Archive for September, 2013

The Hundred Brothers

September 19, 2013

hundred-brothers

Should I admit that I was first attracted to The Hundred Brothers by its cover (particularly as it consists largely of a striking pink)? Its design is just one more reason to congratulate Granta on reprinting the American reprint, accompanied by its introduction from a more famous American writer, Jonathan Franzen. (The only way in which Granta has let us down is that they have given us Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World, but not the third novel in what Antrim has described as a trilogy, The Verificationist). The latter was originally published in 2000 and remains Antrim’s last novel, though he authored a memoir, The Afterlife, in 2006.

The writerly introductions to his work (the others are by George Saunders and Jeffrey Eugenides) are intended to give the impression that Antrim is a writer’s writer and it is easy to see why this might be the case: I had an almost overwhelming desire to read The Hundred Brothers out loud so delighted was I with its prose. Do not mistake this compliment for an indicator of poetic fancy; the prose is loud and punchy, quite in keeping with the overpowering masculinity of the novel:

“It was a wretched, pewter-coloured day. The red library walls were haunted by shadows and light cast from a multitude of low-wattage reading lamps that haloed the tables on which they sat illuminating our laps as we flopped down on the sofas and chairs overhung by English hunt prints and the heads of game animals, mounted, desolate African, gazing out from rectangles of wall framed in wood shelves crowded with Victorian matched sets and works by obscure poets.”

In an interview shortly after the novel was published, Antrim described his creative process as follows:

“Both Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers begin with improvisations—little departures from reality, I suppose—and these improvisations accrue reality, retroactively, as subsequent events grow out of the initial situation. Reality gets built.”

The ‘little departure from reality’ in The Hundred Brothers is the hundred brothers, gathered at their family home to search for the urn containing ashes of their father; it is the mother of all family gatherings. Antrim uses the intense atmosphere of the red library where they meet to explore masculinity in modern America. Violence simmers constantly beneath the surface, often bubbling into open confrontation. From the moment Max knocks over a table lamp and, in his efforts to clear away the fragments, careers into the eldest brother, Hiram, every movement is a potential collision, whether accidental or intentional.

The novel is a series of set pieces, from Doug’s confrontation with Hiram over a bouquet to the family meal (“The first person I hit was Raymond”) to Doug’s mad dash through the history of English literature between the library stacks. Doug’s only solution to his family’s problems is mythic and, of course, violent. Having by that point been immersed in the family for a good couple of hours, the reader may sympathise. The Hundred Brothers is an unusual book that, I suspect, will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it in equal parts amusing and terrifying.

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Betrayal

September 12, 2013

betrayal

Although Adriaan van Dis is a Dutch author of some repute, Betrayal is only the third of his novels to appear in English. I picked it up at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the strength of its translator, Ina Rilke, who has previously allowed me access to Dutch writers such as Otto de Kat and W. F. Hermans, and because, as I held it in my hand, Van Dis himself appeared in the bookshop – it seemed like fate.

The central character of Betrayal, Mulder, may be Dutch but the novel is about South Africa. As a young man Mulder was a member of a radical French organisation, Fraternite, trained to act as a courier to South Africa in the 1970s. His radicalism is, by his own admission, a youthful flirtation – “I was never much of a political animal, you know” – but a chance encounter with an old comrade, Donald, leads to him returning to South Africa:

“A chance to see what had become of their dream.”

He finds the present-day country just as segregated as it was 40 years ago: in the coastal village where Donald lives, the whites live on the dunes above the shacks of the black population “in high-walled villas…with electrified fencing glinting in the sun.” Crime is a constant threat – Mulder is advised to keep anything valuable in his washing machine. Many of the young men, with little else to do, are addicted to crystal meth.

The novel explores the frustrations of both men in relation to the country. Mulder’s attempts to venture down to the village end in a dog-bite and a case of lock-jaw; Donald meanwhile spends much of his time writing ineffectual letters of complaint to corrupt officials. His French wife’s unhappiness is such that Mulder hardly sees her; she locks herself a way in their fortified house claiming a migraine. Mulder cannot reconcile Donald’s desire for equality with the separate life he leads as a result of his skin colour:

“…and over on the coast you still don’t belong, not with the whites and not with the coloureds. You live in the kind of country you don’t want and which doesn’t want you either.”

Donald, on the other hand, feels that Mulder’s time in South Africa was simply an adventure, a diversion. Both, however, focus their attentions on a young man, the son of a local prostitute, who they feel has promise despite his drug addiction. They take Hendrick into Donald’s house and attempt to cure his addiction together. Here, in microcosm, Van Dis explores then issues of white ‘meddling’ in an attempt to improve the lives of the majority of the population.

This small-scale intervention is one of the ways Van Dis is able to add depth to his exploration of the problems of modern South Africa in what is a relatively short novel. He also benefits from having two protagonists, both hoping for a better South Africa but coming at the problem from different directions, something that creates tension between them throughout. The novel offers us no easy answers, only uncomfortable questions – questions that apply to all well-meaning interventions. It seems a pity that its publication has so far gone largely unnoticed.

Billy and Girl

September 8, 2013

billy and girl

& Other Stories has received much (deserved) praise for its publication of literature in translation, but it should not be forgotten that two of its most successful novels were originally written in English. I have already covered the story behind the eventual publication of Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods; another writer whom & Other Stories have returned to the forefront of discerning reader’s minds is Deborah Levy. Her short-listing for the Booker Prize with Swimming Home has been followed by the appearance of a volume of short stories (Black Vodka) and an essay (Things I Don’t Want to Know). Yet, until Swimming Home appeared in 2011, Levy had not published a novel in the UK since Billy and Girl in 1996.

Billy and Girl is about little more than Billy and Girl, two teenagers trapped in their own narrow world. Is their mother dead? Is their father dead? Even their identity as orphans is questionable. Every so often Girl performs a “mom check”, picking a middle-aged woman at random to tell her, “Billy is quite well but not all that well, thank you, and I am as you see me.”

“I know it’s crazy but sometimes I think one day Girl will really find her. Mom will come to the door and Girl will know… We think Dad died horribly. But we’re not completely sure. He might have survived the fire.”

They fantasise about escape to America and attempt to fund this by robbing the Basket Only till at FreezerWorld with the help of Girl’s ‘double’ Louise. (Louise, who shares Girl’s real name, is a kind of alternate version of her, stuck in a dead end job with a no-account boyfriend, yet somehow happier). Unfortunately the £600 they steal is not the life-changing amount they hoped for and, as Billy points out, they would feel just as out of place on the other side of the Atlantic:

“Poor Girl. I mean, can you see her scrawny, white-bread English thighs lazing with the Californian beach girls.”

The robbery does, however, lead to a chain of events that will unravel much of the mystery around their parents’ fate.

Despite its subject matter, do not approach Billy and Girl expecting a slice of grim realism. Levy hovers above her characters with a kind of detached cruelty. Billy’s friend, Raj, talks of the “Stupid Club”, a group of locals who use his shop to debate the issues of the day:

“They stand in a huddle by the fridge pretending to buy a packet of sugar, discussing why it is that some people wash dishes and then don’t think to rinse them.”

Levy’s view of her own characters, at times, is not so far removed. The novel is also not without elements of the surreal: the taxi cabs which fall apart; the God-like voice of FreezerWorld; Billy’s vision of himself as an actor in America – a sex scene in a shower where he refuses to remove his anorak. In all this she is a little like Muriel Spark, though Spark rarely turned her caustic vision on the poor. Whether this is to your taste or not will probably decide your reaction to the novel, but Levy is certainly a writer who deserves some notice. She has spoken before about the fate of novelists whose work falls out of print:

“Yes, being out of print is like a voice that has kind of been snuffed out. When I have finished my next novel and it makes its way into the world, so I hope will the backlist. What I don’t want to happen to me is that thing that happens to so many Women — it’s as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book. Better to have body of work than a body covered in chocolate and cream… it lasts longer.”

Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography (as Early Levy) and The Unloved are due to be republished next year.

Behind the Door

September 2, 2013

behind the door

Is Giorgio Bassani undergoing something of a comeback? His most famous novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, has largely remained in print, but Penguin released The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles last year and plan to publish The Smell of Hay in January 2014. Meanwhile Quartet’s 1992 edition of Behind the Door, translated by William Weaver, is still in print.

Behind the Door is a classic story of lost innocence, its opening coinciding with the narrator’s move to senior school:

“I felt ill at ease from the very beginning, completely disorientated. I didn’t like the classroom to which we had been assigned, at the end of a grim corridor…I didn’t like the new teachers with their ironic, detached manner…”

Above all he finds himself friendless, a state of loneliness that is emphasised by his lack of a desk-mate. His closest friend from junior school has failed the entrance exam and left town to repeat the previous year elsewhere. He is relieved of the ‘desk of solitude’ when then teacher insists he sit next to Cattolica, an individual who would be described in today’s parlance as ‘popular’. The narrator is too shy to befriend him – friendship being a relationship that seems largely to consist of doing homework together in these more innocent times. His loneliness, however, is alleviated by the arrival of a new pupil, Luciano. Soon they are both desk-mates and homework buddies, Luciano becoming a daily visitor to the narrator’s house (but never vice versa – this unspoken arrangement suggesting an implied superiority).

The turning point in the novel comes when Cattolica reveals that Luciano is bad-mouthing the narrator behind his back and so they arrange a schoolboy Shakespearian sting with the narrator secreted behind a door to overhear his ‘friend’ at Cattolica’s house. Initially our sympathies naturally lie with the narrator, but on sober reflection Luciano’s critique is not without foundation. For example, he tells Cattolica:

“…he wanted not so much to come here as to be invited here. “

We might also suspect that the narrator’s initial approach to Luciano is motivated by sympathy, with its implied sense of superiority, rather than friendship:

“…finally I rose to the poor boy’s aid, since he was guilty of having come to school with only a fountain pen. “

In the background, as with all Bassani’s work (behind another door so to speak) lies the Jewish persecution under fascism. The novel is set in Italy in 1930 and, although Luciano denies any anti-Semitism, the narrator’s Jewish identity is foregrounded by scenes such as a chance meeting with Cattolica in a church, or Luciano’s insistence that they compare penises. This adds a new dimension to the narrator’s failure to immediately challenge Luciano as Cattilca expects him to do. What at first appears a slight, if delightful, novel about growing up has, on reflection, considerable depth.