritual phrases.”

Spino attempts to discover the young man’s identity; we can’t help but feel that he is also in some way searching for his own identity. As Sara says, “Grow a beard and lose twenty years and it could be you.” Various clues (a ring, a letter, a photograph, a jacket) lead him to believe he is beginning to uncover the boy’s story but as his search progresses it begins to involve messages leading him to clandestine meetings in unusual locations as if we had strayed from the detective genre into a spy novel. Of course, we are in neither, and Spino’s final epiphany comes in a dream. The last sentence, “He stepped forward into the dark,” suggest of itself the need to move through mystery.

The Woman of Porto Prim is a collection of shorter pieces all inspired by the Azores – a kind of esoteric travel writing. Many centre on whales and whaling. They take a variety of forms from a ‘Fragment of a Story’ to a life of the poet Antero de Quental. ‘High Seas’ is a collection of whale trivia with quotations lifted from a number of other sources. (Similarities to writers like Borges and Calvino can be clearly seen). The title story, of love and revenge, is the most traditional.

The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico is a more disparate collection. The wonderful title story concerns the arrival of three strange ‘flying creatures’ – the first is described as follows:

“It was a pinkish creature, soft looking, with small yellowish arms like a plucked chicken’s, and two feet which again were very lean with bulbous joints and calloused toes like a turkey’s. The face was that of an aged baby, but smooth, with two big black eyes and a hoary down instead of hair.”

These distorted angels find themselves being painted into scenes of the crucifixion and the annunciation. References to art occur more than once, with a letter to Goya, a painting by Uccello being cited as the inspiration behind one story, and ‘The Translation’ being a description of a painting addressed to a blind man. Writing also features with a correspondence between Tabucchi and ‘Xavier Janata Monroy’ on the subject of his novel Indian Nocturne, and a story about an unpublished novel. This, then, is the most playful of the three books.

All together they make a wonderful introduction to Tabucchi, a writer who should be more widely known in the English speaking world. Special thanks, then, to Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for Antonio Tabucchi week.

Lost Books – A Field Full of Folk

September 15, 2012

It would be unfair to describe Iain Crichton Smith as a neglected Scottish writer as his poetry and short stories are still widely anthologised and taught, but almost all his novels (of which he wrote eleven) remain out of print. Only his first, Consider the Lilies (about the Highland Clearances) has established itself as the kind of classic that remains always available. A Field Full of Folk was published in 1982 in the middle of his novel writing career (Consider the Lilies appeared in 1968, and his final novel, An Honourable Death in 1992). It might be described as more accomplished than spectacular, creating a picture of vanishing rural life with a mixture of cynicism and sentimentality.

As the title indicates, this is a novel with a large cast and no central character. The villagers do assemble in a field at one point for a church picnic, but the field full of folk also represents a wider vision of the world where disparate individuals manage to coexist. It wouldn’t be a Scottish novel without a minister, and the first character we are introduced to is Peter Murchison who feels his faith fading, though he does not connect this to the news he has incurable cancer:

“It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, it’s rather that I’ve lost my faith. Not only that. But I feel that I’ve not lived. I do not understand the world.”

In many ways, the novel attempts to provide an answer to Murchison’s questions. Its short chapters introduce us to a variety of characters, most of them elderly. There is Mrs Berry, a widow who had “not allowed herself to become sad and mournful:”

“She would meet Angus, her policeman husband, when the time came for her to do so.”

In contrast, David Collins has never married and regrets his lost youth (“In those days it seemed he was a giant who would never be slowed by old age or anything else”); he lives alone with his memories of the war and his prejudices against Catholics and the Germans. Annie, although eighty, still searches for spiritual truth: having given up on Christianity she is now looking to the East. Murdo is an ex-postman who tends his garden and notes standards dropping. All give the impression of a dying way of life, something that is highlighted by the novel’s only real action:

“That girl Chrissie had run away from her husband and had only taken her radio with her…It was said she had gone to Glasgow with that fellow who had sometimes visited her husband during the tourist season.”

Chrissie is fleeing from the boredom of village life. The fact she takes only a radio with her suggests both her loneliness and her attachment to modernity. The novel then follows two journeys, both of self-discovery: Chrissie’s discovery of what kind of life she wants to live; and Murchison’s rediscovery of his faith.

Not unsurprisingly, Chrissie decides to return home:

“After a while the train moved again, and in a strange way she knew she was going home. It wasn’t anything she could put into words. The feeling must have emanated from the familiarity of the landscape but she knew that it was deeper than that. In spite of her fear she felt a rightness in the place that she was.”

On returning to the village she goes to Mrs Berry rather than her husband. Her earlier condemnation (“Why, she wouldn’t have left Angus for a million pounds”) disappears as she immediately reassures Chrissie that “everything will be alright.” Smith’s central theme of compassion is also highlighted towards the novel’s conclusion when the village picnic, symbolic of the village’s unity despite their differences, is ended by one of the villagers receiving news that her son has been killed in Northern Ireland. For once Murchison feels no doubt:

“And then he himself was there, he was in the sacred ring of pity and help, he was holding out his hands for the telegram, he was reading it, he was putting his hands on hers, he was saying, ‘We must take you home.’”

A Field Full of Folk now seems a curiously old-fashioned novel – its rural setting, elderly characters and omniscient narrator – but its final words offer a riposte to those early Thatcher years:

“…we are each in the care of the other.”

Comic of the Month – Batman: Earth One

September 14, 2012

As well as recently relaunching their entire line of comics, DC have also separately begun publishing a series of graphic novels under the Earth One banner, of which this is the second (the first was, of course, Superman by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, with a second volume due in November). The idea (as I understand it) is to present these heroes in a more realistic setting; in fact, it simply gives writers another chance to play around with their origin stories, something that has been going on for quite some time – see, for example Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story, or the many Elseworld volumes.

This, then, is the comic equivalent of a writer using a Greek myth or a Bible story as their starting point: half the fun is in knowing the original narrative. This isn’t to say it doesn’t tell a good story, but most of my enjoyment certainly came from seeing how Jones had incorporated already existing characters into his vision of Batman and Gotham. As this is what I’m mostly going to discuss you may not want to read any further if you haven’t already read the book (and intend to). Suffice to say that if you are interested in the character, you will want to get your hands on this. It seems to me a much more successful reinvention than Superman: Earth One, but then I’ve always preferred the dystopian Batman to the utopian Superman.

We first met Batman in the early days of his career. His costume, and the failure of his equipment, (there’s a wonderful full-page panel of him landing on a pile of bin-bags) immediately indicates a more realistic version of the character. After this initial introduction we are given the latest presentation of his parents’ death, the event that will motivate him to fight crime. His father is still incredibly wealthy, but now has a political dimension, standing for Mayor of Gotham. Jones also slightly alters the murder scene, making Bruce more culpable for leading his parents to their killer. The most striking change is in the character of Alfred who becomes an army buddy of Bruce’s father who is (rather implausibly since he turns up on the night they are killed with no sense they are in regular contact) named as Bruce’s guardian. When struggling to come up with an answer to Bruce’s, “Who the hell are you?” he decides on, “I’m your butler”!

A number of other well-known characters also appear. Oswald Cobblepot (better known as the Penguin) is Mayor of Gotham – and apparently has been for some time as he was Bruce’s father’s rival. James Gordon and his daughter Barbara, Harvey Bullock, and Harvey Dent all put in appearances, but there is also a new villain to be dealt with. Gary Frank’s art is excellent, perfectly suited to the realistic look of the book.

There are plenty of hints at a sequel – Barbara Gordon drawing a Batwoman costume and a final panel with a silhouetted figure commenting, “What a riddle.” I, for one, am certainly looking forward to it.

Trieste

September 10, 2012

Trieste by Croatian writer Dasa Drndic is a novel about family. This is demonstrated visually (in a novel that is also scattered with photographs) as early as pages 6 and 7 when we encounter the family tree of the main character, Haya Tedeschi. The early part of the novel takes us through her family’s experiences, beginning prior to the First World War, but this is really background for its main concern, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Family, then, is more important than ever before, particularly for a Catholicized Jew like Haya.

She exists in a limbo throughout. Initially this is created by her vague grasp of her own identity which allows her to have an affair with a German officer, Kurt Franz, in Italy, but then suffer for it as a result of her Jewish background. Not only is she abandoned by Franz, but her son is taken from her as part of Himmler’s Lebensborn programme to promote Aryan children. This creates a second limbo as she waits for years for any information on what happened to the child. throughout Drndic paints a damning picture of almost all involved: not only those who ran the concentration camps, many of whom seem to have suffered little in the way of punishment, but the Catholic Church, the Red Cross, and those who guarded the records of the Nazi regime after the war.

This is a novel that tells more than the story of a character – indeed so much of it is factual that it may well be the case that no part of it is fiction. Drndic uses a number of techniques to achieve her aim of presenting truth in a way that goes beyond the normal parameters of literature: not only by including the photographs already mentioned, but also by utilising a series of voices. These include testaments from both Nazis officers and camp inmates. Not all are literal as a number of them end in a declaration of death (“Later I am killed in Warsaw, in 1943”), but this does not alter their effectiveness. Some are presented as question and answer, as if in court.

The novel also contains a 44 page list of all the Jews who were either killed in Italy or deported, and a section presenting brief biographies of many of the Nazis involved in this. Drndic questions everything. Why did the Red Cross feed Jews travelling through Switzerland on German trains but, though aware they were going to their death, did nothing to prevent this? Why did the Catholic Church seek to protect Nazi war criminals? Why was it made so difficult to obtain access to Nazi records after the war? In particular, the novel still has the power to shock in two main ways. Firstly in the inhuman cruelty of those involved in the movement and murder of Jews. As one camp inmate says:

“One simply could not grasp that it was possible – extermination.”

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, the way in which many of those responsible remained unpunished, or were given very lenient sentences. – a large number were not even tried until the 1960s.

Of course, it is possible to argue that there have already been very many books about the Holocaust and that perhaps it is time for writers to move on. Reading this, however, you can’t help but feel that that will never be the case.

Cain

September 7, 2012

Although there are still volumes of Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago’s work appearing in English (most recently a collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, with an earlier novel, Raised from the Ground, to appear this year), Cain was the final novel that he wrote. It bears comparison with his earlier The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. It was this savage, satirical attack on religion that led to Saramago leaving Portugal for Lanzarote where he lived until his death in 2010. Although Cain is written in his usual style, with little regard for breaking the story down into the basic components of grammar (sentences and paragraphs), it is a much shorter, lighter read, similar to his previous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.

This is not to suggest that Saramago’s anger has somehow dissipated, though certainly tolerance for attacks on religion (in Western Europe at least) has increased. If The Gospel According to Jesus Christ targeted the New Testament, then Cain targets the Old. From the beginning (and it is the Beginning, the story of Adam and Eve) we are presented with a fallible God:

“When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or even make the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no-one else in the garden he could blame for this grave oversight.”

His humanity is evident when he discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten the apple: he speaks in a “mocking tone” (“the lord’s irony was becoming more and more marked”), but as the authorial voice points out:

“…the lord showed a lamentable lack of foresight, because if he really didn’t want them to eat that fruit, it would have been easy enough simply not to have planted the tree or to have put it somewhere surrounded by barbed wire.”

Angels, too, take on a more human aspect, as when a starving Eve persuades one to collect fruit for them from the now out-of-bounds Garden of Eden (“Alright, I’ll bring you some fruit, but don’t tell anyone”).

Above all, God is seen as proud and cruel. Cain complains of his pride after Abel’s death:

“…you had the freedom to stop me killing abel, which was perfectly within your capabilities, all you had to do, just for a moment, was to abandon that pride in your infallibility…”

Saramago then allows Cain to wander through the books of the Bible: he prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac with God arriving a few moments too late; he witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; he sees Moses return from Mount Sinai to slaughter those who have abandoned God to worship a golden calf; he joins Joshua in battle, visits Job in his suffering, and finally journeys with Noah. Throughout it is God’s incomprehensible cruelty that mystifies him:

“Burning sodom and gomorrah to the ground had evidently not been enough for the lord, for here, at the foot of mount sinai was clear, irrefutable proof of his wickedness, three thousand men killed simply because he was angered by the creation of a supposed rival in the form of a golden calf.”

Cain is, of course, the ideal accuser: the original murderer, he points out God’s own record when it comes to killing, making it clear he does not accept that all these deaths are necessary:

“What about the children, said cain, surely the children were innocent?”

Ultimately Cain comes up with his own solution in the final chapters when the novel does darken and adopt a bleaker tone. Cain works well as a satire, though its targets may seem rather obvious and easy to hit. It does suggest, however, that in his battle with God, Saramago had the final word.

The Leviathan

September 4, 2012

The Leviathan was first published in this translation by Michael Hofmann in 2001 in the Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth, and more recently as part of the New Directions Pearls series of long short stories. It is apparently one of the last pieces of fiction he wrote, and it does have a certain elegiac quality. It’s rather unusual central character, Nissen Piczenik, makes his living in the small village of Progrody by selling coral to the local farmers who believe it is good luck (“guaranteed to be effective against the Evil Eye or spiteful neighbours and wicked witches”). Despite his lifelong association with coral he has never seen the sea:

“…there was in his heart a vague longing which he couldn’t quiet explain: Nissen Piczenik, born and having lived all his life in the middle of a great land mass, longed for the sea.”

He gets his chance when the son of a fellow merchant who has joined the navy returns to Progrody to visit his family. Piczenik questions him at length and eventually decides to accompany him back to his ship in Odessa.

“He felt at home by the water, as he had never felt at home in Progrody, where he was born and had lived all his life.”

This underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life is common to much of Roth’s writing, as is his representation of the future as something to be feared. In The Leviathan, the future is represented by a rival coral merchant, Lakatos, who is able to considerably undercut Piczenik’s prices by selling artificial coral:

“You’re from the old school,” (Lakatos says to Piczenik) “and if you’ll pardon the expression, you’re a bit behind the times.”

Piczenik is soon mixing the fake coral with his real coral but this plan backfires when a child wearing a chain of fake coral dies from diphtheria. Piczenik’s business collapses but he finds himself unmoved:

“He sensed that within a year, or maybe only six months, he would be the laughing-stock of the town – but what did he care? Progrody wasn’t his home, his home was the ocean.”

As with many of his short stories, Roth perfectly captures the feel of village life. The illiterate Piczenik, with his routines and superstitions, is entirely believable, as is his inarticulate longing for something more. The leviathan comes to represent that unknown, fuelled by Piczenik’s narrow and naïve view of the world, but also suggesting the unquenchable human desire to look beyond our limited lives. In this way, Piczenik becomes Roth’s most unlikely hero.

1Q84 Book Three

September 1, 2012

Although Haruki Murakami is one of the favourites for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, there is a feeling that, had 1Q84 been the magnum opus that we all hoped, he would be a certainty. Many of the reasons why this three-book, thousand-page epic is not a masterpiece can be clearly seen in the third and final book. Even its existence might be questioned as at times it reads like an extended addendum to the first two books, adding little that is meaningful in either plot or characterisation.

Its main purpose seems to be to bring together the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame (this is not a ‘spoiler’ as the contents page makes it clear that the two narratives unite at the end). It will be no surprise, then, that Aomame, who we left contemplating suicide at the end of Book Two, does not go through with it but instead goes onto hiding from the religious cult Sakigake having killed their Leader. Tengo, meanwhile, is at the bedside of his comatose father. This makes for a rather static novel: Aomame spends most of it unable to leave the flat where she has been secreted, the action limited to a few phone conversations; Tengo spends most of his time in a hospital room, occasionally interacting with the nurses. A third narrative is added, that of Ushikawa, a private detective who has been hired by Sakigake to track down Aomame. This clearly provides some dramatic tension (though Ushikawa is soon stuck in a room too, watching Tengo’s apartment) but this is dissipated by the fact that almost all that Ushikawe discovers the reader already knows.

Book Three is also guilty of the under-development that was evident in the first two books. Murakami frequently drops inspired images or events into the narrative, but then seems unwilling to go very far with them. A perfect example would be the world of 1Q84 itself: apart from the two moons (an effective shorthand for a different world that has been used in countless science fiction films), there is little attempt to differentiate 1Q84 from 1984, even though it is made clear in the opening volume that the history of the two worlds is not the same. In Book Three Murakami introduces a mysterious, threatening NHK (television subscription) collector:

“You can’t escape, Miss Takai. As long as you get the TV signal I will be back. I’m not the kind of man who gives up easily. That’s just my personality.”

With so many characters in hiding, the relentless knocking at the door is one of the most effective elements of the novel, appearing at Aomame’s door, and at Fuka-Eri’s when she is staying in Tengo’s apartment. However, it’s an element that removes itself as suddenly as it appeared with a suggestion that it is somehow linked to Tengo’s comatose father who was a NHK collector. Similarly, there is a hint that one of the nurses Tengo befriends is linked to his murdered mother:

“What I remember is the moment I died. Someone was strangling me. A man I’d never seen before.”

(His mother’s death is one of the few things which Ushikawe discovers that was not already known from the previous volumes). After making this comment, however, the nurse does not reappear. Even Fuka-Eri, so central to Books One and Two, seems to simply to fade away.

Book Three also contains some less than sparkling prose:

“It was like his head was filled with frozen lettuce. There must be some people who don’t know you’re not supposed to freeze lettuce. Once lettuce has been frozen, it loses all its crispness – which for lettuce is surely its best characteristic.”

However, even when the writing deteriorates to a lengthy explanation of a weak simile, there is something almost hypnotic about Murakami’s style – he draws you through the banality because you know some wonder will appear eventually. Overall 1Q84 suffers from indulgence, and book Three is the most indulgent, but it still contains moments of great writing and he shouldn’t be denied the greatest prize of all.