Archive for January, 2018

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel

January 29, 2018

Reading Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s memoir of her childhood, The Girl from the Metropol Hotel, I found myself thinking of J G Ballard. Like Petrushevskaya, Ballard’s family had a sudden fall from grace, from a position of privilege to one of day-to-day survival, when they were interned by the Japanese after the invasion of Shanghai. Yet as a young boy Ballard found many aspects of his new life suited him:

“Lunghua camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom.”

Petrushevskaya, born on the cusp of the same war, existed in the equally precarious Soviet Union of Stalin. Her family, pre-revolution Bolsheviks (her great-grandfather, Dedya, joined the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1898), were privileged enough to live in the Metropol Hotel, as translator Anna Summers explains in her introduction:

“After the October Revolution, the famed building was designated the Second House of Soviets. For many years it housed the Party government and prominent revolutionaries, like the author’s great-grandfather.”

In an interview in the New Yorker, Petrushevskaya has described the misfortunes visited on her family during her childhood:

“Until the age of nine I had nothing—just one ancient dress. I went hungry, ran around barefoot from April to October, even begged. We were a family of “Enemies of the People.” That was what they called those who had been accused of political crimes and sent to the camps. Three of my relatives had been accused of spying for the Japanese, and were executed. Later, my great-grandfather was assassinated in the middle of Moscow, pushed under a car.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel covers this period in her life, beginning when her grandmother, mother and aunt return to their apartment at the Metropol to find it sealed:

“If they had returned an hour earlier they would have been taken. But my family is always late.”

Such moments of ‘good luck’, perhaps precisely because of the relentless poverty which follows, are scattered throughout Petrushevskaya’s story, for example the luck of the train’s guard choosing to travel with them in the cattle car they occupy as they are evacuated from Moscow, bringing with him a small stove. Even her mother being able to return to Moscow where she has been offered a place at the Institute of Theatre Arts (“It was a miracle”) is presented as good luck (she is offered a lift on a train and must leave immediately without any chance to say goodbye):

“I waited for my mother day and night. She returned four years later.”

Life is hard. Petrushevskaya runs barefoot through the summer, but this is not possible in winter and so she cannot attend school. At night she is sent to search through her neighbour’s rubbish for food.

“During the day, like many unsupervised children, I begged in the street. I tolerated hunger reasonably well; we’d been starving for a long time.”

Eventually her grandmother becomes so concerned about her roaming the streets she locks her in her room, but she manages to get onto the neighbouring balcony and down the fire escape:

“I could tolerate hunger, but I couldn’t tolerate lack of freedom.”

In 1947 she returns with her mother to Moscow and the Metropol but, as she says: “A new life was beginning. There was no room in it for me.” and soon she is packed off to summer camp, “a place I couldn’t escape from”:

“The rules of the wild courtyard where I grew up were simple: run, grab, swallow, hide; meet a punch with a punch; if someone calls you, don’t go. Camp regulations couldn’t be more different.”

In the years which follow Petrushevskaya struggles to settle in any institution, summer camp or school, on every occasion expelled from the Young Pioneers. She refuses to be confined, describing the “terror” she feels when locked in a room: “I screamed and threw myself at the door for hours.” Like Ballard she finds it difficult to return to ‘normal’ life. As she tries it fit in Petrushevkaya writes about herself in the third person:

“I cannot describe the girl’s appearance. Appearances cannot reveal inner life, and the girl, who was twelve at the time, led a constant inner monologue, making decisions literally each second – what to say, where to sit, how to answer – with a single purpose: to be like the other children, to avoid being kicked and shunned.”

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel takes us to the point where Petrushevkaya’s writing career is just beginning, encouraged, as so often, by one teacher. Despite the frequently bleak circumstances of her life (and the bleakness of her fiction) it’s difficult not to see her story as one of hope, where survival and art are inextricably entwined. As she says herself: “one needs to study life – before writing about it.”

Momento Mori

January 26, 2018

“Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war,” remarks Miss Taylor from her bed in the Maud Long Medical Ward, “All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and dying as on a battlefield.” Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori reads like a report from the front line: its extensive cast of characters are almost all over seventy, besieged by their failing bodies and fading minds, though often in denial regarding their mortality. Spark described the novel’s origins in ‘How I Became a Novelist’:

“I decided to write a book about old people. It happened that a number of old people I had known as a child in Edinburgh were dying from one cause or another, and on my visits to Edinburgh I sometimes accompanied my mother to see them in hospital… They were paralysed or crippled in body, yet were still exerting characteristic influences on those around them and in the world outside. I saw a tragic side to this situation and a comic side as well.”

The novel’s observation of the tragedy and comedy of old age is punctuated by a series of anonymous phone calls. Dame Lettie is the principal victim: “Just the same words – Remember you must die – nothing more.” “Of course the man’s mad,” she tells the police; “a maniac” according to her brother Godfrey. As the phone calls proliferate, their supernatural origin becomes more likely, particularly as each person hears a different voice, but Miss Taylor is one of only two characters prepared to accept the truth:

“In my belief… the author of the anonymous telephone calls is Death himself, as you might say… If you don’t remember Death, Death reminds you to do so.”

The other characters continue to fight the battles of life despite the fact that death is all around, from the daily reading of the obituary columns to the nightly dying of the grannies in the geriatric ward. Godfrey bullies his wife Charmian, once a successful novelist: terrified of her superiority he constantly corrects her failing memory. His well-being relies on the deterioration of others:

“He thought in how much better form he was than his sister, though she was the younger, only seventy-nine.”

When an old acquaintance, Guy Leet, appears at a funeral supported by two sticks, he immediately thinks, “He can’t be more than seventy-five and just see what he’s come to.” Godfrey, we are told, “was obsessed by the question of old people and their faculties.” Lettie, too, dismisses any remark by Miss Taylor she dislikes as “wandering again.” Alec Warner notes the behaviour of his peer group on cards and in a diary which he intends to be destroyed at his death:

“…but his every morning’s work was to analyse and abstract from it the data for his case histories, entering them in the various methodical notebooks.”

The characters are also in in thrall to their own pasts: affairs and infidelities which happened fifty years before still illicit secrecy and resentment. Godfrey finds himself blackmailed by Miss Pettigrew over events which Charmian is well aware of. Even now he cannot escape the lure of sex, paying a young woman to reveal her stocking tops to him. Alec, on meeting Miss Pettigrew, notes “these erotic throes that come like thieves in the night.” Spark’s target is the inability of her characters to age gracefully – the frequent changing of wills is only one example – which she relates directly to their refusal to heed the advice and contemplate death. Reaction to the phone calls acts as a moral barometer for the reader.

As in a number of Spark’s novels, there are playful echoes of the crime genre, with much of the plot characterised as a fruitless investigation into the provenance of the calls. With typical black comedy, when violence does occur its origin lies in the fear occasioned by the mysterious messages, but the danger itself comes from a far more prosaic quarter. Spark also scatters writers throughout the novel – not only Charmian (and her estranged son, Eric), but Alec with his obsessive observations, asking, for example, when he hears that poet Percy Mannering intends to confront Guy Leet over his memoirs, that Guy:

“…assist me by taking the old fellow’s pulse and temperature as soon as it can conveniently be done…”

Equally scathing of both romance and realism, Spark asserts her rejection of both.

Momento Mori is often considered one of Spark’s most successful novels. Alan Bold has thought it as “an artistic advance over her first two novels in that both major and minor characters have depth.” According to Allan Massie it is “a complex, witty, macabre novel where all of Muriel Spark’s gifts seem to come together.” It perfectly captures both the comedy and tragedy of ageing while daring a streak of surrealism which, like death itself, is both improbable and certain.


January 16, 2018

Thankfully, Ever Dundas’ Goblin won the Saltire Scottish first book of the year award last year – critic Stuart Kelly had threatened to walk naked down Princes Street if it didn’t. Kelly called the novel “the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon in 2012.” Both novels feature a child protagonist, though in Goblin the eponymous child is a Second World War evacuee who we also meet in the near-present (2011) in a narrative which alternates with her life story. The link is the discovery of a camera, alongside a strange collection of objects suggestive of childish necromancy – “bones, doll parts, a shrew head”. The camera film, once developed, is found to contain pictures of, among other things, the so called ‘pet massacre’ when thousands of domestic animals were killed in the first days of the war. There is, however, also a secret buried with this time in Goblin’s life, a memory she has repressed.

Goblin, as she frequently tells those she meets on her colourful journey through life, is her real name – “Goblin-runt born blue” to give her the full title provided by her mother, who claims she killed the midwife with her ugliness when she was born. Luckily she has her older brother, David, her friends, Mac and Stevie, and, above all, her dog, Devil. Goblin will spend the novel surrounded by animals: as an evacuee she adopts the appropriately militaristic Corporal Pig; returning to London she creates a refuge for bombed-out pets; and in her time with the circus she is frequently found sleeping with the animals (that is, literally). This is not accidental, and there is perhaps an early hint of the reasons (and Goblin’s impressive imagination) when she is playing a game with her friends:

“Mac, you’re Frankenstein’s monsta… I’ll be the Martians, and Stevie’s the Nazis…. Devil’s the humans.”

Among Goblin’s many ‘modern’ attitudes is her view of animals, often regarding them as more ‘human’ than people. As an evacuee she is unable to bear the cruelty of the boy she has been housed with:

“He’d shot a rabbit, but badly. It was wounded, and he was shoving a stick into its wound. I shot it in the head. Blood spattered on John. Barely thinking, I swung the gun over and shot him in the foot.”

(Later, in Poland with the circus, she intervenes when she sees a crowd kicking a dog). It is not shooting John, however, which causes consternation in the Christian household in which she has been placed but the discovery of Monsta, a creature she has created from the aforementioned bones and doll parts, which they regard as a sign of the Devil (not the dog). This will necessitate her return to London (with Corporal Pig) and the separation from her first love, Angel.

By this point it is clear that Dundas is channelling the often maligned picaresque novel, perhaps particularly when Goblin’s adventures literally lead to her running away to join the circus where she discovers a new family, her father and mother having died during the war, and her brother apparently missing. (As she travels with the circus she puts up posters in an attempt to locate him). She also takes a darker look at areas, such as evacuation, we associate with children’s fiction, using other tropes such as the cruel parent as well. However, what most links Goblin to children’s literature is the lack of irony: her innocence is not used as a lens though which Dundas can view her themes. Her wild imagination (as well as Monsta, there are ghosts and a Lizard King and Queen) exists in a no-man’s land between psychology and magic. (Dundas has said it is “purposely ambiguous” and that “realism doesn’t make sense.”)

Goblin is certainly an exhilarating first novel, though the decision to stretch the timeline between 1939 and 2011 also stretches belief as it becomes impossible for Dundas to do justice to Goblin’s later life in the same way as she does for her early years. While the novel is never dull, this leaves the mystery teased at in the present a very long way from the final reveal, and the small sections of prose Dundas must keep inserting to remind us there is a present less and less meaningful Having said that, the reveal in the final pages is accomplished and satisfying.

Without doubt, Dundas has a singular imagination enhanced by a vivid, and frequently visual, voice. It is perhaps no accident that photographs are at the heart of this novel, as there are likely to be many scenes which stay with the reader, not so much as a result of the descriptive power with which they are written as because of the eye for detail Dundas possesses. Her second novel could take us anywhere.

Soviet Milk

January 7, 2018

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a story of births and deaths, mothers and daughters. Its two narratives each begin with a birth – one in 1944, the other in 1969 – a generation apart. In both cases the father is absent: in the first because he beaten and taken away by soldiers towards the end of the war and later reported dead; in the second because the pregnancy is the result of a single encounter at a dance. In other respects, however, they could not be more different. In 1969 the mother refuses to feed her child:

“During the twenty years I lived with my mother I wasn’t able to ask her why she had deprived me of her breast. I didn’t yet know that she had.”

Later, when it’s discovered the child has developed a disgust for milk, the mother explains to her teacher:

“I didn’t want to live, and I didn’t want her to have milk from a mother who didn’t want to live.”

“Not only was I not a good mother,” she says at another point in the novel, “but I didn’t feel like a mother at all.” Her daughter has a recurring dream where she is trying to feed from her mother’s breast; when she succeeds the liquid is “bitter, repulsive.” Her grandmother, on the other hand, struggles to understand the mother’s (her daughter’s) despair:

“She grew up surrounded by love… She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was healthy, strong child. What happened to her?”

The mother (the characters are nameless so will be referred to as they are in the second narrative: grandmother, mother, daughter) blames her father, not dead after all but broken after years of hard labour. (The grandmother carries on “resolved to have no regrets” with a new husband).

“Sometimes I hated him because I suspected his self-destructive gene was deeply implanted in me.”

In turn, her father’s fate also embeds a dislike and distrust of the new Soviet state into which Latvia is subsumed. She feels he has been “discarded on the waste heap of our times.” His suffering convinces her to become a doctor but, despite her success, “within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.” She is given an opportunity to study in Leningrad but artificially impregnating a woman on her own initiative and then assaulting her husband with a hammer when she discovers he has been beating her ends the trip prematurely. When she returns to Latvia she loses her position as a doctor in Riga and is sent to the country to work in a clinic. Shortly after she attempts suicide.

Ikstena refuses to either judge her or to simplistically assign her depression to one cause. The refusal to feed her child reflects the mother’s belief that it is, in some sense, hereditary; in a similar fashion she is happy to allow the grandmother and step-grandfather to have a dominant role in bringing up her child. As her daughter says, “My mother stood somewhere outside the family.” She herself recognises this, describing walking past their building as:

“Past their life, where I didn’t fit, but inhabited it like a ghost from another world to whose mystery I was increasingly drawn.”

This is partly her attraction to an intellectual life, represented by a copy of Moby Dick lying alongside her medical textbooks, “a longing for a life of the mind which lay beyond her grasp.” When she is exiled to the countryside, this is replaced by Nineteen Eighty-Four as her bitterness towards the regime increases. From the beginning, however, she feels intellectually stifled by the Soviet system:

“This damned cage, in which I could do nothing.”

When her daughter gets a hamster and it eats its babies before dying itself “of his yearning for freedom”, she describes the hamster as brave in his “determination for freedom,” before going onto say, “You must forgive the dead.” (Even the step-grandfather says of the hamster, “We all have to live in a cage.”)

The two narratives work together, a mother and daughter’s view (though they begin at different points they quickly synchronise).For example, a section where the mother talks about going into her daughter’s room when she isn’t there is followed by:

“My mother rarely entered my room. Yet every time I returned from my grandparents, her fragrance seemed to linger there.”

Here we realise the mother is attempting to hide her attachment from her daughter.

Soviet Milk is another wonderful find from Peirene Press. A soul-bearing study of depression, intellectual frustration, motherhood, and life in the Soviet Union, it marries these themes without contortion or exertion, just as it marries its two voices, light an dark, into a narrative where each one complements and enhances the other.


January 4, 2018

Having read Ice, I could not resist following it with Ann Quin’s Berg, another ‘experimental’ novel of the sixties. Whereas Ice flaunts its abstract otherworldliness, Berg distils a distinctive essence of England with its seaside town setting and travelling salesman protagonist: it’s a novel of details, assaulting all the senses. (We are particularly encouraged to smell the rooms of the shabby boarding house which Berg inhabits, a reek of “stale tobacco, drink, cooking and perfume”). Its premise is summarised in its famous opening sentence:

“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town to kill his father.”

Berg’s father, Nathaniel, deserted the family years before; he no longer recognises his son, who now lives in the same boarding house, with his father (and lover, Judith) only a partition away:

“If only he could make a hole in the partition, just large enough for his eye.”

He imagines “the clean blade of a knife slicing up the partition that divides me from them.” The conscious intention is to spy on his father, but there is a suggestion of an unconscious longing for closeness:

“…he lay down and pressed himself against the partition, listening to the sea hissing in the distance.”

Though Berg frequently thinks about killing his father (“kick the door down, with two shoves the old man would be through the window”) he delays, apparently relishing his forthcoming revenge:

“But like a love affair it seemed too easy, therefore, the preliminaries must be prolonged; flirt a little with the opportunities.”

In true Freudian style, he also considers sleeping with Judith to make his revenge complete:

“Making love to her prior to really getting rid of the old man would surely bring greater satisfaction.”

Ironically, as he waits for his moment, he develops a relationship with his father for the first time, helping him when he comes home drunk – undressing him and putting him to bed – to the point that, when Judith throws him out, he asks Berg to collect his few possessions. When Berg finds him in the bath he considers electrocuting him, but ends up scrubbing his back. About halfway through, however, Berg believes himself successful:

“At last I can rest in peace amen. Accomplished. There he is down there, beside the bed, rolled up in the rug, with the eiderdown spread over him.”

The events which follow (including a slapstick moment when Judith falls onto the rug-covered body) display a typically English strand of dark humour at work, with some moments which would not be out of place in a television comedy.

Influenced by the French nouveau roman, the narrative presents Berg’s viewpoint but always in the moment; childhood memories interrupt the present but ‘as live’ with little contextualisation. We hear other voices, but only as Berg hears them. Those from the past, such as that of his mother, appear in separate paragraphs in smaller font; in the present they merge into the narrative. Though we learn something of Berg’s background, his actions are never explained: we have a preview of this when he kills Judith’s cat:

“He stretched his hand out, the creature snarled, yellow fangs bared, and still crouching started backing away. Suddenly it sprang, hanging sloth-like on Berg’s arm. He caught hold of its tail and began swinging the cat out, hardly aware of the thud the creature made as it hit the wall.”

Lee Rourke has described the novel as “creating a mode of fiction that slices straight into its reader’s psyche like a scalpel into the heart.” Quin does not flatten her prose to achieve this effect but peppers it with pungent phrases: men’s faces are “a row of rotten apples”; Judith is “not unlike a display dummy, really, the one that’s left in the window at the end of a sale”; the eyes he feels watching him at the station are “hundreds and hundreds of small round beads with no hope of being restrung.”

Berg manages to be both of its time in its evocation of the England of the early sixties (probably closer to how we envisage the fifties) and as vibrant and incisive as if it were published yesterday. Quin belongs to a fiercely artistic (not ‘experimental’) tradition in British fiction which is frequently excised from its literary history, one that, as she says, wants “to get away from the traditional form.” She deserves to be read.


January 2, 2018

Few books suit winter like Anna Kavan’s Ice. Not only does it portray a world consumed by a permanent winter of ice and snow; it contains a coldness at its heart as if a splinter of the shattered mirror through which Kavan wrote her fiction had been inserted Snow Queen style into its centre. Indeed, it reads like an inverted version of that fairy tale, as our narrator searches for the woman he loves in the icy wasteland, believing she has come under the spell of her cruel captor.

On the surface, like ice, the story is plain and clear. The narrator falls in love with a woman who leaves him and marries a painter. He recalls visiting her in her newly married state – “it was the first time I had seen her happy” – but is later convinced her husband has treated her badly. When he hears she has left, he decides he must find her, particularly as the climate has now begun to deteriorate. This search is presented as a need, a compulsion:

“Somehow or other I had to find her… There was no rational explanation, I could not account for it. It was a sort of craving which had to be satisfied.”

He follows her to a devastated town where he finds her living with the ‘warden’, a powerful, quasi-military figure who rules the town like a fiefdom, living in the High House, “a fortresslike mass built at its highest point.” With echoes of Arthurian legend, he must now rescue her from this tower. (This is not the only knightly allusion – at one point she will be sacrificed by the villagers to a dragon).

What seems clear, however, is, on closer inspection, laced with cracks. We have, for example, only the narrator’s word that she needs, or wants, rescuing in the first place. Though the novel’s template is that of a chivalrous quest, the narrative is a combination of thriller and psychiatrist’s transcript. Like driving through a snowstorm, the novel’s oppressive subjectivity hypnotises the reader with the narrator’s impulses and impressions.

The narrator perceives the woman to be fragile and delicate, frequently referring to her body as child-like (“the girl’s naked body, slight as a child’s”), and comparing her to glass:

“I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.”

It suits him to see her as a victim, helpless in the warden’s hands:

“Forced since childhood into a victim’s pattern of thought and behaviour, she was defenceless against his aggressive will.”

Soon we begin to suspect the narrator is describing scenes he has not witnessed, for example when he describes the woman modelling for her husband naked, her wrists and ankles tied; or later when he says, “She was nervous in the forest, which always seemed full of menace.” We are, after all, warned in the opening pages:

“Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the narrator from the warden. Again, Kavan has prepared us for this from the beginning. He describes the point in his life when she left him as ‘traumatic’ leading to “horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised”; dreams which he confesses to enjoying. Later he will speak of “an indescribable affinity” with the warden; she is convinced they are “in league together.” As Jonathan Lethem says in his introduction to the US edition, the narrator

“…slowly converges with the personality of and motives of the sadistic, controlling ‘warden’.”

The blurring of character boundaries reflects the frozen landscape where, in Ballardian abstraction, the details disorientate rather than distinguish:

“It could have been any town, in any country. I recognized nothing. Snow covered all landmarks with the same white padding. Buildings were changed into anonymous white cliffs.”

Most disorienting of all is the novel’s repetition as the narrator finds the woman only to lose her again, find her again and lose her. These repetitions exist outwith the confines of plot: at one point he finds her corpse, and there are other scenes that may be only fevered dreams; scenes we can more certain are ‘real’ can read like echoes or different edits of the same events. The narrative is both a labyrinth and a cell; we find ourselves as much the narrator’s prisoner as the woman is the warden’s, a Stockholm syndrome of a story where, step after step, we lose all sense of journey.

It has been suggested that the woman is the heroin to which Kavan was addicted, the ice the coldness of reality. For the reader she is the point and the final full stop, the last words with which it all makes sense, before the ink freezes and the pen writes white. Resolution, however, is elusive. In the end we must accept

“…there was no escape from the ever-diminishing remnant of time that encapsulated us. I made the most of the minutes.”