Archive for August, 2018

Older Brother

August 21, 2018

Daniel Mella wrote his first book in five days instead of killing himself:

“I’m not going to shoot myself. I’m going to fire the bullet with my name on it into the sky, and some months later when I start to feel another fit coming on – that’s when I’m going to become a writer.”

The book was a success, and a second soon followed, but, after writing a third, Mella took a ten year break, only returning to writing in response to further crises in his life. Older Brother, for example, (now translated by Megan McDowell) tells of the death of his brother Alejandro, killed by lightning during a storm. The book (like so much contemporary writing) lies somewhere between fiction and non-fiction – as Mella has said, “Direct experience changes when written” – neither a memoir nor a novel. Though it takes place over a short period of time, from the day of Ale’s death to the day his ashes are scattered into the waves he lived to surf, but encompasses much more, including not only the story of how Mella became a writer in the first place, but how he began to write this book:

“I can only really start to write about Alejandro when I start to write about myself.”

Like most auto-fiction, the narrative is focussed through the lens of the author / narrator, whose feelings are the conflagration on which the experience of the other characters are thrown. In this case, the book is as much about the narrator (Dani’s) relationship with death as with his older brother. He later describes the key to opening the novel as recollecting his mother’s comment, “Why him, when he liked life so much?” and replying:

“You’re right, I tell her. It should have been me.”

These are not the words he said at the time but the thought prompted by remembering (throughout the narrator’s speech is presented without punctuation leaving it stranded in the no-man’s land between thought and dialogue). Reflecting on his mortality is nothing new, he tells us: “thinking about death had been the norm for me since 1982, when I was six years old.” Observing his parents’ grief, he recollects thoughts about his own son, remembering that when he was still in his mother’s womb:

“…what will shock me most is the fact that this baby, who is life itself, is going to be born bearing his own death. That this unborn creature is someday going to die. That this baby will come into the world as a marked being, and will have the right the obligation, to die his own death, which is his and no one else’s.”

This unconventional use of tense – moving further into the past but presenting it in the future tense – is not unusual: “Death,” Mella has said, “has this quality which makes time collapse.” Not only does the narrative itself move freely back and forward in time, but the shifting tenses create the impression that the connections are not entirely causal, and that the various points in Dani’s life on some level co-exist.

Ale’s death brings the family together and pulls it apart. The narrator’s brother, Marcos, decides to leave his wife:

“I should have done it sooner… It was already done… How many things have I been depriving myself of over all these years? I deprived myself of going to Chile with Ale.”

The narrator, too, re-evaluates his relationships, having recently fallen back in love with his ex-wife, Brenda (or La Negra), and being unable to accept their relationship was over. When he meets her on the day of Ale’s death his first thoughts are to move on:

“I want her to forgive me for being an idiot. The calls, the messages, the invitations. I lost control.”

The story of his relationship with Brenda reveals Dani as unsettled, unstable even. As he questions himself, he probes others, often appearing insensitive in his efforts to find an answer. He possesses the writer’s selfishness, where the examination of his own feelings predominates over concern for anyone else’s. Though present throughout, this is best exemplified in an astonishing final scene in which the themes of life, death and grief unite.

Older Brother asks uncomfortable questions, both metaphysical and emotional. Thoughtful rather than reasoned, it refuses to settle for an easy truth.

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T Singer

August 16, 2018

“Dag Solstad is without question, Norway’s bravest, most intelligent novelist,” according to Per Petterson, yet, ironically, Petterson’s availability in English (with eight books translated) far exceeds that of his compatriot who, up until this year and the publication of both T Singer and Armand V, has been represented by a meagre three. T Singer is the novel which Solstad has claimed as the pinnacle of his literary craft:

“After I had written T Singer it struck me that I couldn’t write any better than that, and if I wanted to, I could write a book like that every year. And that I didn’t want.”

While this might seem like a declaration of retirement, it was, instead, a licence to experiment, Solstad describing everything he has written since (including Armand V) as “an exception, which will never be repeated.”

T Singer is a man who, by and large, lacks purpose. At the age of thirty-one he decides to “say goodbye to the intoxicating days of his youth and become a librarian instead.” (We learn little about his life before this point). Once he has trained as a librarian he moves to a remote town, Notodden where he intends to live “incognito”:

“Using his full name, of course, but hiding from the thirty-four years that had clung to him, comprising the life he had led so far.”

He sees himself as “vague, even anonymous” and “a denier of life, lacking in identity.” His ambitions are slim:

“Routine work, conscientiously performed, was something he’d always liked.”

Is he lonely? It doesn’t seem so: while popular with his colleagues, he dislikes the friendly overtures of library users:

“At times his stomach would knot when book borrowers came over to the counter, carrying books they wanted to take out, and they would speak to him with an overly familiar and cheerful tone, offering some so-called clever remarks that personally amused them greatly, and then look at him expectantly, waiting to hear his response.”

He is happy to lunch alone, always at the same restaurant, and also go to the cinema. Routine is his refuge, which is not to say his life is without anxiety. In fact the novel begins with a description of the shame he stills feels recalling moments in his life from years before. It’s an opening which almost seems intended to daunt the reader as he repetitively describes these minor events, for example when he accidentally speaks to one friend as he would normally another. He still agonises over this although the individual in question is oblivious:

“He doesn’t know that it is Singer’s ‘nakedness’ he has captured, and observed.”

There is a similarly extended section where Singer speculates about his dream to become a writer, a dream which has never gone further than one endlessly edited sentence – presumably the type of passage Solstad is referring to when he describes his work as “objectively humorous but actually sad.”

Some semblance of narrative is created when Singer moves to Notodden, but Solstad continues to confound our expectations when Singer meets Adam Eyde, manager of the area’s largest employer, Norsk Hydro, on his way there and spends the evening with him. This incident is described with the detail one assumes will lead to a relationship of some kind, but Singer only sees Eyde once more, from a distance. Conversely, events which would normally be regarded as dramatic are underplayed, as when Singer meets the woman who will become his wife:

“Can a man like Singer fall in love? Yes, he can. But can he, under the influence of this love, move in with the one he adores in order to sleep with her and eat at her table, which they will now share? Yes, he can.”

Note how Solstad quickly answers the reader’s questions, eschewing any chance of narrative tension.

T Singer is not a novel, then, for those in search of a narrative arc, but it is filled with many other pleasures. In particular, as the novel progresses, Singer’s strange behaviour seems more and more normal, its initial ‘strangeness’ simply a conflict with our expectations of a fictional protagonist rather than its unlikelihood. Solstad’s narrative choices perhaps reflect more accurately our experience of life. His is certainly a voice to be cherished.

Not to Disturb

August 8, 2018

As the second chapter of Not to Disturb opens, Muriel Spark pauses to describe the long drawing room in Baron Klopstock’s expansive country house: “Many objects in this large room are on a miniature scale,” we are told, including a group of “what appear to be family portraits.” Have the Klopstocks always inclined towards miniatures, the narrative voice speculates, or perhaps:

“…these little portraits have been cleverly copied, more recently, from some more probable larger originals.”

Not to Disturb, the most miniature of Spark’s novels, also feels as if it has been distilled from something larger and more probable. Borrowing from many genres – the Gothic (a storm literally lights up its middle section), the country house murder (with its own locked room scenario), and the aristocratic sagas of Waugh and Powell (amusingly the BBC series Upstairs Downstairs premiered the year it was published) – it retains the unities of time and place associated with classical drama, delivering five chapters in place of five acts. As Peter Kemp has pointed out:

“Its narrative technique – all characters are externally presented, only their actions and their speech recorded – brings it close to a transcript of something occurring on stage.”

The action takes place ‘above stairs’ but the Baron and Baroness barely feature, arriving separately only to lock themselves in a room with one of their secretaries, Victor P, delivering strict instructions that they are not to be disturbed. As in a Jacobean tragedy (Webster is quoted on the opening page), however, their fate has already been decided, as Lister, the butler, explains:

“To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.”

“They haunt the house like insubstantial bodies while still alive,” he later says; and when Mr McGuire refuses to believe the Baron is ‘no more’ as he can hear his voice, Lister replies: “Let us not strain after vulgar chronology.” The two friends which Victor arrives with are dismissed: “They don’t come into the story.”

Lister is the mastermind behind the servants’ scheme. Their intention is to make as much money as they can by selling the Baron and Baroness’s scandalous story to the press (privileged journalists are already waiting in a hotel room), as well as Hollywood:

“The popular glossy magazines have replaced the servants’ hall in modern society. Our position of privilege is unparalleled in history.”

Even when wrong-footed, Lister quickly adapts. Discovering that the madman in the attic (a further Gothic twist) is the Baron’s brother, rather than a relative of the Baroness, and therefore his heir, he arranges an immediate marriage to a pregnant housemaid.

The Baron and Baroness’ life is, indeed, scandalous, one in which sexual gratification, with numerous partners, plays the central role. (“The Baron Klopstocks were obsessed with sex.”) That this is entirely superficial and emotionless suggests that ‘not to disturb’ might be a family motto. Ironically, their deaths are expected as a result of the Baroness not “playing the game” – as one of the servants comments, “she did a Lady Chatterley on him,” that is fell in love with one of her many lovers – Victor. This internal change is noticed by others externally – for example, when she stops dying her hair:

“Why did she suddenly start to go natural? She must have started to be sincere with someone.”

Her sincerity is unique in a novel where appearance is all we have, and it is made quite clear that cannot be trusted. The Baron’s house is filled with antique furniture but only recently built. The parquet floor, for example, belonged to a foreign king who took it with him when he had to flee his homeland:

“Royalty always do when they have to leave. They take everything, like stage companies who need their props.”

Meanwhile Lister stage-manages photographs for the press, and taped interviews, susceptible to editing. Even the jokes make the same point:

“’You look like a Secretary of State.’
‘Thank you sir,’ says Lister.
‘It isn’t a compliment,’ says the prince.”

Not to Disturb is Spark at her sharpest, shining the pinhead while pressing it home:

“One of my motives is to provoke the reader; to startle as well as to please.”

Lost Books – Sacred Cow

August 5, 2018

One writer inevitably leads to another, and when Cristina Rivera Garza was asked what authors she might recommend to readers looking to explore Latin American literature by women, her immediate response was: “Luisa Valenzuela and Diamela Eltit continue to be a must.” Valenzula was known to me but Eltit, from Chile, was not, and a few days later I had acquired a copy of Sacred Cow, written in 1991 and translated by Amanda Hopkinson in 1995 for Serpent’s Tail (one of only four, I think, of her books available in English).

Sacred Cow is a brief, intense novel in keeping with Eltit’s declaration that, “I believe I function in a certain dramatic register, though in truth I have a great tendency and vocation for irony.” Largely written in the first person, it tells of the narrator’s relationship with two men, Manuel and Sergio. Though initially she feels little desire – “I wasn’t too bothered about sex, which seemed to me little more than an excessive if gratifying ritual” – an encounter with Manuel’s estranged wife which leads her to confess details of her previous relationship with Sergio, seems to ignite their passion:

“On heat, overheated, nothing could restrain us.”

The relationship (though not the narrator’s longing) ends when Manuel returns to his home in the South; rumours reach her that he has been detained. (Eltit remained in Chile throughout the Pinochet dictatorship, which only ended in 1990). It is then she renews her relationship with Sergio:

“I forced myself to feel continually seduced since I had to cling to something in order to efface the unleashed perversity of those times.”

Desire, which is a constant theme, is seen as an escape. Sergio’s own back story is one of desire for the teenage Francisca, whom he wants from the first moment he sees her. It is desire rather than fulfilment which is his focus as he spends a year without talking to her:

“After a year of observing her, of possessing her in every way he could imagined, he finally seemed to be moving towards the reality of speech.”

Of their present relationship, the narrator says:

“Sergio was seeking in me an image that he’d held in his head since he was more or less a child… the forgotten Francisca.”

This revelation is further complicated by the fact that the narrator may be Francisca. Her first appearance in the novel – presumably in the present – is lying in bed with her face beaten: notably the narrative moves from first to third person for this chapter. The story of her relationship with Sergio is interrupted with sections of direct speech – Francisca and an older relative – and first person asides (in brackets) describing looking after someone who is ill. Could this be what the narrator later refers to as “the time when my grandmother was dying”?

Sacred Cow, then, is a complex novel to interpret. Though largely eschewing politics, we are at one point faced with the idea that the narrator is participating in some kind of protest:

“There was a crowd of women drawing up the basis of a new constitution. Their thighs were tattooed with symbolic devices. My tattoo burned into the flesh of my thigh. At this fiesta I was initiated as a worker, rejecting the slurs and the bribes they offered me to break the forthcoming strike.”

Later, when she says, “there’s something slippery in me which that stops me taking the workers’ side” it suggests her personal desires overwhelm her political convictions. The tattoos demonstrate Eltit’s powerful use of imagery: the two most common here are blood and birds. Images rather than symbols, their use is difficult to pin down, though blood generally relates to desire and femininity, and birds frequently suggests something ominous – though at one point she says, “the image of my blood became a huge flock of birds,” no doubt to keep the reader guessing.

Sacred Cow is certainly not for the casual reader. Containing many powerful moments it is difficult to draw anything certain from it. Its refusal to be obvious, though, is perhaps its most admirable quality, and one which, in times of dictatorship, can be seen as a political act in itself.

Shadows on the Tundra

August 1, 2018

This year I been making a concerted effort to re-balance my reading towards women writers, and, as I read mainly in translation, this means that Women in Translation Month 2018 might not look radically different from any other month in 2018: 65% of the books I have reviewed this year have been written by women, with just over half of those in translation. This can be seen as the culmination of a process which began with my participation in the first Women in Translation month in 2014 where I encountered writers such as Elena Ferrante, Teffi, Clarice Lispector, Silvina Ocampo, Herta Muller and Hella Haasse. Women writers in translation may not always be as visible as male writers, but, over the years, encouraged by WITMonth founder Biblio and the discoveries of other bloggers, I have developed my own personal cannon which (perhaps because there are still so many untranslated women) increases annually.

One of the few negatives of a month of reading women in translation, however, is that the subject matter can be harrowing. Yes, this is partly because I am attracted to depressing books, but I think it also reflects how difficult life for women is across the globe, both historically and in the present day. Dalia Grinkeviciute’s Shadows on the Tundra, the story of the author’s incarceration, along with her mother and brother, in a Soviet labour camp in Siberia, is no exception. Aged fourteen, she is taken from her home in Lithuania and begins the long journey to Siberia. Though unaware of what lies ahead, she realises the significance of their exile:

“I am aware a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous.”

“I wonder how many pairs of eyes,” she speculates, “are taking in their native city for the last time…” By writing largely in the present tense Grinkeviciute not only gives the narrative a sense of immediacy and immaturity, but is able to reflect the changing mood of the prisoners as they are transported, which ranges from despondent to hopeful. There are rumours, for example, that they will be deported to America. When they are on a barge on the Lena:

“Everyone is upbeat. We are fed three times a day and given as much water as we can drink… For the young, it is like a field trip. A school holiday.”

Only occasionally does the narrator look ahead:

“I get a bad feeling, as though I was seeing the shadow of death hovering above some heads. Perhaps it was only a child’s intuition. Yet time would confirm it.”

When they reach their destination life could hardly be bleaker:

“I look around and am chilled to the bone. Far and wide, tundra and more tundra, naked tundra, not a sprig of vegetation, just moss as far as the eye can see.”

First they must build their own shelters, and then begins the never-ending battle against cold and hunger. When winter arrives “although we have a brick shelter we might as well be outside.” She steals firewood and, when she is caught, simply admits it – her youth and candour winning her a reprieve. At times the entrance to their shelter is completely blocked by snow. Hunger also haunts them perpetually:

“At night we all dream of bread…but when you go to eat it – the bread disappears.”

While they starve their overseers live comfortably:

“I thought that in wartime everyone was supposed to bear the burden equally, but these people don’t feel the war at all.”

What makes her story bearable is her will to live. From the beginning she tells herself, “We will live, we will survive. We will fight and we will triumph – hear that?” Much later she continues to hold onto these sentiments:

“I want to live, to live, to be alive, to return to life, damn it.”

As one of the other prisoners tells her, “You’re incredibly determined, practically possessed, in the way you grapple with life.” This, at least, gives the reader something to hold onto in a story in which the suffering of ordinary people torn from their homeland is foremost. The survival of the book itself might also bring us hope: written when Grinkeviciute was in her early twenties, having illegally returned to Lithuania, she buried the manuscript in a glass jar fearing (correctly) arrest. When she was allowed to return six years later (in 1956) she was unable to find the jar, and it was only discovered by accident in 1974. (And now, thanks to Delija Valiukenas and Peirene Press it is available in English).This, like the book itself, demonstrates that the testament of women throughout the world, however painful or uncomfortable, should not, and cannot, be silenced.