Archive for February, 2018

The White Book

February 26, 2018

Han Kang’s The White Book is very different to her two previous novels, The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It is, as she has said herself, “difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose poem.” Though it reaches 161 pages, many of these are blank, and others contain photographs and film stills by Choi Jinhyuk; the chapters are short, frequently less than a page long. All in all, it’s a very white book (even the paper it is printed on is of superior stock, and therefore whiter, than the average hardback).

The novel is also autobiographical, personal even, originating in time author spent in Warsaw, a city she begins to associate with her sister who died shortly after birth, as she has explained in interview:

“Almost 95% of it was destroyed in the Warsaw uprising. It was completely rebuilt, resurrected. I imagined the city as a metaphor for my older sister.”

In the novel she speaks of her as “a person who had met the same fate as the city”:

“And I think of her coming here instead of me. To this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own.”

In the novel she resurrects her sister, moving from the ‘I’ of the first section to the ‘She’ of the second. In a sense, she also sees herself as her sister’s second life, realising that without her sister’s death she would not have been born:

“This life needed only one of us to live it. If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.”

Unsurprisingly, a sense of impermanence runs through the novel; the white images themselves suggest as much: snow, frost, fog, wave, even the moon itself. Her sister bears “the knowledge that everything she has clung to will fall away and vanish.” The chapter ‘Sand’ reflects:

“…her body (all our bodies) is a house of sand
That it had shattered and is shattering still.
Slipping stubbornly through fingers.”

Yet this is not the novel’s message. Warsaw is not a symbol of destruction but of reconstruction – “the remaining section of a ruined brick wall, which the bombing had not managed to destroy completely, since moved and incorporated into another structure.” Han has commented on the novel’s intention:

“This time I wanted to look at something in us that cannot be hurt or destroyed or harmed anyhow – and maybe we can call that something white.”

Her sister’s death becomes both a reminder of the fragility of life (“Looking at herself in the mirror, she never forgot that death was hovering behind that face”), but also of the difficulty of destroying something completely. This applies, of course, to the memory of her sister:

“There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time.”

But it also emphasises the continuation of life, specifically the way in which Han connects her sister’s death to her own life. This is rendered beautifully in the final chapter when Han speaks of seeing with her sister’s eyes:

“Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

Both The Vegetarian and Human Acts have their moments of strange beauty, but The White Book is eerily beautiful throughout. It is, as Han says at the beginning, a “transformative” book: her words transform everything within it. Even a handkerchief seen falling from a balcony becomes “like a soul tentatively sounding out a place it might alight.” Credit must go to translator Deborah Smith for her own act of transformation which demonstrates an exquisite ear for English. The White Book may be difficult to categorise, but it is easy to recognise as a deeply affecting meditation on death and life.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

February 23, 2018

Though Jean Brodie deserves her place among literature’s icons, my favourite Spark character features in her 1960 novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Dougal Douglas, despite the London location, and as the name rather gives away, is also Scottish, having recently graduated from Edinburgh University and claiming at one point to possess Highland blood (and second sight). Brodie famously descended from Deacon Brodie, the inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Douglas owes at least something to Gil-Martin, the shape-shifting devil from Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Though he is not quite so emphatic in his intention to damn souls, he acts as an agent of chaos and temptation influencing the behaviour of many around him.

The novel begins, as so often with Spark, with a flash forward as Humphrey attempts to speak to his erstwhile fiancée, Dixie, only to be told by her mother, Mavis, to “Get away from here you dirty swine.” It is soon revealed that the cause of Mavis’ anger is Humphrey’s decision to answer ‘No’ at the wedding ceremony, something, we are told, that “wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here.”

Dougal’s diabolical credentials are scattered liberally, and comically, throughout the novel. We are told he poses on a grave “like an angel-devil with his hump shoulder and gleaming smile,” and he will tell a number of characters to feel the bumps on his head where he has had his horns removed, though denying he is the Devil himself:

“I’m only supposed to be one of the wicked spirits that wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

His powers of persuasion are immediately linked to his ability to change shape, as he does when being interviewed by Mr Druce of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:

“Dougal changed his shape and became a professor… Dougal leaned forward and became a television interviewer.”

(Dougal’s appointment is the result of a desire to hire an ‘arts man’ – we might wonder if it is the dark arts). Much of this treads a fine line between creepy and comic, and Spark indulges in a shape-shifting extravaganza when he visits a dance hall with a dustbin lid:

“Next, Dougal sat on his haunches and banged a message out on a tom-tom. He sprang up and with the lid on his head was a Chinese coolie eating melancholy rice. He was an ardent cyclist, crouched over handlebars and pedalling uphill with the lid between his knees.”

The other dancers are divided in their opinion of Douglas’ entertainment, just as he divides the community of Peckham Rye as a whole. While Humphrey and Merle, Druce’s secretary and lover, are very much on his side; Dixie and Trevor Lomas are set against him from the start. What is certain is the influence Dougal exerts on the other characters. Humphrey is seen to copy him unconsciously, “his head lolled on the back of the chair, copying one of Dougal’s habitual poses.” Dixie complains, “He’s putting ideas in your head.” Merle, too, is aware of his influence:
“You’ve unsettled me, Dougal, since you came to Peckham. I shall have a nervous breakdown.”

Dougal’s unsettling presence raises questions of how we should live our lives. Dixie’s desire to save up “a certain sum” before they marry irritates Humphrey (“It’s all she can think of, saving up to get married.”) and contrasts with her mother’s life when she was younger:

“Saving and pinching to get married, you’re losing the best time of your life.”

Numerous characters – Merle, Druce, Mavis – talk about ‘living a lie’. Dougal’s approach, on the other hand, seems care-free and capricious: “Oh, everything’s easy for you,” Merle tells him, “You’re free.” Tasked with reducing absenteeism he tells everyone to take time off (“Everyone should take Mondays off.”) He happily goes for the same job at a rival company simply reversing his name and becoming Douglas Dougal. Meanwhile he is also ghost-writing Maria Cheeseman’s autobiography, adapting stories from his “human research” in Peckham into her life:

“If you only wanted a straight autobiography you should have got a straight ghost. I’m crooked.”

As with Brodie, his charismatic disregard for the rules ultimately leads to violence. The wedding scandal, as it turns out, is not the worst of the chaos he leaves in his wake. Dougal, then, again like Brodie, leaves us both awed and appalled, as Spark recognises the damage he induces while delighting in the way he shakes things up. As the final lines suggest, if nothing else, he forces us to see things differently.


February 16, 2018

At one point in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Ryan, who like the novel’s narrator, Faye, is in Greece teaching writing, tells her:

“He didn’t realise how many English words came from Greek compounds. For instance the word ellipsis, he’d been told, could literally be translated as ‘to hide behind silence’.”

‘Hiding behind silence’ is very much the methodology of the novel: it is filled with many voices, but rarely with Faye’s. Instead she recounts what others have said to her, beginning with her neighbour on the flight to Greece, who tells her of his childhood and his failed marriages. Her own reluctance to voice her thoughts is suggested by her disinterest in discussing her taste in literature, “a form of snobbery or self-definition:”

“What I knew personally to be true had come to seem unrelated to persuading others. I did not, any longer, want to persuade anyone of anything.”

However she cannot help but view her neighbour’s story with a writer’s eye:

“I remained dissatisfied by the story of his second marriage. It lacked objectivity; it relied too heavily on extremes, and the moral properties it ascribed to these extremes were incorrect.”

Faye – and by extension Cusk – is less interested in what happened than in a version of what happened. As the novel progresses, in lieu of a plot, a series of characters will relates events from their lives to Faye. Not only is this, by implication, how we see things rather than what we see, but that very realisation is central to many of the stories she is told. Her Greek friend Paniotis, for example, talks about the moment he saw his dream of becoming a publisher for what it was:

“I realised that my little dream of a publishing house was destined to remain just that, a fantasy, and in fact what that realisation caused me to feel was not so much disappointment at the situation as astonishment at the fantasy itself.”

Later he will mention another memory, when he is travelling with his children, where his way of seeing is similarly and unexpectedly unique:

“I kept waiting for the children to ask to go home… but in fact it was I who wanted to go home. I began to realise, in the car, that as far as they were concerned they were home, at least partly, because they were with me.”

Similarly, Angeliki talks about the difference she feels in travelling alone as a writer compared to travelling with her husband; the difference is not a practical one but entirely in her perception:

“…we lived in Berlin for six years, but even going there alone, as a writer, it seemed somehow alien.”

Faye herself is not immune to this subjectivity. When her neighbour from the first chapter attempts to kiss her while they are out on his boat she proclaims herself surprised: “I had thought the differences between us were obvious, but to him they weren’t.” This is perhaps why she describes love as “the belief in something that only the two of you can see.” She is very aware that her own divorce has changed her perceptions:

“It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.”

Subjective versions of events exist between reality and illusion just as the novel exists between autobiography and fiction. Cusk has said:

“I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character – these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”

Outline is autobiographical not only in the sense that we can regard Faye as a representation of Cusk (what little we discover about her coincides with Cusk’s biography) but also as the novel itself is woven from a series of autobiographical sketches. Discarding plot and character (in the sense of something more than self-image) as the driving forces of the novel, Cusk presents a reality created from a patchwork of illusions. Prior to writing Outline, Cusk spoke of “heading into total silence.” Of course, no writer can be a silent presence in their work, but Cusk’s approach makes her voice difficult to locate. When, for example, Ryan tells her,

“I don’t know about you… but I actually don’t have the time to write, what with the family and the teaching job,”

Faye’s reaction is hidden from us, Cusk refusing to sign-post her intentions. Should we sympathise? Or are Ryan’s excuses laughable? Should we regard it as a barbed portrayal by Cusk of authors who live of past glories? This is exactly what makes Outline such a fascinating novel, the openness of its characters obscuring as much as it reveals.

Everyday Life

February 12, 2018

Lydie Salvayre’s Everyday Life could hardly be further removed from Cry, Mother Spain, her award-winning novel of the Spanish Civil War, which was translated into English in 2016. Her second novel, dating from 1991 (and translated into English in 2006 by Jane Kuntz), takes place on a much smaller scale – which is exactly the point of it. It is narrated by a woman in the later years of middle-age, Suzanne, whose life is disrupted when she is joined in her office by a second secretary, Madame Barrett, whose very presence she resents:

“Imagine you’re on a straight path… which you can follow with your eyes shut, it’s so familiar to you. Then, suddenly, you no longer recognise it, even though everything you see is identical to what was there before.”

From the very beginning Suzanne decides that the new secretary is her enemy:

“Whatever her intentions (which I assume to be malicious) I won’t let myself be caught off-guard.”

She uses the language of war to characterise their relationship. In the first chapter she is “arming herself for battle”, later talking of a “cold war” and describing the new secretary as “my adversary.” Her assumption of enmity is, in part, her more general rejection of friendship – “Friendliness disgusts me,” she says at one point – but also seems to originate from her feelings about herself. When the new secretary comments on the hall light having been left on, she feels guilty. “She need only raise her eyes to mine,” she tells her daughter, “and I freeze like a deer in the headlights.” Despite her seniority, she feels unable to challenge the new arrival suggesting a lack of self-confidence:

“Talking about her invariably ends in my loathing myself.”

This repressed desire to be liked is best shown when, after pages of resentment, there is a brief thaw in relations. (It is hinted at earlier when Suzanne comments, “Isn’t it odd that I find myself using the vocabulary of love to evoke her,” and when she tells her daughter she “loathes” the new secretary and it is misheard as “love”). As soon as she is back in her apartment, however, Suzanne immediately worries about the few minutes they have spent laughing together:

“I’ve reason to fear she’s trying to enlist me as a comrade, and this may prove even more hazardous than all of her animosity.”

Suzanne’s self-absorption can be seen in her relationship with her daughter. (That this is her only relationship of any depth is demonstrated by lengthy conversations with her doctor about the new secretary, and a neighbour she initially despises, Monsieur Longuet). She feels that she and her daughter are “growing apart” when her daughter won’t take the threat of the new secretary seriously. When her daughter is upset, however, she is unable to comfort her:

“Honey, I start to say, but I don’t know how to finish the sentence.”

When her daughter angrily accuses her: “why aren’t you ever nice to me? Why don’t you ever put your arms around me?” she reflects on the incident by only considering herself:

“How can I survive this sorrow?”

Suzanne is both a comic and a tragic figure. There is nothing the new secretary does which seems particularly malicious, making Suzanne’s obsession (“she’s the one thing I think of, time and again”) ridiculous. Yet Suzanne’s isolation and loneliness also make her a sympathetic figure, the tragedy being that they are self-inflicted. When she advises her daughter not to divorce, she describes her own existence:

“No one to carry me, no one to hug me, no one to mould my body with in his bed…”

An appearance at a cocktail party (a work event she attends against her instincts) also ends with her alone:

“No one so much as glances at me, and I’m not quite sure where to turn.”

Everyday Life is tragedy in miniature, dramatising the tiny battles we fight to preserve our spaces and identities. Its fierce struggles take place in a series of small rooms, in quiet voices and muted gestures, but its small scale does not prevent it powerfully demonstrating that the mass of women, too, lead lives of quiet desperation.

Lost Books – The Book of Happiness

February 9, 2018

Nina Berberova was a Russian émigré author who began writing in the 1920s but was not widely translated into English until fifty years later, largely thanks to US publishers New Directions. She was born in St Petersburg in 1901, leaving for first Berlin and then Paris in 1922. Twenty-five years later she immigrated to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1959 and living and working there until her death in 1993. The Book of Happiness, her most autobiographical novel, was translated by Marian Schwarz in 1999 though it may have been written as early as the 1930s.

The novel tells the story of Vera, from her childhood in the years prior to the First World War, through the Russian Revolution, and into French exile. Divided into three parts, each part focuses on a man she has loved. It opens with the death of the first of these, her childhood sweetheart, Sam, who kills himself in a Paris hotel room leaving only her address:

“She stood over him and strained to recognise in this much too dead face those lively features that had lived on in her memories before she crossed the threshold of this room. It was like trying to lay a negative over a printed photograph so that they coincided, so that there were no gaps – and she just couldn’t manage it.”

At this point she is living in Paris with her husband, Alexander, but the narrative returns with her memories to her first meeting with Sam as a child when she finds him lost in a park in St Petersburg. When it is discovered the two children live on the same street they become inseparable, despite her father’s warning:

“Yes, but he’s going to grow up and marry a Jewess, or do something with his violin, and you’re going to run off with some dashing young man, some prince of the blood. Nothing will remain of this love but dust, dust.”

Sam leaves Russia in the aftermath of the revolution and soon after Vera meets Alexander. Even as he meets her for the first time he tells her:

“I thought all week…that if someone could be loved in this horrible repulsive world, full of malice and filth, then it had to be you.”

Alexander is a character who might have walked out of the pages of Turgenev – sickly (his lungs), world-weary, and (as Vera puts it) “full of a kind of vain nobility that was no longer of any use to anyone.” He tells Vera:

“You know, I would never kill myself, but if someone were to kill me…”

When he gets permission to leave Russia for France he asks Vera to go with him as his wife. Though she does not love him with the childish whole-heartedness she felt for Sam, she also feels their relationship is inevitable:

“The thought kept pounding in her head that nothing had been decided, that it could all be fixed, it could all be redone because no promises had been made. She knew that this was a temptation and a lie because everything had been decided, and there was nothing to fix, and she had given a promise firmer than ‘I do’.”

By the time Sam commits suicide, Alexander is dying from consumption, a slow decline which has been taking years and has left him bedridden for months. When he finally dies, Vera feels relief:

“There was no doubt about it: She was free.”

Alexander’s death allows her to fall in love again in the novel’s final part. This may seem a risky enterprise given her previous experience (particularly for the man, Karelov) but it would be wrong to assume that the novel’s title is ironic. Despite the difficult circumstances of Vera’s life, happiness is far from absent. When she realises that Sam will not immediately disappear from her life when his parents are found, for example:

“…as soon as she felt they were together she was amazed at the rush of joyous assurance that all would be just as she had dreamed… And in her heart she called all this happiness, because it lasted.”

Can happiness last? the novel asks. When a sparrow flies into Vera’s room, and then out again she realises:

“…it would never come back again, she could not even tell it apart from the other sparrows like it… that you couldn’t know everything there was to know in life, have everything, love everyone, or enjoy everything.”

Later Dashkovsky, a man who had loved her mother, visits her. He tells her that, as you get older “All you want is one thing: stability, assurance that the happiness that you are with me today will be the same happiness for me tomorrow and the day after.” Her relationship with Karelov begins with his declaration, “I want to be happy.”

The Book of Happiness not only evokes the lost Russia which opened the twentieth century and the émigré life which followed for many, but portrays, with an eye for honest detail, the development of a young woman, and her discovery of love and happiness, in a manner which still resonates today. If Penguin Classics (or anyone else) are looking for a deserving author to return to print, they need look no further.

Land of Smoke

February 5, 2018

It comes as no surprise that the final story in Sara Gallardo’s collection Land of Smoke (the first of her work to appear in English, translated by Jessica Sequeira) is entitled ‘A Loner’:

“The life of a loner is just that: the life of a loner. No one scattered in the multiple existence of family life can imagine the way certain perceptions of the recluse set about crystallising.”

Almost all the stories and sketches which have preceded feature loners of one kind or another. Take, for example, the pensioner in ‘Things Happen’ who finds himself swept out to sea with his house and garden. Or ‘The Man on the Araucaria’ whose home-made wings can only raise him as high as the tree-top. His obsession takes him further and further from others until, in the story’s final, melancholy line we are told:

“He lives amongst the chimneys of a factory. He’s old and eats chocolate.”

Even ‘White Glory’, a horse with “eyes like black diamonds and the head of an archangel” is destined to be solitary:

“Yes, he went about free. But once again he was alone. How alone, and how free.”

Many of Gallerdo’s lonely characters are men, however, in a country where war and violence seem commonplace. In the opening story, ‘On the Mountain’, the narrator, a soldier “left for dead”, is rescued by a man who once belonged to the other side but now lives in a cave in the mountains. The narrator, like his captor / rescuer, is cynical in his view of war:

“They were the maggots that fed on liberty, and vice versa. We were the maggots eating away at the Empire without mercy.”

The man will not talk to him, however, and he fears his “alliance” with “a monster of an unknown species” which also lives on the mountain. The story is suffused with potential violence; a violence which erupts in shorter pieces like ‘Red’ and ‘Even’. In the latter the narrator seeks revenge on life for having killed his son at the age of twenty-two. The landscape of Argentina itself is often violent and inhospitable:

“The Puna is a desert. People in the city like to listen to songs naming it. They don’t know oxygen isn’t breathed there, that water boils cold. Children often die on their way to school.”

In ‘Cristoferos’ a statue –presumably of Christopher Columbus – reflects, “I didn’t know what a sad continent I was inaugurating.” In ‘Georgette and the General’ the house Georgette has so carefully preserved in beautiful order decays:

“The house finally let go. The leaves could move again over the avenues, the gazebo rotted, wasps settled on the chandeliers. The balcony collapsed; it lost its doors. The Eden turned into desert.”

This happens, not on her death, but when her soul is put to rest by a mass. It’s one of a number of stories to feature hauntings, though some are in more unexpected places as in ‘The Case of Mrs Ricci’ where the ghost appears daily at the offices of the Pension Fund. In ‘The Embroiderer’ the title character, executed by the Inquisition, appears only briefly at the end:

“They saw him, luminous, waving like a banner, hands deformed by the needle, black from the fire, throwing out rays of light through the spikes of Christ. The game hunts and meadows he had embroidered ran through him.”

Hauntings on a grander scale take place in ‘The Trains of the Dead’:

“They crossed like rays of lightning above the world. Some came and others went, rising and falling without direction or destination. In the windows he saw the faces of the dead in this world.”

Land of Smoke is a wonderful collection. It reads like a selection from a lifetime’s work but was apparently written after the death of her second husband and published in one volume in Argentina. Some stories reflect Gallardo’s talent as a writer of children’s fiction, particularly those about animals; some read like fables (including one of my favourites, ‘Cristobel the Giant’), others as if they have been excised from history. All originate from an imagination as wild and restless as White Glory himself:

“He was the only one who got away, for no other ran like him. No one could jump as high or as far… Rumour spread that there was a horse from heaven roaming free.”


February 2, 2018

There is a moment towards the end of Leila Slimani’s Lullaby (translated by Sam Taylor)when Paul and Myriam, driving home, spot their nanny, Louise, on the street:

“She wonders where Louise is going, if it was really her, what she was doing there… The fact of having seen her on that pavement by chance, in a place so far from their usual haunts, makes her desperately curious. For the first time she tries to imagine, in a corporeal sense, everything Louise is when she’s not with them.”

From the first page we have known that Louise will murder Paul and Myriam’s two children. (“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” looks likely to be a much quoted opening) That, after months in their home, Myriam is only now, after a chance encounter, considering Louise as a person with an existence outside her role as nanny is the self-deception which lies at the heart of Slimani’s novel.

Myriam’s ability to shape her perception of reality around her own expectations begins with her decision to be the perfect mother to her daughter Mila:

“Myriam absolutely refused to consider using a babysitter. She alone was capable of meeting her daughter’s needs.”

The not unusual pressure she places on herself elicits sympathy from the reader, particularly when she has a second child, Adam, and her feelings begin to change:

“She didn’t realise the magnitude of the task she had taken on. With two children, everything became more complicated: shopping, bath time, house work, visits to the doctor… Myriam became gloomy. She began to hate going to the park.”

(Going to the park becomes resonant with maternal love and will later feature in Louise’s deterioration). When she tells Paul that she wants to return to work he seems surprised, an indication that their seemingly harmonious relationship is based on a shared understanding of how they wish their life to appear rather than an observant empathy. Witness, for example, their preparations for interviewing for a nanny:

“They want the nannies to see that they are good people; serious, orderly people who try to give their children the best of everything.”

Similarly, they are happy to take Louise at face value: “My nanny is a miracle-worker,” says Myriam; she describes their first meeting “like love at first sight.” On her first day, arriving early, Louise waits outside until Paul leaves, not wanting to disturb them. It’s not long, however, until Myriam returns to find “she didn’t recognise her own apartment any more” as Louise has rearranged it for Mila’s birthday party. Louise insinuates herself into the family slowly and subtly, for example when Myriam arrives home one Friday having not seen her children all week and tells her she can leave, she offers to stay and make their supper while Myriam ‘enjoys’ them:

“As the weeks pass, Louise becomes ever better at being simultaneously invisible and indispensable.”

“You look at her and you do not see her,” we are told: a sentence which suggests both her discretion and the inability of Paul and Myriam to interpret her individuality. Eventually Paul drunkenly suggests to Louise that she can come on holiday with them; the next morning, expecting Myriam to be angry, he finds she is instead delighted:

“That’ll be so great! For once, we’ll have a real holiday.”

Slimani has spoken of wanting to write about “someone who I don’t understand,” that is, to reach an understanding of a character through writing about them, undertaking the very task which Paul and Myriam fail to attempt. The opening murder engages the reader in the very same purpose – we know what has happened but not why. The novel’s success is also predicated on preying on our greatest fears:

“I tried to use all my deepest fears and all my nightmares: losing my children, living with someone I think I know, but actually I don’t know her at all.”

Myriam’s own fears are also linked to her children:

“Ever since her children were born, Myriam has been scared of everything. Above all, she is scared that they will die.”

Lullaby deserves its success. It’s a book you will want to read in one sitting and, if child murder is always a little Grand Guignol, this is also a fiercely thoughtful, provocative novel, in particular its dissection of the idea that women can easily have it all. Gender, class, our self-absorption and our selfishness, all come under Slimani’s pitiless scalpel.