Archive for March, 2017

The Unseen

March 27, 2017

One of the greatest pleasures of shadowing a prize is the chance to encounter writers, often of long-standing, for the first time. Roy Jacobsen is a case in point: The Unseen is his thirteenth novel, and the fifth to be translated into English (by Don Barlett and Don Shaw). It appears with a title and cover suggestive of the horror genre, but is, in fact, firmly historical, set at the point in Norway’s past where modernity begins to threaten a way of life which has been handed down from generation to generation, around a hundred years ago.

This may be why Jacobsen chooses an island setting for his novel; islands typically lag behind the mainland, resisting or unaware of change. In a sense, the novel becomes two stories: that of life on the island, and that of the interactions the islanders have with the outside world. Only one family live on the island (and also use a number of smaller, surrounding islets), named, like the island, Barroy: Hans and Maria, their daughter, Ingrid, and Hans’ father, Martin, and sister, Barbro. They farm, sell eiderdown, and Hans also has a half-share in a fishing boat with his brother.

The chapters are short (there are 53 in total) and tend to focus on a particular moment, with time passing between them as necessary. One chapter may follow directly from the previous one, or there may be an unspecified gap. The opening chapter, which tells of Ingrid’s christening, and the second, which features her travelling in the faering with her father, give the initial impression that she will be the centre of the novel, but, though her coming of age is an important strand, this feels more like the story of a community. It’s told in a simple, authoritative tone:

“Whatever is washed ashore on an island belongs to the finder, and the islanders find a lot.”

This contrasts sharply with the speech of the characters, reproduced in a dialect which presumably mirrors the original Norwegian:

“Hva did A tell tha!”

This is a difficult call for a translator: if he uses a UK dialect he runs the danger of transposing the story to the UK; if he invents a dialect it may jar with the reader (or, worse, read like a fantasy novel!). Although I had some issues with the spelling (‘nu’ = new ‘heir’ = here) and the use of apostrophes (which only indicate it is another language spoken wrongly), I quickly became accustomed to the speech, and it was certainly important not to render it in standard English.

Intrusions from the mainland are rare, but often significant in the novel. When Hans hires some Swedish labourers to help him build a jetty, Barbro sleeps with one of them and falls pregnant. Lars becomes a sixth addition to the island’s population. When a further two children arrive later by other means, we begin to see the island as a refuge with an instinctive care for children which is seen to be lacking on the mainland.

Not all visitors are welcome, however. When an escaped convict arrives in a stolen boat, the islanders are at first paralysed by this unexpected event. The criminal sees this as a weakness he can take advantage of:

“I can see you’re simple folk who are not accustomed to people like me, I could do as I please here…”

The intrusion leaves its mark on the island:

“Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.”

This is, perhaps the ‘unseen’ of the title, though their fears do eventually fade.

Jacobsen seems to find the life of the islanders, though hard, attractive. In reference to planting the coast with evergreens he says:

“No, nobody would even consider doing this until the country attains such wealth that it is the process of going to rack and ruin.”

Yet the drive towards capitalism comes from within as well as without the island. For this reason I was reminded of the archetypal island novel, and exemplification of industry and Protestant work ethic, Robinson Crusoe. From the beginning Hans is set on making improvements to the island; some of these are for the comfort of the islanders, but others relate to increasing trade with the mainland. Towards the end, Ingrid takes on the mantle, negotiating prices for stockfish and eggs.

The Unseen vividly and convincingly places its reader on Barroy. Jacobsen brings the past to life with a level of detail – in particular a sense of how the past might feel – which makes me want to read his other historical novels. If the novel seems to stop rather than end, that too enhances its reality. As island life continues, unseen, the tides of history wash at its shore.

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Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

March 23, 2017

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

The Traitor’s Niche

March 19, 2017

Ismail Kadare is no stranger to the Man Booker International Prize having won the inaugural prize in 2005 when it was awarded, not for a single novel, but for a body of work. He has also been frequently long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the predecessor to the Man Booker International in its present form: The Successor in 2007, Agamemnon’s Daughter in 2008, The Siege in 2009, and The Fall of the Stone City in 2013 (the latter pair were also short-listed). These works reveal a little of how Kadare is currently being translated: while most appeared in English within a few years of their original publication, The Siege was first published in 1970, and represents attempts to bring Kadare’s older work to a wider audience alongside his most recent. The Traitor’s Niche continues that trend (which also includes Twilight of the Eastern Gods, another seventies novel, translated in 2014) as it was written between 1974 and 1976 when Kadare was still in Albania (he claimed political asylum in France in 1990) under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. They also indicate the two most common methods of translation, some having been translated from French translations by David Bellos, others, like The Traitors’ Niche, being directly translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

The Traitor’s Niche is most reminiscent of The Palace of Dreams where Kadare also used the Ottoman empire to explore totalitarianism in the oblique way living in a totalitarian state demands (not oblique enough as The Palace of Dreams was banned). The Traitor’s Niche is set in 1822 when Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, albeit on its disregarded edges. It concerns the rebellion of Ali Pasha Tepelena who rules Albania as part of the empire until he decides “go to war against the sultan” despite the warnings of his wife:

“Why do you want to climb higher?… Why not climb down a little? Wouldn’t it be more natural to yield, to be more human, rather than opverreaching to become more than a man?”

The Sultan sends Hurshid Pasha to defeat him, but Hurshid himself soon suffers the Sultan’s displeasure when he is accused of sending only part of Ali’s fortune back to Constantinople.

Kadare is not only interested in history, of course; his subject is the ruthless exercise of power. The novel’s great skill is that it is told through a series of characters rather than events. The opening chapter presents us with Abdullah, who guards the traitor’s niche (or niche of shame) where the heads of those executed by the state are placed. Years of placing and replacing heads, as well as observing the reaction of the crowds, has taught him that “people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be.” A nearby café owner is equally cynical:

“People are villains. They look at a severed head as if the sight of it has put them off ever committing a crime again, but as soon as they turn their backs on it, it’s clear they can hardly wait to get back to their dirty tricks.”

The niche is awaiting Ali’s head, a place currently filled by the head of the man who was sent, and failed, to defeat him. His replacement, Hurshid, knows that either he or Ali must die:

“The heavens could not contain them both. One of their suns had to sink.”

We follow Ali’s head to Constantinople in the company of Tundj Hata, who charges villagers to see it in the provinces through which he must pass. But Ali’s will not be the last head to be placed in the niche before the novel’s conclusion.

Though The Traitor’s Niche is faithful to the history it draws on, we are constantly pointed towards its wider reach, in particular in answer to the question “What will they do to Albania now?” which is immediately asked on the arrival of Ali’s head:

“They recalled situations and provinces in which a ‘state of emergency’ had been called… A ‘state of emergency’ would be devised by the First Directorate of the Interior Ministry to stimulate internal divisions on the basis of religion, regional and feudal alliances, castes and traditions.”

Or alternatively:

“The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.”

These descriptions of statecraft not only echo workings of the Soviet bloc, but of all powerful empires since time began. Not only do its servants live in fear of decapitation, so do those countries within its grasp. Kadare’s novel exposes the ruthlessness of powerful states, but does so in such a way as to humanise the participants, from the rebellious pasha to the guardian of the traitor’s niche.

At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether The Traitor’s Niche will appear on the short list. Eileen Battersby (of the Irish Times) has argued that, as an older novel, it should make way for newer work (goodness knows what she’d make of the Best Translated Book Award), though I’m not sure her view that great novels are always translated quickly is true in every case. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it just yet.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017

March 15, 2017

With equal parts excitement and trepidation, today I learned which books had made it onto the Man Booker International Prize long-list. The trepidation occurs because, once again, I am going to be reading all of them as part of the Shadow Jury and therefore questions such as, Have I read any? Do I own any others? and How long are they? take on much greater significance.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist:
Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

This year I have only read two of the long-listed novels, Swallowing Mercury and Fever Dream, two of the shorter novels, and two of only three by women writers. The lack of women writers is disappointing, though it partly reflects the proportion of women who are translated. It’s a shame that two excellent Peirene novels (The Empress and the Cake and Her Father’s Daughter) both missed out – Peirene have been represented since 2011 (if we regard the prize as continuing from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), every year of their existence.

Tilted Axis Press and And Other Stories might also feel disappointed not to feature, though two novels from Fitzcarraldo Editions makes up for the snubbing of Mathias Enard’s Zone in 2015 (a move which so infuriated the Shadow Jury they called it in). Both Harvill Secker and MacLehose Press (both long-time supporters of literature in translation) are also represented twice.

Eight of the thirteen books are European (the Guardian originally seemed to suggest Iceland and Albania were not part of Europe though I notice this has been changed. Alain Mabanckou is still “a French writer born in the Republic of the Congo” though, whatever that implies – perhaps that nine are European, or eleven if we use Eurovision rules and include Israel). This compares to only five European books last year (six if Turkey is regarded as European). A pity, then, that Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound was excluded, and Japanese female writers like Yoko Tawada and Hiromi Kawakami.

The list is certainly not short of well-established writers (including Nobel Prize winners in waiting, some might say): Ismail Kadare is 81, Amos Oz 77, and David Grossman, Roy Jacobson and Stefan Hertmans are all in their sixties. (Samantha Schweblin is, I think, the youngest). Many of the books themselves are heavyweights – Bricks and Mortar runs to 670 pages, Compass and The Explosion Chronicles to 480, Fish Have No Feet a comparatively paltry 380… the rest (luckily) are more manageable, and it’s unlikely anything can match the tedium of reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

I’m most looking forward to reading The Explosion Chronicles having been impressed by The Four Books last year; similarly Compass should be a treat based on my experience of Zone. As a long-time admirer of Kadare I would have read The Traitor’s Niche anyway; the same applies to Dorthe Nors, though on the basis of only one previous book. Mabanckou and Stefansson I’ve also read before though with less relish (The Sorrow of Angels I think of with my own personal sorrow). The other writers are entirely new to me.

Let the reading begin!

(You can read the Official Shadow Panel response to the long list here).

The Proof

March 13, 2017

Although Cesar Aira was first translated into English (by the self-same Nick Caistor who has translated The Proof) and published in the UK in 1998 – the rather atypical The Hare – it has been New Directions in the US who have been largely responsible for making him available to an English-speaking audience. Luckily, presumably as a result of And Other Stories’ new partnership with New Directions, they have now taken on the mantle of Aira’s UK publisher having reprinted The Seamstress and the Wind, and released two new works, The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof.

Famously, once Aira starts writing he does not look back but pursues his premise to the end. The Proof begins with an unexpected encounter between innocent, isolated, sixteen-year-old Marcia and two ‘punk’ girls who call themselves Lenin and Mao. Marcia is described as:

“…blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes.”

The ‘punks,’ in contrast, are all in black. They are two among the many young people gathered in the cold night “with the ridiculous need to meet their friends” that Marci has passed, feeling that “she couldn’t be part of it.” They greet her with “Wannafuck?” the novel’s very first words, a shock for the reader intended to echo Marcia’s surprise. This crudeness is a counterpoint to Marcia’s comfortable but unhappy existence. Of course, she walks away, but is also attracted to devil-may care attitude of the girls:

“That two girls, two women, could have wanted to pick her up, out loud, voicing obscenities, two punks who confirmed their violent self-expulsion from proper behaviour… It was so unexpected, so novel… Really anything could happen, and those who could make it happen were the hundreds of young people who came out into the street to waste time at nightfall, after school.”

The girls pursue her, the one who called out to her, Mao, insisting it is not a joke:

“Listen to me, Marcia: what I told you is true. Love at first sight. It’s completely true.”

The girls’ ill-mannered assault is now reset as an expression of romantic sensibility. In fact, throughout the novel Mao and Lenin will remake themselves in both Marcia and the reader’s eyes, their disregard for rules allowing them an unpredictability which threatens the boundaries of both characterisation and realism.

Marcia agrees to go to a café with them to talk. Further tension between Marcia’s conformity and the punks’ disregard for social niceties is immediately created by their refusal to order despite Marcia’s fear that, “We’ll get thrown out if we don’t have something.” Her questioning rebounds against their insistence that nothing is of any importance, including any answers they might give her. They mock one of the waitresses, whom Marcia immediately identifies with; their conversation offers duelling ideologies where neither ideology is stated. Still, Marcia is thrilled by their unpredictability:

“Marcia’s surprise only grew. From surprise she went to surprise within surprise.”

If the novel seems lacking in action up to this point, be assured the final twenty pages more than make up for it. This may be a leap of faith for readers ensconced in a largely realistic narrative, but, like Marcia, I found myself breathless with the audacity of both the girls and the author.

The seven Aira novels (or novellas) I’ve read previously divide fairly evenly into those I like and those I love: this falls into the ‘love’ category without question (and not just because of the subject matter). Though still possessed of the wildness of his best work, it is also intensely coherent, following an unstoppable narrative path from Marcia’s first step to her last. Aira’s presentation of Mao and Lenin is both cartoonish and nuanced: one moment he seems to be mocking them, the next casting admiring glances. The move at the end from all-talk to all-action is a master stroke, powering us towards a genuine conclusion. This may well be the Aira I recommend to newcomers from now on.

Charlotte

March 10, 2017

David Foenkinos is a French writer whose career has never quite taken off in English. His novel Delicacy (the basis of a film starring Audrey Tatou) was translated in 2011, The Erotic Potential of my Wife having previously appeared in 2008. Both, it’s fair to say, adopted a lighter tone than Charlotte, translated by Sam Taylor and published Canongate, which arrives here having won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des Lyceens.

The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish painter who was born in Berlin in 1917. Her reputation rests largely on work she produced in the south of France between 1941 and 1943 before she was captured by occupying German forces and sent to Auchswitz. She was murdered on arrival. The novel is told in a series of short sentences, each one set on a new line. While this may give the appearance of poetry, the presence of a full stop every few words makes it intensely prosaic. The constantly abbreviated thoughts come to echo her own abbreviated life.

Death is not only the early end point of Charlotte’s story, it also haunts her beginnings:

“Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.”

She is named after her mother’s sister who committed suicide when she was eighteen:

“While everyone else is sleeping, Charlotte gets out of bed.
She gathers a few belongings, as if she were going on a trip.
The city seems at a standstill, frozen in this early winter.
Charlotte has just turned eighteen.
She walks quickly towards her destination.
A bridge.
A bridge she loves.
The secret locus of her darkness.
She has known for a long time that it will be the last bridge.
In the black of night, unseen, she jumps.”

Later, when Charlotte is nine, her own mother will kill herself, a fact that will be kept from Charlotte until she is an adult. Her father remarries – an opera singer, Paula – whom Charlotte idolises. It is through Paula that Charlotte first becomes acquainted with her Jewish heritage:

“Her childhood is based around an absence of Jewish culture.
In the words of Walter Benjamin.”

Charlotte’s teenage years coincide with the nineteen thirties as conditions worsen week by week for Jews in Germany. The idea it might be a “passing phase” quickly fades:

“It is not coming from a few fanatics, but from an entire nation.”

Of course, this is a story which has been told many times. Should we feel that Charlotte’s treatment is somehow worse because she is a talented artist? Of course not. In fact it’s her family’s relative privilege which makes clear the difficulty of escape. Her father is arrested but freed after the intervention of his wife’s influential friends. Paula, despite strict quotas, is able to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Her grandparents escape Germany, followed later by Charlotte, and her father and Paula leave for Holland. They are not passive; they have resources: but it is not enough.

Charlotte’s art survives (in the care of a doctor) and is recovered by her father after the war. It tells the story of her life and is entitled Life? or Theatre? Indeed, these autobiographical paintings form the basis of the novel. Her story is a very powerful one and certainly deserves to be told, and therefore your view of Foenkinos’ novel will depend on how you feel about his use of the source material. Stripping it back to a skeletal network of sentences suggests he does not want to dress it up unduly; elements are presented as if in a report, badly stated as truths, though the author’s occasional appearance as researcher reminds us of his artistic presence. Foenkinos also draws his own conclusions: amid the battle between art and death we find love, Charlotte’s passion for her step-mother’s singing teacher which, it is suggested, keeps her clinging to life.

The End of Eddy

March 4, 2017

end-of-eddy

Reading Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy (translated by Michael Lucey) I was somehow reminded of the anti-Kailyard Scottish novel, The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown. Both writers came from poverty (Brown’s father was a farmer who never acknowledged him, his mother a servant); both went on to university (after graduating with a First in Classics from Glasgow, Brown studied at Oxford). Brown’s (only) novel, also set in a small rural community, differs in its focus on a relatively wealthy family, the successful businessman, Gourlay, who struggles in the face of competition, but Gourlay’s treatment of his son, John, whose lack of masculine attributes sees him defined as weak and sickly, resonated with the way the narrator of The End of Eddy is perceived

I mention this because The House with the Green Shutters was published in 1901, over a hundred years ago. The End of Eddy was published in 2014 and is set in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Eddy’s father was born in the same year as I was. And yet Eddy’s childhood is no better than John’s:

“From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.”

Eddy is also born in a rural village – in the North of France – into a society where gender roles are distinct and inflexible. For men, the most important characteristic is ‘toughness’:

“The village tough guys, who embodied all the much-touted masculine values, refused to conform to school discipline and it was important to him that he had been a tough guy. When my father would say of one of my brothers or cousins that he was tough, I could hear the admiration in his voice.”

Toughness is therefore in opposition to education and requires leaving school to work in the local factory, a job which will ruin Eddy’s father’s health to the point he can no longer work. Toughness must also be passed on to the following generation (there is, after all, nothing else to pass on): “A father reinforced his own masculine identity through his sons.” Eddy, however, lacks even the basics needed to fake it:

“All too soon I shattered the hopes and dreams of my father… When I began to express myself, when I learned to speak, spontaneously my voice took on feminine inflections. It was higher pitched than most other boys. Every time I spoke my hands waved frenetically every which way, twisting about, stirring up the air.”

Eddy attempts to fit in – playing football, for example – but cannot sustain an interest. This isn’t to say he is immediately vilified, simply regarded as “a little weird” or even congratulated on being “well brought up.” School, however, is a different matter, and the novel opens with a scene of bullying which will continue daily for years. Eddy also tries to fit in sexually. At school he writes persistently to a girl until she agrees to go out with him, arranging to meet in the playground:

“Laura was waiting for me. She wasn’t alone. People had heard, so others were there to witness the scene. They wanted to see me kiss a girl.”

This goes on for days and when eventually he begins to feel an erection he believes for a moment that “my body was giving into my will.” Laura, however, tries of being the girlfriend of a ‘homo’. On another occasion, his sister arranges for him to date an older girl, Sabrina, eventually plotting for them to spend the night together, but Eddy cannot become aroused, no matter what fantasies he calls on.

The story of Eddy coming to terms with his sexuality is important but, if anything, the tensions created by his class are even more threatening. When he eventually escapes school, and his parents (earlier he speaks of “the impossibility of really changing while I was still in the world of my parents, of school”) he wonders ironically whether he is not, in fact, gay but simply “had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.”

Though it is clear by the end that he has left his childhood behind, this is not quite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Its main focus is the world of his youth, which is viewed with an anthropological intensity. The racist, homophobic attitudes are perhaps less of a surprise now than they were in 2014, but quite how “nasty, brutish and short” the lives of those around him are will hopefully still shock. The sadness of this novel is not Eddy’s story, but the story of all those left behind.