Archive for May, 2014

Pushkin Hills

May 31, 2014

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Pushkin Hills is an open air museum preserved in all its 19th century glory around Alexander Pushkin’s family mansion in Pskov, 120 kilometres from Moscow. Sergei Dovlatov worked there as a tour guide for a short period, just as his central character, Alikhanov, does in his novel, Pushkin Hills. Like Alikhanov, Dovlatov was a struggling writer who could not get published in Russia, eventually immigrating to the USA in 1979 where he wrote a number of novels until his death in 1990. In the last couple of years Alma Classics have issued translations of three of his novels: The Suitcase, The Zone, and, most recently, the aforementioned Pushkin Hills.

Pushkin Hills, then, already has one of the main ingredients of a 20th century Russian novel: a writer. A writer, that is, who has never been published. As his wife says:

“You lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements.”

This immediately sets up an ironic contrast between the safely dead and revered Pushkin, endorsed by the state (it was the Bolsheviks who preserved the house and surroundings), and the impoverished, unpublished Alikhanov, who must now lead parties of tourists around the estate in order to make a living. The museum becomes a monument to the USSR’s hypocrisy towards writers:

“And that…is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoyevsky, that’s how it was with Yesesin, and that’s how it will be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects…”

He discovers a fellow tour guide was once a published writer thanks to writing stories that were “extraordinarily unremarkable.” All this changes, though, when he moves to Leningrad and can no longer be praised for his “backwater origins.”

“What was forgiven in a provincial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.”

As well as allowing an extended meditation on Russian writing, the museum also reflects the state in its lack of authenticity. A portrait turns out to be of someone else, a duelling pistol is simply of the period. When Alikhanov asks one of the curators whether the objects are authentic, she replies, “Is it important?

The novel’s plot, such as it is, concerns Alikhanov’s wife’s decision to immigrate to the USA with their child. Alikhanov refuses to go with her:

“But my readers are here. While over there…Who needs my stories in Chicago?”

However, while this creates a certain amount of narrative tension, the novel as a whole reads more as a surreal succession of eccentric characters. Alikhanov also gives as a reason for remaining in Russia that he detests “active behaviour of any kind” and that he lives in the “passive voice”, and that very much reflects his function as the protagonist. Much of this passivity is create by alcohol – at one point a character forecasts that vodka will bring about the end of Soviet rule. (I’ve always wondered whether the astonishing drink-intake of Russian novels is a genuine reflection of life or an elaborate in-joke by Russian writers).

The most Russian line of all, however, comes on the novel’s final page:

“Love is for the young. It is for soldiers and athletes… Things are much more complicated here. It’s beyond love. It’s fate…”

That’s a line, you feel, which could have come from Pushkin himself.

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Familiar

May 26, 2014

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There are many counter-factual novels, presenting history as it didn’t happen, from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. J Robert Lennon’s Familiar takes this familiar idea and uses it for entirely different purposes. Instead of taking the wide angled approach and changing world events, he focuses on the life of one woman and, by undoing one significant event in that life, demonstrates its effect. In doing so, he not only highlights the capricious nature of fate, but writes a character novel that gains depth by having two characters play the same role.

The ‘exchange’ takes place as Elisa is driving home after a conference. In the first few chapters we learn a little of her background, her husband Derek, and her two sons, Silas and Sam. This all seems perfectly natural as driving along an empty highway is the ideal time for such reflection. In particular, we learn of Silas’ death a number of years before and the effect this had on her and her marriage. This is the event that will change and will change everything with it, though at first Elisa is only aware of superficial differences:

“The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. The air conditioning is on, the dashboard isn’t dusty anymore, and the taste of mint gum is in her mouth. In fact the gum is there, she has gum in her mouth right now.”

Now driving a different car, and in a different body (“She’s, what, ten pounds heavier?”), Elisa returns to her to her home to find herself in what appears to be a much better marriage:

“’The chicken’s almost done,’ Derek says from the doorway. ‘You want a glass of wine?’”

On the surface she would seem to have found the better life she has dreamed of since Silas died, but you will not be surprised to learn that everything is not a rosy as it seems. Her happy marriage, for example, is built on a compromise she finds it difficult to understand or sustain.

The novel is gripping because Elisa has to come to terms with her new life without being able to easily ask the questions she needs to as everyone assumes she knows the answers. She has, for example, a completely different job. As she comes to know her new life, she also has to make decisions as to whether she should try her best to fit in, adopt the habits of her ‘old’ life, or aim for something new. The more she is the ‘same person’ to herself, the more she has ‘changed’ to others. The novel therefore asks a lot of questions about identity and how far we can shape it; these same questions also apply to her role as a parent.

Familiar is a science fiction novel that’s mostly about character. Yet, like all good science fiction, it starts with the idea: what if you were suddenly transported into an alternate universe, inserted into the life of your doppelganger, but with your memories intact. (In this Lennon also builds on the literary trope of the double). Lennon takes this idea and executes it perfectly.

Reversed Forecast

May 18, 2014

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Next month sees the publication of Nicola Barker’s tenth novel, In the Approaches, twenty years on for her first, Reversed Forecast. I’ve been following her career since she was suggested to me by someone I’d never met before (nor would meet again) at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1999 (I like to think she’d appreciate this as her novels often concern the effect strangers have on each other) but the earliest work I’d read was Wide Open – until now. Another chance encounter – with a copy of Reversed Forecast in a charity shop –has changed all that.

Despite being her first novel, Reversed Forecast has a very ‘Barkeresque’ feel (there is a distinctiveness about her work that deserves the adjective treatment, though the profusion of writing Barkers makes this unlikely). As in many of her novels, a cast of misfit characters collide in a series of coincidences which have profound consequences for some of them. Ruby works in a betting shop (a reversed forecast is a type of bet, and gambling is the novel’s central metaphor) and first meets Vincent when he smashes the glass partition that separates the staff from the punters with his head in protest at the treatment of a drunk. As with most Barker characters, there is no back story and little obvious insight into the workings of their minds: actions often seem counter to characters’ thoughts:

“I’ve never even met him before but now he expects me to fork out two hundred in bail money.”

But Ruby does pay Vincent’s bail money, and soon he is living with her. Ruby has a similar reaction later when someone she can’t remember meeting tries to sell her a racing dog – “She wanted to laugh in his face” – but buys the dog anyway.

The novel’s other strand concerns a mother-daughter singing duo, Brera and Sam, and Sam’s sister, Sylvia. Barker indulges in a kind of mock magical realism with Sylvia, who finds birds attracted to her wherever she goes. Unfortunately she is allergic to birds, often ill, and at one point close to death. The other major characters (if we don’t include the dog) are Connor, Sam’s boyfriend for most of the novel, his flatmate, Sarah, and Sam and Brera’s new agent (and Ruby’s ex-boyfriend), Steven. A sizeable cast for a slender novel, but Barker handles them with great dexterity, and at no point did I feel (as you often do with such heavily populated novels), I wish I was reading about another character instead.

It’s always better to experience a Barker novel than to attempt to work out what it’s ‘about’ but the novel’s style, where characters exterior lives don’t seem to reflect their (often hidden) interior ones is a recurring concern. As Connor says of Sam:

“She’s so bloody secretive, he thought. Saves secrets like sweets. Eats them in private.”

In the novel, the characters lack external privacy – all have flat-mates or relatives or (in Ruby’s case) a complete stranger interrupting their lives at regular intervals. They replace this with an inner secrecy. Ruby sums it up:

“In life she decided, there’s an outside and an inside. Things happen outside and things happen inside your body, inside your mind…ideas decisions, feelings. Happiness is just a question of balancing the two.”

The characters, however, struggle to achieve this balance. When Sam and Brera finally begin their tour, Sam, the novel’s most confident character, is completely undermined by a man in the audience who will only stare at her breasts: “Life is a terrible violation,” she thinks.

Sylvia, initially the weakest link, unable, or not allowed, at times to leave her home, cosseted like a child, is the only character to escape. She begins terrified of the inside life:

“Sometimes Sylvia sat in her room and with a great deal of effort tried to summarise her life, to get her head around its totality. Whenever she did this she could think only of nothing. Of a vacuum. The enormity of this vacuum terrified her.”

However, by the novel’s close she has thrown herself at the outside life, enjoying its every sensation.

Reversed Forecast is a reassuringly wonderful first novel (I had perhaps subconsciously avoided it, afraid of disappointment). It’s also a reminder of Barker’s talent that leaves me anticipating June all the more.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

May 14, 2014

untitled (15) Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a novel which can accurately be described as un-put-downable. Containing no full stops until that following its very last word, to stop reading would show an unacceptable disregard for the rules of grammar. Its author, Friedrich Christian Delius, is a German writer of some standing: in 2011 he won Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg-Büchner Prize. This remains his only appearance in English, however, thanks to Peirene Press and translator Jamie Bulloch. The title, of course, echoes Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the replacement of ‘artist’ with ‘mother’ placing an emphasis on the ordinary which is reflected in the novel’s central character (though she is surrounded by art throughout). Joyce himself would celebrate the quotidian in Ulysses, and Delius borrows its ‘life in a day’ structure, taking us on a tour around Rome just as Joyce led us through Dublin. The young woman of the title is eight months pregnant; imminently a mother, she remains, for the moment, a young woman. The setting is Rome in 1943; the young woman is German and has arrived in Rome to be with her husband, but after only a few days together, he is sent to North Africa and they are separated again. The novel tells the story of her evening walk alone through Rome to a concert of classical music. Though the novel is ostensibly written in the third person, it is entirely told from the point of view of the young woman. Her ordinariness is emphasized from early on:

“especially grateful that they spoke German here, and that she did not have to make any effort to speak a foreign language in a foreign place, which she would not have been able to do, trained as a kindergarten teacher and a housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, although she had got the best marks for arithmetic and gymnastics…”

1943 was probably the year the war turned against Germany but, though she has an awareness of this (“they hardly spoke about victories anymore, they only spoke of the length of the war”), she thinks of the war mainly as it relates to her separation from her husband. One of the novel’s strengths is the convincing way it portrays her love for her husband, not only by recounting her memories of their relationship, but by demonstrating the way he permeates her thoughts as she walks through the city:

“it was here, especially, that she missed the voice and the knowledge, the warmth and closeness of her husband, who belonged to her, she wished to see Rome as he did, not according to the Baedeker…”

The novel’s style works well in reflecting the rhythm of both her thoughts and her walk, but also has a musical effect as it builds inevitably towards the music of the concert. Here, in describing the emotional climax the music creates for her, as tears flow down her face, Delius creates his own climax with two pages of the young woman’s hopes, beginning:

“she tried to picture a future without war…”

These thoughts are then counter-pointed with her determination to be thankful for the present, looking back on previous years and concluding:

“and perhaps in a year’s time she would think back to this Saturday in January 1943 and reflect with envy how peaceful it was when, in good health and pregnant, she had walked through the winter warmth of Rome and listened to a concert while giving free reign to her fantasies for the future with a husband who was still alive,”

This passage is particularly moving as it contains a truth which the reader knows for certain (it is a year later the Allies launch their invasion of Italy), and the young woman suspects. It is, however, her refusal to despair which lingers. On this evidence it seems difficult to believe that Delius is not more widely available in English.

Skylark

May 11, 2014

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Deszo Kosztolanyi is another in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s seemingly endless supply of astonishing writers. I must admit that I had never heard of him until I picked up a copy of Skylark (second-hand) largely on the recommendation of it having been published by the New York Review of Books, and introduced by Peter Esterhazy. As Esterhazy says: “Everything came together rather nicely at the turn of the century, before the world collapsed.”

In summary, Skylark is a simple book. It begins as the Vajkays prepare to say farewell to their daughter, an unmarried woman in her thirties whom they have affectionately nicknamed Skylark. Although she will only be spending the next week with relatives, the separation is clearly upsetting for both parties, particularly the parents:

“They stared dumbly into space like the speechless victims of some sudden loss, their eyes still hankering after the spot where they had last seen her.”

When, after Skylark boards the train the narrative seems to follow her as she finds a cabin and observes her fellow travellers, we assume this will be her story, but the novel is, in fact, largely the tale of the two parents. Without Skylark, their life is completely disrupted, their routines abandoned. Actions they would not have countenanced before, like eating in the local restaurant, the King of Hungary, they decide they will tolerate temporarily:

“Somehow they had to overcome the disgust they had artificially cultivated beyond all proportion. On the way to the restaurant they comforted each other, braving themselves for the dubious event.”

Yet after only one meal, Akos, Skylark’s father, is spends the night regretting not having sampled the menu more widely:

“Goulash, that’s what it was. Delicious to be sure…How I adored that in my younger days…God only knows when I had them last.”

The visit to the restaurant leads to numerous re-acquaintances and an invitation to the theatre. Before long Akos has re-joined the Panthers, a gentlemen’s club which spends Thursday nights in drunken abandon. Skylark isn’t completely neglected by Kosztolanyi as we learn a little of her holiday, but the novel is about the freedom the parents find without their child rather than the more traditional reverse.

All of this is recounted in a delightfully measure comic style. Here, for example, is Kosztolanyi’s description of an ageing actress:

“Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes… She breathed the air as if it burned her palate, baking her small, hot, whorish mouth.”

Beneath all this, Kosztolanyi is making a darker, more profound point. The Vajkays’ sudden liberty betrays the stifling nature of their life. This, they believe, is a sacrifice they make for their daughter; but she has own hidden misery, accepting at the end that she will never marry. It is this that lies at the centre of the novel, and while today the state of spinsterhood may not be most parent’s greatest fear, the novel is portrays a very modern anxiety of parenthood.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

May 5, 2014

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a writer’s book. By that I don’t mean to imply that it’s a book that will be loved and revered by writers (though it may by those who wish to make a living out of writing) but that it’s a book full of writers. Its central character and narrator (Marcus Goldman) is a writer; his mentor, the titular Harry Quebert, is a writer also. Both have had the misfortune to have written one very successful book. In Harry’s case his magnum opus, The Origin of Evil, was published a number of years ago; Goldman’s success is more recent: a best-selling first novel which has left him unable to write two years later. In desperation he goes to stay with his old teacher.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, however, is not a novel about writing. At times it pretends to be, with each chapter preceded by one of Harry’s 31 rules of writing, in which he dispenses such nuggets of wisdom as:

“The first chapter is essential. If readers don’t like it, they won’t read the rest of your book.”

Over the course of the novel, he develops a lengthy analogy with boxing that would make the Karate Kid blush while allowing Dicker to number the chapters in reverse order in a way that might fool the unwary reader into thinking that it’s meaningful. It doesn’t help that both Goldman and Quebert are presented as successful writers critically as well as commercially, a suggestion that is difficult to take seriously whenever Dicker presents ‘extracts’ from their work:

“He had to accept the truth. From now on, he would do nothing but wait for her. He would spend his whole life waiting for her. But he knew perfectly well that she would never return. He knew he would never see her again, never hear her again, never find her again.”

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a page-turner – and at 600 pages it pretty much has to be. That the pages fly by suits the animated stick figure characterisation, but as a thriller the novel works well. Early in Goldman’s visit, Harry fortuitously confesses to an affair with a fifteen year old girl, Nola, who disappeared on the very night they had planned to run away together. Cue the girl’s body being discovered years later in Harry’s yard, Harry being dragged off to jail, and Goldman determined to get to the truth and prove Harry’s innocence, while at the same time being anonymously threatened. Goldman does little more than interview people but there is an undeniable fascination in watching him apparently circle closer and closer to the truth, and Dicker constructs an intricate plot that continues to surprise until the end, with enough red herrings for Comintern’s breakfast.

What Dicker adds, in making his lead character a writer, is his narrator’s ability to keep reimagining the different scenarios – what might have happened – particularly once he starts writing a books about the affair. As has been pointed out elsewhere, this seems to be a novel designed for the e-reader with its frequent recapping and retelling of events. When new information seems to contradict what Goldman already knows he simply listens to his taped interview again, allowing the reader to reread the appropriate section without having to go to the effort of finding it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair has also been compared to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (wishful thinking on the publishers part, perhaps). In its readability, clunky prose, and literary pretentions there are some similarities, but this is a much more light-hearted affair (some of the most enjoyable sections are where it satirises commercial publishing). The blurb suggests it is the “great American novel in all but authorship” (perhaps that means in all but the way it’s written). The most American aspect of the novel is its raw commercial design – why else, for example, would it be set in America? With summer approaching, this is a novel to save for the beach – on your Kindle, of course.