Archive for March, 2018

The Dinner Guest

March 24, 2018

Gabriela Ybarra, who has been long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize with her debut novel The Dinner Guest, is almost an exact contemporary of Alicia Kopf, whose Brother in Ice I read recently (Kopf was born in 1982, Ybarra on 1983). Both novels also won awards before being translated into English (in the case of The Dinner Guest, by Natasha Wimmer who has previously translated much of Roberto Bolano’s work). The similarities do not end there, however, and both novels might be said to belong to the same genre, one in which the novel originates in the author’s own life, and which mixes some element of research with an autobiographical story which borders, at times, on the diary form.

The origin of The Dinner Guest lies in the kidnap of Ybarra’s grandfather in 1977, six years before she was born. According to her father, he went calmly:

“He showed no qualms about being kidnapped, not for a second. He got dressed, collected his hat and some books, and tried to reassure us.”

Though a ransom is demanded, her grandfather is never released, and a month later his body is found. Ybarra recreates the event from newspaper articles as well as family recollections, fictionalising certain scenes. Her grandfather was murdered, she says, “because he belonged to one of the families who had traditionally occupied top posts in the province. The group [ETA] saw him as a symbol of central government power.” This means her father, too, is a target:

“I knew there were people who wanted to kill my father. Sometimes I watched him transcribing an interview or reading a book and tried to understand why.”

Eventually the family move from the Basque country to Madrid when Ybarra is twelve years old.

The story resumes when Ybarra is an adult with the death of her mother from cancer:

“My mother’s death brought back my grandfather’s death… The tedium of illness recalled the tedium of the wait during the kidnapping.”

In the novel’s second part (which makes up 100 of its 140 pages) Ybarra recounts her experience of her mother’s illness from the phone call in which her mother tells her she has cancer “but it’s really nothing” to her death six months later. Much of her mother’s treatment takes place in New York where Ybarra is studying, and initially the prognosis is good:

“’You’ll live to see your grandchildren,’ Doctor Marsden said to my mother before we left.”

However, after treatment, her mother’s condition worsens and eventually her mother tells Ybarra “the tumour has broken out and spread to the rest of my body.” Her mother’s experiences throughout this time are retold in painful detail, and, though we know her death is inevitable, it is impossible not to share the emotional journey of the family.

Despite this, the award-winning status (and long-listing) of The Dinner Guest puzzles me in much the same way as Brother in Ice. Ybarra seems to feel that by placing the two deaths between the same covers her work is done and fails to connect them in any meaningful way. She tells us:

“Before my mother’s diagnosis I didn’t pay much attention to death… In those days I still believed that premature death belonged to the realm of fiction.”

This suggests that the events of the novel (and her life) will cause her to reflect on mortality, a reflection, however, which doesn’t transpire in much depth. In some ways, the lesson seems obvious: death can strike even those whose lives are privileged and protected. Yet Ybarra seems unaware of her own privilege, even when her mother declares at one point that she will buy an apartment in Brooklyn as if it were a handbag.

Reflection is also central to genre she has chosen to write in which avoids inhabiting to any great degree the thoughts of her characters because they have not been fictionalised. Both Part One and Part Two certainly contain enough raw material from which to build a novel; Ybarra seems to hope that by yoking them together something extraordinary would happen – perhaps for some readers it does. I found, instead, her decision to place herself at the centre of everything actually mitigated against sincerity: her journey at the end to the place where her grandfather was killed seemed to be more about finding an ending for her book than seeking answers for herself. Ybarra’s grief seems like then dinner guest of the title: always there in her motivation to write, but invisible in her writing.

The Fountain in the Forest

March 17, 2018

Experimental fiction and the detective genre have often been unlikely but effective partners in crime. Think Alain Robbe-Gillet’s The Erasers, Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair or the novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt. That this has been less of a feature in the UK (David Peace apart) is perhaps to be expected, but in Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest we have a crime novel which fully embraces Oulipian ideals. White has spoken both of his love of the genre and his desire to reach beyond it:

“…with The Fountain in the Forest I was looking to bring both traditions together: Ellery Queen’s laying bare of the machinery of the thriller, and the lightness and experimentation of Gertrude Stein.”

The novel, which is the first of a trilogy, is structured according to the French Revolutionary or Republican calendar:

“…each day of the year has equal value and none are dedicated to royalty or religion, but instead celebrate the stuff of everyday rural life, from primroses, mushrooms and rhubarb to livestock animals, natural medicines and tools. It also has a 10-day weeks, so when looked at through the Republican calendar these 90 days in 1985 between the end of the [Miners’] Strike and the Battle of the Beanfield become nine revolutionary weeks.”

In setting the novel in 1985, White tackles a time of great social change yet one largely neglected by novelists (again, Peace is a notable exception, having written one of the few novels of the Miners’ strike, GB84). The novel begins in the present day, however, with (of course) the discovery of a body in a workshop where theatrical backdrops are painted. The workshop belongs to Detective Sergeant Rex King’s friend, Terry, and his initial assumption is that he will be able to identify the corpse, even with its nose cut off. The relief of non-recognition is short-lived:

“If that wasn’t Terry Hobbs’s body in the frame, as it were, then Terry could be in another kind of frame for killing whoever the fuck it really was.”

Rex unearths further clues at the crime scene, though Terry’s whereabouts remain unknown. Meanwhile he has to contend with the fact that the detective in charge, Eddie Webster, is married to his ex, and the threat of a death in custody being re-investigated hanging over his head:

“Yes, Trevor Tennyson had died on Rex’s watch. The otherwise fit thirty-year-old postman had asphyxiated while being restrained following a scuffle as he was escorted to the custody suite having been booked for throwing an egg at some minor league banker during the Occupy protests.”

In other words, White has a firm grip on the genre, its language and procedures, all the while coping with a mandated vocabulary which requires him to use the answers to the Guardian Quick Crossword for each day during that ninety day period, one per chapter. White has said, “the mandated vocabulary dictates everything – not just names, places, objects and animals, and the historical figures that are cited… but the story itself.” He also argues:

“The crossword solutions themselves bring a shot of period authenticity, each one a 26 word time capsule.”

It is only in the novel’s middle section, more than a hundred pages in, that we finally reach 1985 itself. This is particularly risky in a detective novel, seemingly diverting us into another story entirely without even a common character name to hold onto. It begins with the arrival of a young Englishman, JJ, at a commune in the deserted village of La Fontaine-en-Forte in the South of France. His existence there is almost idyllic, falling in love with one of the women, Sylvie, and planning to re-open an abandoned bakery in the village:

“JJ felt really touched; honoured. Since he had arrived in La Fontaine-en-Forte… JJ had been made to feel nothing but welcome.”

Although he does not want to leave he agrees to return temporarily to England with one of the other commune members, Milo, to smuggle some wine and hash into the country and join the Peace Convoy heading to a festival at Stonehenge. As we enter the third part the two stories collide to provide the answers to Rex’s investigation.

The Fountain in the Forest is, first and foremost, an excellent detective novel. Rex not only manages to walk the mean streets but tread the fine line between three dimensional character and classic cop. The use of mandated vocabulary, presented in bold, is fascinating because it is possible to see the way it influences the story from single sentence to plot-point. Perhaps the novel’s most impressive achievement, however, is to revisit the politics of the 1980s, contending that the events of that decade not only reverberate in Rex’s life but echo through modern Britain. Two further volumes are to be welcomed.

Felix Culpa

March 14, 2018

“A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion in me. I prefer stuttering, for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet. The fragmentary nature of thought,” says Jeremy Gavron with reference to his new novel Felix Culpa in the Granta series Notes on Craft where writers discuss their work. Except he doesn’t, as the article, like the novel itself, is largely made up of the words of other writers. In an interview on the Radio 4 programme Open Book, Gavron spoke of the book’s origins, noting that ten years ago it began as a conventional novel about a young man released from prison. As he wrote, a line from The Great Gatsby echoed in his head, a line he felt perfectly conveyed the experience of working in a prison (as he has): “Privy to the secret griefs of men.” As time went on he became more and more aware that the atmosphere and mood of works he had met as a reader encapsulated what he wanted to express as a writer, and so the novel increasingly became a patchwork of stolen lines – in the end from some hundred other novels, as he explains in a note at the end:

“The great majority of lines in this novel are sourced word for word from the hundred or so books, by some eighty authors, listed below. Fourteen of the chapters, including the last nine, are made up entirely of sourced lines.”

As Gavron has said, “All stories are made to some degree out of earlier stories,” though few writers have taken it quite so literally. In doing so he joins the ranks of writers who have previously rejected the traditional novel as inadequate, opting for a form of collage promoted by David Shields and seen in the late work of David Markson. Interestingly, he has not rejected plot but instead fragmented it. The novel tells a story: that of a young man, Felix, who, shortly after being released from prison, is found dead in mysterious circumstances. The prison’s writer-in-residence attempts to investigate the death, lending the novel the tension of the mystery genre.

The collage works best when differing voices are juxtaposed:

“Hours to commune with his own thoughts.

Learned your place.

Good dog and all’ll go well and the goose hang high.

Transferred eventually to the adult system.”

The slightly jarring change of person (which is frequent) and the appearance of dialect in the third line keep the reader on edge, further adding to the sense of mystery and ensuring identification with the writer’s need to piece together what has happened. Felix’s character, that of a criminal, but one who seems innocent to the ways of the world, further increases the gaps the reader must search to fill, evident in the book’s layout.

The style is particularly effective for evoking mood through the description of landscape:

“Sun swam across the sky

Hole in the road suddenly wink like a cyclops.

Few miles further.

Lilac evening.”

It also works well portraying the stilted conversations between strangers as the writer asks about the boy:

“Don’t suppose you know where he is?

Moves around should be here soon now it’s spring.

Anyone taken notice of a boy?

Stayed with him.

Sull young’n.”

If anything, however, Gavron has been too successful in blending together the lines he has chosen. With seventy-three of his writers male (not counting God) and only a few pre-dating the twentieth century, there is, strangely, a lack of variety in the narrative voice at times. Gavron also has a tendency to choose very short sentences, rarely over a line long: of the twenty-three sentences on the final two pages eighteen are six words or fewer (five are only two words). This slows the pace of the novel and, again, emphasises the search, but also creates a sameness of tone throughout.

Gavron has described Felix Culpa as “a journey through my own literary landscape” and it’s a pity he did not make the decision to go hard-core Oulipo by setting stricter rules on his sources. Think, for example, of Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World, a novel made entirely from fragments of text clipped from 1960s women’s magazines. Despite this, it’s a fascinating experiment with an interesting story to tell: a novel to read and re-read.

Brother in Ice

March 10, 2018

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Letham) is a very modern novel. This is not to say its intent is new: a portrait of the artist as a young woman (literally, as Kopf is perhaps best known as an artists and the novel began as a series of exhibitions). Kopf tells us in the opening chapter, as she links her artistic struggle with polar exploration, “I am also searching for something in my white, unheated iceberg studio.” Neither does its modernity lie in the casual mentions of social media, for example when the narrator considers whether to send a friend request to an ex-boyfriend she bumps into at a concert:

“The next day the question of whether or not to add him on the social networks gnaws at me.”

The novel’s modern sensibility begins with its form, a narrative in which autobiography and Google collide to create a series of factual blocks floating in a sea of individual memories. Perhaps the best example is the chapter ‘Snow Globe’ which begins with the discovery of a snow globe (the chapter titles are generally explanatory headings) “at the back of the drawer in an old dresser.” This is not, however, the regret reviving snow globe of Citizen Kane (which is, of course, name-checked) but the stimulant instead for a series of internet searches on the topic.

We see the same process on a larger scale when it comes to Kopf’s central metaphor of polar exploration. While books have been consulted according to a brief bibliography (including Fergus Fleming’s wonderful Ninety Degrees North), much of the information has been found online. (One chapter begins, “Comparing the Amundson and Scott expeditions on Wikipedia…”) The ‘Research Notes’ chapters, which are often dated, generally consist of a mix of diary entries and articles she has read online: ‘Research Notes III’, for example, is an extract from a Spanish scientist’s blog.

Neither a good or bad thing in itself, instant access to information can be a temptation to writers, leading them down search-engine rabbit-holes in pursuit of one more interesting fact. There are times when it feels as if Kopf is tumbling in this way, her fascination with polar exploration outstripping her artistic use of it. Though never dull, it does feel that a disproportionate portion of the text is a cut-and-paste of other people’s stories and that Kopf’s own life becomes the interruption.

Kopf also uses her arctic symbolism in reference to her autistic brother, though the title oversells the idea that it is about him or their relationship (I assume it also encompasses the polar explorers, whom she sees as ‘brothers’ too). True, he is occasionally mentioned (referred to in his first appearance as “a man trapped in ice”) but his story is tangential to the real purpose of the novel. In a Postscript Kopf states explicitly, “this book isn’t about your life, which is only yours.”

“I can only make only make images, fictions, only you know what you’ve lived through…”

This imaginative fatalism might go some way to explaining the preponderance of facts, and the absence of characters. Most other characters are reduced to initials, and their development is as limited; only the mother is partially visible, most suddenly when filtered through the narrator’s anger:

“I’m not asking for money. And asking for a ride to IKEA shouldn’t have to mean begging on my hands and knees.”

Such scenes of interaction are rare, however, even though the novel covers family breakdowns and broken hearts. The drama is in the portrayal:

“Doubt and loneliness are persistent. I don’t know if writing all this is worth the effort, or whether I have any right.”

It may seem I am criticising Brother in Ice for not being the novel I want it to be; in fact, my assumption is that Kopf’s has succeeded in her intention, a novel which is not so much a portrait of an artist as of an artefact. Rather than describing the narrator’s development from childhood to creator, she details the created object. In doing so she presents a modern sensibility lying somewhere between solipsism and narcissism, a shining landscape of ice, endlessly reflecting.


March 4, 2018

“God was dead: to begin with.”

So begins Ali Smith’s Winter, echoing Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the same way Autumn used the cadences of A Tale of Two Cities’ famous opening in its own first words. Smith’s choice of the out-of-fashion Dickens as one of the uniting factors in her quartet of seasonal novels is both inspired and appropriate. Dickens was, after all, a political novelist, concerned with all levels of society. He may seem a strangely old-fashioned bed-fellow for Smith, but both share a love of language and word-play and a sharp but uncynical eye.

Shakespeare is the other English writer Smith has turned to – specifically his late plays (here it is Cymbeline; in Autumn it was The Tempest). In her description of them (in an interview with Foyles) she perhaps reveals something of what she, too, is aiming for:

“The late plays are what you might call the most integrated of his works in that they cocktail together comedy, tragedy, history and the unexpected, unthinkable, always miraculous-seeming potential for rebirth that’s both literal and of the spirit, and they also produce, each time, a pure new kind of myth, a refined and transcendent storytelling completely of its time and its individual imagination yet simultaneously made communally from all the stories taprooting across the world’s literatures.”

Dickens, the essentially English; Shakespeare, a reminder of the international appeal of English art; and, in case anyone feels Smith has forgotten her own roots, Muriel Spark providing a further epigraph, from her most overtly political novel, The Abbess of Crewe, which set the Watergate scandal in a nunnery. (Autumn was also prefaced by a quotation from a Scottish expatriate, W S Graham, suggesting a further pattern).

The word ‘dead’ also features frequently throughout the novel, from the rampant opening where mortality ends everything (though not ghosts); to Art’s Google searches where he types ‘X is d…’ and time after time the word ‘dead’ to appears as the top search; to the sound of the church bells chiming at midnight, which, in another Dickensian flourish, they seem to do more than once:

“Midnight again, for Christ sake.”

It is, of course, in T S Eliot’s words, “the very dead of winter.”

All this would be very little without a story, however, and here we have one about a mother and a son, a sister and a stranger. Family and hospitality: the very essence of Christmas. Brexit, among others things, has been accused of highlighting a generation gap, and both Autumn and Winter are concerned with relationships across the generations. Sophia, the mother, is identified as having voted Leave, but her nostalgia for a ‘better’ past seems to have begun much earlier, as a memory from 1977, when she spends Christmas in a squat with her sister, Iris, suggests:

“That red post-box on the front of the Radio Times: why does it mean so much and at the same time so little? She wants it to mean again like meaning used to mean.”

Smith, here, seems to be tapping into the craving for blue passports, perhaps also reflected in Sophia’s business where everything her shops sell is made to look old:

“That’s what people like buying just now… Things that look like they’ve got a history, reclaimed looking things.”

On closer inspection, however, Art is not unlike his mother. Her artificially distressed furniture is not dissimilar to his ‘Art in Nature’ blog where his ‘personal’ stories turn out to be economical with the truth. In one of the novel’s funniest scenes (because Smith is always, like Dickens, at heart, a comic writer), Lux, a young woman he has paid £1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend, Charlotte, while he visits his mother, questions him, about a particular entry:

“What kind of car was it? Lux says.
How do mean, car? he says
What I say, Lux says. Car. The one you drove to the puddle in.
I haven’t got a car, he says.
So you hired a car? she says. Borrowed one?
I can’t drive, he says.
How did you get to the village in the blog, then? she says. Someone drove you?
I didn’t actually go anywhere. I looked it up on Google maps and on an RAC route planner, he says.”

Similarly, Charlotte is a modern version of Iris, who has spent her life protesting. (“I was never good at keeping quiet,” she says.) Her resentment of Art is a mirror image of Sophia’s resentment of Iris. Smith spends time in the novel recounting the history of the protest at Greenham Common, a deliberate attempt to reclaim some forgotten history (that whole era – another example being the Miners’ Strike – is still largely missing from literature). This allows for an interesting reversal of the accusations that are now frequently levelled against her generation (what Charlotte calls “forty years of political selfishness”) when she says to Art:

“Me, me, me… It’s all you selfish generation can talk about. I’m going to tweet about it in a long scroll rolling itself out of my mouth like in an illustration of a dandy by an eighteenth century satirist.”

In this way Smith undermines the idea that the problem is generational. Art, perhaps unsurprisingly, offers hope for the future when he discovers his dual inheritance, the time he spent with Iris as a child which his mother has always denied.

Smith’s art also exists in the balance between the prosaic and the poetical. In a novel so grounded in reality that there are references to events which took place as recently as last summer, there are also surreal, transcendent moments such as when “a slab of landscape roughly the size of small car” suspends itself above Art’s head. Similarly, Sophia is haunted by a head – “the head of a child, just a head, no body attached” – like Marley’s head on the door knocker, the beheaded Cornish saint Newlina, the heads of the guillotined in the basket. Smith transforms this head throughout the novel, eventually linking it to art itself, the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth. It is this ability to transform and transcend which makes Winter a novel of hope. As Lux says of Cymbeline:

“…if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, that’s the place I’m going.”

That this reasoning seems both naïve and profound is very Dickensian. One day, I suspect, someone will read this novel and feel the same.

Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions

March 1, 2018

Though I have decided not to be part of the shadow jury this year, this does not mean that the Man Booker International Prize has been forgotten. At this time of year, with the long list announcement a fortnight away, thoughts turn to which books might be selected. The book must have been published in the UK between the 1st of May 2017 and the 30th April 2018, the book’s writer and translator must be living, and reprinted translations or new translations of a work which has already been translated are not eligible. (This year I discovered a new rule from previous juror Daniel Hahn via Tony Malone – books translated by one of the jurors (in this case Peter Stamm’s To the Back of Beyond translated by Michael Hofmann) may not be entered).

Previous Winners

Two recent winners (in discussing the prize in its present form I will consider it as a continuation of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) – Han Kang and Jenny Erpenbeck – are likely to reappear. The fact that both books (The White Book and Go Went Gone) are quite different to the author’s previous work will hopefully be in their favour. The ever-present Orhan Pamuk, who won the first IFFP in 1990, also had a new novel, The Red-Haired Woman, published last year. His two previous novels were tedious and self-indulgent but were still listed, so this (apparently slightly better, and at least shorter) has to have a chance. 2004 winner, Javier Cercas, may also make a (more welcome) appearance with The Imposter.

Previously Shortlisted

Both Haruki Murakami and Daniel Kehlman were short-listed in 2015 and have books eligible again this year (Men Without Women and You Should Have Left). The latter is short but impressive and may have a chance despite lacking press coverage; Murakami has the opposite problem, now so well known there may seem little point in listing him for a prize he is unlikely to win. Karl Knausgaard was short-listed for the second part of My Struggle (the first part only made the longlist); parts 3-5 have been conspicuously ignored. He has three eligible books this year from his Seasons Quartet but I suspect his best chance is the final volume of My Struggle in 2019. In contrast, I will be very surprised if Dasa Drndic’s Belladonna is omitted – especially as I still think she should have won the prize in 2013 with Trieste. (Note: I will now be less surprised if Belladonna isn’t chosen as it was, in fact, published just before the end of April and therefore eligible last year – thanks, again, to Daniel Hahn for keeping everyone right!)

Previously Longlisted

Hamid Ismailov, who was previously selected for The Dead Lake, has a new novel, The Devil’s Dance, out next week. (This would also mean some well-deserved recognition for Tilted Axis Press). Larent Binet (The 7th Function of Language), Bernardo Atxaga (Nevada Days) and Laszlo Kraznahorkai (The World Goes On) are all possibilities. Dag Solstad has two books coming out this year but neither will appear in time; and shadow jurors may be relieved to hear the same applies to Yan Lianke.

New to the Prize

Though absent last year, Peirene Press have a good record of being represented and one of The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena and Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel (which I haven’t read but has been suggested by others) might well appear this year. In contrast, And Other Stories have, up to know, been unsuccessful. Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons should have a good chance (although two previous novels have passed the prize by), and I would be particularly pleased to see Iosi Havilio’s Petite Fleur feature. As mentioned before, I would love to see a Tilted Axis book included, and my preference would be Sangeeta Badyopadhyay’s Abandon. Pushkin Press’ most likely long-listee is probably My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci. When it comes to the entirely new press Charco it would be a pleasure to see any of their books make an appearance – both Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love and Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room are certainly excellent. Any from Maclehose Press’ new Read the World series is also worth a place, with Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex 1 being one I liked far more than  I thought I might. And, apart from Belladonna, surely the other certainty is Andres Barba’s Such Small Hands?

Interestingly, the three novels which I would insist on including (should I ever make it anywhere near the real jury) are all by women: Belladonna, The White Book, and Go Went Gone. I mention this because gender parity has never been achieved in previous longlists, and only 3 of the 23 winners have been female (though technically the MBI is 1:1). A more balanced selection this year would be welcome.

There is a list of eligible books on goodreads here, though this is not entirely accurate, including at least two dead authors.

You can read shadow jury stalwarts Tony Malone’s predictions here, and Stu’s here.