Archive for January, 2017

1967: The Magic Toyshop

January 28, 2017

magic-toyshop

As I enter my fiftieth year (which I will celebrate simply for the fact of still being alive) I thought it would be interesting to commemorate the anniversary by reading some novels published in the year I was born – particularly when I realised that I had a copy of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop to hand. Though I have read some of Carter’s short stories, this would be my first novel (and only her second). Whether reading the fiction of 1967 will enlightened me in any way about my own origins is debateable, but if it gives me the excuse to explore some writing from that period which I have so far neglected then it is certainly worth the attempt.

What struck me first about The Magic Toyshop was how similar it was to many of the books I read as a child, beginning, as it does, by separating the children – fifteen-year-old Melanie, twelve-year-old Johnathan, and five-year-old Victoria – from their parents. Sometimes this was caused by war-time evacuation; on other occasions, as here, it was the result of the parents’ deaths. In fact, Melanie’s parents are entirely absent from the novel, dying, as they do, while in America, the children meanwhile in the care of Mrs Rundle. Shortly after, the children must leave their comfortable middle class existence (with luxuries such as central heating which I certainly lacked in my early childhood) and live with their uncle Philip in South London.

Of course, The Magic Toyshop is not a children’s book, as is apparent from its opening pages when one of its central preoccupations, Melanie’s sexual awakening, is revealed:

“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.”

One night she puts on her mother’s wedding dress and goes out in the garden, only for the door to close and lock behind her. She realises she must climb the apple tree to return to her bedroom, and that she cannot do so while wearing the dress:

“So she must take off the dress and climb into the treacherous and deceitful night… She was horribly conscious of her own exposed nakedness. She felt a new and final kind of nakedness, as if she had taken even her own skin off and now stood clothed in nothing, nude in the ultimate nudity of the skeleton.”

This moment wonderfully conveys Melanie poised (on the branches of the tree) between childhood and adulthood: the dress represents her desire to be a woman but also reveals she is missing her mother; climbing the tree is a return to childhood activities (“she had given up climbing when she had started to grow her hair and stooped wearing shorts”) but her awareness of her nakedness (as with Eve) reminds us she is no longer innocent.

Uncle Philip rules his family – his wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Francie and Finn – like a tyrant. “Do not,” Finn tells Melanie, “treat your uncle lightly.” Finn knows this well, frequently suffering Philip’s violent outbursts:

“’Three minutes late! And you come dancing up in your stinking rags as if it didn’t matter! Do I keep a boarding house for dirty beatniks? Do I? Do I?’ And he launched a great, cracking blow at Finn’s head.”

Philip makes the toys which he sells – reluctantly, it seems, as he regards them more as works of art than playthings and doesn’t like them touched. He is proudest of his puppets and will occasionally insist that everyone gather in the basement to watch one of his performances.

The novel is redolent with symbolism. Philip not only wants to control his puppets but those around him. Margaret is unable to speak and must write down anything she wishes to say, just as Philip has removed her voice entirely from their relationship. Melanie is made to perform as Leda in one of Philip’s puppet shows where she is molested by a wooden swan of his invention. However, everything is grounded in Carter’s description of the drab surroundings, which feel more fifties than sixties:

“Between a failed, boarded up jeweller’s and a grocer’s displaying a windowful of sunshine cornflakes was a dark cavern of a shop, so dimly lit one did not notice it as it bowed its head under the tenement above. In the cave could be seen the vague outlines of a rocking horse, and the sharper scarlet of its flaring nostrils, and stiff-limbed puppets, dressed in rich, sombre colours, dangling from their strings; but the brown varnish of the horse and the plums and purples of the puppets made such a murk together that very little could be seen.”

In fact, it is, at times, a very Dickensian London, seen also in the grubbiness of the characters, particularly Finn:

“He wore washed-out, balding corduroy trousers, wrinkled with their own tightness. His clothes had the look of strays from a parish poor-box.”

Melanie and Finn’s relationship is also beautifully handled by Carter. She is both attracted and repulsed by him (his “insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness”); he finds her beautiful but also young:

“He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – but was she the prey?”

The Magic Toyshop contains all the fear and thrill of growing up enhanced by Carter’s uncanny ability to marry the grotesque with the everyday. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Lost Books – Second Harvest

January 23, 2017

second-harvest-2

One of the most impressive novels I read last year was originally written in 1929. Hill (which I read in a new translation by Paul Eprile) was Jean Giono’s first novel and it left me eager for more, though up against Giono’s rather sporadic and disorganised appearance in English. Hill is the first of three novels said to comprise Giono’s ‘Pan trilogy’, the second being Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers) and the third Regain (Second Harvest). Both were translated into English in the 1930s, but Lovers are Never Losers seems not to have been reprinted (and is therefore not the easiest book to get hold of) whereas Second Harvest (translated by Henri Fluchere and Geoffrey Myers) was (in 1999 by Harvill).

Second Harvest, like Hill, is set in a sparsely populated village in the Provence area of France. In fact the village of Aubignane is so sparsely populated that when the novel opens it has only three inhabitants left: Gaubert and Mameche, both elderly, and Panturle, the only one with much life left ahead of him:

“Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along. During the heat of the summer, when he had made himself a sort of sun-curtain out of fig leaves and held himself erect with his hands full of grass, he was just like a tree.”

That Panturle appears to be part of nature is not unexpected as Giono uses language in these novels to suggest that the landscape and the creatures (including people) which live there are inextricably linked. The wind, we are told, “waved about a little and beat its tail gently against the hard sky”; flames are “just like colts, prancing around elegantly without thinking of work”; in winter:

“The countryside shivered in silence…Every morning a russet sun rose in silence. With a few indifferent paces it strode across the whole breadth of the sky and day was over. Night heaped up the stars like grain.”

Gaubert has been convinced by his son to leave as winter approaches – “He says he’s anxious about leaving me alone this winter” – and it looks as if the village will soon be empty until Mamech asks Panturle, “If I brought you one, would you take the woman?” She does not ask this question because she has someone in mind but simply out of determination. The promise seems in vain, however, when Mamech herself disappears.

Our focus now moves to the knife-grinder, Gedemus, and the woman he travels with, Arsule. Arsule’s back-story is an indication that Giono is never sentimental about the lives he portrays. A travelling entertainer, she is abandoned by her ‘manager’ and, when found the next day by a group of farm-workers, she is repeatedly raped. Gedemus then takes her in as both servant and mistress. His treatment of her as a useful asset rather than a human being can be seen in the way that, though they set off with him pulling his knife-grinding tools in a cart, she soon takes over.

Through a series of prosaic events which Giono describes in such a way to seem almost mystical, including Gedemus and Arulse pulling Panturle from a river and saving his life, Panturle and Arsule end up living together in Abignane. Panturle’s symbolic rebirth (“He had begun to live again a few moments ago…”) is the beginning of the rebirth of the village, best seen in his decision to plant grain again having lived alone by hunting.

As with Hill, Second Harvest is a simple story told with great subtlety. Giono’s great skill is to display characters and landscape as one and in constant conflict. Even in writing of a way of life which was already dying out, there is an optimism of the will which is difficult to resist.

We Who Are About To…

January 17, 2017

we-who

Some writers fade entirely from the common memory, others remain immortalised by a single work. The latter has been the fate of ‘feminist science fiction writer’ Joanna Russ. (The quotation marks are not intended to suggest disagreement: she was a feminist, and she wrote science fiction, but the description also seems an attempt to limit her). Her novel The Female Man (in print today, and, I suspect every day since its 1975 publication) is the novel which has come to define her, though she wrote five others, and numerous short stories. (To be fair, her non-fiction essay How to Suppress Women’s Writing is still relatively well known). Now Penguin’s new Penguin Worlds series, curated by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru, has chosen another of her books as one of their initial five titles: We Who Are About To…

It will not surprise you to learn that We Who Are About To… is a novel about death. Both interpretations of the phrase’s meaning (“Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant”) – is it a fatalistic acceptance of death or a plea for life? – run through the novel, which takes on the traditional SF trope of an emergency landing on an alien planet:

“In the event of a mechanical dysfunction, the ship’s computer goes for the nearest ‘tagged’ planet, i.e. where human life is supposed to be possible, then ejects the passenger compartment separately… We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed power pack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).”

The novel explores the difference between the passengers’ attitudes to their situation, in particular the divide between our narrator, who believes they have no chance of survival, and the other passengers who retain hopes of some kind – “Already excited talk of ‘colonization’, whatever that is.” Not only does SF generally endorse the view that the human spirit will overcome, but the novel form itself suggests as much – it’s no accident that Robinson Crusoe, one of the earliest examples, is about survival. (For those who only read ‘literary’ SF, it may come a surprise that science fiction is by and large an optimistic genre). Not only does the narrator feel survival is unlikely, but also inadvisable:

“But I think that some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That’s obscene.”

Placing the narration in her hands prioritises her logical if bleak viewpoint, frequently making the other characters look ridiculous in their optimism, and in the way they easily retreat to ideas of gender roles long abandoned:

“Nathalie’s life and yours and Lori’s and Cassie’s are too valuable to put in danger. You are childbearers.”

When Cassie is furious with Alan for wasting water by taking a bath he says, “I don’t think… that you ought to talk to me like that.”

“I could take you over my knee and spank you.”

When she still won’t back down he begins punching her in the face. His strength outweighs any intelligence she possesses.

This, however, covers only the first twenty-five pages, and fails to do them justice: each of Russ’ characters brings some vital ingredient to the novel’s opening, and her philosophical intent also includes creating a religion. In the novel’s second half, the narrator’s attempt to leave the group and live alone is catastrophic (I’ll say no more), and Russ follows fictional her proposition through to the end.

We Who Are About To… may be forty years old, but it is certainly not dated. It fully deserves to be rediscovered.

The Transmigration of Bodies

January 14, 2017

transmigration

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was one of the best novels I read in 2015 and, while The Transmigration of Bodies (again translated by Lisa Dillman) may not quite match it, that does not prevent it from being another exhilarating slice of Herrera’s magpie imagination. Here we are firmly in hard-boiled territory, though transferred to a city ravaged by the type of end-times plague normally associated with science fiction.

Its central character, the Redeemer, is a “fixer” whose job it is to “take care of stuff under the table at the courts:”

“The Redeemer prided himself on knowing about all the palmgreasing, hornswoggling and machinating in the city…”

He is sent out into the deserted city to resolve a ‘situation’: one family (the Fonsecas) have lost their son, Romeo, last seen being picked up in a van by members of another family (the Castros). In retaliation they have taken Baby Girl, and The Redeemer, as the go-between, must arrange the swap.

“So different and so the same, the Castors and the Fonsecas. Poor as dirt a couple of decades ago, now too big for their boots, and neither had moved out of the barrio: they just added locks and doors and stories and a shit-ton of cement to their houses, one with more tile than the other.”

The Redeemer must walk the tight-rope between the two families, diffusing the gang-war which could erupt at any moment, and coping with the new difficulties of the epidemic such as army road-blocks (not to mention locate a condom so he can sleep with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde). As a thriller, the novel works well: the ‘kidnapping’ is not what it at first appears (I’ll say no more) and there’s more than enough jeopardy to go round. Herrera uses the noir genre to create a story which gives every indication of bleakness (and has some great hard-boiled lines like “Unhappy people aren’t the problem. It’s people taking their unhappy out on you.”) but is strangely sunny in its conclusion.

This fits with a more general intention to use the genre conventions against themselves while ensuring the novel remains a tribute and not a parody. In our hero’s relationship with Three Times Blonde, for example, it is she who calls the shots, he who regards the fact she even looks at him as a “miracle.” (And also he who walks unexpectedly into her room). It’s perhaps why Herrera resisted the temptation to write in first person. The Redeemer does, however, exist in the borderland between the criminals and the law, with a conscience which is blunted but intact.

The Transmigration of Bodies, though literally true, is a little literary for a noir title, though it has the inherent cynicism of suggesting a soulless world. In fact, this novel shows that, even in the bleakest circumstances, we can be redeemed.

One Hundred Shadows

January 10, 2017

one-hundred-shadows

Hwang Junguan’s One Hundred Shadows, a Korean novel originally published in 2010 and translated by Jung Yewon, is the second title from Tilted Axis Press. The novel has a fairy-tale quality to it, beginning with a young woman wandering lost in the woods:

“I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.”

The repetition (woods twice, shadow three times, deeper four) is typical of the novel’s style, creating a hypnotic simplicity. The narrator, Eunygo, has been drawn into the woods chasing her own shadow. Only the intervention of her friend, Mujae, (perhaps) saves her. As they attempt to find their way out of the woods, he tells her the story of (perhaps) his father, who also saw his shadow “rise”:

“If you spot someone who looks like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once it’s risen. And then, looking like a ghost, he died.”

Mujae links the rising of his father’s shadow with his father falling into debt, and throughout the novel this phenomenon is connected to poverty and hopelessness. (As Mr Yeo says about his own shadow rising, “My life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing so it was inevitable really.”) All of the novel’s characters are poor, and if you are fearing that the novel exists in an entirely allegorical landscape, nothing could be further from the truth. Once free from the forest, Eunygo and Mujae are firmly located in the world of working class South Korea:

“I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city… The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop.”

These businesses are threatened by the demolition of the buildings in which they are housed. The first of these is knocked down with great ceremony during the novel:

“As for the way the headlines were making it seem as though the entire market had been demolished rather than just one of the five buildings, Mr Yeo claimed that the intention was to ensure a smooth passage for the final demolition by killing off business in advance.”

This emphasises the impression we have of the novel’s characters living on the margins of society, regarded as old-fashioned and past any use, rather like the electronic equipment Mr Yeo repairs, or the bulbs sold at Omusa, no longer available anywhere else.

One Hundred Shadows is also a love story of sorts, but one which refuses to be hurried. Mujae freely admits his attraction towards Eunygo, though with rather understated phrases such as “I like you.” Eunygo is, it seems, keener to hide her feelings:

“Mujae asked me why I was sweating so much. The soup’s hot, I said…”

And later:

“Are you ill?
No.
Your face is flushed.”

Intimate moments between them involve discussing the whorls of hair on their heads, and singing songs together. They also spend a lot of time eating. Some readers may find this gentle progression frustrating but I felt the fear of commitment an accurate reflection of their uncertain futures. The threatened separation from shadows also suggests a lack, an emptiness; it’s no surprise that when they open a matryoshka (Russian) doll together, the innermost doll gets crushed.

One Hundred Shadows proceeds like a dream, a strange combination of vivid naturalism and uncertain symbolism, and is all the better for it.

The Empress and the Cake

January 7, 2017

empress-and-cake

Given that The Man I Became was narrated by a gorilla, I am astonished to announce that I found Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) the strangest of Peirene Press’ titles last year. It begins when its unwitting narrator encounters an elderly lady who requests that they share a Gugelhupf (a cake popular in Austria): “A whole one is too much for me and they don’t sell them by the half here.” This is followed by a further invitation to accompany the woman to her apartment and share the half she has bought. (“My house keeper and I can’t eat it all between us”). Two important aspects of the novel have already been introduced: the narrator’s willingness to be swayed by her host (Frau Hohenembs) and an obsession with food.

Our narrator suffers from bulimia: once she has eaten a second slice of the cake she feels there is little point in stopping there, “the third I helped myself to without invitation because it was irrelevant now.”

“I was abandoned by the day. A faint trance descended onto me like a silk cloth. I went into the bathroom and regurgitated the whole lot.”

Already the narrative has been peppered with references to food and weight, however. “If only you knew the lengths I go to…to keep my figure!” Frau Hehenembs comments, while in the background her maid, Ida, is specifically introduced as “fat”. Meanwhile, a second narrative introduces us to Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was famously fanatical about her figure:

“Her waist measured no more than fifty centimetres; a man could have put his hand right round it. This was no surprise as she barely ate a thing.”

Frau Hohenembs relationship with Ida is a shabby reflection of the Empress and her maid, who is the narrator of the second narrative. Hohenembs herself is more than a little obsessed with Elisabeth (suggesting perhaps some connection to the maid, though as the Empress lived in the second half of the nineteenth century it seems unlikely she could be the maid, unless the novel is even stranger than I think). Not only does she have several pictures of the young Elisabeth in her home, but our narrator soon finds herself embroiled in a theft a duck press from a museum (used to squeeze the juice from carcasses which could then be drunk in lieu of eating, a method of ‘dieting’ used by Elisabeth). Later, further items are purloined as Hohenembs claims ownership through her unspoken relationship to the Empress.

Amid all the eccentricity, the novel is a distressing picture of bulimia. We learn in detail the lengths to which the narrator will go to to remain unnaturally thin:

“Often I’d leap up in the middle of reading the newspaper or watching an advertisement for diet products, stand on the scales and prove to myself that I hadn’t shifted a gram either way since the previous weigh-in fifteen minutes earlier.”

Closeted claustrophobically with the obsessions of these two women, there is little sense that men are to be blamed. Only Ida attracts a sexual partner in the course of the novel, and the narrator’s repeated reference to ‘Charlotte’ suggests a previous relationship. In any case, Stift seems more intent on dissecting how it feels than analysing its cause (though in one reading of the novel, Frau Hohenembs and Ida are simply extensions of the narrator’s psyche).

Just like Frau Hohenmebs, The Empress and the Cake may give the initial impression of charming quirkiness, but it is, in fact, grotesque, a reminder that, as Freud discovered, the horrors of this world can lie within the genteel drawing rooms of Vienna.

Her Father’s Daughter

January 5, 2017

her-fathers-daughter

In Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) a young girl must acclimatise herself to the idea of her father’s return, a father who has been missing from her childhood having spent it as a prisoner of war in Germany. The novel is entirely from the child’s point of view, but in the third person; this impressive technical feat ensures there is no disconnect between the viewpoint and the language, while at the same time delivering the perspective of the central character in all its innocence, irony and intuition.

“The child” (her name, patriotically, is France, but her mother’s habitual “my darling” has seen this fade from use; her father will have different ideas) is at first mystified by the idea her father might return. “There isn’t room here,” she says. The impenetrability of her mother’s response indicates that their closeness is threatened:

“The mother gives her that funny look again, slow, unreadable, secret.”

To the child “her entire world and the only imaginable world, is her mother”:

“And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.”

The father will not be the only thing to come between mother and child: there is also the memory of a trip to Normandy and a baby sister who did not come home with them, a memory of events which both the mother and grandmother deny ever took place – “It’s like a dream but it isn’t a dream.”

Sizun brilliantly charts France’s reaction to her father, an initial hostility (“Inside the child’s head, in her body, something turns to ice”) which slowly transfers itself to her mother. After all, it is she who has abandoned calling her ‘my darling’ and instead transferred that term of affection to her husband:

“The child can see she is no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father.”

When the father tries to instil the discipline he believes has been lacking – for example, that she eat all the food placed before her – “it’s towards her mother… that all her resentment is directed.” She notices, but is not sympathetic towards, the change in her mother’s character – weaker, deferential, a “docile wife”. Reading between the lines (as the reader must) it seems the husband’s absence has offered the mother as much freedom as the child. Now, with the guilt of a relationship while he was away to contend with, she vainly attempts to please him.

We can also see that much of the father’s irritation is related to the war. He “listens to the radio from morning till night” and the first time he shows his daughter affection is on the day he hears that the Americans have landed. As her relationship with her father improves, however, the relationship between her parents deteriorates.

Her Father’s Daughter is a wonderful evocation of childhood memories. It does not disguise the fact that memory is selective:

“No memories either of the days immediately after that first meeting. A black hole.”

And:

“Of the weeks, the few months that come next, what will one day be left in the child’s memory?”

The memory of Normandy, which ticks like a time-bomb beneath the family, dismissed as a dream, existing, as it does, on the borderline of memory’s beginning. The novel also evokes our early impressions of our parents and the way in which they can colour our long-term relationships. And, of course, it’s also a story of the fading innocence, drifting briefly into second person to make that point:

“That was how one day you stop being a child and you end up calling yourself France, like everyone else.”

Even the placing of the comma – whether the author or translator’s decision – ensures the tone is elegiac, and confirms, above all, how beautifully written this is.

The Man I Became

January 3, 2017

man-i-became

Talking animals are staples of both satirists and Disney scriptwriters, so it seems entirely appropriate that Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became – which features a warped version of Disneyland as a shorthand for the American dream – should be told by a gorilla. (Translated by David Colmer, it was Peirene Press’ first publication of last year). Its early chapters echo the Middle Passage as the narrator and his fellow gorillas, after capture, are walked through the desert until they reach the sea, “a new desert but blue, made of water and stretching away out of sight.” Finally they arrive at the New World:

“Only when then enormous lights turned on did we see the hundreds of people behind the glass walls. Their mouths opened and closed but we couldn’t hear what they were shouting. Or were they laughing? Why were they waving? Were they angry?”

This incomprehension is shared by narrator and reader alike: for both, the rules of the New World will be revealed slowly and often obliquely. Firstly, animal must aspire to become human: clothing, shaving, smiling, conversing – before a “baptism of fire” in the form of a cocktail party. The price of failure has already been made clear: “the thing that looked like us before the shave but trampled down, miserable, broken;” or, worse, fed to the Dreamland Maritime Cleaning Crew, “also known as the Great White family.”

Dreamland, where the gorilla/human will now be employed, is portrayed as a theme park (his first experience is a ride on a roller-coaster), the Disney ‘dream come true’ of the American dream, the apex of human aspiration:

“We are, in a sense, the end point, the pinnacle. And that’s why so many people come to see us. Not only to understand their own history better, but to see how they can better themselves as well… This is where people come to celebrate being accepted into the Big Dream.”

The new humans are rewarded with gold Ds and mobile phones – “each promotion brings top-ups and new icons.” In the Dome the animals participate in a ‘recreation’ of Earth’s history from the world emerging from the darkness on beyond the present into a future in which children set off in a rocket with their robots. This section gives a good indication of the way in which the novel moves beyond allegory towards a dream state that borders on surrealism. The animals enter the show in an order that echoes their appearance at the cocktail party; when the rocket launches we are directed to a girl waving at a porthole, just as we were towards the face of a girl with “the sweetest, quietest, most delicate smile” on arrival in the New World (a motif which will reoccur later).

These ambiguities co-exist with biting satire, as we see when the narrator discusses the cost of his success:

“My schedule was so crammed, the only contact I had with others was during meetings… More and more often I used fashionable words that made people feel they were part of something exceptional.”

The story ends in apocalypse and redemption: just as the narrator’s initial identity was eliminated, so he moves beyond the one created for him – still human, but on his own terms. This gives us hope in the face of the novel’s bleak world view (a hope hinted at in the opening chapter).

Verhelst imbues what could easily have been a one-note novel with astonishing richness and depth, a broken mirror in which the shattered reflection is sometimes immediately recognisable and at others only intuitively known.